Before Monday: My review of Le Week-End

C+ Drama

  • Written by Hanif Kureishi
  • Directed by Roger Michell

If the shockingly misleading trailer for Le Week-End makes you want to see the movie, don’t. It is not, as you may have been led to believe, a romantic frolic about an aging couple rekindling their romance in the city of lights. Quite the opposite. It’s a dark and depressing drama about a marriage in horrible decline.

I can’t blame the film for bad marketing. But I can blame it for it’s own faults. While Le Week-End has several very good scenes and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character, it suffers from a overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight.

The plot is reminiscent of the Before… trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), and yet feels far more contrived. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.

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What empathy the film offers goes entirely to Nick (Jim Broadbent), a man of deep insecurity coming to the end of his rope. He’s lost his job and is running out of money. Age is delivering one new physical pain after another. His wife treats him with contempt, and their son has become a father without growing into responsible adulthood.

That wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan) , is horrible. She refuses to stay in the modest hotel where they have a reservation, and insists on going to the most expensive place in Paris–despite their serious money problems. She insults him, flirts then rejects him, and argues about everything. When he falls on a cobblestone street and lies there in pain, she walks away.

Why doesn’t Nick simply divorce her? He can’t afford to.

Halfway though the film, they run into an old, once-very close friend of Nick’s (Jeff Goldblum), who somehow never met his wife of 30 years. This chance meeting leads to an insufferable party filled with annoying intellectuals. A series of toasts at the dinner table become of the film’s climax, where the main characters stand up and express their feelings out loud to strangers.

The film has a few light-hearted moments, and even a few comic ones. Occasionally, Nick and Meg appear to actually love each other in some strange way. But these moments never last. The entire cast give excellent performances, but only Broadbent is well-served by the script. His character is the only reason to see this film.

A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows.

Quick Opinions on The Past and Dallas Buyers Club

I know. I haven’t been writing much lately aside from the weekly newsletter. I’ve been busy. But I have managed to get to a couple of current films.

And I chose well. I really loved both of these pictures, although The Past is definitely the best of them..

A The Past
Between this new film and A Separation (read my review), I’m ready to declare writer/director Asghar Farhadi our era’s Ozu. Like them, his intimate family dramas catch unique yet universal human beings at their best and worst. His low-key films don’t tell you what to think or feel–the camera work feels neutral and there’s little or no music–but he catches ordinary people in their moments of crisis, and in doing so tells us a lot about our species.

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This story concerns a married but long-separated couple. The man returns from far away to his old home, temporarily, to manage the divorce. He finds a dangerously dysfunctional family, with a selfish, manipulative, and possibly insane mother, a boyfriend trapped in a moral dilemma, and children in desperate need a sympathetic parental figure. The story moves quietly from one crisis to another, without ever feeling forced or melodramatic.

Although officially an Iranian film, The Past is set and was shot entirely in France, and most of the dialog is in French. Outside of the children, all of the main characters are Iranian immigrants. Little is made of that. There’s no sense of religious Islam or political exile.

A Dallas Buyers Club
Compared to The Past, this story of people dying of AIDS is practically upbeat. But then, it’s an American movie. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career (so far) as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas good-old-boy diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He was supposed to die in 30 days, but he did some research, started smuggling pharmaceuticals not approved by the FDA, and kept himself alive for a long time.

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And not just himself. He sold the drugs to other AIDS sufferers. At first this was purely a for-profit business. Eventually, it became a crusade.

And yes, this is very much a feel-good movie, albeit one that acknowledges that many of the characters will die young. Jared Leto particularly stands out as a dying transvestite whom the initially homophobic Woodroof befriends. Leto’s character, like most of the supporting roles, is fictitious.

Cinematic Romance: My Review of Liv & Ingmar

B Film history documentary

  • Directed by Dheeraj Akolkar

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann comprise one of the great teams in film history. Their collaborations include Persona, Cries & Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, and Autumn Sonata. As a romantic couple, they lasted only five years. But their artistic collaboration, and their friendship, lasted nearly 40, until Bergman’s death.

