Lost in Translation Review

The Film

There are those in the Coppola clan that shy away from the family name, Nicholas went from Coppola to Cage, so he could prove it was his abilities as an actor and not his moniker that would make him famous, and Jason Schwartzman has never been one to play up the fact he has a rather famous uncle. Sofia on the other hand bears the family name proudly, and she’s not shy about getting her father involved – he having produced her first two features – but when the results are as good as The Virgin Suicides it’s hard to lay accusations of mere nepotism, maybe daddy just has an eye for talent.

Lost in Translation is a tale of two people adrift in their own lives whose paths cross as they sit in Tokyo, trying to figure out where their lives are going. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) married a photographer, and while his career carries them all around the world as he snaps celebrities there is no glamour in this life for Charlotte. He seems oblivious to the fact that his obsession with his own life is making the woman he loves miserable, and she’s beginning to wonder what it was that made the man she married the man she loved, and whether those things still exist. Bob (Bill Murray) is famous, or he was once. The blockbuster movies have become a thing of the past, but he’s still enough of a face to warrant a Japanese whisky company flying him out to spearhead their advertising campaign. Bob has two kids and a wife, or more accurately, Bob has two kids and a marriage, his love for them being the only thing stopping him from walking away from her.

Neither of them have anything to fill their days with in Japan, Charlotte fills the time between brief encounter with her husband by seeing the sights, or simply staring out the window. Bob fills the time between his promotional obligations by propping up the hotel bar - neither managing to distract themselves from their troubles, with each experience leaving them sinking further into their solitary depression. Some people find it easy to be alone in a room full of people, it can be hard not to be when nobody in the room speaks your language. And when even your spouse feels like they’re speaking in a foreign tongue, the isolation can be overwhelming, and communication is not a overwhelming success in either of their marriages. Charlotte and Bob’s first meeting is, suitably, facilitated by boredom. Bob has nothing to do but sit by the bar, Charlotte is desperate to escape the mindless whittering of her husband’s celebrity friends, the two of them sit talking, the rest of the world oblivious to them. It doesn’t take long for them to stop being alone, together, and start being together, alone, and this odd couple that should never have met start to enjoy Tokyo for the first time.

Lost in Translation is a genuinely exceptional film, there are many things that would have made it good, but it contains three things that have made it great, a touching, personal, script, an amazing pair of protagonists, and a director with an eye for the intangible. The script sparkles, and is obviously something that could never have been written by someone who had neither spent time in Japan nor found a soulmate. The cultural observations may not be the most acute, even stereotypical, but this is after all a story of people just starting to experience Japan, they’re tourists, and as such are eager to experience all the things they have heard about Japan. Naturally these are stereotypical activities as we see them discover karaoke bars, temples and arcades, and while these may be the fun things that bond them, it’s the moments where they are alone, away from the Tokyo bustle, that really matter. As entertaining as they are the comical elements pale in comparison to the beautiful relationship that forms between Bob and the much younger Charlotte. This is where the two leads take over, as even though their intimate liaison is so well written, these could still have been lifeless characters. With so many of their greatest moments being made up of glances and touches, they have taken the script and given it real life. Both Johansson and Murray never veer from being both convincing and impressive in their performances, watching them discover how well they already know each other - despite just meeting - these are two characters wholly in tune, finding happiness knowing there is someone as perfectly lost as they are.

Coppola’s movement of the camera may not be dazzling, in fact the sometimes hand-held camera may be dizzying, but it’s with a static lens she really captures the magic, her eye for a photograph possibly keener than her eye for a film, but her eye for capturing humanity positively anthropological. Be it by letting shots linger to capture the dying moments of a glance, allowing the eye to be drawn to the subtlest of reactions, or even just knowing how long to let a shot last when nothing is happening, Coppola conveys feelings and moods with an eerie precision. As with The Virgin Suicides this is a piece based on moods rather than events, capturing feelings rather than spectacle, yet managing to yield spectacular results, and is a film worthy of the accolades already heaped upon it, Murray – who has claimed a Golden Globe for his performance and is nominated for best actor at the Academy Awards – has found the perfect role for his talents. It’s not a million miles away from his performance in Rushmore, though with more of the upbeat aspects of his finest comic roles, it’s a brilliantly natural performance, his comic timing leaving you never knowing which lines were scripted and which improvised. Johansson more than delivers on the potential she showed in Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t There, showing maturity beyond her years in a truly touching performance with real emotional depth, how the Academy have overlooked her, for both this and The Girl With a Pearl Earring, is beyond me, even in the remarkably strong field this year.

