Sony Xperia XZ Premium announced: 4K HDR screen, memory-stacked camera, and Snapdragon 835

Speaking with one of Sony Mobile’s product planners ahead of today’s launch, I was told that in 2016, Sony just didn’t have much innovation in its smartphones. That candid admission is corrected in a big way today with the introduction of the mighty and shiny Xperia XZ Premium, which is a 5.5-inch smartphone with a number of world firsts.

The XZ Premium has the world’s first 4K HDR (2,160 x 3,840, High Dynamic Range) display in a smartphone — it’s the most desirable new tech combo for TVs, and Sony’s crammed it into a mobile device. I previously saw nothing revolutionary about 4K on the Xperia Z5 Premium in 2015, but Sony now has a partnership with Amazon for 4K HDR content, and the HDR element truly does wonderful things for colour reproduction. In one of Sony’s demos against the Z5 Premium, the XZ showed off warmer, more natural yellows and a broadly more realistic and inviting reproduction of the streets of Lisbon. A Portuguese Sony rep was on hand to confirm, effusively, that the XZ Premium display was more faithful to the real Lisbon.

Sony Xperia XZ Premium

Beside the (very) nice display, Sony’s new flagship phone also has a new camera system called Motion Eye. The curious thing with this setup is that Sony has embedded fast memory right into the camera stack, allowing it to produce another world first for phones: super-slow motion of 960fps at 720p resolution. This rapid burst lasts for only 0.18 seconds, so technically you’re only capturing something closer to 180 frames, but the effect is still quite compelling when stretched out to a regular 30fps. I can imagine myself capturing water splashes and other blink-of-an-eye moments just for fun. And fun is, after all, what modern cameras are primarily about.

The addition of the extra memory also helps Sony to start buffering shots as soon as the camera detects motion in the frame — so that when you press the shutter button, there’s absolutely no lag, the camera will just pull the image it was already taking at that moment. This is the sort of system that will rely heavily on good autofocus, and Sony is bringing back the triple-sensor system from the Xperia XZ: there’s laser AF, an RGBC infrared sensor for adjusting white balance on the fly, and an updated ExmorRS image sensor. The latter now has 19 percent larger pixels, stepping down resolution to 19 megapixels. Sony’s Bionz image processing engine has also been upgraded with better motion detection and noise reduction.

Xperia XZs and Xperia XZ Premium

While Sony’s camera updates all sound fantastic, in practice I wasn’t too wowed by them. I tried the new camera system on the Xperia XZs — a smaller, slightly less super-specced device Sony’s launching at MWC as well — and it didn’t leave me too impressed. Sony’s habit of over-processing the images seems to still be around, with excess sharpening and noise-reducing blur leading to results that looked too digital and not particularly pleasing to the eye. There’s still time for this to improve before the Xperia XZ Premium is released, but I fear that what I’m seeing is already Sony’s idea of a good photo.

Another thing I didn’t like about the XZ Premium was its external finish. The flagship Luminous Chrome color isn’t so much a color as a straight up mirror: much like the Z5 Premium before it, it’s incredibly reflective and picks up fingerprints with incredible ease. It’s almost like Sony designed this thing to sit in a museum rather than a person’s hand. The darker option, Deepsea Black, has a subtle hint of blue, but it too is an extremely glossy fingerprint magnet. Both handsets come with Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back, with metal antennas at the top and bottom of the device. I’d have preferred to see the metal back of the Xperia XZ making a return (which it does in the Xperia XZs).

  Chris Welch

As far as specs go, we might not have expected Sony to tout the latest Snapdragon 835 processor in its new flagship, as it does, but there is a catch here. Yes, Sony has the latest and best Qualcomm chip while others are still offering the Snapdragon 820 and 821, but the Xperia XZ Premium won’t be out until late spring or just ahead of the summer. Hell, the demo units shown off ahead of MWC weren’t running anywhere close to final software, which is why I was testing the camera system on the smaller Xperia XZs. So Sony is pre-announcing its new flagship device by a long margin.

Other notable features include water resistance, rated to IP65 and IP68, a thinner profile at 7.9mm, and MicroSD storage expandability. The phone’s battery is a reasonable 3,230mAh, and there’s a fingerprint sensor integrated into the side-mounted power button as usual. But the Xperia XZ Premium is really all about that camera, display, and processor combo. Each of those three components promises a great deal, and if Sony can finally strike the right balance and deliver an uncompromised device that makes the most of its various parts, the wait — however long — for the XZ Premium might just be worth it.

