CinéArts @ Empire
Built in 1925, San Francisco's Empire theater was once a single screen auditorium seating more than a thousand people. Today, thanks to a 1974 remodel, it is a 605 seat triplex, and part of Cinemark's art house arm.
The theater has an attractive candy counter, including twenty varieties of candy in bulk bins.
The rest of the lobby feels like it should be leading to a bank of elevators in a hotel, rather than to a movie showroom. Contrast my photo of the lobby below with this photo, revealing the ornate decorations that once greeted patrons. I don't think Cinemark is to blame for the remodel, but their other recent constructions suggest they would have gone along with it.
The main auditorium itself is as plain as that of any multiplex. This older photo, and another in Jack Tillmany's book (showing wall-to-wall murals), are sad reminders of the artistry that has since been abandoned.
Here's a crash course in cinema history. Movies debuted and were the hot new thing; theaters couldn't be built fast enough to accommodate demand. In San Francisco, for the twenty-five years following the earthquake and leading up into the first years of the Great Depression, at least eighty theaters opened. (1909 and 1913 each saw nine new theaters open.) Eighty theaters! So what happened? Begin speculation: the Great Depression ended the era of building new theaters, television ended the era of going out to the movies, and a 1948 Supreme Court antitrust case, severing the ties between movie studios and movie theaters, ended the era of studios maintaining theaters. Prior to that court decision, a studio was as well served making their theaters look nice as making their movies enjoyable; it was all part of the package. The studios had both the money and the incentive to try to out-game their competitors by wrapping their films in a prettier package. With that relationship lost, the studios could then only sink their money into movies. The new competition between theater owners, rather than encouraging ornate innovation, lead instead to a grocer's concern for the bottom line. With so much of the profit going back to the studios, the theaters are more concerned with minimizing their operating costs than with entertaining their patrons; the burden to entertain now rests entirely on the movie. So, for the most part, the theaters built (or, in the case of the Empire, remodeled) in the 1950s onward are functional but not decorative; the walls are empty, the ceilings plain, the atmosphere cheerless. End speculation.
A few posts on Cinema Treasures state that in the upstairs auditoriums all the seats are at an angle to the screen. In the downstairs, my seat was uncomfortable, with some sort of horizontal bar digging into my back the entire movie. CinéArts is zero-for-two.
When I visited both a Cinemark and an AMC theater on the same day, and saw the same pre-show, I thought I had uncovered a conspiracy, that each was promoting its pre-show as unique, when in fact all the major theaters have the same show. In truth, there is a sort of conspiracy, though it's economical rather than clandestine. According to this SEC filing (p. 12), in 2005 Regal Entertainment and AMC Entertainment jointly formed National CineMedia (NCM); within a few months, they were joined by Cinemark. Thus the nation's three largest film circuits, accounting for 39% of the nation's screens (and, I'm sure, an even larger percentage of the seats and total revenue) are working together, for mutual survival, to bring advertising to their theaters. Between the three circuits they own nearly 60% of NCM; I think it's safe to say that NCM is a puppet company, serving the needs of the circuits, rather than of anonymous shareholders. From the revenue generated by selling advertising time, NCM pays Cinemark 7¢ for every warm body that Cinemark plops down in front of the First Look. Perhaps movie patrons need to unionize; we'll agree to endure twenty minutes of obnoxious advertising before each movie, but we want a 5¢ kickback. If there's going to be colluding, then dagnammit I want in on it.
A few days after visiting the Empire I saw the same pre-show at an AMC in San Jose, so I'll discuss most of the particulars in that review. In the remaining Pre-Show space I have left I would like to discuss my absolute least favorite topic: zombies.
