"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, May 31, 2013

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Before The Matrix movies transformed Keanu Reeves into an international movie star, his biggest contribution to the popular culture zeitgeist was Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). It is a charming little movie about two metalheads that travel through time in order to pass their history class. Reeves nailed the role so well and the movie was so popular that it took him years to shake the notion that he’s as dumb as the character he played (even today it is still invoked by his detractors), even after a carefully cultivated and diverse body of work (from My Own Private Idaho to Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) are two clueless, but well-meaning teenagers that live in San Dimas, California. They dream of making it as rock stars with their band The Wild Stallyns. Sadly, they suck as musicians, but dream of one day getting Eddie Van Halen to play in their band. This sparks an amusing argument (if you can call it that as it is so good-natured) about making a “triumphant” music video in order to get Eddie’s attention.

As a result of spending so much time on their band, Bill and Ted have neglected their studies and are flunking their history class. For example, Bill refers to Napoleon as “a short, dead dude,” and Ted believes that Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife. Unless they get an A+ on tomorrow’s oral presentation they will flunk the class “most heinously” and this will split up the band as Ted’s father (Hal Landon, Jr.) will send his son off to military school in Alaska (?!). Fortunately, Rufus (George Carlin), a man from a future where Bill and Ted have had a profound influence on society, arrives to help the boys out by letting them use a time machine disguised as a phone booth (a sly reference to Doctor Who) so that they can bounce around various periods of history collecting (a.k.a. kidnapping) famous historical figures (like Billy the Kid, Socrates and Abraham Lincoln) for their presentation.

Capitalizing on the success of Back to the Future (1985), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure takes that film’s basic premise and runs with it. Hardly an original concept/story, the movie fuses the horny, dim-witted teens from Weird Science (1985) and sends them back in time a la Back to the Future all in the service of trying to avoid flunking out of high school, much like the protagonists in My Science Project (1985), but does so in an entertaining and engaging fashion.

Most of the movie’s humor is derived from these two metalheads interacting with famous historical figures in their time period and then flips it so that we see these people deal with the culture shock of being in San Dimas, 1988. And so, we have Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron) helping Bill out with his chores around the house or Ludwig van Beethoven (Clifford David) hanging out in the San Dimas Mall. Some notable character actors play a few of the historical figures, like Dan Shor (Tron) as Billy the Kid and John Carpenter’s long-time stuntman Al Leong as Genghis Khan. More than a few musicians pop up in supporting roles as well with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin playing Joan of Arc and future elders played by the late-great E-Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, The Tubes’ Fee Waybill and The Motels’ Martha Davis in brief, uncredited roles.

One of the more memorable pit stops in time is 15th Century England where Bill and Ted meet a pair of cute princesses (“Those are historical babes,” says a clearly smitten Ted) and features a memorable exchange used extensively in the trailers for the movie. When Bill and Ted are captured by the King’s men, they are sentenced to the iron maiden, which sounds pretty cool to these heavy metal loving fans as they exclaim, “excellent!” But instead of meeting the band, the King responds, “Execute them.” Bummed at the news, our heroes reply, “Bogus.”

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works as well as it does because of the chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. They play well off each other – Reeves is the goofy one while Winter is the ... not as goofy one. You have to give these actors credit – they commit fully to their roles and look like they’re having a lot of fun playing clueless teens. Their characters may be idiots, but when it counts they get it together and actually demonstrate a modicum of intelligence. There’s a goofy, good-natured charm to this movie that evokes a more innocent time.

Veteran comedian George Carlin gamely plays along as Bill and Ted’s bemused adviser, helping them achieve their goal. The scene where Rufus and the boys meet for the first time is a hoot, especially when Bill and Ted meet themselves from the future. After witnessing this, Ted is understandably wary about going with Rufus through time to which Bill replies, “Ted, you and I have witnessed many things, but nothing as bodacious as what just happened.” Carlin doesn’t have much to do – he basically bookends the movie and pops up at one point, but does so with his trademark cool, laidback persona.

The time travel special effects are pretty snazzy with Bill and Ted going through the “circuits of history,” which was kinda trippy for 1989. It’s all silly fun and the movie comes across as an entertaining snapshot of the time in which it was made – that is to say, it has a very late 1980s vibe to it. The movie, like Bill and Ted, has a goofy logic all its own. For example, after Ted’s brother (Frazier Bain) loses Napoleon (Terry Camilleri), he and Bill have to figure out where one of the greatest leaders of Europe would go – why a water park, of course!

The idea for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure came out of an improvisational exercise between screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon while working with an improv group in Los Angeles. They had met at UCLA in 1983 when the former directed a one-act play that the latter had written. They came up with the notion of 15-year-old boys talking about world affairs. Matheson said, “We had them talking about the world trouble spots and trade problems, but their only impression of anything going on in the world was that it was ‘bogus’!” They spent hours fleshing out the characters, but soon parted ways with Matheson going off to grad school in San Diego, while Solomon worked as an executive story editor on the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. During this time, they wrote letters to each other as Bill and Ted and talked about the characters over the phone, imagining that they had gone back in time and “through sheer bumbling, were responsible for everything bad that ever happened to mankind.”

