Lights, Camera, Popcorn!

Chris Harris's Films Page

Films and Home Cinema

Even though I now get a widescreen viewing experience in my living room, complete with six channels of high quality sound and a rumbling subwoofer to go with it, there's something special about seeing a film in a darkened room with a really, really big screen. So I'm hooked on going to the movies. Especially if they serve nachos there. With chillies, and cheese, of course. Not only that, but at the cinema you get Pearl and Dean as well!

I can still remember the first time I went to see a film. Dad took me to see a short black and white film produced by the legendary National Film Board of Canada called The Boy Who Stopped Niagara. It was showing at the Post Office Technical College in Yarnfield where he worked, a place that wasn't so much a cinema, more an old World War II Nissen hut with wooden chairs and a rickety old projector. I must have been five years old or so, but I was not impressed. I screamed the place down and we left early. Not an auspicious start!

The first time I went to a proper cinema was when my parents took me and my brother Andy to see Rex Harrison in "Doctor Doolittle" at the Odeon in Hanley. I'd have been 7 years old. Dad loves the James Bond movies, so I was watching those before I hit my teens. I discovered the delights of the Toho Corporation's Godzilla movies in the 1970's, going to the Odeon in Stafford every Saturday morning and then walking home.

When we moved to London in 1977, I started seeing films as they were meant to be shown - in huge theatres, with decent sound systems. When I got my first job, I spent quite a lot of my earnings going to see stuff at the cinemas around Leicester Square. In the 1980's, I started going to the pictures with friends - and I owe many thanks to my friend Roz, who insisted one Saturday afternoon while she was visiting the UK that we should go and see a film called "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Why are films so appealing as a medium? And why is watching a film in a cinema such a different experience from watching it on TV? I can still remember being blown away by films like "TRON" and "Blade Runner" in the early 1980's. Although I'd been a fan of the genre for years, those two films convinced me of the potential of cinema to deliver something outside normal human experience. If I come out of a cinema and have to take time to adjust back to reality, to get my bearings and acclimatise to the hustle and bustle outside, then I know the film I've just seen took me somewhere else. Most of the films where that's happened to me have had a science fiction element. On the other hand, if I've sat in the darkness for a couple of hours checking my watch and fidgeting, then the film's failed. Brian De Palma, you owe me two hours of my life for Mission to Mars.

I guess part of the secret is the size of the cinema screen. When the film occupies all of your peripheral vision (especially if you're right down at the front) then you don't so much watch a film as become immersed in it. As human beings, our vision can completely overwhelm our sense of balance, making us believe that we're experiencing things even when we're not. I can remember watching the snowspeeder chase from "The Empire Strikes Back" and feeling each bump and turn of Luke's flight. Seeing TRON for the first time, folks were leaning in to the turns as the camera weaved down into the virtual world.

Another part is the communal experience - because you're in a room full of strangers, most (sadly, not always all) people appreciate that films are to be enjoyed quietly, without distraction. As a result, you pay more attention. Television is something that's on in the background, most often visual wallpaper, rather than something that commands full and undivided attention. Given the amount of TV most folks in the Western world watch, and given the quality of most TV programmes these days, this is probably just as well...

Finally though, the secret of the really good movie is down to the undoubted skill of the people who made it. I'm not a fan of the fashion for opening titles that include the line "A Film By..." There are very few directors (in my opinion) who can impose their distinctive style on a film to the point where they can clearly be identified as auteur. David Lynch is about the only director I can think of in this category, and his films are so distinctive that a credit of this type becomes wholly unnecessary. For the rest of the industry, film is a collaborative effort between dozens or hundreds of people, and they all have a part to play in shaping the end result. Long may they continue to do so.

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Sadly, the multiplex has meant the demise of more than one rural cinema. And it does mean you have to search out independent theatres if you want to see anything other than the latest blockbuster.

When I moved to Milton Keynes in 1986 it was home to the only multiplex cinema in the UK: The Point. Its opening was a big event - it was attended by Sylvester Stallone, no less. But time has moved on; the place has shown its last movie and the building will soon be demolished. It's a shame - I spent many happy hours there. But multiplexes really caught on, and nowadays they're everywhere. When I lived in Tampa, there were three or four multiplexes, all with more than a dozen screens, within a half-hour drive. The last time I went back, they'd built three more. It's important not to underestimate the amount of money that the business generates, and the potential effect this has. I'm amazed that there is still the amount of creativity around in a business that has to make a nine-figure sum off some of its products before making a profit. Of course the big films are getting slicker, are being packaged, hyped, bundled, endorsed and everything else that goes with a summer blockbuster. But, there are still smaller films being made.

