Alas poor Xbox One X, I didn’t use you as much as I’d have liked. You became a bit of a brick sitting underneath the TV gathering dust. Hence it was off to the local CeX for you, and in with a Sony UDB-X700 mid-range UltraHD (4K) Blu-Ray player.

The problem with modern console gaming is not only having to buy the console in the first place, but you also have to factor in:

  • A Multi-player subscription (Xbox Live in the case of the Xbox, or Playstation Plus for the PlayStation) – an extra monthly or yearly cost.
  • Cost of the games. This varies – but usually between £40-£100 depending on the game and publisher. The alternative is a subscription service such as the Xbox Games Pass or PS Now for PlayStation.
  • In-game purchases. Extra skins, weapons, whatever.

I’ve determined that given the overall level of gaming I do versus the number of movies I watch via Blu-Ray or UltraHD Blu-Ray, I’d be bettter off with a dedicated player. A player which didn’t have a hard drive in it which would be a pain in the neck to replace if it were to fail.

So the Xbox One X has gone and has been replaced by a Sony UDB-X700 UltraHD (4K) player. I’ve always been a big fan of Sony products, and the UDB-X700 is no exception. It’s a mid-range device which has won many awards – including a coveted What Hi-Fi? 2018 Award. One of the things that attracted me to it was a decent remote control (you try finding a decent remote with the Xbox One X), HDR->SDR conversion (my LG 4K television does not have HDR because I bought it too early – frigging technology, eh?), and built-in app support for Netflix, BBC iPlayer, etc.

The Sony UDB-U700 in all its glory

Actually, the last thing doesn’t matter too much to me – the Apple 4K TV does pretty much all of the “smart” TV stuff (alongside the Sky Q box and even my LG TV’s ageing WebOS which doesn’t see anywhere near the same level of commitment in updates from TVs from 2017 onwards). The Sony apps are decent enough, though I found that when it first streams content the picture is all blurry until it’s had a chance to play catchup and buffer enough data to continue. The Apple TV and Sky Q box does not do this. But’s nice to have a backup, just in case. And besides, I DO like the big Netflix button on this player’s remote control.

The picture quality is excellent regardless of whether or not you have an HDR TV. And the HDR to SDR conversion thing is a new feature I’ve never come across before, but does – I suppose, having not seen HDR before (thanks, LG, thanks) – do a good job. Adjusting the setting during playback allows you to adjust the conversion. Apparently setting it high will result in an image that is closest to HDR, but you pay for it in reduced picture brightness.

Audio is fine. I don’t have any Dolby Atmos speakers or even a surround sound system. I usually pipe all audio through my TV to drown out the neighbours (especially their frigging noisy dogs). But very good stereo reproduction from what I’ve played so far. Very sharp, very crisp.

All in all, an excellent player at a decent price. Having owned the super pricey and now utterly defunct Oppo UDP-203 a few years ago (sold to somebody who truly appreciates the Oppo line of devices despite they’re leaving the audio-visual market), this unit certainly gives as good as it gets. And Sony isn’t about to give up making audio-visual devices any time soon!

9/10

John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel

I love anything vaudeville. I’ve been a big fan of vaudeville ever since I became a fan of Charlie Chaplin. People like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and many, many more besides having been entertaining millions long past their deaths. They are as immortal as you’re ever likely to get.

I really got into Charlie Chaplin’s work after I read Chaplin: His Life & Art by David Robinson. It detailed the life of a comic genius from his tragic beginnings in East London, through to his rise to fame in vaudeville, though to pioneering filmmaker and eventually an exile. Having read that, I managed to find a dog eared ancient copy of My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin at the local library and absorbed it like a sponge.

When Richard Attenborough made his biopic of Chaplin, simply called Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr. I thought that this was the weirdest casting imaginable. An American playing a British vaudeville comic? Yet, it WORKS SO WELL. To this day I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing Charles Chaplin. Robert Downey Jr’s gets it. He understood who Chaplin was.

Fast forward to 2018 and I hear that Jeff Pope (writer of the superb Philomena – highly recommended) was working on a Laurel & Hardy biopic. I thought it was about time! Laurel & Hardy’s films are instant classics. Stan Laurel, who wrote and directed (if not directly, but by proxy), made good of his visit to the US with Charlie Chaplin (and even understudied him for a while) and ended up as one of the greatest comedy double acts of all time.

Stan & Ollie doesn’t offer you the whole picture of Laurel & Hardy’s lives. It instead wisely picks a particular point in their lives and concentrates on that. Starting in 1937 at the height of their fame, we’re witness to a massive falling out with their producer, Hal Roach. We forward to 1953 at the start of their British tour.

It’s really during the tour that Stan and Ollie become friends. They learn more about each other and undergo challenges that would make even the strongest friendships crack right down the middle. Yet despite everything that happens – even the big fight that occurs at the after party in London – the two friends reunite and continue their tour to great success.

Steve Coogan wasn’t the first person I’d have thought could play Stan Laurel. Far from it – like Chaplin, I couldn’t have imagined Robert Downey Jr. in the role at first. But Steve Coogan completely knocked me for six with his Stan Laurel. There were times you forget you’re watching somebody play somebody else and just think, “That’s Stan Laurel – come back to us for these 90 minues of pure magnificance”. The same can be said of John C. Reilly who plays Oliver Hardy. It’s a testament to Reilly’s acting chops and the special effects make-up team who made him up to resemble Hardy that, again, you’re not seeing John C. Reilly, but Oliver Hardy himself.

We’re treated to scenes from their films performed on stage, including Lonesome Pine, Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts, and the dance from Way Out West. Coogan and Reilly perform these routines so fantastically well, that I wonder if they’d be willing to perform some of Stan’s scripts that he wrote after Ollie had passed on. As a side note, this thing actually happened with Jacques Tati. A script he wrote but was never produced in his lifetime was eventually brought to the screen (albeit in animated form) by Sylvain Chomet in the form of The Illusionist. I highly recommend it. Coogan and Reilly really are THAT good.

Special praise must also go to the supporting actors, including Danny Houston as Hal Roach, Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel, Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy, and Rufus Jones as Bernard Delfont. The two wives are a particular wonder – “a double act for the price of one” is the perfect way to describe them. It’s interesting to note that Shirley Henderson was also in another favourite movie (another biopic) of mine, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, about the lives of Gilbert & Sullivan during the time they were writing and preparing The Mikado.

The visual effects are also very good. You wouldn’t necessarily notice them, and that’s the point. Well done to Union (a company I had the brief pleasure of visiting sometime in 2017). The photography is spot on, as is the music. I look forward to hearing it whenever they get around to releasing it on Apple Music in the near future.

Stan & Ollie joins my list of all time movies which includes Chaplin, Topsy-Tuvy, Marcel Pagnol’s My Father’s Glory (and the sequel, My Mother’s Castle). Go see it today! My only complaint? 90 minutes (well, 97 minutes) seems to go by far too quickly. I’d have happily sat for 4 hours or more!

10/10