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Lost in Translation

Universal // R // December 7, 2010
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted December 31, 2010 | E-mail the Author


There is a scene midway through Lost in Translation when the revelers we have been following have retired to a private karaoke booth in a high rise towering over Tokyo. The aging actor Bob Harris, played with a knowing melancholy by the great Bill Murray, looks over at the restless newlywed he has been running around with, and Charlotte, played with surprising candor by Scarlett Johansson, looks back at him. In that moment, we see love arrive, and it brings along with it heartbreak. For these two, both sides are inextricable from one another. Regardless of the depth of the emotion that will develop over the next couple of days, both are married--Bob maybe even for longer than Charlotte has been alive--and though they met half a world away from home, when they return to where they came from, they'll be worlds apart.

For me, this scene is probably the single most memorable romantic moment of modern cinema. It's a shared event that is at once both powerful and fragile--which is also the best way to describe Lost in Translation as a whole. Sofia Coppola's 2003 movie is a fascinating snapshot of two lives in limbo, and it only grows more fascinating as the years progress.

Lost in Translation is nearly plotless, following the random trail of a burgeoning relationship rather than traditional story structure. The film begins as Bob arrives in Tokyo to film commercials for Suntory whiskey. His trip starts on several bum notes, including a literal note from his wife reminding him that he missed his son's birthday. Bob doesn't want to be in Japan, he doesn't want to be doing commercials, but the money is ridiculous, and so he braves the language barrier for the cash. The actual commercial shoot is quite funny. The sardonic Bill Murray emerges, and his brittle humor revealing just how tired of this rigmarole he really is.

Charlotte is staying in the same hotel as Bob. She is there with her husband (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer in the country on a shoot. Charlotte, who has yet to figure out what she's going to do with a degree in philosophy, has tagged along for want of anything better to do. She eventually meets Bob in the cheesy hotel bar, and they bond out of jetlag-induced insomnia and a feeling of not belonging. Tokyo is an isolating bubble for them, one they only partially penetrate, with Charlotte really being the only one who puts in much effort. It's telling that the experiences that she has on her own involve some kind of search for a connection, be it natural (the flower arranging) or spiritual (the chanting monks). Despite wanting to be a part of something, she can't get over the hurdle of being an outsider. She's the furthest outside when she sees a traditional Japanese wedding and realizes that the love she is witnessing is absent from her own marriage.

When Charlotte's husband leaves Tokyo for a few days and leaves her alone, she and Bob grow closer. They share a night on the town and share more about themselves. It's on this night that they end up singing karaoke together. It ends with a marvelous, emotionally poignant sequence where Bob puts Charlotte to bed, and though she smiles at him before drifting off to slumber, he knows that this is the end of the evening, there can be nothing more. Murray holds all the hurt in his face, an entire tragedy playing out in his eyes. Bob returns to his room and calls his spouse, and the conversation does him no good. It's clear that even if he were home, there would still be a canyon-sized division between husband and wife.

It's pretty remarkable to watch a Hollywood movie where the central romance is one that is entirely platonic. Coppola avoids any icky father/daughter issues that most movies of May-December romances would wade into, and instead works slowly to draw the pair to common ground, using their age difference as an effective tool to link them together. Bob has more experience than Charlotte, but he's never patronizing when he imparts his wisdom, and despite her occasional ribbing, Charlotte only ever treats him as a contemporary. In fact, her sarcastic sense of humor, a trait her husband doesn't like, is something they both share. As we watch, Lost in Translation tracks how love blossoms--the secret highs, the shared glances, the nervousness and the mistakes. As a writer, Sofia Coppola is absolutely in charge of her scenario. She employs language sparingly, never saying outright what is better expressed with a look or a gesture. Her mastery of the interior life is remarkably assured. As I grow older, I find my appreciation shifting more and more. As a younger person, I was amazed by how well she captured the feeling of one's aimless 20s; now that I've moved on a few years, I find her understanding of what it means to grow older to be astounding. Granted, it helps that she has two fantastic actors who brought a little of themselves to their characters. Murray and Johansson enter a realm where the divide between the performance and the page becomes imperceptible.

Coppola won an Oscar for her screenplay, and though I can't say enough about her writing skills (see also my reviews of Marie Antoinette (both of them) and especially Somewhere), I don't think enough credit is given to her power as a director. Lost in Translation is a beautifully constructed film. The director and her cinematographer, Lance Acord (Where the Wild Things Are), transform Tokyo into something otherworldly. Their use of the real animated billboards and neon of the city is a more affecting portrayal of a technological world than anything you'll see in TRON: Legacy. The misty hues of the Japanese skies work with the sterile hallways of the characters' hotel to create a physical embodiment of their ennui. The strange magic and beauty of the city only opens up to them as they open up to one another, and the sheen disappears the more wrong turns they take.

