Review: Lost in Translation (2003)

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30 minutes into Lost in Translation our two traveling misanthropes finally meet in the hotel lobby at the bar sharing a friendly exchange. They are two people who share one striking similarity — they are Americans in a foreign land — and they’re looking for a friend.

It’s a very pertinent film for places I’ve gone as an American who has traveled to Japan of my own volition but still as a bit of an outsider. Not because I am rejected or an outcast but for the very fact that there are obvious cultural and linguistic barriers in my way. I resonate with this film not so much because it takes on the point of view of the Japanese and empathizes with them but on the contrary, it focuses on those on the outside looking in. Like Bob & Charlotte and you and me in our manifold cultural illiteracies.

Bob is a big shot movie star. Probably not unlike Bill Murray. Big in the 70s and 80s but now his popularity is slowly waning as the years begin to catch up with him and he’s demoted to cameos. In fact, maybe Murray has fared better. Bob’s in Tokyo promoting Suntory Whiskey in their latest ad campaign. It’s good money but certainly not what he wants to be doing with his career.

He’s Suntory Time’s latest spokesperson. It’s the epitome of culture becoming completely muddled along language lines. My Japanese admittedly leaves much to be desired, but the Japanese director’s stage directions are full of passionate vision of what this scene will be, a shot out of Casablanca, full of emotion and heartache. The translation Bob gets is simply “He wants you to turn and look to the camera.” He feels like he’s missing something. Just as each reference that’s tossed haphazardly his way is never fully understood.

The Rat Pack, Bogart, Sinatra, Roger Moore, even Johnny Carson. Each of these names comes with so much more. But the context has been ripped away from them and appropriated and transplanted to different settings. It’s nothing to be up in arms about it’s simply the reality of our internationalized culture and it’s utterly befuddling to Bob. He can’t navigate it at all.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is a recently married philosophy graduate who looks hardly a day over 20. Friends back home seem too preoccupied to listen as she calls them up over the phone. Meanwhile, her dweeby husband with a particularly whiny voice (sorry Giovani Ribisi) is consumed with his own career as a photographer and distracted by old acquaintances ( namely Anna Faris). He says he loves his wife but he certainly doesn’t spend much time with Charlotte. Her loneliness shows. She’s even hit the bottom of the barrel listening to CDs to discover the purpose of her soul.

Bill Murray’s characteristic deadpan cheekiness feels entirely at odds with the culture that he is thrown into where you’re forced to cook your own food (Shabu Shabu) and he dwarfs the national average in terms of height. Bob is the prototypical American movie star making his press junket of Tokyo but at the same time, he’s also oblivious that he forgot his son’s birthday again until he receives a reminder.

In fact, Murray never feels like he could be anyone’s best friend because he’d either be a flake or he’d never open up to you because he’s too busy making jokes in lieu of actual conversation. Still, maybe there’s a grain of hope.

Bob and Charlotte are totally adrift in the city. Lost in the sea of Tokyo and it’s really no fault of the city despite its astronomical population and unfamiliar customs. It only serves to magnify the real problem — a small-scale parallel to what is going on in their lives. Their problem doesn’t start with Tokyo. It starts with the person who looks back at them in the mirror. Though they come from two very different stations of life, their current state of affairs is all but analogous. Bob and Charlotte are in the midst of personal crises — the biggest ones imaginable — what’s life really about?

That’s why when they break out in conversation it means something. Of course, he leads with an extended joke, “I‘m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?”

Their meeting in the hotel lobby is a lifeline that they both willingly grab hold of and it leads them out into the world around them. They frequent the video game parlors, traverse Shibuya crosswalks, perform in late night Karaoke joints, and sit up talking with Japanese surfers as Tokyo’s bright lights illuminate the night air. Coppola even drops a nod to her significant other with Phoenix’s “Too Young” exemplifying the vibe around town.

The film hints at infidelity at times and Bob’s marriage is a flimsy one at best but the beauty of his relationship with Charlotte is that first and foremost it is a friendship and by the time they must part ways it’s heartbreaking. They’ve grown so close. But a hug can be as meaningful as any sexual relationship might have been. They genuinely care about each other. It turns out Bill Murray can be a good friend and one with wisdom and grace no less.

In its fleeting moments, Lost in Translation, captures just how horrible goodbyes can be. There’s so much you want to be able to say and nothing you can begin to say. In fact, Bob cannot leave it there and so he goes after her, tracks her down, and shares one final embrace and one last word. Both of them go their separate ways but there’s no doubt that Bob and Charlotte have grown and helped each other to a better place. It’s still a work in progress but that’s part of what life is about right? Living and growing alongside other people.

