Conversational Therapy: Melvin Goes To Dinner
(originally posted on Chlotrudis Award discussion group)

I'm so glad I managed to see this film before it left the Coolidge yesterday; Melvin Goes to Dinner is a smart, entertaining low budget indie about four thirtysomethings who unexpectedly meet for dinner. Their conversations are the gist of the film, which will remind a lot of people of My Dinner With Andre; however, unlike that seminal talkfest, this one jumps around in time and has an ingenuous twist that appears in the final third that made me want to go back and watch a few earlier scenes again.

The script, written by Michael Bliedorn, who also plays the title character, started off as a play. While you can easily imagine this being performed on stage, the editing (also by Bliedorn) is pretty sharp and adds dimensions to these four fleshed-out figures. It was directed by Bob Odenkirk (of Mr. Show), and he gets decent performances and good comic timing out of all the leads, with Annabelle Gurwitch standing out as Sarah, the most subdued, mysterious, and intricate of the four.

Jack Black, David Cross, and Maura Tierney also contribute some nice cameos (Black is nearly as hilarious as he was in High Fidelity), but it's the dinner conversations that intrigue, especially as each character shares more secrets with the group. For the most part, the dialogue avoids cliché and manages to be believable. There's a subplot between Melvin and another woman that ends the film on a somewhat unnecessarily melodramatic note. But, I have to admit I felt nearly as transformed as Melvin, Sarah, Joey (Matt Price), and Alex (Stephanie Courtney) did when they left the restaurant and went on their separate ways. Catch this one if you get a chance; it's tentatively scheduled to come out on DVD in December.


Brave New Worlds: Lost In Translation

Have you ever seen a film where you’re utterly sad to have to leave the two main characters behind? What you’ve seen of them, and the bond that forms between them, is so superbly, honestly rendered, that it leaves you moved, fulfilled, and more than a little shaken. You’ve gotten to know these people, these creations so well, yet they’re so deep, complex and real that you feel you’ve only been offered a mere glimpse into their consciousnesses. This glimpse offers a well of emotion, facial expressions, moods, quirks and the like, but 100 minutes or so can only give you this little glimpse. You’ve been granted just a peek into their lives, but this peek is enough to leave you transformed, to feel your life has changed just for briefly knowing these people.

Lost In Translation’s two leads are both Americans stranded in Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a former star of action movies is in Japan, alone, to do a few television and print ads for a local brand of whiskey. You get the sense that his celebrity status is slightly higher there than at home, as we see his face constantly (and often comically) appearing on billboards, talk shows, and dubbed versions of his movies on TV. In contrast, Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is a young, recent Yale grad. She has traveled to Tokyo with her husband of two years, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer busy shooting a local rock band. His job gives him no time to spend with Charlotte. She spends some of her days sightseeing, but most of them alone in her hotel room, flipping channels, listening to self-help tapes, sitting at her window, looking out on the magnificent, tacky urban sprawl of the city below.

Eventually, Bob and Charlotte notice each other at the hotel’s swanky lounge. They flash each other a sly, inviting smile, and, despite their obvious differences, have an instant rapport. They’re both lonely souls in a foreign environment, each of them in less than perfect marriages. You can see the disconnections between Charlotte and John; early on she admits to herself that she barely recognizes him as a soul mate or friend. They hardly spend any time together in the whole film, and even though they say phrases such as “I Love You” to each other often, you question how much they are means to an end, or just something to say. Meanwhile, you can hear the sense of disconnection between Bob and his wife of many years, Lydia, back home, through their phone conversations, which sound tense, strained, and obligatory.

What’s intriguing here is that you don’t feel these two couples are entirely devoid of love. However, the relationship that gradually develops between Bob and Charlotte possesses something those marriages lack. It begins as a friendship, two partners in crime, a person to share a drink or visit karaoke bars or just hang out with. Unquestionably, this friendship strengthens to a point where it becomes love, but it’s a complicated, mature expression of love. Thankfully, there’s no obligatory sex scene or even any suggestion of sex between them. What Bob and Charlotte discover in each other transcends mere sexual attraction, although it’s there; in one poignant scene, they lie next to each other on a bed and talk about their feelings, their lives and marriages. At one moment, Bob understatedly pays her a sweet compliment and touches her foot. It’s less erotic and more a simple term of endearment, suffused with tenderness and an almost unbearable longing. They spend the night in separate beds, because both they and us know how perfect that small gesture was, and how anything more would simply cheapen and ruin it.

