Friday, March 03, 2006

Sneaking in a NON-Oscar post...this-and-that

School district urges kids to kick the TV habit
ESCANABA, Mich. -- Principal Mike Smajda was horrified to learn that one of his first-grade pupils at Lemmer Elementary School had watched "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Not long afterward, the boy was playing in a leaf pile with a girl when he suddenly began kicking her in the head. EDITOR'S NOTE: NICE.

The incident prompted a program challenging students to do without TV and all other screen entertainment for 10 days, then limit themselves to just seven hours a week. Administrators and teachers say short-term results were striking: less aggressive behavior and, in some cases, better standardized test scores. EDITOR'S NOTE: NOT TO MENTION, I BET LESS JUNK FOOD CONSUMPTION?


Sony sets date for rollout of next-generation DVDs
NEW YORK, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Sony Pictures on Tuesday said it aims to deliver its new Blu-ray DVD format to U.S. stores on May 23 to coincide with the entry of compatible disc players, a new step in an industry war for control of home movie viewing.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and MGM Home Entertainment will first release eight Blu-ray titles, followed by another eight in mid-June. The first movie titles include "50 First Dates," "The Fifth Element," "Hitch" and "House of Flying Daggers."

Blu-ray is locked in a multibillion-dollar standards war against a rival DVD format known as HD DVD. The technology companies supporting HD DVD, championed by Toshiba Corp., plan to start rolling out movie titles and disc players in March.

Each side hopes to reignite a sagging $24 billion home video market with new players and discs that offer greater capacity and interactive features.

Sony Pictures, a division of Japan's Sony Corp., earlier this month disclosed pricing for Blu-ray format discs which amounts to a premium of about 15 percent to 20 percent to the current DVD standard.

The company said on Tuesday that its target delivery date would coincide with the launch that day of the first commercially available Blu-ray disc player by Samsung Electronics Co. Other Blu-ray disc players are scheduled for release to market from Sony and Pioneer.

In Sony's Stumble, the Ghost of Betamax
AT first glance, Amir Majidimehr does not look like a game-changer in the battle to develop the next generation of DVD players and discs. As the vice president for Windows digital media at Microsoft, he neither steers a Hollywood studio nor controls one of the many consumer electronics giants that are betting billions of dollars on one of the two new formats that promise to play high-definition movies and television shows.

Yet when he and his team in Redmond, Wash., decided last September to abandon their neutral stance and to support Toshiba and its HD-DVD standard over the Blu-ray format led by Sony, the unexpected change of heart reverberated through the technology industry.

Suddenly, Toshiba's seemingly quixotic defense of its format had new life. Intel joined Microsoft in backing HD-DVD. Hewlett-Packard withdrew its exclusive support of Blu-ray. This month, another member of the Blu-ray camp, LG Electronics, hedged its bets, too, signing a deal to license Toshiba's technology.

And earlier this month, one of the main reasons underpinning Microsoft's move to shuck its neutrality — the complexity of producing Blu-ray technology — led to Sony's acknowledgment that it might delay this spring's scheduled release of its PlayStation 3 game console partly because the needed technology was still being worked out.

The possible delay and the Blu-ray group's loss of its once-commanding lead are not encouraging developments for Sony in its attempt to revive its electronics group after a series of bungles. PlayStation 3 is crucial to Sony's future, and not only because the latest version of its gaming consoles could generate billions in revenue; the new machines will include disc drives that will turn them into Blu-ray DVD players as well.

"The PlayStation is more than a game system to them; it's one of their attempts to own the digital living room," said Robert Heiblim, a consultant to electronics companies. "Blu-ray is also critically important to get right. They don't want to be weak in an area they feel they can dominate."

A DECADE ago, a prospective death match between competing first-generation DVD players was averted when Sony and Philips agreed to back down and join the Toshiba/Warner Brothers side, in exchange for a share of royalties that all DVD player producers pay to the format's creator. Now, no truce seems near, as neither side wants to settle for a small piece of what could be a big electronics success. EDITOR'S NOTE: I OBVIOUSLY MISSED A CHAPTER IN THIS SAGA, SINCE I THOUGHT THEY HAD COME TO SOME SORT OF COMPROMISE?

