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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

2010 Stats, Part 1: San Francisco

I've been chomping at the bit for three years to start posting year-end analysis for 2010, but I've always delayed under the belief that I should first finish with the reviews. Well phooey, I'm doing it anyway.

Inspired by my recent review of the Clay Theatre (and discovering that it showed just 20 movies in 2010, contrasted to the nearby Vogue's 69), this first analysis will look at the theater and circuit patterns in San Francisco. Why should I criticize the Clay for showing so few titles, when really it was collaborating with four other Landmark theaters to bring film to the San Francisco community. How does the Landmark network stack up against its competitors?

Note: I collected showtime data on 331 days in 2010 (~90% of the year). As this is an incomplete picture, all subsequent numbers are estimates only. IMDB was my source for daily showtimes. I'm not sure by what process IMDB receives its data, but some theaters reported inconsistently, e.g., they only reported Friday/Saturday showtimes, which would underrepresent their numbers below, or they didn't list the correct title, selecting an older title of the same thing, which would overrepresent the number of unique movies shown.

Theater Overview

I tracked 25 San Francisco venues in 2010, totaling 1,153 different movies, shown a total of 103,968 times.

CircuitTheater NameScreensNote
AMCAMC Loews Metreon 1616
AMCAMC Van Ness 1414
CinemarkCentury San Francisco Centre 99
CinemarkCinéArts @ Empire3
LandmarkEmbarcadero Center Cinema5Closed 2013 for renovation.
LandmarkOpera Plaza Cinema4
LandmarkLumiere Theatre3Closed 2012.
LandmarkBridge Theatre1Closed 2012. Review forthcoming.
LandmarkClay Theatre1
Lee Neighborhood TheatresPresidio Theatre4
Lee Neighborhood Theatres4 Star2
Lee Neighborhood TheatresMarina Theatre2Review forthcoming.
Peerless EntertainmentVogue Theatre1Now run by CinemaSF.
RegalUnited Artists Stonestown2Review forthcoming.
Sundance CinemasSundance Kabuki8
IndependentBalboa Theater2Now run by CinemaSF.
IndependentRoxie Theater2
IndependentAlliance Francaise1
IndependentCastro Theatre1
IndependentOddball Films1
IndependentRed Vic Movie House1Closed 2011.
IndependentSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art1Closed 2013 for renovation.
IndependentVictoria Theatre1
IndependentVIZ Cinema1
IndependentYerba Buena Center for the Arts1

Screens per Circuit

Nationally, the circuits with the most screens are Regal (6,729), AMC (4,612), and Cinemark (3,842). Landmark is a mere 16th, with 224 screens. In San Francisco, it's a different story. AMC still dominates the screen count with its two theaters, but Landmark is in second, above Cinemark and Regal.

4Lee Neighborhood Theatres38
7Peerless Entertainment11

Using Cinema Treasures as my rough barometer, San Francisco has hosted 151 theaters with a total of 222 screens, meaning 17% of its theaters and 39% of its screens were still in operation in 2010.

Movies per Theater Screen

There exists a wide spectrum for how each theater programs its screens. The Castro absolutely dominates, showing 299 movies on its single screen. That number blows my mind; what an incredible cultural asset to the city. I should also note that most of the data I'm missing is from January, when I was only collecting data on Fridays. For mainstream theaters, Friday showings are usually indicative of the next week's offerings, and so their movie counts are fairly accurate; the Castro, however, usually shows several different films per day, and so is probably more under-reported here than are most theaters.

VIZ Cinema, specializing in foreign animated features, comes in a surprise second.

RankCircuitTheaterMoviesScreensMovies Per Screen
1IndependentCastro Theatre2991299.0
2IndependentVIZ Cinema1061106.0
3IndependentRed Vic Movie House97197.0
4IndependentRoxie Theater147273.5
5Peerless EntertainmentVogue Theatre69169.0
6IndependentYerba Buena Center for the Arts30130.0
7IndependentBalboa Theater54227.0
8LandmarkBridge Theatre23123.0
9Lee Neighborhood Theatres4 Star41220.5
10RegalUnited Artists Stonestown38219.0
11IndependentAlliance Francaise18118.0
12LandmarkLumiere Theatre52317.3
13LandmarkEmbarcadero Center Cinema79515.8
14Lee Neighborhood TheatresMarina Theatre31215.5
15Lee Neighborhood TheatresPresidio Theatre61415.3
16Sundance CinemasSundance Kabuki117814.6
17CinemarkCinéArts @ Empire43314.3
18LandmarkClay Theatre13113.0
19CinemarkCentury San Francisco Centre 999911.0
19IndependentSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art11111.0
21LandmarkOpera Plaza Cinema3849.5
22AMCAMC Loews Metreon 16124167.8
23AMCAMC Van Ness 1473145.2
24IndependentVictoria Theatre313.0
24IndependentOddball Films313.0

Movies per Circuit Screen

If we compress the data by circuit, clumping together all the independents, we start to get a picture of how highly each circuit values variety. (Peerless, Regal, and Sundance are outliers in that they are part of a larger regional or national circuit, yet they each have but a single theater in San Francisco.) Although the Independent cluster is buoyed by the Castro's staggering numbers, they would still clock in at 38 movies per screen even without the Castro.

RankCircuitMoviesScreensMovies per Screen
1Peerless Entertainment69169.0
4Lee Neighborhood Theatres133816.6

*Doesn't sum the column, to avoid double counting movies exhibited by multiple circuits.

Regal surprises me; nationally, it's a mainstream circuit, but in San Francisco it shows independent film, and at a higher per-screen rate than does Landmark. Landmark bests the other two dominant circuits, Cinemark and AMC.

AMC, though last in movies per screen, is third (just behind Landmark and the Castro) for number of unique movies shown.

Unique Movies per Circuit

Treating each independent as its own circuit, how many movies did each circuit show that were unique to that circuit (i.e., no other circuit showed that movie)?

RankCircuitUnique MoviesTheaters
1Castro Theatre268
2Roxie Theater128
3Landmark116Bridge Theatre, Clay Theatre, Embarcadero Center, Lumiere Theatre, Opera Plaza Cinema
4VIZ Cinema102
5AMC62AMC Loews Metreon, AMC Van Ness 14
6Red Vic Movie House56
7Peerless Entertainment37Vogue Theatre
8Yerba Buena Center for the Arts29
9Cinemark28Century San Francisco Centre 9, CinéArts @ Empire
10Alliance Francaise18
11Lee Neighborhood Theatres164 Star, Marina Theatre, Presidio Theatre
12Sundance Cinemas12Sundance Kabuki
13San Francisco Museum of Modern Art11
14Regal10United Artists Stonestown
15Balboa Theater9
16Victoria Theatre3
17Oddball Films2

This answers my original question, showing that although the Clay might not be showing very many different movies, it is part of a circuit that showed more than a hundred movies that noone else did.

Showings per Theater Screen

Continuing from the previous section, it's not that AMC isn't exhibiting a variety of movies, it's just that they are spreading them out over many screens, and they are maxing out those screens, keeping the reels spinning all day long. This gives viewers more flexibility in terms of when they can watch those movies, either by time of day or day of week.