What worries me is that the multiplexes tend to avoid films like these - they have limited appeal to a wider audience, so you aren't going to be packing them in every night and selling tons of popcorn. Occasionally, news of a film's greatness will get around by word of mouth, and it becomes a suprise hit - so the money becomes available to make more prints of the film, more cinemas pick it up, and you get to see it on the big screen, where it was intended to be seen.

The exception to the rule is the Electric Picture House just up the road from me in Wotton, who have a good selection of recent releases to show, and a kick-ass digital projector to show them on. I've been a supporter of theirs for a few years now, and I'm delighted to see them thriving in a highly competitive industry. The cinema experience there is about as good as it gets, and it will cost you less than a trip to one of those multiplexes. Unfortunately for most other independents, their only access to the mass market comes when the film gets a release on DVD. If they're lucky.

But the main point of all this is that movies are designed to be seen on the big screen. No matter how good my home cinema setup gets, it's never going to equal the experience of seeing a film in a purpose built theatre. And that is absolutely the way things should be.

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I got bitten by the DVD bug pretty badly. Buying a DVD player can be an expensive business, because the improved picture quality makes you realise that your TV isn't up to the task. So you buy a new TV, and of course, you're going to get a widescreen set these days.

Then someone invites you round to hear the audio visual amp they've just bought, and you realise just how much better your DVDs would be if you had a sound system that supports Dolby 5.1 and DTS. And don't let anyone tell you there isn't an appreciable difference between Dolby 5.1 and DTS. For me, listening to the films I have, there's an audible difference - a big one - between the soundtracks of each type. And since I got the Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over" DVD, the CD version I bought when it originally came out sounds really... thin.

Then you hear about DTS-ES and Dolby EX, both of which have six channels of sound as well as the subwoofer track (that's what the ".1" is for, but I guess you knew that already...) So I had to get a 6.1 amplifier. Heck, just to be on the safe side, I got one that supports 7.1 sound. Just to make sure. I get a real kick when I see "ES DSCRT" light up on the display... It means I have a discretely encoded (rather than matrixed) back surround channel coming in from the player. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, count yourself lucky - if you did know, you'd probably be either on the verge of spending considerable amounts of money, or you've already done so.

I recently moved from my trusty Panasonic Tau 32" CRT to a Sony Bravia 40" high definition television. While LCD screens don't have the dynamic range of a CRT, the extra size, coupled with the fact that I can mount the thing on the wall out of the way, persuaded me that the time was right to make the change. I haven't regretted it at all - it's given me much more room in the living room, and as the TV is much nearer, it occupies more of my field of vision. As I mentioned just now, that means I get far more immersed in the film.

That's particularly true since the high definition content war ended with Blu-Ray the victor. As soon as the winner became clear, I got myself a Playstation 3. I highly recommend it as a way of getting a reasonably priced Blu-Ray player. It may not have the capabilities of the higher-end dedicated players, but with optical output for audio and an HDMI connector for video it has ticks in the right boxes for me. It also does a pretty good job of upscaling DVDs to my TV's maximum resolution. It's important to get the dedicated remote control unit, though - using the handset controllers would be a bit of a pain. (Although it's a bit of an arse as it uses Bluetooth to communicate with the player, which means you can't add its functions to a universal remote control unit.) The increased resolution of Blu-Ray is quite staggering. Some films benefit from it more than others, but things like Blade Runner, Speed Racer or Pixar's Cars are awesome in HD. There is so much extra detail on the screen that films I've already seen dozens of times become a new experience all over again. For me, there was a bigger leap in subjective quality going from DVD to Blu-Ray than there was going from VHS tape to DVD. The sound on Blu-Ray is less compressed, too; the extra bandwidth gives movies a real punch and I have to be careful not to get carried away and crank up the volume too much.

And of course, the PS3 is really good for playing video games. I have nearly as many games as I do movies on Blu-Ray. Some, like Assassin's Creed or Oblivion are so cinematic that playing them feels like participating in a movie. And one or two actually run at full 1080p resolution, which has to be seen to be believed. I'm thinking about starting a separate page for videogaming, as I've been a gamer since the days of the Atari VCS - so stay tuned...

As you can tell from all of this, these days I don't really need to go out to get that cinema experience. But, of course, I still do!

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I've been writing reviews of films that I see at the cinema for a while now.