So consumers and retailers may be in for a reprise of the confusing VHS-Betamax showdown of the early 1980's, with Toshiba replacing Matsushita as Sony's adversary. But Sony hopes to have a happier resolution this time. Sony lost the battle two decades ago when its highly regarded Betamax technology was defeated by VHS, a more widely accepted alternative.

Once again, the differences between the two technologies are not huge. And a growing chorus of critics, including some studio chiefs eager to sell new products as quickly as possible, call the Blu-ray format unnecessarily elaborate and expensive.

The first HD-DVD machines from Toshiba and the competing Blu-ray players from Sony, Samsung and the other Blu-ray companies will all play movies with crisper pictures, enhanced sound and a bevy of interactive features like pictures within pictures and links to the Internet. The machines will also play older DVD's.

Technophiles got a preview of the HD-DVD technology on Wednesday at an electronics store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As Jessica Simpson and Johnny Knoxville cavorted in the movie "The Dukes of Hazzard," prospective buyers were able to see the difference between a plain old DVD and the high-definition kind. EDITOR'S NOTE: OH DEAR HEAVEN, THIS IS WHAT THEY USED TO DEMONSTRATE THE TECHNOLOGY? I MEAN, DO WE REALLY WANT TO SEE "THE DUKES OF HAZZARD" MORE CLEARLY? (EEK)!

But the main feature was the price. Toshiba will sell two players starting in March; one will cost just $499, half the price of the cheapest Blu-ray machines, the first of which will hit the stores this spring. Samsung's first machine will cost $1,000, while Pioneer's Blu-ray player will run $1,800.

Toshiba executives have said that because more high-definition movies will be distributed over the Internet in coming years, they have essentially upgraded existing DVD technology to keep prices down. Blu-ray discs, however, include an architecture that Sir Howard Stringer, Sony's chairman, calls "revolutionary, not evolutionary."

The Blu-ray camp is trying to create a brand-new technology that will accommodate features that are still to be created. In preparation for that future, Blu-ray discs will store 25 gigabytes of data, compared with the 15 gigabytes on comparable Toshiba discs and 4.7 gigabytes on today's DVD's.

The first batch of high-definition DVD's from the studios' vaults will highlight rich graphics, vivid scenery and fast-moving action. The films include "Rambo," science fiction thrillers like "The Matrix" and "Dune" and animated features like "Ice Age." The DVD's are generally expected to cost $19 to $25.

But movies are only one front in the format war. In throwing its weight behind Toshiba, Microsoft has expanded the fight into the computer and game industries. Later this year, Microsoft will start selling an external drive for its Xbox game that will play HD-DVD discs, countering Sony's effort to turn PlayStation into a high-definition DVD player by adding Blu-ray technology. Microsoft and its ally Intel have also convinced Hewlett-Packard to consider making HD-DVD drives for computers. This would give Toshiba an answer to Dell, which remains committed to the Blu-ray format.

"The pendulum is swinging back to the HD-DVD camp," said John Freeman, who runs a technology research firm, Strategic Marketing Decisions, which last year declared Blu-ray the front-runner. "It will be interesting to see if the Blu-ray group can recover. It's only a matter of time before people start backing out of the Blu-ray camp."

Still, even with Microsoft on board, Toshiba may have only closed the gap, not overtaken the Blu-ray group. With Samsung, Panasonic and others siding with Sony, consumers will see more Blu-ray machines in the stores. And Blu-ray has more studios in its camp, which means more choice in movies. Every major studio except Universal plans to release Blu-ray DVD's, while Toshiba has commitments from only Universal, Warner Brothers and Paramount. EDITOR'S NOTE: SO..AHEM...NOT FOX?

But one thing is clear: given Microsoft's growing power and scope in the entertainment realm — thanks to its Xbox machines, its media player software and forays into Internet television — its support of HD-DVD has deepened, and has probably prolonged, the format battle. That means consumers must figure out each format's advantages and risk being stuck with obsolete machines if one camp backs down.

