Insights from home entertainment industry experts. Home Media blogs give you the inside scoop on entertainment news, DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases, and the happenings at key studios and entertainment retailers. “TK's Take” analyzes and comments on home entertainment news and trends, “Agent DVD Insider” talks fanboy entertainment, “IndieFile” delivers independent film news, “Steph Sums It Up” offers pithy opinions on the state of the industry, and “Mike’s Picks” offers bite-sized recommendations of the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases.
This magazine in its nearly 40 years has seen formats come and go, navigating changes along with the industry. This month, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the optical disc (DVD launched in America in 1997) and its continued vibrancy. We also investigate virtual reality, a new format that the studios are just starting to explore. Meanwhile, we continue to report on the growth of white-hot digital delivery services and the increasingly award-winning and popular original content of such outfits as Amazon Prime and Netflix.
This industry has of necessity had to shift with the formats. Director Ivan Reitman, who worked on the Ghostbusters VR experience, likened making the 360-degree product to the early days of silent film, when directors were figuring out if audiences would understand and react well to a close-up. If viewers have the agency to look wherever they want in VR, how does a director tell a story? That’s just one of the questions facing the new format. Sony’s Jake Zim said the business plan for VR products also is in the embryonic stages — what to charge, what activities viewers will enjoy, what environments will be most conducive to VR are all under review as the studio dips its toe into this new medium.
As DVD launched 20 years ago, it faced uncertainty as well. Would the collector embrace the sellthrough-priced format and buy movies and TV shows to put on the shelf like books? It turned out to be an enormous success, and two decades later DVD and its successors are still spinning revenue for the studios. With the advent of Blu-ray Disc, it has adapted to high-definition and 3D and 4K Ultra HD with high dynamic range to deliver ever-better quality picture and sound. It’s been such a flexible format that today it still accounts for the lion’s share of U.S. home entertainment revenue. The arrival of TV DVD even helped create the binge-watching consumer that now ravenously watches episode after episode on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Before streaming, consumers learned to binge on disc series sets. The disc also created a whole new way to appreciate the content, spawning director’s commentaries, making-of documentaries and other extras that brought viewers into the process of making entertainment.
So here’s a toast to the past and to the future. May the legacy disc format continue to impress as it adapts to 4K UHD with HDR, and may new formats continue to entertain as well as the disc has for two decades.
By: Stephanie Prange
The DVD, the most successful consumer electronics product launch in history, turns 20 this spring.
It was the last week in March 1997 when I received that first black box of DVDs from Warner Home Video, whose president at the time, Warren Lieberfarb, is widely considered the “father” of the format. It was Lieberfarb’s vision that saw the potential of the consumer purchase (rather than rental) model; it was Lieberfarb who got the Japanese CE guys on board and who convinced his studio counterparts to come along, with support from Sony Pictures’ Ben Feingold.
We all knew at the time our industry was on to something big, but no one at the time could have predicted how big: A sweeping transition from renting videocassettes to buying discs led to double-digit gains in consumer spending for a good eight years, and at long last gave home entertainment executives a say in greenlighting movies after that fateful moment (I believe it was in 2001) when spending on discs outpaced spending on movie tickets.
Money breeds respect, and our little industry minted tons of both.
DVD’s legacy is just as impressive. Technological advancements in the five-inch disc led to the Blu-ray Disc and, most recently, the Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc. Today, most discs are packaged in “combo packs” that transcend physical media by also including a “digital copy” consumers can watch from their hard drives or the cloud. And with Netflix eating Hollywood’s lunch, the disc’s viability — both as a standalone product and as a means to promote the concept of digital ownership — is something to be both lauded and perpetuated.
It’s funny — back in mid-1996, when I heard DVDs were finally going to come on the market, all I remember thinking was, “What took them so long?” It was, after all, 15 years after another shiny little five-inch disc, the CD, revolutionized the music industry. I was big into music at the time. Audio purists swore by the LP, but for me — and hundreds of millions of other consumers the world over — convenience trumped any audio superiority analog might have over digital. And besides, records wore down with use and, invariably, developed snaps, crackles and pops. I was more than willing to sacrifice a little audio quality if I could listen to Springsteen’s “The River” without a nasty skip right when he was reminiscing about Mary’s body “tanned and wet down by the reservoir.”
