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 folding 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. It was not an auspicious start to my movie-watching career.
The first time I went to a proper cinema was when my parents took my brother Andy and me to see Rex Harrison in Doctor Dolittle at the Odeon in Hanley. This was a couple of years later, so I'd have been around 7 years old. I remember my parents - who never did understand anything about child psychology - fussing over whether we'd find the experience too overwhelming. That's going to do nothing but feed a child's anxieties, and when the lights went down I felt rerrified, but it turned out to be a much more pleasant experience and much to my surprise (and, I suspect, that of my parents) I made it through the film to the end. All the same, I remember being very anxious when I was taken to see 2001: A Space Odyssey a year or two later, but while I though all the spaceships were cool I was too young to understand the significance of what I was watching and until I was ten years old or so, that was the entirety of my cinema experience. I'm sure I'd seen films on TV as well, but I don't remember any having a significant impact. We had a small, black and white Bush TV set until I was 11, so perhaps that's understandable.
Then the 1970s arrived and everything changed. Dad took me to a screening of the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever and whilst most of the dialogue (and the plot) sailed way over my head, I realised that movies could be entertaining and fun. I was allowed to go to the Odeon in Stafford on Saturday mornings with my friends and, eventually, on my own - where I discovered the delights of the Toho Corporation's Godzilla movies, walking home afterwards whilst I replayed the film I'd just seen in my head, over and over. Those years were when I developed a love of B-movie double bills, and I can remember seeing dozens of classics such as The Thing with Two Heads, Munster, Go Home!, Doctor Who and the Daleks, Thunderbird 6, and The Day of the Dolphin either on their initial release, or as re-runs.
We finally got a colour television, too. Suddenly films on TV became significant experiences, and I can remember seeing flicks such as Battle Beneath The Earth, Fantastic Voyage, When Worlds Collide, and The Day The Earth Caught Fire. Two films in particular made a huge impression on me at that point, probably because they both involved flying saucers: The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. The fact that both films also featured truly exceptional scores (by Bernard Herrmann, and by Louis and Bebe Barron) undoubtedly had a lot to do with the impact they had on me. Sam Hoffman's Theremin playing in Herrmann's score for The Day The Earth Stood Still triggered a lifelong obsession with the the instrument. By the time I'd reached my teens, I was fascinated by film. I kept a list of every movie I saw at the cinema and how good I thought it was.
When we moved to London in 1977, I started seeing films as they were meant to be shown - on huge screens, in 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 discovered the quirky joys of going in a group to see - or perhaps more accurately, take part in - Saturday midnight screenings of cult classics like >The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I owe particular thanks to my friend Roz, who insisted one afternoon while she was visiting the UK that we should go and see an obscure little 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 and I can't imagine that they would have had the same effect on me if I'd seen them for the first time on television. Although I'd been a fan of the science fiction genre for years, those two films convinced me of the potential of cinema in general 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 that the film I've just seen took me somewhere else. Not all the films where that's happened to me have had a science fiction element, I'm happy to say. 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 still owe me the two hours of my life I spent watching Mission to Mars at a multiplex in Tampa back at the turn of the millennium.
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. When I saw TRON for the first time, folks in the cinema were leaning in to the turns as Jeff Bridges is abducted and the camera weaved down into the virtual world of cyberspace.
Another part of cinema's attraction is its communal experience: film is meant as something to be shared quietly in a room full of strangers, and this is not an experience that we're used to. The size of the screen, the volume of the soundtrack, the darkness of the room all compel us to pay attention to the picture. Television is frequently just something that's on in the background; it can be regarded as visual wallpaper, whereas when we're at the cinema most of us (sadly, not all of us) sit silently and focus solely on the film. The parallels between movie theatres and places of worship are not hard to spot.
For me, what makes a really good movie is the undoubted skill of the people who made it. Having said that, 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.
