Densha Otoko (2005)

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In English, it means Train Man and it finds its origins in a media franchise that now includes Manga, a book, a television show, and of course this movie. But the events of the story are purportedly based on real life when a young otaku (Japanese tech nerd) in Akihabara came to the defense of a woman on a train who was being accosted by a drunken businessman.

This isolated, geeky 22-year old male was her knight in shining armor and probably had never talked to a girl before in his life. Every syllable comes out of his mouth jumbled, rushed, and breathless. If they were American we would say that she’s out of his league — the head cheerleader or what have you.

But the film is blessed because it is set in Japan. Densha Otoko proves to be part dorky rom-com while also giving us a view into a unique subculture. While it deals in stereotypes somewhat, we see his constant communications taking place over online chat and although it’s dated by today’s standards the Akihabara vibe is unquestionable as is the integration of technology into modern day romance.

At the time we were on the cusp of where we’re at now and you see the signs of it. Flip phones and laptops on the train. People at their computers at work and home. Such luxuries have become increasingly more invasive and some might say they have come at the detriment of human relationship.

What this film does well is to consider both rather implicitly with online friends on one side acting as his constant peanut gallery offering conflicting pieces of advice, constant pep talks, and further considerations as they all analyze his prospects as a body.

Then, of course, we have this demure woman he stood up for on the train. She might be the Japanese iteration of a manic pixie dreamgirl — granted I’m not sure what that means exactly — no matter she’s considerate and sweet. Their interactions continue with a present sent as a Thank You, then a dinner where they split the bill, and several other affable encounters.

The film’s aesthetic might be off-putting to some as it reflects a world constantly interfacing with their screens. Further suggesting the interweb of relationships that are created where people only know each other online, denoted by a continuously split screen and yet their lives spill outside of that and we get a small taste of not just Densha Otoko but all of his fan club. These characters too could have used more definition but they serve their purpose.

Train Man pushes onward and enters territory that none of them could have ever dreamed of. And he does it by being as nervous and frantic and considerate as ever. He gets a haircut (thank goodness), buys some new duds, and tries a few other techniques. Researching dinner conversations and testing the food beforehand. It’s actually quite sweet if he weren’t so uncomfortable to watch. But then again, who am I to judge?

Still, what matters is the time they spend together. It’s pleasant and kind not interrupted by awkward kisses or embarrassing hijinks with best friends. It just the two of them and he tries to discern how to move forward with this girl on that ever perilous tightrope of male-female relationships. They’ll at least have men befuddled for eternity. I can’t speak for the ladies.

That’s not to say there aren’t throw away moments or wacky and slightly peculiar ones that we probably could have done without. I won’t bother listing them because most importantly the film remains in our good graces for what it’s mainly set out to do. Allowing a socially awkward underdog a chance to shine. Through all his tripping and falling, sniveling and awkwardness, he gets some amount of satisfaction.

Consolidate it down to its best themes and scenes and you have a rewarding picture of just that. Because after all, it’s fairly easy to forgive a heartfelt movie like this for its gaffs since even in those very things it’s staying true to its core hero: Densha Otoko.

Likewise, I’m going to stick by my guns and enjoy this film perhaps more than I should have and yet in its innocence and jubilation, I found something that is so often lacking in American films trying to work within the same genre. Tighter editing would have been a major benefit but I’ll always hold that sincerity covers a multitude of faults. Call me an old softie if you will but maybe it’s the fact that I’m probably an otaku at heart. Whether he gets the girl or not, he has my sympathy.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Lost in Translation (2003)

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30 minutes into Lost in Translation our two traveling misanthropes finally meet in the hotel lobby at the bar sharing a friendly exchange. They are two people who share one striking similarity — they are Americans in a foreign land — and they’re looking for a friend.

It’s a very pertinent film for places I’ve gone as an American who has traveled to Japan of my own volition but still as a bit of an outsider. Not because I am rejected or an outcast but for the very fact that there are obvious cultural and linguistic barriers in my way. I resonate with this film not so much because it takes on the point of view of the Japanese and empathizes with them but on the contrary, it focuses on those on the outside looking in. Like Bob & Charlotte and you and me in our manifold cultural illiteracies.

Bob is a big shot movie star. Probably not unlike Bill Murray. Big in the 70s and 80s but now his popularity is slowly waning as the years begin to catch up with him and he’s demoted to cameos. In fact, maybe Murray has fared better. Bob’s in Tokyo promoting Suntory Whiskey in their latest ad campaign. It’s good money but certainly not what he wants to be doing with his career.

