DVDs: To BluRay Or Not To BluRay?

Let me take another stab at laying out what I think about BluRay, how studios should approach it, who it's right for and a rundown of some recent titles.
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Okay, so last week we had a lively discussion about BluRay DVDs. Go here to read it and the lengthy thread. Let me take another stab at laying out what I think about BluRay, how studios should approach it, who it's right for and a rundown of some recent titles and whether they make sense to buy on BluRay instead of regular DVD. After that, I'll run down some regular DVD releases just out.

1. BluRay is not really a new format -- It's really just a spiffing up of standard DVDs. Think of it as a Special Edition DVD. If your movie came out in a basic edition and in a Special Edition with loads of extras and cost about the same price, which would you buy? The Special Edition of course. That's how I feel about BluRay.

2. BluRay is a serious improvement in picture quality -- In all the hundreds of comments we had last week, there was one comment we didn't see: a comment from someone who had gone BluRay and thought it wasn't worth it. Doesn't mean it's right for you, but those who have seen the picture on an HD-ready plasma or LCD screen compare it to the difference between standard TV and hi-def. Even Grandpa can tell the difference.

3. The cost of going BluRay can be minimal -- If you've already got an HD-ready plasma or LCD TV, you probably spent thousands of dollars on it and a sound system. It's crazy not to spend an extra $150 to get a major boost in picture quality. If you plan on buying an HD-ready TV in the next five years, why not buy a BluRay player that can play the regular DVDs you already own as well as BluRays? Sure, you won't get the boost in picture quality right away, but when you DO upgrade your TV, you'll have a library of BluRay titles ready to go. (I'm speaking as a guy who had about 30 CDs before I bought a CD player. I hate to have a new toy and not own the software to enjoy it.)

4. Don't buy BluRay titles unless they're the same price or just a few bucks more -- There is ABSOLUTELY NO NEED to upgrade all the DVDs in your library. Old TV shows, documentaries and movies? They look just fine. Maybe a handful of classics you really love might be worth the money (like The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey), but that's it. This isn't like the switch from cassettes to CDs where you bought every album you owned in a new format. Your current DVDs look great (and in fact, most BluRay players and some HD-ready plasma and LCD TVs can make them look even better, if not BluRay better).

5. Studios: make BluRay the same price as regular DVDs or the format upgrade will die -- BluRays should not be seen as an excuse to bump up the price of DVDs, the way they bumped up the cost of albums when going from cassette to CD. The DVD market is mature and studios should be thrilled that they can offer the improved quality of BluRay to keep people happily buying titles. If studios don't make BluRays the same price, I'm convinced the format will fade away in a few years.

6. The risk of going BluRay is nonexistent -- DVDs are not going anywhere. However fast downloads and streaming take over, DVDs will definitely be around and available worldwide for the next decade at least. And even if in 15 years they stopped making DVDs, that doesn't mean the catalog you built up would suddenly be useless. I'm going to be playing and enjoying my CDs and DVDs until the day I die, whether the kids are downloading MP3s, watching 3-D holograms of movies or whatever. Other people are enjoying their LPs. You may buy e-books and read them on the Kindle; I can still enjoy my hardcover novels. The worse case scenario is that they stop making BluRays in two years. But regular DVDs (an $18 billion market) aren't going anywhere soon. And the BluRay player you buy will still be able to play regular DVDs. So you'll have some movies in BluRay that look great AND be able to watch all your classic DVDs and new titles for years to come. You'll be able to buy a BluRay-compatible DVD player for a low price (or just get the newest PlayStation) for many years to come. If you want a turntable or cassette deck, they're cheap and easy to get. The same will be true about DVD players.

7. You're on a budget -- If you only rent movies, Netflix offers BluRay rentals for just $1 more. If you're a family of four on a tight budget, buying Wall-E or The Dark Knight for $25 is a much better purchase than actually going to the movies. Of course, if you're on such a tight budget that a $150 BluRay player seems like an extravagance (and they'll be $100 by the end of the year), there's always the local library to borrow DVDs for free.

