Grand Lake Theater
Oakland's Grand Lake Theater is a true movie palace. It was built in 1926 as a theater showing vaudeville and silent films but soon switched over to talkies. According to Cinema Treasures, the original seating capacity of its single auditorium was 1700; Jack Tillmany's book Theatres of Oakland puts the count at 2177 (p. 62); following several changes to the original structure the maximum seating capacity is now 1545.
The building is formidable, an iconic cornerstone of the neighborhood, and directly across the street from the Saturday farmer's market. The theater's rooftop sign can be seen for miles away, especially when lit up at night, showing off its explosions of color. The marquee (which replaced the original, more modest marquee in 1937) is no slouch either, as you can see in the below photo. The side facing Lake Park Avenue is notorious for displaying politically-charged messages, which evoke the full spectrum from adoration to loathing, depending on the political persuasions of the passerby.
Depending on the time of day, either the central or far right front door will be open, but seldom both, so pay attention to the signs or you'll be one of those people confusedly pulling on a locked door. The box office is located inside the oval foyer and charges a $1.00 fee for non-cash ticket purchases. When things get busy, they open a second, cash-only window at the ticket counter.
Oakland has seen more than sixty theaters come and go in the past hundred years. The Grand Lake Theater is one of few survivors. Several years ago the theater, victim of studio zoning and partisanship, had trouble getting popular movies; it now has its pick of titles and is able to play to all crowds, whether with blockbusters or independents, family-fare or horror. The Grand Lake also hosts the Oakland International Film Festival, provides a venue for public symposiums, and has a few one-off events every now and then. I once chanced upon a free showing of The Garden, a beautiful and frustrating film about a tract of commercial wasteland in Los Angeles transformed (perhaps illegally) into a food-growing oasis. The theater has also been host to a stand-up act by my favorite cartoonist, Dan Piraro.
The theater's main lobby is elegant. New carpet was installed only a few years ago and still looks clean as can be, with a deep, reddish color. The concession stand gifts patrons with free popcorn Monday thru Thursday. I've heard, but now have it directly from this interview, that theaters make most of their money from concessions. The manager, Roger Leatherwood, states that 90% of the theater's profit comes from concessions, with 70-90% of the ticket sales going back to the movie studios. Which means that when I visit the theater but don't buy a treat, I'm rewarding Dreamworks, but not the Grand Lake. With that in mind, on this particular evening I bought a box of Red Vines (vegan!) for $2.75, and let me just say that if a stranger ever tells you it's a bad idea to eat half a box of Red Vines in one sitting, shake that stranger's hand, because you've made an honest friend.
Doors on either side of the concession stand grant access to the main auditorium. This theater is simply stunning, lavished in detail. Note the false private balconies, the gilded columns, and the curtain rescued from San Francisco's tragic Fox Theater (the curtain, one of the largest ever hung in a theater, was too large to fit in the Grand Lake's smaller proscenium, and so was cut; the side pieces are now hung on the theater's walls as tapestries). The seats are all new (throughout the entire building), installed in 2005 immediately after the Will Smith film The Pursuit of Happyness completed shooting a scene in the main auditorium. (It was quite a sight to see the lower floor devoid of all seats, and the former seats piled in a dumpster to the side of the building.) Seats 626, of which one is the perfect seat, so I arrive early to stake my claim.
An organist delights the audience before the 7:00 and 10:00 shows each Friday and Saturday night. At times inspired by the evening's feature film, the music augments the evening, transforming the movie into a social and communal event. The organist never fails to elicit claps and cheers from the audience.
A curving staircase leads from the main lobby to the upstairs lobby (pictured below) and to the second screen. The upstairs auditorium was created in 1980 by sealing off the main auditorium's balcony, as is common when "twinning" a theater. This newer screen features stadium seating; I recommend sitting high up, otherwise you'll be looking up at the screen, rather than across to it. Seats 449.
The main bathrooms are upstairs, which is not wheelchair accessible. A small accessible bathroom is on the ground floor beside the staircase. Here's a nice touch: cushioned seating outside the women's bathroom, where gentlemen may await their ladies.