Sadly, the multiplex has meant the demise of more than one rural cinema. And that means that 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 - the ribbon was cut by Sylvester Stallone, no less. But time has moved on; the place has shown its last movie, and is facing demolition. It's a shame - I spent many happy hours (and went on more than one date) there. But cinema technology has improved, multiplexes have got bigger and better, and the Point could no longer keep up with an increasingly competitive market. Today, film is big business. The multiplex concept has really caught on, and nowadays they're everywhere. When I lived in Tampa, there were four multiplexes (all with more than a dozen screens) within a half-hour's drive of my apartment. The last time I went back, they'd built three more. The same thing has happened in the UK: when I moved to Bristol, there was one multiplex within a half-hour drive, but today there are at least five. This expansion has been driven by the amount of money that the business generates, and it's important not to overlook the effect that this has, not only on what gets made but also on how it gets made. I'm amazed that there is still the amount of creativity around in a business that in some cases has to make a nine-figure sum in box office revenues before they turn a profit. The big films are getting slicker; they're being packaged, hyped, bundled, endorsed and everything else that goes with a summer blockbuster. It's a wonder there are still smaller films being made at all these days, given what they have to compete with.
What worries me is that the multiplexes tend to avoid the smaller films - 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 disc or on streaming services. 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.
I got bitten by the DVD bug pretty badly. No, that's an understatement; the invention of the DVD turned a fascination with film into outright obsession.
Buying a DVD player turned out to be an expensive business for me, because the difference in picture quality over old VHS video cassettes immediately triggered the realisation that the TV I had at the time - a twenty-year-old Sony Trinitron with a 21-inch, 4:3 screen - was too small to show films properly. So that meant buying a new TV. At the time that DVDs were introduced, TV technology was shifting from those old 4:3 sets like my Sony to new, 16:9 widescreen ones that were (of course) much more expensive.
As if that wasn't enough, DVDs also brought multichannel surround sound to the mainstream consumer market. Unfortunately, getting the full surround experience meant completely updating my home audio system, and getting one with surround capabilities wasn't cheap either. Why did getting one matter so much to me?
For a music nerd like me, the soundtrack to a film is a significant portion of the overall experience. So when someone invites you round to their house to hear the audio visual receiver they've just bought that decodes the soundtrack on the disc and throws it at you from speakers dotted all over their living room, you're likely to be in for a bit of a shock. Suddenly, feeding the audio out of your VHS recorder into your stereo system is no longer quite as radical or impressive as it used to be.
Because when you hear something in surround sound, whether it be Dolby 5.1, DTS, DTS-ES DSCRT, DTS-HD, THX Cinema or Dolby Atmos (which all route the film's sound to multiple speakers as well as one or more subwoofer tracks - that's what the ".1" or ".2" means) you soon start thinking that the NICAM stereo setup you have, which used to be the bees knees in terms of audio visual sound quality, suddenly sounds boring - and worse, thin. And so you decide that it's time that you also got yourself a surround sound system. So it goes; it's how technology propagates. The first AV receiver I bought was a Denon AVR-3801, which lasted me 19 years and pumped out 105 Watts into eight separate channels. It provided a great sound experience.
The thing is, technology does not stand still. It wasn't long before that receiver lacked a lot of features that had become standard. It couldn't even decode Dolby ProLogic II, for example - a way of encoding four channels of surround sound in a stereo signal that was introduced way back in 2000. When Denon brought out the AVR-3802 the following year, it had Dolby ProLogic II decoding on its list of updated features. But I just shrugged my shoulders and stuck with what I had; I wasn't ready to go down the rabbit-hole of continually upgrading my gear to stay current. Apart from anything else, I couldn't afford to.
Truly lossless surround sound arrived when DTS-HD Master Audio was announced in 2004, a couple of years before Blu-Ray (the format that has made it ubiquitous) was launched, but my Denon can only decode the codec into the original, older, lossy DTS soundtrack. Even this didn't bother me too much; as you'll see below, I didn't buy a Blu-Ray player until 2008.
Although I like to hear high-quality sound, I wouldn't call myself an audiophile (my friends might disagree with this.) It wasn't until the Denon started to struggle with the signals I was feeding it and refusing to play them at all that I decided it was probably time to replace it. My Hifi system only gets upgraded every couple of decades so when I buy new components, I get stuff that will last. New purchases involve reading lots of reviews and comparing specs, although this time my personal experience resulted in me sending back the receiver I'd originally chosen (an Onkyo) and getting a different make entirely. When I got my new Yamaha receiver out of the box, I realised exactly how far sound technology has come: the new amp came with a microphone. I plugged the mic into the amp's front panel and it proceeded to set itself up by balancing speaker levels and adjusting the speaker eq to fit the properties of the room and avoid creating standing waves that would distort the subwoofer response. It also has a wifi antenna so it can connect to the Internet and download firmware updates or stream music from online sources. It has a DAB/FM tuner, rather than an AM/FM one (that is a very welcome change, long overdue - I think the last time I listened to anything on AM radio was at least fifteen years ago.) And it has bucketloads of HDMI sockets for interconnects; I was amazed to discover that HDMI cables these days not only have the capacity to carry 4K video at 60 frames a second, they can also carry more audio data than the optical cables I used with the Denon.
