Bonfire of the Cinemas

News today that Villeneuve’s Dune has been pushed back from its December release to, not just next year, but as late as October next year -yes, October 2021, a whole year away as I type this- was possibly expected, but still comes as something of a shock. Following on from confirmation that Cineworld cinemas here in the UK -and in the US, too I believe- intend to close for the next four to six months, making as many as 5,500 UK employees redundant, well, its all very alarming. It really feels like we are witnessing a bonfire of the cinemas. 

The Class of 2020, save for a few unlikely candidates like Disney’s Mulan and Warner Bros Tenet, seem to have upped sticks and walked off to the pavilion (to strike a very British cricket analogy) and not coming out to play until 2021. All those films we expected to see, from James Bond to Black Widow to Wonder Woman to Dune, and possibly later own on disc editions on our shelves by late Winter or early Spring, remain unseen, possibly for another six months (and certainly twelve months, in the case of Dune). And of course, those films gate-crashing the 2021 party have left those films already planned for 2021 up in the air (Dune moving to next October has pushed The Batman to March 2022, which seems such a long time away). 

One has to wonder though, how many cinemas will still be around next summer to show those tardy 2020 flicks rubbing shoulders with the ‘proper’ 2021 flicks that refuse to be shoved around. Or perhaps the more important question is who will be running them/owning those cinemas. Maybe the fittest will survive and will be all the better for it, with less competition ensuring fuller cinema screens for those that remain viable, while others have the shutters up for good. Also, if the marketplace gets overly crowded next year, will some films suffer when another blockbuster comes out the following week to steal its seats and punters, or will we see a Nuclear Box-Office Summer with studios bullishly putting out tentpole films out on the same weekends? That’s if we even get a summer box office next year, its hard to say what state things will be in regards Covid.  Will audiences feel confident enough to return to cinemas in droves next summer? I read some pundit claiming that it will take cinemas five years to recover audience numbers to what they were last year, in a similar fashion to how the airline industry is claiming it will be several years before flight numbers recover properly. 

How many times can Eon delay its next Bond movie? At this rate Tom Hardy will be getting too old to play the guy.

And indeed, what does this mean for the already crumbling physical media market without new product- it surely cannot thrive with endless catalogue titles being re-released in 4K and Blu-ray. Its a question if it can even survive like that, nevermind thrive. The 4K format is already fairly niche (one could well argue that even Blu-ray is niche, as DVD still seems to dominate what little shelf-space physical discs enjoy in Supermarket real estate) and what 4K UHD needs in order to in any way progress is titles like the new Bond, or visual spectacles like Dune and other blockbusters. The release schedules for the Autumn already look desperately anaemic, when we should be looking forward to the home releases of all those films that thrilled us in May – July.  Except of course they didn’t. 

Its all frankly mind-boggling. Time to find a good book, maybe….

A Brave New (Discless) World?

Days like today… well, maybe it’s not just days like today really, it’s just that days like today just make it seem worse. You ever get the feeling that the world is spinning on, off on its own mindless course, leaving you behind? Sometimes it’s what passes for modern politics or modern music or modern movies that sends me scurrying toward an old favourite on the shelf, whether it be a film or an album or a book, some avenue of escape from the ‘new’ in the comfort of the old.

It felt a little more pronounced today, when I read the news that Samsung is getting out of the Blu-ray hardware business, over in the US at any rate. Some people are describing it as another step towards the end of physical media, and it’s hard not to acknowledge some truth in that. Disc-based media, whether it be CD, DVD, Blu-ray or 4K UHD is being increasingly marginalised by the relentless popularity of streaming/downloading. No doubt Netflix is a huge part of that, as people get used to watching films and tv shows on demand- and they don’t seem at all concerned about it being of lesser quality. Well, of course they don’t, as some seem quite satisfied watching films etc on their mobile phones or tablets (which is curious, as tv panels just seem to be getting bigger and bigger). The value of a quality 4K disc or Blu-ray seems lost on those somehow still satisfied with DVD. Likewise there is a whole generation out there who don’t buy music, but listen to streams (legitimately or otherwise) instead. Music, films, media in general, seems to have become a transitory thing, sampled, dipped into, almost background noise. That notion is anathema to me, someone who cherishes/values such things and has curated a collection of my favourite films and music and books.

