Catching The Hateful Eight in 70mm

I’m not one of those cinephiles who sees the digital transition as the end of cinema. Far from it. I respect the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of shooting digitally. And as a general rule (there are exceptions), I rather see a movie projected off a DCP than a 35mm print–and that includes classics that were filmed before most people knew what the word digital meant.

But Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the best argument I’ve yet seen for sticking with physical film. Shot in the large and super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 format (the first film shot that way in almost 50 years), it looks outstanding when projected in 70mm. Not only do you see fine details rarely visible on a big screen, but those details have a hue that adds considerable emotional impact.

It helps greatly that this ambitious western is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown–maybe even his best since Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a shame that The Hateful Eight came out while Star Wars: The Force Awakens still controls every first-run theater in the world. My wife and I saw it Sunday at Oakland’s Grand Lake theater, the only place in the East Bay screening it in 70mm. But they couldn’t screen it in their really big, downstairs, main theater.

The Grand Lake’s main, downstairs auditorium, where they’re not screening The Hateful Eight

Instead they showed it upstairs in the former balcony. The screen is reasonably large, but not huge. But at least it has a curtain–a real necessity for a roadshow presentation.

Of course The Hateful Eight isn’t a real roadshow. If it was, it would play on only one screen per major metropolitan area, at high prices and with reserved seats. People in rural areas or looking for a discount would have to wait months–sometimes even years–to see it.

Tarantino has done quite a bit to make the 70mm version of The Hateful Eight feel like a roadshow. It starts with an overture. There’s an intermission, and an entr’acte (intermission music) to bring you back into the story. The movie runs a little over three hours.

This is not the sort of movie that got the roadshow treatment in the 1950s and 60s. It lacks spectacular sets, masses of extras, and historical sweep. Yes, there’s some beautiful outdoor scenery, and Ultra Panavision 70 captures it magnificently. But most of the film is set in a single, darkly-lit, one-room building. It is, to a large degree, a chamber drama.

Yet even that one dim set works better thanks to the greater detail and width created by Ultra Panavision 70. The flickering light from the various fires and oil lamps bring on an urgency that wouldn’t have been there in digital or 35mm. The lens can encompass several actors, at different distances from the camera, with full detail on each face. When cinematographer Robert Richardson shows us a close-up–usually of Samuel L. Jackson–we feel like we could swim in his eyes. And when you consider that he’s both a cold-hearted killer and the closest The Hateful Eight has to a hero, that’s pretty scary.

Jackson played one of two bounty hunters trying to get their catches to town so they can collect, but now trapped by a blizzard in a store and stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere. Jackson’s catches are all dead–easier to ship them that way. But the other bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) is shipping living cargo–a notorious killer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (it’s so good to see her again, this time as a psychopath). Of course there are five other people trapped in that store, and pretty much everyone is trigger happy.

The film occasionally reminded me of my all-time favorite western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That film also had eight very different people thrown together in a difficult, pioneering situation. And as with Stagecoach, some of the people are still fighting the Civil War years after it was over.

But this is Tarantino, not Ford, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by telling you that the film eventually turns into a bloodbath. (Believe me, I’m holding back on some real spoilers, and there are plenty.) The over-the-top violence goes from shocking to gross to funny to disgusting to just barely skirting the edge of too much. Many people will consider it too much.

My biggest complaint: Part II contains some narration, spoken by Tarantino himself. His voice was flat and uninteresting. He should have hired a better narrator.

I’m giving The Hateful Eight an A, at least if you see it in 70mm. And yet I strongly suspect that it would look just as good in a 4K DCP. Let the 70mm print run three times a day for two weeks, and the DCP (which doesn’t wear out) will definitely look better.

The Force Awakens at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission

Thursday afternoon–the last afternoon of 2015–my wife and I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And we went out of our way to see it at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. It was our first experience seeing a movie there.

It was a lot of fun, but expensive.

I’ve already written about the New Mission–the restored movie house now run by Alamo Drafthouse. They offer gourmet food, a great variety of alcoholic beverages, comfortable seats, and the best projection (digital and film) available. Their main downstairs theater–the one we went to–has a huge screen.