Dheeraj Akolkar tells the story of that romance and friendship (but not much about the collaboration) in this concise, interesting, but flawed 83-minute documentary.

Actually, Akolkar doesn’t really tell the story. He points his camera at Ullmann, and lets her do the talking. We occasionally hear Bergman’s letters to Ullmann, read by an actor, but there’s no question that this is Ullmann’s version of the relationship.

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And no, she doesn’t come off as angry, even though she has good reason to feel that way. The two met in 1965, when the famed director cast her in Persona. She was 25; him, 46. They were both married. But they fell in love on the set, and she became pregnant with his child. They divorced their respective spouses and she moved in with him on his private Scandinavian island.

She never uses the words, but it’s clear from what she says that Bergman was a domineering and abusive lover. He kept a close eye on her and severely restricted her ability to socialize with other people–even the close friends with whom they made great films. He was often cruel to her when shooting those films. That’s all the more shocking considering his reputation for keeping a happy set.

She eventually left him, but they remained friends, and she remained an important member of his repertory company. She became an international star, lived briefly in Hollywood, but was always ready to work for Bergman. She even directed Faithless, a film he wrote late in life.

Hallvard Bræin’s camera spends most of the documentary watching Ullmann’s face , imagestill attractive in her mid-70s, as she talks about her past. She speaks in English, which is odd for a Norwegian film about a Norwegian actor who spent most of her carrier in Sweden.

When we’re not watching today’s Ullmann talk, Akolkar uses clips from Bergman’s film to illustrate the behind-the-camera emotions. For instance, after Ullmann discusses the growing restlessness of their relationship, he shows us a scene (I’m not sure from what movie) where Ullmann and Max von Sydow have an argument at the breakfast table. The technique is effective, but also a little odd. We’re looking at von Sydow and hearing about Bergman.

Akolkar never identifies the films. If you don’t know them, you’re stuck wondering.

Which brings us to Liv & Ingmar‘s biggest flaw: It’s not much interested in Bergman’s and Ullmann’s work. What makes their relationship more interesting than Dick and Jane’s? The fact that they’re Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. What was it like to be directed by a cinematic icon–especially one who’s also your once-abusive ex-lover? But if Ullmann talked extensively about working together, it all ended up on the cutting room floor.

As the story of a love affair and a long friendship, Liv & Ingmar proves interesting. But it misses the main point. How, in the various stages of their relationship, did they collaborate on such great works of art?

The Once-Great John Sayles Makes a Pretty Good Mystery in Go for Sisters

B Mystery/thriller

  • Written and directed by John Sayles

Back in the 1990s, independent filmmaker John Sayles turned out one great film after another. But he’s been turning out mostly disappointments for a long time now. His latest film, Go for Sisters, didn’t disappoint me, but that’s only because I’ve lowered my expectations about this once-great auteur.

This is Sayles at his most conventional. A pair of mismatched protagonists join forces to find a missing person, with the help of a colorful retired cop. Along the way, they’ll face evil criminals, fire a gun a couple of times, and bond. In all but the details, you’ve seen this film before.

The heroines grew up as best friends but have long ago went their separate ways. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a parole officer, and a tough one. Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) is a recovering drug addict and an ex-con. They’re both lonely.

Then Bernice’s grown son, who hasn’t been returning her calls, becomes a person of interest in a homicide investigation. To make matters worse, he’s disappeared, and there are reasons to believe that he has been hanging out with the wrong crowd. Bernice calls on Fontayne to help her find her son.

But neither of them have any experience with this sort of thing, so a third character is added to the group, a former LAPD detective named Freddy (Edward James Olmos, who also produced the film). He’s clever, funny, knows the underworld, and plays a mean electric guitar. He’s also going blind, a serious problem for this sort of work.

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Their investigation takes them south of the border, primarily into Tijuana. Latin American culture, and its relationship to the USA, has always fascinated Sayles. Consider Lone Star, Men with Guns, and Casa de los babys. This story allows him to dig into that culture’s seamier underbelly.

