The UC Theatre to be born again (but not as a movie house)

According to a Berkeleyside article by  Frances Dinkelspiel, the UC Theatre is coming back to life. That’s the good news. The bad new–admittedly from my personal perspective–is that it’s not going to show movies.

For 25 years, the UC Theatre was my favorite temple to the cinematic arts. I saw hundreds of films there, from the great masterpieces to the most ludicrous junk. There were years where I visited the UC three or four times a week. See The UC Theatre: A Memory for details.

The UC closed in 2001. This summer, the Berkeley Music Group will start renovating it. They have a website and everything, and plan to turn it into a music venue. David Mayeri, the man behind the project, is describing his vision as a Berkeley version of the Fillmore.

That all sounds well and good. I love live music–I’m even married to a musician. But I would have rather seen it turned into the Berkeley version of the Castro.

Well, maybe they’ll show an occasional movie. After all, that’s what the building was designed for.

Film, Digital, and the Current Castro Calendar

Early every month, I visit the Castro‘s Playlist page to see which classics they’re showing digitally rather than on film. 

And no, I don’t do this to get angry. I love film, but I also love DCP (the digital standard that’s replaced film in theaters). It’s more a matter of curiosity.

As I understand it, the Castro’s management usually screens classics on film if it’s available. But I’m sure there are exceptions. For one thing, DCP cuts shipping costs significantly. If a classic has undergone a major digital restoration, DCP will always look superior. It often looks superior even without the restoration, but not always.

Purists who disagree with me will be glad to know that 35mm has the upper-hand on the current calendar–at least if we ignore new films. But not by much. Over the course of April and early May, the Castro will screen 19 35mm prints, and only 14 DCPs of older movies.

A few noteworthy selections:

The Red Shoes (April 10, DCP): This ballet melodrama uses the 3-strip Technicolor format better than any other film I’ve seen, so you want to see it with the best image quality. It was recently restored digitally, so I feel safe to say that DCP is the right choice.

Groundhog Day (April 11, 35mm): I know for a fact that there’s a DCP for this title. I’m guessing that the Castro had both options and picked 35mm.

Ben-Hur (April 13, DCP): This 1959 epic was originally shown in a special, anamorphic 70mm format. Since it’s unlikely to be shown that way again, DCP is the best choice. However, this is the sort of movie that makes me wish that the Castro had a 4K digital projector–which does better for large-format films.

Sorcerer (April 17, DCP): This remake of The Wages of Fear has just been restored. Of course it’s now digital.

Johnny Guitar (April 23, DCP): I’m really glad they’ve bothered to digitize this gem, which deserves to be better known. I hope they did a good job.

Emperor of the North (April 27, 35mm): I haven’t seen this film, but the Castro is promising an archival print. I’ll generally  take that over a DCP.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (May 3, DCP): This was shot in the same very wide, large-film format as Ben-Hur, and should ideally be projected the same way. Some years back, United Artists struck an anamorphic 70mm print, and the Castro screened it, using special projection lenses supplied for the engagement. However, that wasn’t the complete movie. The original cut has now been digitally restored, and is thus on DCP. For what it’s worth, I loved this movie when I was ten; I can’t stand it now.

Rare Lubitsch in New York

I’m in New York City right now, visiting my son and daughter-in-law. This evening, we went to an art house cinema I didn’t know existed to see a Ernst Lubitsch film I had never heard of.

The theater is the Antohology Flm Archives in lower Manhatan. The movie was Broken Lullaby, also known as The Man I Killed–the name on the 35 print screened.

Like the Pacific Film Archive near home, the AFA is a non-profit that doesn’t sell food and frowns on your taking it into the theater. And like the PFA, it organizes its calendar around series. One series, Essential Cinema, is in theory the basic, common classics, although much of what they include here are pretty obscure. Other series in the current schedule includes New York’s Chinatown on Screen, a Richard Fleischer retrospective, and In the Flesh: Porn Noir (’70s porn with a noir twist).

Broken Lullaby was part of Auteurs Gone Wild–films by major directors that are not in the director’s usual style. Probably the best-known films in the group are Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and A Countess from Hong Kong.

