Lost in Translation (2003)

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I would love to get some sleep. What an arresting film this is. It starts with a closeup of a woman’s behind, clad in pink panties. She’s lying in her room at the Tokyo Hyatt while her photographer husband is off doing his thing. They’re a very young married couple. She is bored. She is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), he is John (Giovanni Ribisi). When she calls home for support her mother misunderstands so she pretends she’s having a good time. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a huge film star, in the city to shoot some ads for Suntory whisky. He notices Charlotte in the elevator but later it turns out she doesn’t remember seeing him. He endures ridiculous directions on the set of his commercial and doesn’t believe the translator is telling him everything the director wants (she’s not). He encounters Charlotte at the hotel bar where a band called Sausalito performs cover versions. They sympathise with each other and then wind up spending time together. She can’t bear her husband’s acquaintances, especially the nutty movie star Kelly (Anna Faris) who masquerades under the pseudonym Evelyn Waugh: he thinks his wife is a condescending snob when she points out Evelyn Waugh was a man. Charlotte and Bob hang out, explore this alien city, so brilliantly shot by Lance Acord, who used no additional lighting in that neon landscape and a lot of the stuff in railway stations was shot minus permits so it’s loose and documentary-like.  Murray is so specific and yet relaxed and it’s one of the great film performances, awarded with a BAFTA. Johansson is no less good with her very different style, duly noted by BAFTA voters too. Coppola had spent time in Japan and the character of Bob is supposedly based on family friend Harrison Ford with Charlotte a riff (perhaps) on herself. There are some great sequences with the limpid photography sensing something – let’s call it empathy – between the two in various iconic locations:  the karaoke bar; the strip club; escaping Kelly’s terrible singing in the hotel; the hospital; lying on a bed together with Bob holding Charlotte’s injured foot (how very fitting in a country famous for the foot fetish) and finally falling asleep. His inevitable sexual encounter with the lounge singer doesn’t surprise us because when he tells his wife on the phone I feel lost she doesn’t understand. It’s a twenty-five year old marriage and Charlotte is so young and yet they both come to an understanding about their private situations with this mutual experience of incomprehension and loneliness. When he tries to explain to Charlotte how he feels about his life he says having a family is hard. She gets it but deflects it by asking him has he bought a Porsche. So much of life is lost in translation even in funny scenes such as when Bob is at the TV station with the Japanese equivalent of a lunatic Johnny Carson.  People are lost inside of marriage. An undertow of sorrow tugs at everything and threatens to unravel the subtle construction which concludes in the final shots with the famously unscripted whispered exchange, inaudible to anyone except the performers. I first saw this 24 hours after landing in LA in 2003 and was utterly jet-lagged – so a propos for a film equal parts startling and narcotic:  seeing a stripper perform to Peaches certainly wakes a person up from airline slumber. The songs are especially well chosen in an atmospheric soundtrack with a score by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Sofia Coppola won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay and was nominated for Best Director too. This was her second film and it’s pretty awesome with a lot of the tropes now so familiar from her body of work – hotels, alienation, the unknowability of women. You can read my review of a book about her films here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood. Right after I saw this I was scared witless by the re-released Alien at the Cinerama Dome and then nearly got arrested for jaywalking on Hollywood Boulevard. But that’s another story.

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Wild Things (1998)

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Teenage sexpot Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) is hot for teacher Sam (Matt Dillon), a former lover of her wealthy widowed mother Sandra (Theresa Russell) but he’s not having any. Well, not with her. So she cries Rape and he gets caught up in a very dense web involving loser Suzie (Neve Campbell) who also calls Rape. She was busted for drugs the previous year by Detective Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and suffered 6 months in the clink. When personal injury shyster lawyer Ken (Bill Murray) defends Sam the plot gets as convoluted and murky as a Florida swamp.  The girls admit they made it up because Sam didn’t protect Suzie from prison. Sam celebrates his eventual defamation winnings – by having sex with both girls. They were scamming Sandra for money. And that’s just the start of it. Cross, double cross, murder and betrayal are at the centre of a complex story that opens out like a neverending Russian nesting doll. Twisty Twister McTwisted isn’t in it! Sexy, funny, outrageous and brilliant neo noir. Written by Stephen Peters and directed by John (Henry:  Portrait of a Serial Killer) McNaughton, with a notable score by George Clinton. Super steamy.

Tootsie (1982)

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Dustin Hoffman is the out of work actor (twenty years and counting) who can’t even play a tomato without creating friction. His agent, Sydney Pollack (the film’s director after Dick Richards then Hal Ashby didn’t do it) has to tell him he’s unemployable. The real-life actor’s legendary on-set behaviour is tapped here for the obnoxious New Yorker who cross-dresses and becomes a hit on a dreadful daytime hospital soap where he falls hopelessly in love with Jessica Lange, the star who’s schtupping the nasty director, Dabney Coleman (always a joy).  With Bill Murray as Hoffman’s deadpan playwright roomie, Charles Durning as Lange’s widower farmer dad who falls for ‘Dorothy’ and Teri Garr as his actress best friend the cast is an Eighties joy. The chaos behind the scenes is something of a movie myth but none of it shows onscreen. Sitcom maestro Larry Gelbart wrote the story with Don McGuire (adapting McGuire’s early 1970s play) but Pollack (who compulsively hired and fired screenwriters) and Hoffman (in a role first offered to Peter Sellers, then Michael Caine!) put more through their paces – Murray Schisgal, Barry Levinson and Elaine May. Despite this, the story goes down smooth as butter even if the central conceit is as ludicrous as making Bruce Jenner Woman of the Year. Condescending to women? Just a bit! But extremely funny. Hoffman was distressed to learn that even with makeup he would never be an attractive woman and confessed that this epiphany led him to regret all the conversations with interesting women he might have missed. Oh, the humanity!

