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Lost in Translation (2003)
The reverse 'Gigli?'
Being an "art-house" kind of guy, I was really looking forward to this picture, having seen the previews half-a-dozen times and taking in all the stellar reviews. So I was somewhat disappointed to find that when I actually saw the film, I spent a good bit of the time a little, well...bored. I'd give it a thumbs-up over a thumbs-down, certainly, but it wouldn't be an enthusiastic one.
The big problem for me was the relationship between the two main characters. It just didn't click the way it should have. The character of Charlotte in particular seemed to me to be a little weakly drawn, and though Scarlett Johansson is definitely appealing, as an actress she doesn't look to me to be capable of turning in an outstanding performance yet. (Addendum: I was quickly disabused of this notion soon after when I saw 'Girl with a Pearl Earring!') Bill Murray's Bob Harris fares a lot better, but admit it, for all the praise he receives he isn't one of our greatest actors either. I found the "evening out" scene to be interminable--I knew it would be difficult if not impossible for the film to redeem itself totally after being so discomfited by it.
I found Sofia Coppola's script to be far more the bigger problem here than her directing. Besides the characters and the relationship not really jelling for me, I was too often distracted by her minimalist (for lack of a better word) style that frequently cropped up. Too many scenes had scant dialog, music or even background noise for a film that was not profound enough to justify it.
Having trashed 'LIT' pretty well, let me point out some of the good things in it, and there are a number. As intimated before, Coppola's direction is very nice in many places. The Japanese locale is not just a convenient exotic backdrop, it's an integral, indispensable part of the film. Her presentation of the country is wonderful. She captures the not only the marvelous sights so well, but also the country's culture, both the pure and the Western hybrid varieties. Oftentimes, to great effect, we see some odd happening going on and it's not explained to us. We stay just as bewildered as the characters, and this works very well indeed. And Murray's humor is made excellent use of also, whether he's tossing of the "ring-a-ding-ding" one-liners or, in the movie's funniest scene, trying to get rid of a gift of a Japanese role-playing hooker. Another great moment comes when Bob Harris is flipping channels trying to find something comprehensible on Japanese TV when he comes across his own image with dubbed-in voice--it's actually a clip of Murray from an old 'Saturday Night' show. Nice.
It seems to me that this film might be a sort of reverse 'Gigli' for 2003: everyone seems as willing to believe the rave reviews about it as they were to accept unquestioningly all the bad things said about the Affleck/Lopez film. 'Lost in Translation' is an OK movie, certainly more good than bad, but don't feel like you have to act like it's a work of genius just because so many others say it is. You're not alone in your lesser opinion of it.
Sin noticias de Dios (2001)
Brilliant! Abril and Cruz are dynamite!
Many observers have noted that at first glance on paper one might think this is a Pedro Almodovar film, what with Victoria Abril cast in it, among other things. Well, I haven't seen too much of Almodovar's work, and I knew nothing about director Augustin Diaz Yanes when I entered the theatre to see this film. But I wonder, did Almodovar show such promise so early in his career? From the first few minutes I was captivated by the movie and I stayed enthralled throughout. By the time Penelope Cruz was dancing around to "Kung Fu Fighting" I knew this was a rare film indeed (and no, it's no rip-off of 'Pulp Fiction,' either!)
For all it's audaciousness, the premise has been used many times before. Like 'Paradise Lost,' the battlefield is Heaven, Hell and Earth. But the specifics are a little more prosaic: angels from Heaven and Hell fight for their survival over the soul of a rather ordinary mortal, a not-to-bright or personable boxer. Heaven and Hell are presented as distinctly mortal-like places--Heaven is nice, but hardly the celestial paradise we envision, and Hell is unpleasant, but nothing nearly as bad as Dante imagined. The two places are run like competing businesses, it would seem, and the CEO God (and presumably Satan in his own realm) is AWOL--apparently he's too tired or disinterested to bother with the details of running the place, leaving that task up to lesser creatures. Right now Hell seems to have the upper hand. Heaven is somehow almost bankrupt and may well go under if they can't snag this one earthbound soul, the aforementioned boxer, who fate has cast in some great future role that we never fully understand. But there's trouble brewing in Hell, too, and even though they've got the advantage over Heaven at the moment, there are internecine power struggles to worry about there. So each each side dispatches an agent to try to win over Manny, this boxer who unwittingly holds the fate of this world and those beyond in his hands.
