Lost in Translation (2003)

220px-Lost_in_Translation_posterDir. Sofia Coppola, 101 min., Netflix Instant

I first saw this film in 2003, but watching it again reveals the tight and brilliant composition by the director, Sofia Coppola. It’s a shame that it was robbed of it’s rightful “best picture” status by premiering in the same year as the bloated, bombastic third entry in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has nothing to do at all with good film making; while LoTR III is just another cog in the wheel that Jackson established years earlier, this film is an original piece of art that stands alone (without the scaffolding character and story development of preceding entries).

Murray and Johansson both play isolated and lost figures, but no one seems to key in on the somewhat masculine fantasy of the film. Murray’s character is long past the age where he is a bona fide player (or even talented actor), but his charisma and limited stardom (sparingly doled out with painful humility) make him the ideal object of the abandoned Johansson’s affections. Murray’s character is often mistaken for “gentlemanly” when he is actually quite paternalistic early on (notice the way in which he carefully puts Johansson’s character to bed).

Only after his *spoiler* tryst with the lounge singer and his reconciliation with Johansson does he come across as (not necessarily a romantic interest, but) the identifiable soul mate (though I hate that term) for Johansson’s character. It’s a well-considered pivot, showing both the ease with which he could have many women in a superficial sense transition back to his desire to form a deeper connection with someone who both understands his ennui and equals (or surpasses) his own penchant for sarcastic banter. While they meet at widely different ages, their backgrounds allow them to appreciate the same verbal interplay; it’s a relationship that’s doomed to last but a brief moment in their life arcs, and that’s what makes the final parting so heart wrenching.

If you watch it only for the scene where Murray and Johansson first go out on the town and get chased out of a bar by a pellet-gun wielding bartender, then sing karaoke and return back to their hotel enclave, you will have seen enough to enjoy the film.

RT: 95%
me: A

The World’s End (2013)

The_World's_End_posterDir. Edgar Wright, 109 min., in theaters

Did we need another film in the style of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, or as some people are calling this, the third entry in the Cornetto Trilogy? No.

Like so many films I watch that are playing a nostalgia card, recycling old ideas with new actors in a desperate attempt to sell tickets and cover multi-million dollar budgets, this film comes off as unnecessary and boring. I myself became (overly) excited at the prospect of the actors and director that made two of my favorite films once again returning to lampoon society and cinema though exposing the silliness of both with a quick, dry wit. Sadly, this film delivers hardly any laughs as a group of aging sad sacks reflect on how old they feel (or should feel in the case of Simon Pegg’s emotionally stunted manchild, Gary). It plays like City Slickers but without the fun, and cops 60% of it’s plot from Hot Tub Time Machine while somehow managing to deliver less (and sometimes lazier) jokes than even that piece of shit.

Pegg’s character somehow reunites his high school mates, including Nick Frost’s Andy who he *spoiler* left to die in a drunken car accident some sixteeen years earlier, to relive the pinnacle of his youth: a pub crawl. While the original night is talked about as epic, and is clearly supposed to be the prime motivation for Gary, I am mystified as to why anyone cares about completing this ritual some twenty years later. Gary’s former friends barely tolerate each other, let alone Gary. They have all moved on to ho hum suburban professional lives, but when they reunite all they can talk about is what a bad idea this premise is (not the best move to engage your audience). The dialogue is so boring that at one point, I expected them to have a discussion on the merits of various 401k diversification strategies. That might have been funnier than their actual interplay with Gary, which swings from enabling his debauchery to utter disgust with the pathetic state of his life.

Once the shit gets real later in the film, I expected a more congenial ensemble to emerge and for the tone to get a bit more lighthearted, but it never does. The sparse laughs that do come about from Wright’s once master comedic timing are almost immediately dispelled in short order. One of Gary’s friends who was relentlessly bullied and savagely beaten by a high school tormentor describes in heart-breaking detail his misery early in the film. When he’s finally given his chance to deliver some comeuppance to a his tormentor’s robot analogue, he is rewarded by himself being killed and replaced with a robot. There might have even been time for a, I don’t know, joke or something, but nope. He’s just killed by robots.