RankCircuitTheaterShowingsScreensShowings per Screen
1AMCAMC Van Ness 1421,540141,539
2AMCAMC Loews Metreon 1623,062161,441
3IndependentBalboa Theater2,83421,417
4CinemarkCentury San Francisco Centre 912,62191,402
5LandmarkEmbarcadero Center Cinema6,76351,353
6Lee Neighborhood Theatres4 Star2,48821,244
7Lee Neighborhood TheatresMarina Theatre2,47521,238
8RegalUnited Artists Stonestown2,45721,229
9Peerless EntertainmentVogue Theatre1,19711,197
10Sundance CinemasSundance Kabuki9,24381,155
11CinemarkCinéArts @ Empire3,27631,092
12Lee Neighborhood TheatresPresidio Theatre4,07641,019
13LandmarkBridge Theatre1,01711,017
14LandmarkOpera Plaza Cinema4,05841,015
15LandmarkLumiere Theatre2,6453882
16LandmarkClay Theatre8651865
17IndependentCastro Theatre8551855
18IndependentRed Vic Movie House7691769
19IndependentRoxie Theater1,1142557
20IndependentVIZ Cinema5171517
21IndependentYerba Buena Center for the Arts37137
22IndependentSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art27127
23IndependentAlliance Francaise26126
24IndependentVictoria Theatre313
24IndependentOddball Films313

AMC leads this category, averaging 1,539 showings per screen over the year. That's 4.6 showings per screen per day.

The Balboa sneaks in with the big dogs, keeping the projection booth hot more than any other theater of comparable size.

Days per Movie per Theater

I'm valuing variety (more movies are better) and flexibility (more showings are better). But what about longevity? The typical movie goer will only visit the theater a few times a year; they don't care that the Castro shows 299 different movies throughout the year, because they are looking at just one or two Friday nights in particular. And for a filmgoer who wants to see a specific movie, but doesn't have flexibility in when they can go, it doesn't matter if the theater shows the movie a hundred times during the one week they're away camping. (Extraordinary Measures was an extreme example of this: both the Van Ness 14 and San Francisco Centre 9 debuted the movie with 5-8 showings per day. Fifteen days later, it was gone from both theaters, from San Francisco, and from the entire Bay Area.)

So another ideal is to hold over a movie for a long period of time. If the movie is worth seeing, filmgoers will have maximum opportunity to find a convenient time to see it. How many days does each theater retain a typical title?

RankTheaterDays (Mean)Days (Median)Longest Held (Days - Title)
1AMC Loews Metreon 1623.721114 - Inception
1AMC Van Ness 1421.92178 - The Social Network
3Sundance Kabuki20.41775 - Crazy Heart
4Marina Theatre18.81646 - The Social Network
5Century San Francisco Centre 918.41582 - Alice in Wonderland
6United Artists Stonestown16.71475 - The Kids Are All Right
6Presidio Theatre15.61462 - The Town
6CinéArts @ Empire14.01441 - Inception
6Clay Theatre16.01436 - Please Give
10Balboa Theater13.61380 - Remembering Playland At The Beach
10Opera Plaza Cinema14.61378 - The Hurt Locker
10Embarcadero Center Cinema18.51362 - The Ghost Writer
134 Star11.11038 - Get Him to the Greek
14Lumiere Theatre11.4845 - Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played With Fire)
15Bridge Theatre10.6757 - The Kids Are All Right
16VIZ Cinema3.3216 - The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
16Red Vic Movie House2.328 - Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo
17Roxie Theater4.21103 - Exit Through the Gift Shop
17Vogue Theatre5.6133 - The Social Network
17Castro Theatre1.4125 - Alice in Wonderland
17San Francisco Museum of Modern Art2.4116 - Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol
17Alliance Francaise1.316 - L'armee du crime (Army of Crime)
17Yerba Buena Center for the Arts1.214 - Trash Humpers
17Oddball Films1.011 - [various]
17Victoria Theatre1.011 - [various]

Not only does AMC show many different titles per year, but they also hold them over the longest. Both AMC theaters retain a typical title for three weeks. The Metreon also has the record for retaining a movie the longest, giving filmgoers almost four months to come see the excellent Inception.

Small multi-screen theaters have the same flexibility as the larger theaters; the Balboa was able to dedicate one of its two screens to Remembering Playland at the Beach for more than two months, while the other screen rotated in new movies every two weeks. Single-screen theaters, in contrast, have to choose between variety and longevity. The Castro exhibited Alice in Wonderland for nearly a month, but most of its movies disappear after but a single night.

I had criticized the Clay for showing only a third as many movies on its single screen as did the Vogue. The above table makes it appear that the Vogue was cycling movies in and out every day, while the Clay retained each movie for two weeks. Whereas the Castro really does churn through movies that quickly, the Vogue's numbers are being thrown off by its few festivals.

In the below chart, I exclude all movies that were shown only a single time at the theater. This reduces the Castro from 299 movies to just 18, while the AMC theaters remain relatively unscathed. Now the Vogue and Clay are closer together, with only a day separating their typical movie time. This doesn't exactly come out in the Clay's favor, though, as the two charts demonstrate that the Vogue is able to match the Clay for longevity, yet still squeeze in triple the variety.

RankTheaterDays (Mean)Days (Median)Unique Movies
1AMC Loews Metreon 1626.822.0126
1AMC Van Ness 1424.722.0152
3Century San Francisco Centre 921.221.090
4Marina Theatre19.319.033
5Sundance Kabuki20.617.0116
5CinéArts @ Empire17.217.057
7San Francisco Museum of Modern Art16.016.01
8Embarcadero Center Cinema21.114.069
8United Artists Stonestown17.214.037
8Clay Theatre16.014.020
8Presidio Theatre15.814.074
8Balboa Theater14.914.054
13Opera Plaza Cinema15.313.091
13Vogue Theatre12.313.028
15Bridge Theatre13.211.025
154 Star11.911.073
17Lumiere Theatre11.910.087
18Roxie Theater7.86.075
18Alliance Francaise6.06.01
20Castro Theatre7.25.018
21VIZ Cinema4.83.065
22Red Vic Movie House2.62.0109
22Yerba Buena Center for the Arts2.42.05
24Oddball Films0
24Victoria Theatre0

Visits per Theater

You can click through to my reviews to determine which of these theaters is my favorite. But what isn't represented by the narrow scope of this blog is how much I have favored various theaters since moving to the Bay Area in 1995. The below table identifies how many times (as of writing this post) I've visited each San Francisco theater, including a few that were closed long before I began this blog. These numbers are underreported for visits prior to 2003 when I began more rigorously retaining my ticket stubs.