In short, I do NOT expect BluRay to last unless studios make them the same price as regular DVDs and pronto. But meanwhile they are pouring out titles on BluRay and those movies do look darn good. And when you compare the sales prices, they're increasingly the same price or just a few dollars more. You don't have to dump your library of DVDs and buy them all over again. I certainly won't. There's no new technology on the horizon that will make DVDs (either regular or BluRay) irrelevant or passe the way CDs made cassettes and LPs hopelessly inferior to most people. Downloadable hi-def and streaming could become the dominant way people buy or more likely rent movies in the next ten years. But neither of them is such a quantum leap above regular and BluRay DVDs that you'd find them gathering dust. They're just potentially more convenient, possibly, for some. Not better. The looming possibility of OLED or 3-D TV probably won't stop anyone from buying a really nice plasma or LCD TV and they shouldn't. New technology is always on the horizon but DVD has proven itself and BluRay is a great form of DVD. I've dissed most new formats for enjoying entertainment over the years, including laser disc, Divx, cassettes, MP3s (I still don't understand why anyone would buy an album that way instead of the CD), the competing BluRay and HD-DVD battle (I hate format wars and said people should wait and neither seemed necessary) and so on. I've only embraced two formats: CDs and DVDs. I also embraced the iPod and the Tivo/DVR as well worth the investment. That's it and it's a pretty good track record. BluRay is not a whole new format and for people who regularly rent or buy DVDs, the flood of titles coming out in the next 18 months and the dropping prices make BluRay a safe adjunct to your DVD library.

Here are some new BluRay titles and my opinion as to whether they're worth buying:

BABYLON A.D. ($39.98 on BluRay versus $34.98 on regular Special Edition DVD; Fox) -- This is a good example of the shrinking price difference between regular and BluRay. Find it on sale and that $5 difference can be $4. The film is also available for $29.99 on a single disc edition, though personally I don't know why they keep putting out stripped down editions like that. It seems a pain for stores to have to carry two (or now three, if you count BluRay) versions of the same movie. Sales of DVDs are slowing down. If studios were smart, they'd realize that DVDs trumped VHS because they were CHEAPER and offered a lot more value, including better picture and sound and loads of extras VHS never could. They're spending the money on the extras already. Why not just sell the Special Edition for $29.99 (on regular or BluRay) and if they're very lucky, sales won't continue to slide? The extras are exactly what make DVDs superior to streaming or downloading so they should stop seeing them as an excuse to charge a premium. The movie got lambasted by fans and critics (and the director), but if you do want a loaded DVD, since the BluRay is just a few dollars more and this is a sci-fi spectacle, it's worth it.

DEXTER THE FIRST SEASON ($54.98 on BluRay versus $39.98 on regular DVD) TV shows like Dexter, which is seen on Showtime, live for DVD since so many people don't have the chance to watch the show when it airs on pay cable. That's why it's a shame the BluRay version costs $15 more on BluRay. Sure that's only $5 per disc, the margin that doesn't seem so bad when you're buying just one movie. It has some extras unique to BluRay like a Michael C Hall podcast, but what really matters is the show. If you own the show already, there's absolutely no need to upgrade. If you're thinking of buying, I would recommend renting the BluRay instead. If you know you want to own, get the regular DVD. On sale, the BluRay is only $8 more on Amazon, but I have a visceral reaction to the SRP especially since the price tends to go back up after it's been on sale for a week or two.

THE DUCHESS ($39.99 on BluRay versus $29.98 on regular DVD) -- Sci-fi extravaganzas aren't the only flicks that pop on BluRay. Costume epics like this one can look smashing too. The movie came and went but it has an excellent cast (including Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, the too-handsome-for-his-own-good Dominic Cooper and Keira Knightley. Too bad the BluRay is $10 more than the regular DVD. Rent it or wait.

