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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Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

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I’m gonna tell everyone in prison that I travelled back in time to kill my own father! Three friends are stuck in a rut in full-blown mid-life crisis: underachiever (and kicked out by his girlfriend) Adam (John Cusack), henpecked husband Nick (Craig Robinson) and party animal Lou (Rob Cordrry). Accompanied by Adam’s nephew shut-in Jacob (Clark Duke) they travel to Winterfest and after getting into the tub on the balcony and consuming Chernobly – the Russian answer to Red Bull! – they turn out on the slopes and it’s … 1986. MTV is playing music videos (of all things), Michael Jackson is still black and Poison are playing tonight.  But when they look at their youthful images in the mirror Jacob is flickering – he hasn’t been conceived yet. And weird repairman Chevy Chase hasn’t got the right equipment to whip them back to 2010. And it’s the night Adam split up with his girlfriend and she stuck a fork in his eye, Jacob’s mom got together with Lou and it’s imperative everything stay the same so that they get back to the present intact … It’s not The Terminator or Back to the Future but the parameters of the latter are called upon big time in the person of one-armed bellboy Crispin Glover and a seriously Freudian scene with the future zillionaire Lou. Director Steve Pink reminds us of another collaboration with star/producer John Cusack riffing on the fork joke from Grosse Pointe Blank. It’s a surprisingly warm film about male friendship and kind-hearted about relationships and what ifs:  in Adam’s case it’s a chance meeting with music journalist April (Lizzy Caplan) who makes him realise he can change things. And Nick bawls out his nine year old future wife on the phone! Back to the future indeed! Written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

Dressed to Kill (1980)

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A film that practically embodies the term Psychosexual. Brian de Palma’s outrageous, explicit Hitchcockian homage (some might say rip off, Hitch called it fromage) still has the power to shock, with its jawdropping opening sequence – married Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) masturbating in a shower while her lover shaves in a mirror. She fesses up to her psychoanalyst Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) that she’s faking it because her lover’s not really up to it then asks him if he’s attracted to her. She does the  Vertigo shtick at the Metropolitan in Kim Novak’s off-white coat and when she drops a glove (fetish alert!) she attracts a man in shades (another warning).  He gets her off in a taxi (yes, this has to be seen to be believed) then wakes up to find a medical notice in his apartment …. and enters an elevator to leave the building when she suddenly remembers her wedding ring and presses the button to return to the scene of the extra-marital crime … You had me at hello!!! Call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) is the only witness to the murder – while the killer is a mysterious tall blonde in shades. Dickinson’s teenage inventor son Keith Gordon plays private dick, Allen becomes the woman in peril stalked by the tall blonde in shades, the shrink gets taunting messages from Bobbi, a transgender patient, and it all ends just the way you want:  blonde on blonde. Crazy, classic warning cinema – beware of shrinks and nooners! The soundtrack by Pino Donaggio is brilliant. Wild!

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

French Kiss (1995)

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I once sat next to an inflatable man on a flight from London to NYC but I never sat next to Kevin Kline playing a snarky French jewel thief who slips a diamond necklace into my handbag. That’s what happens to Meg Ryan as she heads for Paris where her fiance, Tim Hutton, is having it away with a Francaise. Only in romcom! Kline gets a pass at the airport because he saved policeman Jean Reno’s life. And whaddya know, Meg’s bag is stolen by Francois Cluzet in the Georges V (can’t get the staff) and she’s off to the Riviera with Kline where Hutton is meeting his girlfriend’s parents and they stay at the Carlton with a stolen credit card. There’s a confrontation, Kline pretends to be Meg’s boyfriend, and romantic disarray ensues… with a conclusion involving a picturesque vineyard.  It looks great, well it would, Owen Roizman shot it, and the story is by Adam Brooks, and if it’s whimsical and slight, well, it’s Queen Meg, it’s Kevin with a dreadful accent, Lawrence Kasdan directed them and it’s a nice scenic way to round out Thanksgiving evening. Paris? Cannes? Hell, yeah! I’m there!