1Sundance Kabuki31
2AMC Van Ness 1423
3Coronet Theatre12Closed 2005.
4Embarcadero Center Cinema7Closed 2013 for renovation.
5Century San Francisco Centre 95
5Presidio Theatre5
5UA Galaxy5Closed 2005.
8AMC Loews Metreon 164
8Opera Plaza Cinema4
8Regency I & II4Closed 1998.
11Bridge Theatre3Closed 2012.
11Castro Theatre3
11Lumiere Theatre3Closed 2012.
14Alexandria Theatre2Closed 2004.
14Alhambra2Closed sometime after 1996.
14Balboa Theater2
14CinéArts @ Empire2
14Clay Theatre2
14San Francisco Museum of Modern Art2Closed 2013 for renovation.
14United Artists Stonestown2
21Marina Theatre1
21Red Vic Movie House1Closed 2011.
21Roxie Theater1
21Victoria Theatre1
21Vogue Theatre1
21Yerba Buena Center for the Arts1
274 Star0
27Alliance Francaise0
27Oddball Films0
27VIZ Cinema0

Closing Comments

I doubt I'll dive this deep on any other single city in the Bay Area, because no other Bay Area city offers this much variety. I might do some regional comparison (e.g., East Bay vs. South Bay), but these are more arbitrary in how I draw the boundary, and will undoubtably favor the more urban areas. But you can look forward to more analyses like this, as I have a long list of interesting ways to slice the data.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

2D vs. 3D

An article from Business Insider details a few reasons why film studios and theaters are offering 3D, and why the medium will endure. The first two reasons, that theaters are installing more 3D projectors and studios are releasing more 3D films, don't really say much about what the public wants. Taken in isolation, these might just be gimmicks to lure audiences away from home video; or it could be bad market research; or doubling down on an ill-advised upgrade policy; or at worst a collusion between film producers and exhibitors to raise prices. (The argument that 3D is doing well overseas would support studios making 3D movies, but not domestic theaters showing them.)

The third reason claims that 3D movies are bringing in money. In my college business ethics class, my professor was adamant that the sole purpose of a business was to provide a service to its customers. I don't agree with that from an ethical point of view or in practice, but I do believe that free market pressures can enforce his idea nonetheless: give us what we want, and we will pay you; treat us like dirt, and we won't. I.e., follow the money. No matter how much studios and theaters want to make 3D happen to increase their own profits, if we reject the medium and stop buying tickets, they will back off.

So how much do we want 3D? The Business Insider article isn't able to separate 3D sales from sales that would have happened even without the 3D. The numbers for The Avengers, widely available in both formats, suggests that when given a choice, audiences are split down the middle, with half of us preferring 3D. The Avengers is such an outlier, though, we might have flocked to the theaters even if the entire film had just been the schwarma scene. Also, 3D ticket sales for any given movie measures how much we thought we wanted to see it in 3D; only exit polls of consumer satisfaction would tell us if it was actually worth it.

This Fandango poll (I don't know the sample size) seems reasonable, that half of movie viewers don't like 3D, another quarter might splurge for the right film (e.g., CGI/effects-rich movies), and the other quarter either prefer it, or want to prefer it if only the quality were good enough. I surmise that the poll would skew toward a youngish, internet-comfortable audience, slightly inflating numbers in favor of a technological innovation. (My parents, who both wear glasses while watching movies, were not excited at the prospect of layering on an additional pair of glasses for Gravity.) On the other hand, frequent movie goers (which I assume Fandango users are) should mind a price hike more than the infrequent movie goer, so if 15% are buying 3D tickets anyway, maybe America at large doesn't mind the price inflation so much.

For my own preference, I ask whether the addition of 3D merits an increase in ticket price and the slight discomfort of wearing glasses. Although I will often go out of my way to see a matinee showing for the reduced price, in general I don't think about how much individual tickets cost; I see as many movies as I want to and am able to, and just accept that the aggregate ticket price is the cost of having a fun hobby. So I'm not opposed to steeper prices if the product is superior.

I believe I've seen the full gamut of 3D movies, from the red-and-blue Jaws 3D as a kid, to the made-for-3D Avatar, to the mass of post-processing imitators. But the true test is to see both versions of a film, and I have now done this for three separate movies: AvatarThe Avengers, and Turbo. So here's an exit poll of one consumer: not once did the 3D add any extra enjoyment for me. I disliked wearing the glasses, but other than that, I simply didn't care. Why pay extra for that?


Grand Lake Theater

(Previously reviewed.)

Although I now live just a few blocks away from the Alameda Theatre, its only 2D showtimes for Gravity this evening were at 4:15 and 9:00, not the ideal 7:00 slot my parents and I were looking for. (3D showings were more available, but I'm not a fan.) So I was happy to make a return trip to the Grand Lake, which I had not visited since seeing The Avengers for a third time back in September, 2012.

There has been one negative change in the intervening months: the concession stand no longer stocks those delicious (vegan) chocolate bars I've come to love. Other than that, the theater has lost none of its beauty, and has even added some in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's headshot guarding the staircase.

(I will not be seeing Bad Grandpa.)

A better shot of the 'stained glass' window in the lobby than what I posted in a previous review.

Gravity 3D had engaged the big screen, relegating 2D to the Egyptian Auditorium, but I don't mind. I still haven't been able to get a good photo of this, but the stars sparkling overhead in a midnight sky complete the ambience, especially for a movie like Gravity.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Trailer 1)

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a stock market tycoon with an uncanny ability to make money, which he uses to throw lavish parties and to earn even more money. He soon runs afoul of the federal government. I dislike the rise-and-fall genre, with their depressing third act, and already-obvious morals. But as a two-minute Gatsby-esque party sequence, yeah, it’s entertaining. Jonah Hill costars, as does Matthew McConaughey, still looking thin from Dallas Buyers Club.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Trailer 2)

If you can avoid this trailer, do. It shows none of the restraint of the first trailer, instead laying the groundwork for the entire plot sequence, and showing so many gorgeous visuals that I’m skeptical the movie will still be able to make me awe. I see the franchise is following the model established by Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hobbit, dividing a single book into multiple money-making films.

Enders Game (Trailer 2)
[no rating]
I closed my eyes for this one. Having read the book, and already seen the first trailer numerous times, I don’t need anything else spoiled for me. I find the multiple-trailer model annoying, as it specifically targets people who have already seen the first trailer (otherwise they could just reuse that trailer), trying to ensure that we have as few surprises as possible going into our first viewing.


In college I read a sci-fi short story about a spaceship built for super-long-distance, super-fast travel (those are technical terms), shielded from all manner of radiation/particle, no matter how small. It was a feat of engineering: the impervious vessel. On its maiden voyage, however, the entire crew perished, because the shipmakers had failed to account for something more invasive than particles: gravity. That blew my mind: gravity is everywhere; you can't stop it! My best friend was unimpressed, noting that of the physical forces known to science, gravity is actually on the weaker end of the spectrum, almost immeasurably weaker than weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and strong nuclear forces. (Weak as it may be, it's also a bit absurd to think that the shipmakers would have forgotten about it.) But that doesn't mean gravity is to be trifled with.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are astronauts on a mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Stone designed the circuitry, which accounts for her inclusion in the mission despite having trained for only six months (she doesn't yet have her space legs and is constantly trying to keep down her lunch). While she fiddles with the circuit board, Kowalski dances around the shuttle in his jet pack, attempting to break the spacewalking record set by Russian cosmonauts decades earlier (a record that actually fell just a few months prior to the release of this film).

