Two truly excellent movies out now: AMERICAN SPLENDOR and LOST IN TRANSLATION

Note: There are no significant spoilers in the below; what I’ve written is safe to read if you haven’t seen the movies. I’m happy to discuss plot details in followup messages, but please use spoiler boxes. Thanks.

This is for everybody who laments the sad state of the movie industry, and who complains that there’s never anything worth seeing because everything always sucks. There are two films currently in cinemas that demand your attention.

(Before I continue, though, if you complain simply because you like to complain, and if you will avoid going to the movies I’m recommending because you don’t want to see anything that would undercut your ability to complain, well, you might as well stop reading right now. :p)

The first movie, American Splendor, has been out for a couple of weeks, after a very successful festival tour. It’s something of a story-of-a-man’s-life biography, borrowing the title and much of the content of Harvey Pekar’s legendary underground autobiographical comic. It boasts remarkable lead performances from Paul Giamatti as Harvey and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce, and is funny and warm and cynical and smart.

But it’s more than just a biopic. It blends together realities, using Harvey himself as a narrator, and occasional on-screen commentator. In fact, there are at least five different layers of presentation for the Harvey character: the real Harvey, Giamatti as Harvey, still frames from Harvey’s comic, animation based on the comic artwork, and a play-within-the-movie where Giamatti-as-Harvey sits in a theater audience and watches another actor playing Harvey on stage in a production based on the comic.

The film is a remarkably inventive and enormously entertaining meditation on the difficulty and complexity of trying to render any true and actual person in a storytelling medium. We see Harvey working to capture the minutiae of his own existence in his comic, and then the movie cleverly begins blending these same questions and issues into its own presentation. And the great part is, the movie’s complexities of theme are so neatly worked into the story, and explored with such wit, that you don’t feel like you’re watching a difficult movie; it’s wonderfully entertaining on the level of pure comedy.

The performances are astonishing. Giamatti has an unconventional look and energy, and he’s made a career as the second banana (a bit part in Saving Private Ryan, Pig Vomit in the Howard Stern movie, the orangutan in Planet of the Apes, Bob Zmuda in the Andy Kaufman movie Man on the Moon, and so forth), but here he rises to the challenge. He recognizes, I think, the way the movie is designed to work, exploring Harvey Pekar from a variety of angles, and this frees him from the restriction of the one-dimensional performance so favored in Hollywood these days. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s prickly, he’s short-tempered, his hygiene sucks, he’s sometimes obnoxious and off-putting; it’s great work. And as his wife, Hope Davis meets him step for step, giving us a living, breathing person, loving and supportive and simultaneously neurotic and selfish.

American Splendor will be one of the best films of the year. Go see it.

The other movie just opened Friday in limited release (expansion depends on performance), and is called ***Lost in Translation.*** It’s the second feature film from Sofia Coppola (after The Virgin Suicides), and tells a story that is both superficially simple and emotionally complicated. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a big American movie star brought to Japan for a few days for a lucrative product endorsement deal. Jet-lagged and out of sorts, he skulks the hotel, and runs into Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, another American visitor who’s at loose ends because her photographer husband is neglecting her in favor of his work. They recognize in each other a kindred spirit, and slowly begin to bond amid the disorienting confusion of a strange foreign city.

That’s the whole story, really: how these two people, who would not otherwise have met, unexpectedly make a connection under less-than-ideal circumstances. Sure, there are a few side plots, as we see the chaos outside the relationship that helps drive the two together. There’s a screamingly funny scene, for example, wherein Bob is doing a photo shoot for the product, and resorts to making subtle fun of himself and the incomprehensible Japanese crew just to keep from losing his sanity; likewise, Charlotte grits her teeth and feigns interest as a horrifyingly obnoxious and self-centered friend of her husband’s, an American actress played hilariously by Anna Faris (from Scary Movie), blathers on about “power cleansing.” But really, the main story in the film is just about these two people coming together.

And yet, that’s all we need. In watching Lost in Translation, we start to recognize how most movies shortchange us in the relationship department, as they rush ahead to get to the Plot about serial killers or mafia hits or microfilm or alien invasions or casino robberies or whatever. Writer/director Coppola shows, almost effortlessly, that a whole movie can be built around the small, subtle details in how the connection between two people is initiated, how it grows and evolves and what it turns into over time.

