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Lost in perfection, or Tokyo

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There are several scenes in Lost in Translation (opens Friday, September 26, at the Little), Sofia Coppola's brilliant follow-up to The Virgin Suicides, that were blindingly hysterical on the big screen. But somehow, as I sit down to write this review, they just don't seem as funny on my little screen. I know what I saw, though, and that only serves as more of a testament to the work done by Coppola and her two acting leads. If they could take these scenes, which almost sound trite and predictable, and make them into mini-masterpieces, you know you've got something truly special.

            Translation is set entirely in Tokyo, mostly within the confines of a hotel that serves as the temporary home to two displaced Americans. One is a has-been, middle-aged movie star named Bob Harris (Bill Murray) who is in town to shoot a lucrative commercial for a Japanese whiskey. The other is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent Yale graduate who has accompanied her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) as he shoots pictures of a rock band.

            Thanks to insomnia and bad Japanese television, Bob and Charlotte have a couple of casual meetings at the hotel's bar and swimming pool. They strike up a friendship, eventually revealing more to each other than they have to their respective spouses. Bob, who has been married for 25 years to a woman who is now more interested in kids and interior design than him, is embarrassed he's selling out when he could be performing somewhere on stage. Charlotte is just as lost, extremely unsure what she wants to do with her life or her brand-new philosophy degree.

            The two pair up to paint the town red, in different ways than most Western travelers would (the point is driven home by John's friend, a vapid movie star played by Anna Faris, who just does the regular sleazy tourist stuff). As they grow closer and closer, it becomes difficult to tell whether their relationship is more of a father-daughter thing or if there's something else going on. We don't know as we're watching, and they sure don't seem to know themselves.

            While Bob and Charlotte's scenes together are extremely gratifying, you'll likely be left with recurring memories of Murray's solo comedic vignettes, which hilariously illustrate the cultural differences between the US and Japan (without making fun of the Japanese... usually). Like Jack Black's frenzied performance in... well, anything, but specifically the upcoming School of Rock, it's hard to imagine all of Murray's gut-busting comebacks and physical comedy were completely scripted. This is the turn that will earn him his first Oscar nomination --- his tragic face is perfect for this role. Johansson is just as impressive, but her performance is much more subtle and nuanced.

            Coppola shows her thoughtful work in Suicides was no fluke. She cooked up Translation's extremely original screenplay on her own, while providing a similar dream-life feel to the film. Behind the scenes, Coppola has enlisted the services of cinematographer Lance Acord (he shot both of husband Spike Jonze's flicks --- Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), editor Sarah Flack (she worked with Steven Soderbergh four times) and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, who furnishes blistering new music here after a 12-year absence. It's the same kind of ethereal score Air contributed to Suicides, but also adding a sonically dense feel to the very noisy city.

I'll admit it, I got sucked in by the cool look of Underworld's trailer and was pretty excited to see it. Unfortunately, the cool look is about all the film has going for it. If I had known about Underworld's pedigree --- which involves a prop assistant-turned-director, a stuntman-turned-writer and several stars who put the "ack" in acting --- I may have been better prepared for the letdown I received when I finally saw the finished product. Underworld is a lot like Queen of the Damned: An empty box with very appealing wrapping paper.

            At least the similarly themed Damned (they're both about vampires) contained the appropriate sex drive necessary to fuel a proper bloodsucker flick. Sequel-ready Underworld couldn't even get that right, though I'm sure the sight of Kate Beckinsale wearing tight black leather and vinyl getups will invigorate a fair portion of the audience. She sports the slinkiest outfit since Pfeiffer's Catwoman, but she still can't hold an ass-kicking candle to Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix.

            You might actually think you're watching The Matrix (or Blade, or The Crow) if you see Underworld, a tale about a centuries-old battle between vampires and lychans. Beckinsale plays Selene, one of the top vampires and the narrator of the film, who explains that her clan fought the werewolves to near extinction many moons ago. But the remaining dogmen have a couple of tricks up their cumulative sleeve, which they hope will spoil the big upcoming vamp "awakening ceremony." One weapon is daylight bullets, but the other is far more dangerous. It seems a doctor named Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) has something special in his blood that makes the already regenerative werewolves even more unstoppable.

            That means a whole lot of bad news for the vampires, but not nearly as bad as the double-crossing, blood-mixing, and cross-breeding that we slowly learn about. The dark, rainy, gothic look and high-tech weaponry isn't enough to offset its repetitiveness, hammy acting, and unnecessarily morose pace. But it is kind of fun to watch Speedman stumble around looking like Will Tippin from Alias finding himself in the middle of another wacky CIA/SD-6 tussle.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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