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

Friday, January 8, 2010

8. Daybreakers

Century 16 Hilltop

Century 16 Hilltop is owned by Cinemark, the distribution chain with the largest presence in the Bay Area. It is located atop a hill (surprise) in Richmond, near Richmond's Hilltop Mall, which previously housed an 8-screen theater.

Richmond has a rich theater past, sporting seven different theaters at its height during World War II. The city's contribution as a port and shipyard meant there was a growing population, getting off work at all hours of the day (many factories had round-the-clock shifts), and therefore in need of 24-hour entertainment. (Between 1940 and 1950, the city's population quadrupled in size.) Like in the rest of the nation, Richmond's theaters fell upon hard times during the post-war 1950s, when the city lost more than a quarter of its residents. Today, the Century 16 Hilltop (marked 'A' in the map below) is the only theater in the entire city of 100,000+ (the 'B' in the map is a performing arts theater, Exit Theater). Richmond is much like Salinas in that respect, that a large population is now being serviced by only one or two megaplexes.

The theater has parking to its side (a small lot), across the street, and further up the hill at a nearby shopping center (with steps leading down to the theater).

There are a few fun freebies available just inside the door. First, a ratings guide provided by the Classifications and Rating Administration (CARA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). I'll discuss these groups more at a later date, but worthy of note are the descriptive text they began adding in recent years in support of all non-G ratings. This gives viewers, in a few brief words, a clue to the film's content that warranted its rating. Next, a playbill for Cinemark's art house line, CinéArts. This is a poorly-reproduced, one-sheet pamphlet with descriptions of upcoming movies; the photos have been photocopied too dark to be seen. Lastly, Cinemark's "Preview" brochure, "an entertainment magazine for filmgoers". This is the nicest playbill I've seen, with 20 glossy, color pages depicting films to be released in the first half of the year. I wouldn't quite call it collectible, but the brochure is definitely enjoyable. The cover labels it as "Issue 1 / 2009", which makes me think it will be updated infrequently.

The theater has casino-like carpet that could probably induce a trance if stared at for too long.

In the past decade more theaters have been "entertaining" viewers with a pre-movie slideshow. This usually takes the form of local advertising and too-easy movie trivia, set to loop, ensuring that you see the same questions multiple times if you arrive too early. At some point, however, the slideshow was upstaged by digital video programming, called "The 20", "The Pre-Show Countdown", or, in Cinemark's case, "First Look". To put it simply, this programming is obnoxious. Typical features include National Guard and other military advertisements that, if you are pro-military, are awesome, and if you are anti-military, are scary; previews of upcoming television shows; ads for video games; trailers for releases of films on video (these trailers are always terrible, relying on you having already seen the movie, rather than trying to capture a new audience with a quality preview); Coke commercials that are usually amusing but overly-sentimental, as if drinking sugar-water could make the world a better place; and finally "behind-the-scenes" looks at upcoming movies, that piece together incomprehensible snippets from the already-public trailers with mindless interviewed soundbites (popularly called "talking heads"), conveying such already-apparent information as, "in this movie, I play a woman in search of love" and "this movie is about second chances". Finally, there is always a summary, giving even smaller glimpses of all the commercials we've just seen, which could serve to trick anyone just walking in that they had actually missed something meaningful. There are times when the pre-show is fun, but it disrupts any chance of conversation before the trailers begin, and often I feel dumber for having seen it. Trying to keep the audience entertained before the movie is admirable, but these pre-shows abuse the captive audience with commercials.

In contrast, the "silence your cellphones" public service announcement (PSA) that precedes the trailers are entertaining, varied, and convey a good message. I still haven't tired of seeing the recent "Happy the Hedgehog" skit, nor last year's routine where Sydney Pollack interrupts a man's emotional call to his girlfriend, ending with, "Oh, I'm sorry, is my directing interfering with your phone call?". In years past some of these PSAs have even been couched as trailers (and convincingly so), such as the Native American hunters, desperate to preserve their tribe's livelihood, preparing to ambush a herd of buffalo, only to have the herd scared away by a cellphone ring. To draw one conclusion between these two disparate sorts of programming, if the ad is entertaining, we might be endeared toward the advertised product or message; if it is benign we will ignore it; if it is obnoxious we will resent it.

And speaking of cellphones, even with the "please silence your cellphones now" message displaying for a straight 30 seconds, someone always ignores it and receives a call interrupting the movie. In addition, at this particular theater (and perhaps because I saw this film on a Friday night), there was lots of audience chatter, arguments, and a near-confrontation as a rude talker was rudely shushed. One young lady, who broke up with her boyfriend and left the theater during the previews, had apparently forgiven him and returned, because two minutes into the movie she stood up and shouted, "You didn't tell me this was scary; I'm not watching a scary movie!", then walked out again. I didn't even get charged extra for that bit of drama.


From Paris with Love
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is trying to get his foot into the door of MI6, but his admission is contingent on successfully ferrying unconventional FBI agent John Travolta around Paris on some explosive mission. Despite its 120+ cuts, this trailer is well served by dwelling on only a few specific scenes at length that demonstrate the humorous interaction between the two leads. This could be one of Travolta's better roles in many years; his 2003 film Basic is the most recent of his movies that I've enjoyed. Meyers is a strong actor, as seen in the devastating Match Point; this will be the first I've seen him in an action role.

