Built in 1913, 1914, or 1920, depending on who you ask, Landmark's California Theatre is Berkeley's oldest surviving theater. Of Berkeley's 30 or so theaters throughout its history, six are still in operation. The city has a total of 26 movie screens in operation, tied with Emeryville for third most screens in the Bay Area (San Francisco has 92 and San Jose has 111). The California's architect, Albert W. Cornelius, built several other theaters in the Bay Area, including the nearby Elmwood.
Our film was introduced by the manager, Kimberly, who told us that the opening midnight show the previous night had been sold out. I always like it when the manager introduces the show, because it personalizes the experience. Kimberly's moment in the spotlight was practically a pep talk, getting us excited to see the movie we had already bought tickets to see. Very cool.
Because Landmark also owns the nearby Shattuck, the pattern seems to be that the big movies open at the California, then move on to the Shattuck (which has more screens) when the California needs its screens for the next big thing. That doesn't mean the Shattuck is a second-run theater; it specializes more in independent film, and is often the only place in the East Bay to see certain movies. The California also shows some smaller fare, but it favors the mainstream.
The building is kept up quite nicely. This beautiful trim on the underside of the marquee looks like it was painted yesterday.
The manager was kind enough to let me take photos throughout the theater (a privilege I would be denied later in the day at the UA Berkeley 7).
This home-brewed comic poster, for the movie Kick-Ass, is the manager's own handiwork. She's dedicated to this theater!
Though there's nothing unusual available at the concession stand, this is one of the nicest looking concession areas I've seen.
I was told that this large, golden ceiling piece above the concession stand had been found backstage somewhere during the most recent remodel.
An old style phone booth (not sure if there's actually a phone in it)...
The upstairs lobby is very attractive, with staircases coming up on either side from the first level. A shorter staircase then leads up to screens 2 and 3 (not wheelchair accessible).
Lots of freebies here. Landmark participates in many local film festivals and has various special programs of their own (such as Cult Classics Attack!).
The theater was split in 1970, with the balcony divided into two separate screens of about 200 seats each. As chopped-up theaters go, this one is especially nice, retaining the original gilded trim on the walls.
In the event of an emergency, please don't just stand at the exit gawking at the fountain of gold.
The downstairs auditorium seats approximately 600, which so far seems to be in the top ten for most seats in a single auditorium in the Bay Area.
Yet the screen is actually quite small. I recommend sitting close. Note the gold trim above and below, matching that in the upper auditoriums.
The rivers of gold all come together above the screen, similar to that at the Empress in Vallejo.
By nightfall the massive marquee had been updated to advertise that all three screens would be showing Iron Man 2.
I mentioned before that Berkeley is in the top cities for total screens. Thinking in terms of theater and screen density, though, the downtown area is especially rich, with three theaters and 20 screens within a two-block area. Even considering San Francisco's downtown, I'd say this density is only matched by the Winchester and Santana Row theaters in San Jose (five theaters, 14 screens).
A teenaged girl, responsible for her younger siblings, is told that unless her absent father shows up for court she'll lose her house and land. She begins asking questions about where her father might be, but it seems that everyone in her rural town has secrets to keep and they don't take kindly to the girl's inquest. At one turn, she is told that "Talkin' just causes witnesses"; I don't know what that means, but it's an ominous threat. Looks starkly realistic and gripping, with the always-good John Hawkes co-starring. 96 cuts.
Grown-Ups (Trailer 2)
Prince of Persia
A train transporting some sort of alien from Area 51 to a "secure facility in Ohio" derails, letting the alien loose. Steven Spielberg is producing. His directed work is always high quality, though not necessarily great; he has been the executive producer for numerous movies, which typically doesn't guarantee anything about those movies; but I'm not sure what a producing credit will mean. J.J. Abrams directs. His work for Alias and Lost doesn't score him any points in my book, nor does his producing credit for Cloverfield, which this movie might resemble not just because it's a monster flick, but because the title and trailer suggest that some amount of footage will be through the perspective of super 8 film. This could really go any number of ways, but since I'm more interested in alien culture, and this trailer is clearly more interested in scaring us, I doubt I'll be terribly pleased. 21 cuts.
