April Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

[Netflix]

Written by: Thea von Harbou

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s critique of capitalism and class structure in his classic silent epic Metropolis is a sight to behold, even if it is far from graceful. He imagines a dystopian city in the year 2026, a self-contained universe starkly divided between the weak and the powerful, the have’s and the have-not’s. When the son of the city’s visionary planner crosses the threshold into the world of the machine workers after being lured there by a beautiful woman, he learns the terrible truth about the city and his position within it and seeks to change the status quo.

Despite universal praise for its technical prowess, most notably a sprawling and immersive visual aesthetic, Metropolis was far from being embraced as an instant classic upon its release, some 90 years ago. The now famous line “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!” was a particular bone of contention for critics of the late 1920s and early ’30s who viewed the sentiment as an oversimplification of existent tensions between the working class proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie.

The very idea that such disparate groups could ever find common ground was deemed unrealistic, even naïve. Among the most notable dissenters was English writer H.G. Wells, who dismissed it as “quite the silliest film.” But the most damning criticisms were lodged against the film’s alleged pro-fascist stance, the thrust of the narrative seemingly drawing parallels between the revolt against the aforementioned visionary Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Before diving into all of that, an interrogation of the narrative itself might be helpful. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between the good-hearted but privileged Feder (Gustav Fröhlich in his breakout role) and the poor prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), who find themselves caught up in a bitter revolt inspired by a robot built in the likeness of the latter — the result of a scientific experiment carried out by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The robot, originally designed to replicate his beloved, is brought to life after Maria falls into Rotwang’s clutches at the behest of Joh, who senses growing unrest in the subterranean realm.

Of course, Joh is unaware of the inventor’s ulterior motives, as he actually plans to use the replicated Maria to destroy Metropolis. He plans to have her lead the workers in a violent uprising that will see the destruction of many machines, including The Heart Machine, which . . . well, you can probably guess why it’s important. In the heat of passion, the outraged leave their children behind in the wreckage for Feder and Maria to save before the city floods in the ensuing chaos.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time (Metropolis manifests as one of cinema’s earliest full-length features and is indeed sizable even by today’s standards) we are bombarded with Biblical references and homages to Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction Frankenstein. This seemingly incongruous mixture of elements, as set against the backdrop of the German expressionist movement, combines to form a uniquely visual tapestry that tends to obscure, rather than enhance, the beating heart of humanity at the film’s core.

Given this, Metropolis can hardly be deemed a film of subtlety. In fact it’s massively unsubtle. Lang’s suggestion of the apocalypse is a prime example. Feder’s vision of Maria riding a seven-headed beast confesses to the unfettered nature of period expressionism, and provides Lang’s most solid alibi for taking the film to so many different extremes. It’s altogether too much clutter. In a film where so many other dynamics are to be considered, heavy-handed interpretations of scripture seem, at best, superfluous.

I don’t view Metropolis as being overtly one thing or another. It’s a veritable amalgam of thematic material and visual spectacle. It’s about communism. No, it’s not — it’s about fascists. No it’s not, it’s about artificial intelligence. No wait, it’s about sinning and the second coming of Christ. I can’t fathom having to process all of this in a time where film reviews could only be found in the paper. At a time when the mobilization of the Nazis was an event taking place in the present. And while we’re on the subject, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that Metropolis supports Nazism. Perhaps there’s a reading here that the inevitable uprising in the lower ranks is a metaphor for the eventual birth and spread of fascism in Europe, but I don’t want to give that too much credit.

The fact that the film fails to shift its emotional weight convincingly proved most problematic for me. I was never convinced by Joh’s sudden concern for his son when violence took hold of society. Remorse for his oppressive leadership was never palpable during the hand-shake — the mediation, as it were, between the head of the city and its tired hands, here represented by the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George). Because Joh remained a fundamentally unchanged man come the end, I wasn’t able to buy the denouement as anything other than a physical commitment to honor the film’s thematic contract: Show that love can conquer all. (Even the most bitter ideological divides like class warfare.)

