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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

46. The Bounty Hunter

Jack London Stadium 9

At present, Oakland has only four movie theaters: the Piedmont (1917), the Grand Lake (1926), the Paramount (1931), and the Jack London.  This source puts the Jack London's build date in 1995, making it sixty-four years younger than Oakland's next oldest theater.  (Of the six theaters the article names as the preferred single-screen venues in San Francisco, five are now closed.)  The theater is accessible by bus, train, ferry, and car (with 3-hour validation for the garage across the street).

The Jack London takes its name from nearby Jack London Square, a revitalized shopping area at the end of Oakland's Broadway St.  From the garage's topmost level one can enjoy a splendid view of Oakland.  In the below photo, looking South, you can see Barnes & Noble (red building, green roof), Alameda in the distance, the Waterfront Hotel (blue roof), and nineteen American flags.  Nearby, part of author Jack London's log cabin has been reconstructed.  Jack London Square features many benches where one can sit looking out over the water, or up at the monstrous cranes of the Port of Oakland.

Beginning with Girlfight in 2000, this marks my twenty-eighth visit to the Jack London.  The parking garage is a huge sell for me, on par with the free lot outside the Emery Bay 10.  Once, in a hurry, I was able to get from my front door to buying my ticket at the Jack London in fifteen minutes, including parking.

Jack London was owned by Signature Theaters until that circuit was bought out by Regal Entertainment Group in 2004.  Regal was founded in 2002 by merging Regal Cinemas, United Artists Theaters (including the Emery Bay 10), and Edwards Theaters (source: Wikipedia).  Regal now stands as the nation's largest circuit with 545 theaters and 6,739 screens (the next largest are AMC with 307 theaters and Cinemark with 296).  In the Bay Area both AMC and Cinemark have a greater number of screens, and Cinemark has three times as many theaters (when I first visited the Emery Bay 10 I took a liking to Regal because I thought it was the little guy trying to make it in AMC's shadow).

The circuit offers a rewards program that confers on its members free soda, popcorn, and tickets at fifty-point intervals (every dollar spent is worth a point).  The free tickets, unfortunately, are not valid for recent releases.  The circuit also offers bulk discounts.  And I mean bulk.  Buy fifty tickets (valid for any showing) and get them for $7.50 each.  If all the theaters in the Bay Area were Regal, I could have completed my goal for a flat rate of $750.

Electronic ticketing kiosks are available to the right side of the entry way, and the parking validation is located just inside the doors to the right.

The lobby's permanent fixtures (refreshments stand, ice-cream parlor, condiments table, photo booth) are against the walls, leaving ample room in the middle for standees.  Below you can see a standee for the upcoming Iron Man 2; no matter where you walk, Iron Man is ready to zap you with his repulsor rays.  The Jack London is also where I saw the excellent standee for Step Brothers, described here.

A table to one side offers free half-sized movie posters.  The bathrooms have an elegant, classic style to them.  The lobby's ceiling, though composed of acoustic tiles, is divided into several curving tiers.

The rewards card is valid at the concession stand as well, where you can find the usual fare, but also bin candy and a several types of ice-cream at the "Critic's Corner".  Candy is only $1 on Mondays.

Jack London doesn't sell Red Vines, but they do carry Twizzlers.  I used to think Twizzlers were a form of licorice, but now I see that they are a different sort of snack: strawberry twists.  Red Vines and Twizzlers are similar in many ways, but Red Vines have fewer ingredients, less sodium, and have a rubbery texture whereas Twizzlers feel like plastic.  They're both vegan, but Red Vines have the added bonus of being produced locally in Union City.  Taste-wise, I'd go for Red Vines; but I was able to eat more Twizzlers in one sitting without feeling sick to my stomach.  And in the end, isn't that the real truth?

Large popcorns come with free refills.  The concession stand also gives out little box lids, I think to carry drinks and candy in, but on this occasion they had given them out to a large group of youths to use in dividing up their popcorn, half of which ended up on the lobby floor.  After the group had gone in to their movie, the manager apologized for the mess and he and his team began cleaning up.  He offered to take the broom from his elderly ticket taker, who was sweeping up one side of the mess, but she jokingly quipped, "Don't you hit on me."  (When I came out to get my Twizzlers, the popcorn brigade was already back for their free refills.)

Though the article I cited in the first paragraph, above, mentions thirteen screens, Jack London currently has nine screens, seating between 100 and 250.  Some auditoriums, like #1 (pictured below, 110 seats), have a labyrinth of doors and turning hallways to protect them from ambient light.  Others, like #9, are entered directly from the lobby (and nearest the building's front glass doors).  In all the theater seats 1455, trailing the Grand Lake by just sixteen seats.