It's a good way to analyse what I like about a particular film - what works, and what doesn't. On one hand, I might get needlessly philosophical about the whole thing, and blather on incomprehensibly for a few kilobytes. On the other hand, my review might just be a way for me to assess the popcorn potential of the latest blockbuster. Or, in the case of Matrix Revolutions, it might be a way to come to terms with the fact that I actually paid good money to see something that stole a couple of hours of my life; hours that I could otherwise have put to good use. First out of the blocks was my review of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and before you asked, yes, I liked it.

Pirates of the Caribbean
Finding Nemo
Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi Trilogy
Matrix Revolutions
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Lost In Translation
The Incredibles
Sin City
Batman Begins
Kung Fu Hustle
Howl's Moving Castle
The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Star Trek
TRON: Legacy
Battle: LA
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Super 8
Pacific Rim
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Martian

To further enhance your viewing pleasure, might I also recommend the following DVD and Blu-Ray reviews:

The Devil's Backbone
Bubba Ho-Tep
I, Robot
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Renaissance - Paris 2054
Blade Runner - The Final Cut

Please note that the thoughts and opinions expressed herein are my own. As always, your mileage may vary. Keep away from fire. The value of your investments can go down as well as up. May contain traces of nuts.

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Buckaroo Banzai

This film is my all-time favourite. As my friends will tell you, I spread the word about Dr. Banzai, Mrs Johnson and all the folks at the Banzai Institute with an almost evangelical zeal. When I first visited the US in 1984, Rolling Stone was carrying full page ads for a strange new film where all the characters had wildly implausible names like "Perfect Tommy" and "Doctor Lizardo". When I finally saw the film, the plot made so many left turns I knew instantly that (a) it was unlikely to be a commercial success and (b) it was destined to become a cult classic. Come on, they're still dropping references to it in TV shows like Angel. How cool is that?

Arrow Video have just released a region 2 Blu-ray disc of the film, and it's an absolute gem, packed with interesting bits and pieces and featuring both the original and extended versions of the film. There are new interviews with Peter Weller and John Lithgow and a recording of Kevin Smith's discussion with them both at the Tribeca Film Festival from 2011.

Even now, nearly twenty years later, the imaginations of Earl Mac Rauch and W.D. Richter are keeping us up to date on Dr. Banzai's exploits: all Blue Blaze Irregulars should check in with the Banzai Institute for more details.

Remember: "No matter where you go, there you are."

Blade Runner

Blade runner graphic by Chris, enlarged 2 times

I love this film. It's fair to say that it made an international star of Rutger Hauer, and it didn't do Harrison Ford's career any harm, either. Ridley Scott's question to the designers during the production of Blade Runner was "what's outside the window?" Creating a believable vision of the future required an attention to detail seldom seen in the industry. The best place to find that detail explained on the web is the Blade Runner "Frequently Asked Questions" list. I'd also recommend buying a copy of Paul Sammon's book on the making of the film, "Future Noir."

Few films look as good as Blade Runner does. Director of photography Jordan Cronenweth and lighting gaffer Dick Hart came up with some extraordinary environments for Ridley Scott to shoot in. Searchlights blaze through the blinds of Deckard's apartment and pools of water cast protean reflections on the ceiling of Tyrell's office. Both effects were so striking that they were widely copied.

For the 30th anniversary of the film's release I blogged extensively about many aspects of the film. In fact I ended up writing about 20,000 words on the subject. Yes, I really love this movie.

The Fifth Element

For some reason, the American public really didn't get this film. How could they fail to appreciate the sheer European verve that this film's got?

It was the closest thing the 1990s got to producing another Blade Runner. Visually stunning, a brilliant cast, and so many references, throwaway lines and huge explosions that it's got "classic" written all over it. Add an Eric Serra soundtrack and even a limited edition Swatch watch and (up until the Matrix was released, at least) it has the makings of the cult classic of its decade.

It's worth getting the soundtrack album just for the bonkers track with the implausible title of Aknot! Wot? I still grin when I hear "Leeloo Dallas Multipass!"

The soundtrack CD also contains a copy of the original website, which is just as well, seeing as Sony appear to have, er, "retired" the one on the web.

Forbidden Planet

The high point of 1950s science fiction movies, and an all-time classic film, it still freaks people out when they realise the clean-cut young captain of the spaceship C-57D that's just landed on Altair-4 is none other than The Naked Gun's Leslie Nielsen. And isn't that Richard Anderson, who went on to play Oscar Goldman in "The Six Million Dollar Man", standing next to Earl Holliman from "Police Woman" ?