This is a American movie almost completely lacking in white people. imageBernice and Fontayne are both African American, as are many of the people they have contact with in their day-to-day lives (Fontayne is also gay). Freddy is Hispanic; his parents were both born in Mexico. The villains tend to be either Mexican or Chinese. I don’t recall a single white character important enough to turn up in more than one scene.

Aside from the three leads, we really don’t get to know anyone. Surprising for a Sayles picture, we never get a moment where a minor character reveals something interesting about themselves. Go for Sisters is heavy on plot, and really doesn’t seem interested in all but a few main characters.

I’ve seen all but a couple of his films, and while this isn’t Sayles’ worst (that would be Silver City), it’s certainly his most conventional. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood genre flicks have their pleasures, and when made by competent filmmakers, are almost always entertaining.

And this one is competently made. The three lead characters are well drawn and interesting. You care about what happens to them and enjoy their company. The story is intriguing, if at times a bit opaque. The dialog is well written and acted, and the violence is kept to a minimum.

It’s still a John Sayles film after all.

Sweet Dreams: Drumming, Ice Cream, and the aftermath of genocide

C+ documentary

  • Directed by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman

This upbeat, everything-turns-out-okay documentary tries to tell three different stories in 84 minutes. While it has its high points, it doesn’t do justice to any of them.

The location, modern-day Rwanda not quite 20 years after the genocide, promises something fascinating and disturbing. In 1994, one of the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutus, took part in a massive genocide of the other, the Tutsis. This wasn’t like Germany’s Holocaust, where a special military unit did the killing and civilians could pretend they didn’t know. Vast numbers of Hutus, machetes in hand, searched homes, workplaces, and fields to slaughter their neighbors.

How can a nation heal from something like that? Death toll estimates reach as high a million people–20 percent of the population. More than 100,000 mass murderers are now imprisoned for their crimes. Today’s young Hutu adults, whose parents were murdered and who barely escaped with their lives, must live with young Tutsi adults whose parents are imprisoned for the most horrible of crimes.

What a great subject for a documentary!

But Sweet Dreams is only peripherally about the scars of genocide. It concentrates mostly on drumming and starting Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. On some level, that’s supposed to be symbolic of the country’s healing.

As such things go, drumming seems a better way to heal a nation than selling ice cream. The drummers belong to Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first and–according to the film–only women’s drumming troupe. They’re a great team, and a lot of fun to watch. And the members of the group becomes the film’s stars, telling their stories of the genocide and their lives afterward.

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But there isn’t all that much drumming in the movie. And I suspect that a lot of drama was left out, as well. For instance, early in the film, Ingoma Nshya founder Kiki Katese explains that drumming had always been a man’s prerogative–forbidden to women. Creating a women’s drumming group was an act of courageous defiance. But as far as what the filmmakers tell us, no one objected. Apparently, not a single male chauvinist remains in Rwanda.

In fact, the Rwanda pictured here seems a paradise of tolerance–pretty good for a country that was convulsed with the worst possible ethnic cleansing less than 20 years before.

So Kiki decides that, in addition to drumming, the group is going to launch, and run, Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. Most of the people there have never tasted ice cream. She pairs up with the owners of a Brooklyn parlor, and the group starts on their new endeavor. Of course you’re rooting for them, and you can’t help wondering about the difficulties ahead. A mechanical problem on the day before opening provides the film with a suspenseful climax.

Sweet Dreams is at its best when it ignores the rose-colored present and concentrates on the horrible past. The women’s stories horrify. The film’s best sequence takes us to a stadium for a national event recalling and mourning the horrible events. As images of the genocide flash on the jumbotron, people in the audience go into shock and have to be carried out. What are they remembering?

I wanted more of this. I wanted to go into depth about how a country heals after something like that. I wanted sustenance. But for too much of Sweet Dreams’ running time, I just got ice cream.

Great drumming, though.