GHOSTTOWN ($39.99 on BluRay versus $29.98 on regular DVD) -- A romantic comedy starring one of David Letterman's favorite guests, Ricky Gervais. (Not to mention the screwball comedy heroine Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear.) Middling reviews, and the sort of film that isn't going to wow anyone in any format as far as picture or sound. Rent it. Hmm, now it seems like the introduction of BluRay has made me LESS likely to buy some questionable movies and more likely to rent them on Netflix, where I can enjoy them on BluRay for $1 more. That's yet another reason studios need to drop the price of BluRays ASAP. They're telling people that something better is available but making it easy to resist with higher prices, which can slow down the acceptance of BluRay AND slow down sales of regular DVDs.

EAGLE EYE ($39.99 on BluRay versus $34.98 for the regular DVD Special Edition) -- Here's a technological thriller perfect for BluRay, thanks to a state-of-the-art sheen and enough quick cuts and camera angles to thrill the biggest geek. The movie is an uninspired spin on technology run amok, but it's diverting enough with Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan running around -- at least until the flat finale. The SRP difference is $5 but when you check out the sale price on Amazon they are exactly the same price. That's good news, especially for a movie geared towards early adaptor fan boys. If you're gonna get it, why wouldn't you get it on BluRay?

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL ($34.99 on Bluray versus $19.98 on regular DVD Special Edition) -- This is not the new Keanu Reeves remake but the classic (if stodgy) Robert Wise film from 1951. Unlike the Keanu flick, this is not a special effects-driven extravaganza but a talky little movie more akin to a very good Twilight Zone episode. The BluRay has exclusive extras, like the ability to create a theremin-driven score. But that hardly makes up for the $15 price gap in a movie that's over 50 years old. Even when you check out the sale price, there's still a $10 gap. That's just not acceptable. As with any title, if a particular film is one of your favorites of all time and you're determined to own a copy, I guess the BluRay is worth it. But only in those rare instances. In most cases, get the regular DVD or just wait for the price to drop.

THE WACKNESS ($39.95 on BluRay versus $28.96 on regular DVD) -- I don't want to continue the misperception that only action and sci-fi flicks need BluRay. But certainly a quiet indie film like this -- about a teen selling pot in 1994 NYC -- isn't going to make a huge improvement with a better picture. Yes, any good movie will look all the better on BluRay. But $11 better? On sale, the price difference is still $6 and hey, that used to buy you a nickel bag. Josh Peck is a genuine talent, but this Sundance drama was overpraised so unless you really want to see Sir Ben Kingsley kiss one of the Olsen twins in BluRay, this is a renter.

RIGHTEOUS KILL ($39.98 on BluRay versus $29.97 on regular DVD) -- The first time De Niro and Pacino met on camera (in Heat) it was a giant event. This time? Not so much. It'll probably gain some fans on DVD because a cast this good is watchable even if the movie ain't special. Let's face it, the demand for entertainment when you're at home isn't always as strict as it is in the theater. But there's nothing special about paying $10 more for a cop movie. The $6 difference on the sale price is just a smidgen too much for me as well. The more we reward movies that cost the same or less on BluRay (like Into The Wild and Eagle Eye), the sooner the studios will wise up and lower prices. Rent it or wait.

SUPERHERO MOVIE ($29.95 on BluRay versus $19.95 for the regular DVD or the Extended Version DVD) -- Okay, this gets a little complicated. I'm a big fan of Drake Bell but this spoof in the vein of Airplane is a modest goof on SpiderMan. The BluRay is priced at $10 more than the other versions. However, the BluRay contains both the regular and extended cuts of the movie and if you look at the sale price, it's only $2 more than the regular DVD version of the theatrical cut. (For some reason, the Extended Cut regular DVD is cheaper, meaning the BluRay costs $5 more than that.) So if you wanted the theatrical version or just really, really like Drake Bell, an extra $2 for the BluRay seems well worth it to me.