In the end, I liken Lang’s optimism to John Lennon’s insistence that all you need is love. In the context of the world in which we live, their idealism does seem naïve but for whatever reason it almost seems in poor taste to describe visionaries like them in such a way.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Feder, holding down the fort. For now.

Recommendation: Mightily ambitious and to a fault, Metropolis I find a film with much to praise and almost as much to criticize. And yet, considering the times in which it was released, I can’t do anything but admire it. A rare silent film viewing experience for me, one I’m glad I have finally had. Do I really need to recommend this movie to anyone . . . ?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 148 mins.

What the hell: Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Godzilla

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Release: Friday, May 16, 2014

[RPX Theater]

I AM GARETH EDWARDS, HEAR ME ROAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Who?

Oh, a nobody, other than the guy who’s responsible for retrofitting the world’s most famous monster for a 21st Century outing.

The British director has been in charge of at least one more monster-related movie. It was actually ingeniously titled Monsters. Now, he’s been tapped to awaken a beast living deep within our oceans — an effort, it’s hoped, that should eradicate any last vestiges of the memory of what Roland Emmerich did to the legend back in 1998. The last man to touch Godzilla controversially recast the giant lizard as some unexplained and malevolent force of nature bent on destroying the world uptown Manhattan. He has posed on occasion throughout his lengthy film career as the villainous type, but never did he feel as disconnected from lore or irrelevant as a threat to mankind as he did then.

Now Edwards has arrived on the scene and there’s a detectable escalating tension in the room. With a restless fan base growing ever desperate to see Godzilla as it truly wants to see him, the time is now to deliver on promises. No more messing around. No more straying from the truth. Just deliver the goods, and no one else gets upset. Or hurt.

Godzilla, the creature, receives a quality facelift in 2014. (I emphasize quality just to ensure no one here’s under the impression of an un-sexy beast; that this is the Joan Rivers of monster lizards.)

He’s so massive the cameras have to take their time in a particularly memorable, vertical panning shot, the moment his true size is revealed. He possesses a thunderous roar that will give the most hardened of ex-cons no choice but to go running for their favorite blankey; and the combination of sheer size and the way he moves in an epic, lumbering gait makes the big guy, for all intents and purposes, the standard against which any forthcoming CGI-fests are to be measured. Behold, the Godzilla we’ve been awaiting, expecting, maybe even demanding — a behemoth so positively ridiculous it couldn’t do anything but sit and wait for technology (namely, visual effects) to catch up and be able to support its very scary ambitions.

In 1999 scientists working in the Janjira Nuclear Plant in Tokyo experience a catastrophic disaster in the form of a series of earthquakes that threatens to expose the entire city to toxic levels of radiation. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are dedicated researchers/engineers on the hunt for something enormous. As fate would have it, their dedication, a stubbornness woven into the fabric of human nature, would become a means to a very certain end.

A collaborative effort among Edwards’ three screenwriters, a trio which includes the one and only Frank Darabont, produces a screenplay that paints the human race as a mostly likable yet largely incapable species. Our sense of self-importance is quickly curtailed by the arrival of two massive insect-looking monsters the government is quick to label MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Mankind’s inability to stop experimenting has ironically produced its inability to continue living in its current state, apparently. Hence, Edwards’ decision to root the Brody’s at physical, emotional and psychological Ground Zero — they are a decent, hardworking family who clearly represents the best of humanity.

While not everyone’s performance strikes the same note — the movie’s biggest crime is that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Lieutenant Ford Brody is on occasion a bit too dry — the cast do what they need to in order to elevate the non-fantasy component to a suitably dramatic level, while still stepping back enough to allow our own fears and concerns to boil over quietly. We have time to ponder what we would do in these people’s shoes. And while characters fail to break the mould of archetypes — Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa might be the most irritating of the bunch, and Sally Hawkins needn’t even have bothered showing up on set her role is so limited — such is really all we need if we’re talking about retelling a classic and not reinventing it.