That's where Abril and Cruz come in, and they are just a joy to watch for the almost two hours this flick runs. Abril is Lola the heavenly angel who ingratiates herself in Manny's life as his wife, and Cruz is Carmen, who poses as his long-lost cousin (Manny isn't the brightest crayon in the box so he can be convinced that all of a sudden he has a five-year marriage he doesn't remember.) Lola and Carmen thrust and parry throughout the film, but on a surprisingly cordial level--Carmen isn't as bad as one would expect a denizen of Hell to be and neither woman seems possessed of any otherworldly powers; they go about their business in a very earthly way. You combine a great script, two outstanding performances and excellent direction and not surprisingly you get a first-rate film, as good as any I've seen this year. This is not quite Orson Welles and 'Citizen Kane' here, but it put me in mind of it, it's that good.
I'm Losing You (1998)
Didn't do it for me.
Illness, death, and a family's reaction to it have been the subject of a multitude of films, but the potential there for high drama is so great that the vein could hardly be exhausted. When I first started watching "I'm Losing You" (and no, I didn't read the book) and saw Frank Langella's character receive his terminal bad news, I assumed the focus would be on him and how his family handled the crisis. I was surprised, then, when it turned out that the Grim Reaper was all over the place, stalking characters major and minor.
Which would have been fine if this film had been the great meditation on death and dying that it so obviously wants to be. Maybe there just wasn't enough time to thoroughly develop all the characters and plot elements, but I surely wouldn't have wanted a longer film. Consequently nothing in it really reached or impressed me. Particularly poorly handled, I thought, was Rosanna Arquette's character, whose mental breakdown and interest in/obsession with with a Jewish funeral ritual were not very well-explained, at least not to my satisfaction. The ritual, by the way, was interesting from a cultural and educational point of view, but as a part of the film it was my least favorite. I disliked Julie Ariola's pious character every time she was on the screen, for some reason. And I found myself again wondering why Arquette has such a hard time finding roles that are worthy of her.
Apparently many people found this film edifying, but I would proceed with caution. One thing proponents and detractors alike could probably agree on: if you're looking for a tear-jerker, go elsewhere. There probably wasn't a wet eye in the house when this film was playing.
She's the One (1996)
Not Burns' best.
I'm probably unusual among viewers of this film in that I saw one of Edward Burns' other self-penned directorial efforts first, 1998's "No Looking Back." But despite the presence of a more star-studded cast with welcome additions like Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz and John Mahoney, this is clearly the inferior of the two films in my opinion. "She's the One" falls into the same slice-of-life category, though it has more comedic moments, but the characters and situations just don't seem as real and believable, and consequently I didn't end up caring for them when all was said and done. (It's entirely possible, however, that someone might jump into a marriage with Maxine Bahns after only meeting her a few hours before!) Many will find this film palatable, or even enjoyable, but for many others it will be a disappointment.
The Concert in Central Park (1982)
An enjoyable evening.
This pleasant documentation of the 1981 reunion of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel is a must-see for die-hard fans, of course, but it's likely to please the more casual listener also. The duo's much-ballyhooed get-together shows that even though the partners may have been unequal in songwriting talent, there was still something special about them when they reunited to harmonize on their classics. Simon's post-Garfunkel compositions work well too, and a highlight is his "Slip-Slidin' Away," in which his soaring voice on the chorus wraps beautifully around Artie's. "Late in the Evening" is a standout also, showcasing the band of top-notch New York musicians assembled for the occasion, including Steve Gadd and Richard Tee.