The clunky videocassette, in my view, was just as flawed, and I still recall in the early days of CD looking with disdain at my VHS library and wishing I could get movies on disc, as well.
In the early 1990s, there was briefly a product called CD-I, mostly for interactive video discs. A few movies came out on CD-I, and I was ecstatic. No matter that you had to change discs at least once, and that the color black just didn’t look right — CD-I was it. When the format crashed and burned, I mourned — but then came my first meeting with Warren Lieberfarb and I was giddy with anticipation.
I still have that first box of DVDs from Warner — and damn if those DVDs don’t still look good, even on the pricey new Ultra HD TV with HDR in our bedroom.
Long live disc!
By: Thomas K. Arnold
Best Buy's 'Sing' and 'Assassin's Creed' Steelbook 4K Blu-rays
Retailers brought out exclusives for Universal's Sing and Fox's Assassin's Creed.
Walmart offered the Sing Blu-ray as part of a gift set with collectible character cards and exclusive bonus content.
Target offered a Gunter plush for $1.99 (regularly $10) with the purchase of the Sing Blu-ray.
For Assassin's Creed, Walmart had a gift set of the Blu-ray with a T-shirt.
Target offered a pack-in hidden dagger arm sleeve in select Blu-rays of Assassin's Creed.
Best Buy offered special Steelbook cases for the 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays of both films.
Kino Lorber, Drama, $19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Peggy Shannon, Lois Wilson, Sidney Blackmer.
1933. The Big Apple gets swallowed by a tsunami yet again and unexpectedly early in screen history — courtesy of a middling movie curio that was thought to have been “lost” for decades and is of viewing interest these days at least as much for its lead casting.
Extras: This new Kino Classics release, which also includes a savvy voiceover commentary by Richard Harland Smith, is arguably better approached as a Peggy Shannon two-fer, thanks to the bonus inclusion of 1934’s bargain basement but not-bad newspaper romp Back Page.
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Kiss of Death (Blu-ray)
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark, Coleen Gray.
1947. Whatever its other virtues, which are considerable enough, Kiss of Death will always be renowned as the Fox film noir in which maniacal thug Richard Widmark shoves a wheelchair-bound mother down some steep apartment stairs.
Extras: The two audio commentaries are complementary: In a carryover from the old DVD, noir specialists James Ursini and Alain Silver roam on the technical side, while Twilight Time’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo get more into actor personas.
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Best Buy's 'Passengers' Steelbook
Sony Pictures' Passengers arrived on disc with a couple of retailer exclusives.
Best Buy offered a Steelbook version of the 4K Ultra HD/3D/Blu-ray combo pack of the sci-fi film. The Steelbook verison was offered for $1 more than the regular version of the UHD/3D Blu-ray.
Target had the standard Blu-ray with an exclusive bonus disc containing the featurette "Journey to the Stars: The Making of Passengers."
Target is also offering a $5 gift card with online preorders for several upcoming titles, including the exclusive 3D Blu-ray of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
To hear most critics tell it, Passengers isn’t so much a love story as it is a tale of interstellar rape, given a happy ending through a morally ambivalent attitude toward Stockholm Syndrome. But to reduce the film to such a simplistic reading is to ignore many of the complex emotions at play within the characters involved, while at the same time overlooking the fact that the film generally agrees with the consensus of its detractors.
This essay is going to pretty much spoil the heck out of Passengers, so it’s best to avoid it until you check it. It’s available now on Digital HD, and will be available March 14 on Blu-ray, DVD and a 4K UHD/3D/Blu-ray combo pack from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
The film chronicles a starship hundreds of years into the future bringing 5,000 colonists from Earth to a new planet 120 years away. For most of the journey, the passengers and crew are asleep in hibernation pods while the ship operates on autopilot with robots conducting repairs and keeping everything clean. In the last four months of the trip, everyone wakes up and the trip essentially becomes a luxury cruise that helps everyone prepare for their new life.
As the film opens, the ship is damaged by an asteroid despite having shields against such things. The ship’s systems are able to repair most of the damage and compensate for what can’t be fixed, but the resulting malfunction causes one passenger, Jim (Chris Pratt) to wake up 90 years too early. He finds himself alone on the ship for more than a year with no recourse but to try out the ship’s amenities until he gets bored, and then wait for death.
