Thursday, 30 March 2000
New video hack looms: While DVDs and their massive MPEG-2 data files (four gigabytes and up) are far too unwieldy to trade on the Internet, a new video hack is threatening to provide a medium-quality alternative to retail home-video -- and it can be distributed over the 'Net. Inexplicably named DivX (and not to be confused with Circuit City's deceased pay-to-play Divx, which went out of business last year), the rogue video format can compress an entire feature-length movie within a 660-megabyte-or-less data file, and folks with broadband connections can download a movie, normally pirated from a DVD source, from some nebulous Internet locations in just a few hours.
"DivX is what MP3 was to the music industry," Wayne Chang, a college student and online music trader, told CNET News.com. "It's definitely going to stir up some trouble." And trouble is right, because if the naughty-by-nature DivX has some appeal, it's flat-out illegal. DivX is not a format approved by any home-video retailer, nor is the software behind the system on the level. The two anonymous DivX authors -- only known as "MaxMorice" and "Gej" -- hijacked Microsoft's ultra-compressed MPEG-4 video technology and then combined it with MP3 audio. There isn't even a DivX player, per se, but the Windows Media Player can be enhanced to handle the files. Since the hack is just now gaining popularity on the Internet, there has been little comment from the Motion Picture Association of America, but nobody doubts that the MPAA's lawyers will keep on top of it -- and, like DeCSS, they probably will bring lawsuits against anybody they can find associated with distributing copyrighted films as DivX files. The fact that DeCSS or one of its variants is involved with the creation of illegal DivX movies only gives the lobbying organization an additional reason to pursue violators, and because of DivX, the MPAA probably has a better chance of winning their two pending DeCSS lawsuits in California and New York.
As we noted in yesterday's update, when home-video companies produce high-quality DVDs at reasonable prices, most people will buy them, forgoing virtually identical copies that can be burned on blank DVD media. As it stands, the new DivX hack poses even less of a threat to DVD sales than straightforward piracy, and for a few reasons. First, while most observers agree that the MPEG-4 signal utilized by DivX files is superior to the Web-standard MPEG-1 (aka, Video CD), the quality of the presentation simply is nowhere near what we get from professionally authored MPEG-2 data on our DVDs. Secondly, even if DivX files can be downloaded in a reasonable period of time, it's still a hassle, especially when the logical thing to do with them once downloaded is to burn each title on a CD-R. The time and effort involved gives serious video collectors no reason to bypass quality DVDs. And third, since the DivX files are substantial in size, they have to be distributed in sections, and these sections have to be collated and combined by additional software before the entire movie can be viewed -- another thing we can file under the "pain-in-the-ass" factor. Most folks who are willing to play around with DivX files probably aren't regular DVD consumers to begin with as much as people who just enjoy the idea of collecting cheap copies of films, and that's little different from folks who tape movies off television rather than buying DVDs or even videotapes. And for people who don't even collect films at all, renting remains the first, best option. DivX is about as inconvenient as video piracy gets.
However, none of this should be construed as a defense of the DivX authors. Even though it all looks like fun and games for people with too much spare time on their hands, Hollywood films are not public-domain items. They are owned by the companies that paid to produce them, and the studios have every right to control the distribution of their product (even when people tape cheapo flicks off TV, the studios still receive up-front money from broadcasters and cable channels for the showing). MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor told CNET News.com that everybody in Hollywood is well aware of how the digital world can compromise their control over copyrighted materials. "But just because the technology is there," he noted, "(it) doesn't give people the right to manipulate it in a way that is a violation of the laws."
Quotable: "That set me off. She should not stand up there and thank my child. I get tired of people taking credit for what they don't know."
-- JoAnn Brandon, mother of Teena Brandon, infuriated
"I haven't worked since I won the Academy Award. I haven't had anything really good to do. I mean, I got a lot of nasty old men parts, but that doesn't seem to pay the bills."
-- James Coburn, last year's winner of the Best
"The Oscar show remains not an entertainment spectacular but a unique form of national punishment."
-- Tom Shales, TV critic for The Washington Post.
Coming Attractions: New DVD reviews are on the way, including Buena Vista's The Sixth Sense, Artisan's The Quiet Man, and others. This also will be the last weekend to enter this month's totally free DVD contest, so be sure to visit our contest page if you get the chance. We'll back on Monday to announce the contest winner (will you win our copy of The Prince of Egypt: Signature Selection?), and we'll have a new contest up and running as well -- one you Hitchcock fans won't want to miss.
Have a great weekend.
Wednesday, 29 March 2000
PlayStation2 blues: Sony's hot PlayStation2, launched earlier this month in Japan with more than 1 million served, is already the best-selling DVD player in history -- and it looks like it's also one of the most subversive. After dealing with some hardware problems just after the launch (retail shortages, faulty memory cards) it was discovered last week that clever consumers could render the PS2's DVD Video playback code-free, allowing DVDs from all around the world to play on the gadget (wanna see The Sixth Sense before it arrives on DVD in Japan? Get it shipped from the States and toss it in the PS2). If that wasn't bad enough for Sony, who were doubtless horrified by the console's unexpected weaknesses, it now has been discovered that users can disable Macrovision through the PlayStation2's analog RGB output, which means that folks can take that Sixth Sense DVD from the States and copy it on an ordinary VHS. Sony has noted that the analog RGB output complies with the DVD spec, but such makes little difference -- many new PlayStation2 owners have purchased a veritable Blue Box of DVD output. Don't expect us North American consumers to be so lucky when the PS2 arrives this fall.
Also, it should be noted that the PlayStation2 plays video games or something like that. Some kind of additional feature. Whatever.
Actually, despite all of the brouhaha that DeCSS caused last October when it first arrived on the Internet, the details have become clearer over the intervening months, and it now appears that video piracy, in and of itself, is not the only reason why the MPAA and their constituent film studios are up in arms -- rather, they are also concerned with unlicensed players. Like a lot of news sources last November, we originally were under the impression that DeCSS fundamentally was a piracy tool that allowed users to "unlock" the Content Scrambling System (CSS) encryption technology of the DVD format and burn copies of discs on their DVD-ROM drives. However, the original objective of DeCSS, as written by its super-mysterious European authors, was to disable CSS so that unauthorized players could play DVDs, and primarily on the Linux OS, which did not have any sort of DVD Video support until just a few weeks ago. While DeCSS does not constitute a direct piracy threat (although in a technical, roundabout way, it can), the hack doesn't sit well with folks in the DVD industry, who would like everybody to use authorized players from manufacturers who have paid for the privilege, thank you very much.
Is DeCSS a threat to the DVD Video format? We don't think so. As it stands right now, a DVD can be copied bit-for-bit, CSS and all, on a DVD-ROM burner without any additional hacks. But that's currently cost-prohibitive, as blank DVD discs are more expensive than DVD movies (as much as $5-10 more expensive). When DVD media becomes cheaper, we could start to see some piracy activity, and that's when the DVD industry will have to re-evaluate all sorts of things, including additional copy-protection measures and value-added content within DVD retail units that can't be duped (more extensive booklets, distinctive cover art on all discs, added trinkets in the case, etc.).
This sort of thing is still far down the road, but Compact Disc burners have been available for many years now, and they don't seem to have hurt the music industry all that much. Content providers always expect a certain amount of copying, which is considered a collateral loss, but we think a lot of the appeal of retail DVDs (and CDs) is rooted in the consumer's belief that they are purchasing a collectable item, or one that is "official" and of reliable quality (for example, most music collectors look down their noses at home-burned CD-R discs, which are considered to be lesser-quality media). As long as the movie industry is willing to sell shiny discs in pretty packages at reasonable prices, we think that most consumers will line up to buy 'em. DVD is far from dead.
As for the quality of the DVD itself, it's actually pretty decent. Whoever was behind it went to the trouble of making menus and all the other DVD stuff we expect. But there are no Disney trailers before the movie starts (which, to me, is concrete proof that the Mouse didn't release it). I would rate the video transfer a step up from VHS but not true DVD quality. But considering the source material, the transfer isn't all that bad. The sound is good on my stereo TV. Overall, I'm happy with it, and in case Disney never does release Fantasia again, I no longer have to worry about my VHS copy wearing out.
Thanks for your comments, Anthony. We don't want to encourage anybody to purchase illegal copies of DVDs on the Internet or elsewhere, but it should be noted that consumer demand for bootlegs often rears its head not because such items are cheaper, but because officially sanctioned DVDs of many films do not exist -- and in the case of Fantasia, it could be a long time coming. As for us, we considered getting a look at the Asian DVD, but instead we dispatched DVD Journal intern Chip Liebowitz, who scoured the world (okay, Portland) for a second-hand Laserdisc edition of Fantasia. We wanted the laser (this one's a Disney-authorized copy) because we have heard from a few sources that the title has been deep-sixed by the Mouse, which is borne out by the fact that the film doesn't appear on Disney's comprehensive DVD release schedule, and in particular their Platinum Collection, where we would expect to see their flagship title. And whaddya know -- as Chip dropped the Fantasia laser on your editor's desk a few days ago, a shiny gold sticker could be found on the cover: "The Final Release of this Original Masterpiece!" We're now convinced that Fantasia will not appear on DVD for a very, very long time -- if ever -- so those of you with Laserdisc players may want to seek out the two-platter package on eBay or elsewhere. And those if you who want a DVD? Well... you'll probably come to your own conclusions.