There is also the ever present specter of the aforementioned drunk driving accident that defines Pegg and Frost’s chemistry. I’ve read a lot of short fiction and seen a lot of films that use drunk driving to drive the plot, but it hardly ever results in anyone laughing; this is no exception. It is finally revealed just prior to the end of the film that *spoiler* Andy’s wife has left him and he is, in fact, miserable. Not to be outdone, Gary reveals that he tried to commit suicide as a final escape from his demons, and that this pathetic pub crawl was the only thing keeping him alive. The premise is almost as disconnected as another Pegg outlet, Run, Fatboy, Run, where a character foolishly fixates on some arbitrary accomplishment as the solution to all his problems.

In total, the film’s laughs were frequently tainted by questionable material: jokes about having sex in bathrooms designed for disabled bar patrons, a somewhat disturbing sequence with our sad sacks perving out on teenage schoolgirl robots, and a bit about Gary’s mother dying from cancer – Gary lies about that to get his friends to agree to the pub crawl – and then actually dying in the ensuing apocalypse. At times I wondered if this was supposed to be a comedy at all, or if I had just misread the concept of the film entirely. The sparse goofball laughs and the discussions of this as part of a comedic trilogy suggest that I probably should have been laughing much more than I actually did. I don’t want to come across as a prig or say that certain topics are taboo for comedy, but it’s hard to get in a laughing mood when cancer, suicide, drug abuse, and drunk driving accidents are the topics the characters keep returning to.

I can’t say enough about the lameness of the ending. One of the reasons SotD is so hilarious is that it puts the oafish characters into a zombie film where they are both hilariously incompetent and simultaneously self-aware. The director succeeds there by bringing the audience in on the laughs, and as a result creates a solid zombie film entry in its own right. While this film is an obvious take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and maybe The Stepford Wives, replacing complete disregard for fawning obsequiousness), I wouldn’t even say The World’s End is half as good as that film; it adds little to nothing to that genre as far as I’m concerned. The robots seem more designed as a heavy-handed metaphor to further expose Gary’s patheticness. Gary is certainly made to be a despicable character, but his redemption at the end (if one can call it that) does nothing to change his story arc: even after the apocalypse he is still an emotionally stunted manchild who has actually regressed further (if that’s possible), though at least he drinks water instead of beer and schnapps on his Mad Max style pub crawls across the scorched Earth.

After reading some comments on various reviews I noticed that there are more Easter eggs and clever bits than I noticed on first viewing, but I can’t get over some of the more depressing aspects of the film. For instance, Gary’s suicidal, coked up loser is being critiqued by adults who clearly have their own desperate problems. The bullied friend still works for his Father in their car dealership and is upbraided by him for having a personal conversation at work, his Realtor friend is detached (constantly tuned in to his Bluetooth mobile earpiece), Andy struggles with his marriage and repressed rage over his misspent youth with Gary, and Gary’s second-fiddle counterpart is divorced and compensates for his inadequacies with a fitness instructor girlfriend. When thinking of why these folks are actually on this pub crawl with Gary I’m reminded of the reprimand Shaun gets from his flatmate: “Does it make you feel better having someone around who’s even more of a loser than you?”

Even at a lean 108 minutes, I was at times wondering “how long until the Goddamn world ends already?” The final 15 minutes is regrettable in that it feels about as tacked on as it can get. I don’t really agree with any reviews that claim Wright was up to his usual standards when making this film. Partly this may be my fault, as my expectations were sky high. I left thoroughly disappointed, and I’m not sure I’ll be so eager to see Wright’s next film.

AV Club: A-
RT: 91%
Me: D+

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

posterDir. Drew Goddard, 95 min., In theaters

Before seeing this film, I suggest you watch the trailer, then prepare to seriously adjust your expectations for what you are about to see.

In my mind, a serious problem with most trailers is that they give away far too much. When I was waiting to see this film, I saw the trailer for the upcoming Sacha Baron Cohen film, The Dictator, where I witnessed what will likely turn out to be fully 75% of the funny moments in the film.

You will not have that problem with The Cabin in the Woods.

From the trailer, you can tell that five college students will end up at a cabin in the woods that is mysteriously controlled by suits in some kind of bunker, but that’s all you get. What you will actually watch is a meta-commentary on the horror genre, a deconstruction of the archetypal characters of said genre, and what can only be described as a comedy.

