Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Should Kathleen Kennedy be fired from Disney?

Posted in botch, business, movies by commorancy on July 4, 2020

person using laptop and tablet

I’ve seen many, many YouTubers commenting on this very topic. In fact, this topic has had so many commentary videos, it’s probably consuming at least 10% of YouTube’s traffic. Just take a look for yourself. Anyway, because this topic is so widely being discussed, let me take the time to write an article here that describes most likely why she hasn’t yet been fired.

Contracts and Obligations

The biggest elephant in the room is also the most obvious, contractual obligations. It’s clear that most YouTubers really don’t understand the business of hiring executives. Executive leaders are always hired under contract. Contracts require both parties to fulfill their obligations as listed within the contract. It’s how employment contracts work.

However, there’s a snag here. Disney didn’t hire Kathleen Kennedy directly. Ms. Kennedy was already an employee of LucasFilm when Disney acquired the LucasFilm property… and this is the snag.

LucasFilm hired Kathleen Kennedy before the purchase took place. This meant that Kathleen was brought on board to Disney as an existing executive of LucasFilm. Why is this important?

Two Contracts

There are actually two contracts at play here with regards to Kathleen’s employment under LucasFilm.

  • The 2012 $4 billion George Lucas and Disney buyout contract
  • Kathleen Kennedy’s own employment contract with LucasFilm

In fact, it’s important to understand that George likely put Kathleen in charge of LucasFilm for the expressed intent of keeping the property sane after Disney purchased it. With that goal in mind, it’s very likely that LucasFilm hired Kathleen into a very long (and open ended) employment contract. What that means is that it is likely Kathleen’s choice whether the contract continues. As long as terms are written into the contract that allow this, Kathleen can remain at LucasFilm possibly for as long as she wishes.

The second side of this is the purchase contract. If George was smart enough to hire Kathleen for a very long stay at LucasFilm under Disney, then he likely also included provisions for her to stay employed for a specified period of time within the purchase contract also.

To do this, he likely wrote in a poison pill rider… probably written into both Kathleen’s employment contract and into the purchase agreement.

Putting this all together

With two contracts reinforcing each other, that means that should one or the other be breached, both contracts then fail to meet their obligations… which means that both contracts are breached and then outs for the contracts apply.

For the purchase contract, that could mean that the LucasFilm property (and any new work under it) reverts to ownership by George. This is a pretty big poison pill rider. I wouldn’t put this one past George. Not only would he get to walk away with $4 billion from Disney, he could also walk away with LucasFilm also. I’m pretty sure Disney wouldn’t find that poison pill attractive.

With Ms. Kennedy’s contract breached, Disney would likely have to pay her out a hefty golden parachute. A golden parachute rider requires the employer to pay out a huge sum of money upon failure to live up to contractual obligations. Because it’s very possible that both contracts are legally bound together, this means Disney is being held over a barrel with Kathleen Kennedy.

Not only might LucasFilm return to ownership under George, Kathleen may also get a huge payout (perhaps millions of dollars) if Disney fires her. It’s a very tough poison pill, but one I could easily see George requiring.

In other words, Disney can’t fire her. Should Disney fire her, both contracts dissolve and then penalties from both contracts apply against Disney.

Legal Obligations

Because contracts are very specific, should Kathleen personally breach the terms of her LucasFilm employment contract, then Disney may have cause to fire her.

Unfortunately, George probably wrote extremely loose and favorable terms for Kathleen and extremely unfavorable terms for LucasFilm into her employment contract intentionally. He did this knowing he would soon be selling LucasFilm to Disney. That means that Disney is in a very unfavorable situation with Kathleen. It means that Disney likely can’t fire her without a whole lot of legal things happening all at once.

Kathleen can breach the terms of her contract by doing something illegal. For example, if she’s accused and found guilty of inappropriate sexual misconduct, almost every employment contract allows releasing executives for breaking laws. That means Kathleen would need to violate laws for Disney to release her without Disney breaking any other terms of any other contracts.

Even then, George might still attempt to recover LucasFilm citing a breached purchase agreement.

Disney and Agreements

Disney likely agreed to the terms of both agreements more or less because they didn’t have a choice if they wanted LucasFilm. To get LucasFilm, they not only had to agree to the terms in the purchase agreement, they also had to agree with Kathleen’s employment terms as part of acquiring LucasFilm.

Kathleen’s Tenure

There could be an end in sight to Kathleen’s employment contract. It seems that in 2012, George may have set her employment terms to 6 years with the ability to extend. In 2018 and according to the Hollywood Reporter, she exercised her right to extend her employment contract and extended it by 3 years to 2021.

In 2021, Disney and Kathleen would again renegotiate her LucasFilm contract, which (depending on contract terms) could allow Disney to rewrite her contract to Disney favorable terms, place her directly under Disney and get rid of any poison pill riders in the process. A new employment contract would then allow Disney to fire her with impunity. Extending an existing contract doesn’t get rid of any poison pill riders.

It is entirely possible that Kathleen can extend her employment contract indefinitely with LucasFilm. However, it’s also possible that George did put a hard date limit on the type and number of extensions. Once her ability to extend ends, she will be required to strike up a new contract with Disney directly and those contract terms won’t be as favorable to her situation.

However, Disney could choose not to renew her contract at all and allow it to expire… at which point Disney could dismiss her. However, the unfavorable terms in the purchase contract could prevent that. It depends on what was written into the purchase agreement terms.

If George placed a timer on the purchase terms such that Disney can’t dismiss Kathleen while that timer is in place, then that means Disney must extend her contract until that purchase agreement timer runs out.

A contract timer works like this. The purchaser must remain in good faith under the terms of the agreement for a specified period of time, such as 10 years. The good faith part may include a bunch of agreed upon stipulations, such as keeping certain people employed during that period of time. If any of the stipulations are breached, the good faith terms no longer apply and the contract is considered breached.

What this means for Disney is that George Lucas could reacquire ownership of LucasFilm if Disney breaches these timer’s terms… and that is contingent on Kathleen’s employment contract. Even if Kathleen’s contract expires, Disney may be forced to craft a brand new contract to continue to employ her until the purchase agreement timer expires.

If Disney, again, extends her contract in 2021 for another 3 years, then this timer situation is likely the case. They can’t afford to lose LucasFilm and let it revert back to George Lucas ownership… and on top of this, pay Kathleen a huge sum of money from her Golden Parachute. Not only does that give George Lucas a potful of money, he also gets his former property back with new films in the portfolio to boot and Kathleen gets even more money.

Disney’s Response

Basically, a situation like what I surmise above (while a bit legally convoluted) may very well exist between George, Kathleen and Disney. Contractual terms can sometimes be unwieldy beasts and no side wants to breach those terms, particularly when looking at the downsides.

If any of what I suggest actually legally exists, this is why Kathleen Kennedy is still employed at LucasFilm cum Disney and cannot be fired. That doesn’t mean Disney can’t sideline her or take her off projects because these things may not be specified on the contracts, but those specifics which are in the contracts must be adhered to.

Only Disney, Kathleen, George and all of the lawyers involved understand the minute details of both the purchase contract and Kathleen’s LucasFilm employment contract (and how they both interrelate).

YouTubers

I get why YouTubers rail on Ms. Kennedy. I get why they want her fired. I get why they produce their videos stating all of this. However, these naïve YouTubers really don’t understand business or contractual obligations in the business world, particularly when it comes to executives and acquisitions.

While fans can continually call for Kathleen to be fired over her handling of the Star Wars property, it’s very unlikely to happen while contractual obligations are still in play. Kathleen herself would be stupid not to sit back and let the money roll in while she pretends to do a job for Disney. With such convoluted contracts, Kathleen is sitting pretty no matter what she does… short of breaking the law. She can completely turn LucasFilm and Star Wars inside out and pretty much Disney can do little to stop her, at least until any timers expire.

Once Ms. Kennedy understood the extremely favorable situation (if similar to what’s described above) that George arranged for her, she could pretty much torch Star Wars and Disney couldn’t really do anything about it. What Kathleen has done for Star Wars isn’t at all pretty. But, it’s not illegal and it’s possible there’s very little Disney can do to kick her out of the organization. Granted, she has turned a tidy sum for Disney, at least for the latest trilogy films, even as bad as they are. Disney can’t fault her for not making Disney money. As a result, Kathleen is likely still living up to her end of the employment agreement with LucasFilm.

Should Disney fire Kathleen Kennedy?

As long as unfavorable contractual obligations exist for Disney, no. Disney and Disney’s lawyers fully understand the ramifications of firing her. Until they can fire her without tripping contractual clauses, they’re going to let her sit in her comfy Disney office, using her comfy Disney chair pretending like she knows what the hell she’s doing.

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Did Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver have on-screen chemistry?

Posted in botch, business, movies by commorancy on July 2, 2020

I’ve recently come across this question on social media and I decided to answer this one in a full length blog article as I have much to say on this topic. Let’s explore.

On-Screen Chemistry

Whether two characters have any on-screen chemistry is a riddle that has plagued casting directors for many years. Putting two or three actors together on screen can make or break a film.

What factors go into on-screen chemistry? There are lots of factors including:

  • Looks
  • Acting prowess (when together)
  • Camaraderie
  • Ease of being together
  • Friendship
  • Believeability

There are way more factors than the above, but these are the primary contributing factors that make or break an on-screen relationship. When you see one, two or more characters together, you need to believe that these characters actually know one another and that they have an ease that says they can rely on one another and be friends.

There have been many exceptional on-screen chemistries. From Harry Potter’s Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and, of course, Daniel Radcliffe to the original lineup of Charlie’s Angels with Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson to Moonlighting’s exceptional casting choice of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd and, of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Star Wars’s “Golden Trio” ensemble of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.

Not all movie and TV productions get it right, however. There are many that, in fact, don’t even know they’ve gotten it wrong until it’s too far into the production. For TV shows, they can solve this blunder by recasting. For a movie series, that’s a bit more difficult.

The Force Awakens

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, there was no way to easily judge the on-screen chemistry for most of the cast throughout much of this film. The scenes involving the primary characters together were few and far between… with the exception of Rey and Finn. These two had exceptional on-screen chemistry together… which is likely why the first half of the film involved these two actors almost exclusively.

Even the second half of this film heavily involves these two characters, again when romping through Han Solo’s cargo ship, The Eravana, after accidentally releasing Rathtars from the cargo hold.

However, we do get to see glimpses of Rey with Kylo together in TFA, but this scene only lasts a very short time before he leaves her alone. Even then, this is their first encounter, so it’s very hard to judge their chemistry together because of their entirely adversarial relationship, for the moments that they are on screen together. At this juncture, we aren’t really getting a sense that these two belong together… part of the reason I believe this scene with them together was so short. Let’s talk about Kylo, for a moment.

Kylo Ren

This character was introduced in the beginning of the film along with Poe Dameron. These two characters have limited screen time together. The amount of screen time they get is limited to Poe cracking jokes at Kylo’s expense. Even then, Kylo has still not yet unmasked. We’re not even sure who’s in that suit. There’s no way to judge any chemistry between these two characters.

When Poe and Finn meet, these two bond almost instantly. This pair, like Rey and Finn, again have tremendous and instant on-screen chemistry. Again, their scenes are short, but it’s easy to see exactly how Poe and Finn will get along in future scenes. Alas, though, meaningful scenes between these two is not meant to be in this film. Yes, there are a few more exchanges later in the film between Poe and Finn, but their screen time together is exceedingly short in duration.

Rey and Finn obviously get the maximum amount of screen time together.

The Force Awakens Part II

I’m focusing on this film to the exclusion of all others because this is the film that sets the tone for success or failure of future franchise installments. It is also this film that tells us if on-screen chemistry works or doesn’t. The then future films, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker would continue to show us character dynamic growth, but it is The Force Awakens that tells us if on-screen chemistry works.

Unfortunately, because the scenes between the primary characters were of such short duration, it’s exceedingly hard to gauge the effectiveness of most of the on-screen chemistries in this film. The only character relationships we effectively get to see is that of Rey and Finn. We don’t really get to see the chemistry between Poe and Rey, Poe and Finn (much) or, especially, Rey and Kylo (a key element of The Last Jedi carried into The Rise of Skywalker).

I’m not considering on-screen chemistry with scenes between a primary character and someone dressed in full concealing armor, such as Phasma and Kylo. You can’t judge actor chemistry when one is clad head to toe in concealment. I’m only counting scenes where actors faces are fully visible, when the audience can judge facial expressions and body language… very important to on-screen chemistry.

What it comes down to with The Force Awakens is that there were not enough scenes between the primary cast to actually determine if the primary character chemistry works for all three characters when together. For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, all three characters are together for an extended amount of time when they need to escape the Death Star. Not only do we get to see these three work together, we get to see it for a long segment of the film. They do split up at times with Luke and Leia doing their swing across scene. With Chewie and Han doing their thing diverting attention away from Luke and Leia. Before that, they all work together in the dumpster scene.

We get to see these three characters many, many times over the course of all three films: A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It’s also very easy to see the chemistry between these three actors. On screen, their chemistry just works, and boy does it ever.

With Poe, Finn and Rey at the end of The Force Awakens, we’re left wondering if these three truly do have any chemistry. The only two where we get to see any chemistry is, again, Finn and Rey… and they most certainly do have it. Unfortunately, the TFA story didn’t lend itself to a trio situation, leaving the audience wondering if this is truly about a trio or just a bunch of characters thrown together.

