Critical Projection

The Missing: Suspense on the Frontier

By Jules Brenner on Dec 1, 2003 - 1:52:00 PM
CRITICAL PROJECTION: A horrendous kidnapping; a mother's determination, an errant father's return, and a soulless Apache monster.

  The Cooler: Profitably Frigid

By Jules Brenner on Nov 1, 2003 - 7:25:00 PM
Casino dampening has its virtues. If this story about the management of a Las Vegas casino doesn't attract a wide audience, a breakthrough performance in it should turn the trick. This is a case of an exquisitely promising actress finally given the chance at a role that's a perfect fit and running with it.

Wonderland: Unsolved Canyon Murder Mystery

By Jules Brenner on Oct 1, 2003 - 11:45:00 AM

  Dirty Pretty Things: A Threatening Refuge

By Jules Brenner on Aug 1, 2003 - 1:10:00 PM
CRITICAL PROJECTION: In the underworld life of Dirty, Pretty Things, humiliation and horror come at you in stages.

Alex & Emma: A Writer Unblocks

By Jules Brenner on Jul 1, 2003 - 11:15:00 PM
CRITICAL PROJECTION: Surrounded by action films galore, Alex and Emma provides a romantic alternative that will entertain a receptive audience.

  "The Italian Job", A Caper on Wheels

By Jules Brenner on Jun 1, 2003 - 5:09:00 PM
CRITICAL PROJECTION:  Fasten your seatbelts for the high octane caper "The Italian Job".  Read Jules' review here!

Owning Mahowny

By Jules Brenner on May 1, 2003 - 3:04:00 PM
CRITICAL PROJECTION:  Canyon News is delighted to welcome Jules Brenner to the writing staff this month.  Read his review of the new Philip Seymour Hoffman movie"Owning Mahowny" here.

  Wonderland: Unsolved Canyon Murder Mystery

By Jules Brenner on Oct 1, 2002 - 2:50:00 PM
CRITICAL PROJECTION: It happened here. Here, where we live, on a tributary street off Laurel Canyon, where one of the most grisly scenes of gangland multiple homicide took place.

Director: James Cox
Producer(s): Holly Wiersma, Michael Paseornek
Screenwriter(s): James Cox & Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz & D. Loriston Scott
Stars: Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Eric Bogosian, Lisa Kudrow, Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas Cinematographer: Michael Grady
MPAA Rating: R
Release: October 4, 2003
Running time: 104 Minutes

Perhaps it's like every good sized town, but Los Angeles has had its unexplained murder mysteries that have persisted in the mass memory for decades, cases like the "Black Dahlia"; like the "Wonderland Murders." It's the unsolved ones that last, that are always newsworthy, that cause moviemakers to think they can reveal the truth when the evidence and the testimony doesn't. Well, sometimes a common sense explanation based on what is known makes for compelling drama. This film is one of those.

What's more, it's put together with all the surface grit and underworld vulgarity the subject matter calls for, with a
superb cast of professionals doing their colorful utmost to make it vivid. They succeed. It hits you like a ton of dope.

The incident revolves around two people "in the game." Johnny Holmes (Val Kilmer) gained notoriety and fame in the porno world through the late sixties and seventies because of his outsized physical dimensions. It sure wasn't because of his acting ability that he ruled this shadowy world under his screen personna, "Johnny Wadd." But by the beginning of the eighties that sub-industry was turning to other leading men. The Holmes mystique had worn down to old glamour, though the fascination for his attributes followed him everywhere in his drug-infested world.

A very big player in that world was the notorious drug kingpin fronting as a nightclub owner, Eddie Nash aka Adel Nasrallah (Eric Bogosian), who took a liking to Johnny and invited him to hang in his pad on Wonderland Avenue. The kingpin and the porn king became buddies, though Johnnie had his own circle of gangster friends. The pornography star became a conduit between clusters of criminals.

Leading that other troupe of Holmes associates and marked for a limited life were Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), David Lind (Dylan McDermott), and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson). They were criminals who did anything to turn a buck and pay for their habits, never anticipating that gang-to-gang betrayal would make them the ultimate victims of a grizzly lead-pipe attack that filled headlines but has defied full exposure ever since.

