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

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Top 10 Time Loops

Top Ten Tuesday
A time loop, in the context of this list, is when you go back in time and interfere with your own history, often running into yourself in the process.  Some time travel movies are obsessively worried about paradoxes and unraveling the universe and such, but what fun is time travel if you must think about such weighty things?  And if, indeed, the time line must be preserved, at least let us learn that it was for the best, and only through the efforts of our future self coming back to right some wrong.

I'm sure this list is skewed by my age; are there any good time loop movies that predate 1989?

10. A Sound of Thunder (2005)
This movie succeeds in being as much a mess as they say our timeline will be if we starting traveling through time.  In an interesting twist, characters don't come back to the present to find it changed.  Rather, their tiny changes in the past only slowly assert themselves in the present, as if it takes Time a bit of time to catch up.  If you haven't already endured this heap, don't bother.  If you have, I'll see you at therapy next week.

9. Timeline (2003)
This is a great time travel movie because of convincing character behavior (our team is scared to death being stranded in the past), but is also fun as events come full circle, with the characters realizing that they are the very legends they have been studying in an ancient ruin.

8. Grand Tour: Disaster in Time (1992)
Jeff Daniels runs an inn, let by some folks who have come from the future to watch Daniels's town be destroyed by a meteor.  Daniels catches wind of their plot, and travels back in time to save the town before the meteor hits.  And, since my Aunt Anna is one of the townspeople, this is a very good thing.

7. Timecop (1994)
What happens if you try to occupy the same space as your past self?  Well, it's gruesome.  What happens if you return to your present, only to find that your friends don't really know you anymore?  Mention their wife's cooking.  This has one of the better loops that make us reconsider how a character was behaving, since we later learn that Mia Sara had just been visited by her future husband, right before her present husband meets up with her.

6. The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Ashton Kutcher has been blacking out his entire life, and now he finds that he can go back in time to control his body during those blackouts.  Each time he does this, though, he changes things, and typically for the worse.  This movie is super dark.  It's not really about how you shouldn't mess with time travel.  It's more about how it takes a lot of work and suffering to fix a messed up situation.

5. Deja Vu (2006)
It's frustrating in these movies when Hero1 is inexplicably thwarted, and later, when Hero2, having encountered their previous self, has the chance to change history, but doesn't, because of paradoxes and what not.  (I've never even seen a paradox, so I'll be darned if I'd let one stop me!)  It's much more satisfying when, in that same scenario, Hero2 thwarts Hero1 (thus preserving the timeline), but for a different reason, meaning that Hero1's actions would have been destructive, and the guardian angel that stopped them from making what would later be revealed as a mistake is actually their future self.  You get all that?  When Denzel Washington says to send him back, you had best do as the man says.

4. Back to the Future, Part III (1990)
The movie seems to believe in paradox when it's convenient.  It's okay that Marty McFly turned his dad into a super cool guy, but when McFly travels back to the '50s for a second time, he is extra careful not to interfere with his previous interfering self.  In an unusual feat for a movie, McFly's duplicative presence doesn't undermine the victory of his former self.  Though it is great to see the look on Doc's face when, having sent McFly back to the future, he turns around and sees another McFly running toward him.

3. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
This movie answers the age old question of whether Abe Lincoln and Genghis Kahn could have been pals.  It also shows that our heroes so understand time travel that they need merely think of something ("remember the trash can") for it to happen, because they are deciding that after all the commotion has died down, they will travel back in time, and set up the prank they so hastily planned while in the thick of things.

2. Millenium (1989)
This low budget '80s movie is one of the better time travel movies, but also has some mind-bending twists, where we are trying to keep distinct the timelines of our two protagonists.  When Kris Kristofferson meets Cheryl Ladd for the first time, she already knows him.  When he meets her for the second time, she's never met him before.  When he meets her for the third time, it's only the second time she's meeting him.  Etc.  That stuff blows my mind.

1. Primer (2004)
Two guys create a time machine with two very creative restrictions.  1) You cannot travel back in time beyond when the time machine was invented.  2) You must sit in the time machine for as long as you want to go back in time.  E.g. if you want to go back in time one day, you must sit in the time machine for a day.  You can't use the machine to go forward in time; instead, you must wait for your other self, who occupies the same time you've just come back to, to finally get in the machine to go back in time, and then poof! suddenly you are the only you in the timeline.  Aside from being awesome in every way, this film is incomprehensibly convoluted.  There are so many different versions of the protagonists running around, and so many copies of the time machine, I find it impossible to keep straight.  But the filmmakers have been careful with their creation, and it will reward study.  Here is one person's attempt to unravel to loops.  Here is another person's more successful attempt.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

51. Old San Francisco

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (Edison Theater)

Having already made short movies up and down California's coast for several years, Gilbert M. Anderson and the western branch of Chicago's Essanay Film Manufacturing Company were looking for a home in 1912.  (Essanay is pronounced ESS-an-AY, like S&A, after its co-founders, George K. Spoor—the 'S'—and Anderson—the 'A'.).  In the early years of cinema, sunlight was still the most efficient way to light the actors.  What appear as interior shots in those old black-and-white shorts is typically a roofless, outdoor stage, made up to look like the inside of a building.  Therefore the natural impediment to the filmmaker was bad weather.  Anderson's troupe had made films in Colorado, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Rafael, but in all cases seasonal changes eventually thwarted their efforts.  In March of 1912, Anderson brought his team to Niles (now part of Fremont) and set up permanent shop.  The weather was good, and the terrain was perfect for the Broncho Billy westerns the studio was turning out weekly, balancing out the comedies still being made at the Chicago headquarters.