Sweet Dreams opens Friday in San Francisco and Berkeley. It will also screen Sunday in San Rafael.

My Thoughts on Night of the Living Dead

Tuesday night, in the seasonal holiday spirit, I finally saw the original Night of the Living Dead. It really is one of the greatest horror films ever made. This is fear without compromise. The terror and suspense never let up. There’s absolutely no room for a happy ending.

The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (no one ever calls them zombies, that name came later) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. After countless imitations, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear haven’t gone away.

First-time director George Romero shot Night in black and white to save money, and I’m glad he did. As I pointed out in Black and White Films in a Color World, gruesome imagery delivers a greater emotional punch without color. We react to gushers of red blood as gory spectacle. But when the blood is dark gray, the emotions go deeper. Night of the Living Dead has been colorized three times (it’s in the public domain, so anyone can do it), but I see no reason to watch anything except the original version.

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It’s also, quite unintentionally, a comment on race relations in America, then and now.

Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, as the film’s hero. The director insists that it wasn’t intentional; Jones simply gave the best performance at the auditions. That is, of course, the way it should always work, but we all know that it rarely does.

And yet, in scene after scene, things he does and things that are done to him take on imagean additional, racial significance. When he slaps a hysterical woman to calm her down (maybe I should be addressing gender issues here, too), the act seems especially daring because it crosses so many taboos. When an older, cowardly and selfish white man argues loudly and angrily about strategy, we react to him as a bigot, even though there is nothing in the dialog to suggest that he is. I won’t describe the ending, but it takes on additional, probably unintended racial weight.

The very fact that the star’s skin color makes a difference tells us something about the invisibility of whiteness. We’re conditioned to look at a black man as a black man, and a white man as simply a man.

Racial issues aside, Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on the dangers of government research, a look at American society, or simply as one of the scariest horror films of all time. For more on the subject, see Race and Casting in American Movies.

Bit of trivia: Romero’s first professional filmmaking job involved shooting short movies for a local public television children’s show hosted by Fred Rogers. He went on to create a truly terrifying day in the Neighborhood.

Happy Halloween.

Fanciful Thriller About Israeli-Palestinian Bonding: My Review of Zaytoun

C+ Heartwarming wartime thriller

  • Written by Nader Rizq
  • Directed by Eran Riklis

Think Hell in the Pacific. Two soldiers on opposing sides must work together to survive. And in doing so, they find each other’s humanity. Except that this time, one of the soldiers is a pre-teen, and the world they’re trying to escape from is war-torn Lebanon of the early 1980s. If you don’t know someone personally, they probably want to kill you.

Actually, that description sounds a lot better than the actual movie–a disappointment from the director of Lemon Tree. The thriller scenes range from the exciting to the ridiculous to the conveniently unexplained. The character-bonding scenes are often predicable and overly sentimental. And in the third act, everything falls apart.

Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a Palestinian boy living in imagea Beirut refugee camp, trains to be a fighter to one day liberate his homeland. But instead, he helps an Israeli prisoner escape. His price? He wants to travel with the escaped POW Yoni (Stephen Dorff) and plant a baby tree by his parents’ old home.

Of course the two hate and mistrust each other from the start. They stick together because they have to. And just as obviously–at least if you know anything about movies–they’re going to bond in the course of the trip. First, they’re protecting each other for their own selfish reasons. Soon, they’re doing it because they care.

The film occasionally feels as if it was cut by someone who didn’t care. At one point, They’re chased by men with machine guns, and are trapped in a way where their only options are surrender or death. Cut to the next morning, and they’re free and unharmed. Yoni wears handcuffs through much of the film; Fahed had swallowed the key. Then, one morning, Yoni is happy that he’s no longer wearing cuffs. No explanation.

Despite these shortcomings, there’s much to like about Zaytoun. The film provides an evocative and–I suspect–accurate picture of life in Beirut 30 years ago, when factional war and Israeli bombing were shredding the country’s social fabric, and the Palestinians were at the bottom of a very bloody pecking order. The two leads are likeable, and while many bonding scenes ring false, just as many of them ring true.

