Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Yet more articles about Bubble with titles punning on the word "bubble"

The rest of the entertainment mediasphere has taken note of Bubble's yawnerrific box-office performance. In an IMDb piece today, we read:

Mark Cuban, who owns Magnolia and the Landmark Theatres chain, said in a statement, "We are very happy with the results so far of this first day-and-date release, and while theatrical performance was not as high as we would have liked, it compared favorably to other similar films released this weekend."

Which it didn't, actually, as a quick scan of the weekend's numbers will clarify. In any case, I'm still intrigued by the strategy; I happen to think the world of Soderbergh, Cuban, Landmark, and what 2929 Entertainment and Magnolia Pictures are all doing to try to increase the profile of indie films. I'm thinking, though, that instead of their multiplatform release plan, which clearly hasn't worked as was hoped, they might have done better to try my vending machine idea. Hell, I bet Cuban could afford it!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bursting a Bubble?

It looks like the folks who thought it was a very bad idea for Steven Soderbergh and 2929 Entertainment to release their new low-budget indie film Bubble simultaneously on cable, DVD (that will actually be out Tuesday), and theatrically may be smugly enjoying a bit of I-told-you-so today. Released admittedly very conservatively on only 32 screens, Bubble's weekend take was around 70 grand, for a per-screen average of $2,208. That would put it on the lower end of per-screen averages for the weekend's top ten; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, now in its 8th weekend, had a per-screen of around $2,076.

By contrast, a couple of other platform release indie movies this weekend totally popped Bubble (cute, huh? — I could write for Hollywood Reporter with quips like that!). Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story owned Soderbergh on a mere three screens with a per-screen of $20,295, while Lars von Trier's Manderlay racked up a $7,558 average on only two screens. Considering that Soderbergh is an Oscar winner, and that Bubble has gotten wider mass-media coverage mainly due to its risky release strategy, this performance could be considered a big disappointment. The devoted art-house crowd had two other movies it preferred to see, and the mass audience who flocked to Soderbergh films like Ocean's [Insert Number] and Erin Brockovich stayed home. Maybe they were just a little creeped out by that baby-head trailer.

It also seems a vindication of the idea that, while audiences seem to bitch more and more about the unpleasantness and expense of theater-going, that window between theatrical and DVD releases still matters in giving a release legitimacy. I don't have any figures on Bubble's HDNet viewership or DVD pre-orders yet. But it would seem the lesson of this weekend is that theaters still matter, but if audiences can see your movie by staying home, they will.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Heard something awesomely gross today

So there was this dead homeless guy found in a park in Austin some years ago. Anyway, it became clear, from the fact that his head was in a state commonly referred to as "bashed in," that foul play was involved. Due to the advanced state of the body's decomposition, identification was difficult. For instance, the flesh from the victim's hands had separated from his body, and the only way the medical examiners could get fingerprints from him was for one of their guys to slip the victim's hand-skin over his own hand as if it were a glove, and do the prints that way!

That's the kind of cool stuff you learn when you're a film and TV freelancer, without, like, actually having to see (and smell) it face to face the way the actual detectives and coroners did. Today I worked on a shoot for the Discovery Health Channel's forensics show Skeleton Stories, where I listened to some swell interviews with Austin D.A.'s who recounted tales of grisly local crimes I never knew a thing about. These folks really are passionate about justice. If I ever get my head bashed in by a lunatic, I hope they're on the case!

I have an inkling the work situation here in Austin will be better for 2006. A good start already, and my listing in this year's Texas Film Commission directory is bigger, new and improved, tastes great and is less filling. Nice to feel optimistic. From interviewing music celebrities, to hanging out in pools on South Padre surrounded by nubile and incoherent spring breakers, and listening to stomach churning stories of death and depravity, I wouldn't want to work in any other business. Now if only it were just a bit more regular...

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Check this article over at Dark Horizons and marvel at the idiocy. Yeah, that's how to get a new format off the ground: screw over the early adopters!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sundance neither the be-all or end-all

Sundance is going on right now, and truth to tell, I wouldn't mind being there. I'm sure there are some awesome movies being premiered. And a handful of filmmakers will go home with the brass ring — their picture bought for distribution and a development deal for another — well in hand. But there's a lesson about putting all your eggs into one basket to be learned here, too. An L.A. Times article gives hopeful auteurs a reality smack today, pointing out that precious few Grand Jury Prize winners have actually gone on to have, you know, a filmmaking career:

For all its acclaim, the Grand Jury Prize was not intended to reward filmmakers whose movies are likely to make millions of dollars, said Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's director. Rather, the awards are designed to call attention to works with bold, creative ambition — and the directors behind such indie movies are likely to find a rough road in an industry driven by the bottom line.

"The jurors are looking for films that are taking risks," Gilmore said. "It's not surprising that these films don't always do so well in the marketplace."