Space, despite its vastness, can nevertheless seem small and interconnected. Events on a distant Russian satellite trigger a chain reaction that soon reaches our heroes, who must scramble to detach the telescope from their shuttle and get safely inside. Something goes wrong, as it must, and soon the two are adrift in space, cut off from their colleagues and without radio contact, trying to make it back to Earth alive.

Gravity is an experiment in isolation narrative. With its tiny cast, and set entirely in space (no flashbacks or cutaways to Houston), the film puts all the pieces into play, gives them a nudge, and then revels in the chaos. Kowalski as the experienced pilot is able to pause from their predicament to appreciate Earth's beauty from such a vantage point. Stone, more in line with the audience's perspective, is terrified. With this film's release I doubt NASA will see a single person apply to be an astronaut, ever again.

The film's title is a bit of a misnomer. It suggests Earth's gravitational field is the villain, constantly trying to pull our heroes to their deaths. The true nemesis is inertia. When Stone lets go of a bolt, it starts to float away, not because it is more affected by Earth's gravity than she is, but because she cannot rely on friction to slow the bolt's movement, accelerated by the simple act of opening her hand. When Kowalski activates his jets to push him in one direction, he's created another problem for himself: how to slow down. The two are constantly twisting in space, with one almost able to stabilize their own rotation, before being yanked back into a spin by the taut cable that tethers them.

Gravity suffers a bit from being too pure in its conceit. It is a high-adrenaline thriller, but one without peaks or valleys. The odds are so against our heroes, and there are so few unknowns or unexpected discoveries, that we watch not so much to see what will happen next, but just to spend with them what few last moments we can before their inevitable demise. It's exhausting.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

82. My Dog Tulip

Clay Theatre

Now anchoring a trendy stretch of San Francisco's Fillmore St., Landmark's Clay Theatre opened in 1910. Tied with the Vogue only a handful of blocks away, the Clay is the third oldest theater in the city still showing movies. (Jack Tillmany's Theatres of San Francisco dates the Vogue to 1912, and the Clay to 1914, but I've chosen the earlier dates reported on the corresponding theater pages.) Originally opening as the Regent, and then later known as the Avalon, the Clay's original façade had a deeper inset under an arch, with the ticket booth an island in the middle. The arch is gone, but the front still looks good (excepting that strange window with curtains and Christmas lights). Some of that exterior real estate has been ceded to the lobby, and the ticket booth is embedded in one of the sides like the turret to a castle.

Even in a single screen theater where a patron's purpose is unambiguous, I always appreciate a comfortable bench in the lobby (like at the Lumiere). If a lobby is worth having at all, why not make it attractive and comfortable to sit in? Like at other Landmark theaters, the concession stand is vegan-friendly, with veggie dogs, vegan cookies, and different tasty drinks (honest-ade, pomegranate blue). The theater's lobby and bathrooms are larger than the otherwise equally sized Vogue.

A shelf filled with postcards and schedules included Lankmark's San Francisco Film Calendar, the film guide for the Castro, and the 15th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival (now approaching its 18th year). I applaud the cooperation of theaters promoting each others' programs.

A red curtain hangs in the lobby to shield the auditorium from ambient light. Inside, red fabric walls are decorated with framed posters advertising AmelieEd Wood, and City of Lost Children, in their original French titles where appropriate. A shallow stage juts out from below the screen. The auditorium sports 320 comfortable seats for its single screen, almost identical in number (and resulting stats) as for the Vogue.

A major difference, though, is that while the Vogue showed ~69 different movies in 2010, the Clay hosted a mere ~20, the fewest of any theater in the Bay Area with daily showings. It held over Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces) for nearly two months, and three other titles for a month each. My Dog Tulip was on the disfavored side, being kept for just two weeks. The one aberration is a single showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on the last Saturday of each month (I still have never seen that movie).

This was my second visit to the theater, after March of the Penguins in 2005. Just a few months before this visit, the Clay had threatened to close (source); obviously it did not, and it remains open to this day.


Oasis's "Wonderwall" played, advertising their forthcoming greatest hits album. I had not heard about them since their successful 1995 album (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, but apparently they've released seven albums in total.

Also heard "Ragdoll" by Lucy Woodward, who sounds a bit like Jessica Rabbit.

A bizarre ad for tourism in South Africa features an elderly couple on vacation, being lead on private safaris and served lunch by a multitude of waitstaff, then commenting what a great time they are having and how lovely and hospitable the South African people are. The couple seems nice enough, and sincere. But the exorbitance of their vacation is stunning; either they are spending a fortune, or people in South Africa are paid dirt wages. Mostly speaking out of ignorance here, but shouldn't I be embarrassed to purchase a service in another country which I'd be unable to afford at home? The commercial concludes with the awkward, "It's possible".


Today’s Special

Aasif Mandvi is a rising sous-chef, but must switch to preparing Indian cuisine when his father becomes too ill to run the family restaurant. With a cab driver as head chef and culinary mystic, Mandvi trades snobbery for an appreciation of masala. Other than the meat dishes, looks delicious. 115 cuts.

Cool It

Documentaries make for some of the best trailers: once they state their thesis, you’ve basically seen the film, just minus the evidence. It’s like showing the hero defeating the villain, and all that’s left is the ninety minute lead up to tell us why the bad guy deserved it. Environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg objects to the scare tactics in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, arguing that alarmism will divert research and funding toward the scariest scenarios, even if they aren't the most dangerous. If we all drove hybrid cars, we would only shave off half a percent from the total emissions we need to decrease. His alternative seems to involve water and drawings on chalk board. Though the movie is on his side, it includes interviews with people looking for his head. The montage of natural disasters, interspersed with children’s drawings of the apocalypse and a creepy child voiceover make this trailer a fun watch. 98 cuts.

My Dog Tulip

Based on J.R. Ackerley's memoir, My Dog Tulip chronicles a fifty-something man (voiced by Christopher Plummer) trying to find a mate for his German Shepherd, Tulip. He lives with his sister, a curmudgeonly meddler. The narrator's observations, and the physical comedy of pairing a sedate old man with an energetic dog, are amusing at times. But in general, the film is dull.

At its best, narration serves to fill in the gaps that would take too long to show or are otherwise missing from a story. In My Dog Tulip, the narration is the story, with the animation merely keeping step to provide a visual reinforcement of the monologue. It's as if the movie were filmed directly from the memoir, rather than attempting to first adapt it into a screenplay.

The credits disclaim, ”No paper was used for the animation of this film”, all the more impressive given the movie's hand-sketched feel with stray lines and erratic, sometimes not fully-colored shapes. With children as their target audience, too many animated films eschew human characters, instead featuring talking animals. In that context, it's refreshing to watch an old man walk his dog-like dog, no anthropomorphism in sight. The distinction in species also allows the protagonist to be intimately involved in his dog's bodily business without the audience becoming too uncomfortable.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

81. The Social Network

Vogue Theatre

Built in 1910, and just a few blocks from the Presidio, the Vogue Theatre is San Francisco's third oldest theater, after the Victoria Theatre (1908) and Roxie Theater (1909) (the Clay Theatre was also built in 1910). The Vogue is operated by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation and CinemaSF, non-profits who together also run the Balboa Theater.