Originally, Matheson and Solomon envisioned writing a sketch comedy movie in the vein of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) with Bill and Ted as one of the skits, but Chris’ father, legendary writer Richard Matheson, told them that the skit could be a whole movie. They began writing the screenplay in 1984 as a “lark,” according to Solomon and finished it in seven days at Lake Tahoe. With help from Chris’ father, they got the script in the hands of Warner Brothers and spent a year developing it, tailoring it to the studio’s demands. It was at this time that director Stephen Herek came on board. After directing the science fiction/horror comedy Critters (1986), he started getting more offers from several studios to direct films like that one. The only script that he responded favorably to was the one for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Warner Brothers felt that with his background, the movie could be done cheaply.

Herek worked with Matheson and Solomon, helping them develop their script. Some of the details changed, like the time travel device, which was originally a ’69 Chevy van, but Herek felt it was a little too close to the device in Back to the Future. He suggested changing it to a phone booth. Ultimately, the director and the studio disagreed over the size of the movie’s budget. He felt that it needed a medium budget, the studio wanted it lower and, along with their feeling that the teen comedy genre was dead, put the project in turnaround. By the end of the year, Dino De Laurentiis’ company picked up the option and it soon went into pre-production.

For the two lead roles, the filmmakers saw hundreds of actors and narrowed it down to 24 finalists. Then, they spent a day mixing and matching couples to see if any had chemistry together. When the producers saw Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter together, they knew that the two actors were their Bill and Ted. Filming began in March 1987 in and around Phoenix, Arizona and lasted ten weeks with two of them spent in Italy for the historical sequences. Unfortunately, De Laurentiis’ company collapsed financially and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was without a distributor. Fortunately, a co-deal was struck between Orion and Nelson Entertainment.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was absolutely savaged by critics when it was first released. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it, “a painfully inept comedy.” USA Today gave it one out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Bill might have worked as a Saturday Night Live skit, but a whole brain-dead movie is depressing beyond imagination.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “If the director, Stephen Herek, has any talent for comedy, it’s not visible here. More than anything, the picture looks paltry and undernourished.” However, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen gave it a grudging thumbs up: “Destined to flunk most egregiously, this flick squeaks right through our critical defences. Most excellent surprise.”

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure turned a tidy profit and spawned a sequel, an animated television series, and a live-action show. Not bad for what is essentially a cult film. It has certainly left its mark on the cultural zeitgeist, inspiring movies like Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Maybe it’s looking at the movie through the rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia, but Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure seems much more innocent and ... well, smarter many of the ones it inspired, which are more preoccupied with being raunchy than anything else. Plus, there is something fun about watching Keanu Reeves early on in his career during simpler times.


“Bill & Ted’s Unexpected Blockbuster.” San Jose Mercury News. April 16, 1989.

Biodrowski, Steve. “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Cinefantastique. August 1991.

Johnson, Kim Howard. “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Starlog. May 1988.

Jones. Alan. “An Excellent Interview with Stephen Herek.” Starburst #141.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Lost in Translation

In 1999, Sofia Coppola made her feature film directorial debut with the spellbinding adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides. The film was a modest hit and heralded the young director as an emerging talent. Her follow-up was a much more personal project, written while she was going through a rough spot in her marriage and inspired by time she had spent in Japan trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She poured out her feelings of loneliness and confusion and the result was Lost in Translation (2003), an independent film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two lonely people who meet in a posh Tokyo hotel and bond over insomnia and absent spouses. Coppola’s film is a fascinating fusion of the chatty meet-cute between two people in a foreign country from Before Sunrise (1995) with the stylish existential ennui of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000). It was a surprise hit, striking a chord with many who identified with the romantic longing that developed between the two main characters. Lost in Translation received numerous awards and critical praise while also establishing Coppola as a major talent.

With the first appearance of Bob Harris (Bill Murray), Coppola conveys that disorienting feeling of arriving in a strange place while being jetlagged. In this case, it is the neon-drenched urban sprawl that is Tokyo. He’s making a whiskey commercial instead of being at home where his wife is redecorating his study. Bob is also missing his son’s birthday and doesn’t seem all that upset about it; or rather he’s resigned himself to it. One gets the feeling that he’d rather be thousands of miles away than with his family. He’s an aging action movie star who has probably spent most of his time on movie sets.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is staying at the same hotel with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). Much like Bob, she can’t sleep and stays behind in the hotel while he runs off on photo shoots with a band. We get some insight into how she’s feeling when the young woman calls a friend back in the United States. They start with the usual idle chit-chat, but pretty soon she’s choking back tears and blurts out, “I don’t know who I married,” before quickly ending the conversation so she can cry. It is an incredibly vulnerable moment that Scarlett Johansson conveys so well. All the feelings that have been bubbling under the surface finally come out. We’re never quite sure the source of marital strife between her and John, but it is probably getting married too young and that he is always busy while she follows him from job to job.

