LOST IN TRANSLATION
***½/**** Image B- Sound A- Extras B
starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris
written and directed by Sofia Coppola
ZERO STARS/**** Image A- Sound B+
starring Woody Allen, Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci, Danny DeVito
written and directed by Woody Allen
by Walter Chaw It feels a lot like life is an endless succession of heartsickness and anticipation of heartsickness. After a while, taking a line from Tender Mercies, it's hard to trust happiness anymore when happiness feels so ephemeral compared to the weight of grief. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation is about the wear of time and the unbearable burden of experience--it's about how even what's new and fresh is darkened by the ghosts of regret and time. When Bill Murray's fading star Bob Harris arrives in Tokyo to lend his image to a top-shelf whiskey, he is suffused with so much of the sadness of living that the surprise of life has become something to be viewed with suspicion. Newness fades and that familiar malaise, weary and grey, inevitably takes its place, sometimes even before the exhilaration of newness can reinvigorate. Bob meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in the hotel bar; she's in town with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), and together Bob and Charlotte paint the town blue.
At some point in Lost in Translation, it becomes apparent that the title doesn't refer to a misunderstanding so much as a state of being: of finding oneself lost in a liminal space--adrift wherever it is that subtlety goes when a thing shifts from one state of being to another. The picture itself is composed all of subtle gesture and obscure movements, one of the world's great metropolises haunted by ghosts, motion, and hallucinations, placing Lost in Translation in the company of work like Wim Wenders's Tokyo-Ga and Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express. With the fugue of sleeplessness as the key to the visual sensibility of Coppola and her DP Lance Acord (who's worked with talents as diverse as Cory McAbee, Spike Jonze, and Vincent Gallo), I think of it as Erik Skjoldbjærg's Insomnia recast as an apocalyptic romance.
A scene where Bob and Charlotte go to a karaoke bar to perform Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding," Roxy Music's "More Than This," and The Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket" mines each of the tunes for their core of well-traveled melancholy, transforming Murray's unctuous SNL lounge lizard into something self-aware, and incalculably the sadder for it. Counterpoint to the scene is a pair of actual lounge singers serenading what comes to feel like the hotel saloon at the end of the universe. Bob and Charlotte off-key and raw, the crooners polished and insincere, the role of music in Lost in Translation is to function as brilliant shadow to the undercurrents of fresh love and that niggling suspicion that there might be desires yet that are exciting--ways of looking at and hearing old familiar things in vibrant ways.
That Lost in Translation is not a perfect film--it's a maddeningly imperfect film, in fact--is a product of this slippery feeling that Coppola is still struggling to exorcise some nameless fear. Throughout the picture is a sense that it's pulling back, ill-at-ease with the courage of Murray's and Johansson's performances; a beautiful exchange in the middle of the film where Bob confesses terror at the birth of his first child--turning into the observation that one's children, in time, become the most delightful people that you'll ever meet--is the very definition of an emerging moment of auteur transparency, yet it's framed and handled in such a way as to suggest more of a sensitive actor's graceful evolution than any mission statement a promising young director. Lost in Translation is a cinematographer's film, and an actor's film, and while Coppola has the wisdom to accede her piece to the strongest elements of it, a general lack of guidance leaves the film as less than it could have been even as it's more than most.
On the other end of the spectrum in every possible sense is Woody Allen's latest unpleasant masturbation Anything Else: a director's film from start to finish, boasting of terrible inorganic performances and flat visual compositions, and one with so little honesty, so little trace of humanity, that watching it is a little like eating a broken vase, one shard at a time. The broken vase is Woody Allen's career, of course, and while the sexagenarian director refrains from making woo onscreen with his ridiculously young-for-him star actress (Christina Ricci this time around--and for all that's made of Polanski and Victor Salva's indiscretions, shouldn't more be made of Allen's disturbing dirty-old-man-ism?), he does create, as he is wont to do, an alter ego that he promptly takes under his own wing. Allen has gone from fantasizing about schtupping his young actresses to fantasizing about schtupping a younger version of himself.
Woody Allen's pictures are still as they have always been, exhausting things that fetishize young women, moan about writer's block (if only it were true), and reference the Woodman's love for foreign films without offering any commensurate ability to recreate what it is that made Ingmar Bergman (only the most obvious hero worshipped) resplendent. In the past, Allen's films, all of them taking place and this one no different, in a bizarre hinter-Manhattan where the only minorities are Asian delivery boys, were occasionally diverting satires, maps of neurosis and charming for a perceived self-deprecation. With years of legend worn sloppily, however, Allen's work is increasingly onanistic, increasingly wearying, and increasingly, let's face it, creepy.
Anything Else fails the sniff test in nearly every category, its tale of young couple Amanda and Jerry (Ricci and Jason Biggs--she a wooden maniac, he a promising young Woody Allen impersonator) is absolutely insufferable from first frame to last. Misanthropic and shrill, a scene where Allen's David Dobel (referred to eternally as Dobel as in "Nobel" as in the prize), Jerry's idol and mentor, takes a tire iron to the car of some bullies isn't nearly so funny as it is pathetic and strange. This isn't an act of rebellion, it's low wish-fulfillment fantasy played for laughs--a little like the rest of Allen's low wish-fulfillment fantasies. Ricci logs her worst performance ever, which allows the Ricci of Pumpkin to breathe a sigh of relief, and Biggs is revealed at last as the most non-descript wallpaper in an otherwise handsomely appointed set. The sex-talk would only be shocking to a product of the same time warp that has zapped Woody from 1922, and the requisite chat about "high art" (Dostoevsky in this case) could only have been punched up by a McLuhan-esque cameo from the old dead Russian, himself.
