Tuesday, 30 November 1999
Criterion's "Hard Boiled" nixed!: Out-of-print Criterion DVDs have been amongst the highest-priced discs on eBay, and now their release of John Woo's 1992 Hard Boiled has gone out of print, as the distribution agreement between Criterion and the film's owners has expired without renewal. The disc joins This Is Spinal Tap, Salo, The 400 Blows, and Woo's The Killer on Criterion's nix-list, and if you don't want to pay upwards of $100 for Hard Boiled online, you might want to visit your local retailer right away and see if any extra copies are in the stacks (as of last night, Reel.com was still offering the title for $27.99, although some last-minute orders could be cancelled such is the nature of online retailing). We must add, with a note of permanence, that no out-of-print Criterion DVD has yet to re-appear under the Criterion folio.
DVD International acquires more rights: DVD International, the folks behind such special-interest DVDs as Mars: The Red Planet and Aquaria, have signed a new, wide-ranging distribution agreement with UK producer DVD Direct, who, like DVD International, specializes in special-interest and interactive DVD titles. DVD Direct has been distributing DVD International releases within the UK for the past year, but the new agreement will send more American discs throughout Europe. Under an additional reciprocal-distribution deal, DVD Direct titles will soon appear here in the colonies, giving North American consumers a wider array of unusual, non-movie discs to add to our collections.
On the Street: After the slew of great titles arriving over the past two weeks, things are starting to bottom out, and for once we are grateful for a relatively quiet Tuesday (we need time to catch up). However, Columbia TriStar's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Last Picture Show: Special Edition are on the street this morning, along with Warner's Wild Wild West and both versions of Caligula. And don't forget, Pink Floyd: The Wall is due to arrive on Thursday. Here's this morning's handful of notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com:
It ain't over yet: We know that we should announce the winner of our November free DVD contest tomorrow, but we're gonna give all of you who haven't entered a last chance to win our copy of Out of Sight: Collector's Edition by extending the contest through the weekend. If you get the chance, be sure to drop by our contest page, and be sure to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there.
Monday, 29 November 1999
Pioneer is recordable-ready: The recordable DVD format has been available for some time as DVD hardware for your PC (in fact, current DVD burners have been the hardware foundation of the DeCSS hack), but high-end CE manufacturer Pioneer is now claiming that they will offer the first recordable DVD player console for your living room's A/V system, scheduled to arrive on North American dealer's shelves at an unspecified time next year (even though the units will arrive in Japan next month). Is the new Pioneer deck going to be the VHS killer? With an estimated price of $2,399.00 per unit and blank 6-hour discs going for $28.79 apiece, we got one word for you fuggettaboudit. Content ain't king with American consumers, price is, and this sexy techno will have to get a lot cheaper before Mom 'n' Pop let go of their $99 mono VCRs and two-dollar tapes. We're still guessing that competitive pricing between VHS and recordable DVD won't arrive for a couple more years.
And about that DeCSS thing...: As we wait and wonder when the Motion Picture Association of America, acting on behalf of the major Hollywood studios, snares a DeCSS poster and gets him in front of a judge, an online software pirate was convicted last Wednesday in a U.S. Federal court, the first instance of a ruling under the 1997 NET Act, which says that posting copyrighted software on the Internet is a no-no. University of Oregon student Jeffrey Levy, 22, pleaded guilty to violating the NET Act on Nov. 24 and received two years probation from Judge Michael Hogan, who also initially forbade Levy to access the Internet (however, he may be allowed some Internet use in order to complete his education). Both the U.S. District Attorney's office and the FBI took part in the investigation. "(We are) confident that this conviction and sentence will spur other U.S. Attorneys to aggressively pursue cases of online piracy under the auspices of the NET Act, and send a clear message that online piracy will be vigorously prosecuted," said Mike Flynn, a spokesperson for the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), after Levy's guilty plea. Flynn also noted that Levy's sentence was relatively light under the NET Act, he could have been hammered with a $250,000 fine and three years in the joint (the one place where you don't want to lose a game of "drop the soap").
Since the recently approved Digital Millennium Copyright Act will probably give the MPAA the same clear-cut protections that the NET Act has granted to software publishers, we're betting that MPAA lawyers were watching this case very, very closely. Stay tuned....
Disc of the Week: The heroic adventurer Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is about to marry Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), a union that will bring peace to two warring kingdoms. But the night before the ceremony, the evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) casts a spell that reduces the lovely Parisa to only a few inches in height, and then tells Sinbad that he must journey to the Island of Colossus and find a shell of the winged Roc in order to restore his betrothed to her previous condition. With little time, the intrepid Sinbad recruits a group of convicts to make the dangerous journey, and if you're wondering what happens after that, suffice it to say that a lot of people are going to die horrible deaths before it's all over. Directed by Nathan Juran with special effects by pioneering stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, the 1958 The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a B-movie delight, with broadly-drawn characters, non-stop action, and the Harryhausen magic that made him a Hollywood legend. While principal photography was done in Spain and London, Harryhausen worked in his Los Angeles studio, solving a number of technical challenges so he could render his "Dynamation" process in color for the first time. The results rank amongst Harryhausen's most memorable creatures, including the two-headed Roc, the fire-breathing dragon, the nasty man-eating Cyclops, and the sword-wielding skeleton who battles with Sinbad to the death. In the midst of it all, the actors chew on the scenery with performances that are worthy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 but enjoyable just the same with a group of friends and enough popcorn to go around. Columbia TriStar's new DVD is a valuable special edition, with the film presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the original mono as a Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack. The source print is showing some color fading but is still very attractive. The numerous supplements include the 60-minute documentary "The Harryhausen Chronicles" narrated by Leonard Nimoy; a conversation between Harryhausen and John Landis (Ray shows off his original fighting skeleton); a retrospective of Sinbad with Harryhausen collaborators; the short promo reel "This Is Dynamation"; cast notes; and a priceless gallery of trailers from several Harryhausen extravaganzas. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: The story of Thanksgiving weekend was Pixar's Toy Story 2, which took the top spot with a staggering total of $57.7 million from Friday to Sunday, in addition to an overall gross of $81.1 million since hitting the cineplexes last Wednesday. It was a record Thanksgiving opening (previously held by last year's A Bug's Life with a five-day total of $45.7 million) and an overall record for all films over the long holiday weekend ($147.3 million for the top 12, a 24.1 percent rise from 1998, which held previous record). Universal's End of Days, Arnold Schwarzenegger's first film in two years, did a respectable $19.8 million, but it wasn't enough to budge MGM's The World Is Not Enough, which snared $24.3 million in receipts in its second weekend and landed in second place, holding Ah-nold's debut in third. Paramount's Sleepy Hollow still has legs (if not a head), grabbing $18.8 million in its second weekend and building up a $62.2 million overall gross. In the "hanging around" category, Universal's The Bone Collector, Lions Gate's Dogma, and Buena Vista's The Insider are still in the top ten, as is the indie-flick Being John Malkovich, which continues to find an audience. But bid farewell to both Sony's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and New Line's The Bachelor, which have now dropped from sight after short runs and disappointing revenues.
Here's the top-grossing films at American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: A new full review has been posted for Apocalypse Now, and can be found on our Full Reviews index. New quick reviews this week include The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Last Picture Show: Special Edition, both of which are on the street tomorrow. Other quick reviews include A Bug's Life: Collector's Edition, Lady and the Tramp: Limited Issue, Tea With Mussolini, and Splendor. All can be accessed under the New Reviews menu here on the main page.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.
Wednesday, 24 November 1999
Dimming the lights: With all of the great DVDs on the street this week, and the long holiday weekend ahead of us, DVD Journal staff members have now departed to the far reaches of America to spin some discs and spend time with the family members we see far too rarely. We hope you get a chance to do the same, and we will be back next Monday with all the usual stuff news, gossip, sketchy rumors, and a pile of new DVD reviews. We'll see you then.