Bob bravely soldiers on through the commercial, but it isn’t made easy by his translator who is not telling him exactly what the director wants. Coppola doesn’t use any subtitles during this scene so that we are as bewildered and frustrated as Bob. Like Charlotte, he is unhappy; tired of pimping whisky and is eager to leave the country as soon as possible. That night, he takes refuge in the hotel bar where the house band (an ex-pat. group rather amusingly named Sausalito) performs a bad cover of “Scarborough Fair,” much to his and Charlotte’s bemusement, who is there with John. She buys Bob a drink and they exchange a nod of acknowledgement from across the room, but don’t actually meet. This is the beginning of relationship that develops between these two lonely people who feel lost in Japan and find solace in each other’s company.

As the film progresses, we get additional insight into the Charlotte and John’s relationship. Her feelings of estrangement are only reinforced when she and John run into Kelly (Anna Faris), a popular American actress in town to promote her latest movie (her press conference is a hoot as she spouts all kinds of cliché celebrities dish out during these kinds of junkets). John and Kelly engage in mindless banter (“Oh my god, I have worst B.O. right now,” she says at one point), much to Charlotte’s bemusement and thinly-veiled contempt. She has just graduated from college last spring and isn’t sure what she wants to do.

In his own dry way, Bob has no illusions about his lot in life as he tells Charlotte that is trip to Japan is basically, “taking a break from my wife, forgetting my son’s birthday, and getting paid $2 million for endorsing a whiskey when I could be doing a play somewhere.” Bill Murray delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance that expands on the sad sack businessman he played in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). Much of the role in Lost in Translation calls for his trademark charm and dry sarcasm, but it also requires him to dig deeper the more time Bob spends with Charlotte, allowing her past his façade. In doing so, Bob lets us in as well and we sympathize with the actor because we get to know him as he reveals personal details to her.

Towards the end of the film, Bob’s relationship with his wife gets more fractured as she tells him how their kids miss him, “but they’re getting used to you not being here. Do I need to worry about you, Bob?” to which he replies, “Only if you want to.” This is quite possibly the most heartbreaking line in the film as one assumes that Bob is probably headed for a divorce once he returns home. His self-destructive habits surface and we get some insight into why he and his wife are so estranged. This also affects his friendship with Charlotte and the temporary spell that was cast over them has been lifted and reality rears its ugly head.

Interspersed throughout Lost in Translation are little visual interludes, like a nice shot of Charlotte sitting on the windowsill of her hotel room with the city surrounding her in the background, that suggest solitude. There is also a montage of sights and sounds when she leaves the hotel to experience Japanese culture, but finds navigating public transportation a bit disorienting and overwhelming, which Coppola conveys through hand-held camerawork that puts us right in the thick of the city’s hustle and bustle. We see Japanese culture through Charlotte’s eyes and Coppola does a nice job with these snapshots, gradually immersing us in this world so that we identify even more with Bob and Charlotte.

The centerpiece of Lost in Translation is when Bob and Charlotte go out for a night on the town and meet a few of her friends. This sequence not only allows us to see more of Japanese culture, but it also gives Murray a chance to riff on the situations and people Bob and Charlotte encounter. Coppola immerses us fully in the sights and sounds of the city, like the nightclub that is decorated with huge white weather balloons that allow images to be projected on them.

If, early on, Coppola seemed to be falling back on Japanese stereotypes of their people and culture (most notably the prostitute who wants Bob to “rip her stockings,” which is particularly cartoonish and awkward, temporarily breaking the hypnotic, dreamy spell that Coppola casts), it is here she goes deeper and we see that Charlotte’s Japanese friends are just like any other twentysomethings. There are all kinds of nice touches, like the conversation Bob carries on with a young Japanese man in French, or the playful image of Bob, Charlotte and their friends running through the streets while someone shoots at them with a BB gun. The night culminates in the best moment where they all hangout at someone’s apartment and end up singing karaoke. Charlotte (wearing an adorable pink wig) serenades Bob when she sings a cover of “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders while Bob sings “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” before working his way through a surprisingly moving rendition of “More Than This” by Roxy Music.

It is this scene where Bob and Charlotte forget their troubles and lose themselves in the moment. We see them smile, laugh and have a good time. The looks they exchange during this scene suggest a growing attraction between them. It is rather telling that she is able to sleep for the first time since she arrived in Japan after the special night they had together. He is even able to doze off in the taxi ride back to the hotel. What I find interesting is how their second night out is in sharp contrast to the first one. Charlotte meets Bob in a cavernous nightclub populated by unattractive-looking topless dancers gyrating to “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches. They don’t stay long, head back to the hotel where they stop briefly at the bar, but after spotting Kelly singing “Nobody Does It Better” horribly off-key they call it a night. Only insomnia keeps them both awake and eventually she hangs out in his room. They talk deep into the night and Charlotte eventually confesses to Bob that she’s “stuck” in her life and asks him, “Does it get any easier?” to which he replies, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

Charlotte doesn’t know what she wants to do. She tells him that she tried writing and photography, but was unhappy with both. Charlotte asks Bob about marriage and if it gets any easier to which he replies, “That’s hard,” and speaks wistfully about how he and his wife used to have fun, but everything got complicated once they had kids. It’s a wonderful scene where we see these characters at their most vulnerable. Murray drops all his shtick and conveys an honesty that is surprising. What is so magical about it is how these two characters are able to coax all of this personal stuff out of each other. Once they are removed from all the noise and chaos of the world around them are they able to speak honestly to each other and let down their guard. By this point, we’ve grown to care about them and have become invested in their relationship.