First off, I hate zombies. I hate them so much, I almost love to hate them. Maybe that's the attraction for some people in this recent uprising of zombie fandom. Finally, a villain we can truly hate. One stock Hollywood villain after another has fallen prey to political correctness, and (gasp) sensitivity to other cultures. Seems like every villain has a wife and kid at home these days, so how are we supposed to enjoy their comeuppance at the end of a movie when we know it's a family man we're decapitating? What are we to do when, driven to the silver screen to see hordes and hordes of people killed, we suddenly feel bad for those poor wretches? I thought television was supposed to have desensitized us by now. Wasn't that the point? Can't a person enjoy a little wholesale slaughter anymore without the carnage tugging at our sense of decency? What's the world coming to? So, we need better, more agnostic, more hatable villains. Satan and Hitler are prime candidates, but aren't thematically versatile. Also, there's only one of each; we need hordes, remember. And not bunches of bug aliens either; the villains must appear human. We want the satisfaction of killing our neighbors who mow their lawns at 8:00 on a Saturday morning (I looked it up; there is such a time), but without having to think of them as human. Better yet, they should be so far removed from their humanity, so deprived of language, culture, or any other meaningful attribute that by destroying their walking corpse I'm actually doing them a favor. Now who's a mindless lover of violence? You just wanted to eat my brains, but I brought you a swift (i.e. seven whacks with a blunt object), merciful respite.
Second, there's a book out. It's about zombies, and some of our favorite literary characters. I know about the book, and now you know I know, so don't send me a link to it. I don't want to click through to it. I don't want to read about it. I don't even want to know it exists.
Third, you might recall from my review of Legion that there is a horrific new take on the "silence your cell phone" public service announcements, in which a woman, talking on her cell phone, is devoured by zombies. (Next time you see someone driving down the freeway and talking on a cell phone at the same time, you might just mouth to them the word "z-o-m-b-i-e-s", as a sort of warning, and point with trepidation to their back seat. I do this all the time to distract fellow motorists so I can creep ahead in gridlock; it's great.) Yes, it's effective advertising; if the side-effect of cell phone usage is being eaten by zombies, just turning off your phone is a no-brainer (ha ha); but far better to play it safe by canceling your plan, smashing your phone with a brick, and blowing up a few relay towers. Anyway, this ad has been bothering me for weeks now. Who made it? It couldn't possibly be from the same folks who brought us Happy the Hedgehog, could it? Frankly, Happy the Hedgehog is one of the best trailers I saw last year. Obsessed, I spent several hours online trying to find the culprit, but to no avail. There's no shortage of references to Happy, crafted by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. They claim Sprint as a client, and there are references to the commercial in the community section of Sprint's website. Everyone's proud of Happy, but no-one cops to the zombies. As it turns out, having now seen the spot again at the Empire, Sprint is also responsible for the zombie warning. I won't level this slur at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, but what is Sprint's marketing goal? "When you think rotting flesh and the insatiable hankering for juicy juicy cortex, think Sprint!"
Three Brooklyn cops each struggle with their own conflicts in this gritty tale. Richard Gere will soon retire. He asks that his green partner think of all the terrible things they see in a day, then imagine twenty-years filled with days just like that. (A recruitment ad this is not.) Gere has been worn down over the years to the point of not caring; he just wants to finish us his tour, then, perhaps, fade into nothingness. Ethan Hawke, like Gere's partner, is young, but has already been chewed up by the system. To him, being a police officer is just a profession. He's trying to provide for his pregnant wife, hoping to move them into a better home, and is constantly presented with unsavory opportunities that would help achieve his goals, but at the expense of his integrity. He delivers the trailer's best line: "I don't want God's forgiveness; I want His help!" Finally, Don Cheadle has been working undercover, infiltrating the inner circle of crime lord Wesley Snipes. Constantly on the front lines, in danger of losing his cover and his life, Cheadle is desperate to complete his assignment and earn a more conventional detective position. Antoine Fuqua directs. I had little interest in seeing Denzel Washington as a villain, and so still haven't seen Fuqua's Training Day, but Fuqua also gave us Shooter and The Replacement Killers. It will be good to see Snipes doing something other than Blade and direct-to-video releases, and the other three leads (Cheadle especially) will bring the heat. 142 cuts.