For example: There’s a scene late in the movie where Bob and Charlotte are lying on a bed, talking. It’s not sexual, because they’re just friends; and yet it is sexual, because they’re so unhappy with their regular lives and have recognized in each other a possible soul mate despite the radical age difference and other things that separate them. Neither of them wants to break the spell, shatter the magic of their exciting new friendship, but at the same time they ache with the possibility represented by this new person in their lives. And then, as they talk, near the edge of the frame, Bob angles his wrist, moving his hand just a couple of inches, and touches her foot with his fingertips. It’s a tiny gesture, but it’s huge, too, and Coppola very wisely doesn’t make too much out of it; she doesn’t go to a closeup, she doesn’t insert a music cue, she doesn’t underline it in any way: she just lets it happen, and she lets us notice. It’s truly beautiful.

Coppola benefits from a magnificent performance by Bill Murray, who now officially has the most interesting face in film acting. He’s as funny as you’d expect; the comedy chops haven’t faded. But what he brings is an undercurrent of sadness, something he’s been exploring in Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums but which finds full fruition for the first time here. The amazing thing is just how much he can convey with the tiniest expression, the most minimal gesture; you laugh when he mocks the ridiculous director of the TV commercial he’s there to shoot, but at the same time your heart breaks because underneath the humor you can see how much he hates what he’s doing, and in fact how much he hates himself for what his life has become.

And right there with him is Scarlett Johansson, who as the younger half of the pair has the trickier role. By design, her character is unformed; Charlotte is a recent college grad, and due to her husband’s success she hasn’t had to figure out who she is yet. She doesn’t have any touchstones, any serious decisions or commitments with which to anchor herself, with the exception of her marriage, which isn’t at all what she thought it would be. She knows she wants to be somebody, but she doesn’t know who that is. It would be very easy to overlook Johansson’s subtle work here, to be blinded by Murray’s star power, but don’t make that mistake: The movie works as well as it does because she’s holding up her half of the relationship.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends, because the magic of the movie is how emotionally invested you’ve become by the last few minutes. Because of the age gap and the other complications in their lives, a romance between these two people would be enormously problematic, and yet you ache for them to break through those barriers and make it work anyway. All I’ll say is that the movie handles this with absolute perfection through the final frames, and when it’s over, you will say to yourself, Yes, that was absolutely right.

So: Don’t be distracted by the incessant advertising for crap like Dickie Roberts and The Order and Jeepers Creepers II. Don’t waste your time with well-intentioned but essentially innocuous work like Open Range or Underworld or Duplex. There really are excellent movies out there, if you care to look for them. Two of them are described above, and should not be missed. Partly it’s so you can enjoy truly wonderful filmmaking, and partly it’s to support good work so the film industry gives us more of it. If all of your box-office dollars this summer went to Tomb Raider 2 and Bad Boys 2 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, well, then, you have no right to complain about Hollywood crap. You voted with your wallet, and Hollywood listened. Coming soon: The A-Team Movie. :rolleyes:

Oh, and by the way, Secondhand Lions opens soon. That’s another one whose buzz suggests it should be sought out amid the deafening roar surrounding the higher-profile releases. It’s directed by the guy who wrote The Iron Giant, if that’s any indication of its pedigree.

Well said. American Splendor is a movie that all should see, and not because it’s based on a comic book.

And if you don’t, well, I’ve never understood why in music threads posters are always boasting of their love for bands so obscure that the notes haven’t faded from their amplifiers, but in movie threads the favorite films are always the most empty-headed, effects-laden Hollywood swill. (Yes, I am talking about Matrix Reloaded. - the N’Sync of movies.)

Why don’t posters here seek out, talk about, and appreciate independent, foreign, and art films the way they seek out, talk about, and appreciate independent, foreign, and art music?

Great point, Exapno - in my case, it is because we have two kids, ages 5 and 3 - going to the movies is a big deal. I want to see both movies, but am probably going to wait until they are out on DVD…

I saw American Splendor earlier this week, my friend and I were the only ones in the theatre. I agree with what both Exapno Mapcase and Cervaise have to say about the movie, I’d like to particularly stress the subtlety of the film. I thought all of the cycnicism and wit shown throughout the movie was not heavy-handed, and the laughs I had were quite genuine, especially as they weren’t held down by a large doe-eyed, bovine audience. Unfortunately, I highly doubt it will get the recognition it deserves, especially among mass audiences, it is destined to stay a small, cult flick.

I haven’t seen (or heard of for that matter) Lost in Translation, but I’ll be sure to check it out, thanks for the heads up!

I’ll tell you why I haven’t gone to see these films … because they’re not playing in my area, dagnabit!

Thanks, Cervaise! Both of these are playing at my local CineArts so I will take the gf to see Lost sometime this week, it sounds like it’s a great movie.
I still want to see Underworld, if only to gnash my teeth at what might have been. When I first saw it I thought someone had taked Neil Gaimans’ Neverwhere and done it right. Heh, not bloody likely.