I remember when films receiving network premieres on tv were a special thing, when films themselves were special- now, they are almost like the pulp paperbacks sold cheap in the 1960s, 1970s, picked up, read, discarded. A $200 million blockbuster turns up in the bargain bin (a virtual bin in Amazon, a physical one in HMV or local supermarket) in the space of months. In the immediate moment, we all like a bargain, but in the long term, how much damage is it doing, and how much damage has it already done? I dearly miss the days when films could be something revered and special, their viewings rare. Nowadays they are available on demand and immediately discarded and forgotten.

I think it could also be argued that it impacts on cinema revenues, even though by and large attendances, we are told, are on the up with cinema chains raking in greater profits. When I was in Cineworld last week, I was (yet again) assaulted by invitations to join its ‘Cineworld unlimited’ subscription service in which you can watch as many films as you like for a monthly fee- basically, Netflix for those who don’t like to stay at home, I guess. I suppose if you go very often it saves you money, and Cineworld can always get extra cash out of you for the premium stuff like Imax and 3D etc. Here’s a curious fact that my wife assaulted me with from one of her old diaries- back in 1995 we watched 34 films at the cinema (something that blew my mind and will return to in a later post). Last year I think it was maybe 3, or 4 films at the cinema. This year I have only seen one, so far (last week’s Alita). I have gravitated to the alternative of discs or streams on my quality television, thankyou, and away from noisy patrons distracted by their mobile phones, but alas that alternative is becoming marginalised somewhat- the physical side anyway. And yet cinema attendances are up, so I guess I’m being left behind again.

CD production, meanwhile, is getting more limited all the time. Bottlenecks in CD manufacture became an increasing issue last year, causing some delays to soundtrack releases for some of the speciality labels like La La Land and Intrada, and such bottlenecks caused issues for the manufacture of some Blu-rays prior to Christmas (the 4K 2001: A Space Odyssey was a particular casualty in the US). I suppose such delays indicate there is still some demand worth noting, but it also indicates how manufacturing capacity is gradually reduced to match the lowering demand for the physical product, a self-fulfilling cycle. It ends only one way, and I guess I’m being left behind again.

I don’t trust the studios or the the content providers with digital. Most downloads and streams are simply licenses to view their product and can be withdrawn at the providers/copyright owners whim. I had a copy of Blade Runner on digital along with a physical copy that I bought a few years ago- my disc is fine, but that digital download is useless now, its gone, license expired I guess. Quality, too, is an issue, but it seems quality is as much a niche as anything else when people are happy enough with DVD or dodgy compression artifacts. We could be falling toward a PPV future and everyone seems happy enough, but if digital becomes the only access point, and the price of that PPV can be raised, does that move people towards illegal streams/piracy or just away from the product altogether?  How many people would pay £10 every time they want to rewatch Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Bridge on the River Kwai or Zulu?  Or maybe pay £5 just to watch one of them with a commentary track?

No, I think those extras that we film fans love will be consigned to history soon enough.

I used to think that the inevitable end of physical media was yet some years away, and hopefully it is, but recent things like hardware manufacturers dropping out of the game or Sony Music no longer licensing albums to third-party labels suggests the digital-only route could be nearer than I feared. Or maybe this is just one of those days when I think the world is dancing away on some other road than the one I’m on. You get old enough, you realise this isn’t the world you were born in.

Which can be a good thing, most of the time, God knows. But I like owning my films and albums, damn it. Before long I’ll be buying back-up players to hoard in the loft for safety’s sake: what kind of a world is that?

Bonfire of the Digital Vanities

Regular readers may have noticed that more and more of my reviews are of tv shows and movies watched via streaming rather than on disc. Its something I’m becoming very aware of. Ever since the start of 2017 I have tried to limit my spending on discs, if only to try get control of space issues and to stop buying discs that sit on the shelf unwatched. To some degree I’ve succeeded in that (and yes, failed too, as so many anime series boxsets will testify to) and the fact that so many posts are about streamed films etc must be a mark of some kind of success. Certainly 2018 has seen a big change and me subscribing to Netflix now as well as Amazon Prime can only mean its a trend that will continue.

