I’ve managed to see six first-run movies in theaters over the last couple of months. I liked all of them to varying degrees. Here’s what I thought about the movies, and about the conditions in which I saw them.
Technical note: All of these films were screened digitally, two of them on screens that had only recently been converted. Four of the films and part of another were shot digitally. They all looked good, although the only one shot on film looked the best (Lincoln).
Non-Technical note: Five of these films had clear, individual protagonists, all male. The exception was about four people; three of them male.
I’ve written this in the order in which I saw them. The first grade is the for the movie; the second for the presentation.
Daniel Craig continues to rewrite the whole idea of James Bond in his third outing as fiction’s favorite spy). This time he suffers a traumatic experience in the pre-credit sequence, disappears, then comes back months later only because he feels that M needs him. He’s physically and emotionally unfit to serve, but he does so anyway because some shady figure appears to be targeting MI5. This may be the first Bond film set mostly in Brittan, and the first since The World is Not Enough to give Judi Dench a part worthy of her acting talents. Her M carries the story almost as much as Craig’s conflicted and emotionally tortured Bond. And speaking of Craig’s unromanticized interpretation of the character, has anyone else noticed that he never ends the picture happily in a beautiful woman’s arms?
My wife and I saw Skyfall at the Cerrito, projected onto their beautiful, big screen. The Cerrito is always fun, with their couches and good food. But that night they had something special. Someone had gone to the trouble to prepare an appropriate pre-show playlist. As we waited for and ate our dinner, we were treated to theme songs from classic spy movies and TV shows.
Ben Affleck’s truth-based political thriller holds together very well for most of its runtime, even though we know the ending. After Iranians took the American embassy in 1979, a CIA specialist (Affleck, who also directed) takes on the assignment of rescuing a handful of Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy. His far-fetched plan: Create the illusion of a movie company scouting for locations. The Hollywood and Washington scenes are played very effectively for laughs, while the Tehran scenes provide equally-effective thrills. But in the final half hour, Affleck and his screenwriters provide three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many for this allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.
My wife and I (I saw all six of these films with my wife) caught Argo at the UA Berkeley. This former movie palace has been broken up into so many many auditoriums that only the lobby retains any grandeur. We saw Argo in a tiny hole in the wall down a long hall.
A logo before the movie proudly proclaimed a Sony 4K projector. I turned around and, sure enough, two stacked light sources told me that they hadn’t bothered to remove the 3D lens for this 2D movie. Thankfully, the image wasn’t horribly dark, suggesting that they at least removed the 3D filters. Still, Argo didn’t look as good as it might have.
What? No vampires? And how much a movie called Lincoln wasn’t about me?
Seriously, I liked most of Lincoln very much. Tony Kushner’s intelligent screenplay concentrated on the struggle to get the 13th amendment through the House, ending slavery before the South was defeated. That made Lincoln a film about the political process, showing us the arguments, backroom deals, and compromises behind one of the most important and idealist laws ever to go through the American government. The script doesn’t shy away from moral ambiguity, either–Lincoln is clearly prolonging the war, leading thousands of young men to an early grave, in order to end slavery. The acting is uniformly excellent, especially Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. But director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams occasionally overdo it, bashing us over the head with whatever emotion they want us to feel.
For what it’s worth, this is the only picture of the five shot entirely on film, and it’s also the best looking. But Janusz Kaminski’s camerawork is occasionally too beautiful, distracting us from the story.
We saw Lincoln at the Shattuck soon after it went all digital. However, the particular auditorium we saw it in has been digital for over a year. I have absolutely no complaints about the projection or sound, but there was nothing exceptional about it, either.
A/B+ A Late Quartet
Artistic collaboration is always a tricky business. A string quartet that’s been playing together professionally for decades begins to come apart in Yaron Zilberman’s musical drama. The problems start when the cellist (Christopher Walken, for once not playing a psychopath) tells his partners that he has Parkinson’s disease, and will not be able to play for very long.This sets off various chain reactions, as personal and creative differences that have long been simmering for years bubble to the top. People get hurt, they get angry, and they sleep with the wrong people. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are brilliant (aren’t they always?) as the frustrated second violist and his violist wife. Like the Beethoven piece that gives the film it’s title, the picture is slow, deliberate, and rewarding, with the joy coming primarily from the performances.
Like Hoffman’s character, I’m married to a violist, so seeing A Late Quartet was inevitable. We saw it downstairs at the Albany. This was our first experience at the Albany since they went digital.
Before the movie, an employee came down to the front of the theater and welcomed us. The movie itself It looked and sounded great. No complaints.
A-/D Life of Pi
I came in wondering what Ang Lee could do without his major collaborator, writer/producer James Schamus. Pretty darned good. Told in flashback and shot almost entirely in a studio water tank, Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian boy who’s shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific ocean, sharing his lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. Clearly, this is meant as a parable, as the boy gains skills and discovers abilities he didn’t know he had, while wrestling with fate, God, and a companion who wants to eat him. The computer-animated tiger, I’m glad to say, behaves like a real beast, not an adorable Disney creation. The digital effects aren’t always convincing, and the story occasionally drags, but the film’s best parts easily outweigh the weak ones. What’s more, this is the best use of 3D I’ve seen since Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
I wanted to see Life of Pi in 3D, on a really big screen. In the East Bay, by the time we got around to seeing it, that meant the AMC Bay Street 16 in Emeryville. Yes, the screen was big, and the sound was terrific, but the left side of the image looked slightly blurry, with a sort of double-vision effect, as if the two parts of the 3D lens weren’t properly aligned.
Did I complain? No. It was the AMC Bay Street 16. Why bother.
Don’t go to this movie expecting to learn anything about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. From the opening scene, where Anthony Hopkins appears in a fat suit and addresses the audience directly, Hitchcock is clearly what Sir Alfred would have described as "only a movie." Helen Mirren is far more glamorous than the real Alma Reville–Hitchcock’s wife and major collaborator–but that doesn’t hurt the picture an iota. The story, part of which actually happened, shows how Hitch and Alma got the idea for Psycho, struggled to find funding, cast and shot it, then did brilliant work in the editing room, and all the while with Hitchcock suspecting that his wife was having an affair. Fun escapism disguised as film history.
Just one warning: Don’t see Hitchcock if you haven’t seen Psycho. It contains spoilers.
We saw Hitchcock upstairs at Berkeley’s California Theatre–our first time there since it went digital. Made up of what was once half of a balcony, the auditorium was small and oddly shaped.
And familiar. We’d been there many times.
But this time, there was an audio problem. The California’s other two auditoriums were both showing The Hobbit, and the theater isn’t sufficiently soundproofed to block out such a loud movie. Battles and explosions did not improve Hitchcock.
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