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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

70. Inception

Cinemark Movies 10 Redding

As I've mentioned before in this blog, it was during an uncomfortably warm week in July, 2005 that I first became such a frequent theater-goer that it seemed worthy of note. Three times that week (including twice on Friday) I stopped by the Grand Lake Theatre on my way home from work, to sit in an air-conditioned auditorium rather than return to my baking apartment. You might think that seeing Fantastic Four three times in one week is just a different sort of hell from the one I was escaping, but remember, I'm a fan of all things superhero. (I can't speak as highly for the other movies I saw that week: Bewitched, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Wedding Crashers.) Little did I know that a greater climate challenge awaited me five years later.

Fast forward to July 17, 2010. The place: Redding, CA. I was traveling northward to go on an annual camping trip with my family. But there was a movie I was burning to see (seriously, I was burning). So I stopped off at the Cinemark Movies 10 to see Inception. The temperature: 105 degrees. My eyeballs were boiling in their sockets. My shoes melted with each step I took across the smoldering parking lot. The sun was like... like... like a giant ball of burning gas, millions of times larger than the earth, and incredibly far away yet still able to slap me around every once in a while just for the fun of it. Would I make?

The ticket line was unusually long for a Saturday matinee. I think many others had the same idea: if they could just penetrate the cool interior of the theater, they would be safe. And better to be seated in a cool dark place than to walk around inside the nearby Costco all day pretending to be shopping. Thankfully, the theater has electronic ticketing and its circuitry had not yet melted in the heat, so I sped through the door. (I once dated someone who was infuriated by my unknowing pronunciation of the 't' in Costco; I'm sure that's what finally drove us apart; that or my adding a 't' to 'across', as in 'acrosst'.)

Redding, with a population of nearly 90,000 people, is nestled into the northernmost end of California's Central Valley. Though the city is located two and a half hours west, southwest of my hometown (Alturas), it is also the first larger city when heading in that direction, and so was the target of many a school trip or shopping expedition in my youth. The city has a gorgeous view of Mt. Shasta to the north and Mt. Lassen to the east; is bisected by a river and has two large bodies of water nearby; and is encircled by hills thick with manzanita and these giant scrubby trees that I think of as oak, but probably aren't. It would be a great place to live if it weren't TEN THOUSAND DEGREES.

The city has hosted a total of four theaters. The Redding Theater, built in the teens and demolished in the 1950s, was the city's first. The Cascade Theatre was built in 1935 in the art deco style that, I believe, had already fallen out of prominence at that point. The theater is still open today for live performances, and from the photos on their website it appears to have been carefully restored to preserve its beauty. (Their calendar of events is currently listing holiday showings of It's a Wonderful Life at the nearby Riverfront Playhouse, so by my criteria, that means Redding actually has a fifth movie theater to its name.)

The city's third theater, the Cinemark Movies 8 (what boring names these modern theaters have), was built in 1988. This theater has some special importance to me, and I had really hoped to visit it for my project, but to no avail. The summer after it opened, my dad, my favorite cousin and I saw a double feature there: Uncle Buck and The Abyss. Uncle Buck was forgettable. But The Abyss still ranks in my book as one of the greatest movies ever made. My dad still recalls how we just sat outside on the curb after the movie ended, speechless and exhausted. The other memorable thing about this theater is that, following that double feature, I always remembered the theater as being "futuristic" in its design. It was the coolest, most dazzling theater I had ever been in! It was sooooo cool, in fact, that twelve years later when I was coming home for Christmas, from grad school, with my new girlfriend, I just had to show it to her. I mean, how cool am I to know where the coolest theater in the world is? And let me tell you, it was every bit as "futuristic" as I had remembered it (keeping in mind that the quotation mark on the left of "futuristic" means "according to a child", and the one on the right means, "and if by futuristic you mean something from an 80's Paula Abdul video"). You can see some very telling photos here and here. I sure know how to charm the ladies. (Of course, after seeing Ocean's Eleven that day, I drove us off the icy road, over a snowy embankment, and upside down into an icy ravine, which eternally bonded us and made that 80's theater mere chump change in contrast.)

