Cave of Not-Forgotten Digital Projection

Last night, Cave of Forgotten Dreams became the first film I’ve seen digitally projected in two different theaters. The experience taught me something important: The difference between people who love digital projection and people who hate it may be the difference between the theaters they patronize.

That the film was in 3D both times accentuated the differences. I saw digital projection and 3D done well and done badly.

Just to clarify things: Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still far and away the best 3D movie I have ever seen. It’s the only one I can wholeheartedly recommend and insist that people see it in 3D. This is, and should be, the film that is taking 3D to the art houses. Unfortunately, the art houses may not have the money to do 3D right.

I first saw Caves in the Kabuki’s large theater 1, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was everything I could want a digital 3D presentation to be. The image was sharp, clear, colorful, and—most difficult to achieve in 3D—bright. The Dolby 3D glasses, which aren’t polarized and therefore aren’t dark, helped.

How was this done, and only a year after finding that very theater’s digital capabilities lacking?

Jeremy Stevermer, Technical Director of the San Francisco Film Society, informed me after this year’s festival that the Kabuki added a permanent Barco Digital Projector this year (last year the festival rented a projector). The new projector, tied into the theater’s Dolby system, requires a brighter bulb for 3D projection.

My second viewing, last night, was at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. They installed 3D digital projection specifically for Caves. They will, of course, use it for other films, and showed a 3D trailer for Cars 2.

My disappointment set in before we needed the 3D glasses. Even in the 2D commercials and trailers, the colors looked muted and dull. The polarized 3D glasses made them look dark and almost black and white. For a documentary shot under low-light conditions in a cave, this was a serious handicap. Herzog’s beautiful study of early human art became muddied in the process.

The projection had another serious problem, although one that I’ve observed in that theater before it went digital. The frame is cropped way too much vertically, producing a much wider aspect ratio than Herzog intended. So much information was lost at the top and bottom of the frame that onscreen text was often unreadable. (In my review, I criticized the film’s lack of subtitles; in this theater, they would have been a disaster.)

It’s too bad. The Shattuck is conveniently located for me, and they’ve recently upgraded their seats for exceptional comfort. But their technical upgrades leave a lot to be desired.

In not totally unrelated news, last week saw a number of articles on brightness issues with Sony digital projectors showing 2D movies.  It started with this article. Then Roger Ebert chimed in. Then a projectionist added an interesting explanation.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead

D- Horror comedy

Note: I wrote this review in the spring of 2010, and planned to post it just before a then-planned Bay Area theatrical release. The release never happened, and the review was left unpublished. Since the movie is available on Netflix, I’ve decided to post the review now, in hopes that I will spare some of my readers the experience of watching this movie.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is a one-joke comedy. Worse, the joke is in the very clever title. The fun is pretty much over once you’ve laughed at that. Few things are more painful to watch than failed wit.

The story concerns a vampire production of Hamlet being staged in modern-day New York. The play has been rewritten to be about vampires, and everyone in the cast is  rgrundead either a vampire or an intended victim who will soon become one. Jake Hoffman plays the hapless hero, a stage director and all-around loser who still manages to get a different gorgeous girl in bed every night despite the fact that he’s living with his father, treats women badly, and has no redeeming qualities.

Despite the title and the concept, there’s very little Shakespeare here. What we see of the play being staged makes it out as an original work, with no relationship to Hamlet except the character names and Elizabethan costumes. Unlike Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which this film refers to in its title) or even A Night In Elsinore, there’s no real love of Shakespeare on display here.

Writer/Director Jordan Galland must have known he had a good thing going with the name—if with nothing else. He divided the movie into chapters with similar punny titles like “Job Interview with a Vampire” and “Death of a Pale Man.” But they, too, get tiring.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead tries to be funny, tries to be scary, and tries to be sexy. It fails on all three counts. It’s not so much undead as unfunny.

What’s Screening: May 27–June 2

No festival activity this week until Thursday, when Another Hole In the Head opens.

A- Midnight in Paris, Kabuki, Embarcadero, Albany Twin, Piedmont, opens Friday. I didn’t think Woody Allen still had it in him. He hasn’t made a film this funny, this wistful, and this heartfelt in decades. And I don’t think he’s ever made one this upbeat. Owen Wilson stars as your basic neurotic, romantic, witty, oversexed, and not quite intellectual Allen protagonist in a movie that slightly resembles Allen’s 1985 Purple Rose of Cairo. As with that film, the protagonist’s intense desire to escape into a  fantasy world alters reality. But this is a much more optimistic movie, one where fantasy can help one handle reality. Read my full review.

