Entertainment

Disney+ and the Return of the Water Cooler

Disney + & the Return of the Water Cooler

As Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run earlier this year, the web was flooded with stories about its cultural significance, with many outlets predicting that it would be the last “water cooler” TV series. In other words, as our viewing habits shift more and more toward streaming, many said, we would be missing out on those big shared cultural experiences that have dominated popular entertainment for decades.

 

Popular though it may be, it’s hard to really discuss Stranger Things on an episode-by-episode basis when entire seasons are dumped into our laps at once, with some of us binging in one day, some moseying toward the end in a more relaxed weekend, and others sipping each new season an episode at a time over the course of weeks or months, long past the point 

where any meaningful discussion has fizzled.

 

We’ve become so accustomed to this binge-watching delivery of new series that when Disney announced a more traditional, weekly release schedule for its serialized Disney+ exclusives, the internet was sorta shocked. Some instantly leapt to the most cynical assumption possible—that Disney+ didn’t want subscribers signing up for a month, burning through what they wanted to watch, then canceling. The truth turns out to be a little less sinister: Entire seasons of its launch shows simply aren’t finished and ready to be binged just yet.

 

But never mind the reasoning behind this decision to forgo the binge model. What I’m more interested in are the effects. The day Disney+ launched back in November, all anyone in my friend circle could talk about was The Mandalorian, the new weekly Star Wars series set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. That was to be expected. It’s the new and shiny Star Wars thing, and most of my friends were champing at the bit to watch it.

 

Then the next Friday rolled around, and my chat groups 

and Facebook newsfeed were once again dominated by discussions of The Mandalorian. And the Friday after that. And the Friday after that. And throughout all of these discussions, there has persisted a fundamental assumption that everyone has seen the most recent episode—that we’re all on the same page—to a degree I can’t remember since the advent of the DVR.

 

Last Friday, my wife and I had friends in from out of town, which meant we would had to put off watching Episode Five of The Mandalorian, “The Gunslinger,” until later in the weekend. What hadn’t really occurred to me is that this also meant I would need to mute all of my chat channels, opt out of Facebook, and eschew Reddit completely (even subreddits totally unrelated 

to Star Wars or Disney+) until I was caught up. Not so much out of fear of being spoiled, but more because I wouldn’t have a clue what anyone was talking (or memeing) about.

 

And it’s not merely The Mandalorian that’s creating this sort of phenomenon. While my main friend circle consists mostly of Star Wars geeks, I have 

Disney+ & the Return of the Water Cooler

The Imagineering Story

another, sizeable friend group that would be better described as Disney nerds. And their current idea of appointment TV is The Imagineering Story, a documentary series whose sixth and final episode airs (umm . . . streams) this weekend.

 

For my Marvel-loving friends, I can say with near certainty that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, What If . . ?, and other ongoing series in the months and years to come will similarly dominate the pop culture conversation in similarly sustained ways.

 

Of course, all of this creates something of a problem for those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of examining an entire 6- or 10- or 12-episode run of a TV show and evaluating its merits as a complete work. That’s why you haven’t seen me reviewing The Mandalorian here on Cineluxe, because much as I’ve loved it so far, I honestly can’t tell you yet if it’ll hold up to scrutiny once this season has wrapped.

 

Does that really matter, though? The show could completely flub the landing in its season finale (which debuts just after Christmas) and it would still have merit in the way it’s brought me and my friends closer together, giving us something to discuss on an ongoing basis that isn’t politics or doctor’s appointments.

 

And to be completely fair, I should point out that, in the larger discussion about the end of Game of Thrones and the water-cooler discussion that ended along with it, not every pundit saw it as the end of an era. In a piece with the unwieldy title Game of Thrones doesn’t mark the end of appointment TV—Hollywood always gives viewers what they want,” Alex Sherman predicted the Disney+ release model way before Disney announced it. “Netflix has upended TV watching by giving consumers what they want—lower prices, no commercials, entire season releases,” he said. “But as long as consumers want shared viewing experiences (and they do), streaming platforms will come around and begin to offer them.”

 

I doubt Sherman would have guessed that his prediction would come to pass so quickly, or in quite this form, but with subscriptions predicted to hit 20 million (on par with the 19.6 million people who viewed the finale of Game of Thrones legally) and a reported 43 percent of Americans expressing some level of interest in signing up at some point, it’s pretty safe to say that Disney+ has brought the water cooler back again. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Disneys new subscription-based streaming service Disney+ has given everyone plenty to talk about, from its fantastic original programming, to its war on binge-watching, to the surprise revelation that almost all of the Star Wars films are available for the first time in 4K with Dolby Atmos (and they look way, way better than the Blu-ray releases). But one of the service’s most compelling features—its user interface—isn’t getting much discussion at all.

I can only assume that some form of Stockholm Syndrome is at play here: We’ve grown so accustomed to fumbling around with the terrible onscreen menus for Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu, and other such services that when someone comes along and does it right, we’re almost blind to it.

 

I’m hoping, though, that the designers for these other services are taking notice.

 

 

What Other Subscription Streaming Services Could Learn from Disney+

One of the most obvious ways Disney+ sets itself apart is by having distinct domains —mini user interfaces nested within the main UI—for different types of content. There are separate screens for Disney-branded content, Pixar content, Marvel shows and movies, Star Wars shows and movies, and a wealth of documentaries and TV shows from National Geographic.