As Bob, Murray gives his strongest, most complete performance since Rushmore. He could have been arrogant, sarcastic, and depressing in this role, but instead is genuinely funny, wry, relaxed, and appropriately world-weary. His movements, whether dealing with an out-of-control exercise machine, rattling off a series of Rat Pack and Roger Moore James Bond poses for a whiskey ad, or sprinting through throngs of traffic to hail a cab, is always graceful and almost ballet-like. As Charlotte, Johannson is a revelation after showing promise in Ghost World; only Sarah Polley could’ve arguably brought as much depth, finesse, and lack of pretension to this character. For being only 18 when this was filmed, Johannson has a startling dramatic range and a keen sense of how to come across between the lines, knowing the importance of what’s implied rather than said.

This is director Sofia Coppola’s second film (after The Virgin Suicides), and it’s a major, surprising achievement. It refracts Tokyo through a foreigner’s eyes and finds both poetry in its landscapes (especially in a still shot of the city illuminated only by blinking red traffic tower lights) and a documentary feel as it observes and briefly focuses on the city's denizens in clubs, video arcades and the other public spaces Bob and Charlotte inhabit. Coppola, who also wrote the script, has told a story about two kindred spirits and co-conspirators who find not only each other but also themselves in what is for them the most unexpected of places. What’s heartbreaking is that they know that they can only be together like this in that space. This kind of closeness can’t last forever, and no matter how they may try to revive it elsewhere, it will never, ever seem as singular or profound. But the beauty of Lost In Translation is that they made this discovery, and saw something unique and startling in each other. That we're invited to discover it, too, and can truly sense and feel how touching it is, well, that's simply extraordinary.


First Impressions of The City That Never Shuts Up

How can I even begin to describe my first impression of New York City? Technically, the first part I saw, coming down I-95 from Westchester County, was The Bronx, with all its monolithic, Cabrini Green-ish housing projects, Big K-Marts, and Popeye’s Fried Chickens. Then, as dusk fell, we approached Harlem and probably the least fashionable stretch of 5th Avenue. Not until our Peter Pan bus reached Central Park and Lincoln Center did I begin to get a buzz on.

My roommate and I stayed at a cute, tiny boutique hotel on 41st Street and 7th Avenue, right next to the Nederlander Theatre (home of Rent) and not far from an enormous, giddily garish Red Lobster. We walked through Times Square past insane seas of neon thirty feet tall and throngs of fellow tourists. For once, I didn’t feel foolish having a camera hanging from my neck. We ate a good, greasy meal at a Popeye’s (natch), and then headed over to a lounge in Hell’s Kitchen called Therapy, actually brushing past one of the Queer Eye for The Straight Guy guys on our way in. We ended up at another lounge called Hell (which wasn’t hellish at all) by 3 AM, and sobered up over eggs, coffee, and Belgian waffles two hours later.

I guess what kept racing through my head my entire time in Manhattan was “My god, so frickin’ huge.” Block after block of tall buildings, like a downtown that extends unto infinity. I never had so much fun people watching: the portly black woman on the subway who looked like she stepped out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon; the wispy androgynous boy-nymph waiting in line for a latte at the Big Cup in Chelsea; the ruddy-faced middle eastern man selling a pamphlet in Times Square called “452 Sexual Positions For $1”; the aloof young blonde socialite prancing through Central Park as if she were Holly Golightly. And many, many more, I wish I had the mental capacity to remember them all.

