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

Saturday, January 23, 2010

19. A Town Called Panic

Lumiere Theatre
According to Jack Tillmany's book Theatres of San Francisco, Landmark's Lumiere Theatre was originally the Firehouse Theatre, built in 1967 for live performances. The building, and some adjacent retail space, was converted to a single-screen movie theater in 1975, then expanded into a triplex in 1983. Currently, the three screens seat 294, 118, and 120.

Were it not for the marquee I wouldn't know a theater occupied this building, though that's probably true for a lot of smaller theaters.

(I walked to the Lumiere directly from my viewing of Legion at the AMC 1000, passing along the way two other, now-closed theaters: The Galaxy and the Regency I and II. I don't recall either theater in much detail, but these are the first two theaters I visited when moving to the city fifteen years ago. My brother took me to see Ace Ventura at the Galaxy even before I moved to San Francisco, so that old multi-plex and its blockish glass façade will be missed. The Galaxy closed in 2005, the Regency I in 1998, and the Regency II in 2000.)

The Lumiere's lobby is small, but has several attractive features. Old movie posters ring the walls at the top of the room. The concession stand has delicious vegan cookies from the Alternative Baking Company, yeast for your popcorn, and a pitcher of cold water and cups if you want a drink but without paying for it. There is a single bench against one wall, which I appreciated as I rifled through the various freebies: a promo for membership to something called Flicketz (I just signed up; I'll let you know how it goes); a program for the upcoming Mostly British Film Festival hosted primarily at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco; a program for the also upcoming SF Independent Film Festival hosted at the Roxie Theater; a program for the currently playing Noir City film noir festival at the Castro Theatre; and finally postcards for various current and upcoming films. These programs are from competing theaters; that Landmark would promote these other venues suggests that the city's independent theaters are all working together to keep audiences informed of and interested in film outside the mainstream.

The theater auditoriums are small. They have a bit of charm with exposed brick walls on one side and wooden rafters overhead, but I recommend planning to see a film in auditorium 1; the other two, long and narrow, might give you the impression you are watching a film projected on the opposite end of a train car.

This is my third trip to the Lumiere, which I first visited in 1996 for the delightful MicroCosmos, and then again in 2000 for a rerelease of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In typical Landmark fashion, the pre-show consists only of a commercial for Stella Artois beer. The theaters should really look into carrying this brand if they are going to promote it so heavily.


Warlords (Tau ming chong)
Three warriors (Jet Li among them) in medieval China are betrayed by their general and so make a pact for revenge. They raise armies, and hours of action ensue. Perhaps this speaks more to the films we import than to the movies they make, but China seems to churn out one or two epic tales a year, with battles that rival those in The Lord of the Rings, and all with Shakespearian tragedy at their center. This trailer, more than others I've seen for this genre, is honest that our heroes will suffer during their journey, and, too late, wonder if the struggle was worthwhile. 139 cuts, 589 horses, and 10,435 arrows.

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto)
An Italian man, already caring for his aged mother, agrees to also put up the mother and aunt of his debtor, in exchange for lenience with his bills. And how could he say no to housing his doctor's mom? Soon our protagonist is spending the summer cooking for and pandering to four elderly women, probably with amusing results. 44 cuts.

Fish Tank
A teenaged girl has a secret love of dancing, but must remain emotionally alive despite the deadening atmosphere of the London projects. Her home life is a wreck, with her mother constantly shouting at her; her mother's attractive boyfriend takes an interest in our heroine, but his affections might cross a line. The trailer makes me quite uncomfortable with all its suggestions of misery, so you can be sure the film will depress you entirely before giving some sliver of hope at the end. 112 cuts.

Terribly Happy (Frygtelig lykkelig)
A "disgraced cop" is assigned to a "remote town" in northern Denmark where home-grown justice rules. This film falls within the Old West archetype of the reluctant law man charged with cleaning up local corruption, but also resembles the recent Hot Fuzz (though without the comedy and gore). There could be some mystery, as the cop uncovers years of unpunished crimes. The film's style looks moody, quiet, and patient. 78 cuts.