 

Within these domains, you’ll find expected sub-categories, like Movies, Series, and Specials, as well as a nifty section called “Through the Decades” that lets you navigate a body of work (like Star Wars or Pixar movies) chronologically.

 

Back out to the main menu, and there are even more ways of finding content to watch, including the usual search terms, as well as curated collections. Perhaps my favorite feature, though, is that Disney+ allows you to navigate a complete list of all available movies, A-Z.

Keeping in line with the praise I heaped on the Kaleidescape UI in Pt. 1, one thing I really dig about the Disney+ UI is its varied aesthetic. The Star Wars portal doesn’t look like the Pixar portal. And an overall search of all Disney+ content looks quite different from navigating a list of, say, all the Toy Story movies. These different visual modes encourage different modes of thinking, and complement the different ways you might arrive at figuring out what you want to watch for the evening.

 

Disney+ also doesn’t seem to rely too heavily on algorithms for feeding you new content. It makes its entire library pretty easy to search, and while there are the obligatory “Trending” and “Recommended for You” lists, these make up such a small part 

of the overall experience that you could be forgiven for overlooking them completely.

 

Contrast this with Netflix, inarguably the biggest direct competitor to Disney+, which relies so heavily on its flawed recommendation algorithms that finding a movie or TV show any other way can be a hair-pulling, fit-pitching

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ National Geographic portal

exercise in masochism. I covered this to a degree in my previous post about Disney+, where I suggested you try to find a comprehensive listing of all the Netflix-original Marvel TV series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Defenders) without stumbling over all manner of unrelated garbage. It’s nearly impossible on Netflix, whereas Disney+ treats this level of ultra-specific sub-categorization as a given.

 

To be fair, Netflix has a wealth of amazing content that’s right up my alley and that Disney+ would never offer in a million years. Just this past weekend, I stumbled across a high-definition presentation of one of my favorite 1970s Hong Kong

Interface Faceoff, Pr. 2

action flicks, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in its proper aspect ratio, complete with the original Mandarin soundtrack and subtitles. (Amazon, by contrast, only presents the film with an awful English dub.)

 

Here’s the thing, though: I never would have found this hidden treasure by searching Netflix alone, and the service never 

spoon-fed it to me even though I’m right in the movie’s target demographic. I happened upon it entirely by accident because I was using Roku’s excellent universal search function to try to find the film for sale anywhere in the digital domain. Disney+ paves so many varied roads to its vault of films and TV shows that I can’t imagine something similar happening on the newer service. 

 

One other, seemingly minor thing about Disney+ that I absolutely adore and don’t want to leave unsaid is that the app doesn’t hold you hostage the way practically all other streaming apps do. Exiting Netflix, for example, requires you to navigate to the left, scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen, and select the tiny Exit button.

 

Netflix isn’t alone, though. Practically all of these services hit you with a massive guilt trip when you attempt to leave. “Are you absolutely sure? Are you really going? I’m just going to go ahead and select ‘No’ for you since I can’t imagine you have anything better to do.”

By contrast, the only thing required to exit Disney+ is a single press of the back button on your remote, which evokes an air of confidence. Disney+ knows it can’t be your only source of streaming content, doesn’t take offense when you leave, and seems pretty sure you’ll be back sooner than later.

 

Of course, that’s not to say

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ “Disney Through the Decades” section

there aren’t areas where Disney+ could improve. I would like to see another level of sub-interfaces beneath the existing ones, so you could, for example, click on the horizontal Movies listing under the Pixar UI and be taken to a tiled list of titles instead of having to scroll right forever. But in the three weeks Disney+ has been available, we’ve already seen some substantial improvements, like the addition of a “Continue Watching” category, so you don’t have to keep a mental tally of which series you’re consuming and how many episodes you’ve seen to date.

 

It stands to reason that the service will continue to improve in numerous ways. The important thing is that it’s starting off with a well-planned and intuitive foundation, whereas all the other subscription-based streaming services need to start their renovations with a complete demolition.

 

 

The Best of Both Worlds

When you get right down to it, the two UIs I’ve held up as paragons of their disparate domains don’t have a whole heck of a lot in common. Disney+ and Kaleidescape serve very different purposes and work for very different content distribution and consumption models.

 

But both seem to be built on the same fundamental premise: That movie-watching isn’t simply something that happens between the opening and closing credits. It’s an experience that starts from the time someone says, “Hey, wanna watch a movie?” and someone else answers, “Sure, whatcha in the mood for?” It’s about browsing a library—one you own or one you subscribe to—and figuring out what strikes your fancy without getting lost in the weeds. It’s as much about getting to the movie as it is watching it. And the entire industry could learn a lot from how Kaleidescape and Disney+ help you navigate that entire process.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Let’s be honest about something for a minute: While many of us love Netflix as an alternative or supplement to cable or satellite TV, its user interface is awful.

 

To be fair. Netflix isn’t alone. In a previous (and now woefully outdated) post, where we dug deep into the various content providers of the day and stratified them according to quality of delivery and quality of content, we outright ignored user interfaces, simply because most of them are abysmal. That’s ironic, given that the screens you use to navigate your content 

libraries or search through the trove of on-demand shows and movies in an attempt to find something worth watching are an incredibly important part of the movie-watching experience.