By The Last Jedi, we completely understood the answer to that question. It’s just a bunch of characters thrown together. It’s not really a trio. Luke, Leia and Han acted as a team much of the time. Unfortunately, in Disney’s trilogy, Poe, Rey and Finn didn’t act as a trio. Occasionally, these three would pair off and work in twos, but never did they work together as a team of three towards a common goal, like Luke, Leia and Han or even the prequel team of Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Padmé.

This is where the Disney series learns a harsh lesson. This is also why the Disney trilogy just didn’t congeal with the fans of the series. More about this at the end. I digress.

Reylo

A lot of fans were so adamant that Rey and Kylo had some kind of thing going on. Oh sure, they had a thing, but it was forced by the hand of Snoke. When Kylo and Rey were both together, the scenes always felt awkward and uncomfortable, like a brother and sister kissing. This lasts from their first lightsaber duel in the snowbound forest to the red guard scene in The Last Jedi to pretty much any scene in The Rise of Skywalker. With ‘uncomfortable’ being the operative word. When two actors are on screen together, ‘uncomfortable’ denotes bad chemistry, not intentional design.

I can’t recall one scene between Rey and Kylo that didn’t feel ‘icky’. By ‘icky’, I mean disturbing and uncomfortable. It’s like oil and water. The two don’t mix. That’s how every scene I watched between Kylo and Rey felt. It felt like these two didn’t belong together in the same scene. THAT is a primary hallmark of bad (or zero) chemistry. These two effectively have no on-screen chemistry.

Let’s explore this a bit further…

Miscasting

Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, was entirely miscast for the part of this series primary villain. Some observers have claimed that Adam was playing the part conflicted. Let’s understand internal conflict.

Both Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader (Anakin dressed in concealing garb) played this character conflicted. Yet, not once did Hayden Christensen nor did David Prowse resort to exhibiting a temper tantrum to get his “conflicted” point across. Brooding solace is much more effective at displaying conflict than lashing out at consoles in a fit of childish anger. Every actor must choose how to portray certain aspects of their character. Unfortunately, Adam Driver’s choice (or perhaps the script’s choice) was too infantile. This didn’t happen just once in the first film. It happened several times throughout the film and the series.

Infantile screaming outbursts don’t say conflicted, they say spoiled man-child. Let’s not even consider how Ben Solo managed to get this way. Spoiled brat behavior doesn’t convey internal conflict. Darth Vader, for example, learned to hold his anger in check and focus it towards the times when he needed to focus it. Anakin, before he became Darth, wasn’t great at holding in his anger, but didn’t resort to childish outbursts… mostly because Obi-wan was there to guide him.

Did Kylo and Rey have good chemistry?

The simple answer to this question is, no. Daisy Ridley and the miscast Adam Driver simply had zero chemistry when on-screen together. It was always awkward and uncomfortable when these two were acting in a scene together. Their scenes only moderately worked, but always felt unconvincing. The characters didn’t feel conflicted at all. When they were together, the scenes felt empty and contrived… again, both hallmarks of lack of chemistry.

I know a lot of people feel that these two had on-screen chemistry. I urge you to rewatch these films and examine for yourself how you feel when you watch these two together. Do you feel happy and elated or uncomfortable and unconvinced? Examine how you feel when you watch. That’s how you determine if chemistry works or doesn’t.

When chemistry works, you know it right away. You can see it. You can feel it. It’s an intangible, but very real sensation. When chemistry doesn’t work, you can also feel that too. You might be revulsed, indifferent, empty or you might even feel ‘icky’.

Let me give you different examples of exceedingly bad chemistry, weak chemistry and good chemistry so you can understand these differences:

Exceedingly Bad Chemistry

  1. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy
  2. Toby McGuire and Bryce Dallas Howard in Raimi’s Spiderman
  3. The entire “cabin” cast of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods
  4. Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel in Saturn 3
  5. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley in the Disney Star Wars Trilogy
  6. Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd and Shelley Hack or Tanya Roberts in Charlie’s Angels
  7. Mariska Hargitay and Adam Beach in Law and Order SVU
  8. John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran in The Last Jedi
  9. Marjoe Gortner and Caroline Munro in 1978’s horrendous Starcrash

Weak Chemistry

  1. Toby McGuire and Kirsten Dunst in Raimi’s Spiderman
  2. Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden in Star Trek TNG
  3. Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt in Jurassic World
  4. Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore in The Lost World
  5. Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds in The Green Lantern
  6. Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark
  7. Kate Jackson, Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith in Charlie’s Angels
  8. Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, Kelli Giddish and Peter Scanavino in Law and Order SVU
  9. Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum in Jurrasic Park (all 3 together)
  10. The entire cast of the original Blade Runner
  11. The entire cast of The Abyss

Brilliant Chemistry

  1. Jenny Agutter and Michael York in Logan’s Run
  2. Barbara Bain and Martin Landau in Space 1999
  3. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly in OG Star Trek
  4. William Frakes and Mirina Sirtis in Star Trek TNG
  5. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in Star Wars
  6. C-3PO and the rest of the Star Wars cast
  7. Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith in Charlie’s Angels
  8. Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting
  9. John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Sommers in Three’s Company
  10. Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni in Law and Order SVU
  11. Laura Dern and Sam Neill in Jurassic Park
  12. The entire cast of both Alien and Aliens films
  13. The entire cast of Gilligan’s Island
  14. The entire cast of The Brady Bunch TV series

Charlie’s Angels

Here’s a case study in both casting and chemistry. The late 1970’s TV series is a shining example of how cast changes can see chemistry range from brilliant to piss poor. When Kate Jackson left the series in 1979, the remaining cast chemistry between Cheryl and Jaclyn fizzled out. Because Cheryl Ladd didn’t bring with her the same level of chemistry as Farrah Fawcett, the show relied on Kate and Jaclyn to carry the chemistry. For the most part, this worked… until 1979 when Kate departed.

After that, Kate’s role was recast with a new angel. First, Shelley Hack, then the following season by Tanya Roberts. Neither of these two lovely ladies brought with them any semblance of chemistry or cohesion to the series or the cast. In fact, any remaining chemistry between Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd and either of these two ladies fizzled out entirely by series end. The series was merely pulled along by its premise, not by the cast chemistry.

The too early departure of Farrah Fawcett left a gaping chemistry hole in the cast with huge shoes to fill. Cheryl stepped in and did a respectable job and she looked great in a bathing suit, but the cast chemistry was much, much weaker with her there. If anything, this cast change is what ultimately did the series in… not because of Cheryl specifically, but simply because her chemistry between the other two leads was much, much weaker.

Another series that also suffered cast changes which weakened its cast…

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

Dick Wolf’s SVU series began with brilliant casting and the show has since been running for 21 seasons and counting. The best seasons, however, still feature Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson and Christopher Meloni as Elliot Stabler. These two were the perfect team and had perfect chemistry. The series was on point with these two together. Apparently, Christopher’s contract ran out at the end of season 12 and it was not renewed. As a result, Christopher didn’t return for season 13 and Stabler was written off as retired. I won’t get into exactly how poorly Dick handled his departure, but suffice it to say that Christopher’s departure would disrupt the chemistry of the cast (and show) for many seasons to come. In fact, the season when Adam Beach joined is clearly the lowest chemistry point of the entire series.

It wouldn’t be until Dick settled on Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, Kelli Giddish and Peter Scanavino before SVU got back some semblance of its chemistry, however small. Unfortunately, like Charlie’s Angels before it, this cast’s chemistry is much, much weaker than when Mariska and Christopher were together. Those two just exuded chemistry like Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd before them.

The Magic of Chemistry

You can’t predict chemistry when casting. It happens or it doesn’t. Sometimes, you don’t even know how well it has worked until the production has wrapped and you see the final product. With a TV show like Charlie’s Angels, where episodes are weekly, it’s much faster to see chemistry because time to completion of the final product is only a few weeks. With a film, it could be months before you see the end result, before you know if the chemistry has worked.

For this reason, films like The Force Awakens must take risks and assume cast chemistry works. Unfortunately, sometimes the chemistry between all of the actors just doesn’t congeal, but that was more a problem with the story than the cast. If the story had put these three together sooner, including Kylo, we could have seen that it didn’t work. In the case of Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, it really doesn’t work. These two are like oil and water. They just don’t mix. The same can be said of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. Together, Hayden and Natalie were unbelievable as a couple. Trying to believe they were actually in love was about as convincing as watching two WFC wrestlers in the ring. The same can be said for Rey and Kylo.

Miscasting vs Chemistry

Both kind of go hand-in-hand, but both are separate things. Miscasting can lead to bad chemistry, but sometimes it doesn’t. When a character is miscast, it’s difficult to believe that actor is portraying that character. However, that actor might still work okay with other cast members. It may be weak chemistry, but it can still work.

Miscasting is when the wrong actor is cast for a part. It could be that the actor just doesn’t have the acting depth to properly portray the character or it could simply be that the character needs to be way more mature than the actor’s looks allow. For example, casting a 20something who looks 18 into a part designed to be a 35 or 40 year old is usually ripe for miscasting. If the character’s age is 40something, then a 40something (or someone who looks like a 40something) should be hired. Unfortunately, casting the correct age into the role doesn’t necessarily solidify good chemistry.

As I said, these two concepts are separate. To determine chemistry, the actors need to be put together and filmed in test scenes to determine if they have any chemistry at all. Chemistry is the magic of filmmaking. It is the heart of a blockbuster or a bomb. If the cast doesn’t work, then the film won’t work. If the cast works perfectly, then so too does the film… usually. Though, there’s no guarantee in filmmaking. You never know if the story being told is something people will embrace or discard. While chemistry makes the cast work properly, the story makes the film work. Both need to align for a project to succeed.

Even then, it’s still up to the fickle nature of the audience. If the material rubs the audience the wrong way, no amount of cast chemistry can make up for this situation.

As an example, there’s 1969’s Hello Dolly, starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. While at least one of these two might be considered miscast, one cannot deny that these two together had a chemistry that worked. Barbra was definitely miscast as the middle aged meddling matchmaker Dolly Levi, but even still, Barbra’s and Walter’s charm came through boldly on screen… even when together. Unfortunately, another pair’s chemistry in this film wouldn’t fare quite so well… Michael Crawford and Marianne McAndrew, which both sported a very weak chemistry. Though, Danny Locklin and E.J. Peaker’s chemistry was brilliant.

This is a film that I expected to feel badly for this casting pair, but surprisingly their chemistry works… even though apparently Barbra and Walter didn’t get along on set.

Unfortunately, Hello Dolly came at a time when musicals were on the way out. The time of breaking into song randomly in the middle of a park singing about love had passed. Those days ended around the early to mid 60s. We would see a brief resurgence of musicals around 1980 (Grease and Victor/Victoria) which would later turn into single individual musical films that occasionally worked for audiences.

Hello Dolly, however, would become one of the first casualties of the audience’s fickle nature, causing this musical film to ultimately bomb at the box office. It would make up that loss much later in rentals and sales long into the future… but in 1969, it bombed hard… not because it wasn’t a good musical, but because 1969 audiences had grown tired of the genre.

Chemistry and the Problems of Star Wars

Star Wars has had a mixed bag of chemistry when it comes to actors. The original trilogy arguably offered the most brilliant casting choices of any of the films. The prequels probably had some of the worst casting choices, particularly the casting of a child actor. The Disney Trilogy’s casting choices were ultimately better than the Prequels, but still worse than the original trilogy. The “Golden Trio” as the original cast is sometimes called is actually the perfect description. It would have been more difficult to find three better actors than the actors chosen for Star Wars: A New Hope.

This casting set the tone for the future films. The sheer brilliant actor chemistry in the three original films carried these films through to conclusion even as the stories weakened. If George had made even one casting change prior to filming, the original Star Wars might not have done as well in the box office. Everything in the original films congealed perfectly to create a juggernaut that couldn’t be stopped… at least, not until the prequels.

Disney’s Questionable Choices

Disney hasn’t helped this series much by creating flaccid and vacuous stories that really don’t say anything significant and, yet, rehash the same tired tropes of the original series. It’s one of the biggest problems with the films. The cast works okay, with the aforementioned chemistry problems. However, the least of Disney’s worries was the casting and chemistry. It was the poor quality stories. These film’s stories are so derivative as to be pointless rehashed film exercises.

There’s nothing truly original in any of the Disney trilogy films. We’ve seen everything in it before and it’s been done better. As the saying goes, “Let sleeping dogs lie”. Disney should have bought LucasFilm and focused on producing new TV series. Leave the film universe alone. Everything that’s been done has already been done better. Disney forcing films down our throats that simply don’t tell us anything new are not films, they’re clones. We’ve already had enough clones in The Clone Wars, we don’t need yet more film clones of the original films.

Disney needed to have brought something new to the table with the Disney trilogy, but unfortunately they failed and they failed hard. That’s not to say that Disney’s films didn’t make money, because they did. Making money and being good quality films are two disparate things. You can make money from a crappy product. Many companies do this everyday with their As-Seen-On-TV junk. Disney is no different. They figured they could shove random rehashed stories down our throats wrapped in a new coat of paint and that it would go unnoticed and be well-received. Well, we noticed.

The films are done and locked. There’s nothing we can do about that. Disney can decanonize them, but that doesn’t make sense. Why would you invalidate a product you spent perhaps a billion to produce and made billions off of? No. The only way Disney can salvage the disaster that is presently Star Wars is to sell the film rights (and the canon) off to Sony, Warner Brothers, Fox or another large studio. Let them right this ship. Only a new studio can truly right the wrongs of Disney. Only they can rewrite the stories over. Only a new studio can decanonize Disney’s efforts and claim it doesn’t exist and do it with impunity.

