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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

Odeon And On

The Last Picture Show, part two.

Seems like only a few weeks since a Bournemouth cinema closed down. And that's because it is. Tonight, the former ABC's sister in Westover Road  - the Odeon - brings down the shutters as well.

Unlike the Last Night Of The ABC, however, there will be no grand event to mark its closure. No screening of a film voted by the public, no TV crews, no branded cupcakes. This evening, one Odeon closes down and tomorrow, another rises; a cinematic phoenix without ashes. A state-of-the-art Odeon too, housed in the equally-new BH2 complex. This new Odeon boasts 10 theatres, including an iSense megascreen with a 4K ultra-high definition projection system, 56 channels of Dolby Atmos sound and reclining seats. And as well as the films, there's going to be a smorgasbord of gourmet food offerings to take to your seat as well.

We're not in small-fizzy-drink-and-a-bag-of-popcorn Kansas anymore, Toto.

 The old Gaumont One (now Odeon 1)

The old Gaumont One (now Odeon 1)

Which all sounds terrific - a real vote of confidence in Bournemouth's cinema-goers. There is, of course, a tinge of regret at the grand old Odeon's passing. When it opened way back in 1929, it was called the Regent and housed one huge screen. By the time The Beatles played a week-long residency there in 1963, it had changed its name to the Gaumont. In 1969, it was divided into two auditoriums - the Gaumont 1 upstairs, with its gloriously curved Cinerama screen and the mammoth Gaumont 2 downstairs.

 The old Gaumont 2, before its demise in 1989.

The old Gaumont 2, before its demise in 1989.

This is where I saw the majority of films back in the late '70s and '80s. You couldn't prebook your seat in those days. For the really big movies - blockbusters like a Star Wars , a James Bond or Alien - you had to start queuing early, joining the line inevitably snaking round the corner and up along the alley that ran beside the building. Join it early and you'd have your pick of the prime viewing locations in the cinema. Arrive too late and you'd either be relegated to the far end of row seats towards the back or - the horror, the horror! - not get in at all. 

In 1986, the Gaumont was re-branded as an Odeon and three years later, the once proud Gaumont 2 screen was diced into four smaller theatres. The large upstairs screen had remained intact but sadly now shows its last frames tonight.

There's been scoffing by some commentators in the local paper about how anyone can get sentimental about a cinema closing. I disagree. As with the ABC, I have great memories of the Gaumont/Odeon and all - well, many - of the films I've seen there. 

Final shot: the Odeon, Westover Road. And fade to black...

"This is it!" - STAR WARS, The First Time

Can you remember when you heard for the very first time about a little something called Star Wars?

For me, it was seeing the artwork below. It graced an article in the Daily Express back in 1977 about how the film - not then released in the UK - had been decimating box-office records in America all summer long. It was a phenomenon that caused a revolution in the movie industry that we still see the effects of today. Merchandising a film became a lucrative priority overnight. Every studio began to develop their own big-budget SF epic - Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Moonraker...yes, even 007 was propelled into space to capitalise on the genre du jour.

 Ralph McQuarrie's iconic artwork for the X-Wing run down the Death Star trench.

Ralph McQuarrie's iconic artwork for the X-Wing run down the Death Star trench.

The picture above is one of conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie's renderings for the climactic X-wing assault down the Death Star trench. McQuarrie's illustrations shaped the look of the original trilogy, his designs for robots, spaceships and alien worlds bringing to life George Lucas' script. The kinetic energy of the artwork burst out of the black-and-white newsprint. Even in monochrome, it was an arresting image. Wow, my 12 year old self thought, a scene like this is going to be in a film? Cool! My ticket was mentally bought then and there.

 The Gaumont cinema's ad in a February 1978 edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo

The Gaumont cinema's ad in a February 1978 edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo

Star Wars opened on May 25th 1977 in the US but didn't reach the UK until much later. I finally saw it in early 1978 on the magnificent Gaumont 2 screen in Bournemouth - now regrettably diced up into a multiplex. By that time, I had already read the novelisation, the comic books, the making-of...I knew the story backwards and the characters were like old friends. No plot surprises then but what hit me for six was the film's scope. It was huge - literally like nothing I had ever seen before. Spaceships fought dogfights across the silver screen, planets exploded in Dolby stereo, the hero fought with a cool weapon called a lightsaber... it was pulp science fiction brought lovingly to widescreen life. 