 

The original plan for this post was to rectify that by parsing all the major platforms and arranging them from best to worst on the design of their interfaces.

 

And then Disney+ happened.

 

Disney’s new subscription-based streaming service has been the talk of the entertainment industry for the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this rant, though, Disney+ shines a very bright light on the fact that the user experiences for most other content delivery systems are so woefully lacking that a ranked list simply doesn’t make sense anymore. Because when you get right down to it, the home video industry currently has exactly two good examples of functional, attractive, and easily navigable UIs: Disney+ and Kaleidescape.

 

So instead of asking you to slog through a list of all the rest, complete with everything they do wrong, I thought I would instead focus on what Kaleidescape and Disney+ do right with their UIs in relation to the also-ran efforts from everyone else.

 

Before we get to a discussion about what makes these two UIs so good, I should point out that I don’t consider all of the digital video services to be in direct competition with one another in terms of their user experiences. That’s because there are two quite distinct ways in which we consume home video these days in the digital domain.

 

Disney+ and similar services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock, just to name a few, function as subscription-based on-demand libraries, where you don’t own anything but rather have access to a wealth of revolving-door content for anywhere between $4.99 and $16.99 per month.

 

On the other hand, services like Vudu, iTunes, and 

Kaleidescape offer à la carte sales of movies and TV episodes (along with bonus features) that are either added to an online library of streaming content you ostensibly own in perpetuity or downloaded to local hard disks or servers for viewing at any time.

 

There are, of course, services that offer a hybrid of these two approaches, like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, both of which feature a library of on-demand content 

for a monthly subscription fee, as well as access to films and TV shows that can be purchased individually. This does muddy our discussion a bit. But for the most part, I’ll attempt to keep any comparisons apples to apples.

 

In this first post, I’ll be digging into Kaleidescape and what it does right compared with other buy-it-and-own-it services like Vudu, iTunes, and to a lesser degree Amazon Prime. In Part Two, I’ll take Disney+ for a spin and highlight all the reasons it stands out in the realm of subscription-based streaming UIs.

 

 

What Other Digital Movie Retailers Can Learn from Kaleidescape

I’ve long contended that Kaleidescape has the best user interface in the entire home video industry, and I stick by that. The thing is, though, I often focus on aesthetics when talking about what makes the Kaleidescape home screen so appealing, and that’s really only half the story. It’s true, the beautiful layout of cover artwork is slick and inviting, and the way titles flitter on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

and off the screen just never gets old in terms of wow factor. But none of this would really matter if the Kaleidescape UI wasn’t so well-organized and easy to navigate.

 

All of that animation is really in service of helping you figure out what you’re in the mood to watch. Gravitate toward something like Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope

and the onscreen layout of cover art rearranges to fill the screen with similar titles—other Star Wars movies, of course, but also other action/adventure fantasy films. Pick one of those titles instead, and suddenly it becomes the center of a new universe, with similar titles orbiting outward toward the edge of the screen.

 

And, hey, if you know exactly what you’re in the mood to watch, you can skip this animated wall of cover art and skip straight to an alphabetical list of movies you own. It’s a different-horses-for-different-courses approach to digital library management 

that none of the other collection-based services seem to understand.

 

Buying new movies is also as easy as navigating over to the Kaleidescape Movie Store, a wholly separate area of the UI that features yet another unique interface designed to suit its purposes. You can navigate the Store by genre, by collection (for example, Marvel 

Interface Faceoff, Pt 1

Cinematic Universe or 2019 Oscar Nominees) or jump straight to new releases or pre-orders. If nothing less than 4K HDR presentation will do, you can also easily filter the store to just show titles available as such.

 

Contrast this with something like Vudu, which is probably Kaleidescape’s best competition, at least in terms of how it functions. Like Kaleidescape, Vudu allows you to purchase films in the digital domain outright, rather than paying a subscription fee to access an ever-changing body of on-demand content. It also comes with bonus features like audio commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries, when they’re available.

 

No matter the device, though, navigating Vudu is an absolute nightmare. In addition to its outdated look and feel, simply making your way to the library of content you own is unintuitive, to put it kindly.

 

A few weeks back, my wife was itching to re-watch a documentary we own about the history of Dungeons & Dragons art, so I told her to cue it up while I powdered my nose. I told her the name of the movie (Eye of the Beholder) and the service on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1
Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Vudu’s home (top) and “My Vudu” (bottom) screens

which we owned it (Vudu), and walked out of the room. When I came back a few minutes later, she was still futzing around on the home screen simply trying to figure out how to get to our library of previously purchased content.

 

This is largely due to the fact that every screen in Vudu looks the same: A wall of static cover artwork against a bleh blue background. There’s no real indication that, to get to content you already own, you have to navigate all the way up to the top of the screen, scroll over to My Vudu, go down from there, and toggle to the right to find Movies. There aren’t multiple roads to the same destination the way there is with Kaleidescape. There’s no visual or navigational difference

between content you own and content Vudu is trying to sell you. And as for the latter, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, Vudu’s organizational structure is an embarrassment.

 

You could say the same for services like Amazon Prime, too, especially when it comes to purchasing new films instead of waiting for them to hopefully show up on-demand. And Amazon makes it doubly difficult to find content in 4K HDR, especially in the way it treats the 4K release of a film as a wholly different title from the HD release.