Godzilla is one of only a few films that succeeds in producing that gut-feeling, a fear so palpable we wish we don’t keep digging into the unknown. There’s a visceral reason to fear what we don’t understand or have never experienced. In the horror genre of today it seems copious amounts of blood and cruel, unusual ways of suffering and dying translate to “stuff that should scare people.” I mean, that works too. But it’s time the trend is bucked. Here’s a completely new taste for the palate. Packed with scintillating imagery, a generation of suspense that’s comparatively lacking in even recent superhero films, and crafted out of love and passion, the Alpha Predator is back and bigger than ever in an old-school film experience that recalls a bygone era in moviegoing.

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Godzilla is smiling. How can anyone be terrified of a smiling Godzilla?

4-0Recommendation: Quite possibly the biggest film of the summer, Gareth Edwards’ hotly debated second film understands how important it is as it handles the challenge of redesigning the beast on his 60th birthday with aplomb, with room to give plenty of attention to its A-list cast. While some characters are definitely better than others, there’s enough here to keep even the most casual attendee engaged in this global crisis. A movie that would never escape criticism, but considering the alternative (let’s never mention Dr. Nico Tattoo-lotsa-lips. . .or whatever his name was from the Emmerich version. . .) it has done alright for itself.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The arrogance of men is thinking that nature is in their control, and not the other way around. Let them fight.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Release: Friday, May 2, 2014

[Theater]

His greatest battle begins, and so does mine. . .

The web-slinging hero is back on the big screen in 2014 but it is much to many viewers’ dismay that the final product doesn’t deliver the goods. . .at least, not in terms of doing it the way recent superhero packages have handled things. And while people up and declare the latest chapter in Steve Rogers’ saga as being a bold break from convention within the genre (I am inclined to agree), they ought to give consideration to this non-Marvel film property as well.

My spidey senses are tingling, and they sense a filmmaker desiring to go a different direction as far as the story’s presentation is concerned. Busy with multiple villains offering multiple story arcs that impact on Peter Parker’s double-life in a multitude of ways, the plot to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is considerably less focused than that of it’s predecessor, as it appears more interested in presenting conflicts and developments episodically rather than condensing information into a taut and dramatic narrative.

As you make these choices, Mr. Webb, keep in mind: with great power comes great responsibility.

It’s another (read: fantastic) day in the life of Spider-Man as he slingshots his way through tight corridors lined with looming edifices and over the heads of captivated (and conveniently placed) on-lookers — plucking children, police officers, even a desperately lonely and low-level OsCorp engineer named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) out of harm’s way as an out-of-control tanker truck carrying plutonium samples and driven by a crazed Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) smashes through the city. The chase is pretty convenient for Spidey as he kicks crime’s ass on his way to his high school graduation, where his non-web-spinning girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is preparing to deliver her valedictorian speech.

At a life crossroads, Peter and Gwen discuss what the future holds. For Gwen, it’s looking like an opportunity to study at Oxford University on a prestigious scholarship; for Peter, it’s likely more tangoing with the criminal underworld. It’s this very reality that drives a wedge in their otherwise idyllic relationship; Gwen says Spider-Man is great and all, but she needs Peter more. And clearly that part of Peter is unwilling to up and drop his duties to the city. Undoubtedly it is this conundrum, this tug-of-war between two souls that drives the film’s drama, rather than the hero’s relationship(s) with the villain(s). Odd that a romance should take precedence over the fantastical concerns of the titular superhero that we were led to believe would comprise his ‘greatest battle,’ but fans of the franchise should take what they can get. After all I’m trying to stay positive here.

