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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

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.

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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.

Boss Drum - WHIPLASH review

Shaffer Conservatory Of Music is not only the best music school in New York...but it's the best in America.

Student Miles Teller - newly arrived - not only wants to succeed but wants to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. He gets his opportunity when he's personally auditioned by teacher J K Simmons and invited to join the school's flagship jazz orchestra. Getting in was hard - staying in the orchestra proves to be almost impossible. Simmons is a ruthless taskmaster, throwing insults and chairs if anyone can't achieve - overachieve - his exacting standards. Keep up or get out. You want fame? Well, fame costs - and here is where Teller starts paying not only in sweat but in tears, blood....and his belief in himself.

Despite a supporting cast, there are really only two characters in this film - Teller's eager-to-please student and J K Simmons' brutally unsympathetic professor. It's the back-and-forth between these two personalities that gives WHIPLASH its energy, its snap, its tension. Miles Teller excels in his role, his character having to endure euphoric heights and soul-destroying lows - often in the same scene. Teller is also an accomplished drummer in his own right and so gives his part the musical credibility it needs.

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However - with due respect to Teller -  this is Simmons' film. He dominates every scene as the sadistic Fletcher, viciously tearing into his students with cutting, imaginative insults. Yet although he does monstrous things, Fletcher is no monster. Scriptwriter Damien Chazelle - who also directs - takes care to ensure Fletcher is not your run-of-the-mill, one dimensional hard bastard. There are many different shades to the character - light as well as dark - and Simmons blends them into a convincing, believable character. You may hate the guy but he's no cartoon. Instead, feel sorry for Robert Duvall, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo. There is no way on earth that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is going anywhere else other than J K Simmons' shelf next month.

It's a surprise to note that accomplished as it is, this is only the second film from Chazelle. It's a remarkably disciplined piece of work - tight as a drum - with no unnecessary subplots to distract our focus on the two leading characters. There's the kind of creative spark running through WHIPLASH that you find in the best of Scorcese's films. Imaginative camerawork. Razor-sharp editing. Smart, salty dialogue. There's a bold confidence to WHIPLASH that never lets up and keeps you hooked.

As well as script, acting and direction, a film like WHIPLASH stands or falls on the quality of its soundtrack; fortunately, the choice of jazz classics and Justin Hurwitz's score are both exemplary. There's a danger some will be put off by the "j" word. Don't be. Yes, jazz runs through the film - in many ways, its the film's third character - but it's great jazz. It's sure as hell not the anonymous muzak that masquerades as jazz in bars and lifts around the country. This is the real deal. Fired up, red in tooth and claw and hungry for your attention.

A terrific start to the movie year.

An Obligatory List Of My Top 10 Movies in 2014

As 2014 fades away, here are my favourite films from the last year. Some nearly made the cut - THE IMITATION GAME, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER - but these are the ten I decided on, and why.

In no particular order...

NOAH

After the critical and commercial success of BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky had Green Awning Syndrome in spades. So he went off and made this insanely personal but fascinating take on the Old Testament story. Rock monsters, a brief history of the universe, Maximus Decimus Meridias in the title role...plus the Ark and a spectacular flood. Strange to think this was a studio picture (Paramount) - even stranger to realise it did good at the box-office.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

This time last year, Disney execs were nervously estimating how much money they'd lose on the goddamn sci-fi movie with the talking tree and pistol-packin' raccoon. It  only  turned out to be the year's biggest box-office hit in the US (take that, TRANSFORMERS 4), a refreshing and original addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it boasted a fine '70s bubblegum pop soundtrack.

NIGHTCRAWLER

Me and Jake Gyllenhaal fell out over PRINCE OF PERSIA. After this film, we're all good now. I wrote more about NIGHTCRAWLER here.

CALVARY

Brendan Gleeson rightly deserved the plaudits for his towering performance as the threatened priest but it's Aidan Gillen and his chilling little anecdote that will haunt you long after the film has finished. 

LOCKE

Tom Hardy, driving along the motorway at night, talking to people on his mobile...that's it. A simple premise but intelligent and gripping stuff from start to finish. Hardy's restrained performance is mesmerising.

BIRDMAN

The welcome return of Michael Keaton in the sharpest, coolest, most thought-provoking comedy of the year. And what about that ending! Seriously - what about that ending...?

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

With MOONRISE KINGDOM and now GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, Wes Anderson finally shows he can balance the chilly, precise nature of his style with warm-hearted content and characters. Also - Ralph Fiennes is a master of comedy. Who knew?

THE RAID 2

The EVIL DEAD 2 of action movies - bigger, better, bloodier than the original. Writer/director Gareth Evans could have taken the easy option and just cloned the first film. Instead, he upped the ante with some breathtakingly choreographed fights and stunts. And just when you thought you'd seen everything a car chase can be...