In 1985 two wonderful side screens were added to the Grand Lake. These are accessible down a hallway from the main lobby, past a giant, throne-like cushion chair and several pieces of antique projection equipment. Of the two small auditoriums, one has an Egyptian theme, the other a Moorish theme. They both have small balconies and are elegant and magical. The Egyptian auditorium was recently upgraded to allow 3-D digital projection. Each auditorium seats 235. (Correction: the Egyptian auditorium seats 235; the Moorish auditorium seats 161.)
A special note on movie palaces. It is the rare venue that makes you gasp when you enter. These wonderful structures, such a delight to visit, are surviving icons of an era past, and they are proof that theaters can be more than boxes of light. Oakland is home to two other palatial theaters, though neither show first-run movies like the Grand Lake does. The Fox Theater, recently restored, features regular live music performances. The Paramount Theatre hosts a variety of events, including several programs of classic movies. I'll be doing a full review when I visit the Paramount later in the year, but since the showtimes are limited, you should check out their schedule far in advance so you can plan around it. Next up: Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca on Friday, February 5th. (And, Mrs. Neer, if you're reading this, Mark Knopfler will grace the Paramount on April 13th.)
The Lovely Bones marks my 165th visit to the Grand Lake, by far my favorite (and most frequently visited) movie theater. In years past I've mostly adhered to a rule that I won't see a movie somewhere else if it's playing at the Grand Lake. My current goal violates that rule, but I wanted to hit the theater early in the year so that I could revisit it if I were to see a movie for a subsequent time (not counting toward my goal, but still fun).
My only complaint about the Grand Lake is that they don't seem to recognize me on sight, clap me on the back, and give me a lifetime membership card or something like that. Is that too much to ask? Perhaps if I buy more concessions...
The Last Airbender
M. Night Shyamalan's take on the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender (renamed for obvious reasons) features Ang, a mysterious youth with the ability to bend air, fighting to unseat the tyranny of the firebenders. The trailer has 8 cuts, only two of which are actual video shots. The first shows Ang practicing his martial arts and blowing out candles with his airbending ability; the second is an awesome pan-out from Ang's temple, revealing an army scaling the cliffs to reach him, many warlike boats in the ocean below, and finally an entire fleet of even larger ships, filling the sky with fireballs. As I write this I'm camped out in the theater with my sleeping bag, waiting for the movie to open in July. Please bring me food and water.
A moody, tense, and perhaps grotesque Victorian-era tale of Benicio Del Toro being bit by a werewolf, and falling prey to the lycanthrope's form. Del Toro's subsequent transformation will strain his ties with beautiful, understanding Emily Blunt, and his father, Anthony Hopkins, who is sure to re-utter his ghostly lines from Beowulf, "It's not my curse; not anymore." Hugo Weaving is the head of Scotland Yard, charged with bringing the beast to justice. This movie could be difficult to watch at times, but also entertaining. 122 cuts.
Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell have two children, both of whom are afflicted with life-threatening diseases. Fraser enlists the aid of researcher Harrison Ford to find a cure. He raises the money for the research and helps prod Ford from theory into practice. There will be tension, sorrow, and joy, but unfortunately the trailer shows too much and is overly sentimental. (I dislike the practice of showing multiple cuts from the same scene, sprinkled liberally throughout the trailer, as if the import of the scene will unfold over time, when clearly it does not.) I'm sure many will find the movie uplifting, but I look for a bit less Hallmark in my stories. 117 cuts.
The Lovely Bones
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered. She tells us as much after the fact, in a voice-over from the in-between, where she persists, able to enter Heaven, but unwilling to depart until her murderer is brought to justice and her family finds peace. Her family, devastated by her death, each cope in their own way. Her mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), attempts to maintain normalcy and move beyond grief, but finds it increasingly difficult to live with her husband, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), who obsesses about Susie's death, convinced not only that Susie's murderer is someone known to his family, but that Susie has not yet fully left his world. Jack is initially assisted in the case by detective Len (Michael Imperioli), and at home by Abigail's mother (Susan Sarandon), but it is Susie's younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) who matches her father's obsession.