Then came the sequels - the (arguably) even better Empire Strikes Back and the spectacular but somehow less impressive Return Of The Jedi. And then sixteen years later, along came the prequels....

Let's not go there. Instead, we will be returning to that galaxy far, far away later this year, with the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The early signs - the choice of JJ Abrams to direct, Empire alumnus Lawrence Kasdan co-writing the screenplay, the cast - were promising. Then there was the first sight of actual footage in the shape of a teaser trailer. A trailer that - for some youngster out there - will have been their own very first introduction to the Star Wars universe...

 

Thanks to the excellent Episode Nothing blog for providing the Evening Echo ad. Do click on the link to read Darren Slade's own recollections of seeing Star Wars in Bournemouth back in '78.

Behind The Sandpaper Curtain - An Appreciation Of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's latest record - Shadows In The Night - is the #1 album in the UK. A collection of Frank Sinatra covers, it's the next surprising move from a singer-songwriter who's made a career out of doing whatever he damn well pleases.

Robert Allen Zimmerman - to give his birth name - polarises popular opinion like Marmite. I first really came to know his work back in the summer of 2002. I had recently started a new job and was going to be driving between Bournemouth and Southampton, spending the best part of an hour each way in the car. Some new music was definitely required. I went down to HMV and browsed the racks, looking for inspiration. Whilst I was rummaging through the bargain bins, I came across an unfamiliar CD at a very nice price. I decided that I could afford to risk three quid on this particular album album, though it would probably just confirm what I suspected all along. That this "Bob Dylan" bloke couldn’t sing and was criminally overrated.

So I took the CD, threw into the car stereo and started the drive home. I listened to it. And then on the way to work the next day, I listened to it again.

And I thought it was great.

 Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" (1966)

Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" (1966)

The album was Blonde On Blonde. There’s no hit singles on it but what is does have is Dylan classics such as “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” and “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. The Dylan anorak in me is forced at this point to tell you that when this came out way back in 1966 it was a double album – one of the very first. And “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, which is 11 minutes long, took up an entire side of one of the two records that made up the album. 

In my humble opinion, this is one of the very best folk-rock albums ever made. This is not just a collection of songs but a proper album, with a beginning, middle and end. It’s also a very enigmatic record - there are no photographs available of any of the recording sessions, no film has ever been released of Dylan in the studio  – which is pretty unusual.

This is the kind of detail that makes Bob Dylan so fascinating to me. He’s been releasing albums for over 50 years now– 36 studio albums, 11 live albums and many, many compilations. For many people, it's the Dylan voice that's the problem. He doesn't have a great singing voice - a sandpaper curtain that unfortunately obscures his genius for some. But get over your initial misgivings, dive in, and there's a wealth of tremendous lyrics and powerful music to discover. Full disclosure: whilst many of his records are works of genius, others are complete crap. No, really. Unlistenable. Lend an ear to 1988's Down In The Groove for a start.

And it’s not just his records that can be infuriating – it’s his live performances as well. I’ve seen Dylan play live on several occasions, each time going with a different person – because at the end of the gig, they invariably turn and say “sorry mate - that was rubbish”. They complain that he croaked his way through each and every song, that he played classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Like A Rolling Stone” in versions that hardly sound like the original at all. And they’re right. The band is good – the music is always good – but Dylan barely acknowledges his audience. He just gets on stage, does a couple of hours and goes.

But once in a blue moon, sometimes clicks. Out of nowhere, he suddenly delivers a terrific performance or does something you’re not expecting. Last time I saw him, he had a stack of music sheets on top of his keyboard. He was peering at them, trying to read the words as the sheets kept slipping off. In exasperation, he glanced around, picked up something nearby and used it as a paper weight. If you looked really hard, you could see what the improvised paperweight was – the Best Song Oscar he won in 2001, for "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys.

I’m now passionate about Bob Dylan – the music, the lyrics, the man, everything. If you’re a fan, he can really be exasperating at times but like with a good friend, you’re always prepared to forgive the odd indiscretion. 

And by the way, his Frank Sinatra album is terrific. He even sings it well, the contrary old bugger.

The Avengers, Disassembled

And before Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk et al teamed up, there were....The Avengers.

The Avengers (1998) DVD cover

We're talking John Steed here, who debuted on TV in 1961 - two years before the Marvel Comics superhero crew arrived on the comic book scene. The Avengers TV series was a huge international hit but our attention is actually on the ill-fated 1998 movie version.