With the closing of the Red Vic Movie House in 2011 and the Bridge Theatre in 2012, the Vogue is now one of only four surviving single-screen theaters in San Francisco, along with the Victoria, Clay, and Castro theaters. (There are only twenty-six single-screen theaters left in the Bay Area, fewer than twenty of which are showing movies on a regular basis.)

The Vogue feels like an old neighborhood theater, with art deco elements in the lobby, and etched glass windows set into the auditorium doors. And there's fresh popcorn for the first showing of the day.

The theater seats just 315, small for a single-screen theater, but larger than the largest screen at twenty multi-screen Bay Area theaters today. The Vogue exhibited an impressive ~69 different films in 2010 (bolstered by some film festivals and Oscars programming), the 6th most for a single-screen theater in the Bay Area, and more than did twenty-one multi-screen theaters in the Bay Area. A far cry from its seventy consecutive weeks of The Gods Must Be Crazy beginning in 1984 (source).

This was my first visit to the Vogue, despite riding past it on the bus for years while living in San Francisco.




Love & Other Drugs

Jake Gyllenhaal is a charismatic pharmaceuticals rep poised to unleash Viagra on the world. He can have any woman he wants, but doesn’t know the true meaning of Christmas until he sees the enormous eyes of Brokeback Mountain co-star Anne Hathaway. With Oliver Platt, Judy Greer, and Hank Azaria in supporting roles, I would much rather see this same cast in a dark comedy, not the predictable romance suggested here. Gyllenhaal will be forced to transition from shallow womanizer who has only ever dated shallow women, to a man inspired to chase after a bus to get Hathaway back. Hathaway meanwhile has Ali MacGraw’s Disease, which is what female characters contract when screenwriters don’t know what to do with them. 128 cuts.


(Previously reviewed)


A former psychic with piercing blue eyes (Matt Damon) tries to live a normal life, but is constantly called upon by friends and neighbors to reach out to lost loved ones. (He utters the comic book cliché: “It’s not a gift; it’s a curse.” Remind me not to say that when I get superpowers.) A woman (Cécile De France) survives a tsunami, and questions what it means to die. A young boy (Frankie McLaren) loses his twin brother in a car accident and must adjust to solitude. All three are searching for answers, and somehow their stories will intersect. Great cast, and could be an unusually sedate role for Damon. The supernatural element takes a back seat to the journey of the living. Though it’s overkill to have the woman survive a tsunami (an event worthy of its own film, not just as a sub-plot), her survival among such great loss will contrast to the tiny drama of the boy losing his brother. 78 cuts.

How Do You Know?

At one point in my life I was blonde, so don’t take this the wrong way. As progressive as it is, is Hollywood really ready for two blondes in one movie? Doesn’t that violate the unwritten rule that no more than one member of a movie couple may be a non-brunette? It’s confusing to movie goers, because when we say “The Blonde”, it won’t be obvious who we mean. Reese Witherspoon is kinda maybe sorta into Owen Wilson, and he’s sorta maybe kinda into her as well. She bumps into old friend Paul Rudd; Witherspoon and Wilson have a fight about Rudd; and Witherspoon spends a day over at Rudd’s place spilling her guts. He’s kinda maybe sorta into her as well, but he and his dad (Jack Nicholson) are being indicted on a federal charge, so his plate is full. In movies like this, each character is afforded but a single arc. Rudd needs to use the trial to bond with his dad. Wilson needs to watch Love & Other Drugs and realize it’s okay to settle down with just one woman. And Witherspoon needs better options. The movie looks bad, but the trailer is filled with Owen Wilson’s smooth humor. 80 cuts.

The Social Network

A young Harvard student, real-life Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), creates an obnoxiously viral rating system, FaceMash, that pits female students' head shots against each other in a beauty contest. Having caught the eye of three student entrepreneurs (Max Minghella, Armie Hammer x2), Zuckerberg is recruited to build a social network for the school. Zuckerberg accepts the job, but instead builds a social network for the entire world. The movie chronicles the rise of Facebook, and the increasingly piddly-seeming lawsuit that lingers in its shadow.

Zuckerberg's abrasive personality is firmly established in the opening scene. He sits opposite a young woman in a bar, speaking quickly, changing conversation topics manically, and never pausing long enough for her to get a word in. This pick-up isn't going well, I thought; but then it's revealed that they are already dating. By the conversation's end, though, she has broken up with him, and it's not clear whether that was her intent all along, and perhaps he sensed it and was trying to steer clear of the topic, or if his verbal vomit pushed her over the edge. Later, at a school disciplinary hearing regarding his FaceMash site, rather than show contrition Zuckerberg has the gall to ask for some recognition of his efforts. Startled by his ego, the panel's moderator says, "I'm sorry?" But Zuckerberg, with his sociopathic inability to understand verbal cues, thinks it's the beginning of an apology, and invites her to continue, "Yes?".

What is the source of the film's omniscient perspective? Zuckerberg didn't authorize it, and the other central characters, as a consequence of the legal battle, are bound by non-disclosure agreements. Are we meant to damn all these characters (few are portrayed favorably) based on tangential observation? Two characters are decent: Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg's only friend and CFO, and Rashida Jones as his attorney. Yet neither is able to divert his self-destructive course. (Not all that destructive, actually; despite the unflattering portrayal of Zuckerberg, Facebook's membership has more than doubled since the film's release.) One of Hammer's Winklevoss twins is willing to drop the dispute, rather than drag his family's name into the muck, but his brother and Minghella are unrelenting. Zuckerberg befriends Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), and appears cordial in Parker's slimebag shadow.

The film's editing is a bit uneven. In one scene, it expertly weaves together angles from a crew race, set to Gynt's "In the Hall of the Mountain King", and compels me to root for the Winklevoss twins despite their otherwise adversarial role. On a more macroscopic level, the movie constantly interrupts its narrative by jumping ahead to preparations for the trial. A movie needs a big ace up its sleeve to keep my interest despite reminding me over and over how it all ends.

This biopic is unusual in that the protagonist is widely known, but his story is as yet incomplete. Fascinated with the clashing egos of its central characters, the movie is disinterested in examining Facebook's evolving role in the cultural landscape. At the time of the film's release, 7% of the world's population had an account (that number has now doubled), and the website was already purposing itself as an entire operating system. What happens when the masses can use social media to rally against oppressive governments, or when teenagers wield it to bully and exploit individuals? Do status updates and photos of delicious lunches make us hate our friends just a little bit? Zuckerberg's off-putting personality might make for good theater, but the real story, as the film's title suggests, is Facebook.

(Every year around Oscar season a few 'good' movies get swept up in the frenzy and are elevated to 'great' status. Had The Social Network been released six months earlier, I doubt it would have been an Oscar contender. I was happily surprised, though, that Trent Reznor won for his unusually subtle score to the film. I'm an avid Nine Inch Nails fan, and have often fantasized about Reznor contributing a full score. I look forward to more.)

When Is It Okay to Spoil?