This is the second trailer for what looks to be a funny superhero movie. In the first trailer, we saw how nerdy Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) decided to don a costume and fight crime as the powerless but determined Kick-Ass. This second trailer reveals how a video of Kick-Ass taking down a few thugs at a mini-mart has inspired a colorful cast of imitators, including Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), and Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), all eventually teaming up against the villainous Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). The initial trailer worried me that we were in for an entire movie's worth of violence inflicted upon our inept hero, but with these other heroes as Kick-Ass's allies, this film could be great. Cuts unknown (not yet available online).

The A-Team
Television continues to be mined for movie ideas, now bringing to the big screen this show that ran for five years and 98 episodes. Four war veterans, previously part of an elite squad (who wants to watch movies about the guys who don't make the elite squad?), are framed for a crime and they must clear their names. In typical television fashion, the original show used the frame-up as the overarching plot, but had each episode center on helping those in need, in unconnected story lines. My guess is that the movie won't have time for these side-plots. The trailer is rushed and not entertaining. Could be Neeson's first movie in a while that isn't any good. And we will all be disappointed to not have Mr. T as part of the team. Cuts unknown (not yet available online).

She's Out of My League
Jay Baruchel, like Kick-Ass's Christopher Mintz-Plasse, excels in playing likable doofuses, as seen in Tropic Thunder and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Here he is an airport security guard who through chance interaction catches the eye of Alice Eve, categorized a '10' by Baruchel's friends, contrasted to his lowly '5' status. This movie follows the popular formula of trying to convince us that nice guys are worthy of attractive women, and that attractive women have the capacity to fall for someone other than a gladiator. Whether the movie is a romance or a comedic tragedy will depend on us actually wanting the two to end up together, but it seems to be leaning toward romance. 113 cuts.

Cop Out
When a trailer starts off telling you it's going to be a serious film, it has spoiled the surprise that the film is not serious (a tone reversal dating back to Kindergarten Cop at least). Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan are buddy cops, on the trail of some undisclosed crime that involves Seann William Scott, with comedic hi-jinks along the way. Thus far I've seen 41 Bruce Willis movies, more than I have for any other actor, and he appears to be reprising his role as the straight man to Morgan's funny man. Willis has done such a good job of establishing himself as a grizzled action star that even when he's laughing I still think he's about to shoot me. I haven't seen a Morgan movie before, but I did watch more than sixty 30-second previews on iTunes from his current show 30 Rock; the man is funny. As is this trailer, though half the movie will probably be spent resolving some police plot that we don't care about Scott has great comedic timing and plays well in his scenes with Morgan, though Morgan's character makes the mistake of assuming that if saying "No" once is funny, it must be even funnier saying it sixteen times. It is not. 112 cuts.

Piranha 3-D
It's spring break in rural Lake Victoria (a fictional U.S. town, I'm assuming, rather than the Lake Victoria). Droves of college students flock to the eponymous lake for their weeklong vacation. Unfortunately for the characters and audience members, recent seismic activity has released into the water schools of giant piranha, and they look hungry. It's up to sheriff Elizabeth Shue to save the day before our nation's best and brightest are reduced to empty bikinis and speedos. This movie is sure to be gory and tense, and faced with the Jaws problem of contriving some reason to keep the characters in the water where the danger is. I will not see this film. Cuts unknown (not yet available online).

Ten years ago, a single vampire bat infected a human with a disease, which spread quickly as infected humans (now vampires) bit the uninfected. Our movie begins deep in the new vampire world order, where humans are nearly extinct, and those that remain are hunted by governments to be placed in blood farms as a source of food for the vampire society. If you've seen the movie posters, you know what these farms look like. The problem is that with humans so scarce, the entire world (of vampires) is faced with a food shortage. It's up to hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) and his team to create a suitable blood substitute. Otherwise, blood farm tycoon Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) will go bankrupt, and the blood-starved population will devolve into hideous, bat-like humanoids incapable of culture or restraint.

Dalton, in the tradition of Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Edward from Twilight, is a vegetarian, meaning he only drinks the blood of non-humans (e.g. pigs). There are others who share Dalton's human sympathies, including an influential senator (Jay Laga'aia), but the population as a whole is content to treat humans as they would any other food source. Dalton's restrictive diet does little to earn the trust of Bromley, or of Dalton's zealous brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), but it does bring him into contact with a leader of the human resistance, Audrey (Claudia Karvan), who in turn introduces him to ex-vampire Lionel (Willem Dafoe). Lionel's mysterious reversion could prove key to saving the human race.

Daybreakers is gory. Not just bloody, mind you, but disgustingly graphic. The violence is well beyond what I enjoy watching, and right at the edge of what I'm willing to endure. If you're adverse to decapitations, entrails, and gushing wounds, steer clear. It's not quite Shaun of the Dead or Blade II gory, but they all shop at the same store. Supernatural thrillers, with their close ties to science fiction, often promise intriguing premises, but their hack-and-slash delivery can leave questions unanswered or unsatisfying. It is the rare movie like The Others that scares us with the threat of the unknown; most offer up sacrificial victims as examples, and we spend the rest of the film fearing that our heroes will meet a similar gruesome end.

