Why Disney will release the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy

hangreedoSince Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, a key question has been whether they’ll release the theatrical editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas has largely suppressed them since releasing the first special editions in 1997, embarrassed by their less-than-perfect special effects and insisting he would always have made the incongruous additions if technology and circumstance allowed.

So essential are these upgrades for him that he’s decreed older fans should never be allowed to see the versions they grew up with and younger ones shouldn’t be able to see a seminal part of cinema history. This is in stark contrast with his infamous 1988 speech to Congress declaring that permanently altering films was barbaric.

The issue has been personal for him, but fortunately Disney’s a soulless multinational corporation. If there’s money to be made, what do they care about a director’s pet grievances? Plus, Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy seems to think quite differently about the imperfect, lived-in aesthetic of the original trilogy.

We don’t know whether Disney is contractually able to release them, but some still believe they wouldn’t bother spending much on a niche concern even if they could. I think that view is wrong and fails to see the big picture.

But first, let’s look at the potential hurdles. Continue reading

The future of TV distribution already exists, and it’s called Crunchyroll

cr_verticalAttorney-General George Brandis announced last month that the Australian government wants to drastically curb film and TV piracy, but with methods that have been demonstrably ineffective in other  countries. Following Foxtel muscling iTunes and Quickflix out of selling HBO shows the day after broadcast, this is another step leading us further away from the convenient distribution systems that could genuinely reduce piracy. Instead of curing the problem by building towards a flexible, geographically egalitarian system, Big Media and the government are merely treating the symptoms with resentment and hostility.

Yet progressive distribution models are prospering. Netflix is frequently held up as the benchmark, but it only distributes its handful of original shows in all its territories at once. Even if they set up shop here tomorrow, we’d remain bound to free-to-air and pay TV distribution for all other new shows. Hulu comes closer with next-day streaming of American broadcasts, but it’s US-only (unless you’re geo-dodging) and doesn’t include content from key cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and FX. And that’s just American programming. The problem repeats in most countries.

No, the model for the future is Crunchyroll. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s for the very reason it’s so effective. Crunchyroll doesn’t stream mainstream TV shows, but a niche product: anime.

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The X-Files might actually be coming to Blu-ray

This is weird timing: a speculation I made last weekend looks to have unexpectedly come to pass. In my post about the first season Blu-ray release of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I discussed how the success and viability of that project may lead to Blu-ray releases for other shows that were shot on film but edited on videotape. Out of all shows from the 1980s and 1990s that were produced this way, I named The X-Files as a candidate for the next wave of shows rebuilt for HD. I wasn’t terribly optimistic though.

What a difference a day (or two) makes. The Digital Bits reported on Tuesday that they’ve heard Fox have decided to remaster The X-Files for Blu-ray and may have already started work. Although this was in their “Rumour Mill” column, The Digital Bits is so well connected that while they tag anything not yet officially announced as rumour, their sources are so impeccable that it’s almost certainly going to happen. If it doesn’t, it’s because the studio changed their mind or something stopped them, not because it was never true. The Digital Bits were the first to report that CBS were remastering The Next Generation, and a few months later the official announcement appeared.

So we can start getting excited about this as a near certainty, and what an unexpected development it is. There’s been a lot of talk about the long-term viability of Blu-ray as a commercial format. Some cite that it hasn’t been taken up as rapidly as DVD, or assume that the parallel rise of online streaming options will inevitably put the nail in the disc’s coffin. But this ignores the fact that an increasing proportion of units sold of a title are on Blu-ray rather than DVD, and often the majority. Plus, the required online infrastructure to stream 1080p high definition to huge numbers of customers is not even imminent in America, let alone a smaller country like Australia. For a reliable, pristine HD experience, Blu-ray still can’t be topped.

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Why Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season is surprisingly good, and what its restoration may mean for other classic shows

When a friend is telling you about a long-running show they love, you’re inevitably going to hear something like “it takes a while to get really good” or “the first season kinda sucks”. We seem unable to resist pointing out a show’s relative shortcomings even when we adore it. Perhaps we’re afraid of seeming to lack critical thinking, or we try to ensure that our recommendation will hold water if the person initially finds the show a chore.

That’s understandable, and useful in the latter case: there’s no point sending someone to a set of episodes that do indeed kinda suck when they will genuinely benefit from persisting through them. The unfortunate consequence is that these provisos get thrown around so often, particularly online, that they become immutable facts rather than possible reactions.