Photography by Chris Welch

Fox trial pre-loads films on phones that you can pay to unlock

Movie studios and telecoms companies are always looking for new ways to control how audiences get hold of their content, and to make it easier to do so. Now, a new pilot program from Fox, Telstra, and Ericsson is taking a surprisingly direct approach — pre-loading films onto users’ devices, and then asking customers to pay to rent or buy the titles.

The pilot was announced today at Mobile World Congress, and will last for one month while the companies involved gather feedback. It’s an interesting idea, and has some obvious pros and cons.

Pro: the movies are available to watch whenever customers want, with no waiting for streaming or downloads in order to access full HD content. Con: the films have to get on the device in the first place. In the case of this trial, users are being shipped Samsung Galaxy S7 handsets with titles pre-loaded, but if and when it goes public, films would have to be download in the background, and would take up valuable storage space on peoples’ devices.

These downloads would be handled using zero-rated data from participating mobile carriers, and Fox says its software would give users control over how and when films are stored. The system would also know a little bit about users’ movie preferences, and download films individuals are likely to be interested in, then send them a notification when they’re available to watch.

Fox, Telstra, and Ericsson promise the system will have “no impact to device performance or consumer data plans.” The pilot has only been offered to Telstra subscribers, as well as Fox and Ericsson employees. Eleven films will be offered in the trial, including The Martian, Deadpool, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Revenant, and Life of Pi.

How Moonlight’s creators made a universally acclaimed window into gay black identity

Since the moment Barry Jenkins’ feature film Moonlight debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in November 2016, it was a critical darling, with rave reviews following it from film festivals to theatrical release to the awards-show circuit, where it’s racked up recognitions including Best Picture, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay at the Academy Awards. The film has met with nearly universal acclaim for its unusually formal yet daring approach to the familiar ground of the coming-of-age story. Writer-director Barry Jenkins based the film on Tarell McCraney’s autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which follows a gay black character through key moments in boyhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Jenkins’ film restructured the play into three distinct acts, set to a mixture of hip-hop and powerful orchestral music, with the central character operating under different nicknames and identities in each act.

As a child, Little (Alex Hibbert) is nearly silent, beaten into submission by boys his age who suspect him of effeminacy. His addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is no help, but he finds shelter with a local drug dealer (House Of Cards’ Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (singer Janelle Monáe). As a teenager, he goes by Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and he deals with bullies and his mother in new ways. And as a heavily muscled adult with the street name Black (Trevante Rhodes), he has a commanding presence that keeps the world at bay, but he’s no less shy and withdrawn. Moonlight is an emotional, evocative piece, and it has little in common with Jenkins’ other, more prosaic film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy. But both films deal with the struggle for black identity, and both explore it through conversation. Both films acknowledge the protagonists’ confusion and frustration, and explore the way different groups enforce their stereotypes and resist any attempts at individuality. I spoke to Jenkins and McCraney about how the play became the film, how music and framing tell the story, and how they navigated the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

Barry, you’ve said the protagonist in this film doesn’t participate in the world. What are the challenges of telling a story about someone who’s so withdrawn?

Barry Jenkins: It was what drew me to the character the most, as someone who also grew up, in a way, without participating in the world. It presented a great opportunity to immerse the audience in what that feels like, to always be present, and yet not be present at the same time. And as the film goes on, we draw the audience deeper and deeper into that mind state. I saw it as a really interesting challenge, and I relished it.

It sounds like you view the character differently. How did you navigate that when you were adapting the play for the film? How did you talk about this character together?

Tarell McCraney: Well, as Barry stated, he wanted to immerse the audience into Chiron’s retracting, his inner world. He shot the movie from the standpoint of the character, so he’s inviting you inside the mind of a person who’s engaged in the world in a different way than we normally see. We were always on the same page with that. And what he did with that landscape, that soundscape, was beautiful and fascinating.

BJ: My approach isn’t so much intellectual in that way. The fact that Chiron exists makes him a participant, undoubtedly. I think his behavior is passive, and I don’t think it’s passive by choice, either. I think it arises from the situation his character is in.

Both of your feature films are expressly about black characters defining their identities, and how they fit into the world. Is there any teaching element to these stories, any degree to which you want to help other people work through who they are and how they face the world?