This is giving retailers fits, not only because they have to carry twice as many machines and discs, but also because they have to train their employees to explain the differences between the standards.

"Both sides are digging in their heels and stupidity has prevailed," said Joe McGuire, the chief executive of Tweeter, a high-end electronics chain. Mr. McGuire called the failure of the two camps to agree on a single format "criminal" and said he would have a hard time advising consumers. "The answer to which is better is: 'We don't know,' " he said. "I'm tempted not to sell anyone these machines." EDITOR'S NOTE: JUST AS WE ARE TEMPTED....MORE THAN TEMPTED...NOT TO BUY THEM YET.

But sell they will, because retailers — and studios — need something new to throw at consumers now that DVD players are in 82 percent of American homes. Sales of DVD players are "pretty dead," said John LaRegina, a senior buyer at P.C. Richards, which has 49 stores in the New York area.

But Mr. LaRegina said format battles confused consumers and gave them an excuse not to buy. The uncertainty over who may win also forces film studios and electronics companies to hedge their bets.

Warner Brothers and Paramount, which were originally committed only to HD-DVD, decided last fall to make movies in both formats.

"It was very, very clear that Sony was not going to back down from Blu-ray, and they are basically betting their company on it," said Kevin Tsujihara, the president of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Group. But, he added, Toshiba has mounted "something of a comeback" by winning endorsements from Microsoft and Intel.

Some Blu-ray companies are also waiting to see how the market develops before jumping in with machines of their own. If the PlayStation 3 is priced below Toshiba's $500 player, it could double as the poor man's Blu-Ray player and undercut Sony's partners. (It will also cost Sony dearly; Merrill Lynch issued a report on Feb. 17 estimating that the first PlayStation 3 players would cost about $900 to produce. If so, Sony could end up with substantial losses on those machines if they are priced around $299, as analysts expect, to compete with the Xbox 360, which has been out since November.)

"It's too early to move into this market," said Katsuhiko Machida, the president of Sharp, a Blu-ray company that has not released details for its players in the United States. "Blu-Ray won't be a big business until probably 2008," he said, so "we can watch and see what happens." EDITOR'S NOTE: GOOD. THAT GIVES ME TIME TO (KNOCK WOOD) GET A REAL JOB!! (SIGH....)

Those doubts are a far cry from Blu-ray's bravado last summer and fall, when it won endorsements from Fox, Lions Gate, Warner Brothers and Paramount. Those agreements, coupled with the presumed sway of the PlayStation 3, led industry analysts at Forrester and elsewhere to predict that Blu-ray would ultimately win the format war.

But two unexpected and little-noticed decisions by the Blu-ray group last spring managed to alienate Microsoft and ultimately revive Toshiba's sagging fortunes.

First, Sony and the Blu-ray group adopted a Java program for interactive features. Microsoft favored a rival called iHD because, among other things, it would work better with its new Vista operating system. The Blu-ray group's board also approved an encryption technology called BD+, which Mr. Majidimehr, Microsoft's vice president for Windows digital media, deemed superfluous. EDITOR'S NOTE: OK. THIS PARAGRAPH JUST MADE MY BRAIN SIMULATE AN ICE CREAM FREEZE. OUCH.

THESE decisions led Mr. Majidimehr to take a deeper look at the Blu-ray format and whether it would be more expensive to produce, as Toshiba had long contended. Mr. Majidimehr and his deputy, Jordi Ribas, spent the next few months on the phones and flying to Asia to meet with Sony, Panasonic and the other Blu-ray companies.

"We asked them if they are serious, and they told us they were," Mr. Majidimehr said, referring to the added software. Microsoft also received more data that showed that the Blu-ray group was not meeting its targets for producing discs and optical drives. "We were getting a lot of data saying the HD-DVD format was a walk in the park and Blu-ray was having trouble developing theirs," Mr. Majidimehr said. EDITOR'S NOTE: OF COURSE, ISN'T THIS IN PART BECAUSE HD-DVD IS ONLY A BABY STEP FORWARD, AND BLU-RAY WILL BE A LEAP? IS THE RACE ALWAYS TO THE SWIFTEST?

