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

Saturday, February 27, 2010

33. Cop Out

Vallejo 14
Cinemark's Vallejo 14 opened in May, 2001, according to this source. I could have sworn this is where my dad and I saw Armageddon in 1998, though. I remember clearly that from the freeway heading north out of town I could see the theater off to the right in a shopping center. When I visited the Vallejo 14 on Saturday, it did seem to have moved just a tad, and was no longer easily visible from the freeway. Well, thanks to this source, I now know that there was another theater in the Gateway Plaza shopping center, called the Cinedome 8, operating from 1989 until the new theater opened. (That's a very short lifespan for a theater.) That location is now occupied by a Kohl's.


The Vallejo 14 is mostly unremarkable, though I did notice the auditorium had a good rake to it.

Nine Bay Area Cinemark theaters are participating in a Best Picture & Best Director Festival this Saturday, March 6th. For $25 you can see the following five movies back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back: Precious, Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and Up in the Air. That would be quite an epic experience; I'd love to hear from anyone who actually does this (I've now seen all five of these, and so will be spending my Saturday in pursuit of other fare). It's humorous that, in opening up the Best Picture category to ten films, the Academy has only motivated gimmicks like "Best Picture & Best Director" to identify the real five Best Picture nominees. We're not fooled.

I was perusing Cinemark's latest SEC filing, which reports a surprising 21.2% increase in attendance for the last three months of last year, contrasted to the same three months in 2008. That's quite an increase in just a year. In looking at the movies available during those months, 2009 seems to have a $300 million lead over 2008, roughly the amount taken in by The Twilight Saga: New Moon before the end of the year (source: The Numbers). That alone could account for nearly a 20% increase in revenue. It's amazing that a single movie could have so positive an impact on the industry. Just like how some retail stores live or die by the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The document also claims that Cinemark "outperformed the overall domestic box office" (though it doesn't say by how much). When one of the nation's leading circuits does better than average, that worries me for the everyone else (specifically, independent theaters).

On March 1st, Cinemark Holdings, Inc. presented a routine update to shareholders, available for a limited time as a webcast. Here are some of the more interesting thing discussed during the conference.

In praise of its conversion to digital projection, the presenter mentions that on the eve of the release of the first Twilight movie, one of Cinemark's new, all-digital 14-screen theaters was selling out their midnight showings of the film. They had not anticipated the demand for the film, but as showings sold out they merely allocated additional screens to the movie (which they could not have done if they needed a tangible print for each screen). Before the evening was done, they had sold out all 14 screens, all for the same movie.

The circuit has begun rolling out a line of auditoriums called XD, which have wall-to-wall screens, leather chairs (not vegan, and therefore no ticket from me), and an "upcharge" of $5 for seeing a 3-D movie on an XD screen. So far there are three such auditoriums in the Bay Area. At the San Francisco Centre 9, for instance, you could be looking at a ticket price of $16 for this "premium" experience. The presenter says that Cinemark has been "conservative" with price increases in the past year, with respect to the recession, but Cinemark and AMC top the list for most expensive tickets in the Bay Area. (I've started to compile some numbers to substantiate this.)

Discussing why movies tend to perform well during a recession, the presenter had this to say: "Going to a dinner . . . you probably have to sit across the table from your wife or your husband and talk about how much money you just lost or the job you lost . . . [whereas] you can go to a theater and not talk." I've always thought this a compelling argument for going to the movies on your first date, but I hadn't thought of it for your seven hundredth date. "Movies: we keep couples from talking."



Pre-Show

The Black Eyed Peas will soon broadcast a performance to 475 theaters across the country. Here are some compelling reasons why this might not be a total waste of time. Those who watch live events via a recording often have better seats than people who were actually there. In the case of a music performance, the recording can sound better too (I saw Alanis Morissette at the Paramount, but could barely recognize a song, it was so garbled through the speakers). Next there is the issue of their recent album. I'm not a follower of their music, but decided to preview the thirty-second clips on iTunes when the album was released. Total trash. And yet that song, "Boom Boom Pow", is infectious. Finally, there's Fergie. Of all the actors in Nine, she did us the biggest favor by keeping her scenes short, and thus hastening the end of the film. Thank you, Fergie, for making America a better place. She's got a cool name, has cool eyebrows, and has been married to When in Rome star Josh Duhamel for an entire year, which is both record-breaking in Hollywood and bestows on Duhamel a little much-needed street cred. My best friend loves to use the word "Geezer!", thanks to some studio chatter at the end of a Fergie song, and I do find myself wondering what I'm going to do with all the junk in my car trunk. Will Ferrel gives props to the group in Blades of Glory, and Alanis Morissette (it all comes back to her), in a wonderful parody of "My Humps", both tears it a new one, and makes it all the more lovely.

A young man tells us how in high school he couldn't swim, but then he joined the Marines, and now he can. That is facing your fears. It is also a bit like becoming an astronaut to overcome your claustrophobia; yes it might teach you a valuable skill, but if not, you're in it deep.

Some interviews with stars of Clash of the Titans spoiled more of the movie than did either trailer I've seen thus far. If you see this interview come on, close your ears.

The suspicious claim that "more people are going to the movies than ever before", which I discussed here, has now been changed to "1.4 billion people went to the movies last year." It's as if they read my blog. I brought the establishment to a grinding halt with my guerrilla fact-finding tactics! Though they still conflate 'people' with 'admissions', and are trying to make it sound like 1.4 billion is a lot (relatively, it is not), at least they are no longer just plain wrong.

Kirstie Alley's Big Life is an upcoming reality show. The ad for it should be enough to convince you that her life is no more interesting than most people's, though she does have many pet lemurs, which is always useful to break the ice when having over the new neighbors. ("My son's on the football team." "My lemur's rifling through your purse.") The crux of her show is that Alley is overweight and wants to shed some pounds and keep them off. I'm not sure how this show differs from Fat Actress, which I also didn't see, but Alley's tone troubles me. If her show helps others of a similar mindset to lose weight, great. But the commercial suggests to me that Alley, in demonizing obesity, might end up just making people feel bad about themselves (or about others).

An ad for I don't know what has two women swap looks (shirts, hat, glasses, hair-dos, car canopies), and, eventually, boyfriends. Very odd. If anyone wants to swap boyfriends with you, you can be sure of one thing: he's no keeper.

Boondock Saints was a pure movie. Pure slow-mo violence. It was good once, and bad twice. Last October a sequel surfaced. Despite only earning ten million dollars, it somehow limped along for more than three months. Luckily, for "one night only", the original will return to theaters in celebration of its tenth birthday. You can relive all the great moments on the big screen, like jumping from a window with a toilet handcuffed to your hand, or spinning upside down and shooting more gangsters than you thought the film had budget for. Remember, when all hope is lost, say some prayers, and the villain might just take you under his wing. It worked in The Mummy, and by golly it works for the Saints.


Trailers

Death at a Funeral

Get Him to the Greek
A junior music executive (Jonah Hill) is entrusted with transporting a British rocker (Russell Brand) to an anniversary concert. The rocker just wants to party, get Hill drunk and into trouble, and sleep around. Hill, bless his little heart, plays the sort of role where he gets hit by a trashcan, and we feel so bad for him, because he's such a sweet guy, but we're also thinking, "hit him again, hit him again!" Brand is reprising his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall (didn't see it). He's colorful and provides much visual flare to the trailer. He also seems to genuinely like Hill. Hill has the best moments, getting injected with adrenaline, walking into a studio covered in his own vomit, and waking up hungover and confused. 117 cuts.

