Cinema Signal:

Tokyo Vertigo

. "Lost In Translation"

The story behind this story is almost as significant as the film itself and it might shed light on how a romance between an older man and younger woman came to be set in Tokyo, Japan. Whose sensibility is this? Hollywood has had its eye on this person.

That's because she's Sofia Coppola, daughter of "Godfather" legend, Francis. Would that connection provide the clout to get films of like kind made by his little girl? Apparently not, judging by Ms. Coppola's limited output to date. Her "Virgin Suicides" has met with some critical success with particular praise being heard for the work of Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett. On the other hand, the criticism has mostly been about its plaintive formlessness -- not the stamp of Coppola senior.

Now, with "Lost In Translation" on the record, we get a clearer picture of what motivates Ms. Coppola's in her choice of subject and tendencies in story telling. As star Bill Murray put it in a Q&A in Hollywood following a screening of the film, what started out as a 4-page outline was later developed into a 65 page script. 65 pages? Where ideal script length is generally around 110 pages, this allows for much on-the-set improvisation in acting and writing.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a famous actor on a career decline who has been paid two million dollars for endorsing a whiskey brand in advertising spots for the Japanese market. In a strained marriage of 10 years, it's almost a needed escape when he comes to Tokyo and emotes for the camera, whiskey glass in hand. Work done for the day, he retreats to his hotel where his circadian rhythms disrupted by a punishing flight time deny him the sleep he craves. Temporary insomnia sends him to the bar. In the elevator, he gets his first glance at Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), an appealing young woman.

Charlotte is a post-graduate still searching for a career direction and accompanying her husband of two years (Giovanni Ribisi) to his still photography assignment in Tokyo. The job occupies his time and interest, leaving Charlotte to her own devices. That alone time is spent aimlessly staring out on the vibrant city from her hotel window, in the company of friends in town, and at the hotel bar. And, after briefly encountering Harris in a variety of situations, both of them begin to discover a mutual interest as well as a special understanding.

With nothing but time on their hands and the complementary yearning for communication with a cultural comrade, they buddy up for some Japanese night life, a hilarious bit of Karaoke and increased knowledge of each other, always at arm's length. But, though physical contact between them is maintained as off bounds, the emotional bond deepens, even as the grip of it is unverbalized.

In the hands of these two capable actors, the vacuum of verbal expression and physical consummation actually heightens the exposure of what they're wrestling with inside, holding the viewer locked into the drama of a forbidden romance. But will the barriers to temptation collapse? You'll have to go see this movie to get the answer to that one.

As though to answer the charge of her prior film being too weepy and loosely structured, writer-director Coppola keeps the camera on her two players with effective focus on the emergence of a taboo situation. If this is a clue to the Coppola psyche and the film subjects to expect of her in the future, we recommend she puts it together with as accomplished a crew, before and behind the camera.

Bill Murray has tackled something here for the first time. He's the romantic lead while bringing to the part the humor of the stoic funny man that's his stock in trade. The subtler dimension of the man was sensed by Coppola in her patterning of the character for him from the inception, as she has stated. What he accomplishes here is the expression of gut feeling through the defensive strategy of masking it with the ready quip. He's an understated crackup, and a man taking stock of his life while entering an unfamiliar zone of emotion.

Scarlett Johansson ("The Horse Whisperer") brings an effective balance between vulnerability and a plucky trust in her perceptions. Combined with her considerable sensuality she's convincing as an object of affection despite being taken for granted by a self-absorbed husband. She plays all the chords of a woman with an emotional hole to fill, being forced to become aware of it by a connection with someone unexpected who would probably not be noticed in more familiar territory.

Under the musical supervision of Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine), the wall-to-wall soundtrack features exclusive music from him and Air -- plus classic tracks from the Jesus & Mary Chain, Death In Vegas, My Bloody Valentine and Squarepusher. Lance Acord's naturally lighted cinematography is an accurate portrait of a tourist's Tokyo, accomplished intrepidly under constraining circumstances. He wisely opted for the superior imaging presence of high speed film over digital video, the more common choice for the low budgeteer.

With the right kind of talent, improvisation can become spontaneity, but it's a technique frought with risk. The challenge for the filmmaker is to cover enough of the unscripted moments to mold a coherent story without erratic shifts, clips that go nowhere, and gaps in continuity. While "Lost In Translation" is not guiltless in this regard, the basic story's delicate threads are woven with aptly measured progression and an atmosphere conducive to the chemistry.

It's not stuff for the video game set, and will likely be panned for its irresolution, but its content should resonate for those who have "been there." These may identify with the emotional dilemma the drama examines from this Coppola's creative perspective. Her technique of trusting the actors to find and deliver their moments scores big in telling her story and overcoming its deficiencies.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack album

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