 

There are things that could be better about the Kaleidescape user experience, to be sure. I grow aggravated that I often have to download both the 4K HDR and Blu-ray-quality versions of a film if I want to access all the bonus features, for example. But in its layout, navigation, operation, aesthetic design, and overall intuitiveness, Kaleidescape is so far ahead of all the other “build your own library” video services that it’s hard to knock it for the fact that there is a bit of room for improvement.

 

To be clear, I don’t expect other digital cinema retailers to mimic Kaleidescape’s flowing animations or speed-of-thought responsiveness. We’re talking about a dedicated media server with tons of processing power versus apps meant to be installed on sub-$200 devices. But Vudu and others could learn a lot from the way Kaleidescape uses varied graphics and navigation, along with an intuitive layout, to make the process of buying, organizing, selecting, and navigating a growing movie library such a slick experience.

 

In the next post, I’ll be digging deeper into Disney+ and all the things it does well compared to similar subscription-based on-demand streaming services.

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Inside “Forbidden Broadway”

Cineluxe is fortunate to have a number of writers whose expertise extends well beyond their ability to comment on the latest trends in luxury home entertainment. To take one truly exceptional example, contributor Gerard Alessandrini is the creator, 

writer, and director of the longest-running musical revue in history, Forbidden Broadwayan accomplishment that earned him a well-deserved Tony.

 

A spoof of all the latest Broadway shows and an incisive satire of musical theater in general, Forbidden Broadway has had productions around the world, including England and Japan, and has been the launching pad for many well-known actors, including Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander.

 

We recently had the chance to take a backstage look at the creation of the show’s latest edition, Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, which is currently running at New York’s Triad Theater before embarking on a national tour. In 

the video above, Gerard provides glimpses of the new show and its amazingly talented cast, while also reflecting on the show’s storied history and enduring legacy.

Inside "Forbidden Broadway"

The cast of Forbidden Broadway: The Next GenerationChris Collins-Pisano, Jenny Lee Stern, Joshua Turchin,
Aline Mayagoitia, and Immanuel Houston. 

Is Disney Planning to Bleed Netflix Dry?

Is Disney Planning to Bleed Netflix Dry?

Maybe the biggest story out of the entertainment industry this week is the news that David Benioff & D.B. Weiss—showrunners of the massively successful but ultimately disappointing Game of Thrones TV adaptation—have backed out of developing a new trilogy of Star Wars films, originally slated to debut starting in 2022. In isolation, this really only seems to be a big deal for the geek community. After all, unless you’re a big fan, why should you care who ends up developing the first Star Wars films to have absolutely no connection to the Skywalker saga, which is coming to an end this year?

 

Personally, though, I don’t think we can view this development in isolation. I think it must be viewed in its proper context as the latest volley in a brewing war between Disney (owner of the Star Wars franchise) and Netflix (new owners of Benioff & Wiess). It’s a war that’s been simmering since Disney announced its Disney+ alternative to Netflix back in 2018.

 

The first shots were fired when Netflix canceled all of its shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe owned by Disney (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, etc.). More recent skirmishes involved Disney deciding not to allow advertising for any Netflix series (or the service itself) on its numerous TV channels (including ABC, Freeform, Fox, FX, and National

Geographic). For some reason, ESPN is exempt from this ban, and it’s not clear whether it affects A&E Networks, of which Disney owns half.

 

The point is, the gloves are off. Disney is gunning for Netflix. Netflix is gunning for Disney (with some minor air support from Amazon, which refuses to allow the Disney+ app on its streaming hardware).

 

So, what do Benioff and Weiss have to do with any of this? The statement released by the duo about their departure says it all: “There are only so many hours in the day, and we felt we could not do justice to both Star Wars and our Netflix projects. So we are regretfully stepping away.”

 

It helps to know that the pair was originally picked to helm a new Star Wars trilogy back in 2018. But in August of this year, it was reported that an intense bidding war between Disney, Netflix, and Amazon for the rights to own Benioff & Weiss for the next five years had finally come to an end, with Netflix coming out on top, to the tune of $250 million.

 

If this seems extraordinary, it isn’t. Deals of this sort are 

becoming the norm, with Netflix throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at content creators in an attempt to corner the market on exclusive content that keeps eyeballs on screens (and subscription dollars flowing). But Netflix isn’t alone. J.J. Abrams (also of Star Wars fame) just struck a similar $300 million deal with WarnerMedia, whose own HBO Max streaming service is launching in 2020.

 

But while the Warners and Apples and Amazons of the world are all breaking their necks to make deals of this sort, the real war continues to be between Disney and Netlix. And you could argue that Disney lost this battle.

 

But did it? Did it really lose? To be frank, Star Wars fans haven’t really been all that excited about Weiss and Benioff’s new trilogy since it became clear the quality of Game of Thrones took a huge nosedive once the duo ran out of A Song of Ice and Fire books to adapt for the screen. And let’s face it: If Disney really wanted to win the bidding war for the creators’ souls, it could have, given that it has the one thing Netflix doesn’t—a positive cashflow situation. Netflix hasn’t turned a real profit since 2011, after all, and is expected to go $3.5 billion into the red in 2019 alone.