Tuesday, 23 November 1999
MPAA turns up the heat: C-Net News.com has posted a story on the Motion Picture Association of America's looming battle with DVD hackers around the world who are posting the DeCSS crack, which was recently developed in Norway and undermines the Content Scrambling System encryption technology that was designed to keep copyrighted DVDs from being duplicated on recordable DVD-ROM media. As of this point, several cease-and-desist letters (probably much like this one) have been delivered to websites around the globe, but the MPAA isn't currently going after individuals who post DeCSS on the Internet. At least not for now. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was passed last month, specifically forbids the dismantling of copyright-protection technologies, but several exemptions to the law (primarily in instances of research and education) have yet to be resolved. It is when the details are hammered out, probably in the next several months, that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act will have a bite, and it's not hard to imagine that the MPAA will pursue DeCSS posters to the limit of the law, currently $2,500 per infraction. And since the law specifically prohibits the creation, sale, or distribution of copyright-protection hacks, that $2,500 per download from a single website can start to add up. Is it going to stop the online distribution of DeCSS? Not likely. But DVD providers aren't happy campers lately, and it will be interesting to see what happens if they manage to get some poor fool in a courtroom and potentially on the hook for millions of dollars in damages.
"Third Man" reappears: Criterion has announced a new street date of Nov. 30 for their DVD of Carol Reed's postwar classic The Third Man i.e., next week. Of course, being a Criterion title, this is always subject to change, but the news is far more promising than the rumors we heard that it may not appear until January or later.
On the Street: The studios are competing for your hard-earned money this morning, the Tuesday just before Thanksgiving and the perfect time for you to buy a bunch of new DVDs and show them off to your relatives on Thursday (a "demo-disc" afternoon if there ever was one). As such, there's a pile of great stuff available, including Criterion's Grand Illusion, which has been transferred from the recently discovered original camera-negative and is bound to look fantastic. Disney's got a foursome of animated titles ready to go, including Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride, and the awesome A Bug's Life: Collector's Edition. Meanwhile, Paramount's betting that their new disc of Apocalypse Now will steal everyone's thunder, since it's been one of the most highly anticipated DVDs of the year. Columbia TriStar has filled their new Heavy Metal: Special Edition with plenty of extras that fans of the film will enjoy. But like many folks, we've been waiting for Warner's The Iron Giant, which will surely gain newfound admirers with its arrival on home video. Here's the rundown of this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com:
See ya tomorrow.
Monday, 22 November 1999
Disc of the Week: Movie-lovers worldwide heaped praise on Saving Private Ryan in 1998 for its brutal, realistic portrayal of infantry combat, but such praise has caused some people to think that Ryan is the most definitive film ever made about the 1944 Normandy invasion. Such is not the case. With only one 20-minute segment on the invasion and that segment only occurring on Omaha Beach Ryan is hardly a comprehensive account of the largest one-day military operation in history, nor was it meant to be. Rather, 1962's The Longest Day is the granddaddy of all D-Day flicks, serving up three hours of detailed storytelling, along with an all-star cast, that makes for both magnificent entertainment and a brief history lesson on a few hours that changed the course of the 20th century. Based on Cornelius Ryan's nonfiction book of the same name, four separate directors helmed different segments of The Longest Day (Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Gerd Oswald, and Bernhard Wicki) under the auspices of legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck (who reportedly also directed a few scenes). All the key points of the offensive are here, including the midnight British glider-landings behind enemy lines, the thousands of paratroopers dropped into France's pre-dawn darkness to capture strategic targets, the daring climb to capture Pointe du Hoc, and the combination of German overconfidence and confusion that turned the tide of the Allied sneak-attack (including the crucial failure by the Nazi brass to relocate their Panzer divisions to Normandy from Calais). The landings themselves on the Omaha, Utah, Juno, and Gold beaches are masterfully filmed, and while they lack the conspicuous gore of Spielberg's counterpart, they are nonetheless engaging. The monumental cast includes John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Eddie Albert, Richard Beymer, Red Buttons, Werner Hinz, Peter Lawford, Curd Jurgens, Rod Steiger, Richard Todd, Robert Ryan, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowall, and pinup boys Paul Anka and Fabian. Fox's new disc features a good transfer from an attractive black-and-white source print that has great low-contrast detail and is only showing some minor wear, with audio in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.0 track (no woofer), and a trailer gallery. This one's an essential disc for war buffs everywhere.
Box Office: In a weekend that demolished an attendance slump that had plagued the North American box-office for the past several weeks, both MGM's The World Is Not Enough and Paramount's Sleepy Hollow surged past the $30 million mark, with the new James Bond flick snaring $37.2 million in receipts, while Tim Burton's adaptation of the Washington Irving horror tale earned $30.5 million. If the estimates for Sleepy Hollow hold up, it will be the first time in box-office history that two films debuted with more than $30 million on the same opening weekend. But don't think last week's winner, Pokemon: The First Movie has been decapitated just yet while the pocket-monster blockbuster was soundly trounced by last weekend's hot newcomers, it still snagged $13.3 million in receipts, and Warner is now estimating that the kiddie-flick could reach $90 million overall by Thanksgiving. Universal's The Bone Collector and Kevin Smith's independently released Dogma still have solid attendance, and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich cracked the top ten after four weekends in release, despite showing on less than 600 screens. But now is the time we must say goodbye to The Sixth Sense, which has dropped from the top ten after a massive $270 million juggernaut, second this year only to The Phantom Menace, which earned $460.9 million and now is nearing the $1 billion mark worldwide.
Here's the top-grossing films at American theaters from last weekend:
Quotable: "I've always thought I'd like to become America's first black president. I've got a lot of other things I've got to do first but I think I'll get round to it in about 10 years' time."
Will Smith, in an interview over the weekend
On the Board: A new full review has been posted for Heavy Metal: Special Edition, which will be on the street tomorrow. New quick reviews this week include Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Longest Day, Local Hero, and two documentaries, Kurt and Courtney and Hands on a Hard Body. All can be found under the New Reviews menu here on the main page.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Friday, 19 November 1999
Box-office windfall: We think that 1999 will go down as a monumental year in movie history, in part because of such blockbusters as The Phantom Menace, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and The Sixth Sense, but also because a great deal of smaller, critically acclaimed films were released, including Fight Club, Three Kings, Election, An Ideal Husband, American Beauty, The Insider, Eyes Wide Shut, The Straight Story, Rushmore, Being John Malkovich, and a host of others almost too numerous to mention. And what's still on the way? Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, and Milos Forman's Man on the Moon. But theater-owners are only hearing the sound of cash registers, because the industry has seen a dramatic upswing in ticket sales, leading to what will undoubtedly be a record-setting box-office by year's end an estimated $7.4 billion, in fact. But if that isn't surprising (and with ticket-prices always on the rise, how can it be?), what's astounded us is that it's estimated 1999 will see the most individual tickets purchased since 1959, with 1.6 billion served, or roughly every American man, woman, and child going to the theater once every two months. Of course, you probably see at least six movies every year (most DVD fans do), but compared to 1959 when home-video, cable/satellite TV, and the Internet weren't competing with movie-houses for people's time this year's movie attendance has been phenomenal. Digital die-hards love the home-theater experience, but it looks like the big screen will never lose its appeal.
What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?: And which actor profited the most from the 1999 box-office bonaza? According to gossip columnist Liz Smith, Bruce Willis has been the alpha-male of the Tinseltown pack, nabbing his usual $20 million apiece for three films (The Sixth Sense, The Story of Us, and Breakfast of Champions). In addition, Bruno gets 10% of the gross from Sense (now at $267.8 million and counting), and will likely reap another $10 million from VHS and DVD revenues in 2000. Sum total for 52 weeks of work? Roughly $100 million. And we thought that smirk was just an act.
Annual film archive list released: As happens every November since 1989, the Library of Congress has added 25 more films to the National Film Registry, a collection dedicated to preserving America's film heritage. Popular titles such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Ten Commandments, The Wild Bunch, and Do the Right Thing are joined on this year's list by lesser-known (but no less important) films such as "The Kiss" (a 15-second Edison production from 1896), Josef von Sternberg's 1926 The Docks of New York, and Bert Stern's 1959 Jazz on a Summer's Daywith Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, and the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. Even the Warner Brothers cartoon "Duck Amuck," starring Daffy and Bugs, has been thrown in for good measure. But despite the efforts of the National Film Registry, a great deal of American film history has already been lost for all time. "Sadly, our enthusiasm for watching films has proved far greater than our commitment to preserving them," James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, told Reuters, "and, ominously, more films are lost each year through the ravages of nitrate deterioration, color-fading, and the recently discovered 'vinegar syndrome,' which threatens the acetate-based film stock on which the vast majority of motion pictures, past and present, have been preserved." As for us, we like to think that the all-digital DVD is at least one step in the process of ensuring that some films will remain around forever, if only on televisions and video projectors.