The Cinemark Movies 10 is Redding's newest theater. It was built in 1995, with apparently the same eye toward futurism as its older counterpart across the river. You can see example photos here. During my visit in 2010, the theater was in the middle of expanding the theater from 10 to 14 screens. Though the additional screens weren't yet open, their adjoining structure had already been built, and the existing auditoriums had been renumbered, from 1-4 and 5-14 across the hall, with 9-12 nowhere to be found.

There is a large arcade to one side of the lobby, a party room, and an additional concession stand in the hallway for busy times. The theater seats a total of 1438, with 289 seats in its largest auditorium. This was my second visit to the theater, the other being in June, 2003 for Down with Love (also to escape from the heat). When I left the theater after Inception, I swear it was even hotter than when I had gone inside. You know those movies where someone gets into their car at night, and the killer jumps up from the back seat and strangles them? Pretend it's me getting into the car; switch it from nighttime to daytime; and the killer is the sun; and that's what happened when I got back into my car. I'd ask you to cry for me, but your tears might be the only liquid water left on this earth.


The Last Exorcism

Yuckers. Here's the rundown on the possession genre. It has to be a young woman or girl who is possessed, because anyone less pure seeming just wouldn't be worth saving after the crap they pull in these movies. The girl in The Exorcist? Worth saving. The boy in Christine? Not worth saving. Patricia Arquette in Stigmata? Worth saving. Oh yeah. Any movie where a creepy little boy gets possessed? If his finger starts saying "murder" backwards, don't take any chances. In The Last Exorcism, a successful exorcist comes to a small farmhouse to save the farmer's teenaged daughter. The movie is filmed in a handheld style, popular in these Blair Witch-inspired supernatural thrillers. Much wrenching of bones and body contortions follow. How would you like to be auditioning for this role? "In the first seen, you need to be able to cry and be sympathetic. In the next scene you crawl across the ceiling and look like you're going to eat the camera man. Then in the third scene we'll use CGI to fold you in half." Sounds like a blast. 97 cuts.

Tron Legacy (Trailer 2)

It doesn't have quite the same pulse-pounding cyber-slamming music as the first teaser trailer, but it spends less time dallying in the real world and more time lathering us up with the gorgeous world of Tron. Neon never looked so good. 61 cuts.

The Social Network (Trailer 1)

Set to a choir's rendition of Radiohead's "Creep", the screen flashes with anonymous profile pictures from Facebook, innocuous status updates, and button clicks. It's actually a bit ominous, and could warp into a serial killer movie at any moment. But it turns out to be an expose of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, with the wonderful tagline, "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies". I'm not typically a fan of rise-and-fall movies, but am intrigued not only by the timeliness of the story, but by the fact that Zuckerberg is still on top, and perhaps not even yet in his zenith. The trailer is quite good. 111 cuts.

Charlie St. Cloud (Trailer 2)

Booooring. This looks like a Hallmark movie. It's way too sincere and sentimental for my tastes. And Zac Efron is too pretty. In contrast to the first trailer, which is all about Zac's relationship with his dead brother, and the dead brother resenting Zac hanging with the local hottie, this trailer is all about Zac hanging with the local hottie, and getting some props from his younger brother. The movie ranked 97th in 2010's box office, just behind what is my favorite movie of the year (no spoilers), and in front of Brooklyn's Finest. It does not deserve to be in such company. 123 cuts.

Due Date

Odd couple movies are typically forgettable, but all the slapstick/crude/non sequitur humor generally lends itself toward an amusing trailer. Not so this one. Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis (I bet he has a macro to type out his own name) travel together across the country, battling each others' personalities, where Galifianakis is the intolerable but nevertheless likable manchild, and Downey is the joe-everyman, humorless childman who is destined to stomp too hard on Galifianakis's feelings, and end up feeling bad about it. Let's just cut to the end where they hug and make up, and Galifianakis gets in one last zinger. This movie was hyped as the next The Hangover, but came in only 26th for 2010, in contrast to The Hangover's surprise 6th place in 2009. 72 cuts.