In fact, I could recommend the film with more enthusiasm if it wasn’t for the third act. I can’t discuss this without serious spoiling, so read on only at your own risk.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!!!!

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About half an hour before the film ends, Fahed and Yoni make it to the UN buffer zone, where it’s an easy step to Israel proper. Suddenly, no one’s life is in imminent danger and the film is no longer a thriller.

But there’s still an interesting question: What will happen to Fahed? They’re not going to allow a Palestinian orphan–and one who has been trained to fight "the Zionist entity"–to simply live in Israel.

The UN’s solution? Send him back to the refugee camp and the grandfather who is his only living relative. This is, almost certainly, sending him to his death. After all, someone must have figured out that he helped Yoni escape.

Yet this danger doesn’t occur to anybody. Not to Fahed, Yoni, the kindly UN doctor, and certainly not to the filmmakers. His leaving for the camp is the movie’s big hug happy ending.

But not before Fahed and Yoni drive around Israel, looking for the deserted and half-forgotten town where Fahed will plant the tree. After an exciting second act, where their lives were in constant danger, this mild road trip is a letdown. Besides, the two already love each other and there’s no more character development needed.

Zayoun is a film of good intentions. But good intentions can only take you so far.

Did You Hear the One About the Documentary? When Comedy Went to School

B Documentary

  • Directed by Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank

I didn’t know it at the time (after all, I grew up in Los Angeles), but I was raised on Catskills Mountain humor. Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Buddy Hackett taught me to laugh. As I grew older, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Tom Lehrer took their place. Even today’s standup comics come out of that specifically Jewish, upstate New York tradition.

This sweet, nostalgic documentary looks at the culture, traditions, and comedy that defined the Catskills from the 1930s through the 1960s. As talkies and the depression destroyed vaudeville, upcoming comics had no place to practice and learn their craft. But New York Jews started vacationing in reasonably-priced upstate resorts to enjoy fresh air, outdoor activities, and entertainment. It was an opportunity for comedians to make a little money and hone their craft. And thus the art of stand-up comedy was born.

Directors Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank make the Catskills look like the perfect vacation. Pools, golf courses, dancing lessons, socializing (and possibly sex), plenty of good food, and rising stars to entertain you. Archival footage–much of it, I suspect, from promotional sources–emphasize the comforts and the beautiful mountains.

Like all documentaries covering recent history, When Comedy Went to School imagecontains a lot of interview footage, With those who were there telling you what it was like. Only this time, the interview subjects are amongst the funniest people alive. That may give you reasons to doubt what they say–you just know they’d pick the funniest version of a story over the real one. But it also makes for very entertaining anecdotes. I’m fighting the temptation to quote some of the best one-liners; I won’t. They depend to much on delivery.

This is a very short feature–only 76 minutes. It moves at a good clip and covers a lot of ground. But the filmmakers all but ignore one important side of the story: What did these comics learn in this "school." I would have enjoyed some talk about what does and does not make an audience laugh.

The movie made me want to vacation in the Catskills–but only if I could travel back in time.

The film opens in Bay Area theaters in Friday. (Note: I added this notice about an hour after the review went live.)

Serious Farce: My review of Afternoon Delight

B+ Officially a comedy

  • Written and directed by Jill Soloway

The plot sounds like broad, comic farce–a feminist take on Down and Out in Beverly Hills. A bored, Jewish young mother and housewife (Kathryn Hahn)  worries about the lack of sex in her marriage. Then, for reasons that are never really explained, she invites a stripper and sometimes prostitute (Juno Temple) to move into her home and become her pre-school son’s nanny.

By the laws of farce, this can go two ways: Either the stripper’s wild amorality will tear down the walls of middle-class bourgeois complacency, or those walls will be torn down by the stripper’s unconventional but ultimately superior moral code.