Here's the entire list of this year's National Film Registry selections:
R.I.P.: Veteran Hollywood voice-over artist Mary Kay Bergman was found dead last week, the victim of an apparent suicide. If her name doesn't sound familiar, her credits were numerous, including the most prominent female voice on South Park (she played both Mrs. Cartman and Wendy). Other projects she had been involved with in recent years include The Phantom Menace, Mulan, The Iron Giant, and recent episodes of Scooby Doo, where she performed the voice of Daphne. Bergman was 38.
Thursday, 18 November 1999
"Missing in Action" Flick of the Week: With two DVD-18 discs now in release (Stephen King's The Stand and DVD International's Aquaria), the time has come for DVD fans to respectfully ask for more-extensive DVD releases, and we can't think of a better possible DVD-18 set than Ken Burns' The Civil War, which has yet to arrive on disc, but stands a very good chance of doing so in the near future. First appearing on PBS in 1990, Burns' hugely influential documentary on the War Between the States immediately became the most-watched show on public television in history, a distinction that has yet to be bettered. Broken into nine episodes shown over nine separate nights, more than 40 million people tuned in to Burns' re-telling of the most monumental event in American history, captivated by the intricate subject-matter, but also by Burns' genre-defying documentary method an approach so unique that it has been imitated several times since and is now often referred to simply as "The Burns Style." Rather than simply stringing along a series of photos and maps, Burns interspersed his traditional documentary elements with modern-day footage of battlefields, carefully captured at the correct times of year, which gives the The Civil War a poetic quality that viewers didn't expect. Rather than relying on a singular narrative account (traditionally via an authoritative male voice), Burns expanded on his epic story by including letters by historical figures read by actors, including Sam Waterston and Morgan Freeman, skillfully blending humanity and history. Burns also took liberties with the linear structure of his story, starting with the events that led to the siege of Fort Sumpter and ending with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomatox, but also investigating several non-military issues along the way, including the often-overlooked plight of both women and African-Americans during the conflict. Audiences loved it, but high-profile success can come at a price, and in Burns' case it resulted in an academic backlash from many historians who felt that The Civil War actually performed a disservice by distilling complicated historical events into easily digestible television. Burns himself readily admitted that his film was inferior to history books, but his critics overlooked one obvious fact he had made a film, not a history book. Even though The Civil War clocks in at 11 hours, it is still a narrowly confined version of the events it depicts. Besides, Ken Burns hasn't won too many accolades as a historian, but he's won several as a filmmaker, and we think The Civil War is both a spectacular glimpse of the past and spellbinding cinema. Hopefully, it has encouraged people over the past ten years to read more about the war, and about American history in general
Of course, PBS has the home-video rights to The Civil War, along with all of Ken Burns' other PBS-televised documentaries, but that doesn't mean they own them outright. In fact, Burns' Florentine Films owns them, and PBS has never been the financial backer of his projects since 1990, General Motors has been the sole corporate financier of Burns' films, and as such, he could take them anywhere he likes. But in April of 1998, Burns signed a wide-ranging agreement with PBS that will keep Florentine's output on public television through 2004, and all of its home-video product under the PBS folio through 2010. So with no legal disputes and high-capacity DVD ready to go, all that remains is for PBS kick the videotape habit and start releasing some of their catalog on DVD. The good news is that they reportedly are planning to embrace the format sometime during 2000. Will The Civil War be one of PBS's first DVD releases? Sounds like a sucker bet to us.
Quotable: "I heard that one Hollywood super-agent (who shall remain nameless) stormed into a meeting and launched a no-doubt-Dantonesque denunciation of the (DeCSS) hackers' work, calling it the biggest threat to their business since, well, the last biggest threat to their business. It's a business which, by the way, allows him and many others to live at an almost obscene level of luxury and which will continue to do so. Boo-fricking-hoo. I'm not a big supporter of piracy. I've never bought a bootleg record, although I am open to persuasion in the video arena, particularly with respect to loopholes in international copyright law, which might give me access to stuff that U.S. video companies can't be bothered to release in the States. Still, it's only common sense that any industry which respects the consumer will likely not be susceptible to a bootlegging menace."
Glenn Kenny, in a recent column at E-Town.
Wednesday, 17 November 1999
"Shawshank" resurfaces: In an unusual (and unexplained) about-face, Warner has now returned The Shawshank Redemption DVD to release status with a new street date of Dec. 21. Well, if you want to call that a "new" street-date. It was previously announced to arrive on Dec. 21 before being unceremoniously yanked from the schedule last month (and that came after several delays going all the way back to '98). But the disc is now back on Reel.com's release calendar, so those of you who pre-ordered the title should expect it before Christmas after all (does anybody else have the urge to knock on wood?).
Now my problem with the issue is this: If the studios really didn't know this day was coming, they should hire a whole new R&D department, because the cracking of CSS (or any other encryption scheme) is only a matter of time, and with something as popular as DVD, it was bound to happen sooner rather than later. In any case, we have had the ability to copy VHS movies forever! Truthfully, I am yet to see a VHS deck that really has Macromedia blocking or whatever, since I know plenty of people who copy VHS movies on a regular basis.
Sure, now we have the ability to copy DVDs. So what?! I mean, anyone can get a bootleg of a movie very soon after its release day (remember The Phantom Menace?) and they are not gonna stop showing movies in theaters are they? DVDs take gigabytes upon gigabytes of space, and even with technology like cable modems, it is a hassle to actually get it. Of course, you could figure out a way to burn them into normal CDs, but it would take a couple, and we all hate having to get up to switch a CD/DVD. And even when people start burning them into DVD-Rs, it would be just a small fraction of revenue lost, if any, because you still have to rent it to rip it, and if you rent it, rental places buy them from the studios, and I don't know about DVDs, but VHS movies for rental places cost like $90+ so they make a huge profit just selling them to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video.
Bootlegs and copies of recordings have not hurt the music industry, the video industry, not even the software industry. It would be very foolish to abandon the DVD format now, or even to change the firmware in the players. That would be just another bump on the road for DVD, and for all the home A/V enthusiasts out there.
We don't think that the major studios are going to stop releasing DVDs next month (in fact, a look at the current release schedule indicates that things will hum along smoothly through the first quarter of 2000), but the fact is that the studios are re-evaluating their approach to the DVD Video format, although right now it's mostly wait-and-see. Their first strategy has been a legal one, and every major content provider has made it clear that they will pursue anybody who posts the Content Scrambling System crack (known as DeCSS) to the fullest extent of international copyright law, potentially holding violators on the hook for millions of dollars of potentially lost revenue (a cease-and-desist letter was even sent out on behalf of 11 studios and parent companies, and they aren't kidding around). Therefore, anybody who posts DeCSS on the Web is either begging for attention or certifiably insane. If legal intimidation does the trick, the overall losses from DeCSS might be filed under "acceptable," and things will go on as they are.
However, we don't agree with your comparison between VHS and DVD. Yes, VHS piracy has been a thorn in the studios' side, but as an analog format, VHS dupes always show signs of degradation, and after a few generations of copying they're practically worthless. Such is not the case with the totally digital DVD, where infinite copies of a source program can be replicated without any signal deterioration. That's a very real danger, and it's why CSS was invented in the first place. Without it, DVD Video as a consumer format would never exist. The good news is that current recordable DVD-ROM drives only handle 2.5 gigabytes per side, far less than the 4.7 gigs that DVD Video discs hold, making a direct disc-for-disc copy impossible for now. When recordable DVDs get larger (as they inevitably will), anybody with the hardware and DeCSS will be able to toast their own illegal DVDs and sell them, or even just give them away (which is still a form of theft).