The final months of 1913 saw the opening of the Edison Theater (making it one of the oldest surviving theaters in the Bay Area today).  It served the people of Niles for ten years, shutting down in 1923 when a newer theater was erected nearby.  That newer theater operated until 1959, when it burned to the ground.  In 2005, the Edison was reopened as part of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

Essanay's Niles branch closed in 1916, just shy of four years in operation.  In that span, Anderson's team produced 388 films (IMDB has a partial list), complimenting the 275 films they had already released the five years prior.  That's 663 films in nine years; assuming his movies averaged fifteen minutes in length, that's the equivalent of twelve feature films per year by today's standards, or fifty television episodes.  Anderson was a busy man.

The museum is open from noon to 4:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays.  The lobby has photographs from throughout the history of the Essanay studio.

One such photo, below, shows the studio have they had finished construction on their new headquarters.  Note the numerous skylights in the center of the main building; these let natural light into an interior stage.   Many of the troupe lived in the bungalows lining the rear of the lot.

An example of efficient stage crafting (below) depicts two sets (one a general store) being filmed side-by-side.

To the right of the lobby is an awesome museum store.  I imagine there are a great many other cinema-themed specialty stores in the world, but this is the first I've visited.  Most of the memorabilia is from older films, and much of that from films shot in Niles.  They also have DVDs (I picked up a Charlie Chaplin collection and some shorts about San Francisco), movie posters, and flip books.  I also purchased Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, by local historian David Kiehn.  I'm a hundred-fifty pages into this detailed account and enjoying every page (my paragraphs above have been informed by information in this book).  Kiehn, who is also the theater's projectionist, was kind enough to sign the book for me.

The museum offers membership that grants the member, among other things, access to the museum's research library.  According to a brochure, the museum has charged itself with the "documentation of all films made from 1911 to 1920", and as such they have been amassing books, trade magazines, and archival prints.

There are regular tours during the museum's afternoon hours (my photos come from during the tour).  The movies typically begin in the evenings, but there have been matinees as well.  $5 is the recommended donation for admission to the movies.  Tickets can be purchased online, and I recommend this.  That the ticket price is optional gave me the impression that demand was low.  Not the case; the movies regularly sell out, so plan ahead if you are traveling from afar.  The line to get in was long, and some people were in period costume.

A concession stand sets up shop just past the ticket booth, selling drinks and candy for a suggested donation of $1 each (I opted for Starbursts).

Old movie posters line the hallways leading from the lobby to the auditorium.

The museum's focal exhibits are at the back of the auditorium.  Below are pictured a bank of original seats, Charlie Chaplin's hat, and, I'm guessing, Broncho Billy's hat and lasso.

Props (like the chaps in the showcase, below), photos, and projection equipment fill out the display room.

In the below photo, the strips of film on display were found in the projection booth as the theater was being renovated.  The machine at left is for editing film; pushing down on a pedal advances the film (a nob controls whether the film flows forward or backward), and when you get to the spot you want to cut, you just mark it with a pencil, pull out the film, cut, and splice with another strip.  A film from the 1960s is currently installed in the machine; visitors can operate the pedal and watch the movie (and soundtrack) zip past.

On the right side of the display room we see more projection equipment, a lot of memorabilia donated by surviving family of the Essanay troupe, and a bust of Ben Turpin, a comedian who appeared along side Chaplin in many films.

When it opened in 1913, the theater was advertised as seating 300.  I don't know how that is possible, even assuming the seats reached back twice as far as they do now.  The auditorium now seats 102 in fixed chairs, though there are other chairs on standby for the packed nights.  The narrow, narrow seats look like they came from an old courthouse.  When I entered for my movie, the museum's director handed me a seat cushion, and by mid-movie she had become my favorite person, because those seats are quite stiff.  She later described the Edison as a "journeyman's theater", before the opulent years.

Looking back from the screen one can see the display room, the museum's office (that's historian David Kiehn hard at work), and the projection room.

The project room still uses some very old equipment, depending on the film being shown.  I was allowed to operate the hand-cranked black projector (below, right).  Can you imagine having to maintain a consistent speed while cranking the film for an entire movie?

Back in the day, film was highly flammable.  The walls of the projection booth are lined with metal to protect the rest of the building in the event of fire.  The tour guide pointed out the graffiti on the wall (vintage, from the theater's earliest years), instructing the projectionist to "spit in box".  Smoking cigarettes in the booth would have been a sure way to set oneself on fire, so instead the projectionists used chewing tobacco.

Originally called Vallejo Mills, the town of Niles was renamed after Central Pacific Railroad attorney Addison C. Niles.  With four other towns, Niles incorporated into Fremont in 1956.  Today, the historic stretch of Niles Boulevard is populated by antique shops, the Edison Theater, and this lovely new park, just completed, including a restored train depot.

