Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/03/2000.
I can't believe how extrordinarily quaint this article looks nowadays. FYI, the Samsung DVD-807 finally conked out in around 2005, and has now been replaced by a Toshiba SD-330E.
"DVDs? Piss on 'em."
- Damn Your Black Heart Barbra Streisand review, January 1999
Don't go interpreting this as a u-turn or anything. When I said all those rude things about DVD over a year ago, I was mainly talking about it as a data storage medium. And to this day, my moderately responsible job in the computer industry still doesn't use it to any great degree. As a video distribution medium it wasn't much better: the selection of films available on DVD in the UK was pitifully small in the early part of 1999, and showed no real sign of improving. It would take something pretty spectacular to change my mind.
It took the Samsung DVD-807. Bought in a job lot by the Kingfisher Group in March 1999, these machines went on sale in their Woolworths, Comet and MVC stores. They sold at £250, but a couple of magazines ran a coupon which bashed the price down to £200. For that, you got a reasonable entry-level player, and three disks thrown in: the excellent The Shawshank Redemption, the pretty good Brassed Off and the still-in-the-shrinkwrap Riverdance In New York. Which all seems fine and dandy, but the killer punch was still to come: shortly after they appeared on the shelves, rumours started flying around in the press that these buggers were region-hackable.
A quick digression into jargon here. DVDs and their players come encoded with details of the region they came from - Region 1 for the US, Region 2 for Europe and so on - and are locked so that generally you can only play disks from your region on your player. This is mainly for the benefit of Hollywood studios, to cope with the staggered release patterns of movies across the world. To take a recent example: The Blair Witch Project was released in cinemas in the US in the summer of 1999, coming out there on DVD around Halloween. Now the European cinema release of BWP also took place at Halloween, and the last thing the cinema distributors want is to lose money because Europeans are buying the Yank DVD rather than seeing it in their own cinemas. So the American disk is encoded so it won't play in European machines, unless you take the risk of tweaking with the electronics of your player to get round the encoding.
Or - in the case of the Samsung DVD-807 - you press four buttons on the remote control to activate an engineering test code that permanently makes your player capable of reading any disk on the planet.
Obviously, this information wasn't made available by Samsung themselves. Or was it? Because once the region crack got into the public domain, Kingfisher sold their entire stock in the space of a fortnight. (Mysteriously, after that initial batch, the player was never seen in this country again.) All of a sudden, UK viewers could get all the advantages of DVD - enhanced sound and picture quality, convenient size, and sufficient capacity for bonus features like audio commentaries by the filmmakers, extra footage and behind-the-scenes documentaries - and get them across the huge range of American DVDs, as well as the pitiful selection of UK ones. With the possibilities for purchasing American software over the Internet, it was the best publicity both DVD ownership and e-commerce could get in this country.
So I've owned a Samsung DVD-807 for nearly a year now. The UK market for disks has grown in leaps and bounds over that time, but most of the disks I own are still Region 1 (R1), purchased over the net from America. Even with postage they can come to as little as £12 each, which compares favourably with the £15-£20 you'd pay for their Region 2 (R2) equivalents in Britain. As it becomes easier and easier to adapt British players to read American disks, here's a look at ten of the most interesting DVDs in my collection, from both sides of the Atlantic (and in one case, beyond).
1. Vertigo (Universal R1)
The first disk I ever imported from the States, and still one of the best. Hitchcock's greatest film - no arguing - was given a lush makeover for its fortieth birthday in 1998: colour restored to its full glory, sound remixed in Dolby Digital stereo. The result got a cursory cinema release in the UK but showed no signs of ever coming to video, making the chance to own it on DVD particularly welcome. And this disk comes with huge amounts of bonus material: a lengthy documentary on the restoration process, a commentary by the team responsible, trailers, photos, storyboards, production notes, and even the wimpy crime-doesn't-pay alternative ending that Hitch had to add for certain foreign markets. Compared with any copies of Vertigo you've seen on telly, this is a transformation job to rival the one at the heart of the film itself.