Unsatisfying, facile production.
Maybe the target audience of this Disney Channel TV-movie will be pleased with it, but if any parents are watching along with the youngsters, they will clearly see that "cranked out" is written all over this production. Obviously it was no one's dream to make this movie, but rather, this was concocted in a board room somewhere, then produced with cold efficiency. There is some talent among the cast, but actors like Dabney Coleman and Jay Thomas don't get much of a chance to showcase their talent. The impossibly cute Elisabeth Harnois is engaging as the First Daughter, but Will Friedle is stuck once again playing another dumb character, though he's not nearly as moronic and annoying as in his "Boy Meets World" role. The background for this movie is Washington, D.C. and the White House, but there is no real "presidential" feel to the film and the Secret Service is made out to be little better than the Keystone Kops when it come to doing their duty. The Disney Channel presents a lot of original TV-movies and most of them are better than this.
Daughters Courageous (1939)
This is the first of the "Four Daughters" series that I've ever seen, or was even aware of. Judging by this film, it's a wonder that they don't have a better reputation than they do. This movie is very engaging and entertaining throughout. The story may be a little too by-the-numbers, but the likability of the three Lane sisters plus one helps to overcome that mild complaint easily. The dialog is as snappy as that of a contemporary sitcom and the direction is fresh and forward-looking for a film over sixty years old. Claude Rains shines in his role. This also marks the first time I've understood why John Garfield commands the devoted following he has. "Daughters Courageous" should be enjoyed by anyone who likes the older Hollywood films and will likely appeal to a significant percentage of younger viewers if they give it a chance.
Just Friends (1996)
Decent, if not outstanding.
This is a pretty fair relationship comedy/drama, even if the subject is the dreaded one of thirtysomething men and women who are still dating. You might find yourself saying early on, "No, it [the relationship] wouldn't go like that," but the characters are likable enough so that one can care about them, and overall the film is worthwhile.
It's a bit unusual for a film of this type which was directed (and written?) by a woman to have a male lead character. It's nice to see that character drawn without many of the male stereotypes that sometimes inhabit these movies. Still, the film has a strong female sensibility. It is mildly enjoyable if not outstanding.
Drive Me Crazy (1999)
Been done a lot better elsewhere.
Often when a teenage actress reaches her twenties she's anxious to leave off the schoolgirl roles and try something different, so one might have thought it would take something special to get Melissa Joan Hart ("Sabrina...," "Clarissa...") back in the classroom again. I can't believe that this movie was it, though. It appears to be an attempt at the "sophisticated" style of teen dramedy made popular by movies like "Clueless" and "Cruel Intentions" and TV shows like "Dawson's Creek," but this film is clearly not in the same league with those, mostly because of a listless script. "Drive Me Crazy" is more likely to put you to sleep than to arouse any emotions suggested by its title. The intentions may have been good here, but the execution strikes me as simply uninspired. There's nothing much at all to recommend it.
Seen this movie one too many times.
The problem with this TV-movie, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, is not that it is done so badly, but that it is done at all. Years ago a movie about the type of crime depicted here might have been unique and intriguing. Sadly for both society at large and the TV viewing public, it's all too commonplace now. There have been at least a dozen movies on this same subject. This film may be worse than some and better than others, but it does nothing to distinguish itself from the pack. After seeing so many similar flicks, some stock characters emerge. Of these, the terrorized victim and her mother aren't drawn too badly, but the closet psycho-homecoming queen is not as compelling as that character should be, in this viewer's opinion. And her oafish boyfriend is so shallow that he's a major irritation every time he's onscreen.
There are no laughable performances here, and the direction is at least competent, if not distinguished. Even Jennifer Salt's script is not a bad one, but she fails to convince us why we should want to watch these unpleasant characters. If you think you've seen one too many stalker movies, this certainly isn't the one that's going to change your mind.