That all said, you are correct that DeCSS doesn't post a major threat to the studios as much as a minor headache, and one that the music and software industries have been forced to live with for years. Perfectly copied illegal DVD movies will be floating around before too long (they can be made now, albeit they require two blank discs), but the studios can keep this practice in check by creating attractive packaging that appeals to the "collector" demographic, and by keeping new DVDs relatively cheap, automatically reducing the "pain-in-the-ass" factor that has kept CD Audio retail-sales strong despite the mass availability of recordable CD. As long as DVDs are affordable, why take the time and effort to borrow a few from a friend and pirate them? And beyond that, how does anybody plan to impress their friends with their expansive, carefully chosen collection of pirated DVDs? For some people, only the original will do.
The trick now is to convince the studios that they may have to drop their DVD prices, rather than abandon the format altogether. In the meantime, we're betting that a new generation of CSS is on the way, and it will certainly close the loopholes that made the first one so vulnerable.
(Regretting that I never bought the Fantasia LD box set.)
Like you, we noticed that Fantasia was not mentioned in Disney's DVD press-release last week, which certainly left a lot of people scratching their heads. After all, if only ten animated titles were to be reserved for "Platinum Collection" status, shouldn't Fantasia be one of them? Would it really be removed from home-video moratorium in favor of such titles as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin? However, for some time we have been laboring under the impression that Fantasia will never be released on home video again, an impression mostly based on several Internet rumors. We haven't been able to confirm if this is true, but the omission of Fantasia from the "Platinum Collection" gives the rumor some weight with us. So you can either expect the film to arrive on DVD in the next two years or hedge your bets and head over to eBay to look for that box. However, while you're there you might consider bidding on the DVD of Fantasia from Taiwan (pictured here), which is code-free and can be found for auction now and then (the last closing bid we saw was $55.00).
We won't go as far as calling it illegal, but you certainly have a point. Many DVD fans who pre-ordered titles like Pinocchio, Mulan, and Peter Pan because they thought they wouldn't reappear for many years are doubtless wondering if the Mouse gave them the straight scoop. Furthermore, if the supplemental materials on the current VHS editions turn up on DVD in the next two years, a lot of folks are gonna feel downright shafted.
Top of the Pops: Here's the top-selling DVDs last week from our friends at Reel.com. Click the links to read our reviews of these discs:
See ya later.
Tuesday, 16 November 1999
In the Works: Here's some new disc announcements posted over the past few days at Image Entertainment:
On the Street: News Line's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is on the street this morning, and it's sure to be a big seller. Two Criterion titles have also arrived, Monty Python's Life of Brian and Peeping Tom. In addition, Python fans can check out the second installment from their classic BBC television series. And after being delayed by only a week, John Sayles' Lone Star is in the stores today. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com:
Region 2 hack-attack: Many DVD fans in Region 2 have gone to great lengths to obtain an altered "code-free" DVD player that will allow them to play much-prized Region 1 discs (often of films that have yet to reach the theaters overseas), but, while we support international region-coding, manufacturers should be more careful reportedly, a relatively inexpensive deck currently for sale in the UK can be converted to code-free by doing nothing more than punching a few buttons on the remote control. Ouch.
Quotable: "The people that initiate scripts are the studio heads, and more and more, these studio heads are being guided by their marketing departments. You don't make good pictures by listening to marketing people, because they are always living in the past."
Monday, 15 November 1999
Disc of the Week: If there can be any doubt as to what a magnificent film Patton is, one should remember that this epic wartime biography of George S. Patton reached American theaters in 1970, a point in American history when any shamelessly pro-military film should have flopped. But despite the nation's growing anti-war sentiment, fostered by thousands of American casualties in Vietnam, Patton was a box-office smash, solidified the careers of George C. Scott and Franklin J. Schaffner, gave Francis Ford Coppola his first big break, and won seven Academy Awards (surely the highest distinction of politically correct sentiment), including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Art Direction, Editing, Sound, and Actor (which Scott famously refused to accept, staying home to watch a hockey game on TV during the ceremony). The film may have had a restorative effect on the American psyche by reminding its audiences that war can be a noble enterprise, even when the battle is led by those who are the most unstable. As Gen. Patton, Scott captures the complexity of the man and the soldier with all of his eccentricities, including his insistence on always wearing jodhpurs and carrying a riding whip, his poetry, his belief in reincarnation, and his disdain for the 20th century, where a mechanized infantry and wholesale destruction made it increasingly difficult for soldiers to prove their valor on the field of combat. Scott comes up with one of the greatest screen performances in history, and Coppola's screenplay (reworked by Edmund H. North) demonstrated his ability to tell a lengthy story without ever losing momentum. Director Schaffner took advantage of more than 70 European locations to give Patton its epic scope, and his late decision to relocate Scott's troop-rallying speech from the middle of the film to the very beginning was a stroke of genius, introducing us to Patton's fighting ethic, but also letting us know right away that this isn't supposed to be an ordinary war film chronicling an important battle, but instead a story about one person, and how that person influenced history, even though he was never loved by his own superiors and he never fully accepted the world in which he was forced to live. This new two-disc set from Fox includes the complete film on disc one, along with a brief audio essay and trailers for Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and The Longest Day. Disc two includes the 50-minute documentary "Patton: A Tribute to Franklin J. Schaffner" and Jerry Goldsmith's rousing score as an alternate audio track. If we were forced to pick a "Greatest War Film Ever Made," we'd probably pick this one.
Box Office: Here's a word that is appearing today on The DVD Journal website for the first time: Pokemon. Yes, we have labored hard to keep the Nintendo kiddie-sensation from appearing on these digital pages because, well, for one we don't really care, and two, we don't want children reading this website anyway. But our mission is to report the news, and the news is that Warner's Pokemon: The First Movie is a bonafide smash. Despite reports that parents were dropping their kids off in cinema 1 to see the animated flick while they took in grown-up fare in cinema 2, the pocket-monster blockbuster hauled in $32.4 million over the weekend, and it has grossed a total of $52.1 million since its debut last Wednesday, giving it a five-day record for any film in November (A Bug's Life was the previous record-holder). If only Kevin Smith could get a video game. His new Dogma, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, snagged third place over the weekend, but the respectable $8.8 million in receipts looks anemic compared to his trading-card competition. Columbia TriStar's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, also did well with $6.3 million, and Fox's Anywhere But Here, with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, pulled $5.7 million in receipts. Double Jeopardy, The Sixth Sense, and American Beauty are still showing a pulse after many weeks in release. However, Fight Club and Bringing Out The Dead, relative new arrivals, have now fallen from the top ten with disappointing overall grosses.
Here's the top-grossing films at American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New full reviews have been posted for Life is Beautiful: Collector's Edition and Big Daddy, which can be found on our Full Reviews index. New quick reviews this week include Patton, Notorious, The Thin Red Line, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Aquaria, and can be accessed under the New Reviews menu here on the main page.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Friday, 12 November 1999
"Iron Giant" cleans up: Warner's The Iron Giant, which garnered immense critical acclaim while suffering from dismal late-summer box-office receipts, solidified its claim to being the best animated of the film of 1999 at the 27th Annual Annie Awards, held last weekend in California, where the movie took home nine trophies in the categories of directing, writing, music, theatrics, character animation, effects animation, storyboarding, individual voiceover, and production design. The film was nominated for 15 awards overall. Disney's Tarzan, which trounced The Iron Giant at the box office, took home only one award for technical achievement, while The Lion King II: Simba's Pride earned the statuette for home-video production (VHS edition).
The Iron Giant arrives on DVD Nov. 23.
Delayed!: One of the most-anticipated discs of the past few months, Criterion's The Third Man, has now been delayed from its previous street date of Nov. 16, and no new date has been announced. However, we have heard rumors (unconfirmed) that it may be available in January. Criterion's The Night Porter has also fallen off the release-radar for the time being.
