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

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

27. When in Rome

AMC Saratoga 14

The AMC Saratoga 14 anchors one end of San Jose's El Paseo de Saratoga Shopping Center, just across the street from the Retro Dome. I don't know when the theater was built, but this source at the Saratoga News places the date in 1996 or later. (Any business is apt to advertise what it sees as its strengths; old theaters emphasize their age, but megaplexes want to be state-of-the-art and appear to have been built just the day before, so nothing in the website betrays the structure's age.) The approach is attractive, in the style typical of upscale suburban shopping centers where some care has been employed to unify the various buildings with common materials, pillars, and decorative lines. The shopping center has lots of parking (though you'll be competing with other stores); several buses stop nearby as well.

The box office is outside. I used my new AMC membership card; as I was walking away the cashier flagged me down to let me know I had left behind my coupon for a discounted concession.

The lobby has a crescent-shaped barrier, comprising various movie cut-outs (aka standees), funneling patrons to the ticket taker. I like these oversized promotions; even for lame movies they suggest excitement and importance. The poster for Percy Jackson seems intended to (and does) evoke Harry Potter. The best cut-out I've seen in recent years was a giant photo album for the 2008 buddy comedy Step Brothers, with five turnable pages, each page about six feet tall. I'm happy to discover that this standee walked home with an award for its creativity.

Another trouble with megaplexes is trying to determine their maximum seating capacity. Because bigger is better in their line of work, I would think they would each boast how many thousands of patrons they can accommodate. Have you seen the warnings on Amazon that say "Order now, only 2 left in stock! (more on the way)"? Theaters try to have it both ways, too. "Quick, get your tickets before we sell out! Hurry! Hurry! (But if you didn't hurry, you should come anyway, because we actually have thousands of empty seats waiting for laggards like you as well)." There were approximately 350 seats in my auditorium. Assuming all auditoriums are equal, which they are not, this would put the total theater capacity at about 4900, which is too high. Most small theaters have "maximum occupancy" signs outside their auditoriums; there must be some sort of exemption for the bigger theaters, by which the fire marshall allows them to tuck these signs away into places nobody would look. "Capacity information available upon request, or you can look underneath the drinking fountain."

This particular showing of When In Rome played to a packed house of seven.

In a follow-up survey to my visit, AMC asked questions about the staff, the concessions, and how well-stocked the bathrooms were, all things within their power to easily change, I suppose. They didn't ask whether my seat were comfortable (it was not) or if the auditorium's decor were pleasing (another not).


A promo for (in which AMC has a 26% share), featuring the cast of MTV's Fantasy Factory reality show (I had to look them up), would have me believe that if I don't buy my tickets ahead of time, I'll arrive only to find the show sold out. I discussed this a bit here after seeing an ad for Fandango, but I thought I would try to address the issue of probability. What are the chances the movie you want to see will sell out? Let's assume the following: 1) You live in an urban area, with access to one and only one megaplex. 2) Despite being exhausted after working all week, you and your significant other have decided to go out to see a movie, and the two of you have managed to agree on a movie without getting a divorce. Congrats. 3) You are lucky enough to have secured a sitter for your equally tired children or twin terriers. 4) You'd like to be home at a reasonable hour, so you're planning to gobble down a romantic dinner in forty-five minutes and make it to the theater for the 7:00 show on opening night. So, the big question is, will the show sell out before you get your ticket? And even if you do get your ticket, will all the good seats be taken by the time you make your way through the line?

In my experience, the big answers are No, and It Doesn't Really Matter. Very few showings of movies sell out. I have been turned away from a showing perhaps five times in my entire life. There are exceptional cases, like the recent run of Avatar, where you might be hard pressed to get a ticket. A few sequels, books-to-movies, and other films with built-in fan bases are also suspect (see this article about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince selling out 4,500 midnight showings). In these cases, perhaps you should just pick up the ticket before you head to dinner; that might be all the leg up you need on the competition (remember, you're competing against teenagers, and when it comes to planning ahead, adults win nine times out of eight). Also, the theaters are on your side; they don't want to turn away anyone. If they think shows will sell out, they put the movie on more screens. More and more big movies now get Thursday or even Wednesday releases (leading to more impressively meaningless opening weekend numbers), and midnight showings (my yellow slippers are on my ten o'clock, so no thanks), which help siphon off some of the pressure for the first Friday night. The more must-see-it-now fans who flock to the midnight shows and skip work for Friday matinees means less pressure on your own date night. (I worked as a secretary for an engineering firm one summer and was left to answer phones while my bosses went to see Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones; they came back making lightsaber noises and telling me a I just had to see the movie, it was so good. So yes, I've endured cruelty in my life.)

