Pop Life

Monday, September 22, 2003


don't send for a search party

Why exactly is everyone going ga-ga over Sophia Coppola's new Lost In Translation? I thought it was passable but not anywhere near extraordinary and Sharon hated it, finding the existential crises of the two main characters utterly uncompelling. As she puts it, in reference to Scarlett Johansson's numerous scenes where she's gazing out on Tokyo from her hotel room, "hey, I've been depressed too but I didn't spend all my time, sitting in my panties, starting out of a window." (Sharon doesn't suffer fools lightly and she found Johansson's post-collegiate "whatever shall I do with my life?" existential battles to be annoying and devoid of depth).

Mostly though, she was royally annoyed at how cliche and stereotypical Tokyo was portrayed and I have to agree on this. Partially, I was excited to see the movie because critics talked about how Tokyo was shot so lovingly. I guess I went in hoping to see cinematographer Lance Acord do for Tokyo what Christopher Doyle did for Hong Kong in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. In the latter movie, Hong Kong's soaring skyscrapers and neon lights are dimmed in favor of a look at the back alleys, tenenment buildings, street markets and corner stores. None of these places are ostenisbly romantic yet Doyle shoots them as if they were as mysterious as Casablanca. With LiT, all you get are some pretty shots of downtown Tokyo mixed in with dozens of cliche images that have been circulatig through American film for the last 20+ years.

Basically, the gist of it is: "wow, look at how wacky and crazy all these Japanese cats are! They're such freaks!" I would have thought that Coppola could have done better than playing on all the familiar neo-Orientalist cliches about Tokyo: pachinko machines, karaoke bars and strip clubs. I mean, why not have a friggin' tea ceremony scene in there too? Sometimes, American directors (read: White) can be so incredibly wack and unimaginative. In fact, if there are any examples of American cinema where Japan is portrayed Orientalism-free, I'd love to know what they'd be since I can't seem to think of any. Given the history of Japan and the U.S., that there's a deeply entrenched cultural tradition in the U.S. (that dates back even pre-WWII) to exoticize Japan and Japanese culture and as more time has gone by, those slanted impressions have become more and more part of the common sense logic through which Japan is viewed.

Since Lost In Translation purports to make Tokyo a major part of the film's narrative, and obviously, visual elements, I had higher hopes that it'de treat that subject with some intelligence and creativity rather than relaying on tired tropes. Like I said, that puts Coppola into a very larger tradition of bad American films about Japan (anyone up for Sayonara?) Or how about Black Rain? Or how about Rising Sun (doesn't take place in Japan yet might as well have). Or how about...

You get the idea.

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There are few things more egregiously indefensible than a boring action movie. I watched the new vampire vs. werewolf, goth-wanker flick Underworld in a fairly packed, Westwood Theatre on a Friday night and if you can't compel a room full of college students to get excited over your monster/bullet fest, you got problems. Somehow, Underworld takes a perfectly good premise - a 600 year vampire vs. werewolf blood war - and manages to turn it into a sloggy bore, complete with long, profoundly dull conversations about Immortal genealogy, biochemistry and vampiric political succession.

Did these people not watch the Blade movies? If you're going to have vampires busting out in black leather and automatic pistols (which apparently have 50 bullet clips - someone alert John Woo), they better be pumping out more lead per minute than an illegal paint factory. Instead Underworld spends more time driving around ambigious European cities (where most people seem to speak perfect vernacular American English) in fancy roadsters but not quite enough time shooting and slicing shit. The preview for Kill Bill had more thrills and that was about 60 seconds.

The long redeeming quality - and I loathe to call it that - with the film is that it sets up the premise of the werewolf/vampire tension over the fear of interracial - or, better said, interspecial - mixing, with the vampires taking a decidedly white, ruling class paranoia to the threat of miscegenating with the post-colonial werewolves (I'm serious - in the film, it's revelaed that werewolves were once slaves of the vampires, how's that for allegory?). And in the end, what might ultimately save the day is a vampire/werewolf hybrid that - in true hapa-love fashion - takes on the best of both cultures. If the movie weren't so otherwise god awful, I might have actually enjoyed this racial subtext but I was too busy being trying to figure out the Byzantine explanation of how vampiric/lycanthropic immortality is somehow descended from a Hungarian virus from the 5th century.

And by the way, I know vampires are more Goth than '80s Depeche Mode fans but I swear to god it'd be nice to see a movie that found a new angle to tackle than stony, vaguely early 20th century cities that seem to never stop being overcast and rainy. I know vampires fear the sun, but that doens't mean they wouldn't enjoy cloudness nights where they can walk under the moonlight along the Seine. I mean, don't they ruin all that black leather by getting it wet? Or maybe vampires spend the daytime, indoors, waterproofing.

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