This year I have bought the following on disc- BR2049, Thor Ragnarok, Indicator’s Hammer Vol.Two box, Charley Varrick and Experiment in Terror. That’s all, and we are fast approaching April now.

But I would hate to see the physical disc format fading away and I do much prefer owning my favourite films on disc. I think the inevitable future of ‘streaming only’ is a pretty dark one for some of us- I read recently of rumours that Apple are intending to discontinue music downloads and go completely the monthly subscription route. Don’t know how true it is, but it does have a ring of truth and inevitability to it. Where music goes, film and tv are sure to follow. Imagine having to pay a monthly subscription in order to watch your movies- I suppose we are already halfway there- instead of watching them on disc whenever you want. Some may argue there is no difference but I’d contend that there is one, certainly regards extras (although even on-disc that’s something studios are bothering less and less with), picture quality, and even just the ownership and ease of access issue- what happens when the Internet goes down? I’ve had a few experiences in the past where the digital copies of films that came with discs seem to have disappeared from my digital collections, so it would seem that digital license doesn’t necessarily last forever (drok it, even my Blade Runner: Final Cut, which for some reason shows in my collection but will not play).  Now, these digital copies are just bonuses really that I never watch but the fact that they can disappear is just more wood for the bonfire of the digital vanities, surely.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my films and tv shows on disc in just the same way as I still buy music on CD. But it’s getting harder all the time. If you want to watch The Man in the HIgh Castle without prime, forget it- there’s no disc option so no way, even if you watched it on prime, that you can add it to your cherished tv box-set physical collection no matter how much you may love it. Even the old habit of buying your favourite sitcoms/comedy shows on dvd (Frasier etc) is getting impossible with more recent stuff- I love The MIddle but there’s no disc release of that show anywhere. Increasingly the only way to access stuff is via subscription.

We’ve been so spoiled by VHS sell-through, DVD and Blu-ray it’s hard to fathom going back to the bad old days, but it all may well come back. Will the time one day come when you will never be able to buy a Star Wars movie?  Man, thats so 1970s.

Assaulting 13 again

assaultBought this blu-ray disc today. I don’t buy many discs these days, as I’m trying to be a bit more selective on what gets added to the collection/pile. Frankly, despite my efforts last year, I still have too many unwatched waiting on the shelf as it is, but this one is a special case. For one thing, its a John Carpenter film, and one of his very best at that. Its a genuine classic film. Lets just agree to never mention that awful remake from a few years ago, yes?

I remember first watching this on a Friday night on BBC 2, it was probably back in 1981 or something like that, as I remember I recorded the film on audio cassette so I could listen to the Carpenter score (I did strange stuff in those analogue days, with cassettes of Carpenter’s Dark Star and The Fog too- I was/am a huge fan of Carpenters scores).  It would be many years before I managed to get the original soundtrack on CD, several years ago now.

I never bought the film on VHS (an off-air recording onto VHS did me nicely for awhile), but the eventual move towards widescreen editions with the DVD format  convinced me to get a copy on R1. This new edition with its bountiful extras has got me double-dipping again, to finally get it in HD. The packaging looks great; its got some pretty nice artwork and housed in a black amaray case, it really works well.

I’ll write a review when I get around to watching it, hopefully within the next week or two. I hope to spend some time with those interesting extras too.

Oh, and here’s a twist, I actually bought this in a shop, rather than via the internet. Shock/horror! I almost regretted it, as it took me ages to actually find the bloody thing- its as if they purposely design shops and arrange contents as awkwardly as possible. Different Blu-ray sections dotted all over the bloody shop without any sense at all, mixed up amongst sale displays… nightmare.

The Last Cut of the Mohicans?

mohicansWatched The Last of the Mohicans last night, first time I have seen it in, oh, so many years! Like so many films these days, curiously the Blu-ray is a different cut from what was originally seen in cinemas. Maybe this is the final, definitive version. If that even means anything these days. I’m sure some of this films die-hard fans prefer, and still demand, the release of its original version in HD, even though far as I can tell the changes are minor (albeit I am no expert here, its been so many years since I saw it). Reminds me how lucky I am that Blade Runner has all its cuts on its most recent Blu-ray release. People get attached to their films, its an emotional connection and particularly to that version that they know- alterations can turn it into something else, and even some change relatively minor to some can seem major to fans. For myself, I very rarely watch Star Wars anymore because the version available is clearly not the film I fell in love with back in 1978- it feels wrong, somehow. The CGI stuff just irritates me, pulls me out of the movie, to the extent that I just don’t feel I can watch it anymore. I had hoped that now that Disney owns Lucasfilm and the movies that there might be a change of heart there, if only generated by a desire to make some money, but apparently Fox’s involvement in the first film has nixed that possibility. Maybe one day. The mighty dollar always seems to find a way, and I’m fairly certain that it will eventually happen.