I always liked the film's optimism - in this vision of the future, the folks in the flying saucers are us! The monster, produced by Disney animators, is still effective, even when compared against the in-your-face computer graphics imagery that is possible in the 21st century.

Every now and then I hear rumours of a remake. I can't think of a film that needs remaking less. The original is the only one you need to watch.

Of course if you're really into the movie, you'll want to stop by The Robot Man, Fred Barton's site, and order your own seven foot tall Robby the Robot complete with working innards and digital audio samples. Coooool!


Tron graphic by Chris, enlarged 1.5 times

I still vividly remember seeing the film in one of the UK's first 70mm cinemas in Leicester Square in London when it was released. I find it difficult to believe that it was more than thirty years ago, back in October 1982. It was groundbreaking in its use of visual effects and with designers like Syd Mead and Jean "Moebius" Giraud on board, it looked gorgeous. I have quite a few copies of the film: the original release on DVD had very disappointing sound, remedied in the 20th Anniversary edition (much better all round, in fact), and I had to get the rather spiffy Disney Blu-ray double pack of the original movie and its somewhat less worthy sequel.

Can you believe Peter O'Toole auditioned for the role of Sark? Babylon five fans will tell you that both Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Londo (Peter Jurasik) feature in the film, but for even more trivia have a look at the film's iMDB page.

Toy Story

Every Pixar film I've seen has been better than the last one, and that goes right back to watching "Luxo Jr." on a BBC programme about computers more years ago than I care to think about. Toy Story was one of those films that I went to see and realised, while watching it, that I was watching movie history being made. Toy Story brought home the fact that, given enough computer power and with people talented enough, filmmakers could now produce any visual image they wanted on the screen.

Then, of course, Pixar brought out Monsters Inc. and blew my mind...

Monsters, Inc.

For some crazy reason, I didn't think MI was as good as Toy Story when it came out. But then I watched it again. And again, and again, and again, and realised it's got all of the above, and more. Perfect casting, animation to die for, and scary amounts of processing power behind the funniest, furriest monster ever to hit the big screen.

It appears Billy Crystal turned down Pixar for Toy Story - thank goodness he said yes to the role of Mike Wazowski. And get hold of the DVD: the short of "Mike's New Car" had me in stitches.

Men In Black

Although it bears no relation to the somewhat sinister MIBs which sprang in the main from the fevered imagination of Ray Palmer back in the 1950s, Men In Black is an extremely enjoyable, witty and fast-paced film. Tommy Lee Jones is far funnier giving a restrained, deadpan delivery of some truly ludicrous lines than he was going completely over-the-top with ordinary material in the execrable "Batman Forever".

As for the sequels, each one has more or less the same plot. The second had more of Frank the Pug, a cameo by Michael Jackson and tried really, really hard, but for me it missed the mark by a long way. Shame, really. Still, the DVD of the second film is worth getting solely for the animated short computer graphics extravaganza that is The Chubb-Chubbs. The third movie is better, but weakened by the fact that there's much less Tommy Lee Jones in it.

The Matrix

Taking visual influences from manga classics like Ghost in the Shell and Akira, warping Hong Kong kung fu direction with Hollywood production values, the theme in the Matrix of questioning reality made it a film so dense and involved that a single viewing wasn't enough. The fight scenes raised the bar so high for actors that most other films have struggled to match its standard. When you have Yuen Woo Ping doing the choreography, that's hardly surprising. The soundtrack is outstanding, and so is the score by Don Davis.

The special effects weren't as ground-breaking as the FX team would have you believe, especially since the "time slice" camera was originally developed by Tim McMillan at the Slade School of Art in the UK way back in 1983, but the effects integrated perfectly with the story. One of my all time favourites, like "Blade Runner" it's one of those films that I know line by line. I really need to get out more.

The first sequel, Matrix Reloaded, did a fair-to-middling job of standing up to the hype although the much-touted and hugely pretentious waffle about evolutionary psychology and the writings of Baudrillard that the Wachowskis had spouted to publicise the first film didn't seem to have been incorporated into what ended up being a very pedestrian script. The "burly brawl" sequence is worth watching, but there's little substance to go on.

Even the mediocrity of Matrix Reloaded was far better than the third film of the trilogy, Matrix Revolutions, in which we discover that the king is not wearing any clothes. Not helped by the fact that Gloria Foster, who played The Oracle died and had to be replaced by a different actress, the film is a mess. It's one big let-down and it left me hugely disappointed. I was angry, too. You might get a glimpse of just how angry I was from the review I wrote at the time. So do what I do, and treat the first film as a brilliant one-off. Ignore the sequels altogether.

It's the best way.

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