Chemistry may have caused small problems in Disney’s films, but it is ultimately the crappy stories, the rehashed tropes and the poor writing that did these films in. That’s all on the writers, directors and producers. If these folks can’t understand what crap is, then perhaps they need a new job in a new industry.

Under Disney, the Star Wars brand is not salvageable. Under another studio, it can be salvaged. Disney must sell off LucasFilm to another studio so Star Wars can start anew. There really is no other way. In answer to the original question that began this article regarding chemistry between Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, no. Just, no.

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What is 35mm film resolution?

Posted in entertainment, film, movies, technologies by commorancy on December 26, 2018

filmstrip-fI’ve seen a number of questions on Quora asking about this topic, likely related to 4K TV resolution. Let’s explore.

Film vs Digital

What is the amount of pixels in a 35mm frame of film? There’s not an exact number of pixels in a single frame of 35mm film stock. You know, that old plasticky stuff you had to develop with chemicals? Yeah, that stuff. However, the number of pixels can be estimated based on the ISO used.

Based on an ISO of 100-200, it is estimated that just shy of 20,000,000 (20 million) pixels make up a single 35mm frame after conversion to digital pixels. When the ISO is increased to allow more light into the aperture, this increases film noise or grain. As grain increases, resolution decreases. At an ISO of 6400, for example, the effective resolution in pixels might drop to less than 10,000,000 (10 million) due to more film grain. It can be even lower than that depending on the type of scene, the brightness of the scene and the various other film factors… including how the film was developed.

If we’re talking about 70mm film stock, then we’re talking about double the effective resolution. This means that a single frame of 70mm film stock would contain (again at ISO 100-200) about 40,000,000 (40 million) digital pixels.

Digital Cinematography

Panavision Millenium DXL2With the advent of digital cinematography, filmmakers can choose from the older Panavision film cameras or they can choose between Panavision‘s or RED‘s digital cameras (and, of course, others). For a filmmaker choosing a digital camera over a film camera, you should understand the important differences in your final film product.

As of this article, RED and Panavision digital cinematography cameras produce a resolution up to 8k (7,680 × 4,320 = 33,177,600 total pixels). While 33 million pixels is greater than the 20 million pixels in 35mm film, it is still less resolution than can be had in 70mm film at 40 million pixels. Red DragonThis means that while digital photography might offer a smoother look than film, it doesn’t necessarily offer better ‘quality’ than film.

Though, using digital cameras to create content is somewhat cheaper because there’s no need to send the footage to a lab to be developed… only to find that the film was defective, scratched or in some way problematic. This means that digital photography is a bit more foolproof as you can immediately preview the filmed product and determine if it needs to be reshot in only a few minutes. With film, you don’t know what you have until it’s developed, which could be a day or two later.

With that said, film’s resolution is based on its inherent film structure. Film resolution can also be higher than that of digital cameras. Film also looks different due to the way the film operates with sprockets and “flipping” in both the camera and projector. Film playback simply has a different look and feel than digital playback.

RED expects to increase its camera resolution to 10k (or higher) in the future. I’m unsure what exact resolution that will entail, but the current UW10k resolution features 10,240 × 4,320 = 44,236,800 pixels. This number of pixels is similar to 70mm film stock in total resolution, but the aspect ratio is not that of a film screen, which typically uses 2.35:1 (Cinemascope widescreen) or 16:9 (TV widescreen) formats. I’d expect that whatever resolution / aspect that RED chooses will still provide a 2.35:1 format and other formats, though it might even support that oddball UW10k aspect with its 10,240 pixels wide view. These new even wider screens are becoming popular, particularly with computers and gaming.

Film Distribution

Even though films created on RED cameras may offer an up to 8k resolution, these films are always down-sampled for both theatrical performance and for home purchasing. For example, the highest resolution you can buy at home is the UltraHD 4K version which offers 3,840 x 2,160 = 8,294,400 pixels. Converting an 8k film into 4k, you lose around 24 million pixels of resolution information from the original film source. This is the same when converting film stock to digital formats.

Digital films projected in theaters typically use theatrical 4K copies, much the same as you can buy on UltraHD 4K discs, just tied to a different licensing system that only theaters use.

Future TV formats

TV resolutions have been going up and up. From 480p to 1080p to 4K and next to 8K. Once we get to 8K in the home, this is the resolution you’ll find natively with most digitally captured films. Though, some early digital films were filmed in 4K. Eventually, we will be able to see digital films in its native resolution. 8K TVs will finally allow home consumers to watch films in their filmed resolution, including both 35mm film and 70mm film stock both as well as many digital only films.

For this reason, I’m anxious to finally see 8K TVs drop in price to what 4K TVs are today (sub $1000). By that time, of course, 4K TVs will be sub $200.

8K Film Distribution

To distribute 8K films to home consumers, we’re likely going to need a new format. UltraHD Blu-ray is likely not big enough to handle the size of the files of 8K films. We’ll either need digital download distribution or we’ll need a brand new, much larger Blu-ray disc. Or, the movie will need to be shipped on two discs in two parts… I always hated switching discs in the middle of a movie. Of course, streaming from services like Netflix is always an option, but even 4K isn’t widely adopted on these streaming platforms as yet.

Seeing in 8K?

Some people claim you can’t see the difference between 1080p and 4K. This is actually an untrue statement. 1080p resolution, particularly on a 55″ or larger TV, is easy to spot the pixels from a distance… well, not exactly the pixels themselves, but the rows and columns of pixels (pixel grid) that make up the screen. With 4K resolution, the pixels are so much smaller, it’s almost impossible to see this grid unless you are within inches of the screen. This makes viewing films in 4K much more enjoyable.

With 8K films, the filmed actors and environments will be so stunningly detailed as to be astounding. We’ll finally get to see all of that detail that gets lost when films are down-converted to 4K from 8K. We’ll also get to see pretty much what came out of the camera rather than being re-encoded.

Can humans see 8K? Sure, just like you can see the difference between 1080p and 4K, you will be able to see a difference in quality and detail between 4K and 8K. It might be a subtle difference, but it will be there and people will be able to see it. Perhaps not everyone will notice it or care enough to notice, but it will be there.

Film vs Digital Differences

The difference between film and digital photography is in how the light is captured and stored. For film, the camera exposes the film to light which is then developed to show what was captured. With digital photography, CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) or possibly CCDs (Charge Coupled Devices) are used to capture imagery. Most cameras today opt for CMOS sensors because they’re less expensive to buy and provide equivalent quality to the CCD sensors. For this reason, this is why RED has chosen CMOS as the sensor technology of choice for their cameras. Though, RED cameras are in no way inexpensive, starting at around $20k and going up from there.

Overall

In concluding this article, I will say that 4K is definitely sufficient for most movie watching needs today. However, Internet speeds will need to improve substantially to offer the best 8K viewing experience when streaming. Even Netflix and Amazon don’t currently provide even an amazing 4K experience as yet. In fact, Netflix’s 4K offerings are few and far between. When you do find a film in 4K, it takes forever for Netflix to begin streaming this 4K content to the TV. Netflix first starts out streaming at 480p (or less), then gradually increases the stream rate until the movie is finally running at 4K. It can take between 5-10 minutes before you actually get a 2160p picture. Even then, the resolution can drop back down in the middle and take minutes before it resumes 4K.

Today, 4K streaming is still more or less haphazard and doesn’t work that well. That’s partly due to Netflix and partly due to the Internet. The streaming rate at which 4K content requires to achieve a consistent quality picture can really only be had from Blu-ray players or by downloading the content to your computer in advance and playing it from your hard drive. Streaming services offering 4K content still have many hurdles to overcome to produce high quality consistent 4K viewing experiences.

For this reason, 8K streaming content is still many, many years away. Considering that 4K barely works today, 8K isn’t likely to work at all without much faster Internet speeds to the home.

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Carrie Fisher to appear in Star Wars: Episode 9

Posted in business, movies by commorancy on July 27, 2018

star-wars-e9It was announced today by LucasFilm that J.J. Abrams has come up with a way to include Carrie Fisher in the upcoming Star Wars Episode 9 installment. Let’s explore.

The Force Awakens

Every film has outtakes and footage that doesn’t make the final cut. So, where does that film end up? It seems that the outtake footage of Carrie Fisher from The Force Awakens will end up in Episode 9.

What does this mean for Episode 9? It means that J.J. Abrams will need extraordinary writing and editing efforts to shoehorn this existing footage into a cohesive narrative for Episode 9.

Will It Work?

This is, unfortunately, a constraint that the saga doesn’t need. I realize that Carrie Fisher’s untimely death left the Star Wars franchise with a dilemma. I also realize that the filmmakers wanted a way to properly close Leia out from this Saga. I further realize that the story needs to be cohesive and round out the ending of this already perilous trilogy after the divisive The Last Jedi.

On the one hand, I’m like any other fan. I want to see Leia complete her role in the final installment. On the other hand, I realize this isn’t possible because Carrie Fisher is no longer with us. I also realize that the series needs to honor Carrie’s and Leia’s legacy in these films.

At the same time, The Last Jedi arguably one of the worst Star Wars films ever made and it needs to be forgotten as we try to ignore (as best we can) the crap that Rian Johnson introduced. With that said, J.J. Abrams needs to try and salvage and close out this trilogy in some befitting way.

By grabbing random film stock of Carrie Fisher from The Force Awakens, it is intended to do one thing, honor Carrie’s memory… something this franchise does need to do. However, there are many ways of honoring a person’s memory without resorting to fitting …

Square Pegs in Round Holes

This is where I believe J.J. Abrams has just tied his own hands. J.J.’s abilities to write solid functional stories for film is difficult enough at the best of times. When trying to honor Carrie’s and Leia’s memory at the same time using this old stock footage, I’m highly skeptical that J.J. is actually proficient enough at screenwriting to pull this final installment off with these constraints. I’m not saying that J.J. can’t pull it off, but his ability to pull it off successfully has just dropped dramatically.

Final Trilogy Installment

We all know that this trilogy (and the Star Wars franchise in general) is already in serious trouble. I’d personally consider using Carrie’s The Force Awakens footage as a highly risky move for this film. Yes, we do need to close out Leia’s involvement, but I’m uncertain that this existing footage will even make sense in the context of a new story.

Considering the performance of the Solo movie, I wouldn’t have suggested making an announcement that this possibility exists at all. Just let it happen organically. If it works, so be it. We’ll see it when the movie is complete. Since the principal photography is to begin in August 2018, it’s way too premature to know if what Carrie filmed in 2015 will even work. And, if it doesn’t work when a rough cut is viewed, it could end up on the cutting room floor again. After all, it was already on the cutting room floor. Having announced it in the press means fans will expect it to be in the film. If it’s yanked because it doesn’t work, that choice will be reflected in the movie’s box office receipts. This announcement seems way too premature.

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Fan Backlash: What’s wrong with Star Wars?

Posted in botch, business, california, movies by commorancy on July 6, 2018

the-last-jedi-theatricalI’ve been watching several YouTube channels recently… yes, I do watch YouTube. And yes, there has been a huge fan backlash against the latest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi. Some of these channels outright blame the social justice warriors for the fundamental problem. I don’t agree. The SJWs aren’t to blame, Disney and Kathleen Kennedy are. Let’s explore.

The Original Trilogy

Episodes 4, 5 and 6 are arguably the best of Star Wars. These films were created and conceived by George Lucas. We got a tiny taste of the cutesy characters the Jawas and R2D2 in A New Hope and again with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, but these characters were tempered to avoid becoming cartoons. As fans, we were able to mostly ignore these cutesy characters because they were limited in scope and/or served a genuine purpose (more than being cute). George then pushed the bounds again in Return of the Jedi with the Ewoks. These little cutesy bundles of fur were almost entirely “for the kids” and very much cartoons. Thankfully, the introduction of these cuddly characters didn’t entirely ruin the plot of the film. Yes, they were cute, but most of us were able to get over the cute-cuddly teddy bear nature of them. However, George was skating on thin ice with these characters. Many fans weren’t impressed. Still, Return of the Jedi worked as a sufficient ending to the original trilogy.

Thankfully, at the time, social media was non-existent. The only people who could effectively and loudly complain about it were the newspaper critics. The fans had no outlet for their own outrage. The Internet was just budding, email didn’t exist and neither did Twitter, Facebook or any other social site. Fan complaints traveled almost entirely by word of mouth (or via the convention circuit).

The Prequels

By 1999, when Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace premiered, email, text messaging, blogging and even early versions of social media began their rise to becoming ubiquitous. This is the time when fans finally had not only an outlet for their words, but people to read them. Not long after this period of time is when the term ‘social justice warriors’ would be coined. At this time, they were simply called, ‘keyboard warriors’.

When George introduced Jar Jar Binks, he took the cutesy cartoon idea to extremes producing one of the biggest pop icons of the era and simultaneously one of the most derided characters ever to grace the silver screen, let alone a Star Wars film. Many people have a love-hate relationship with Jar Jar.