He’s Suntory Time’s latest spokesperson. It’s the epitome of culture becoming completely muddled along language lines. My Japanese admittedly leaves much to be desired, but the Japanese director’s stage directions are full of passionate vision of what this scene will be, a shot out of Casablanca, full of emotion and heartache. The translation Bob gets is simply “He wants you to turn and look to the camera.” He feels like he’s missing something. Just as each reference that’s tossed haphazardly his way is never fully understood.

The Rat Pack, Bogart, Sinatra, Roger Moore, even Johnny Carson. Each of these names comes with so much more. But the context has been ripped away from them and appropriated and transplanted to different settings. It’s nothing to be up in arms about it’s simply the reality of our internationalized culture and it’s utterly befuddling to Bob. He can’t navigate it at all.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is a recently married philosophy graduate who looks hardly a day over 20. Friends back home seem too preoccupied to listen as she calls them up over the phone. Meanwhile, her dweeby husband with a particularly whiny voice (sorry Giovani Ribisi) is consumed with his own career as a photographer and distracted by old acquaintances ( namely Anna Faris). He says he loves his wife but he certainly doesn’t spend much time with Charlotte. Her loneliness shows. She’s even hit the bottom of the barrel listening to CDs to discover the purpose of her soul.

Bill Murray’s characteristic deadpan cheekiness feels entirely at odds with the culture that he is thrown into where you’re forced to cook your own food (Shabu Shabu) and he dwarfs the national average in terms of height. Bob is the prototypical American movie star making his press junket of Tokyo but at the same time, he’s also oblivious that he forgot his son’s birthday again until he receives a reminder.

In fact, Murray never feels like he could be anyone’s best friend because he’d either be a flake or he’d never open up to you because he’s too busy making jokes in lieu of actual conversation. Still, maybe there’s a grain of hope.

Bob and Charlotte are totally adrift in the city. Lost in the sea of Tokyo and it’s really no fault of the city despite its astronomical population and unfamiliar customs. It only serves to magnify the real problem — a small-scale parallel to what is going on in their lives. Their problem doesn’t start with Tokyo. It starts with the person who looks back at them in the mirror. Though they come from two very different stations of life, their current state of affairs is all but analogous. Bob and Charlotte are in the midst of personal crises — the biggest ones imaginable — what’s life really about?

That’s why when they break out in conversation it means something. Of course, he leads with an extended joke, “I‘m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?”

Their meeting in the hotel lobby is a lifeline that they both willingly grab hold of and it leads them out into the world around them. They frequent the video game parlors, traverse Shibuya crosswalks, perform in late night Karaoke joints, and sit up talking with Japanese surfers as Tokyo’s bright lights illuminate the night air. Coppola even drops a nod to her significant other with Phoenix’s “Too Young” exemplifying the vibe around town.

The film hints at infidelity at times and Bob’s marriage is a flimsy one at best but the beauty of his relationship with Charlotte is that first and foremost it is a friendship and by the time they must part ways it’s heartbreaking. They’ve grown so close. But a hug can be as meaningful as any sexual relationship might have been. They genuinely care about each other. It turns out Bill Murray can be a good friend and one with wisdom and grace no less.

In its fleeting moments, Lost in Translation, captures just how horrible goodbyes can be. There’s so much you want to be able to say and nothing you can begin to say. In fact, Bob cannot leave it there and so he goes after her, tracks her down, and shares one final embrace and one last word. Both of them go their separate ways but there’s no doubt that Bob and Charlotte have grown and helped each other to a better place. It’s still a work in progress but that’s part of what life is about right? Living and growing alongside other people.

We can scour YouTube to come up with the latest and greatest, definitive enhanced audio video to tell us exactly what Bob leaves her with, although each one undoubtedly claims something different, or we can bask in that ambiguity which while so maddening in some way feels satisfying for the very same reason. Floating through Tokyo has never been so wistfully affecting.

4.5/5 Stars

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My Sassy Girl (2001)

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We meet a college-aged Korean guy (Cha Tae-hyun) as he relates his first encounter with the girl (Jun ji-hyun) who would ultimately become his girlfriend. In the throes of a drunken stupor, she flails perilously near the railway as an incoming train comes on so he steps in to pull her back to safety. They board minutes later — he’s still watching her warily — only for her to puke all over a commuter.

Assuming he is the boyfriend, Gyeon-woo is chastized to do something about his girlfriend and so reluctantly he takes her still intoxicated by piggyback to the nearest hotel. This whole complicated scenario happens to him twice and it lands him in jail.  It doesn’t sound like the pitch-perfect moment to start off a romance but then again My Sassy Girl never has perfect pitch and that’s where it succeeds.