A highlight for me in the park are the massive zoetropes (a new word for me), featuring sequences of some of the more famous Essanay characters (Broncho Billy, the Tramp, and Ben Turpin), among others.

Here is the inside of one of the zoetropes, showing a train arriving in Niles.

The museum shows different films every weekend.  Upcoming festivals include Charlie Chaplin Days (first weekend in June) and the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (last weekend in June).


I was seated next to two gentlemen, Hector and Adam, who live in Fremont and frequent the Edison Theater.  They've been in the Bay Area long enough to have seen the orchards of Concord converted into suburbs.  I haven't yet made my way to Washington Hospital in Fremont, but Hector said the building has on display a photographic history of the city.

The evening's entertainment was in honor of the 104th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Perhaps you've heard this one before (but I hadn't): an announcement was made that "ladies under 40 must remove their hats; those over 40 may keep theirs on".  And, of course, every woman in the audience removed her hat.  Nice trick.

Our opening short was a "Trip down Market Street".  The film was interesting, but unfortunately the foreground is occupied mostly by cars, buggies, and cable cars, so I didn't get much of a sense of the shops on the street at the time.  However, David Kiehn's introduction to the film is absolutely fascinating.  The Library of Congress lists the movie as having been filmed in September, 1905.  Kiehn was suspicious of this date; considering that the short might have been filmed closer to the earthquake (April 18, 1906), he began a two month research process.  He noticed that there were many puddles on the street.  Checking weather reports, he found that the months around September were dry, but it had been raining just before the earthquake.  The angle of the sunlight suggested that the film was indeed shot in September, or a time approximately six months out from September, when the sunlight would have been similar.  Kiehn couldn't find any mention of the film in the trade magazines of the time, until he looked to just after the earthquake, when the Miles Brothers claimed to have a film shot just four days before the disaster.  Though their San Francisco studio had been destroyed, the negatives had been sent to their New York office the night before, and thus survived.  That clinched it for me, but not for Kiehn.  He also considered the reputation of the Miles Brothers, and concluded that in contrast to other self-promoting filmmakers of the time, the Miles Brothers were trustworthy.  Their presence in the city was verified; they had been in Colma to film a forty-five round boxing match, using a new camera designed for longer continuous takes.  The match ended in eighteen minutes, and they had a lot of extra film to burn.  Why does Kiehn go on?  Clearly he has the right answer.  But he is a tireless historian to be proud of.  He was able to make out several of the license plates of the automobiles encircling the camera throughout the short.  License plates were newly required, and had to be furnished by the motorist themself, but they were on record.  Working his way through layer after layer of California bureaucracy,  Kiehn finally came upon a list of license plates from the time, alphabetized by motorist name.  He had to go through the list one by one, but of the plates Kiehn could recognize, the most recent had been registered in February, 1906, clearly placing the film outside the Library's 1905 timeframe.  Wow.  Kiehn is my new hero.

The second short is a recent compilation of archive footage shot immediately after the earthquake.  In the first short, I had the eery sense of watching an innocent people, unaware of the tragedy that is about to befall them.  The second short pulls a few punches, but mostly shoves the camera right into the action.  Ladies of ill fame were described as "a little disfigured but still in the ring.  Men wanted."  While some still searched the rubble for bodies, others were busy felling freestanding walls, lest they later fall and hurt more people.  The reopening of Market Street (unrecognizable from the film just a few days earlier) was a big deal, as was the renewed operation of the cable car, bringing residents downtown from the parts of the city that had survived the fires.  The short reported that fifty thousand San Francisco refugees made their way to Oakland by ferry.  Can you imagine fifty thousand people coming to Oakland in just a few days, with no place to stay the night?  It would be chaos.

After the shorts there was a raffle for a quilt, and for merchandise from the museum store.  The director made several community announcements, giving me the impression that I was attending a town hall meeting.



Old San Francisco (1927)

In San Francisco's earliest days, Spanish landowner Don Hernandez de Vasquez skewers his brother's murderer, a mutineering employee eager to steal the Vasquez horses and head to the hills in search of gold.  "A Vasquez avenges a Vasquez", Don Hernandez says.  Flash forward more than fifty years, and Don Hernandez is now an old man.  A city has erupted around his estate, with various shady businessmen eager to pry the Spanish land grant from Don Hernandez's hand.  At first his only allies are his last remaining employee, and his daughter Dolores (Dolores Costello, grandmother to Drew Barrymore).  When a scheming businessman comes along with his protege nephew in tow, the nephew, Terrence O'Shaughnessy (Charles Emmett Mack, in one of his last roles), immediately falls in love with Dolores, and aspires to help her family evade his uncle's clutches.