Not only is Jar Jar very much a cartoon character, he’s also a politically incorrect figure in so many different ways. Not only in his voice, but in his manner of speech and in simply what he says. This is through no fault of the voice actor who portrayed Jar Jar. This is the fault of George Lucas. This is also where Star Wars effectively “jumped the shark”, but not solely because of Jar Jar. Oh certainly, Jar Jar heavily contributed to this, but writing a trilogy long story about the origin of Darth Vader is, well, pretentious. It really doesn’t take 3 films to show the entire Anakin Skywalker story.  That could have been condensed into one film leaving two others to show Darth Vader doing nasty things and birthing the rebellion. Instead of boring senate scenes about trade blockades (*yawn*), we could have been watching Darth Vader and the Emperor fighting the beginnings of the rebellion (much more interesting).

This is where George has not only fallen on that thin ice, he fell through it. This is where George finally got a taste of fan backlash. Backlash that he would have gotten a whole lot faster had social media existed when the Ewoks showed their cute little faces on screen the first time. No, he had to wait until the prequels were released to finally get a taste of what would become Social Justice.

It also didn’t help that George’s revisionist tendencies led him to re-release the original trilogy with updated CGI visuals and modified scenes. In combination with the prequels, this led fans to begin their disenchantment with the direction of the Star Wars film universe. Did it really need to be revised who shot first in the cantina scene?

The Disney Films

Because of George’s less than stellar trilogy story in the prequels (Episodes 1, 2 and 3), George felt downtrodden and unable to produce more Star Wars films. Ultimately, he sold the franchise to Disney.

By 2015, with the release of The Force Awakens, fans were more excited than skeptical. By this time, not only had social media well matured, we now have instant access to it anywhere. Yes, even in the theater while watching it. It was inevitable that people would post their reviews within minutes of exiting the theater, possibly writing it while they were watching. Initially, fan reviews of The Force Awakens were positive. However, as fans mulled over the film on social media and via other means, it became clear just out vacuous this first new installment really was.

Yes, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, but it isn’t a Star Wars film in structure. It’s a J.J. film. After a few months of mulling over what The Force Awakens meant, it was quickly clear that it simply wasn’t what fans wanted.

Hollywood’s Affirmative Action Plan Initiative

Since at least 2014, the gender and ethnic equality war began in Hollywood in earnest. Since then, Hollywood has been sacrificing its screenplays and film profits (and projects) to the Hollywood Affirmative Action Plan Initiative (HAAPi — pronounced “happy”). Instead of telling stories as written with characters as created, directors and producers now feel the need to rewrite and cast politically correct ethnic and/or gender bending casts at the expense of producing a high quality entertaining film that will become a box office success.

Here are are two examples:

  • 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot was recast entirely with women in the lead roles
  • 2015’s Johnny Storm was recast as a black male against his white female sister in the latest failed Fantastic Four… not how the comic was written.

Both of these films I’d classify as box office bombs sacrificed to HAAPi. Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have additionally been sacrificed to this movement. I’m not sure if the women of Hollywood intend to bring down the entire film industry or what exactly is their agenda, but trying these silly shenanigans in an effort to force a cast of women and ethnic minorities at the expense of a logical story is insane.

I am 100% for gender and ethnic diversity in casting … When. It. Makes. Sense. Don’t do it because you can, do it because the story requires it.

Do you want to make money or do you want to make a point? Let’s hope this trend ends before all of the studios in Hollywood end up bankrupt. On the other hand, perhaps it is time for Hollywood’s day to end.

The Last Jedi

To some extent, The Force Awakens’s sacrifice to HAAPi was both inevitable and thwarted. Because this was the first installment and these were brand new characters, we ignored HAAPi (for the most part). As excited fans, we were able to look past HAAPi and ignore any specific casting defects in starring roles.

However with The Last Jedi (helmed not by J.J. Abrams like The Force Awakens, but by Rian Johnson), this film not only succumbed to HAAPi, but slapped us fans in the face with it like a dead fish. Instead of casting smart, Johnson (and Kennedy) cast HAAPi. With Rose Tico, we ended up with an Asian female. There’s nothing specifically wrong with this casting choice if it had happened in The Force Awakens. Instead, because of HAAPi, this character was shoehorned into a main character role at a time when the character was not needed. This character was also shoehorned into a plot device that just didn’t work. In fact, the entire romp between Finn and Rose was entirely pointless for this film and wasted about 15-20 minutes of screen time. Perhaps the resistance ring Rose handed to the boy may have some level of significance in the final film… or it may not. That ring could have been given to the boy in so many other better ways by already established characters.

Also, why introduce Rose at all? She’s a wrench jockey who fixes things. She doesn’t appear to have force powers. What is she likely to bring to the story of any real importance? You can introduce a Rose-like character in a series like Clone Wars or Rebels because it’s a multipart series. There are so many episodes, characters need to come and go. In a trilogy, every character introduction counts. And, such an introduction takes away character development time from other characters. We already don’t know enough about Finn, Poe and Rey, we don’t need yet fourth character to have to get to know.

The reason Star Wars the original trilogy worked is primarily because of the triangle lead roles of Luke, Leia and Han. We had that triangle going with Finn, Poe and Rey. Yet, now we have Finn, Poe, Rey and Rose (?). This character has upset that triangle. If you’re going to do that, then the story should have introduced this character in the opening film to this trilogy.

The Rose problem exists entirely because, like 2016’s Ghostbusters and 2015’s Fantastic Four, The Last Jedi has been sacrificed to HAAPi to solve a perceived film deficiency, not because the story needs it. This time, however, fans were able to lift the HAAPi veil and see through it for what it is… sad. And so, the fan backlash ensues.

Star Wars is a fantasy series. Bringing Hollywood casting agendas into a film’s story isn’t what fans want to see. This not only insults the fans’ intelligence, it insults the fans. What else would Disney expect to happen? Using a franchise like Star Wars to further a Hollywood agenda is entirely insane. Disney and Kathleen Kennedy, you need to get your shit together and wake up. HAAPi is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and it doesn’t belong in Star Wars.

The Final Film

This film has not yet released as of this article. However, it’s almost certain that not only will this film bomb at the box office, it may end the franchise entirely. Disney would be wise to shelve this last film and any future Star Wars film projects until this whole thing blows over… and Disney, you need dump the current team working on it including Kathleen Kennedy.

Let the final film stew for a few years. Make the fans wait until they clamor for it. Make the fans want it. Putting it out right now is a recipe for box office failure. This franchise is already skating on thin ice because of HAAPi. It’s almost certain that the final film will also be sacrificed to HAAPi. Abusing HAAPi makes me (and many other Star Wars fans) very, very sad.

A history of the DIVX DVD

Posted in botch, business, movies by commorancy on April 29, 2018

In 1998 (almost 20 years ago), a new DVD rental format arrived named DIVX (aka Digital Video Express). It purported to be a DVD rental format that had no late fees and the media didn’t need to be returned… at least those were the benefits purported to the consumer. What they didn’t tell you was that you would need to buy a brand new expensive DVD player to play them. Let’s explore.

DIVX versus DivX

To get this confusion cleared up quickly, DIVX was a brand name assigned to a new DVD rental standard introduced by Circuit City and the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca and Fischer in 1998. However, it’s not entirely clear what problem Circuit City was trying to solve by introducing the DIVX rental format when DVD was already useful enough for rentals.

The DIVX brand name, introduced by Circuit City, bears no relationship to the DivX or Xvid video encoding standards. Even though there is no relationship by Circuit City to the DivX encoder, there is a slight reverse relationship from the DivX encoder to the DIVX brand. In fact, the original name of the DivX encoder was actually DivX ;-)

Yes, this encoder name included the winking smiley. This smiley was actually a nod (and sarcasm) towards Circuit City’s then soon-to-be-defunct DIVX rental standard. Here’s what the DivX Wikipedia article says of the early days of the video encoder named DivX ;-).

DivX ;-) (not DivX) 3.11 Alpha and later 3.xx versions refers to a hacked version of the Microsoft MPEG-4 Version 3 video codec (not to be confused with MPEG-4 Part 3) from Windows Media Tools 4 codecs. The video codec, which was actually not MPEG-4 compliant, was extracted around 1998 by French hacker Jerome Rota (also known as Gej) at Montpellier.

So then, what does DivX ;-) have to do with the DIVX DVD format? Not much other than DivX ;-) making a tongue-in-cheek poke at Circuit City’s DIVX rental format. Hopefully, this clears up any confusion around this convoluted naming.

DIVX as a rental standard

The primary impetus to build the new DIVX rental standard by Circuit City was probably brand recognition. At the time, Circuit City was considered the second largest electronics retailer behind Best Buy. The Circuit City management was obviously willing to do anything to become the number one electronics retailer, including dreaming up technology ideas that didn’t need to be built. Meaning that by 1998, Blockbuster had the rental market sewn up. However, Circuit City sought to disrupt that by trying to create a new standard that not only simultaneously upset Blockbuster’s cart, but introduced a new format that would bring more recognition to the Circuit City brand (and, of course, generate more hardware and rental sales). As a side note, Circuit City was also the second largest appliance retailer behind Sears at that time.

Here’s the Circuit City DIVX promo video (skip to 0:17 to begin an unrealistic family scenario, press 1 to skip the intro entirely or jump to 4:19 to begin use case demonstration). Don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Now, let’s watch this training video to better understand how then CEO Richard L. Sharp saw DIVX’s future within Circuit City. Pay close attention to his statements during the opening segments of this video. Again, don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.

Unfortunately, Circuit City’s management goals were way too ambitious and overconfident. They also dropped into a rabbit hole with this DIVX venture that took them away from their core retail business and caused them to spend millions to create and support a format that didn’t live up to the hype. In fact, it might even be considered that failure of the DIVX format ushered in the downward slide of Circuit City into oblivion. While Circuit City was a reasonable electronics retailer, they didn’t have any presence in the video rental market. When they introduced DIVX, the assumed strategy was to add $4-5 rentals and boost DVD player sales in the Circuit City and Good Guys stores. The management team thought that this rental business would somehow take them to the next level. If only they had adopted standard DVD rentals instead.

As shown in the demo, DIVX boasted a 48 hour rental period with no need to return the disc when the rental period ended. However, to use DIVX, you had to invest in a brand new type of DVD player that also supported the DIVX format. Tada! Here’s the catch. This is also where Circuit City comes into the picture. You’d have to run on over to your local Circuit City (or one of several other retailers owned by CC, like Good Guys) to buy one of these newfangled DIVX DVD player doodads. A doodad that might cost you $100-150 more than a DVD player without DIVX. At least, this is what the management at Circuit City hoped you would do.

This idea for introducing this new format was a huge misfire for Circuit City. In addition to the picture quality problems described just below, the DIVX player contained a modem that required the player to dial-up and register itself before you could play any DIVX discs. It also apparently dialed-up twice a day to register any new purchases and download advertisements. This modem required a physical telephone line plugged into the unit to dial home. This then authorized not only your player, but supplied the player with the necessary information to authorize playback of a rental disc you recently picked up. This concept all worked reasonably well, except for the fact that several privacy groups felt that this dial home feature meant that Circuit City (or whomever) could keep tabs on your viewing habits. Little did we know then exactly how much spying would become commonplace with sites like Google and Facebook. Anyway, that privacy concern didn’t help boost efforts to sell DIVX into main stream. Of course, it wasn’t the only problem.

Poor Movie Quality

The actual DIVX DVDs themselves failed to contain the more advanced features found on a standard DVD, such as 16:9 anamorphic widescreen needed to fill a large flat panel. DIVX movie discs also failed to contain alternate audio commentary and extra features commonly found on standard DVDs. Instead, these DIVX DVDs simply contained 4:3 cropped pan and scan versions of the film… a subpar version. This was a huge misfire for the format. When you can get a better looking film on standard DVD, why would you rent the crappier DIVX format for $5? Yet more consumer dilemma.

Consumer Misunderstanding

Because a DIVX DVD appears to be a standard DVD (it looks the same), some consumers didn’t understand that they needed to buy a new player to play the DIVX media. Instead, they bought the DIVX disc, took it home and inserted it into their regular DVD players only to find that it failed to work. They would then find that they couldn’t return the disc because it was open. The misunderstanding of this new format caused grief among would-be consumers and left a sour taste for this format. This problem only served to fracture the DVD market. Worse, who’s willing to buy a brand new and expensive DIVX player just to recover a $5 loss? Not many. This problem didn’t serve Circuit City well.

It seems that Circuit City’s commercials likely didn’t much help clear this misunderstanding. Let’s watch a Circuit City commercial from this era with that same guy from the Demo reel:

There were also a number of commercials released during 1998 and 1999 that failed to mention DIVX at all… like the following commercial from 1998. You’d think a company like Circuit City spending millions to try and force adoption of their new brainchild would advertise the DIVX format on every commercial, if even only a mention at the very end. Nope. You can’t sell something if you don’t market it.

Landfill Problems

One of the touted benefits to consumers would be throw-away discs. You’d spend $4-5 for each disc, but you didn’t need to return any discs after the 48 hour watching period was over. This also meant no late fees. You simply tossed the disc into the garbage can. This idea was to hit Blockbuster where it hurt. Blockbuster was the king of late fees at the time. A few months after introduction of this idea, Circuit City stores set up recycle containers to entice users to recycle used DIVX discs at Circuit City stores instead of throwing them into the trash. Not sure how well that worked. I don’t think this wasteful idea went over well with consumers, particularly after AOL’s constant barrage of wasted CDs ended up everywhere at the time.