We can scour YouTube to come up with the latest and greatest, definitive enhanced audio video to tell us exactly what Bob leaves her with, although each one undoubtedly claims something different, or we can bask in that ambiguity which while so maddening in some way feels satisfying for the very same reason. Floating through Tokyo has never been so wistfully affecting.

4.5/5 Stars

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The Virgin Suicides (1999)

VirginSuicidesPosterIn her debut, Sofia Coppola fashions the 1970s with a washed out wistfulness that feels like a distant memory — lingering for a time — leaving a few far away remembrances to be eulogized and reminisced about.

Her film is really about two groups. There are the Lisbon girls who live with their militantly authoritarian parents and then the neighborhood boys who look on with awe. These girls are the unattainable prize that all of these young men are entranced by. They are not besmirched or dirtied by the ways of the world, stuck in the ivory tower of their parent’s home. It’s almost as if they come out of a dream, so pure and in the same way so provocative.

However, things get shaken up when the youngest daughter attempt to commit suicide and then in a free moment she jumps out of the window and meets death by the metal fence posts below. Red flags should be going up everywhere, but stubborn Mrs. Lisbon only becomes more stringent in her moralistic ways. She should be trusting her daughters, allowing them certain freedoms, but she only takes away more. And reluctant Mr. Lisbon does nothing to stop her. He just lets it be.

Only allowed to socialize at one dance under strict guidelines, the girls relish this opportunity and so do the boys. They finally get their chance with a different class of girl. But after the smitten Lux breaks curfew, all the sisters lose all contact with the outside world. The iron gates go down, and she never gets another moment with high school heartthrob Trip. On top of that, their mother makes her burn all her records in another strict turn.

Lux defies her passively in any way possible as she and her sisters try and maintain contact with the boys on the outside. But there is a point for any person where this type of confinement, this type of prison, gets to be too much. The girls reach the end of their rope and take the only way out they can see.

Oddly enough, most of the boys have little personality, but the focus is the Lisbons and specifically their daughters. The Virgin Suicides was partly intriguing because it never seemed to take on some dramatic tone and it never felt all that personal. I felt so far away. As Carol King mournfully sang, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore. It would be so fine to see your face at my door. Doesn’t help to know you’re so far away.” That’s exactly what this film does. It doesn’t allow us to get close and that aloofness lent itself to the intrigue we have in these girls. We’re pulled into their story along with all these young boys.

3.5/5 Stars

Lost In Translation (2003)

Lost_in_Translation_posterStarring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson with direction by Sofia Coppola, this film is set in the fast-paced, technological, and modern world of Tokyo, Japan. That is where Bob and Charlotte find themselves and they both are lost, simply going through the motions of life. He is a middle-aged, former movie star filming a whiskey commercial. She is a newly-married wife of a fashion photographer. Despite their age differences, they find out that they have a lot in common. Over the week they spend time together in Tokyo and become friends. When the time comes for Bob to leave neither one wants their time to end. They say goodbye but do not forget each other. This film was enjoyable because it portrayed two people who could be good friends without getting romantically attached, at least in the conventional sense.

I must say that this type of friendship intrigues me. It is understandable that if you go to a foreign country alone it would be nice to have someone you could at least converse with, without any barrier getting in the way. It might be at Narita airport for a moment, at a Hotel, or walking the streets of Shinjuku.  It would act as a comfort in a world like Tokyo that is so fast paced and high stress. These unusual circumstances could throw together two very different people, with little in common except the language they speak. That is something that does not happen every day.

Needless to say, after gaining the opportunity to visit Tokyo two years in a row it has given me some new insight. I can now wholly empathize with Bob and Charlotte because although I knew a few people, Tokyo is such a highly populated, fast-paced world that seems so easy to get lost and overwhelmed in. There is so much to see, so many lights, so many hurrying folks, so many subway lines, so many surgical masks, so much etiquette, and so much technology. True, some of my ancestors were Japanese but the language still baffles me, making it very easy to get “Lost in Translation.” Being in Tokyo it also helped me realize that it is not only tourists who get lost. It has been over 10 years since this film came out and a lot can happen in that time like more Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner.

Despite the westernization and technological advancement, Tokyo also has a time-worn aspect, and its people are often worn as well. They might not be lost because of a literal language barrier. However, they, like Bob and Charlotte, are often lost because they have difficulty getting close to their peers. Often they, like the two protagonists, seem to be searching for someone to talk to, but in their case manners keep others at arm’s length. Coppola’s film gained an even more personal note now that I have walked in these places and interacted with or at least walked alongside the Japanese people. They like anyone else can be “Lost in Translation,” it just might be a different type of “language” than what we struggle with. They too are humans who have their share of struggles, worries, joys, hopes, and dreams. Hopefully, this type of understanding will help us transcend any barriers so we no longer find ourselves “Lost in Translation.”

4.5/5 Stars