It may never end: The American Film Institute, the folks responsible for the "Top 100 American Films of All Time" and "The AFI Top 50 Movie Stars" are still at it, now preparing a list of the 100 Best American Film Comedies, scheduled for release in 2000. As with the AFI Top 100, the Best American Film Comedies are being selected by 1,800 voters from a wide demographic group, who are being provided with a pre-selected list of 500 films from which to choose. Voting will be completed by the end of the year, but the results will be kept under wraps until next June, when the AFI hauls out their third three-hour television extravaganza on CBS to reveal the winners. The only thing we like about AFI lists is that they're a fun opportunity to bitch about AFI lists.
Commentary Clips: "This is Liam Neeson's first big scene, and the first time he'd been in a film at all, on-camera. He, of course, had some scenes with Helen Mirren, and they fell in love during the film, and spent a year or two together subsequently. Liam is a boy from the north of Ireland, very inexperienced and innocent, and Helen was great teacher to him. I don't mean just sexually, I mean she knew everybody and took him around. Of course, everyone loved Liam. Every woman wants to cuddle him, and many of them do."
"These days, of course, nobody even questions these things [special effects], 'How do they do that?' They say, 'Oh, they must've done it on the computer.' David Hockney, he's the artist, said to me, 'You know, the digital effect will be the end of the movies, because it used to be that whatever we saw on the screen, we knew that it had occurred at some point in time and place. Now we can no longer be sure.' So films have lost their reality."
John Boorman, Excalibur
Coming Attractions: New DVD reviews are on the way, including Patton, The Thin Red Line, and Big Daddy, so be sure to check back Monday morning for all the skinny. And if you haven't entered our monthly free DVD contest, be sure to visit our contest page if you get the time, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there.
A parting thought: Over the past week, voters in San Francisco decided that banks cannot charge money for ATM services to customers who do not have an account with the institution in other words, they have been mandated to provide a service for free. In the meantime, the Justice Department has determined that Microsoft is a "monopoly" because they offer a Web browser to Windows consumers for nothing the only way that Bill Gates could have avoided the recent imbroglio (which may result in a breakup of Microsoft) would have been to charge money for a product that he was happy to give away.
(Everybody scratch your heads now.)
Thursday, 11 November 1999
Disney to release all animated titles!: As we first predicted last Friday on this very website, Walt Disney Studios and their home-video division Buena Vista have completely thrown out their previous one-toe-in-the-water DVD marketing strategy and fully embraced the digital format, albeit with a few traditional Disney reservations. Key points of the new strategy, announced yesterday by Disney Chairman Joe Roth, include:
Why the change of heart in the Mouse House? First, the growth of the DVD market has been undeniable, and even the mighty Disney can no longer disregard the future of home video. Secondly, due to some recent profit slumps (the last 3Q was especially disappointing), Disney has taken steps over the past year to simplify their multi-national megacorp, including selling off many of their print-publication holdings, merging their television-production division with the Mouse-owned ABC network, and putting their animation and special-effects units under one roof. Top Mouse Michael Eisner is determined to return The Magic Kingdom to the 20% profit margins it has enjoyed in previous years (shareholders expect nothing less), and a key part of the Disney reorganization involves finding ways to profit from, as Eisner called it last week, "entertainment experiences that are already on the ground," i.e., popular home-video titles that can be repackaged and re-marketed with little overhead.
We say great. Although some people are bound to feel a little irked by the "Platinum Collection" and its ten-year cycle, it should be noted that this policy is in place for both VHS and DVD there is no distinction between the two. Some of you may have been hoping that the Mouse would abandon their well-known moratoriums altogether, but we never expected anything of the sort. The fact remains that Disney has now brought their DVD releases completely in line with their VHS editions, meaning that there is now only one cross-format home-video strategy. And that's progress.
Notably: Those of you reading closely certainly noticed similarities and differences between Disney's "Platinum Collection" and the current crop of Disney DVD releases, namely that many of the current titles are not on the ten-year list in particular Pinocchio, Hercules, Mulan, Peter Pan, and The Lion King II: Simba's Pride. Therefore, it doesn't appear that these five discs will go on moratorium for 7-10 years, as previously announced, but will re-appear within the next two years, and for good. The only 1999 discs that are also in the Platinum Collection are 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, and The Little Mermaid, and it's a safe bet that those four will probably return no sooner than 2005. Therefore, if you can only buy a few Disney DVDs right now, those are the ones to get.
Left unsaid: Here's a word we were hoping to hear from Disney yesterday: anamorphic. We didn't.
"Missing in Action" Flick of the Week: With James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein now on DVD from Universal, a new generation of film fans have been exposed to the director's well-regarded expressionist style, along with his unusual sense of wit. However, Whale never really wanted to be known as a horror director in fact, the Englishman was originally brought to Hollywood by Universal because of his reputation as a stage director. It was only after the two Frankenstein films that Whale got his opportunity to return to his theatrical roots, directing the 1936 Show Boat, a landmark American musical that reveals how capable he was in virtually any genre. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (Hammerstein also handled the screenplay here), Show Boat broke ground in depression-era, segregated America by utilizing a cast of black and white actors and giving both groups substantial amounts of screen-time. The story follows a loosely-knit clan of actors and stagehands on a Mississippi riverboat who ply their theatrical trade up and down the river during the summer, but when Magnolia (Irene Dunne), the captain's daughter, marries smooth talking, free-gambling Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones), the family's fortunes take a turn for the worse, as Gaylord abandons his new bride and child in Chicago and the shy Magnolia must turn to the big-city stage to survive. While elements of Show Boat are overly melodramatic (and the tacked-on conclusion is a wretched cliché), the many musical numbers are all stand-outs, and especially those by Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel (Gone With The Wind), and Helen Morgan, all of whom helped make songs such as "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Ol' Man River," and "Bill" staples of American musical theater. In fact, the performances are so good, and each character is so well-defined, that even an old-fashioned minstrel show (Dunne actually performs a song in blackface) can't discredit the overall production.
Three versions of Show Boat have been filmed: the James Whale version from 1936, a Technicolor production in 1951 (starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel), and a very early talkie back in 1929. We're partial to the Whale version, and while it's not currently on disc, it appears that Warner recently acquired the rights from MGM, so a new DVD could appear in the next year or so. The 1951 version is already on disc from MGM. As for the 1929 edition, that isn't on home video anywhere, and not because there's no market for it it was lost many years ago, and it probably will never be recovered.
On the Block: Here's the highest recent closing prices of rare DVDs from online auctions at eBay :
See ya later.
Wednesday, 10 November 1999
The "pundits" are wrong. The heavy-hitter reviewers I've read (based on 22-years experience reading some of them) expect consumer-available 24/96 (bits/sample rate in 000's) to be a big step toward the real thing. Two of them have had Sony's $5,000 SACD player for a month or so. Both say the SACDs they've heard trounce the CDs of the same program.
Now I know the key to your statement is the word "substantial," but I'll bet you remember the first time you heard an excellent movie. Like the first time you went to a theater with a THX system, or the first laserdisc you heard with a digital soundtrack. Or your first Beta Hi-fi movie (or, of course VHS Hi-fi). Audio is key to involvement in a story, and I hope you would proselytize in favor of audio technology advances rather than the approach taken by pundits who can't hear or don't really like music/audio.
Thanks for your letter, Jim. We don't read a great deal of the audiophile press (after all, audiophiles and videophiles are different breeds), but we did base our comments on a recent magazine article where several "experts" faced off over the new hi-res audio formats. Many said SACD or DVD Audio would be better than PCM, while others disagreed, so it just seems like a healthy debate to us, and one that has yet to be settled.
But quality isn't our primary concern about hi-res audio we simply recognize that there's a big difference between an audiophile environment and the average listening situation, and this factor will give SACD and DVD-A one of their greatest challenges as they try to win over new consumers, since most people don't own expensive gear or speakers but instead listen to music on headphones, in their car, or with boom boxes. Audiophiles will doubtless love the new formats, but when we say "substantial improvement," we're not talking about a bunch of golden ears in a carefully baffled room rather, it's doubtful that hi-res audio will be a substantial improvement on a Walkman or in the world of car audio (particularly when the latest mass-market success in that arena has been the dreaded, cranked-beyond-belief subwoofer hardly an audiophile trait). DVD-A or SACD may eventually replace PCM if the formats gain some inertia, but then again, they may not have enough early adopters to get the hardware out of the $5,000 range. We're also skeptical if the masses are all that interested in multi-channel audio, a key selling-point of the new formats, but easily abused or downright worthless in a casual background-listening environment.
