Critical Projection
Lost In Translation: A Forbidden Attraction
By Jules Brenner
Sep 1, 2002 - 11:53:00 AM

LOS ANGELES—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 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.

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Photo Taken By Rachelle Sadler
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.
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Hollywood Strip; Photo Taken By Rachelle Sadler

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") 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 budget individual.

With the right kind of talent, improvisation can evolve into spontaneity, but it's a technique that comes 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:

 


 

"The Station Agent" (Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson) 
"Luther" [9/26] (Joseph Fiennes, Peter Ustinov)
"Demonlover" [9/19] (Connie Nielsen, Chloe 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) 

jules@canyonnewspaper.com

 


 

 



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