Lost in Translation DVD: Review By brianroche

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The Cameron Crowe version of this movie would have been a slam-dunk. You could still have had Bill Murray as the movie star in late middle age, and Scarlett Johansson as the ingénue. But the dialogue would have really popped. There would have been a whole group of memorable supporting characters, like the concierge, the manager, the club owner, and Chloe, the best friend. The climax of the movie would have had Murray at a crossroads with Hollywood and this new life with a younger woman. There would be one funny/sad/true scene we'd all remember. The soundtrack would be killer.

Hey, I'm not knocking The Crowe. Somewhere in an alternate universe I am giving his version of "Lost in Translation" a five-star DVD review. I just mean that the movie's story implies certain elements. One of the great achievements of Sofia Coppola's second film is that it contains those elements in smaller proportion - so it's funny but not laugh-out-loud funny; romantic, but just barely; it has a payoff, but a small one. Our involvement in the story and characters builds slowly rather than catching instantly, but it sticks. Swirling through all this, and defining the film, is a profound sense of melancholy.

I guess I can't pull myself up upon the sweet firmament of this film's details, characters, visuals, and mood until I paddle through the choppy surf of a plot synopsis, so let's go swimmin': middle-aged movie star Bob Harris (Murray) arrives in Tokyo in the middle of the night. He's there to film a series of Suntory whiskey ads. He stays at the Park Hyatt, where jetlag and unhappiness won't allow him to sleep. Charlotte (Johansson), in her early 20s, is staying there too. She's presumably gotten over the jetlag, but is also sleepless and unhappy. Her new husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer in Tokyo to shoot a rock band, sleeps well and doesn't seem to understand her. Eventually Bob and Charlotte meet in the hotel bar, and immediately we - and they - sense they're on the same wavelength. They each continue their own lives - Bob spends his days doing the whiskey ads, and Charlotte hangs out in her hotel room, and takes solo jaunts around Tokyo. But they see each other when they can, which is more and more as the week goes on, going out to clubs, singing karaoke, eating sushi, running through the Tokyo streets, and beginning a friendship that is not quite a romance but not just pals, either.

There's more than happens in the story, but not much more, involving peripheral characters. Bob has several conversations with his wife, who's home taking care of the kids and seems awful bored with him (to be fair, Bob's just missed his son's birthday). She needs an answer from Bob about the carpet in his new study (what does it cost to send carpet samples to Japan via FedEx, anyway?). The hotel bar features an American lounge singer closer to Bob's age. An American movie star (Anna Faris from "Scary Movie", unfortunately blonde here) who has worked with Charlotte's husband, is at the hotel for a press junket. Bob is invited on an insane Japanese talk show, sort of the World of Sid and Marty Kroft hosted by an anime character brought to life. But these folks just give shape to the world outside of Bob and Charlotte, as they commiserate on life's challenges and disappointments.

One scene, in which Bob and Charlotte lay on a hotel bed and just talk, is remarkable for the way these two people of different generations communicate. (And also for the fact that Murray is laying in such a way that his sweater looks gigantic, like the Sumo suit he wears in "Charlie's Angels") She wants to know if It (marriage, but also life in general) gets any easier. He doesn't bullsh*t her. They are quiet and really listen to what the other has to say. Murray briefly touches Johansson's foot late in the scene, which in this movie's language is like five love scenes at once.

As Bob Harris, Murray is wise, laid-back, not-trying-too-hard funny, and philosophical in the realistic way of a guy who's had a few regrets but still too few to mention. His dialogue is clearly improvised, and he gets off a lot of good one-liners (my favorite, to the American businessmen in the hotel bar who makes asses of themselves recognizing him, as he gets up and walks away: "Keep it up, fellas"). He reveals a genuine sweet side as well, offering a stuffed animal to Johansson ("Is it for me?" "It can be for you."), or tucking her into bed, as a father would. There's a great, short, hospital waiting room scene in which he bounces lines and observations off a small Japanese man seated next to him. In front of a beautiful 20 year-old woman, he removes his t-shirt to reverse it, showing no self-consciousness about his paunchy gut. We even get to see his nervousness during the whiskey commercial scenes, where he's cut down to size, an actor unsure of how to play the scene at hand. And of course there is the karaoke scene, where Murray - sitting down - performs Roxy Music's "More Than This". He doesn't so much sing it as recite it, as if they lyrics were his own observations. In interviews, Murray gives off much of the same tired energy he gives off in "LiT". Sofia Coppola is really the first director to actually use that real-Murray energy on screen.

There's been some quibbling about Murray-as-Harris being an 'Action Star', but I think the haters are overstating their case. From the clip provided of Harris' movie (pretty obviously an SNL-era Murray clip and some 70s car footage), it seems as if Harris is famous for action comedies. Well, Schwarzenegger aside, most action stars aren't huge, and you don't have to go the gym every day to do your own driving stunts. Murray would be very convincing, I think, as the urban cop those kinds of movies usually have as their leads.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte is stunning and wide-eyed, always observing, looking as if she has a lot on her mind. She had a similar stillness in "Ghost World", but here shows us a person in a holding pattern between youth and maturity. When her husband presents her with a gift bottle of champagne at 8 in the morning, she suggests they open it, like she really wants to, the way a party kid would. But on the phone to a friend in the states, she reveals real doubts about her marriage, and makes us believe her husband's hair gel is a perfectly fine reason to wonder if it's going to work out. Her own contribution to the karaoke scene - the Pretenders "Hand in Pocket", while wearing a pink wig - is touching the way her body language overrides her awful singing.