When a trailer piques my curiosity, but betrays signs of being a horror film, I turn to The Movie Spoiler. These recaps are full expositions of movie plots, from start to finish. As such, they are not to be treated as reviews, to interest yourself in seeing the film, but rather as substitutions, and a way of confirming that the body count will be high but interest low. Most recently the site saved me from Pandorum, posited as science fiction by the first trailer; the spoiler told me otherwise. Typically, the spoiler reveals that the film in question is more interested in chase scenes and grotesquely unique deaths than is dealing with the interesting issues raised by its premise. (Though the spoilers do a disservice to comedies by draining all the humor from them, the site has indeed saved me from a few overly-raucnchy movies as well.)

Bloodbath aside, Daybreakers is good, because it devotes a great deal of time and detail to establishing the new vampire culture. The movie deals with the transformation itself, how some people chose to become vampires while others were turned against their will (and remember it). It portrays the tension in a family when the father has become a vampire but the daughter refuses to. Society's class structure is preserved, in which well-to-do vampires turn a cold (60 degrees Fahrenheit) shoulder to a homeless man in need of blood. Civil engineering has been overhauled; window shutters, windshield tinting, and the underground SubWalk allow the nocturnal vampires to avoid direct sunlight, and public service announcements warn of impending sunrise. (Some animals have been infected too, so the vampires must constantly contend with forest fires started by some careless animal staying up past sunrise; it's throw-away details like this, buried in the background of scenes, that thoroughly establish the film's conceit.)

The depression already present in people's lives before they became vampires has been aggravated by the darkness and the prospect of static, never-changing immortality (and, in the case of children, never growing up). It seems that everyone is constantly smoking, perhaps as a way to fight off their blood addiction. As the movie progresses, and blood rations are reduced, the population's hunger and desperation increases. Very superficially, the film examines what happens to a society when all of its citizens are starving, and how the people begin to look at each other differently (a bit like I look at the non-vegan donuts in the grocery store when I accidentally catch a whiff of their delicious aroma).

Mathematically, it is unexplained how the blood supply has lasted for ten years. To give you an idea of the American rate of consumption, a recent book review in The New Yorker stated that Americans consume 9 billion poultry each year (in addition to 35 million cows and 115 million pigs). For 300 million residents, that only works out to be about 30 birds per person per year. But think of the baseline bird population and industrial planning required to sustain such heavy losses annually without chickens, et. al., becoming extinct. It just doesn't add up that most humans could switch to a mostly-human diet and survive that way for ten years before hitting signs of trouble.

Another problem, though minor, is that in one scene, as Dalton sits in his car, we can see Dalton's clothing in the car's side mirror, but not Dalton himself, demonstrating the well-liked attribute that vampires cast no reflection in mirrors. The rest of the film's vampire mythos can be explained by the movie's fictional science, with a virus at its root, but this particular detail begs for some supernatural cause. Since the vampires have retention of their human memories and personalities, I also would have enjoyed a look at attitudes toward procreation. Do vampires have children, and if not, do they miss having children?

Despite the frequent detours into gore, Daybreakers delivers on its promise to show us a "world where almost everyone is a vampire." Like most in its genre, it contents itself to be an action movie, but along the way a few characters develop in interesting ways, and it is thought-provoking to consider that a fundamental change to our species would require rethinking of every aspect of our culture and individual lives.


  1. Ah, audience drama. Except for the occasional ringing mobile telephone (which makes me batty), it nearly always adds to the "performance value". :)

  2. P.S. I share your lament at the ongoing dustbinning of Hitchcock's observation, "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it."

  3. And speaking of cellphones, even with the "please silence your cellphones now" message displaying for a straight 30 seconds, someone always ignores it and receives a call interrupting the movie.

    Ahhhh, guilty.

    Begin justification: So I just started carrying a cell phone recently, almost entirely for emergencies if not simply as a watch. I get a call on average once every not yet determined since I have never received a call.

    I'm in dollar theater with my kids about to not enjoy "Where the Wild Things Are" when I recall that my phone is on (I had arrived a tad late and missed the hedgehog skit; a true loss since it is generally better then whatever children's movie I am about to watch). But for some odd reason I decided I was going to want to know what time it was during this movie, and of course said phone is my watch. No problem, I'll just silence the ringer, a silly precaution in its own right given my phone number is not even on record at Verizon. Silence it I did . . . and it rang anyway. About half way through the movie I hear this funny noise, and it takes me a couple of rings before the horror sets in. I hit the ignore button which silences the ringer, and seeing that it is my wife I then increase my crime by actually getting up and quickly exiting the theater. Yes, I really really really wanted to talk to my wife at that moment and took my chances at offending the countless children and several token adults who had pulled the shortest straw.

    Investigating later, I determined I had not actually turned off my ringer. When you change it, you have to give it a second or two to "set". I closed my phone to fast, and it didn't register the change.

    Bad Llama.