Lost in Translation came from a very personal place, so much so that Sofia Coppola was worried that very few people would be able to relate to it. The film was inspired by the time she spent wandering around Tokyo after graduating from college. A friend of hers was doing a fashion show in Japan and asked for help producing it. Once there, she met Fumihiro Hayashi a.k.a. Charlie Brown (who plays himself in the film), who ran a magazine and hired her to take photographs. She spent a lot of time driving around in her friend’s car, listening to music and taking in the sights. “Tokyo is just such an exciting city – totally visually interesting, crazy and overwhelming.” She also wanted to capture the feeling of being jetlagged in a strange city: “I’ve had my share of jet-lagged moments. Being in a hotel, and jet-lagged, kind of distorts everything. Even little things that are no big deal feel epic when you’re in that mood. Your emotions are exaggerated, it’s hard to find your way around, it’s lonely.”

Coppola started off writing different little impressions she had of her time in Tokyo. From that, she wrote a bunch of short stories and collected pictures for the visuals. She then used that as the basis for her screenplay. When writing it, Coppola based the character of Charlotte on herself when she was younger and faced the dilemma of “What am I gonna do?” She was also trying to figure out her marriage to then-husband Spike Jonze, who, at the time, was a very in-demand music video director and filmmaker. She said in an interview, “My friends said, ‘Finish the script and you’ll know what to do.’ I think I had doubts, but I didn’t listen to them because I was young.”

The character of Bob Harris was written with Bill Murray in mind and came out of her imaging what he would be like in Tokyo. She said, “He has something that’s really sincere and heartfelt, but really funny and at the same time … tragic.” She was a fan of his movies and always wanted to work with him. Several moments in the film came from things she had observed in real life, like the hotel bar band covering “Scarborough Fair,” and seeing her friend Fumihiro Hayashi performing a karaoke rendition of “God Save the Queen.” After seeing her friend in action, she realized, “I have to put this in a movie.” She also wanted to specifically set it at the Park Hyatt hotel because she had stayed there during her press tour for The Virgin Suicides and was familiar with it. Coppola spent six months writing the script and during that time she got stuck after the first 20 pages and went back to Tokyo to remember the parts of the city she liked.

To help out with the music for the film, Coppola enlisted the services of Brian Reitzell, veteran member of the Los Angeles band Redd Kross and who had worked with her on The Virgin Suicides. Coppola told him the kind of mood she wanted to convey and, having spent time in Japan as well, he understood what she wanted. Per her request, Reitzell compiled three mixes, homemade CDs that contained ambient tracks with artists as varied as Brian Eno and The Jesus and Mary Chain. She listened to these mixes while writing the script and then played them while scouting locations. When it came to score the film, Reitzell licensed several tracks from his mixes and also enlisted the help of My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields to help compose some original music. Reitzell said, “I knew he could capture that droning, swaying, beautiful kind of feeling that we wanted.”

Coppola saw Scarlett Johansson in Manny & Lo (1996) and thought she was “a cute girl with that husky voice.” After a brief lunch meeting in a Manhattan diner Coppola cast the young actress in her film. The director said, “She can convey an emotion without saying very much at all.” With Murray, Coppola spent eight months tracking down and trying to convince the notoriously elusive comedian to star in her film by sending him letters, leaving voicemail messages and asking mutual friends, like filmmaker Wes Anderson, to put in a good word. All of this hustling paid off as Murray finally agreed to do the film. However, the actor had his doubts: “The whole thing felt slight, which was a little troubling,” but she was persistent and convinced him that this was a passion project for her.

Coppola did very little rehearsing before filming; just once with Johansson and Giovanni Ribisi so that they could convincingly play a married couple. Leading up to principal photography, Coppola was still unsure if Murray was actually going to show up, but a week before it was to start he arrived in Japan, much to her relief. The shoot lasted 27 days in Tokyo on a $4 million budget with the cast and crew staying in the Tokyo Hyatt where much of the film was set. Johansson met Murray in Tokyo and the next day they started filming so the chemistry that develops between their characters mirrored the actors in real life. With very little money and shooting permits, Coppola and her small crew shot a lot of the film guerrilla style, utilizing hand-held camerawork on the streets and sneaking shots on public transportation.

Lost in Translation received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Bill Murray has never been better. He doesn’t play ‘Bill Murray’ or any other conventional idea of a movie star, but invents Bob Harris from the inside out, as a man both happy and sad with his life – stuck, but resigned to being stuck.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “Ms. Coppola has shown an interest in emotional way stations. Her characters are caught between past and future – lost in translation. Perhaps her films are a kind of ongoing metaphorical autobiography … There’s a lot up there on the screen, plenty to get lost in.” Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Melancholy and longing have rarely looked so attractive – even desirable – nor has a movie with opportunities for ‘Lolita’-hood been turned so subtle, wise and often funny a study of chance encounter.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “Of course, Mr. Murray gets all the laughs with his exquisite timing and wry delivery, but Ms. Johansson makes an eloquent and charismatic listener; it’s in her alert and intelligent responses to Bob’s malaise that his passions toward her are ignited.”

USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Coppola’s second feature offers quiet humor in lieu of the bludgeoning direct assaults most comedies these days inflict.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Sofia Coppola has a witty touch with dialogue that sounds improvised yet reveals, glancingly her characters’ dislocation. She’s a real mood weaver, with a gift for goosing placid actors … and mining a comic’s deadpan depths.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Coppola evokes the emotional intensity of a one-night stand far from home—but what she really gets is the magic of movies … By the cold light of day it’s difficult to believe that, as individuated as the performances are, this sad middle-aged man and that restless young wife could ever feel so deeply for each other but it’s shivery to think so.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “The film itself – tart and sweet, unmistakably funny and exceptionally well observed – marks the arrival of 32-year-old writer-director Sofia Coppola as a mature talent with a distinctive sensibility and the means to express it.”

Much like many of the protagonists in Wong Kar-Wai’s films, Bob and Charlotte connect for a brief moment in time. It may be fleeting, but that does not diminish its significance. They were there for each other when they needed human contact the most, someone to connect with at a low point in their respective lives when they felt alone and adrift in life. We’ve all felt this way at some point in our lives, which makes Lost in Translation very relatable. There is a yearning, not just by the characters, but we are meant to feel it too because we want to see Bob and Charlotte together despite their marriages to other people. Coppola sums up this wistful feeling of unrequited love best in the final scene that is scored to “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Bob hugs Charlotte and whispers something unintelligible in her ear when the opening drumbeat of the song kicks in. It is a sublime moment that is rich with emotion because we’ve been on a journey with these characters and are invested in them. Bob and Charlotte head back to their respective lives, much like the main characters at the end of Before Sunrise, with the knowledge that their lives have been enriched by the brief time they spent together. Coppola ends on a series of shots of the city, but they look different because of the journey we’ve been on with these characters. We now see things in a different way.


Betts, Kate. “Sofia’s Choice.” Time. September 15, 2003.

Diaconescu, Sorina. “An Upstart, Casual But Confident.” The Times. September 7, 2003.

Galloway, Steve. “Sofia Coppola: The Trials, Tears and Talent.” The Hollywood Reporter. May 8, 2013.

Hirschberg, Lynn. “The Coppola Smart Mob.” The New York Times. August 31, 2003.

Hundley, Jessica. “An Invisible Role.” The Times. September 11, 2003.

Mitchell, Wendy. “Sofia Coppola Talks about Lost in Translation.” indieWIRE. December 14, 2009.

Thompson, Anne. “Tokyo Story.” Filmmaker. Fall 2003.

Topel, Fred. “Sofia Coppola on Lost in Translation.” Screenwriter’s Monthly. September 23, 2003.

Vernon, Polly. “Scarlett Fever.” The Observer. December 27, 2003.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Film Critic Hall of Fame: Harlan Ellison

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of tributes to film critics that inspired me.

Whenever I feel frustrated, at a low ebb with my own writing and in need of some inspiration, I turn to Harlan Ellison’s movie reviews. Reading them always re-invigorates me and reminds me why I started writing about film in the first place – a passion for movies. One of the pivotal books of film criticism that inspired me was Harlan Ellison’s Watching, a collection of reviews culled mostly from his stint at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction during the 1980s. Before I was able to purchase a copy for myself, I must’ve checked it out the local library countless times. Having grown up on fantasy and SF films and television shows during the ‘80s, his book tapped a rich vein of genre fare that I loved dearly. Much to my surprise, horror and bemusement, he had no problem skewering as well as praising movies with equal amounts of passion that came as a shock after being weaned on issues of Starlog as a child. The now defunct magazine championed SF and fantasy with an uncritical eye save for a brief experiment with guest critics reviewing movies that did not last long. With Ellison, here was someone unafraid to savage movies I considered sacred, but in doing so he made think about them differently. Sometimes I agreed with his opinion, sometimes I didn’t. But let’s be honest; who agrees completely with their favorite critic?

Among his many achievements and hats he wears, Ellison has published a vast work of over 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, and essays. He’s been nominated and won all kinds of awards, chief among them the genre staples like the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker and Edgar. Ellison is an outspoken critic of fantasy, horror and SF from the perspective of an insider. His self-proclaimed role in life is “to be a burr under the saddle,” and was famously described by author Robert Bloch as “the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water.”

In the rather lengthy introduction to Harlan Ellison’s Watching, the veteran writer lays out his personal philosophy of film criticism. He feels that a critic should review films based on their “background, knowledge, sophistication and – most of all – affection.” Any decent film critic in his eyes should meet a minimal standard of cinematic knowledge. To this end, a critic “should love film. Should adore just going to the movies the way a kid adores going to the movies. Bearing with, a large measure of innocence; a large measure of I’ll sit here, you just do it to me.” Accordingly, a critic should also be willing to “savage that which is inept, dishonest, historically-corrupt, pretentious or simply meanspirited. That which demeans the art form. That which lies to the trusting audience.”

