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

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

65. Toy Story 3

Century 14 Downtown Walnut Creek

Walnut Creek has had two other theaters beside the Century 14 Downtown Walnut Creek: El Rey Theatre (1937-1981), and Festival Cinemas 5 (1969-2001). Both theaters have been razed.

A free parking garage adjoins the theater. A walkway (below) leads from the garage's highest levels down to the side of the theater, past a rock sculpture that is perhaps tracking humankind's evolution.

The box office and theater entrance are located further down the block. The theater's most visible corner instead devotes itself to an attractive patio, with slabs of rock serving as seats.

Eight of the theater's 14 screens are downstairs (slightly lower than street level), while the other six are up a long, wide flight of stairs. Each level has its own concession stand. Auditorium walls are draped with purple fabric. The seats are of the wonderful blue, cushy variety.

This is only my second visit to this theater, the first having been for a "live" broadcast of This American Life (i.e. recorded in front of a live audience somewhere, broadcast live to people on the East Coast, but delayed by several hours here on the West Coast). That show was great, including an appreciative audience, and, due to a satellite broadcast glitch that caused the pre-show trivia to reveal the answer to a Hang-Man question before actually asking the question, an incredibly precognitive audience.

The Walnut Creek 14 is participating in Cinemark's Summer Movie Clubhouse, showing ten movies for $5, including titles as old as The Cat In the Hat (2003), and as new as Planet 51 (2009).

According to Cinemark's most recent quarterly report, the company's basic profit margin increased for the first three months of this year contrasted to the same months last year, from ~$50M to ~$71M. A 42% increase in profit during a recession is impressive; perhaps it's true that people do go to the movies more when they're broke. Cinemark's stake in National CineMedia has increased from 15% to 16.3%, entitling Cinemark to nearly $20M of NCM's $128M yearly net earnings.


Jackie Chan says he never wanted to be the next Bruce Lee, he "just wanted to be the first Jackie Chan". Though his recent movies are undermining his limber reputation, I think he has certainly succeeded. Years ago, and having never seen a Chan movie, I used to pooh-pooh those who were impressed that Chan did his own stunts. My argument was that Chan was a stuntman, so people should instead be impressed that he did his own acting. Once I started seeing his movies, though, I was amazed at what that man could pull off. Though he used ladders and rope too often as props, I loved how he could twirl objects around so quickly, jump through small openings, run up walls, and somehow survive terrifying falls. In 2000 I saw this got milk? ad, featuring Chan swinging from a helicopter-born ladder, and was convinced that he should be the one to play the live action Spider-Man. He can actually assume the perfect web-slinging pose, no CGI needed. Sadly, it wasn't to be. And his American movies since have been sub-par, at least by Jackie Chan standards. Nevertheless, Chan has contributed an impressive body of comic martial arts to cinema. What has Bruce Lee done lately?

The Foundation for a Better Life presents a public service announcement called Concert, in which a wandering child at a piano concert ends up performing a duet with the maestro. The spot ends with the slogan, "Encouragement: pass it on". It's so sappy, it's difficult to appreciate because I'm looking for the subliminal message where they're trying to indoctrinate me into a cult. But their FAQ page claims they are unaffiliated with any other organization, other than the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. If a man flew around in a red cape helping people for free, we'd lock him up for being crazy.

An animated spot in the vein of Schoolhouse Rock has a FasTrak toll beepy thingy singing about being totally free. Meaning, it doesn't cost you anything to install the beepy thingy in your car; but you still need to pay for tolls. There is a promotion right now for a modicum of reduced tolls when signing up for FasTrak, but I think it should be reduced all the time. If we manage to migrate to a predominantly FasTrak-based toll system, then the state will save large amounts of money by cutting back on staffing. With tolls now costing $6.00 at peak times (one could almost watch a movie for that amount), I at least want to know why the display after the toll booth reads "VALID ETC" every time I pay. What does etcetera mean?