Good job of proofreading, Stuart. Fox can get away with that tiny little type on the back of their Abyss: Special Edition DVD because it says "Enhanced for widescreen TVs" but they don't claim that the film itself is an anamorphic transfer, which it isn't. The "widescreen" enhancement refers to the menus, which are in full 16:9 resolution -- but that's about it. We think Fox should clarify the fine print so more people aren't confused. Also, the only way to confirm if a DVD is anamorphic or not is to set your DVD player's output to 16:9 and play the disc on a standard TV. If everybody looks very tall and anorexic, bingo.
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 tomorrow.
Tuesday, 28 March 2000
On the Street: Two excellent thrillers are in the shops this morning: Universal's The Birds: Collector's Edition and Buena Vista's The Sixth Sense -- and both have enough extras to make 'em worth the purchase price. But don't overlook the re-release of Shallow Grave, a taut little British thriller starring Ewan McGregor that has returned to the shelves, along with the out-of-print PolyGram title The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Meanwhile, Columbia TriStar's excellent Bell, Book, and Candle, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, is a delight for fans of classic romantic comedies. Those looking for something a little more weighty can check out the 1995 Richard III, starring Ian McKellan -- a DVD we're planning to spin real soon. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 27 March 2000
And the small gold bald guy goes to: In a year that saw a wide variety of excellent films released in America and around the world, only two seemed to matter last night: American Beauty and The Cider House Rules. Here's the rundown from the 72nd Acadamy Awards:
On this year's lists of nominees but overlooked in all categories? The Sixth Sense, The Insider, Magnolia, and Being John Malkovich, amongst others. And if the good news was that The Matrix cleaned up (deservedly) on all of the technical awards, some other great films were ignored by Oscar outright, including the brilliant Three Kings and The Limey, and even two that are favorite DVDs around the office here: South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, which was the best comedy and the best musical of last year, and The Iron Giant, which was the best family film of the past decade or more, and easily one of the most moving film experiences of 1999. But across the range of awards handed out last night, American Beauty and The Cider House Rules snagged most of the top honors, while the female acting awards went to Hilary Swank and Angelina Jolie, who portrayed disturbed young women -- yet another skew. The Matrix beat all comers in tech categories, Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvey won a double-play with costumes and makeup, and '80s pop star Phil Collins won an Oscar for his dreadful, lifeless Tarzan song "You'll Be in My Heart." Only Sleepy Hollow seemed to be an underdog winner, getting the nod for art direction.
The Academy has slighted a lot of great films over the years -- last night they looked like a herd of sheep.
Disc of the Week: For an inveterate studio director like Alfred Hitchcock, 1963's The Birds was a substantial undertaking, as he had very little experience with such things as complex matte shots, synthesized sound effects, and (especially) bird wranglers. Unconventional in almost every regard, the project forced Hitch to deal with the sort of special-effects issues that are routine nowadays, and in some ways he broke new ground, as The Birds was the first film to use an entirely synthesized score (which consists of nothing more than bird sounds, not music), and the famous final shot is a remarkable pastiche of 31 separate film elements -- not so hard to do nowadays with software, but a real pain to do optically in the '60s. Based (barely) on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, the story centers on socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), who has a chance encounter with defense attorney Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco pet shop. Mitch pretends to be a customer, while Melanie humors him and pretends to be a salesperson. However, before long Mitch reproves her for a high-profile prank that got into the local papers. Confused but oddly smitten with the good-looking lawyer, Melanie decides to travel to Mitch's nearby hometown of Bodega Bay, and she buys two lovebirds for his young sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), who has an upcoming birthday. However, once Melanie arrives in Bodega Bay, strange things start to happen. Taking a small boat to the Brenner family home, she inexplicably is struck on the head by a seagull. Mitch's mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) is strangely cold to the attractive, well-spoken Melanie, but she's just as concerned about the fact that her chickens have stopped eating.
If the exposition seems a bit on the long side, it rarely loses pace, and it makes the "payoff" of The Birds far more worthwhile -- the audience is given ample time to get to know the characters, which only increases the tension and sense of helplessness as the violence gets underway in earnest. The fact is that The Birds isn't merely a spectacle of savage bird attacks, but instead it is a small story about a few people and how those people interact in the midst of an incomprehensible crisis. And while the wayward plotting and the odd, unresolved conclusion have caused confusion amongst some viewers, it should be noted that The Birds is more akin to a song or a poem, with various verses that build upon themselves and an oft-repeated chorus. The key to understanding -- and appreciating -- The Birds is to watch what happens during the quieter moments between the various characters, and how these scenes relate to the increasingly savage, eventually apocalyptic bird attacks.
Universal's new The Birds: Collector's Edition is sure to satisfy Hitchcock fans, and it's well worth the purchase price. The source print is of excellent quality (in anamorphic 1.85:1), with solid color and very little damage. Audio is in DD 2.0 (mono), and is very clear. Additional supplements include the 80-minute documentary All About The Birds, with numerous insights from the cast and crew, Hedren's screen tests, two newsreels, a deleted scene and an alternate ending, a still gallery, Hitch's original theatrical teaser trailer, production notes, and cast-and-crew bios and filmographies. If you haven't pre-ordered this one you're running out of time -- The Birds: Collector's Edition streets tomorrow morning.
Box Office: Universal's Erin Brockovich held the top spot at the North American box office for the second week in a row with $19 million, but unlike last week when it faced little competition, the Steven Soderbergh film was almost chop-sockeyed by Warner's new Jet Li action-flick Romeo Must Die, which scored a solid $18.6 million over its first weekend. The two films earned more than the rest of the top ten put together, although New Line's low-budget Final Destination remained in the third spot with a respectable $7.1 million and is a strong draw with the horror crowd. Two new teen-oriented films, Fox's Here on Earth and Sony's Whatever It Takes, arrived amid little fanfare and failed to crack $5 million. Meanwhile, top-ten regulars and Academy Award winners American Beauty and The Cider House Rules could hang around for a few more weeks, but after that they will be shuttled off for DVD prep -- and then the post-Oscar rush of big-budget summer films will begin in earnest.
Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Greg Dorr has returned from a brief vacation, and his new review of Heaven's Gate has been posted on the Full Reviews index, along with your editor's extended look at The Birds: Collector's Edition. New quick reviews this week from the staff include The Limey, Bell, Book, and Candle, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, One Man's Hero, and Trick, and can be accessed on the Quick Reviews index. Everything has been added under the New Reviews menu here on the main page as well.
We'll be back tomorrow to let you know about this week's street discs.
Thursday, 23 March 2000
On the Block: You may not be rich, but you probably wonder what rich folks do when they're online. If they're DVD fans, they visit eBay and bid on such scarce collectibles as the THX Theatrical Trailers promo DVD, which recently closed for a whopping $560.00 -- and that's a lot of dough for a few trailers (even $500-plus DVD players are getting harder to find). In addition, some other curious soul recently bought the DTS Master Quality DVD promo, which sports the only DVD segments of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List on earth. If $120.01 seems a little steep for your pocketbook, it wasn't for one lucky auction winner and Spielberg fan. But as usual, full-length movies dominate the eBay DVD list, and in particular out-of-print Criterion titles. Both Salo and The Killer wound up in the current top five, This Is Spinal Tap is still a reliable draw, and the most-recent OOP Criterion disc, Samurai I, has charted for the first time with a respectable $91.00 close. Another newcomer that is sure to be an eBay regular for the time being is the Region 2 Eyes Wide Shut, with a recent $122.50 final bid. And it looks like the DTS edition of Armageddon, also from Region 2, will be a popular item, as it pulled $100.00 and it doesn't even have the extensive supplements on the Region 1 Criterion edition.
Here's the highest recent closing prices of rare and out-of-print DVDs from online auctions at eBay:
Quotable: " 'Anamorphic video on DVD is better than letterbox.' How many times have you read that one? It's true enough -- as long as you own a 16:9 widescreen TV, or one of the few 4:3 models that has a 16:9 'vertical squeeze mode.' Otherwise, if you watch an anamorphic DVD title on your standard 4:3 set, you'll receive no benefits at all. In fact, you'll suffer image degradation in the form of increased line artifacts or a slightly softened picture, depending on how the player implements the anamorphic down-conversion process."
-- Videophile columnist Lawrence E. Ullman, at E-Town
"According to manufacturers I've talked to, we will very quickly get to the point where DVD Audio is standard (on all DVD players). It costs $10 to make a player DVD Audio compatible, and this will soon fall to $1. This new format will help expand the total market."
-- Jim Bottoms, director of the UK media-research firm
"I liked it the first time I saw it 26 years ago. This version has been my idea for years. I wanted it always."
-- Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, on Warner's
"This is not a publicity stunt, but we will look at the ratings this year and if they are up we will perhaps contrive to have the Oscars stolen again next year."
-- Academy Awards executive director Bruce Davis.
"When I look into this audience, I see familiar faces, some unfamiliar ones. Some of you I have met, some I haven't. Some I might meet. Many of you I won't. Some I may meet and then forget that I met and meet you later and be embarrassed. Some of you are wearing lacy white cotton panties, some of you are in boxer shorts. But we are here tonight because of a common love -- me."
-- Steve Martin, accepting a Career Achievement Award
Coming Attractions: We're off to spin more discs, and new DVD reviews are on the way, including early looks at Universal's The Birds: Collector's Edition and Columbia TriStar's Bell, Book, and Candle. In the meantime, DVD Journal staff and friends will be gathering in the screening room on Sunday night for the annual ritual of viewing/deriding the Academy Awards. If any of you plan to join us, be sure to have a six-pack of something cold under each arm when you show up.
Have a great weekend, gang.
Wednesday, 22 March 2000
More DVD shortages on the way?: If you're one of the few people reading this website who don't own a DVD player, or if you're planning to buy a second deck sometime this year, be prepared. The well-known DVD hardware shortages during the holiday shopping seasons in 1998 and 1999 left many last-minute consumers in the lurch (and more than a few as less-than-proud owners of Divx players), but such may only be a sign of things to come. The DVD format is the most popular, most successful consumer-electronics launch in history, and its explosive growth could leave a lot of potential DVD fans hard-up later this year-- at least according to one industry expert. Steve Nickerson, Warner Home Video's Vice President for DVD Marketing Worldwide, recently noted in comments at the 30th Annual Recording Media Forum that industry forecasts of consumer demand for DVD players are not matching the actual numbers.
Examining the current, explosive rate that DVD hardware is selling (6 million units to date in North America, not including DVD-ROM drives), Nickerson foresees a potential 12 million DVD decks selling during the year 2000. However, that's far, far short of the 6.5 million expected by the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association (CEMA), or the 8 million predicted in a January report by the DVD Entertainment Group. And since these high-profile forecasts are used by most manufacturers to gauge how much product they will need to crank out in a given period of time, Nickerson's new figures could translate into even more old-hat VHS players (and disappointed looks) in American living rooms this Christmas. The hardware may be getting cheaper, but -- 1997 aside -- we have yet to see a holiday shopping season with enough DVD players to go around. This year may not be any different.
It matters, and the reason has nothing to do with DVD, but with televisions, since there are fundamentally three television standards around the world. NTSC (National Television System Committee) was adopted in the United States in 1953, and it employs 525 lines of vertical resolution. However, PAL (Phase Alternating Line), which originated in Great Britain in the early 1960s, uses 625 lines of resolution, so the Brits have better TVs that us Yanks and Canadians. The third TV standard, SECAM (Sequential Couleur Avec Memoire), was developed in France, and while it also uses 625 lines, the technology relies on a different system to transmit the color information. Because of these broadcast disparities, the entire world has adopted different television standards on a country-by-country basis, largely based on their affiliations with the United States, Great Britain, or France -- for example, both PAL and SECAM can be found throughout Africa, while Japan is an NTSC nation, since the United States had the greatest influence over the country after World War II (Japan also uses the same electrical voltages as the U.S., while European countries do not). Canada, as you know, is also an NTSC country, and around here we obtain a lot of choice UK videotapes from Canadian sources.
Your awareness of the NTSC-PAL-SECAM paradigm has already stood you in good stead before purchasing DVDs from overseas, as some North American consumers blindly buy attractive discs from European websites before confirming that they are NTSC-formatted. And while the various worldwide TV formats have been a serious pain to videophiles who intend to compile a comprehensive library (especially on VHS, which requires spendy multi-format players), the APEX, a fairly inexpensive DVD player that handles NTSC and PAL formats, recently reached North American markets, and it reportedly can run code-free. We have yet to obtain one of these players ourselves, but various reports say that the APEX does an adequate job with the different resolutions, even though the quality isn't nearly as good as we currently expect from our garden-variety NTSC DVD players. If European DVDs are important to you, seeking out an APEX may be worthwhile. If you give one of the gadgets a test drive, please write us back with your insights.
While this sort of thing is unusual, it's far from unheard of. The reason why we sometimes get mis-labeled DVDs is due to oversights in DVD-replication facilities, and there are a handful of mismatched discs out there. However, they almost always occur very early in the production cycle, and we've never heard of an entire pressing that went wrong and reached the street, so it's almost always a very limited number. Furthermore, if the mismatch of a Disney disc with a DreamWorks title seems odd, it really isn't. Even though the discs have been released by different studios, DVD producers use independent replication facilities to burn their discs. In this instance, it appears that DreamWorks' Prince of Egypt was pressed just before Disney's Pinocchio and human error got between them. Is your disc worth anything? Probably not. We've never seen much interest on eBay for this sort of thing, so your best bet is to keep the Easter egg for your own collection -- as you clearly will.
Oscar poll: "Yawn": The NBA, who have seen a serious slide in television ratings since the retirement of Michael Jordan, may soon have company to cry in their beer: Oscar. The folks at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) -- who rely on a heavily hyped, three-hour-plus infomercial every March for a great deal of their income -- must be longing for the heady days of Titanic and Braveheart, as a new poll by ABC News indicates that interest in this year's Academy Awards could be at an all-time low. The symptoms? For the first time since the public has been polled on Best Picture favorites, the perennial "no opinion" actually won, and with a solid 32 percent of the tally. The poll, conducted among 1,009 American adults, saw the box-office hit The Green Mile garnering 25 percent of the vote and the blockbuster The Sixth Sense with 22 percent. However, most Oscar pundits agree that these figures are well out of whack with the real front runners, American Beauty (13 percent), The Cider House Rules (5 percent) and The Insider (3 percent). We have since received word that Jim Carrey will star in Milos Forman's next film, No Opinion, which will be released sometime this fall. In the meantime, we understand that the Academy will replace all of this year's presenters with Lycra-clad professional wrestlers, and the esteemed Academy Awards will be renamed "Ho Bitch Smackdown!"
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:
Tuesday, 21 March 2000
PlayStation2 DVD "glitch"?: Sony's PlayStation2, recently launched in Japan and selling like $3 DVDs at a yard sale, has had a few technical setbacks despite selling more than one million decks in its first few days of release, in particular a hardware shortage that initially kept some consumers waiting for up to two weeks to get the gadget and a memory-card snafu that potentially could erase software. However, a recent mix-up isn't one at all -- some early PS2s in Japan were distributed with a weakness that could allow savvy users to render DVD Video playback code-free, which means that many of the hot consoles can play DVD titles from around the world. And according to DVD producers -- who demanded region-coding before agreeing to the DVD standard -- that's a no-no. "Film makers in Hollywood could file a lawsuit against (Sony) because of violation of copyright," Hideyuki Irie, a director at The DVD Forum, told Reuters. "Sony could be accused of selling DVD players whose functions on copyright protection can be easily altered." And since Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE), the division of Sony that markets the PlayStation2, is part of the same corporation that owns film studio and DVD producer Columbia TriStar, Sony is in the odd position of accidentally violating software regulations it has already agreed to.
For now, SCE is describing the renegade PS2s as having a "glitch," and while they have yet to announce a recall, they haven't ruled one out yet either. Currently Sony is taking steps to make the code-free hack more difficult, and they are asking PS2 owners to return memory cards or consoles for "checks and repairs," hoping they will disable the flaw. However, it's unlikely that informed consumers will be willing to crack this particular fortune cookie. Some folks in Region 1 will doubtless recall early versions of Sony's DVD-7000 from back in 1997, which could be rendered code-free by flicking a secret switch inside the case. The few lucky owners haven't busted the switch off -- rather, they've probably put the machine in their wills.
Meanwhile, down under: The Motion Picture Association of America, who have undertaken U.S. lawsuits against several individuals and websites who have posted the DeCSS hack, which disables the Content Scrambling System encryption technology of the DVD format (thus allowing DVDs to play on unlicensed players), have taken their show on the road. Digital Digest is reporting that MPAA officials are pressuring the Australian government to enhance their current laws with language similar to America's 1998 Digital Copyright Millennium Act -- language that could stick Australian websites currently distributing DeCSS in a sling (one particular high-profile site has apparently caught the attention of the folks from Tinseltown).
While the current DeCSS litigation in California and New York is being tried under the DMCA -- which has yet to be fully tested in court, and particularly in regards to reverse-engineering provisions -- Australia currently has no equivalent legislation. However, it appears that some government officials are open to DMCA-style laws (porno is already illegal in Australian cyberspace, much to the ire of free-speech advocates). "The Government is taking this issue into account," a spokesperson for the Aussie Attorney-General's office said. However, the Opposition party isn't so gung-ho on the matter, and not merely because of Internet-related technology issues, but because nobody likes interlopers. "I am at a loss to explain why the Government is entertaining a formal approach from an organization that is operating outside its jurisdiction," Australian Senator Kate Lundy said, "and using intimidating means to secure their market-space."