Of course, you could say the same for the Cannes Palme d'Or, one recent winner of which — Gus Van Sant's Elephant — only took in $1.2 million theatrically in the US. It's the age-old battle between art and commerce being duked out again. The problem is that too many artists shun too fanatically the commercial realities of the vocation they have chosen to pursue. Movies are neither just an art form nor just a business; they are both. The people who want to succeed don't "sell out," they just learn how to draw a balance between the two. They are also the people who are sufficiently self-confident to refuse to take no for an answer.

Every buyer balked at a theatrical release for Livingston's "Paris Is Burning," a documentary about drag queens. "After it won the Grand Jury Prize, nobody was interested still. It meant nothing," Livingston said. "I talked to many distribution types and was told it would never make any money." Livingston distributed the film herself, and when it generated standing-room-only screenings in New York, Miramax decided to buy the film. "Paris Is Burning" turned into a documentary hit, grossing more than $3.7 million.

Now that's how you rise above the pack. Too many indie filmmakers seem to have this idea that simply by screening at a festival, the brilliance of their filmmaking genius will be undeniable to all, and all they have to do from that point on is hold court in the hotel bar while distributors line up to genuflect, contracts in hand. Weeeeell, reality is more like this: you have to sell yourself. This involves doing tasteless things many serious artistes can't abide. Schmoozing. Networking. Pimping. It means taking exactly the same kind of risks to sell your film as it took to make it in the first place. It means being bold and maybe earning the ire and jealousy of other filmmakers whose criticisms of you, if they were at all honest, will in fact be rooted in envy that they didn't think of what you did to succeed first.

Of course, sometimes you may put out that effort and your film still won't make it. But at least you'll know you gave it the best try you could, rather than always wondering what might have happened had you only tried. Whether it's Sundance or any other festival out there, the festival itself will not do your heavy lifting for you. Only you can do that.

Bashin’ II: Fundie Boogaloo

In the ongoing saga of right-wing Christian gay-hate focusing on Hollywood, this little piece of irony offered for your consideration:

There is an independent Christian film getting ready to make the rounds titled End of the Spear. It's based on a true story about five missionaries who were slaughtered by an Amazonian tribe. Setting aside the issue of how missionaries have done plenty to ruin indigenous cultures over the ages, the plot goes on to detail how the murdered men's families went back to the tribe to continue their mission, thus providing an example of courage, forgiveness and selfless love that stands as an example to all Christians today. And I can see how this message would resonate with a lot of Christians. Just not the right wingers.

For you see, there's a controversy already brewing about this movie. It seems that one of the lead roles is played by an actor named Chad Allen, who's — you're way ahead of me, aren't you — gay. So, led by a pastor in Florida, a campaign is underway to persuade the producers to "rectify this unfortunate situation" (exactly how is unclear, as the film is already in the can and ready for release). A scolding letter has been signed by about 100 pastors. But remember, they're not homophobic!

I admit to being a little puzzled myself as to why a gay person would affiliate himself with a religion that preaches he should be killed. Well, I know actors have to take the work wherever it's offered. Still, it would seem that there are people in the Christian community who would prefer End of the Spear's message of unconditional love be amended. You deserve love and forgiveness if you murder my family. But not if you're a fag. Go, Jesus!

Addendum: The numbers are in, and for the day following the Golden Globe awards, Brokeback Mountain leapt to #1, its per-screen average nearly three times that of last weekend's topper Glory Road. No, Mrs. B, America isn't going to see these movies, are they?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Superman Returns the new standard of Hollywood fiscal lunacy

I admire Bryan Singer, pretty much. I mean, I thought The Usual Suspects was a little overrated, but still a good movie. And Singer is a guy who rose from the indie ranks and hit it big.

But still, if you thought budgets in the range of $200 million were absolutely out of control, when you start to push $300 million, you need to be taken out back and roughed up a little, if only to have a little sense knocked into you. Three hundred million dollars!? That is the direction the rumor mill has Superman Returns' budget headed towards. Yes, King Kong might have made jaws drop at $207 million, but at least Peter Jackson delivered three hours of non-stop ass-kicking for the investment. If SR becomes the first movie to hit the $300M price point, how can it possibly make its money back? I mean, it could end up clicking with audiences better than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies have done, but how likely is that? Even Chris Nolan's Batman Begins, one of the most well-reviewed comic book movies ever, only took in $205.3 million domestically, towards a worldwide $371.9 cume. SR would have to take in over $600 million globally to break even at a $300 million budget — not categorically impossible. But way riskier than I'd be happy with, were I an exec with any sense.

Hollywood is in a quandary. Theater attendence remains ho-hum, because people are tired of the expense, the ads, the crying babies, and the asshole in the row behind you smacking his popcorn or talking on his cell phone. Ticket sales aren't disastrous, but disappointing, and yet production costs for the tentpole, hopefully-franchise-launching movies all studios desperately want in order to remain players continue to spiral into orbit.

Just to give you an idea: Egypt is the 31st country, out of 192, on the IMF's list of national wealth ranked by gross domestic product. Its GDP is recorded at just over $282 million. This means that more money is about to be spent on a single Hollywood movie than the wealth produced individually by 161 nations in a year.