Taken by author before the theater was ready to open

We arrived early and spent some time in the bar before moving to our reserved seats–front row center. Yes, we were very close to the screen. But for this type of movie, it was just perfect.

Soon after we sat down, our waiter came by, introduced himself, and took our order.

Like so many theaters today, there was a pre-show. But unlike most pre-shows, this one was movie-specific. Instead of annoying advertorials, we were treated to a selection of some of bizarre Star Wars-related videos. We watched Darth Vader dancing like Michael Jackson, with a chorus line of storm troopers behind him. The final short asked the question “What would Star Wars be like if wookiees sounded like Pee-Wee Herman. Then it brought tears of laughter by answering that question.

The real show began with this entertaining but serious warning:

(The version screened in the theater was appropriately censored.)

The food service continued through the movie, but with minimum distraction. Waiters and waitresses bend down when they walk in front of you. If you want to order something after the movie starts, you place a card vertically in a slot on your table. Someone will come over and get it, with no speaking required.

I had a cup of tea and a vegan pizza. The pizza was delicious; the tea was fine, but took an awful lot of time to get to me. My wife had a hamburger with fries. She didn’t think it was exceptional.

But here’s what was exceptional: The projection. The theater used two Sony top-of-the-line 4K digital projectors working together. We had opted to see the film in 2D (because the movie wasn’t actually shot in 3D), which meant that the two projectors were projecting the same image. Why? Brightness. It looked about as good as anything I’ve seen short of film-based Imax. The sound as excellent, as well.

We loved the movie. Director J.J. Abrams understands Star Wars far better than he ever understood Star Trek. In fact, he understands it better than George Lucas ever did. He knows that A Star Wars movie must be big and exciting, with mind-blowing action sequences and special effects. It also needs not-quite-believable, bigger-than-life characters and a simplistic view of good and evil. And he understands that, most important of all, Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s Tolkien-like fantasy with sci-fi hardware.

He got just about everything right.

Now the downside: If you’re not careful, going to the New Mission can cost a fortune. The seats were $13.25–and that was for a 2D matinee. The food and beverages were also expensive. My wife’s cocktail cost $14 (including tip). We spent $40 (including tip) for the burger, pizza, and tea; the tea alone cost $5. Including BART fare (we live in the East Bay), the total experience cost us almost $100.

But we went in assuming that this would be splurge. We could have seen it for less than $20 in a nearby theater. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun.

A trip around the San Francisco’s newly-restored New Mission Theater, to be run by Alamo Drafthouse

I’ve heard a lot of good things lately about Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a small chain of movie theaters that screen independent and Hollywood fare, classics, and cult movies. The chain has a reputation for first-class projection, excellent food, a strictly enforced no-talking or texting policy, and (as the name Drafthouse suggests) good beer.

I’ve been wanting to see an Alamo Drafthouse theater open up in the Bay Area for years. And as of next Thursday, we’ll have one. The company has restored the New Mission, a San Francisco movie palace that’s been dark for more than 20 years. They’re opening it on December 17 with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This morning, along with other members of the local movie press, I got a tour of New Mission–still very much a work in progress. We had to walk around workers and be careful about cables.

Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League led us through the tour. Stopping in the lobby, he explained that the room needed a thorough seismic retrofit, which required removing the art deco décor and putting it all back.

League discussed the company’s policies. All seats are reserved, and using a cellphone while the movie is running is strictly forbidden. “We kick out about 120 people a year system-wide.”

Then he brought us into Theater 1, a huge room with all the markings of an old-fashioned movie palace. You look at this auditorium and assume that it most fit at least 1,000. But it only has 326 seats.

Why so few? Because the New Mission will be a restaurant as well as a movie house. The rows of comfortable seats are far apart, and everyone has a table for their food.

The food is served by waiters in the theater. You write an order on a piece of paper, and put it in a slot that makes it visible to the waiter, who will take your order (no talking needed) and bring you the food.

That big, downstairs theater’s projection room contains Sony’s new SRX-R515DS set of two 4K projectors. Projecting them together should provide an extremely bright image–and excellent 3D–on the theater’s very large screen. Also in the booth: Two 35/70mm film projectors. The theater isn’t all digital. (Two projectors are needed for archival prints.)