The strength of chemistry between leads Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield is a big positive. While their relationship was certainly on solid footing in the previous film, TASM-2 really allows it to blossom. It’s too bad the rest of the film’s backdrop isn’t as compelling. The emergence of foes like Electro — whose chuckle-inducing radiance is the result of an unfortunate (and somewhat predictable) accident involving Max and a tank of electric eels — the Green Goblin, and the Rhino seem less like threats than elements that get shoehorned in to give Spider-Man something to do while contemplating permanently breaking away from Gwen.

In the context of this story, each of these characters come and go in a flash, acting as brief chapters in a much bigger story that will likely encompass this movie and the next. And so, they feel like nothing more than afterthoughts. It’s a tactic that, in addition to making these threats feel a tad wasted, leaves a lot of dead space in between action sequences, a fact that really hampers the film’s pacing and flow. We also aren’t ever afforded the opportunity to really dig into the motives of any of the villains. Even Electro is considerably underdeveloped for being the film’s most immediate threat. Oh. . .right, he wants attention. Whoop-dee-doo. So do I. . . . which is why I developed a movie blog! 😀

Awkward pacing and lots of narrative drift are problems that any general moviegoer is likely to pick up on, though the above is hardly an exhaustive list for those who flat-out reject this franchise as a legitimate entity. It probably doesn’t need to be said that if the first film didn’t do much for you, this one will do much, much less.

While cheesy dialogue is built into the formula of not only this franchise but the one preceding it, levels appear to be left unchecked this time around. It was as if Marc Webb set the dial on ‘Silly’ and left it there. In a variety of contexts, dialogue ranges from eye-rollingly to face-palmingly bad. At times the script can’t possibly seem to be in final draft form. Paul Giamatti’s over-the-top Rhino is exemplary. One hopes he gets more to do in future installments. . .and that his character actually gets to materialize as well. Same applies to Dane DeHaan’s Harry Osborne, a.k.a. the Green Goblin, whose descent into madness is at once very difficult to empathize with, and categorically cliché. Beginning with the obligatory deathbed scene he shares with his rapidly deteriorating father, and culminating in a thoroughly disappointing final fight scene, the Goblin’s story arc feels contrived.

At the end of the day, the film aims at displaying the second chapter in the new Spider-Man canon by casting a web of multiple threats and thematic elements, but it ultimately fails to focus on any one thing. Reiterating, The Amazing Spider-Man has good reason to exist; the Webb-era has ushered in a more emotional and slightly more personal world surrounding Spider-Man and his origins are better accounted for here. But the current story needs to be more than just how well Garfield and Stone get along, even if their dating in real life actually seems to positively influence the film rather than distract from it.

Now let’s just hope they stay together, for I fear if the two split up that that’s exactly how we get Spiderman 3: The Marc Webb Edition. I’m pretty sure I would not be able to handle Andrew Garfield turning into an emo Spider-Man.

zappin-da-beeaaasss

zappin’ da beeaasss!

2-5Recommendation: Though it falls pretty far short of being a superior version that expands upon its predecessor’s ambition, this follow-up still offers a lot of the emotional release that the first one did, and the visuals in this film are pretty spectacular. In fact, they are amazing and truly deserving of that description. Less so is the script, which may turn away even a fair amount of fans. Not being the most devout reader of the comic, but a supporter of the re-boot all the same, I really and truly believe Marc Webb could have done better. This isn’t a bad film but it certainly is guilty of underachieving.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 142 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, lick that. You are not a nobody, you are a somebody. You’re my eyes and ears out here.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Lunchbox

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Release: Friday, February 28, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

You know you have an indie film on your hands when you’re sitting there, reading a plot synopsis about the misplacement of a lunchbox.

Indeed, this oft-underappreciated everyday object becomes the focus of attention in a truly unique and grounded-in-reality drama involving two lost souls seeking companionship in a chaotic and often disillusioning world.