In Saturday afternoon’s glistening sunshine and comfortable temperatures, we walked south from 41st Street all the way down to SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. We made separate trips across the East river over to Williamsburg for Thai food and Greenpoint for Polish food, feasting at the latter on a combination platter of pierogi, stuffed cabbage, keilbasa and a bowl of sour soup. Went back out to Chelsea on Saturday night and got briefly cruised by an attractive blond who had the misfortune of living in The Bronx. Dined at Cafeteria where we viewed tourists and locals of all stripes over a bellini, a blueberry margarita, mac and cheese and a turkey burger. Brought home two dozen Krispy Kremes with us on the bus, more than enough to induce a terminal fat-and-sugar koma.

I still don’t think I could ever live in New York--unless I was making a shitload of money. The city seems too intense, relentless, in-your-face. It has catapulted to the top of my Favorite Places to Vacation list, however. I can’t wait to go back in the winter to see a show, visit MOMA or the Met, catch a movie at the Angelika, maybe ice skate at Rockefeller Center.

It was a little strange to return to a smaller city for a change, but I’m still glad to call Boston home.


What-ev-er! I Do What I Want!: Thirteen

I remember watching Degrassi Junior High when I was thirteen years old, and feeling a little dumbfounded. It didn’t at all mirror what my life was like at the time; for instance, I did not have a female classmate even remotely like the scary pregnant one with the punk attitude and impossibly teased hair. Maybe it would’ve seemed less foreign if I had gone somewhere grittier than Catholic School , but I doubt it. Everything on that show seemed a little too perfect, calculated, scripted. Since then, I can name only a handful of films (Our Song, Welcome To Dollhouse) and TV shows (My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks) that come close to really capturing the schizoid excitement, confusion, and pain of early adolescence.

Thirteen gets some of it right, but it doesn’t help that its protagonist is worlds away from most girls her age. When we first meet her, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) seems like the prototypical intelligent nice girl who longs to be popular like Evie (Nikki Reed), her buxom, bad-girl classmate. But, rather rapidly, the former shrewdly (but adoringly, clumsily) pursues the latter’s attention. After proving to Evie just how “bad” she can be (by shoplifting), the two become fast friends, with the good girl picking up all the bad girl’s habits until they spiral out of control in a miasma of body piercings, neglected schoolwork and recreational-verging-on-heavy drug use. Not helping matters is Tracy’s fractured home life. Mom (Holly Hunter, even more riveting a matriarch than Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon) makes the bills by giving haircuts out of their home, but also dates a former addict/halfway house resident whom Tracy loathes (played by an unusually restrained Jeremy Sisto.) Dad simply doesn’t make time for his daughter (or her slightly older brother), what with his job and second wife and all.

Oh, and if all of that didn’t put Thirteen over the top, Tracy also has a jones for self-mutilation. Well, you could blame the script’s excesses into obvious melodrama and Afterschool Special in Hell flavor from the fact that it was co-written by Reed, who currently is a year or two older than Evie. Granted, it’s impressive for a 13 year-old, even though it’s hard to say how much the other co-writer, first time director and long time production designer Catherine Hardwick contributed. Nonetheless, much of Thirteen seems merely implausible—Tracy’s transformation is too much, too fast, to the point where she threatens to become a screechy caricature beyond anyone’s comprehension or interest. By the time the film returns to its shocker of an opening scene—a numbed up (from doing whippets) Tracy and Evie sitting in the former’s bedroom, hitting each other until they bleed and laughing hysterically, it's devolving into a routine matter of “Can Tracy and Evie’s behavior get any worse? You bet!”

Fortunately, three things save the film from drowning in such exploitative mess. The first is Hunter, who brings nearly every one of her best qualities as an actress to the complicated role of a good, but flawed mother, one of the most complete you’ll ever see on the screen. The second is Wood. Even though she’s not as genuine and real as say, Agnes Bruckner in Blue Car, she manages to keep her character grounded and worthy of our attention, even as the script renders her increasingly more outlandish. The third is an unexpectedly and successfully cathartic ending. If the bulk of the film is equally stylish and gritty with its soundtrack and hand held camera, the final ten minutes (save the last scene) is more like A Woman Under The Influence—messy, sobering, and at turns, really surprising. It elevates Thirteen into bolder, more provocative territory; it documents a crash that we’ve all been expecting, but it hits much harder than we ever imagine it would.