I can hear a noticable difference in the surround sound field, as it's possible to point to the exact spot where an individual sound is coming from, rather than just the general area. That's due to a profound shift in how surround sound is achieved. With a massive increase in availability of computational power inside a home cinema amplifier, new sound codecs have been introduced that are object-based, meaning that individual sounds are stored separately on the disc; the receiver places each discrete sound at a specific point in the available sound field. And the sound field - the landscape of potential places for sounds to appear, if you will - depends on how many speakers you have connected to the receiver and how they're positioned in the room. My system supports formats like Dolby Atmos, which can use speakers that are arranged in three dimensions rather than two, but so far I have resisted the temptation to stick four extra speakers in the ceiling; the speakers I already have work fine for me, and they sound great.
I love this.
If you've been reading all this and wondering if I've been writing in some weird alien language because you have no idea what I'm on about, count yourself lucky - if you did know, you'd probably be either on the verge of spending a considerable amount of money getting the same sort of system, or you'd already have done so. But take it from me, speaking as an enthusiast who has watched and listened to thousands of films over a surround system, that it makes a profound difference to your home cinema experience.
Okay, that's the sound out of the way. What about the vision?
When DVDs first hit the market, I bought a Panasonic Tau 32" Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) set. At the time, it was about as good a TV as you could get without spending a ludicrous sum of money, and even so, it wasn't cheap; the tube it contained was a big one, and it cost a lot to manufacture. With all that glass, it weighed a ton. To get an accurately aligned beam on to the phosphors, the tube had to be the size of a small refrigerator, and the housing took up a lot of space in the living room. It was worth it, though; for an old-style television set, the picture quality was breathtaking. But even before I bought it, it was becoming obsolete. The technology used to make the display screens on laptops had already started to make the jump to televisions. Less than a decade after I bought it, I was watching a museum piece. Its tuner was built before digital TV, and it could only pick up analogue broadcasts. To watch Freeview I had to connect a separate decoder box. Even so, I only retired it in 2017. I was sad to see it go, but it was worthless on the second hand market and it ended up at my local recycling centre.
The pressure to free up space in the living room eventually got to me and in 2007 I bought a Sony Bravia 40" High Definition (HD) television that I could hang on the wall. Not only was the screen bigger, I was sitting closer to it, which meant that it occupied more of my field of vision. That meant I got far more immersed in the film (which didn't help my obsession with cinema in general). While the screen didn't have the dynamic range of my old CRT set, the extra size of the screen, coupled with the fact that I'd freed up at least two square metres of floor space in the living room, persuaded me that changing was the right decision and the Panasonic was relegated to my bedroom. While DVDs weren't high definition, I had a DVD player that could "upscale" DVD's and output signals in HD, and this made watching films at home a delight. When I bought myself a Freesat box that picked up channels broadcast in HD, even watching mundane TV programmes was a new experience. To start with, the BBC only ran one channel in HD, and that was only broadcast for a limited number of hours each day.
You'll laugh at this now, but another delight of that Sony set was the way it could handle teletext - something that doesn't even exist these days. The set had much more memory for services like Ceefax, and if you watched a channel for more than five minutes it would have stored every page available, so you could then call up anything you were looking for instantly. Yes, back before everything was connected to the Internet, we actually had to wait for things to happen on screen. I loved that function of the set more than almost anything else it did. But as the television networks switched to digital services, Teletext was switched off together with the analogue broadcasts that carried it and the functionality became just another museum piece. How quickly things change...
Ever since I made the mistake of picking a Betamax player over VHS (I still maintain it was a better system), I've not been that much of an early adopter. When the battle to be the successor to DVD started, with both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD manufacturers touting their superiority, I sat on the sidelines. It wasn't until the high definition format war ended with Blu-Ray the victor that I bought a player to go with the new TV. In May 2008, I got myself a Playstation 3, which at the time was the most practical way of getting a reasonably priced Blu-Ray player, insisting to friends and family that the fact that you could play video games on it was irrelevant. I'm not sure anyone believed me, but I still use it today. It may not have the capabilities of the higher-end dedicated players, but it ticks the right boxes for me. I put a terabyte hard disk in it and I use it to store lots of my photos and videos. It also does a pretty good job of upscaling DVDs. I caved in and bought the PS3's dedicated remote control handset, though - using the game controllers is too much of a faff (but as the handset uses Bluetooth to communicate with the PS3, you can't add its functions to a universal remote control unit, which is a pain.)