Licensing Issues and Retailers

As a result of Circuit City’s involvement with DIVX (along with a legal team), for other retailers to sell DIVX compatible players required paying a licensing fee to Circuit City. As a result of the licensing fees, Best Buy and other retailers shunned the players choosing to avoid paying those fees. It’s no wonder, either. Why would you ever agree to pay another retailer money for the privilege of selling that retailer’s product in your store? You wouldn’t. This was a completely foreseeable miscalculation by the Circuit City management team.

This meant that Circuit City and other stores owned by Circuit City ended up the sole sellers of these players (and the DIVX format). Without wider support via other retailers, this format really had no hope of surviving. Circuit City should have dropped the idea for licensing fees quickly just to get better entrenchment for the format. It’s not like it wasn’t already costing Circuit City a mint to keep this format alive. Stupid is as stupid does.

Movie Studio Support

On the plus side for the format, because of what studios considered weak protection technologies associated with standard DVD (CSS), many studios jumped on board with the DIVX’s CSS + Triple DES protection standard. This boosted the initial ~20 titles when it arrived in summer of 1998 to well over 400 titles by early 1999. Some early studio adopters were 20th Century Fox, Disney and Dreamworks. Wikipedia says:

The initial trial of the DIVX format was run in the San Francisco and Richmond, California, areas starting on June 8, 1998. Initially only a single Zenith player was available, along with 19 titles. A nationwide rollout began three months later, on September 25, with players and 150 titles available in 190 stores. In total 87,000 players were sold during 1998, with 535,000 discs across 300 titles being sold.

The studios felt that the DIVX format offered a more solid encryption technique to protect their movie content. I’m sure they did. Due to the arcane structure needed to authorize the movie rental, it meant jumping through hoops just to get your movie to play. The movie studios love making consumers jump through hoops to play their content.

This quick studio adoption rate was a bone of contention because some studios began exclusively releasing their films onto the DIVX format instead of DVD. This issue caused further problems for the format and more consumer backlash erupted and threatened to fracture the industry into a new format war.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Home Video, which at the time apparently comprised up to 40% of the movie rental market, refused to release their movies on DIVX. The primary reason for this refusal was that both of these companies had a stake in the success of standard DVD format. Supporting the DIVX standard would be a conflict of interest.

By spring of 1999, the number of titles had increased to over 410. Little did Circuit City or the consumers realize the end was near for DIVX. Due to mounting pressures and costs, Circuit City didn’t realize how much of an albatross that DIVX would become. There was just no way Circuit City could go this new format alone without wider industry investment and consumer acceptance.

Overconfidence

Circuit City’s biggest mistake was its heavily miscalculated financial ability to support this newly created format. After all, Circuit City is a retailer, not a tech innovator. Driving a new tech format through a retail company already has many hurdles and reputational issues to overcome. Circuit City was also too confident in its ability to entice other retailers to make this format succeed. Those retailers didn’t bite. Even in 1998 when this format came about, Internet RFCs were still a thing. Circuit City entirely avoided the RFC and Whitepaper approach that had become commonplace to announce new technologies. Instead, they launched this format without much fanfare hoping that the party train would show up. It didn’t.

Because of all of the above and including backlash from consumers and lack of retailer support, Circuit City way overestimated its ability to get this format adopted… and why would anyone want to adopt this format? With licensing fees, there was no incentive for non-affiliated retailers to adopt some other retailer’s idea as practical or realistic… especially when the standard DVD already provided a better rental and sales format.

Without the necessary support by consumers and other retailers alike, the format was doomed from the go. By the summer of 1999 (just 1 year after it launched), the format officially died on June 16th, 1999 (almost exactly year since it had launched). However, due to format commitments to existing consumers, it would limp this format along until 2001. Wikipedia writes of the DIVX demise:

The format was discontinued on June 16, 1999, because of the costs of introducing the format, as well as its very limited acceptance by the general public. It was shot down by Blockbuster Video stores not wanting to carry it. Also Circuit City announced a $114 million after-tax loss, and Variety estimated the total loss on the scheme was around $337 million. Over the next two years the DIVX system was phased out. Customers could still view all their DIVX discs and were given a $100 refund for every player that was purchased before June 16, 1999. All discs that were unsold at the end of the summer of 1999 were destroyed. The program officially cut off access to accounts on July 7, 2001.

Retail, DRM and Tech Innovation Don’t Mix

Due to the conflict of interest between the Circuit City chain, other retailers, licensing and this new format, there was ultimately no way this idea could survive. Circuit City made so many missteps along the way to adoption, the format was doomed from the outset. Even the management should have been able to foresee this event. If Circuit City had spun off the DIVX idea into a separate holding company that Circuit City had founded and enticed other retailers in (to avoid licensing requirements), the standard might have had a chance of surviving. While DRM was a relatively new thing in 1999, consumers could already begin to see how it could become a problem in the way they viewed content with DIVX (and other formats).

The Future of the Movies at Home

Even if DIVX had managed to make the slightest dent in the rental market (hint: it didn’t), the future of Internet streaming movies would have still seen to its demise. Even in 1997, a year before DIVX came to exist, Reed Hastings was in the process of setting up Netflix. By 2002, Redbox led the downfall of Blockbuster through it’s DVD rental kiosks. Some people blame Netflix on the death of Blockbuster, but it is firmly the self-service and low cost nature of the Redbox kiosk that ushered Blockbuster out the door. Yes, Netflix started Blockbuster’s problems, Redbox nailed Blockbuster’s doors shut. Blockbuster simply couldn’t compete with $1 DVD rentals at a time when Blockbuster was still charging sometimes $5 per disc. Netflix chose a per month plan fee with limits and was (and still is) charging well more than $1 per disc that Redbox adopted. In fact, Redbox is still the best deal going for both DVD and Blu-ray rentals, even though their prices have somewhat increased.

Getting back to DIVX, Netflix’s movie streaming, along side Redbox, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, Crackle, YouTube, YouTube Red and others would have killed the DIVX DVD format anyway. Ultimately, DIVX didn’t have a place in the market or a problem to solve. It was already behind the times when it was introduced by a company that didn’t have the capital to invest in the longevity of such a format.

In short, Circuit City bit off well more than they could chew with DIVX. Today, these DIVX players are essentially worthless for playing DIVX format discs. Because the players could play standard DVD format discs also, this is their only redeeming point. There’s no way to authorize the players or discs as the service has been dismantled. If you have any DIVX discs in your collection, they can no longer be played as there’s no way to authorize the players or discs.

Even today, DVD is so behind the times when compared with UltraHD 4K, even that would have killed DIVX in short order. Ultimately, even if DIVX had managed to survive longer than 1 year on the market, it would have eventually died because of movie streaming services. There was just no way for DIVX to compete with that. However, it died long before that happened simply because of Circuit City.

Final Death of DIVX

The DIVX format supported limited viewings as well as unlimited viewings (DIVX Silver). Limited viewings of a disc were based on your rental period. Unlimited viewings cost more and was known as DIVX Silver. Why this is important is that the players still needed to dial home to verify the viewing of each play of the movie. After June 30, 2001, the DIVX service was shuttered including the dial home feature. For those who had purchased into DIVX Silver for some of their films, they could request a refund before the service was shuttered. This meant that any further viewings of DIVX movies after June 30, 2001 were impossible, rendering the DIVX format and the DIVX portion of the players useless.

The LA Times wrote of DVIX’s failure on June 17, 1999:

But the venture never connected with consumers and represented a major miscalculation of both the market and the video industry by the nation’s second-largest consumer electronics retailer.

The failure of Divx is an embarrassment for Richard Sharp, chief executive of Circuit City Stores. Sharp fought an uphill battle to promote the venture, which became a significant drag on Circuit City’s bottom line.

Sharp declined to comment Wednesday, but the market cheered the decision to junk Divx. Circuit City’s stock closed at $90.38, up $8.38 on the New York Stock Exchange.

 

A Cautionary Tale

This whole DIVX situation serves as a cautionary tale for early adopters of technology when produced by a company that’s never been in that business. This is particularly a problem considering the DIVX players required so much constant hand-holding with home base. If that home base connection was unavailable (i.e., Circuit City closed the service), the movies would stop working, which is exactly what happened in the end. Why would you, as a consumer, want to buy into a media format that’s so heavily dependent on a third party’s continued success? The other problem is that the players chose to use a phone line instead of phoning home over the Internet. Of course, had the format lived, it would have been relatively trivial to introduce new players that supported Internet always-on capabilities.

The real cautionary tale here is that consumers should never early adopt into entertainment content that relies on phoning home to authorize each viewing. One could argue that Netflix is a form of this, but I’d argue it isn’t. When you use Netflix, the movie is either there or it isn’t. There’s no pulling-the-rug-out-from-under tactics. Meaning, you leave your media sitting for a few months only to find that it will no longer play. Standard DVD movies have never required authorization per play. However, Blu-ray technology has instituted a somewhat similar phone home approach, but so far this hasn’t been an issue. However, should Sony die or the servers cease to exist that enables a specific Blu-ray to function, we could find that Blu-rays become coasters at some point in the future like the DIVX media.

If you happen to own a DIVX player and any DIVX media, know that it’s dead and it’s not coming back. There is really no way to revive it. The decryption keys and the authorization service that allowed each movie to work have long been dismantled. As far as I know, there has never been anyone willing to reverse engineer this phone home service to allow old DIVX media to play. Though, why bother? The movies were mostly of inferior quality. Other than as a novelty of showing a functional DIVX movie off on a YouTube electronics history channel or possibly for nostalgia, there’s no other legitimate reasons to want to watch DIVX movies today.

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What killed the LaserDisc format?

Posted in collectibles, entertainment, movies, technologies by commorancy on March 1, 2018

Laserdisc-logoThere have been a number of tech documentarian YouTubers who’ve recently posted videos regarding LaserDisc and why it never became popular and what killed it. Some have theorized that VHS had nothing to do with the failure of the LaserDisc format. I contend that LaserDisc didn’t exactly fail, but also didn’t gain much traction.

LaserDisc did have a good run between 1978 and 2002. However, it also wasn’t a resounding success for a number of reasons. While the LaserDisc format sold better in Japan than in the US, it still didn’t get that much traction even in Japan. Though, yes, VHS recorders (among other competitive technologies at the time) did play a big part in LaserDisc’s lackluster consumer acceptance. Let’s explore.

History

While I won’t go into the entire history of the LaserDisc player, let me give a quick synopsis of its history. Let’s start by what it is. LaserDisc (originally named DiscoVision in 1978) began its life as a 12″ optical disc containing analog video and analog audio mca_discovision(smaller sizes would become available later) with discs labeled as MCA DiscoVision. In 1980, Pioneer bought the rights to the LaserDisc technology and dropped the DiscoVision branding in lieu of the LaserDisc and LaserVision brands. It also wouldn’t be until the mid-90s that digital audio and digital video combined would appear on this format. A LaserDisc movie is typically dual sided and would be flipped to watch the second half of a film. They can also be produced single sided. Like VHS had SP and LP speeds that offered less or more recording time, LaserDisc had something similar in terms of content length, but offered no consumer recording capability.

There were two formats of LaserDiscs:

The first format is CAV. CAV stands for constant angular velocity. In short, CAV was a format where the rotational speed remained the same from beginning to end. The benefit for CAV was that it offered solid freeze frames throughout the program. Unlike VHS where freeze frames might be distorted, jump or be noisy, CAV discs offered perfect freeze frames.

It also offered a fast scrubbing speed and slowed play. Later LD players even offered a jog shuttle on the remote to reverse or forward the playback a few frames at a time to as fast as you could spin the wheel. CAV also meant that each frame of video was one rotation of the disc. Keep in mind that NTSC video is interlaced and, therefore, half of the disc ring was one half of the frame and the other half of the disc ring was the other half of the frame. It took a full rotation to create a full NTSC frame.

The NTSC format CAV disc only offered up to 30 minutes per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie would consume 3 sides or two discs. This was the first format of disc introduced during the DiscoVision days. Early content was all CAV.

The second format is CLV. CLV stands for constant linear velocity. This format reduces the rotational speed as the disc reaches the outer edge. You can even hear the motor slow as the movie progresses playback if you’re close enough to the player. I should point out that LaserDiscs read from the center of the media to the outer edge.

LaserDisc players also read from the bottom side of the disc when put into the player. It’s just the opposite of a vinyl LP that reads from the outside in and from the top. This means that the label on the center of the disc refers to the opposite side of the media. The CLV format offers no freeze frame feature. Because the rotational speed drops as the laser moves across the disc, eventually multiple video frames would be contained in a single rotation. Any attempt to freeze frame the picture would show multiple frames of motion. Not very pretty. The freeze frame feature is disabled on CLV formatted discs.

The NTSC formatted CLV disc offers up to 60 minutes of video per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie comfortably fits on one disc. After CLV was discovered to hold more content than a CAV LaserDisc, this format is how the majority of movies were sold once the DiscoVision brand disappeared. Note that many movies used CLV on side one and CAV on side two when less than 30 minutes.

The intent for LaserDisc was to sell inexpensive films forLaserVision_logo home consumption. It all started with the Magnavox Magnavision VH-8000 DiscoVision player which went on sale December 15th, 1978. This player released on this day along with several day one release movies on LaserDisc. The format, at the time, was then called DiscoVision. Because 1978 was basically the height of the disco music era, it made sense why it ended up called DiscoVision. Obviously, this naming couldn’t last when the disco music era closed.