 

It isn’t wholly out of line to speculate that Disney may be attempting to force Netflix to spend itself to death, perhaps so it can swoop in and pick the carcass clean with little to no effort. That’s certainly one of the likeliest ways for the Mouse to win this streaming war.

 

No matter which corporation is ultimately victorious, though (and let’s be honest here: By that I mean “if Disney is ultimately victorious,” because there’s no way Netflix can win this fight if it keeps fighting on Disney’s terms), I can’t help but think that none of this is good for us, the consumers.

 

Both Netflix and Disney are acting like brats. I love them both. I have subscriptions to both (I already paid for three years’ worth of Disney+ in advance, based purely on all of their original Star Wars programming). And I honestly believe the streaming marketplace needs them both to thrive. But it seems that both are determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

 

One of my favorite things about the rise of streaming and the decline of commercial cinemas as the dominant source of feature films is that smaller movies like The Irishman, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and The Meyerowitz Stories have, at least for a while now, been given room to flourish in a way they haven’t in years. But if the streaming landscape is going to become a battleground for bidding wars like this, I worry that—just as blockbusters have squeezed independent cinema out of actual cinemas—streaming services will soon become a simulacrum of the same phenomenon. (By the way, what would you call the streaming equivalent of a blockbuster? A pipeclogger? Oh well, that’s a topic for another day.)

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Netflix is Garbage

Netflix is Garbage

Remember back when consumers bought discs? DVDs and Blu-rays, remember those days? Remember when, upon entering the store, there were inevitably bins or large containers with copious amounts of bulk DVDs and later Blu-rays in them? These bins were usually marked ‘Sale” or “Three for . . .” and whatever was thrown in was whatever B-Movie or failed Hollywood attempt had been taking up valuable shelf space. Remember those bins? Of course you do.

 

Whatever happened to them? 

 

They turned into Netflix. That’s right, everything that seemingly was destined for the three-for-one rack at WalMart is now a Netflix Original film—complete with shiny new posters, trailers, and marketing budget. Only beneath the veneer, it’s the same old shit.

 

Make no mistake, I love me some Netflix, I do. But lately, its has been letting me down. Case in point, last night my wife and I watched Fractured, a “thriller” that bowed on Netflix last week. Admittedly, I am a complete sucker for films such as Fractured, having once been at the helm of a micro-budget, horror/thriller myself. I get the genre, and I appreciate it. But, like many before me who were swept up in the horror craze that inundated Hollywood not too long ago, we learned that just because you could sell your film, that didn’t make it good.

Netflix is Garbage

Fractured

Case in point, my foray into the micro-budget, horror/thriller genre was a complete disaster on multiple fronts. Thankfully, our platform or home was the upstart Hulu long before it became the go-to TiVo of sorts for all the networks. No one watched my monstrosity, and I’m grateful for it, for, like Fractured, it was bad.

 

You see, Fractured is like a lot of films bowing on Netflix lately—all style and zero substance. Make no mistake, 

aspects of the film look great. It was clearly made by competent people, and it has a solid cast anchored by Sam Worthington (Avatar), but damn if the writing and subsequent editing don’t turn a slick piece of semi-well-acted cinema into a flaming bag of crap that just got placed on millions of virtual doorsteps. And this has been occurring on Netflix a lot lately.

 

In the past 30 days alone, I have watched a half dozen or so Netflix Originals that have been tantamount to virtual kidnapping. Films such as The Titan, What Happened to Monday, The Laundromat,  In The Shadow of the Moon, and Bright (shown

at right) are all perfect examples of efforts that had just enough going for them on paper that someone was bound to throw money at them, but not enough to make any of them good or even watchable.

 

I get it. Netflix is trying to take over our collective streaming-entertainment world, and for a while there it seemed like they were going to pull it off. But an early lack of competition was mistaken for success and a healthy 

Netflix is Garbage

dose of hubris has shown us not what Netflix was supposed to be, but the reality of what it is. Netflix is a modern-day WalMart DVD and Blu-ray store shelf. Sure, there’s some great stuff for sale, but most of it’s trash, so rather than sell you on quality, they’re going to kill you with quantity.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

“Apollo 11” Goes 4K

"Apollo 11" Goes 4K

If you’ve read my review of the original HD release of Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary film Apollo 11 from earlier this year, you may recall that it was a bit more of a rant than a proper critique. Not about the film, mind you. Apollo 11 still stands as one of the year’s best cinematic efforts, especially in the more straightforward, less editorial approach it takes in capturing this one monumental moment in history.

 

The rant was instead about the film’s home video release, which was originally HD only, with no mention of a UHD/HDR followup. As I said in that original review, this was doubly troubling because Apollo 11 is among a small handful of films released recently to actually be sourced from a 4K digital intermediate. In fact, its original film elements were scanned at

resolutions between 8K and 16K. Given that most modern films, especially Hollywood tentpoles, are finished in 2K digital intermediates and upsampled to 4K for cinematic and home video release, the lack of a UHD option for Apollo 11 was as infuriating as it was puzzling.

 

Thankfully, that mistake has been rectified. Apollo 11 is now available in UHD with HDR on most major video platforms, including disc and Kaleidescape, with the latter being my viewing platform of choice. I know I mentioned purchasing the film in HD via Vudu in my original review, but that purchase doesn’t offer any sort of upgrade path for UHD, the way Kaleidescape does.