So anyway, Mohicans– it remains a fine film, an old-fashioned (rooted in reality, no CGI or over-the-top action sequences) adventure movie. I noticed, watching it this time after so many years, how much the score pummels you into feeling what it thinks you should be feeling. Its a good score, which curiously involved a second composer after the first (Trevor Jones) had to move on to another scoring commitment, but its certainly not what I would call subtle. It works though and is a big part of the films success- there’s some achingly beautiful music. Performances are very good, and I was surprised to spot the great Pete Postlewaite in a very minor role.

I seem to recall fans of Mohicans had issues with the colour timing of this Blu-ray when it came out. It looked fine to me- yes its dark, but I assume that’s a nod towards the natural/ ‘real’ lighting (candle/firelight) of the time in which it is set, such as that of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. I rather liked how it looks but again, I guess you can get attached to what you know. Fans of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly are getting upset with that films remaster (recently released on Blu-ray here)- now I love that film and I’m wary now of watching it. Its just indicative of how films can change these days. Alternate cuts, revised colour-timing… films are not necessarily what we remember. Surely there is an argument that they should be left alone, as if locked in stone? God knows there are enough reboots and remakes as it is without tinkering with the originals.

Blade Runner VHS

BR VHS1Here’s a blast from the past- my first copy of Blade Runner on VHS. I don’t have a video recorder any more so have no way of playing this thing but I’ll always keep it, even when I eventually bin my old DVD copies of the film. I have a very strong nostalgic connection with this beauty. I’m certainly not one of those strange hardcore collectors that buy multiple copies of the film in the same format from different countries and store them in a garage somewhere forever, but my first VHS copy (widescreen Directors Cut version would follow later) has an affectionate place in my heart. Younger readers will only have a vague memory, if even that, of this archaic technology known as videotape. It was sub broadcast-quality, analogue-based  Standard Definition, and content was in the early days exclusively pan and scan,  as widescreen televisions back then was something unheard of even in Star Trek and 2001:A Space Odyssey.

VHS was an abbreviation for Video Home System, an analogue-based cassette standard developed by JVC (Victor Company of Japan). Back in the late 1970s/early 1980s  the home video market was in its infancy but would revolutionise how people accessed television and film content. Initially very expensive and a niche market, inevitably both hardware and  software was expensive and limited, but as costs were reduced it would gradually explode in popularity. I remember sometime around 1980 a friend of mine’s older brother had a machine with a copy, of all things, of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. I recall seeing a small section of an up-market department store in town having several films- they came packaged in cardboard slipcases back then, something I believe the US persisted with but over here in the UK we made a transition to plastic hard cases.

BR5There were a number of competing formats back then, the main two being VHS and Sony’s Betamax, in a rivalry that would be repeated many years later with HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Eventually VHS became the format of choice, mainly because the exploding video rental business seemed to prefer the VHS system, which inevitably influenced consumers choice of system.  My family first rented a VHS machine in 1983- the first film we rented was Poltergeist.  I cannot describe to anyone of the current generation how much of a wonder and huge event it was being able to rent a film like that (remember back then we had four tv channels over here and a minimum three-year wait between cinema and (possibly censored) tv screenings of movies so seeing a twelve-month old Spielberg movie ‘On Demand’ as it were, was pretty mind-blowing).

