Blu-ray Triumphant!

Or so it looks.

blu-ray_logo.jpgI’m not one to make sweeping pronouncements (really, it’s not in my character), but the momentum is pretty indisputable. Netflix and Best Buy threw their support behind Blu-ray earlier this week, and on Friday Wal-Mart announced they would stock Blu-ray as their exclusive high-definition video format. Here’s the Wired report on the announcement. The New York Times has already provided HD DVD’s obituary.

I like to think of it in terms of the primary campaigns. Just a couple of months ago, the format war resembled the Democratic campaign, with studios split between the Blu-ray and HD DVD. When Warner and Fox committed to Blu-ray exclusively, it tipped the balance and the metaphor jumped parties. Now it’s akin to the Republican primaries with Blu-ray as the John McCain campaign. Now everyone’s just waiting for the HD-uckabee to toss in the towel and give in to the inevitable momentum.

 

A few friends have been keeping much closer tabs on the politics of high-definition. Seattle film critic Jeff Shannon sent me this link from the US News and World Report blog about the Netflix decision earlier this week.

Nils von Veh followed up with this E-mail, which I reprint with his permission. Continue reading “Blu-ray Triumphant!”

Oscar Snubs: They Shoulda Been a Contender

It’s an open question whether the red carpet, the stargazing, the invariably overlong ceremony with its record of misjudged entertainment set pieces, and the obligatory afterparties will be present, but to paraphrase one of this year’s big nominees: There will be Oscars.

Zodiac - Where’s Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination?My annual Oscar report card is up at MSN. There are a lot of good nominees. I list a few choices that I think would have been better. Everyone’s a critic…

For the most part, it’s a classy bunch, but there’s always room for complaining. There is no shortage of deserving artists who didn’t make Oscar’s cut and we’re not shy about sharing our opinions on where the academy went wrong. So here is our report card on Oscar’s slights and oversights. Call it: They shoulda been a contender.

Best Picture

The five Best Picture nominees are a worthy — if fairly dark — class this year, lightened only by the inclusion of the indie-ish comedy “Juno.” I adore the film, I confess, and find it far more interesting and alive than last year’s token quasi-indie “Little Miss Sunshine.” But I’d prefer to see Sean Penn‘s “Into the Wild” — the glaring omission of the category — in its place. This sprawling, ragged human epic throws the audience headlong into the romance of an odyssey across America, living in the moment and in the buzzing thrill of the quest for something that may not exist. Carved out of primal imagery, raw emotion and pure passion, Penn’s ambition may exceed his grasp but only by degrees.

Read the rest here.

Into The Wild - Director Sean Penn shoots Emile Hirsch

Remembering the things I’m thankful for

J.Michael Staczinski's "Spider-Man"

2007 has been a good year for me. This year I passed the 12-year mark in Seattle, making this the longest I’ve ever lived consecutively in one city. I developed a taste for gunpowder green tea and yellow curry, thanks to an Asian market that opened right next to a nearby multiplex. I discovered a few new authors (thank you, Arturo Perez-Reverte and Tonino Benaquisto, for joining my list of favored writers) in between continuing my run through the Spenser novels of Robert Parker and completing Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle.” I continued my reengagement with comics and graphic novels through bound collections of both mainstream titles (the J. Michael Staczinski-penned “Spider-Man” comics and the “X-Men” issues by Joss Whedon and Grant Morrison) and indie series (the brilliant “Powers” by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming and the comics-noir “100 Bullets” by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso), thanks to a library system that actually carries these titles. I continued delving into garage rock past and present (with plenty of help from Little Steven’s Underground Garage). I made an effort to be, however small, a part of the lives of my nieces and nephews and honorary godchildren (that’s what happens to the single friends of married couples). And I finally launched my own website, thanks to the diligent efforts of my dear old friend Nick Henderson and my much newer friend Felipe Lujan-Bear. I’m still working on the rest of my 2007 New Year’s resolutions, but I’m happy with the headway I’ve made so far.

And professionally, it’s been a great year. After a decade of developing and writing my DVD column online, first for film.com and then for the IMDb, I approached MSN with a proposal to expand and enrich their coverage. My column went live in April and I’ve been writing a weekly column for them ever since. I also started writing for Turner Classic Movies in 2007, which I’ve greatly enjoyed, I continue to write for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and GreenCine.com, and this year I attended my first Toronto International Film Festival, which is a film lover’s paradise and the critic’s keys to the kingdom.

