In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Friday, January 29, 2010

22. A Single Man

The Presidio
The Presidio opened in San Francisco's marina district in 1937 not as a first-run movie house, but, according to Jack Tillmany's book, as a third-run theater, complementing the nearby Marina and Metro. San Francisco theaters, depending on the eras in which they persist, tend to follow a general trend: live theater, first-run movies, second-run movies, vaudeville, adult movies, demolition. Only a very few recover from the economic circumstances that initially turn them away from first-run movies. The Presidio, by opening as a third-run theater, already had two strikes against it, yet by the 1990s it had come back from the brink, joining the city's ranks as a first-run theater.

The first thing you might notice about this theater is the haphazardly-colored marquee. Black and red letters are intermingled, suggested that there is some enigmatic code waiting to be decrypted.

The box office accepts electronic payment, but on my visit the card reader wasn't working. The attendant was able to tell me where my nearest bank was, but there is also an ATM machine in the theater's lobby (with a $2.00 service fee). Sitting on the box office sill are business-card-sized promos for $2.00 off on Tuesday and Wednesday admissions. The theater's web site advertises a series discount of 5 tickets for $40.00, allowing patrons to lock in the matinee price of $8.00 per ticket.

The lobby contains a cute, old-style candy counter that sells vegan cookies and hot tea, and has yeast ("Nutritional Yeast Healthy Toppings For Popcorn").

A kiosk in the lobby corner offers many advertisements for local shops, but also a copy of Movie Facts, the pamphlet I first saw at the CineLux Tennant Station in Morgan Hill. At the time I thought the pamphlet was unique to that theater, but now I see that it is a subscription service, whereby descriptions of upcoming movies (that won't necessarily play in the subscribing theater) is augmented with local advertisements and information specific to the subscribing theater. The Presidio is owned by Lee Neighborhood Theatres, who also operate the Marina Theatre across the street and the 4-Star Theatre out in the Richmond district. The pamphlet is the same for all three theaters, and is color-coded by month.

When my best friend and I first visited the Presidio in 1997 for The Fifth Element, it was still a single screen theater. In 2004 it was subdivided. The lower seating is still part of the main auditorium, but the upper seating has been sectioned off into two auditoriums (the seat where I once sat in the upper section to watch Titanic on the big screen, is now in a separate auditorium). A small screening room was also added to the side of the theater. Cinema Treasures puts the total seating capacity at 828. Screens 3 and 4 are not wheelchair accessible.

All four screens are entered from a central hallway that once lead directly into the main auditorium. Large movie posters line the hall, showing off current releases. In an eco-friendly touch, there are trash cans in the hallway labeled for compostables only.

The main auditorium is attractive, but it has several peculiar qualities. Almost all the seats are too close to the large screen. Only a handful of people attended this showing of A Single Man, and we all sat in the back four rows. Anything closer and you might get the IMAX experience, but without paying extra. Also, auditorium 3 actually juts out into auditorium 1's space, claiming half the seats the right-hand side of the room. It left me feeling a bit claustrophobic, with walls bearing down on me from the back and side, threatening to annex my seat.

The pre-show consisted of two car commercials, an ad for an HBO movie (Temple Grandin), and an unintentionally humorous Sprint ad in which three skiers, riding on a ski lift, are each entertained by their various mobile devices. I had hoped this meant the sure-to-be-dreadful thriller Frozen had been pared down to commercial length, but no luck; it's still slated for a February release. My friend Mica turned to me and asked, "So you're on a ski lift and instead of enjoying the beautiful scenery you're texting someone?" Too true. Does Sprint want me to think that it's more fun to organize my photo library than take in the sights with friends?



A Single Man
Not that Colin Firth needs any help in being more appealing, but there is something very romantic and attractive about a man grieving for his lost love. First, his grief makes him emotionally unobtainable, and we always want what we can't have. Second, it demonstrates his capacity to love. When you see a man on the street you can know in an instant whether he is physically attractive, but can he love? Does he give a damn? And third, he is loyal, not one to quickly get over the past, but rather to wallow in it, to suffer without his partner, to prefer miserable isolation to the companionship of anyone else. In all of this it is romantic to imagine oneself as the source of the man's grief. To be missed so, the lost lover must have shared a remarkable relationship with the grieving man, and who doesn't want that intensity in their own life?

A Single Man bears witness to a day in the life of George (Firth), an English ex-pat teaching literature at a college in southern California. At some point in the past (a month? a year?), Firth's lover Jim (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident. Jim's immediate family doesn't bother to notify George of Jim's death (an uncle secretly communicates the news), and doesn't want George at the funeral. George must grieve alone, his only comfort coming from longtime neighbor and friend Charley (Julianne Moore).

But that sad event is in the past. The film's emotional peaks and valleys all exist in flashback. In the present, George is drained of life. He is functioning, but without purpose. The movie uses a lighting filter to drain most color from George and everyone he interacts with, except at particular moments, when George sees in someone else something that reminds him of Jim, and for that instant, the person's lips or eyes or skin, and George's entire face, suddenly flush with vivid reds, pinks, and blues. It's as if George walks deadened through his life, only noticing those details that might allow him to piece together some new memory of Jim.

George's day consists of waking, dressing, teaching class, eating, and going to bed. Today is like that, but George intends for it to be his last. He makes meticulous preparations for his imminent suicide (cleaning his office at school, updating financial documents, leaving a tip for his housekeeper, etc.). And herein lies the problem for me as a viewer. George seems to have only two goals: to love Jim forever, and to bring Forever to its inevitable conclusion. The movie, as any must, is intent on frustrating our hero's goals, but usually we know that eventually, ninety minutes later, our hero will win out. Is that true here? Could this movie be promoting (or at least promising) suicide?

I begin to suspect not, and yet I have already identified with George's plight. I wouldn't wish this sort of absolutism on a living person, but it's different for a fictional character. I want George's love (and fidelity) for Jim to survive the romantic interests (attacks) of the other characters. I want George, if he so chooses, to off himself. Every moment he delays increases the chance that someone will foil his plan. And so I find myself uncomfortably at odds with the good intentions of George's students and neighbors. If the film wants me to wish long life for George, it needs to work harder to show this would be a preferable outcome.

Firth does a good job. When the script calls for him to be emotional, he delivers; the rest of the time, he is reserved and lifeless, to good effect. Moore and Goode are both under-utilized; this is basically a one-man movie. As such it is sad, sometimes enjoyable, but mostly hollowing.

(The American Humane Society "monitored some of the action. No animals were harmed in those scenes." So just don't invite the Humane Society to the set the day you shoot the "dogs die in a car crash" scene, and you're all set.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

21. The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Castro Theatre

San Francisco's beloved Castro Theatre, built in 1922, is one of the city's oldest surviving movie theaters, and, by my account, its only movie palace. Timothy L. Pflueger, the theater's architect, also gifted us with the Alameda Theatre, the Alhambra Theater, the Paramount Theatre, and the Oroville State Theater (in my mom's hometown), among others.

This is my first visit to the Castro, despite having once lived in the city for four years, and I'm sure sorry I waited so long. The building's façade, marquee, and vertical sign are all stunning (the letters in the vertical sign blink on and off in succession; I had to time my photo just right). The box office sits outside, in front of a large bank of doors. Just to the side of the box office is a kiosk with the theater's program for upcoming films, one for January and one for February. The programs are gorgeous, tabloid-sized calendars listing the movies to be shown (the bill changes daily!), and with film descriptions on the reverse. There are too many mini-festivals and theme nights coming up to list here, so I recommend clicking the link above or picking up one of these programs (also available at various Landmark theaters).

The lobby is shallow but wide, with a staircase on either end leading up to a mezzanine. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to go upstairs, as I was confused by some signs that seemed to indicate only certain ticket holders were allowed up there (I believe I was in error). But you can see a wonderful picture of it here.

The concession stand sells Lindt chocolate bars (vegan), and let me tell you, when half of that 2.5 serving bar is already gone, the other half looks pretty darn sad, all by its lonesome, so it's best to be merciful and quick.