Anyone who remembers those early days will testify to something akin to awe of this amazing technology. Something tactile still lingers in my memory about physically holding  those black plastic cassettes, the film -all those sights and sounds-  on that magnetic tape. Somewhere in  my loft I believe I still have a copy of a video rental magazine from July of that year -it had Tron‘s Bruce Boxleitner on the cover- which had a listing and short summary for every film then available on tape (which might indicate how few films were available back then). As well as summer releases of Tron and Blade Runner, I recall it featured a glowing review of newly-released Escape From New York, highlighting its remarkable stereo soundtrack. As  I recall, I believe VHS actually benefited the ‘look’ of Blade Runner– it certainly looked different then to how it would later on optical disc formats. Colours -particularly reds- were more blown and the smoky, grainy look of the film was accentuated by the low resolution of the tape. Something like how the workprint looks on the Blu-ray set now, only more so.

It would be a while before VHS rental would lead to the sell-through model as we know it today , i.e. actually buying reasonably-priced copies of movies on tape. Back then, you could buy a movie but it would set you back about £70.

Blade VHSMy copy of Blade Runner was back in the earliest days of the sell-through market. Housed in an over-sized hardcase such as would be found in rental stores (the case could be used for both VHS and Betamax formats), this copy of Blade Runner also used the same art direction of the rental copy of the film (note the ’15’ cert that is stickered onto the original artwork- the original release would not have had any certificate info as I believe at the time it wasn’t required on copies of films on home video- the era of the ‘video nasty’ would put paid to that). It’s interesting because the text on the rear of the case  is a carry-over of the publicity used for the films original abortive cinema release, long before the film would become popular and critically acclaimed. It also indicates a time when prospective renters would be given plenty of information on the back of a film’s case to inform them about the film, as they browsed the racks of titles.

“It’s man against machine in a race against time- Los Angeles in the year 2020. Huge neon advertisements illuminate the night sky above the city’s towering skyscrapers. The interiors, however, are murky and dark, the oppressive gloom occasionally relieved by beams of light from a roving spotlight. The majority of Earth’s population has left for outer space with only the misfits and decadent sophisticates left behind to populate the planet. Infiltrating this strange, derelict society are four replicants, laboratory-created creatures who are practically indistinguishable from humans- whose job it is to perform menial tasks in outer space, and who are forbidden, on pain of destruction, to set foot on Earth. These replicants have hijacked a space-shuttle by killing its crew and are now in Los Angeles passing themselves off as humans. It is up to super-cop Harrison Ford to seek them out and eliminate them before they can eliminate him…”

BR3Finally, here’s a picture featuring the alpha and omega of Blade Runner’s home video releases, with my early VHS copy alongside the recent 30th Anniversary Blu-ray edition. Like home video, Blade Runner has come a long way over those 30 years. Owning that VHS copy way back when, I could never have imagined the film receiving a Directors Cut or Final Cut, or a release including those as well as  the workprint and two theatrical versions.  I think in some ways that is why I will always keep that VHS copy of Blade Runner- it was the advent of VHS and the burgeoning home video market that saved Blade Runner. It gained an increasingly cult following as people used home video as an opportunity to discover the film and re-examine it with repeated viewings. Years before, the film would have been largely forgotten and only resurfaced on eventual network screenings; it may have been reappraised eventually, as I believe quality will always win out in the long run, but home video increased the speed of said reappraisal. Those days of feeling like a lone voice singing the praises of a film most had never even heard of seem a long time ago now, and I almost miss those days to be honest -the VHS copy reminds me of those days. Priceless.

From VHS to Blu- progress?

Back in the bad old days of fuzzy VHS with its dodgy reds and pan and scan on SD cathode-ray tubes, I recall being quite happy with my lot. Just owning one of my favourite films on tape seemed a godsend, back then I seemed to enjoy the film for what it was. You’d buy a film on VHS and play it, and barring tracking issues and drop-outs would enjoy it. Of course there was this fragility thing going on- keep it away from damp or heat or magnetic fields and know that as you kept on re-watching it you were physically wearing the bloody thing out. I still own my first VHS copy of Blade Runner (the big-box version- and if you know what that means then kudos to you) though of course even if I still had a VHS player I’d think more than twice about risking playing it after so many years (if I get chance I’ll take a pic of it to post here sometime soon).

There was something about Blade Runner on pan and scan VHS, all those bright colours and odd reds and low contrast, low-res murkiness. It had a certain kind or organic ‘look’ that further editions perhaps lost. Of course not being widescreen it played a weird havoc with Ridley Scott’s original composition of the frame. But kinda cool as I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my memory.