A 12 Angry Men, Castro, Thursday. Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t the only director to make a great one-set film in the 1950’s. Sidney Lumet did it in his very first leap from the small to the big screen. (Come to think of it, Akira Kurosawa did it too, in The Lower Depths.) In 12 Angry Men, Lumet brilliantly stages a jury as it considers its verdict in a murder case. Limited people in a limited space, yet it never feels like limited drama. But it’s definitely 1950’s liberal optimism, as the one juror more interested in truth then vengeance (Henry Fonda) argues with the others. On a Lumet memorial double-bill with Network, which I haven’t seen since it was in first run.

A+ Gene Kelly Double Bill: Singin’ in the Rain & The Pirate, Stanford, Saturday through Monday. The A+ goes to Singin’ in the Rain. There’s nothing meaningful, insightful, or propagandistic about the greatest of all Hollywood musicals, which happens to be about the birth of Hollywood musicals. But I’d be hard pressed to find another movie that’s more fun. The Pirate, on the other hand, is not one of Kelly’s best, but it’s still a splendid entertainment. The mistaken-identity story debunks one romantic myth (pirates) while building up another (actors).

B 42nd Street, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 8:00; Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. This isn’t just a backstage musical; it’s the backstage musical, complete with the chorus girl ingénue whose big chance comes when the star breaks her ankle. A close second to Gold Diggers of 1933, with good humor and spectacular Busby Berkeley dance numbers that could never happen on a real Broadway stage. Co-staring Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie, who “only said no once, and then she didn’t hear the question.” The Niles screening is the first in a series of musicals (none silent, obviously), playing Friday night through the summer. The Stanford is screening it on a double bill with Babes in Arms.

It, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. I’ve never seen the movie that made Clara Bow a big star and gave her the title “The It Girl,” but I’m guessing it’s a lot of fun. Bow usually was. Bruce Loeb will accompany the movie on piano.

D The Warlords, 4-Star, Thursday. Huge, cumbersome, and melodramatic, The Warlords succeeds primarily in being loud. Set during theTaiping Rebellion, it stars warlordsJet Li as a general who turns a group of bandits into an unbeatable army with the help of two bandit leaders who become his blood brothers. There’s a love triangle, as well. The battle scenes are big, but seldom thrilling and often laughable. Li’s General Pang commits multiple atrocities, but we’re supposed to forgive him because he cries as he does them. When the movie ended with a quote from itself, “Dying is easy. Living is harder,” I suppressed the desire to finish the old cliché properly: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” On a double bill with an earlier Li adventure, The Shaolin Temple, which will be dubbed.

Midnight in Paris

A- Romantic comedy (of a sort)

Written and directed by Woody Allen

I didn’t think Woody Allen still had it in him. He hasn’t made a film this funny, this wistful, and this heartfelt in decades. And I don’t think he’s ever made one this upbeat.

Owen Wilson stars as your basic neurotic, romantic, witty, oversexed, and not quite intellectual Allen protagonist. This time, he’s an extremely successful screenwriter who’d rather be writing novels and suffering for his art. And he wants to do it in Paris. That shouldn’t be too difficult, except he wants to do it in the Paris of the 1920s, while hanging out with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and other greats from that era.

At least he’s in Paris, if only as a tourist with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) and her midnightinparisparents. Allen gives us no reason to believe that this engagement will end in a happy marriage, or to hope that it will. She’s from a wealthy, conservative family, she has no desire to live outside of the US, and the last thing she understands is a desire to give up a successful career to follow a muse.

And believe me, his muse takes him into strange places. I don’t want to give away too much, so let me just say that there’s magic in the streets of Paris when the clock tolls twelve.

This movie resembles Allen’s 1985 Purple Rose of Cairo. As with that film, the protagonist’s intense desire to escape into a  fantasy world alters reality. But this is a much more optimistic movie, one where fantasy can help one handle reality.

In fact, the movie’s biggest flaw is a preachy speech near the end. Allen is too gifted a filmmaker to need an explicitly explained moral.

I spent much of my young adulthood working the Renaissance and Dickens Fairs, where a tight-knit group of friends pretended to be different people living in imagined golden ages. I think that gave me an interesting perspective on what Allen was doing here.

Did I mention that it’s his funniest film in years?

Coming Attractions

A few things worth noting:

The Castro is running another 70mm series; their first in several years. It’s a modest one—four films in nine days: West Side Story, Playtime, Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia. See Glorious 70mm for my thoughts on the format in general.

Frameline, the Bay Area’s premiere lesbian, gay, bi-, and transgender festival, runs for the 35th time on June 16 – 26 this year at the Castro, Roxie, Victoria, and (for those of us in the East Bay), the Elmwood. This year the festival focuses on the T in LGBT, with several films concerning transgender characters. These include the opening night drama Gun Hill Road and the documentary about Sonny and Cher’s daughter-turned-son, Becoming Chaz. There will also be a number of films about young people and an award for comedian Margaret Cho.