The uncle works for Chris Buckwell (Warner Oland, of Charlie Chan fame).  (The movie is full of ringers: Dolores looks like Zooey Deschanel, Terrence like Barry Pepper, and Buckwell like Tim Curry.)  Buckwell has a stranglehold on much of the city, but especially on Chinatown, where there is no lost love for him.  His secret, though, and one he keeps from his fellow businessmen and from the Chinese community he extorts, is that he is "Mongolian", i.e. "one of them".  He passes as caucasian while keeping his dwarfish brother (Angelo Rossitto) in chains in the basement.  (You know a guy is the villain when he is a self-hating racist, a maligner of little people, and on the outs with his own family, all rolled into one sexist criminal.)  Buckwell is eager to aquire the Vasquez property, but also to ensnare Dolores (whether for his own keeping, or to sell her into slavery).

Despite the movie being silent, there are some great lines of dialog.  "A Vasquez avenges a Vasquez" is spoken both in triumph, and in pathetic defeat.  Terrence defends Dolores at every opportunity, spitting out, "That remark is insolent" when her honor is questioned.  Most of the moments between Terrence and Dolores are enjoyable.  She plays hard to get; he picks flowers (from her own garden) to woo her; he acts nobly when he learns she's engaged; she rushes to tell him it was a misunderstanding; etc.  Young love.  At one point, she is forced to lie, to save Terrence's life, and so she lies, but as quickly as she can she both secures Terrence's safety and proclaims the truth.

What I thought would be Dolores's ultimate victory, putting Buckwell to the sword (and getting her shot at shouting the family slogan), ended up as a strange supernatural intervention.  The heavens literally part and reveal to Dolores that Buckwell is Mongolian.  Now she knows, and he knows she knows.  Why is it a big deal?  Well, as a member of the Chinese community, apparently Buckwell would be subject to their own laws and punishments.  "Racketeering" and "coercing women into opium dens" might be a gray area in White law, but not so for Buckwell's angered countrymen.

Back before Hollywood decided to make entire movies about disasters, those epic events served as mere bookends or catharsis.  In the case of Old San Francisco, just as the movie is coming to its climactic showdown, the 1906 earthquake shakes things up.  I was impressed at the level of special effects employed during this sequence, from burning and collapsing buildings (models, but better than I could build), to people running amidst dangerously falling debris (two images overlaid, in the early equivalent of green screening).

With an epic name like Old San Francisco, the movie promises more than it delivers about the land of the "thrice seven hills" (ever heard that one before?).  We see very little other than the Vasquez courtyard and Buckwell's mansion.  Dolores and Terrence are charming, but they along cannot keep the film from being boring.  The plot's racial thread has not aged well.  The movie is sympathetic to the city's Chinese citizens in that it distinguishes them from Buckwell's malice, yet still his heritage is shameful (even God bothers to part the clouds and out Buckwell as a believer in Mongolian deities).  I was disappointed on behalf of the generation that came after the earthquake, who have this as their entertaining testament to the event.

(Frederick Hodges was excellent on the piano.  In his introduction, the theater's director reminded us that though the movie is silent, this is a live music performance, and so we shouldn't "talk out loud".  The man to my right was curtly hushed by the woman behind him, who said, "This is a silent movie".  That doesn't quite ring true for me; although I imagine audiences paid rapt attention during the silent era, I can also imagine that theater etiquette as we now know it might not have yet existed.  Something to research.)

50. How to Train Your Dragon

Cinedome 7 Newark

Similar to how Piedmont is encircled by Oakland, the city of Newark is almost entirely surrounded by Fremont, but for a small outlet to the bay.  According to the city's official site, Newark incorporated when the other five towns that would later form Fremont tried to pressure Newark into becoming Fremont's industrial zone.  To my knowledge, the city has only ever had one theater, the Cinedome 7, built in 1983 or later.

According to Cinema Treasures, Syufy Enterprises built a Cinedome 7 in Fremont (just across the freeway from Newark's Cinedome 7), and found it so lucrative that they just had to have another.  How close are these two theaters?  Close.

Fremont's Cinedome was eventually expanded to eight screens, putting a total of fifteen screens between the two theaters, less than half a mile apart.  Fremont's theater, later known as the Cinedome East (to Newark's Cinedome West), closed in March of last year.  The future of Cinedome West also seems in doubt, with owner Cinemark planning to build a twenty-screen theater across the street in Newpark Mall.  (Though according to one poster on Cinema Treasures, this theater has been in the pipe for a long time, and is perhaps in no hurry to materialize.)

Newark's theater is identified as the Cinedome West by a sign facing the freeway, but the front of the building names it as the Cinedome 7.  The entrance comprises several fractalized Arabian arches (I'm inventing architecture just by blogging!).  With the enormous Century 25 Union Landing drawing in people from much of the east bay, including Newark, you can expect to find plenty of parking at this theater.

I received a few curious/suspicious looks from a manager type when I was snapping my photographs, but otherwise I found the staff at this theater to be above-average friendly.  Chatty even.  And a good thing they're friendly, because there was an army of them on my visit on this not-very-crowded Saturday afternoon.