It had better not suck.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Holy meltdown, Batman! What did I tell you?

LOL and other overused internet abbreviations. The Religious Right has wasted no time going apeshit over alla them sinful faggots taking home Golden Globes.

This shit is particularly hilarious:

“Last night Hollywood exposed its own corrupt agenda. (It) is no doubt out on a mission to homosexualise America.”

Apparently, watching a movie with gay characters in it will — horrors! — turn you gay! And Hollywood wants to turn everyone gay because — er — because — well, they don't quite say.

Here's more cluelessness.

“Once again, the media elites are proving that their pet projects are more important than profit,” Janice Crouse, of Concerned Women for America, said. “None of the three movies — Capote, Transamerica or Brokeback Mountain — is a box office hit. Brokeback Mountain has barely topped $25 million (£14.2 million) in ticket sales. If America isn’t watching these films, why are they winning the awards?”

Uh, pardon me a moment, you stupid bitch. (Do you mind if I call you that? I could go with "Mrs. Bitch" or just "Mrs. B" if you prefer.) Let's take an actual look at Brokeback's box office performance, shall we? Over the Martin Luther King Day holiday 4-day weekend, Brokeback had a per-screen average of $10,309. That's the highest per-screen average of the top 37 films! Keep in mind that Brokeback is still playing on fewer than 700 screens, compared to the 2000-3000-plus saturation release of big-budget blockbusters. So it's in fewer theaters, as are most serious dramatic films, but it's selling more tickets per showing than almost every other movie out there. And it's been having that kind of draw ever since its initial release. Look at the numbers yourself to see how it's outperforming nearly everything.

Another inconvenient fact that Mrs. B ignored is that Brokeback's production budget was only around $14 million. Its box office cume right now is just over $32 million. So even while it's still in limited release, it's well into profits, which is more than can be said for most $100 million-budgeted event pictures that Hollywood churns out. Something like 80% of movies released to theaters lose money. Brokeback is not one of those movies.

As for Transamerica, it's still in super-limited release, only on 9 screens nationwide so far. But its per-screen average over the MLK Day weekend was $12,239, even higher than Brokeback's! Nope, nobody's going to see these movies, obviously.

You'll notice that the referenced article is from the London Times. What you need to understand is that the Religious Right is a gang of thugs who make Americans as a breed look like idiots. Sophisticated, cultured Londoners read this article and shake their heads and chuckle at us. The fundies are an embarrassment to us on a global stage, especially when they have their meltdowns in front of reporters and television cameras. We look as benighted as the radical Islamists who make their women wear burkas. Here we are, supposedly the world's superpower, and we're populated by hordes of medievalist assclowns.

I cannot imagine being a right-wing Christian. Their lives are governed by two emotions, hate and fear, and their every public utterance is laced with ignorance or deliberate denial of empirical reality. And the sad thing is, like the alcoholic or cokehead who insists he has no problem, they mistake their hate for love, and their fear for strength. They genuinely baffle me. Do they really, really think that if they watch a movie with gay men or transgenders as lead characters, they will come out of that theater "homosexualized"? The mind boggles at such a dysfunctional view of reality. Yup, Brokeback ends, the credits roll, and Joe Fundie looks over at his wife Jane and sees...a stranger. Who is this woman sitting next to him? And how could he have felt love or attraction to her for all these years? Something in him is...changing. And as he staggers dazedly out of the theater and through the lobby, his eyes drift across a one-sheet for the next movie starring The Rock. And he feels a funny tingling...down there...

Oh boy. I almost pity them.


Goldenfully Globular

I care about as much for what goes on at the Golden Globes as I do the Daytime Emmys. But they are usually seen as a precusor to who's going to walk home with Oscars. And thus, it was entirely unsurprising that the Globes bestowed top honors to Brokeback Mountain. Which is perfectly fine, if the movie is in fact good enough to deserve it. I'll see it eventually, since every report I've had from friends of mine, not just the press, has been glowing. Excessive hype is what turns me off, not the idea of gay cowboys. But that's the problem here; awards season is every bit as predictable as the three-act structure of a boilerplate Hollywood script. Find the movie getting the biggest buzz, and there's your winner.

Still, there are surprises lurking in each awards show, and Felicity Huffman's win for the little-seen Transamerica is one of those. This probably means she'll get on the Oscar ballot, at least. And though I'm utterly outside the loop when it comes to network television, I have a huge love for HBO's awesome Rome, and I wish it had gotten something.

So, with most of the major awards going to movies about gay or transgendered characters, next up will be Michael Medved's unctuous bloviating about evil librul Hollywood being "out of touch" with traditional American Values, and perhaps the requisite cluck-clucking on Fox News and like-minded media niches. Nothing if not predictable, this business.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Playing the Meme of Four

Okay, boys and girls. This is a game I found here. Time to get some group participation going. It's called the Meme of Four. Give it a shot. Maybe we'll get to know each other a little better. Oh, one thing. Being that this is a movie related blog, I've added some questions not in the original list to the bunch. They're at the tail end.