Because much of the delight in this film is in not knowing anything going in, I can’t really discuss the plot other than what I said above. The characters heading to the woods include a jock, a ditsy blonde, a stoner, and the matched pair of an a nerd (with glasses) and “virgin.” The reasons why there is one person of each type in this friendship clique are flimsy (much like every horror film), but their inclusion becomes readily apparent by the end of the film.

Similar to Cabin Fever (2002), this film smartly invokes cannonical entries in the horror genre, and it manages to avoid the problem of having to finesse in awkward meta-discussion (see the Scream tetralogy). This film is more of an exercise in analysis, culminating in an orgiastic merger of every type of horror film into one; as Ebert puts it in his review, “This is like a final exam for fanboys.”

It’s hard to believe you could stumble into such a great find, but it happened. If you are a lover of horror films, you will be able to appreciate the multitudinous references (as Nicole did when we were watching). Can this film be considered a success outside of a meta-commentary on the genre? Yes, but not as a horror film. While it approaches horror tangentially at points, the scares and gross outs dwindle as the plot progresses and there is no real sense of terror: they do not succeed in making the subject of the film strange or disturbing through atmosphere or exposition.

It’s not hard to imagine why this film sat on the shelf for two years before release. It doesn’t fit neatly into either the horror or comedy genre, but films that successfully combine the two are often instant classics. I’m not sure if this film will enter the pantheon of cult horror, but after leaving the theater I immediately wanted to watch it again.

Metacritic: 72
RT: 93%
IMDB: 7.7

Me: A

Zombie Film Roundup

Here’s part one in what I hope could be a multi-part zombie film review. Let me know if you have any zombie films that you dig because I would love to check them out.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Image Ten, 96 min., Dir. George A. Romero, black and white

The defining zombie film that sparked a myriad of imitators never once uses “the zed word” during the film. I’m not a film scholar, so it’s hard to say whether NotLD is supposed to be set in the 50’s, or is just a low budget flick with old school sentimentalities.

Every female is a hysterical wreck who can’t help anyone with anything and needs a good slap, and every male is stereotype (strong man, posturer, greedy self-lover). The screenplay is, frankly, quite awful. The characters aren’t fleshed out very much and important details are tossed in as time permits.

The cinematography is quite a different story, however. The film begins during the early evening, and stretches through the night until the following morning. Since the film is shot in black and white, lighting is a huge consideration. Details such as the lighting of the face, dark makeup, and patterns of light and darkness all add to the viewing experience. The soundtrack, which Tobey Hooper obviously took stock of for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), uses otherworldly distortion and long-lasting crescendos to raise the stakes on otherwise stiff zombies and slow, low-budget action.

If you enjoy zombie films or are just starting to get into the genre, this is the gateway for you. Most every detail, and often times, characters, can be found in every zombie film you have seen. Romero’s films alone are their own cannon, but this film was the progenitor of zombie films to follow.


The Omega Man (1971)

Warner Bros., 98 min., Dir. Boris Sagal

Boris Sagal was a television director for an unbelievable amount of series, so it’s not too surprising that this movie plays like an extended television show. It could have been a pilot for a longer series.

The film is the second in three film adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. The novel itself depicts the force that represents ‘otherness’ as vampires, but this film is clearly a zombie picture. The forces against the protagonist can’t venture into daylight, but that doesn’t differentiate them from zombies since they also avoid daylight. You never see anyone eating flesh, but they aren’t sucking blood either. In fact, the question of how these particular undead corpses survive is largely left unanswered. Their stiff appearance and style of attack seem very zombie-like in my opinion.

Charlton Heston plays Robert Neville, a scientist that survives a plague, a plague that seemingly wipes out all of mankind, by injecting himself with the last dose of vaccine after a helicopter crash prevents him from delivering it to the rest of the U.S., er, world, that is…he was definitely going to share it with the whole world…after the U.S. was safe, of course.

His arch nemesis after the plague apocalypse, Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), is the leader of the undead horde who wants to kill Neville. Neville is (in his mansion with a car, electricity, and decently aged scotch) an affront to Matthias’ stone age mentality cult of plague infected weirdos who won’t even pick up a gun to attack him, and want to return to a simpler life where there’s no chance of wiping out humanity with biological warfare. What a bunch of losers. Although, maybe I could read their pamphlet, just to see what a bunch of losers they are. I mean, I won’t want to join or anything, but you can’t dispute what they say, you know what I mean?? It’s not so crazy, I mean, their ideas. And what with those damn terrorists, you never know, I mean, they could totally do that, and shit. Aww man, I should really start looking into bomb shelters. But, I guess I’ll finish this review first.