The Castro has but a single screen in an absolutely stunning, 1400+ seat auditorium (I believe this is the largest seating capacity for a single auditorium in the entire city). This photo begins to do it justice. I felt like I was in the lost city of Atlantis, where artifacts from many different world cultures had once co-existed together in unity. The art deco chandelier drew my eye upward, where I noticed what looked like Buddhist figures painted on the ceiling. The mural on each wall, the golden columns on either side of the screen, and some circular portraits at the front are all reminiscent of ancient Rome, but each seems to have been constructed in tribute at a different time.

I was attending the first film of a double-feature, part of the 8th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival (the $10.00 admission is good for both films). A line stretched around the block to get into the theater, and once inside I found the place was packed and lively. The show opened with a short video, The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir. If you do nothing else today, click on that link and watch the video tribute; it's awesome. Being in that packed theater, and watching all those intense, dramatic shots, while the music pounded away, I wanted to see every film noir movie ever made.

Ushers walked up and down the aisles selling programs for $5.00.

An emcee then took the stage to introduce the film, giving a short history of the movie's journey from steamy novel to silver screen, and of actors John Garfield and Lana Turner (apparently it was a big deal that Garfield, a Jew, got to kiss Turner, one of Hollywood's best known beauties at the time). Fewer than 10% of the movies I've seen predate my birth, so I love these sorts of contextual introductions that get me up to speed on what was going on at the time the film was made. The host read us a letter from Garfield's daughter, Julie, and then the curtains lifted.

(I've lost my ticket stub. But I'm not terribly sad, because the ticket was the one shoddy thing about the theater; it was one of those generic "Admit One" tickets and instead of having the theater's name on it, it read "Home Depot".)

Edit: March 25, 2010.  I've found my ticket stub!  But, as it turns out, it's from Office Depot, not Home Depot, so those of you who have been trying to sneak into the Castro this past month with your reams of Home Depot tickets, now you know why you were turned away.  Try try again.


None. Except the tribute to film noir. I'm generous, so I'll give you another chance to click the link: The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
A drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), stops at a roadside diner for a meal. The diner has a "help wanted" sign posted, and Frank, expressing only a casual interest in the position, is immediately offered the job by the diner's proprietor, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Frank isn't in a hurry to tie himself down with a job, until he sees Nick's wife Cora (Lana Turner) standing in the doorway wearing what by modern standards is still barely anything. When Nick leaves the room Frank walks right up to Cora and kisses her. Yeah, she's that hot. She doesn't kiss him back, but she doesn't slap him either; she just gives him this look, as if to say, "like that's never happened before", and then proceeds to reapply her lipstick. Frank's wanderlust evaporates. He tells Nick he'll take the job.

Cora is in no hurry to cheat on her husband, but Frank, who otherwise seems like a reasonable guy, is so crazy for her it's infectious. She soon begins to reciprocate his feelings, and one thing leads to another (more recently this euphemism was clipped to mean "they have sex", but in the 1940s it still meant "they plot to kill her husband . . . so they can have sex").

The movie progresses in three gripping acts, each with stakes higher than in the previous. In Act One they fall in love and plot murder. Nick is a nice guy, but he's an obstacle to each of our fledgling lovers (though, interestingly, for different reasons). Frank and Cora orchestrate an elaborate accident to befall Nick, but just as they set events irrevocably into motion, things start to go wrong. In Act Two they must face the consequences of their actions, under the increasing scrutiny of the district attorney (Leon Ames). Frank tries to disentangle himself from the situation, but is pulled back in, culminating in a fateful car crash. And that's when things get really serious. Act Three isn't messing about. There are court hearings, betrayals, accusations, confessions, and conspiracies. And no one invited Act Four, but it's going to work its mischief anyway.

Wow. What a roller-coaster. This is one of those movies during which I watch helplessly as the protagonists make choices I would never make, getting themselves deeper and deeper into trouble. The emotional chemistry between Frank and Cora is a bit lacking, but as we learn more about their characters and motivations, this actually makes sense. All the leading actors, including Hume Cronyn as an attorney, deliver captivating performances. The plot starts to snowball, building toward a destructive avalanche that our anti-heroes can't possibly escape (a particularly ironic plot development is repeated in the more recent noir The Man Who Wasn't There). I couldn't tear my eyes away.

Top 10 Sequels Better Than the Original

Top Ten Tuesday

Ah, the sequel. If we liked the first movie, we're sure to see the second. Thus the much-lauded box office of the sequel is typically a representation of how much we enjoyed the movie that came before it. Everyone who saw the original film in the theater, or on video, or has finally decided to see what all the fuss is about, will turn out in the first few weeks for the sequel, giving it the appearance of being a smashing success. (Opening weekend records are indications of successful marketing campaigns, rather than good films, and in the case of the sequel, the original film functions as an extended trailer.)

And then the internet is abuzz about how terrible and vapid the newer film is, how it diminishes or dishonors its predecessor, and how it should never have been made. The idea of trying to recapture the magic and originality of a successful film is a bit like a mad scientist trying to reanimate a corpse; even if it comes back to life, it won't quite be the same.

I'm fairly forgiving with sequels, just as I am with romances. I don't ask for much; whatever was special about the first movie can be altered every so slightly and repackaged, and I'll enjoy it. The Ocean's series is a good example. Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen delve a bit deeper into the characters, but they are mostly just extended holidays with our beloved characters, doing the same-o same-o. Fine by me. I could enjoy an entire movie of Danny and Rusty sitting on the couch together watching television.

It is my easy-to-please quality that makes me all the more disgruntled when the sequel goes astray. I don't love Get Shorty the way my best friend does, but I do like it. But Be Cool is lifeless. And The Lost World feels like someone built a script around a few excerpted storyboards from Jurassic Park. The velociraptors wanted my wallet, and didn't care if they killed me in getting it.

To take a less extreme example, consider the Die Hard franchise. Die Hard is my favorite action movie, features my favorite roles for Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, and is my favorite "terrorist Russian dancer takes hostages at Christmas" film (The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a close second, and I was the hostage). The central conceit of the plot is that our hero, John McClane, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. How do you repeat that without it seeming contrived? Die Hard 2 tries to recreate every element from the first movie: a sassy hero just happens to be the only one capable of thwarting a well-orchestrated hostage situation. And it works. It's only half as good as the original, mind you, but if you hadn't seen Die Hard, and didn't think it extremely unlikely that this could happen to someone twice, you might think Die Hard 2 were pretty good. Die Hard: With a Vengeance is a big leap. We still have our hero, but he's no longer sassy (the movie undermines the emotional success of the first two films by annulling the reunification of John and Holly). And it's not chance that he's at the center of the terrorist plot; it's revenge. The sequel is entertaining, but it lacks all the magic of Die Hard and bears almost no resemblance to it. But then we have Live Free or Die Hard; this fourth film is so unlike the original, and a smile so far from McClane's face, that you might long for the grumpy days of the third installment. Live Free or Die Hard is good, solid action, but it can stand on its own. Change a few character names and I wouldn't know it was a sequel.

But we're not here to bemoan sequels; we're here to celebrate them! So I list below ten sequels that are better than the original.

10. Evan Almighty (2005)
In Bruce Almighty, God lends his powers to Jim Carrey, with amusing (but not funny) results. In Evan Almighty, Steve Carrell's character has been reinvented from the original, and is made to relive the story of Noah and his ark. The films are nothing alike. Whereas the first is silly and pointless, the second actually has some heart to it. Carrell comes to believe in his burdensome quest, he and his family grow closer as a result, and the pro-environment manifestations (which I can endure in large doses) are satisfying because they are recognized by the public, not just by our main characters. To top it off, the ark is cool. I come away from the sequel feeling like I'm a better person.

9. Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000)
Both movies are crude, but funny. The sequel's strategy is to isolate the single most-enjoyable trait from the first film and expand it, to the exclusion of all else: if the audience enjoyed Eddie Murphy in multiple roles, just show him in those roles for a greater percentage of the film. Plot is irrelevant (and in the case of this series, annoying). The sequel is just a skit, and as such is a solid bookend to the metamorphic work Murphy began in Coming to America.

8. Toy Story 2 (1999)
This is a good example of 'rinse and repeat'. It doesn't matter what our characters do (though the plot is actually meaningful and entertaining); we just want to spend more time with them. As an added benefit, we're past the juvenile disagreements of the first film; our heroes are all best buds now. Plus we get Joan Cusack's Jessie, a fun addition to the team, and some good Star Wars spoofs.