44 Inch Chest
Joanne Whalley tells her husband, Ray Winstone, that she's been having an affair. Winstone, enraged, reassembles his old gang of villains to track down Whalley's lover and give him the what for. Winstone's gang includes Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Stephen Dillane, tough guys all. The film is rated R, but mostly for language, so I think we can look forward to lots of filthy talk but with only a little roughhousing. And it's been years since I've seen Whalley in anything. 105 cuts.

A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)
I've just finished reading David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla, in which he defines drama as "a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal—so that he . . . is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants." Unless the screenwriter has some superhuman ability to make a scene inherently interesting, the scene will only succeed if it leaves the audience wanting to know what happens next. I'm tempted to say that this doesn't apply to comedy, that a funny moment is an end in itself, but I'm reminded that most sitcoms I see fail to hold my attention because they are often meaningless sequences of humor (however good) that do not contribute to a cohesive plot.

A Town Called Panic begins with Indian and Cowboy realizing that it is Horse's birthday, and they have as yet neglected to procure a present for him. Thus the immediate goal is to obtain a present for Horse. Indian suggests they build Horse a brick barbecue, for which they'll need bricks (I'm not sure what a horse would cook on a barbecue, but the movie doesn't bother with little details like that). Through an error on Cowboy's part, instead of 50 bricks they receive 50 million bricks. The goal changes: they have enough bricks to build the barbecue, but now must hide 50 million bricks so that Horse (who apparently controls the pursestrings of the household) doesn't freak out. Where to put them? On the roof of course. What happens when you put 50 million bricks on the roof? The house collapses. What happens when your house has collapsed and 50 million bricks are laying about? You build a new house out of bricks, of course. So it goes, for seventy minutes, from one event to the next in ridiculous progression.

(Each goal the movie presents is almost immediately achieved, but not without creating some other problem to be solved. If you compressed a TV show like Smallville down to seventy minutes, you'd have the same result. Yes, he rescued her, but not without revealing his secret identity. Okay, he's protected his secret identity, but at the cost of forming an unsettling alliance. The alliance has ended, but now his adversary threatens the girl again. It's one rug after another pulled from under our feet, each accomplishment undermined by the challenges of the next, and no unifying plot to give it all meaning.)

The characters are mostly interchangeable; they are all excitable and love to shout; they blunder; they act rashly. Horse is at times shy when in the presence of Madame Longrée, neighboring farmer is usually grumpy, and Cowboy seems to be the cowardly klutz of the house, but otherwise every action and every line of dialog could have been performed by someone else. This blurring of personality is not helped by the stop-motion animation, which uses actual toys (or their likenesses), and indicates who is talking by having that toy move up and down, just as a child would animate a stuffed animal at playtime.

There are many amusing details and humorous moments. Horse sleeps standing up in a bed comprising a pillow affixed to the wall, and a blanket folded over a horizontal piece of rope. Indian, angry at Cowboy, throws Cowboy out the window, then throws furniture out the window at Cowboy, including a grandfather clock; after the clock has struck Cowboy, its front opens up and Indian jumps out; how he threw himself out the window in the clock doesn't really matter, I suppose; it's funny. At one point the neighboring farmer is arrested for the supposed abduction of Horse, et al., and one of the farmer's cows says to the another, "So . . . no pasture today?"

But mostly the film is a bizarre blend of non sequitur and childishly literal sequences of events. There don't appear to be many natural laws in this strange world; with any outcome as likely as the next, I was uninvested in the characters and their progression from farm, to center of the Earth, to polar ice cap, to undersea kingdom, etc. And just when the plot has stumbled upon a logical ending place, the movie continues for several more minutes, throwing everything into chaos again.

Accepting that the film is nonsense, you might be able to enjoy it. I found it tiresome; I had come for a story, but all the movie wanted to do was play.

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