The jump in the increased resolution of Blu-Ray was quite staggering when it first came out. To me, it still is, even now that there are even higher resolution formats available. Some films benefit from the increased resolution 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'd already seen dozens of times on DVD became a fresh, new experience. 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. With so much more space available on the disc for data, the sound on Blu-Ray can be less compressed, too; the extra bandwidth gives movie soundtracks a real punch and I have to be careful not to get carried away and crank up the volume too much.
Even though the PS3 has long been superseded, I still find it really good for playing video games. Some, like Red Dead Redemption or Skyrim are so cinematic that playing them feels like participating in a movie. I was amazed when games actually started running at 720p, or even full 1080p resolution. For someone who started playing video games on an Atari 2600, that blew my mind.
But progress continues and in 2017, 4K TV sets hit the mainstream, making the move from front-of-store flagship displays in high-end electronics shops to lining the shelves at Aldi. We're told, too, that 8K TV sets are only a year or two away (the Japanese broadcaster NHK announced a couple of years ago that they wouldn't even bother supporting 4K broadcasts but would, instead, be switching directly to 8K). I've already said that I'm no longer an early adopter and I've been mostly happy with the TV I already have. But my setup wasn't perfect, and the imperfections were bugging me. The particular flat-screen Bravia set that replaced my Panasonic Tau turned out to have an "auto-dimming" feature that has annoyed me for years: whenever the picture being shown is entirely (or almost entirely) black for around four seconds (as happens frequently during the closing credits of a film, for example) the set rapidly reduces the brightness of the picture. And this is deliberately hard-wired into the TV; you can't turn it off. If I watched something like Eric Wernquist's great video for Jamie xx's track "Gosh", the picture brightness jumped up and down like a yo-yo. After putting up with this for ten years, it finally got to me, so the old Bravia has been relegated to the bedroom and I now have a 55" 4K HDR set on the living room wall. It's a Sony Bravia, like its predecessor, but it doesn't have the defect that the old set has—this was one of the first things I checked. The picture has a greater dynamic range and a higher colour gamut (meaning that it can display more shades of red, green and blue) so the image looks far more natural. It's much closer to my old Panasonic CRT set from the days of analogue TV, in fact. My eyesight's not what it used to be, so the extra size makes a huge difference. The set is almost all image, as the three-inch bezel on the old set has been cut down to less than a centimetre on the new one. The new set is about a quarter the thickness of the old one, too. And it's also doubling as a satellite receiver; my Vu+ box died at Christmas, but I'm glad I didn't replace it because after plugging the cable from the dish straight into the back of the new TV I can pick up all the channels from Hotbird and Astra 19.2 that I had before. Unlike the older Sony, the new Bravia also picks up broadcast Freesat HD channels directly (although I had to spend ten quid on replacing my signal booster box for this to work; the old one had apparently failed in such a way that it had turned into a signal attenuator...)
The introduction of two interconnection technologies that this new gear uses had completely passed me by: Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) enables me to start watching a film by switching on the player, which then uses CEC to talk to the TV and the AV receiver along their HDMI cables and switch them on automatically, with the receiver automatically switching to the correct audio source. It's like magic. Even better is the use of HDMI as an Audio Return Channel (ARC), which sends the audio signal from the TV out to the AV receiver along the same cable that is sending the receiver's video and audio signals to the TV. That means I can listen to broadcast or satellite TV that has a surround soundtrack through my surround system, rather than through the TV's own speakers. The TV's built-in speakers are listenable, but they can't compete with a proper surround setup so they're disabled and I use my surround system to listen to everything. The difference is stunning and I didn't need to string another set of cables across the room to make it happen.