I asked League if the 70mm projectors can handle magnetic soundtracks (standard on 70mm prints until 1997–an no longer supported at the Castro). He said they can’t yet, but if they book such a print, they’ll do the upgrade.

When Star Wars opens next week, only Theater 1 will be open. The four smaller theaters, which can seat from 94 to 37 people, were not ready to show the press. They too will have 4K projectors, but apparently no film.

The tour also included the bar, called the Bear Vs. Bull, and the kitchen. Expect California craft beers, a lot of American whiskeys, and adult milk shakes. The kitchen will provide salads, sandwiches, pizzas, “larger plates,” and fresh-baked cookies. Also three specially-seasoned popcorns.

I’m looking forward to it.

Raymond Griffith at Niles

Last Saturday night, I visited the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for a screening of the 1925 Raymond Griffith comedy, Hands Up! I had seen it once before–probably in 1977 or ’78 at the Avenue Theater (of blessed memory). Then, and now, I totally enjoyed it.

Sorry it took me so long to get to write about this. I’ve been busy.

Raymond Griffith (not related to D.W. Griffith) is largely forgotten these days, and his work (or at least what I’ve seen of it) doesn’t come up to the best of Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd. But he was funny. He almost always appeared in a top hat and cape, as if he was going to the opera. His character was cheerful, unflappable, and exceptionally polite. I wrote more about Griffith in a recent Eat Drink Films article, Revisiting Walter Kerr’s THE SILENT CLOWNS.

Hands Up! is a civil war comedy, with the hero on the side of the Confederacy, so comparisons to The General
are almost mandatory. The General is a masterpiece–a near perfect alloy of epic adventure and slapstick comedy. Despite the laughs, it feels plausible and realistic. But Hands Up! is simply farce. It will do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of the atmosphere or story.

Griffith plays a Confederate spy who travels west to sabotage a Yankee goldmine. Along the way he outwits a firing squad, teaches native Americans to dance the Charleston (a major anachronism), and romances a pair of young and beautiful sisters.

The film wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. Over the years, my memory had improved some of the jokes, making them better timed. Some sequences involving an African American were shockingly racist, even for a film of this vintage.

But the good parts were strong enough for me to give it an B+.

The 16mm print was made up from several sources to get the entire picture looking as good as possible. And for the most part, it looked good if not great.

The feature was preceded by two shorts: D.W. Griffith’s The Last Drop of Water and William S. Hart’s The Taking of Luke McVane. Neither was better than moderately entertaining, in large part I suspect from the washed-out prints, especially of the Griffith.

There was a theme running through all three movies: the desert. The organization Desert Survivors was involved with this screening.

Bruce Loeb accompanied all of the films on piano.

Before the movies began, I took the liberty of taking some photos of the museum. Enjoy:

The theater

Old cameras, with an old projector on the right

Another view of the cameras and that black projector

The two 16mm projectors in the projection booth. The blue box in the rear is one of the two 35mm projectors

Roxie gains beer & better projection; hopes to gain members

Late last year, when the major theater chains refused to screen The Interview
for fear of North Korean terrorists, San Francisco’s own Roxie offered to show the comedy. Sony turned them down for technical reasons: The Roxie could screen it in 35mm or Blu-ray, but Sonly would only send the movie out to theaters in DCP.

The lack of a DCP-capable digital projector is a major shortcoming for a movie theater these days; even an eclectic theater like the Roxie. Most new movies aren’t available in any other format. And even classics are becoming easier to rent on a hard drive than on multiple reels of 35mm film.

So I’m delighted to let you know that the Roxie now has a DCP-compatible (the official term is DCI-compliant) projector. The next time terrorists (or hackers pretending to be terrorists) scare the multiplexes from screening a big Hollywood blockbuster, the Roxie will be waiting and able.

And don’t worry about the death of film. The Big Roxie still has two 35mm reel-to-reel projectors, able to project the old-fashioned way.

And if you find the images from any of these projectors too sharp, you can blur your own perceptions with beer or hard cider, now on sale at the Roxie’s concession stand. The Roxie has a license to drink. (Okay, it’s a license to sell drinks, but only beer and cider.)