Lost in Translation is a beautiful film, affecting in so many ways, and it’s quixotic nature will strike a poignant chord with anyone who has an even slightly romantic temperament, the script, performances and direction combine sublimely to form a cinematic experience that is truly not to be missed. It may be true that it is more touching to those that have experienced something similar, but I can’t fault it for that. Rather than seeing it as a failure, for not managing to express things to an audience that haven’t felt the same way, I’d hail it as a triumph, as for anyone who has had a similar experience, nothing could ever capture the emotions involved more perfectly. I’d be surprised if I see a better film this year.

The Picture

Whilst this may be a new film, it is a relatively low budget one, and as such doesn’t have the polish you’ll find on larger productions. This means the picture quality here falls some way short of reference levels, the less well lit scenes in particular present noticeable grain, and blacks often have a tinge of grey. It isn’t a poor transfer, by all accounts the cinema prints carried the same problems, but the image is a long way from being poor, though it’s also a long way from shining.

The Sound

Whilst there are both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks this isn’t a film that requires a high bitrate to make itself heard. Your room won’t tremble from the bass, though it will bustle from the sounds of Tokyo around you, and be filled by the fantastic soundtrack enveloping you. The DTS track may be an unnecessary addition, but the soundtrack itself is all you could want for a low key film such as this.

The Extras

Matthew’s Best Hit TV

This is Bob Harris’ appearance on Matthew’s Best Hit TV - the Johnny Carson of Japan - in full. Lasting for around 5 minutes it’s actually pretty funny, and it seems clear nobody told Bill Murray what was in the mystery box (which you see appear as he watches the show back in his hotel room) at the end, making for an excellent reaction.

Kevin Shields “City Girl” Music Video

Running for a brief 2 minutes this could just as easily be an extended scene, as it is all the footage of Charlotte wandering Tokyo with her umbrella and more.

Deleted Scenes
More Aqua Aerobics, Charlotte with Robots, Kelly’s Press Conference, Morning After Karaoke, Bob In Hospital Waiting Room

Not so much a selection of scenes as extra footage that would have filled gaps in the movie, as snippets of these – and similar – are scattered through the film. Kelly’s press conference is the longest, and dullest, as we watch her talk about Maximum Velocity – the fictional film she promotes in the real film – but the robots in Charlotte with Robots are very cool pieces of art, and I want to see more of them!

A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola

It’s not really a conversation, as we never hear anybody ask questions or respond to them, but we do get to listen to the pair talk for 10 minutes about some of their experiences on the film – from an Italian rooftop – notably the interesting phrases Bill Murray used to amaze the locals with, from his phrase book Making Out in Japanese, which are all as sensible as you would expect from him.

“Lost” On Location

This half hour documentary – shot by Sofia Coppola’s husband, Spike Jonze – is a fantastic look at the making of a film, as along with being filled with the usual funny moments that make it into these things, is also full of stress and anxiety. It’s refreshing to see filmmakers talk about the process without the bravado that usually comes with promotional material, and showing real relief when things actually work out, despite being thrown out of locations and worrying about typhoons. We also get to see Bill make use of his phrasebook (a revised edition of which is available here here) and, thankfully, more robots. What more could you ask for.

Theatrical Trailer

It’s the trailer.
As featured in theatres.


The DVD package isn’t the most comprehensive ever produced, but the documentary is excellent, and even though the rest is rather whimsical the film would be an essential purchase even if it were a bare bones release, I really can’t recommend it enough.

Note: This review is of the Canadian release, which may differ slightly from that of the USA, which is distributed by Universal.

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