Pet peeve: generic titles. If the same title would better describe a different movie, then a new title should be selected. A movie called "The American" should be about George Washington, Harriet Tubman, or FDR. Not an assassin. Okay, with that out of the way, we've got George Clooney, alternating between steamy scenes with fellow assassins and calculated moments of planning the perfect shot. Looks intense and sexy. I especially like when Clooney says, "Everything I've done I've had cause to do." Does that mean he's killed a lot of people, but "they were all bad"? 65 cuts.
Iron Man 2
I've waited for Iron Man 2 to leave the theaters before posting this review, because I didn't want to share it with you. It doesn't matter if you're married, or a woman, or blind, or dead. Seeing Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow is the reason we were all born. Okay, I'll admit, she is only a minor character in terms of screen time, but when she finally lets loose and takes down an entire hallway full of baddies, she proves in ten seconds why she's worthy of a slot on the Avengers roster. She's got skills.
Iron Man is back (aka Tony Stark, aka Robert Downey, Jr.), as are Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Stark's automated house, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). Stark's best friend, James Rhodes, has seen a change in cast, from the talented Terrence Howard to the even more talented Don Cheadle. In the other corner, we have the U.S. military, headed by Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), trying to get their hands on the Iron Man suit; a Russian engineer, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), looking to avenge his father's death; and a jealous corporate rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), hoping to steal Stark's good ideas for his own profit. Let's deal with these rivals one at a time.
Back in our comic book days, my best friend would often wonder why, if Tony Stark wants to do the most good, he doesn't just make an army of Iron Men. He's got the money (and, in fact, he does have many, many copies of his suit), so why be so greedy? The answer, of course, is that the man must be worthy of the suit. Not just anyone could be so empowered and still do the right thing. Even Tony Stark, it seems, isn't quite worthy. As in the comics, his alcoholism and his vanity interfere with his ability to think strategically and selflessly. Therefore, can we really fault the U.S. military for wanting Stark to "turn over" the Iron Man suit? Firstly, it would make a formidable weapon against our enemies. But secondly, and more importantly, I can see why they wouldn't trust it in Stark's hands. Just because he was smart enough to build it doesn't mean he's responsible enough to wear it. A weakness of the movie is not addressing the legal route the military could take. Stark might be able to prevent the government from seizing his property, but they could just as easily forbid him from violating U.S. airspace with an unsanctioned flying device, and from discharging his weapons in public. That's just common sense. Stark claims to have "successfully privatized world peace", but we all know that a single man (even a single army) flying around to claim quick victories in hot situations is insufficient to promote peace.
Ivan Vanko's issue with Stark is that Stark's father stole the idea for Stark's power source from Vanko's father, and then allowed Vanko's father to rot in a Russian prison. Despite being thuggish, Vanko is a super genius. Unbelievably so, actually. It's always suspect and jarring when a movie character, armed with nothing but a keyboard and ten seconds of free time, is able to hack a computer system, bypassing that system's "firewalls" (a term beaten to death in movies and television). Vanko isn't just a whiz; when he's not reprogramming battle bots, he also enjoys working out and taking long walks along the race track with his energy-crackling whips. This confrontation, between Vanko's villainous alter-ego Whiplash, and an unprepared Iron Man, is, sadly, the highlight of the film's action. The visuals are awesome, the choreography tense; Rourke is scary as hell; and the outcome is in doubt. Bucking the trend from the first movie, this fight sequence shows that the franchise isn't afraid to pit Stark against villains who aren't themselves just guys in robot suits. In the comics, Stark's major enemies include a guy with ten magic rings, a giant dragon, and anyone who dares to call his ego anything but magnificent. So it's not like he's just on android patrol all the time. Unfortunately, this sequel doesn't fully leverage Whiplash, or the potential for a non-suited villain; instead it eventually falls back upon the same trope as in the first film, pitting Iron Man (and his buddy James Rhodes in another Iron Man suit) against an army of similarly-powered adversaries. It's a geek's dream to see a battle that definitively proves who's stronger, Hulk or Superman, but otherwise it's much more interesting to see opponents duking it out with mutually exclusive abilities. In the comics, a depowered Storm defeats a fully-powered Cyclops for leadership of the X-Men; Batman uses intellect and gadgets to fight the super-strong Bane; and Spider-Man uses his webs and agility to take on the maniacal Dr. Octopus with his adamantium arms. Good stuff. In the Iron Man franchise, it's just robots fighting robots. I'll take this over Transformers, mind you, but I'm disappointed at the untapped potential.