I found a real treat among the gift cards and MPAA brochures: the Cinemark Theatres Nutritional Information hand-out.  I don't see this information listed on their website, and this is the first I've seen of the hard copy, so get ready for some delicious statistics.  If you're a calorie counter, you might favor the Tazo Tea (0 calories), Espresso Solo (5 calories), or a single Lindor Milk Ball (70 calories; not sure what that is exactly).  You'll want to shy away from the peanut butter cookie (390 calories), 7" cheese pizza (540 calories), or the heart-throttling Super Nachos (1280 calories; and you gained three pounds just by reading this sentence).  A half cup of Dreyer's classic french vanilla ice-cream weighs in at a curious 150% (sic).  150% of what?  You might not be surprised to learn that peanut M&Ms have more protein than a hotdog, but did you know that the 20 ounce white chocolate mocha has 19 grams of protein?  As a vegan I need to eat eighty-five raw soybeans and a bale of hay to get that much protein; you're telling me I could just be drinking coffee to bulk up?

The lobby retains some nice 80's glitz.  It has funky chandeliers, staircases to nowhere, and a nice wall of framed and unframed posters of coming attractions.

The theater has four domed and three rectangular auditoriums, seating a total of 1952.  Vincent G. Raney designed not only this theater but the domed theaters in San Jose, the CinéArts @ Pleasant Hill, and the Cinedome 8 Napa.  So similar is the auditorium pictured below to the one in Napa that I was able to take the picture with the camera resting on the same banister.

The domed auditoriums hold the most people (topping out at 369), whereas the smaller, rectangular rooms seat between 122 and 229.  In my auditorium, the seats were a bit ratty, but comfortable, and at a very slight angle to the screen, facing the viewer directly toward the screen's middle.  The floors were terribly sticky.


When I first saw the trailer for Beverly Hills Chihuahua a few years ago, I got dumber.  The same goes for Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.  I don't recall a time in my youth when I clamored to see animals on the big screen, talking or not.  Remember Benji, Milo, Otis, Hooch, and Babe?  My favorite animal in a movie is probably the eponymous Shaggy Dog, but I'm warming up to Underdog after a wonderful cameo appearance in a spoof of the 300 trailer.  But Cats & Dogs?  I'd be curious to know which kids end up liking this movie, and why.

I'd give your right arm to see Cirque du Soleil.  A spot for their Mystère show in Vegas is proof that when acrobats whiz through the air in bright colored spandex, the world gets a little bit better.

A trailer for the upcoming Oceans had me pitying the poor school of fish.  Is it not enough to be dive bombed by seagulls from above and attacked by dolphins from below, but a shark has to come to the party as well?  There might be many things that would make me uneasy walking around at night, but I'm seldom struck by the fear that at any moment seagulls, dolphins, and sharks might jump from the shadows and eat me.

Again National CineMedia has changed its tune, now claiming "the movies are more popular than ever, with record breaking crowds".  Finally, a statement that might actually be true.  Let's ignore 'popular', since that is a flimsy word.  But 'record breaking crowds' could mean that more people showed up on opening day.  With new releases showing on more simultaneous screens than ever before, and in a country with an increasing population, I can believe that the size of our crowd is record breaking (in fact, I would expect that each year's opening day draw would triumph over the record from the previous year).

A Walmart ad has a dragon (from How to Train Your Dragon) flying through the aisles.  The ultimate offense a movie can make is to have an ad for the soundtrack (showing clips from the movie) right before the movie starts.  Although a trailer might have put me in my seat, once I've bought my ticket I want to go in with as little knowledge as possible.  This Walmart ad is slight, but still it revealed to me a type of dragon that I don't recall having seen previously.


Shrek Forever After (Trailer 2)

Shrek makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to have a day free of worries and responsibilities, to be a "real ogre again".  The catch seems to be that if Shrek doesn't win over this alternate reality's version of Fiona, and get her to kiss him by sundown, then he'll be stuck in this world forever.  This is a better trailer than the first, but I have the same objections.  The highlights will most likely come from the troop of ogres at Fiona's command.  84 cuts.

Marmaduke (Trailer 2)

The less said the better.  And I mean the less the dog says, the better.  This trailer is worth watching, though, because at the very end all the dogs perform a dance number together, making one of the most honest statements I've seen a trailer make: this film will be stupid.  93 cuts.

Despicable Me (Trailer 4)

This movie continues on its rampage of turning out clever and entertaining trailers.  This is the first to reveal that the plot will center around our lovable villain trying to steal the moon, while having to look after three intrusive girls (nieces?).  Freeze rays, rocket ships, shrink rays, sharks in the sewer, blasto-rays (made that one up), and oodles of minions.  This movie is going to be great.  100 cuts.

The Karate Kid (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)
I was actually getting goosebumps during the training sequences of this trailer.  Tiny Jaden Smith is going to kick some!

Furry Vengeance

( Over the Hedge + Evan Almighty - digital animation - wit - fun ) * animal poop^2 = Furry Vengeance. Brendan Fraser?  I can understand.  Brooke Shields?  No surprise.  But I saw a few actual trees in this trailer (not stunt trees), and they should have uprooted and thrown themselves on the woodchipper rather than appear in this movie.  112 cuts.

The Last Airbender (Trailer 2)
(not rated)
(Previously not reviewed)


Will Ferrell is an alien invader with suave.  He has a big blue head, a fish in a robot suit for a sidekick, and somewhere in there we can expect to hear Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, and Brad Pitt.  Megamind's look is a bit familiar, since Monsters vs. Aliens, and there's too much Jim Carrey in his facial contortions, but otherwise I'm looking forward to this.  20 cuts.