Broken Lullaby, made at Paramount in 1932, was not your usual sparklingly amoral Lubitsch comedy, but a serious anti-war melodrama set immediately after the end of World War 1. A young French veteran (Phillips Holmes), deeply guilty about killing a German soldier on the battlefield, seeks out the man’s family to apoligize. But once there, his courage fails him and he lies about his connection to their son. He also falls in love with his victim’s fiance.

Unfortunately, the very good-looking Holmes’ acting chops weren’t up to the part. He overplayed to the point of deep annoyance. Top-billed Lionel Barrymore, as the dead man’s father, plays his role beautifully, as does the rest of the cast.

Lubitsch and the four credited writers manage to avoid every cliche that they seemed to be headed towards. The ending is moving, emotionally complex, ambigious, unexpected, and perfect.

The film contains one great Lubitsch touch sequence–a montage that follow a rumor throughout the neighborhood.

i’m glad I caught it, and I hope someone in the Bay Area decides to screen it.


The Castro in April

I just checked the Castro‘s Coming Soon page to see what’s playing in April. The information is limited, but it has some intriguing offerings.

Sing-Along Beauty and the Beast: For a split second, I thought this might be Jean Cocteau’s post-war masterpiece, which would be odd since that one isn’t a musical. On the other hand, Philip Glass wrote an opera designed to accompany the movie, so perhaps the audience is expected to sing along with that. Or, far more likely, it’s the Disney version.

Harold Ramis Tribute: Over two days, you can see Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Vacation (I assume that’s the National Lampoon movie), Stripes, and Animal House. Of course, I could see Groundhog Day over and over again.

Palm Sunday spectacular: On April 13, you can see Ben-Hur, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Resurrection. I have no idea which movie called "Resurrection" they’re showing, but I doubt it’s Alien: Resurrection or Tupac: Resurrection. Whatever version it will be, putting Ben-Hur on a triple bill will test anyone’s faith.

Sorcerer: I’ve never seen this remake of Wages  of Fear, but I’ve heard good things about it. I understand it’s recently undergone a major restoration.

The New and Improved Embarcadero Multiplex

This fall, Landmark shut down, refurbished, and reopened their Embarcadero Center Cinema multiplex, which has become their San Francisco flagship. This morning, I visited the Embarcadero for a press screening. It was the first time since the makeover.

Here’s my report:

If you turn right after entering the theater, you’ll see the concession stand where it’s always been. It’s bigger, and the line probably moves faster on a Saturday night.


But if you turn left, you’ll see something really new: a bar. Alas, when I arrived at 10:00 on a Thursday morning, it was closed.


I liked the pattern on the rug, but I honestly can’t tell you if it was new. [12/6: I've been informed that the rug is indeed new.]image

The seats are new, and comfortable, but in the larger auditoriums they’re not really that exceptional.


But the seats are exceptional if your movie is playing in one of the four “Screening Lounges”–as was the case with the press screening. These small theaters come equipped with soft, wide, faux-leather recliners. Press a button on the thick armchair, and the leg rest rises while the back comes down. These are easily the most comfortable movie theater seats I’d ever experienced.


But the bugs aren’t completely worked out. I got a tea at the concession stand. And when I put it into the cup holder, it damn near disappeared. The cup holder is simply too deep for an 8oz paper cup.


The screen was huge, and high, with a 1.85×1 aspect ratio. Since the film I was there to see (John Sayles’ Go for Sisters–I’ll tell you about it later) was also 1.85, I expected it to fill the screen. But it didn’t. There was visible blank screen on both sides and on the bottom.

I asked about that after the movie. An employee explained that the screen was too large for the auditorium, so they couldn’t use all of it. And the auditorium has no masking.

The image was still quite large, so I can’t really complain too much about the unfilled screen. But Landmark advertises the Embarcadero as a premium theater. Tickets cost $12.50 and come with reserved seating. The lack of masking really makes the theater look cheap.

Like I said, there are still bugs in the system.

