Thursday, March 30, 2006

UMD dies, surprises no one

If Sony's PSP handheld console weren't enough of a disappointment to the gaming world, now comes word that the UMD format for movies is on the cusp of extinction. Which surprises me not at all. Why would anyone want to pay 30 bucks for a movie on a rinkidink little disc that can only be played on one piece of hardware, when for $15 or $20 you can buy the same movie on DVD, which can be played on home decks, laptops, and any number of portable players, and which feature all those juicy extras and bells and whistles? If anything surprises me, it's that so many studios committed to the format in the first place, before the PSP had had a chance to show its performance muscle in the marketplace. Presumably there was an expectation that the PS2's lightning would strike twice, and PSP would become the next iPod among portable doohickey fans. Oops. Oh well. I wouldn't get much out of watching a movie on a 4-inch screen. Can't imagine why anyone else would. But watch. I bet Steve Jobs will be the guy who makes it work — again.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Catching up on a lazy March: random movie musings

No, I haven't blogged in two weeks, as I've needed a breather and have been busy with other stuff. When work is slow, I donate myself to science, which I've been doing over the last couple of weeks, and that's always like going to camp, but with needles. Still, easy money, and a chance to concentrate on creative things during the long hours of downtime. Happy to be back in the swim now, though, and throughout April my bloody work on Bloody Work will resume in earnest. I plan to have at least one interview in the can before the month is out.

Here is some of what's been on my mind, cinematically speaking, over these last 15 days.

• Bite this! Superman Returns? Bleh. X-Men: The Last Stand? Yeah, whatever. Mission: Impossible III? Don't make me laugh. The DaVinci Code? Okay, that one's a given. But is there anyone out there who still hasn't realized that the sleeper monster hit of the summer is going to be none other than...
It just doesn't get any better than this! This may be the most honest movie Hollywood has made in decades. As everyone has already pointed out, you know exactly what you're getting with that title. And when you add to the movie's self-aware cheese value the presense of Sam Jackson in full badass mode, and a studio thoroughly conscious of the unprecedented level of advance internet fan buzz and responding to it by scheduling reshoots specifically to get a hard-R rating — well, there's just no way this can miss! I mean, it's snakes...on a plane! $50 million opening weekend, minimum.

• More horror-related good news. Though I didn't win the Silent Hill poster contest (and yet it's eeenteresting how similar the poster they seem to be using looks to mine — scum! where's my money!?), I'm still stoked about the movie, which opens the week before my birthday. The trailer is pure bliss if you're a fan of the game, really capturing the look and mood and creep factor! In even better horror news, that dreaded remake of Suspiria looks like it's no longer happening. Sometimes, the forces of good win one. And, after a long dry spell, it looks as if John Carpenter is back in the saddle with two features on his plate! Huzzah!

• The post-Oscar Brokeback curse continues. It seems that the worst enemies of Brokeback Mountain are turning out to be not so much homophobic Christian fundies, but the movie's most ardent supporters themselves. First, author Annie Proulx publishes that petulant, embarrassing rant that got the entire blogosphere talking (and not in a flattering way), and now it turns out that co-star Randy Quaid is suing the producers for allegedly misrepresenting the earnings estimates of the film so they could get him for far below his usual fee. While I find it baffling that a man with Randy Quaid's experience in the business would be caught off-guard that people in Hollywood — gasp! — lie about money, what's more interesting is how all the love that this movie had gotten before Oscar now seems to be waning bigtime, as its biggest boosters collapse into sour-grapes whining and infighting. Shame, because that movie's merits should be its legacy, not the behavior of stupid people who happen to be associated with it.

• Asian cinema continues to dazzle me...even when it's not across-the-board brilliant. And it continues to get easier and easier to find the best movies over here. Perhaps the most stunning and unique movie I've seen recently: Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital, in which a young medical student who's suffering amnesia after an auto accident that killed his girlfriend discovers that the body on his dissection table in gross anatomy class is none other than hers! By literally digging into her remains, he begins the process of digging into his past, who he was as well as who she was, and what they meant to each other. The themes concern exactly who we are in relation to the bodies, the machines we inhabit. The student, played with focused intensity by Asano Tadanobu, barely has any personality left at all due to his amnesia; he's like a human blank slate, an uninhabited body going through the motions of a day. So are we nothing more than our accumulated memories? Without a past, is there any person inside us at all? Beautifully directed, with some of the best cinematography I've ever seen in a Japanese film, and, given the subject matter, not nearly the exercise in grisly death imagery you might expect. You should absolutely check this out. I'd go so far as to say it would have easily deserved a Best Foreign Film nomination, if I thought the Oscars were all that important any more.