Zombie Heaven

I had grand plans for the week leading up to New Year’s Eve, but I wound up taking it easy and focusing on things close to home – getting back into jogging, organizing my finances for taxes, cleaning house (literally – a near-complete top to bottom clean), and clearing out the clutter by hauling off all those things I’d been saving to donate. I called my parents to wish them a happy anniversary (I’m lousy with birthdays, but I always remember my parents’ anniversary as it is on New Year’s Eve) and listened to “Odyssey and Oracle” by The Zombies, a magnificent pop album released long after the band had broken up, with only one hit (“Time of the Season”) but a unity close to perfection. I opened a bottle of Benton-Lane First Class 2003 Pinot Noir (from the Willamette Valley, my previous home), had a dish of spaghetti, and spent New Year’s Eve repeating what has become my annual ritual: staying at home (avoiding the roads full of drivers under the influence) and watching the DVDs that I’ve been wanting and meaning to see for months or even years. This year, it was King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn, on a poorly mastered import disc with shoddy subtitles, yet was glorious enough to overcome those surface deficiencies. For those of you unfamiliar with the director, Hu is the godfather of the genre known as “wuxia pian,” or romantic chivalry, and was a major inspiration of the Hong Kong New Wave and director Tsui Hark (who remade the film as Dragon Gate), and of the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is practically a tribute to the films of King Hu.

Dragon Inn

Dragon Gate Inn is a pure delight, a wild ride of an action film with a sprawling cast representing all sorts of forces who converge on the inn of the title, which lies open and exposed in the middle of the desert. An ambush is plotted by a powerful eunuch, but mysterious figures have, for various reasons, gathered to protect the targets of the assassination conspiracy. Swords flash, poison wine is spilled, arrows fly, armies clash, and rather humorous insults are thrown at the eunuch. Yet it was one otherwise unmemorable moment of the film, a slow track forward in POV shot of the warrior heroine creeping up on the occupied inn of the title, that sparked a purely reflexive response in me: damn, how I love a slow tracking shot, one that creeps with such deliberation that you feel transported into the movement. It started me thinking about those techniques and conventions and details we otherwise take for granted, yet transform otherwise mundane films into visceral experiences, and in the hands of an artist can be turned into transformative moments.

So I started cataloguing, off the top of my head, just a few things about the cinema that transport me, thrill me, engage me, excite me, stir me, and reward me – in films conventional and curious, good and bad, terrible and transcendent. I’m dedicated to exploring cinema for the good and the great, but there are so many things that me engaged in between that I felt compelled to list just a few…

Things I’m thankful for:

Hawks

Howard Hawks – I could put any number of directors here, I suppose, but there is no single director whose world I find more comforting to visit.

The perfect match cut – I realized that I was not meant to be a director in college because I never really had a story to tell when I was making student films, but I could spend hours mucking about on the sloppy, pre-digital videotape editing deck of my college perfecting the editing of my rushes, alternately flaunting exaggerated shifts in perspective and angle and hiding cuts in the movement within the frame. (I might have turned out to be a good editor if I kept with it, but I ultimately found myself drawn to writing more than filmmaking, and I followed my impulses.) I’m still swept along by editing that follows the action to slide from shot to shot and carries the viewer along quietly through rhythms. It was during the third screening of John Woo’s Hardboiled that I noticed how Woo used the momentum and vectors of action to guide his cutting in the opening restaurant shoot-out. It makes the runaway momentum feel even more out of control and chaotic, but Woo is in complete control.

Continue reading “Remembering the things I’m thankful for”

A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg

Inspired by the possibilities of DVD releases seen this year alone in terms of special editions and box sets, I put together an initial wish list of essentials I would like to see in the coming years and published the piece on GreenCine:

What a year we’ve seen for domestic DVD releases. Marvelous special editions of Breathless and I Am Cuba. A deluxe presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The release of such long-awaited films as Killer of Sheep (an amazing 2-disc special edition), Ace in the Hole (Criterion, no less), Witchfinder General (in the uncut British version), and Duck, You Sucker (restored and reconstructed), just to name the first that come to mind. And new standards of quality and exhaustive completeness have been set with the sprawling, unprecedented box set Ford at Fox and Blade Runner: Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