I’ve heard good things about both these movies. We don’t go out much, but I’ll probably see them sooner or later.

And I’ve always been fond of Bill Murray. It’ll be good to see him in something new.

I agree with everything about American Splendor. I don’t know if I’ll see Lost in Translation in the theater; I hated, hated hated The Virgin Suicides, so I may wait for the DVD of that one.

Another great movie that just came out is Matchstick Men. The ending was kinda sappy though.

I liked American Splendor fine, although I seem to like it less than just about everyone else I talk to. I thought Hope Davis, who I usually like quite a bit – like in Secret Lives of Dentists, another good movie that’s probably no longer playing in a theater near you – relied too much on her stringy black wig and oversized glasses. And I wasn’t impressed by how they handled the Letterman sequences, especially the final one. But it’s a very good movie.

Lost in Translation I loved, loved, loved. (And, friedo, I wasn’t a big fan of Virgin Suicides, so there may be hope for you.) Coppola, her cinematographer Lane Acord, Murray and Johansson all capture the loneliness and bittersweet reverie just perfectly. The scene Cervaise describes is excellent, although my favorite sequence involves a visit to a karaoke bar (which isn’t nearly as cliched as it sounds) and the cab ride home afterwards, as My Bloody Valentine’s “Sooner” plays in the background. (Coppola handles her soundtrack superbly.)

I second Cervaise’s recommendation of both films, Translation especially so.

For what it’s worth, I saw Lost in Translation with my wife and her friend, and they both loved it. And they don’t have tremendous patience for indulgent art-house movies, either; after we saw Rushmore, for example, I immediately said, “I loved it!” and my wife’s friend said, “Why?” So if Lost in Translation worked for both them and me, you know it’s really got something to offer.

Excellent question. In thinking back over Lost in Translation, as the movie I’ve seen more recently (though I’m planning on going to American Splendor again sometime this week), the thing that really strikes me is how adult it is. And I’m not using “adult” in the sense of “pornographic,” either. (Sad, isn’t it, how in modern parlance “adult” has almost the opposite connotation, referring almost exclusively to puerile vulgarity that appeals mostly to surreptitious youths with sweaty palms.)

No, I mean that the story, the emotional sensibility of the film, is really for grown-ups, which contrasts greatly with the average Hollywood movie that’s designed to be understood by an eleven-year-old. In Lost in Translation, there are no easy answers, no obvious right or wrong choices; everything has risks and consequences. It’s the kind of story we’ve almost forgotten how to watch. I’m sure some people will be frustrated, because the movie doesn’t take the simple path: “Is that the good guy or the bad guy? Do they or don’t they get together? What does he whisper in her ear at the end? Man, I hated that movie, because it didn’t tell me what to think or how to feel about it.”

This is exactly the sort of movie people above the age of thirty don’t know they’re missing. They’ve learned that they never see their lives, their concerns and their confusions along with their small joys and triumphs, accurately reflected on screen, so they never bother to go to the movies any more. Lost in Translation is a movie about adults, for adults, in the best possible sense of the word. And as slight and diaphonous as it initially appears, as much as it seems like a weightless bit of tissue that isn’t about much at all, it’s really sticking with me; I can’t get it out of my mind. On the drive to work this morning, I was mulling over the film, and a secondary interpretation of the title came to mind, one that brings certain aspects of the story into clearer focus.

So maybe that’s why people don’t seek out movies like this, Exapno — because it can’t be immediately categorized and pigeonholed. Something like the Matrix sequel, you either had fun or you didn’t (I didn’t), and then you don’t have to think about it ever again because it has no relevance to anyone’s life. That’s the definition of escapism, right? By contrast, in Lost in Translation (and in American Splendor, too), there’s a risk that you’ll recognize yourself, that you’ll have part of your own psychology or emotional makeup reflected to yourself in a way that might — oh, no! — make you briefly uncomfortable and cause you to think about the place you’re making in the world. Can’t have that, now, can we?

And, sadly, the mere handful of responses to this thread is perhaps an indication of the lack of interest this kind of movie generates for the average filmgoer. :frowning:

Oh, and on preview:

[spoiler]I thought the use of actual archival footage was genius; it adds yet another level to the incarnations-of-Harvey theme of the movie. Up to that point, we see Giamatti-as-Harvey in the “fiction” sequences, while Harvey appears in sort of a “documentary” style, narrating for the audience and occasionally being interviewed on camera. And then to have the character walk off camera as Giamatti and come back on as Harvey? Brilliant. First time I saw the movie, I got goose bumps at that point.