I was less satisfied by Marebito, from Takashi Shimizu, who gave us the chilling Ju-on and its markedly unchilling U.S. remake The Grudge. I give the movie all props for a swell premise and for being shot on the fly in eight days. A video-obsessed loner (played, coincidentally, by Vital's director Tsukamoto) who tapes everything around him all day long, and only ever sees fit to view the world through his viewfinder and on his monitors, records a grisly suicide in a Tokyo subway station in which the victim drives a knife into his eyeball. It appears the victim saw something that paralyzed him with fear, and the video geek becomes obsessed with discovering what it was. He ends up venturing into the dark tunnels (dating from WWII) beneath the city, where he discovers a feral young girl chained to the wall. (The US art, as you can see, drapes a blanket chastely over the girl and doesn't actually attach the chain to her leg, because the MPAA has a strict rule that no movie poster art is allowed to depict violence against women.) He brings her home and eventually finds she'll only consume blood. Great idea, but as it goes on, the movie's explanations become more contrived and confused, and the final act crumbles into some J-horror clichés — many of the type Shimizu established in Ju-on, ironically — and nonsensical explanations that suggest unbelievable relationships between the characters. Still, it's worth at least a look on DVD, if only to see the most twisted excuse for a love story made in recent memory.

I've read that Shimizu's latest, Rinne (Reincarnation), flopped abysmally upon its Japanese theatrical debut, indicating that the J-horror thing is well and truly over and done with. Still, I'm eager to see it, as well as The Loft, the latest from the understated genius Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who gave us such cerebral thrillers as Pulse and Cure.

Finally, those amazing folks at Criterion keep the Japanophilia running at full steam with more movies by Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa on their slate. Having already given us one of the best DVD releases ever with Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, as well as Ozu's Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds, Good Morning and Early Summer, they're now bringing out the much-demanded Late Spring. Plus this year will see long overdue DVD remasters of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Truly these are good times to be a Japanese movie übergeek!

See everyone again soon — much sooner than two weeks.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Come on, people, it's only the Oscars

Okay, so the ceremony is over for another year, and Crash pulls an upset and wins. Fine. Whatever.

But the Brokeback supporters aren't yet willing to let go. Among the latest challenges to the loss is a weird claim, similar to the "hanging chads" controversy of the 2000 presidential elections, suggesting that Oscar voters are boobs who misread the voting ballot and voted for Crash when they really really meant to vote for Brokeback. The following image has been making the rounds online.

Personally, I find the ballot (assuming it is an accurate reproduction of what the real ballot looked like, and there's no evidence of that) easy to comprehend. You follow the black arrow. But maybe when I'm old and stupid, I might make such a mistake. I'll let you know when I'm old and stupid.

Next, a group of Brokeback supporters have successfully solicited thousands of dollars online to place a full-color ad in next weeks' Variety that looks like this.

Well, that'll show 'em, won't it?

Look, I'm delighted to see any movie garner a following of passionate fans who will get behind it to this degree. That's wonderful. But this has nothing to do with the relative merits of either movie. It has to do with placing too much importance on the wrong thing — to wit, the Best Picture Oscar. Here's the deal. Brokeback Mountain exists, and it will always exist, for this generation and future ones to see. It has made its mark on film history, and the loss of a glitzy but increasingly meaningless industry award has no bearing on that legacy. For those who think its loss is a grave injustice, newsflash: it's not the first one in history. Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan? Chicago over The Pianist? There are more examples over the last 78 years of Oscar getting it wrong than getting it right.

I've often said, and many of my friends seem to agree, that regardless of whatever awards a film may have on its mantlepiece, if that movie isn't on my DVD shelf then said awards aren't that special to me. I'm not more likely to hold a movie in higher regard than another one simply because it has "Academy Award Winner Best Picture!" emblazoned on the DVD package in 48 point type. If I had a choice, right now, between watching Oscar winner American Beauty or the couldn't-get-near-the-Oscars-with-a-ten-foot-pole Big Trouble in Little China, could you guess which I'd pick?

Brokeback's legacy doesn't lie in a gold-plated statuette. It lies in the hearts of the audience that loves it. Life goes on.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Since I'll be doing something else Sunday night...

I really don't have a horse in the Oscar race this year. I felt heaps of personal gratification when Spirited Away won the very first Best Animated Feature award. And naturally, the Best Picture for The Return of the King, which was really an award for the achievement of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, made my inner geek squee. But this year, while I think by and large there are some good movies up, it isn't a ceremony to get all excited about, with the exception of John Stewart's hosting. And this will be the easiest ceremony to handicap in ages. Herewith, my predictions.

  • Best Picture: Brokeback Mountain

  • Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote

  • Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line

  • Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney for Syriana

  • Best Supporting Actress: Tossup — either Amy Adams for Junebug or Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener. I'm leaning toward Weisz.

  • Best Director: Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain

  • Best Animated Feature: Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

  • There. Three years ago, when my then-roommate was working on The Alamo (interesting to recall how that notorious megaflop was at the time really expected to represent at the Oscars), the crew had an Oscar pool and I helped her on her entries. We won it and split $180 between us! Wish that were happening now; I feel more confident now than I did then. And I'm not even all that excited about it.