The Town
Wow. This trailer is intense. Ben Affleck is a bank robber who falls in love with his hostage, Rebecca Hall. Jeremy Renner is his "don't forget where you came from" pal who keeps him dishonest, and Jon "Don Draper" Hamm is the FBI agent who hounds them. Great music. Nuns with machine guns. Piles of cash. Lines drawn in the sand. Competent adversaries. And as much as I'm lukewarm about Affleck's acting, his directing in Gone Baby Gone was exceptional. I'm really sorry to have missed this movie; it probably ranks right near the top of 2010 movies I wish I had seen in the theater. 137 cuts.


I'm a sucker for a movie with a good premise. You know, that one-sentence pitch we hear over and over throughout Robert Altman's The Player, as various screenwriters and directors try to hold Tim Robbins's attention (strategy hint: don't open with “The Graduate 2: it's twenty years later, and Mrs. Robinson now lives with her married daughter). There are movies with a boring premise ("man tries to save girl, while uncovering a conspiracy") that turn out to be quite excellent (Spartan); and movies with a great premise ("six people awake in a labyrinth of square rooms with no memory of how they got there") that are absolutely terrible (The Cube). That a premise might sound exciting or boring is all in the telling, but even when I hear about a movie where "a bunch of short people try to destroy an evil ring", I immediately perk up at "evil ring", even though the description tried to make it mundane. And I challenge you to make The Whales of August sound interesting; it's been twenty years since I saw the trailer for that snoozefest, but I still wake up in a bored sweat some nights just thinking about it. All this is to say that although a good premise greatly increases the chances of getting me into the theater, the movie must stand on its own.

Inception has an excellent premise. A team of experts use psychic espionage to steal industrial secrets from unsuspecting dreamers. Team of experts? Yes. Psychic espionage? Yes! Stealing secrets from dreams? YES! When I saw this trailer before Sherlock Holmes earlier in the year, I marched right up to the projection booth, kicked the door in, and said, "Show it. Now."

You might think I'd be apprehensive about the premise, given how disappointing most dream-based movies are. I'm thinking of Dreamscape, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Generation X (which has superheroes, so I had to watch it, but is beyond straight-to-video bad; I had to order it from some specialty shop that digs up unreleased superhero garbage). The problem with dreams in movies is one of perspective. If the dreamworld looks too real, enough to trick us into thinking we're not watching a dream, then we feel defrauded later to learn it's a dream, because no dream actually has that much detail or is that logical. But if the film hedges the other direction, and makes the dream appropriately surreal and nonsensical (like the awesome dream sequences in Paprika), then whereas the protagonist might not know it's a dream, we certainly do, and are thus less invested. And there goes the surprise. So how does Inception solve this problem? Quite brilliantly, actually.

First, they tell us when they're about to enter the dream world. Nothing hides the man behind the curtain better than pulling back some other curtain, somewhere else in the room, diverting our attention. Second, they stress the importance of making the dream world as convincing as possible, otherwise the forgery will be detected. Third, they warn us that without certain totems, cues from the outside world, we can have no assurance that our 'real' world isn't itself a dream. Layers upon layers.

Leonardo DiCaprio used to be an architect, i.e. someone who builds dream worlds. Ken Watanabe, having once been duped by DiCaprio's dreamweaving skills, approaches DiCaprio, asking him to assemble a team to infiltrate the mind of a rival corporate icon, Cillian Murphy, and convince Murphy to dissolve his empire. This will be no easy task, DiCaprio says; this requires inception. A typical dream sortie involves extraction, trying to steal an idea from someone's subconscious. Inception means that we are not merely tricking someone into thinking a false world is real, but we're actually planting an idea so deeply and delicately in their mind that when they finally wake up, they'll think the idea is their own; it will stick. Inception is like an organ transplant; if done incorrectly, the body will reject the organ. DiCaprio's lieutenant, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, says inception can't be done. But DiCaprio says he's done it before. To his own wife.

DiCaprio used to be an architect, but when his wife (Marion Cotillard) died, his architecting skills were compromised. Cotillard now exists in his subconscious, and actively tries to sabotage his efforts. And let me tell you, when she's in the scene (or threatening to be in the scene), she brings the heat. Therefore, the less DiCaprio knows about the dream world in advance of the mission, the better. So he hires rookie Ellen Page as the team's new architect. The team is rounded out by a forger, Tom Hardy (someone who specializes in creating false identities within the dream), and a chemist, Dileep Rao (the one who cooks up the cocktail to keep everyone asleep).