7. The Dark Knight (2008)
As Amok says in The Specials, "noone wants to hear your boring f***ing origin story." Spider-Man's origin is cool; Batman's is not. With that Batman-centric plot behind us, we have a lot more time for the villain. The Joker is much more enthralling than is Ra's Al Ghul, absolutely stealing the show. Bale's dialog is less intelligible than in the first movie, but Batman is supposed to be the silent type anyway; by the next movie, he'll just be growling. The bat cycle is dumb, but so was the bat humvee. Harvey Dent's arc is compelling and meshes well with the Joker's scheme.

6. Fay Grim (2007)
Henry Fool's titular character is a dysfunctional wannabe-poet who cultivates the (pornographic) poetic talents of a sanitation worker, Simon, and builds a strange romantic relationship with Simon's sister, Fay. The movie is watchable, but too weird and its central character too unlikable to be enjoyable. The sequel focuses on Henry's wife, Fay, years later, who becomes an amateur sleuth/spy as she attempts to find her missing husband before the FBI does. Many of the characters return from the first film, but now instead of being on the periphery of Henry's antisocial outbursts, they form an ad-hoc think tank for Fay, feeding her information as she circles the globe. Jeff Goldblum is perfect as the FBI agent, trying to bait Henry with Fay, but beginning to suspect that Fay is actually a secret agent. Fay Grim is bizarre but gripping from start to finish.

5. House II: The Second Story (1987)
The first film, a horror comedy, is terrible. A man is tormented by his possessed house, which tricks him into murdering his own wife (not funny, ever), tormenting him with grotesque monsters, and concluding with a hollowing dimensional rift at his house's center. The sequel has no relation to the first; no characters or themes carry over. It is a buddy adventure comedy in which a young man inherits an old house, awakens his dead but jolly many-times great grandfather, and must help his aged relative protect a mystical relic from a nefarious living dead gunslinger. The eponymous house is a bridge to many fun trans-dimensional time periods, including an Old West town, a Mayan temple, and a prehistoric jungle. I watched this movie a lot as a kid; as an adult, I recognize that it's not great, but it is exceptional when contrasted to the original.

4. Goldfinger (1964)
Sometimes a series takes time to get rolling. By Goldfinger the womanizing James Bond has found his sweet spot for all the basic Bond principals. 1) The second woman Bond sleeps with always dies. And none more horribly or thematically than here. 2) Cool gadgets. Bond's car is practically a co-star. 3) The Bond girl. 'Pussy Galore' is such a funny character name, and so appropriate for the series, that not even spoofs can one-up it. 4) A diabolical villain with a formidable henchman. Auric Goldfinger speaks the great line, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die" while employing the great trope of trying to kill the hero in some bizarre way that the hero is sure to escape as soon as the villain has left the room. And Oddjob has that great hat. 5) A fiendish plot of global proportions. Most Bond villains have dumb schemes that are either far fetched (kidnapping spaceships) or not ambitious enough (taking over media networks?). Auric Goldfinger plans to irradiate the contents of Fort Knox, thus skyrocketing the price of the country's remaining gold (much of which is in his possession). This gives us an excuse to see a lot of gold, and who doesn't like that? When our hero chucks a gold brick at the villain, and it bounces off the villains laughing face, you know he's one tough dude.

3. X2: X-Men United (2003)
Exactly what a comic book movie should be: beautiful, action-packed, and more about a world of heroic conflicts than about an individual hero. There have been many good superhero movies, but this is the rare movie that conveys the rich complexity of a long-standing comic universe, with fun cameos and references at every turn.

2. A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Pink Panther is goofy and entertaining, but A Shot in the Dark is a masterpiece of comedy. At its foundation is an unsolvable whodunnit, which I like better than the heist central to the first movie. Inspector Clouseau has a new love interest, a devoted servant who constantly attacks him, a maniacal boss, and a would-be assassin lurking in the shadows, all making for ripe comic moments.

1. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott's Alien is an exceptional horror movie. With only seven characters to kill off, Scott is forced to be economical with his violence. The result is suspenseful, claustrophobic, and terrifying. It also doesn't leave a lot of loose ends, so how does one extend the story? James Cameron's sequel has a plot that doesn't sound promising on paper: return to the scene of the first movie, with more potential victims. That is the pattern for most horror sequels, and the reason why most fail to capture our attention the way their creative predecessors did. Cameron's genius is to jump genres. Instead of sci-fi horror, his movie is sci-fi action. Yes, we're scared, and our heroes could die grisly deaths at any moment. But this isn't a damsel-in-distress story; this is war. Our heroes are numerous, trained, and armed-to-the-teeth. When I first saw this movie in the theater, I was so scared I made my dad cover my eyes. The cultures of the colonial marines and of the aliens are fascinating. The action is non-stop. And Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is the greatest, most kick-ass heroine I've ever seen on film.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

20. The White Ribbon

Embarcadero Center Cinema
At 5 screens, the Embarcadero Center Cinema is Landmark's second largest theater in the Bay Area, after the Shattuck in Berkeley. Many might also consider it the crown jewel of independent film in San Francisco (though the Kabuki has now thrown its hat into the ring as well). The theater is located on the Promenade of One Embarcadero Center, which sounds classy, but from the photo below you can see that the entrance is quite ugly. The building is accessible from nearby BART, light rail, and bus, and is near at least one parking garage. Just blocks away from the wharf, and several parks and restaurants, the theater's location makes it easy to turn a movie into an outing.

The theater has an unusual layout. The center of the lobby is occupied by a large atrium, with a sculpture suspended in its center and benches wrapping around the atrium's edge. During the day the lobby is filled with light and is quite attractive. The box office is in one corner of the lobby, and the auditoriums, collectively seating 953, jut off the lobby from the other three corners. There is an electronic ticket kiosk beside the box office. The ticket takers are at the entrances to the auditoriums, so you're welcome to wait in the lobby for other members of your party.

Built in 1995, the theater is one of the newest in the city, predating only the AMC 1000, Metreon, and San Francisco Centre. But its decorative style, with funky geometric shapes adorning the auditorium walls, make it seem a bit older. And isn't concrete (built today, ugly tomorrow) timeless?

I was chatting with a fellow patron, Russ, before the movie began, and he informed me that the concession stand sells vegetarian hotdogs.

Russ is a big movie fan, and, having worked at the Castro, he knows his theaters. He spoke well of the Royal Theatre (1916-1998), Surf Theatre (1926-1985), and Alhambra Theater (1926-1998, a beautiful palace, where I saw Toy Story). Cinema Treasures lists 138 theaters that have exhibited movies at some point in San Francisco, only twenty of which still show film on a regular basis. I moved to San Francisco in 1995; eleven theaters have closed since then. We might take these venues for granted, but they can disappear quickly.

I first visited the Embarcadero in 1996 for Emma, with my friend Susannah, who is still a regular movie buddy. In 1998 (my favorite year for films), I saw both Sliding Doors and The Governess there. The White Ribbon marks my sixth visit.


Saint John of Las Vegas
Steve Buscemi works for an insurance company as a paper-pusher. His life is a bit pathetic (he pours his income into Lotto tickets), but he's happy in his cubicle because Sarah Silverman sits right beside him. Buscemi's boss, Peter Dinklage, decides to send Buscemi into the field with Romany Malco to verify some insurance claims. Destination: Las Vegas. The way I see it, Buscemi, like William H. Macy in The Cooler, has nowhere to go but up. This movie will be quirky, and the shared producing credits of Spike Lee and Stanley Tucci adds some respectability to what could otherwise be a dreary independent film in which our protagonist gets his teeth kicked in for ninety minutes. The trailer is funny, well-edited, and features lots of fun, colorful, well-composed shots. But it shows a lot of the film, so I recommend skipping it. 141 cuts.