 

At any rate, I did a lot of speculation in that first review about the sort of differences I thought UHD would make for this title. And having now viewed it, most of those predictions turned out to be true. UHD does, indeed, reveal a lot of detail that was obscured in the HD release. That makes sense given that the source of so much of this film’s visuals existed in the form of 65mm/70mm archival footage.

 

One of the biggest differences you see when comparing the 

HD and UHD releases is in the textures of the Saturn V rocket. Ribbing in the first three stages of the rocket that dwindle to nothing in HD are clear and distinct in UHD. The little flag on the side of the rocket is also noticeably crisper, and the stars in its blue field stand out more as individual points of whiteness, rather than fuzzy variations in the value scale.

 

As predicted, the launch of Apollo 11 also massively benefits from HDR grading. The plume of exhaust that billows forth from the rocket shines with such stunning brightness that you almost—almost—want to squint.

 

One thing I didn’t predict, though—which ends up being my favorite aspect of this new HDR grade—is how much warmer and more lifelike the imagery is. In the standard dynamic range color grade of the HD version of the film, there’s an undeniable cooler, bluer cast to the colors that never really bothered me until I saw the warmer HDR version. Indeed, the HDR grade evokes the comforting warmth of the old Kodak stock on which the film was captured in a way the SDR grade simply doesn’t.

 

It’s true that the new UHD presentation does make the grain more pronounced in the middle passage of the film—where 65mm film stock gives way to 35mm and even 16mm footage. That honestly has more to do with the enhanced contrast of 

this presentation than it does the extra resolution. HD is quite sufficient to capture all the nuances and detail of this lower-quality film. But the boost in contrast does mean that grain pops a little more starkly.

 

This does nothing to detract from the quality of the presentation, though, at least not for me. And even if you do find this lush and organic grain somewhat 

distracting, I think you’ll agree it’s a small price to pay for the significantly crisper, more detailed, more faithful presentation of the first and third acts.

 

If you haven’t picked up Apollo 11 yet, congratulations—you get to enjoy your first viewing as it should have been presented to begin with. If you already bought the film in HD, I can’t recommend the upgrade to UHD highly enough. Thankfully, for Kaleidescape owners, that upgrade doesn’t mean purchasing the film all over again.

 

It is a shame Universal, the film’s home video distributor, has for whatever reason decided to hold back bonus features. The featurette included with the UHD Blu-ray release, which covers the discovery of the 65mm archival footage, is missing here—although it’s widely available on YouTube at this point (and is embedded above). And only Apple TV owners get access to an exclusive audio commentary. Then again, given how badly the studio fumbled the original home video release, it’s no real surprise that they’ve dropped the ball on making the bonus features widely available.

 

Don’t let that turn you off of the film, though. This is one that belongs in every movie collection, especially now that it’s available in UHD.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Highest Rated Series Isn’t on TV

The Highest Rated Series Isn't on TV

Times, they are a changin’, and nowhere else is this more evident than online. No, I’m not talking about streaming, for saying streaming is changing the game is so 2018. What I’m talking about is original content being created by people like you and me.

 

We’ve discussed the democratization of media on this site and on the podcast, so it should come as no surprise that I’m discussing it yet again, but something rather huge has just taken place on the tubes of you. A content creator by the name of Shane Dawson just created a video series, entitled The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star, that has garnered CBS-primetime-level viewership.

 

Let’s back up. For those of you who don’t know, Shane Dawson is a filmmaker, producer, and YouTuber. Notice I said filmmaker and producer first, for I feel that the title of YouTuber is seen as a negative in the eyes of older generations, and I’m

not here to take anything away from Mr. Dawson or his achievements. Dawson has been on YouTube for many years, arguably “growing up” on the platform before it became YouTube as we know it today. As a result, he has amassed quite a following—twenty two and a half million followers to be exact.

 

While Dawson may have risen to YouTube fame via 

the production of cheeky skit videos some years ago, it is his new, more personal work that has caught my attention. I say this with all due respect, but Shane has emerged as a sort of Oprah-esqe figure on the platform.

 

Dawson’s latest series, a collaboration with beauty mogul Jeffree Star, is the culmination of everything his past work has been building to, as he follows in Star’s footsteps in an attempt to launch his very own line of cosmetics. While the title of the series may seem like a bio piece on Star, it really is Dawson’s journey that proves the most compelling, for, like the audience, the wild ride that is the life of Star is all new to Dawson. Part One of the series aired this past Tuesday, October 1st, with Part Two set to bow Friday, October 4th, with more episodes to follow.

 

So what does all this have to do with anything?

 

While the reach and power of social media and those we call influencers is undeniable, Dawson’s latest effort has managed to do something few—if any—independent, self-financed, self-created content has managed to do on a free, public platform . . . garner more viewers than many primetime network shows.

 

Ratings darling The Big Bang Theory wrapped this year, and its final episode was viewed by 18 million people in its time slot. 18 million people. Another stalwart (and advertising favorite) Monday Night Football routinely draws about 10 million viewers. Game of Thrones’ final episode drew 13 million eyeballs.