I actually grew verklempt multiple times during this viewing of Lost in Translation. There was the scene I described at the outset, and also the touching moment where, following a joint viewing of La Dolce Vita, the pair share a bed, with just the gentlest of contact between them--her feet against his leg, his hand on her foot. Then, of course, there is the infamous ending, intentionally inscrutable, Coppola letting the intrigue of a secret solidify each viewer's relationship with her movie. Though we have been witness to a shared intimacy throughout, Bob's final whisper reminds us that we really are just witnesses, we can't know how it all turns out. And yet, doesn't that just draw us in all the more?

Almost eight years on, Lost in Translation is a movie that only improves with age and multiple viewings, much like aging process of the whiskey Murray hawks in the film. Your taste for it will increase as your emotional palate becomes more refined. It's a film with lasting resonance, like an echo that grows stronger the more it repeats.


The image quality of Lost in Translation can be hard to judge. It was shot at 1.85:1 on real film stock, and it was also shot on the quick. This means that the film should and does have some grain, and at times takes on a remarkable texture; at other times, it can appear soft, with the edges of the frame slightly out of focus. It's hard to judge how much of that is intended and how much should have and could have been improved with a more conscientious high-def transfer. That said, the 1080p image is quite lovely overall, and all it takes is a couple of seconds revisiting the original DVD edition to see how far it really has come.

The famous opening shot of Johansson's backside is a good example of what I mean. It's a little dark, a little grainy, and yet we also see so many textures--skin, different kinds of cloth--and excellent detail in the background beyond the figure. Moments later, we get our first glimpse of Tokyo, of the bright lights and the neon, and it looks awesome. The Blu-Ray looks its best throughout when portraying brighter colors, but I also used the word "misty" when describing the look of the film above, and I found what others may argue to be faults as an accurate depiction of Coppola's moody palette. It's possible this is a film that could lose some of its character with greater resolution. It's not a clarity issue, just look at the faraway shots, the city from Charlotte's hotel room window or Mount Fuji on the golf course--there is plenty of depth here, the picture goes way back. Rather, this could just be one of those movies that is an aesthetic conundrum in a high-def world.

Significant improvements have been made in the soundtrack. The audio is mixed for Blu-Ray as a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and I found it to be an immersive surround experience. There is lots of activity, particularly out on the streets, but also with the ambient noise in the hotel bar, and it all sounds very good. The music has an excellent position in the mix. Lost in Translation still has one of my favorite soundtrack albums; I even put it on to write this review.

A French-language track is also mixed in 5.1, and there are subtitles in French, Spanish, and English SDH.

The bulk of the extras on the new edition of Lost in Translation date back to the original DVD release, so those hoping for a bigger package in this upgrade are going to be disappointed. Ported over this time (not to mention through a previous HD release) are all the bonus features: a behind-the-scenes documentary, an interview with Murray and Coppola (recorded while Murray was shooting The Life Aquatic), deleted scenes, the extended Japanese talk show, a Kevin Shields music video, and the theatrical trailer.

The only things added to the Blu-Ray are to promote Coppola's latest movie, Somewhere, which is a thematic sibling to Translation. In addition to the trailer for Somewhere, there is a promotional EPK for the film that isn't even four minutes long. So, not much of substance to count as new material.

I am neophtye to Blu-Ray, and so new to BD-Live, and frankly, I don't get it. This just gives Universal the ability to give me more commercials and to try to push me to log onto Facebook to tell people I am watching their movie? Unless it's The Social Network, I watch movies to get away from Facebook. And the internet in general. "Get out of my TV!" the old man shouts, before promptly turning around and yelling at a cloud. There is also a "ticker" feature that I turned on, but the icon for "more" never popped up. Color me nonplussed.

Though likely not the big super-duper release that Lost in Translation fans may have been hoping for in this new digital frontier and all these years on, I'll still greedily snatch this Blu-Ray up and gladly send my old DVD into retirement. Sofia Coppola's second feature film is a near-perfect movie, showcasing a remarkable depth of feeling and a truly romantic soul. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are the ideal vessels for the filmmaker's message, and they make a pretty fantastic onscreen couple. This movie at once displays a reverence for both youth and maturity, meaning it should appeal to most discerning moviegoers regardless of where (or when) they find themselves in life. Highly Recommended.

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at

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