Four jobs you've had:

  1. Record store clerk

  2. Night watchman

  3. Comic book artist

  4. Assistant director, film

Four movies you could watch over and over: (It's actually painful for me to have to stop at four here, but dem's da rules.)

  1. The Great Escape

  2. Seven Samurai

  3. Night of the Living Dead (only the original, of course)

  4. Blade Runner

Four places you’ve lived:

  1. Great Yarmouth, England

  2. Dubai, U.A.E.

  3. Singapore

  4. Houston, Texas

Four TV shows you love to watch: (I don't really love to watch TV at all, but I have some favorites, and there's nothing here that insists they be currently-running shows. Again, too many "honorable mentions" to list here.)

  1. Black Adder

  2. Monty Python's Flying Circus

  3. The Young Ones

  4. The Prisoner

Four places you’ve been on vacation:

  1. London

  2. Hong Kong

  3. Tokyo

  4. Honolulu

Four blogs you visit daily:

  1. Pharyngula

  2. The Whatever

  3. Media Matters for America

  4. The Panda's Thumb

Four of your favorite foods:

  1. Thai

  2. Chinese

  3. A burger I make myself, with sliced habaneros. Yes, you read that right.

  4. A good old fashioned barbequed sirloin steak, with lots of veggies.

Four places you’d rather be:

  1. Strolling through the British Museum...

  2. ...or the National Gallery of Art in DC

  3. On set directing

  4. Curled up snugly in bed, with either (depending on mood) a good book or a brunette

Four albums you can’t live without:

  1. Brilliant Trees by David Sylvian

  2. A Love Supreme by John Coltrane

  3. Wind & Wuthering by Genesis

  4. Skylarking by XTC

Four vehicles you’ve owned:

  1. 1982 grey-and-black Toyota Corolla (my first)

  2. 1980 blue Buick LeSabre (hand-me-down from the folks)

  3. 1993 white Toyota Celica (my favorite, still missed)

  4. 1993 teal Ford Explorer (sturdy, but not long for this world)

Now here are the extras I've made up, for movie buffs and pros. Fittingly, there are four.

Four movies you love that your significant other hates: (As I'm single I get to bow out of this one for now, but I'm dying to see what other folks say. When I was married, it seemed my wife hated anything I liked and herself liked total shit. One of many, many, many reasons it was a short marriage.)

Four hugely popular movies that you don't like:

  1. Forrest Gump

  2. E.T. (I fucking hate this!)

  3. Jurassic Park

  4. My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Ignore if not applicable — Four video games that rocked your planet:

  1. Deus Ex

  2. Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams

  3. Shenmue

  4. Resident Evil: Code Veronica

For industry pros, mainly — Four actors you'd do anything, short of murder, to work with:

  1. Robert de Niro

  2. Daniel Day-Lewis

  3. Patrick McGoohan

  4. Jenna Jameson (wink!)

Your turn!

Monday, January 09, 2006

More Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD fun

The Consumer Electronics Show 2006, a veritable Disneyland of technogeekdom, was held last weekend, and the lion's share of the attention was centered on the upcoming HD home video formats. One writer on CNET has wryly commented that while the players are producing stupefingly gorgeous video, the units themselves look pretty fugly.

HD-DVD looks like it's going to be first out of the gate, releasing its first players in late spring at an average MSRP of $400-$700, a price point that is surprising everyone. (Even the first DVD players in 1997 were higher.) This is seen as an obvious attempt to undercut the Blu-ray faction by hitting the streets first with much less expensive hardware. The first Blu-ray players are due later in the year at a breathtaking average price-point of $1800. But still many analysts are predicting Blu-ray will prevail, with better copy-protection than HD-DVD, among other things. The X factor? Gamers.

Sony's PlayStation 3, due around late spring/early summer, will, as all game geeks know, include a Blu-ray drive, while Microsoft — ever the contrarian — has announced it's throwing its weight behind HD-DVD and will release an external HD-DVD drive for the XBox 360. Immediate problem: this is a peripheral, which will cost more in addition to the $400 an XBox 360 already costs, while the PS3 will have Blu-ray built in.

Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard have thrown up their hands, said "Fuck it," and announced their support for both formats.

Then there's the upcoming Macworld Expo (go Mac!), where Steve Jobs will do his usual routine of announcing all their amazingly cool, top secret stuff, little of which is ever fully secret but, hey. In addition to expected announcements about a new line of turbocharged Intel-powered laptops and some new iPods, there could be elaboration on the company's HD plans (they're behind Blu-ray). Jobs has hinted at Apple's moving boldly into the "digital living room" thing.

So...lots of activity on the HD geek front. We'll see where the proverbial dust settles.

Meanwhile, here are some cool pics the Digital Bits guys took at CES. Technoporn! Yum.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hallucinogens + Japan: "...drill the wax which was pulled."

Yes, it's 2:30 ayem and I'm up.