Note the faux curtains framing the walls, making the auditorium elegant instead of boxy.  Touches like that tempt me to upgrade the rating to four stars, but I think I'm being swayed more by nostalgia, as I have a lot of good memories at this theater.


Television special America: The Story of Us is a recreation of the U.S.'s 400+ year history, crammed into twelve hours (six without the slo-mo).  If this is America's response to the incredibly boring Russian Ark, it's no wonder that we won the Cold War.  The trailer quickly glosses over such blights as extermination of the natives, slavery, and that single-sheet toilet paper available in public restrooms, instead focusing on what defines us as a nation: steel and rodeos.  The trailer is really well done.  It makes every American seem like a heroic athlete.  Unfortunately, the trailer also glamorizes the unglamorous.  When humans finally begin to settle another world, it will be interesting to see which of America's lesson's we apply to it.  The most obvious (besides how rude it is to 'discover' someone else's land) is that, as always, land is precious.  Whoever controls the new land controls an economy.  If a country other than England had won out as the dominant presence in North America, the world could have a very different look today.  (Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1997) is a fun exploration of this, fueled by post-colonial guilt.)

A commercial shows a hen-pecked husband indulging all of his wife's urges, but drawing the line at his car, saying that because he has given in on everything else, he will drive the car he wants to drive.  Did women win the sexual revolution?  Do they now control the government and the highest-paying jobs, and are they now waited upon by sensitive men?  Do men now listen to what women say, stay home with the kids, vacuum the carpet, wash the laundry, plan the parties, and put smiley stickers on the lunch bags?  (And no, I don't just mean twenty-eight specific men; I mean all men.)  Was there a call to arms at the monthly Man Meeting instructing us to take refuge in that last, sacred encampment, the car?  I didn't get the memo.

Band of Brothers (which I only recently saw for the first time) almost did what I've always wanted a history-based movie or show to do: switch protagonists.  Our popular narratives almost always focus on the survivors, tracing their events back to times of peace, then following them forward as they dodge bullets and emerge from shipwrecks unscathed.  Most people, and even most soldiers, do survive war.  But so many don't that 'most' isn't much consolation.  The first movie to kill off our main character every few minutes, only to replace them with another main character, who then dies as well, will make great strides in conveying the arbitrary violence of war.  Band of Brothers approached this, by beginning with a small group of soldiers, and winnowing them down over the course of the series.  There were some clear favorites, but otherwise most deaths came as an unsettling surprise to me, and the team by the end was quite different from the team at the beginning.  The same team now brings us The Pacific, showing us the U.S.'s western war during WWII.  If the war in Europe can be characterized by our brutal victory at Normandy, it seems that the war in the Pacific was defined by one Normandy-like invasion after another, with our forces repeatedly engaged in beach landings against a dug-in foe much more familiar with the terrain.  I'm a sucker for war movies, so I'm looking forward to this special.

But I'm not looking forward to the return of V.  The most boring thing an alien can do is try to eat my brains or take over my world.  Seen it; move on.  You've come all this way across the galaxy, from some unknown culture thousands if not millions of years old, in starships the machinations of which we can barely begin to understand, and here we are talking about my brains.  How rude of me!  Please, how was your trip?



Ashton Kutcher is a hitman or a C.I.A. assassin or just someone with a lot of enemies, and Katherine Heigl is his unsuspecting new girlfriend who is surprised, but not totally turned off, by her beau's profession.  This trailer makes me want to watch True Lies, which did it all better, first.  I find it difficult to enjoy comedies where people actually get killed, but on the off chance that Kutcher gets winged in a shoot-out, this might be worth it.  117 cuts.

Sex and the City 2

(Previously reviewed)

Eat Pray Love

My best friend gave me a daily calendar for Christmas called Stuff White People Like.  Two entries in February detail how white people like first and third world travel: "What's amazing is that all white people have pretty much the same experience, but all of them believe theirs to be the first of its kind, so much so that they return home with ideas of writing novels and screenplays about it", and "by going to a country, riding around on a bus or train, staying at a hotel or hostel, and eating, they are doing something important for the world."  I don't feel this way about my own experiences, of course, or about the experiences of my closest friends, but I do feel that way about Julia Roberts taking a long jaunt and having a relationship with her pizza.  Perhaps it says something about the repetitive insularity of our lives that if we just go somewhere else for a few months, our entire philosophy as a human being gets rocked.  Italy, India, or Bali can trigger these emotions.  But so too can Ithaca, Indianapolis, or Barstow.  117 cuts.