The Last Station
Sex and the City 2
I've never watched the show, and neither have I seen the first movie. In fact, I'm only just now realizing that the title is "Sex and the City", not "Sex in the City". But I would see this movie for the costumes alone. At a svelte 50 cuts, the trailer doesn't reveal anything of the plot, except that our heroines will embark on a Saharan road trip. Sarah Jessica Parker exits her building, looking great, in slow motion, and as not one but two doormen hold open the door for her and nod. I wonder what filmmaker first thought up the slo-mo? It's a godsend to dramatic beauty. The only thing I dislike about this movie so far is the eye-catching poster; there's nothing wrong with it, except that I keep mistaking Sarah Jessica Parker for Willow Rosenberg, and thinking that I'm getting a different sort of sequel.
Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a washed-up country singer who still delivers heartfelt performances to his many fans, albeit in small venues, and half-drunk. Bad has himself and his alcoholism to thank for his career derailment. He isn't bitter about his past success; he says his songs have been good to him, and so he's still happy to play them. But he can't quite understand why he's currently so unsuccessful. Bad doesn't write songs anymore, his bookings are few and unappealing, and he's constantly broke. And that's why he drinks and smokes so much, to make it more bearable; at least, that seems to be Bad's take on things.
Maggie Gyllenhaal enters Bad's life in the form of Jean Craddock, a reporter interested in interviewing the aging singer. She is twenty-eight years his junior, pretty, and has that great Gyllenhaal smile, so naturally Bad wants to go to bed with her. For some inexplicable reason, Jean returns the sentiment. Jean begins to challenge Bad's drinking. He won't clean up for his own sake, so she uses herself and her son as leverage to reform the sot. But is he corrigible?
Gyllenhaal is good, but under-used. (I pitied Jean more than I did Bad. I cannot understand her attraction to him; she seems to mistake charity for love. Are good men so scarce that Bad Blake is actually a viable alternative?) Gyllenhaal deserves a leading role, but this movie is a one-man show. Jeff Bridges is in every scene and is utterly convincing as Bad. I like Bridges, and still saw him through the performance, but he successfully strips away most of his charisma, becoming a pitiable, self-defeating never-was.
Most movies about fictional musicians are flawed because the songs in the movie aren't rock-star level; how are we to believe that the fans in the movie would love these songs, when we know the tracks would fail in our own world? Crazy Heart is refreshing in that the songs are actually good, and Bridges sounds great singing them. Colin Farrell shows up as Bad's megastar ex-protege. This is Farrell at his most likable, and when he takes the stage, he sounds good too. The movie's final track, "The Weary Kind", is Oscar-caliber (perhaps the first movie song I've heard where I actually thought it worthy of some award). Bridges singing "Brand New Angel" is something I could list to over and over.
My problem with this film is that, songs aside, it is neither entertaining nor instructive. It's not fun to watch a self-destructive drunk, and neither is the movie providing any lessen we don't already know. We all watched our Saturday morning specials and know that excessive drinking is bad for us. I spent a lot of time at my parents' bar as a kid, accelerating my disillusionment about alcohol; I don't need Jeff Bridges to remind me that seeing people drink at ten in the morning on a week day is depressing.
The movie is artistically sound. To an extent the film employs a hands off, fly-on-the-wall perspective. When first-time director Scott Cooper inserts a more artistic shot, it works well (Bad crashes his truck; looking in through the half-open side window, we see him crumpled on the floor in the cab; reflected in the same foreground window we also see someone rushing to his aid). But when I've enjoyed this sort of voyeuristic style in the past it has been because I delighted in simply watching the leads, as in the exceptional Junebug (2005), or Steven Soderbergh's reductionist Bubble (2005). What will they do? What will happen next? Bad Blake is an unsurprising character. I must watch Bridges fall asleep with a plastic cup half full of whiskey propped precariously on his gut, or watch him vomit into a trash can, or take a drink and a long drag on a cigarette before kissing Maggie Gyllenhaal (yuck). Bridges's Best Actor nomination is well deserved, but I didn't enjoy his performance.