BJ: I don’t feel like the movie is meant, from my standpoint, or Tarell’s, as an objective, to be a teaching point or a sounding board or a lesson for anyone. When the characters came to me, my goal was to do justice by them. Although I do think the fact that the character is on this quest to figure who the hell he is, despite a world trying to tell him all the time who he is, the fact that that aligned very well with my previous work was part of the reason why I thought I could bring some authorship to it. That I could align my voice with Tarell’s. So on that point, I definitely agree, despite these two films being very, very different, the protagonists are working toward the same end.

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Tarell, there’s so much autobiography in this story, in terms of your mother, and being rescued by a supportive drug dealer, and how you learned how to swim. What’s the biggest departure between this story and your own?

TM: Well, I didn’t become a drug dealer. [Laughs] My work in the drug trade was very limited, and I certainly was not into being anybody’s box trap, so there are departures in the story from my own life. However, Barry didn’t make a huge departure from the original intent and the original script. As you asked before — this character is exploring their identity, or trying to figure out things, trying to figure out big questions, because that is exactly what I was doing with my own life. I put my life in order, and [in the story] turned left instead of right, to see what that would look like, to see what I might have become. So it was certainly personal in that way. That journey was important to me, not to teach anyone else, but to ask myself these questions that are still large in my life. Am I living the life that I was supposed to live? How am I supposed to be living it? Am I living up to this understanding of quote-unquote manhood that I come from? What does it mean to be the child of a crack addict in the world? And what am I carrying around that I’m not necessarily thinking about on the surface level? Barry dug into those in a visceral way, and I appreciated it, because I actually have more questions than answers, but now I think they are more succinct questions.

The play was structured so differently from the film. What went into the choice to reconstruct it in three acts, instead of going back and forth between parallel actions performed by all three characters?

TM: Barry came to me and said, “I understand what you’re trying to do in telling this story, and I feel this will be better served in this structure. Have you seen the film Three Times?” I said no, but I read up on it, watched some of it, and talked to him more about it, and I realized he was trying to do the thing I was doing, putting the steps in an order that would make sense. And I fell in love with that idea, because it was after the same thing. It was lining up events and seeing how they make amends. Once he brought that to the table, I was sold.

Barry, you’ve said you systematically connected the different ages of the characters primarily through framing. How did you think about shooting the character in different acts?

BJ: James Laxton — the cinematographer — and I chose to shoot the film in anamorphic Cinemascope. I wanted to present a version of this character that has this great, wide-open space, these wide-open frames. Not necessarily like a Western, but I wanted the characters to always have the option of getting out of the center of the frame if they chose. This is a character who’s retreating, retracting, burrowing in, and I wanted to create claustrophobia for him without having a congested frame. And I do think the movie is meant to be immersive, so we’re always just a few feet in front of him or behind him. I think that’s a better perspective for the audience to identify with the character than being in an OTS. [Over-the-shoulder shot.] James and I had to do some work to help the audience along. And it was just about trying to find framings, and some sort of editorial juxtaposition that could suggest the feeling of the character from beat to beat.

The music in this is so remarkable. How did you use it to tell the story?

BJ: My favorite filmmaker is Claire Denis, and she uses orchestral scoring in films pretty liberally, despite being considered this very austere arthouse filmmaker. So I knew I wanted an orchestral score in this film. It’s not as a counterpoint to the setting, or the characters. It’s just always how I saw the film playing out. At the same time, there were these source cues. As Chiron / Black is taking on this much more hypermasculine persona, the source cues do, too. I wanted to find a way to fluidly blend those things, but also have the orchestral score, done by Nick Britell, fuse with the character. One thing I said to Nick was, “Even though this is going to be a chamber orchestra, it still needs to be a bit bass-heavy, because the world Tarell and I grew up in is very bass-heavy.” Whenever we felt there was an outpouring or an inpouring of emotion for Chiron, there would be this subtle score to synchronize with that. Not necessarily to embellish it, but to score it.

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Do you feel the black community’s reaction to queerness has changed since you were growing up?

TM: I feel like with the advent of the information age, and pointing to the particular community I grew up in… I can’t speak for every community across the country, but particularly in Liberty City, the conversation is wider. Students and young people have more access to other people who are dealing with similar things. So the conversation is at the table in a more real and tangible way. It’s harder to isolate someone and call them an outlier, because you can see that’s just not true. But I will also say that in the community we grew up in, there were other people who identified as queer or gay. This is just one story out of the many that were there.