You may be surprised to learn that I didn't upgrade the PS3 to a PS4. Sony decided not to include the ability to play 4K discs when they put together the PS4's design specification, and the new model doesn't play my old PS3 discs either, so it just wasn't worth buying one. Instead, I picked up a cheap Samsung UHD player in a package with the TV (the deal was too good to turn down). And that was the moment when I discovered that these days, the only interconnect you really need for home cinema components is an HDMI cable. I'd stressed about getting an updated amp with a lot of optical interconnect ports on it, only to find that they were no longer necessary. The bandwidth over an optical cable just isn't high enough to cope with the number of separate channels of sound that modern players spit out. As a result, the audio signal coming out of an optical port has to be downmuxed to a smaller number of channels. It can't just send an unadulterated bitstream and let the amplifier sort things out, because the data can't get to the amp fast enough. If you want the highest bandwidth audio, you can forget about optical cables and use an HDMI cable instead. I wasn't expecting that. Ah well; it does mean there are far fewer cables hanging out of the back of my amp. I've also been able to retire the HDMI switching box I used to use, as the Yamaha amp now does all of that internally. The cheapness of the Samsung player eventually took its toll, and it expired less than six months after its warranty ran out. I replaced it with a Panasonic player, returning to the brand that served me so well back in the early days of DVDs. The difference in sound and picture quality was instantly obvious, and I'm delighted with the player itself.
So, can I see a difference in 4K? Yes, I can. While the higher price of UHD releases means that I'm very picky about which 4K discs I add to my collection, the picture quality is a vast improvement over standard Blu-Ray releases. The extra resolution isn't always obvious, and when you're watching a film that was shot on old-fashioned 35mm film it's easy to make out individual grain, something that you don't really want to pay attention to anway, but when you're looking at forests or mountain ranges, for example, the extra definition really pops out. What's more obvious (and as a computer graphics nerd like me, much more impressive) is the Higher Dynamic Range (HDR) that's supported by UHD. This has become even more noticeable since I got the Panasonic player, which supports the Dolby Vision and HDR10+ standards which use image metadata to tell a suitably-equipped TV how to adjust the contrast and brightness settings from scene to scene to achieve the best picture quality. At the time of writing, this is the high end of the consumer home cinema experience. I may only have a handful of UHD discs that are encoded with Dolby Vision, but the image quality on these discs is the best I've ever seen. The 2018 4K release of 2001: A Space Odyssey is stunning.
Put simply, the higher dynamic range means that when something on the screen is supposed to be bright, it's bright; when it's supposed to be dark, it's dark. My go-to scene for assessing this has always been in Ghostbusters when Harold Ramis is examining Sigorney Weaver and blinds Bill Murray with his head lamp. Try it on your system; how bright is the glare?
The increased colour gamut on UHD (which is a posh way of describing the number of different shades of colour that can be recorded for an image) really comes into its own when you're looking at something like the 4K release of the BBC's flagship series Blue Planet II. Comparing the standard Blu-Ray with the UHD version is a revelation (you get both versions in the box). The multicoloured fish swimming in front of the camera during the coral reef episode take on an additional vibrancy that is lovely to see. Any scene with a gentle gradient of colours such as the glare around the Sun in the opening credits of each episode shows very obvious bands of colour on the standard HD disc. On the 4K UHD version, there are no bands at all. Instead, the colours blend smoothly into one another.
These days, home entertainment focuses a lot on "smart" devices. Both the Pioneer and Panasonic players I have connect to the Internet, and so does the Sony TV. They can run apps that give access to streaming services, because cinema viewing habits continue to change; I'm lucky enough to live somewhere where my Internet connection is fast enough to enable me to stream movies in both HD and 4K from services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Both providers have a smattering of low-budget indie films available to watch in addition to the usual blockbuster fare. They both have collections of older movies for movie geeks like me to watch. And both Netflix and Amazon are financing their own productions, independently of the major studios. It's going to be very interesting seeing what effect that will have on the industry.
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!
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
Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi Trilogy
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Lost In Translation
Kung Fu Hustle
Howl's Moving Castle
The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
To further enhance your viewing pleasure, might I also recommend the following DVD and Blu-Ray reviews:
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.
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 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. And that is worth watching just for the moment when Peter Weller schools a dude in the front row of the audience who falls asleep...
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."
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 (who, coincidentally, was the original DoP on Buckaroo Banzai) 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?
In my opinion, this 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.
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 that's Richard Anderson, who went on to play Oscar Goldman in "The Six Million Dollar Man", standing next to Earl Holliman from "Police Woman" too.
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!
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.
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...
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.
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.