Hot Tub Time Machine (Trailer 2)
Skip it. This trailer is more hurried than the first. In a rush to get past the premise, and show us the zany situations our characters will get themselves into, the trailer begins to spoil what will probably be the few surprises the movie has to offer. 72 cuts.

Our Family Wedding
A goat on viagra, are you serious?

The Losers
I'm unfamiliar with the comic, but this movie seems to be based on the trailer for The A-Team. It improves on that trailer, though. It gives us more close-ups of the leads, does a better job of explaining that the government betrayed our black ops team, and shows Zoe Saldana shooting a rocket launcher. The movie is probably terrible, but the trailer is well edited, with effective slow motion money shots. Chris Evans wears lots of pink shirts. Zoe jumps in a bathtub. A sniper wears a cowboy hat. Booyah! 163 cuts, just shy of the title.

Clash of the Titans (Trailer 2)
As buddy cop movies go, Cop Out breaks the mold by having partners who actually get along. Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan have been partners for nine years, and the love is palpable. Traditionally, Willis plays the tough cop while Morgan plays the zany cop. But in an effort to switch roles, Morgan takes the lead in an interrogation, quoting and pantomiming every movie he can think of to express to the prisoner just how tough he is (this trait becomes tiresome quickly). Willis, accompanied by half the force, mocks Morgan's performance, but eventually intervenes and between the two of them they are able to get the name of the prisoner's drug supplier. The prisoner, now an informant, is set free, and during the stakeout to apprehend the drug supplier, the informant is murdered. At this point, every element of the movie has manifested: silly cops who are actually competent, facing off against a brutally violent drug cartel.

Willis and Morgan work well together. They mock and express affection for each other interchangeably. When they are both suspended because of the botched stakeout, Willis, well short of the forty-eight thousand dollars he needs to pay for his daughter's wedding, decides to sell his prize baseball card. Unfortunately, the card is stolen by a manic, Parkour-practicing crook, Seann William Scott, but Morgan comes to his partner's aid to help retrieve the card. Morgan has problems of his own, thinking that his wife is cheating on him (the film's funniest moment takes the shape of a nightmarish encounter Morgan imagines his wife having with the neighbor while taking out the trash, set to "Rhythm Is a Dancer"). Here it is Willis's turn to be supportive, and assure his partner of his wife's fidelity.

Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody have a recurring role as partners embroiled in their own self-worshipping work romance. Because they've seen it done in other movies, they pester our heroes (even though our heroes are actually pretty good cops). When Willis and Morgan are suspended, Pollack and Brody inherit their case. They begin following a trail of bodies that, wouldn't you know it, lead them to the very same person who has Willis's baseball card. The only thing that could make this tidier is if the drug lord were sleeping with Morgan's wife.

Morgan's wife, Rashida Jones, is the only one to shine in the background. Jason Lee, who nailed the voice of Syndrome in The Incredibles and therefore should quit while ahead, is limited by a tiny role as the new husband of Willis's ex. Michelle Trachtenberg (Willis's daughter) is also given very little to do.

There are many humorous moments in this movie. Sadly, though, the film is boring. Despite the warm fuzzies between Willis and Morgan, this is just another cop movie. The humor is sharply punctuated by graphic violence (the villain likes to beat people up by hitting baseballs at them), and most of the plot points (the baseball card, and Seann William Scott's entire role) feel contrived. Willis gives a flat performance. He appears humorless beside Morgan's extreme acting, but also not serious enough given the severity of the crimes they are investigating. In the final sequence, Willis and Morgan actually joke about shooting off someone's head. Yuck.

I found myself not really caring if Morgan's wife were cheating on him, or if Willis would be able to afford his daughter's wedding. The bad guys will get caught in the end, one way or another. I would have enjoyed the movie more if it were just about the two teams of screwball partners playing pranks on each other back at the police station. Who needs bat-toting gangsters when Pollack and Brody have matching boots?

32. Shutter Island

Cinedome 8 Napa

Napa has seen few theaters in its ninety-year film history. The Fox Theatre, built in the 1920s, closed in the 1950s. The Uptown Theater, built in 1937, was split into four different screens, and finally closed in the late 1990s (currently undergoing renovation, the theater is scheduled to reopen in the near future). Napa's only surviving theater is the Cinedome 8 Napa, built in 1982, and now owned by Cinemark.


Like many multiplexes, the Cinedome 8 offers a variety of auditorium sizes (and shapes). On the arial shot below (from Google Maps) I've indicated that the two large domes are devoted to auditoriums 6 and 8, seating 327 and 353, respectively, nearly half of the theater's 1411 total seats. The remaining six auditoriums are left to carve out what space they can. I only poked around a little bit, so the other screen shapes I've marked below are my conjecture and thus subject to error.


I have found no online listing that identifies which films are playing in which auditoriums; if this matters to you, you should call ahead (the domed auditoriums appear to favor newer releases). This is a problem with multiplexes offering diverse viewing experiences. Avatar at the Big Fremont was the way to watch a sci-fi epic. Avatar in the side theater at the Grand Lake is not. However, the Grand Lake's website is very up front about which films are showing in which auditoriums, and for that I am very grateful (and there are some films which play better in the side auditoriums than in the large auditoriums). Even better, the Piedmont actually rotates their movies during the week, with each movie getting its shot on the big (wheelchair accessible) screen each week (call their number for a schedule). Other theaters make it more difficult. There is a huge difference between the Shattuck's ornate theater in the back and their tiny screening rooms to the side, so I'd appreciate a more convenient way to determine ahead of time what is playing where. I surmise that any multiplex with diverse seating options doesn't want to scare away customers from the smaller screens by promoting what is on the big screen. But not knowing what I'm in for is a deterrent for me to go at all.

From the theater's lobby a hallway snakes its way through the length of the building. Doors open from the hallway directly into the auditoriums, with no buffers for ambient light. Auditorium 1, whose door actually faces the lobby (and therefore direct light from the front doors), has a curtain draped outside the auditorium door in an attempt to reduce the light. It's easy to say this now, with hindsight, but what were they thinking? Here's a test: with the house lights down and the auditorium doors wide open, the only visible light should be from the emergency exit signs and very subtle runners in the aisles.


The Cinedome's architect, Vincent G. Raney, also gave us the Century 21 and 22 and the Retro Dome in San Jose, the now-closed Cindedome 8 Fremont, the Cinedome 7 Newark, and theCinéArts @ Pleasant Hill, all domed theaters. The theater I most frequented as a child was a Century complex of domes in Reno (now a parking lot). According to this Wikipedia article, domes can be built faster and cheaper than can conventional spaces. That might apply more to the geodesic variety described in the article, but I could believe it for the traditional Century domes as well. At least, I hope they cost less, because they are certainly less attractive and less conducive to watching a movie.