Finally we have Justin Hammer. Sam Rockwell plays a great sleaze. Whereas I expected his role to mirror that in Charlie's Angels, instead we get someone a bit more impotent and therefore interesting. He's not eeeevil. He's just amoral, ambitious, but not quite as bright as Tony Stark. His company is always in the shadow of Stark's; he can never quite come up with the same good ideas as Stark does. Instead, he needs to steal technology to compete. He's a villain motivated by an inferiority complex. As a result, he's realistic and highly watchable on screen. When he stands in Stark's presence, you can see his gears turning, both trying to court Stark's approval, and find an exploitable weakness.
The heart of the movie, surprisingly, isn't the super-powered action, but the banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. These two are so wonderful to watch (though we must wonder why Pepper puts up with Tony). It's unclear exactly how involved the two are. There are moments when they seem to be dating, though out of the public's eye, yet they maintain a level of heightened emotion, as if any moment could result in their first kiss. Tony's flirtations toward other women (including Black Widow) are tolerated by Pepper with almost indifference, suggesting that she knows she's got him in the bag, and these are just his meager attempts to keep from falling madly in love with her. This movie gives Pepper a bit more to do, showing she's capable of more than just being Tony's personal assistant. If I had to choose between a movie about Iron Man fending off an invasion from outer space, or Tony and Pepper's weekend at the spa, it'd be a real toss-up.
The Hollywood branch of Marvel Comics (now owned by Disney) is gearing up for an Avengers movie in 2012. The full cast just made their first appearance at this year's Comic Con. Joss Whedon will direct, which promises not only a good script but good management of so large a cast, including known characters Iron Man, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Hulk (recast with Mark Ruffalo), and the addition of Captain America and Thor (each to receive their own film next year). Still, I have my doubts about the success of this project. First, what evil can they conjure up that wouldn't be immediately squashed by the Avengers? It's hard enough in the comics, where the audience is expected to accept alien, mythological, and supernatural invasions as a matter of course. I'm interested to see how much disbelief the general film-going public will be expected to suspend. Second, just as the charismatic Wolverine dominated the X-Men movies, putting team leader (and my favorite character) Cyclops in the shadows, I'm concerned that the Avengers movie will downplay the importance of Captain America (especially with goofy, twice-powered Chris Evans in the role), in favor of Iron Man. Third, awesome though the Black Widow is, it's a real slight to have only one woman on the team, and a non-powered one at that. They should have at least included the Wasp, a founding member of the comic team, or found some way to work in a more powerful female character, like the elemental Crystal, or mega-powered goddess Sersi. Fourth, and this is just a minor quibble, it bothers me that Marvel's other characters are spread out across different movie studios: 20th Century Fox has control of the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil/Elektra franchises, while Sony has Spider-Man (and Ghost Rider, but who cares). X-Men are basically in their own world, but the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Daredevil play cards together every weekend. What, I don't get to totally geek out with some massive crossover movie? Disappointing.