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

Saturday, January 9, 2010

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Century San Francisco Centre 9

The San Francisco Centre 9 theater opened in 2006 in the new wing of the Westfield Mall on Market St. If you can navigate the mall's scattered system of escalators to get to the top floor, you'll be rewarded with a fun view looking down, and a concession stand (with seating) located in the theater lobby in front of the box office. This is most ideal, as one person could buy refreshments while the rest of the party are arriving or purchasing tickets. More theaters should incorporate this layout.

Most malls are a bit ugly, lending little in the way of aesthetic beauty to any adjoining theater. The Westfield Mall is an exception, creating a grand entrance to the San Francisco Centre 9. At the mall's core is a lofty, domed plaza that is just beautiful (below is a photo looking upward at the dome). At Christmas time, huge ornaments snake down from the ceiling.

The San Francisco Centre 9 is another Cinemark theater. The screens are off two hallways located on either side of the lobby. This was my fourth visit to the theater in just over three years, and all my screens have been on the same side.

You might want to arrive a few hours early to decode their pricing schedule, reproduced below from the Cinemark website.

Inside each auditorium you will find leather seats, an unfortunate choice in my opinion, not only because I'm vegan, but because leather sticks to the skin (the armrests are not leather).

A few notes about the pre-show. A pleasant woman onscreen yells, "Cut!", and entreats us to consider holding our next corporate meeting in the movie theater. Functionally, this makes perfect sense, but this ad and others like it suggest that theaters (rather than the movies shown in them) are exciting, and that by relocating your dull presentation to a Cinemark screen you'll suddenly get a standing ovation. Here's a tip: if an audience doesn't clap when rebel pilots blow up the Death Star, they won't clap for your pie charts.

There is a strange, surreal ad in which a youth presses giant buttons to teleport between various settings, some real, some straight from video games. The ad is part of a new campaign by Sony to increase overall awareness of its brand and various products. The campaign is called "make.believe", which, contrary to its formatting, is not a URL.

Finally, to convince you to advertise on the big screen, the pre-show makes the following dubious statement: "More people are going to the movies than ever before." I can see only three plausible meanings of this. The first is that more tickets are being sold per year (though not necessarily to unique customers). This is verifiably false. Here is a source citing an MPAA figure that "nearly 4.1 billion tickets" were sold in 1946. That was the heyday of movie-going, which puts more recent figures into stark perspective. But we needn't go back that far to disprove the claim. According to the 2008 MPAA Theatrical Statistics report (2009 is not yet available), 2008 saw the lowest number of admissions in the past ten years, bottoming out at 1.364 billion admissions (page 4). Various sources are reporting a slightly higher figure for 2009, but nothing that would top the decade. The second possibility is that more individual people are attending movies, even if, in aggregate, they are buying fewer tickets. This is possible, perhaps as a mere function of an increasing population, but it could only be supported by survey, since most ticket purchases are anonymous. And with more different people attending, but total admissions still dropping, that would mean that fewer people were coming back for a subsequent visit; not something to brag about to would-be advertisers. The third possibility is that the theater just made it up, perhaps inferring the statistic from the fact that box office receipts are at an all-time high (which speaks more to economic inflation than to increased attendance).


Alice in Wonderland
The movie is still two months away and we're already on the third trailer. This preview for Tim Burton's new film basically recycles the material from the previous trailer, but adds an opening sequence that reveals Alice, desperate to flee her family and unsuitable suitor, intentionally returns to Wonderland. We've already seen so many great shots of the film, you'll probably want to avoid any subsequent trailers attempting to out-do their predecessors. Cuts unknown (not yet available online).

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
I am lucky in having avoided the first film, featuring dogs as our secret protectors against a plot by cats to take over the world. The characters in this sequel, like in the original, are a disturbing mix of actual animals (with animated mouths), puppets, and digital creations. The sequel's twist is that a rogue cat, Kitty Galore, threatens the world in a way not even the other cats can stomach, and thus the cats and dogs must work together to defeat the feline mastermind. Roger Ebert gave a favorable review to the original, and it did well at the box office ($200 million worldwide on a budget of $60 million), but this movie looks terrible. I pity my best friend who will likely see it multiple times with his daughters. 107 cuts.

How to Train Your Dragon
Jay Baruchel voices a viking lad expected to become a slayer of dragons, like the others in his village, but a chance encounter with a sympathetic dragon leads Baruchel down a different path (sounds a bit similar to his upcoming She's Out of My League). The first trailer is quite amusing and beautiful. Digitally-animated films are mostly focused on animal characters, but I prefer their misshapen humans, like in The Incredibles, Hoodwinked, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Bee Movie, and even the otherwise boring Barnyard. The characters in this Norse tale look great. This particular trailer, which is either a teaser I had not yet seen, or a second trailer, is not nearly as good as the first. It prefixes the introduction with shots of other Dreamworks Animation films before rushing us into the plot with little time to meet our characters or understand the culture. Skip this trailer in favor of Trailer 1. Cuts unknown (not yet available online).