Grown Ups

(Previously reviewed)

The Bounty Hunter

One of my favorite film conceits is that of estranged lovers.  I find it romantic to believe that two people who have lost their spark could find it again.  It's more difficult to believe, though, when the lovers openly hate each other.  Such is the case in The Bounty Hunter.  Milo Boyd (Gerard Butler) and Nicole Hurley (Jennifer Aniston) dated for six months, were married for nine, and have been at each others' throats for the twelve months since the divorce.

The plot is very simple.  Nicole is a reporter.  Having debunked a so-called suicide and earned the ire of, rumor has it, some corrupt cops, she's running for her life.  Milo is a bounty hunter, charged with bringing his ex to court for a moving violation.  Milo, himself a law-abiding citizen, somehow feels wronged by the break-up, despite having gotten to marry Jennifer Aniston at all.  In an act of diabolical chivalry, he gives her a ten second head start when he first accosts her at a race track.  She's in heels and he can teleport like Nightcrawler, so after toying with her for a bit, he tosses her in the trunk of his car.  There is a sort of symbolism at work: because she's the one in the trunk, and he's at the wheel, it's as if everything wrong in the marriage were her fault.  (Personally, when I say that corrupt cops are trying to kill me, I expect everyone to believe me, immediatley.  And unless we broke up because I used to say things like, "Oh, I didn't have time to put down the toilet lid, because some corrupt cops were trying to kill me!", I expect my ex to believe me too.)

Now, if Milo took Nicole to court, and she were convicted, sent to jail, then murdered in a picture perfect jailhouse snuff, this wouldn't be much of a romantic comedy.  So the timeline needs a few holes.  If you've seen the trailer, you already know one of the twists: rather than be immediately murdered, Nicole instead proves a more elusive catch than Milo anticipated.  She gets out of the trunk, the hotel room, the handcuffs, and whatever else Milo tries to detain her with.  Along the way comes twist number two: maybe these two only hate each other so much because they actually still love each other.  What?  No!  But yes, it's true; dipping pigtails in the inkwell really is a sign of devotion.

Here's what doesn't work about this movie.  Milo owes money to some not-nice people, and Nicole's effeminate would-be-suitor co-worker ends up in Milo's place at the hands of these friends with money.  Very contrived.  Next, there's the line where Nicole says she used to be a model, and an older woman jibes, "How long ago was that?"  Nicole might not be super-thin like a super-model, but she is surprisingly attractive for someone who looks surprisingly like everyone else (you know, in that girl-next-door kind of way), so I don't know where this crotchety lade was coming from.  Then there is a nice couple at a bed-and-breakfast who turn mean just to suit the plot.  Milo has some friends who are given just enough personality to make them stand out as having none.  Some of the jokes are funny, but none that I saw in the trailer were worth a second laugh.

Basically, the movie is predictable.  But it isn't quite boring, because Milo and Nicole are on a level playing field.  I'm uncomfortable when one character, clearly wanting to get back together with the other character, endures insults and humiliation.  I end up resenting their insensitive ex, and wanting them to seek love elsewhere.  Milo and Nicole seem to genuinely get on each others' nerves, so I didn't feel sorry for either of them when they were taking their beatings and dishing it out in kind.  They're also both attractive people, so I could understand when they seemed to become attracted to each other, despite the animosity.  And when the movie begins to suggest that these two might actually want to get back together, I sorta believed it, and I definitely enjoyed it.  Who needs kneecap-breaking loan sharks and drug-dealing cops when we've got Milo and Nicole?  Just stick them in a glass box, shake it up, and see what happens!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Top 10 Births

Top Ten Tuesday

In honor of my niece being born today, I present this list of ten memorable pregnancies and births.  Pregnancies in movies tend to be like the gun on the mantle: every pregnant woman is expected to give birth by the end of the film, and preferably right at the climactic moment.  It's not enough that the enemy is almost through the door and we don't know whether to cut the red or the green wire, but look!  That lady over in the corner is about to have her baby!

(I tip my hat to Fargo (1996) for having a character whose role is not defined entirely by her pregnancy, and for not ending with the baby's birth.)

Movies have three possible happy endings: a wedding, a birth, or a bad guy pulling a gun on our hero at the last second (the fiend!) only to be hit by a train.  Because births tend to happen at the end of movies, this list contains a lot of spoilers.