Early Player Reliability

The first players used a visible red laser consisting of a helium-neon laser. The light output looks similar to a red laser pointer. These LD players had pop up lids. This meant you could pop the lid open while the disc was playing, lift the disc and see the red laser in action. The problem with these first players was with the helium-neon laser unit. In short, they became incredibly hot making the unit unreliable. I personally owned one of these open lid style players from Philips and can assert from personal experience that these players were lemons. If they lasted 6 months worth of use, you could count yourself lucky. At the time, when your player was broken, you had to take your player to an authorized service center to get it repaired.

These repair centers were factory authorized, but not run by Philips. Repairs could take weeks requiring constant phone calls to the repair center to get status. The repair centers always seemed overwhelmed with repairs. It just wasn’t worth the hassle of taking the unit in to be repaired once every 6 months, paying for each repair after the warranty ran out. This would have been about 1982 or so. I quickly replaced this player for a new one. I’d already invested in too many LaserDiscs to lose all of the discs that I had.

In 1983-1984 or thereabouts, the optical audio Compact Disc was introduced. These players offered solid-state non-visible lasers to read the CD optical media. As a result of the technology used to read the CD, LaserDisc players heavily benefited from this technology advance. Pioneer, the leading LaserDisc player brand at the time, jumped immediately on board with replacing the red visible laser with very similar solid state lasers being used in CD players.

Once the new laser eye was introduced, reliability increased dramatically. Players became more compact, ran cooler and became more full featured. Instead of being able to play only LaserDiscs, they could now also play CDs of all sizes. This helped push LaserDisc players into the home at a time when LaserDisc needed that kick in the pants. Though, adoption was still very slow.

1984

The year 1984 would be the year of VHS. This is the year when video rental stores would become commonplace. During this time, I helped start up a video rental department for a brand new record store. It was a time when record stores were expanding into video rentals. I don’t know how many VHS tapes I inventoried for the new store. One thing was certain. We did not rent anything other than VHS tapes. No Betamax, no LaserDisc and no CED rentals. We didn’t even stock LaserDiscs or CEDs for sale in this store location. In fact, the chain of record stores where I worked would eventually become Blockbuster and would adopt the same logo color scheme as the record store chain used. But, that wouldn’t be for a few more years.

VHS was on the verge of and would soon become the defacto format for movie rentals. Why not LaserDisc? Not enough saturation in combination with LaserDisc having the same problem that pretty much all optical media has. It’s easily scratched. Because the LaserDisc surface is handled directly by hands (it has no caddy), this means that the wear and tear on a LaserDisc meant eventually replacing the disc by the rental store. This compared to VHS tape that, so long as the tape remained intact, it could be rented over and over even if there was the occasional drop out from being played too much.

LaserDisc fared far worse on this front. Because there was no easy way to remove the scratches from a disc, once a disc was scratched it meant replacement. Even if the disc was minimally scratched, it could still be unplayable in some players, particularly the red visible laser kind. These older models were not at all tolerant of scratches.

Media Costs

While VHS tape movies cost $40 or $50 or even upwards to $70, LaserDisc movies cost $25 to $30 on average. The cost savings to buy a movie on LaserDisc was fairly substantial. However, you had to get past the sticker shock of the $800-900 you’re required to invest into Pioneer to get a CLD-900 player. This at the time when VHS recorders were $600 or thereabouts. However, VHS recorder prices would continue to drop to about $250 by 1987 (just 3 years later).

LaserDisc player prices never dropped much and always hovered around the $600-$800 price when new. They were expensive. Pioneer was particularly proud of their LaserDisc players and always charged a premium. You could find used players for lower prices, though. Because Pioneer was (ahem) the pioneer in LD equipment at that time, buying into Magnavox or other LD equipment brands meant problems down the road. If you wanted a mostly trouble free LD experience, you bought Pioneer.

Competitors

I would be remiss at not mentioning the CED disc format that showed up on the scene heavily around 1984, even though it was introduced in 1981. CED stands for Capacitance Electronic Disc. It was a then alternative format video media disc conceived in the 1960s by RCA. Unfortunately, the CED project remain stalled for 17 years in development hell at RCA.

CED uses a stylus like an LP and the disc is made of vinyl also like an LP, except you can’t handle it with your hands. This media type is housed in a caddy. To play these discs, you had to purchase a CED player and buy CED media. To play the disc, you would insert the disc caddy into the slot on the front of the unit and then pull it back out. The machine grabbed the disk out of the caddy on insertion. As soon as the caddy is removed, the disc is begins to play. The door to the caddy slot locks when the disc was in motion. Once the mechanism stops moving, the door unlocks and you can insert the caddy, then remove the disc.

Because the CED is read by a stylus, it had its own fair share of problems, not the least of which was skipping and low video quality. LaserDisc was the consumer product leader in image quality all throughout the 80s and 90s until DVD arrived. However, that didn’t stop CED from taking a bite out of the LaserDisc videodisc market. The CED format only served to dilute the idea of the videodisc and confuse consumers on which format to buy. This was, in fact, the worst of all situations for LaserDisc at a time when VHS rentals were appearing at practically any store that could devote space to set up a rental section. Even grocery stores were jumping on board to get a piece of the VHS rental action.

VHS versus LaserDisc rentals

As a result of VHS rentals, which could be found practically everywhere by 1986, renting LaserDiscs (or even CEDs) was always a challenge. Not only was it difficult to find stores to rent a LaserDisc, when you did find them, the selection was less than stellar. In fact, because VHS rentals became so huge during this time, LaserDisc pressings couldn’t compete and started falling behind the VHS releases. VHS became the format released first, then LaserDiscs would appear a short time later. This meant that if you wanted to rent the latest movie, you pretty much had to own a VHS player. If you wanted to watch the movie in higher quality, you had to wait for the LaserDisc version. Even then, you’d have to buy it rather than renting. Renting of LaserDiscs was not only rare to find, but eventually disappeared altogether leaving purchasing a LaserDisc the only option, or you rented a VHS tape.

If you weren’t into rentals and wanted to own a film, then LaserDisc was the overall better way to go. Not only were the discs less expensive, the video and audio would remain the highest home consumer quality until S-VHS arrived. Unfortunately, S-VHS had its own problems with adoption even worse than LaserDisc and this format would fail to be adopted by the general home consumer market. LaserDisc continued to dominate the videophile market for its better picture and eventually digital sound until 1997 when the DVD arrived.

Time Was Not Kind

As time progressed into the late 80s, it would become more difficult to find not only LaserDisc players to buy, but also LaserDiscs. Stores that once carried the discs would begin to clearance them out and no longer carry them. Some electronics stores just outright closed and those outlets to buy players were lost. By the 90s, the only reasonable place to purchase LaserDiscs was via mail order.

There were simply no local electronics stores in my area that carried movie discs any longer. Perhaps you could find them in NYC, but not in Houston. Because they were 12″ in size, this meant a lot of real estate was needed to store and display LaserDiscs. Other than record stores, few stores would want to continue to invest store real estate into this lackluster format, especially when VHS is booming. In a lot of ways, LaserDisc packaging looked like LP records, only with movie posters on the front. This packaging was not likely helpful to the LaserDisc. Because they were packaged almost identically to an LP, including being shrink wrapped (and using white inner sleeves), these discs could easily be confused with LP records when walking by a display of them.

Marketing was a major problem for LaserVision. While there was a kind of consortium of hardware producers that included Pioneer, Philips and Magnavox, there was no real marketing strategy to sell the LaserDisc format to the consumer. Because of this, LaserDisc fell into the niche market of videophiles. Basically, it was a small word of mouth community. This was a time before the Internet. Videophiles were some of the first folks to have a small home theater and they demanded the best video and audio experience, and were willing to shell out cash for it. Unfortunately, this market was quite a small segment. Few people were willing to jump through all of the necessary hoops just to buy an LD player, then mail order a bunch of discs. Yet, the videophiles kept buying just enough to keep this market alive.

Laser Rot

In addition to the hassles of bad marketing, the discs ended up with a bad reputation for a severe manufacturing defect. Even some commercially pressed CDs ended up succumbing to this same fate. The problem is known as laser rot. Laser rot is when the various layers that make up a LaserDisc were sealed improperly or used non-archival adhesives during manufacture. These layers later oxidize causing pitting on the sandwiched metal surface. This oxidation pitting causes the original content pits to be lost over time ending up with snow both in audio and in video. The audio usually goes first, then the video.

Laser rot even appeared early on the earliest pressed DiscoVision media, we just wouldn’t find out until much later. This indicated that the faulty manufacturing process began when the format was born. Laser rot caused a lot of fans of the format a lot of grief when the format least needed such a pothole. This problem should have been addressed rapidly once found, but there were many discs that continued to be improperly manufactured even into the 90s after the problem was found. The defective manufacturing process was something the LaserVision consortium failed to address, which tarnished (ahem) the reputation of the LaserVision brand.

For the videophiles who had invested heavily in this format, nothing was worse than playing a disc that you know worked fine a few months ago only to find it now unplayable. It was not only disheartening, but it gave fans of the format pause to consider any future purchases.

Losing Steam

Not only were the average consumers turned off by the high prices of the players, consumers also didn’t see the benefit of owning a LaserDisc player because of its lack of recording capabilities and its lack of readily available rentals. Some videophiles and LaserDisc format advocates lost interest when they attempted to play a 3 year old disc only to find that it was unplayable. At this point, only true die-hards stayed with LaserDisc format even among the mounting disc problems and lack of marketing push.

The manufacturers never stepped up to offer replacement discs for laser rot, which they should have. The LaserVision consortium did nothing to entice new consumers into the format nor did they attempt to fix the manufacturing defect leading to laser rot. The only thing the manufacturers did is continue to churn out upgraded LaserDisc player models by adding features that didn’t help further the LaserDisc format directly. Instead, they chose to add compatibility for media like CDV or 3″ CD formats or CD text, features that did nothing to further LaserDisc, but were only added to entice audiophiles into adding a LaserDisc player into their component audio system. This ploy didn’t work. Why? Because audiophiles were more interested in music selection over compatibility with video formats. What sold were the carousel CD players that would eventually hold up to 400 CDs. Though, the 5 CD changers were also wildly popular at the time.

Instead of investing the time and effort into making LaserDisc a better format, the manufacturers spent time adding unnecessary features to their players (and charging more money for them). Granted, the one feature that was added that was desperately needed was digital audio soundtracks. These would be the precursor to DVD. However, while they did add digital audio to LaserDisc by the early 90s, the video was firmly still analog. However, even digital audio on the LaserDisc didn’t kick sales up in any substantial way. This was primarily because 5.1 and 7.1 sound systems were still a ways off from becoming mainstream.

The 90s and 00s

While LaserDisc did continue through most of the 90s as the format that still produced the best NTSC picture quality and digital sound for some films, that wouldn’t last once the all digital DVD arrived in 1997. Once the DVD format arrived, LaserDisc’s days were numbered as a useful movie format. Though LaserDisc did survive into the early noughties, the last movie released in the US is ironically named End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger, released in 2002. It truly was the end of days for LaserDisc. Though, apparently LaserDiscs continued to be pressed in Japan and possibly for industrial use for some time after this date.

Failure to Market

The primary reason LaserDisc didn’t get the entrenched market share that it expected was primarily poor marketing. As the product never had a clearly defined reason to exist or at least one that consumers could understand, it was never readily adopted. Then VHS came along giving even less reason to adopt the format.

Most consumers had no need for the quality provided by a LaserDisc. In fact, it was plainly obvious that VHS quality was entirely sufficient to watch a movie. I’d say that this ideal still holds true today. Even though there are 4K TVs and UltraHD 4K films being sold on disc, DVDs are still the most common format for purchase and rental. A format first released in 1997. Even Redbox hasn’t yet adopted rentals of UltraHD 4K Blu-ray discs. Though Redbox does rent 1080p Blu-ray discs, they still warn you that you’re renting a Blu-ray. It’s clear, the 480p DVD is going to die a very slow death. It also says that consumers really don’t care about a high quality picture. Instead, they just want to watch the film. Considering that DVD quality is only slightly better than a LaserDisc at a time when UltraHD 4K is available, that shows that most consumers don’t care about picture quality.

This is the key piece of information that the LaserVision consortium failed to understand in the early 80s. The video quality coming out of a LaserDisc was its only real selling point. That didn’t matter to most consumers. Having to run all over town to find the discs, deal with laser rot, having to flip the discs in the middle of the film and lack of video titles available (compared to VHS), these were not worth the hassle by most consumers. It’s far simpler to run out and buy a VHS tape recorder and rent movies from one of many different rental stores, some open very late. Keep in mind that VHS rentals were far less expensive than buying a LaserDisc.

In many cases, parents found an alternative babysitter in the VHS player. With LaserDisc and rough handling by kids, parents would end up purchasing replacement discs a whole lot more frequently than a VHS tape. Scratched discs happen simply by setting them down on a coffee table. With VHS, they’re pretty rugged. Even a kid handling a VHS tape isn’t likely to damage either the tape or the unit. Though, shoving food into the VHS slot wasn’t unheard of by the children of some parents. Parents could buy (or rent) a kids flick and the kids would be entertained for hours.

VHS tape recorder

Here is what a lot of people claim to be the reason for the death of the LaserDisc. Though, LaserDisc never really died… at least, not until 2002. The one reason most commonly cited was that the LaserDisc couldn’t record. No, you could not record onto a LaserDisc. It had no recordable media version available nor was there a recorder available. However, this perception was due to failure of marketing. LaserDisc wasn’t intended to be a recorder. It was intended to provide movies at reasonable prices. However, it failed to take into consideration the rental market… a market that wasn’t in existence in 1978, but soon appeared once VHS took off. It was a market that LaserDisc manufacturers couldn’t foresee and had no Plan-B ready to combat this turn of events.