But with all these changes, the Roxie needs money. So the theater is pushing a membership drive this month. According to the Roxie’s announcement, a membership buys you “free or discounted admissions, free popcorn, private screenings and more.”

Coming in December: Day of Silents & Alamo Drafthouse

It’s a little early to write about December, but here are two events I want to tell you about right away. In fact, I wanted to tell you about them weeks ago, but I was too busy.

A Day of Silents

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will run a one-day festival at the Castro on Saturday, December 5. As one would expect, it’s going to be a very long day…but probably a fun one.

I’ve only seen one of the five programs scheduled: Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (11:00am). Fairbanks was the top action hero of his day, and also an auteur who wrote and produced (but didn’t direct) his movies. This swashbuckler isn’t his best movie, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In his only pirate movie, Fairbanks plays a nobleman who joins a band of scurvy buccaneers in order to take them down in revenge for his father’s death. The movie contains one of Fairbanks most spectacular stunts–and yes, he did it, himself. Fairbanks sticks his knife into the top of a sail and slides down, holding onto only the a knife. Of course there were a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks to make it safer than it appears, but it was still dangerous and looks amazing. The stunt was ineptly recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

This was Fairbank’s only color movie, shot in two-color Technicolor. To my knowledge, it’s the first feature shot entirely in Technicolor that wasn’t financed and produced by the Technicolor company. For decades, The Black Pirate was available only in black-and-white; the color was restored in the 1990s. This will be my first chance to see it in color on the big screen.

The Alloy Orchestra will provide the musical accompaniment.

It will be followed by:

  • Around China with a Movie Camera
    (1:00): A selection of newsreels and travelogues shot in China. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Grim Game
    (3:00): A melodrama staring the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Inhuman Woman (6:30): Can one make a good silent film around a singer? We’ll find out with this French film, which the Festival describes as a “fantasy.” Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
  • Piccadilly (9:15): I seldom stay for the last film of the night at the Silent Film Festival, but I just might with this one. The always-amazing Anna May Wong plays a scullery maid turned dancer in this British film. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission

Movie lovers in Texas, New York, and other locations have enjoyed Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas for years. Now it’s our turn.

The Alamo Drafthouse company has restored The New Mission Theater (in the Mission, of course), and it will open December 17 with the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve yet to attend a Drafthouse theater, but the company’s reputation for good beer, good food (meals as well as snacks), and good projection seems promising. They screen mostly new movies, with some classics–often of the camp variety.

Judging from some of the photos on their Facebook page, The New Mission looks spectacular. And even though they have chopped it up into a multiplex, They’ve kept enough of the original to have one spectacular auditorium.

Or, at least, that’s what the photographs have led me to believe.

I’ve added the New Mission to the list of theaters this blog covers.

The Castro in July

The Castro‘s July calendar is up–at least in its details-free “Coming Soon” version is up. Here are some highlights:

July 5:
Jaws plays a lot in the theaters I cover, but this time it will play on a double bill with one of the first Jaws rip-offs, Roger Corman’s Piranha. Not a great movie, but it has the distinction of being John Sayles’ first produced screenplay.

July 10: A Dolly Parton double-bill of 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I haven’t seen either, but I’ve also never heard of a Dolly Parton double bill.

July 12: A matinee-only screening of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.–the only Dr. Seuss feature film made in his lifetime and with his cooperation. And one of the strangest and most delightful children’s films ever made.

July 16: As a Christopher Lee tribute double bill, the theater will screen Horror of Dracula and The Wicker Man.
Horror was the first of Hammer’s Dracula films starring Lee, and probably the best. I have not seen The Wicker Man since it’s American release nearly 40 years ago, and was very impressed then. I understand that the restored director’s cut is much better.

July 19: Two of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British films. The 39 Steps was one of the two films that made him the unrivaled Master of Suspense (the other being the original version of The Man Who Knew too Much). The second is his penultimate British film, and in my opinion his best before he hopped the pond, The Lady Vanishes. You can read my Blu-ray review.

The last night days of the month belong to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I intend to screen some of those films before opening night. I’ll tell you what I find.


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