10. Where the Heart Is (2000)
Natalie Portman has a baby while trapped in a Walmart overnight, and, miraculously, it's as if she doesn't lose the will to live.  She names her baby Americus.  Having become a bit of a celebrity because of the circumstances of her child's birth, Portman's life begins to turn around for the better.  Every scene of this movie plays like a sappy pulp novel at the check-out stand or one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's many rags-to-riches short stories ("The Yellow Wallpaper" excepted), but it does make you feel fuzzy inside.

9. Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994)
Priscilla Presley is at the hospital giving birth.  Her husband, Leslie Nielsen, arrives late.  Video camera in hand, he rushes into the wrong delivery room.  With hilarious consequences.

8. Men in Black (1997)
Will Smith is charged with delivering a baby in the back seat of a car pulled off to the side of the road.  The birth is complicated by the parents being aliens.  As Tommy Lee Jones takes the foreground, talking shop with the father, we see Smith in the background being grabbed and then thrashed about by several long tentacles.  Finally he is ejected from the car, covered in buckets of slime, holding an adorable little squid baby.

7. Juno (2007)
Ellen Page decides to carry her baby to term and give the child to adoptive mother Jennifer Garner.  But what does she do once she actually gives birth to her child?  Well, she gives the child to adoptive mother Jennifer Garner, just like she said she would.  Sometimes the most rewarding thing in a movie is for things to turn out just as promised.  We had our doubts that Garner might be too neurotic a mother, but the moment she holds her baby we know otherwise.  And Page is greeted when she wakes by the baby's father, Michael Cera.  Now that their child has been born, perhaps Page and Cera should date.

6. Enemy Mine (1985)
I don't remember much from this sci-fi parable of racial conflict, except that Dennis Quaid is trapped on a planet with an alien combatant (Louis Gossett, Jr.), who, though masculine, ends up being pregnant.  Nothing helps escalate male bonding like one of the men being with child.  Since I can't remember any other details, I'm going to make up the rest.  Gossett's pregnancy, because he is an alien, lasts only a few months.  Things are all happening too quickly, Quaid thinks, wondering if he's ready to be an uncle, and, being ignorant of his frenemy's sexual physiology, he can't be entirely certain that he didn't impregnate Gossett by punching him that one time.  With only days to go before the birth, and fed up with Gossett's anti-human racial slurs, Quaid storms off, shouting, "You can have your lizard baby all by yourself then!"  But when the time comes, and Gossett, drinking from a waterfall, doubles over in pain, Quaid swings in on a vine or a laser beam or something and helps deliver the seventeen pound, two-tailed Denni-Lu.  A month later, a rescue ship is heard overhead.  Just as it passes over their camp, Denni-Lu sets off their rescue flare, but accidentally drops it into her water bowl.  Quaid and Gossett freeze for a moment, realizing they've just been stranded on the planet forever, but then they smile at each other, rub Denni-Lu's scaly head, and say in unison, "you little snarfletiggler".

5. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (2009)
Precious has a terrible home life, but when her son is born, she has temporary refuge in the maternity ward.  Her son is healthy, the doctor is nice to her, and her friends from school all come to visit her.  Her son symbolizes a new beginning, one in which she takes a more active role in shaping her life and guarding her emotional health.

4. Dr. T and the Women (2000)
Terrible title; good movie (though not among Altman's best).  Richard Gere plays a gynecologist.  Throughout the movie we meet Gere's colorful clientele, but none promise to give birth by the film's end.  Then, as if to say aha!, the movie whisks Gere away to a remote village where he must deliver the baby for a woman he's never met.  The camera is up close and personal for this live birth, and let me tell you, it's quite a sight when projected onto an eighty-foot screen.  Everyone in the first twenty rows had to wear scrubs.

3. Apache (1954)
Remember back in the days when white people took all the minority roles?  If a minority was going to be portrayed in a film, then dagnammit a white actor was going to make sure it got portrayed right!  Burt Lancaster is the eponymous Apache, on the run from the law.  Lancaster eludes the army long enough to settle down and pass the winter with his pregnant wife at their cabin in the mountains.  When spring comes, and the corn is growing tall, the army finally catches up to Lancaster.  I recall a slow, tense chase through the corn fields, with Lancaster backtracking his footsteps to lead his pursuers astray.  Then, when all seems lost, and the army is upon him, a baby's cry is heard from the distant cabin.  To Lancaster, the chase no longer matters; he stands up and runs to the cabin beaming with pride.  The army, similarly affected, give up the chase.