If you're not a devoted parent desperate to entertain your child and earn at least a few moments of daily peace, you might have missed the fourty-thousand direct-to-video sequels to well-known Disney movies. Do kids, with their insatiable appetite for repetition, really need this much variety? Probably not. Nevertheless, if your child has friended Peter Pan because of its most diminutive character, they might also be interested in Tinker Bell (2008), Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009), the upcoming Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010), or next year's Tinker Bell: A Winter Story. There are two indefatigable maxims of entertainment: It doesn't need to be the first of its kind (because new people are born, like, all the time, and they can't be expected to watch old stuff), and it doesn't need to be unique even among its peers (because we tend to immerse ourselves blindly in niche markets anyway). Repeat and repeat, no rinsing necessary. Meaning if you took the plot of Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue and called it X2: X-Men United, yeah, I'd watch it. Swap Wonder Woman into the lead of Cinderella III: A Twist in Time? I'm sold. And if 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure were instead called 101 Superheroes Organizing Their Sock Drawers, I couldn't open my wallet fast enough.

One of my father's slogans has been, "I have many lives to lead; perhaps I have lead this one long enough". Life is short, so we need to be proactive if we are to experience all the paths we'd like to take. When my dad talks, Barbie listens. She is embarking on her 125th "career" with 2010's debut of Computer Engineer Barbie (she's getting dangerously close to FileMaker Developer Barbie). The number 125 seems a bit arbitrary, since she's been an Astronaut three times, a ballerina four times, and ran for president in 1992, 2000, 2004 (twice), and 2008. (C'mon, Dole; even Barbie was smart enough to stay out of Clinton's way in 1996.) She has held posts in all four branches of our armed forces, been to the Olympics five times (including to the under-publicized 1975 Tierra Del Fuego Olympics), and won American Idol in 2005. Though she has preferred the term "Baby Doctor" in her three most recent incarnations as a pediatrician, she's not afraid to throw around the big words, like UNICEF Ambassador (aka Poverty Doctor, but dressed like a beauty queen, 1989), Paleontologist (aka Dinosaur Doctor, 1997), and Intern (aka Unpaid Doctor, 2009). In an attempt to meet Leonardo DiCaprio's character from Catch Me If You Can, Barbie flew with Pan Am in 1966, but switched to United Airlines in 1973 due to an economic downturn and increased terrorism. Which of her many careers do I find most impressive? I'm going to go with Rock Star, which not only introduces bendable arms, but demonstrates that Barbie isn't afraid to party like it's 1986, regardless if it's actually 1998.

There is something contradictory about the toy box mode in the video game for Toy Story 3. It attempts to allow the player to . . . play, without rules, just doing whatever they want, but in the world of Toy Story. How is that better than just playing with toys, and having free reign of one's imagination? (Incidentally, when I clicked on a page on Disney's web site to watch the trailer for the video game, the page actually tried to force me to watch a commercial first, the way Hulu does. What, I now need to watch a commercial before I'll be allowed to watch another commercial? Say it with me: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!")


The Smurfs

What's the biggest cop out when making a fantasy movie? Transport the characters to our world. That was the entire premise of Enchanted, so that movie succeeded despite the conceit. But do you recall Masters of the Universe or The Garbage Pail Kids Movie? Bad and badder. The Smurfs could make for a great computer animated film, with lots of vividly-colored mushrooms. Smurfs in Manhattan? No thanks. This trailer is notably for mashing together the Smurf theme (la-la-la-la-la-la) with "Wild Thing". 12 cuts.

Alpha & Omega

Two wolves are captured and taken to Idaho to repopulate a state park. Justin Long and Hayden Panettiere are the main voices, along with several plucky sidekicks (geese and ducks and such). Boooooring. Nothing we haven't seen before, with better dialog, and a more interesting plot. The film comes from Lionsgate, who also tiptoed into the digitally-animated fray with Happily N'Ever After and Battle for Terra. The former is terrible; the latter had some major flaws. Lionsgate's animation looks almost as good as anyone's, but I suspect all their talented writers have been busy on the excellent direct-to-video Marvel Comics movies they've been churning out the past several years. 117 cuts.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Narnia movies look great, are well acted (especially for a juvenile cast), but just aren't very interesting. This third installment lacks the two eldest Pevensie children, focusing only on Edmund and Lucy. The two youngest siblings take a boat ride with their cousin and Prince Caspian. The film is directed by 7-Up veteran Michael Apted, which doesn't score points in my book as I found those films to be heavy-handed and misguided. 68 cuts.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (Trailer 2)

An army of owls threaten to take over all the owl kingdoms, unless our young barn owl hero can somehow alert the mysterious guardians. Faced with this title, Alpha & Omega, and The Smurfs, and with no sharp objects nearby, I'd go with The Smurfs. 85 cuts.


