Closing the Mill Valley Film Festival with 3D and Disney Animation

Yes, I know. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival closes with several screenings of Loving. But I’m not able to attend any of them. So I finished my Mill Valley Film Festival with two special presentations at the Rafael.

Both events were family friendly, and had quite a few children present.

The 3D Sideshow

As he did two years ago, Robert Bloomberg presented a collection of 3D shorts and (and a couple of trailers) from the early days of steroscopic movies to the present.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • The documentary Hidden Worlds starts with a history of recording and presenting images stereoscopically. Then it went on to show us some very beautiful images.
  • Hidden Stereo Treasures claims to be an old, educational film about rare 3D cameras. But you soon realize that its intentions are comical.
  • One short film, whose name I didn’t get (probably because it was in Russian), showed a remarkable juggling act. Juggling works really well in 3D. I saw this same film five years ago when Serge Bromberg received his Mel Novikoff Award.
  • If you’ve seen Finding Dory, you’ve seen Piper, the Pixar short that preceded it. It’s funny and adorable.


After the screenings, Pixar’s Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer came on stage to answer questions. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • Does 3D make animation more difficult? It’s a two-step process. You create it in 2D, then do it again in 3D. There are slight differences.
  • A film is never finished. It’s done when a producer tells you it’s done.
  • Short films are meant to test the technology.
  • Animators are actors who don’t want to go on stage.

PANEL: Disney Animation Technistas

What does it take to create the fantasy worlds of computer animation? And are women welcome on the technical side of the equation? This panel discussion was meant to answer those questions.

Five women, all doing technical work at Disney Animation, discussed how they created ways to animate fur, clothing, and water for Zootropia and the upcoming Moana. The women were Sara Drakeley (general technical director), Heather Pritchett (also general technical director), Erin Ramos (effects animator), Michelle Robinson (character look supervisor), and Maryann Simmons (senior software engineer).

Variety’s Steven Gaydos moderated the talk.

I wasn’t allowed to take notes for this discussion, so there’s not much more I can say about it. But I can say one thing: The women talked about their work, and not about being women in a male-oriented business.

Near the end, Gaydos brought up the subject. He asked if the number of women in animation are growing. Pritchett said they very much are. She had always seen other women working in animation. But now, she sees teams that are about half and half.

Good to know there’s progress.

The Martian and Dolby 3D

I attended another press screening at Dolby Labs Thursday night, and once again, it was all about a man left for dead in inhospitable territory. Only this time, instead of The Revenant, I saw The Martian.

And just like last week, I’ll tell you about the movie, then a bit about the technology.

As you probably know, Matt Damon plays the title character, but he is not a native-born Martian. He’s an astronaut who’s left behind, assumed dead, when his companions are forced to abandon the mission and get back to Earth. The film’s running time is split about equally between his struggles to survive on Mars and everyone else’s struggles to save him (once they discover that he’s alive).

Unlike The Revenant, the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to turn The Martian into a revenge story. The marooned astronaut doesn’t blame those who abandoned him. The villain here is outer space–and Mars. These aren’t survivable environments for human beings.

The Martian drips with science, and as far as I can tell, it’s pretty accurate. Damon’s character experiments and finds ways to make water, grow potatoes, and make contact with NASA (the air issue is dealt with quickly and not totally satisfactorily). Those on Earth and returning to it have to figure out the best way to rescue the poor guy.

For all its suspense and realism, The Martian has a light touch. Damon’s character jokes to relieve his tension (“I’m the best botanist on this planet!”) and complains about his captain’s choice in music (disco). Back on earth, Donald Glover has a fun turn as an asocial and unhygienic science geek.

Speaking of Earth, there’s one artistic choice that bothered me. We’re decades away from sending people to Mars and bringing them back alive–and the scenes on Mars and in the spaceship show advanced technologies we don’t yet have. But the scenes on Earth make no attempt to look futuristic. The phones, cars, fashions, and so on all set this film in 2015. Perhaps director Ridley Scott didn’t want to distract people.