The Tooth Fairy
Dwayne Johnson is a hockey player, ruthless on the ice, insensitive off it. After nearly telling his daughter that there is no such thing as the tooth fairy (his wife, Ashley Judd, stops him), he is found guilty of "killing dreams" (what a great law!) and sentenced by Julie Andrews to serve as one of her many tooth fairies. Billy Crystal acts as Johnson's Q, equipping him with all the tools of the trade, and The Office writer Stephen Merchant is his handler, escorting him on his first missions. We'll get lots of laughs (most of which we've probably now seen) and a few good doses of sentimentality. Johnson, originally from nearby Hayward, is one charismatic guy, and apparently was next in line to play a tough man in a silly role. He has already cut his comedic teeth in Be Cool (not his fault), Southland Tales, and Get Smart, and looks to be charming here as well. 125 cuts.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Inspired by Roald Dahl's children's book of the same name, Fantastic Mr. Fox follows the schemes of Mr. Fox (George Clooney) to pilfer food from three nearby farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. His accomplices are Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), a Possum angler with a tendency to get talked into a trance, and Fox's athletic nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). Fox's grand plans soon draw the attention of his wife (Meryl Streep), who reminds him that he swore to give up thievery and get a straight job. Many years as a newspaper columnist, however, have left Fox's "wild animal" nature unfulfilled. And the combined challenge of robbing the valley's three biggest casinos . . . er, farms, all at once, is irresistible.

The film is charming from start to finish. The characters are quirky, and their dialog unpredictable and fun. Clooney is charismatic, even as a talking fox. He gives grand speeches, and makes a signature gesture when he's pleased with himself. Everything revolves around Fox, including the attempts by the three farmers to outsmart him. Bean (Michael Gambon) clearly sees Fox as an arch nemesis, which only inspires Fox to ever greater plots. Occasionally someone tells Fox that his behavior is reckless, endangering everyone around him, but Fox is immune to criticism. The character most charmed by Fox is Fox.

Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) resents Fox's favoritism toward Kristofferson, and attempts to prove himself to his father. He thinks of himself as an athlete, but is shown to be otherwise. When an argument is not in his favor he spits and skulks away. He forces Kristofferson to sleep beneath a table, but in a moment of tenderness, activates the toy train on the table, so that he and his cousin can enjoy it together. Much like Schwartzman's role in I Heart Huckabees, Ash is ever oppressed, fighting, against low expectations, to obtain notice of his unique merits. His interactions with his father and cousin are always entertaining.

Several other supporting characters have fun moments. Willem Defoe is diabolical as Rat; Bill Murray as Badger is . . . well, Bill Murray. Gambon's farmer Bean is intimidating in every scene. Bean is the curmudgeonly byproduct of some war, and now employs siege tactics to outsmart Fox. The most obvious deficiency, as in many films, is with the female characters. Even Streep's Mrs. Fox is given little to do. There is a moment when we think she might give Rat some roughing up, but ultimately it's up to Fox to save the day.

Consistent with other stop-motion work I've seen, the characters, props, and sets are a delight to watch. They all come in fascinating, impossible forms, and are beautifully marred by aberrations in the filming process (like the way Fox's hair keeps moving in close-up shots). The animals are all a bit unsettling, because of their strange fur, reminding me more of the animated toys in Robot Chicken than the plasticine people of Corpse Bride. Stop-motion is so painstaking, it is understandable that few endeavor to employ it in their films, making me all the more appreciative when they do.


  1. Frequent contemporary references to "the highest grossing [blah-blah-blah]" are misleading to the point that (given how they're marketed, e.g., "people think [blah-blah-blah in question] is the BEST OF ALL TIME!") I personally consider them fraudulent.

    Amusingly, for all the gusto about Avatar's box receipts, and even counting the massive pile-on valuation of the 3D surcharges, Cameron's latest film has yet to crack the domestic Top 30 (adjusted dollars).

    * * *

    I'll make a note to see "... Fox". I love, love, love the book, so I've been nervous, but it sounds like they at least haven't made a hash of it, and I do love me some stop-motion.

  2. Joshua, I agree that it means very little to report box office gross.

    However, I don't think that's accurate that Avatar is outside the top 30 for adjusted dollars. I'm inquiring further about this, but only lists 14 films (released since 1977) that grossed more than $500M in adjusted dollars. By that accounting, Avatar would be 15th.