According to this account, the emotional side of Holmes' life was filled by lover Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth) and wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), even as he was under constant pressure by police investigators Captain Nimzaki (Chris Ellis) and Detective Louis Cruz (Franky G.) who knew he was the key to explaining how it all went down. The big question for law enforcement is, was he there when it happened or did he just set it up and step out of the way? Holmes was street smart enough to avoid implicating himself, hence the mystery. The only gang-intimate who knows the how and the why is prevented from telling by his selfish desire to remain alive and free. The fact is, Eddie Nash is still out there.

Director and co-writer James Cox (Highway), in collaboration with co-writer Captain Mauzner, pulls off a "Rashomon" caper, having the participants give their versions of the story in contradictory sequencing, allowing us to evaluate the various versions as the cops and the courts have done before them. With the romantic element between Holmes and his women, presented as a major element of his otherwise tawdry and notorious life, the†exposť suggested here is a balanced, fast-paced look into the deplorable creeps who inhabit this netherworld where no one and nothing can be trusted or taken at relaxed, face value. If it weren't so nicely dramatized, polite society would want to look away.

Cox uses cinematographer Michael Grady's darkly abrasive footage for edgy cinematic devices to help convey time twists and character slants. Film editor Jeff McEvoy's quick 5-frame cuts with slight angle changes and/or light variation is but one effect pulled off suggestively on the cutting bench. I took these as moments for closer examination when truth was stuttering.

As a detailed explanation of a criminal event that has been lost in plea bargains and contradictory evidence from players whose versions of the truth are about as trustworthy as Chairman Arafat's, Wonderland dramatizes the most predatory forms of life that inhabit a great city. Guess that's why they call it the underworld. It's where the parasites feed. Such scum hasn't been so glamorized since Traffic, nor have they been so energetically portrayed.

Lost In Translation: A Forbidden Attraction

By Jules Brenner on Sep 1, 2002 - 11:53:00 AM
The story behind this story is almost as significant as the film itself and it might shed light on how a romance between an older man and a younger woman came to be set in Tokyo, Japan. Whose sensibility is this? Hollywood has had its eye on one person.

Director: Sofia Coppola
Producer(s): Sofia Coppola, Callum Greene
Screenwriter(s): Sofia Coppola
Stars: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi Cinematographer: Lance Acord
MPAA Rating: R
Release: September 19, 2003 (U.S.)
Running time: 105 Minutes

That's because she's Sofia Coppola, daughter of Godfather legend, Francis Ford Coppola. Would that connection provide the clout to get films of his kind made by his little girl? Apparently not, judging by Ms. Coppola's limited output to date. Her Virgin Suicides has been met with some critical success with particular praise for the work of Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett under Coppola's direction. On the other hand, the criticism has mostly been about its plaintive formlessness -- not the stamp of Coppola senior.

Now, with Lost In Translation on the record, we get a clearer picture of what motivates Ms. Coppola in her choice of subject and tendencies in story telling. As star Bill Murray put it in a Q&A in Hollywood following a screening of the film, what started out as a 4-page outline was later developed into a 65-page script. 65 pages? Where ideal script length is generally around 110 pages, this allows for much on-the-set improvisation in acting and writing.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a famous actor
Bill Murray as failing actor Bob Harris in a Tokyo bigscreen display of his ad for whiskey. From Focus Features.
on a career decline who has been paid two million dollars for endorsing a whiskey brand in advertising spots for the Japanese market. In a strained marriage of 10 years, it's a needed escape when he comes to Tokyo and emotes for the camera, whiskey glass in hand. Work done for the day, he retreats to his hotel where his circadian rhythms, disrupted by a punishing flight time, deny him the sleep he craves. Temporary insomnia sends him to the bar. In the elevator, he gets his first glance at Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), an appealing young woman.

Charlotte is a post-graduate still searching for career direction, accompanying her husband of two years (Giovanni Ribisi) to his still photography assignment in Tokyo. The job occupies her husband's time and interest, leaving Charlotte to her own devices. Her alone time is spent aimlessly staring at the vibrant city from her hotel window, in the company of friends in town, and at the hotel bar. And, after briefly encountering Harris in a variety of situations, both Harris and Charlotte begin to discover a mutual interest as well as a special understanding.