But anyway, what I’m getting at isn’t really to do with Blade Runner, its regards VHS tape and old formats compared to what we have now with HD movies on Blu-ray. I used to buy films without being too concerned about DNR, edge-enhancement, sample rates, etc. I just enjoyed the films for what they were. Nowadays though its getting to be a nightmare. Reviews online dissect aspect ratios, transfers, restoration, edge-enhancement, DNR… forums wild with personal opinions based on different audio-visual equipment and preferences, its something of a minefield. Its not just about the movies themselves anymore.

This week I finally cancelled my pre-order for the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray, which is due here in the UK in the next week or so. It wasn’t something I did lightly- I’d deliberated over it for several weeks. Originally set to be released in September, it was delayed at almost the last minute after someone reviewing check-discs highlighted picture quality problems and mistyped text on the redone titles for Frenzy (it makes you wonder what kind of quality-control Universal has, and how much care the project received at all). Well, the Frenzy titles got fixed but of course there was no time for the other issues to be addressed. Now that the set has seen release in foreign territories the problematic issues with the quality of titles in the set has been confirmed by various sources.

Now clearly this is all, partly at least, fan-boy hysteria- I’m open to the view that much of the negativity is overblown . Many people buying the set will be ignorant of many of the problems and will enjoy the films in HD- for the most part the films must surely look the best they ever have. Which is what I’m getting at when looking back on those VHS days. We’ve never had it so good as we have it now. Films look better, sound better and last forever (or as long a the format lasts, so maybe nothing there has really changed).  But with HD etc we are in a world where the films are analysed so much, and so much is expected.  For myself, I finally decided that £100 was too much to invest in a collection containing some (apparently) seriously dodgy transfers, shoddy or poorly-budgeted restoration work and half-hearted supplements. At the end of the day, I feel Hitchcock’s films deserved better and I’m voicing that with my wallet. Vertigo is one of my very favourite films and is one of the better-quality titles in the set, but the extras are pretty much what has been seen before and is even missing a (previously-released on DVD) commentary track. Buying it for a tenner on its own might have been ok, but as part of such an expensive set with so many issues it just seemed too much. It’s disappointing  as I was really looking forward to watching Vertigo and Rear Window in HD this Autumn. For some weeks now the limited-edition set was sold out on Amazon, but enough of us have recently cancelled pre-orders for the set to be available again for awhile. I see now that its sold out again. Maybe the issues don’t bother most people, maybe most people simply aren’t aware- in any case people  seem to be still buying it so I dare say Universal and Amazon are quite content.

So anyway, part of my decision, right or wrong, was the existence of the Bond 50 set- a Blu-ray collection of all 22 James Bond films. I’d already decided that, with Christmas expenses coming up and budgets tight, I’d only treat myself to one such boxset this Autumn. It came down between the Hitchcock and Bond sets as I’d put off the Indiana Jones set until the New Year and its inevitable discounting, and I’d originally picked the Hitchcock as I just prefer those films. So anyway, the isues with the Hitchcock sets transfers etc pretty much swung it, and the fact that the Bond set is actually cheaper rather helped too.

That said, forums have it that there are problems with the Bond set too- apparently not so drastic but it does make it all so bewildering and somewhat nostalgic for the days of VHS. I received the Bond set yesterday so haven’t watched any of the films yet, but the packaging certainly looks rather impressive, which helps to make me think I made the right decision. Well, watching all the Bond movies in HD over the next few weeks should be a fine way to spend the dark cold nights ahead.  Think I’ll watch them in chronological order. There’s a few of them I’ve never actually seen, and most others only maybe once or twice on TV many years ago.

But you know, back when I bought the various editions of Blade Runner or The Abyss or Heat or whatever, I just enjoyed the films. I didn’t pay too much attention to the picture quality, it was just what it was. Of course I’d prefer ( and pay extra for) widescreen versions, but the film was, finally, the thing. Nowadays it really isn’t just about the film. We have gained so much only to be confused by so much. Would I have really enjoyed the Hitchcock set?Would I have been aware of all the issues hadn’t I read of them online?  Will I notice anything particularly wrong with any of the Bond movies? You know, I don’t really know.