Much has been made of Ribisi's character's resemblance to Coppola's now-ex-husband Spike Jonze. He definitely has signs of Jonze-ness, but from Ribisi's end, it's a real creation, channeling a little Woody Allen in the way he needs to seem like the adult in the relationship. Still, you can tell he's not some demon, an important distinction, since most movies present the 'other guy' as a complete jerk. These are just two people possibly drifting apart.

Faris, hair color aside, is great as the ditzy movie star. I wasn't convinced at first, but hearing her say 'mushi-mushi' enough has turned me around. She's the perfect over-enthusiastic tourist.

As in "Virgin Suicides", Coppola shows a comfort around women characters that a lot of male directors lack. And, like "VS", there is a prominent motif that could be called, Women Hanging Out In Their Underwear is No Big Deal. Of course there is this movie's now-famous first shot, calmly looking at Johansson's pink-underweared posterior for a long moment. And in all the scenes of Johansson hanging out in her hotel room, she is indeed just in her underwear. But is feels so matter-of-fact and casual it isn't exploitative at all, just what Charlotte would do when alone.

· "Lost" on Location. This 30-minute piece doc*ments some of the shooting in Tokyo. While I don't want to comment on Coppola's personal life, there are some implications to this piece that wouldn't be there if she and Jonze were still married. Jonze shows up at the beginning of the doc*mentary, shooting much of the pre-production footage. Coppola is focused on her movie and seems to regard Jonze as a distraction (which, oddly, is the way the character based on Jonze regards his wife in the movie). For his part, he seems a bit over-eager, as if to compensate for his feelings that he's losing her. And there is one brief moment when Jonze is operating the video camera and following Sofia around, when they pass a pretty Japanese girl and the camera turns for just a second, Jonze still looking at the girl.

Beyond the uncomfortable energy between the two, we also get the feeling of what it was like to shoot the film. A lot of EPKs feature on-set camaraderie that's an absolute lie, everyone saying how great everyone else is; here it feels real.

It looks like Coppola and Co. had the same problems as Murray has in the movie, of communicating with their Japanese actors and crew. Murray is a natural ham who seems truly happy to be there. He carries around a Japanese phrase book and in one sequence seems especially enamored of the Japanese version of, "Do you know who you're talking to?" Film sets are really like this; with so much down time, inside jokes are born and recited by everyone until they run into the ground and another inside joke is born to keep everyone's spirits up. We also learn that Murray even helped carry equipment on one occasion, and that the crew shot a lot of exterior footage without permits - at one point even going into Starbucks for a supposed coffee break, while D.P. Lance Acord's camera secretly captured a master shot of the busy intersection just outside the window.

As with the short doc*mentary on the "Virgin Suicides" disc, big brother Roman Coppola shows up to shoot second unit.

As with all doc*mentaries of this type, the only thing wrong with it is that it's not long enough.

· A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola. Shot in Rome (where Murray is shooting Wes Anderson's next movie), Murray and Coppola hang out on a rooftop and talk about their movie. There's just something about his dynamic with Coppola that seems to calm Murray, as he talks about the movie and his acting choices like a real actor and not some late-night TV huckster. These two clearly have huge crushes on one another, but are also proud of their film.

· Deleted Scenes. These are really just scene extensions that were deservedly cut. We do get Faris' full press-conference for her action movie, which really seems like several one-shot questions, as if Coppola only needed one but they kept rolling for editing options. Faris shows off her comic chops here, with all her half-sincere fawning at the attention of the Japanese journalists, and her unreasonable enthusiasm.

· "Matthew's Best Hit TV". The full clip of the talk show Murray's character guests on. Exactly what's in the film proper.

· "City Girl" Music Video by Kevin Shields. The film's opening theme set to footage from the film of Johansson wandering the city, taking the subway, etc.

· Trailers. Okay, this is dirty pool. We get five trailers, one for Focus Features in general, one for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", one for "21 Grams", and one for "Swimming Pool". Great slate of pictures, but we are forced to watch this before the disc goes to the menu. Hey, Focus Features has to keep the lights on somehow, but they don't need to twist my arm. The trailer for "Lost in Translation" is listed among the bonus features.
"LiT" was shot in 1.85:1 by Lance Acord (Spike Jonze's two features and "Buffalo '66"). With handheld camera work, he and Coppola capture a bright, bustling Tokyo. The film associates blues and pinks with Johansson and browns with Murray, and is as comfortable with shadowy hotel bars as it is with neon lights and busy city sidewalks.

Given the size and shape of this movie, it's a wonder Coppola didn't choose a digital video format. I'm glad she chose film - the richness of the DVD transfer features lots of natural grain, showing creamy skin tones and a giving the film's mostly overcast skies an almost silver quality. The discussion comparing film and digital video is ongoing in today's film culture, and I can't solve it here. But "LiT" looks the way it needs to, and that's what counts.

This disc has English 5.1 in both Dolby and DTS, and French 5.1. There are English and French subtitles. The movie sounds great, showcasing Richard Begg's sound design of ultra-modern Tokyo. Also great is the music by Kevin Shields, and the work of music producer Brian Reitzell. So many movie soundtracks strive for 'older' sounds, which is fine. But Coppola looks for a modern sound, and Shields and Reitzell provide one, which matches the movie's melancholy tone. It's a nice bonus to hear Peaches on the soundtrack too.

Throughout my reviews of Sofia Coppola's movies this week, I've been trying to work in the fact that she is a uniquely beautiful woman. She's small and delicate, with big brown eyes and a quiet demeanor. I guess it's kind of a sh*tty, sexist thing to say about a film director - does it matter what the Coens look like? Was Hitchc*ck a hottie? Well, I am a film critic, but I am also a man. I just can't help but observe that "Lost in Translation " has the same qualities as Ms. Coppola: it's lovely, small, and fragile, sees so much, is quiet but has much to say.

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