The film opens with these exaggerated comically cringe-worthy interactions and yet it settles into something far more fulfilling than its attention-grabbing gross-out antics. While Gyeon-woo gets all but pulled into the scenario you realize that there was a single decision. He cared enough to intervene on this girl’s behalf. Maybe he regretted it but it’s doubtful.

What was his life beforehand? Fairly inane and nondescript. He hangs out with his buddies as they grunt about inconsequential things. His face is prone to glazed over expressions. He’s constantly whining to his mother over the phone after forgetting to visit his Aunt — the Aunt who always pinches his cheeks and tries to set him up with an eligible girl. When he’s not getting swatted at by his mother at home, his father gives him a going over for not getting better grades. He’s a rudderless young man with no true conviction or sense of purpose. He’s in need of some kind of shakeup.

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The Girl (who is never given a name) is actually the one who dictates the sheer unpredictability and consequently, the hilarity of the picture. Jun Ji-hyun pulls off a remarkable part that brims with a feistiness, playful whimsy, and utter solemnity as it cycles between scenes. She smacks him around and bosses him to do this and that based on a momentary fancy. Also, her facial expressions are on point.There’s so much sassafras as we used to say in high school. She willingly calls out people for their behavior in public places as well as their wardrobe choices. The filter is all but lacking. She’s a creature of caprice.

Anything that Geon-woo does to her disapproval prompts her threatening catchphrase, “Wanna Die?” Partially as a veiled threat and partially as a rhetorical assertion. It works in many circumstances. Most importantly she has fun because that is her antidote to try and forget something — to get past some prior hurt — and to reclaim her life as her own.

Like the Japanese film Shall We Dance (1996), My Sassy Girl also garnered an American remake due to its popularity. But the remakes in both accounts cannot measure up to the originals for a very simple reason. These stories are meant for the cultures they came out of or at least they are given greater import in their respective countries of origin. The first film was about freedom of expression in a society that values a certain amount of conformity. My Sassy Girl highlights a character who all but goes against the norms of how people are supposed to act as she carries herself with a certain amount of unpredictable vigor.

There are some clunky seemingly superfluous scenes but our leads have a disarming even unorthodox chemistry about them that weathers it all. One scene, in particular, stops up the film’s middle where they sneak into the theme park on The Girl’s birthday only to be held hostage by an AWOL soldier. It’s ultimately another expression of romantic sentiment but it disrupts the hilarity for an extended period of time. Because those are the moments when the story is at its best.

The direction can also be a bit distracting as the camera swirls around and does this and that with POV shots inserted and lines of voiceover narration but we can attribute that merely to the film’s jarring intentions. They help personify this volatile, idiosyncratic character at its core.

The original slap bet is born on the Subway. Squash games inevitably wind up with the ball nailing Geon-woo in the face. He’s also inept at swordplay and he can’t swim. Meanwhile, she holds aspirations for writing screenplays and forces him to read her work. He notes there’s always a hero coming from the future infused with action-packed terminator or samurai vibes.

All of this movie’s finest moments of romantic hilarity can be summed up in the list of 10 points Gyeon-woo recites by heart relaying how to treat his girl:

  • First, don’t ask her to be feminine.
  • Second, don’t let her drink over three glasses, she’ll beat someone.
  • At a cafe, drink coffee instead of coke or juice.
  • If she hits you, act like it hurts. If it hurts, act like it doesn’t.
  • On your 100th day together, give her a rose during her class. She’ll like it a lot.
  • Make sure you learn fencing and squash.
  • Also, be prepared to go to prison sometimes.
  • If she says she’ll kill you, don’t take it lightly. You’ll feel better.
  • If her feet hurt, exchange shoes with her.
  • Finally, she likes to write. Encourage her.

The latter half dips more deeply into the well of sincerity and though it might seem difficult to buy this sentimental side of the characters, we’ll gladly make allowances because we’ve been through so much with them. It turns out The Sassy Girl has more to her as we always suspected.

In an excursion to one of her favorite spots that is shaded by a solitary tree, they bury a time capsule with letters written to each other. On her behest, they will come back in two years to read them but for now, she must go away and figure things out. It seems a dismal and confusing point of departure for Geon-woo and the audience. But he resigns himself to it and moves forward.