2. The Matrix (Warner R1)
The British Board of Film Classification tends to go nuts about a particular fad every so often: currently, it's headbutting. All of the major censorship battles in the UK in the past year have revolved around the cutting of headbutt shots, most recently the nose-smasher that Julianne Moore gives to Stephen Rea just before her death in The End Of The Affair (sadly reduced to an offscreen yell in the UK print). Why is this relevant? Because the BBFC have removed ten seconds or so of headbutts from The Matrix, and as a result the UK version of the DVD is missing two bonus audio tracks that are present on the US version. There's a commentary from Carrie-Anne Moss and two of the techies, plus an alternative audio track stripping out everything but the music: but it'd take too long for Warners to edit this audio to match the shortened pictures, so they've just left it out completely. Just one more reason why the importing of R1 disks is so popular in the UK: you can get a version with these audio bonuses and ten seconds of banned footage, and it's still cheaper than the local version. All the other features of the R1 disk are present and correct on the British release, though: in fact, it's crammed so full of special effects documentaries, PC files and Neo knows what else that some cheaper players are incapable of coping with it all.
3. Natural Born Killers: Director's Cut (Trimark R1)
If you use Amazon's Purchase Circles feature to find out which DVDs are selling best to UK users, it becomes apparent that BBFC censorship policy plays a major part in buying decisions: a lot of the most popular disks are only available in the UK in a badly-hacked form, or not at all. NBK obviously falls in the latter category, particularly in this Director's Cut which restores the 100 or so cuts allegedly made by the MPAA to give it an R rating. Even in its restored version, though, it's still not terribly good. Oliver Stone uses so many disorientating visual devices - changes in format, rapid-fire editing, fantasy sequences - that you end up totally desensitised to the violence: a perfect setup in which to explore issues of the media's treatment of violence and murder. But after all this effort, it quickly becomes apparent that Stone's got nothing to say, and all the Director's Cut does is show he's got nothing to say for longer. The point's emphasised by the accumulation of documentary footage, deleted scenes and commentary on the disk: at several stages in the commentary track, Stone's reduced to pointing out changes in image format in the absence of anything insightful to say. "35mm... video... 8mm... black and white..." - let's face it, when a director's given the chance to talk you through his film and ends up pointing out which shots are in black and white, it's not worth him doing it in the first place.
4. Fist Of Fury (Media Asia R0)
As will become apparent as we trawl through these disks, some DVD labels are better than others. This applies doubly to the Hong Kong market, where the majority of companies release vanilla DVDs devoid of features, even in some cases without the basic facility of chapter stops allowing you to jump straight to your favourite scene. Media Asia is the glorious exception to the rule: they've bought the rights to a number of HK classics, and in each case have gone to enormous trouble to present them in the best possible light. Taking Bruce Lee's 1972 hit as an example, they've provided five audio tracks (Dolby Digital remixes in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, plus commentary tracks in both Cantonese and English), eight sets of subtitles in all major Asian languages plus English, trailers for all of Bruce Lee's films, a couple of minutes of previously unseen fight footage from Game Of Death, and a raft of text features in both Chinese and English, all on a region-free disk that'll play on any DVD system. Plus as a bonus for British viewers, we get to see all the nunchaka fights that the BBFC cut from the UK release, fearful that youths would end up running round the streets twatting pensioners with two toilet chains tied together.
5. Free Enterprise (Pioneer R1)
DVD is a great film geek medium, so it's obvious that when film geeks make movies, their DVDs will be ultra-geeky. I caught Robert Meyer Burnett and Mark A. Altman's comedy of Trekkiedom, fan worship and male pattern crapness in LA last year during my holiday: nine months later it still shows no signs of getting any sort of British release, but the American DVD has been available for some time now. Burnett and Altman's commentary proves once and for all that the leading characters in their movie are thinly disguised versions of themselves: they point out that the one thing that dates the script to 1997 is that the characters hang round laserdisc shops, whereas now they'd obviously be buying DVDs. The disk has all the features you'd expect - deleted scenes, a documentary, the music video for William Shatner's now legendary No Tears For Caesar rap number - and one you wouldn't: a second subtitle option which explains all the sci-fi in-jokes and references to you as they appear in the dialogue. By the way, if Chris is reading this, can I have my copy back now? Thank you.