A second concern we have about SACD or DVD-A has to do with consumer acceptance, and DVD Video provides a perfect analogy. Some people use DVD-V as the source for a home-theater system, but plenty of other DVD-V consumers have nothing more than mid-sized televisions. Many more watch DVD movies with DVD-ROM drives on their PCs or Macs. Why did these consumers buy into DVD-V in the first place? It isn't quality, because (frankly) they can't appreciate all of the benefits that DVD Video has to offer without a fully equipped home theater. They bought into DVD because it's more convenient that VHS period. Nobody bought VCRs back in the 70s and said "What a great picture!" They bought them so they could time-shift television shows. Similarly, many DVD owners have invested in the format because it's more durable, it doesn't require rewinding, it offers chapter selection and value-added content, etc. Compare these many paradigm-shifts to hi-res audio, where nobody is claiming that the formats are more convenient than Compact Disc, just better quality. And we would suggest that convenience, not quality, is what drives new consumer technologies. This is the Achilles heel of the new formats because, while superior (and they doubtless are), they may not offer enough novelty over CDs to survive in the mass market.
Put your 8x10s away: After a Lucasfilm memo was recently leaked and posted on several Star Wars websites regarding the casting of Anakin Skywalker in Episode II of the series, the powers-that-be at Skywalker Ranch were swamped with telephone calls, letters, and portfolios from thousands of young men who think they actually have a chance to be Jedi. But Lucasfilm only had one response, posted at the official Star Wars website (www.starwars.com) knock it off! Or as the actual missive reads: "The casting director, Robin Gurland, will not start interviewing actors for Episode II until the end of January 2000 at the earliest. Also, Robin cannot accept unsolicited head shots, resumes, tapes or phone inquiries. The submissions must come through an accredited agent or agency. All the actors who worked on Episode I, even the ones sometimes referred to by the public as 'unknown', are professionals in the field, and all work with an agent. In addition, please note that since George Lucas is not involved in the first stages of the casting process, no submissions should be sent to him."
The upside? Jake Lloyd won't be in the next movie. The bad news? The Star Wars website has now confirmed that Jar-Jar Binks eesa comin' back.
DVDs Done Dirt Cheap: Reel.com has posted a new round of DVDs currently selling for 50% off, and this has to be the best group yet, with Die Hard, L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights and Pi all going for bargain-basement prices. So don't pay retail punch this link instead and get the goods. Here's all the rock-bottom discs:
And don't forget, DVDs at Reel.com are currently shipping for free. Nada. Zilch. Nothing.
Tuesday, 9 November 1999
In the Works: Here's some new disc announcements, courtesy of Image Entertainment:
On the Street: The Disney classic animation arrives in earnest this morning, with 101 Dalmatians, Mulan, and Hercules on the street (albeit for only the next 60 days). Other notable arrivals include the holiday favorite Scrooged, the latest classic Trek installment Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful: Collector's Edition, and Criterion's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com:
Auction watch: Get it while you can, because Warner has now discontinued their DVD release of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, a move that regrettably decreases the amount of Hitchcock films on disc while we have been patiently waiting for more to arrive. If the disc doesn't reappear soon (we have no idea why it was even pulled), we're certain that it will become a prized collectable, as it includes both the American and British cuts, along with notes to help Hitch fans find the differences. In fact, we like this one so much that it's been on our Top 25 for as long as we can recall. (By the way, it doesn't appear that this particular DVD has disappeared because MGM now has the rights. According the agreement struck between Warner and MGM last March, The Lion took control of all Warner product up to 1948 Strangers on a Train is from 1951.)
"Strike that reverse it": Despite being told by a New Line representative last week that a Platinum Edition of Seven was not in preparation, The Digital Bits is reporting exactly the opposite. Since the Bits normally has rock-solid sources, we're now going on their information. Look for a new Seven next March.
Quotable: "I stand to make more money doing that sequel than I've ever made in my life. But who cares, if it betrays Clarice who is a person, in some strange way, to me.... The movie worked because people believed in her heroism. I won't play her with negative attributes she'd never have."
Jodie Foster, revealing in an interview with
Monday, 8 November 1999
Watch Wednesday: After telling you about Disney boss Michael Eisner's decision to revaluate the Magic Kingdom's lukewarm approach to DVD (see Friday's update), Variety is now reporting that he will unveil a new Disney DVD strategy at an industry analysts' meeting in Burbank on Wednesday. And don't expect Eisner to announce less digital output as of last week he is now on record as a serious DVD supporter, convinced that The Mouse can reap low-overhead profits by releasing many of their classic catalog titles on disc. It's also possible that Eisner will annouce futher Disney support for special-edition releases, anamorphic transfers, and other types of value-added content. Keep your browser pointed here for more on this story during the coming week.
Disc of the Week: The 1971 Tora! Tora! Tora!, a rare American-Japanese co-production, has become the definitive cinematic account of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, along with being an unparalleled war film that keeps its emphasis upon historical re-enactment rather than dramatic license. In fact, the producers of the film make the bold declaration that everything that happens in the film is historically accurate not a single character or event is fictitious. Because of this, Tora! Tora! Tora! ranks among the most valuable of World War II films, depicting the growing conflict between the United States and Japan with a sober detachment that simultaneously entertains and edifies the viewer, detailing the mistakes, blunders, and political opportunism on both shores of the Pacific that led up to what President Roosevelt described as "a day that will live in infamy." With the American segments directed by Richard Fleischer and the Japanese segments by Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, Tora! Tora! Tora! is also an unusual war film that refuses to advocate for either side, but instead illustrates the very human people behind the history. There are no two-dimensional bloodthirsty Japanese characters rather, we learn that the country's political and military leaders were gravely divided over the proposed attack the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, recognizing the necessity of such a move if they were to continue their invasion of China, and yet also understanding the great risks of waking the "sleeping giant" and opening a two-front war. It wasn't America's most shining hour either. While frosty negotiations between the two powers plodded along in Washington, the Japanese knew they would have to deliver an ultimatum, and when they finally did it was all but a confirmation that they would attack an American base (either in the Philippines or in Hawaii). But the instructions from Washington to their Pacific commanders to go on heightened alert never got through in time. On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, several Japanese aircraft carriers that had secretly traversed thousands of miles across the Pacific launched their surprise assault, and the final half-hour of Tora! Tora! Tora! is a genuine masterpiece of the wartime genre. No expense is spared as real airfields and real targets are destroyed by low-flying Japanese fighters, creating a large-scale devastation that few films have matched since. The sequence was enough to earn the film an Academy Award for special effects only Patton, which arrived from Fox the same year, kept it from winning even more Oscars. This new disc from Fox offers a splendid transfer from a pristine source print, along with remixed audio in Dolby Digital 4.1 and trailers for Tora! Tora! Tora!, Patton, and The Longest Day.
"The Wall" pushed back again: Pink Floyd fans, hang in there. Columbia TriStar's upcoming Pink Floyd: The Wall has been delayed for a second time, now from Nov. 23 to Dec. 2.
Box Office: The box-office slump over the past few weeks that has seen few films break the $10 million mark continues, with only Universal's debut The Bone Collector scoring high numbers ($17.2 million), which easily gave the Denzel Washington thriller the top spot at the weekend box office. However, the next-highest film, New Line's The Bachelor, bowed with less than half of that, scraping in a modest $8 million on its first weekend despite appearing on virtually as many screens as The Bone Collector (Reuters is reporting that the movie also has the rare and dubious claim-to-fame of not receiving a single positive review from any major film critic). Only one other new arrival broke the top ten, Buena Vista's The Insider, which landed $7 million in receipts. Meanwhile, Fox's Fight Club, Miramax's Music from the Heart, and Paramount's Bringing out the Dead continue to fall off the blockbuster radar, each snagging $3 million or less, which means that moviegoers are still lining up for such flicks as American Beauty, Double Jeopardy, and The Sixth Sense, which all have been in release for several weeks now and have racked up solid overall grosses.