This incarnation of The Avengers featured Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel - British secret service agents battling a villainous Sean Connery and his destructive weather-controlling machine. The movie cost a small fortune, had highly-regarded talent in front and behind the camera, yet wasn't shown to the press before release - never a good sign. The film was soundly ridiculed and audiences stayed away in their droves. 

Being a long-term fan of the TV series, I was there at the cinema on opening day to see it. As the end credits rolled, I remember leaving with a heavy sense of disappointment. There was some good stuff in the movie - a few imaginative set pieces, the sumptuous production design, Connery clearly relishing his over-the-top role. The surreal SF nature of the TV series had been retained; weaponised robot wasps pursue Steed and Emma down country lanes and there's a bizarre scene with Connery chairing a boardroom meeting with his accomplices - all dressed in Dayglo teddy bear outfits. Despite these bursts of imagination, however, the film came across as little more than a disjointed 90 minute trailer for another Avengers film. A different, perhaps better movie.

Some time after the critical roars of disapproval had died down, this turned out to the case. It emerged that after some disastrous early test screenings, some 30 minutes of the original version of the film had been hastily excised. Coherent plot be damned - the running time had to be reduced by any means necessary. Whole sequences were excised, with little or no effort expended to make sure that what remained actually made sense. There's evidence of these chopped scenes in the trailer - that "Emma Peel in a phone box/How Now Brown Cow" bit is part of a whole pre-credits sequence that was dropped.

Will be ever get to see a restored version of The Avengers? Director Jeremiah Chechik has gone on record saying that he'd happily revisit the project and spend the necessary time in the edit suite, reassembling his original cut. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers don't appear to be quite so enthusiastic. It looks increasingly unlikely that we'll ever see the full, 115 minute version given a proper release.

So are we missing out on some lost masterpiece? Probably not - there are some things wrong with The Avengers that surely can't be fixed, even with an extra half-hour's worth of footage. The total lack of chemistry between the two leads for one, and Thurman's stilted British accent. But we are still only seeing 75% of what was originally completed of The Avengers...and the thought of finally watching the missing 25% is an attractive one. 

All-American Horror Story: POLTERGEIST, Then And Now

"They're heeeeerrrrrreeeee....."

Hard to believe but it's nearly 33 years since little Carol Anne uttered those words and POLTERGEIST first scared audiences. POLTERGEIST is a big-budget horror movie set in the heart of American suburbia, with the Freeling family under siege in their own home by forces beyond the grave.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, the film has a likeable cast (Craig T Nelson, Jo Beth Williams and the excellent Zelda Rubinstein as eccentric medium Tangina), a terrific Jerry Goldsmith score and plenty of old school ILM special effects. It was a huge success at the box-office (one of the top ten biggest moneymakers of the year) and spawned two inferior sequels - POLTERGEIST II in 1986 and two years later, POLTERGEIST III. The original is also noteworthy for the extreme difference in ratings it was given on either side of the Atlantic - in the US, it was awarded a family-friendly PG certificate, whilst here in the UK, it received an X; nobody under 18 allowed.

Sadly, POLTERGEIST is a film burdened with a troubled and controversial production history and subsequent tragedy - far too much to discuss here but thoroughly covered at this excellent Poltergeist Fan Site.

To this day, POLTERGEIST remains good fun There's precious little logic to the screenplay but taken as a cinematic ghost train ride, the movie works just fine. The scares are well-judged and there's surprisingly little gore - unusual for a horror movie released in the stalk & slash era. POLTERGEIST is also a key member of the Class Of Summer '82 - a summer which boasted the release of many classic sf and fantasy movies. ET, BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, THE ROAD WARRIOR, TRON, STAR TREK II, TRON - an embarrassment of riches and not equalled until arguably last summer.

In 2007, a lavish 25th Anniversary DVD of POLTERGEIST was planned for release but this had to be abruptly abandoned. None of the principals - Spielberg, director Tobe Hooper or the lead actors - wanted to be interviewed about the film. Because of this, there's precious little in the way of behind the scenes material about POLTERGEIST, albeit this brief "making-of" doc that was included on the laserdisc release:

The news that POLTERGEIST has being remade caused my heart to sink. I shouldn't be surprised - remakes are common currency in Hollywood these days. Good remakes, though, are few and far between - DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004) springs to mind but it's the exception that proves the rule.