A New Schedule and a New Projector at the Pacific Film Archive

I’ve got the new summer schedule for the Pacific Film Archive. And the biggest news is hidden between the lines.

As I looked over the printed schedule, I noticed that the PFA will screen several films off DCPs. As far as I knew, the PFA didn’t have that capability. Last year, Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby told me that “we might not have that full capability until we move to our new building in downtown Berkeley. If someone would like to donate funds to the PFA for this purpose this would be greatly appreciated!!” (See The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 1: The Theaters.)

The donations came through. According to my PFA press contact, the new DCI-compatible, 4K digital projector was funded by “a generous block grant from our control unit on campus.” It can even manage high frame rates–in case Peter Jackson comes to town.

How important is this upgrade? Last November, the PFA screened Children of Paradise, not long after the film’s recent restoration. But since the new restoration has not been released in 35mm (at least not in the USA), they had to screen a six-year-old pre-restoration print. Considering what a great job Pathe did on the restoration, that’s a significant loss.

The PFA isn’t making a big deal about the change, and they haven’t yet announced anything like the New York Film Forum’s This is DCP series. But they’ll be using the new projector when appropriate.

For instance, most of the films in their Sunday matinee From Up on Poppy Hillseries, Castles in the Sky: Masterful Anime from Studio Ghibli, will be screened in 35mm. But Ghibli’s latest, From Up on Poppy Hill (see my comments) will be off a DCP. Of course, the biggest issue with these enchanting tales is whether they’ll be dubbed or subtitled. Four of the films, most of them geared to younger children, will be dubbed; the other eight subtitled.

Ursula Meier’s Sister, the newest film in the series on cinematographer Agnès Godard, will also screen in pixels rather than film grain. This is appropriate, not only because Sister came out only last year, but also because it’s Godard’s first digital work. Godard will be at the PFA for several screenings, and I’m sure she’ll discuss the transition.

The ongoing series A Theater Near You is really an excuse to screen films that don’t fit into any of the other series (or at least that’s what I’ve assumed). On this schedule, the series contains three classics digitally restored and presented on DCP: The Tin Drum, Tristana, and Port of Shadows. The other films playing at A Theater Near You, all in 35mm, are The Man Who Fell to Earth, Kuroneko, and The Mill and the Cross. Curiously, The Mill and the Cross (read my review) was shot digitally.

The Mill and the CrossFans of 35mm shouldn’t feel betrayed. The most entertaining series this summer will almost certainly be A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh, and all 15 features–including such gems as High Sierra and White Heat–will be screened off 35mm prints. Seven of those prints are vault or archival.

What else will be at the PFA this summer?

That’s what they’ve got through August. I hope they screen Samsara soon (read my review). The filmmakers explicitly stated that it should be screened in 4K, and to my knowledge, no one has done that in the Bay Area.

Lawrence of Arabia Again–This Time in a CineMark XD Theater

Seems kind of crazy. I haven’t been able to go to the movies anywhere near as often as I’d like, lately. Yet I’ve managed to see the same film three times in the last four months. And that film is almost four hours long.

But it was worth it. Although I now own it on Blu-ray, Lawrence of Arabia really does deserve a darkened theater, a huge screen, and an audience of more than your friends and family. And this time, I had a chance to see it in a theater that’s really optimized for a big picture, digitally projected.

The theater in question was the Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, and they screened Lawrence as part of their regular Wednesday Classic series.

But this was a special presentation. They screened Lawrence in their XD theater. XD promises a very high-quality digital presentation on a very large screen. They use Barco 4K projectors, a very bright image, and top sound. And sure enough, this was the best-looking Lawrence of Arabia I ever experienced.

For my other recent Lawrence experiences, see Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia and The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience. Here’s what I say about the movie in my newsletter when it plays locally:

A+ One of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle,Lawrence is also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, wanted desperately to become something he could never be, and told himself that he was liberating Arabia while knowing deep down that he was turning it over to the British. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection for its full effect.