However, the film very much wants to drill into our heads that fate means building a bridge of chance for your love. It gives romance this edge of grand design where all things fall into place for those who are truly meant to be together. Fittingly, circumstance brings them back full circle. Surely, some will need to take this with a grain of salt but no matter, when it’s all said and done, there’s no question that My Sassy Girl is a satisfying rom-com moment after moment. The leads are just too memorable to pass up.

3.5/5 Stars

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

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I can’t even begin to comprehend what it’s like to get laid off in Tokyo. In any city, any place, any circumstance it’s one of the feelings which would instigate the formation of a lump in your throat. But Tokyo is swarming with so many people and so much competition; it seems like you would be practically swallowed up. I’m surprised there are any available jobs at all.

That’s what makes it especially demeaning for Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) to go to the unemployment office. He’s long held an administrative job in a prestigious company but when he is suddenly let go, Mr. Sasaki finds that he is overqualified for any amount of work offered him at the agency. Surely, beggars can’t be choosers but no matter how many times you’ve had that phrase shoved down your throat, it doesn’t make such a reality any easier. A janitor is a far cry from a cushy desk job.

By an act of serendipitous chance, he happens upon an old school chum who has been stricken by the same fate and yet being three months in he’s seasoned at the lifestyle of keeping up appearances even as he attends the food line with the homeless. He still dresses in his suit, carries his briefcase, and feigns taking business calls. It’s an unnerving dichotomy that Ryuhei soon readily adopts as well.

But behind every man, there is usually an entire family and Tokyo Sonata is very much a dissection of the Japanese familial unit after a stressor is applied. All parties are affected. But we see the cracks even before the news breaks.

Kenji, the youngest child is caught in class with an erotic manga which he vehemently denies owning. But as an act of retaliation, he calls out his teacher in front of the class for reading similar material on the train. He purportedly saw him and the man has no defense. They meet later in a quieter exchange and his teacher simply states, “Let’s stop poking each other’s wounds and ignore them.”

It’s a morose response to deep issues of loneliness and isolation and while this particular instance pertains to love and sexual intimacy we can take this very same outlook and apply it to many of the film’s dynamics. If we keep things hidden and disregard them things might still work out.

On a whim, Kenji wants to play the piano and yet it’s for a very understandable reason. It’s because of a girl. He has a crush. Well, actually it turns out to be the woman teacher and she’s twice his age and recently divorced but that doesn’t stop him from using his month’s lunch allowance to pay for lessons without his parent’s knowledge. Again, the family operates in secret deceptions. Little white lies and overall detachment.

The eldest son, Takashi, by some peculiar circumstance, is signing up for the American military as a non-citizen for deployment in The Middle East. Of course, he too has moved forward with the plan without consulting his parents. He ambushes his mother with the news quite suddenly because he needs her written approval. He knows that she is the easier touch and doesn’t even bother telling his father at first because he knows full well the response that will come.

Their home life as represented by the dinner table feels like such a sterile environment and that’s in a scenario where none of the chinks are showing. No one says anything in fact. I feel sorry for the woman of the house. As both wife and mother, Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi ) is dutiful and maternal. She’s not necessarily aloof but the world around her feels so unloving and unfeeling. It’s hard to make a contented life for yourself when the entire atmosphere is dictated by the man of the house based on cultural precedence alone.

When the deep-rooted concept of saving face goes so far it means lying to your family I think there’s a problem. Because the lie can’t be kept forever. And even when the people close to you (or not close to you)  don’t let on, eventually they know. It’s devastating to watch since it lacks any of the normal benchmarks we use to measure devastation. It reveals just how matter-of-fact something like this can be. The response is a non-response.

I know full-well that these types of circumstances play out; I’m not sure if I buy every last bit of execution in Tokyo Sonata. It feels a little too contrived. And yet even in the things that feel too perfectly planned there’s no doubt some truth. How everyone in their own way is trying to pull something off behind everyone else’s back. There is distrust in every corner of the house. If even things that aren’t altogether bad are hidden, what about the ones that are catastrophic like losing your job or little dirty secrets like reading racy manga? Multiply that across an entire society and you can readily predict the unnerving implications.

It is a picture where everyone wants to wake up and find out that it is all a bad dream and it very well could be. This is Tokyo Sonata’s true departure from any pretense of the real world and in these moments while the film loses some integrity as a true-to-life drama it undoubtedly gains some inscrutability from visions of hallucinatory nightmares. At these crossroads, we see the clearest articulation of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s background in J-Horror.