As he contemplates suicide, he finds the pod of Aurora, an obvious Sleeping Beauty reference, and falls in love with her at first sight (she’s played by Jennifer Lawrence, so who wouldn’t?). He learns she’s a writer (her last name is Lane, as in Lois Lane?) and then reads all of her work, and watches interviews she has given, and in his loneliness comes to believe they’d be an ideal match.
Being an engineer, Jim has figured out how to bypass some of the ship’s systems that he has access to, including how to wake someone up from their pod. He considers waking up Aurora, but understands how morally repugnant that is, since she has no choice in the matter and would condemn her to the same, slow death sentence that fate has given him. But as people with an infatuation tend to do, he starts to believe that if she falls for him she would forget about whatever plans she was making on this new world.
So, he ends up waking her up, but then lying to her about it, passing it off as another pod failure (which she has no reason to doubt). Continuing the references (intentional or not) to Disney movies, their courtship involves hints of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
The filmmakers make an interesting choice to follow Jim through his thought processes before he wakes her up, giving the audience the full knowledge of the truth about Aurora’s circumstance as they get to know each other. This is the primary point that many critics seem to have tuned out the movie, as they consider Jim’s actions irredeemable. And it’s true that the film does have the effect of making the naturally charming Chris Pratt, the hero of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World and The Lego Movie, seem like a huge creep. He's clearly riddled by guilt over what he's done, but whatever empathies we had for Jim being alone for so long are tossed aside, even though it’s not like he was in an enviable position to begin with. This is a prime example of how sci-fi can test characters in a fictional setting in order to make viewers consider what they may have done in that situation. Laurence Fishburne plays a crew member who wakes up later in the movie and, upon learning what he did, likens him to a drowning man reaching out for help and pulling someone else down with him; the second victim doesn’t deserve it, but it’s not like he’s still not drowning.
On the flip side, the full knowledge of what Jim did puts all our sympathies with Aurora, and J-Law’s performance is so good that it’s really easy to love her. Further, this structures the film in such as way to make it mostly about Jim’s character arc in dealing with his guilt and seeking redemption. Had the film used some editing tricks let the audience discover that Jim woke her up at the same time she learns about it, it would have put more emphasis on her own arc of having to adjust to having her life stolen from her, and made the final half of the movie less about him. The film as presented, then, can be seen as reducing her character even more to the sex object Jim first sees her as, which only earned the film more ire. (The key of when to let the audience in on a plot twist to affect their perception of a movie is nothing new, but I was particularly reminded of the key reveal in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.)
She does learn the truth, of course, after a year in which they start a sexual relationship (after an awe-inspiring spacewalking sequence — not fair!) and begin to fall in love, and we are as heartbroken as Aurora, in no small part because Lawrence really nails the despair and anger she is flooded with upon learning of Jim’s betrayal. So, for the second third of the film, she wants nothing to do with him, while he tries to explain why he did what he did. He still comes off as creepy, but we can at least see that Jim is a fundamentally decent guy all things considered, and he does have genuine feelings for Aurora. Understandably, she doesn’t care about any of his excuses, since she ascribes his actions as tantamount to murder.
This gets into why they were on the ship to begin with. Jim, as a mechanic, is of little use on a technologically advanced Earth where everything is replaced. He wants the challenge of a new frontier were he can build a house and solve new problems.
Aurora, on the other hand, is trying to establish herself in the shadow of a famous father, who encouraged her to go on adventures to have something to write about. So she wants to go to sleep for 120 years, live for a year on a new planet, go back to Earth after another 120 years asleep, and then write a book about living 250 years in the future. Jim’s actions have robbed her of her audience. All she can do now is write about her life alone on the ship, which is not appealing to her. While critics have rightly pointed to her lack of agency in her life on the ship, it’s important to note that her goals here do factor into the decisions she ends up making in the final third of the film that have been met with so much disapproval.
For the third act, the film swerves a bit from exploring the various ethical motifs of its relationship drama and turns into more of a disaster film thriller, as the plot must address what caused the malfunctions to begin with. The asteroid strike has triggered a cascade failure of the ship’s computer, which will eventually cause the main reactor to fail and the ship to explode, killing everyone. The life-and-death struggle allows the story to sidestep the characters really dealing with their situation in lieu of some quick emotional shortcuts, which has drawn the ire of critics who were willing to cut Jim some slack and would have preferred a more intellectual resolution to the central character conflict instead of a Gravity-inspired action setpiece. The film is still entertaining, but such concerns are understandable.
