Again with the Formats

Hey, it's a slow news dayWorking on a piece on true-crime movies for Sympatico/MSN, so I’m kinda busy today, but … hey, remember a few weeks back, when Blu-ray declared the high-def war over,with all of HD-DVD’s base belonging to them?

Well, here’s the latest salvo from the other side: Toshiba has perfected its triple-layer HD-DVD, allowing for a whopping 51GB on a single platter. It’s expected to be ready for replication by the end of the year.

Of course, that assumes HD-DVD will still be a viable product by the end of the year. And this doesn’t point the way to any additional studio support, which would be key to extending the appeal of the format. And, um, it’s still only 1GB more than a dual-layer Blu-ray disc.

So … um … well, it’s nice to have more storage capacity, I guess. But who’s actually using either format for storage?

Slash and Burn

It's either this or talk about the stock exchangeMore high-def DVD news: Engadget reports that Sony has announced the summer release of a second set-top Blu-ray player, the BDP-S300 — which, with a sticker price of $600 USD, will be considerably cheaper than its current player, the thousand-dollar S1.

Now, that’s still a couple hundred bucks more expensive than Toshiba’s baseline HD-DVD player, the A2, and slightly pricier than a PlayStation 3, but $600 is awfully more attractive than $1000. (In Canada, it’ll probably translate to about $750.)

Question: What’s Sony doing? I mean, I know what they’re doing, on a pure marketing level; they’re bringing in the affordable second-generation unit after wowing everyone with the gorgeous, obscenely expensive flagship player, just as they did in 1997 with their standard DVD players.

But why $600? Why not $400, the better to achieve price parity with Toshiba’s A2, and thus conquer the high-def DVD world?

Do they know something we don’t? Is another manufacturer — Panasonic, maybe — about to announce a really cheap Blu-ray player? And is this an attempt to subtly position Sony’s machine at the high end of affordability, as the company did previously with DVD and even VHS?

Meanwhile, HD-DVD plugs along. And if you’re in the Toronto area and want to pick up a player on the cheap, Costco is selling Toshiba’s first-gen player, the A1, for $350.

I considered grabbing one just the other day, actually … but it doesn’t output 1080p, and it takes a full minute to boot up. Might be worth the extra $150 to get one that’s a little further along the developmental curve …

Further to the Whole “Water” Thing

There must be a pony in here somewhereIf one had been paying attention to the Canadian entertainment media in the runup to the Oscars — and even if one hadn’t — one would have seen a great deal of coverage of Deepa Mehta, director of Canada’s Best Foreign-Language Feature submission and, therefore, the front-runner for the prize.

Of course, if one had been paying attention to the Oscars themselves, it was clear that “Pan’s Labyrinth” was the front-runner, and “Water” didn’t have a chance.

Hell, if you saw the analysis of the Foreign Language contenders in Salon or the New York Times last week — subscriptions required for both, unfortunately — you knew “Water” was regarded as the runt of the litter.

Now, had “Pan’s Labyrinth” actually won the award, there would have been a slew of post-game coverage rationalizing Deepa’s loss as inevitable, given the momentum of the winner and the relatively puny push mounted by Fox Searchlight in the U.S. for “Water”.

But “Pan’s Labyrinth” didn’t win. “The Lives of Others” won, in the night’s only upset that didn’t involve Eddie Murphy. And so that narrative — plucky, talented Canadian ignored in favor of a pre-determined favorite — is no longer operative. Instead, well, there’s been hardly a mention of “Water”, or Deepa Mehta, at all.

This is a good thing. It’s time we stopped pretending she was a major Canadian filmmaker.

I should probably point out, as I usually do around this point in the rant, that Deepa Mehta is apparently a very nice person, and when I’ve encountered her socially she’s been charming and effusive. But she’s a terrible filmmaker, and “Water” is a mediocrity — if a sumptuously photographed mediocrity — that panders to the Western viewer’s sense of social injustice with a parade of artificial and unconvincing scenes of foreign misery.

(Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon review put it best: “Well, I don’t know if they have VH-1 in India, but now I know what it might look like.”)

She’s a hack. If you’ve seen any of her English-language films — “Camilla”, “Bollywood Hollywood”, especially “The Republic of Love” — then you know this. I can’t really explain why her foreign-language work keeps getting a pass from the critical community, except possibly that her deficiencies are somewhat obscured by the subtitles and the general foreign-ness of the world in which those films are set.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column for Sympatico/MSN about how this year’s Genies were a bit of a joke, since none of the country’s major filmmakers had a movie out, and therefore the awards had to scramble for movies worth rewarding.

It’s kind of the same thing with Mehta. She’s not a major filmmaker, and doesn’t seem likely ever to be one, but people keep treating her like a major talent and making excuses when she inevitably fails.

