Thursday, October 04, 2018

This Week in Tickets: 24 September 2018 - 30 September 2018

They're doing a lot of renovations downstairs at the Somerville, and let me tell you: If they replaced the Museum of Bad Art with a kitchen so that I didn't have popcorn for dinner on weeks like this, I would happily accept the tradeoff.

This Week in Tickets

But, in the meantime, they were showing the large-format film, and my schedule this week had me at the stuff shot big rather than blown up. Mostly. I gather Spartacus was in large part blown up because, as projectionist David Kornfeld pointed out before the screening, it kept getting cut down with each re-release until Richard Harris restored it from a variety of sources in the 2000s, including one scene without sound that required Anthony Hopkins to come in with a dead-on Laurence Olivier impersonation. I do believe this marks the first time I've made it through the movie in its three-hour entirety, not because it's dull, but because it always shows in the middle of a crush of things and keeps me sitting too long. Grabbing an extra candy bar at the concession stand and having it ready at the midway point is essential. Maybe not quite so much for Khartoum, which isn't quite so long but is rather more dry. Still, as the last thing shot in Ultra-Panavision before The Hateful Eight some 45 years later, it looks fantastic if nothing else.

Friday would be my last Red Sox game of the regular season, with all the expected mayhem of a season-ending series with the Yankees dispelled because the Sox were just too good this year, locking up the division a week or two earlier and not looking to really pad their record. They would wind up losing by a fair amount, but there was excitement, with a Steve Pearce grand slam and the Yankees' Zach Britton walking the ballpark in the 9th to the point where another looked not just possible but likely. Didn't happen, but oh well. Playoffs start Friday.

The 70mm schedule meant that the easiest way to fit a screening of Hong Kong action movie Golden Job in on Saturday was to go the the 11:30am screening, which is a bit early, but it turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected. In some ways, basic direct-to-video action, but also an unabashed throwback to 1990s HK crime melodramas. Shame it's got no chance of sticking around.

It was short enough to get back to Davis for David's "70mm Odds and Ends" presentation, which was fairly educational and entertaining, if sometimes a bit technical. Faded as some of the clips and fragments he showed were, it absolutely hammered home just what sort of detail and clarity the format offers in the hands of people who know what they're doing, and it's a crying shame that the studios have chosen to change formats on the basis of cost control and easier workflow in recent years when the technology to capture and project the sort of picture even that new 4K televiion can't compete with is proven and robust. And that's without considering the examples of 30fps 70mm he was able to project, which was even smoother without having of the odd effects that the Hobbit movies and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk had at 48fps.

David talked with no small amount of irritation that, when facing competition from television in the 1950s, studios opted to go for something more spectacular, while the introduction of home video, cable, and streaming from the 1980s forward had them cutting costs to try and maintain the same profits. Though he obviously knows more about Hollywood history and exposition than I do, I think, there are other factors (as the studios used to own the theaters, they now own pieces of other channels and want to be able to easily repurpose media for all routes), but all the same - it's hard to look at things like that night's presentation of Patton and not feel as though they have given up a lot more in terms of quality for convenience.

On Sunday, they finally got to debut their new print of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which they commissioned last year but which was kind of held back while an "unrestored" version was released back in June. I missed that release, and was surprised to learn that there are apparently differences in the prints, although it's not a case where one is definitely better than the other in every area. The good news about that re-release is that apparently the sound mix from it was top-notch and the Somerville kept the DTS CDs in the hope that they would work with their new print. They do, and…. Well, I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of 2001 in Somerville in the coming years as they make that print pay for itself, and it will be worth it.

That would be a good way to wrap the week, but I was morbidly curious about the Sunday release of Fat Buddies. It turns out that the distributor wasn't trying to hide it from coverage but still get it out there; the 30th is a national holiday in China. I, well, I should probably have ended on a high note.

But, then again, weeks on a calendar page are arbitrary endpoints, and my Letterboxd should already show that I've seen good stuff since!.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 70mm)

Spartacus is the only sword-and-sandals movie a lot of folks see, and will thus form their entire impression of the genre, eventually leading them to wonder why attempts to capture the same magic aren't as good. It's not so much because they don't make 'em like they used to as much as this one getting screened in part because it shows up on other lists aside from that of its genre, and maybe gives a better impression of the genre than it should. Most don't have Kirk Douglas, Stanley Kubrick, Laurence Olivier, and Dalton Trumbo to class things up.

This one does, though, and they attack this B-movie material with straight faces and utter sincerity, recognizing that the story isn't necessarily about Spartacus himself as much as the tenacity with which the powerful hang on to control. Douglas is charismatic and appealing, and turns in a fine lead performance, but it's the scenes with Olivier and Charles Laughton (with a comic assist from Peter Ustinov) that crackle with energy. They're smart and conniving, and since action needs some intrigue on the other side, they provide what makes it move.