2. Children of Men (2006)
Clive Owen escorts a pregnant woman to the coast of England.  She is the first woman to become pregnant in nearly two decades, and as such is the most important person in the world.  Her baby is born amid a brutal urban war, with bullets whizzing right and left.  When the baby's cries are heard, the fighting stops, as if a guardian angel or Burt Lancaster had descended and commanded it so.

1. Home Fries (1998)
Drew Barrymore is rushed to the delivery room as her beau, Luke Wilson, tries to tag along.  When asked if he is family, he tries awkwardly to explain that he is the baby's step-brother but wants to be the baby's step-father, to which Barrymore replies between wails that he can't be both, it's just not right.  Once the baby is born, Wilson lays out the whole family tree to set the baby straight, but eventually gives up, saying to Barrymore, "I don't think he got all that."  Barrymore and Wilson together are one of the sweetest couples I've seen on film, so them starting a family together is the perfect ending.

Film Criticism, Part 1

In her article Do We Still Need Film Critics?, film critic MaryAnn Johanson points to a decline in paid positions for film critics in recent years.  Two of the factors, she points out, could be the preponderance of amateur online critics (ahem) and that teenaged viewers drive today's film market.  Now that she has me thinking about the topic, here are some thoughts about our need, as a culture, for film criticism in general (paid or not).

I lived in Guatemala for three months in the fall of 2003.  When I left the U.S. in September, I took just one book with me: Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2003.  The book, published in December 2002, contains hundreds of reviews from 2002 and much of 2001, as well as a few essays and selections from Ebert's "Ask the Movie Answer Man" column.  I read the book cover-to-cover.  Ebert piqued my interest in over a hundred titles that either I had never heard of, or that I had dismissed without seeing.  More importantly, I gained familiarity with Ebert's style, his moods, and the sorts of stories that make him sentimental (a boy talking to his dead father in Frequency) or irate (mocking the Prime Minister of Malaysia in Zoolander).

I'm not ready to commit to trying to reach Ebert's caliber, but I still try to apply these basic lessons to my own writing, to make them:

1. Non-narrative.  This only becomes obvious to me after I've seen the movie, but his reviews don't just regurgitate the plot, nor do they necessarily recount the plot in the same sequence portrayed in the film.  Yes, the reader needs to have a sense of what they're getting into, but we don't want the movie spoiled for us, either.  In my own reviews I too often find myself trying to describe the entire plot, just as a foundation, so I can then talk about it.  Ebert picks out moments (some insignificant) that prepare the viewer for the film's tone; knowing how the movie will make me feel is much more important than knowing what will happen.  And by mixing up the order of events, he decreases the chance that he's spoiling something, because I can no longer compare the narrative of the film, as I'm watching it, to the narrative of Ebert's review.

2. Abstract.  I find it difficult to untether my reviews from the literal subject of the movie, but Ebert is inspired.  The movie is just a launchpad to say something interesting and meaningful.  For uninteresting movies, Ebert does us a service by not limiting himself to the film's subject, and for more original movies, he does a service to the film's creators by attempting interpretation.  As a result, his reviews are intellectual, and enjoyable even if I have no intention of seeing the movie.  When the critic contemplates the film, we are reminded that we can do the same, that most movies (even the bad ones) are worthy of some thought, some mental post-processing, that makes the experience matter to us.  When we reflect on the movie we've just seen, we become thinkers, instead of consumers.

3. Relative.  I won't watch horror movies, and if I did watch one, I would pan it.  The same goes for a lot of kiddie movies, which don't offer much for adults.  Ebert has the ability to consider films within the context of their genre.  Yes, he favors some genres, but he doesn't sink a film just because it's not emotionally devastating, or isn't serious.  He gives movies a fair chance, and compares them more to their own peers than he contrasts them to his personal favorites.

4. Contextual.  Ebert has seen, and reviewed, a lot of movies, and he remembers them.  When I read his work, I learn not just about the film being reviewed but about that film's place in movie history, how it compares with the director's or writer's other efforts, and why the film is or is not original.  I have seen precious few of the films Ebert references in his reviews, thus his work establishes for me a lattice of previous films, linking this one film to a century's worth of films that preceded it.

5. Personal.  Ebert is in his reviews.  He talks about his childhood, his various job, his wife, his likes and dislikes.  We get to know him personally through the body of his work, adding a cohesive element that would otherwise be absent were he bound entirely by the subject of each reviewed movie.  Also, and this relates to my project this year, it makes me more aware of the viewer as active participant in the film process.  Movies don't exist in a vacuum; they come to life only through our experience of them.  We bring to our theater seat the sum of our personal experience, and that shapes our understanding of the film more than does the director's efforts.