GONE GIRL

So much more than a psychological thriller - GONE GIRL tears apart and examines the modern marriage. David Fincher is one of the best directors currently working in Hollywood and here he's in top form. See it quick before some dickhead spoils it for you.

12 YEARS A SLAVE

The deserved winner of a Best Picture Oscar, 12 YEARS is a searing account of 19th century slavery in the deep South. Brutal without being exploitative, uplifting without being sentimental.

Reassuringly Expansive - Interstellar review

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: INTERSTELLAR is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think INCEPTION's a big film, but that's just peanuts to INTERSTELLAR...

Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan has taken the super-size option with his latest epic. As planet Earth withers on the vine, mankind needs to find somewhere else to survive - whether in this galaxy or the next. A team, led by Matthew McConaughey, heads off into space and a wormhole which may take them to a planet suitable enough to sustain human life...and our race.

Vast in scope, stuffed to bursting with ideas, INTERSTELLAR has spectacle in abundance. Although even watching it in IMAX, you get this weird feeling that you're being shortchanged. That the massive screen is somehow cramping the film's style, that the near three hour runtime is restricting Nolan's vision. INTERSTELLAR is the proverbial quart in a pint pot, a movie overflowing with purpose, ambition and scale.

All of which is to be naturally applauded. In an era of lowest-denominator comedies and cookie-cutter sequels, ambitious, original cinema is a rare commodity these days. When a film like INTERSTELLAR comes along, it fully deserves our acknowledgment and our cheers; it reminds us of how powerful and richly rewarding the cinematic experience can be.

Not that we should completely turn off our critical faculties. A closer look at Nolan's epic reveals several plot points left unforgivably fuzzy. Scientific explanations - crucial to the audience's understanding of key parts of the story - have been clumsily shoved into the dialogue. An extended sequence on a water-covered planet - whilst undeniably exciting and spectacular - is completely redundant. And don't get me started on that ending, which essentially makes most of what has gone before completely pointless.

Yet in the scale of things, these are merely nitpicks. INTERSTELLAR is not 2001: A Space Odyssey - what films are? - but it is still a brave, intelligent, thought-provoking addition to the cinema of science fiction. 

Most importantly of all, INTERSTELLAR endorses us - the human race. It states that as a species, we deserve our place in the cosmos, that we have the determination to survive - no matter what the odds. A positive message to be welcomed in these nihilistic times.

 

News Under Neon - Nightcrawler review.

 

Meet Lou Bloom.

Lou is in dogged pursuit of the American Dream. He knows what he wants in life, he knows what he has to do to get it and he has the determination to succeed. Surely a shining example to thirtysomethings everywhere. 

Unfortunately, Lou is also a sociopath and Scary As Fuck.

Lou's the central character in NIGHTCRAWLER, a brilliant, tonally pitch black exploration of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Caring. Bloom runs a small independent news team, cruising late night Los Angeles whilst trawling his police radio scanner. To win in this game, you have to be the first camera on a crime scene. Get the footage - as bloody as possible. "If it bleeds, it leads." notes one of his competitors and he's not wrong. The local TV companies will pay handsomely for grade-A footage. And Bloom will do whatever's necessary to get the exclusive and the sale.

Jake Gyllenhaal has turned in solid acting work for years but this is something else - a "sit up and take notice" situation. Trust me, this is a performance that demands your - and Oscar's - attention. Gyllenhaal is mesmerising as Lou Bloom, whether it be inducting wary new employee Riz Ahmed or relentlessly coming on to tough newsroom boss Rene Russo. In lesser hands, Bloom could easily have been a joke - a stereotype psycho, cranked up to 11. Not here. Gyllenhaal brings the crazy when necessary but delivers it with laser focus and burning intensity. You don't laugh at Lou Bloom. You daren't.

Writer Dan Gilroy doubles up as first-time director on this film and makes an auspicious debut. He paints Los Angeles with neon colours on a black nighttime canvas - a nod to the imagery of THIEF and DRIVE.  Two set-pieces stand out - firstly, a tense sequence when Bloom manages to beat even the cops to a multiple homicide. He hurtles around the victims, shooting as much footage as he can before the police black-and-whites arrive at the murder scene. There's also a good old-fashioned car chase in the third act, a refreshing change after the recent CGI-enhanced stunts of the FAST & THE FURIOUS movies.

NIGHTCRAWLER's uncompromisingly dark and cynical heart may be too much for voters come Oscar time. No matter - this will surely end up as one of 2014's best movies.

NIGHTCRAWLER (15) is now showing across the UK.