The Last Station

The Most Dangerous Man in America
I'd never heard of Daniel Ellsberg before this trailer. This documentary portrays him as a Pentagon official who photocopied and made available to the press thousands of pages of top secret documents, chronicling the clandestine activities of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson in South East Asia that would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War. I don't know my history well enough to back this up, but perhaps Ellsberg's efforts first alerted the public to the moral ambiguity of the conflict, and helped it become the unpopular war that we now remember. The film looks very interesting and gripping; the trailer shows several graphic, historical photos and video clips of the death and destruction wrought by the U.S. I wish this movie had been released five years ago, during the height of our more recent "compassion is treason" mania. Ellsberg delivers a wonderfully damning line: "It wasn't that we were on the wrong side . . . we were the wrong side." There is a hint that this documentary will make the same mistake that so many others do in the historical genre, by trying to recreate events with actors; these are cheesy, as cliched as the Ken Burns effect, and blur the line between journalism and fiction. 59 cuts, though there are lots of unusual fades that make this count a bit arbitrary, depending on what seemed like a cut or not.

The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER)

Émilie Dequenne is the victim of an anti-Semitic attack on a train. The attack gains national attention, but Dequenne's mother, Catherine Deneuve, suspects that her daughter fabricated the account. The trailer reveals none of Dequenne's motivations, instead spending most of its 60 cuts watching her roller skate. Could be quite tense; either our heroine has been assaulted, but those closest to her think she is lying, or she is quite troubled and will no doubt feel the wrath of the nation when her lie is revealed.

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)
In the years prior to World War I, the German village of Eichwald is witness to several strange and anonymous attacks on its citizens. The local doctor, returning from a ride, is felled when his horse trips on a span of wire stretched across the path. The doctor is rushed to another town, and his horse, dead, is carted off. Mysteriously, when detectives finally come to investigate the scene, the wire has been removed.

The Baron employs on his farm nearly half of Eichwald's laborers. At times he plays the benevolent patriarch, such as when he hosts the annual festival to celebrate the harvest, but he is also resented for having so much control over the village's livelihood. A farmer's wife, working in one of the Baron's mills, dies when the floor beneath her caves in. Her family blames the Baron for her death, believing the Baron knew the building was unsound, but assigned her to the mill anyway. Later, the Baron's young son is found beaten in the forest. Suspicions are publicly aired, and the village's society begins to fracture.

Though the film is couched in a retrospective account by the town's schoolteacher, our perspective as a viewer is wider than the teacher's own personal experience. We spend time with the teacher, following his interactions with all the town's children, and his burgeoning romance with a nanny, Eva. But we also gain intimate access to the households of the Baron, the farmer (whose wife died in the mill), the Baron's steward, the pastor, the doctor, and the mid-wife. Between those six families there are more than twenty children; all told we have in excess of thirty characters to keep track of (my brain was most taxed during the classroom scenes, when I tried to recall who were the parents of the various children).

According to the schoolteacher's narration, his tale is meant to help us understand the events that came after (i.e. either the first or second World War, or both), that perhaps in the village's religious rigidity, and stark division between adult and child, we could unearth the seeds of German fascism. I'm not convinced. Change the dialog to English and I would have believed that the story took place in the United States during the same period. The characters are complex: loving, hateful, forthright, dishonest, obedient, rebellious, and altogether familiar.

There is some interaction between households, in public spaces, but mostly we delve into the individual drama of each family. The awkward romance between the teacher and Eva is delightful. She is so shy, and chooses her words so laboriously, she might be old enough to marry before she even speaks a single sentence.

The pastor rules his family sternly. At times he forces his children to wear a white ribbon until their behavior demonstrates the same innocence and purity represented by the ribbon. He whips his children (we watch from a corridor as a boy is sent to fetch the switch with which his own sentence will be carried out), but also shows compassion when allowing his youngest to care for an injured bird.

Once inside the farmer's home we begin to understand what a stranglehold the Baron has on the community, the he decides who is employed, and who starves. There is more at stake for a family than honor or an individual life; revenge must be subjugated to survival. Over at the doctor's house, in the doctor's absence his teenaged daughter must raise her young brother, and help him understand death and cope with a missing father. In a different house, we witness a tirade from one lover against another that is devastatingly callous, and entirely believable. We might be unique among all species for our capacity to intentionally inflict emotional damage to those who love us. (Contrast this scene to when the teacher first meets Eva; there is something he wants, but in the delicate exchange he subverts his own desires to hers.)

The film is well made. Its trailer claims "It feels like a classic even as you are watching it for the first time". This is true, but it achieves this without being pretentious; rather, it employs simple, aged techniques mostly eschewed by modern films. The movie is shown in black-and-white. There is little or no score lazily tugging at our emotions. The shots are long (we often watch a character exit a room, and are left looking at the empty room for several seconds, listening for hints of what transpires beyond the closed door) and agnostic (no camera zooms to force our attention to tiny, important details). And, like a Greek play, much of the action occurs off-screen; the film concerns itself not with the action, but with the human responses to the action.

Though the movie is immersed in its characters, by its end I was (to my surprise) invested in uncovering the mystery of the various attacks. Not all questions are answered, and even some answers, relayed through gossip, are suspect. Nonetheless the ending is satisfying. I was rapt from start to finish and would gladly see this film again.

19. A Town Called Panic

Lumiere Theatre
According to Jack Tillmany's book Theatres of San Francisco, Landmark's Lumiere Theatre was originally the Firehouse Theatre, built in 1967 for live performances. The building, and some adjacent retail space, was converted to a single-screen movie theater in 1975, then expanded into a triplex in 1983. Currently, the three screens seat 294, 118, and 120.

Were it not for the marquee I wouldn't know a theater occupied this building, though that's probably true for a lot of smaller theaters.

(I walked to the Lumiere directly from my viewing of Legion at the AMC 1000, passing along the way two other, now-closed theaters: The Galaxy and the Regency I and II. I don't recall either theater in much detail, but these are the first two theaters I visited when moving to the city fifteen years ago. My brother took me to see Ace Ventura at the Galaxy even before I moved to San Francisco, so that old multi-plex and its blockish glass façade will be missed. The Galaxy closed in 2005, the Regency I in 1998, and the Regency II in 2000.)

The Lumiere's lobby is small, but has several attractive features. Old movie posters ring the walls at the top of the room. The concession stand has delicious vegan cookies from the Alternative Baking Company, yeast for your popcorn, and a pitcher of cold water and cups if you want a drink but without paying for it. There is a single bench against one wall, which I appreciated as I rifled through the various freebies: a promo for membership to something called Flicketz (I just signed up; I'll let you know how it goes); a program for the upcoming Mostly British Film Festival hosted primarily at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco; a program for the also upcoming SF Independent Film Festival hosted at the Roxie Theater; a program for the currently playing Noir City film noir festival at the Castro Theatre; and finally postcards for various current and upcoming films. These programs are from competing theaters; that Landmark would promote these other venues suggests that the city's independent theaters are all working together to keep audiences informed of and interested in film outside the mainstream.

The theater auditoriums are small. They have a bit of charm with exposed brick walls on one side and wooden rafters overhead, but I recommend planning to see a film in auditorium 1; the other two, long and narrow, might give you the impression you are watching a film projected on the opposite end of a train car.

This is my third trip to the Lumiere, which I first visited in 1996 for the delightful MicroCosmos, and then again in 2000 for a rerelease of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In typical Landmark fashion, the pre-show consists only of a commercial for Stella Artois beer. The theaters should really look into carrying this brand if they are going to promote it so heavily.


Warlords (Tau ming chong)
Three warriors (Jet Li among them) in medieval China are betrayed by their general and so make a pact for revenge. They raise armies, and hours of action ensue. Perhaps this speaks more to the films we import than to the movies they make, but China seems to churn out one or two epic tales a year, with battles that rival those in The Lord of the Rings, and all with Shakespearian tragedy at their center. This trailer, more than others I've seen for this genre, is honest that our heroes will suffer during their journey, and, too late, wonder if the struggle was worthwhile. 139 cuts, 589 horses, and 10,435 arrows.

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto)
An Italian man, already caring for his aged mother, agrees to also put up the mother and aunt of his debtor, in exchange for lenience with his bills. And how could he say no to housing his doctor's mom? Soon our protagonist is spending the summer cooking for and pandering to four elderly women, probably with amusing results. 44 cuts.

Fish Tank
A teenaged girl has a secret love of dancing, but must remain emotionally alive despite the deadening atmosphere of the London projects. Her home life is a wreck, with her mother constantly shouting at her; her mother's attractive boyfriend takes an interest in our heroine, but his affections might cross a line. The trailer makes me quite uncomfortable with all its suggestions of misery, so you can be sure the film will depress you entirely before giving some sliver of hope at the end. 112 cuts.