Microsoft's announcement last September raised alarm bells at Hewlett-Packard, which was coming to similar conclusions. Hewlett-Packard worried that the software included in the Blu-ray format would cost so much in royalties that H-P would be unable to add affordable DVD drives to its computers.

Blu-ray drives cost up to 75 percent more than HD-DVD drives, according to Maureen Weber, the general manager of the personal storage group at Hewlett-Packard and a former spokeswoman for the Blu-ray coalition. "There's not a lot of elbow room," she said of the thin profit margins on computers. "The economics of HD-DVD make a lot more sense for us. I'm starting to wonder about the manufacturing ability of Blu-ray."

A Blu-ray spokesman, Andy Parsons, says his group's royalties, which have not yet been set, will be far lower than critics expect. He also disputed the idea that Toshiba had any advantage because Microsoft or Hewlett-Packard might promote the use of HD-DVD in computers.
"DVD's are about movies and people watch them in their living rooms," he said. "How many people actually use their computer drives to sit and watch movies?"

He added that the price of Blu-ray machines and discs was bound to fall as volume rose.EDITOR'S NOTE: YES. EXACTLY. AS IS ALWAYS THE WAY. Besides, he said, Toshiba is missing the point by selling cheaper machines, because the first people who buy new technologies typically care less about cost and more about the technology. EDITOR'S NOTE: THE HD-DVD PEOPLE ARE ACTING LIKE WHATEVER THEY COME UP WITH WILL BE THE LAST UPGRADE PEOPLE EVER MAKE. HOW ABOUT MAKE IT RIGHT, AND THEN MOVE ONTO THE NEXT THING, INSTEAD OF TRYING TO CARVE THE WHOLE THING IN STONE UPFRONT.

There are other industry analysts who contend that Microsoft is simply propping up Toshiba to further its own aims, like countering the PlayStation and combating the spread of Sun's Java software. Nonetheless, Toshiba is happy for the backing, given that the format was written off for dead just a few months ago.

"There's no doubt that everyone has various agendas," said Mark Knox, an adviser to the Toshiba promotion group. "But whatever their agenda, Microsoft's support has been a huge boon to HD-DVD."

For Sony, a fortified rival spells trouble. Not only does it make it harder for Blu-ray to catch on, but it raises questions about Sony's approach of trying to create new formats when consumers turn out to be content with something less ambitious.

That is the lesson Sony learned the hard way in the 1980's with Betamax, and more recently when Apple outdid the Walkman with the iPod. Now it is Toshiba's and Microsoft's turn to challenge Sony's strategy.


The Sunday Times
Plenty to shout about
As provocative orphan and pouting pole dancer, Natalie Portman was a wow — but will she seduce in a lead role?

By Jasper Rees
In the closing scene of the recent film Closer, a girl strides towards the camera through a throng of commuters on New York’s Times Square. Slavering males turn to gawp at this miraculous vision, pink hair aflame, a private smile rippling faintly across her porcelain-doll face.

This, the shot says in sleazy slow motion, is how a man’s world looks at beautiful young girls.

Film actresses are in the profession of being looked at, and none has been looked at in that way from a younger age than the one on the Manhattan sidewalk in Closer.

Natalie Portman is now twice the age of Matilda, the 12-year-old orphan who melted the heart of a pitiless hit man in Luc Besson’s Léon. Far more than any of her contemporaries who started early — Christina Ricci, Claire Danes, Scarlett Johansson — she never had a period of grace when her screen persona was not complicated by sexuality.

A concierge in Léon asks about Mathilda’s relationship with the father figure she’s rooming with. “He’s my lover,” she confides darkly.

A year later, Ted Demme made an underrated movie about a high-school reunion, Beautiful Girls. Though the cast also included Mira Sorvino and Uma Thurman, most men left the cinema thinking disturbing thoughts about the beautiful 13-year-old girl with the brown-owl eyes who, over the picket fence, confesses her love for Timothy Hutton. No child actress ever opened her innings with a more precocious display.