How to Train Your Dragon

Dreamworks Animation (officially formed in 2004, but with a few notable titles to its name before that) has produced one great movie: Antz.  Everything else has spanned the spectrum between really good (Kung Fu Panda), amusing (Over the Hedge), and not good at all (Shark Tale). Contrasting Dreamworks to the industry standard, Pixar, I find that out of sixty digitally animated films, I've awarded Pixar an average ranking of 16.5 (with four titles in my top ten), versus Dreamworks's average ranking of 25 (only Antz breaks into the top ten).  Whereas Pixar movies always look amazing (even the otherwise boring Cars looked good), Dreamworks movies are hit and miss (Bee Movie looks good, Madagascar does not).  Both studios have ventured beyond fuzzy animals into the depiction of human beings.  In their earlier movies, the people are uninteresting and move stiffly (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. from Pixar, Shrek, Madagascar from Dreamworks).  More recently, though, Pixar has delivered some wonderful caricatures; rather than trying to exactly mimic what people do look like, they have fallen back to the entertaining strategy of traditional cell animation by depicting what we could look like (The Incredibles, Ratouille, and Up).  Dreamworks has been lagging; the humans in Bee Movie are their best work, but their more recent Monsters vs. Aliens and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa suggests they can't necessarily re-create the magic.  Then along comes How to Train Your Dragon.

The Viking inhabitants of a small island must contend with the usual adversities of any northern people: harsh winters, food shortages, and finding a mate who isn't also a cousin.  But there is one other hardship peculiar to this island: frequent raids by dragons.  We meet Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) during one such raid.  As Stoick (Gerard Butler), the lead Viking warrior, rallies the troops, and as heartthrob Astrid (America Ferrera) puts out fires, Hiccup is relegated to the blacksmith shop with Gobber (Craig Ferguson) to mend bent swords and get them back into the fray, as if they were wounded soldiers being shunted to the front lines.  Hiccup is scrawny and clumsy, but also brainy, a dangerous combination in the eyes of his fellow Vikings, who do their best to minimize Hiccup's involvement in the battle.  Nevertheless, Hiccup emerges from the blacksmith shop to test an improved version of his dragon netting device.  He takes aim at the elusive Night Fury dragon, fires, and hits.  But amid his excitement he also manages to turn the tide of the battle, in favor of the dragons.  When the smoke clears, Hiccup is persona non grata, as usual.

Because this is a kids movie, we know that Hiccup will eventually befriend his captured dragon (whom Hiccup calls Toothless), and we know from the trailer that Hiccup will also begin to learn about the dragon's culture, and find that they aren't so bad after all.  Everything else about this movie came to me as a refreshing surprise.

Although most characters (even Hiccup) are fairly simple, they still behave in an interesting way.  Hiccup's father is the film's antagonist in a sense, because he is most resistant to his son's notion that dragons are misunderstood.  He frustrates us by not listening to his son, but he also levels a reality check against Hiccup, minus the sugar coating, that the dragons kill people.  A dragon killed Hiccup's mother.  Dragons might be misunderstood, but they have deeds to answer for.  Snotlout (Jonah Hill) is placed in the typical bully role, but he isn't a typical bully.  He doesn't harbor animosity toward Hiccup, but merely toward what Hiccup represents: weakness.  When Hiccup's friendship with Toothless gives him an edge in dragon combat, Snotlout is one of the first to embrace Hiccup's new prowess.  Astrid is the most indignant among Hiccup's peers when he performs well, but that's because until now she has been the star pupil, voted most likely to slay a dragon.  From the trailer I thought I'd want Hiccup to end up with Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), but Astrid has many endearing qualities, including a repeated phrase that ends with, "and that's for everything else".  When Hiccup is against the wall, Astrid's responses are surprising.

Basically, there are no villains, because the human characters, ultimately, are fighting for their culture, for the existence of their people, rather than for petty things like status or power.  The dragons are antagonists, but Hiccup's relationship with Toothless helps us see beyond their animalistic violence.  Six different types of dragon take center stage, but we hear about others as well.  They seem as varied as mammals, each with different powers, personalities, and ways of flying (they all fly like birds, but each flies like a different type of bird).  The largest but also nerdiest of Hiccup's peers, Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), has some great moments as he runs down the D&D-style stats of the various creatures as they appear.  The film is inspired by a novel, which explains its attention to detail and lore, typically underdeveloped in fantasy movies written directly for the screen.

This is Dreamworks's best digitally animated film to date, and visually stands apart from all their other efforts.  Every frame of this movie is a wonder to behold.  (I saw the movie in 2-D, but have it from my best friend that in 3-D it's incredible as well.)  Backgrounds are lush with details, including making Hiccup's town seem truly populated and lived in.  The human characters are exceptionally crafted.  With the exception of Hiccup and Astrid, most are distorted into bulky, top-heavy warriors; all fun to watch.  The dragons are magnificent.  Their action sequences, flying through the air and belching out streams of flames, are simply awesome.  The sound effects are intense as well; Toothless's distance attack makes a dissonant, metallic sound that caught my ears by surprise each time.