Neville finds some other folks who aren’t yet zombie like followers of Matthias, so his life is given purpose other than hunting down the jerks who try to kill him every night. In fact, the first 30 minutes or so play like a Charlton Heston NRA commercial: “How would I kill these damn zombies without my beloved Uzi? You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

This film is about as seventies as it gets. Wah-wah bass lines pervade, Heston watches Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) at the beginning of the film, and the clothes have magnificently large lapels. Oh, and everyone is drinking some kind of brown liquor out of a tumbler at some point, poured from a cut crystal decanter, but of course. Rosalind Cash’s (Lisa’s) fro is something else, and Paul Koslo (Dutch) looks like he just walked off Woodstock and into the wrong film set, maaahn. Still, watch for the awsomeness that is the finale, and for 70’s style nostalgia. I’ll totally have to do a 70’s horror film roundup at some point.


Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Universal Pictures, 99 min., Dir. Edgar Wright

Probably the quintessential zombie movie of this decade, Shaun of the Dead draws heavily on Night of the Living Dead in a loving way, erasing the foolishness and flaws of the original and replacing them with tongue-in-cheek references which are hilarious. Barbara (Penelope Wilton) is as dazed as her namesake in NotLD (Judith O’Day), and many of the character types mirror the originals. Despite the allusion to Dawn of the Dead (1985), Shaun of the Dead only lightly references that film.

I won’t go too much into detail, since the film is so enjoyable that it really should be watched and not picked apart. There is a theme of repetition, with strong undertones that we all live like zombies and it takes a massive change of pace to help us excel to our full potential, even if that event is the end of the world. In some ways, it is a coming of age piece (buildungsroman), where the protagonist must shed his juvenile exterior and mature into a robust man who is capable of determining his own destiny. The humor is best appreciated by a gen X audience (perhaps British as well), so there are numerous cultural references that exceed my understanding; however, the humor is so endearing that you will have no problem joining in on the fun.

While a parody of zombie/horror films could easily become tiresome (see every Scary Movie for instance), this film is a tutorial in how to parody a genre by including fans and not obtusely excluding the people who would most enjoy a poke at a genre of film that is overdone or short on levity. You need only go as far as the trailer for Vampires Suck to see how parody can epically fail.


As I said above, I’d like to keep watching some zombie films and writing about them, so if you have any suggestions, send them my way.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames — David Sedaris (2008)

Back Bay Books, Paperback, 323 p., $15.99

I read a review in The New Yorker a while back of a book that’s on my reading list this summer which outlines the history of memoir. In that review, critic Daniel Mendelsohn describes memoir as:

a drunken guest at a wedding, […] constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention.

Wow, what a ringing endorsement for a genre. Seeing as I now teach young minds how to appreciate a public divulging of family secrets and a printed, mass-disseminated embarrassment of old friends, I’ll now defend memoir as a genre.

The question: is memoir more for the author, or for the audience? My answer: it’s for both. The author goes through a (sometimes solipsistic) process of self-discovery, unearthing truths about his or her inner life that resonate with the reader, who gets to experience the author’s life and be entertained by the content and style of the piece. The author need not be of note, though another dimension of enjoyment is added when the reader can compare conceptions of important (at least to the reader) events or cultural artifacts to the narrative told by a principle participant. What separates the good from the bad, that is, the thought provoking and moving piece of art from the tawdry tell-all? Probably the experience of the reader and the cultural significance associated with the author, but who can say for sure?

Sedaris is described as an essayist and compared to Mark Twain and James Thurber, but his collections of essays are really arranged around themes, as WYAEiF clearly demonstrates in it’s metaphorical and very real engagement with death. I probably should have read the review snippets on the back cover before buying and reading this book, as I was looking for something a little lighter and more “haw haw” than 22 essays on the snuffing of life’s brief candle. My personal preference aside, Sedaris goes to greater lengths than the last book I read by him, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), to delve deep into his own particularly slanted conceptions of life and evoke those stories which remind one of the shortness of life and fear of death. There’s plenty of humor, but in a sinister light which makes one laugh uneasily, such as story about purchasing a human skeleton in Paris for your boyfriend and having him hang it in your bedroom. I personally enjoyed it more than Dress Your Family… even if I wasn’t laughing out loud as frequently.