Note: this article contains spoilers for Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

On a recent episode of WBUR's On Point, host Tom Ashbrook discusses the Emmy Award Show with guests Willa Paskin and James Poniewozik. One of the interesting topics they cover is the idea of spoiling a television show. They harken back to a day when everyone watched a show at the same time, and then discussed it around the water cooler the very next day. Now, however, viewers don't so much watch as consume shows (an entire season or even series at a time), and at their discretion (on a device of their choosing, and weeks, months, or even years later).

Ashbrook's guests side with the old standard of spoiler control. Paskin doesn't think it's her responsibility to stay tight-lipped about The Sopranos, and Poniewozik feels free to discuss plot points of The Shield (off the air for six and five years, respectively). What interests me is, as our viewing habits fragment, how we must quarantine ourselves from information to avoid spoilers, and how aware we must be of our friends' and colleagues' viewing habits to avoid spoiling for them.

Growing up without television, I never followed sports, other than occasionally checking stats in the daily Chronicle for the San Francisco Giants. Last year, and still without television, I began watching NFL football, using their Game Rewind subscription service, allowing me to watch games soon after they had completed (though with some annoying broadcast restrictions). Televised sports are on the opposite end of the spoiler spectrum from movies. Even though sports are pure entertainment, they are still treated as news, with absolutely zero spoiler control. Remember the opening scene of Air Force One where not even the President of the United States can make it onto his airplane without having a taped game spoiled for him? I might not watch a game until a day or even a week later; meanwhile, online newspapers will plaster the final score on their front page banner, as if it were the most important news in the world. Imagine seeing a headline Saturday morning after Friday's release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: "Frodo Destroys Ring; Golem Dies in Lava". To avoid these spoilers, I can no longer look at newspapers, and I've written the names of my teams on a white board at work as reminder to not discuss these teams around me.

Media outlets are only following the cue of the television networks, who actually spoil one game while broadcasting another, with an ever-intrusive score update on the bottom of the screen, and occasional breaks from the current game to show plays from another.

Imagine it's 1980. You're sitting in a darkened theater watching The Shining, gripping your armrest as little Danny rides his plastic tricycle around a haunted hotel. The tension is building; at any moment something terrible is going to happen. Then the film momentarily pauses and an announcer's voice pipes in from the theater down the street, "You're not going to believe this folks, but Darth Vader is actually Luke's father! Back to you, Danny."

It's as if broadcast sports were stuck in a bygone era when it was impossible to watch a game if you didn't watch it live, and the network was doing you a favor by keeping you up to date on past and simultaneous games. Now, with taping a game, picture-in-picture, DVR, Game Rewind, opt-in highlight reels, and any number of other viewing tools, it's absurd that this spoiler practice continues.

With television shows this is becoming less of an issue, but I don't think it's because people are more sensitive about spoiling plots. There is so much variety in our viewing habits, whether in content (network, cable, web) or timeliness (live, on-demand, syndicated, home video), we no longer have the expectation of that conversation around the cooler, because noone is watching the same thing as anyone else. Noone can spoil Foyle's War for me, and I can't spoil Breaking Bad for them. The exception is when a friend recommends a show to me, but in that context the friend is almost always spoiler-conscious, and, taking pride in having introduced me to the show, will wait patiently for me to experience it spoiler-free just as they did.

As I attempt to catch up on my reviews from 2010, I'm trying to be conscious of spoilers. I feel more at liberty to discuss plot points of movies from three years ago, yet I must protect the review's primary purpose, regardless of the movie's age: to empower the reader to decide if they want to see the movie for themselves. What I'm not guarding, though, is the meta-data surrounding the movie. Now that 2010 is long over, and my statistics for that year fully compiled, I think it's okay to say of a movie released in October how it ended up faring against a movie that wouldn't be released until December. Likewise, I'm now able to give overall year stats for theaters as I review them, something that wasn't possible when I published the reviews in real-time.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Home Video Roundup: February 2013

More thoughts on movies watched at home, punctuated by a few outings to familiar places.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967)

Although I grew up watching westerns, I didn't see this classic until 2003. Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach are partners in a scam to turn themselves in for the same reward money over and over. Eventually they part ways unamicably (Eastwood leaves Wallach hanging from a tree), and Eastwood takes on a new partner. Wallach, not one to let end-of-the-rope bygones be bygones, catches up with Eastwood and forces him on a death march through the desert, where, by chance, they each hear a different half of a tale from a dying soldier about where he's buried some treasure. Unwilling to divulge their half of the secret, they must reforge their partnership and stay alive long enough to become rich (at which point, it can be expected, one of them will kill the other).

Before the Dirty Harry franchises and masterful directing and the empty chair, Eastwood distinguished himself in these Spaghetti Westerns (this is the third, but I never felt like I'd missed part of the story). He is cool as a cucumber, has a lighthearted smirk, and is the most proficient shooter in the world (which his adversaries always fail to realize until it's too late). Wallach's performance is gripping. He is obnoxious and dirty and mean, but also flattering and ingratiating; he wants to be your best friend and he'll kill you if you say no. Though Eastwood is right to not trust Wallach's volatility, if only he gave Wallach respect, Wallach would be a loyal friend, a somewhat despairing sub-theme of this otherwise fun and adventurous tale.

Along the way they must elude mean-as-can-be Lee Van Cleef and his band of mercenaries, also in pursuit of the treasure. At one point, Eastwood and Wallach find themselves on the wrong side of a river, with Union and Confederate soldiers bombarding each other daily in devastating battles, all to capture a strategic bridge that joins them. I was awestruck at the number of extras involved in these battle sequences, for what might have otherwise been a very low budget western. Taking a literal cue from a dying general, our duo decides the best way to cross the river (and to save countless lives, not that they care) is to destroy the bridge, thus ending the conflict. Side adventures like this one transform the film from simple genre piece to a true odyssey, where at every turn our heroes are met with unexpected adversity, or saved by happenstance.

As the film nears its end, Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef find themselves facing off in the three-way duel promised by the movie's title (after an epic sequence in which Wallach circles a cemetery looking for a grave; I felt nauseated it lasted so long). And more than in any movie with a countdown, or characters waiting to see if their hero has perished or will emerge from the smoke, this movie knows how to ratchet up the tension until it pops. These three just stare at each other, daring someone to make the first move; pure deliciousness. (2nd viewing.)

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

A thoroughly pleasing film, in which an ensemble cast enacts the last performance of the famous live radio show of the same name, that, seven years later, is actually still on the air. Every character is quirky and fun, and is permitted to shine. Garrison Keillor in particular surprises me; he is even better on screen than on the radio.

Though the radio program persists, this film does mark some 'lasts'. Lindsay Lohan's career hasn't quite been the same (not on account of her funny performance here). More notably, this was director Robert Altman's last film before his passing that same year at the age of 81. His directing career stretches back into the 1950s. With 1971's MASH, he began to receive award nominations; he was nominated for Best Director five times, but never won (he received an honorary award in 2006). I began watching his movies with 1992's The Player, and have seen every feature length film he's made since then with the exception of The Gingerbread Man (1998). This includes Dr. T & the Women (2000), The Company (2003), and two of my very favorite movies, Cookie's Fortune (1999) and Gosford Park (2001). I can't speak highly enough of those latter two. Altman's body of work is simply amazing, and I feel fortunate that there are still so many of his movies I've yet to discover.