What it boils down to is that in order to save the ship, Jim needed her help, so if she hadn’t have been awake, she would have died anyway. And his efforts to win back her trust and affection are accomplished by offering to sacrifice himself to save everyone’s life, leading her to realize that she’d then be put in the situation he had been in of being all alone for decades unless she woke someone up as well.
And it’s here the film throws in its final plot twist, as Jim, having been given access to new parts of the ship by Fishburne’s character (who, due to circumstances, doesn’t live long), is able to figure out how to use the medical equipment to put Aurora back to sleep for the rest of the trip. This gives finally gives her the choice she never had before in the movie, although it is a bit manipulative. By choosing to stay awake, the movie would suggest she cedes the moral high ground, thus earning more criticism.
However, I think those who would dismiss the film for reducing its ethical themes into a romantic context are missing a lot of what the film is trying to say. There are several scenes that tie into the moral implications of the narrative that almost everyone who discusses the film seems to overlook.
One scene involves Jim and Aurora looking at random sleeping passengers and playing a game about guessing the person's identity through looking at them. Aurora claims she she knows if she would befriend someone just on sight, something Jim sees as helping rationalize his decision as it implies some sort of sensory bond that stretches beyond a linear understanding of familiarity. He didn't just wake her up because he thought she was pretty. He took the time to get to know her through her writings and interviews. From his perspective, it likely wasn't much different from meeting a girl on a dating website, or in a bar, or at the park — he sees something in her that makes him think they would match well, and makes a case to convince her she should be with him. The big difference, of course, is that if he's wrong, as far as he knows at the time there's no recourse to put her back in the box. She can't just walk away and get on with her life — she's stuck on the ship too with someone she doesn't want to match with, and faced with the same dilemma of isolation.
So he's really betting the farm on them being compatible enough for her to be willing to choose him over her original plans for this trip. The fact that there's so much downside for being wrong explains his hesitancy in putting any sort of moves on her right away— giving her space, so to speak.
What the film doesn't get across so well is an idea that they don't seem to belong together, which she discusses in a voiceover of the character writing her book. It's a bit of a double-edged sword for the movie, in that his character is supposed to be sort of a nerdy loner who is more comfortable around machines than other people (Pratt's performance seems layered with hints of an aw-shucks introversion and social awkwardness), and yet if he's not played by someone as naturally charming as Chris Pratt there's a big question as to whether the audience would have abandoned him completely even as he's trying to redeem himself. To us, the characters aren't so much coming across as from different avenues of life as they are just Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence hanging out with great chemistry.
There's a bit more subtext to this on the Blu-ray, as there's a deleted scene in which she loads up on wine and calls him in the middle of the night to essentially make fun of how much of a loser he is, that there's no way she would have chosen to be with him in a normal circumstance, and she only slept with him out of boredom. It’s cruel, but hard to argue it’s unearned.
But the fact that she did spend a year with him also affects her decision later in the movie when she's given the choice of going back into suspended animation. This is really where the rubber meets the road as far as the ethical dilemmas of the film are concerned, as Jim is basically saying to her, 'look, I know I screwed up, but I do have genuine feelings for you, and I think you have feelings for me, too. If you truly think what I did was horrible, you can go back to sleep and never see me again, and live the life you wanted.' But I think playing into her decision in this regard was a scene, after learning the truth that Jim woke her up, in which she watches her friends leaving video messages to say goodbye to her. One friend even brings up the fact that when Aurora wakes up, the friend will be dead. This had to stir the internal dilemma within Aurora about what exactly she was doing with her life. Aurora was engaging this trip just to write a story about it because she thought it would make her unique. It would give her fame, sure, but her friend wishes for her to find someone to settle down with and be happy. (Jennifer Lawrence, speaking in the Blu-ray bonus featurettes, actually argues that Aurora's life is so without purpose that being woken up is actually the best thing that could have happened to her.)