I haven’t seen any of the movies yet, but I can already tell you the best title: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. Don’t know if the movie’s any good, but I love the title.

What’s Screening: May 20 – 26

The Anti-Corporate Film Festival continues through Saturday, and I Wake Up Dreaming continues through the end of the week.

Tramp Camp, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Want to connect to your inner Charlie Chaplin? Movies will be screened, of course, and there will be lessons in imitating the tramp’s walk and style. I’m not sure how much it measures up to the Elsinore University of Hamleting, but it should be fun.

A Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The museum’s monthly collection of comic shorts offers some exceptional entertainment this week. “The Goat” is my all-time favorite Buster Keaton short, and “The Rink” shows Charlie Chaplin at the top of his game. If I recall correctly, “Movie Night” (with Charley Chase) is also quite funny. I haven’t seen the Laurel and Hardy selection, “Two Tars.” Frederick Hodges plays the piano.

A- Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Shattuck, opens Friday. Only Werner Herzog would ask a scientist about his dreams. But that’s precisely why Herzog wasthe perfect choice to make this documentary about very ancient cave paintings—amongst the earliest works of art in existence, and works that show significant talent. Herzog’s unique narrative voice, the eerie beauty of the caves themselves, and the haunting score by Ernst Reijseger combine to turn Cave into an homage to what makes human beings special: the artistic, creative spark. And yes, the 3D is justified. My press contact assures me that the Shattuck is installing 3D for this presentation. Read my full review.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Eli Kazan’s film version of Tennessee Williams play—the film that made Marlon Brando a star—so I’m not giving it a grade here. I suspect it would get an A.

C- Roberta, Stanford, Friday. Generally considered an Astaire/Rogers musical, Roberta actually stars Irene Dunne. True, Fred and Ginger get billed above her love interest, Randolph Scott, but they’re not onscreen enough to turn this dull musical love story into a winner. On a double bill with Funny Face, which I haven’t seen.

Live Theater on the Big Screen and Frankenstein

Have you noticed the trend? Movie theaters aren’t just for movies anymore. Many of them are adding live opera, ballet, and theatre to their program—even if none it is actually live in that particular theater. The actual performance may be happening as you watch, or it may have been recorded—probably London or New York. But your local movie house is projecting it onto the big screen.

The Balboa has recently started showing ballet and opera. In doing so, they have joined the Cerrito, Elmwood, Lark, and Rafael in this trend. Even my local AMC multiplex now shows the Metropolitan opera in between the 3D blockbusters. They’ve got a Il Trovatore Encore (translation: not a live broadcast) Wednesday night.

I’ve been noticing this trend for awhile, but I finally experienced it last night, when my wife and I attended a screening of the National Theatre Live production of Frankenstein at the Elmwood. The experience combined the pleasures of live theatre and the big screen, providing some (but not all) of the excitement of being there with the intimacy of close-ups. The sounds of the live audience played through the surround speakers, which seemed gimmicky at first but after a bit helped convey the atmosphere.

Even the $22 ticket price was a compromise between live theatre and cinema experiences.

I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect that theaters make a good profit on these presentations. Why else are more theaters jumping on the bandwagon? I doubt the Elmwood made much money Tuesday night; the theater was nearly empty. But last month my wife and I tried to see the same show at the Cerrito, and it was sold out.

Technically, the image quality was a disappointment—far from high-quality digital projection. From the second row, I could actually see the pixels, which made it look like I was watching everything through a screen door.

And what about Frankenstein, which the Elmwood will screen again on Thursday night?

A- Frankenstein. Finally, something directed by Danny Boyle that I actually liked! Maybe he’s just better on the live stage.

Playwright Nick Dear starts his adaptation with the monster’s lonely birth. A horribly scarred and stitched man crawls out and tries to come to terms with existence. He must figure out how to use his arms, how to walk. This opening puts the focus on the creature, and helps us sympathize with someone who has no idea about anything. Before the play is half over, this grown child will be reading and reciting Paradise Lost, but using a halted, strained voice—like a stroke victim who has had to learn to speak all over again.

This poor man’s journey, and his inevitable clash with his arrogant creator, make up the heart of the play. A lot of philosophy and religion get discussed, but it never feels forced—as it does, quite frankly, in Shelley’s original novel (which focuses more on Frankenstein and less on his creation).

One complaint: The creature looks hideous, as he should, and looks plausible as a man sown together from dead bodies. But he doesn’t look like a monster. The story requires his appearance to inspire fear and violence, but I would expect people to react to him with pity. Or indifference. There were a lot of scared and maimed veterans in early 19th-century  Europe.

In the performance I saw, Benedict Cumberbatch played the monster, and Jonny Lee Miller played Frankenstein. Both of them gave excellent performances, but Cumberbatch had the juicier part. Thursday night, they switch places.