The busy port city of Mumbai, India is simultaneously the most populated city in the country and the fifth most populous city in the world, and, being considered India’s financial, commercial and entertainment hot spot, is also home to several of India’s major film and television studios. A sprawling network of high rise buildings that jut out proudly above the low-lying canopy of ramshackle communities, the bulging mecca that is Mumbai swells with potential for wealth, power, success.

In a society that places emphasis on hard work and dutiful attention to church and family, everything has structure and everything seems predetermined, calculated. This is chiefly the reason why The Lunchbox appeals — its determination to break from structure and willingness to abandon societally accepted norms. That may sound like a cliché, but with any luck, a little explanation is about to go a long way.

Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is facing retirement and has only recently lost his wife. He now exists in a drearily repetitious cycle that he has allowed himself to succumb to. Elsewhere, the young Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is married but unsatisfied with the present state of the relationship, so she’s attempting something new: cooking meals that she knows will please her husband. She is surprised when her first attempt at spicing things up is met with total silence from the hubby. That’s because in a rare mix-up involving Mumbai’s famed ‘dabbawalas’ — the people responsible for transferring home-cooked meals from the home to a person’s place of employment and back again at the end of the day — her lunchbox is taken to someone else.

Instead of going to her increasingly detached husband, the delicious meal she prepared is ingested by a very pleasantly surprised Saajan. The seemingly minor error turns out to be the spark of a friendship between two people who would otherwise be total strangers. Over the course of presumably several weeks (possibly months) Saajan and Ila exchange a number of notes that become increasingly interesting, even intimate. She shares her concerns about her husband’s emotional distance while Saajan fills Ila in on his worrying about retirement and the mourning of his late wife.

This is first-time direction from Ritesh Batra and yet The Lunchbox plays out with the conviction of a seasoned filmmaker. Batra’s choice to keep the main cast limited to just two wounded souls helps focus the project immensely. Somehow, the handwritten notes the two share through the lunchbox also helps to slow down the pace of life in metropolitan India just a little. Almost every development that occurs along the way is something elemental, something basic that we can believe actually might occur given the circumstances. There’s hardly a scene in which the drama feels forced or invented for perhaps no purpose other than to awaken audience members who were falling asleep in their seats, the ones who were expecting more action to take place. Maybe expecting the lunchbox to explode, or start talking or something even more bizarre.

Indeed, there’s none of that. There’s a lack of a cartoonish superhero design on this lunchbox, which makes some sense considering the film prefers to have feet planted firmly in reality. None of this is to suggest this film is uneventful or free of drama, though. In fact the narrative is wrought with tension at times and comparatively more light-hearted and upbeat during others. The Lunchbox is a film that prefers to highlight the imperfection of humanity rather than over-simplifying or overdramatizing it.

That’s a tricky tightrope to walk, in case anyone was wondering.

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4-0Recommendation: A pleasant, reality-based drama centering on an atypical relationship that develops in a most atypical way, The Lunchbox has broad appeal. Possessing subtitles and originating from India does little to hinder the film’s extreme ease of accessibility. The performances are a delight and its subject matter, though not wholly original, is given the benefit of the doubt given the unique cultural material that is used to progress the story. I don’t know about any of you, but I want my lunches delivered to me while I’m at work! And I’m not talking Panda Express, either.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “Dear Ila, things are never as bad as they seem.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Lost in Translation (2003)

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There are some titles out there you know you have no good excuse for avoiding for so long. It’s not even like you were accidentally putting them after others in a queue because you wanted to see those others first. You just, forgot about them. I’m not just referring to small, independent movies that have a tendency of slipping between the cracks. Those movies almost go out of their way to be avoided, either because they’re trendy arthouse pictures with highly niched audiences, or are movies whose presences just weren’t advertised well. No, I’m talking about a major motion picture event that you’re pretty certain everyone has seen but you. You pretty much believe that’s the case because when you’re done watching the movie that was gathering dust (thanks, Netflix!), the first thing out of your mouth is ‘Wow, how have I not seen this before?’ It’s a reaction you just can’t help having, a guiltiness that makes you feel as though you are re-joining society. Such an experience happened to me this week when I finally got to this entry.

