Three Poetic Portraits By Sofia Coppola

In an interview for her film Somewhere, Sofia Coppola explained that she was thinking of her work as "more like a poem, just a little portrait."  To some degree, you could say that about any of her films, or possibly almost any film at all, but I think it holds particularly true of three films she made in a row: 2003's Lost In Translation, 2006's Marie Antoinette and 2010's Somewhere.  There's something seductively fragile about this particular trilogy, even when it isn't being particularly genteel (Marie Antoinette's blaring rock montages sure don't feel like the little bit of ivory on which Jane Austen works with so fine a brush).  They're three very focused character studies, looking at individuals or pairs placed in very specific locales; and their representation on disc isn't too terrible.  So let's have a look.
Lost In Translation is, eh, not quite a character study.  We spend a lot of time with our two leads, Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson, stranded together in a Tokyo high-rise hotel, but I don't think the point is particularly to learn about or explore these people.  It's certainly an alternatively upbeat and enchanting exploration of the locale; visiting and savoring a variety of what the city has to offer, from beautiful parks to packed arcades to new age strip clubs.  But as much fun and color it adds to the viewing experience, I don't think that's really the point either.  I think it's really about the relationship that forms between them.  It's not a romance, though it might appear to be heading there to jaded romcom veterans; it's just a friendship, and all the sweeter for that.
This movie works on several different levels at the same time.  It is a charming "strangers in a strange land" scenario, it's Sofia beautifully photographing an exotic locale, and honestly, it's Bill Murray improving a lot of little comic bits.  One way this stands out from Coppola's other films is that it's funnier, and that's all Murray.  She always injects some humor into her work, and there's clear examples of that here, too (like everything with Anna Faris's character).  But the throttle's really on the comedy here, which makes the understated human moments all the more rewarding when the film proves it self unafraid to walk away from the easy laughs in the final act.
Universal released Lost In Translation on DVD in 2004.  They repackaged it a number of times, with Academy Award-themed borders, as part of a Focus Features pack, a double feature set with Scoop, etc.  But apart from an alternative fullscreen version, it's always been the same edition inside.  And it was a bit of a wait for the eventual blu-ray, since they bet on HD-DVD (remember those?) and released it on that first in 2007.  Finally though, in 2011, we got our blu.
2004 Universal US DVD top; 2011 Universal US BD bottom.
Both discs are exactly 1.85:1, but the DVD is very slightly vertically stretched, which means the blu reveals a sliver more along the top and bottom.  Edges are softer and fine detail gets a little smudged from compression, but it looks like basically the same master just getting the benefit of a higher def disc on blu.  Colors, brightness, etc are almost exactly the same, though the DVD is a smidgen greener on close inspection.  The film grain looks attractive, but soft and light on the blu.  It's basically an excellent older transfer that's just starting to show its age.

The DVD gives is a choice of two very similar sounding English 5.1 mixes: DTS and Dolby Digital.  The blu-ray just gives us the one 5.1, but now in lossless DTS-HD.  Both discs also include French 5.1 dubs, though again the BD boosts it to DTS-HD.  And both discs include optional French and Spanish subtitles, but only the blu includes English, so give it an extra point for that.
Universal's DVD gives us a nice, if understated special edition, starting off with an excellent 30-minute behind-the-scenes doc, shot in part by Spike Jonze.  The only way it could be better is if it was even longer.  There's also a fun, almost ten minute interview with Murray and Coppola, six deleted and extended scenes (I can't believe they cut those little robots), a music video (also directed by Coppola) and the trailer.  And happily, the blu-ray held onto all of it.