I love Japanese cinema, except, really, for anime. (I mean, it's good if Miyazaki does it, but I'm lukewarm on most of the rest of it.) But even I marvel at the extremities of oddity that emerge from the land of the rising sun. Such is the case with Executive Koala, whose website I discovered during one of those rambling late-night surf sessions during which one is both insomniac and bored. Like tonight.

First, allow yourself to contemplate this still...

Then marvel to the surrealism of this synopsis, which I unearthed via a bit more Googling.

"Tamura is an average divorced salaryman in Japan - and also a man-sized, suit-and-tie wearing, upright-walking koala bear. Though not a human being, he's a successful businessman with ventures overseas who refuses to play office politics. He hopes to marry his girlfriend, Yoko, and raise a child. His visions are of an ordinary life with an ordinary company until his ordinary retirement. But when his girlfriend turns up dead one morning, the police finger the Executive Koala as their prime suspect. Tamura runs from Detective Ono and fights to prove his innocence. Tamura wants to know why there are gaps in his memory. Is he a murderer? Does he have multiple personalities? And what does his bartender (the frog) and his boss (the rabbit) know about the two-hundred year old terrifying secret behind the EXECUTIVE KOALA?"


Now you'd think from that still you were getting either some kid's movie, or maybe a bit of snarky "Adult Swim"-style college-oriented bit of goofiness in the South Park or Invader Zim mold. Doesn't seem to be the case. They seem to be selling this as a straight-faced thriller/drama!

What is most bizarre to me is this. As any filmmaker will tell you, it's tough to get a movie made. Lengthy meetings are taken. A prospectus is drawn up, line-item budgets revised repeatedly. Financing is secured, if you're one of the lucky ones. Escrow accounts are opened, accounting firms hired. Distribution deals must be arranged.

Now, imagine someone in the industry in America — either Hollywood or indie — at any point in time during the pitching process, making the above pitch.

The mind reels. And yet, all of the machinery I described as having to be set in motion to make a film was in fact set in motion in Japan, towards the production of Executive Koala.

I'm not trying to prejudge the movie's merits at all! For all I know, this is some manner of left-field magical realist brilliance to put the wildest imaginings of Luis Buñuel or Alejandro Jodorowsky to shame. I kind of doubt that — but my point is, as hard as it is to make a film there are people on earth who can make something as loopy as this! I stand in awe.

Skipping over to the movie's own site, I basked in the oddity of the trailer, and decided to have some fun subjecting some of its Japanese text to one of those shot-in-the-dark online translator bots, which rendered the following:

The tag of well Siyuntarou Kanai "it was and the wrestler" recorded スマッシュ hit, as for this foolish animal movie series the イケ る, with as for production each company thought. Then, what is made next? The fact that it surfaces then is "the koala". Why? "It is and the wrestler" after all, "it is?" and if, they are marine products ones, the movie is made the element of date, "it was and?" the maniac passed excessively. In addition the advertisement copy is and "is ill-smelling and is the め! "Those which are. ウ it is in ウケ る one, as for the person who is pulled to think, the っ drill the wax which was pulled. Then! To be whether and so on compared to, it is lovely, with Mammalia "koala" which the woman likes essentially as a leading part in the audience straddle issues. Furthermore unexpected, that koala section chief.

"Audience straddle issues"? I am so all over this movie!

Boy, it's late...

Friday, January 06, 2006

Vote for me! Vote for me! Me! Me! Me!

Despite the dismal track record for video-game based movies — like, there hasn't been a good one yet — I'm hopeful about the movie based on my personal favorite franchise, Silent Hill, coming out just days before my birthday this year.

Tri-Star has done an interesting thing with this picture. They set up a contest on the official website for fans to design their own one-sheets for the film, using art and text files provided. I think the winning design will actually be one of the posters used in theater lobbies across this great nation of ours. The winner might get something else too. But — screw it — I designed one. And now it's up for voting. So click here and vote for my design, right this very instant. And if I win, then maybe, if the movie sucks, we can all say, "At least the poster was cool."

P.S.: Apparently you can vote once a day, every day until the contest ends! So hold nothing back! Vote early and often!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Plasma screen as surrogate penis

It'll be hilarious the day these things get so big the walls they're mounted on come crashing down.

The Oscar telecast might not suck this year!

Because John Stewart is hosting!

This is probably the first thing Hollywood's done right since...well, the last time they did something right.

Naturally, the awards themselves will be entirely predictable. I'll lay even odds that Brokeback Mountain takes Best Picture, and better than even odds that the Religious Right and Fox News immediately goes into apoplexy railing against evil secular liberal Hollywood trying to promote the Gay Agenda and tear down Gawd, mom, and apple pie.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

First batch of Blu-ray and HD-DVD titles announced

Here they are, from all of the various studios that have climbed on board. Some crap throwaway Hollywood choices, a smattering of unusual classics. (Interesting to see Leone's For a Few Dollars More announced — a title that MGM infamously screwed up on its initial DVD release, and which has not since been corrected domestically, though an SE exists in region 2 — without similar announcements for A Fistful of Dollars or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) All in all, not enough yet to make you ditch your DVDs, and DVDs will of course remain viable for the long haul, I think, just as CDs have. But it will be worth seeing which way the early adopters swing, and following the progress of the format war thereafter. I plan on waiting till Christmas at the earliest to make my choice, and perhaps even early 2007. Don't wanna back the wrong horse, you know.