The inherent problem with writing film reviews, as Ellison sees it, is that “one is limited. The word-pictures can only do so much,” lest they risk “robbing the movie-lover of the frisson of joyful discovery.” After all, “the critic can only go huzzah and huzzah so many times before it becomes white noise. The critic is limited in vocabulary, because beyond a certain point it becomes dangerous and boring, and then dangerously counterproductive. Dangerous, because nothing can live up to such panegyrics; boring, because what can one say after one says don’t miss it?” This holds true for negative reviews as the “short memory of the reader comes to expect savagery and fulmination. Forgotten are all the palliating equivocations, all the positive comments, all the rave reviews. Only the violence retains the color of passion in a reader’s memory.” What inspired me was his statement that simple reviews “serve no worthwhile purpose,” and that an in-depth essay, “illuminates the special treasures a specific film proffers.”

As he pointed out in a two-part interview with Starlog magazine back in 1985, most periodicals, that covered genre fare at the time, had little to no critical faculties:

“I am always suspicious of whores. Starlog, Fantastic Films, almost all the magazines with the exception of Cinefantastique are flacks for the industry. They live off the free hand-outs and they can’t really say bad things. How honest can a magazine like that be? How penetrating can it be? So, you do articles on special effects and visits to movie sets. You’ve brought up an audience of kids who cannot tell good from bad.”

In the same interview, he infamously called Back to the Future (1985), “a piece of shit,” which did not endear him to Starlog’s readership. He called it “a rip-off, a steal from Bob Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love to begin with. It is absolutely mindless, empty-headed, manipulative and it’s a sitcom.” Ellison was unafraid to skewer sacred cows like Star Wars (in an entertaining takedown entitled, “Luke Skywalker Is A Nerd and Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs”) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), calling the latter, “a seriously flawed film. It fails the first order or storytelling: to tell a story.” And yet, he tempers this by saying, “the psychedelic segments are visually some of the most exciting stuff ever put on celluloid; in a way it’s what cinema is all about, really.”

Sometimes, Ellison used his insider status within the industry to shed light on why a film was the way it was, like with Dune (1984). He briefly takes us through the failed attempts by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, and then explains why David Lynch’s version was doomed to fail through studio interference. Ellison was of the opinion that Lynch's film was set up to fail even before it was released in theaters. In October of 1984, he was approached by USA Today to write a visiting critic's review of Dune. The film was due to be released on December 14th, 1984. Ellison figured that he had plenty of time to do a review of the film seeing as how he was on amicable terms with both Universal Studios (who was distributing the film) and Frank Herbert. And then something happened within Universal Studios:

"It was widely rumored in the gossip underground that Frank Price, Chairman of MCA/Universal's Motion Picture Group, and one of the most powerful men in the industry, had screened the film in one or another of its final workups, and had declared – vehemently enough and publicly enough for the words quickly to have seeped under the door of the viewing room and formed a miasma over the entire Universal lot – 'This film is a dog. It's gonna drop dead. We're going to take a bath on it. Nobody'll understand it!' (Now those aren't the exact words, because I wasn't there. But the sense is dead accurate. Half a dozen separate verifications from within the MCA organization.)."

Paranoia swept through Universal and screenings were canceled or rescheduled with rumors fueling the fire. Ellison mentions a meeting between the film's producer, Dino De Laurentiis, and the owner of a big chain of multiplex theaters that did not go well. This repeated itself at another screening in New York City. As a result, Universal got very nervous and said that there would be no screenings of any kind for anyone until the release date of December 14th. Ellison goes on to recount a screening for the film that he tried to attend on the November 30th but was not allowed entry after speaking to Frank Wright, National Publicity Director for MCA at the time. Even after telling Wright that he was not going to pan the film and getting USA Today's West Coast entertainment editor, Jack Matthews, to talk to Wright, Ellison was still denied access to the screening. Ellison recalls, "But if that was what happened to a reviewer from something as important to Universal as USA Today, do you begin to understand how, before the film ever opened, the critical film community was made to feel nervous, negative and nasty about Dune?" Two days before Dune opened in wide release, Ellison saw the film and ironically gave the motion picture one of its few positive reviews.

Throughout his tenure as a film critic, Ellison championed the underdog, going to bat for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) when Universal Studios did its best to marginalize the film by cutting their own version with a happy ending, which, as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with Ellison: “Sid Sheinberg has always wanted to be a creator. The frustration of his life is that he is merely one of the canniest and most creative businessmen in the world. So he wants to make Brazil better in the time-honored tradition of businessmen who run the film industry. He wants to piss in it.” Ellison went on to call Brazil, “heart-stopping. It is brilliant beyond the meaning of the word.”

Much to my delight, he championed favorites of mine, like Big Trouble in Little China (1986), describing it as “a film that combines Indiana Jones-swashbuckle, Oriental goofery, special effects magic, contemporary hoodlum-kitsch, pell-mell action to the exclusion of logic but who gives a damn, good old down home Yankee racism, parody, satire, the art of the jongleur, and some of the funniest lines spoken by any actor this year to produce a cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives.”