This was my second movie in Dolby Atmos (after The Revenant), and I liked this mix much better. It didn’t overdo the surrounds, and I could hear what people were saying.

This wasn’t my first experience with Dolby 3D, but I had a conversation with a Dolby employee about the technology before the movie.

Unlike other theatrical 3D systems, Dolby 3D doesn’t use polarized lenses (the differences are all in the projection; the DCPs are the same either way). And that means the theaters don’t have to use special, polarized screens.

Like the earliest versions of projected 3D, Dolby 3D uses colored lenses to control what light reaches what eye. (The technical term is anaglyph.) If you look at Dolby 3D glasses from the right angle, you can see the magenta and green in the lenses.

But Dolby 3D doesn’t have the awful look of anaglyph. Thanks to some 50 layers of filtering in the glasses, plus color correction in the digital server, the colors look accurate. At least they do if you keep both eyes open. Close one eye, and you’ll see a color cast. But only a geek like me would close an eye while watching a 3D movie.

I do have one problem with Dolby 3D, and it’s probably not an issue with people who don’t like the front row. Everything gets distorted on the periphery of your vision. Sitting very close with a really big screen (not possible in Dolby’s theater) could be a real problem.

Cinema’s past and cinema’s future: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Yesterday was a very strange day for me at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I didn’t see a single, complete film. But it was still worthwhile.

Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger

The Novikoff Award goes to someone who who "has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema." Sometimes it goes to someone famous, such as Roger Ebert. This year it went to Lenny Borger, whom I had never heard of before the award was announced.

imageIn her introduction, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen described him as a "film writer, translator, scholar, and something of a film sleuth." An American who’s lived much of his life in Paris, he writes English subtitles for French films. The event included the North American restoration premier of Monte-Cristo, a 1929 French silent epic directed by Henri Fescourt that Borger was instrumental in restoring.

This was Borger’s first visit to San Francisco. He was interviewed on stage by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas (Borger was once Variety’s Paris correspondent). Borger came off as shy, and not comfortable talking to an audience.

A few highlights from the interview:

  • When searching European archives, "Being in Variety helped me open the door. Archivists are very secretive people–except for the ones I know who are here."
  • About Monte-Cristo: "What you’re going to see now is what I call the full monty. You have to leave a margin for some shots that are missing. If any of you have reels of film, get in touch with me."
  • "Monte Cristo has no reputation at all. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people to see it."
  • He called Brussels "the best archive in the world. The French are always the last to recognize their own films."
  • On translating dialog into subtitles: In the beginning, it was just information. If you look at old subtitles, they’re often very comic." He described a French subtitle in Sam Peckinpah’s war movie, Cross of Iron, where the word tanks was translated to merci.
  • A single subtitle can’t be longer than 70 characters. "Less than a tweet."
  • About his experiences with Godard: “The first film was a wonderful experience. The next film a little less good because he started cutting titles. Film Socialism was a nightmare."
  • "I worked on Children of Paradise two or three times. I’ve never been satisfied with it."

Then they screened the movie. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to see all of it–I had a 3:00 appointment to interview Douglas Trumbull. But I wanted to see as much as possible.


What I saw was wonderful. Beautifully photographed and acted, it pulled me into its epic tale of an innocent man framed and arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, set in the post-Napoleonic period.

The music, though recorded, was excellent. The intertitles were in the original French, with Borger reading his translation live.

And then, a little less than an hour into the movie, I reluctantly got up and left. That was difficult.

I hope to see the full movie someday. Or maybe I should just read the book. It’s my son’s favorite novel.

Douglas Trumbull interview

Douglas Trumbull didn’t remember me, but I could hardly expect that he would. Last time we met, I was a movie-obsessed teenager. My stepfather, John H. (Hans) Newman cut the sound effects on Silent Running, and I spent a day hanging around the studio where Trumbull and his team were creating special effects.

We talked briefly about Hans’ work on the film, then went to the main subject. Trumbull wants to be "directing movies at 120 frames per second."

imageTrumbull has been a major player in special effects for almost half a century. 2001: A Space Odyssey made his name. He also worked on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He has written and directed two features–Silent Running and Brainstorm. He developed Showscan, a special immersive format that ran 70mm film at 60 frames per second (fps).