Is it cool to watch a movie inside a giant dome? Yes, actually. It feels futuristic. By 1970s standards anyway, and that makes the experience both futuristic and from an alternate timeline (a double-whammy for sci-fi fans). The problem with domed auditoriums, though, is that they are too wide. Ideally, a seat will face the center of the screen and be perpendicular to it; in this way, the screen's center is its nearest point to the viewer, and the left and right edges are equidistant from the viewer. This is a tall order to fill, and the reason why there are typically few sweet spots per screen. In the Cinedome 8, seats wrap too far on either side. This is acceptable for a stage theater, like this one, because the viewer is still looking at three-dimensional objects. The side seats are more problematic for film, though, because the images become distorted at angles. I've known people who have opted for a refund on their ticket rather than accept one of few remaining, undesirable seats in some theaters.

My seating counts are courtesy of the box office attendant, who actually took the time to write down for me the capacity of each auditorium.



Pre-Show

Jerry Seinfeld is producing a reality show where we get to watch real married couples have real fights. A referee, having heard both sides, then makes some sort of ruling in favor of one spouse or the other. The show is supposed to be a comedy, but I think it will be a thriller, whereby we watch the losing party stalk the meddling ref and ultimately wail on him with some tangible symbol of the troubled marriage, like a flannel shirt or remote control.

I was very confused by a promo for Clash of the Titans. It was brief and choppy, the sort of commercial we see on television two weeks after the film has been in release, when the studio, assuming we've already seen the teaser, three trailers, the slushie cup, and perhaps even the movie itself, wants to gently remind us of the film's existence. I particularly like the ones that say, "The number one film in America is . . ." (an honor bestowed on about 25% of the wide releases each year), which is to say that everyone else was duped by the previews, so you should join them.

Southland is about L.A. cops on the beat. It looks tense, gritty, and just like every other cop show and movie I've ever seen. It returns this year with a "new season of never before seen episodes". I'm not sure what other sort of episodes a "new season" would contain (old episodes but in a different order?). And "never before seen" sounds like they uncovered some archives long thought lost. Or maybe this is truth in advertising, that these episodes are actually so bad that not even the directors or studio heads could stomach them. You, lucky viewer, could be the very first person to see them!

A man finds it easier to say he loves Miller Light than to tell his girlfriend that he loves her. The commercial is supposed to make me want to drink the beer, instead of hitting the guy over the head with the bottle, trying to knock some sense into him. It's a real toss up.

The 2010 Academy Awards are being touted with the tagline, "Something different is about to happen... You've never seen Oscar like this." Ten best picture nominees! Two hosts! For me, that's not quite enough to set it apart from all the others (though I have now seen half of the best picture nominees, which is a better percentage than I've had most years). Unless they cure cancer on stage, I think I'll be disappointed by whatever is supposedly 'different'.

A college kid, asleep after studying late into the night, is awoken by the sound of a Coke bottle opening (courtesy of tiny minions who have escaped from his text book). He's late for his exam, but there's nothing quite like a cold, refreshing Coke for breakfast at 11:30 in the morning before a test. In a separate spot, a young man bemoans that we don't yet have time travel; someone behind him, meanwhile, is using a time machine to prevent his past self from making stupid mistakes in the near past (moments before?). At the end, he's covered with writing from felt markers. I'm not sure why. This is perhaps the first commercial I've seen where I suspect there are missing scenes.

(I recently watched The Invention of Lying for the first time, which features an exceptional Coke commercial, which you can see here. Here's the transcript: "Hi, I'm Bob. I'm the spokesperson for the Coca-Cola Company. I'm here today to ask you to continue buying Coke. I'm sure it's the drink you've been drinking for years, and if it's still enjoyable I'd like to remind you to buy it again sometime soon. It's basically just brown sugar water. Haven't changed the ingredients much lately so there's nothing new I can tell you about that. Uh, changed the can around a little bit though. You can see the colors are different there, and we added a polar bear so the kids like us. Coke's very high in sugar and like any high calorie soda it can lead to obesity in children and adults and also stain a very healthy diet. And that's it. Coke. Very famous. Everyone knows it. And I'm Bob. I work for Coke. And I'm asking you to not stop buying Coke. That's all. [Takes a sip.] It's a bit sweet. Thank you." Now that's a commercial.

And finally, a commercial worth watching: this commercial for Old Spice is ridiculous and offensive, but funny. I could watch it several more times. "I'm on a horse."


Trailers

Green Zone
In this fourth installment in the Jason Bourne series, Matt Damon is so deep undercover that he's not even called Jason Bourne anymore. But we're not fooled. He might be in a different branch of the military, and have a pared-down skill set, but only Jason Bourne would allow himself to be captured by a militant cell, tell the leader of that cell that Damon is there to kill him, and then carry out the threat. The omission of the name Jason Bourne from the script is probably an oversight, due to limited space from the many explosions and spent shell casings. 158 cuts, with seventeen dead bodies in each.

Death at a Funeral


Sorcerer's Apprentice
New York City has a nice skyline, but I don't need to see it in every single movie and trailer ever made. At 81 cuts, this trailer could have been half as long and been twice as good. Jay Baruchel will someday be a powerful sorcerer, but for now he is apprenticed to Nicolas Cage, in the fight against Alfred Molina and an evil butterfly man. Swap out Nicolas Cage for Clive Owen and Jay Baruchel for Patrick Fugit and you've got yourself a great movie. The effects are cool, but center-stage. This trailer doesn't pretend to do anything but dazzle.

Clash of the Titans (Trailer 2)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
When Carey Mulligan is in your life, don't screw it up by trying to bring her corrupt father, Michael Douglas, into the mix. But Shia LeBeouf, a wannabe high roller, does just that, with predictable results. He lives the good life, is tainted by Douglas, loses Mulligan, and ultimately learns the same lesson we did by watching the first movie in the series. This trailer doesn't know when to quit. It topped out at about sixty cuts in terms of showing new information and contributing to the story; after that, it's just a barrage, totaling 127 cuts.

Iron Man 2


Shutter Island
We love to be surprised, and we despise being tricked. Unfortunately, Martin Scorsese's film feels like a trick from the very first scene. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo are U.S. marshals (partnered for the first time), on their way to Shutter Island, off the coast of 1950s Boston. Shutter Island is an institution for the "criminally insane", a phrase the film delights in repeating. And it needs to; other than a few broad strokes, the film never establishes that the inmates are particularly dangerous or insane. Instead, they like to chat and work diligently raking leaves (actually, I guess that is a bit crazy).

A dangerous inmate, Emily Mortimer, has gone missing, and it's up to the two marshals to find her. Mortimer's treating psychiatrist left for vacation just before the marshals arrived (suspicious), the head doctor, Ben Kingsley, is less than helpful (suspicious), and another doctor, Max von Sydow, is from Germany (suspicious!). No one on the island seems the slightest bit interested in finding Mortimer, which begs the question (that the marshals never ask) why were the marshals summoned in the first place? The whole island is locked up tight, and no one in the outside world would have ever known if a patient went missing, so why bring in two investigators, only to give them the cold shoulder?

DiCaprio, sensing that his hosts are hiding something, begins to dig deeper into the island's past, questioning people and going places he shouldn't. At the same time, he's on a personal quest, looking for the man who killed his wife, Michelle Williams. As his stay on the island is artificially prolonged (by a freak storm, among other things), DiCaprio begins to dream vividly about his dead wife, who coaches him about who's lying, and warns him away from many dangers.