 

In truth, most shows on TV or otherwise fail to put up these sort of numbers routinely, many often doing half on their way to being unabashed “hits.” I’m shining a light on these three figures as examples of extreme cases of overwhelming success

according to traditional media because Shane Dawson’s latest series bested all but one of them with 15 million views (and counting).

 

Now, I don’t pretend to know what Dawson’s overhead costs are, but they can’t be as high as the cast and crew costs of The Big Bang Theory’s final season—hell, its final episode. Moreover, Dawson uses off-the-shelf equipment obtainable by anyone within reach of a Best Buy or a laptop with an Amazon account, which only adds (I think) to his content’s appeal. For as produced as it may be behind the scenes, it’s still undeniably real.

 

While many of you reading this may look at YouTube and those who create content on it as little more than children

making videos for children, I assure you it is not. It’s big business, and the more viewers Dawson and others like him rack up, the more folks like you and I will have no choice but to take note. While it may be chic among Baby Boomers to be Team Netflix over CBS, know that it’s an old trope. The future of entertainment is being shaped not by those who presided over the old guard only to repackage it as something new, but rather by a group of individuals like Dawson who said to hell with it all and did their own thing.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

Musicals Are My Work—Movies Are My Pleasure

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Gerard Alessandrini

Let me introduce myself. My name is Gerard Alessandrini. Although I am a writer/director in theatre (Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton), it’s little known that I am also a movie lover and have even been called an “expert” in many areas of film. One of the reasons I love movies so much is that I don’t work in film, therefore when I see a movie it’s a totally pleasurable experience because it’s never part of my job. In theatre, I am always looking at things with a critical eye and how they relate to my career. For me, movies are just fascinating fun.

 

I love all genres of films. I still purchase discs of films I would like to see and/or keep. Nowadays, most people watch films streaming on Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, but if I love a film, I like to have it on hand for repeated viewings. I own a good amount of the Criterion Collection, which sadly is becoming harder and harder to find. Of course, I love high-quality imagery, so I have been buying many Blu-rays recently. Here’s a story of one of my most recent favorite purchases, The Nun. Not the recent horror film but the French classic from 1965.

 

Nearly 40 years ago when I first came to New York, I wandered into a revival house and saw Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (also known as La Religieuse). The film is 

mesmerizing as well as heartbreaking, and I have remembered it for all these years. During all that time, I have never heard mention of it! I wasn’t even sure if the film even existed and wondered if I had imagined the whole thing!

 

Well, you can imagine how happy I was when I walked into the Union Square Barnes & Noble and saw that Kino Classics DVDs had issued the film on Blu-ray. It’s a stunning restoration in 4K from the original film negative. The liner notes point out that The Nun was originally banned in France, I assume due to its controversial religious subject matter. It was not released in the United States until 1971, and eventually became a landmark of the French New Wave. It’s adapted from Denis Diderot’s

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Anna Karina in Jacques Rivette’s The Nun (La Religieuse)

novel and it follows a rebellious nun who is forced into taking her vows—but this ain’t The Sound of Music. Anna Karina plays the title role and gives an “incandescent” performance. I’m so glad that I didn’t imagine this movie, and that it is finally available.

 

Some of the other Blu-ray discs that I happily purchased are David Lean’s final film, A Passage to India (one of my favorites of his), Safety Last (Harold Lloyd’s classic silent comedy filled with thrills and laughter), and two wonderful musicals, Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and Victor/Victoria, starring Julie Andrews. Both of these film musicals have improved with age.

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Sergei Bonarchuk’s War and Peace (1968)

On the other end of the spectrum, I was excited to buy the foreign-language Russian epic, War and Peace (1968). This is not the 1956 Audrey Hepburn version, but the 422-minute adaptation of the novel by Leo Tolstoy, and it follows the book so closely and completely that you could make the case that Tolstoy wrote the screenplay. This 2K digital restoration is completely in Russian with subtitles, unlike the over-dubbed English version that has been available for years. Experiencing it in Russian, of course, is the way to go. The film is directed by Sergei Bonarchuk, and is so authentic you would think you were looking through a window at the actual history as it took place.

 

Moving on to Westerns, I recently re-discovered another film from my past. When I was a young boy, I remembered seeing Audrey Hepburn in, of all things, a western! Again, the film was so obscure I thought perhaps I had imagined it, but Kino Lorber has issued a wonderful Blu-ray of this film, The Unforgiven, which stars not only Audrey Hepburn, but also Burt Lancaster, Lillian Gish, and, in a fantastic performance, Audie Murphy.

Musicals are My Work--Movies are My Fun

Audrey Hepburn in John Huston’s The Unforgiven

Today, the casting of Audrey Hepburn in this particular role wouldn’t happen, but it’s fun to see this visually gorgeous western with fine performances and hear the great music score by Dimitri Tiomkin. And if those names aren’t enough to impress you, it’s directed by John Huston. It’s great to own this film on Blu-ray, but it’s even better to see it in a movie theater on the big wide screen, where its mood and power will encompass you.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals. He is best known for
creating & writing the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway. Since 1981, he has
written & directed all the versions of FB in New York, LA, London, and around the world. He
has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk
awards. As a lyricist (and sometimes composer), he has written over a dozen musicals—
including Madame X, The Nutcracker & IScaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of
Moon Over Parador. He’s also written many special-material songs for stars like Angela
Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

What You Need to Know About Disney+

What You Need to Know About Disney+

The Simpsons will stream exclusively on Disney+

Even if you pay no more than a middling bit of attention to the streaming-video landscape, you likely felt a great disturbance in the Force in the past few months, as if millions of voices cried out and said, “Take my money!” That disruption, of course, has been caused by Disney+, which was met with skepticism when it was originally announced two years ago. (Yours truly called it a “huge mistake,” words I would like to eat with some ginger and a few shavings of fresh wasabi root, if you don’t mind.) But in the time since, numerous announcements about exclusive content and the service’s price structure have turned it from an inconvenient extra bill to a legitimate threat to Netflix.