Since then, Portman has been through three chapters of Star Wars and three years of

Now, for the first time, she stars in a big-budget adventure of her own.

V for Vendetta, adapted from an early-1980s anti-Thatcherite graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, is set in a dystopian England where a Mosleyite despot governs a cowed populace with an iron fist. The script is by the Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed the Matrix films. In a cast consisting largely of British and Irish character actors, she is recognisably the lead (unless you count Hugo Weaving, who, as the lone resistance fighter V, acts throughout behind a joke-shop Guy Fawkes mask).

To get her accent up to snuff, she was given Barbara Berkery, the dialectologist who sculpted Gwyneth Paltrow’s impeccably English glottal stops.

Normally, the blandishments offered up by stars lauding their latest vehicle are just so much blah. But read between these lines. “It was just an exciting thing for me to see a movie on this scale,” says Portman, “a big studio movie that was about something really interesting and had ideas in it, and strong character relationships — and a great story and complicated characters, too.”

Nobody is ever going to get Queen Padmé Naberrie Amidala to say in as many words that the Star Wars trilogy had none of the above. Yet, clearly, she knows. She can’t possibly not know, armed with a psychology degree that, she says, “raises the bar for projects I want to work on. It has to be something that’s going to be as interesting as school was for me”. EDITOR'S NOTE: FINE. FINE. WHATEVER. BUT LET'S SEE WHAT STANDS THE TEST OF TIME, EH? THE DRUNKEN WEIRDO WACHOWSKI BROTHERS, OR UNCLE GEORGE. (AND STAR WARS DOES HAVE THOSE THINGS....HARUMPH...BY THE WAY...SNORT).

Nowadays, when Portman is preparing for a part such as her enchanting epileptic in Garden State, or the artist’s muse in Milos Forman’s forthcoming Goya’s Ghosts, Harvard offers a unique resource. “I call a professor from school and say, ‘This is what the character went through. What kind of symptomology would they display?’ And they’ll write me an e-mail back: ‘This is a video, and this is an article you might want to read.’” She even had her own reading list for the Wachowskis and her director, James McTeigue — David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas — to get them all thinking about justifiable violence. George Lucas was lucky to get to Portman when the bar was lower. EDITOR'S NOTE: OH BITE ME. (BY THE BY, I FIND WHAT ALSO WORKS IS SAYING THE LINES AND NOT RUNNING INTO THE FURNITURE. THAT LAST BIT, IS THE HARD PART).

The professor must have had a field day with V for Vendetta. Portman plays Evey, the orphaned daughter of dissidents, who is rescued from a police mugging by a masked avenger bent on toppling the regime. She goes on the run, fights the system, has her head shaved in prison. (Which Portman rather enjoyed: “I had to really concentrate hard on being in the character.”) In the spectacular climax, she even succeeds where Guy Fawkes fluffed it. In short, Portman finally gets to play the adult protagonist. Yet the script also casts a backward glance at the vapour trail of smut that attached itself to Léon. V sets a honeytrap for a paedophile archbishop by sending him Evey in pigtails and a pink baby-doll outfit — and, before your eyes, Portman morphs right back into that 12-year-old minx.

That echo was not intentional,” she says. “It was part of the novel. But I think every actor holds within them a series of echoes of prior work they’ve done. Also, the fact that I don’t really look much older than I did 12 years ago probably can be taken advantage of.”

She says this, and much else, with a light touch, being neither guarded nor determinedly serious.

She is on the diminutive side — “Five three,” she says. “I think it’s exaggerated because I’m physically small, too” — even in the steep heels worn for a day of smiling sweetly for the world’s film hacks in the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I actually am starting to feel I should start a revolution against heels, even though that wouldn’t be a dramatic revolution. Everyone around me says, ‘You have to wear heels.’ It’s based on some silly concept that longer legs are more beautiful.”

Portman “can still look like a kid”, in her words, but what got her noticed was knowing how to impersonate an old head on young shoulders. “Being an only child, I spent so much time around adults, because my parents always took me with them, so I knew how to talk to grown-ups and pretend to be grown-up. But I wasn’t. I had a strong awareness of how to flirt and how to be shocking, as little girls do.”