However, there was no reason why you couldn’t own both a VHS recorder and a LaserDisc player. Some people did. Though together, these two units were fairly costly. Since most households only needed (and could only afford) one video type player, the VHS tape recorder won out. It not only had the huge rental infrastructure for movies, it was also capable of time shifting over the air programming. This multi-function capability of the VHS recorder lead many people to the stores to buy one. So, yes, not being able to record did hurt the LaserDisc image, but it wasn’t the reason for its death.

Stores and Availability

Around 1984-1986, VHS tape recorders were widely available from a vast array of retailers including discount stores like Target, Kmart and Sears. You could also find VHS recorders at Radio Shack and Federated and in the electronics section of Service Merchandise, JC Penney, Montgomery Wards, Foley’s and many other specialty and department stores.

You could also buy VHS units from mail order houses like J&R Music World who wrote in 1985, “We occasionally advertise a barebones model at $169… But prices have fallen significantly–15 percent in the past six months alone–and now a wide selection sells for $200 to $400.”. That’s a far cry from the $600-900 that a LaserDisc player may cost. Not only were VHS recorders and players available practically at every major department store, stores typically carried several models from which to choose. This meant you had a wide selection of VHS recorders at differing price points. While in the very early 80s VHS recorders were around $1000, the prices for VHS recorders had substantially dropped by 1985 helping fuel not only market saturation for VHS, but also the rental market.

Unlike VHS, LaserDisc never received much market traction because the LD players failed on two primary fronts:

1. They were way too pricey. The prices needed to drastically drop just like VHS machines. Instead of hovering at around the $600 mark, they needed to drop to the $150-$200 range. They never did.

2. They were difficult to find in stores. While VHS machines were available practically everywhere, even drug stores, LaserDisc players could only be found in specialty electronics stores. They could be found in the likes of Federated, Pacific Stereo and other local higher end component based electronics stores. Typically, you’d find them at stores that carried turntables, speakers and audio amplifier / receivers. While Sears may have carried Magnavox LD players for a short time, they quickly got out of that business and moved towards VHS recorders.

Because the manufacturers of LD players failed to get the players into the discount stores and they failed to price the players down to compete with those the $200-$400 VHS units, LaserDisc could gain little mass consumer traction. On top of this, the confusion over CED and LaserDisc (and even VHS) left those who were interested in disc based video in a quandary. Which to choose? CED or LaserDisc? Because CED discs and players were slightly less expensive (and inferior quality) than LaserDisc, many who might have bought LaserDisc bought into CED. This reduced LaserDisc saturation even further.

It wasn’t the videophiles who were buying into CED either. It was consumers who wanted disc media, but who also didn’t want to pay LaserDisc prices. Though, the mass consumer market went almost lock-stock-and-barrel to VHS because of what VHS offered (lower price, better selection of movies, rentals everywhere and recording capabilities).

Why Did LaserDisc Fail?

LaserDisc’s failure to gain traction was a combination of market factors including lack of marketing, poor quality media, high hardware prices, unreliable players, CED confusion, and the VHS rental market, but this was just the beginning of its downfall. At the tail end, even though LaserDisc did attempt a high definition analog format through Japan’s Hi-Vision spec using MUSE encoding, even that couldn’t withstand the birth of the DVD.

If the LaserVision consortium had had more vision to continue to innovate in the LaserDisc video space rather than trying to make a LaserDisc player an audio component, the format would have ultimately sold better. How much better? No one really knows. If the consortium had embraced MPEG and made a move towards an all digital format in the 90s, this change might have solidified LaserDisc as a comeback format which could have supported 1080p HDTV. Though there was a digital LaserDisc format called CDV and also Japan’s Hi-Vision HD format, these never gained any traction because the LaserVision consortium failed to embrace them. Hi-Vision was never properly introduced into the US or Europe and remained primarily a Japanese innovation sold primarily in Japan.

Instead, the introduction of DVD is pretty much solidified the death of what was left of LaserDisc as a useful movie storage, rental and playback medium. Though, the LaserDisc media releases would continue to limp along until 2002 with the last LaserDisc player models released sometime in 2009.

What would kill the LaserDisc format? LaserDisc would ultimately die because of 1080p 16:9 flat screen HDTVs, which the LaserDisc format didn’t properly support (other than composite low res or the short lived Hi-Vision format which was problematic). Ultimately, no one wants to watch 480i 4:3 ratio pan-and-scan analog movies via composite inputs on a brand new 16:9 1080p widescreen TV. Yes, some anamorphic widescreen films came to exist on LaserDisc, but that still utilized a 480i resolution which further degraded the picture by widening the image. Of course, you can still find LaserDisc players and discs for purchase if you really want them.

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Movie Review — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted in entertainment, movies by commorancy on January 7, 2018

the-last-jedi-theatrical[Alert: This review may contain spoilers. Though, I have done my best to not to reveal critical plot points and only discuss the technical merits of the film as a whole, you should decide for yourself what is a spoiler. If you are interested in seeing this movie, you should stop reading now, bookmark this review and read it after.]

The Last Jedi is a very long film. Clocking in at 152 minutes, it seems like a marathon. After trailers, your time spent can easily exceed 3 hours sitting inside of a theater. Giving up 3 hours of your life for a mediocre Disney romp is a very tough indeed. Movies with run times close to 3 hours also need an intermission. Let’s explore.

The Force Awakens

I want to like The Last Jedi. I really do. This film begins pretty much where The Force Awakens leaves off. If you’re interested, please check out both my The Force Awakens review and my The Force Awakens Analysis from 2015. If you haven’t seen The Force Awakens recently or at all, see it first. I will also state that my review of The Force Awakens is generally positive touting the look and feel. That look and feel is still retained in The Last Jedi, but I also expected The Last Jedi to have grown and matured this story. Unfortunately, it hasn’t matured nearly enough. With that said, The Last Jedi features lots of battles both in ship and out of ship with blasters and with lightsabers, but no battles of consequence. This film typifies what’s wrong with Hollywood writers. They have no vision. This problem is no more evident than in the many stories that unfold in this romp. There are certainly lots of plot contrivances and save-the-day tropes, but nothing new or notable to see (or say) here. It doesn’t expand on the Star Wars universe in any new or compelling way. It just uses the universe and abuses all of its existing George Lucas tropes, but never feels fresh, new or exciting. It doesn’t even feel like the writers truly understand or ‘get’ this universe or its inhabitants. It almost feels like professionally made fan fiction.

Middle Film Dilemma

Of course, this is a middle film. So, it can’t exactly resolve what was started, but it does its level best to make a dent in what will close out this trilogy. Unfortunately, this film is far too ambitious, trying to interweave too many side stories and not telling any one of them particularly well. There’s the Poe-as-a-rebelious-officer thread. There’s the Finn vs Nobody-Mechanic love interest thread that appears out of nowhere. There’s the Luke vs Rey thread. There’s the Leia vs Poe thread. There’s the Snoke vs Kylo vs Rey thread. There’s the topsy-turvy Rey and Kylo force connection thread. There’s the Millenium Falcon thread. There’s the useless Moz Kanata thread. There’s the new general who appears out of nowhere and gets killed thread. There’s the Phasma vs Finn thread. There’s the Luke vs Kylo thread. There are even more threads than that. There are far, far too many different story threads all competing for precious screen time.

For a middle film, the primary story arc should have been front and center. The rest of the story arcs should have been side stories for character development purposes. You know, stories to flesh out a character’s backstory, likes and dislikes, ruthlessness, charisma, scoundrelness, etc. These are why there are side stories. We need to get to know the characters while the main story is unfolding. And this is the problem with this new trilogy.

We still don’t know anything about Rey or Poe or Finn. Yes, we know Rey was a scavenger based on The Force Awakens, but there is no information immediately before that? Was she a scavenger her whole life? Clearly, she knows how to handle herself with that staff. So, that means she’s seen combat before. What other adventures has she had? What about Poe? He’s been in the Resistance for quite some time. He’s got stories. Where are those? And Finn, he was in the First Order. He’s definitely got stories. His field trip to Jakku in The Force Awakens can’t have been his first time out with The First Order. Yet, it’s like these characters began their existence at the start of The Force Awakens. We still don’t know anything about them even after The Last Jedi ends. Come on writers, give us stories that develop the characters.

Hack Writers

This story needs to be simplified, reduced, rewritten and refocused. The Last Jedi is all over the place and, at the same time forces the writers to cut too many story corners to make ends meet. It also sacrifices character development for unnecessary action scenes and CGI. It’s the typical Hollywood blockbuster writing team that cares less about making sense and more about writing too many threads and then cheating to close those threads because they’ve simply run out of time. It is, for example, killing off much loved characters like Luke, not in glorious battle, but alone on a remote planet using some extraordinary force power he has never once exhibited before. It is tying Kylo to Rey with some kind of force sensitive connection that allows them to communicate over vast distances, which isn’t explained and wasn’t even hinted at in The Force Awakens (the hallmark of bad writers). It’s Poe and Rey and Finn all running off on their own missions, not working together. It’s Finn and Nobody-Mechanic off on a mission to save the fleet with no backing and who are destined to fail (and they do) because of a cheap mole trope. And, to top off the cheesiest of the cheesy plot devices, Leia being blown into the vacuum of space and then exhibiting a force power she has never once even hinted at to inexplicably pull herself from space (with no oxygen) back into the ship, flying like Superman. Wait… what? Am I watching a Marvel superhero movie? C’mon writers, at least throw us a bone with Leia and set this up beforehand.

I’m torn. I want new original story ideas, but not like this. On the other hand, I’m almost now wanting to see copycat stories from the original trilogy because at least copying those formulas might actually work better than this disjointed romp of a movie. Let’s hope that whomever they get to write the last installment can get their head out of their ass and actually produce a cohesive focused ending that makes more sense than these too many unnecessary and unfocused dead end threads in The Last Jedi.

Cliché Story

The story starts off with a rag tag fleet of rebels on the run in space trying to find a new base. Unfortunately, the long of the short of it is, the fleet can’t get a break. Every time they think they are ahead of the game with the First Order, somehow they are found. In the opening of the film, the First Order fleet begins beating the crap out of the Resistance fleet and destroying their ships one at a time. Poe in an extraordinarily brave and stupid move, decides to order the last few bombers of the Resistance to attack a Dreadnought (a glorified battle cruiser). After that ship is destroyed and everyone celebrates for an instant, Leia looks at the amount of ships that were destroyed to make that sacrifice and figuratively face palms. Then they hyperspace jump.

Suffice it to say, this face palm sets the tone of the entire film to come. The scene switches to the planet Luke is on and we continue the story just as The Force Awakens left it. Rey does a whole bunch of nothing with Luke. At this point we’re back with the fleet. We continue with more yelling, screaming, blowing up ships and posturing from both the First Order and from the Resistance. This cat and mouse game continues throughout the entire run of the film until the Resistance thinks they’ve gotten a break on an old fortified rebel base planet. But, that’s just a pipe dream because the First Order, yet again, comes knocking. At this point, the First Order deploys a logic probe (oops, this isn’t Tron)… er, I mean an energy weapon that knocks down the base’s big metal door.

By this time Rey and Kylo are friends and Snoke, well, let’s just say he’s having a divided moment. Back on the new rebel base, Luke chimes in with his new improved ‘magical power’ and begins to taunt Kylo (after Rey runs off) into doing stupid things based on emotion. Rey is nowhere to be found as yet and Finn has decided to ram his speeder into the energy cannon when Nobody-Mechanic knocks him out of the sky for a love-story-then-pass-out trope.

The whole thing comes to a close while Kylo is occupied and the Resistance makes their way to some place safer.

I’m leaving a lot of stuff out.. It’s almost 3 hours. Overall, the contrived storytelling of the rag tag fleet barely making it to the next step each time is an old twice told trope. It’s already been done in Battlestar Galactica, but so much better. There are so many ways this story could have unfolded, but this is not how I would have written it. The fun of Luke, Leia and Han is that they worked together most of the time… only splitting up occasionally. Finn, Rey and Poe are almost never together in a scene. If you’re going to write for a triangle of characters, at least put them together at some point for a together adventure.

The final scene is of a foretelling. It’s of a child holding a broom like a lightsaber. Let’s just hope that by the time this child makes it into the final film that he isn’t still a child. No child actors in the final act, please.

Star Wars Droids in the Story

One thing that has been totally lost on Disney’s Star Wars writers is that the Star Wars story is, more or less, told from the point of view of the droids (R2D2 and C3PO). Meaning, the droids are in almost every scene because they are both helping the heroes and recounting it from their droidy perspective. Since Disney began their version of Star Wars, that idea has been almost completely lost. I say almost because The Force Awakens and to a far lesser extent, The Last Jedi, tried to keep this idea alive with BB-8. However, in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, there are long stretches of story where there were no droids present at all. When BB-8 is included as a main character or even a plot element, the scene works well. When not, the scene is dry and boring. For example, in The Last Jedi, it’s funny when we finally get to see BB-8 driving an AT-ST walker. Unfortunately, it’s just a token gesture from the writers. They don’t keep it going. The reason it’s important to include the droids in the scenes is that they 1) make for excellent comic relief, 2) they help the heroes get things done with computers and 3) they are the perfect storytellers for such a romp. Unfortunately, BB-8 really had no substantial role in The Last Jedi other than being used as a trope to tie up loose ends. The original Star Wars trilogy showed us just how important droids are to the success of not only the missions, but to the film’s success.