HD format war meets public indifference

While websites like The Digital Bits have been keeping track of, and providing often scathing critical commentary on the looming High Definition format war — which I bet a lot of you didn't even know was happening — it turns out that software manufacturers and studios face an even more prosaic, and potentially tougher, form of uphill battle when it comes to selling the next generation of discs to the public. And a format war is now almost certain to doom both emerging technologies, as this piece at CNET explains.

First, a format war primer. Now that DVDs are entrenched in just about every home in America, having enjoyed the fastest and most enthusiastic mass market penetration of any home entertainment technology ever (over 100 million players have been sold in the US since DVD debuted in late 1997, a figure that doesn't include DVD drives in computers or game systems), it's clearly time to establish a new home video format in order to get you to ditch the huge DVD collections you've already invested gobs of money in, and buy your favorite movies all over again in HD.

Now, that snarky comment isn't entriely fair, I must confess. Because the new formats have been on the drawing boards for years now. Most people, especially folks who have dropped money on 16:9 big screen TVs, would probably be surprised to hear that DVDs are not high definition video. They're massively clearer, of course, than VHS or even laserdiscs ever were. But they still use the standard definition analog NTSC encoding standard (PAL in Europe). This allows you, at best, 480 horizontal lines of resolution. The reason DVDs have to use either the NTSC or PAL standards is because of the MPEG-2 compression the video has to undergo in order to be stored on the disc, and because most everyone is still watching their DVDs on their old analog televisions which understand NTSC or PAL, with its 30 fps frame rate that differs from the 24 fps frame rate used by movies.

But the digital age is coming fast — all broadcast and cable is expected to be entirely digital by 2009 — washing away NTSC and PAL the way that big asteroid washed away the hapless dinosaurs. And the new discs are poised to take full advantage of the technology. Blu-ray is one of the formats; HD-DVD the other. Both formats have advantages and disadvantages to be ironed out from a manufacturing and marketing standpoint. But both, technologically speaking, have mad storage capacity (Blu-ray is said to allow for multiple, not just dual, layers, upping the ante to the 200 GB range) allowing room for much higher resolution video codecs than MPEG-2, providing true 1080 line resolution. Word is, from people who have seen these playing at trade shows, that it will make you faint dead away.

Problem: two formats, just like VHS and Beta. And the developers of each have been mulishly stubborn in reaching common ground, forcing studios and other developers (like computer and game companies) to choose sides. For a while it looked like Blu-ray had a decisive upper hand, especially after both Apple and Sony (for the PS3) hopped on. But, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, late last year several movie studios began hedging their bets, announcing their support for both formats. All the while, public-advocacy DVD websites continued to yell at these guys to get their shit together, or see a technology that could truly revolutionize the home theater experience go the way of SACD and DVD-Audio. ("What are those?" you ask. Precisely.)

But now we see a new wrinkle in the picture. Those clever satellite and cable companies — spurred by TiVO — have been making more on-demand movies and programming available to their subscribers, and people are going for it. So much so, in fact, that on-demand is already impacting and slowing down the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of DVD sales. Now when cable and satellite finally go fully digital and HD formatted, on-demand is expected to be so pervasive, even becoming the public's #1 viewing-habit-of-choice (I'm hearing rumors that networks are considering rendering the old practice of "schedules" and "time slots" utterly extinct), that the concern now is consumers will vastly prefer on-demanding a movie they want to see far more than they'll be interested in buying a $25 disc of that same movie which, in all honesty, they're likely to watch only once. And why shouldn't they? They'd simply be carrying over viewing habits they already practice.

So are Blu-ray and HD-DVD already doomed? I don't think so. There's too much cash and R&D effort already invested in the formats. But I think the halcyon days of DVD making everyone and his dog a big movie collector are waning. I remember in the 90's that, as a laserdisc owner, my hobby of collecting movies in a high quality home video format was rather unusual and kind of a snob-appeal thing. This decade, DVD made an elitist hobby a mass-market fad. But go to any place that sells used DVDs, and you'll see piles of copies of mainstream Hollywood movies, while very few copies of, say, Criterion or other speciality label or import titles — the kinds of things the movie snobs who collected laserdiscs were interested in 12 years ago.

