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 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 absucted 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.

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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.

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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 was an expensive business, because the difference in picture quality over your old VHS vide cassettes made you realise that your TV isn't up to the task. So you had to buy a new TV, and of course, the technology was shifting from old 4:3 sets to 16:9 widescreen ones, that were much more expensive.

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 does more than just NICAM stereo. For a music nerd like me, the soundtrack to a film makes up a significant portion of the overall experience.

So when you hear about surround sound, whether it be Dolby 5.1, DTS, DTS-ES or Dolby EX, which use five or more separate channels of sound as well as the subwoofer track (that's what the ".1" is for, but I guess you knew that already...) you soon realise that you need to get a surround sound system. Just to be on the safe side, I got one that supports 7.1 sound, just to make sure. I'm glad I did - these days systems cater for as much as 11.1 but my amp and speakers still hold their own in terms of sound quality. I still 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 here, 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.

When DVDs first hit the market, I bought a Panasonic Tau 32" CRT set. At the time, it was about as good a TV as you could get for the price, and it wasn't cheap. The Cathode Ray Tube it contained was a big one and cost a lot to manufacture. The set had to be the size of a small refrigerator to hold it, and it took up a lot of space in the living room. Even before I bought it, the technology used for display screens on laptops had started to make the jump to televisions. Less than a decade after I bought it, I was watching a museum piece.

Eventually I caved in 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 siting closer to it, which meant that it occupied more of my field of vision. That means I got far more immersed in the film. While the first few generations of HD LCD screens didn't have the dynamic range of a CRT, the extra size, coupled with the fact that I'd freed up nearly two square metres of floor space in the living room, persuaded me that the time was right to make the change. Watching films at home in high definition is a delight.

Ever since I picked a Betamax player over VHS, I've not been that much of an early adopter. I waited until the high definition format war ended, with Blu-Ray the victor, before I bought a player to go with the TV. As soon as the winner became clear, 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 firends 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 with optical output for audio and an HDMI connector for the TV it ticks the right boxes for me. I put a terabyte hard disk in it and used it to store lots of my photos and videos. It also does a pretty good job of upscaling DVDs to my TV's maximum resolution. I caved in and bought the PS3's dedicated remote control unit, though - using the handset controllers was too much of a faff (as it uses Bluetooth to communicate with the player, 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 superceded, 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 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 broadcast 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 the Bravia has an "auto-dimming" feature that has bugged 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 films, for example) the television will rapidly reduce the brightness of the picture. And this is hard-wired into the set; you can't turn it off. If I watch something like Eric Wernquist's great video for Jamie xx's track "Gosh", the picture brightness jumps up and down like a yo-yo. After putting up with this for ten years, it finally got to me, so the old TV has been relegated to the bedroom and I now have a 55" 4K HDR set on the living room wall. It's a Sony, like its predecessor, but it doesn't have the defect that the old set has - it was one of the first things I checked. The picture has a greater dynamic range and a higher colour gamut so the image looks more natural. 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 old. The new set is about a quarter the thickness of the old one, too. 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 model also picks up broadcast Freesat HD channels directly (although I had to spend ten quid on replacing the 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...)

I bought a 4K Blu-Ray player to go with it, and while I don't have many 4K discs in my collection yet, the picture quality is noticeably improved over the standard Blu-Ray releases. And both the player and the TV 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!

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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 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."

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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