Ebert is an exceptional film critic, but that's not to say that we can't derive similar enjoyment and meaning from other film critics.  To Johanson's point, perhaps the internet has created a lot of noise, making it more difficult to find critics worth reading.

I'm confident that the internet has made us hastier.  Because we can now all hear each other, we have stiffer competition to be among the first to do something.  Why would a reader wait for their local columnist to review a movie when hundreds of reviews appear online the moment the film is released?  I'm not sure in what secret location paid reviewers are able to view movies weeks in advance of their release, but this privilege is available to more than just a select few, whether in legitimate form (audience testing, advanced screenings, rough cut sequences shown at conventions, featurette trailers, international access) or not (leaked copies).  The "first" phenomenon is, no doubt, confined mostly to amateurs.  But since amateurs outnumber the professionals a thousand to one, and, to distinguish themselves, rush to publish their review, the well-written but slow review will be left in the dust.

In a very lazy attempt to support the previous paragraph, I present Clash of the Titans, opening later this week.  I'm not one of the cool kids, and so haven't seen it yet (in fact, I'm saving this one until May, when my best friend visits).  On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has been reviewed by just three official critics, but by eighty-five amateurs.  That's not quite the thousand-to-one ratio I suggested, but it is certainly a disparity, and the gap will only widen once the movie is actually released.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

45. Corner Store

Victoria Theatre

The Victoria Theatre, built in 1908, advertises itself as "San Francisco's Oldest, Operating Theatre".  The "operating" is a bit confusing.  As far as I can tell, every theater that predates the Victoria was either lost in the 1906 earthquake or has been demolished since then, but perhaps there are still a few extant structures, not currently used as theaters, that prevent the Victoria from claiming the title outright as "oldest theater".

Contrast the theater's current crimson fa├žade with this 1940s photo.  Whoever went with the current color scheme did the theater a huge favor, as it is stunning from the outside.  The building's arched turrets, tiled awning, and clover-shaped windows create a unique blend of Spanish colonial, Chinese, and Victorian-era architecture.  More than any other theater I've seen, this building belongs in San Francisco.

The side of the building is a beautiful canvas, showcasing the name of the theater (twice), an ad for "Albers flapjack flour", and what looks like two performers on the stage.  Though the 1940s photo shows none of these, an older photograph in Jack Tillmany's Theatres of San Francisco book shows the flour ad (though slightly different), so at a minimum the current flour ad is an authentic recreation.  The mural of the two actors is probably newer, but has been completed in an older style.

The marquee and vertical sign are both old, simple, and attractive.  Really it doesn't take much; just a few lightbulbs and decorative swirls elevate a marquee from shoe store to entertainment venue.

The ten block stretch of Mission St. from 14th St. to 24th St. was once a bustling strip, sporting more than a dozen theaters to satisfy movie goers. Among those theaters still standing with visible marquees, passersby can see the El Capitan (1928-1957), Tower (1912-1998), New Mission (1916-1993), Crown (1913-1987), and Grand (1940-1988) theaters.  Ah, can you imagine?  Today, we have one multiplex with sixteen screens showing ten different movies, but back then we had twelve theaters showing twelve different movies.  It's a bit like the difference between going to a dozen different restaurants, each with their own decor, or gathering the chefs from those different restaurants under one roof and opening a food court.  Yes, the food is the same, but it's not just about the food.

Please forgive my blurry lobby photo below.  For a better picture of the lobby's layout, see this classic photo.  What my photo shows is that the lobby was packed, with patrons, employees, and volunteers from the numerous community groups supporting the film because of its relevance to their own missions.  These groups were handing out flyers for various events, including a film being shown at the Artists' Television Access theater.

The auditorium seats 300 downstairs and 180 upstairs, for a total of 480.  The rows are very close together, andImeanclose.  I eventually moved up to the front row so my knees wouldn't dig into the seats in front of me.  Tiny ornamentations reveal the theater's age, like the light fixtures and the designs on the metal grills.  The theater smells old, too; older than a hundred years.  It's so musky, I began to suspect that Shakespeare might have performed here before making it big in London.  And beneath one of the seats some graffiti reads "Sophocles wuz here".

