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

Sunday, May 23, 2010

53. The Secret of Kells

Roxie Theater

Opening in 1909, San Francisco's Roxie Cinema is the city's oldest operating movie theater, and, so far, the oldest theater I've found in the Bay Area (discounting the Victoria Theatre and Fort Point Theater).  In 2004 the theater expanded to a second screen, the "Little Roxie", just two doors down from the original.  The theater was recently remodeled in March.

The Roxie offers an eclectic program of independent film.  Despite being closed for three weeks in March, the theater has already exhibited fifty movies on its two screens this year, more than at nearly fifty other local theaters with 2+ screens (including the Century San Francisco Centre 9), and as many as at the AMC Bay Street 16.  For thirty-nine of its fifty films, the Roxie is the only theater in the Bay Area to have shown that movie this year.

The lobby in the main building is small, but cozy, with a comfy couch to one side, large prints on display showing film exhibition equipment, and a cute candy counter in the middle.  Like many of its fellow small theaters, the Roxie has an impressive kiosk of playbills from other theaters, including a celebration of Akira Kurosawa at the Pacific Film Archive, the Hola Mexico Film Festival at the Embarcadero, and the San Francisco International Film Festival at various theaters throughout the city.

Going on now, the Roxie is presenting twenty-eight seldom-seen noir movies in their "I Still Wake Up Dreaming!" festival.  They exhibit several other mini-festivals throughout the year, listed here.

The main auditorium seats 238 in a simply decorated room, with elegant light fixtures lining the walls.

Tickets are purchased at the main box office for both theaters, but one then walks two doors down to gain admission to the Little Roxie.

An arm of the theater, Roxie Releasing, serves as a distribution branch for many small films, including those listed here, and those whose posters decorate the walls of the Little Roxie's lobby.

The auditorium in the Little Roxie, where I saw my film, seats 49 and provides ample legroom.  Unfortunately, daylight from the front of the building leaks directly into the auditorium when rude patrons such as myself show up just as the film is beginning.


(Unknown.  I arrived late.)

The Secret of Kells

The most recent animated movie to bring in $100M in the U.S. was Lilo & Stitch in 2002.  Disney's subsequent releases, paling to their heyday of the 1990s, petered out with Home on the Range in 2004, and a declaration that the studio would henceforth concentrate on digitally animated films.  With Disney bowing out of the race, and foreign features barely making a dent in the domestic market (Miyazaki's Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Ponyo together earned only $30M in the U.S.), the domestic box office has been dominated by digitally animated films ever since (twenty-six such films have earned $100M+ in the U.S.).  Does traditional animation survive?  In the home market, yes, with direct-to-video features still filling a niche.  (I'm a big supporter of the superhero direct-to-video sub-genre.)  Aside from Miyazaki's films, though, even the international market has been drained.  The beautiful, acclaimed, and diverse The Triplets of Belleville, Steamboy, Waltz with Bashir, and now The Secret of Kells together have earned less than $36M worldwide.

The Secret of Kells takes full advantage of its medium, leveraging several different styles of animation to depict its various characters and even the eponymous book, shown in such vivid detail that I fully appreciated the movie's statement that this book could change lives.  Our story follows Brendan, a young monk fascinated by new arrival Brother Aidan, whose talents precede him.  As Brendan's fellow monks tell it, Aidan's third eye has allowed him to create a book so beautiful that to look upon it is to peer directly into Heaven.  Aidan's arrival, though, foretells danger; he is a refugee from his own monastery, destroyed by viking invaders, who even now approach Brendan's monastery, the Abbey of Kells.  Brendan's uncle, Cellach (voiced to perfection by Brendan Gleeson), as abbot of the monastery and charged with protecting its citizens, has been employing all the labor in his control to build an enormous wall around his village, hoping to repel the imminent attack through shear defensive superiority.  Despite the fall of Aidan's home, Cellach alone seems to comprehend the danger they are all in; he labors tirelessly to complete the wall, and derides all attempts to continue the monks' more traditional roles (such as authoring books).