So these facts state that the last two seasons of The X-Files are indisputably awful, and Twin Peaks went down the toilet, without question, once Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed. These statements often have a sound basis, particularly if the problems were generated by production hurdles. However, what were clearly bumps in the road for each show have since been transformed into the nails in their coffin. The vehemence or ambivalence of a few outspoken viewers and critics has become the dominant narrative.

The upside of this is that viewers who then approach those installments cautiously may be pleasantly surprised. “Hey, Robert Patrick puts a lot of energy back into this show,” they might say. “Wait, the Windom Earle story is quite creepy and cool, and this finale is spectacular,” they will hopefully rave in shock. And in some cases the quality is so high, or at least not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests, that the show might seem like a revelation.

Such discoveries are rare, but the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation comes close. Yes, it’s as uneven and occasionally cheesy as the dominant narrative has long insisted. However, I was expecting each episode to be a poorly conceived, awkwardly acted, horribly dated test of my endurance.

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Reviewing Kids on the Slope and discovering anime on Crunchyroll

kidsontheslopeMy last venture into streaming anime didn’t go so well, when the underwhelming Un-Go left me questioning how much anime was out there for someone like me. By that I mean: a picky anime fan who needs a certain degree of ambition or poignancy for a show to hook me. Several I’ve seen over the last year or two have had the right ingredients but never cohered. They felt lazy. While I was initially thrilled by the numerous legal streaming options available locally through Madman and Siren, the reality was that very little of it appealed to me.

But watching the first episode of Kids on the Slope on Crunchyroll has invigorated my optimism about the medium, particularly because I had no idea that the site could make so many major shows available outside of the US. It’s quite the goldmine.

Crunchyroll has been an institution for anime fans since it was founded in 2006 by a bunch of undergraduate students, initially using illegally fansubbed content. Now 100% legal, it streams subtitled episodes of a variety of shows within hours of their Japanese broadcast, either freely with advertisements or ad-free and in HD for paying subscribers. For US fans frustrated by the months or years that can elapse between broadcast and DVD release who can handle subtitles, Crunchyroll has been a godsend.

But for much of that time licensing restrictions required it to geolock its streaming shows to the US. I knew that a select few were available overseas, but I’d been focused on Madman and Siren’s local streaming and never looked into it. Not much from those companies grabs me at the moment, so after checking out the latest installment of Anime News Network’s terrific review column, The Stream, I investigated whether the shows garnering rave reviews that piqued my interest might actually be available to me.

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Can (and should) Netflix save dead TV shows?

netflixEver since Netflix won the bidding war for new episodes of Arrested Development, the online streaming giant has become a beacon of hope for TV fans left mourning cherished shows. This was compounded when Netflix was widely reported to be considering whether to pick up Fox’s family dinosaur drama Terra Nova and ABC’s found-footage mystery The River following their likely cancellation earlier this year. Even though those deals didn’t eventuate, they suggest that Arrested wasn’t a one-off. Perhaps Netflix may change the game by continuing to rescue shows that broadcast networks no longer deemed profitable, even years after they ended.

The excitement is understandable, because when American shows get cancelled, they invariably stay that way. British channels will happily bring back shows years or decades after canning them, but in the US, dead means dead unless you’re an animated sitcom. Networks are generally too prideful to reverse their decisions or to eat the scraps of their rivals unless they happen to be owned by the same company that produces the show (hence the rescue of Scrubs and Medium).

But Netflix apparently has no such reservations. They’re even willing to take meetings about picking up poorly reviewed shows that hardly have a groundswell of viewer support. There was no palpable desire to bring back Terra Nova or The River, yet Netflix still considered doing so. If even they were candidates, what else might be?

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Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-ray at last

tng-nextlevelAbout a week ago I watched The Next Level, the Blu-ray sampler disc containing three episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in HD. The level of my anticipation for this release cannot be underestimated, which is a little odd because I’m well aware that TNG is hardly the finest television show ever made. The technical and experiential leap forward that the disc offered was the true drawcard, the chance to see the cobwebs and dust blown off a cherished show to reveal what was always underneath but never before seen.

What’s remarkable about this release–and the complete series Blu-ray release it heralds–is that CBS had to essentially re-edit the episodes from scratch in order to create a high-definition presentation. The Next Generation was shot on 35mm film (which inherently has an even higher resolution than the 1080p offered on Blu-ray), but then transferred to videotape to be edited to save time and money. Visual effects were also often created on film but then composited with the live-action film on videotape.