Curiously, the blu-ray also has one exclusive extra: a brief featurette on Somewhere.  Now sure, that makes sense, since they're both Coppola films being released by Universal, and Somewhere was just coming out in 2011, so it makes sense they'd take advantage of the opportunity to advertise it.  But the strange and frustrating part is that it's not included on the actual Somewhere DVD or blu-ray releases, which are rather short on extras.  It's only a couple minutes, not enough time to delve deep into a single aspect of the film-making, but it has a bunch of soundbite interview clips from the cast and crew that Somewhere owners would probably rather have than not.  So, when you're watching that movie, don't forget to break out this disc.  Oh well.  It also has a bonus Somewhere trailer.
For all the similarities we'll find across Sofia's films here, they're also quite distinct.  In the extras for Somewhere, she talks about how she wanted to be very minimalist with a simple story, very little music, etc.  That is not this movie.  I suspect Marie Antoinette is actually the realization of the dream first touched upon in her and her father's segment of New York Stories; one giant, fanciful party brought to life with a bit of a conventional narrative dutifully woven in.  Except this time that narrative is also a fascinating, historical story.  This may not be strictly true, but I've always felt that Sofia wrote essentially her fantasy of an amazing, impossible party.  And Francis Ford Coppola's part of the screenplay was to add in all the junk with the gangsters and an attempt to give it a traditional structure and plot, ironically spoiling what was beguiling about firing a young girl's imagination directly at the silver screen in the first place.
Francis was asked in an interview how he assuaged his daughter's anxiety about telling this lofty, tragically misunderstood queen's tale, and she was advised to just to be "throwing her Marie Antoinette party and inviting everyone to come to it."  And that's what we have here: Kristen Dunce hurtles through a seemingly endless parade of costume changes, authentic royal sets, impossible foods, toy dogs and a dizzying carousel of a supporting cast, including delightful turns by Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Tom Hardy, Rose Byrne, Steve Coogan and of course Jason Schwartzman as her king for whom she cannot provide an heir.  But whenever it feels like it might only be lightly touching on the moments of authentic humanity in Marie's saga between indulgent montages of anachronistic rock music and billowing fabrics, Coppola burrows into the unspoken tragedy of Antoinette's intractable fate.  And we're left with something truly touching and every bit as affecting as the quiet malaise felt lingering in Lost In Translation.
Sony released Maria Antoinette as a new release DVD in 2007.  And then it took a surprisingly long time to arrive on blu.  Even when it did, the situation was compromised.  Disappointingly, Sony cancelled their initially announced release, eventually deciding to include it as part of their Choice Collection in 2016.  That's disappointing because their Choice Collection is their fancy, euphemistic title for their string of MOD BD-R releases.  If you wanted a genuine, pressed disc, you could import the Australian from Shock, but the compromise there is that it dropped all the extras, and the French blu-ray has burnt-in subtitles.  Recently, Mill Creek released it as a double-feature with Little Women (the 1994 version), but trust Mill Creek... it has lossy audio.  So at the end of the day, every option is problematic in some unique way; might as well just suck it up with the BD-R.
2007 Sony US DVD top; 2016 Sony US BDR bottom.
Now, it's important to note that Sony has made legitimately pressed Made On Demand blu-rays.  Welcome To the Dollhouse is one that comes to mind as an example I've already covered.  But this is an actual BD-R - blue underside, not allowed to use the official "blu-ray" logo on the cover - with all of the playback quirks that may incur on your set-up.  There's a slight correction from the DVD's 1.84:1 aspect ratio to 1.85:1 on the blu, also correcting a slight vertical stretch very much like the one seen on Lost In Translation's DVD.  In fact, this pairing is very similar to Lost's in a lot of ways.  Again, they seem to be using the same master with matching colors, brightness levels, etc.  The main difference is in the compression, in that Marie's DVD looks even smudgier from over-compression, and grain is even less present on Marie's blu.  I'm not sure if it's been slightly DNR'd, the scan wasn't large enough to capture it, or the disc space allotted on the BDR wasn't enough to present it.  But either way, colors are strong and edges are fairly sharp, making for fairly pleasing image that certainly trumps the DVD; but it could certainly look better.