Unfortunately, I haven't yet found any on-line statistics about the preponderance of sold-out shows, but if they were quite common, I would think MovieTickets and Fandango would tout these on their websites.

The real danger in tickets selling out is for independent movies showing only in a limited number of independent theaters, and not on opening night, but after a few weeks of good buzz. Typically, though, independent theaters do not subscribe to online ticketing.

Now, about your seat. Having to sit too close is the biggest danger, and might leave you wishing that the movie had been sold out. When I saw Ace Ventura, I was sitting so close that all the images were distorted into oblong shapes; halfway through the movie I realized that everyone in the film looked normal, which means my eyeballs had probably been distorted to compensate. Each theater probably has only a handful of perfect seats, and the rest are just so-so. I have often despaired at having to sit too far away from the screen, but once the movie starts rolling, if it's good, I forget all about where I'm sitting, and if it's bad, I'm thankful to be near the exit for frequent and unnecessary trips to the hallway, bathroom, lobby, and parking lot (you know, in case my headlights came back on after I checked them fifteen minutes ago). I'm actually one of those people who stresses about getting a good seat, so this is my rational self preaching to my anxious self: let it go.

On to other topics. A bizarre spot by Metro PCS has two men, Ranjit and Chad, hosting a show called Tech and Talk. After announcing breaking news that the mobile service provider has rock-bottom prices, Ranjit says, "If this can be true, Chad, maybe your career in dance isn't yet doomed." I tend to err on the side of political correctness. Movies and your best friend can make jokes, and still have time to otherwise demonstrate their cultural sensitivity, but I'd say commercials should steer clear of exploiting foreign accents and English-as-a-second-language grammar.


The Last Song
Miley Cyrus must spend the summer at a beach house with her dad, Greg Kinnear, instead of with her mom in New York City. She'll resent her father, rebel a bit, fall in love, and ultimately stop being such a brat. This movie will be sappy throughout, but might still be fun, because the actors appear to be taking it seriously. 130 cuts, half of which are of Cyrus smiling.

Disney is trying to outdo the 2005 BBC-produced Deep Blue, and at times even seems to recycle some of the same footage, but perhaps there are only so many ways to shoot a school of fish. I'm a bit resentful that these Disney Nature movies bill themselves as groundbreaking, as if they were the first to document the animal kingdom on film. Nevertheless, the trailer is beautiful and definitely makes me want to see the movie. 65 cuts.


The Bounty Hunter

Our Family Wedding
America Ferrera and Lance Gross are getting married, much to the chagrin of their culturally-different families (headed by dads Carlos Mencia and Forest Whitaker). Each family must come to at least tolerate the other, and to respect their child's choice for a spouse. Much of the preview is endearing (Ferrera and Gross seem to have a genuinely good relationship, seldom seen in movies), and moments are even funny. Regina King has the best line, after getting cake thrown at her: "You got it in my hair? Are you serious?" Unfortunately, most of the jokes are forced by the characters, each playing up their own cultural stereotypes as a way of mocking the other. At 113 cuts, and ending with a long scene in which a goat takes viagra, the trailer doesn't know when to stop.

Sex and the City 2

Why Did I Get Married Too? (Trailer 2)
This is a sequel to Tyler Perry's 2007 movie Why Did I Get Married? I haven't seen any of Perry's movies, but most of his publicity has been around his comedies, so I am surprised to see the serious tone of this trailer. Four couples on a weekend retreat will laugh and cry together, and their relationships will be tested as secrets come to light and old flames show up unannounced. The trailer itself isn't very entertaining (though it improves over the first trailer, which comes across a bit like a horror film), but the movie could be the rare drama that dares to look at the "ever after" of the previous story, and show that it isn't "happily" without a lot of work. 99 cuts.

The Back-up Plan
Jennifer Lopez, tired of waiting for Mr. Right, and having just seen Baby Mama, goes the route of artificial insemination, only to bump into Alex O'Loughlin on the way out of the clinic. Within a few short scenes they are dating, but Lopez's pregnancy looms, threatening to scare him off. Eventually O'Loughlin finds out the truth, and must consider his future. He rightly wonders if he really wants to fall for someone who will soon have a child. The trailer shows too much in 114 cuts, and throws in what looks like a simulated birthing ceremony at the end for physical humor. Jennifer Lopez has been great (Out of Sight and An Unfinished Life) and good (Maid in Manhattan and The Cell). (I have heard horror stories of some of her other work, but so far my estimation of her has not been marred by seeing Gigli.) But Lopez aside, I don't know how this film is going to work. A serious romance might convince me that O'Loughlin could fall so deeply in love that he doesn't mind being a father in less than a year, but this comedy, with its light tone and klutzy humor, will be hard pressed to be both satisfying (the two ending up together) and believable.