What I think will happen, as far as movies and home theater are concerned (expect much bigger market acceptance in video games), is that you'll see HD disc formats become, as laserdiscs were in the 90's, a snob format for the real movie buff, the folks who'd rather watch Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles (who even frickin' know who those guys are) than Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller. And the mainstream public, the folks who will buy 7 million copies of The Wedding Crashers on DVD this week and trade them in to the used-disc store a month later, will settle into the on-demand/Netflix routine. And that's fine. As long as there's a format of choice available for everyone, I suppose.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Anatomy of a disappointment: Showtime's Masters of Horror

I'm a huge fan of horror movies, although there are precious few horror movies I actually go see. My tastes tend to run to movies that successfully surround you in a frightening, oppressive atmosphere, and creep you out via the power of suggestion — the minority of what gets made — rather than simply seeking to shock you with appalling gore — the majority. Not that I don't appreciate a good gorefest, but that sort of thing has to be done very cleverly and stylishly for me to find it anything other than cheesily exploitive. Red dye and Karo syrup cost a filmmaker nothing, thus any no-budget video hack can slap together a gore movie and call himself a filmmaker. Good horror filmmaking is like anything else: it succeeds via the filmmakers' understanding of the language of cinema and storytelling excellence. Throwing guts at me and calling yourself transgressive will usually earn you a sneer, monstrous egotist that I am!

So it was with some cautious apprehension but general optimism that I looked forward to Showtime's heavily ballyhooed series Masters of Horror, whose brief was that it would be a series to allow the finest horror directors free rein to take off the gloves and do what they do so well. That the series has not, in fact, accomplished that is a greater disappointment to me than any of the particular episodes and whatever individual flaws they might have.

As I don't want to take up hours of your time detailing every episode so far shown and going into each and every nitpick I have in anally-retentive and eye-glazing detail, I'll pick out the two episodes I was looking forward to with the greatest enthusiasm and explain my disillusionment with each. I'll start by saying that sometimes having high expectations can be a thing to lead to disappointment no matter what. But I think it's sad we live in a world where the reality of what kind of entertainment we get makes low expectations the only sensible approach.

First of these is Jenifer, directed by Italian giallo master Dario Argento. Argento is a cult director if ever one existed. Virtually unknown among the great unwashed, he is as close to a deity among the committed horror geek community as you're likely to find. His 1977 masterpiece Suspiria is an exemplar of both what he's so excellent at, and what it is that mainstream American audiences simply would not get about his approach to horror cinema. Argento is not a director known for gritty realism of the sort that American audiences demand. You'd never get a Silence of the Lambs or Se7en out of him. What Argento makes are almost horror fantasies, films that exist in an exaggerated nonreality where wide-eyed about-to-be-murder-victims run dazedly around overdecorated, garishly lit sets to the strains of pounding synthesizer-based prog-rock music, while their killers set up wildly and unnecessarily complicated means of offing them that would confuse even Rube Goldberg on a good day. His best movies are meant to play like actual nightmares; eschewing strict logic for the confusion of violence and disorientation. In Opera, the killer, obsessed with a young ingenue, forces her to watch him kill all her friends by tying her up and taping needles under her eyes so she can't close her eyelids! Why? Because it's fucked up.

Thus it is that Argento's reputation as a "master of horror" has something to do with the bloodiness of his films, to some extent. But it is principally rooted in his approach to the language of cinema. It isn't just that his films' victims meet graphic deaths. It's in how those deaths are crafted, staged, lit, shot, and edited. How they are scored and sound designed. It may be style over substance, but to Argento, that's how he gets the job done. To him, a horror film is about feeling the experience, not understanding it on an intellectual level. Like a madder version of Hitchcock, whose dictum was to "put the audience through it." Show one of Argento's movies to a friend of yours whose only experience with horror is the Friday the 13th or Elm Street franchises, and he'll whine that the blood looks fake, or that the acting is lousy (of course it is; Italian movies record no sync-sound as S.O.P., and all dialogue is ADR'ed, not necessarily by the actor who's onscreen). But the dyed-in-the-wool horror fandom revere him without exception. They understand something mainstream viewers don't.

So now the tragedy: Jenifer, the first Argento-directed work likely to reach a substantial American audience in about 25 years, sucks. And it sucks because at no time does it allow Argento an opportunity to do the kinds of things he's known for, that make him the "master of horror" that this whole series is supposed to be honoring simply by being on the air in the first place. Not once do we get one of Argento's showstopping setpieces, on a par with the famous (and revolutionary at the time) Louma crane shot from 1982's Tenebrae (in which the camera pulls away from the window of a house, goes over the roof of the house, peers in several other windows, then comes to rest in a room on the other end of the house, all in one take). Nor do we get the delerious music, although the episode is scored by the same musician from the 70's band Goblin, who scored most of Argento's classics. What we get is a thoroughly bland and predictable story about a succubus who invades the life of a police detective, to the boredom of all.

After the tragedy, the irony. I suspect Argento's trademarked excesses were kept in check mostly because of a blasé script that never created a platform for them to be displayed. But I also expect that they were kept in check by network execs and producers who feared that Argento's normal style would be too over-the-top for American TV audiences, and thus made sure he'd never be able to go as hogwild as he's capable of doing — you know, to really be Dario Argento. If so, isn't the show betraying its own intent? It reminds me of the fate of John Woo, who, after establishing a rep in the late 80's as the world's greatest and most daring action director simply by exercising no restraint in piling on where most action films held back, came to America from Hong Kong, and made the stylistically castrated yawners Hard Target and Broken Arrow, two action movies so generic in their execution there was no reason for them not to have gone straight to video. (By the time he made Face/Off, American studios were finally letting Woo do his thing, but by then the style he'd pioneered had been totally knocked off by Robert Rodriguez and gone passé. By the time Woo made M:I-2 for Tom Cruise, all the fans he'd made from The Killer and Hard Boiled had dismissed him.)