The XD theater looked like a typical 21st century multiplex auditorium, but larger. The huge, moderately-curved screen recalled the big roadshow palaces of the 1960s–in other words, the type of theater in which Lawrence of Arabia was meant to be shown. The front row is set back a bit, making it just about perfect for me for this kind of movie.

I should mention that CineMark charges a premium price, $14.50, for XD presentations. But so did those big roadshow palaces.

An XD Theater

When the preshow started, I turned around and looked at the light coming from the projector. And my heart sank. Two light sources, one on top of the other, told me that the 3D housing was still on. The picture was bright, so I’m confident that the polarizing filters had been properly removed. I know that with a Sony 4K projector, running a 4K, 2D image through the 3D attachment results in a 2K image (click here for details). With Barco, I honestly don’t know. I called Barco and the theater, and got conflicting information. So I’m not sure if I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia in 4K.

Update: It appears that the 3D attachment was left on, but it used the RealD-XL 3D system, which doesn’t reduce resolution the way the Sony does. Some image quality was probably lost, but it wasn’t significant. I definitely saw the film in 4K.

And it looked great–crisp, bright, and detailed. The occasional digital artifacts that marred a few minutes of the Castro’s December screening only showed up in only one shot. The large, curved screen made this very immersive film even more immersive. The sound was just about perfect.

A fair number of people showed up, although it wasn’t near a full house. The audience laughed and gasped in all the right places. Some, quite obviously, were seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time. Always a good thing.

Of course, you can’t expect a modern multiplex to offer the sort of showmanship you would get at the Castro. There was no curtain. The masking wasn’t versatile enough for Lawrence’s 2:20×1 aspect ratio (a screen shape that died with 70mm projection), resulting in blank screen above and below the image. The houselights went dark at the beginning of the overture rather than slowly fading while the music played.

In my recent piece on the UA Emery Bay multiplex, I stated "One clear difference between an art house and a multiplex: Good coffee and tea vs. none at all." I have to take that back. The Century’s concession stand sold Starbuck’s coffee and Tazo Tea.

I realize that over the past two years, I’ve written three posts about Lawrence of Arabia that concentrated on presentation and said little about the movie. I’m going to have to fix that.

Return to an Aging Multiplex, plus Side Effects & Silver Linings Playbook

Over the past week, I’ve twice visited the UA Emery Bay, a once-popular multiplex I used to patronize regularly. But this was my first visit there in maybe a decade. On Saturday, I caught Side Effects there. Tuesday night, Silver Linings Playbook. I’ll tell you about the theater, and then the movies.

Built in the late 1980′s, the Emery Bay was the major multiplex of the Greater Berkeley Area (Berkeley, North Oakland, Albany, and Emeryville) for over a decade. Eight of its ten screens were (and still are) large enough for a true immersive experience if you sit near the front. It played both Hollywood and Indiewood fare. Among the films I saw there in its heyday were sex, lies, and videotape, Forrest Gump, Groundhog Day,  The Fifth Element, Whale Rider, The Princess Diaries, The World Is Not Enough, and The Fellowship of the Ring. But not, I should point out, The Two Towers or The Return of the King.

Mind you, it was always a multiplex, with all of the negatives that word entails. It existed to get people into and out of the theater, and to expose them to advertising before the feature. And the concession stand contained then and now little that I would want to eat. (One clear difference between an art house and a multiplex: Good coffee and tea vs. none at all.)

But in the early 21st century, AMC opened a larger, fancier multiplex in Emeryville, just a few blocks from the Emery Bay. It immediately got the bigger titles, and with them more customers. The Emery Bay, I suspect, lost a lot of business.

Which is a pity because in many ways it was and still is a nicer theater. Parking is free and plentiful. The screens are fixed height rather than fixed width, which allows the scope films to be immersive and the standard ones to be appropriately sized. I’ve yet to experience bad projection there, while I’ve experienced it often at the AMC. Both films I saw recently were well screened off Sony 4K digital projectors–without the problematic 3D lenses (which degrade 2D films). And although there’s little that’s attractive to eat, you’ll find a very nice food court across the parking lot.