6. Rushmore (Criterion R1)
If there's one company that can be relied on to do DVDs right, it's Criterion, who specialise in buying up the rights to classic movies and producing the best possible package for DVD and laserdisc release. Rushmore is merely the most recent Criterion addition to my collection (having apparently achieved classic status in just over twelve months), but is worth a mention here for its lovely design strategy. In an age when most disks are functionally packaged to the minimum possible specification, Rushmore is designed like an old-fashioned record album: a distinctive hand-drawn look (by the director's brother, Eric Chase Anderson) which is consistent across the cover, the insert, the giveaway map, the label, and all the way down to the menu on the disk itself. Inside all this you get Wes Anderson's criminally underrated comedy, an audio commentary, a quirky documentary by the aforementioned Eric, some movie spoofs performed by the Max Fischer Players for the MTV Movie Awards, videos of the cast being auditioned, and an edition of The Charlie Rose Show featuring interviews with Anderson and star Bill Murray. (Question for our US readers: is Charlie Rose always this shit at interviewing, or was he just having a bad day?)
7. Boogie Nights (New Line R1)
New Line come pretty close to Criterion in their dedication to the DVD format, ensuring their movies are released with shedloads of bonus goodies. Unfortunately, New Line's distributors in the UK are Entertainment, who always ensure their R2 equivalent disks look rubbish and come with no freebies. The UK edition of Boogie Nights is, therefore, a pile of junk and can be ignored. However, the US Platinum Edition is a delight: an amusing commentary from director Paul Thomas Anderson (no relation, Rushmore fans), nine deleted scenes (including a hilarious improv featuring Mark Wahlberg and Luis Guzmán doing Bad Porno Acting at its finest), a menu to jump straight to your favourite song in the movie, plus a music video featuring the score composer Michael Penn. And as ever, the top image quality ensures that the 36 frames of Heather Graham's front bottom can be perfectly frozen. (Yes, it's 36, trust me.)
8. Yellow Submarine (MGM R2)
Just in case you get the impression that UK disk manufacturers take all the features on US disks and deliberately try to whittle them down to annoy us, I should point out that isn't strictly the case. Sometimes, as I've said, the BBFC are to blame: other times, the requirement for European disk manufacturers to include support for the continent's major languages reduces the space available for sexier stuff. Which is all well and good until you come across a disk as crammed as the R2 Yellow Submarine, which does everything the R1 version can and with even more languages. As with Vertigo, the disk is the result of a hefty remastering job, cleaning up picture and sound, and mixing the latter in stereo for the first time. The remix can be heard in English, German and Italian, or as a music-only soundtrack: and if you feel this is tampering too much with the Beatles' original intentions, you can watch it with the original mono soundtrack too. There's a hysterically dated 1968 documentary on the making of the movie, plus more up-to-date interviews with the cast and crew and a commentary by animator John Coates: but really it's the quality of the restoration done on the film that counts, and it makes Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds look and sound better than drugs.
9. El Mariachi & Desperado (Columbia R1 and R2)
Columbia have always been pretty good in the value for money stakes, but this is a bargain in anyone's language. Robert Rodriguez' first two movies (before he went Hollywood and crap) are bundled together on a single disk for your enjoyment, one on each side. (Did I mention they can do that?) In each case you get a ten minute featurette by Rodriguez himself, showing the assorted corner-cutting tricks he used to produce these films for ludicrously small amounts of money, plus feature-length commentaries with even more useful information - there's a whole course in low-budget filmmaking to be had here. In addition, we also get his student short Bedhead, a zanily comic little piece that uses even more of his family members in supporting roles than usual. Kudos to Columbia UK, by the way, whose Region 2 version of the disk includes all the above plus a couple of extra Desperado music videos featuring Antonio Banderas and Los Lobos. Ay caramba!