Michelle Williams does a great job in her few scenes. She can crank up the emotion to eleven. DiCaprio is tolerable, and Ruffalo is enjoyable as always. The rest of the cast are more talented than their roles allow expression for.

Shutter Island is moody. Very moody. It employs overly-dramatic music to constantly remind us we should be tense. Everyone acts like they're hiding something, to constantly remind us to be suspicious. And every time our curiosity is piqued about what's behind the curtain, the movie jerks our attention toward something else. That is its greatest flaw. A good mystery sets the audience loose in a mire of clues, free to sift through them as best we can (though we always fall short of our hero's brilliant eye for detail). Shutter Island, on the other hand, maintains mystery by refusing to ask intelligent questions and by tightly controlling our perspective. I felt I was being lead around, manipulated, shown only what Scorsese wanted me to see. As a result, the twists come across as cons, rather than surprises. I wanted magic, but instead experienced sleight of hand.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Theater Distribution, Part 2

Not all wide releases are created equal. For the 120 or so Bay Area theaters that I track, I've compiled some statistics for a few notable runs. Below is a chart that shows the total number of Friday showings offered for each movie (a showing is one showtime on one screen).


I didn't begin tracking showtimes until the second Friday of the year, but even several weeks into its run, and with Daybreakers and Leap Year (not pictured) opening, Avatar was still king with 516 daily showings. The Book of Eli was the first true challenger, debuting at 428 showings, and matching Avatar exactly in its second week with 398 showings each.

In Eli's second week, it and Avatar fought off three wide releases, among whom we see an interesting trajectory of mediocrity. Legion and Tooth Fairy showed up with just over 300 showings each, and they stayed friends into their second week. But then Tooth Fairy cracked a joke that everyone and their kindergartner (and Eli) could laugh at, while humorless Legion just didn't get it, and the honeymoon was over. Tooth Fairy (purple line) began a slow descent, while Legion (red line) dropped showings like zombies at a diner.

No other movie has seen quite the same success (of failure), though, as Extraordinary Measures. Just about the time people were choosing Dwayne Johnson in pink wings, the Bay Area also decided they'd rather fight off an army of warmongering angels than watch parents try to save their children from cancer. The film went from 236 showings in its second week, to just twenty showings in week three. When that fourth Friday rolled around, not a single showing was offered in the entire Bay Area. That is a cataclysmic rejection. I predict that this movie, among all others widely released this year, will maintain the record for quickest doom.

One thing remained consistent during these dark times: Avatar. Heading into its eight weekend it still offered a Bay Area showing, on average, every four minutes. But finally, through the combined efforts of three new releases, and after more than a month in the top spot, Avatar was beaten. The Wolfman is most notable for setting the new record for the year at 558 showings (it actually reached 568 the next day). (My apologies to Avatar if I'm robbing it of a trophy by excluding January 1st.) Avatar, The Wolfman, and Valentine's Day (not pictured) are the only movies so far this year to break 500 daily showings in the Bay Area. Surprisingly, The Wolfman has now dipped below Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, perhaps because of other thrillers being released.

I've been wondering lately how the Bay Area differs from the rest of the nation in terms of how many showings it devotes to an individual movie. Unfortunately, my strategy to gather showtimes for every theater in the country proved unfeasible. But I do have statistics for local engagements (scraped from IMDB) and national engagements (courtesy of The Numbers). An engagement is a single theater. Even if the theater shows a movie on multiple screens, the theater will still only be counted once.

I list below the movies widely released this year (1000+ engagements). Dividing their Bay Area engagements by their national engagements yields a percentage. Excluding the outlier Crazy Heart, the Bay Area has an average of almost exactly 2%, meaning that, on average, Bay Area theaters account for 2% of a movie's national engagements. (Crazy Heart is an outlier because not only did it barely make the list at 1089 national engagements, but these were still relegated to independent theaters, of which the Bay Area has a disproportionate number.)

Thus if the percentage is below 2%, the Bay Area slightly under-represents the film contrasted to the rest of the country, and if the percentage is above 2% we like the movie more than does the rest of the country. With The Spy Next Door and When in Rome at either extreme of the list, I don't think anyone comes out a winner on this one.

It's also fun to see that although The Wolfman had more daily showings than Valentine's Day, the romance found its way into seven more local theaters than did the supernatural tale.

MovieBay AreaNationalPercentage
The Spy Next Door4729241.61%
Cop Out5231501.65%
Tooth Fairy5833441.73%
Daybreakers4425231.74%
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief5933561.76%
The Crazies4624761.86%
Avatar 3D6734521.94%
From Paris With Love5427221.98%
Leap Year5025111.99%
Valentine's Day7336651.99%
Extraordinary Measures5225452.04%
The Wolfman6632222.05%
Dear John6129692.05%
Edge of Darkness6330662.05%
The Book of Eli6431112.06%
Legion5124762.06%
Shutter Island6629912.21%
Youth in Revolt4318732.30%
The Lovely Bones6526382.46%
When in Rome6124562.48%
Crazy Heart4410894.04%

As I gather more counts of theater seating capacity, I hope to ultimately be able to tell you exactly how many seats were made available for each film this year. These numbers are vastly incomplete at this time, but so far this year Avatar has made available at least two million seats to the Bay Area's seven million residents (source: Wikipedia).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Top 10 Interwoven Vignettes

Top Ten Tuesday

This list is inspired by my recent viewing of Valentine's Day, featuring an impressive number of character threads, intersecting in meaningful, inconsequential, and contrived ways. There is a theme (Los Angeles on Valentine's Day), but no plot, and as far as I can tell, no thesis. And that's okay; most movies have a singular plot and few main characters, so it's only fair (and healthy for our minds) that at least a few movies deviate from this.

The interwoven vignette is much like a typical television show. Most shows I've seen, unless geographically compressed (e.g. all characters are aboard the Starship Voyager), quickly unravel into competing and unrelated narratives. If the show is about characters, rather than events, then we must check in with each character each episode. It takes a talented writing and directing staff to use a large cast in a single meaningful scene (Heroes, which is horrible at this, no longer even tries; episodes alternate between two sets of unrelated plots, each continued two episodes later). Because this is so difficult, shows typically divide into micro-dramas. While the doctor is in the emergency room performing brain surgery, her husband is at the law office battling alcoholism, and their son is in the Principal's office for fighting with a bully (notice that our main kid never is the bully), and the young ER nurse, so full of promise, just rear-ended someone on the way to work. Personally, I actually dislike this format. It seems like a trick to fill the air time. When I consider an individual thread, I realize that for a forty-five minute show, very little actually happened. If I care about a character, I want them to accomplish more in forty-five minutes than taking a trip to the bar at lunchtime. Thus, I gravitate toward plot-centric shows, where characters appear and disappear as needed for the plot. I want my characters to be part of a team, united (onscreen) for a common goal. What they do in the off hours is their business.