Rock the Kasbah (2016)

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Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is an unsuccessful rock tour manager whose achievements are a lot less than he likes to tell people. He coasts on the line, “I discovered Madonna,” when of course he did nothing of the sort. He scams money off wannabes who finance his dissolute lifestyle which includes a young daughter permanently living with his ex-wife and helped by another wannabe Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) who performs covers at terrible bars. There’s an opportunity for her to play for the troops in Afghanistan but she freaks out on the terrifying flight and loses it completely arriving to lock-down at Kabul following an attempted assassination on the prime minister. So she legs it, with his money and passport, and the help of a mercenary, Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis) who wants to commit his experiences to a book. Richie is broke but two war profiteers, Danny McBride and Scott Caan, have a scheme to get him back on his feet while a hooker (Kate Hudson) promises to do things to him that are illegal in all civilised nations as well as promising him some money. Then he hears a spectacular voice, that of a Pashtun teenager Salima Khan (Leem Lubany) who performs Cat Stevens songs in English and whom he helps become the first female to perform on TV’s Afghan Star which of course makes the Taliban very unhappy just as he thinks this is his chance to resurrect his own music business … Written and produced by Mitch Glazer, directed by  Barry Levinson, with this kind of talent (inspired by the true-life example of Setara Hussainzada, the subject of the 2009 doc Afghan Star) this should have been a lot sharper. It feels as tired as Bill Murray looks and doesn’t really exploit any aspect of the promising themes or settings with conviction. Shareef don’t like it!

Groundhog Day (1993)

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It’s no accident that weatherman Phil Connors shares his name with the beaver that surfaces (or not) every February 2nd to forecast the end of winter:  Punxsutawney Phil is a metaphor for the crisis besetting a man whose cynicism needs a serious reboot. He relives the same day. Over and over again. The irony for the viewer is that the more often you see this film, the repetition becomes more meaningful, the karma more poetic, the lessons more refined. A work of utterly incomparable comic genius approaching philosophical brilliance, written and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis from a story by Danny Rubin. Simply classic.

Scrooged (1988)

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“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts, only this time, it’s three against one.” That was the tagline for a Charles Dickens adaptation unlike any other (The Muppets got in on the act in 1992) clearly aiming at the Ghostbusters crowd. Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue make our modern-day mean guy cold-hearted TV executive Frank Cross and he’s played by the most amiable klutz we know, so there’s your high concept. He makes his staff work Christmas Eve for an outrageously stupid live broadcast of A Christmas Carol, he’s visited by the ghost of his old boss (John Forsythe from Dynasty) who warns him that three ghosts will visit him over the evening and his new boss Robert Mitchum has hired someone who makes no secret of the fact that he’s after his job.  With David Johnansen as the the Ghost of Christmas Past taking him through his wretched childhood, Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present who alerts him to his lost love Claire (Karen Allen) working at the homeless shelter, this is pretty good satire and there’s a great supporting cast of pleasingly recognisable faces. It’s a veritable time capsule that hasn’t worn as well as I’d hoped however. But it’s the first of many Christmas baubles in the next 6 (gulp! count ’em!) weeks… Tis the season. Almost.

What About Bob? (1991)

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If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be acquainted with someone in therapy then you’ll know that they use their acquired techniques to manipulate, bully, threaten and terrorise their innocent target. Unbeknownst to myself, a much older friend was an alcoholic analysand. And I was the utterly innocent (admittedly obtuse, people had warned me) target her therapist told her to terrorise – apparently this is what they do. I found out when summoned out of my office (to discommode me) by this talentless self-obsessed madwoman when she announced it loudly in public (an essential component) that her therapist revealed to her that I was professionally jealous of her (she was unemployed until the grand old age of 51 when she finally got a temporary job) and I endured twenty minutes of crazed vitriol. I stood up, told her to have a drink and felt a spring in my step as the weight of five horrendous years of her narcissistic attacks lifted from my shoulders.  I ran for ten miles on the treadmill at the gym. Three days later I got a letter from a literary agent I’d never heard of issuing a legal threat on behalf of my now former friend claiming authorship to one of my works to which she now exclusively attached her name (her notion of co-writing being to smoke in my face, drink coffee like an addict and snigger). I then (self-therapy alert) wrote a study on authorship. Ahem. So when I first saw this film many years ago I found it funny. Now it’s about as funny as a funeral and practically a documentary. And all that trauma has come flooding back … Bill Murray is narcissistic divorced Bob who’s driven his last shrink nuts with his phobias and is taken on unwittingly by Dr Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) who’s about to become mega-famous thanks to a forthcoming interview on Good Morning America to publicise his new book, Baby Steps. Through a series of cunning acts Bob hunts him and his family down at their lakeside retreat where they’re vacationing until Labor Day and proceeds to drive the doc crazy … Tom Schulman’s screenplay is based on a story by veteran Alvin Sargent and co-producer Laura Ziskin (with Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett). Being Hollywood vets I can only guess at the real stories they could tell. Like I said, I used to find this hilarious and Murray is of course brilliant as the nutcase but Dreyfuss has the real acting moments here, turned inside out and crazy by his gifted sociopathic charge, finding himself put on Librium and in a straitjacket in the lunatic asylum. They hated each other on set but how it plays on screen as the nutter alienates the doctor’s family, marrying his sister and appropriating his life. How nice it is to see a doctor victimised with their own tools for a change! Starring Joan Lunden as herself. My ‘friend’? You won’t have heard of her. Obviously.