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

Saturday, March 13, 2010

38. Green Zone

Balboa Theater

San Francisco's Balboa Theater was built in 1926 by James Reid and Merritt Reid, the architects who also designed the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, the Oaks Theater in Berkeley, and the now-closed Alexandria Theatre in San Francisco. The theater's vertical sign could definitely use a new paint job, but otherwise the building is in good condition. (Note that I was coming to see the "Greeeeeeeen Zone".)

Back in the theater's early days the city was staunchly territorial. Movies began on Market street, then worked their way outward, toward the neighborhoods and Oakland. Just as the theaters did on the main strip, when a neighborhood theater like the Balboa got its hands on a winner, it held on. This fun account by the Western Neighborhoods Project emphasizes that the Balboa's back-to-back runs of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago in 1967 lasted fifty-one weeks.

The front doors are wooden, with frosted patterns on the glass (like the Red Vic, though, the glass is partially obscured by numerous fliers). A simple red tile mosaic surrounds the front of the entry way, giving it the appearance of some ancient Roman fountain.

This funky display is located just inside the front door, before the box office. The truth is out: when Venus emerged from the ocean, she brought cinema with her. The box office is just past this display (admission is free on your birthday!).

The lobby is old-fashioned, but not ornate, with attractive light fixtures and framed, classic movie posters decorating the walls. The concession stand sells several varieties of chocolate bar, and prides itself on its popcorn fixings.

The side of the lobby opposite the concession stand has a plush couch, some old theater seats, and several other chairs, all inviting. Tables are filled with freebies, including movie posters (I took one for Avatar; there are ongoing contests for signed posters as well), a postcard for the Manhattan Short Film Festival, a tabloid-sized biography of the Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell (being celebrated at the Rafael), and playbills for the Red Vic, Landmark Theatres's San Francisco theaters, and for the 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, now with just a few days left in its run (thanks to my delay in posting this review).

The tables also have binders filled with reviews of the movies currently playing. To further assist in your film selection, staff have posted lists of their favorite movies of the past year (Inglorious Basterds is included on most). Several books decorate the shelves just above the couch. Between all that, and the old newspapers displayed near the door (pictured below), there is plenty in the lobby to keep patrons entertained while they wait for their movie to begin.

The Balboa was built as a single-screen theater, but it was twinned in 1978, forming two auditoriums seating 307 and 226, for a total of 533 seats. The seats are modern, but in an old fashioned style. Though this means they have low backs, I don't mind too much. Unfortunately, like in many small auditoriums, the single center aisle consumes what would have been all the best seats, and the remaining seats are not staggered, so viewers end up sitting directly behind one another. The floral design on the carpet reminds me of the carpet in the Paramount; very Art Deco.

Way at the back of the largest auditorium is a mini loge of sorts, though these seats are too far away from the screen, in my opinion.

Here is a short film on You Tube set in the Balboa Theater.

Here's an example of how advertising can make us (i.e. me) cynical. A pre-show ad shows a man dancing a funny little dance. Then, in a different location, other people start doing the same dance. Pretty soon we're hopping all over the place, from the country to the city and back again (though never to a location I recognized), with people breaking out into this fun, joyous dance. But this is a Coke commercial, right? Coke commercials are a cut above the rest, but they're still suggesting that drinking soda makes us better human beings. However, I was delightfully surprised to learn that this was not an ad for Coke, but for South Africa. It's strange for a country to advertise itself, but it's a fun commercial.


This trailer has become dull after several viewings. The final scene, in which Ben Stiller embarrasses himself by commenting on the younger generation, is more painful to watch than ever.

Iron Man 2 (Trailer 2)
Skip it. It's clumsier than the first, shows more, and uncovers a few mysteries that should remain as surprises. 134 cuts.

Green Zone
In the early days of the United States's invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Sergeant Miller (Matt Damon) heads up a team charged with finding weapons of mass destruction. Their superiors feed to them intelligence obtained from a sequestered, high-ranking Iraqi source (codenamed Magellan), and they investigate the named sites, digging holes and poking around, looking for the smoking gun. The problem is, all the sites are a bust.

The film opens with a hand held camera following Miller's team as they investigate yet another site, looking for WMD. (I found it grating throughout the movie to have this acronym used without an article—"the WMD"—or in the plural—"WMDs"—but I think their usage is correct, just short of calling them "WsMD".) The site has supposedly been secured by the soldiers already present, but when Miller's team arrives they see looters removing who-knows-what from the premises, and the soldiers are pinned down by a sniper in a high rise.

