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

Saturday, March 6, 2010

35. Dear John

Century Northgate 15
Cinemark's Northgate 15 was built in 1994 inside Terra Linda's Northgate Mall (Terra Linda is a town incorporated into northern San Rafael). The theater is most easily accessed via the mall's southeast entrance.

The box office is located in the mall's corridor. Having arrived late, and to a bit of a line, I looked around for an electronic ticketing kiosk, but didn't see any.

The theater is split into two parts, one on either side of the entrance to Sears. Auditoriums 1-9 occupy one side, and auditoriums 10-15 occupy the other. This division means there are two concession areas, two sets of bathrooms, and two ticket takers, all good things. But it does make the theater feel disconnected.

The ticket taker on my side was stationed in a bend in the hallway, hectically trying to keep some kids from sneaking in. Her station looked unofficial, and as she was tearing my ticket, many other people absent-mindedly walked past us, unaware that they were expected to stop.

After the movie, I went from auditorium to auditorium, recording the maximum occupancies that were posted on each door. This was made difficult because many of the doors were propped open. Many doors open at once suggest that the theater is not staggering their showtimes very well.

I crossed the mall corridor to record the capacities for the other five auditoriums. There was no ticket taker at the station there, so I just wandered into the hall and began taking my notes. Inadvertently I became part of a mob rush, as a large group of people coming to see Alice in Wonderland came storming down the hallway looking for their screen. Employees, having cleaned the auditoriums, also entered the hallway, resulting in a sudden moment of chaos as patrons were corralled and instructed to return to the lobby and wait there. Two ticket takers eventually materialized (they had been sweeping the lobby), and, having assumed their post at the corner, defended against another onslaught of Alice fans. (I explained what I was doing, and was permitted to continue wandering the halls, unpropping and inspecting doors.)

All auditoriums were labeled except for #15. The theater's total seating capacity is approximately 2200, with auditoriums ranging in size from 86 to 210 seats. The seats are the same great, plush recliners found in the Grand Lake.


(Unknown. I arrived late.)

Dear John
After seeing this movie's trailer, I had very low expectations. But my friend Stefanie recommended it, and I arrived at the theater too late for the film I had intended to see, so I gave Dear John a chance. Many others had the same idea; the crowd was large, despite how long the film has been in release.

Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) has come home to Charleston, South Carolina, for spring break. While hanging out on a pier, her purse falls into the water. An admiring friend, Randy, runs lamely down the pier toward the beach to fetch it. But a surfer, also nearby on the pier, dives directly into the water and retrieves the bag. He walks out of the water like a Roman statue emerging from a slab of marble (how did he manage to submerge those buoyant pectorals?). Randy offers to take the purse, but the surfer ignores him, heading directly to Savannah. The surfer is John Tyree (Channing Tatum), an Army special forces solider on leave for two weeks. Savannah thanks John profusely for fishing out her bag, and invites him to a barbecue. He politely declines, but after she entices him by offering a beer, he finally agrees to come by for just a while.

This first exchange is one of the better 'meet cutes' I've seen in some time, because both Savannah and John are awkward and sincere, two of my favorite attributes in a scene. Once at the barbecue, Amanda, naive about male posturing, aggravates the tension between Randy and John. (Randy's romantic intentions toward Savannah have been interrupted by the newcomer, but Savannah is as disinterested in Randy as John is.) Randy provides a foil for John, allowing us to see that his reserved demeanor can turn hostile when provoked. Removing themselves from Randy and the rest of the party, Savannah and John spend the evening talking, and soon the romance is in bloom.

It's so refreshing to see two characters getting to know each other. Waiting a long time before resorting to a montage, the movie is patient to demonstrate what attracts John to Savannah, and vice versa. We meet John's dad (Richard Jenkins), who is incredibly shy and inarticulate, but Savannah engages him easily, coaxing him into conversation about his coin collection. We also meet Savannah's older friend Tim (Henry Thomas) and Tim's young, autistic son, Alan. John has similar success interacting with Alan, and he and Tim get along as well.

When Savannah and John fight, it's not for a stupid reason. When they make up, it's satisfying. The film finally launches into its conceit, that of John returning to duty and Savannah to school, and of their correspondence to each other, but by this time I was so won over by the characters that I actually enjoyed this intimate exchange between the two of them. Even though they are on opposite sides of the world, and experiencing different cultures, their letters seem to be what they are about, what is important in their lives. The rest is just a back drop.

The movie isn't perfect. During many moments in the latter half, the movie feels book-like. This is most evident in the letter writing, but also in the film's epic scope of time. I found John's re-enlistment cycle confusing. When he and Savannah meet in the spring, he still has a year's duty to serve, but in September he considers re-enlisting. The movie does a good job showing a letter's arduous journey to reach John in remote locations. On Savannah's end, the mail carrier delivers her letter by twirling the combination to her student mailbox, opening her mailbox just as Savannah would, and inserting the letter (of the hundred mailboxes we see, the carrier seems to have only this one letter to deliver). In a movie focusing on correspondence, they should have gotten the detail right that mail carriers don't know our combinations (her mail would probably be inserted from the other side, inside the building, by a campus mail clerk). These are minor quibbles.

Dear John is an absolute delight. Seyfried and Tatum (especially Tatum, on whom the film eventually focuses) are genuine and affectionate toward each other. Several moments call for emotional acting, and these two deliver. I was completely invested in their relationship. Jenkins does an outstanding job as a reclusive father. At first, he just seems shy, but when he looks up, we see clearly how tortured he is interacting with others. Thomas rounds out the principals with a steady, sensitive performance. All around impressive acting.

I first saw Seyfried in Mean Girls (2004), in which she plays an amusing airhead. She nails the role, but, of course, that means I thought she was an airhead. I next saw her in Mamma Mia! (2008), and not only is she sensitive and beautiful, but, unique among all the other actors in the movie, she can actually sing. (Hearing Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan SkarsgÄrd sing together is reminiscent of SNL's Season's Greetings from Tarzan, Tonto, & Frankenstein.) Seyfried has a nice singing moment in Dear John as well. With this latest movie, she shows she has some range, and, more importantly, that her authentic performances thus far have not been a fluke. Then there's Channing Tatum. From the looks of his filmography, he's delivered several tough guy roles, but the only other movie I've seen him in is last year's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. You won't hear this anywhere else, so perk up your ears: G.I. Joe was an entertaining movie. As action movies go, it was nothing special, but in an amazing feat it captured the G.I. Joe mythos from the toys, the cartoons, and the comics (all three of which differ in tone and having conflicting accounts of characters and events). Tatum was one of the reasons that G.I. Joe worked, making real the cartoonish role of Duke. Like with Seyfried, Dear John shows that he is consistently good.

Romantic movies are often enjoyable, but the romances in them seldom are. Most use 'a secret' or 'a job' or some other contrivance to keep our lovers apart, whether for humorous or dramatic effect. The distance that eventually separates Savannah and John, though, is something we know about from the very beginning, and thus doesn't feel artificial. Rather than stepping its characters through a plot, manipulating their behavior in service of the story, Dear John builds a few intimate sets and just allows our characters exist together, talking, oblivious to the rest of the world. That's romance.

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