CLASSIC AND NEW MOVIES -- The rather grandly named DVD The Films Of Michael Powell ($24.96; Sony) collects all of two movies by the iconoclastic director. One of them is a late career curio with a lovely young Helen Mirren as the main draw. But the other is the classic A Matter Of Life and Death aka Stairway To Heaven, with David Niven as the fighter pilot who is crashing to his death, falls in love with the voice of the female radio operator he's talking to, fails to get picked up by an emissary from heaven and then argues he should be allowed to live. In other words, like so many Powell-Pressburger films, it's utterly unique and charming. This print captures its striking look quite well, with the color shots of earth looking even better than the black and white fantasy sequences in heaven. I put in the DVD just to check out the print and found myself drawn into the film almost against my will. It's that good and an excellent print of it is worth every penny of this DVD. Blind Mountain ($29.95; Kino) is the story of slavery in China, the sort of film that makes you think, how did they ever get that made? Bangkok Dangerous Special Edition ($34.98; Lionsgate) finds Nicolas Cage still stuck in a rut, but a pretty action-packed one that can be mildly diverting if you're not too demanding. Ping Pong Playa ($27.98; Image) is a cute, modest comedy about a jive-talking Chinese-American kid who loves basketball but has to play in the big ping pong tournament in place of his brother. Matthew McConaughey never did like keeping his shirt on and his new comedy Surfer, Dude ($29.98; Anchor Bay) gives him every excuse to avoid it. He's a surfing pro who hates the commercialization of the sport and fans of surfing will enjoy it. But with a cast that includes Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson, however much you laugh I'll bet it was a lot more fun to make the movie than watch it. Disaster Movie ($29.95; Lionsgate) is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of movie spoofs. If you keep watching them, they'll keep making them.

HORROR/THRILLER MOVIES --Splatter flicks and women-in-danger movies are just not my cup of tea. But I do appreciate Clive Barker's imagination and sense of dread. Hellbound: Hellraiser II ($19.97; Anchor Bay) is a 20th anniversary edition with some new features. The Alphabet Killer ($26.97; Anchor Bay) is based on a true story about the brutal murder of a ten year old girl and features an above average cast that inludes Timothy Hutton, Cary Elwes, Michael Ironside and Eliza Dusku of Buffy. Ghost Writer ($19.95; Genius) is a tense thriller with a gay subtext (or is that text?) directed by and starring Alan Cumming as a landlord obsessed with his tenant David Boreanaz (quite naturally, of course; who wouldn't be?). It gets much nastier, of course. Pulse 3 ($19.98; Genius) continues the franchise where zombies come back to life via electronic devices. I knew I should have never bought that iPhone.

TV ON DVD -- Catch up with the smash hit The Secret Life Of The American Teenager Season One ($39.99; ABC Family) and look for my interview with creator Brenda Hampton on Monday, the day episode two of the new season airs. Family programming from the past gets its due with The Waltons Eighth Season ($39.98; Warner Bros.) with World War II dominating eveything and a new actor as John Boy, though it's easier to swallow since he immediately goes MIA. Duckman Seasons Three and Four ($49.98; Paramount) celebrates the most irascible duck since Howard -- and a much heavier drinker. Jason Alexander's best work outside of Seinfeld. 10 Items Or Less First and Second Seasons ($29.95; Sony) is the happily dumb workplace comedy set in a grocery store. I worked in a grocery store for six years so maybe that's why I've avoided it but my friend Liz says it's good, turn-off-your-brain comedy so I'll give it a shot. Greek Chapter Two ($29.99; ABC Family) is my favorite soap at the moment with a fun, talented cast. All hail Cappie! Secret Diary Of A Call Girl ($29.98; Lionsgate) is the first season of the Showtime series which launches its new season January 18. Billie Piper is fun as the lead, though I still find it hard to believe an assistant to Dr. Who could be so naughty. Tripping The Rift Third Season ($29.97; Anchor Bay) is the goofy sci-fi animated spoof starring Jenny McCarthy. Kyle XY Second Season ($39.99; ABC Family) is the continuing saga of our belly button-less hero Kyle. I have to admit, the more complicated the plot gets, the less interested I become. I prefered Kyle as a strange perspective on life, not as the linchpin of some massive conspiracy. Finally, if Billie Piper aka Rose as a callgirl freaks you out, take refuge in a classic adventure of Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday ($24.98; BBC Video) from the brief Peter Davison years. I really do find these endless Doctor Who releases exhausting. When oh when will they just release boxed sets devoted to each Doctor containing every episode they starred in? It's what everyone wants, isn't it?

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