Thin columns and modest gold trim frame the stage and screen.  In the photo below, the stars and director of the movie prepare for the next showing.  Yes, it's a small production.  But there is nothing quite like watching someone on film for ninety minutes, then seeing them in person immediately afterward (and from the limitless legroom of the front row).  (If you're looking to impress me, just send me a movie of you walking around your neighborhood talking about your daily routine.  When next I see you, I'll exclaim, "I don't believe it!  A celebrity!")  The director, Katherine Bruens, introduced the film, thanking her patient subject, Yousef Elijah.  Imploring us to turn off our cell phones, she said "I had to edit around my cell phone ringing throughout the footage of my own film."

While we waited for the movie to begin, portions of the film projected onto the screen showing a montage of corner stores throughout the city.  I had arrived early, and so sat through the loop several times, beginning to notice pedestrians in the background.  It would be fascinating to suddenly see all the photos that had been taken of me without my knowledge, with me just in the background of some worthier subject.  This might convey an important counter perspective in which I am not the protagonist.

A question and answer session followed the film, during which we heard from the director, Yousef, Yousef's youngest son, and various members of the community groups who support the film.  Someone (I don't recall who) said, "it's always for the better" when people share their stories and connect, finding commonality.  This might have come from the head of the Arab American Grocers Association, who, in responding to a question about why so many corner stores are run by Arabs, said that these businesses can be operated without being fluent in English, and provide to an ethnic group a gateway into the community.  Irish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants helped establish themselves with such stores, in the same way Arabs, Koreans, and Indians do today.

Tickets are priced as for a non-profit arts performance, rather than for a movie.



Corner Store

There are two versions of the American Dream™.  In the first, a family flees persecution in a far off land, coming to these shores with little in the way of belongings.  Through hard work the family earns a place in this society.  The children gain access to education and services denied to the parents in their homeland, and the family is able to shape their own destiny.  In the second, a person of poverty (already an American, let's say), through hard work or deserved luck breaks from the limitations of their birth and enters the society of elites, at which point they may proudly reminisce about rags, bootstraps, nobody never, and other such things.  Both suppose that our society does not prescribe a person's station, that regardless of birth a person may move fluidly within our economic and cultural echelons.  What differentiates the two is that in the latter, the dreamer is at the bottom of a ladder to be climbed.  In the former, the dreamer rejects the ladder available to them, and goes in search of another, even if it means beginning at the bottom all over again.  What an adventurous and terrifying prospect.

Eleven years ago, Yousef Elijah emigrated from Bethlehem to San Francisco, leaving behind his wife and three children (aged seven, three, and one).  Yousef opened a food and liquor store on the corners of Church St. and 15th St., where he works from 7:30 AM to midnight, seven days a week, nearly every day of the year.  He sleeps in a tiny room in the back that also doubles as the store's office.  That little beep the front door makes when a customer walks into the store is Yousef's cue, if he's trying to grab a quick meal in the back, or take inventory in the stock room, to emerge and tend to the front.  The television above the cash register used to display news from Palestine, but after 9/11 Yousef hung an American flag and switched to local programming.

In the beginning of the film, local business owners stress that their neighborhood is like a family, and that they all like Yousef.  But once we examine Yousef's daily routine it becomes depressingly clear that he has not integrated.  Yousef has some company from his brothers, who also live in San Francisco (with their families), but mostly Yousef is physically alone.  He seldom leaves the store, and his interactions with his customers take place at the cash register.  Yousef works in San Francisco, but he is still living in Bethlehem.  He talks on the phone with his wife and children several times a week, staying active and present in their lives, connecting with them better than do some parents who live at home with their children.  (His daughter calls him for advice when she's having trouble at school.  In the United States, children are implanted with a microchip at age ten that emits painful bursts of electricity if the child ever asks their parent for advice, or shows any interest in their parent's life, and so American children never have this relationship with their parents.)

If I understand the chronology of the film correctly, Yousef has not been home once in the past eleven years, because if he left the United States, he might not be able to return.  In the Q&A session, he says that he was an illegal resident for six years, and during that time he was scared to go on the street, or to make any mistake.  However, early in the film Yousef finally gains his green card and plans a trip back to Bethlehem, at which point he and his family must decide whether Yousef will remain in Bethlehem, or the family will finally come to the United States to join him (in America, all you need to do to get a green card is either be born here, or work four thousand straight days in a convenience store; your choice).