The dialog is consistently witty.  Screenscribe William Davies also penned Flushed Away (good) and Johnny English (terrible).  Dreamworks has something to be very proud of here.  I can't wait to see this movie again.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Wizard of Oz

Alameda Theater and Cineplex

(Previously reviewed)

The Alameda's spring classic film series is beginning to wind down.  I am disappointed to have missed Citizen Kane, but not The Birds.  The Wizard of Oz is not one I recall enjoying as a child, but I thought I'd give it another chance, through adult eyes, and on the big screen.

(Liam Neeson must be one of the munchkins.)

From atop the six-story parking garage one can enjoy a panoramic view of Alameda and Oakland.  Here is a patched-together photo looking northeast to southeast, from downtown Oakland to the Coliseum (with its lights on).

Tonight's pre-show featured a magician in the aisles performing some fun feats of precognition and escapistry.  Mid-show he said, "If you lower your expectations I have a really good show."  He managed to get a metal ring to hang on a rope.  He told the crowd he had made a prediction on the way to the theater, then asked a woman if she knew what he had predicted.  She said, "No", and then he revealed a large flashcard with the word "No" on it.  Two prognosticators in one room!  In one clever trick, he wound his arm through and around a rope, only to have it come free of the tangle.  He performed this several times, and in slow motion, but I still couldn't see the trick.  Only when he began to explain it did it make sense.

The manager revealed that the auditorium has a sixty foot theater (I don't know if that is measured corner to corner, like with televisions, or from side to side).  Trivia included what other movie did director Victor Fleming give us in 1939 (he's remarkable for give us such successful talkies, even though most of his films were in the silent era), and what is Dorothy's last name.

This particular print is a re-issue, which was a bit strange, because during the end credits there appeared the Dolby Digital and Warner Bros. logo.  (MGM produced the film, but Warner Brothers acquired the distribution rights in 1986 during a "brief ownership of the company".  Source: Wikipedia.)



The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I'll be quick about this one, because everyone has seen this movie, and I have more pressing reviews to write.  This isn't a movie for adults.  The plot is terribly simple.  I'm reminded of the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is visually interesting, but boring.  Dorothy is swept away to the Land of Oz, meets three friends, goes to Emerald City, then defeats the Wicked Witch of the West.  As a movie for kids, there is fun to be had, and nothing is too scary.  But filmmakers should put in at least something for the adults who must accompany the children.

What was enjoyable for me was seeing how many references originate from this movie.  I first heard a form of "and her little dog too" on The Simpsons, "I'm melting!" in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and "What a world!" in Spaceballs.  My friend Tim used to say, "Poppies!" and I didn't know why.  I've heard the Witch's theme song often, without knowing the evil implications.  All nice surprises.

There is a controversial line delivered to the lion, that "A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others."  So Christmas is about getting after all!  As long as you can get people to love you, it doesn't matter if you love them in return.  Great message.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

49. Date Night

CineLux Almaden Cinema

According to this article, CineLux's Almaden Cinema opened some time prior to September, 2000.  But I now have it from a colleague of mine that this theater was operating as early as 1978, when a boy she had just met called her from the movies to ask her to his prom.  I was also corrected on the pronunciation, from al-MA-den to AL-ma-den.

The theater is in one corner of the Willow Glen Shopping Center, just across the Guadalupe River from San Jose's Willow Glen district.  Willow Glen, incorporated in 1927, was absorbed into San Jose in 1936 (source).  The district has seen two other theaters, the Willow Glen Theatre (1932-1949) and the Garden Theatre (1949-1988).  Perhaps the Almaden hastened the end of the Garden.

Matinee tickets (before 5:00 PM) are $5.50.  On Terrific Tuesdays, tickets are only $4.50, except for special engagements.  New releases do not automatically qualify as special, so you might get lucky.  The theater offers online ticketing without any fee tacked on.

The concession stand bisects the lobby.  They sell vegan popcorn and kettle corn, and have lemonade to drink.  The style of the lobby makes me suspect that the theater was last remodeled in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

The lobby contains an ATM, some kind of lotto machine, free posters for the upcoming Salt, and the same Movie Facts flyers I saw at their Tennant Station theater.  The CineLux e-newsletter (shared between the Almaden, Tennant Station, and Plaza theaters) is one of the more comprehensive newsletters I've been receiving lately, including showtimes, posters and descriptions of movies, box office statistics, and trivia (with answers the following week).

The theater seats a total of 488 in its five auditoriums, at least one of which is now equipped with a 3-D projector.  The seats are comfortable.  The walls have attractive geometric designs on them (below).  And the staff are friendly.


A photographer named Robert Kawika Sheer does some interesting work casting shadows onto buildings, rocks, and other rustic surfaces.  I don't know how he does it (he doesn't use computer after-effects); the images as so crisp, I can't explain it with time lapse or over-exposure.

A singer, Tricia Greenwood, has an album that according to the advertisement I saw is called "Your Too Good", but on her website it has been corrected to "You're Too Good".  When she makes it big, the lucky few with a "Your Too Good" CD can say they are the true fans, who knew her before she could conjugate.  (Sorry, that's a low blow; I make that mistake all the time.)