But what I loathe in television I yearn for in movies, which are typically very conservative in what they try to accomplish for their characters. Movies are like pinball machines; we're meant to keep our eye on the ever-moving ball (the main character) as it bounces around and interacts with various reactive surfaces (other characters), each of which serves only to keep the ball moving along. (Clue, Cinema's Gift to Will, cuts out or kills all of its inconsequential characters, leaving us with just seven equally developed personalities.) Only the main characters is afforded any depth.

Though Valentine's Day does not attempt this, I envision the true merit of this sub-genre (i.e. of interwoven vignettes) as a method of instructing empathy. In most movies, I identify with the film's protagonist. This fleeting identification with someone else nonetheless does not expand my consciousness, because this structure preserves the conflict of one-versus-all. Interwoven vignettes, however, are capable of disassociating the viewer from a protagonist, rather making us sympathize with several competing points of view, each legitimate to that perspective's own champion. Though most of us are the main characters in our own personal dramas, we are well reminded that everyone feels this way, about themselves.

Below are ten films with no main character, and no central plot. Each character goes about their business, and we flit around from person to person, seeing what they're up to, and generally trying to figure out how they are all interrelated.

(The film would be terribly disappointing if the seemingly unrelated stories were actually unrelated. I once read a Star Wars expanded universe trilogy like this; each novel was divided into three sections, each following a different groups of characters on a quest. Eventually Luke's quest intersected with that of Leia, Han, and Chewbacca. But Lando, R2-D2, and C-3PO? No, their story had nothing to do with the other two, and thus could have been its own stand-alone book.)

10. Short Cuts (1993)
Robert Altman's now-classic film has an impressive twenty-two people sharing top billing. If you were living in Los Angeles when this film was made, chances are you've been credited. This is the quintessential example of interwoven narratives, with roughly ten different stories unfolding over the course of just a few days. These mostly unrelated tales are synched up by a gimmicky earthquake that does little but remind us of the simultaneity of the narratives. We have Altman to thank for the genre, but also for its imperfections. The more overt imitators—Playing by Heart (1998), Magnolia (1999), Sidewalks of New York (2001), Crash (2005), Valentine's Day (2010)—all feel fractured, as does Short Cuts. The viewer is constantly reminded, by the disconnected threads, that we are being subjected to a cinematic contrivance.

9. Deep Impact (1998)
I'm kidding, right? Sorry, but no. First, when contrasted to Armageddon, from the same year, Deep Impact is practically watchable. Second, the film uses a plot-centric gimmick (an asteroid about to strike Earth) to examine human desperation. Superficially, I'll admit. But we end up with four stories, each examining a reaction to imminent apocalypse. Predictably, one of those stories is about a team in space trying to destroy the asteroid before it reaches us. But there are three other threads that are powerless to stop the asteroid. We have the President taking the macro view of how (American) life and culture will endure, after the impact. Two families struggle to get into a shelter. Finally, a daughter and her parents are each resigned to not surviving. This movie isn't great, but moreso than Short Cuts and its imitators it manages to tell many stories under the illusion of unity.

8. Love Actually (2003)
I praised this film a bit here. It's so good natured it might make you puke. "London at Christmas" isn't much more to go on than "Los Angeles on Valentine's Day", but it manages to succeed nonetheless. The stories are only loosely related. We're left to mostly infer Colin Firth's relationship to the rest, and the rock stars are entirely disconnected except for appearing on televisions and radios throughout the movie. Other than a preponderance of beauty I really don't know why this film works; it feels like a Saturday Morning Special about loving thy neighbor. But it works.

7. Southland Tales (2007)
Quite possibly this strange story was intended to have a central plot and character, but if so, I couldn't tell. Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Geller, and several others rush around near-future Los Angeles, some trying to uncover a government conspiracy about a missing soldier, others just trying to get ahead in the entertainment business. We're left with a surreal story where each character's motivations seem at odds with their reality, and we're neither sure what to believe nor who to root for. Justin Timberlake does a song and dance that is incredibly entertaining.

6. Intermission (2004)
Set in and around Dublin, this movie ties together its various threads with personal relationships, but also with chance encounters (e.g. character A infuriates character B, who takes it out on the next person he sees, character C). Cillian Murphy, in a bizarrely misguided romantic gesture, kidnaps his own girlfriend, Kelly Macdonald, to make her fall for him again. One of his cohorts, Colin Farrell, is constantly at odds with celebrity lawman Colm Meaney, and Macdonald's sister, Shirley Henderson, has her own strange encounters with men who express their affection and disdain for her in revolting ways. The movie shows some sex bias, turning all of its men into scoundrels, and its women into saints, but everyone is interesting to watch, and finds some satisfying catharsis by the end.

5. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
On its surface, this wonderfully low-key film doesn't seem to fit on this list, because it is clearly about the awkward romance between shoe salesman John Hawkes and visual artist Miranda July, who provides a taxi service for the elderly as her day job. But the movie is very loose about focusing on these two, and ultimately drifts to the periphery, where we become absorbed in the dramas of Hawkes's two children and three neighbors, as well as a curator to whom July has submitted her latest work of performance art. Here's a test most movies would fail: if the protagonist's friend/parent/co-worker were in a scene all by themself, would the scene still be interesting? In most movies, these add-on characters serve as mere sounding boards for the hero and are therefore inconsequential to the plot. (Thinking of recent films, I'm reminded of It's Complicated, where Meryl Streep's three girlfriends exist only to give Streep an excuse to face the camera and tell us what she's thinking.) In Me and You and Everyone We Know, the eponymous Everyone are just as interesting and as real as the ostensible leads, and so the movie doesn't feel like a story; it feels like life.

4. Go (1999)
Three competing narratives swirl around a raucous night off from work and a drug deal gone semi-sour. Check-out clerks Katie Holmes and Sarah Polley are among those involved, as are their friends, some actors, and various shady characters. This is one of those movies where we often see the same event from two angles, giving the viewer an appreciable full picture of something that seems random to each of the characters involved, because of their limited perspectives.

3. Four Rooms (1995)
Four stories, by four writer/directors, share a creepy hotel as their common location. A strange bellhop, Tim Roth, unifies the stories through his involvement with each. I wouldn't quite call the movie entertaining, but it is fun to see how stories intersect each other. Despite being told one after the other, they occur simultaneously, and there are slight spillovers from one to another that are only sensible after having seen both involved tales (e.g. two sides to a wrong number phone call are split between two narratives). One segment in particular features one of the most disgusting sight gags I've ever actually laughed at.

2. Timecode (2000)
Four camera angles divide the screen into a grid of simultaneous perspectives. Characters are not loyal to any particular perspective, nor is a camera dedicated to any one location. The film feels like four competing "day in the life of" documentaries, except there is no consistency to the subjects or their plots. Much of the movie is improvised, following around various Hollywood figures (actors, producers, directors, etc.), and watching them flirt and fight with each other. The film uses unscripted dead spots (and audio tricks) to force our attention to more important events in a particular corner of the screen. Watching this movie is a bit like being a security guard at a mall, monitoring several closed-circuit surveillance systems at once, trying to derive meaning from a barrage of images. Part of what makes this movie so interesting is that even when a character is alone, we are not alone with that character. With our attention always divided, we are working against the movie to obtain any sort of intimacy with the characters. The movie doesn't seem to care who we like, or even what we watch. This is a bit annoying and pretentious, but it's also fun, especially when camera angles converge, showing the same characters from different directions.