Today’s food for thought: Lost in Translation

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Release: September 26, 2003

[Netflix]

Sofia Coppola and my relationship is apparently a bipolar one. I’ve loathed her and now I love her! And I have no idea what to expect next. The first, and only other film of hers that I’ve seen — The Bling Ring — I regarded as one of the most tedious film experiences I had had throughout all of 2013. It failed on all levels to connect, and I walked out not feeling like a baller at all.

Interestingly enough, ten years ago almost to the day of that release she had created something stylistically similar that would hit virtually all of the right notes with me, to the point of it looking for a place to stay on my list of all-time favorites.

If The Bling Ring could be described as a story progressed by action rather than explication and a whole lot of dialogue, the same could be said of her early 2000s romantic comedy Lost in Translation, with the most notable difference being a cast of characters that are actually likable, even if they are still imperfect. With a camera following characters that seem to be wandering, both films share a relative lack of dialogue and explanation so as to put emphasis on visual clues and context in order for the story to have weight. Whereas her 2013 effort focused on rather dislikable, superficial fame-obsessed youths (I’m sure this is somebody’s crowd — not mine, though) her prior work found two lost souls traveling abroad in the rather hectic tech hub that is Tokyo.

Not much else is shared in common between the two films, but the directorial style is identifiable already. In Tokyo an aging actor, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) whose career had experienced a big slide recently, came across a recent college graduate named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who’s traveling with her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), an apparently busy and successful photographer. Bob was finding it difficult adapting to the new culture, even if it was only to be for a brief period of time while he shot a commercial for a Japanese whiskey; and his marriage back home was going through a difficult spell. On the other side of the room, Charlotte was constantly being left alone to fend for herself in the big city because John was always working. She was growing more and more distant and depressed at the same time Bob was becoming more tired of his life.

And cue the eventual first meeting in their hotel’s bar and dining area.

Lost in Translation was a thoroughly enjoyable and breezy film that sailed on its charming central characters. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray proved to be an excellent pairing, with a young Johansson giving wonderful life to a character that perpetually suffered. It was the kind of performance that would indicate a promising talent, as she was wise beyond her years as a philosophical young woman trying to understand her position in life. As a jaded older man who was trying to understand the very same thing, Murray’s reserved poise never felt better suited. He didn’t come up with any goofy, memorable one-liners but his simple presence was strong enough to affect a constant smirk. Even though both characters hurt, they were never unlikable and allowed the film to pass by with the quickness.

Though this was truly Murray and Johansson’s show, the side characters had a moderate impact in that they were so peripheral they bothered us. They were those loose eyelashes poking us in the eye and irritating it for days. Ribisi with very limited screen time convinced us he doesn’t really want much to do with his wife and would prefer to be snapping photos all the time. . . especially some requested by an old college friend (Anna Faris). Faris’ Kelly was a silly and self-serving diversion and not much more, but she was memorable for that reason.

There is a sense of exoticism because of where the film’s set, there is no doubt about that. The experience often seemed more surreal than it actually was. When it comes to analyzing the characters’ morality and their motivations, the film truly opens up. In terms of justifying this clandestine relationship in Tokyo, how does one do that, exactly? Though the people involved were truly likable, both were in committed relationships. But did anything ever reach a point where their faithfulness might be questioned? The moral lines blur with the physical ones in this emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening romantic comedy.

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4-5Recommendation: Lost in Translation is a quality picture both in terms of its lead performances and in its design. It impresses like a delicate piece of art yet it maintains the feel of a mainstream production. Often lighthearted and quickly paced, it also bears heavy emotion and speaks to heavy hearts, and is one that likely won’t leave either the heart or memory very quickly. For the small percentage of you who has not seen this yet, let me be another person to tell you it is highly recommended viewing.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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