Intimidating? The MPAA? Ya think?
On the Street: Fox's outstanding The Abyss: Special Edition has finally arrived, and we can assure everybody that it was worth the wait -- it's probably the most feature-packed DVD in the format's short history. And, as Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich is the current box-office champ, it's only appropriate that his excellent The Limey, starring Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda, is on the street this morning. Western buffs can look for new DVDs of the 1967 El Dorado and the 1969 True Grit, while Star Trek fans have two more "Classic Trek" DVDs to add to their collections. And for those who love him, Columbia TriStar has a Robin Williams double-feature out today, Hook and Jakob the Liar. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
See ya tomorrow with this week's mailbag.
Monday, 20 March 2000
Disc of the Week: Tired of waiting around for your favorite movies to arrive on DVD? For fans of James Cameron's 1989 The Abyss, the wait seemed almost interminable. When Fox first entered the DVD market in August of 1998, one of the very first discs they announced was The Abyss. However, it was only a matter of weeks before the flick was dumped from the release schedule, and only in late 1999 that an Abyss DVD began to take shape. Thankfully, with the arrival of The Abyss: Special Edition on DVD in March of 2000, fans of the film can be reassured that everything worked out for the best. Cameron's story concerns a team of deep-sea oil drillers who are enlisted by the U.S. Navy to recover a sunken submarine because they are the only folks who have equipment that can go that deep. However, once the team starts digging around the ocean floor, they discover that there are forces in the depths who may be friendly or hostile, but are definitely alien, creating a stormy conflict between the blue-collar drillers and the Navy SEALs who watch over them. While it may include some of the best and worst of James Cameron-style filmmaking (the story, especially in the Director's Cut, is a tad overlong), the many action sequences in The Abyss are first-rate and especially impressive as they largely take place underwater. And, despite the ambitious, difficult production, all of the performances are excellent.
But the reason why The Abyss has become a lauded classic of its genre is not just the performances, but the spectacle of it all. Cameron, despite directing a handful of films before this one, has always been a "bigger is better" director, seemingly more fascinated with machines, vehicles, technology, and spectacle than such things as dialogue or narrative development (aspects that made Titanic a crushing disappointment). But with a solid narrative thread backing The Abyss, the vast drilling operation-- with its underwater base, mini-subs, and unmanned rovers -- is one of the most original milieus ever fashioned for an action film. Cameron sees little difference between the depths of the ocean and the farthest reaches of space, bathed in darkness and only illuminated by the floodlights of man-made ships adrift in an alien cosmos.
For fans of The Abyss, Fox's new two-disc DVD will be a prized possession, as it arguably has more supplements on board than any other DVD released to date (only Criterion's Brazil seems to pack more punch). In addition to both versions of the film on Disc One, there are extensive cast-and-crew notes and a running commentary of behind-the-scenes details on a subtitle track. And as if having both versions of the film on a single disc isn't enough for most folks, Disc Two of The Abyss: SE is loaded to the rafters with so much stuff that it takes days to dig through it -- including the hour-long documentary Under Pressure: The Making of The Abyss, a featurette, three Abyss trailers, the entire shooting script, the original treatment, all 773 storyboards used for the film, 10 short documentaries on various vehicles and special-effects, 16 photo galleries, and a textual recounting of the making of The Abyss broken into 28 chapters. If it seems a little daunting, there are various ways that the supplements can be navigated, which means that you could easily kill a weekend with this package, provided you had enough pizza and beer. The only disappointment here is the lack of a commentary track on Disc One, but The Abyss: SE has been priced comparably to DVDs that have half its content. Even better, you still have one more day to pre-order from Reel.com and other online retailers -- The Abyss: SE hits the street tomorrow morning.
Box Office: The star-power of Julia Roberts and directing chops of Steven Soderbergh launched Universal's Erin Brockovich into the number-one spot at the weekend box-office, where it earned $28.2 million during its first three days and easily displaced last week's winner, Buena Vista's Mission to Mars, which plummeted 52% with only $10.9 million in receipts after a strong debut. However, unlike Mission to Mars, Erin Brockovich has received several good notices and has rated highly with audiences, which means it's likely to have a strong initial month and could stay on the box-office board well into the summer. The only other debut over the weekend, New Line's Final Destination, earned a respectable $10.2 million despite little marketing and no high-profile stars, and it looks like it will easily earn back its $20 million budget. Warner's My Dog Skip is still showing solidly with the family crowd, earning $5.5 million to claim fourth place, and both Paramount's Snow Day and Buena Vista's The Tigger Movie wound up in the top ten. However, outside of the two debuts, there wasn't much to brag about, and all films outside the top four earned less than $5 million. Roses to American Beauty, which passed the century mark over the weekend with $2.9 million. Thorns to The Next Best Thing, Reindeer Games, and Wonder Boys, all of which are headed for the second-run circuit with overall grosses that are less than Julia Roberts' current per-film salary.
Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: Your humble editor has posted a new full review of The Abyss: Special Edition this morning, while our own Alexandra DuPont took time away from her regular reports at Ain't It Cool News to give us a review of Columbia TriStar's new Hook DVD. Both can be found on our Full Reviews index. Meanwhile, new quick reviews this week from the staff include Jakob the Liar, Stigmata, The Astronaut's Wife, Drive Me Crazy, Papillon, Gothic, and Bandits, and can be accessed on the Quick Reviews index. Everything has been added under the New Reviews menu here on the main page as well.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Thursday, 16 March 2000
Paramount goes R2: If things have been going swimmingly for DVD in North America since Fox, Paramount, and DreamWorks entered the DVD market in 1998 (the final three studios to remain DVD holdouts since the format's launch in early 1997), it hasn't been the same in Region 2, where Paramount has been conspicuously absent from day one. But now, in March of 2000, Paramount has finally announced that they will release their first R2 discs this spring -- The Truman Show, The Rug Rats Movie Star Trek: Insurrection, Drop Zone, 48 Hours, and Mission Impossible. Ask any digital die-hard in Europe or Japan and they'll tell you it's about time.
"Fantasia" update: After posting some comments on an Asian DVD of Disney's classic Fantasia (see yesterday's update), we received word from a few readers that some or all of the Fantasia discs currently on eBay may be bootlegs, and not officially licensed releases. We have been under the impression for some time that an official Fantasia DVD exists, but we also noticed yesterday that there are at least two different versions of boxcover art for the title -- not a good sign. We are still researching this, but if any of you own a Fantasia disc, feel free to contact us right away so we can sort this out. In the meantime, be careful what you bid on over at eBay, and -- as always -- be sure to buy from reputable dealers (preferably in your home country) with lots of positive feedback.
Quotable: "There is only one person who can direct A.I. and we couldn't be more excited and honored that he has agreed to make it his next movie. Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest living directors and I am sure that he will bring his singular humanity and unique vision to this incredible story."
-- Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of Warner
"Without question, (DVD Audio) is truly a super-sound format -- it's objectively far beyond DD or DTS quality, and it's a step up from the 16/44.1 CD standard, too. But DVD-A is 'better' in ways only true audiophiles are likely to appreciate. Just having sensitive ears isn't enough; you need equipment that can resolve all the additional sonic information DVD-A offers. How large is the difference between DVD-A and plain old CD? Not large enough to mean a damn thing if you're using $300 plastic mini-systems, cheesy computer multimedia rigs, boomboxes, Walkman-style portables, or car audio systems. DVD-A is a true high-end audio format -- one that will offer detectable 'improvements' only in upscale systems.... Since most folks are perfectly happy with CD or even MP3 sound quality, selling the masses on DVD-A is a long shot."
-- Audio journalist Steve Guttenberg, in a recent
"I haven't seen a lot of the other nominated films because they're rated R."
-- Sixth Sense star Haley Joel Osment, 11, at an
"If I go to shoplifting class, fine. I'll review their movie, but I'm not going to plead guilty."
-- Film critic Rex Reed, speaking to the press this
Coming Attractions: New DVD reviews are on the way, including Fox's amazing two-disc The Abyss and lots more. And if you haven't entered our monthly free DVD contest to win a copy of The Prince of Egypt: Signature Collection, be sure to visit our contest page if you get the chance, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there.
We'll see ya Monday.
Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Spielberg will helm "A.I.": Tinseltown's top man, Steven Spielberg, hasn't directed a film since 1997's Saving Private Ryan, and in recent months he has been flirting with such upcoming A-list projects as Minority Report (with Tom Cruise), Memoirs of a Geisha, and the first Harry Potter movie. So we were absolutely delighted yesterday when we learned that he's actually tossed all three projects aside and will helm A.I., Stanley Kubrick's unfinished final film, which Kubrick had been working on since 1982 but never got past scripting and storyboarding. "Stanley had a vision for this project that was evolving over 18 years," Spielberg said in a statement released yesterday. "I am intent on bringing to the screen as much of that vision as possible along with elements of my own." As the late Kubrick certainly will earn some sort of screen credit for A.I., due to arrive in the summer of 2001, it now appears that Eyes Wide Shut won't be his final film after all, even though it remains his final directorial effort.