On a humorous note, and one that will tie in to some other movies I watched this same month (see below), on May 4, 2010 I watched Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep. Just ten days later I saw Altman's excellent The Long Goodbye (1973) (look for a cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger). Just ten days apart. Yet I sat through that entire Altman movie without realizing it was a sequel (of sorts) to Hawks's classic. I'm dense. (3rd viewing.)

Michael Clayton (2007)

Simply put, this movie is perfect. If you haven't seen it, do so. I'll spare you further gushing.

This marks the directing debut for Tony Gilroy, who up to this point had penned many films, most famously the Jason Bourne trilogy. He followed (and borrowed actors from) Michael Clayton with the excellent Duplicity (2009). Next he wrote the screenplay for the American version of State of Play (2009), a superb film (though I'd recommend its even better British counterpart). If Gilroy would just stop with these Bourne movies (he wrote and directed the most recent in the series, The Bourne Legacy, 2012), he'll be on his way to being one of the great directors of our time. (3rd viewing.)

Inside Man (2006)

I guess when Spike Lee goes big, he goes big. Inside Man earned more money worldwide than the combined gross of Lee's next five most successful films. Like Michael Clayton, Inside Man treats us to the villain's perspective (though Clive Owen's bank robber is immeasurably more sympathetic than Tilda Swinton's corporate attorney). This is my favorite Denzel Washington movie, and one of my favorite of his roles. The day he and Clooney are in a movie together, the Earth will end because its purpose will have been fulfilled. (5th viewing.)

Warm Bodies (2013)

@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.

Let's get the obvious disclaimer out of the way. I hate zombies. I hate zombie movies. I hate zombie games. I hate walking out of the supermarket and finding scrawled in the snow, "Survival" and an arrow pointing to the left, and "Zombies" and an arrow pointing to the right. I hate zombie costumes and zombie-themed candy and funny cartoon zombies and Shaun of the Dead and the billboards for World War Z. Hate 'em. So it is only with an ingenious marketing ploy on the studio's part, and an award-worthy open mind on mine that I even went to see this movie.

(In seeming contradiction to the above, I had an epiphany a while back, that I don't hate all zombies. I don't mind the zombies in Dungeons & Dragons, the type that are just reanimated corpses, through mystical means, who fight like skeletons and can be easily defeated. In D&D, zombyism isn't infectious. Which means anyone I'm fighting has been dead for a really long time, and they didn't necessarily die a terrible death either. What I hate are modern zombies, where 1) they try to eat you, which is disgusting and the absolute worst way to die, 2) they bite you and you become one of them, a total betrayal of all you stand for, and then 3) I am forced to fight you. With a chainsaw. No thanks!)

This film does have its gruesome moments, and there are some scary über-zombies on the prowl, so don't think it is completely lighthearted. But that aside, it's a cross between Romeo & Juliet's star-crossed lovers from warring factions, and the "popular girl falls for awkward boy, but hopes her friends don't find out" trope. Nicholas Hoult is perfect as the zombie who has always been a bit different (he hoards human mementos in an airplane), and Teresa Palmer as the survivalist trained to kill zombies, terrified for her life, yet able to tell that Hoult is unique. Their relationship is captivating, despite the macabre backdrop. From a sci-fi/horror perspective, the movie also delivers the goods on showing zombie culture (like the vampire culture in Daybreakers), i.e., what happens to zombies when they've basically won?

To Have and Have Not (1944)

When I first started streaming movies on Netflix in 2010, I thought I had discovered a limitless treasure trove of classic films, each more amazing than the one before it: My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), Holiday (1938), It Happened One Night (1934). The Big Sleep (1946) was the last of these, and then the market crashed: everything else on Netflix was crap. But The Big Sleep was so incredibly good; the perfect noir detective story, with sizzling chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Jump forward three years, and I'm perusing the classic section of my local video store (the excellent Video Factory on Park St. in Alameda, CA) when I see another Bogart/Bacall title, To Have and Have Not, their first together, and seemingly cobbled together from Casablanca's cutting room floor. The two movies have almost identical plots: Bogart is an ex pat who runs a bar in a politically unstable sea-side city. A beauty (your choice of Bacall or Ingrid Bergman) walks in the door, turning his life upside down and forcing him to choose sides in a conflict he was quite comfortably profiting from. Bogart and Bacall are magical together, exchanging sexually charged dialog too quickly for me to catch it all. I can't wait to watch this one again.

Dark Passage (1947)

Now hot on the trail of anything Bogart/Bacall, I turned to their third movie, one I had in theory seen at some point in my youth, but it was entirely unfamiliar. Beginning with a gimmicky first-person perspective whose only purpose seems to be to sidestep a special effects limitation, Bogart escapes from San Quentin Prison in Marin County and hitches a ride to San Francisco with motorist Bacall. At first Bacall seems to be just in the right place at the right time, but we soon learn that she knows Bogart, anticipated his escape, and specifically sought him out to give him a ride (it doesn't quite make sense, but when Lauren Bacall opens her car door, you get in). Bogart undergoes plastic surgery to conceal his identity, at which time we finally get to see his face (now as Bogart). The film is a bit clumsy, but the two leads are still good together, Agnes Moorehead delivers a marvelously shrewish performance, and the now antiquated San Francisco scenery is fun to explore. (2nd viewing.)

Key Largo (1948)

The last of Bogart and Bacall's four films together. Bogart, discharged from the Army, arrives at a small resort hotel in Key Largo to pay his respects to the father of a fallen comrade. There he meets Bacall, the comrade's fiance, and a gang of thugs headed by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson, on the lam in Cuba, is awaiting a rendezvous with various heads of the New York (or Chicago, I forget) family, to discuss business and his possible return. They don't want any trouble (though they don't have any manners either), and neither do Bogart, Bacall, or Bacall's father. But a hurricane traps everyone at the resort, and the situation gets supercharged when the sheriff comes by to pursue a local matter.

When I reflect on this movie, I like it more than my rating indicates. It's very well done. But ultimately its close-quarters violence, endemic to the noir genre, turned me off. I like tension, but I have a tough time with thrillers where the heroes are often powerless to defend themselves against the villain.

Meet John Doe (1941)

I'm a sucker for the incorruptible goodness of a salt-of-the-earth movie character. Amid the Great Depression, Barbara Stanwyck secures her position at her newspaper by fabricating a John Doe letter to the editor that lays out all that is wrong with the country, pointing the finger at the fat cats. Though the newspaper is owned by one of those fat cats, it can smell money in pandering to the common man, so it commands Stanwyck to hire John Doe as a columnist. She secretly auditions a number of down-on-their luck types, eventually settling for baseball-loving Gary Cooper, who, along with fellow hobo Walter Brennan (who also had a stint in To Have and Have Not), has been living under a bridge. Will Cooper, who just wants to work hard and earn a living, be corrupted by his sudden fame? Will Stanwyck become a political stooge for the paper's owner? Will director Frank Capra's sentimentality strike a cord with this modern viewer? Spoiler: No, no, and yes.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

2012, all told, was an exceptional year for movies, even if you ignore all the great superhero titles. Moonrise Kingdom is the best of them all, and my favorite movie since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). On a small island off the coast of Maine, a serious, misunderstood, and often violent girl (Kara Hayward) conspires to runaway with a serious, misunderstood, and often violent boy (Jared Gilman) stationed at a boy scout camp on the other side of the island. Her parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand) and his troupe leader (Edward Norton) must team up with the island's only police officer (Bruce Willis) to find the two before... well, they're on an island, so what's the worst that could happen?