1. Gosford Park (2001)
First, before you protest, remember that any list with a positive connotation should be topped with Gosford Park. That's just good sense. Second, there really is no plot to the movie, other than "a bunch of people at a mansion for the weekend". The murder mystery aspect is a bit of a ploy, and I don't think it is intended to command our attention. Rather, we are meant to watch with fascination the interactions between the upstairs and the downstairs, how the slightest glance or comment can be pregnant with meaning. For the most part the movie does not obscure how characters are related to each other, as others in the genre do; instead, this obscurity is accomplished through shear numbers of characters: more than forty characters are named and have recurring speaking roles. Thematically, "mansion culture" is the film's topic, and it delivers in spades. Every turn of the camera finds an interesting character, usually "nobody", going about their business, and it's just as interesting to follow them into the pantry as to follow an aristocrat into the parlor.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Top 10 Surprise Twists

Top Ten Tuesday

I'm way behind on my movie and theater reviews, so I'm going to make short work of this list. I've chosen a topic where the less said the better. Often, even knowing that a surprise twist is coming has already ruined the surprise. This was the reaction of many to Unbreakable, where the shocking ending was heavily advertised before the movie's opening. What a mistake. So, I'm going to list below the movies that most blew my mind when some revelation occurred, and I'm going to be brief.

10. Clue (1985)
I'll say it now to get this out of the way: Clue is my favorite movie. I've been working hard to keep from mentioning it in every paragraph on this blog, but it seems to actually belong on this list. I recently listened to an interview with the screenwriter who gave compelling reasons why the film's structure, novel though it is, decreased ticket sales. I can only imagine the confused delight that must have erupted in the movie's wake for those not in the know, comparing notes with people who had seen it separately. This is the unique surprise twist where the twist doesn't even happen in the movie; it's only afterward when talking with someone else that the gimmick reveals itself. The home video experience, which is all I've ever known, holds up as well. "So, everything's been explained."

9. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
You've probably never heard of this little indie film, nor do you suspect the truth. Vader: "Obi-Wan would never bother, telling you about your father." Luke: "He told me enough, he told me you killed him." Vader: "There is something that I must explain then . . ."

8. The Matrix (1999)
Neo takes the red pill, and sees how far down the rabbit hole goes.

7. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
This one got me, despite my heightened suspicions from other movies on this list.

6. Fight Club (1999)
I knew going in, and still enjoyed it. Really good surprise endings are good even once the secret is out. In this particular case, I think I would have been too anxious not knowing the truth.

5. Dark City (1998)
Blew my mind.

4. The Usual Suspects (1995)
This method of revelation has been adopted by many films since, and typically is an insult to the audience's intelligence, as if we need extensive flashbacks to help us understand slight twists to simple films. But this movie definitely needs the recap, because the film does such a good job of keeping the evidence in the background.

3. The Sixth Sense (1999)
No way. No effin' way.

2. The Crying Game (1992)
Another one I knew going in, otherwise it would be number one on this list. This is a famous twist, humorously revealed in the credits of one of the Zucker movies.

1. Color of Night (1994)
My jaw hit the floor. Unlike most mysteries, here we have all the same evidence our detective character does, and we're just as surprised as the detective is.

Monday, February 15, 2010

31. Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire)

Tiburon Playhouse 3
Cinema West is a small, California-based circuit, with seven of its twelve theaters located in the Bay Area. Their Tiburon Playhouse 3 theater was built in 1948, on land fill covering what was once a lagoon populated by houseboats. The theater's exterior blends well with Tiburon's harbor identity. (That's my friend Mica standing in front.)


This marks my first trip to Tiburon. It has a bit of a Stepford quality to it, but is certainly picturesque, with beautiful views of Angel Island, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Parking is not convenient. A paid lot immediately adjacent to the theater offers no validation. Street parking is unmetered, but with two-hour limits. The theater's website identifies a Bank of America lot (several blocks away) as the nearest free parking. The theater is accessible by ferry from San Francisco, though at a steep price of $22 round trip!

The theater was twinned in 1989. A third screen was built to the side of the building in 1995. The structure of the lobby suggests that the glass-enclosed outer lobby is an extension of the theater's original front, allowing interior access to the new third screen. (Contrast the Tiburon Playouse's elegant solution, pictured below, to my description of yellow line cooked up by CinéArts @ Pleasant Hill.)


A stairway at the back suggests that at least one of the two twinned screens still has a balcony. Two screens have posted seating capacities of 184 (the left side of the twinned original auditorium) and 111 (the third, newer screen). Assuming the two twins are of equivalent size, the total capacity is approximately 479.

The Tiburon Playhouse hosts the Tiburon International Film Festival each March, showcasing over two hundred films and shorts from around the world. The 2010 schedule isn't yet available, but their site does list this year's entries.

Precious was showing in the third screen, where, unfortunately, every seat is at a slight angle to the screen; the only perpendicular spot is probably in the center aisle. The theater's website says that all screens have loveseats. In fact, these are seats with liftable armrests, which, to me, are not the same thing as a mini couch that encourages snuggling.

The film's opening credits seemed a bit blurry, and for the first time in my life I took action! I walked to the concession stand to let the attendant know, and he promptly (and mostly) adjusted the focus.



Trailers

Greenberg

Letters to Juliet

Inception


Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire)
I didn't have much interest in seeing this apparently gritty urban tale, because I don't typically seek out overtly depressing films, but Mica talked me into it. And I'm not sorry.

Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is Precious, an illiterate sixteen-year-old, still in junior high, and pregnant for the second time with her father's child. She lives in a dilapidated Harlem apartment with her abusive mother, Mary (Mo'Nique). Mary's income is derived from welfare, increased by her supposed guardianship of Precious's first child, who actually lives with Precious's grandmother. Leaving the house only to play the lottery, Mary spends her days watching television and bossing about her daughter.

Precious is expelled from school for being pregnant (which seems a counterproductive punishment, but the expelling Principal has Precious's interests in mind). With the help of the Principal, and without Mary's knowledge (Mary pressures Precious to apply for welfare), Precious enrolls in an alternative class lead by Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). In all other aspects of her life, Precious is not only silent, but when being abused by her mother, her father, or even random strangers on the street, she retreats into an internal fantasy world of glamor and fame, disassociating herself from her body as a defense against pain. But in Ms. Rain's class, Precious begins to articulate her thoughts and feelings (her first such expression was only one of several scenes that made me cry), and build with her classmates her first healthy relationships. Her classmates come from a variety of backgrounds, and bring with them more than their share of attitude. They all seem to recognize that a basic education is a tool that can enable them to each escape their circumstances, and in that they are allied, despite their differences.

At home, Mary sulks in her easy chair, always watching her daughter, waiting for any opportunity to erupt in anger. There is nothing likable about Mary, but by the movie's end, and through interactions with Precious's welfare contact, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), we will at least understand Mary's ugliness, and why she mistreats her daughter, including forcing obesity upon her. (I think that even non-vegetarians will agree that the movie portrays Precious's diet as grotesque.)