10. South Park Series 1, Volume 3 (Warner Vision International R2)
Not a particularly inspiring disk, really. Five episodes of the TV show thrown together by Warners' music video label, with one chapter stop per episode. It's the only disk on this list that doesn't have a commentary, making do with some moderately funny episode introductions that are hard to skip past once you've got bored with them. But it's the European language feature that makes the Region 2 South Park DVDs fascinating, and particularly this one. Eleven words that will make you want to go out and buy this right now: Kyle's Mom Is A Stupid Bitch In D Minor. In French.
Of course, not all DVDs are produced to the standard described above. It's pretty obvious that in this comparatively early stage in the medium's life, they're using the lure of bonus features to build a market of DVD users for the first couple of years. There'll probably come a stage eventually where movie-only disks will become the norm, and we'll have to pay a whacking premium for any additional material. But for now, I suggest you revel in the stuff that's being produced today while they're still doing it. If you love movies, you'll probably find a DVD out there that lets you see one of your favourite films in a whole new light. And I don't just mean being able to watch those 36 frames of Heather Graham all day. Though I do consider that to be an important factor, personally. Being a monkey, and all.
The Big Picture is your first port of call for Region 1 DVD news, updated several times a day. Lots of reviews too, and a terrific reference list of forthcoming releases. [dead link: site has been abandoned since around 2003]
The DVD Debate [dead link] is the best British equivalent for Region 2 news and reviews: and as they live in the real world and know what UK DVD owners get up to, there's also a fair smattering of R1 info, and even the odd comparison test looking at how different regions package the same film. Reviews from a wide variety of writers, including occasional letters page contributor DJ Sensible.
Patch's DVD Review Page [dead link], or whatever he decides to call it, is so new he only managed to register the URL the day before this article was published. Keep checking it regularly, though: Patrick's one of the few people I know who buys more DVDs than I do, and he plans to review as many of them as he can on this site in the very near future.
Amazon.com is a rather predictable place to buy Region 1 DVDs from, but if predictability means getting disks sent quickly and reliably at reasonable prices, then call me Mr Predictable. Check out the UK purchase circle [dead link] to see which DVDs us Brits are trying to smuggle into the country at the moment.
Video Paradise [dead link], the Internet video retail arm of WHSmith, have just started adding DVDs to their portfolio, and are well worth checking out for your Region 2 needs. Is that all right, barquing?
DVD Price Search is brilliant for general price comparisons - enter a title, and it'll run round all the online DVD retailers it can find to produce a list of prices and allow you to select the best one. Also good for highlighting special offers you may otherwise miss.
Jim Ramsay's Samsung DVD-807 Page is a fan page devoted to the Samsung model, which lots of owners found incredibly useful during the first couple of weeks after it went on sale. Full details of the infamous region hack, plus notes on disks like The Matrix which can cause it problems. Thanks, Jim.
DVD Utils [dead link] is the ultimate site for those of you using PC DVD-ROM drives and looking for, er, utilities to help your playing of R1 disks.
The British Board Of Film Classification are bad bad people, but by looking at their lists of recently certified material you can work out a) what's coming out on DVD soon (as special features have to be certified just like films) and b) what's being cut (though they'll only tell you how much, without giving any details).
The Melon Farmers' Video Hits is the best site out there monitoring UK censorship, and they've now got a section on DVD abuse too. Congratulations to the wicked person who bought up the web address http://www.bbfc.org.uk and set it to redirect straight to this site. [Not any more, sadly.] If you don't understand the term "melon farmer", try and catch the TV version of Alex Cox's Repo Man next time it's on.
Which DVD [dead link, archived minus images] is the self-styled Best DVD Site On The Internet, but is probably worth saving until you've checked out all the other ones first, for reasons which should quickly become apparent.