Here’s hoping the media’s inability — or refusal — to explain away her latest disappointment is a step in that direction.

Fifteen Oscar Observations

Hey, look! I'm Joe Pesci!Sorry for the late post, but I spent the morning on deadline. But now that I’m done …

1. Did anyone else get all nervous when “Little Miss Sunshine” won Best Original Screenplay, thinking that meant it was on the fast track for Best Picture?

2. Did anyone else secretly delight in the kicking of “Babel” to the curb? That, and the slow loss of “Dreamgirls” momentum over the last month or so, seems to suggest that one can no longer declare oneself an Oscar lock if one hasn’t, you know, made a good movie.

3. Shadow puppets, huh? Yeah … yeah, that’s awesome.

4. Best Live-Action Short. If ever anyone needed proof that the Academy can, occasionally, be played like a doddering grandmother … I mean, well, duh.

5. Bald Nicholson. Look, I know he’s playing a cancer patient in a Rob Reiner movie, but someone should have said something, just to reassure the 999,999,726 viewers who might not. Although the revelation that Rob Reiner is making a movie about cancer patients isn’t exactly reassuring, is it?

6. Taylor Hackford keeps touching Helen Mirren, as if to steal some of her Oscar inevitability. Dude, you made “The Devil’s Advocate”. It’s never going to happen.

7. “The Lives of Others” wins Best Foreign-Language Film. I love “Pan’s Labyrinth”, but this one’s pretty great, too. And with three other wins, Guillermo’s movie is obviously feeling the love. More money for “Hellboy 2“!

8. Hey, hang on … so Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is German by way of Detroit?

9. Martin Scorsese tearing up at Thelma Schoonmaker’s win for editing “The Departed” was the most honest moment of the night. Although Forest Whitaker came awfully close.

10. The Al Gore movie wins Best Documentary Feature! Davis Guggenheim looks like he’s about to break down weeping; apparently he was the only one who didn’t know this was an inevitability.

11. Note to George Lucas: There are some things you can’t fix in post. Live comedy is pretty high on the list.

12: Martin Scorsese wins Best Director, making George Lucas the only one of the group who doesn’t have a directing Oscar. I wonder how John Milius, Brian de Palma and Willard Huyck are feeling right about now.

13. Diane Keaton is out of her fracking mind. Was Nicholson taking two safety steps back?

14. “The Departed” wins Best Picture. And all is right with the world.

15. Wanna see a movie that has absolutely no chance of winning an Oscar, ever? Catch “Reno 911!: Miami“. It’s funny, and if it’s successful then maybe someone will let them make a “Viva Variety!” feature.

… yeah, that’s never gonna happen. But maybe this will help get the show released on DVD.

It’s Time

We are gratified to learn we are a shoo-inJust hours until the Oscars. And if you’ve been following my informed coverage, you know I don’t really think much of them this year.I mean, if “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” aren’t in contention for Best Picture, what’s the point of it? Why should we pretend that “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Queen” can match “The Departed” — or even “Letters from Iwo Jima” — as cinematic accomplishments?

(No disrespect to “The Queen”, but that film is a delivery vehicle for two tremendous performances, and if Michael Sheen didn’t rate an acting nomination, well, that says everything about the Academy’s regard for the picture as a whole.)

But still, people are asking me about what they should see, and what movies have the best chance of winning. I’ve been saying the same thing over and over again: Go see “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”, on the biggest screens you can find, and then tell me the Oscars are the ultimate arbiter of cinematic quality.

My friend and colleague John Harkness at Now has long explained that the Oscars should be given the same weight as any other industry awards — the prizes are nominated and awarded by a subset of professionals whose values and standards are not necessarily reflective of the world beyond their industry. Just like critics’ associations, but with an entirely different set of evaluative criteria.

The awards are an opportunity to focus attention on the industry, and a chance for some additional marketing, and only peripherally exist to highlight a film the masses might not have otherwise encountered — again, I’m thinking “Pan’s Labyrinth” here — and nothing more. If you thought “The Marine” was the best film of 2006, and Robert Patrick got totally hosed for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, the Oscars aren’t going to change that. And I might even agree with you on the second thing. Dude is awesome.

Me, I just like watching the ceremony in high-def, the better to see who’s had surgery since last time. And it’s a great excuse to eat junk food with a clear conscience — it’s part of the aesthetic, baby!

Countdown

Wait ... didn't I play the Riddler for this guy?The Friday before the Oscars means that everyone’s busy writing thumbsuckers about the awards — myself included — and no one’s paying attention to the weekend’s new movies. Which is just as well, I guess, because this is not the best of weeks.