But in the end, the darker mood gives way to the most subdued of crescendos born out of an unassuming performance of “Claire de Lune.” It’s one of the few moments of palpable warmth in the film and it embodies the incomparable magnetism that music has. I can’t think of a better way to salvage Tokyo Sonata. It’s a purposeful statement of not feeling the need to say anything directly. Impeccable for a culture such as this. Maybe it serves to only exacerbate the problem. But change is incremental. It will not happen overnight. This just might be a baby step toward a more personable future.

3.5/5 Stars

A Christmas Tale (2008)

achristmastaleposterThe initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. And she’s truly wonderful giving a shining, nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. But the same goes for her entire family. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is too sterile. Messy fits what they are. If you think your family is bad around the holidays, the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.

The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale, far from a tearful, sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.

And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the black sheep while the youngest, Ivan, was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.

Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.

But with Junon’s news she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet.

Underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of her own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra Mastroianni is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.

There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christma Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness is balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.

Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before but whether they are better for it is up for debate.

The sentimentality of a It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything — faith in their family is ludicrous — their world looks utterly hopeless. The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus) and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs.

Even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. But during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?

It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays.

But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family  — may be a lot like yours and mine — this film is an elightening exposé.

3.5/5 Stars

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost_famous_poster1Almost Famous is almost so many things. There are truly wonderful moments that channel certain aspects of our culture’s infatuation with rock n roll.

It’s easy to become entranced with the opening moments, not necessarily because we are introduced to William, his protective mother (Frances McDormand), or even his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) who looks to leave the nest behind to go off and find herself. To steal a line from Simon & Garfunkel, she goes off, “To look for America” and we can ride the wistful waves of Paul Simon’s lyrics to understand exactly what she means.  But she also leaves behind a gift for her little brother under his bed. It’s easy to surmise that it’s drugs, something to “expand his horizons” but instead it’s so much more. It’s what this entire film hinges on: Music.

And when he opens the treasure trove of records his sister bequeathed him this is an initial kairos moment that also manages to be one of the most magical in the film–one that leaves goosebumps from sheer recognition. He flips through the albums. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and on and on. Enough said. Each of these bands means so much to so many people as do some of these albums.

Almost Famous is at its best when it’s channeling those very things. Its soundtrack has the propitious fortune to include some authorized tracks from Led Zeppelin as well as Neil Young, David Bowie, and of course Elton John, his “Tiny Dancer” filling up the band’s bus with a chorus of voices in one of the most remembered sequences.

The film’s story is intriguing for the very fact that it has the potential to feel so personal in nature. It functions as a fictionalized autobiography of Cameron Crowe’s foray into rock journalism as a bit of a teenage prodigy from sunny San Diego who first wrote for Creem and then in the big leagues for Rolling Stone Magazine circa 1973.

That’s a narrative ripe with possibilities and anecdotes sure to pique the interest of anyone who loves music and there are certainly some of those moments. People jumping off rooftops into swimming pools their heads spinning on acid, tour buses crashing through gates to make a quick getaway from a horrible gig, and plane flights on the edge of death that elicit a long line of last-minute confessions.

But we are also reminded that life on the road is a grind, it can be dangerous too but more often than not it’s surprisingly dull. What happens to William (Patrick Fugit) is that he gets subjected to this life and far from changing, it simply changes how he sees these people. Ultimately, there’s a bit of disillusionment and alienation with getting that close to people you idolize. In many respects, he looks ridiculously out of place in this lifestyle of groupies, tour buses, backstage antics, sleazy hotel rooms, and sex, drugs, and rock n roll.  He’s too clean cut. Too much of a straight arrow. And that’s part of what’s interesting.

But while it’s easy to latch onto the trajectory of our character and care about his growth and maturity, the themes of Almost Famous feel muddled and not in a way that’s  enigmatic and mysterious. It just drops off at a certain point.

It’s almost transcendent, almost a masterstroke, almost captures our heart but it’s not quite there. Despite its best efforts it somehow still feels slightly removed from the moment it comes out of–a moment that now is easy to eulogize about as both electric and exciting in a way that the band Stillwater never is. Maybe that’s the point.

We can reiterate again and again that the music is phenomenal and while the situations had potential to be gripping they never quite reached that apex. Everything is quite satisfactory, it’s enjoyable watching this wide-eyed lad follow around this rock band, but there are moments when the film drags. Take the rock and roll out of these people and they aren’t altogether compelling. That might be an unfortunately cruel thing to say too.

But Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the famed rock critic repeatedly notes that rock is on the way out and this film seems to surmise as much. At times it doesn’t feel completely caught up in the throes of its time, it’s not caught up in the moment as if there’s this subconscious feeling that it will all come to an end.

