Lost in Translation (2003)
This mid-decade hit examined the type of moment or experience that happens in real life — one that, once it's over, hasn't changed anything dramatically, but leaves you feeling different, or perhaps older. Whether this makes for exciting cinema is up to the viewer. Critics said "yes," emphatically, my parents said "no." I say "sort of." Director Sofia Coppola lets atmosphere and (actors, of course) do all the talking. Her camera stays out of the way, mostly moving slowly and occasionally lingering on an interesting image or reflection, which is probably a wise choice as the alien city of Tokyo is the third lead in the film, after Bill Murray and Scarlet Johanson. Murray plays a depressed actor filming a whiskey commercial in Japan. He doesn't know the language or anyone in Tokyo, and he spends his nights drinking and smoking in the four-star hotel's lounge. His stagnation is eventually interrupted by another bored westerner, Scarlet Johanson, a recent Ivy-league grad stranded in the same hotel while her photographer husband is off on a magazine photo-shoot. The two form a platonic relationship initially based on a shared sense of empty isolation, but the two manage to go out and have fun despite their solemn neurosis, and of course, learn a thing or two from each other. At times, Johanson's seeming unwillingness to just explore the goddamn city on her own can be infuriating. You're young. You're beautiful, you are in a crazy fucking landscape. Go do something. Eventually she does, it just takes a man delving headfirst in a midlife crises to get her there. Lost in Translation is not all doom and gloom. Murray's genius for physical comedy and wry interaction with the locals provides relief through the film's first half. The culture clash is interesting in it's own right, and the film has just enough character development and subtle detail to substitute for plot. B
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell hard (2009)
The Goods only gets away with its overly-familiar "slobs vs snobs" plot-arc because of its farcical self-awareness and admittance of only one aspiration — crossing the line as often as possible. It even has the arbitrary challenge the slobs must meet in order to save their dying (golf club, workout gym, fraternity, etc) car lot from the mean rich guys next door. It essentially just lets the starved plot lay there, like a foster kid adopted as a scheme for tax breaks, except here the tax breaks are fart and dick jokes, told by some of the better comedic actors available. As Jeremy Piven, the mercenary car salesman brought into save the dealership, says "Don't over think it."
Ed Helms has a ball playing an asshole in a "$40 hair cut" who manages the BMW dealership across town who is also in a has-been boy ban that once opened for O-Town.
There are some laugh-out-loud jokes, plenty of gags that arrive DOA — but also enough don't-give-a-fuck attitude to at least warrant a rental for anyone looking for a funny dumb time. (Cue joke about the movie getting "pushed off the lot," not buying a "lemon," etc). C+
The Stepfather (1987)
This B-movie horror classic was stripped of all its subtext and intrigue for a Hollywood remake this year, but the original still packs a bloody punch. Terry O'Quinn (Lost's John Locke) plays Jerry Blake, a Reagan-era man with punishable-by-death expectations for his family unit. The film begins with Blake shaving off his latest disguise — a full-on '80s beard — grabbing his briefcase, walking down the stairs past his dismembered family, and off to work, whistling as he walks.
The next scene finds him settling in with his new family several months later, a widow smitten by Blake's earnest charm and strong family values, and her trouble-making daughter who knows right away that there's something wrong with Blake. For the rest of the film, we see him creep closer to the edge of revisiting mass murder, and bump off a few townspeople along the way as he prepares to find a new family that might not be so damn disappointing. B+
This off-beat superhero flick flopped on the heals of Batman, but has since received a slowly growing cult of admiration. It was director Sam Raimi's (Spiderman, Drag Me to Hell) first foray into big-budget Hollywood after his Evil Dead success in the '80s. Raimi's slapstick-horror sensibilities often work well in the superhero universe (a universe with origins in brightly-colored comic books), and often cause a sense of unease when paired with the bloody emotions central to the film. His original story follows a scientist (Liam Neeson) who uses a prototype technology to reconstruct his face after a horrific fire. The only catch is the artificial skin disintegrates in light after 90 minutes. Neeson slowly uses several different faces to exact revenge on the crime syndicate that caused his disfigurement. It is a film ahead of it's time: an R-rated superhero dusted in melancholy and (true to it's name) darkness. Darkman is highly entertaining, occasionally cheesy in that special Raimi way, but always original. B- (also watch for a great surprise cameo from Bruce Campbell at the end)