Even when the focus is on the rebelling slaves, it's good enough to work, although I must admit, this is the first time I've made it all the way through - 3 hours is a lot of movie, and it's not exactly thrilling all the way through, especially when you consider that Spartacus doesn't show a whole initiative at certain points. The 70mm print looked awful nice, though.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 70mm)

Khartoum is a good-looking but dry would-be epic that has aged poorly even by the standards of the genre, with Laurence Olivier's Middle Eastern caricature far more uncomfortable to watch than Charlton Heston as a supposed Brit whose own arrogance is a big issue. It was colonialist nostalgia at the time and plays much worse 50 years later.

Worse, though, it's boring, almost always pulling the perspective away from where the action is, right down to having characters dispatched offscreen without much build-up toward the end. The filmmakers often don't have a handle on how to portray the tensions of a siege, never making it feel like there is death waiting just beyond the walls or giving much weight to the far-off efforts to free them. There is some intrigue here, but the filmmakers are not great at transforming those intellectual issues into cinematic action.

(An aside: As much as we romanticize these Hollywood epics, it's worth noting that China and Korea in recent years have gotten these sort of battle/political intrigue stories down to a science, enough to make even the great classics look a bit primitive at times. If we could marry the choreography and court intrigue of a Korean epic with the gorgeous photography/cast-of-thousands of these Technicolor blockbusters, we'd really have something.)

It is great-looking, though, especially during the parts where the camera can just wander around Egypt and the Sudan. The 70mm Ultra-Panavision print was terrific, and as with IMAX later, part of the joy with these large-format films was just being able to look in the screen and see something that you are likely never going to see in person as if you were just looking out a window. On that count, at least, Khartoum delivers.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 70mm)

To give Patton its due, the film plays as far more skeptical of its Asshole Genius than is typical. Part of that is just history - George S. Patton was passed over for promotions and sidelined at crucial points - but it's worth noting that the filmmakers almost always pass when given the opportunity to give him on-screen vindication: His promotion to four-star general happens offscreen, for instance, and after a certain point, the audience sees him beg rather than receive praise even when successful. That the film occasionally cuts to the Nazis seeming to have more admiration for him than the Allies is intriguing in some ways, a hint that this sort of leader is far more valued by those who do not regularly have to deal with him.

Still, the film seldom seems to truly be out of his corner, in large part owing to George C. Scott's performance. Scott takes Patton from dedicated hard-ass to entertaining eccentric, maintaining a thin veneer even when the screenplay explicitly has him revealing the monster who sees war as art (and himself an artist) underneath. The audience gets in that head, even if some part is horrified. It's a film that barely had room for anyone else, which probably makes what Karl Malden manages even more impressive: His Omar Bradley is positioned as sensible compared to Patton, which isn't always interesting or dramatic, but Malden is an impressive steadying force whenever he appears, exuding competence and fairness - the sort of fairness that can feel like a slap in the face to those used to accommodation - even though the audience gets to see him in action less than Patton.

And, speaking of action, this is as impressive a way movie as it is a biography. The fantastic 70mm photography makes this one of the most eye-popping films of the festival, but for all the explosions and gunfire, there's a smart sense of hollowness to the violence. The definitive part of a battle is seldom if ever shown, and the focus on mechanized divisions makes things feel impersonal at times, overwhelming at others: Individual soldiers are neither CGI blurs or too far in the background to register, but they are subsumed nonetheless.

That hollow feeling can make Patton a hard film to truly love, but there's nothing in it that you're supposed to love, even if the situation forces you to admit that wars and Pattons can be necessary.

2001: A Space Odyssey

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (70mm and Widescreen Festival, 35mm)

This is not the year where I really get into writing about 2001, but given that the Somerville now has their own print, it's entirely possible I'll see it again soon enough.

I must admit, we're spoiled by how much the local theater likes playing this in 70, as I did kind of feel like I was taking it for granted this week, focusing on certain details rather than just letting the film wash over me. Not that this is a bad way to watch the movie - I absolutely love the utterly insane attention to detail during the docking sequence that could drive others batty, and the technical craftsmanship deserves that sort of solitary attention at times.

Still, I was pretty detached at other moments, so I suspect that maybe I'll give it a miss when the festival returns in May, or maybe try and watch it with some folks who haven't seen it before, just to get new perspectives.

What I wrote three years ago

Yankees 11, Red Sox 6
Golden Job
70mm Odds and Ends
2001: A Space Odyssey
Fat Buddies

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