Based on the Brian Aldiss short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," A.I. (or Artificial Intelligence) is expected to delve into some of Kubrick's most trenchant themes, in particular the relationship between people and technology, and how technology can either enhance or compromise our humanity. The story concerns a childless woman who adopts an android resembling a five-year-old boy as a son, and the project occupied much of Kubrick's attention over the past two decades. However, the director reportedly was not satisfied with some early test-models of the young android, which were built at Industrial Light and Magic, causing him to shelve the film in pre-production. But as CGI technology became more viable in recent years, Kubrick again returned to the Aldiss story, and according to Jan Harlan -- Kubrick's long-time producer and brother-in-law -- before his death Kubrick hand-picked close friend Spielberg to direct the film.
So who's gonna release the DVD in 2001 or 2002? (Yes, we are impatient bastards, and you probably are too.) The answer is Warner in Region 1, but it looks like Spielberg's DreamWorks will release the DVD internationally. We hate to predict anything this early out, but the possibility of different releases, with different feature-sets, is real and a little frightening -- particuarly if we in R1 get shafted.
There is no contradiction here. Eyes Wide Shut has been modified to fit your screen, it is according to Stanley Kubrick's wishes -- and it isn't pan-and-scan either. The distinction between what makes a full-frame DVD (or VHS) pan-and-scan or not has to do with the method of creating the film in widescreen, which is done in two ways -- anamorphically or via matting. Eyes Wide Shut, a matted widescreen film, was shot in the 35 mm format, which has a negative aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the original aspect ratio of motion pictures and very close to the 1.33 ratio of standard televisions. How Kubrick created the widescreen was by composing his shots "in camera" with a lens that indicated a "safe area" in the central part of the frame that corresponded to the film's 1.85:1 ratio in the theaters. However, Kubrick by all accounts was not a fan of letterboxing, and he preferred that his films be shown on TV in the full-frame. Because the DVD release is the entire film with the unseen areas on the top and bottom of the 1.37 negative restored, there is no need for the annoying pan-and-scan process, nor is there any missing information. However, it has been modified to fit your screen, since the additional "dead" areas on the top and bottom of the frame were not seen in theaters. And for videophiles, it's disappointing.
An alternate method of creating a widescreen film is by using 35 mm stock with an anamorphic lens, which "squeezes" the information horizontally (you can see the anamorphic image by setting to your DVD player to 16x9 output and then playing an anamorphic DVD). When projected with another anamorphic lens that "unsqueezes" the image, the wider ratio (usually 2.35:1) is restored. But since anamorphic films are shot in a widescreen composition, there is no extra information on the top and the bottom of the frame, which means that all anamorphic films in a 1.33 home-video release must be panned-and-scanned (L.A. Confidential, for one, was shot in 35 mm like Eyes Wide Shut, but with anamorphic lenses, which means that the full-frame VHS release is awful dreck). There are several more film formats with wider aspect ratios than 35 mm, a case in point being Lawrence of Arabia, which is a Super Panavision 70 flick utilizing hefty 65 mm stock (with a negative ratio of 2.20:1 -- much larger than the 1.37 of 35 mm). However, many films nowadays are shot in the trusty 35, and normally it's up to the director to choose between anamorphic lenses or post-production matting. Those who choose matting often do so because they don't want their films to be panned-and-scanned on TV.
Short answer: eBay. And we get everything there nowadays. As far as the Fantasia DVD goes, our understanding is that it's not a bootleg, but that it's licensed from Disney to an Asian distributor, and since it's from Japan (and not Europe) it's NTSC, which means it will play on our North American TVs. Even better, the region code is "All," so there's no need to buy a code-free deck. We've heard rumors that, with the arrival of Fantasia 2000 this year, The Mouse may never release the original Fantasia on home video ever again -- a rumor that has gained some weight with us since Fantasia did not appear on Disney's super-elite Platinum Collection list last year, nor has it been announced as one of their second-tier Gold Classic Collection titles (an unlikely scenario in any case). Fantasia looks very, very MIA for now as a Region 1 release, but the highest bid we've seen on eBay for the choice R2 item in the past few weeks is a mere $45.50, and there's just so many Fantasia discs available on eBay right now that the average closing price is actually somewhere around $20-$30. Get bidding, and be sure to buy from a reputable dealer with plenty of good feedback.
We're going to try to purchase the Asian Fantasia DVD soon, and hopefully we can follow up with more details, including a look at the overall quality. If any of you have already seen it, please feel free to drop us a line.
All of the Star Wars "DVDs" on eBay definitely are not official releases from Lucasfilm, under license or otherwise, but instead are bootlegs, sometimes taken from Laserdisc sources, maybe even sometimes VHS. And it's hard to know if the item you are bidding on will be encoded in MPEG-2 or the vastly inferior MPEG-1, which would make the disc a Video CD, not a DVD. But even with a best-case scenario -- a bootlegged DVD taken from a Laserdisc source and encoded in MPEG-2 -- it's doubtful that any pirates would have the training, experience, and skill necessary to create a crisp, artifact-free DVD transfer, so for $220.00 folks are much better off buying a second-hand Laserdisc player and the official Star Wars Laserdiscs, which are still available in the 1995 THX-remastered or 1997 Special Edition flavors from several online retailers (and on eBay, of course). We think our Star Wars Laserdiscs look fantastic, and as things have progressed with Lucasfilm, they were well worth the investment. On the other hand, somebody recently lent us a bootlegged Video CD of The Phantom Menace that hailed from a mysterious Asian shore, and it looked like total crap, like a VHS that had been duped three times. We all know video piracy is unethical -- in addition, it's also a rip-off.
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:
Tuesday, 14 March 2000
"Matrix" will spin online again: For those of you who missed it the first time around, Warner has announced a second interactive online chat with supplemental footage of The Matrix courtesy of your DVD-ROM-equipped PC -- or Mac if you're lucky enough to get it to work (you can still participate in the chat session if you don't have a DVD-ROM drive, but without the video). Writers/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski held the floor at last year's popular Matrix online event, and the next session, on March 23 at 9 p.m. EST, will feature editor Zach Staenberg, visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta, and sound designer/supervising sound editor Dane Davis. Click here to get all the details.
On the Street: Universal's super-creepy The Bone Collector is on the shelves this morning (we give it a thumbs up), as well as such foreign favorites as Like Water For Chocolate and the long-awaited Il Postino: Collector's Edition. Scorsese fans (and Tom Cruise fans) can snap up the latest Scorsese film to go digital, Buena Vista's The Color of Money, while those of you who collect the classics can check out Image's new disc of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and Criterion's Lord of the Flies. There are two more Twilight Zone DVDs available today, and the kiddie fare runs from Tom and Jerry to Scooby-Doo. IMAX fans can also look for the documentary Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
See ya tomorrow.
Monday, 13 March 2000
Smith gives Mouse an earful: Indie director Kevin Smith may have enjoyed a positive working relationship with Miramax over the years, but his affections for Miramax's parent company, Disney, are decidedly less positive. After having Disney nix his Dogma as a Miramax release last year (the distribution was eventually farmed out to Lions Gate), the upcoming animated series Clerks has been given a May 31 debut by Disney-owned ABC, rather than a March or April mid-season spot, which would give the show a more promising start. Smith, for one, ain't happy.
"Very seldom does a show launched during the summer get picked up," Smith noted on his website. "I can't believe we got fucked hard by the mouse twice in the span of a year.... Fucking suits, man. I don't know why I bother." Smith even turned his sights on the TV show that saved ABC from TV oblivion, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. "No offense to Regis (Philbin), but how long do they think that show's going to be a hit if they keep airing the hell out of it?.... Millionaire will pretty much be on ABC every time you turn your television on." (Note to Smith: It already is.)
There has been no response from the Mouse House (nor will there be), but don't be surprised if Smith pulls up his roots at Miramax before much longer and starts looking for greener pastures. Such indie studios as New Line and Artisan doubtless would be glad to buy him lunch.
Disc of the Week: Phillip Noyce's The Bone Collector is the latest entry in the saturated "psychological thriller" marketplace, a genre which exploded into being with the runaway success of Se7en and Silence of the Lambs. But unlike the many copycat films which have appeared at your local multiplex in the intervening years, The Bone Collector manages to tell a scary, arresting story -- one which owes it chilling success to first-rate performances and skillful direction. Based on the haunting psychological thriller by Jeffery Deaver (one of our favorite crime writers), The Bone Collector is the story of Lincoln "Linc" Rhyme (Denzel Washington), a brilliant criminal theorist who finds himself paralyzed from the neck down after an on-the-job accident. Although trapped in a shattered body, the Holmes-like theorist still possesses every ounce of his intellectual prowess. But even Rhyme's staggering mental abilities are taxed to their limit after a serial killer, posing as a New York taxi driver, begins carving up his passengers and dismembering their corpses. Rhyme teams up with Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie), a gruff, no-nonsense rookie cop with a talent for forensics. Unfortunately, their relationship is one of the movie's (and book's) only stumbling blocks -- the "partners who initially despise each other but eventually grow to become best friends" motif has been used in nearly every cop film ever made (including the recent Chan/Tucker comedy Rush Hour, and the Wahlberg/Chow thriller The Corruptor), and its clumsy, predictable handling in The Bone Collector only serves as a distraction. But never fear: the character of Donaghy is acted with such pinnace by Jolie that it's not a difficult flaw to overlook. The Bone Collector is not a masterpiece, but it's a fun, better-than-average offering in a genre long overdue for a breath of fresh air (and a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel to boot). Suspense-thriller fans will almost certainly have fun soaking up the macabre atmosphere. Universal's new DVD offers a nice, though occasionally dark, anamorphic widescreen transfer, and it includes an informative audio commentary track with director Phillip Noyce, a "making-of" featurette (one the best we've yet seen), a generous amount of production notes, and a theatrical trailer. Zap some popcorn and turn out the lights -- The Bone Collector hits the street tomorrow.