A thief ends up in Rapunzel's castle and the two share a day in the forest. There is nothing remarkable about the thief's character, so the trailer left me concerned that there would be too much of him, and not enough Rapunzel and her cool, Medusa-esque hair (that's Medusa the Marvel Inhuman, not the mythical Gorgon). Disney's animation always looks bubbly and fun, even with Dinosaur way back in 2000. They've had some really good writing (Chicken Little), some good writing (Meet the Robinsons), and some so-so writing (Bolt). Tangled looks to be of the so-so variety. 58 cuts.

Toy Story 3

If you enjoyed the first two Toy Story movies, you will love this swan song. Don't even bother with this review. The movie's objective is clear: gather together a bunch of people in a large auditorium and entertain the hell out of them for two hours, leaving no frown unturned. Mission accomplished.

As the film opens, One-Eyed Bart (Mr. Potato Head) is robbing a train full of orphans. Galloping to the rescue are gallant Sheriff Woody and Deputy Jessie, on their trusty steed, Bullseye. When Bart's evil accomplice (Mrs. Potato Head) makes an appearance, and the two threaten to destroy the train, Woody calls in the big guns, Buzz Lightyear. Bart responds with his forcefield dog (Slinky), and is soon backed by the evil Dr. Porkchop (Hamm) in a pig-shaped spaceship. Woody calls in his force-field-eating dinosaur (Rex); Porkchop drops a barrel of monkey napalm; etc. Just your basic toy war escalating into total chaos. You might recall a similar plot from the first Toy Story, more than a decade ago. But this time, instead of watching a young Andy puppet his toys, we see the action from the perspective of Andy's imagination. And it looks great.

But the film soon fast forwards to the present, when Andy is preparing to leave for college, and his beloved toys are facing a life of solitude tucked away in the attic gathering dust. Partly by accident, partly by conspiracy, the group soon ends up at Sunnyside Day Care, where the Bear-in-Chief Lotso promises they will be played with all day, every day. When children outgrow the day care, they are replaced by younger kids, just as eager to play with the toys, so the toys will never be forgotten. Is this Shangri-La too good to be true?

The plot of this third installment echoes many of the twists from the two earlier films, giving our characters ample opportunity to cavort, rescue each other, and, in the case of two budding love birds, finally reveal their true feelings. Sadly, Bo Peep is missing from the group. In fact, the group has suffered much attrition of their supporting cast, making them all the more determined to stick together. Toward the end there is a sequence in which the group expresses solidarity so sincere and beautiful that it makes me cry just to think about it; this scene is a masterpiece.

I love a good team movie. Our nine principal characters are rounded out by three claw-worshipping aliens from Pizza Planet, and Aerobics Barbie (technically she belongs to Andy's sister, Molly, but she's still one of the gang). These toys have been through a lot together. Each member of the group is talented and valued; in many team movies the plot noticeably contrives to elicit contributions from each member, but here their actions flow naturally in response to their circumstances. I love how their personalities have remained constant throughout the films, and how they play off each other. Slink's role, and loyalty to Woody, have been somewhat diminished, but everyone else is the same. Woody loves Andy above all else; Buzz is devoted to the group who accepted him; Jessie harbors fears of abandonment; Hamm and Potato Head are both jerks; Rex is timid; etc. The film introduces oodles of new toys (including Ken, who generates many of the laughs), yet makes time for the main characters to shine. I'm especially impressed with how well Jessie has been integrated into the group, and how she has basically become one of three main characters, rounding out the original duo of Woody and Buzz.

The dialog is consistently clever; the film expertly transitions from funny to sentimental to tense, over and over. There's a great homage to Star Wars, an intricate heist, good dancing, and a surprise political speech. Many sequels are shy about referencing earlier films in a franchise, for fear of alienating new fans. Not this one. The movie is loaded with references to the first two that are not only enjoyable, but also help ground us in Woody's world; they aren't starting from scratch; they've learned a lot of lessons along the way (including how to get around town efficiently).

Best closing credits ever. Every movie with a team should end this way.

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