Breaking away from 24fps–the standard frame rate since the talkie revolution–is clearly a major obsession with him. With digital cameras and projection, it’s become practical. "I started experimenting. I realized there’s another thing we can do here. They have projectors that could run at 144 frames. Let’s try it."

(I should mention that I have never seen a motion picture projected at a fast frame rate. I have to take other people’s words for the quality.)

"I made this kind of discovery, doing some experiments at 120 frames. One of the first things I noticed: You can use any shutter opening you wanted. With a 360 shutter, you can blend frames together. You can get back to a 24-frame conventional release. It looks exactly like 24."

Trumbull decided to use 120fps rather than the maximum 144, because 120 is evenly divisible by both 24 and 60–the American television standard.

I had to bring up The Hobbit, the only Hollywood feature (well, actually a trilogy) shot in a fast frame rate. Even people who liked the movie hated the unusual look created by 3D at 48fps. According to Trumbull, Peter Jackson was "shooting at 48, but projecting at 98," producing a problematic flicker. He described Jackson’s decision to shoot at 48fps "heroic but mistaken."

Trumbull wants to build a 3D camera that will alternate between the left and right lenses, simulating the way most projectors handle 3D sequentially. Shooting each eye at 60fps, this should take care of that flicker problem.

"’You can make a standard DCP. It’s off the shelf in tens of thousands of theaters."

His brand name: Magi.

But he wants more than just a faster frame rate. Looking back at the glory days of Cinerama and other immersive formats, he wants theaters that bring back showmanship–with curtains that open up on huge, deeply-curved screens.

But will today’s 3D movies work on a giant screen? Even on modest screens, they’re too dim. "If you could get the brightness back, you can increase the field of view. Then you’ve got something that’s better than anything."

Trumbull’s solution: Torus screens, a far-from-new technology which would "triple perceived light." These specially-built curved screens "compensate for what you lose [in 3D projection]. And there’s no cross reflection." Cross reflection is a problem specific to curved screens.

image"It’s time to redefine what a movie theater is. People don’t see any value to the movie-going experience, so we got to make a better movie-going experience. If you increase the size of the screen, people will see it."

His solution: Magi Pods. These are small, 40-seat pre-fabricated theaters. He wants to bring these to museums, amusement parks, and anywhere else where you can set them up. 

Like Trumbull, I’m a fan of immersive cinema. I don’t know if his Magi is the solution, but I hope there is one.

State of the Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull

But Douglas Trumbull didn’t come to the San Francisco International Film Festival to talk to me. He came to talk to anyone who attended his State of the Cinema Address.

I hate to say it, but after the private interview–which I totally enjoyed–I found the public talk disappointing.

Playing clips off his laptop as he talked, he spent much of his allotted 90 minutes covering his own autobiography. He talked about his birth during World War II, and the excitement he found as a child with Cinerama and other immersive film technologies. He talked about his work on 2001, and how he learned to direct on the job with Silent Running.

When he discussed his second directorial feature, Brainstorm, he implied that Paramount closed and shelved the film after Natalie Wood’s death. But MGM, not Paramount, financed the film, and it was completed and released. I remember that well; I saw it in 70mm.

Eventually he got to his main point, that the Hollywood system isn’t interested in improving the movie-going experience. The studios are "betting the farm on big sequels," while the theaters "give you better seats because they can’t change what’s on the screen."

Much of what we covered was also in my interview, so I’ll just add some highlights:

  • Projecting Cinerama "was a nightmare.” Fifty percent of the box office take went to technical overhead in the theater.
  • "When you change the medium, you have to change how you direct, how you act."
  • "Today we see some of the same issues with 3D [as we had with Cinerama]. 3D cameras are very difficult to use."
  • "Disneyland was virtual reality."
  • "The state of cinema is led by directors pushing into new territories."

His talk covered the full 90 minutes. There was no time left for Q&A.

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.