I take one ethical exception to the film, during a scene in which Mary is verbally abusive and profane in front of Precious's young daughter. I see no evidence that the explicit dialog was added during ADR. Rather it seems that the child actor was actually present for this explosive tirade. Isn't there some governing body that ensures children are not mistreated for entertainment purposes? And if there is, why did this scene pass the test?

The author of the novel, named in the movie's burdensome title, writes partly from her experience in a role similar to that of Ms. Rain. It is horrifying to think that anyone could grow up with such a malevolent support network. The film is both devastating in its brutal treatment of Precious, but, because of this despair, also deeply satisfying when Precious ekes out tiny victories. The movie is not fun for a moment, but it is one of few films I've seen in recent years that is actually important.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

30. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Century 16 Bayfair
Cinemark's Bayfair theater was added to San Leandro's Bayfair Center (formerly known as Bay Fair Mall) in 2001. The theater is accessible by a nearby BART station and has lots of parking.


I don't know the theater's total seating capacity, but the lobby alone can hold 702 people. The concessions area (aka Cafe Cinema) has a full ice-cream bar, hot tea, and cookies. To one side is a substantial arcade (Starcade Arcade Lounge).


The lobby also features a wide assortment of standees. The favorite seems to be the "Get in the tub" promo for Hot Tub Time Machine, where kids can pose with their faces protruding through cut-outs of the actors. My favorite was a giant yellow fire hydrant for Marmaduke (I'm pictured below, left, with my college roommate and frequent movie buddy Matthew).


There were many families with children in the lobby, giving the theater a very lively atmosphere. There were also numerous security guards milling about, which indicates the theater might get some tough customers on occasion.

In the pre-show, Jewel sings in a flower shop as a tie-in for Valentine's Day. I can't recommend her singing these days; gone are her raw, sensitive songs; now she sounds like any number of other singers. A Sprite commercial that I've seen several times now has rapper Drake trying to record a song, "Forever". His creativity stalls, so he drinks a Sprite, which opens up his body as if he were a robot, exposing mix tables and speakers inside him. Once they are flushed out with Sprite, Drake is able to deliver his lines with conviction. Having now looked up the lyrics to "Forever", I can say that Sprite cleverly picked out the single stanza that is appropriate for a commercial. I'm not a Sprite drinker, but the idea of washing my electronic devices with Sprite makes me envision a sticky, electrical mess.



Trailers

Alice in Wonderland (Trailer 2)

The Karate Kid
American transplant Jaden Smith ends up in Beijing where he must learn from master Jackie Chan to survive in the rough streets. Chan tells Smith that "the only way to stop them is to face them." And thus begin the obligatory (yet usually satisfying) training sequences, where performing repetitive actions (in this case, taking off his jacket and hanging it up) turns someone into a gladiator. (That's why I repeatedly open the snack cupboard each day; I'm training to be the ultimate fighting champion.) Jaden seems quite young to deliver any sort of forceful blows. I began to wonder if it is only my age that makes me think Ralph Macchio seemed older in the 1984 film of the same name, but as it turns out, Macchio was twenty-two when he made his movie, but Smith is only twelve. Smith's puniness and the trailer's hasty 109 cuts keep it from being enjoyable, but Fort Minor's song "Remember the Name", thrown in for the latter half of the trailer, helps me to take it more seriously.

Despicable Me (Trailer 3)

Marmaduke
Eight cuts. Very conservative. And yet still it was enough to possess me of the opinion that I have no interest in seeing this live-action movie about a giant dog, Marmaduke. He's voiced by Owen Wilson. Movies about talking animals I can do without. I will be pleasantly surprised if someone can name even a single such movie that is worth seeing for an adult.

The Last Airbender (Trailer 2)
(not rated)
When I am super excited about seeing a movie I will often close my eyes during the previews. I'll get to see the movie for the first time only once, so I don't want anything spoiled. I decided to exercise that caution with this trailer. The teaser was perfect, enticing me to see the film, letting me know who is directing, and that it will have awesome effects. I don't need anything else. So, instead of reviewing this second trailer, which I didn't watch, I'll talk about the television show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have just finished watching the last of the show's three-season run. And it is absolutely awesome. Easily one of the best shows I've ever seen, with funny humor, absorbing drama, incredible action sequences, super-powers, a core team of enjoyable characters, and a beautiful mystical world. I would gladly rewatch this entire series. I will warn you that the show is animated (you can tell I'm a fan because I use that word; pooh-pooers call them cartoons), and produced for children. But second only to Justice League, it is the best superhero show I've seen. Unfortunately, the more I love the show, the more I realize that it will be impossible to capture its epic tale and enduring friendships in one (or even three) movies. I'm trying to keep that in mind, so I'm not unfairly disappointed in the movie.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid

A sixth grader, Greg, starts off by telling us, "Let me just say for the record that middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented." I have to agree with him there. It's certainly the longest, sickest, most inhumane experiment I've ever been part of. Greg, along with other unpopular cohorts Rowley, Chirag, and Fregley, must traverse his school's inhospitable waters. The trailer has several funny moments and is worth watching. Though I do take exception to Greg saying that he is surrounded by a "bunch of morons"; strong words to apply to children who haven't yet finished schooling. 63 cuts.


Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Although things didn't work out too well for Christ, that doesn't stop the rest of us from fantasizing about being the Chosen One, endowed with special powers and an important destiny. Last year alone saw this in Avatar, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Push, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Star Trek (sort of), Inkheart, Dragonball Evolution, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. What makes the fantasy so compelling is that it suggests we could each be a hero without even knowing it, and that eventually these powers will manifest of their own accord, without much effort, and we will suddenly do great things. In truth, this is pretty much what happens for all of us anyway, though in place of powers we get maturity, and instead of great things we accomplish meaningful things. Not a bad trade off. Still, it's a great fantasy.

Percy Jackson is your typical high school kid, in the sense that unbeknownst to him he is the rare offspring of a mortal (Catherine Keener) and a god, Poseidon, ruler of the sea. Someone has stolen Zeus's lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon ever created, and all fingers point to Percy, since his father would stand to gain from overthrowing Zeus. Soon Percy is off on a quest to learn about his heritage, clear his name, and, hopefully, finally meet his real father (not the deadbeat stepdad, Joe Pantoliano, who has been befouling his and his mother's life for as long as he can remember).

To transpose a phrase used by my best friend, this film is all lore, no gore. Unfortunately, it's also all lore, no interest. The tiny drama of Percy's quest seems insignificant in the shadow of the movie's mythology, touched on mostly through exposition. When the gods enter the scene, I am fascinated. How would you like to be a god for all eternity, like Athena, and never have the opportunity to become one of the Big Three (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades)? That's quite a large glass ceiling. Percy makes his way to a camp where his fellow demi-gods (half god, half human) train for battle. We learn that it is the rarest of events for one of the Big Three to father a demi-god (meaning everyone else in the populated camp shares one of nine possible parents). I eat this stuff up; I want to know more about the gods.

Instead, we are stuck with three high schoolers as our main characters. Percy's two friends (Grover and Annabeth) are in the know, but Percy has a lot to learn. He starts off as a likable character, kissing his mother on the cheek when he gets home, and standing up to his stepfather's mistreatment of her. But once he begins his quest, his reactions to extraordinary events (and devastating losses) are unbelievably calm. As are the reactions of his fellow warriors; after one particularly astounding victory, saving everyone's lives, people nod and pat him on the back, as if his accomplishment had been something benign like reciting a poem well.