Box Office: It seems that summer comes earlier every year -- at least in Hollywood. The first day of spring has yet to arrive, but the first pre-summer blockbuster, Buena Vista's Mission to Mars, blasted into North American cineplexes over the weekend, garnering $23.1 million in receipts. While reviews for the Brian De Palma sci-fi extravaganza have been mixed-to-poor (even Buena Vista's distribution chief admitted as much), the flick faced little competition after several weeks of lackluster movie attendance, in addition to the fact that the most successful films over the past two months have been adult comedies or kiddie flicks. As a result, Mission to Mars' nearest competitor was Artisan's The Ninth Gate, directed by Roman Polanski, which earned second place over the weekend despite a meager $6.7 million gross (and more stinging reviews). But as has been the case with some recent family films (Stuart Little, Snow Day), Warner's My Dog Skip gained traction in its second week of wide release, earning $6 million for third place and moving up a spot. Warner's The Whole Nine Yards also continues to do well after its first month, remaining solidly in the top five, and as Oscar night looms nearer, both DreamWorks' American Beauty and Miramax's The Cider House Rules are doing bankable business (American Beauty will certainly pass the century mark by next weekend). This morning's stinko award goes to Paramount's critically-lambasted The Next Best Thing, which failed to debut in the top spot last week despite a media blitz that has seen Madonna and Rupert Everett sit for more interviews than the equally dysfunctional Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger. If only magazine covers could buy movie tickets, as the film plummeted to eighth place in its second week with only $3.4 million. As studio execs in Hollywood gather for their Monday morning box-office meetings, some folks at Paramount must certainly regard Madonna's latest movie as the next best thing to a root canal.
Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: A new full review has been posted for Eyes Wide Shut and can be found on our Full Reviews index. New quick reviews this week include An Affair to Remember, The Bone Collector, A Raisin in the Sun, Pushing Tin, The Exorcist III, The King of Masks, the IMAX roller-coaster doucumentary Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun, and the interactive Coral Sea Dreaming. All can be accessed on the Quick Reviews index, and everything has been added under the New Reviews menu here on the main page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Thursday, 9 March 2000
VHS fights back!: DVD may be the darling of film fans, but VHS is still top dog when it comes to overall sales -- and some people would like to keep it that way. The International Recording Media Association (www.recordingmedia.org), which promotes recordable media such as videotapes and audiocassettes, recently formed the IRMA-VHS Coalition in the hopes of ensuring that consumers don't forget about the time-tested VHS format in the face of such competitors as DVD and recordable TV devices like ReplayTV and the TiVo. "IRMA's study points to a 93-percent VCR penetration of TV households in North America," IRMA President Charles Van Horn said in a press conference earlier this week, also noting that 53 percent of American homes have more than one VCR (in contrast, only 32 percent of Europen TV households have more than one VHS deck).
If creating an organization to promote a home-entertainment format that is already installed in more than 90 percent of American households seems silly, it isn't to the folks at IRMA, who over recent years have seen the Compact Disc cannibalize sales of pre-recorded audiocassettes to such a degree that the most consistent cassette-sales categories have been blank media and books-on-tape, rather than popular music titles. With DVD threatening to eat into an equal amount of pre-recorded VHS titles over the next few years, IRMA's wide membership of videotape manufacturers could start selling less tapes to the home-video companies. But, of course, the real threat on the horizon to VHS is recordable DVD, which is expected to arrive from at least two manufacturers later this year. However, two things have to materialize before recordable DVD becomes a viable product: a clear set of standards that all manufacturers can agree to, and affordable hardware and blank media ($25 for a blank DVD? Fuggetaboudit). And even when these things happen, American consumers have to kick their VHS habit, which they've grown comfortable with over the past 25 years. In fact, despite DVD's resounding success since 1997, Americans bought 27 million VCRs in 1999 -- a staggering 26 percent increase from 1998. Don't be surprised if DVD/VHS assumes the same relationship that Compact Disc and audiocassettes have since the 1980s. Blank cassettes may be second-rate, but they're cheap and simple, and Americans like that. As of now, recordable CDs and Sony's MiniDisc have yet to replace the stacks of blank cassettes in stores across the nation. Unless it's easy enough for a small child to use, recordable DVD could be facing an equally difficult uphill battle.
Commentary Clip: "Siskel and Ebert have this 'manly' approach to film criticism, where they have to do the 'manly' thing of doing a thumbs up or a thumbs down, playing the Emperor. I was told by Gene Siskel -- when I complained about this as being very damaging to films and filmmaking, this black-and-white approach -- he said it was harder for him than I could ever imagine, to make that decision. When he approached a film he knew he had to make this 'manly' decision. It wasn't easy, but 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.' And he would do that. So I think it's absolutely wonderful that we filmmakers get to spend years of our lives and millions of other people's money to make films to let Gene Siskel prove once again that he's a man."
-- Terry Gilliam,
"(Klaus) Kinski has such an incredible, mad energy. I truly like that about him. It was my daily effort to hold him together, to articulate what was also somehow in him. He had very charming moments. It's not that he was always mad and crazed and going wild and creating scandals -- of course we had our daily, what we called, "yell-out." He would scream and yell sometimes one hour, two hours, until froth appeared at his mouth. Sometimes I would provoke a fit of manic rage because I knew we needed him very calm, very contained, very concentrated on the scene that we wanted to shoot.... That was our daily bread, and we had to cope with it.... Kinski is a man who is like a racehorse: hysterical, prone to panic, racing like crazy for a mile, and then right after crossing the finishing line, he would collapse."
-- Werner Herzog,
Quotable: "I never thought I'd grow up to be the person who is fighting the good fight so that 'fart' could be said on the Academy Awards, but if that is my mission in life, so be it."
South Park songwriter Marc Shaiman, regarding
"I'm afraid there's a few things in this movie that couldn't quite happen. Having people in space take their helmets off is wonderful drama, but...."
-- Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, after attending this
"It seems ironic to me that an actor who makes $3 million a picture yearns to be a modestly paid and ill-respected screenwriter."
-- Thomas Ropelewski, screenwriter of The Next
For that matter, it's ironic that anybody at all would seek credit for a film as critically reviled as The Next Best Thing.
Wednesday, 8 March 2000
Mailbag: Wednesday is the day we clean out the reader mail here at The DVD Journal, and our comments the other day about catching a letterboxed edition of Contact on Ted Turner's TNT network (see Monday's update) generated quite a response. Here's a few reader comments:
We thought we might be showing our ignorance by suspecting that a widescreen movie on TNT was something revolutionary -- the fact is that both TNT and American Movie Classics are part of our basic cable package around here, while Turner Classic Movies is not. Therefore, we've never seen any TCM programming, but your letters certainly have piqued our interest in the channel.
We'd never heard of cheezmo.com before, but you're right Mike, it's pretty damn cool. It took us a bit to sort through the functions, but before long we successfully selected our cable channels and our time zone, and -- zing! -- a handy schedule of letterboxed movies was generated right on our browser. We don't watch too much TV, but we've added this handy website to our Choice Web Links page for all of you who do.
So there you go, gang -- Tim heartily endorses the ReplayTV and its letterbox-friendly programming. And to be fair (ReplayTV is not a sponsor of ours or anything), if anybody want to send in a similar endorsement for the TiVo, we'll pass it along.
ShoWest, day two: Theater owners at this week's ShoWest convention may have spent Monday worrying about the high price of digital cinema (see yesterday's update), but Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti delivered his "state of the industry" speech yesterday, where he announced that 1999 saw a record total of $7.5 billion in movie tickets sold (however, while ticket-prices were up, overall attendance was slightly down). The industry's future may be a rosy one, but Valenti also discussed the current rating system, which came under fire last year after a string of school shootings prompted many politicians to suggest that the government may need to step in to Hollywood's independent rating system (a system free of government interference for 32 years now). In response to the recent saber-rattling from Congress, Valenti announced a new MPAA website that explains the MPAA ratings system and allows parents to evaluate current releases -- www.filmratings.com. Valenti further noted that the site includes the same information that has been available to theaters and critics since 1990. It probably won't be enough to keep the politicos at bay, but the new open-book approach to the ratings process is an interesting read (look up Fight Club and discover that it's "Rated R for disturbing and graphic depiction of violent anti-social behavior, sexuality and language.").