The DVD offers English and French 5.1 mixes, as well as optional English and French subtitles.  Sony's BDR bumps the English track up to DTS-HD, but loses the subtitles (boo!) and the French.
Extras-wise, we get another excellent behind-the-scenes doc, this one a little over 25 minutes and directed by Eleanor Coppola, Sofia's mother and wife of Francis Ford, who wrote and directed Paris Can Wait and co-directed Hearts Of Darkness.  All these featurettes are very fly-on-the-wall and aren't bogged down with any clips from the film we've just watched or promotional narration.  In a way, the approach to these features echoes Sofia's approach to the features they're documenting.  There's also two deleted scenes and a jokey featurette called Cribs with Louis XVI, where Jason Schwartzman gives an MTV-style (and extremely interlaced) tour of his castle in character as King Louis the Sixteenth.  No trailer. 
Somewhere, about a celebrity actor (Stephen Dorff) raising his daughter (Elle Fanning) in Hollywood, is more a look at a relationship between two individuals like Lost.  Of course this time it's father/ daughter, but their lives are almost farther apart than those two.  And if you want to get really literal, it's another look at the bonds that form between an older man - in fact, older disillusioned movie stars specifically - and a younger woman in a touching, platonic relationship.  Broken down to its most basic plot points, it's arguably a bit of a remake.
This is also clearly an opportunity for Coppola to throw in a treasure trove of personal memories growing up herself as the child of a major celebrity.  The wild excesses they're able to indulge echo the various charms of Tokyo in Lost and the extravagances lavished on Antoinette by the French.  If you want to get critical, you might say Coppola's bag of tricks are starting to reveal themselves; and a younger woman rejuvenating a world weary man's joie de vivre is a creaky cliche most forward-thinking feminists have been trying to exorcise for a long time.  But Coppola gets away with it, I think largely because of her sincerity; you get the sense that there's really a lot of her in these stories, and not just in a superficial "me and my friends partied in this same swanky LA hotel as the characters are" kind of way.  There's heart in her creations that you can rarely find in other director's work.
Somewhere's release on home video is the least complicated of the trio.  Universal released it simultaneously on DVD and blu as a new release in 2011.  And there's nothing noteworthy or special about any of the import editions except some short, non-English-friendly extras. So here we go, the 2011 Universal discs:
2011 Universal US DVD top; 2011 Universal US BD bottom.
Both discs are exactly 1.85:1, but just like Lost, the DVD has a slight vertical stretch that the blu corrects, revealing a sliver more along the bottom.  Unlike the previous two films we've looked at, this DVD and BD set are concurrent new releases, so there was never really anything to look for in terms of different framing, color timing, etc.  Grain on the blu is light and a little digitized when you zoom in, but it's better captured than the previous two films.  This is the least likely of the trio to get some kind of new release with an updated master, so fortunately this one's just fine.

Both discs have 5.1 mixes with French and Spanish dubs (also 5.1s) and English, French and Spanish subs.  The blu-ray bumps up all three audio mixes to DTS-HD.
There's basically just one notable feature on the Somewhere releases, but it's a good one - another quality behind-the-scenes doc, this one clocking in as the shortest of the three at about seventeen minutes.  Remember, there's that other short featurette on the Lost blu-ray, that includes interview clips not included on this one.  The running time doesn't allow it to be too much more than superficial, but it's absence here is still felt considering we're not exactly swimming in Coppola commentaries, on-camera interviews and feature-length docs.  We don't even get the trailer, which, yes, is on the Lost In Translation blu-ray.
I hold out at least some hope that Sony will release Marie Antoinette on 4k one of these days, though their recent licensing it to Mill Creek has discouraged that notion somewhat.  It's a great film with a visual palette that would really benefit from the HDR, and the boosted resolution of a fresh capture would help all three of these films.  And of course it would give them the opportunity to wipe the slate and clear up this fiasco of the half dozen or so current releases that are all flawed in their own unique ways.  And Lost In Translation is the most famous of the three, so maybe there's a little hope in that, too.  But these aren't Batman films, so there's a strong chance what we've got is all we'll get.  And if that's how it is, well, it could be a lot worse.  All three films have respectable HD discs with at least some good extras.  That's more than you can say for many other films.

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