Here's the thing: this isn't telepathy. In the world of Inception, there is a whatever-device that drugs people, connects their minds, and lets them share a dream together. The movie doesn't waste time trying to convince us of the impossible science that would permit such a contraption. It's a believable conceit of the movie that the device is fringe and cobbled together, with a subculture surrounding its use. If it were any more peripheral, we'd wonder how such a sophisticated device got into the hands of these criminals; if it were more mainstream, we'd doubt that any aspect of society could remain unchanged in the invention's shadow.

Inception is flat-out awesome. The cast, with additional performances by Lukas Haas, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, and Tom Berenger, are all transfixing. I could not blink. Everyone is just so good. Watanabe, Murphy, Postlethwaite, and DiCaprio all represent competing interests, and each gains our sympathies. It's tough to know who exactly to root for. Are there any bad guys in this story? And Gordon-Levitt looks smashing in his suit; he is one cool cucumber.

The visuals are stunning, and is one of the rare cases these days where the movie is good enough to deserve its effects. The music is ominous, pounding on us to impress that the stakes are incredibly high (a person stranded in the dream world would be lost in limbo for eternity). And the film layers dream upon dream, where we are struggling to keep track of all the various layers at once, each with its own setting, and own speed of time. There are scenes as surreal as any in The Matrix, but grounded in the physics of the dream world.

I can't recommend this movie highly enough. I think it will be one of the rare gems from 2010 that will improve with age.

Friday, December 9, 2011

71. Salt

AMC Eastridge 15

Opened in 2005 (source), this AMC theater anchors the Eastridge mall in southeastern San Jose. Though large malls like this, with an enormous footprint, seem to be out of favor these days, and this one in particular feels a bit remote, the inside is surprisingly nice. It's spacious, with a large, open food court.

I love these panels of movie stars from various decades, with Holly Golightly flanked by Morpheus. (They alternate male/female until a smoldering Antonio Banderas dares to transcend traditional gender roles.)

The theater is laid out a bit like an airport. A big foyer, ticketing, and snacks, followed by a long hallway leading to the concourse.

Here is one such hallway.

The carpet is punctuated with tiled flooring that features movie quotations. ("There's no crying in baseball.") I appreciate that the quotations aren't attributed, challenging us to recall the source.

AMC has done a nice job with its thematic collages, including posters for classics, comedies, romances, westerns, foreign, action, and sci-fi (below). Oh, wait, does that mean Apollo 11 is sci-fi?

Plush red seats. Grand auditoriums. Multi-colored lights on the wall. The theater seats a total of 2954 people, with its largest of fifteen auditoriums seating 279. The theater showed 154 different movies in 2010, ranking 19th among all the theaters I surveyed (its ranking is roughly proportional to its number of screens).


The Other Guys

Misfit, mismatched cops Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg try to graduate from desk work to crime fighting. Wahlberg is a big ball of anger, wanting to be released and fly "like a peacock". Ferrell is an awkward, straight-laced, affable paper-pusher who admires the precinct's two top cops (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson) even though they treat him like garbage. The movie doesn't look great, but the trailer has many amusing lines. 108 cuts.

The Green Hornet

(Previously reviewed)


Attributing the movie to M. Night Shyamalan does not inspire confidence. The man has been on a steady decline since, well, The Sixth Sense. The seams have been showing in all his movies, with the author/director's heavy hand weighing down more forcefully in each subsequent story. The Happening was the final slap in the face. (The Last Airbender made me slap myself in the face.) So do I really want to see his next movie? No thank you. The trailer is well crafted, with vertigo-inducing shots of upside-down waterfronts and skyscrapers, and menacing block-letter text stretching to fill the screen. A bunch of random people get trapped in an elevator, and are soon afflicted by attacks from who knows what. Each other? A ghost? The eponymous devil? Who cares. I think Devil is an allegory: each of the characters in the elevator represents a facet of Shyamalan's psyche that he wants to punish for interfering with his previous movies. The man in the suit represents all the times Shyamalan wishes he had listened to Corporate about letting someone at least read his script before the first day of principal photography. The security guard's bald head is a symbol for the untextured motivations he gives his characters ("Trees are making people kill themselves; you don't want to be made to want to kill yourself; run."). The red-headed woman, well, Shyamalan is obsessed with red, because it's "deep" and "it means stuff" and Hawthorne liked it. Etc. 80 cuts. More lacerations.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