Saturday at the Movies: 50s 3D Horror and Early Talkie Hitchcock

I attended two very different revival screenings yesterday. In the early afternoon, I visited the Castro to catch the newly-restored Creature from the Black Lagoon in all of its 3D spender. Then, in the evening, I dropped in at the Pacific Film Archive to catch a rare, early Alfred Hitchcock talkie, Rich and Strange.

Both were fun, but neither was a must see.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

I’d seen this 1954 science fiction monster movie three times before–all theatrical and always in 3D. But that was way back in the 1970s. Yesterday, I believe, was my first time seeing it without benefit of marihuana.

It was still pretty funny.

Set in a previously-unexplored tributary of the Amazon–that looks suspiciously like the imageUniversal back lot–Creature follows a small group of scientists, plus a colorful local fisherman, as they search for fossils and find something stranger–a sort of man-fish highbred that doesn’t appear to be particularly well-adapted for anything. Perhaps that explains why he’s all alone; his species is well on the way to extinction.

Why am I calling the creature he, despite the lack of any visible genitalia? Everyone in the movie assumes that the creature is male. What’s more, he seems strangely interested in the one female member of the expedition (young and beautiful, of course).

So let’s take a moment to consider that one female character in the movie, played by Julie Adams. She’s supposed to be a scientist, but she never does anything remotely scientific. While male scientists scuba dive to collect underwater rocks, then run tests below deck, she hangs around, puts herself in dangerous situations, and occasionally screams. But as anyone familiar with 1950s horror understands, those are the primary responsibilities of all female scientists.

(To be fair, some 50’s movies treat female scientists a tad more seriously. See It Came From Beneath the See  for a better role model.)

The other characters are equally stereotyped. You’ve got the handsome, virtuous young man, the older, wise scientist, the boss who cares more about money than research, and the colorful fishing boat captain. Much of the dialog is memorable, although perhaps not in the way the screenwriters intended:

Captain: What kind of fishing is that? Who eats rocks?

Old scientist:  I eat rocks, in a manner of speaking. I crush and look inside them and they tell me things.

This was my first time seeing Creature from the Black Lagoon with decent 3D. Before that, I had only seen it in the dreadful anaglyph 3D version of the 1970s, which required cheap, colored glasses that degraded the image.  Yesterday’s screening used modern, polarized, digital 3D, which gets considerably closer to how the film would have looked in the dual-projector setups of 1954.

Director Jack Arnold (who a few years later would make the excellent Incredible Shrinking Man) and cinematographer William E. Snyder don’t overdo the 3D effects–or at least they don’t overdo overdoing them. The underwater scenes are particularly effective in 3D. On the other hand, rear projection scenes are particularly fake.

But then, you don’t go to a movie called Creature from the Black Lagoon expecting realism.

Rich and Strange

The Pacific Film Archive‘s Alfred Hitchcock series is winding down, so it felt like a good time to catch a rare work from the Master of Suspense. Except that Rich and Strange was made in 1931, before he had come anywhere near earning that title.

You can’t honestly call this modestly budgeted British programmer a thriller, as there are very few actual thrills. image(You can, however, call it East of Shanghai; as did the American distributers.) It starts as a comedy of manners, becomes a fake travelogue, then turns into a serious drama about adultery. A shipwreck sequence near the end gives it a little bit of that Hitchcockian suspense.

Why a fake travelogue? Because everything shot for the film was done on a soundstage. Stock footage and studio sets make up for all of the story’s locations.

The plot is simple and initially conflict-free: A bored and miserable married couple (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry) unexpectedly come into some money. So they decide to travel the world first class, seeing the sites and spending time with the "best" people.

Of course things don’t go smoothly. He suffers from seasickness. She gets bored. They both get very drunk. Each is successfully romanced and seduced by someone else, almost destroying their marriage.

For an early talkie, Rich and Strange appears strangely like a silent movie. The many dialog-free sequences are clearly shot with a hand-cranked camera. It even uses a surprising number of narrative intertitles ("To get to Paris, you must first cross the channel.") These add to the light sense of fun, and make for some of the best sequences. The wordless, over-cranked opening, where the husband battles rain, a crowded subway, and a defective umbrella, is one of the funniest sequences in Hitchcock’s work.