There are two things wrong with this scene that don't bode well for the movie. First, the hand held camera style. It does not represent the perspective of a character actually holding a camera, but rather is meant to effect an on-the-scene sense of immediacy, as if we were there. But if I were there, I would be able to focus on objects more clearly and consistently than is possible with the camera's jerky motion. I found it distracting and eventually nauseating. Second, it's such a movie trope to have the hero's team show up and accomplish some task (taking out the sniper) that no one else could. I usually like that trope. But Miller's team, as professed by their introduction, are WMD specialists. They aren't the front line. Why is it that he and his handful of troops could take out a sniper when the other team, having been on the scene much longer, couldn't? Fortunately, my dislike and disbelief ended with this first scene, after which the camera perspective stabilizes and Miller's proficiency is shown to be in acumen, rather than marksmanship.

Miller becomes frustrated about his team's lack of success. It's not just that the intelligence is stale (i.e. that the weapons had been at the sites, but were moved prior to Miller's arrival). They find no evidence that the weapons had ever been there. The intelligence is just wrong. We're a trained movie audience, so we know there must be a conspiracy, but Miller is just a character in the movie, and rather than smelling a stink, he instead concludes that the intelligence sources are boneheads. Even when he gets a promising lead but has his prisoner snatched away by a special forces goon squad (lead by always-evil Jason Isaacs), he doesn't think there is a conspiracy. Of course there is, I want to shout at the screen; goon squads always show up when you're getting too close. But I don't fault Miller's denseness. Why would he think there is a conspiracy? People make mistakes, Iraq is destabilizing into anarchy, and Miller knows the goon squad is heavy-handed with its interrogations. Business as usual. The problem is that these ineptitudes are endangering his men, and, given their lack of WMD evidence, needlessly.

So, out of professional diligence, Miller begins to escalate his concerns. Having lived through these times, we all know that Miller is on a wild goose chase. But it is an interesting and tense one. His growing unease with the information being fed to him, and the mixed messages he gets from a politician (Greg Kinnear) and CIA field agent (Brendan Gleeson), push him down a path of reckless insubordination. I'm usually frustrated with movies where I already have the answers, and must endure watching the hero only slowly arrive at them. In Green Zone, the enjoyment comes from seeing what Miller does in pursuit of the truth. We know he'll get the truth eventually, but it's thrilling watching him crash from scene to scene, fighting with everyone he meets, becoming more dangerous the closer he comes to the cover-up.

Along the way, we are treated to several disparate images about how people are living in Baghdad during this invasion. While the CIA is bunkered down in the basement, with millions of dollars in cash on hand ready to broker some sort of deal with the Iraqi military to keep the country civil, the politicians are upstairs celebrating mission accomplished. Inside the Green Zone, Americans lounge by a pool like it's spring break, while in the streets Iraqi citizens riot for access to drinking water. One man tells Miller, "Whatever you want here I want more than you want." It gives me chills just thinking about it. We're meant to identify with the solitary mission of our main character, but meanwhile lives, cultures, and an entire nation are being destroyed.

Other than throwing in a last pitch that this movie is very entertaining, that's the end of my official review. What follows is a brief rant that you can skip if you don't care for my personal views on the movie's politics.

In many ways, I am left of left. Republicans might fault this movie for celebrating a technicality (Saddam had to go; the rest is details), but I fault it for justifying what I feel is Democratic cowardice. From 9/11 onwards, the politicians I expected to be level-headed (Hilary Clinton comes first to mind) became vengeful. Those who weren't seriously mad at least feigned it, for fear of seeming weak or, worse, treasonous. Few in power expressed sorrow at the loss of life, or regret that our lifestyle inspired such hatred in others; most expressed only the desire to apprehend those responsible. When individuals mount such a terrible attack against our people, yes, we are duty bound to catch them. But it is our responsibility as a country (and a world leader at that) to do more than stomp around the globe kicking ass.

When we finally invaded Iraq, it was by choice of Democrats who cowed to pressure. I don't fault Republicans for wanting to go to war; if they thought it was the right thing to do, then they needed to pursue that thought. But I believe Democrats knew better, used WMD as an excuse to get into the conflict, and, ultimately, to avoid blame for the war. "What? No WMD were found? Then we were tricked!" That, for the most part, is the stance justified in this film. Green Zone is about Democrats uncovering the Republican conspiracy. As such, I wouldn't be surprised if Republicans despised it. Don't come to the party if you're just going to whine about it afterward. But when I watch Green Zone, I see it as evidence that even if Iraq possessed WMD, that possession would have been insufficient cause for invasion. The United States possesses WMD, and has used them in aggression, but we wouldn't recognize the right of another nation to invade us over it. We have no right to kill others (especially civilians) just to make ourselves feel more safe.

If anything, our behavior has only reaffirmed the fact that it is strategically unsound to confront the United States in conventional warfare. We stomp the comp, period. We'll fight head on with soldiers, but if we think it will save American lives, we're just as happy to launch missiles from offshore, or even drop atomic bombs. Only American life is sacred to us, so watch out. What does our invasion of Iraq say to those who already hated us? If their army doesn't stand a chance, and if the U.S. isn't too keen to respect cultural difference, and if we're just going to invade and kill them anyway, then maybe weapons of mass destruction are the answer.

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