(Previously reviewed)

Paranormal Activity 2

(Previously reviewed)

The Last Exorcism

(Previously reviewed)


Dwayne Johnson is released from jail; he puts on a leather jacket (nothing says, "You could be next" better than wearing someone else's skin); he gets in a hot rod; and he goes out looking for revenge. His best friend or perhaps brother was killed. Maybe by a preacher? The script writes itself. The movie looks terrible, with Johnson steam-rolling through each scene looking for trouble, just as he has in movies past. Pectorals are farther than they appear. 65 cuts.


We've seen this plot play out innumerable times. Secret agent/cop/detective/wetworker/best-there-is-at-what-he-does gets too close to the truth. Some shadow organization frames him, pinning on him the very crimes he sought to uncover. Innocent people turn up dead; loyalties are tested; and the trail leads inevitably to the top. By the end, our hero has rooted out so much filth from the system, it's difficult to imagine how the society will survive all its gaping holes. I'm thinking of sci-fi movies like Minority Report and Logan's Run; secret agent movies like Mission: Impossible and Eraser; and cop movies like The Negotiator. In each case, the villains would have done well to heed Michael Clayton's disgust, "I'm not the guy you kill; I'm the guy you pay off." (Not that our heroes would take a bribe, but it could at least save the bad guy a bloody death.) When the machine turns against its own zealot, it creates an unimaginable adversary: one who is knowledgeable, highly skilled, difficult to locate, and very pissed off.

But there's something different about Salt. We know from the trailer that Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is an American spy who is accused of being a mole for the now-defunct KGB. That a walk-in so casually testifies to this fact during interrogation would seem to warrant immediate dismissal, and Salt's colleagues aren't at all convinced. But Salt is suspicious; it's almost like she can read the script, and she knows that she's about to be the target of a vast conspiracy. So she begins an investigation into the truth that, naturally, only serves to further implicate her. Her fellow agents, headed up by the wonderful Liev Schreiber, are forced to hunt her; Salt's family is put in danger; and Salt herself must become every bit the threat she was imagined to be, just to clear her name.

It's fantastic.

I've never been a fan of Angelina Jolie, but she was made for this role. She's kicked a lot of ass in her time, as Lara Croft, Mrs. Smith, Fox (Wanted), Franky (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Grendel's mother (Beowulf). But Evelyn Salt tops them all. She is on the run for the entire movie, evading her pursuers, sneaking into the most tightly secured environments, smashing through windows, busting heads. Boom! She has the talents and rage of Daniel Craig's 007, but exists in a more realistic world of consequences. We never leave her long enough for the script to magically teleport her to an exotic locale in a new outfit with a bankroll; she's got the clothes on her back, and no way out of the city; she must run, constantly; she must punch her way to the truth. When she's captured, she escapes by the most brutal means. At one point she uses some's body as a silencer.

The rest of the cast is fascinating. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an agent from a different division, is tasked with her apprehension, and bears down on her with all the competence we would hope our government to actually have in such a case. Daniel Olbrychski, Salt's accuser, is both mysterious and personable. What are his motivations, and why has he singled out Salt?

Writing this review a year late, I can see with clarity how Salt fared at the box office. According to The Numbers, it ranks 20th for ticket sales in 2010. I'm actually pleasantly surprised by this (I'd be happier if Salt weren't immediately preceded in the list by The Other Guys). But in terms of plot similarity, Salt stomped the comp: The A-Team (#41), Knight and Day (#42, sadness), and The Losers (#114, had to really scroll for that one). And Salt was only beaten out by two other movies with a female lead (Alice in Wonderland, #2; and Twilight: Eclipse, #5; I haven't seen Tangled, but I gathered from the trailer that it's told more from the rogue's perspective). What's refreshing about Salt, too, is that the role is pretty much gender-neutral; throw Tom Cruise into the same role, and the movie could carry on with few adjustments. It's not too often that a non-pregnant, non-wanting-to-be-pregnant leading role goes to a woman.