However, much to my dismay, he missed the boat on some of my favorite films, like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984), which he called, “An unintelligible farrago of inaudible sound mix, bad whitefolks, MTV video acting, blatant but hotly denied ripoff of the Doc Savage crew and oeuvre spiced with swipes from Mike Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, a plot that probably makes sense only in Minkowski Space, six funny lines, four clever sight gags, and billions of dollars’ worth of promotional hype such as Big Brother-style rallies at sf conventions.” Ouch. However, I’m willing to forgive him for such transgressions, because even his takedowns are entertaining.

In his opening dedication, Ellison says that “one simply must have heroes & icons, mustn’t one.” He is one of my heroes whose quality of writing I aspire to but know, deep down, I’ll never achieve. That’s what makes him so unique – that brilliant mix of intensely personal opinion and vast knowledge of how films work and don’t work. However, it doesn’t stop me from trying. I appreciate the brutal honesty in his writing and his willingness to go deliciously over-the-top to make his point. He just doesn’t like a film, he loves it, and on the flip side, he just doesn’t dislike a film, he hates it. Most of all, his willingness to go into detail about why a film worked or didn’t is what inspired me the most and is why I prefer to go into the backstories of how a film came together (or didn’t) because sometimes that story is just as interesting as the finished product. Sometimes it provides insight into what we see on the big screen. Most of all, Ellison’s writing reminds me that the best criticism comes out of a passion for movies – the sheer love of watching something for the first time or revisiting an old favorite again.


Ellison, Harlan. Harlan Ellison’s Watching. Underwood-Miller. Novato, California: 1989.

Goldberg, Lee. “Harlan Ellison – Next Stop: The Twilight Zone.” Starlog. November 1985.

Goldberg, Lee. “Harlan Ellison – ‘Call me a Science Fiction Writer-I’ll Tear Out Your Liver!’” Starlog. December 1985.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Superman Returns

Much like Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) is a mega-budget love letter to films of his youth, in this case Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). Singer’s film pretends that Superman III (1983) and IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) don’t exist and attempts to pick up where the second film left off. Sadly, he was obsessed way too much with paying homage to Donner’s films and not enough on making his film be its own thing. While Singer certainly had his heart in the right place, he failed to make some crucial, proper choices, like generating a better screenplay and casting the right person in the right role. As it stands, Superman Returns is a fascinating flawed effort, an intriguing, misguided movie where one gets the sense that there’s a good film in there, somewhere, trying to get out.

The impetus for Singer to make Superman Returns was to create a more romantic film. “What I had noticed is that there weren’t a lot of women lining up to see a comic book movie, but they were going to line up to see The Devil Wears Prada, which may have been something I wanted to address … I really do think I was making the film for that The Devil Wears Prada audience of women who wouldn’t normally come to a superhero film.” While that is an admirable goal, he ended up alienating the rather sizable fanbase by creating a film that didn’t have the right balance, which is deadly if the goal is to reach the largest audience possible and this is reflected in its decent, but ultimately disappointing (by studio expectations) box office returns.

Set after Superman II, Singer’s film finds the Man of Steel (Brandon Routh) still off in outer space looking for remnants of his home world, Krypton. Right from the get-go, Singer announces his intentions by using some of Marlon Brando’s leftover dialogue from the original film and then the exact same font and John Williams’ iconic theme music over the opening credits. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is up to his usual evil ways, conning a wealthy old woman out of her vast fortune. He soon revisits Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and figures out how to operate his databank of crystals that store all the knowledge that his people accrued before their world was destroyed.

Superman returns to Earth in exactly the same fashion as when he first arrived in Donner’s film only this time Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) is around to find him. She nurses her adopted son back to health and he begins to realize how much things have changed in the five years since he’s been away. Superman has no idea just how different things are until he arrives in Metropolis in his Clark Kent guise and is only able to get his old job back because someone else on the staff of the Daily Planet died. At least Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) welcomes him back with a smile and a partially eaten cake. Most shockingly, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has gotten engaged and given birth to a little boy named Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu) – a revelation that rocks Superman’s world, which Brandon Routh does a nice job of conveying. To add insult to injury, Lois’ fiancé Richard White (James Marsden) also works at the Daily Planet and is Perry White’s nephew. He’s a nice guy who loves Lois and is great with their slightly sickly child. For a change, it is Superman that is the “other guy.”

Routh wisely doesn’t try to replicate what Christopher Reeve did as Kent or Superman and tries his best to make the iconic role his own. With Superman, he nails the otherworldly quality of the son of Krypton. The actor doesn’t let us forget that Superman is an alien and Routh conveys that in the way he looks at everyone and everything. Superman is an outsider and it will always be that way. It’s the price he must pay for being who he is. While playing Kent, Routh doesn’t make him the endearing nerd from Reeve’s films, but more on the awkward side, like he doesn’t say or do the right things all the time. It’s not as broad a performance and Routh pulls it off quite well.