On the reverse side, William lives life alongside some of these figures who are never truly all that magnetic or memorable whether Russell (Billy Crudup) or even the iconically named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). The name dropping and connections to others make them the most intriguing. Dinner with Dylan here, something from David Crosby there. Led Zeppelin fanboys, David Bowie’s manager, and so on and so forth. Those connections have cultural clout still but once again the fictional Stillwater were only almost famous. Their name whether in fiction or reality has been lost to time and there’s no aura to them. Because we have nothing to sink our teeth into.

Maybe it’s the very fact that the film does this so well that it feels unremarkable. It takes time on those who really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of rock ‘n roll when the critics and pundits got together to write the narrative that would be accepted for a historical fact from that point forward.

However, Almost Famous also takes a particular care to show what it was and still is to be a rock star in this kind of volatile lifestyle always on the road. The fame and applause are amplified but so in many ways are the heartbreaks and ultimately the scrutiny that can either make or break you.  There’s no privacy in the general sense. But that’s the point, as a rock star you give much of that up. The question is, what happens when you’re in the middle ground? You’re not quite there but the journalists are still looking for their story, digging through your music, life, and affairs. No one has ever desired to be Almost Famous because, in some cases, you get the worst of both worlds.

4/5 Stars

 

Mystic River (2003)

Mystic_River_posterWhen you enter into the world of a film you often expect it to be perfect in your own minds-eye, following your own rationale to a logical conclusion. In that sense, Mystic River is invariably imperfect in how it ties up all its loose ends, but then again, what film really can bear that weight — and it’s all subjective anyhow. Instead, Clint Eastwood’s Boston-set drama builds off a story about three young boys and evolves into an engaging police procedural intertwining the lives and events of these three individuals. But it all starts with a game of street hockey.

After losing their ball down a gutter drain, the three lads sign their names in a slab of wet cement, only to be accosted by a formidable man who won’t take their small act of defiance. He yells at the most unnerved of the three to pile into the backstreet of his tinted car. The boy thinks he’s off to the police station, but these men have far more traumatic intentions for him. It’s three days before young David flees into the woods like a spooked animal disappearing into the fog.

It’s a harrowing entry point of reference, that only makes sense after flashing forward to the present. The three boys are grown up. Dave, still hounded by his past, is married and raising his young son. Although work is hard to come by, they’re eking by.After a stint in prison and the death of his first wife, Jimmy is remarried, running a local convenience store. Sean is the straight-arrow of the bunch and became a cop.

As is the case with youth and childhood friendships, the ties that bind us together are often severed with the passing of time as people grow up and drift apart. But those formative years never leave us and when these three men are subsequently thrown back together, their past resurfaces.

One evening when Jimmy is in the backroom of his shop his daughter from his first marriage, the vivacious Katie gives him a goodnight kiss, as she is about to go out with friends. That same night Dave spies her partying at the local watering hole, but before he goes home he gets into an altercation with a mugger — at least that’s what he tells his wife. Except the next morning, Sean is assigned to a local crime scene along with his colleague (Laurence Fishburne), and it looks to be a grisly ordeal.

From thence forward, the seeds of doubt begin to spring up in our minds. What did Dave really do? Who killed this girl full of life and exuberance? Jimmy wants to know those exact same answers, and he’s welling up with bitterness and discontent. Sean walks this fine line of doing his duty and treading lightly on this man he used to know well and now is practically a stranger. Meanwhile, Dave lives his apathetic little life, looking to obfuscate what happened that night with the help of his fearful wife.

But of course, when Jimmy catches wind of what Dave did, he puts two and two together and comes to his own convenient conclusions. He wants justice after all. Even when Sean and Whitey make crucial discoveries of their own, it’s too late to stop the wheels from turning. Jimmy’s mind is already made up.

To his credit, Brian Helgeland’s script adeptly keeps all its arcs afloat, crisscrossing in such a way that leads to more and more questions, because there’s ever a hint of ambiguity. Nothing is quite spelled out and that’s paying respect to the viewer. However, there are moments where Mystic River enters unbelievable or even illogical territory, near its conclusion. Still, that does not take away from its overall strengths as a magnetic character study and gripping procedural. Tim Robbins and Sean Penn especially give stellar turns, the first as a frightened and mentally distressed man, the other as a hardened ex-con with vigilante tendencies. The fact that each character is grounded by their families is a crucial piece of the storyline, tying them all together.