Terribly Happy (Frygtelig lykkelig)
A "disgraced cop" is assigned to a "remote town" in northern Denmark where home-grown justice rules. This film falls within the Old West archetype of the reluctant law man charged with cleaning up local corruption, but also resembles the recent Hot Fuzz (though without the comedy and gore). There could be some mystery, as the cop uncovers years of unpunished crimes. The film's style looks moody, quiet, and patient. 78 cuts.

44 Inch Chest
Joanne Whalley tells her husband, Ray Winstone, that she's been having an affair. Winstone, enraged, reassembles his old gang of villains to track down Whalley's lover and give him the what for. Winstone's gang includes Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Stephen Dillane, tough guys all. The film is rated R, but mostly for language, so I think we can look forward to lots of filthy talk but with only a little roughhousing. And it's been years since I've seen Whalley in anything. 105 cuts.

A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)
I've just finished reading David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla, in which he defines drama as "a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal—so that he . . . is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants." Unless the screenwriter has some superhuman ability to make a scene inherently interesting, the scene will only succeed if it leaves the audience wanting to know what happens next. I'm tempted to say that this doesn't apply to comedy, that a funny moment is an end in itself, but I'm reminded that most sitcoms I see fail to hold my attention because they are often meaningless sequences of humor (however good) that do not contribute to a cohesive plot.

A Town Called Panic begins with Indian and Cowboy realizing that it is Horse's birthday, and they have as yet neglected to procure a present for him. Thus the immediate goal is to obtain a present for Horse. Indian suggests they build Horse a brick barbecue, for which they'll need bricks (I'm not sure what a horse would cook on a barbecue, but the movie doesn't bother with little details like that). Through an error on Cowboy's part, instead of 50 bricks they receive 50 million bricks. The goal changes: they have enough bricks to build the barbecue, but now must hide 50 million bricks so that Horse (who apparently controls the pursestrings of the household) doesn't freak out. Where to put them? On the roof of course. What happens when you put 50 million bricks on the roof? The house collapses. What happens when your house has collapsed and 50 million bricks are laying about? You build a new house out of bricks, of course. So it goes, for seventy minutes, from one event to the next in ridiculous progression.

(Each goal the movie presents is almost immediately achieved, but not without creating some other problem to be solved. If you compressed a TV show like Smallville down to seventy minutes, you'd have the same result. Yes, he rescued her, but not without revealing his secret identity. Okay, he's protected his secret identity, but at the cost of forming an unsettling alliance. The alliance has ended, but now his adversary threatens the girl again. It's one rug after another pulled from under our feet, each accomplishment undermined by the challenges of the next, and no unifying plot to give it all meaning.)

The characters are mostly interchangeable; they are all excitable and love to shout; they blunder; they act rashly. Horse is at times shy when in the presence of Madame Longrée, neighboring farmer is usually grumpy, and Cowboy seems to be the cowardly klutz of the house, but otherwise every action and every line of dialog could have been performed by someone else. This blurring of personality is not helped by the stop-motion animation, which uses actual toys (or their likenesses), and indicates who is talking by having that toy move up and down, just as a child would animate a stuffed animal at playtime.

There are many amusing details and humorous moments. Horse sleeps standing up in a bed comprising a pillow affixed to the wall, and a blanket folded over a horizontal piece of rope. Indian, angry at Cowboy, throws Cowboy out the window, then throws furniture out the window at Cowboy, including a grandfather clock; after the clock has struck Cowboy, its front opens up and Indian jumps out; how he threw himself out the window in the clock doesn't really matter, I suppose; it's funny. At one point the neighboring farmer is arrested for the supposed abduction of Horse, et al., and one of the farmer's cows says to the another, "So . . . no pasture today?"

But mostly the film is a bizarre blend of non sequitur and childishly literal sequences of events. There don't appear to be many natural laws in this strange world; with any outcome as likely as the next, I was uninvested in the characters and their progression from farm, to center of the Earth, to polar ice cap, to undersea kingdom, etc. And just when the plot has stumbled upon a logical ending place, the movie continues for several more minutes, throwing everything into chaos again.

Accepting that the film is nonsense, you might be able to enjoy it. I found it tiresome; I had come for a story, but all the movie wanted to do was play.

18. Legion

AMC Van Ness 14
AMC's Van Ness 14 (aka The AMC 1000, because of its address) inhabits the former Don Lee Cadillac Building, built in 1912, which was also home to the local KFRC radio station. Many decades ago, in the rush to open movie theaters, it was common to make use of existing structures. Modern theaters, with their many screens, are more difficult to accommodate, so it's nice that AMC was able to leverage this building's attractive architecture for their 1998 opening. A comment on Cinema Treasures lists the total seating capacity as 3146.

In the photo above, to the far right you can see the structure that actually houses the auditoriums. The original Cadillac building contains the theater's lobby and box office, and condominiums on the upper levels, but everything else is hidden away in that rear structure.

The lobby is lofty and attractive, with a wooden staircase (off limits) dominating its center. Unfortunately, the space is under-utilized; the staircase is for looks only, a third of the room is sealed off by a glass wall for unoccupied retail space, and a newcomer might look around and be confused about where exactly the theater is.

The box office sits to the left side of the lobby. I paid for my ticket using a gift card from my managers at work (thanks, Terri and Suzie!). There are electronic ticketing kiosks to the right of the box office.

I recently signed up for AMC's rewards card, and, pending receipt of my permanent card (I've been waiting 2+ weeks now), I printed out a temporary card. I was impressed that the young box office attendant actually recognized and knew what to do with my dinky home-made card. In 1998, at the height of my AMC patronage, I made 21 visits to their two theaters in San Francisco (the newly opened AMC 1000 and the Kabuki 8, now run by Sundance Cinemas). If I use my new rewards card to purchase 50 tickets, I will be rewarded with a free ticket. Even by 1998 standards that would have taken 2.5 years; at my current rate, my free ticket will . . . never . . . materialize.

According to this source, AMC sold the Kabuki 8 as a result of their merger with Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corporation in 2006 or so. We're fortunate that Sundance Cinemas kept the theater open, and that they now show more independent fare. When an old, single screen theater closed its doors in the past, the building could often be converted to a town hall, church, performing arts venue, or even retail space. But there's not much else one can do with a multiplex structure besides show movies there or tear it down. Is it the responsibility of the architect to see beyond the anticipated use of a structure, such that they are gifting to the community a versatile, enduring building, regardless of its tenant? When Grand Lake owner Allen Michaan converted that theater's balcony into its own screen, he spent extra money so that the barrier dividing the balcony from the lower auditorium would not damage the existing structure, ensuring that future generations could choose to rip it out. That is generous foresight.

This was my 23rd visit to the AMC 1000, beginning with Antz in October 1998. My favorite memory here is seeing Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on opening day in May 1999 with my brother and six close friends from college, and again the next day with my brother and my parents when they came to town for my college graduation. That was the first time I saw people queueing up more than a showing in advance to get into a theater. Also, I saw Playing by Heart at the AMC 1000, and by chance ran into and sat with some acquaintances from school. The movie is enjoyable, but super sappy, and nothing to see again in a hurry. A week later, an attractive young lady asked if I wanted to go see Playing by Heart. You bet I did! We enjoyed it together, and made it all the way back to campus without her knowing that I had seen it before, but then we ran into that same group of acquaintances; they asked where we were coming from; my date answered; and the rest, as they say, is embarrassment. The truth will out.

There is a parking garage in the same building as the theater, and you can pass between the two without going outside into the cold rain. Parking validation machines are located upstairs.

The ticket taker stands guard at the bottom of a long gauntlet of escalators that wind their way up seven levels, including landings. The auditoriums are on levels 2 (screens 1-4), 4 (screens 5-9), and 7 (screens 10-14). Movie posters hang like banners in the escalator shaft. Other than the posters for The Crazies, these are fun to look at. The banner for Kick-Ass shows each of the four super-heroes, along with each character's real name; hasn't the marketing department ever heard of a secret identity? You know how escalators in malls and stores are designed to make you walk past about twenty stores before you get to the next escalator? At the AMC 1000, the entrance to the continuing escalator is immediately adjacent to where you exit onto the landing; quite convenient.