When in Rome
When you fall in love with someone, how do you know they truly love you back, and are not under the influence of a love spell you accidentally cast by stealing coins from an enchanted fountain in Rome? Most of us need never ask ourselves this question, either because it is irrelevant or because we wouldn't want to jinx so fortuitous a turn. Beth (Kristen Bell), though, is not most of us.

Beth is a successful curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. She is charged with securing the center piece for an important upcoming exhibit, and her boss (Anjelica Huston) is fully prepared to hate her should she fail. Beth's sister (Alexis Dziena, the only actress tinier than Bell) shows up at Beth's door with an engagement ring from her two-week-old relationship with an Italian man, Umberto, and wants Beth to fly to Rome that weekend for the wedding. Beth is a good sister; despite knowing that her sister's fling-turned-marriage is impetuous and doomed, and despite her own looming deadline at the museum, Beth agrees to fly to Italy.

While at the wedding Beth meets Umberto's charming best man, Nick (Josh Duhamel). Sparks fly (literally), but Beth falls prey to the age-old dramatic conceit of seeing Nick walking with another woman, and she assumes the worst. Despairing, Beth wades into the nearby fountain of love, Fellini style, and swipes five coins from it, unknowingly bewitching the five men who had tossed those coins into the fountain. The rest of the script writes itself.

When Beth returns to New York she is immediately courted by four strange men (wouldn't it have been inconvenient if Beth had stolen coins from non-New Yorkers?), including an artist (Will Arnett), a magician (Jon Heder), a model (Dax Shepard), and a sausage king (Danny DeVito). Nick appears to round out the group as the fifth suitor (later, when protesting that he isn't under any spell, he ends up sounding just like the other four). Each accosts Beth in absurd ways, plying their craft to prove their love (a side effect of the fountain's power appears to be one-dimensionality). The artist paints her portrait, the magician stages an elaborate escape performance, the model strips, and the sausage king gifts her with pounds of meat links. Nick, having to step up his game in the face of growing competition, takes to surprising her in dark alleys (not a good idea) and showing up at her work and home unannounced (equally not a good idea).

Will Beth fall for one of her clowns? Is Nick under her spell? Will Beth pull off her exhibition despite lacking the promised center piece? Unfortunately, we don't care.

Cinematic romance can be simple: find two actors with chemistry, roll the camera, and let us watch. That's all I ask for. Consider Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), or the similarly titled Imagine Me & You (2006). Both succeed with minimal artifice (the former more so), because romance is inherently interesting. Plot twists that frustrate our lovers might keep me wondering what happens next, but the interaction between the leads is what keeps me watching and leaves me satisfied. As soon as the filmmaker tries to be overtly funny, though, the movie's job becomes more challenging. Burdened with contrived humor, few films are able to sustain our sympathy in the romance. More often than not we end up with Catch & Release and Because I Said So instead of Enchanted (2007), Hitch and Just Friends instead of Just Like Heaven (2005), and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton and Laws of Attraction instead of 13 Going on 30 (2004).

Nick is a bit of an oaf. He is given one element of backstory: he used to play football, until he was struck by lightning. That's not much to go on, but Duhamel compensates with abundant sincerity and a silly smile. Beth has even less backstory: her father used to take her to the museum. Deep stuff. And yet the waifish Bell and her perfect teeth have good presence. When Beth and Nick are together, and in the brief moments when the plot is not intruding, the film is enjoyable. Beth thinks her sister is being impulsive. Nick unknowingly repeats a joke Beth had made, that the romance has been too short-lived to even perform a credit check. When Beth hears him express this same sentiment, she glows. Most of the time, though, the movie is predictably amusing (most of the sight gags are in the trailer) and not meaningful. Like in the equally disappointing Leap Year, the movie employs klutziness and social faux pas in place of good dialog (Beth and Nick share equally in these mishaps; in one scene at her sister's wedding, Beth shatters the champagne fountain, followed shortly by Nick shorting out the electricity). The leads are constantly interrupted by the other four suitors, usually resulting in Beth running away.

During the credits the cast treat us to a dance number. I typically like these extra scenes of the actors having fun together, but, like out-takes from a dull movie, it suggests the actors think the movie is quite funny. Unfortunately, it is not.

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