There are a couple of quotes in the film that encapsulate what the characters are dealing with. In one, Aurora, first attempting to deal with the implications of waking up early, describes her plight thusly: “I may well spend the rest of my life here … traveling forever, never arriving.” This becomes an especially poignant statement regarding her character once we learn what she's really up to, and in light of some advice given to Jim by the robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), repeating by Aurora as the closing line of the film: “You can’t get so hung up on where you’d rather be that you forget to make the most of where you are.” This evokes the classic maxim that life is about the journey, not the destination, which is a lesson I think we are meant to believe Aurora comes to realize thanks to her brush with death. Any decision to forigive Jim could be an honest reaction to his self-sacrifice (she at one point suggests letting the ship blow up rather than deal with the idea of killing him so she and everyone else could live), or it could just come down to accepting her situation for what it is — she may be stranded, and he may have stranded her, but is staying angry going to soothe the soul as much as going with the flow? Given the events that transpire, she may even start to believe fate had a hand in convincing him to wake her up.
So, Aurora's friend's words resonate when Jim tells her she can go back to sleep, and her first reaction is to express concern for leaving him alone, and that she’d never see him again. In thinking back to her friend’s message, she is possibly realizing how easily she is able to dismiss the people in her life for the sake of her own selfish motives. So yes, he was selfish in waking her up, but she was, in her own way, selfish in leaving her friends behind to take this trip, so that moment where she's able to return to her plan brings their relationship back into balance, which to me makes the ending of the film not only easier to swallow, but easier to appreciate on its own terms.
(L-R): Best Buy's 'Moana' Steelbook and Target's 'Moana' storybook Blu-rays
A couple of retailers offered exclusive packaging for the Blu-ray edition of Disney's Moana.
Target offered a Blu-ray version of the animated film packaged in a 32-page storybook.
Best Buy had the Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray versions of the film available as Steelbook editions for $5 more than the regular editions of those versions.
Best Buy is also touting its Steelbook 3D Blu-ray edition of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, available April 4.
23 Paces to Baker Street (Blu-ray)
Kino Lorber, Mystery, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Van Johnson, Vera Miles, Cecil Parker.
1956. It’s still kind of surprising that frequent outdoor specialist Henry Hathaway fashioned such a satisfying mystery out of the predominantly indoor 23 Paces to Baker Street.
Extras: As renowned film historian and sometimes Martin Scorsese associate Kent Jones surmises on the commentary track here, Baker Street was likely made to cash in on the success of Hitchcock’s Rear Window from two years earlier.
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The Klansman (Blu-ray)
Olive, Drama, $29.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, Lola Falana, O.J. Simpson, Linda Evans.
1974. The Klansman is an essential artifact of an age on array of dubious place-in-time levels, rightfully regarded as one of the worst big-star screen vehicles ever made, but nonetheless tough to deny and maybe even essential in terms of mind-melting finesse.
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Best Buy's 'Doctor Strange' Steelbooks
Marvel's Doctor Strange came to home video Feb. 28 with a few retailer exclusives.
Target offered an exclusive featurette, "Defying Reality: The Art and Visual Effects of Doctor Strange," redeemable through the Disney Movies Anywhere platform.
Best Buy offered the Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray of Doctor Strange in exclusive Steelbook packaging for $5 more than the standard equivalents.
The Blu-ray for Oscar best picture winner Moonlight, distributed on disc by Lionsgate, was in short supply at several retailers. Walmart didn't have it on store shelves, and both Walmart.com and BN.com listed the Blu-ray as unavailable online on the title's first day of release.
Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, Eve Arden.
1945. As an even niftier mix of “woman’s picture” and film noir than some have given it credit for being, there really isn’t much that’s all-out risible in Joan Crawford’s Oscar vehicle beyond Eve Arden’s intentionally funny laugh lines and our glee in seeing Crawford’s Mildred mix it up in violently high-pitched fashion with snotty daughter Veda (Ann Blyth).
Extras: Beyond a lot of 4K digital polish that makes a movie released shortly after World War II ended leap off the screen, the extras here are keenly balanced in terms of the James M. Cain source material, Director Michael Curtiz's prowess, Oscar night lore (when Crawford, perhaps fearful of losing, apparently faked an illness to take her award from a sickbed) and Crawford’s extraordinarily durable career until its howler half-a-decade on the road to swansong Trog. The accompanying essay by Imogen Sara Smith explores the movie’s themes, which are far more grounded in the Depression and its fallout than the barely mentioned war.
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Available via Universal Vault Series
Universal, Mystery, $19.98 DVD-R, NR.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Gale Storm, Jeff Chandler, Raymond Burr.
1949. Abandoned wouldn’t be worth much attention here were it not for two novel components, one of which involves film scholarship of the highest order.
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