So many significant things happen in the transitions between segments, as Little becomes Chiron, and Chiron becomes Black. It can be jarring. How did you navigate the question of what you could leave out of the story?

BJ: I did want to focus on Chiron — it’s his story, absolutely. And I also think the movie is intersectional, and one of the sections is about the world projecting this idea of masculinity, this idea of blackness, this idea of queerness. The world projects identity onto all of us, but particularly Chiron. I think the performance Ashton gives as Chiron shows just how Little, played by Alex, has been reshaped in the world’s image, or as a response to the aggression of the world. So each time we revisit the character, all this time has passed. There is story between those sections, but the story isn’t the point. For us, the point was “How has Chiron been shaped by his past?” And I love it. I speak to people in Q&As afterward, just coming out of the auditorium, and they have all these theories about things that happened between the story sections. It’s great, because I can see them putting themselves into the piece in a way that is very active and organic. There is more story for the other characters, but the movie is already 110 minutes, and I think 110 minutes of Chiron is pretty damn intense. Paula is the place where Tarell and I connect the most, and I think we both can say there’s so much story for Paula, but the movie belongs to Chiron.

The film has been critically embraced for its specifics, but also in general terms, as an antidote to a largely white film community, and to the #OscarsSoWhite narrative. How do you relate to that reaction to Moonlight?

BJ: This movie, the characters could be purple, and the structure would still be way outside the norm. The language in this movie would be way outside the norm. The way it’s being framed right now is great, in a certain way. Anything that gets more eyes on the film is a plus. But it’s hard for me to answer that question, because none of that stuff was ever in our minds in making this. This film began three and a half years ago. If I was to make a film today that was engineered to capitalize on those things, I probably would have made a very different film. I do think people are starved for unique voices and unique imagery, and our film is benefiting from the fortune of coming along at this time. But when you watch the film, it’s clear it wasn’t created in expectation of falling into this moment. And I think people are really responding to that, because despite what’s bringing them there, once they get inside the auditorium, they are still getting a surprise. They’re still getting something that’s unique.

If you did try to make an immediate film to capitalize on the diversity movement, what would it look like? How would it affect your approach?

BJ: If I ever worked that way, I’m pretty sure what I’d make would just be stale, and not true to who I am. Because I don’t want to end up like a termite. The fact that it’s been so long between these films maybe shows that the things I was working on didn’t grab me like this one did. And because it grabbed me so viscerally, there was never any doubt it was gonna come out in a way that was unique and distinct. I just wanted to do right by the source material, without any expectations.

This interview was originally published on November 1st, 2016, to coincide with Moonlight’s theatrical release. It is being republished due to the film’s Best Picture win at the Academy Awards.

Viola Davis’ acceptance speech is the Oscars at its best

Viola Davis is taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her devastating performance in Fences. After taking the stage to accept her award, she proceeded to level the audience with a soaring speech that brought some there to tears. Host Jimmy Kimmel even said that she ought to get an Emmy for it.

“We are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life,” she said in her speech, before going on to praise both director Denzel Washington and the late American playwright August Wilson, who published Fences in 1985. “Here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people,” she added.

The Best Supporting Actress Oscar is Davis’ first. Tonight’s win makes her the first black actor to win the so-called triple crown of acting, as she now has an Oscar, Tony, and Emmy to her name. The distinction puts her in the company of such actors as Helen Mirren and Al Pacino.

Zootopia wins Best Animated Feature Film at the 2017 Oscars

Disney’s Zootopia just won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film at the 89th Academy Awards. The film was up against Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, My Life as A Zucchini, and The Red Turtle. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore accepted the award along with producer Clark Spencer. This was the first Oscar win for all three.

During his acceptance speech, Moore said, “We are so grateful to the audiences all over the world who embraced this story of tolerance being more powerful than fear of the other.”

Disney has a history of doing well in the Animated Feature category. Last year Disney and Pixar’s Inside Out picked up the award. The year before that, Disney’s Big Hero 6 won.

Iranian Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi: ‘my absence is out of respect for the people of my country’

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has won his second Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, this time for The Salesman. Farhadi, in protest of President Trump’s executive orders banning travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, was not present to accept the award.