Each main level has its own lobby with more posters, benches, an arcade on level 2, and increasingly better views from the south-facing windows the higher up you go. On this particular day, I could see the East Bay on my left, City Hall directly ahead, and Twin Peaks off to my right. (Down below is the motel where my parents and I stayed the night before I moved into my first year of college; all my precious belongings in the world were hidden beneath a tarp in the back of our truck, parked in the motel's parking lot. Polk St. can seem a bit seedy, especially to someone just moving to the city, but I was fortunate in that nothing was stolen.)

On each main level, there is a corridor leading to a concession area. Restrooms and the entrances to the individual auditoriums are accessed from the concession lobby. On the top level is a Nutritional Facts sheet detailing the relative health value of the various concession offerings. Not all ICEEs are created equal, you know; if you're looking to cut back on sodium, you'll save 2mg by downing a White Cherry or Blue Raspberry ICEE instead of a Coca-Cola ICEE.

The auditoriums themselves have stadium seating, and look like every other multiplex auditorium. Is a little theme too much to ask for? In board and card games, I almost always like an abstract game better if a theme is pasted onto it (it's more fun to collect chickens than spades, or to ask "do you have any squid?" instead of "do you have any sevens?"). In addition to being cheap, the theaters probably justify their auditoriums' theme neutrality by thinking that it won't interfere with a movie. But I have no problem watching a sci-fi movie in an Egyptian-themed auditorium. It's the same with exterior architecture; every time a new building is erected there is an opportunity to contribute something attractive to the skyline, but more often than not we get ugly concrete blocks.

Two cowboys meet on a dusty street to duel. One, smoking a cigarette, suddenly drops dead from cancer. The other guy wins the duel, without even drawing his pistol. I'm no fan of smoking, but the commercial made me wonder if there are any similarities between our anti-smoking campaigns now, and alcohol prohibition. In a way they seem like opposites. Although some powerful people obviously thought ill enough of alcohol to outlaw it, the national population turned steadily against the idea; it now seems ridiculous that a national prohibition would ever be considered, as everyone likes their drink. With cigarettes, the habit is being taxed and geographically limited (I don't mind this), but the smokers themselves are being marginalized to an extent, and portrayed as having a disgusting habit.

A commercial for Dove soap shows several women smearing various soaps onto mirrors, then rinsing the mirrors with water. The other soaps leave visible residue on the mirrors; Dove does not. The contention of the commercial is that other soaps leave that same residue on your skin, whereas Dove does not. Shampoo ads take the opposite approach, arguing that brand X strips your hair of its natural oils and coating, whereas brand Y replenishes your hair with nutrients (i.e. residue) to keep it healthy. One thing is for sure; if you run out of window cleaner, you can use Dove. Or, conversely, and as we've already seen in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, if you run out of soap, just spray on some Windex.

The new "silence your cell phones" add is disturbing. A woman tries to answer her cell phone, but a wild west shootout interrupts her. She evades the gunslingers, but is then caught in the middle of a World War II invasion. She sidesteps the G.I.s, still trying to answer her phone, only to be surrounded (and presumably devoured) by zombies. The punchline is that movies don't interrupt our phone calls, so don't let our phone calls interrupt the movie. But why is it funny that a woman trying to answer her phone is eaten by zombies? I hate zombies. Where is Happy the Hedgehog?


Piranha 3-D

From a series of Saturday Night Lives sketches comes an inept, MacGyver-esque super spy whose methods are unorthodox and usually result in a large explosion with him and his cohorts at the blast's center. From what little I've seen of the skits, MacGruber is juvenile but amusing. SNL regulars Will Forte and Kristen Wiig team with Ryan Phillippe to track down Val Kilmer before he can blow up Washington. The trailer has some funny moments, mostly delivered by Wiig. But there is a big difference between a funny cop/spy spoof (Get Smart, Naked Gun) and a boring one (Johnny English, Spy Hard). Unfortunately MacGruber looks to be the latter. 144 cuts.

Hot Tub Time Machine
As reported by someone sitting in front of me, "That looks super funny."

From Paris with Love (Trailer 2)
If you were going to blow up a car, and had a rocket launcher handy, would you aim underneath the car, to send it explosively into the sky but leaving the occupants relatively alive, or would you aim for the car's cabin, where the people are? Putting myself in the shoes of the typical rocket-launcher-holder, I would think the cabin. If someone's worth blowing up, they're worth blowing up good, right? But apparently not; movie demolition experts tend to focus on the undercarriage, that sinister conveyor of passengers. Yes, the enemy might escape from the wreckage, but it sends a clear message: we hate your car!

The Crazies (Trailer 2)
I'm glad I missed the first trailer. Some illness is infecting the inhabitants of a small town, turning them into disfigured, ruthless killers. It's up to sheriff Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell to . . . what? Survive? That's one of many problems with zombie movies; the outlook is so bleak that I would almost prefer my heroes to off themselves rather than try to persist in such a terrible world. This is a remake, though I've never heard of the original. It has an R rating, for "bloody violence", as opposed to the "strong bloody violence" of Daybreakers and Legion. But I'm not fooled: any movie where the chief weapons are pitchforks and bone saws is a definite skipper. 88 cuts.

Death at a Funeral (2010)
This is a remake of a film that was released in the U.S., in English, just two years ago. That's the fastest turnaround I've ever seen for a remake. (Hey, lets remake Leap Year; it's been out for two weeks now, and really needs to be updated with the latest styles!) Death at a Funeral stars Martin Lawrence (usually funny), Chris Rock (usually not), and a bevy of others at their father's funeral, with supposedly hilarious consequences, though all the jokes seem to be taken directly from the previous film. That movie was ridiculous and boring; this version looks only slightly better. Penélope Cruz reprised her own role when translating Abre los ojos into Vanilla Sky, getting to play the same character, but in different languages. In the two Death at a Funerals, Peter Dinklage, the blackmailing sex partner of the deceased, helps translate the film from British English to American English. Perhaps Broadway actors are accustomed to this, playing the same role in different productions. If this movie is more successful than the original, it might lend legitimacy for something akin to the production of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, except instead of filming three interrelated movies at the same time, studios will simultaneously film three versions of the same movie, each catered to a different audience. Finally Hollywood will offer a diversified viewing experience, and depending on your mood you'll be able to decide at the last minute if you want to see Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness, or Mel Brooks in the same role, or perhaps an all-child cast. 90 cuts.

Not to be outdone by When in Rome, this boring trailer clocks in at 166 cuts, the new record. A gang of bank robbers are talked into pulling one last heist. That's all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know. Hayden Christensen looks silly in a tiny hat, rapper T.I. is unbearably thuggish, and I found myself rooting for the cop, Matt Dillon, to catch the gang quickly before they destroy any more property. How am I supposed to cheer for protagonists who rob banks at gunpoint, blow up streets and helicopters, and act like jerks? Danny Ocean never hurt anyone, and in Heist Gene Hackman never hurt anyone nice. This looks like strictly direct-to-video fare that somehow has snuck into a theatrical release. Skip it and just watch Heat again. By the way, if you happen to fall from a building, and cushion your fall by cracking a car's windshield with your hands, in addition to breaking the windshield (which does look cool, so good job there), you'll also pulverize your hands, which could be a bummer if you're the gang's trigger man.

With a God like this, who needs the Devil? The Supreme One, tired of our folly and of movies like The Crazies, sends his legion of angels to exterminate humankind. A single angel, Michael (Paul Bettany), defects, and comes to the aid of a pregnant woman, Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), at an isolated gas station. Also at the gas station, and therefore by good fortune under Michael's protection (though he makes it clear that he's there for Charlie, not them), are the diner's owner (Dennis Quaid), his son Jeep (Lucas Black), the cook (Charles S. Dutton), a traveler (Tyrese Gibson), and a family of three.