On the plus side, Sam Rockwell takes over from Craig T Nelson as the father and Jared Harris replaces Zelda Rubinstein in the role of the spiritual medium. However, the trailer for the remake doesn't inspire much in the way of confidence. It revisits familiar landmarks from the original - the closet, the clown doll, the tree - but seems to favour the "electric cattle prod" type of scare that's unfortunately the norm in horror these days.

We'll know for certain if director Gil Kenan really knows what scares us when the film's released at the end of July.

Mirrors With Movies: Reloading The Laserdisc

It's 1993 and I'm in Aladdin's cave.

Well, technically it's New York and there's a TOWER RECORDS sign over the door but - hey - whatever. More important matters are afoot. I'm staring at racks upon racks of movies not yet released on video in the UK. There are even films here that are banned on video in the UK. All stored on the premium laserdisc format and within easy reach and acquisition. The choice is staggering. Yet many are stocked but few can be chosen. What to buy, what to buy...

That was a game-changing moment, the point when I went from not just being a movie fan but a fully paid-up movie collector. I already owned a few films on pre-recorded videotape but as a format, VHS was all function, no allure. Yards and yards of magnetic tape, perilously threading its way through the maze of drums and wheels in your VCR. The strong likelihood of a grinding sound and the tiresome prospect of coaxing black spaghetti from the darkest recesses of your videotape player...

Laserdiscs were different. Laserdiscs were - well - sexy. Housed in glossy sleeves, these elegant discs oozed class and sophistication - circular twelve-inch wide mirrors. They cried out to be owned, played, replayed and proudly demonstrated to friends and family. The picture quality was far sharper than VHS. The sound - both analog and digital - was punchy, full and enveloping. And they didn't just have the style - they had the content. Extended cuts, documentaries, deleted scenes, director's commentary...laserdiscs had it all. VHS was for recording - laserdisc was for savouring.

And a bonus for us UK laserdisc fans - you sometimes had early access to films. Back in the day, release dates of films in the U.S. and the UK were more often than not several months apart...which meant that I could invite friends round to see my just-out-in-the-US, THX-verified laserdisc of Speed the same day it opened in our local multiplex. 

The downside to laserdiscs was price. A film was £25-£30 to buy on import - more if it was a special edition or boxset. UK discs were admittedly a bit cheaper and looked better too - the benefit of the higher line resolution of PAL over NTSC. Companies like Columbia, Pioneer and Encore Entertainment flew the flag for PAL laserdiscs in the UK.  But the really good stuff was generally to be found elsewhere on the planet, on Japanese and American discs. The jewels in the crown tended to those films released under the Criterion Collection banner in the US. Criterion produced lavish releases of what they considered "important" films. Films would be carefully mastered for laserdisc and bespoke extras produced. Criterion was a byword for quality in the laserdisc world.

IMG_0768.jpg

I bought three laserdiscs on that trip to New York in 1993. First: The Jungle Book (not then on video in the UK). Secondly, The Exorcist (withdrawn from sale on video in the UK). Finally, A Clockwork Orange (withdrawn from exhibition in the UK by Stanley Kubrick himself). They were the spearhead of a collection that eventually topped out at around 200 discs.

A few years later, the winds of change blew yet again through the home entertainment industry and it was all change. I switched my movie-buying allegiance to DVD and then Blu-ray (via an ill-considered dalliance with HD-DVD). I kept my extensive laserdisc collection but the discs stayed on the shelf - properly stored alphabetically arranged but never once seeing the inside of my Pioneer laserdisc player. Their time had been and gone. My attention was elsewhere.

Then recently, I stumbled upon the Laserdisc Forever! group on Facebook. These were people who had gone through the same experiences with laserdisc and who still held a special place in  their hearts for the format. But this wasn't a nostalgia-only, "those were the days" kind of group. These guys were firing up their LD players on a regular basis, enthusing about recent disc bargains they'd found and showing off their home theatre set-ups.  

Their passion was infectious. I put fresh batteries in my LD player's remote control, dusted off Capricorn One laserdisc, and pressed play. OK, the picture wasn't exactly up to Blu-ray standard but it was certainly watchable. The sound, however, was something else - a warm, organic roar that made Blu-ray seem tinny in comparison. It was literally a blast from the past.

I'm now regularly going back through my collection of laserdiscs - revisiting old favourites and experiencing the room-trembling whomp of their soundtracks. I owe a lot to the LD format - for kickstarting my hobby of collecting movies and for deepening my knowledge and appreciation of the work that goes on behind the silver screen. 

You never forget your first love and it looks like the same is true for home video formats.