Here's the top-grossing films at American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: A new full review has been posted for Hard Eight: Special Edition, and can be found on our Full Reviews index. New quick reviews this week include Bride of Frankenstein: Classic Monster Collection, Pinocchio: Limited Issue, Tora! Tora! Tora!, 12 Monkeys: Collector's Edition, and Arlington Road, and can be accessed under the New Reviews menu here on the main page.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Friday, 5 November 1999
A Mouse that could roar: Disney has long been regarded as a DVD underperformer since the format's inception, and not for just one reason. With only a trickle of titles arriving on disc in the early days, Disney was often lumped in with non-starters Fox and Paramount, who couldn't even be bothered to embrace the format until August of '98. Disney was also a Divx supporter, and even a Divx edition of Alice in Wonderland was announced, only to be permanently delayed by the pay-to-play format's death earlier this year. Anamorphic fans have been continually frustrated by The Mouse's lukewarm support of 16x9 transfers, and almost everybody who has bought the feature-free Disney discs of Rushmore, Armageddon, A Bug's Life, and Shakespeare in Love have felt a little swindled when special editions of the same titles were announced at a later date. Even the recent series of Disney animated classics have met with mixed reaction, streeting with hefty $39.99 retail prices and no features while the corresponding, less-expensive VHS releases have behind-the-scenes documentaries.
But things in the Mouse House seem to be changing, albeit slowly. Anamorphic special editions, even when belatedly announced, are a welcome improvement. The fact that Disney gave fair warning that a special edition of Tarzan will arrive next year allowing some consumers to safely skip the feature-free edition is also a sign of progress. And despite some detractors, we are glad to see classic Disney animation on DVD. Some have focused on price, features, and moratorium dates (we're no more pleased than anybody about those factors), but animated DVDs from Disney are still a VERY BIG DEAL. Nobody expected to see five bonafide classics on disc before the end of 1999. In fact, let's chapter-select back to Jan. 6 of this year to see what Top Mouse Michael Eisner said in his annual letter to Disney stockholders:
That's right he said decade. But in an unprededented teleconference yesterday with securities analysts, Eisner wanted to re-assure them that the Magic Kingdom will soon return to the cash-cow profits they have enjoyed in previous years (Disney has endured some profit slumps lately), and he specifically cited DVD as a key factor, according to Variety, who note that "Eisner said he still believed the company was a growth-oriented organization with new opportunity to resell its library of films into new markets like DVD and expand operations overseas and on the Internet." Eisner is also quoted as saying "Our management approach is evolving somewhat.... Our intention is to maximize shareholder value by making the most of the array of quality entertainment experiences that are already on the ground."
Translation: "We're gonna put more of our classic titles on DVD."
Quotable: "It's a widely held secret. Many people would have to have the key... which is like having no key at all."
Encryption expert Phil Zimmerman, in an interview
"If this phase of sophisticated piracy cannot be curbed and I don't know how it can and movies become instantly available on the Internet, it will change the economics of the industry."
Tom Pollock, former CEO of Universal Studios.
"The hundredth copy of a digitized movie is as pure as the original, whereas in the analog world, each copy is degraded in quality. With a single keystroke, a pirate can do millions of dollars' worth of damage to the market for a film, even if the pirate doesn't make a nickel himself."
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture
Coming Attractions: New DVD reviews are on the way, including Pinocchio: Limited Issue, Bride of Frankenstein: Classic Monster Collection, Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight: Special Edition, and others, so be sure to check back on Monday for all the latest.
Go enjoy the weekend. We'll see ya soon.
Thursday, 4 November 1999
Correction: Thanks to a couple of DVD Journal readers who read the excellent The Digital Bits closer than we do (things can be busy around here). In a recent interview with DVD producer David Prior by Bits editors Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan, Prior confirmed that he is working on the forthcoming Fight Club DVD, and it will in fact be an anamorphic transfer (despite our doubts on the matter in yesterday's update). Prior also noted that the shake-up in Fox's DVD department earlier this year has resulted in a more DVD-friendly crew compared to the previous head-honchos, and that we can expect a lot of improvement from Fox in coming months therefore, the anamorphic two-disc special edition of Patton released this week isn't such an anomaly after all, but in fact a sign of things to come.
"Missing in Action" Flick of the Week: The late Raul Julia was a gifted Puerto Rican-born actor who enjoyed a successful Hollywood career, but while most people probably first think of The Addams Family movies when they hear his name, we think of something else entirely Hector Babenco's 1985 Kiss of the Spider Woman, a film that isn't only MIA on DVD, but completely unavailable in any retail format. Julia stars in Spider Woman as Valentin Arregui, an imprisoned political revolutionary in an undefined South American country whose only purpose in life is to bring down the dictatorship that has put him behind bars. Holed up in a tiny cell and separated from those he cares about, Arregui has no choice but to listen to the endless cinematic fantasies of his cellmate, Luis Molina (William Hurt), a gay window-dresser who has been tossed in the joint for crimes against nature (i.e., being homosexual). Not that Arregui likes it. He would rather concentrate on nothing more than the stark reality of his political struggle, although he can't do anything to make Molina shut up ("Give me a key and I'll walk out of here," Molina says. "Until then, I'll escape in whatever way I can.") But before long, Molina's recollections and perhaps embellishments of his favorite movies capture Arregui's attention, giving him brief respite as well from his inactive, boredom-plagued days. Molina's stories also form an unusual narrative tapestry in Spider Woman, never really being part of the prison story and yet lending insight into the fundamental natures of both men, and Babenco does a neat trick by using the narratives as both a thematic device and a cinematic counterpoint, expanding what should be a claustrophobic film beyond its four barren walls. By the time part of the film's narrative action leaves the prison (towards the conclusion), the effect is not nearly as jarring as one might expect, for even in those moments Babenco never stops weaving his dreamlike story (Manuel Puig's experimental novel on which the film is based has a similar quality, and is recommended reading for all Spider Woman fans).
Kiss of the Spider Woman was released on VHS on the Island Alive label, but the only place to find that edition now is at your local renter or on eBay. We haven't yet determined who now has the rights (Island isn't in the home-video business anymore, it seems), nor do we expect any sort of DVD until a new VHS returns to the retail shelves.
Ford gets AFI nod: Harrison Ford, who is probably responsible for selling more movie tickets than any other actor, was selected to receive the American Film Institute's 28th Life Achievement Award, which will be presented next February. Ford will join the ranks of such previous AFI honorees as Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, and Clint Eastwood, but the reclusive star known for shunning the lights of Tinseltown in favor of his Wyoming ranch downplayed the award with typical understatement, noting that "the things that brought me success were other people's successes, not mine. I've always given credit to them for that."
R.I.P.: British actor Ian Bannen, who recently charmed American audiences in the well-received UK import Waking Ned Devine, was killed in a car crash yesterday in Scotland while taking a break from his latest project. A popular character actor during a career that spanned more than 40 years, Bannen's film credits also include Braveheart and The Flight of the Phoenix, and he was also a well-known British television personality. Bannen's wife Marilyn, who was driving the car, survived the accident. Bannen was 71.
Wednesday, 3 November 1999
"Exorcist" DVD smashes UK records: Every digital die-hard knows that Warner's The Matrix is the top-selling DVD of all time in North America, but the recently released DVD of Warner's The Exorcist earned the top spot on the all-time UK sales list earlier this week, with 17,645 units in the hands of British DVD fans in just seven days. Of course, The Matrix has yet to arrive on disc in Region 2, but there's another reason for the Exorcist ascension the film had never been previously available on home video in the United Kingdom, causing the day-and-date VHS edition to rack up 67,074 units this past week as well (the British Board of Film Certification only approved The Exorcist for home consumption last February). Will The Matrix do better? Maybe, but we know what all UK film fans really want A Clockwork Orange, which hasn't been theatrically shown in the UK since 1972 and has never been a home-video item. And don't blame the censors either. Stanley Kubrick himself imposed the Clockwork ban shortly after the film's release in response to several headline-grabbing copycat crimes.