Charlie is central to the extermination plans, lest her child be born and somehow continue the human race (the details are vague), and so the gas station is targeted by multiple attacks, all of them gruesome. First, an elderly woman curses Charlie's baby, bites off a chunk of a man's neck, and crawls on the ceiling like a spider. At this moment I would have walked out if not for wanting to spare you, dear reader, the same horrible fate. Next comes an ice cream man with elongated limbs and a terrible shriek. And finally, hundreds of others, weak-willed people possessed by angels and transformed into hideous, violent, flesh eaters, all intent on killing Charlie (and everyone else). They arrive en masse and assault the diner, held at bay only by Michael's arsenal of weaponry, now in the hands of the eight terrified people he protects.

Though I avoid zombie movies, I somehow got tricked into seeing this one. You might think, from the poster, that Michael is an angel, fighting to defend his charges. In fact, he cuts off his wings in the first scene of the film and is thus just as mortal as the rest of them. His only weapons are machine guns. And although a frying pan to the skull doesn't kill the attackers, for some reason bullets do. God was apparently merciful when he killed everyone with a flood, because turning grandmothers, ice cream men, and six-year-olds into ravenous monsters is just cruel, and is not my idea of a fun apocalypse.

The trailer for this movie suggests that our heroes are fighting angels, and indeed they are, but the angels have infested human bodies, and therefore are indistinguishable from any other zombie or demon invasion. Right toward the end the angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand), having assumed Michael's command, arrives to finish the job, and finally we get some angel-on-(ex)angel action. There are a few moments where the the movie raises the big questions, like what does it mean to lose faith in one's own creation, and should an obedient servant give what the Master wants or what He needs? But mostly this is just a horror movie.

And like any horror movie, wherein flesh-eating zombies might burst into the diner at any moment from any of numerous access points, characters still make time to go off to dark corners to brood. Yes, the end of the world is a good time for reflection, but being separated from the group tends to encourage the end to come just a bit sooner.

The plot is identical to that of Maximum Overdrive (and very close to Tremors and I'm sure to any number of other horror movies). Monsters attack, trapping a rag-tag band of survivors in a deserted diner. Luckily someone happens to have automatic weapons handy (thank you, Second Amendment), and our heroes are able to repel the attack. For a time. Eventually, the diner is no longer safe, and our heroes determine that the time has come to escape (to where, in a world overrun by monsters?). Whereas before, when anyone who attempted to escape was immediately killed, now, thanks to the script (always read the script if you're caught in a zombie movie!), anyone who attempts to stay will be immediately killed. Our surviving characters, typically kept alive by the audience's ability to differentiate them from the other, nameless characters, somehow manage to make it somewhere else, and all is well. Nevermind that civilization as we know it has been razed and practically everyone on the planet is dead or evil or both.

Dennis Quaid, a very enjoyable actor, is totally wasted here. Charles S. Dutton, whom I first saw in the wonderful Cookie's Fortune, is wasted. Paul Bettany is wasted. I'll give the rest of the actors the benefit of the doubt and guess that their talents, if they have any, have been wasted too. Even the ice cream man could have done better. The only one who isn't wasted is Kevin Durand as Gabriel. I remember him most from the über-violent Smokin' Aces and recently as Blob in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He's brutish, but somehow conveys sensitivity and remorse for his crimes, even as he's committing them. As Gabriel, he doesn't seem to care much for humans, but he does miss being in the service of Michael, and as such is emotionally conflicted about taking down the former angel. That is the only arc you are going to get from this movie. The rest is rubbish.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

17. Sabrina

Alameda Theatre and Cineplex

The Alameda Theatre was built in 1932 as a single screen, 2168 seat palace, designed by the same architect as the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The city of Alameda had already seen at least four theaters come and go, and the Alameda Theatre joined three other theaters already in operation, when the city's population was just above 35,000. In 1975 the theater's upper mezzanine was separated from the main auditorium to create two smaller auditoriums, and the theater closed shortly after in 1979. Thanks to the hard work of many community activists and skilled crafts people, the theater was reopened in 2008, its original auditorium restored, and a seven-screen complex built adjacent to the existing structure.

The theater is located within walking distance of many shops and restaurants. To the side of the theater is a parking garage; paying for the garage during the day (50¢/hr.) but less for your matinee movie ticket works out to be about the same as parking for free at night (or Sunday) but paying more for your ticket. Inside the theater you may obtain a coupon good for 3 hours free parking on your next visit (not quite as good as immediate validation, but still good; I'm not sure if this is available even during non-metered hours). There is a great view from the top of the garage.

The marquee looks great, especially from underneath. Perhaps owing to the island's history as a naval base, military personnel (like children and seniors) receive the matinee price at all times.

The lobby is stunning. (I've applied a black-and-white filter to my photos, to hide the yellow tinting, but you can see much better photos here.) Red and gold are the dominant colors. Anywhere you turn your eye you will be rewarded with rich detail in the form of reliefs, designs, and molding. An attractive balcony rings the lobby's upper half, accessed from two mirroring stairways, but, unfortunately, is off limits.

The ticket taker is at the back of the lobby, just before the concession stand, so visitors are welcome to enter the lobby even without a ticket. There are several benches where you could sit to just absorb the wonderful ambiance. In large letters above the front doors, which you might not see until you exit, read "Take the magic with you". I love it. It's like what counselors tell their kids at the end of an inspirational camp, to go out and change the world for the better.

On a table in the center of the lobby I found some freebies, include posters for upcoming The Bounty Hunter, and a schedule for the theater's Classic Film Series. I was visiting the theater for that same film series, and there are some great films coming up, all to be shown in the main auditorium. If you are local, I'd definitely recommend looking over the schedule. Also on the table is a flyer for a Valentine's Day benefit concert (on the 13th) with proceeds going to local organizations and to Haiti relief. A similar party was sold out on New Year's Eve, so if you're interested, buy tickets soon. Finally, a contest to describe your first kiss (if it was at the Alameda Theatre); I don't recall the prize, but a first kiss in a theater like this is prize enough, isn't it?

The "Aisle 2" and "Aisle 3" signs now lead you to the concession stand, recessed into what was probably once part of the main auditorium. No Red Vines for me! Directly across from the two remaining entrances to the main screen (aisles 1 and 4) are the restrooms. The men's room has a foyer with chairs, very rarely seen.

The main auditorium, which now seats 484, is quite fetching. Gold and red are the dominant colors here as well. The screen is large, and the seats comfortable with plenty of legroom. Music from Star Wars and Indiana Jones plays while the slideshow runs trivia and ads for local merchants. Unfortunately, the curtains do not close and reopen prior to the start of the movie.

Because this film is part of a film series, we were treated to a special introduction by the theater's manager (don't expect this every time), lit up by a spot-light. He started off with a caveat that the film was originally shot in black-and-white and mono-sound, so that from an "archival film" we could expect an "archival experience". He then proceeded to dish out some trivia, with free concessions and movie tickets as the prizes. (Red Vines, getting their full due, were represented as the "Humphrey Bogart of American snacks", always fresh from nearby Union City.)

The theater's schedule identifies which films are in the main auditorium (the "Historic Alameda Theatre). The other films are shown in the seven newer screens, collectively seating 1042, accessible from the hallway just past aisle 1 of the main auditorium. I have been to the Alameda Theatre seven times prior to this visit, and all seven of my visits were to one of their upstairs auditoriums (I've seen four 3-D films here). I've never seen the upstairs concession stand open, but directly across from it you'll enjoy a nice view looking west over the neighborhood. The newer screens are modern with bare walls and stadium seating, like in a typical multiplex, but with the added benefit of being fronted by the classic lobby. It's the most elegant solution I've seen to accommodating more screens in a existing location.


The Godfather
This is an older trailer, consisting almost entirely of stills from the film. It's not the trailer celebrating the 25th anniversary release, but I can't imagine it is the original trailer, as it seems to rely on our pre-existing interest in the plot. The sequence of stills, ordered chronologically, tell the entire story of the film in just a few minutes, including the important shots of who kills whom. I admire the trailer for its unconventional approach, but seeing a slideshow for a movie is rather dull. The plus, if you've already seen the movie, is that it gives you a tiny taste, and all to the wonderful score. Cuts unknown.