I have hopes for Argento's return to form, though. He has since announced to the orgasms of fans everywhere that he is now in prepro on Mother of Tears, the long-promised third film in his "Three Mothers" trilogy, which so far includes Suspiria and Inferno. I'm nervous about his use of American screenwriters, whom I fear may supress Argento's stylistic flourishes under a tediously explained "logical" storyline. But if said screenwriters are real fans of his, unlike the writers of Jenifer (one of whom was its star, the congenitally bland Stephen Weber), we may be in for a real comeback!

Next we come to John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns, from a script by Scott Swan and Drew McWeeny (who's known for posting to AICN as "Moriarty"). Here we have a case where a true "master of horror" does, in fact, a fine job, but is let down by weak material. The episode has a neat premise: a film researcher heavily in debt and in danger of losing his theater is hired by an eccentric gazillionaire — played with gusto by the great Udo Kier, doing that decadent Eurotrash thing he's perfected since the early 70's — to track down the only existing print of an obscure film titled La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), the one screening of which at a festival in the 70's drove its audience to mass hysteria and murder.

Thus the episode bears some similarity to the plot of Carpenter's underrated 1995 horror-satire In the Mouth of Madness, which was all about the relationship between art and audience. But I had a number of immediate nitpicks with Cigarette Burns; some minor — I found the protagonist miscast, though not disastrously so — but others larger. For one thing, Carpenter has long voiced his dislike for directing lengthy, expository dialogue scenes (which he calls "thankless"), and such scenes make up about 70% of the episode. Talk, talk, and more talk, and Carpenter soldiers through it all as best he will. Some of these scenes work fairly well, in that Swan and McWeeny do come up with dialogue that builds upon the mystery they're developing surrounding this deadly film, and Carpenter has the scenes shot and lit effectively. It's almost enough to make you ignore the similarities not only to In the Mouth of Madness but also The Ring and Videodrome.

There are a couple of other scenes where Carpenter is allowed to drop a real surprise in our laps, also. Despite the overall talkiness of the script, and despite Carpenter's reputation — going back to Halloween — for preferring the power of suggestion to graphic explicitness, there's one beheading scene here that's probably the most brutal thing Carpenter's ever put to film. And it shocks not because it's so grisly, but because, in the context of what we've been watching, it's sudden and unexpected, yet it fits in logically with the story's overall premise about the effect this lost film has upon those obsessed with it.

But the biggest problem with Cigarette Burns is its facile ending. Throughout the story, I kept thinking to myself, "You know, they're building up the mystique of this lost movie to such a humongous level, I bet they'll never pay it off at the climax." And they don't. All along, we've been getting speeches about how dangerous this lost movie is, about how its equally mysterious director wanted to go beyond film narrative and assault his audiences, about how film as an art form should not be about simple escapism but a true force for changing the world, demolishing comfortable preconceptions, and just plain rocking your boat.

And then Carpenter and the script make the mistake of actually letting us see some clips from the movie in the final scene (once the protagonist has rather anticlimactically located it for Kier). And what do we get? Well, you know, garden variety shots of mayhem, violence, people in cages screaming, an angel having its wings cut off (a supernatural element to the story that is never built upon satisfyingly). All in all it looks like the kind of thing you'd see in any music video from a Scandinavian death metal band. And this kills the whole show. The function the lost movie served in the story was that of a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin, and that it should have remained. They should have never actually let us see any of it, because as long as its supposedly insanity-inducing content was allowed to exist only in our imaginations, it was a scary concept. To show it at all took that away from us, and robbed the element of the story that was its entire driving force of the force it had.

Carpenter is limited in other ways here as well. Widely known for his excellent use of the 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio, here he's forced to use the standard 16:9 aspect ratio that's become the HDTV norm. So much dialogue is required to develop the story and build up the mystery surrounding the lost film that Carpenter is given little to no time to build scenes using the kind of slow-burn suspense he's employed in movies like Halloween, The Thing and Prince of Darkness. In the end, while it's great to see Carpenter back in the saddle and masterfully directing even middling material, it's a shame that middling material was what he had to work with. If Cigarette Burns had been a feature — and it shows signs of straining to be one — Carpenter would have been able to display what a real "master of horror" is capable of. But then I bet you anything the goddamn MPAA would have never allowed him to get away with that beheading scene.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

And a Happy New Year to you, too!

I'm not much for "resolutions," if only because I think the term is silly. But a new year is always a fresh beginning, if nothing else, an opportunity for renewal and new achievements. My goals for 2006: make at least two films, with luck, three. Hey, if Takashi Miike can do it, so can I! (heh heh)