9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

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Yes, I’m going there. It’s Friday after all. This was the secret shame of myself and several of my college mates courtesy of a guy who had it on VHS back in the day. We watched it regularly in a darkened room, as you do. Lunchtimes have never been the same since. I think this is how cults begin, isn’t it?! It was a notorious bomb on release and it’s not difficult to see why – how to explain an S&M memoir on date night?! 960 people stormed out of the preview audience of 1,000! One can only hazard a guess at what the remainers were doing. Really, it’s a home movie in every sense!  Ingeborg Day nee Seiler (daughter of an Austrian SS officer) wrote for feminist mag Ms. as Ingeborg Bachmann in the Seventies and documented this stage of her life pseudonymously in 1978 as ‘Elizabeth McNeill’. She had a breakdown afterwards. Gallerist Elizabeth embarks on an intense affair with Wall Street broker John who takes her places she’s never been … in her own body. The fact that she is played by the stunning Kim Basinger and he is the then-beautiful Mickey Rourke just makes it all the more, uh, pleasurable. In fact it’s their characterisation that makes this erotica work. Screenwriters Zalman King and Patricia Louisanna Knop (and Sarah Kernochan) turned soft porn into their avocation, while underrated director Adrian Lyne just makes everything appear lovely and astonishing as you’d expect from someone who helped change the look of cinema:  you’ll never look at the contents of your refrigerator the same way again. Seriously sexy and the soundtrack is great!

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.

Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

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Not Dario Argento’s favourite of his own films – too American, he thinks. But it’s more coherent than most of his output and graphically interesting at the very least. Karl Malden is crossword-setter Cookie Arno, a blind man who overhears an odd conversation in a car while walking past a science lab, the Terzi Institute, where couples are helped to reproduce. His little niece Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) helps him identify the man speaking. She lives with him since her parents died and all they have is each other. The man breaks into the institute. A scientist, Calabresi, knows what’s been taken and by whom and agrees to meet someone. Then he falls under a train. Journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is investigating the death and it’s the first of a series – even the newspaper photographer who is developing what Cookie identifies as potentially incriminating evidence of the train death being a murder is garrotted. Eventually the killer is after Giordani – and Cookie – and Lori … Argento’s sophomore outing is fabulous looking – constructed around the prism of vision, point of view and perception. Everything is continuous within the spatial organisation, characters’ movement through interiors, colour, the repetition of shapes (look what he does with triangles and pyramids), and there’s a great chase using an underground car park plus a spectacularly odd sex scene between Franciscus and doll-like Catherine Spaak, playing the daughter of the Professor running the lab where an unusual research project concerning chromosomal dispositions toward criminality has triggered a serial killer. There’s a  fantastically inventive soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the crisp cinematography is by Enrico Menczer. There’s no cat, by the way:  that title is an expression used to describe the number of false leads in the case. This is stylish as hell if not quite as shocking as some of the Maestro’s work. And the cars! Shot in Berlin, Turin and Cinecitta.

Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

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Nell (Marilyn Monroe) is escorted to a hotel room by her uncle, bellhop Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr), on babysitting duty. Downstairs, pilot Jed (Richard Widmark) is dumped by his girlfriend, chanteuse Lyn (Anne Bancroft) in between songs. He retires to his room where he observes the beautiful babysitter across the courtyard. He phones her and mistakes her for a wealthy woman in need of some company. The little girl she’s looking after interrupts their conversation and bit by bit, the story comes undone and it’s clear Nell thinks he’s an old boyfriend whom we realise was killed in the war. Things get tricky and the little girl is in serious jeopardy …  Eventually the situation in the room becomes violent and all is revealed: we find out precisely where Nell has spent the last three years. Daniel Taradash adapted a novel by Charlotte Armstrong and it was directed by British man Roy (Ward) Baker in a very effective style. Monroe was lacking in confidence for this dramatic role and there are moments where her dissonant performance actually makes for a properly disturbing experience. Studio heads were not impressed. But her fan base was hugely effective in raising her profile and she got thousands of letters every week and the studio had no idea why. (Grace Kelly had a parallel situation at her studio). Co-star Widmark was not impressed by her in person but commented on her awesome impact onscreen. Anne Bancroft was a confident NYC actress making her screen debut (it was Monroe’s 18th outing) and she stated that in the scene they shared, in the hotel lobby, where Monroe had to play at being in pain and helpless, what greeted Bancroft was precisely that, and it was so powerful that it brought tears to her eyes. The women were not remotely similar but oddly, Bancroft left Hollywood to return to Broadway in 1957 (a year after Monroe also departed, deeply unhappy at the state of her career) making her screen comeback with an incredible performance in The Miracle Worker in 1962 – the year that Monroe died.