Story Misnaming

This is the second film of, I am assuming, a trilogy. The Force Awakens was the first. However, even at the end of The Force Awakens, we still didn’t know who that awakening referred to. Was it Rey? Was it Finn? Was it Poe? Was it someone else?

At the end of The Last Jedi, we exit the theater asking the same exact question of both this title and of The Force Awakens. Who is The Last Jedi? Who really awakened? In fact, the film postulates the question that there is no such concept as a ‘last Jedi’. Luke explains that even if every last Jedi falls, another will rise on their own because the Force so wills it. I would assume this to also mean that there will be at least one Sith because the Force wishes to remain in balance. This means that there can be no last Jedi ever. So, why call this film that? Why call the first film The Force Awakens? If the writers cannot definitively answer the question posed by the title of the film, why produce a film with that title? If the ending of this film is foretelling of the rise of a new Jedi (and/or Sith), then a more apt title for this film should have been The Rise of the New Jedi or The Balance of the Force or The One Jedi.

A New Hope clearly refers to Luke. The Empire Strikes Back is as clear a title for that movie as there ever could be. You clearly understand exactly what the title means by the time you finish the film. Return of the Jedi is, likewise, the perfect title because you know exactly who is returning 15 minutes into the film. There is no question about why these films are named the way they are or what the titles mean. Even the prequel film names worked properly in this way with The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Leaving the theater after the prequels, there is absolutely no question as to why each film was given its respective title.

These Disney Star Wars films, on the other hand, are entirely misnamed. You leave the theater not knowing what the title means or who it refers to. If your writers can’t answer the question that the title poses within that film’s story, then the writers have failed or the title has. This series definitely needs to choose better titles.

Overall

This film is overproduced and the story is clumsily heavy-handed. The film is way too long and unfocused. The Last Jedi is definitely not any better than The Force Awakens. I give this film 2.5 stars out of 5 or in RottenTomatoes grading: 50%. The film is way too long, way too disjointed and it doesn’t congeal into a cohesive whole by the end. I realize this is a middle film and will be somewhat of a cliffhanger, but still, the way that The Empire Strikes Back was handled as a middle film was classic. This film, on the other hand, is entirely mishandled. Though, in some ways it is marginally better than The Force Awakens and in other ways it dearly sucks. The one thing I will say is that the 3D version of The Last Jedi is well done visually, but it doesn’t make the story any more palatable.

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Movie Review: Alien Covenant

Posted in film, movies, reviews by commorancy on May 31, 2017

*SPOILER ALERT* stop reading now if you want to watch this film.

If you haven’t seen Prometheus, then you should probably skip this review. Also, if you want to see Alien Covenant, then I’d suggest you stop reading now as this will be chock full of spoilers. With that said, let’s explore.

Alien Covenant Story

This film begins as a sequel to Prometheus, basically where that film left off. However, it effectively tosses the Elizabeth Shaw character out before the film even begins. While we have seen this happen with the Newt character between Aliens and Alien 3, we’ve never seen it done to a main character. No, Newt wasn’t a main character. She was a supporting character and her loss was no big deal. However, I find it a huge problem to open this film and toss out the one redeeming character from Prometheus. A character that could have been as strong as Ripley. Instead, we’re left with a malfunctioning synth named David. I jump ahead a little bit here.

After a longish and unnecessary expository scene involving a very young Weyland and David, we proceed into the main film.

Colony Ship Covenant

The film starts out following a colonization vessel named Covenant with both crew, colonists in stasis and embryos. The mission is to land on an already vetted planet with a forgettable name to begin colonization. It will take about 7 years to get to that destination planet. However, the ship is rocked by a space anomaly and damaged along with the death of the captain. This ship damage premise actually starts out much like Passengers. This requires the newly assigned captain and crew to go out and fix the damage. While fixing the damage, one of the crew stumbles across a message in a bottle… or more specifically, a space transmission.

So now, the crew has decide whether to follow the transmission or continue on with the mission. Here is the first of many stupid plot devices. If your mission is to land safely on an already existing planet that’s been vetted for the purposes of colonization, why would you make a diversion to some unknown and potentially hostile planet? It doesn’t make any sense. In Alien, the reason the Nostromo landed was in part due to Mother and Ash. They had orders from Weyland to find this alien and capture it. However, the colony ship had no such orders from Mother or Walter (the resident synthetic — artificial person).

Plus, that colony ship wasn’t equipped for that sort of reconnaissance type mission in the first place. Yet, here we go traipsing into the unknown because the naive new captain deems it so even though his second actively protests. Wouldn’t they have at least trained all seconds in command for these sorts of contingencies?

We also find that there is a synthetic on board this colony ship who is named Walter and looks surprisingly like David from Prometheus, except he doesn’t have the British accent.

Planetary Diversion / Alien Backstory

So the colony ship, which was clearly not built for exploration, decides to spend time gallivanting off to this unknown world to find this message in a bottle. What do they find? Spores that turn people into xenomorphs, the Engineer ship (with Shaw’s message), a bunch of dead engineers on the planet surface and, eventually, David. We also come to find that Elizabeth Shaw is dead. We also find that David apparently chest bursted her in one of his experiments.

As the story progresses, we find there are spore plants that can infect people and back burst aliens out of them. We also find that David has unnecessarily re-engineered the species to require an egg and a face hugger. The same egg and face hugger we find in Alien. So, we’ve come full circle. Now we know who created the egg and face hugger, but what was the point?

The spores which seemed quite abundant on the engineer home planet were actually a much more sophisticated and deadly delivery system. No need for alien queens or eggs or even face huggers. Instead, just drop the spores and let them do the work. What we find is that David’s work was actually superfluous. The original design by the engineers was sufficiently deadly enough and easily delivered without the need to complicate it with eggs and queens and hives and stuff.

I’m not exactly sure why Ridley felt the need to degrade the original Alien story by setting up this crude prequel that degrades the idea. Worse, it really doesn’t even get into the head of David sufficiently to understand his motivations. All we know is that this synthetic is somehow damaged, yet still able to function. I guess that’s the point. Since the original Alien didn’t get to take Ash to a more disturbing conclusion, Ridley seems to be doing it with David instead.

Body Count

After the bodies start piling up, first from the spore aliens and then later from David’s face hugged variety, the crew gets fewer and fewer. Of course, this is to be expected and is entirely predictable in an alien film. Because the colony ship used its one and only one landing vehicle to land on the planet (why are they only ever equipped with one?), effectively the crew is stranded because a spore alien makes its way onto the ship through an infected crew member and one of the crew lights the entire ship up with gunfire into explosive canisters.

Being stranded means David comes to the rescue and this is where things turn mostly sour. After a bunch of David vs Walter stuff and some other spore alien death romps, David reveals his big surprise on the naive captain, his prized face hugger alien. Seriously, David hasn’t given himself to be that trustworthy yet, yet this naive captain calmly puts his face right over the top of an open egg. Ah, the stupidity of movie characters.

Anyway, David shows himself to be mentally unstable and Walter and David have a fight. Yet, we don’t really know how it all ends because Ridley cleverly cuts away before the end. So then, the colony ship makes a daring rescue with some kind of ship not designed to land on a planet, an adult alien gets on board and lots of yelling, gunfire and stupidity ensues. Walter and several other crew make it back aboard the colony ship in space, yet we have one more alien to take care of. Now that that’s done, we settle into our cozy 7 year nap. Just as the last crew member is in her cryotube, she realizes Walter isn’t Walter at all. David has somehow taken over Walter.

David in Walter’s body

Here’s where the film jumps the shark. So, Walter is a much more sophisticated and newer synth model. I’m reasonably sure that Weyland did not give David schematics of himself. Yes, David knew what he was, but didn’t have any idea how he was made. So, how is it possible that David could have, in the all of about 5 minutes he had after fighting Walter, transfer himself into Walter? Seriously, there was no equipment on that planet to perform such a data transfer. There had been nothing set up in the film at all to show that David had been working on anything like that. David’s experimentation was entirely with the aliens, not with his own physiology.

Expecting us viewers to suspend our disbelief that far is just insane. There is no way possible that David could have transferred his own programming into Walter that quickly. In fact, as sophisticated as those synthetics were, to believe Weyland didn’t put a fail safe to prevent such synth to synth transfers is also insane. Weyland was extremely paranoid and that idea certainly wouldn’t have slipped past him. Based on what I know about Weyland, it wouldn’t have been possible for David to transfer his programming into Walter. In fact, it’s likely that David’s programming wouldn’t have even worked in Walter considering how much newer the Walter model was.

At the end we see Walter/David burping up alien face hugger embryos. Wait… what? Since when do face huggers exist in small embryo formats like that? I thought they required eggs? I shake my head yet again. Between the embryo aliens and the David into Walter transfer, this whole movie ends up as one big unnecessary Deus Ex Machina.

Third Film

I don’t really even know if I want to see the third film. I already know what’s going to happen. Clearly, they’re going to land on their colony planet and become infested with Aliens with the help of David… unless Walter can somehow reemerge and stop it.

Alien Covenant is a below average film that tries too hard to fill in the details, but fails at pretty much everything it tries to offer. Worse, what it does offer only degrades the idea of Alien rather than enhancing it and it adds entirely nothing new to the franchise.

Stars: 4/10
Recommendation: Skip or rent if you must

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in movies by commorancy on December 23, 2016

I’m so glad J.K. Rowling decided to bring us to the U.S. with the next installment of the Harry Potter universe (I say with some sarcasm). Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts is also kind of a mess. Let’s explore.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. Stop reading now if you want to watch the film.

Timid Characters

One thing I’m never a fan of in storytelling is setting up your main character as both timid and intimidated by nearly everyone around them. However, if there had been just one timid character in Fantastic Beasts, I might have given this trope a pass. Unfortunately, the timid characters extend to practically every role in the film. The timid characters include Newt Scamander (the timid oddball hero from Britain who randomly shows up in New York), Porpetina Goldstein (the demoted Auror who’s as timid as the day is long), Credence (a timid teen with a surprise), Queenie Goldstein (outgoing yes, but timid) and Credence’s witch-hating adopted sister (didn’t even catch her character’s name, but still timid).

I’m fine with a story using a timid trope if the character eventually emerges from their timid cocoon to take on the world. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in Fantastic Beasts.

Unlike Hogwart’s, where you plainly expect the students to be timid and intimidated by the teachers (who are clearly years ahead in magical learning), this trope fails to work in Fantastic Beasts where these magical folk should all be pretty much on even footing. Because these are adults and not children (with the exception of Credence and his adoptive sister), this trope fails so badly as to drag down the entire first half of the film.

No. When I see a movie, I expect the leading characters to eventually emerge as take charge individuals. Not only do they need to express conviction in what they are doing, they need to stand up for it and take charge of their actions and of those around them. This is especially true of the hero. In Fantastic Beasts, that never really happens. Which leads to…

Character Development

Because this story is so light on character development, we are lost with character names, what most of them do and why they are even there. While the place has been established pretty much up front (i.e., New York City), the film can’t help but break one of the cardinal wizarding rules, made so abundantly clear in the Harry Potter films, within the first 10 minutes of Fantastic Beasts… exposing the wizarding world to muggles and letting them go without ‘fixing’ it.

Worse, they start off by discussing nomenclature (“muggle” versus “non-mag”) as though we should run into all sorts of these Americanisms. Yet, later in the film, Percival Graves (the on-again, off-again villain) clearly uses the word ‘squib’ without thought. One could argue it wasn’t Percival Graves during any part of the film. However, if the US folk are calling muggles “non-mag”, then clearly they should be calling “squibs” some other word.

Story

Let’s just say that the first half of the film was a mess. It was all over the place. First, it was about Grindelwald terrorizing London. Then it transitions to be about finding and catching Fantastic Beasts that Newt accidentally lets loose in New York… after he bumps into a non-mag named Jacob who he exposes to magic, first by wand, then by disapparating. And, that’s not even the half of it. Because one of his beasts bites Jacob, he befriends Jacob and takes him ‘home’ (to heal him) and then into his suitcase (which is one of those spaces that’s larger inside than out).

Again later, it transitions to be about an Obscurial (a witch or wizard who doesn’t know it, usually a child). The repressed magic becomes a dark force that can damage or kill.

We’re exposed to many different concepts all at once, but that keep being thrown at us without any full understanding of why any of it’s happening. On top of that, we have all of the timid characters who refuse to take charge of their own situation. They just sit back and watch from the sidelines only occasionally becoming a participant in the action around them when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they stand there with head hung low like they’re waiting for a scolding.

Halfway Point

At about the halfway point, the pace starts to pick up as some of the pieces finally start falling into place, not just for the characters, but also for the audience. Yet, even though we have a rousing pace that’s pretty much relentless until the end, you still feel more like you’re watching something from the Marvel universe than something in the Harry Potter universe. It just felt too disconnected and too distant from what we came to know of Hogwarts. Is the American wizarding world that much different?

Overall

I liked the second half of the film, but the neat and tidy ending combined with the timid characters left me flat on the characters, the character development and ultimately the hodge-podge story. If it was all just a setup to expose Grindelwald, then that could have been accomplished in so many better ways. For this franchise, I’ll reserve my judgement and hope that a second film might turn out better. For a franchise opener, I guess it’s alright. I was just hoping for a lot more. I certainly got a lot more out of the first Harry Potter film than I got out of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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