Susie's phantom world is beautifully surreal, populated with giant artifacts from her life (pieces of her charm bracelet, large as hills, puncture the landscape). She walks on water; water turns to wheat then back again. She moves from forest to plains to ocean; seasons change constantly. She befriends Holly, another inhabitant of her limbo, and the two pass away years together, exploring, playing, grieving. Susie is able at times to watch her family, and almost speak to them.
Jack, soon after Susie's death, begins lighting a candle vigil in Susie's bedroom window. As he watches the candle burn steadily, he also sees its flame flicker in the window's reflection. He stares, and observes this behavior for a long time, becoming convinced that Susie is communicating her presence to him. Soon the lit candle becomes not a vigil but a warning to the murderer, that the father will not forget the crime, and will not rest until the truth comes to light.
Lindsey, initially hollowed by the loss of her sister, acclimates better than do her parents. She enters high school, finds a boyfriend, and seems to have put the tragedy behind her. But a feeling gnaws at her that she is being watched by the very man who murdered her sister.
That man, we know from the very beginning, is neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Tucci is always first-rate though seldom first-billed, and he must have clamped down on this role when he read the script, because not only does the film devote extensive time to the villain's habits and psychology, but Tucci has brought certain mannerisms, glances, and speech patterns to the character that elevate him from creepy to diabolical. He is not likable for a frame of the film, but he is always believable and will make you want to barricade your children from every potential threat.
There are parts of the movie where the plot is intense, the characters emotionally vivid, their fates unclear. It is these moments when the film is at its best. But there are other large chunks of the film that suffer for a variety of reasons, but most of which can be traced to its adaptation from a novel.
A narrator is, typically, a bore in film. An unobtrusive prologue (like in Star Wars) can bring the audience up to speed, but the rest should be shown. There is narration that is necessary or well-used, but not so here; in The Lovely Bones, Susie's voice-over does us the disservice of explaining to us what the actors have already so ably demonstrated, such as her father's grief, or George Harvey's sick mental state. Her voice interrupts the moment, reminding us that we are being told a story, and, despite the fact that she's already dead, has the effect of soothing us, hinting that things are going to be okay (because narrators exist in the future beyond the story). Much of Susie's narration is poetic; it seems that the writers (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson) were so enamored of the original novel that they couldn't bear to shuck all its language, and so we are left with the sensation that someone is reading to us.
There are legacy characters as well. A side plot with Susie's boyfriend, and a girl who perhaps saw Susie's ghostly form, end up tying back into the plot, but mostly feel like remnants of characters more vividly described elsewhere. Susie's grandmother, who moves in with the family to help care for the household, is jarringly out of place, especially in a montage of her inept attempts at domesticity. Her only functional role is to answer for us why the remaining two children didn't starve to death when both parents emotionally checked out. Beyond that, she's a book character that should have been cut or better woven into the story.
The movie is great with the physical texture of objects. When George Harvey writes in his journal, I can feel the corners of the page caught in the divots of his fingerprint. Mud is slick and foul. Sweat is hot. Branches are dry and scratchy. These sensations help anchor us in the real world, so we aren't too adrift when spending time with Susie amid her ever-changing environments. One omission, though, is the connection between Susie's world and that of her parents. We see her (with her surreal backdrop) watching the action, and we see the action, but we never see the two at the same time, i.e. with some panning shot that shows first Susie, then some portal through which she views our world. It left me feeling like she was watching the same movie I was, again reminding me that it was just a story.
The movie is flawed, boring at times, but worth watching. George Harvey is disgustingly mesmerizing, and Lindsey, the younger sister who eventually out-ages Susie, is kick-ass. There is a moment when she has a piece of information, and is intent on sharing it, but then for complicated reasons contemplates concealing it; the movie deals with this scene quite well. (I expected that the sister would be played by different actresses, as she aged, because at one point they dressed her up with make-up, as if she were old enough to be in high school, which was clearly pushing it. Much to my surprise I now read that Rose McIver is 22.)
Whether you enjoy the ending will hinge on whether you want revenge or justice; the movie is late in offering either as an option. Susie at times seems too wise to not immediately see through the villain's ploys, but we know from life that these violent predators do have devastating success; as much as you are able to stomach watching it, this film will paint very clearly one such predator. George Harvey is a reminder of the evil that lives among us, hiding in plain sight. The Lovely Bones demonstrates how a family can survive such evil.