The Godfather, Part II
I've only been paying attention to trailers for the past ten years, once they were available from Apple. I seem to recall developing the opinion in my late teens that trailers were beginning to show too much of the advertised film, leaving nothing to surprise. Anyone who watches a modern trailer probably is of that opinion. But when I see trailers from the seventies, like this one and that for Get Carter, I realize that trailers have shown too much for longer than I've been alive, but at least they've gotten better. This trailer, promoted at the time as "the final chapter" in the series (we now know better), is terrible. It shows too much, yet doesn't make any sense; scenes are spliced awkwardly together; important plot points (again, who kills whom) are disclosed, juxtaposed with moments that are as meaningless in the film as in the trailer. This trailer gives me new appreciation for the modern style. Cuts unknown.

Sabrina (1954)
In 1954, Billy Wilder wanted to make a romance about a chauffeur's daughter, in love with the charming but emotionally reckless younger son of her father's employer, who ultimately falls in love with the older son, a corporate shark. Harrison Ford was still too young, and neither Julia Ormond nor Greg Kinnear were born yet, so Wilder had to make do with the actors on hand: Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden. The result is a delightful comedy but a miscast romance.

The first half of the movie, a fairytale, is consistently funny. Sabrina's suicide note is a wry, patient joke. Linus dictates an amusing inter-office memo to remind his aloof brother of the address of their office building, and of the location of David's office. While in Paris Sabrina's cooking antics are predictable but fun.

When Sabrina returns (looking basically the same as when she left, except better dressed), she sets the Larrabee family all aflutter. She catches David's eye as he passes her at the rail station; he is so taken with her that in a trance he follows her directions to take her home, and only after pulling into the driveway of his own home (where, of course, Sabrina's father also lives) wakes enough to declare, "Hey, you don't live here; I live here!" Arriving at the party that night, Sabrina looks smashing in an absolutely beautiful dress. She finally gets to dance with David, and the way she pets his neck and nuzzles his cheek, I absolutely melted. No man, least of all the perennially flighty David, could resist her charms, and soon he is ready to call off his engagement (not his idea in the first place) and devote himself to the girl he hardly noticed until that day. Sabrina is caught up in her own fairytale; when chastised by her father that she shouldn't reach for the moon, she replies that, au contraire, now "the moon is reaching for me."

David's parents and his brother Linus are equally moved by Sabrina's coming out, but only to intercede on behalf of David's engagement. David's fiance is the daughter of a tycoon who, among other holdings, controls an interest in the sugarcane market, which will benefit the Larrabee Corporation's development of a promising new plastic, with sugarcane as its key component. Old man Larrabee is played for comic relief, but Humphrey Bogart's Linus coldly calculates to woo Sabrina away from David, and back to Paris, alone.

This is where the movie begins to break down, and it's all because of Bogart. Linus is too old and crotchety for Sabrina. She is not only young, but is naive for her age, and the two together make a depressing match. Anyone could be attracted to Sabrina; what's not to like? But she's immature and not terribly interesting; other than youthfulness, what does the veteran Linus see in her? His transformation from wanting to dupe her to actually wanting her doesn't make any more sense than does her quick and miraculous switch from yearning for the charismatic David (whom she's loved, in her own worshipful way, all her life) to being content with his brooding older brother. Linus is no looker, and neither is he particularly charming. From the moment he says, "It's all in the family" and kisses her, I was creeped out.

The film takes pains to portray David as a capricious, irresponsible lover. Still, he is the better match for Sabrina. They are at opposite ends of the experience spectrum, but are both passionate and joyful. Better to love well yet briefly with David, than settle for the reserved Linus. David is sure to break Sabrina's heart, but Linus could never warm it.

As a romance, the movie fails. But as a comedy, it is entertaining throughout. I laughed out loud quite frequently and would gladly see it again.

Sabrina (1995)
I came home and immediately rewatched Sydney Pollack's 1995 remake (my fourth viewing). The manager at the Alameda Theatre spoke ill of it in his introduction to the original. I haven't found too many who enjoy it. It's risky business remaking a classic, but directors like Pollack are probably catering to people like me, who have never seen the original, so what do they have to lose?

In rewatching this film, I began keeping tracking of interesting similarities and differences between the original and remake, but soon found myself just documenting all the superb moment's in the newer movie. The remake is funny, but from the opening voice-over to the very last shot the remake is more serious, eschewing humor for emotion. If I had to put all the leads on a spectrum from light and fluffy to dark and serious, it would go like this: Holden, Hepburn, Kinnear, Ormond, Ford, Bogart. The original was too extreme in its caricatures; the remake is just right.

Kinnear, unfortunately, can't hold up to William Holden. Holden's David is an absolute playboy; he isn't cruel in his leaps of fancy, just too self-absorbed to see the wreckage he leaves behind him. Kinnear's David should know better. He comes across as a schemer, who knows all the right steps to get a girl into bed. There is never a moment when he is worthy of Sabrina's love. However, some augmentations to the script better redeem him by film's end than in the original. In the original, he is forgotten halfway through, and only appears as a deus ex machina to alleviate Linus of his corporate duties. In the 1995 version, we see a few extra moments toward the end that help us recognize David's transformation; he doesn't just do the right thing, he grows up.

Ford's Linus has it all over Bogart. He's much better looking, and that's nothing to sneeze at in a romance. Inspired by Sabrina's journey, he reflects on his own life, but comes across as introspective rather than broody. He's even more vicious in the conference room than Bogart is, but is genuinely human when off work. From his first duplicitous outing with Sabrina I can see him falling in love with her. He checks in with his mom over the phone and reports, "Here? Lousy. So far I'm more affected than she is. I damn near cried. Twice." Whereas Bogart's emotions puzzled me even at the end, Ford only missteps by too clearly showing his love, such that I couldn't believe he would still try to go through with his trick to get Sabrina back to Paris.

Julia Ormand brings the heat. She isn't trying to compete with the heavenly Hepburn when it comes to looking like a princess. Instead, she reacts. Ormand is so emotional that her every facial movement is to be watched. Watch her when Sabrina asks David what happens after they meet in the solarium (i.e. after they sleep together). Kinnear, to his credit, conveys David's discomfort at being asked so directly about his intentions, and his struggle to answer honestly but without coming across as a jerk. Ormand is perfect. Her face shows that she still wants him even though she's falling for Linus; that she'll sleep with him even though she knows he'll discard her; that she's happy to get what she's always wanted, but the experience has been tainted by the realization that she has grown up, while David hasn't. She is both happy and hurt at the same time, disappointed in David, but also in herself for being willing to settle for a diminished prize.

When I watch Sabrina, I can see her mind cycling through scenarios, trying to figure out the intentions of others, what they want, what she wants, how she should respond. Everything is a struggle with her, not because she is awkward, but because she is aware of what's at stake with simple decisions. Linus asks her to the theater, and she looks at him for a long moment contemplating; she knows what's happening, knows that she is being played and also that he genuinely likes being with her, and she must decide whether to collude with Linus toward her own destruction.

In many ways the plot of the remake follows the plot of the original scene-for-scene, down to similar lines of dialog and even choreography (the way David looks around as he happily places the champagne glasses in his pockets). But this newer screenplay is much stronger, and I'm not surprised to learn that it was co-written by one of the writers of The Big Chill. The script increased the roles for Sabrina's father, David's fiance (Elizabeth), and both of Elizabeth's parents, giving good lines and admirable characteristics to all. Linus's role has been augmented with some of the funniest lines, but also with dialog that is brutal. David, incensed at Linus's deception of Sabrina, asks him, "What makes you think you have the right?" Linus replies, "Habit". It's neither a defense nor an apology, just the cold truth. When he first explains his plan to his mother he says, "I like Sabrina. I always have. But I'm not about to kiss off a billion dollars; I don't care what she did to her hair." Ouch.

The script throws in a bit of fairytale, that Sabrina's father is rich, to regain some of the magic lost from the original. But mostly it focuses its efforts on delivering a complex romance mired in real emotions with believable consequences. At the end of the original, Sabrina greets Linus on the boat as if the worst thing in the world hadn't just happened to her. In the remake, Sabrina makes it all the way to Paris before seeing Linus again, and when she does see him, she's not nearly as happy. She loves him, and they will be together, but he has already broken her heart. The ending isn't tragic, though. Sabrina is also overjoyed at Linus's reversal. These competing emotions co-exist in Sabrina just as they do in all of us, and that is the film's tremendous success: Sabrina feels.