4/5 Stars

Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia2002Poster“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill somebody.” – Robin Williams as Walter Finch

As I come to understand it, calling Christopher Nolan’s film a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgaard is not exactly fair. As a director with a singular artistic vision of his own, it’s only fair to say his thriller set in the icy outskirts of an Alaskan fishing village is a re-imagining of the material.

His tale follows a jaded sage of an L.A. cop who comes with his partner on a reassignment, but Dormer (Al Pacino) is also running away from something — something that undoubtedly has major repercussions on not only his life but the case he is about to be met with.

Getting acclimated to Nightmute is no easy task. The town is quiet and the local police are nice enough, including Bill’s old buddy and the overly zealous but industrious rookie Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). To her, the estimable Will Dormer is a legend, the man you only read about in case files, not actually witness in person. She holds that kind of awe for him, but he just takes it in stride as he and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) go about their business

Worst of all is the perpetual daylight. It’s something we take for granted, but in this story, the sun never truly sets. It’s always there. There’s no relief and, in a sense, it haunts Dormer. He struggles to sleep, he struggles when he is awake, because he hasn’t been able to sleep, and then the title Insomnia begins to make so much sense. It’s perpetuated to the extent that we begin to feel its effects on us as an audience. The story wears us down, making us into jaded individuals like Dormer (strikingly close to Dormir) and the fact that Al Pacino half-whispers his dialogue with his methodical delivery only aggravates the situation. Our vision is clouded just as much as his.

Set pieces are relatively few, but they are used to great effect. The ones that come to mind are a chase that ensues in the thick Alaskan fog, where the pursuer all too quickly becomes the helpless victim, the paranoia leading to a lapse of judgment. Another equally gripping chase sequence takes place over floating logs and that’s the first time we actually catch a glimpse of  Walter Finch (Robin Williams).

Otherwise, Insomnia is all about the mind games, as fatigue sets in and Dormer must reconcile all he knows and does. Maybe his lapse of judgment was really his innate desire, but the dividing lines are blurring.

Moral ambiguity becomes of great interest because in some ways our main players really are not all that different. Dormer has sidestepped protocol in order for his brand of justice can be enacted — the justice he thinks the people want. And he may be right, but there are consequences for any act and he quickly learns what that means for him.

By the end, we hardly know who is in the right and I think Dormer is as confused as us — or otherwise, he’s just too exhausted by this point to care either way. Robin Williams gives a surprisingly chilling and generally subdued performance. He is our villain in the general sense, but his villain looks suspiciously like a twisted, sick little man. Perhaps a far scarier reality.

Insomnia is the story of Will Dormer and Walter Finch getting twisted up in knots, and in both cases, each man loses a little more of their sanity. It’s in the film’s climactic moments that Ellie must make a choice, and Will implores her to make the right one. She’s the purest, most innocent character in this narrative, and if she falters then there is little hope. But Will succeeds in protecting the last shred of decency that still exists. A small victory, given his circumstances, but a victory nonetheless.

4/5 Stars

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

larsandtherealgirl1

This Canadian-American production, written by Nancy Oliver, undoubtedly frightens the more suppressed of us in the audience (mainly me) with its main hook, a man who begins a relationship with a female sex doll, but just like his entire town, most of us leave this film with a very different perspective. There’s an innate somberness to this film that hearkens to the palette and tone of Alexander Payne, and yet Lars and the Real Girl feels surprisingly innocent. The beauty of the film is how an entire community gets behind this one man and truly accepts him for who he is.

Lars Lindstrom as played so impeccably by Ryan Gosling is an isolated, lonely young man who goes to church on Sundays, lives across from his brother and sister-in-law, and avoids the cute girl at work with averted eyes. He’s an Elwood P. Dowd for the modern age. He trades in a disarming personality for an aloofness that conceals a deep well of loneliness and nevertheless shies away from normal everyday human interaction.

His views of sexuality and intimacy have been in many ways twisted up inside of him due to the specters in his past and a modern culture that does not know how to deal with sex by normal means. For Lars, it manifests itself in the form of a doll he buys off the internet. But far from using it to gratify his utmost desires sexually as we would expect, what he really does is project what he truly cares about onto this figure, christened Bianca.

She wears clothes like you and me, holds a nursing degree, lived the life of a missionary, and is constrained to a wheelchair, relaying all her thoughts to Lars and Lars alone. Harvey was an imaginary being whereas Bianca is tangible–in the flesh–sort of.

At first, this situation feels slightly uncomfortable and increasingly strange and in the moments of discovery Lars’s brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) are beside themselves. What will the town think? He’s crazy. What are they to do?