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Is Blu-Ray God in disc form?

blurayWell, not quite, but it’s certainly transcendent.

After many long months of pining, I finally have a 40-inch full HD LCD TV and a Blu-Ray player. Although I’d only seen snippets of Blu-Ray in action in stores – and not at optimal settings, I now learn – reading about the technology online and just watching my CRT confirmed that there was much room for improvement. My experience with that technology is akin to seeing a moving image through a dirty beer glass, and these first days with the new TV have proven that.

My DVDs now look clearer, sharper, brighter, and most importantly, more immersive. I can’t wait to watch Twin Peaks again on this, for example, despite seeing it five or more times. Grain is much more obvious on certain discs, such as the first season of Friday Night Lights, but that may have been deliberate on Peter Berg’s part anyway. Plus, having widescreen DVDs fill the screen is such a treat. Physically, this TV isn’t that much bigger than our CRT, but with the image nearly reaching the edges of the unit itself combined with the leap in quality, it feels twice as big.

But Blu-Ray has been the most impressive aspect, by far. Some friends had said they could barely tell the difference, which was a little concerning. Is Blu-Ray, in the final analysis, more for the incredibly discerning home theatre buffs who can tell the difference between a Dolby and a DTS audio track? Would my upscaled DVDs look on-par with the new, much-vaunted, but controversial technology?

No. Far from it.

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Kingdom of Heaven Revisited

As promised, here is a repost of my pre-Remote Wanderings reviews of Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. The first is of the theatrical cut from June 2005, the second of the Director’s Cut from June 2006. It’s been interesting to look back at these reviews and see how my style has changed (and hopefully) improved in only a year of intermittent work. Consequently, please forgive any clumsiness or repetition.


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Battlestar Galactica – Pegasus Extended Cut

bsgpegasusThe recent Battlestar Galactica Season 2.5 DVD collection features the much-discussed extended cut of last year’s mid-season cliffhanger, Pegasus. The broadcast episode did seem overstuffed, so the news of substantial cut footage was unsurprising. Instead of offering the footage as an extra, the producers have returned to director Michael Rymer’s original cut and delivered a much more satisfying and nuanced episode.

The most discussed change for the broadcast cut was revealed by Ron Moore last year: originally, the brutal attempted sexual assault of Sharon by the Pegasus’s Cylon interrogator actually took place before Helo and the Chief rescued her. This was a broadcast standards concern rather than a time factor, which Moore and David Eick tried to avoid by requesting a special 90-minute episode (which they eventually received, thankfully, for the season finale). I assumed that this would significantly alter the narrative, that reshoots of subsequent scenes took place. Not to belittle the bravery of the content, but the change is actually quite small, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but one that undoubtedly ratchets up the sinister danger that the Pegasus poses and more courageously confronts the shocking subject matter, firmly contributing to Galactica’s ongoing willingness to engage with dark but very real issues. It’s a camera shot that puts the Pegasus saga’s money where its mouth is, delineating the differences between Galactica and Pegasus, Adama and Cain, all the more clearly, and I’m glad that it’s there despite naturally being distressing to watch.

The other additional footage is separate to this change, and it’s all solid material that adds a great deal of texture to what was a highly plot-driven episode. The arrival of the Pegasus is now more insidious with a greater sense of dread as the discovery of their transgressions is delayed a little more (for the record, there is 15 minutes extra footage, but it feels like more, in a great way). Key additions include a new opening where Starbuck tries to convince Adama and Roslin to send a rescue mission to Caprica that enhances Cain’s impact on her in the Resurrection Ship two-parter, and a scene between Baltar, Cain, and Sharon, where Cain’s loathing of the Cylons becomes apparent. Nearly every other scene features new dialogue and minor extensions, restoring Galactica’s usual subtlety and richness to Pegasus. While watching this cut, the word ‘texture’ came to me as an appropriate encapsulation of what differentiates this show from all other science fiction programmes: a determination to dwell in the quiet moments and silent implications between characters. So it was a nice surprise to listen to Moore and Eick’s audio commentary and their description of the ‘texture’ that has been returned to the episode. It’s a hallmark of Battlestar Galactica, and thus means that this extended version is no fanwank indulgence, but a significant improvement that makes the conflict between battlestars more organic and gripping.

[Side note: the most bizarre inclusion is Cally saying “bullshit” – why was this even filmed? It would never get on the air. What a fun bonus though.]