Wes Anderson continues to astound me with his quirky, melancholy, and hilarious ensemble comedies. With the exception of the so-so Darjeeling Limited (2007), his movies keep getting better and better. Consider the excellent Rushmore (1998), topped by The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which in turn was outdone by The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and now Moonrise Kingdom. The only other directors with such a consistent track record (in my book) are Robert Altman (see above), David Mamet, and, the biggest contender, Hayao Miyazaki. (3rd viewing.)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

When the opening sequence of a movie shows the hero dying in a motorcycle accident, what remains for the movie to tell? We all die someday, sure, but won't a story of heroism be constantly undercut by such a banal end?

Lawrence: I crossed the desert that couldn't be crossed.
Chorus: Yes, but very slowly. The way you should drive.
Lawrence: I captured the city that couldn't be captured.
Chorus: Maybe just watch those corners?
Lawrence: I fought an empire even when my army had abandoned me. I endured torture. I am solely responsible for the creation of the Arab state. I should be worshipped!
Chorus: You should wear a helmet.

I won't argue with this movie being expertly assembled, from its majestic music, to its majestic landscapes, to its majestic battles, etc. The movie is big, fine. The problem is that Peter O'Toole's Lawrence is too flawed for my taste. Beginning as a bit of a fop, he soon gets a taste for battle and an even bigger taste of his own ego. He confesses that he likes the violence, and what seems like brilliant strategy at first begins to morph into endurance art (the sort my friend Brian Schorn performed at Mills College where he smiled into a camera for an entire hour), where his suffering is somehow a victory in itself. (2nd viewing.)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Speaking of movies where we see the main character dead at the beginning: Sunset Boulevard opens with a narration by William Holden, drawing our attention to his own dead body floating face down in a pool. But everything turns out okay after that, right?

(I have a theory that Hollywood is overly sympathetic toward introspections of their own industry. Mostly founded on Hugo's nomination for an Oscar in 2011; I thought it was somewhat fun, but can't account for its nomination except that it celebrates pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliés. The winner that year was The Artist, which more directly explores Hollywood, but was also worthy of the win. Last year's winner, Argo (Hollywood Saves Hostages), continues my suspicions. Sunset Boulevard was nominated for Best Picture, but lost out to All About Eve, a similarly-themed film about an aging Broadway star.)

Gloria Swanson plays a wealthy but forgotten former star of Hollywood's silent era, a plot that would post-date the transitionary stories in The Artist and Singin' in the Rain (1952). The role parallels Swanson's own career, which dates back to the very beginning of film, but ends abruptly in the early 1930s with the changeover to sound. Holden is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who catches her eye. She hires him to rewrite a script, penned by her, that she is sure will launch her back into the spotlight. Holden can't say no to the money, but neither does he decline her romantic advances, in essence becoming her gigolo.

The movie is a noir thriller in that we fear for Holden's safety as we realize how insane Swanson is, and become suspicious about what happened to her previous husband. But Holden becomes such a sleaze bag, it's tough to root for him (especially since I already know he dies in the end). Swanson's performance is manic and tragic, a dark warning to anyone who too tightly embraces their own fame.

I rate this movie 2 stars not for its composition or artistic value, but because I just didn't enjoy it. As I learned while watching Julia, I get really uncomfortable with unlikeable protagonists.

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Forget everything I just said about unlikeable protagonists. In the opening scene of this Hitchcock cat-and-mouse thriller, one of the movie's two stars, the charismatic Ray Milland, plots to kill the other, his wife, not-so-bad-herself Grace Kelly. We're tethered to his perspective just as closely as we are to hers, and it's absolutely riveting. After Kelly accidentally kills the hired assassin, and Milland must act the concerned husband, Chief Inspector Hubbard (John Williams) arrives on the scene to work out the details.

The movie's theatrical roots show, with just a few sets (it takes place mostly in their apartment) and long, patient scenes. This wasn't one of Hitchcock's more successful movies financially, but I'm happy to see that at least it's his 8th most popular over on IMDB. Though I've only seen it once, Dial M for Murder has jumped ahead of The Trouble with Harry as my favorite Hitchcock film.

85th Academy Awards

My boss was kind enough to take my girlfriend and I as his guests to an Oscar party at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, with the live telecast projected on the screen, and KQED's Michael Krasny on stage filling the time during the commercial breaks.

In general I'm not a fan of the awards, partly because they differ from my own tastes, and partly because I've seldom seen the nominated movies (they come bunched in December, and drown out other equally worthy films from earlier in the year). When the awards rolled around for the 2010 crop, from which I'd seen 78 different movies for this blog, I was rewarded with having seen 7 of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture. 2012 was a more typical year for me though, and at this particular Oscar party I found myself having seen just 2 of the 9 nominated films (Argo and Lincoln).

My favorite moments include Jennifer Lawrence's win (and recovery from her trip up the stairs); Ben Affleck's gratitude toward wife Jennifer Garner, and her beaming with pride for him; Daniel Day-Lewis's Margaret Thatcher joke; Catherine Zeta-Jones looking really good post-baby, reprising her "All that Jazz" number from Chicago; and most impressively, Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger". That woman can belt it.

Host Seth MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" song was funny, but too consistent with the sexist tone of the rest of his jokes. Adele's "Skyfall", a great song, was less impressive live (well, telecast live) than in the movie's score.

Oh, and Moonrise Kingdom not being nominated for Best Picture, and not even winning Best Original Screenplay? That just reopens the wound from Gladiator's win over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the 2000 awards.

The only category I feel qualified to speak about is Best Animated Feature. I had seen four of the five titles by Oscar night (Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and ParaNorman), and have since seen Frankenweenie as well. Every one of those movies is excellent and worthy of the award. Brave's win continues Pixar's domination of the category: the studio has won seven times in the category's 12-year history, missing only for its two Cars movies (and thankfully so), and for Monster's, Inc. in 2001, which should have won over Shrek. More notably, though, Brave is only the second winner to feature a female lead (the other is Spirited Away, 2002), and a kick-ass one at that. (Here's a spoiler: Brave is not about a princess finding a prince.) Miyazaki's movies aside, feature-length animation is absolutely dominated by male characters. For every Elastigirl there are ten Mr. Incredibles, and that has to stop.

Hollywood: When you say half of all children are girls, what do you mean exactly?
Everyone Else: Well, half. It's kinda a math thing.
Hollywood: Yeah, but more specifically, like '3-4%' half, or more like '5-8%' half? If it's the latter, we might want to throw in a female character here and there. By the way, apropos of nothing, if we put lipstick and eyeliner on a snail, will kids know it's a girl? Or should we give the snail breasts too? Obviously, there are a lot of unanswered questions here.