A creative time-lapse video shows an avocado pit, rescued from the trash, placed in water, sprouting, planted, growing into a tall tree, and bearing fruit.  Someone picks the fruit and makes guacamole with it.   (Not an attractive sight, despite how delicious it is.)  And what do they do with the pit?  They throw it away!  Have they learned nothing from the video they just showed us, that with some TLC an avocado pit can produce free guacamole?


Sex and the City 2 (Trailer 2)

Why spoil fashionable outfits by spilling plot all over them?  Okay, so it's the kind of plot you can easily pat off with a lint remover, but still.  Our four leading ladies now have motivation for their trip to abroad: it'll be fun!  And while abroad, Sarah Jessica Parker's fidelity will be tested by bumping into ex-beau John Corbett.  We get some humor ("You're on a camel in the middle of the Arabian desert; if you're not having a hot flash, you're dead"), deep thought ("What happens after you say 'I do'?"), some sentimentality ("We're soul mates"), and more glamor (though Kim Cattrall's outfit in the "You are fun in Abu Dhabi" scene looks like Warchief Thrall and the '80s had a baby together).  Is the foreign skyline we see in the trailer supposed to be Abu Dhabi?  I can't find any pictures of the skyline that even slightly resemble it; does Hollywood just make stuff up or what?  129 cuts.

The Losers

(Previously reviewed)

The A-Team (Trailer 2)

This trailer is better than the first, perhaps in response to marketing research revealing that of the 1% of the population who still remember the show, the team member any of them can name is Mr. T.  Does Liam Neeson's nose look altered to you?  (If ever you doubt what an altered nose can do to transform an actor, see The Hours or Bounce).  This trailer clumsily works in the title of the film, blows up a lot of stuff, and has Bradley Cooper shooting a gun from a tank that is flying through the air.  That's all kinds of man.  162 cuts, just shy of the current record.

Date Night

Claire and Phil Foster (Tina Fey and Steve Carell) are married, settled, and in a rut.  Claire is a real estate agent; by the time she gets home, feeds everyone, and cleans the house, the last thing she wants is to be bumping into drawers her husband has left open (he leaves so many drawers open, the house is in a perpetual state of looking ransacked).  Phil has some sort of corporate job; though he doesn't quite pull his weight around the house, that's partly because Claire doesn't trust him with even the simplest of duties.  A bit emasculated, and wishing that Claire were friskier at night, Phil is as frustrated as his wife.  They both receive a romantic wake up call, though, when they independently learn that two of their friends are getting a divorced.  Is Claire's and Phil's marriage heading for disaster as well?  Are they just roommates at this point?  Where is the romance?  In an attempt to spice things up, they head into the city to the hottest new restaurant, swipe the reservations of two no-shows, and begin to have a great time together.  Then two thugs approach them, mistaking them for the people whose reservation they took, and demand that Claire and Phil return the property they stole from a local mobster (Ray Liotta).

The plot is a simple mix of mistaken identities and hapless detectives.  The more that Claire and Phil argue that they are just a married couple from the suburbs, the more convinced the bad guys are that the two are expert con artists.  To survive, Claire and Phil try to find the property they've supposedly stolen, and to figure out why it's so important.  Along the way they meet a disbelieving cop (Taraji P. Henson), the original reservation holders (James Franco and Mila Kunis), and a shirtless, ex-black-ops techno-wizard (Mark Wahlberg), whose good looks inspire Phil to utter the movie's one profanity (here's a funny article on the subject of the one f-bomb allowed per PG-13 movie).

(Mark Wahlberg makes good movies.  Does he ever make garbage?  When you hear the words "Wahlberg" and "garbage" in the same sentence, you might be tempted to think of The Happening, which did indeed try my patience.  Or, if you've made the same poor choices that I've made, you might even think of the killer angels in Max Payne.  But when I hear the words "Wahlberg" and "garbage" paired togeter, I think about how much garbage I'd be willing to eat just to see that man with his shirt off.  The only working actor with more charm than Wahlberg is George Clooney.  If those two kings ever made a movie together, it would be a perfect storm of charisma.)

This movie has a lot going for it, and trips only rarely.  It walks a fine line between putting our heroes in peril, but somehow keeping them alive without turning them into closet super spies.  Think True Lies, but if Schwarzenegger had the same limited skill set as Curtis.  The dialog is witty and surprising.  Neither director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) nor writer Josh Klausner (Shrek the Third) have turned out previous work of this caliber, so perhaps the credit is due to Fey's and Carrell's improv abilities.

What keeps the movie light is that Claire and Phil care as much about the health of their marriage as they do about surviving their predicament.  Yes, they're being chased by killers.  But that doesn't mean they shouldn't stop to discuss who needs to pick up the kids from school.  (And they're a little drunk, so they might not quite understand the level of danger they're in.)  Even in tense situations they employ language consistent with their domestic roles (as an argument breaks out in front of them, Claire says, "I feel like you're losing control of the room, Phil").  Even though the humor is typically at their expense, because of the absurd situations they get themselves into, they aren't buffoons.  They don't mock each other; rather they are sweet and respectful.  Very refreshing.

Remember, there's nothing like running for your life to make you once again appreciate your spouse's good physique.  Try it some time.