One more thing: Go there on Tuesday and you get in cheap. $5 for 2D films; $8 for 3D.

The Emery Bay is no longer Emeryville’s king multiplex. But as the scrappy number two, it provides a nicer movie-going experience.

Now then, about the movies I saw:

A Side Effects
Writing about Side Effects without giving away spoilers is like dancing in a mine field. imageMake the wrong move and I ruin a wonderful experience. Steven Soderbergh’s latest and, according to him, last film is a physiological mystery about depression and prescription drugs. Except…well, I can’t really say more. Let me just say that it’s a puzzle well worth unraveling, with Jude Law as an overworked psychiatrist and Rooney Mara as a patient with some very good reasons for feeling depressed. The story has more plot twists than a really good Simpsons episode.

B Silver Linings Playbook
How can good actors give great performances as interesting characters, and come up so empty? Bradley Cooper plays imagePat, recently released from a mental institution, despite his clearly still being a danger to himself and others. Friends match him up with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence in a role for which she deservedly received an Oscar), presumably because she’s also pretty crazy.  Although the characters are complex, realistic, surprising, and ultimately likeable, the story is utter Hollywood cliché–right down to the dance competition (over-edited, as is almost all dancing in modern movies). With characters like these, the last thing you want is a everything-works-for-the-best happy ending, yet you see that coming a mile off.

The New Parkway and Django Unchained

I finally made it to the New Parkway. I went Thursday night to see Django Unchained. Actually, the movie was secondary. I really wanted to see the theater.

The New Parkway is better located than the original. On 24th St. between Broadway and Telegraph, it’s in the heart of downtown Oakland and a short walk from the 19th St. BART station.

From the outside, it doesn’t even look like a theater, but like warehouse covered with graffiti. You have to read some of that graffiti to realize that you’ve reached your destination.

Ticket price: $6.00. What a bargain!

The spacious lobby looks like a cutting-edge, very hip café. Tables, chairs, and couches encourage people to hang out.

I came with a full stomach, so I didn’t sample the food beyond the popcorn–which was delicious. It was also served in reusable, washable bowls. That wasn’t the theater’s only waste-cutting measure–the condiment table had cloth napkins.

Other food offerings included meat and vegi burgers, quesadillas, pizza, and something that looked like a complete and balanced meal with pasta. I suspect that was the "Mystery Meal" that they sell for $7.

The auditorium (one of two) was large, but arranged so it was very wide rather than very deep. For the patrons’ comfort, it was fitted out with a motley collection of used living room furniture. There were even a couple of hair dryers. With my preference for sitting front and center, I picked what turned out to be a horribly uncomfortable couch. But I grabbed a large pillow that was resting elsewhere and made myself exceptionally comfortable.

The screen wasn’t exceptionally large–especially considering the size of the room. It was fixed width, and sufficiently big enough for standard widescreen 1.85×1 movies. For for scope, 2.35×1 pictures like Django Unchained, it was a bit small. There’s no masking, making you aware of the letterboxing. The speakers were visible, beside and above the screen rather than behind it.

One interesting sign of the times: There’s no projection booth. The digital projector was in a in box hanging from the ceiling. With digital, you don’t often need physical access to the projector. The only film projector was an ancient one on display in the lobby.

The ambiance was very friendly–a place to hang out as well as to see a movie. I liked it a lot.

But what about Django Unchained?

Typical Tarantino–clever, entertaining, way over the top in its gruesome and entirely unrealistic violence, and utterly hollow on the inside. Like Inglorious Basterds, it uses imagea great crime against humanity as an excuse for a splatter-filled revenge flick that’s also a tribute to a particular kind of action movie.  In this case, the crime is slavery and genre the spaghetti western. The story is idiotic, with the heroes often picking a ridiculously difficult route to their goal, and showing no qualms whatsoever over killing other human beings. But I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But I enjoyed the theater a lot more.

New Movies I’ve Seen Recently…and How I Saw Them

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.

A-/A Skyfall
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.

B/C+ Argo
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.

A-/B Lincoln
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.

B+/D Hitchcock
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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