Anything Else is so bad, in fact, that it's destined to be referred to as either the film that at least the new Woody Allen film isn't as bad as, or the moment that marked the beginning of the final end of Allen as a conversation worth having in American film. Once the most vital and "plugged-in" comic voice for a disaffected generation, Allen has fallen too in love with the lull of celebrity and the fascination of the self--it isn't the case that Allen's films have become less transparent, but that Allen has become jarringly irrelevant. His insecurities and imperfections exhaustively documented, they are--testament, perhaps, to his skill--exhausting: the tide of frankness has swept on by, leaving Allen with tepid backwash and a sour wake. So what it boils down to is that while Lost in Translation isn't the film it could be, what with Coppola's unsteady hand at the rudder, at least it isn't Woody Allen's Lost in Translation. Originally published: September 24, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Lost in Translation seems to have been rushed onto Blu-ray as a glorified brochure for writer-director Sofia Coppola's upcoming Somewhere. The 1.85:1, 1080p presentation was clearly sourced from a dated master: soft, flat, and littered with pinhole artifacts that correspond to the 2004 DVD, the image lacks both Hi-Def "pop"--I thought for certain the Tokyo nightlife would gleam on the format--and filmic texture, with DVNR stomping grain like Godzilla except in one inexplicable insert of a clock radio. It's preferable to an upconvert because the colours are bolder, more dynamic, and shielded from bleeding and blooming, but Lance Acord's achingly beautiful cinematography deserves even better. Comparatively rich, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track renders the drum ritual at the shrine with an awesome power and delivers a robust centre channel without impacting the dialogue's hushed character. Still, I recommend dialling the volume a couple of notches past reference level to be totally transported by the ambience of Richard Beggs's thoughtful sound design.
Extras are recycled, in standard-def, from said DVD, starting with an 11-minute block of timecoded deleted scenes that, at the risk of diminishing the Lost in Translation experience, are more of the same: more Scarlett, nay, Charlotte, aimlessly wandering the streets (two robots approach her, then pointedly reject her); more Bill, nay, Bob, amusingly suffering a communication breakdown in the hospital waiting room; more Anna Faris, nay, Cameron Diaz, ditzing her way through a press conference. "A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola" (10 mins.) finds Murray (then working on The Life Aquatic, according to the narrative of his beard) and Coppola fielding questions between some sort of photoshoot on a balcony in Rome. In this otherwise-unmemorable piece, Murray singles out the pivotal scene with Bob and Charlotte discussing marriage and children as one of his best and declares Lost in Translation his personal favourite of his own films.
While Coppola's body language--attentive but introverted--is very much like that of Scarlett Johansson's Charlotte here, she's much less the wallflower in "'Lost' in Location" (30 mins.), an excellent fly-on-the-wall making-of that begins with a prescient offhand remark about how the poster should feature Bill Murray in a kimono with a sad face. A typhoon threatens the production, as does Coppola's risky habit of shooting without permits, but these red flags amount to naught on what appears to be the very definition of a charmed set. (Coppola, after all, brought a crew to Japan without knowing whether Murray, her first and only choice to play Bob, was actually going to show up.) Murray hams it up for the videographers, including Sofia's hubby Spike Jonze (whom I'd mistakenly assumed, from all the veiled digs at him in Lost in Translation, was estranged from Coppola by that point), though Johansson, curiously, is almost never on camera. The unabridged version of Bob's segment on "Matthew's Best Hit TV" (5 mins.), in which he's forced to stick his hand in a mystery box containing eels, a video, consisting mostly of B-roll, for composer Kevin Shields's "City Girl," and the picture's theatrical trailer round out the recycled supplements.
New and exclusive to this edition is the EPK-style featurette "On the Set of Somewhere" (4 mins., HD), which joins the Somewhere trailer (also HD) in rounding out the platter. For the record, as a fan of Somewhere I don't mind its marketing piggybacking this release, but a fresher transfer of Lost in Translation proper would've made it feel less like rampant opportunism. Also note that I viewed the Alliance (i.e., Canadian) version of this Focus Features disc, which is technically identical right down to the Universal screensaver that kicks in during pause mode. Only the startup trailers--for Alliance Blu-ray product, The Fighter, Somewhere, and The American--differ from the stateside alternative. Originally published: December 6, 2010.
THE DVD - ANYTHING ELSE
by Bill Chambers Having collaborated on several pictures with Gordon Willis, a cinematographer nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness" for his love of silhouetted images, Woody Allen hired Willis's heir apparent Darius Khondji--a DP who has, in fact, earned the same diminutive in his native France for a love of operating almost entirely on fill lights--to shoot Anything Else. Alas, Khondji is overqualified: although Manhattan, Allen's only previous 'scope picture, looks spectacular, the Woodman never really was a Panavision kind of guy, and an early-Nineties flirtation with handheld seemed to signal a new, laissez-faire attitude towards framing in general; Khondji's work here, represented by a terrific, if grainy 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on DVD, is nowhere near as intoxicating as his noirish endeavours Seven and Alien Resurrection, though it does profitably revisit the nectar glow he devised with Bernardo Bertolucci for Stealing Beauty. The 2.0 mono soundmix is more or less acceptable--while the majority of Allen's movies wouldn't benefit from the 5.1 treatment, Anything Else features a live performance from Diana Krall that lacks the tonality of her concert CDs. On-screen production notes (in which Allen says that Christina Ricci is the one actress he'd been dying to work with--please tell me he was being tongue-in-cheek) and cast and crew filmos/bios round out the DreamWorks platter. Originally published: December 17, 2003.