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Lost in Translation

Few things are as enjoyable in American films as watching the maturation of a beloved actor. Clint Eastwood may have taken his knocks for movies like Bronco Billy and Pink Cadillac, not to mention starring opposite an orangutan on more than one occasion, but by the 1990s he would redeem himself by directing Unforgiven and then appearing in several good movies that would utilize his age, rather than overlook it. Somebody, somewhere, must have given Bruce Willis a good talking to — were it not for some savvy career choices, he might still be reliving his Die Hard glory with self-serving slop like Hudson Hawk and Striking Distance. Instead, the mega-star took a part in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and reinvigorated his career by working with directors like Terry Gilliam, Luc Besson, and M. Night Shyamalan, cementing his position on the A-list for some time yet. And while Bill Murray has been responsible for more than his share of hits, ranging from Stripes to Groundhog Day, he's also taken easy paychecks with Ghostbusters II and The Man Who Knew Too Little. Thankfully, with Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), one realizes that Murray's turn in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998) was not an aberration, but an indication — America's favorite smartass also happens to be one our most genuine and poignant film actors. Murray stars in Lost in Translation as Bob Harris, an American movie star who's nearing the age when most action-genre performers start to think about hanging up their holsters. When not doing film projects, Harris might be found on the stage, or even spending time with his children. But instead he winds up in Tokyo, taking a $2 million payday to endorse Suntory whiskey in television and print ads ("Make it… Suntory time.") Also in Tokyo is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent Yale grad who has decided to tag along on a job with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), although the two don't seem to have much in common, and he's too busy to have much time for her anyway. Meanwhile, Bob hides out in the hotel and talks on the phone with his wife Lydia, who also faxes him messages while looking after her busy domestic life with their children. Before long, Bob and Charlotte meet in the hotel bar. That brief encounter leads to another, and then to a night on the town. But even though it's clear that both have been struck by an inexplicable kismet in each other's company, they also understand that life's many complicated circumstances will force them to part ways before the week is through.

*          *          *

Along with the two central characters in Lost in Translation, the third character of the film is the city of Tokyo itself. With capable photography from d.p. Lance Acord, the movie is content to linger within the city's confines, either with high shots of the vast cityscape, as seen from Charlotte's hotel windows, or of the crowded, brightly lit life at street-level. It's a remarkable examination of a foreign city that's rarely found in contemporary American films, capturing both Tokyo's human density and modern Japan's strange fascination (some would say obsession) with bright lights, cheap technology, and pop culture. Decades distant from postwar ruin, the city comes across as an extraordinarily happy place — which also makes it an ideal counterpoint for Coppola's unpretentious look at human loneliness. The title's wordplay certainly isn't vague: Both Bob and Charlotte are "lost," abandoned by their spouses, at arm's length from most everyone they meet, and stuck in a city that is far more puzzling than enticing. But as they spend more time together, it becomes clear that both feel abandoned by the goals that they have set out for themselves. They also are kindred souls with different public personas — smart-aleck Bob jabs with directors, photographers, and chat-show hosts, while Charlotte is withdrawn and overwhelmed by her inability to take advantage of life's opportunities. Sometimes their conversations make them sound like lovers (as when they compare how they reacted the first time they saw each other), at other times like a father and daughter. The relationship never spills over into an affair, but their chaste love-story is bound by their inert, loveless marriages. For Charlotte, this offbeat older man offers her wisdom and patience and experience behind closed doors — qualities she may never see in her husband. And if Bob is physically attracted to Charlotte, it's matched by his need to act as a responsible mentor to a younger person — something he suspects he's failed to do within his own family. Universal's DVD release of Lost in Translation features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include "Lost on Location," an unnarrated video diary of the production in Tokyo featuring Coppola, Murray, and various cast and crew members (29 min.); "A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola," which apparently was shot in Italy months after the 27-day shoot in Tokyo was completed (Murray sports white hair and a beard) (9 min.); "Matthew's Best Hit TV," with Murray's full appearance on the Japanese talk show, which appears completely ad-libbed by the actor (5 min.), five deleted scenes, Kevin Shields' music video for "City Girl," and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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