With nothing but time on their hands and the complementary yearning for communication with a cultural comrade, they buddy up for some Japanese night life, a hilarious bit of Karaoke and increased knowledge of each other, always at arm's length. Though physical contact between them is maintained as off limits, the emotional bond deepens, even as the grip of it is unspoken.

In the hands of these two capable actors, the vacuum of verbal expression and physical consummation actually heightens the exposure of what they're wrestling with inside, holding the viewer locked into the drama of a forbidden romance. But will the barriers to temptation collapse? You'll have to go see this movie to get the answer to that one.

As though to answer the charge of her prior film being too weepy and loosely structured, writer-director Coppola maintains focus on her characters' delicate situation. If this is a clue to the Coppola psyche and the film subjects to expect of her in the future, we recommend she doesn't lose her accomplished crew.

Murray has tackled something here for the first time. He's the romantic lead while bringing to the part the humor of the stoic funny man that's his stock in trade. Coppola sensed the subtler dimension of the man in her patterning of the character for him from his inception, as she has stated. What he accomplishes here is the expression of gut feeling through the defensive strategy of masking it with the ready quip. He's an understated crackup, and a man taking stock of his life while entering an unfamiliar zone of emotion.

Scarlett Johansson ("The Horse Whisperer")
Scarlett Johansson in a Tokyo rain.
brings an effective balance between vulnerability and a plucky trust in her perceptions. Combined with her considerable sensuality, she's convincing as an object of affection despite being taken for granted by a self-absorbed husband. She plays all the chords of a woman with an emotional hole to fill, being forced to become aware of it by a connection with someone unexpected who would probably not be noticed in more familiar territory.

Under the musical supervision of Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine), the wall-to-wall soundtrack features exclusive music from him and Air -- plus classic tracks from the Jesus & Mary Chain, Death In Vegas, My Bloody Valentine and Squarepusher. Lance Acord's naturally lighted cinematography is an accurate portrait of an outsider's Tokyo, accomplished intrepidly under constraining circumstances, opting for the superior imaging presence of high speed film over digital video, the more common choice for the low budgeteer.

With the right kind of talent, improvisation can evolve into spontaneity, but it's a technique frought with risk. The challenge for the filmmaker is to cover enough of the unscripted moments to mold a coherent story without erratic shifts, clips that go nowhere, and lack of continuity. While Lost In Translation is not guiltless in this regard, the basic story's delicate threads are woven with aptly measured progression and an atmosphere conducive to the chemistry.

It's not stuff for the video game set, and will likely be panned by some for its irresolution, but its content should resonate particularly for those who have "been there" and relate to the situation. Mature audiences will identify with the emotional dilemma the drama examines from this Coppola's creative perspective. Her technique of trusting the actors to find and deliver their moments scores big in telling her story and overcoming its deficiencies.

Jules Brenner has reviewed over 80 films a year since 2000.  Check out any of the 250+ reviews at his web site where he writes under the pen name, The Filmiliar Cineaste:

Ratings for currently running, recent & upcoming films with links to their reviews (if available):

"The Station Agent" (Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson)
"Luther" [9/26] (Joseph Fiennes, Peter Ustinov)
"Demonlover" [9/19] (Connie Nielsen, ChloŽ Sevigny)
"In This World" [9/19] (Jamal Udin Torabi, Enayatullah)
"The Medallion" (Jackie Chan, Claire Forlani)
"Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" (Robert Carlyle)
"Le Divorce" (Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts)
"The Magdalene Sisters" (Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff)
"Seabiscuit" (Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges)
"Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" (Angelina Jolie)
"Pirates of the Carribean" (Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom) "Swimming Pool" (Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier)
"Bad Boys II" (Will Smith, Martin Lawrence)
"Terminator 3" (Arnold Schwarzenegger)
"The Hulk" (Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly)
"The Matrix Reloaded" (Keanu Reeves, Carrie Anne-Moss)
"Whale Rider"(Keisha Castle-Hughes)


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