The Astronaut Farmer“: Texas dreamer Billy Bob Thornton builds a rocket in his barn, and people think he’s crazy. Art-house directors Mark and Michael Polish update Frank Capra for the present day, and people think they’re crazy, too. But Thornton’s pretty good.

Days of Glory“: The original French title, “Indigenes”, is much more appropriate for Rachid Bouchareb’s dour tale of North Africans who fought for their colonial motherland in World War II, only to be treated as second-class citizens … but the English title sounds more like something that could win Best Foreign-Language Film, doesn’t it?

Iraq in Fragments“: James Longley took his DV cameras to Iraq in 2004, and shot some incredible footage. Then he sort of mucked it all up by being an impressionist instead of a documentarian. But as a portrait of an occupied nation trying to figure out where it’s headed, it’s occasionally fascinating.

The Number 23“: In which Jim Carrey is driven insane by math, and possibly also by Joel Schumacher’s inability to compensate for a crappy screenplay. (Hey, he made “The Lost Boys” fun.) I am not expecting to see a critical re-evaluation of Schumacher any time soon, though one could argue that this is his “Vertigo”. If one were very, very high.

“Reno 911! Miami” wasn’t screened in time for opening-day reviews, so I’ll be catching it later this afternoon. I’m quite fond of the show — despite loathing everything else Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have created since they started writing movies — so here’s hoping the movie works, too.

Oh, and “Wild Hogs” is sneaking on Saturday night. Just punch yourself in the face instead. It has the same effect, it doesn’t take 99 minutes, and you save twelve bucks plus parking.

Rabid Defense

Do they look nervous? Of course not, they're just logosRemember the other week, when it came to light that the AACS encryption system, the first line of digital defense on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs, was almost laughably vulnerable?

Well, the folks over at DVDFile.com — who are usually pretty level-headed about this sort of thing — have decided to stand up against the evils of hackery in this completely over-the-top editorial, which argues that the compromising of AACS threatens the very existence of the burgeoning high-definition DVD market, since studios will stop releasing their titles to either format if they know those titles are just going to be pirated as soon as they hit the market.

Money quote:

Such criminals threaten to destroy the home theater technical progress that can bring pleasure to millions. The mentality of such a sociopath is equivalent to those who release computer viruses and Trojan horses into the wild to wreak random havoc. They are anarchists intent on destruction. They are no better than terrorists.

Um … what?

Look, I’m as eager to see high-def DVDs enter the mainstream — with all the attendant affordability and breadth of catalogue that such success would entail — but this is just plain ridiculous.

Neither HD-DVD nor Blu-ray will live or die on the impregnability of its content protection; after all, standard DVD is about as pregnable as a female rabbit, and studios aren’t exactly hesitating to release their biggest titles to the format, as quickly as possible.

In a rather specious bit of reasoning, the DVDFile editorial argues that Fox pulled its March and April Blu-ray titles from its schedule because of the revelation of AACS’ vulnerability. That’s probably a bit of a stretch.

Fox did announce that it was rescheduling some of its March and April titles, but not all of them … and I suspect the rescheduling has more to do with Blu-ray replication facilities being pushed beyond their capacity than anything else.

Anyway. Just trying to be the voice of reason here. Carry on.

The World is Sleepy …

I don't look like pure evil, do I?Everyone is recovering from the President’s Day weekend down south, it seems … even those of us up north, who did nothing yesterday except see “The Number 23” — yeesh — and write about the Oscars until our noses bled.

Well, some of us did that.

But here’s something for you: Jim Emerson, over at the Chicago Sun-Times’ highly enjoyable Scanners blog, has revived the Pauline Kael debate in honor of last weekend’s contrarianist blog-a-thon.

It’s definitely worth a read, even for people like me who enjoyed reading Kael’s reviews for the prose, rather than the content.

Oh, and my latest Sympatico/MSN DVD column is up. Still not liking “Babel”, though.

Well, Hell

We are an awesome album coverSo, um, “Ghost Rider“.

Huge, huge hit.

Wow.

I mean, I admit I kinda enjoyed it; it may be very, very silly and pretty lame overall, but Nicolas Cage makes it worth watching through force of will alone.

But … really? People went to see it in droves?

Seriously, I figured “Music and Lyrics” would clobber it with Valentine’s Day afterglow alone. Or maybe there’s a lot of lonely, desperate comic-book geeks out there.

Actually, scratch that. Of course there’s a lot of lonely, desperate comic-book geeks out there. I just didn’t think they’d turn out for “Ghost Rider”. Especially once they factored “From the Director of ‘Daredevil’ ” into the equation.

Maybe they were all showing up for the “Spider-Man 3” trailer? I mean, I have to admit that one looks pretty awesome. And nobody’s head is on fire … that we know of.

My other other gig.