Disobeying his uncle's orders, Brendan begins to secretly apprentice himself to Aidan, to aid in completing Aidan's magical book.  To this end, Brendan is dispatched into the forest, beyond the wall, to gather ingredients for the different inks the book requires.  Once in the forest, Brendan meets Aisling, a forest apparition who can appear as a young girl or a white wolf.  Together the two work to fulfill Aidan's list, but this brings them to some ancient ruins where the Dark One resides, waiting to be awakened.  Brendan applies his educated knowledge of the past to rebuff Aisling's superstition about the place, but Aisling knows first hand that the Dark One is real.

Every frame of this film is vivid, interesting, and beautiful.  And make no mistake, this movie isn't for young children, despite its young protagonists and flat animation.  The film's various conflicts are intense and graphic.  Brendan's relationship with Cellach is especially difficult to watch, because the movie doesn't demonize Cellach.  He is flawed, but stewards the best interests of his constituents; and Brendan, for his part, is immature.  Cellach and Brendan represent the central conflict of what is most valuable; to Cellach, it is human life, thus the importance of completing the wall; but to Brendan it is art and knowledge, thus his quest to finish Aidan's book.  Though the movie sides with Brendan by virtue of following him more closely, it doesn't shy away from making us uncomfortable having to choose.

Though the vikings are depicted as purely evil, killing for its own sake, there is an interesting double contrast between their barbarism, the civilized culture of the Abbey, and the pagan naturalism Brendan finds in the forest with Aisling.  From Aisling's perspective, Brendan's people, walling themselves off from the world, are no more righteous than the vikings who want to bring down that wall.

The movie ended too soon for my tastes; I could have stayed under its spell much longer.


  1. The most recent animated movie to bring in $100M in the U.S. was Lilo & Stitch in 2002.

    Why you got to be hat'en on The Princess and the Frog like that? $104,400,899

  2. lists The Princess and the Frog as a hand/digital hybrid animation.

  3. Well, I'm going to have to concede the point out of ignorance of how much the digital played a role. But the film itself seems to be very reminiscent of Disney hand animation and I bet the digital portions were confined to back ground and touch ups.

    On a tangent, the whole film seems to have elements of very traditional Disney movies, especially as a musical. I remember there was some controversy surrounding this film in that Disney finally had a African American "Princess" (already having white, Middle Eastern, Native American, mermaid, but never African American), and when they do they back up technology 10 years and go hand animation . . . as if that is easier. It is not clear to me doing it digital (especially with today's technology (2010 versus 2002) is harder then drawing it. I recall when I was in college I learned it took five years to draw one of those animated films.

    And after seeing the film, I thought it was all misplaced. I thought it was excellent, as least as good as any previous film.

    On a complete tangent: Lilo and Stich. I never saw this film. Apparently they made a regular cartoon off the characters, which for all I know finished years ago but recently my girls DVR'd a whole bunch of episodes and were quite hooked. I never saw more then a minute so I don't know at what age group and seriousness it was pitched. Hm, bad parenting on my part.

  4. Evidence in my favor. Wikipedia, which according to Sophie, "knows everything". (okay, she said "online" knows everything, but at that point she had mostly been exposed to looking up information on wikipedia).

    It is the 49th animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics line, and the first of these films to be traditionally (2D) animated since 2004's Home on the Range.

    Disney had once announced that 2004's Home on the Range would be their feature animation studio's last traditionally animated production. After the company's acquisition of Pixar in early 2006, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, the new president and chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, reversed this decision and reinstated hand-drawn animation at the studio.[15] Many animators who had either been laid off or had left the studio when the traditional animation units were dissolved in 2003 were located and re-hired for the project.

    In this day and age, it obviously clear that some digital animation and/or correction would be employed, but I feel like it is clear the heart of the venture was in regular animation.