But the beautiful thing is that they seek counsel from older, wiser people in the community including the local minister and they preach a message of love, accepting Lars for who he is, and helping him through his healing process, whatever that means.

Everyone else only sees the freak, the dysfunction, but they fail to see the dysfunction in their own lives. It’s the ones who realize that–realize that they too have their own problems. They shed their hypocritical point of view and take Lars for who he is, quirks and all. By this point, the film has subverted expectations and the joke’s on us because although some people stop and gawk, the majority of the locals begin to rally around Lars.

He still maintains his delusions as his own insecurities, fears, and the dark recesses of his childhood become more evident. He’s fearful of contact, scared of being close, and it’s these moments that dredge up all the FOO, and he’s forced to deal with it.  But that makes way for some intricate conversations, brother to brother and between Lars and the kindly psychologist Dagmar.

It’s when he finally realizes just how much people care, that he’s able to let go. Give up Bianca and engross himself in the real world with a real girl. He doesn’t have to live life scared anymore. The film wins because of its sincerity. It never belittles. Never plays its story like a joke. For that, it deserves our respect as an audience. Even in the moments that it feels utterly absurd, pay it the respect it is due — just like what all these characters give to Bianca and in turn Lars.

What struck me in particular, was the nuance of all the main female characters. When we first meet Karin (Emily Mortimer) she is a generally caring sister-in-law who has such a great capacity to extend grace towards Lars. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), although she is a doctor, never becomes didactic–trying to change Lars or alter him– instead allowing him to heal of his own accord. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty) is spot on as the Christian lady we all wish we knew. She cuts the holier than thou attitude, covering it with a heavy dose of genuine neighborly love. That speaks more than any amount of sermons or platitudes that can be spouted off as actions invariably speak louder than words.

Finally, Margo (Kelli Garner) is the epitome of the girl who Lars deserves. Sweet, authentic and a faithful friend. When Lars let’s go and concludes the grieving process, she is right by his side ready to live life next to him. She’s a real girl, through and through.

3.5/5 Stars

Finding Neverland (2004)

FindingneverlandposterPeter Pan was immortalized by Disney in 1953, but as with many of the great fairy tales that they have adapted, it’s easy to forget that there was an earlier spark. These stories do not begin and end with Disney. They have a far more complex origin story and ensuing history. So it goes with J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Finding Neverland has a satisfactory periodness that reflects a bygone era neatly and without much-added schmaltz. Johnny Depp turns out to be thoroughly charismatic as 19th-century writer J.M Barrie, the mastermind behind Peter, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, and all the rest. But this is really the story about his inspiration for the fairy tale that defined his career.

Kate Winslet is a wonderfully benevolent free spirit who single-handedly raises a family of four boys. Her mother (Julie Christie) is a brusque rather domineering lady, but Barrie is still drawn to this family because they awaken his own imagination.

The film allows itself to be whisked away into glorious worlds, dreamscapes out of the minds of children with the wildest of imaginations, but it continually remains grounded in the story of these people: A writer, a lady, and her sons. It conjures up the fantastical whimsy of Tim Burton’s Big Fish while preceding similar narratives like Saving Mr. Banks rather effortlessly.

There, of course, are the expected difficulties. His latest play backed by the wealthy money bags Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) was a monumental flop and neither one of them can afford another such showing. Barrie also has trouble connecting with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and they slowly drift farther and farther apart right in front of each other’s eyes. They know it’s happening and still there’s very little they can do. Meanwhile, Sylvia Llewan Davies comes down with a sickness that she refuses to accept treatment for, but it becomes completely debilitating. Continually Barrie’s home life and personal relationships are intersecting and butting up against this world that he has created: Neverland

But the night of the big opening of his play arrives with much anticipation. There’s the normal stuffy crowd until a crowd of orphan children files into the performance, on Barrie’s doing. Because in some ways, they are the best critics. They know what they like and they are not afraid to show their approval or their derision for that matter. Their laughter spreads throughout the great hall and the show winds up a monumental success.

However, perhaps more importantly, the film has some final wisdom to dole out to anyone willing to take the time to be still and listen. Even if time is chasing after all of us like the famous ticking crocodile, that doesn’t mean we have to grow up too fast or leave behind the wonderment of youth. There’s still so much to see if only we had the eyes to see them. The clear, credulous eyes of a child. That’s some of what Peter Pan taps into as with all timeless children stories. Because they aren’t really children stories at all, but tales that touch each and every one of us through life and even in death. Finding Neverland remains a fitting reminder of that. Each person needs hope in something greater. It’s finding that thing which is paramount to every existence.

3.5/5 Stars