There are a few breathtaking sets, and the creature effects look good. And there are a few entertaining moments where Percy and others use their godly powers. But mostly the film just made me more excited to see the upcoming Clash of the Titans. That movie will have just as much meaningless action, but its mythology won't be diluted by being set in modern times.

29. Valentine's Day

Chabot Cinema

Castro Valley's lone theater, Chabot Cinema is operated by CineLux Theatres, a circuit unique to the Bay Area (I visited another of their theaters for Did You Hear About the Morgans?). The theater was built in 1948 yet still features an old-style façade (marred only by the retail space on either side of the entrance).


The theater's lobby is rather shallow; take just a few steps through the door and you're already at the candy counter. During off hours tickets are sold inside rather than at the box office. This lead to an amusing purchasing experience, where I asked for a ticket and the attendant seemed surprised at my solitary purchase, and asked, "No food? Drinks?" Perhaps from his perspective it was unusual for someone to come to the concession stand but not buy any concessions, and from my perspective it was strange to try to buy a ticket but be offered popcorn and soda as well. The concession stand offers free refills on large soda and large popcorn, and self-serve butter.

The auditorium holds 431 in an interesting variety of seating options. The lower half of the theater, though lacking in legroom, is extremely raked. I had started out sitting in the upper seating, but found that to be too far away; after moving down to the back of the lower seating, I had no trouble seeing over the people in front of me. Even in my new seat I felt too far away; somewhere around row ten is probably the theater's sweet spot.


Some of the seats in the theater's loge area have legroom to spare. The loge is not accessible by wheelchair, so I can't account for why each row is so far apart. Strangely, I found these seats to be too spacious. The loge was overrun with noisy teens, but, to my surprise, they quieted down when the movie started.


Also in the loge are four single seats, each in their own private balcony. Unless a theater is packed, I typically have no one (whom I don't know) sitting on either side of me. So sitting alone is common for me. But sitting in one of these seats, especially for a movie like Valentine's Day? No thanks. I can't tell if the seats are meant to convey elitism or punishment.


The onscreen pre-show was quite unusual. A CineLux reporter interviewed patrons in and around various CineLux theaters, allowing them to give Valentine's Day shout-outs to their sweethearts. The screen also displayed pictures of local pets dressed up. Some short amateur videos played from local talent, including a teen taking pictures of his hand, a small boy using a wish to give away free ice-cream to everyone in an ice-cream shop (this was bizarre), and an excellent short by Mike Horn called Imperial Fleet Week.



Trailers

Letters to Juliet
The end of the trailer says "The greatest love story ever told . . . is your own." This is both surprisingly genuine (instead of trying to say that the advertised film is the greatest), and apologetic, as if to say "this may not be the greatest love story you have ever seen, but to our character it's the best thing she's experienced", an argument that could be used to get us to watch any old romance.

The Last Song

Sex and the City 2

(Previously reviewed)


Valentine's Day
Part of the joy of watching a collection of semi-related vignettes is trying to keep track of all the different ways the stories intersect. Just a fair warning: at the end of this review I'm including a relationship diagram that shows most of the important relationships in Valentine's Day (excluding a few that come as a surprise during the film). Shield your eyes if you don't want the web of mystery unwoven.

Valentine's Day tells the story of the tiny dramas that unfold for twenty characters on the day of love. Though there is no cohesive plot nor a central character, Ashton Kutcher, as the proprietor of an upscale flower shop, seems to be at the center of it all. He begins the day by proposing to and being accepted by his girlfriend, Jessica Alba. Throughout the rest of the day he is met by constant surprise by his friends and coworkers who, having been prepared to console Kutcher after Alba's rejection, are quite surprised to learn that she said yes.

Let's talk about Kutcher for a moment. Though I have seen very little of That '70s Show or of Dude, Where's My Car?, they both made a lasting impression on me that Kutcher plays a doofus. His intense role in The Butterfly Effect could not dispel this notion, and throughout Valentine's Day I could not believe that Kutcher is responsible and ambitious enough to be running his own (enormous and successful) flower shop in Los Angeles, with several employees at his command, and still, on his business's busiest day, have time to drive around and interact with other characters.

Jamie Foxx is a television station's number two sports reporter. Being second in line on a slow sports day means he is dispatched by producer Kathy Bates to interview people around the city and solicit their Valentine stories. In one of the movie's funnier moments, Bates tells Foxx that she needs him to get in the van, get out there, and interview people, and she needs it now. Foxx looks at her with shocked pity and replies, "You need Jesus." Foxx reluctantly obeys, but also conspires to sneak in an interview with footballer Eric Dane by sweet-talking Dane's anxious publicist Jessica Biel.

It may be improbable that Ashton Kutcher could have his own flower shop, but it is impossible to believe that Jessica Biel, one of the most beautiful people alive, and who constantly plays fun and likable characters, could be alone on not just one Valentine's Day, but on so many of them that she hosts an annual "I Hate Valentine's Day" party where she and her lonely friends brutalize a heart-shaped piñata. I once dated someone who looks like Biel (we broke up the day after Valentine's Day); good looks are intoxicating. Biel's character might be a bit jittery, but there's just no way she wouldn't have her pick of L.A.'s finest.

In a more believably awkward romance, Anne Hathaway and Topher Grace (another veteran of That '70s Show) have been dating for just a few weeks when the 14th rolls around. Hathaway is a temp secretary for tough-as-nails boss Queen Latifah, and moonlights as a sex phone operator. Grace is more of a blah cog type character; they're a good fit because he balances out Hathaway's erratic emotions.

I'm leaving out what end up being the most enduring and satisfying relationships. There are numerous other characters, and they bump into each other all over town. By the end of the movie, nearly everyone has a valentine of one sort or another. Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite live up to my expectations. Partly it suffers from so great and attractive a cast, many of whom I like well enough to see a movie just for them. Put them all together and I expect something amazing to happen. Nearly all of the relationships have enough chemistry that I wanted to spend more time with them, but the movie, always in a hurry to tell so many stories, spends very little time with anyone. Each scene typically features two characters; at 125 minutes, the film has only enough time to devote about twelve minutes to each of its twenty substantial characters. Considering that each character must then split its screen time across numerous relationships (3.5 on average), we're left with four minutes per relationship, resulting in a superficial and dissatisfying film.

There are many good moments, and plenty of sage advice. One person, in defense of the delivery of flowers, says that "for some people, love doesn't exist unless you acknowledge it in front of other people." There are a few good surprises, and some of the relationships I actually cared about. But for the most part I was kept at arm's length from everyone. A few cliches intrude (trying to tell someone something important, but being interrupted), and a few romances just fall flat (like that between Emma Roberts and Carter Jenkins). The movie also seems to suggest that men like Valentine's Day, but women stress out about it. That latter part might be true, but my experience as a man is that Valentine's Day is very stressful (a dear friend and I still celebrate it as the day of our breakup over a decade ago), putting a lot of pressure on everyone to be impressively romantic. It's the equivalent of a Great Sex Day, whereby on the day afterward everyone is going to ask you bluntly, "So, did you have great sex yesterday?"