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But Soloway takes a very different approach: She plays it straight, taking this absurd premise and seeing what might realistically come out of it. The stripper proves herself reasonably adept at childcare, but no magical wiz. Besides, it doesn’t pay anywhere near as well as prostitution. The housewife and her husband fight about the situation, and there’s considerable sexual tension (both the good and bad kind) in the home.

When the stripper finally turns on her hosts, her motives are clear and understandable. And you can easily sympathize with everyone involved.

For an alleged comedy, Afternoon Delight isn’t very funny. But when it tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. Most of the husband-wife sex scenes cleverly earn their intended laughs–laughs that come out of what we know about the characters. Jane Lynch (one of the funniest performers working today) has a great comic turn as a therapist who’d rather talk about her own problems than her patients’.

And yet I can’t help wishing that Soloway and her collaborators had worked a little harder to gain more laughs. If she had found a way to keep the laughs rolling without losing the serious undertone, she could have made a truly great film–perhaps something on the level of Annie Hall.

By taking a comic plot seriously, Afternoon Delight gives us a close view of a marriage in trouble–one headed for either reconciliation or divorce. And one that often keeps us guessing about what will come next.

It’s also a pretty sexy movie.

I previewed Afternoon Delight previous to its screening at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Rethinking Dial M for Murder

The last time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder on the big screen, or in 3D, was the first time any paying audience had seen it in decades. That was in 1980, at San Francisco’s York Theater. I finally experienced the film properly again Thursday night at the Rafael, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered.

That 1980 screening was on a double bill with the even-better Strangers on a Train. Oddly, Dial M feels in some ways like a sequel to Strangers. In the first film, Farley Granger plays a young tennis pro estranged from his philandering wife. The happy ending has him ready to marry the daughter of a rich and powerful man. In Dial M, Ray Milland plays a middle-aged former tennis pro with a wealthy, but philandering wife. Both stories involve a plot to murder the adulteress, with the dirty deed performed by a seemingly disinterested third party.

In Dial M for Murder, Grace Kelly plays that wife in her first of three performances for Hitchcock. Knowing of her infidelity, and wanting to inherit her fortune, Milland plans an imageelaborate "perfect" murder, blackmailing and bribing an old acquaintance to commit the crime when the phone rings. Things don’t go as planned, but Milland is a bright fellow who can still turn things to his favor…maybe.

Set in England (but shot in Warner Brothers’ sound stages in Burbank), it’s all very droll. Everyone speaks calmly and wittily.

In fact, the film’s major weakness is the abundance of talking. Frederick Knott adopted his own stage play for the screen, and apparently didn’t change it much. Large chunks of the movie feel like theatre, with actors giving long, expository speeches. Hitchcock does what he can to liven these scenes with his patented, paranoia-producing camera angles, but the staginess still comes through.

But I don’t want to emphasize the film’s weaknesses. There were good reasons why the play was a Broadway hit, and why Warners picked Alfred Hitchcock to helm the film version. The story if filled with wit, suspense, and thrills. There’s great pleasure in watching Milland inwardly squirm as his plot unravels, then find a way to turn events in his favor, only to squirm inwardly again.

Hitchcock made Dial M for Murder in 1953, at the height of Hollywood’s first and very short 3D boom. Warner Brothers insisted he shoot the film stereoscopically. Hitchcock used the new format well by hardly using it at all. Most of the film is shot like a conventional, flat movie. But the one time Hitchcock throws something at the screen, you don’t laugh at the silly 3D hokum; you jump out of your seat and scream. That moment stands amongst Hitchcock’s greatest scenes, and it’s entirely dependent on 3D for its effect.

Warner Brothers recently restored the film digitally. Much of it looks very grainy–especially the exteriors (of which there are few). Presumably the source was several generations away from the negative. Or perhaps early Warnercolor really was that grainy.

The Rafael is showing the film digitally, which some people object to but not me. Realistically speaking, digital projection makes the 3D experience far more practical, and therefore more available to audiences.

You can catch it again at the Rafael on Sunday, at 4:15 and 7:00. I highly recommend it.

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