And the hits keep on coming. Warner has been working on mastering elements for a The Magnificent Ambersons special edition for years (modest editions are already available in France and Britain) and Paramount is reportedly working on an extensive restoration of The African Queen. Criterion has a Max Ophüls set in the works (the only confirmed titles are Earrings of Madame de… and Le Plaisir, and perhaps La Ronde – I hope they add Lola Montès to replace the inferior Fox Lorber edition) and is considering the films of Kenji Mizoguchi (including Street of Shame and Life of Oharu), Shohei Imamura, and Mikio Naruse (either in Criterion editions or Eclipse box sets), not to mention all those Rialto re-releases. There are Lon Chaney classics, Forbidden Hollywood collections, Looney Tunes boxes, and sets of such series as The Saint and Falcon in the works, as well as the rollout of the entire Andy Hardy series (gosh, dad, that’s swell!).

Yes, we go on and on about what’s not yet on DVD, but it is not in spite of these releases that I offer my own dream list of DVD Special Editions and Box Sets. It is because I am inspired by their example to dream big. This is no fantasy of lost films found (like the 132-minute version of Magnificent Ambersons, the 40-reel Greed, or magically rediscovered prints of London After Midnight or Four Devils), but a modest proposal to pull out films from the vaults, restore and remaster them where necessary, and give them the presentation they deserve on DVD.

What kind of releases did I choose? Here’s my top pick in a “best of” list of my dreams:

1. Touch of Evil: The Ultimate Collection

Continue reading “A Christmas DVD Wish List… plus “Diva” and David Cronenberg”

‘Blade Runner’ – DVD of the week

My last DVD column of 2007 wraps up the home video releases for the last two weeks of the year.

Twenty five years after Ridley Scott‘s visionary reworking of Philip K. Dick’s novel flopped at the box office (and was subsequently reborn as one of the pre-eminent cult movies of the past three decades), Scott delivers what he promises is his final take on the compromised classic.

The ultimate release of Blade Runner is the release of the week. I’m still going through the discs – the epic 3 1/2 hour documentary is astounding, the outtakes and deleted scenes are cut together into a kind of narrative, a stranger alternate universe companion film with completely different credits and a completely different narration by Ford. I’ll be writing about this in more detail later on this site.

The Simpsons Movie

The big-screen debut of America’s favorite yellow-skinned family plays like a supersized episode with gags crammed into every verbal and visual nook and cranny of the wide-screen format and an afterthought of a story…. It’s as puckish and irreverent as the television show, but with PG-13 parameters (resulting in, among other things, an inspired gag sprung during Bart’s naked skateboard ride through town), awfully funny and fairly unmemorable.

Also new in this week’s column: Once (“the sweetest little musical of the year”), Eastern Promises (which arrives on DVD on December 23), and new special editions of The Evil Dead and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.

Also new this week is my tribute to the fictional history of rock and roll: the Greatest Bands that Never Existed.

The alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll is filled with class acts: The Swanky Modes, Steel Dragon, the Luminaries, and who could forget the upstart grrrl group the Stains? Most people do forget … because these bands don’t exist outside of the movies. In fact, there’s a veritable alternative history of rock ‘n’ roll that only exits in film. Many nonexistent bands are bad; many are surprisingly good; some are downright inspired.

If you’re a fan of Strange Fruit, The Venus in Furs, The Bang Bang, and Max Frost and the Troopers, then this is for you. If you haven’t heard of these bands, then jump in:

5. The Venus in Furs
Big-screen appearance:Velvet Goldmine
Musical definition: Glam rock redux
Signature song: “The Whole Shebang”
Liner notes: Jack Slade became the poster boy for androgyny rock and “the first true dandy of rock” in his taboo-busting phase as the flamboyantly bisexual singer/songwriter fronting the Venus in Furs. His career never recovered from the staged assassination at a concert and he disappeared, possibly into a new persona.
Behind the music: Todd Haynes recreates the pop-culture earthquake of glam rock with a fictionalized take on David Bowie‘s Ziggy Stardust phase (incarnated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers with a pouty, androgynous pose and a fabulous wardrobe), directed as a cheeky tribute to “Citizen Kane.” The period-perfect music was created by members of Radiohead, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth and Ron Asheton of the original Stooges.

Click here to read the other nine picks and more…