Tuesday, 7 March 2000
One million PlayStation2 fans can't be wrong: How hot is Sony's new PlayStation2 console? The new deck hit the shelves in Japan over the weekend, where it sold a jaw-dropping 980,000 units between Saturday and Monday -- more than ten times the rate the original PlayStation sold at back in 1994. In fact, while Sony had set a sales-target of one million (!) players in the first 48 hours of availability, the overwhelming retail and online orders have outstripped supplies, meaning that many online customers will have to wait for as long as two weeks to get the DVD-based gewgaw. What's more, 1.3 million software titles also sold during the first two days, and as the new deck is DVD Video compatible, orders of DVD movies in Japan (sluggish since the format's inception) quadrupled over the weekend. The original PlayStation may be selling for bargain-basement prices here in North America, but the new deck likely will come at a premium -- Japanese consumers are currently paying around $370 a pop. Look for the PlayStation2 to arrive in North America this fall.
Digital Cinema still over the horizon?: Theater owners have gathered in Las Vegas this week for the annual ShoWest convention, and the chief talking-point so far has been digital cinema, which first caught the nation's attention when The Phantom Menace was shown in a handful of venues across America last year in an all-digital format. However, even though digital manufacturers are gung-ho on the new format (and the profits they stand to make), theater owners have already indicated that a widespread transition from conventional film to all-digital cinemas could be years away. "The attitude of exhibitors is very mixed," John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, told Reuters. "Some (NATO) members are excited and ready to roll, but some are very anxious and very nervous about the cost." The "cost" Fithian refers to is the building new theaters or retrofitting current ones, which would include digital projectors that go for upwards of $100,000. If the idea sounds appealing to us consumers, it's downright nauseating to most large theater chains, who have been struggling over the past few years with the enormous debts they have undertaken to build new theaters and top their competitors (ironically, the smaller theater chains and independents are currently enjoying better financial health than the majors, since they never got caught up in the building frenzy).
A second issue raised by some ShoWest attendees regards the technical standards of digital cinema -- or lack thereof. While several manufacturers have designed impressive projectors, there currently is no agreement on such key issues as picture resolution and data compression. However, the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers are currently drafting a series of digital-cinema standards, and just this week the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California announced the launch of a new Digital Cinema Lab, with backing from such industry heavyweights as the Motion Picture Association, the National Association of Theater Owners, and the International Theater Equipment Association. The lab -- which will be located in Hollywood's Egyptian Theater -- will be used to test new digital technologies and work with the SMPTE as the new standards are defined. While the world won't go digital tomorrow, it's clear that every segment of the film industry is betting on its eventual arrival.
On the Street: To commemorate this year's Academy Awards, Fox has a trio of Oscar-winning classics on the street this morning -- An Affair to Remember, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, and How Green Was My Valley. Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick fans can get their hands on the Master's final film, Eyes Wide Shut, even though it will be a full-frame transfer and the R-rated edition imposed by the MPAA last year rather than the uncut, Kubrick-approved version that will be available in overseas markets. Two black-and-white classics from Image have caught our eyes this morning -- a remastered edition of the 1950 thriller D.O.A. and a new DVD of Orson Welles' 1963 The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins. At the other end of the taste spectrum, Troma's Cannibal! The Musical has arrived after a brief delay (the flesh-eating extravaganza stars South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone). We have been assured that the several supplements will be as goofy as the movie itself. Here's this morning's notable street discs, courtesy of Reel.com and Image Entertainment:
Monday, 6 March 2000
And the winner is: Ben Sayaseng of Honolulu, Hawaii, wins the free DVD of Rushmore: The Criterion Collection from our February contest. Congrats, Ben!
Our Free DVD Contest for the month of March is up and running, and we have a copy of DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt: Signature Selection up for grabs. Be sure to drop by our contest page to send us your entry, and don't forget to take our monthly DVD poll while you're there.
Disc of the Week: In the 1941 How Green Was My Valley, John Ford's final film before America's entry into World War II (making documentaries for the Navy, he wouldn't direct another commercial feature until the 1945 They Were Expendable), the director adapted Richard Llewelyn's popular novel about life in a 19th-century Welsh mining town to explore one of his favorite themes -- how people, and especially families and communities, react to social pressures and social changes. In '41 Ford was wrapping up a three-year stretch of successful films that included such American masterpieces as Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath. How Green Was My Valley concluded this brief, enormously prolific period of Ford's career, and the film won five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture (yes, this is the film that beat Citizen Kane). A young Roddy McDowell stars as Huw Morgan, the youngest lad in the Morgan household, where he lives with his mother and father (Sarah Allgood and Donald Crisp), his sister Angharad (Maureen O'Hara), and his five older brothers. All the men in the household but Huw work in the local coal mine, which blackens the surrounding hills with every passing year, but the much-younger Huw is expected to go to school and eventually earn his living as an educated gentlemen. Because of this, he is often sheltered from the adult world his family inhabits, including his sister's unhappy marriage to a wealthy suitor, the battle to unionize the workers in the coal mine, and his father's resistance to the union -- which comes at a price. But Huw watches and remembers everything as the history of his family, and his valley, unfolds, guided by his mentor, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pigeon), the local preacher who is often the lone voice of reason in a town too often given over to gossip and infighting. Ford's How Green Was My Valley is a useful bookend to The Grapes of Wrath, as both were made at essentially the same time and examine family members in the face of social changes and economic hardships. But How Green Was My Valley is the more intimate film of the two, focusing less on social issues and more on the value of the family unit, which, to Ford, has the capacity to endure and find strength from within no matter what challenges may lie down the road. Fox's DVD edition of How Green Was My Valley features a solid transfer from the restored negative at the UCLA film archive. The audio is clear (DD 2.0 mono), and supplements include a photo gallery of stills from the film's production, the original theatrical trailer, and a trailer gallery of Fox oldies on DVD. Look for this renovated classic to reach the street tomorrow morning.
"Contact" on TNT: Okay, we're the first to admit that we don't watch much television around here (your humble editor is a news-channel junkie), so this may not be news to you, but we did spy a letterboxed (!) version of Contact on TNT last night -- the first letterboxed flick we've ever seen on a Turner channel, and in an uncompromising 2.35:1 ratio. What's more, the film ran back-to-back twice over. American Movie Classics has been running widescreen flicks after hours for some time now (we taped the letterboxed Patton about a year before the Fox DVD arrived), but if Turner is going to dig into the Warner library for some late-night letterboxes, this could be a great way for newfound DVD fans to preview some Warner titles on disc -- or for all of us to tape some widescreen cheapos for fun. Watch your cable listings.
Box Office: For the third week in a row, Warner's mob comedy The Whole Nine Yards held the top position at the North American box office, snaring $7.3 million and bringing its current total to $38.5 million. During a weekend of unusually poor attendance, the Bruce Willis flick held off Paramount's The Next Best Thing, starring Madonna and Rupert Everett, which earned $6 million in receipts. Two other films debuted in the top five, Destination Films' black comedy Drowning Mona, which captured third place with $5.9 million, and Warner's family-friendly My Dog Skip, which went wide over the weekend after several weeks in limited release, earning $5.8 million (as these are all estimates, it's possible that the three films could swap places when the final numbers are released late Monday). USA's Pitch Black appears to be succeeding on good word-of-mouth, as the sci-fi shocker has now earned $29.7 million over three weeks, and Paramount's Snow Day is a bonafide success, nearly cracking the $50 million mark in the space of a month (both films tied over the weekend for fifth place with $5 million apiece). However, other films are on the express elevator to Hollywood Hell, including Miramax's Reindeer Games and Paramount's Wonder Boys, which haven't gained any traction after their lukewarm debuts. And Mike Nichols' What Planet Are You From?, starring Gary Shandling, got pummeled, debuting in more than 2,200 theaters but only earning $3 million for 14th place. MGM's rap-comedy 3 Strikes earned $3.4 million for the 12th spot, and it only need 678 screens to do it.
Here's the top-grossing films at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: A new full review has been posted for Romance, and can be found on our Full Reviews index. New quick reviews this week include The Big Sleep, The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), In the Mouth of Madness, How Green Was My Valley, Random Hearts, The Suburbans, Betrayed, and Grey Owl: Special Edition, and can be accessed on the Quick Reviews index. Everything has been added under the New Reviews menu here on the main page.
We'll be back tomorrow with news on this week's street discs.
Thursday, 2 March 2000
Fox, Universal to merge?: It has been rumored for several weeks that Seagram Co. Ltd., the Canadian beverage company that owns Universal Studios and other entertainment properties, has been looking to unload their film and music divisions, and just yesterday the stock of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Ltd., which owns Fox, took a sharp upswing after "high-level" talks between representatives of Seagram and News Corp. in New York. No firm details of the meeting emerged, and it doesn't appear that either side is near an agreement, but the online edition of Newsweek is reporting that News Corp. is interested in purchasing the entire Seagram conglomerate. Meanwhile, it also has been reported that Seagram chief Edgar Bronfman Jr. has approached French communications company Vivendi in the hopes of getting a bid for his Montreal-based media/entertainment/libations/theme parks empire (other rumored suitors in recent weeks have been USA Networks and France's Canal Plus).