In general, we don't recommend that people avoid buying non-anamorphic DVDs unless they own 16x9 televisions. While anamorphic DVDs can improve the quality of the picture when downconverted to 4x3 screens, a properly mastered DVD without anamorphic enhancement can still look very good, and light years beyond videotapes. We thought that both Seven and The Game were very attractive discs, so there's really no reason to wait. The odds of either being re-released as anamorphic special editions are slim. (We did hear a rumor this week that New Line was prepping a Platinum Series edition of Seven, but a New Line representative told us there are no plans for such at this time.)
As for Fox's track record on anamorphic transfers, it's not very good. Okay it's shite. With only a few notable exceptions (The Alien Legacy box set, this week's special edition of Patton), Fox seems as interested in anamorphic transfers as they are in eating live insects for breakfast. A 16x9 Fight Club would be great, but don't bet on it. We'll be happy if we get a commentary track.
That sounds like it could be one of those dreaded "Divx-enhanced" Proscan players to us, but while we will freely bash Circuit City's erstwhile pay-to-play DVD scheme, we're not in the habit in commenting on particular DVD manufacturers (one cross word about any model or brand-name would only result in a deluge of angry e-mail, and we admit that we aren't hardware experts anyway). The fact is that you usually get what you pay for, and if you can afford to spend a little more money, dropping $300-$450 on a DVD player rather than $225 might be a good investment in the long run (however, we think that if you pay more than $500 for a new deck, you probably are paying for extra "quality" that you may not need). If the Proscan fits your budget, have fun. If you can afford a little more, shop around. Above all, you should read hardware reviews in all of the major home-theater magazines, and dropping by e-town now and then is a good habit for every DVD fan.
As for display models, we think that open-box bargains are often the best way to go, as long as they still have the warranty and user's manual. Not only don't you have to deal with all that cardboard and Styrofoam, but you get a cheaper price for the same item, sometimes as much as 50% off the MSRP. Saying "open box" to us is like shouting "Ding-Dongs" at a weight-loss seminar.
Top of the Pops: Here's the top-selling DVDs last week from our friends at Reel.com. Click the links to read our reviews of these discs:
Quotable: "I still don't think it's really possible for a film to cause a kid to go out and 'do something.' In one case, we had a claim that someone saw Scream and got ideas. But I don't buy it.... We were all shocked by the school shootings, but when Congress started citing Scream as an example of the kind of horrible, reprehensible films out there, we decided not to hold back (in the forthcoming Scream 3). The only thing we avoided were scenes in the high school or anything like that."
Wes Craven, in a recent interview
Tuesday, 2 November 1999
PlayStation predicted to crack $1 billion: How many Sony PlayStation consoles are there in the United States? According to Sony, 21 million units, which means you can easily find one in every five American households. Even more surprising? Sony is predicting that the holiday-season revenue from their top-selling game-system will reach $1 billion, and the Japanese mega-corp is even planning to spend a Divx-sized $150 million over the next two months on marketing. Sure, that new $99 price-point is tempting, but the DVD-ROM based PlayStation2 is expected to arrive on North American shores within the next 12 months, and while more expensive, it will play DVD Video programming, along with far superior games. Depending on how you look at it, this year's final PlayStation push is a great bargain or just a fire sale.
On the Street: World War II Tuesday has finally arrived with a slew of great releases on the street this morning, including Saving Private Ryan: Special Limited Edition, Patton, The Thin Red Line, The Longest Day, and Tora! Tora! Tora!. Also on the street are two long-delayed Criterion discs, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and Stanley Donen's Charade (at least, we hope they're on the street today). Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com:
New leadership at Universal: Stacey Snider, who has been serving as co-chairman of Universal Pictures for the better part of this year, was officially made one of the most powerful women in Tinseltown yesterday when she was promoted to sole chairman of the film company a job that few women have historically held at any major studio. The move comes on the heels of last year's Universal shakeup, when Universal Studios Chairman Frank Biondi and movie boss Casey Silver departed the front office after financial losses and a string of box office flops (e.g., Meet Joe Black). Under Snider's recent direction, along with co-chairman Brian Mulligan, the studio gained a few blockbusters with such films as The Mummy, American Pie, and Patch Adams (a movie that grossed more than $200 million worldwide despite the fact that it is really, really awful). Snider joins Paramount chair Sherry Lansing as the only other alpha-female in Hollywood.
Monday, 1 November 1999
And the winner is: Chris Chambers of Marietta, Ga., wins the free DVD of A Nightmare on Elm Street from our October contest. Congrats, Chris !
Our Free DVD Contest for the month of November is up and running, and we have a copy of Universal's Out of Sight: Collector's Edition up for grabs. Be sure to drop by our contest page and send us your entry, and don't forget to take our Monthly DVD Poll while you're there.
Disc of the Week: Were you starting to think that Matthew Broderick didn't have a film career anymore? So were we and then we saw Election, perhaps the best comedy of 1999, and certainly among the finest of the decade. Coming off a string of underperforming films and a horrible case of high-profile miscasting (Godzilla) that failed to capitalize on his particular strengths as an actor, Broderick shows in Election that he can be one of Hollywood's best light-comic performers, given the right script and some smart direction. Broderick stars as Jim McAllister, a high school teacher in Omaha, Neb., who loves nothing more than being in the high school groove teaching his civics class, supporting the sports programs, and acting as the faculty advisor to student government. But his milquetoast existence soon spirals out of control when Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) an annoying, overachieving, self-important brainiac launches her campaign for student body president without opposition. The abstract, instructive side of Jim's nature doesn't like Tracy's campaign, feeling that every election should have at least two candidates. But a more obscure part of him just doesn't like Tracy, who previously had an affair with his best friend Dave (Mark Harelik) that cost the guy both his teaching job and his marriage. Giving in to his baser instincts, Jim thus recruits bonehead campus jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run for president as well, which only makes Tracy more committed to winning. The premise of Election is simple but clever, and scenarist/director Alexander Payne probably could have set the film on autopilot after the first 20 minutes and come up with an entertaining jaunt. But Payne instead spins Election in a variety of unexpected directions, coming up with a film that continuously surprises the viewer with every subsequent scene. Broderick and Witherspoon perfectly play against each other, and their passive-aggressive power-struggle soon chips away at their few admirable qualities, revealing the troubled souls who reside within. Payne's direction is equally impressive, with many thoughtful touches that are both unusual and funny. Election is a film that consistently entertains, offering a few belly-laughs in the process. And yet, like all great comedies, it's also grounded in the fundamental pathos of its characters, reminiscent of many classic films from Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder and frankly, that's the highest compliment we can think of.
Box Office: Warner's House on Haunted Hill scared up $15.1 million over the Halloween weekend, giving the film the top spot on its debut weekend (and covering the film's $15 million budget in the process). But the weak box-office trend that first appeared last week (when no film broke $10 million) only got worse with all those Halloween parties, as Universal's The Best Man claimed second place with an underwhelming $6.5 million and Paramount's Double Jeopardy snagged third with $5.4 million. Besides The House on Haunted Hill, only one other debut managed to crack the top ten, Miramax's Meryl Streep-helmed Music of the Heart, which found itself in fifth place with $3.7 million. DreamWorks' American Beauty is still on a slow burn, pulling $3.9 million in receipts and remaining in the top ten after 47 days in release, but Fox's Fight Club can only hope for such momentum the critically acclaimed film plummeted to just $3.3 million in receipts in its third weekend after posting $11 million just two weeks ago. Other films rapidly dropping off the potential-blockbuster radar are The Story of Us ($3 million) and Three To Tango ($2.2 million). But the top per-screen average went to the oddball Being John Malkovich, which earned a massive $25,000 per screen in 25 venues (by comparison, House on Haunted Hill did $5,572 per screen). Miramax's animated Japanese flick Princess Mononoke also performed well, with $17,500 per screen in just eight theaters. We're expecting both movies to crack the top ten when they go wide.
Here's the top-grossing films at American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: A new full review has been posted for Adrian Lyne's 1997 Lolita, which can be found on our Full Reviews index. New quick reviews this week include an early look at Saving Private Ryan: Special Limited Edition, which will be on the street tomorrow. We also have quick looks at Election, eXistenZ, Devil in a Blue Dress, and The Lady Vanishes, all of which can be accessed under the New Reviews menu here on the main page.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.