She was born in Jerusalem, where her Israeli father was a fertility doctor. Her parents brought her to America, the land of her mother, at three. Growing up on Long Island, she watched all the other kids from dance class go off to acting auditions in New York and, “after a lot of begging and screaming”, she wore down her mother’s resistance. The one she ended up in was for Besson, the director of Subway and Nikita. Thus, though her debut was shot in New York, it had that French sensibility that celebrates female intelligence as well as beauty. Portman’s early experience of acting was much closer in spirit to Emmanuelle Béart’s than, say, Drew Barrymore’s.

It was kind of amazing,” says Portman. “Especially as, at that point, I probably would have done a toothpaste commercial. I haven’t been as lucky with things after that. It’s really been the film, so far, that people still come up to me about — even though every movie I’ve done since then has made more money.”

Her parents did their damnedest to keep her feet on the ground through roles in Heat, Mars Attacks!, Everyone Says I Love You and a stage debut on Broadway, aged 16, as Anne Frank. Her life took on a duality not dissimilar to that of Alice (whose secret name is Anna) in Closer.

Portman assumed her grandmother’s maiden name and carried on at school as Natalie Hershlag. “It was a practical decision, because we couldn’t get my name out of the phone book. I guess it is a form of inventing yourself, being able to say, ‘This is who I am.’ But I went through school feeling just like any other kid.” Only when she left did yearbooks with her face in turn up on eBay. “I felt sort of violated, just because classmates and their families were making money off me, none of whom needed to make money.”

Would she do childhood stardom again? “I don’t know if I’d recommend it to other people. I can handle all of the ups and downs because I have this other world I can reside in, which weighs me down. I don’t float away or get caught up in stuff that doesn’t matter. I haven’t had negative Hollywood experiences.” It may be worth mentioning that, while she weeps beautifully for the camera, she claims: “I never cry in real life.”

Her other world includes a charity she fronts that supplies small loans to women in developing countries; studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for several months; and going out to bat for John Kerry. Although Portman has grown up off screen, on screen it has been harder.

“After I’d done all the Star Wars movies, a lot of people were not thinking of giving me the dramatic challenges I was ready for.” When she took a punt on Garden State, written and directed by Zach Braff, the young star of Scrubs, it was because, “to be honest, I wasn’t getting a lot of parts. I mean no offence at all to Zach, but I wanted to work so badly”.

Then came Closer, which she accepted partly because there wasn’t the faintest whiff of the child-woman in Alice the lap dancer and partly because of the reassuring presence of Mike Nichols, who directed her in a stage production of The Seagull in 2001. Closer was the film that finally made it legitimate (not to mention legal) for all those fans of Beautiful Girls to see Portman as a beautiful woman: to be the object of lust in that closing shot. Did she think her character was objectified?

I think you’re objectified whether you want to be or not — as a public female. The magazine rankings of women, like they’re cars or something — if I could extricate myself from those, I would in a second. I guess some people would say, ‘Oh, she should be honoured. Maybe she’s disgruntled. Maybe she wants to be No 1 and not No 25.’ Not only that, I would be happy to do nudity in a film that was appropriate. But because it’ll end up on a porn site, that’s what keeps me from doing it. If a character goes through something that a woman goes through, then I’ll play it.”

In V for Vendetta, there is no love story. Indeed, her relationship with the ultraviolent male lead has a freaky symmetry with that of Mathilda and Léon.

“I didn’t think about it while doing it, but when I watched it I got these really strong echoes. Sometimes you think they might be lovers, sometimes you think they might be father-daughter, sometimes you think they’re mentor-pupil.”

Perhaps the mentors and father figures who make films are not quite ready to fall for Portman as a woman after all. Sooner or later, though, she’s going to make it happen. “I don’t know anything other than being in my skin,” she says. “But the ideas and thoughts I want to convey on film are older. You want to look it, too. You don’t always want to look like a kid.”

V for Vendetta opens on March 17


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