In his place, the award was accepted by two Iranian-American scientists: the former head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Firouz Naderi and engineer Anousheh Ansari, who is perhaps best known as the first Iranian astronaut to go to space. Ansari read a statement on behalf of Farhadi, condemning the Muslim ban as “inhumane” and going on to say that “dividing the world into us and our enemies categories creates fear.”

Farhadi’s statement reiterated thoughts he expressed following the January announcement of the executive orders, when The New York Times first reported that he did not plan to attend the awards. Farhadi said he would not attend even if a travel exception were made for him. In a statement at the time, he also said:

To humiliate one nation with the pretext of guarding the security of another is not a new phenomenon in history and has always laid the groundwork for the creation of future divide and enmity. I hereby express my condemnation of the unjust conditions forced upon some of my compatriots and the citizens of the other six countries trying to legally enter the United States of America and hope that the current situation will not give rise to further divide between nations.

The speech was concise, but forceful, and received a standing ovation from the Academy Awards audience.

Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and Auli’i Cravalho perform How Far I’ll Go at the 2017 Oscars

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Auli’i Cravalho just took the stage at the Academy Awards to perform the song “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s Moana. Miranda opened the performance with a quick spoken-word intro before Cravalho finished it solo. You can watch it above.

Moana was a classic Disney coming-of-age tale, but it was praised by critics for its impressive execution. And that included the music.

Moana received one nomination tonight, for Best Animated Feature.

O.J.: Made in America wins Best Documentary at the 2017 Oscars

O.J.: Made in America, directed by Ezra Edelman, produced by Caroline Waterlow, and distributed by ESPN Films, has won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

The seven-and-a-half-hour film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of last year, and debuted in theatrical limited release last May. The documentary incorporates 72 new interviews with archival news footage to chronicle the entire career of O.J. Simpson, starting with his first season playing football at the University of Southern California and ending with his infamous 1995 murder trial. The documentary sets all of this in the broad context of American sports culture, pop culture, and systemic racism, as well as within the rise of reality TV and recent calls for criminal justice reform.

This is the first Academy Award nomination and win for the Brooklyn-based director, who is best known for several HBO Sports documentaries, including the Emmy-winning 2007 film Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush. In his speech, Edelman thanked the Academy for acknowledging an “unconventional film,” and dedicated the award to the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, as well as victims of police brutality.

This year’s other nominated films included: I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s adaptation of the unfinished James Baldwin manuscript Remember This House; Ava DuVernay’s Netflix-distributed documentary 13th, which explores issues of mass incarceration and racial discrimination in the justice system; Italian director Gianfranco Rusi’s chronicling of the European migrant crisis, Fire at Sea; and Roger Ross William’s Life, Animated, an adaptation of Ron Suskind’s 2014 memoir about how his son used Disney movies to cope with some of his autism-related communication issues.

The winner in this category is generally less predictable than some of the other major awards, as a Golden Globe hasn’t been awarded for Best Documentary since 1976.

Suicide Squad just won an Oscar

Well, it happened: Suicide Squad just won an Oscar. The award went to Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini, and Christopher Nelson for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. It’s unusual for a movie like Suicide Squad, which many critics found messy, if not disastrous, to be recognized at the Academy Awards, but this award often goes to the most obvious choice. And Jared Leto’s Joker was nothing if not wearing makeup.

In his acceptance speech, Bertolazzi noted that he was an Italian immigrant and said, “This is for all the immigrants.”

The movie was up against Star Trek Beyond and A Man Called Ove. This was the first Oscar win for Bertolazzi, Gregorini, and Nelson.

Jeff Bezos gets a shout-out in the Oscars opening monologue

Jeff Bezos is sort of nominated for an Oscar tonight, as Amazon was the one of two distributors for Best Picture nominee Manchester by the Sea. He was shouted out in host Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue.

“If you win tonight, you can expect your Oscar to arrive in two to five business days,” Kimmel said. Good one, honestly. Better than Kimmel’s cracks about how almost no one has seen Moonlight, which came right after an extended bit about his 2006 faux-feud with Matt Damon. This segment of the awards show is typically dedicated to roasting well-known actors and directors, so it was a little odd to see a tech CEO and streaming service shouted out by the host.

Amazon is the first streaming service to receive an Academy Award nomination— edging out Netflix, which campaigned aggressively for Beasts of No Nation last year to no avail.

Congratulations to Jeff, who seems to be having a great time, and now joins the proud ranks of actors and directors who get tepid roasts while everybody pretends the Oscars are daring.