The movie sags a bit in the middle, as adultery threatens the marriage and some broadly-drawn characters threaten the film. But the shipwreck sequence, with the characters trapped in a cabin on the sinking ship, reminds us of the Hitchcock to come.

Mildly entertaining on its own merits, Rich and Strange‘s major value today is as a glimpse of the artist who, in three years, would emerge as the greatest creator of thrillers that the cinema has ever known.

The PFA presented a rare, imported 35mm print of Rich and Strange.

Noir City in 3D

Last night I attended Noir City‘s first ever 3D double bill. Both films, Man in the Dark and Inferno, came out in 1953. That year was both the height of the classic noir period, and the zenith of the first 3D craze.

Actually, it was the only year of the first 3D craze. Hollywood turned to 3D after Bwana Devil became a surprise hit in the fall of 1952. By early 1954, the public was preferring movies in 2D.

Both films have been digitally restored, and were projected off of DCPs. This was my first experience with old 3D movies projected with new 3D technology.

The result? I have a new all-time favorite ’50s 3D movie.

Man in the Dark
This isn’t it. Overall an entertaining little crime thriller with a touch of science fiction, Man in the Dark suffers from the addition of the third dimension.

Edmond O’Brien stars as a violent gangster who, on condition of parole, agrees to experimental brain surgery that will make him a law-abiding citizen. (I’d love to know if Anthony Burgess saw this movie before writing A Clockwork Orange.) The operation also destroys his memory. He has no idea who or what he was before waking up in post-op. The movie never explains why he remembers little things like the English language, or that $130,000 is a lot of money.

That’s how much he stole, then hid, before getting arrested. His partners in crime want their share of the loot. So does an insurance investigator. None of them really believe that he can’t remember anything. Nor are they particularly concerned about his well-being or survival.

The result is a quick, slick, and totally entertaining crime movie, but not an exceptional one.

Except for the 3D. For most of the screen time, the 3D adds absolutely nothing to the picture. It’s just there. But every so often, the filmmakers remind you that you’re watching a 3D movie by throwing something at the camera. Surgical instruments, gunfire, a bat, and a spider all get in your face, taking you out of the story, and–at least with last night’s audience–producing laughs that the filmmakers didn’t intend.

I suspect that movies like this, that would have been better in 2D, ruined the 50s 3D craze.

Now this was more like it. An exceptional story of attempted murder and human survival, set against an unforgiving desert, Inferno is a unique and totally satisfying experience. Directed by Roy Ward Baker and shot by Lucien Ballard, Inferno made better use of 3D than any other pre-digital film I’ve seen.

In fine nourish tradition, an unhappy wife and her lover (Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan) decide to kill of her rich husband (Robert Ryan) and make it look like an accident. They leave him in the hills above a desert, with a broken leg, while they go looking for help. And when they reach civilization, they give the authorities wrong information, so they look for the missing millionaire in places where he couldn’t possibly be found.

Just one problem: Hubby doesn’t die. Most of the film cuts back and forth between the deceitful lovers and their intended victim, who drags himself across rough terrain, climbs down a cliff with the help of a rope, and walks with a homemade splint, all the while improvising ways to get food and water. (He has no one to talk to, of course, but we hear his thoughts in voice-over.)

So you’re watching two evil people enjoy a life of luxury, while their victim suffers and struggles to stay alive. You know that the tables will inevitably turn. Wondering how that will happen provides most of the movie’s fun.

For most of the film, Baker and Ballard avoid the throw-at-the-camera tricks that make most 50s 3D movies so annoying. Even when a rattlesnake strikes, it sends its venom to something off the side of the screen, not directly into the camera.

The filmmakers use the stereo-optical photography to emphasize the vast emptiness of the desert, adding to the drama rather than detracting from it. Only at the action-packed climax do they throw fists and pieces of furniture at the audience. But the fight is so intense, and so well-choreographed, that the effect enhances the movie rather than hurting it.

Noir City continues today and Sunday at the Castro.

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.