While a possible merger between News Corp. and Seagram (which would include a merger between Fox and Universal) is not imminent, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch recently indicated in a interview with Neil Cavuto on his own Fox News Channel that he is concerned about the recent AOL-Time Warner merger, and that the multi-billion-dollar media monolith could wind up having companies like News Corp./Fox for "breakfast," as he called it. And while a merger or buyout of one or more Seagram properties wouldn't immediately offer Fox a foothold on the Internet, it would create a media giant sizable enough to rival AOL Time Warner -- especially if an additional partnership is secured with a major Internet provider in the near future. Based on Murdoch's comments, we say the Seagram/News Corp. deal is as likely as it's not. It sure as hell looks like somebody is going to buy large chunks of Universal -- if not the whole enchilada -- before much longer. In the lineup of usual suspects, Murdoch stands the tallest.
On the Block: For the first time since we've been tracking online DVD auctions at eBay, the highly prized Little Shop of Horrors has fallen from the top spot, undoubtedly due to the upcoming re-issue from Warner. However, the alternate ending on the first disc will not be included in the second release, which means that Little Shop will probably continue to trade high for some time to come. We were convinced that either Criterion's This is Spinal Tap! or The Killer would assume the top spot over the past few weeks, but in fact Criterion's Salo had the highest closing price at $326, which was the only recent DVD auction to crack $300. All five out-of-print Criterion DVDs made the list (never a surprise), and The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night has finally joined the $100 club. New to the list is the recently out-of-print Kalifornia, along with the first pressing of The Devil's Advocate, which has been OOP for a long time but has never wound up in our top 15 before now. Since the difference between the original and current disc is only one slightly modified scene, it appears that somebody really wanted to win this one really bad -- we certainly wouldn't pay $75 for it.
Here's the highest recent closing prices of rare and out-of-print DVDs from online auctions at eBay:
Commentary Clips: "Gwyneth is exceptional. I mean, here is a young American woman who is playing a British person in Tudor era -- which is you know 300, almost 400 years ago. And not only that, she's playing a British accent in a period time and playing opposite gender a lot of the time, pretending to be a boy. I mean, she's got so many balls in the air as an actress, that I would sort of have a nervous breakdown, I think, on the second day -- surrounded by all these Royal Shakespeare Company actors -- and delivering Shakespeare! And she's got the Lion's share of the Shakespeare to deliver, and she pulls it off astonishingly well. I mean, she just makes it look fluid and effortless. It's my favorite thing she's ever done. I think it's really an impressive acting feat. She's got ten times as hard a job as anyone else in that movie."
-- Ben Affleck,
"All I could think about is that sequence in (Tim Burton's) Ed Wood, where Bela Lugosi has to fight the rubber octopus. And I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm a grown man! I'm a grown man, wrestling with a rubber bat!' "
-- Lou Diamond Phillips,
"The first movie I remember doing was called 'The Skateboard Four,' and then I remember a lot of the plays. One of the plays was 'The Five Maseratis.' We had an Alamo play, 'The Battle of the Alamo.' It was three acts of all war scenes. No set-up, no aftermath, just all pure war. We also tried to do a stage adaptation of Star Wars, which was kind of a failure. It's difficult to mount that, especially with the limitations of an elementary school production."
-- Director Wes Anderson,
Quotable: "The moviegoing public not long ago embraced a fresh-faced comic named Jim Carrey in movies like "Ace Ventura" and "Dumb and Dumber," and there was even talk of his remaking some of Danny Kaye's early films, but how did Carrey reward his fans? By accepting $20 million to portray a psychotic "Cable Guy" and following that up with a sullen Andy Kaufman in "Man on the Moon," both of which sent moviegoers to the Prozac counter. The only funny thing he's done in the last couple of years is to call himself "the Tom Hanks of the Golden Globes." Will the Oscar snubs propel you into still more depressing roles, Jim?"
-- Peter Bart, Editor-in-Chief, Daily Variety
"Of course at my age it is not so easy and perhaps not completely without risk. My only goal is to find my Nuba friends again, and above all try to find a way to help them."
-- German director Leni Riefenstahl, 97, after surviving
Coming Attractions: New DVD reviews are on the way, including a special preview of Fox's How Green Was My Valley, Warner's The Big Sleep, and lots more. If you haven't entered our monthly free DVD contest, this weekend will be your last chance to visit our contest page and get your name in the hat for a copy of Rushmore: The Criterion Collection. We'll be back Monday to announce the winner (will it be you?), and we'll have a new free DVD contest and reader poll up and running as well.
Have a great weekend, gang.
Wednesday, 1 March 2000
Well, actually that's debatable. While anamorphic images contain a great deal more resolution (480 lines across the entire image as opposed to somewhat more than half of that in a letterboxed picture), they have to be downconverted on 4:3 televisions, with varying results. The downconversion itself is performed by the DVD player (normally by deleting one out of every four lines from the picture) and not by any specific method encoded on the disc, which is why some home-video producers have not adopted anamorphic video as a standard feature, particularly when a letterboxed DVD that doesn't rely on the anamorphic image is viewed "as-is," without the need for downconversion, and thus as the producer intended for a 4:3 monitor. However, other studios who are anamorphic holdouts are likely cutting costs, since the term "anamorphic" isn't exactly on the lips of the average American consumer. And since the vast majority of current, and future, DVD consumers own 4:3 monitors (cheap, uncalibrated ones, at that), the demand for anamorphic transfers won't rise until 16:9 monitors or HDTVs begin to replace non-widescreen sets.
We tend to be fence-sitters when in comes to anamorphic transfers -- they're nice, but we've never suggested that anybody avoid purchasing an attractive DVD just because it isn't anamorphic. In general, we prefer 16x9-enhanced DVDs because we think that Sony DVD players, our manufacturer of choice around here, do a great job of downconverting the signal and providing a smooth, lush image that is superior to a standard letterbox image -- although only marginally (Pioneer players reportedly also do a great job of this). It's also been noted by many anamorphic advocates that the discs will retain greater value over the years, as they look fantastic on 16:9 sets (an upgrade many home-theater buffs are planning), and the extra resolution will also improve their appearance on HDTVs. But for folks with substandard equipment (a growing amount of DVD consumers nowadays), a downconverted anamorphic signal isn't always going to be a blessing. Perhaps the biggest headache of all is that the anamorphic debate isn't likely to go away as long as 4:3 televisions are being sold by the bushel. When widescreen sets or HDTVs become common, they should settle the anamorphic debate once and for all -- regrettably, mass acceptance of these advanced televisions could be a long way off yet, and by that point we might have blue-laser HD-DVD players, which means some of us will get to buy our DVDs all over again in a brand-new, higher-resolution format.
(Somebody, somewhere once said "Don't sweat the small stuff." We often try to keep that in mind.)
Okay, here goes -- "Hey guys, add more stuff on the DVDs, okay?" Seriously though (ahem), while special-edition DVDs are wonderful things, it simply isn't possible for the studios to load a bunch of extras on to every DVD they release, since the market demands that they balance quality with quantity. Virtually every DVD producer releases films in two tiers -- the feature-packed special editions and the more slender DVDs (often just the movie) -- in order to ensure that a substantial amount of new product will arrive on the shelves every month. Currently, the trend we are seeing is that these tiers will begin to overlap (they already have at Disney), and down the road we will likely see standard and special editions of most substantial Hollywood releases. As DVD becomes more mainstream, it's the rental market that will drive this release strategy, since it's only a matter of time before DVDs start selling to rental shops at "wholesale" prices, often $80 and up, before being released months later into the retail market for the prices we are familiar with right now. When that paradigm replaces DVD's current straight-to-retail status, the sensible thing for DVD producers to do will be to send film-only discs out as rental items (the sole marketing fact that Circuit City's defunct Divx comprehended), and then take the few months of lag-time before a retail release to come up with some extra content and thus give folks a reason to purchase a movie they've already rented -- and they'll probably sell the movie-only version for a lot less while they're at it. Furthermore, whenever video-on-demand over the Internet becomes a viable technology, we could see conventional video rentals as we know them today disappear altogether, as pay-per-view movies would be available during an initial release window and "collectable" discs would follow in the shops not long thereafter.
A second trend on the horizon is more like a game of catch-up, as it appears that several early DVDs from 1997 and 1998 will re-appear as special editions over the next couple of years (New Line's Seven being an obvious example). Some might say this is a move to capture more of the collectors' market, while the more cynical will doubtless recognize this as "selling the same damn thing over and over again." In any case, film-only discs will probably never go away, but we think DVD vendors have a pretty good grasp of who rents movies and who buys them, and they have no plans to ignore either demographic. For now, the safest bet is to fork out your cash for special edition DVDs and try to rent the rest -- it's almost impossible to know what film-only discs will be re-issued in a better package down the road.
See ya tomorrow.