Many of the stories include vivid and humorous descriptions of oddball’s that Sedaris has met, worked/lived with, and whom society has rejected. “That’s Amore” is a prolonged character sketch of Sedaris’ cantankerous neighbor, who is redeemed from her violent racism and general bitterness through her aging and dependence, a reminder that most of us will one day depend on someone else for something. “This Old House” shows how life circumstances transform a boarding house proprietor from Sedaris’ dream of nostalgic glamor to a mundane caretaker, her integration into society violently extinguishing the glowing ember of intrigue.

Sedaris, on average, must encounter more interesting people every year of his life than the rest of us do in a lifetime, and some truly pitiful characters are recounted in this book. One of the chief reasons I believe that people read memoirs (or engage in most entertainment) is the desperate need to have contact with people more interesting than ourselves. The most interesting people in the book are pariahs, lunatics, and the type of person that you or I tend to avoid; this is no problem for Sedaris, who’s self-described obsessive journaling and note taking record his encounters with and explorations of the characters at the fringe of society. A question that dogs Sedaris and other memoirists is whether they capitalize on the lives of others in their writings. What is the standard by which a random but highly personal or telling encounter might be divulged? Does there have to be meaning or sacrifice to present it to an audience, so that another person’s personal problems seem significant or are transcribed with dignity, or can they be lampooned like the rest of us? I don’t have an answer. I just thought I’d mention it.

The final essay, “The Smoking Section” is probably one of the best I have ever read. It deals with addiction, the anxiety associated with life changes, and cultural barriers while also delivering a great deal of humor, vulnerability and descriptions of modernity and culture in Japan which deflate our sensibilities of Western individualism.

I won’t lie and say that along the way there are not some disposable essays or square pegs jammed into a book which could have lost 50 pages or so, but it was an engaging memoir that jabbed the consciousness of this reader and caused that moment of personal reflection that is so necessary in a genre that needs “to be the center of attention.”

Highly Recommended

Up Next: Iron Man 2

Le grand seduction/Seducing Dr. Lewis (2003)

After my iPhone displayed the incorrect time, and a traffic mishap stopped buses on Ashland Ave., Nicole and I rushed to meet Eva at the Chicago International Summer Screening showing of Le grand seduction/Seducing Dr. Lewis co-presented by the Consulate General of Canada in Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center, and

The film discusses the plight of a coastal Canadian hamlet whose dried up fishing industry has left the town folk down and out. A plan to bring in a factory is in the works, but a full time doctor is needed on the island otherwise it’s no deal; the conflict: no big city (Montreal?) practitioners are willing to make the move to a quaint fishing village (I am running out of synonyms for small town at this point). In a desperate bid to bring a factory to the town, the de facto mayor, Germain Lessage (Raymond Bouchard), strings together a plot to entice a big city plastic surgeon (David Boutin) into staying longer than his forced one month stay. There are a few missing details, but the premise is what it is, some small town big/city humor. At stake, the future of the town.

The film itself is hilarious. After the residents learn that the doctor loves cricket, they stage a hilarious half-baked match for his benefit. The whole film revolves around the townspeople catering to the doctor’s every wish, going so far as to tap his phone and listen in, sometimes catching scandalous calls to his girlfriend.

The comic timing of the actors in the film, especially Bouchard and the actor who plays his brother-in-law, Pierre Collin, is really great. If your looking for an analogy for the type of humor found in this film, I would say it’s close to Hot Fuzz (2008); come to think of it, the plot is similar to The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain but luckily for us there is no Hugh Grant to be found.

I don’t think I stopped laughing for most of the film, so this is a good pick if you’re in the mood for something light. As with most foreign language films, do watch the subtitles and avoid dubbing, as the delivery in French adds to the humor of many of the jokes.

8/10: un bit inattendu de la comédie de l’été

note: This film played at the Chicago Cultural Center, which was a great place to see a film. I failed to take a picture of the theater, but I will do so next time I go there. All of the times are listed on their website and there is no charge for any of the films. Oh, and here is a random picture of the beautiful stained glass dome outside of the theater.