And re the last one, Letterman wouldn’t give them permission to use the video of the final appearance. Everything else, yes, but that last show (which never aired), no. The filmmakers got to look at it so they know what happened, but they couldn’t use the tape in the film. What’s in the movie is kind of a compromise, and I agree, it isn’t as good as it could have been. But for a necessary moment, they did the best they could.[/spoiler]

That was my guess about why they didn’t use footage of the last Letterman appearance – and I wish, given that they didn’t have permission, that they’d either redone the appearances with Giamatti as Pekar, or made the lack of permission more of a point within the film. The result is, to my eyes, too obvious and drastic a compromise. I suppose if I’d been as impressed by the Letterman sequences’ extra layer of “truth” within the fiction as you were, I’d be happier with the way they play out.

Truth be told, though, my reservations are pretty minor. I really liked the movie. One of the best sequences is Joyce’s arrival at the bus station, where she sees a variety of Harveys as drawn by various artists.

Also, I loved James Urbaniak as R. Crumb.

Cervaise , excellent reviews. I’ve seen both movies, and I agree.

Funny, because I went to see Lost In Translation because of Bill Murray, and though he was amazing/wonderful/Oscar-worthy, the whole movie touched me, and the Bill Murray I had gone to see (the What About Bob? guy, wasn’t even there. Superbly acted.

Can’t wait for Secondhand Lions.

And just a nod to Dickie Roberts, which I thought was fine on its own merits as well…

Yet another pair of movies that I have been dying to see ever since I saw the trailers at Quicktime, yet never seem to play at the local theaters. You’d think with 14-16 screens, there’d be plenty of room in the small theaters for smaller films like these and Whale Rider, but no, it’s either blockbusters in their fifth week that have been bumped from the big theaters or the blockbusters themselves playing on a fifth screen in their first week of release. Hell, I’d be happy with alternating showings of smaller films in a single theater.

As it stands, it looks like another 3 hour drive to the nearest theater that shows movies like this, which bizarrely happens to be a big multiplex that uses the smaller theaters for independent, foreign, and art house movies.

I just can’t understand how something like Spy Kids 3d rates a fifth or sixth week while American Splendor doesn’t rate an opening week showing.

I loved American Splendor. I’d only be echoing earlier posts by going into detail. But there was one thing about that really bugged me.

Spoiler (I can’t figure out how to do the dark box thing):
The guy who played R. Crumb got it all wrong. In Splendor he was too confident compared with the real Robert we saw in the movie Crumb, a neurotic sociopath.

Thanks for the conirmation re

the tape of the final Letterman show. Oh how I wish he had just let them use it!

I heartily agree with everything said about American Splendor. I wish it was on DVD right now, I feel like watching it over and over again.

Loved, loved, loved American Splendor. My small indie theater (Tower, Sacramento) was about half-full and the audience applauded when the movie was over. That’s a reaction I don’t often see. Brilliant movie; brilliant acting.

I’ll definitely be looking for both movies around here… unfortunately, I don’t exactly live in the movie capital of the world, so I’ll have to look hard.

One item in particular: it’s nice to see Bill Murray in a dramatic role again. He’s a fine actor, and I’ve thought so ever since his version of The Razor’s Edge, which was stunningly good.

Yes, I agree with Cervaise about both movies. I’d been wanting to see American Splendor since it played at Sundance and got great reviews, but Lost In Translation snuck up on me. After The Virgin Suicides, which I loved, Sofia Coppola was on my “Interested in Seeing What She Does Next” list. Still, I didn’t know what she was working on and wasn’t specifically keeping up with her career. I heard about the movie just a couple of weeks before it opened. Now, after Lost In Translation, she’s on my “Will See Anything She Does, Opening Day” list and I’ll be constantly on the lookout for information about What’s Next. I hope she has a very prolific career.

Thank you for writing about my favorite scene in the film. It was beautiful.

I did like Open Range. I though it was an odd and unusual Western, nothing at all like I expected. It was very thoughtful and honest about the violence.

I’m also a huge Matrix fan, and I see nothing strange about liking such different types of films as The Matrix and Lost In Translation.

I’m looking forward to Secondhand Lions too.

I saw Lost in Translation last night and can’t add anything to Cervaise’s excellent, eloquent review except to say I agree completely. This has become one of my favorite movies, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Huge thumbs up for Lost in Translation, which is easily the best movie I’ve seen this year. Very few movies ever get human relationships right. This one does.

Plus, it opens with a lingering shot of Scarlett Johannson’s butt in semi-translucent panties, and that alone is worth the price of admission. :smiley:

[sub]Hey, I can say that now that she’s 18, right?[/sub]