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My First Film Review: Lost in Translation (27 November 2004)

I began writing regularly during my second year of Sixth Form.  By today's standards, 17¾ is quite a late age to start.  With a blossoming blog culture, anyone who has an interest nowadays invariably writes about it.  I know friends from my year at school who had kept online diaries right from their early teens, but these tended to be girls who started with Dear Diary, wrote in the sort of garish pink you had to highlight in order to read and who had no designs on a wide readership.  And while some of us had just discovered Bebo, which had been the early triangle ding of the social networking boom of Facebook and Twitter that would soon follow, we didn't know the capabilities of the Internet as we do now.  Back then, it was enough to be popular within your small clique.  But suddenly, popularity wasn't enough; people wanted to be famous.  

Going back a bit further, I guess it was MSN Messenger that first got me into writing.  Everyone strives for life's level playing field and - for me, at least - Messenger was it.  I was the shy type at school, but shy by design rather than nature.  Suddenly, Messenger handed me a voice that allowed me to chat to people I wouldn't have otherwise chatted to in the flesh.  It was a wonderful tool, and one that almost facilitated in the failing of my A Levels.  

Back then, my writing was very insular, angsty and largely self-obsessed - the generally accepted style of a teenager.  Arguably, to improve at writing is to gain a selflessness and a sense of the wider picture, and this only comes with age.  There were many opportunities to write humorously while at school, but I neither had the capability nor the perspective with which to do it.  For many, it is the most bizarre and intense experience of one's life, and ought to be satirised as artistically as one's capabilities will allow.

It was only after school that I really began to educate myself.  I started writing regularly,  InterRailed through Europe and watched more world cinema films than I care to admit.  Suddenly, I was watching films based on the strength of the director rather than the stars.  Some films were more instrumental than others, but the likes of Amelie, Man Bites Dog, Cinema Paradiso, 3-Iron and Seven Samurai were becoming early favourites.  I was scouring car boot sales for little-known titles and joined Cheltenham Film Society to watch the latest world cinema releases. 

One of the releases that captured my imagination shortly after I left school was Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.  Many people had still not forgiven Coppola for her performance in The Godfather Part III, while a strong case of nepotism could be levelled against Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia's highly influential director father.  In 1999, Sofia Coppola made The Virgin Suicides, her first full-length feature.  It established Coppola as a star behind the camera, following in her father's directorial footsteps.  But it was with Lost in Translation that Sofia really made a name for herself.  She went on to win Best Original Screenplay at The Oscars for Lost in Translation, making her the third generation of the Coppola family to win an Academy Award. 

Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray are lost souls in Tokyo.

While Lost in Translation's visual style owes a large debt to Wong Kar Wai (albeit without the frenetic jump cuts), it is very much its own film.  The soundtrack - largely new and existing songs from My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields - was exemplary, capturing the hazy confusion of a big city.  Much of my early obsession with the film could be traced back to Scarlett Johansson.  Such was the understated quality of her performance (and, daresay, her beauty), she wasn't known for anything else for a very long time after LiT.  And I mean a very long time.  The film was almost not to be: Bill Murray is infamously difficult to get a hold of.  By all accounts, the Ghostbusters star doesn't have a PA and keeps his only phone switched off.  Even with her connections, Coppola had to leave a message with Murray and hoped he would call back.  Thankfully, he did, but even his agreement was a verbal one.  True to his word, Bill did show up and the rest is history.  

Below is a review of Lost in Translation I wrote a few months after I'd first watched it.  It doesn't necessarily reflect the view of the film I have now, because at the time I was in the throes of the obsession.  However, to change it would be improper and therefore I have decided to keep it in its original form.  The writing is a little ameteurish, for which I make no apologies: every writer has to start somewhere and this was more or less my start.

A Review of Lost in Translation - 27th November 2004 

Before I start I’d just like to say that this film isn’t for everyone - you’re either going to love this film or completely miss the point and hate it.

With Tokyo city as the backdrop and isolation as his partner, we see Bob Harris (Bill Murray) discover the reality of being a foreigner in a big city. As a popular face of seventies action movies, Bob must now travel further a field to find those ever-diminishing roles. He finds himself in Japan being paid $2 million to endorse a brand of whiskey. Fresh from the plane journey and with a serious case of jetlag, he spends his nights in the hotel bar, supping the Whiskey that had sent him there. During another lonely night at the bar, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a newly-graduated philosophy student tagging along with her photographer husband. Like Bob, Charlotte is at a crossroads in her life, wary of what the future holds and with an equal sense of loneliness in a city full of people. They quickly become friends and form a bond that reiterates what is tragically affirming in their own lives but heartbreakingly clear when the two must split.

By the end of the film it might occur to you that there wasn’t a plot to speak of - there’s no disturbance intertwined in the plot for the characters to resolve soon after. But, of course, there’s a plot to every film - we’ve just been watching too many films with an easily recognisable plot structure to notice. “Lost in Translation” is on the main part character-driven. Many films have a mixture of plot- and character-driven storylines. With this mixture, films can get away if there’s a weakness; if the character’s performance is unconvincing, the film can sometimes retain its credibility if it has a strong and enjoyable plot. “Lost in Translation” is a character-driven story, and thus the film heavily relies on the actors’ performances to make the film enjoyable. And if there has ever been an exemplar of a truly successful character-driven story, this has to be it. 

Sofia Coppola wrote the story specifically for Bill Murray. If Murray had declined the role, the film wouldn’t have gone ahead. It’s just as well really because Murray is absolutely perfect in the role of Bob Harris. He shifts from being hysterically funny with some truly laugh-out-loud moments, to someone depressed, struggling desperately to keep his career and marriage afloat. The film could’ve so easily stumbled – so much so it could’ve been considered laughable – if at any time the audience saw through the actors’ performances. Murray would’ve stolen the show if the female lead was anything less than perfect. However, Scarlett Johansson was also perfectly cast as Charlotte, who connected with Murray off-screen and resulted in the relationship to be believable on-screen.

The film is slow-paced but this is deliberate, because in those scenes of a traditionally unduly and unwanted silence (yet cherished and key in all of the film’s instances) you see the characters struggling to make sense of their purpose in the face of cultural diversity. These scenes are so poignant that it draws the conclusion in with a heart-breaking sense of loss and adoration.

Many people were expecting a laugh-a-minute comedy you usually expect of the films Murray usually appears in. And for some this wasn’t just an assumption – the film was marketed and sold as a comedy with the cover of the DVD stating: “Hysterically funny.” Granted, there are funny moments but as Bob’s relationship with Charlotte develops, we see a deeper side to Murray and the film turns into more of a romantic drama.

If you want to watch a truly enjoyable and moving film with an Oscar-nominated performance (Murray was robbed of the Oscar), watch this film. If you want to see sex, lies and murder go somewhere else.



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