    This ignores all the pre-1977 movies, though, for which we have less data. What we do have, over at, is a list of movies by ticket admissions, where Avatar is listed 34th. That's not too shabby for just a month in release.

    This becomes less impressive once we calculate the per capita, which drops Avatar to 75th place. Assuming everyone only sees a movie once, 154% of the U.S. saw Gone with the Wind in 1939, contrasted to 23% that has seen Avatar in 2009.

    Many of those movies have benefited from multiple releases, though (such as Gone with the Wind), which Avatar in its youth has not. Avatar will face little new competition in the coming months, and will be fueled on by the awards seasons, popular buzz, and box office bragging. At present Avatar has sold approximately 70M tickets; for every 3M additional tickets it sells, it will gain 1% per capita and eclipse 3.5 movies in the ranking. Assuming it sells 20M more tickets (which I think it will), it will be the strongest per capita movie of the past ten years. That's also not too shabby.

  3. I suppose re-releases will progressively die off (to the extent they have not already, putting aside art houses, and excepting of course tinkered versions like director cuts and Greedo shooting first) due to PPV television broadcasts and home video.

    Somewhat apples-and-oranges to compare box office receipts with "total revenue", but it would still be interesting to consider (and some classics like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz have probably made a home-video killing in their own right, thanks to people snapping up favorites (sometimes in multiple "collector" formats in succcession).

  4. I think Disney was the last big hold-out on the home market, driving people back to the theaters for multiple re-releases of its animated features. But there are still remnants of re-releasing: The Nightmare Before Christmas rears its head each year (not with a wide release, but wide enough that I wouldn't put it in the same category as The Rocky Horror Picture Show), as do many Oscar-nominees just prior to the Oscars, even if they've already been released on video.

    In reading the histories of different theaters I'm coming across many references to gimmicks that theaters have developed to compete with television (widescreen, 3-D, surround sound, etc.). As home video finds ways to co-opt these technologies, theaters continue to innovate. (I've got an idea for theaters that'll blow this thing wide open and make us all millions, so if you're a studio bigwig you should get me on retainer tan pronto.)

    I predict we'll see an increase in the coming decades of the art house scenario. Firstly, if Hollywood continues to turn out, on average, sub-par fare (contrasted to years past), it will be in the best interest of theaters to supplement their showings by re-showing successes from the past. I would think a theater could do better sharing a screen between Saw VII and Psycho than devoting the screen entirely to Saw VII. Also, with so many past movies to choose from, this could help differentiate theaters from each other. In Jack Tillmany's book Theatres of San Francisco there are numerous accounts of one-screen theaters holding on to a single title for tens of weeks, sometimes even longer than a year. If in addition to new releases a theater also shows Hitchcock on Tuesdays, and Sci-Fi on Thursdays, they might corner a market.

    Secondly, a generation has now reached adulthood for whom their home has been the dominant venue for seeing movies (the Babyboomers and their televisions may have been the great blow to the industry, but it is home video and relatively recent broadcasting of movies that has changed how we see film). Young people know movie theaters exist, and are among the strongest demographic for current patronage, but there is opportunity for a cultural reawakening, whereby a generation, having been raised cooped up in their homes watching videos and playing video games, suddenly comes up for air and discovers movie theaters as a social event, just like people did in the first decades of the industry.

  5. Ahem, back to Fantastic Mr. Fox.


    I loved it. Strange, funny, quirky, entertaining, delightful. It wasn't a roll in your seats laughing type fair, but it was certainly pleasing from the moment it began to the moment it ended.

    I have been walking around doing the whistle and two clicks for about two months now, ever since I first saw the preview. Indeed, the preview makes it look like a bigger deal then the movie actually makes it. Having seen the film I have finally subsided in my borrowed trade mark (much to the relief of everyone around me).

    The entire time I was watching it I was intrigued in what sort of rendition the original book must have been. I have yet to drag my tail to the library though to check it out.

    I would love to watch this again, yet sadly I think my children will protest. They enjoyed it and laughed some, but ultimately I think it was a bit to dry for them. This week is Princess and the Frog but I fear I might be at Planet 51 for a third time if nothing new surfaces (and the only knew thing on the radar is the Squeakqual: so that is kind of lose/lose).

    My favorite character was the rat.

  6. I checked out the book from the library and though I haven't read it yet I flipped through it a bit. It appears the basic plot is the same but all the character development seems to be entirely created by the movie, and for the better. After the movie, the book didn't look intersting at all. No Kristopherson!

  7. This was the last theatre built by Century Theatres before being sold to Cinemark.

    Love your blog btw... great pictures.

    FYI - I'm one of the primary volunteers that runs and worked for Century Theatres until was sold, have a lot of little tidbits in my head if ever you have questions about any of the Bay Area (or most anywhere else) theatres.

  8. if ya ever have a question.