 

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Disney+, mind you, and probably won’t know until closer to its November 12 launch date. But for now, here’s what we can say about what makes Disney+ different from the competition, and why you should care.

 

1) It’s got the content you want for a price you can’t refuse

If you’re a fan of, well, pretty much anything, chances are good Disney owns a piece of it. It goes without saying that Disney+ will have a large collection of Disney movies (with none of the Vault shenanigans that we’ve come to know and loathe in the home video era), as well as Pixar offerings, to choose from. It’ll also have every Star Wars movie except for The Last 

Jedi and Solo at launch (those are coming in the first year), as well as original Star Wars programming like the new live-action show The Mandalorian and a brand-new season of the highly acclaimed The Clone Wars animated series.

 

Ditto Marvel. The only movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that won’t be available at launch is Avengers: Endgame, which is slated to hit Disney+ in December. That, by the way, gives us some interesting insight into how long it will take new theatrical releases to stream after they’ve been released to home video. Then there’s the mountain of new, Disney+ exclusive MCU programming in the works, including original TV series based on Hawkeye, Vision & Scarlet Witch, Falcon & Winter Soldier, as well as everyone’s favorite bad boy, Loki.

 

Out of the gate, the service will launch with 300 theatrical films, and by the end of the first year we’re promised 500 films and 7,500 episodes’ worth of TV programming. All of that would be worth $6.99 a month even if the service didn’t also include a ton of National Geographic content to boot.

 

 

2) Bundles will sweeten the pot

Disney recently announced that in addition to its main subscription plan for $6.99, you’ll also be able to drop $12.99 on a bundle that includes Disney+, ESPN+, and the ad-supported version of Hulu without live TV. In other words: Pay for two, get one for free.

 

This makes sense, given that Disney now owns a controlling stake in Hulu (with Warner going its own way soon to launch HBO Max, another studio-exclusive streaming service), and seems to be positioning Hulu as the home for its more adult-oriented programming (including former Fox properties like Deadpool, as well as more mature original shows).

 

Interestingly, that $12.99 price point is also exactly what Netflix charges for its most basic, HD-only subscription tier. That can’t be a coincidence.

 

 

3) Disney isn’t skimping on AV quality

The company has already made some reassuring statements about Disney+ supporting 4K video and HDR. While we don’t know what sort of compression codecs the service will employ, that promise means it’s using HEVC at a minimum. In other words, Disney+ will be in the top tier of streaming providers from a video-quality perspective.

 

Here’s what we don’t know, though: Will you be able to

access 4K HDR video for the aforementioned $6.99 subscription price? Netflix charges for 4K HDR. Amazon doesn’t. So, it’s difficult to guess.

 

What’s more, we also don’t know if opting for the Disney+/Hulu/EPSN+ bundle will force you into accessing all three services from one app. If that app is Hulu, that could also be bad news in terms of video quality. Although Hulu recently re-introduced support for 4K video, it doesn’t offer HDR, which is a bummer since dynamic range has much more impact on picture quality than pixel count.

 

In other words, if you care about video performance, it may be that you’ll need to skip the bundle and just subscribe to Disney+ directly. But again, nobody knows for sure just yet.

 

 

4) They seem to have solved the biggest problem with most streaming services—the user interface

Here’s a fun experiment for you bored masochists in the audience: Load up Netflix and attempt to find all of the existing Netflix-original (but Disney-financed) Marvel TV shows in one place. This is a little easier if you remember the names of all those series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Defenders). But search instead for, say, “Marvel,” and you end up with a mess of unrelated content with no clear indication of which shows exist in the same continuity. (Particularly troubling for nerds, you’ll also find a lot of cartoons based on D.C. Comics properties.)

 

Netflix isn’t alone in this, of course. The user interfaces for all of the major streaming platforms are just terrible.

 

Disney+, by contrast, has developed a user interface that seems to do all the things normal streaming UIs do—track your viewing habits, give you recommendations based on your preferences, spotlight new releases by category, etc.—but it also

curates its content and allows you to hone in on specific universes it owns. Just want to watch some Star Wars but not sure exactly what you’re in the mood for? The Galaxy Far, Far Away will have its own separate section of Disney+. So will Marvel. So will Pixar and NatGeo.

 

If other streaming providers don’t figure out how to do something similar—not 

necessarily segregating their home screens by shared universes, but coming up with some way of streamlining the process of finding something worth watching that matches your current mood—this could be the Number One thing that threatens the competition.

 

 


Add it all together, and it’s really not a question of whether or not you’ll subscribe to Disney+. Because of course you will, especially if you have a kid, know a kid, or remember being a kid. The real question is whether or not you’ll start dropping your subscriptions to other services once Disney+ launches.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.