I’m sorry Kate Bosworth, but dying your hair does not make you Lois Lane. I just don’t buy her as the character. She lacks the conviction and tenacity that are essential traits to Lois. Bosworth is a rather bland Lois and this hurts the film. She is easily the most wrong-footed casting choice along with Sam Huntington. Jimmy’s earnestness feels faked and forced, like Huntington is trying to do an imitation of Marc McClure’s memorable take on Jimmy Olsen. You believed his earnest gee-whiz-isms because it felt real and authentic and Huntington is unable to be as convincing, but this is also due to the material he has to work with. I like him and Bosworth, and in the right roles (Bosworth in Blue Crush and Worthington in Being Human) they can be good, but they are simply miscast in Superman Returns.

On the plus side, the always watchable James Marsden (X-Men) is excellent as Lois’ fiancé, Richard White. Thankfully, Singer resists the temptation to make him a bad guy because we’re supposed to root for Lois and Superman to get together. Instead, Marsden plays Richard as a kind, loving man who wastes no time going after Lois when she gets in trouble and is fiercely protective of her and their son. The actor is so good that I wanted to see more of him and his character’s relationship with Lois.

Kevin Spacey nails the mischievous twinkle in Luthor’s unapologetically amoral eyes. He was an inspired casting choice to play Superman’s nemesis. He is able to go from gleefully malevolent to downright nasty on a dime, revealing Luthor’s true evil nature. It’s a meaty role that Spacey sinks his teeth into with gusto. This is particularly evident in the scene where Luthor tells Lois his master plan. It’s a terrific monologue that Spacey delivers like a consummate pro. His take on Luthor is decidedly more vicious than Gene Hackman’s version. The scene where he and his henchmen beat-up Superman is painful to watch. It’s a dark and ugly scene where Singer deviates from his hero worship of the Donner films. The veteran actor expertly conveys the criminal mastermind’s hunger for absolute power and he plays well off of Parker Posey’s Kitty Kowalski, who is a fusion of the dim-witted Otis (Ned Beatty) and the mostly harmless assistant Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) from the first film.

At times, it feels like Singer is more interested in the love triangle between Superman, Lois and Richard than Luthor’s latest power-grabbing scheme, which, to be honest, isn’t all that interesting. There’s really nothing unique about it and often feels like an afterthought while Singer focuses on the interpersonal relationships. It’s a complicated love triangle in the sense that Lois was hurt when Superman left Earth. So much so that she moved on, fell in love with someone else and had a kid. Superman comes back and expects to pick up where things left off, but as he finds out, it’s not so simple. While this is all fine and well for a character-driven drama, it really isn’t the larger than life, action-packed heroics people come to expect from their comic book superhero movies. A common criticism that was leveled against the film was that Singer spent too much time developing the relationship between Lois and Superman and not enough on the action, which is a valid complaint, but I like the complex emotions that are explored in this love triangle – pretty ambitious stuff for a summer blockbuster.

Admittedly, I’m no Superman fanboy so I don’t have the same problems folks like Peter Sanderson has with Singer’s radical deviations from the character and his mythos. Truth be told, I actually find his take on the material rather fascinating, but readily admit that it could’ve used more action sequences, especially after we’re teased with that exciting airplane rescue when Superman saves Lois. Singer manages to squeeze every bit of white knuckled tension out of this sequence as Superman struggles to save a rapidly disintegrating plane. Singer has said in retrospect that he should’ve started the film with that sequence and he’s right – it would’ve been the perfect way to get our attention.

Superman Returns is what happens when a filmmaker is too reverential to the material and loses any kind of objectivity. As a result, Singer ended up making a very expensive fan letter. The problem with paying homage to a beloved classic is that everything you do will inevitably be compared to it. As a result, the structure of Superman Returns is basically a slight tweaking of Superman: The Movie – instead of rescuing Lois from a helicopter it’s an airplane, Luthor plans to create his own continent instead of tearing a chunk of California away from the United States, Luthor’s female assistant sabotages him at a crucial point in the film, and so on. Singer and his team follow the original film too closely and don’t do enough to make their version stand on its own. He also lays on the Superman as Christ metaphor a little thick towards the end, but manages to recover with a nicely understated and poignant ending that restores the romantic vibe that started the film along with a final nod to the first Superman movie.

Recently, Singer has reflected on Superman Returns and admitted that he was “too reverential with the material. That, and I tried to put too much in.” He tried to recapture the earnestness of Donner’s movie and failed. The end result is a heartfelt, but deeply flawed film that understandably gets a raw deal from a lot of fan, but one which I quite like. Despite being blinded by his devotion, there is much to like about Singer’s Superman Returns and it’s a shame that he never got a chance to make things right with a sequel as he had originally planned. Instead, the studio decided to do a complete reboot with Man of Steel (2013), employing Christopher Nolan to produce and Zack Snyder to direct. Initial footage looks like these guys took a good, long hard look at Singer’s film and made a conscious effort not to repeat the mistakes he made on that one. It looks like a completely different film that breaks away from the past film to stand on its own, which I think is the best way for them to go.


“Bryan Singer: Awards season is over. It’s time to have some fun with a fairy tale.” Metro. March 22, 2013.

Gross, Ed. “Bryan Singer Looks Back at Superman Returns.” Comic Book Movie. March 25, 2011.