I said in my review of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) that the movie was important.  Corner Store shares that status.  It is an incredibly patient and sensitive look at a family's efforts to better their situation.  When Yousef returns to Bethlehem to visit his family, and I had my first glimpse at his family's spacious house and garden, I was concerned that their standard of living might actually decrease by coming to San Francisco, especially given Yousef's cramped quarters.  As I mentioned in relation to Promised Lands, I'm starting at the ground floor with respect to my knowledge and opinions about the conflict in the Middle East.  This film's perspective is as Pro-Palestine as Promised Lands is Pro-Israel, but regardless is quite convincing that inhabitants of the West Bank are treated as second class citizens.  Israeli settlements encroach into West Bank cities, closing off streets to create an Arab ghetto.  Travel is restricted between cities, discouraging commerce and decreasing access to fresh produce.  Water is scarce by First World standards; Yousef's neighbors speculate that the Israeli settlements, accounting for a tiny minority of the local population, are given all the water they want, while pipes regularly go dry in Yousef's house.  After several such revelations, Yousef's corner store in the United States doesn't look so bad.

(Yousef had a corner store in Bethlehem, too.  But, as I understand it, a transit checkpoint turned a once desirable location into a wasteland.  A friend of his still has a store in a nearby city.  That store once opened to a thriving market.  The Israeli military then commandeered part of the market space for a barracks, walling it off from the Arab side of town.  The friend still has his store on the ground floor, but the upper floors are now occupied by Israelis, who gain access to the building from the Israeli side of the wall, and throw trash out their window onto the man's storefront.)

Yousef says that freedom, time, and health are the costs of life.  Reflecting on the sacrifices my own parents have made for the benefit of my brother and me, I think all we can do to repay our parents is to love them and appreciate the opportunities now available to us.  If our parents are successful in lifting us to the next rung of the ladder, they also disconnect us from the hardships of their own station, masking their personal losses.  Anyone born into any sort of second-generation privilege will find it difficult to understand the costs their parents have paid, the emotional debt they've assumed.  Corner Store testifies to these costs, so that we will not forget.

Remembering Playland at the Beach

Balboa Theater

(Previously reviewed)
The Balboa Theater is the logical place to exhibit this film, as the Balboa is nearest to Playland's former site.  I had missed out on the initial showing, but as the theater sold out shows it added others.  I believe I was seeing it during its third sold-out day.

In some cases, scarcity creates the illusion of popularity.  The Numbers often has a 'Per Theater' chart, showing the average dollar amount brought in by a movie (its domestic gross divided by the number of theaters showing it).  Limited releases typically top this chart (though of late Clash of the Titans has been king).  This seems to suggest that if the movie found a wider release, it would continue to make money at that rate.  More likely, all the people who want to see the movie are being funneled into just a few showings at a few theaters.  Opening up the film to more showings would only dilute the per theater amount.  The Paramount nearly sells out each of its classic movie showings, but were they to add an additional showing to the program, we might see the same 2500 people redistributed among the two showings, with few new people added to the mix.  Over at the Alameda, the classic films show for two days with multiple showings per day; for each of the showings I've attended (typically the last showing of the run), the theater has been scarcely populated.  Were we all crammed into a single showing, we could fill the theater.

Playland at the Beach, though, sold out at least six showings (nearly two thousand seats), which is very impressive for a home-brewed documentary.  Based on the age of the audience, I would guess that we more comprised people who remember Playland at the Beach than people like me, curious about a bygone era of their neighborhood.

The filmmakers set up shop in the lobby, showcasing and selling memorabilia from the lost park and advertising a new museum, Playland Not at the Beach, located in El Cerrito.  The Balboa has a dedicated page promoting the film, which they will bring back on April 23rd for a regular release.

Today I was seated in the fifth row from the front, and this seat is not too close.  So be warned, closer is better than farther in this long, narrow auditorium.


Unlike for their typical mainstream releases, the Balboa has put together a wonderful pre-show program for this film, showing clips from movies shot in and around Playland, or thematically relevant.

Donald Duck is a carnival huckster in Straight Shooters (1947).  In walk easy marks Huey, Dewey, and Louie (is there any way to tell them apart?), young cadets from some military academy.  Donald manipulates the shooting game to ensure their loss, but is then infuriated when they circumvent his trickery.

In The Lineup (1958), Eli Wallach and some cronies park outside San Francisco's Sutro Baths, another entertainment venue now tragically missing from the city's landscape.  While the cronies wait in the car with a kidnapped woman and child, Wallach goes inside to make a drop-off of some sort.  He wanders around Sutro Baths for a bit, trying to look inconspicuous, and in the process we are privy to some rare footage of the building's interior before it burned to the ground in 1966 (actually, according to this source, it was in the process of being torn down when it burned).  Ice skating rinks, marine exhibits, and an arcade are prominently featured.  The ruins of this once great palace are my favorite place in the city, so getting to see the building even during its waning days was a real treat for me.  Though Eli Wallach has been making movies for a long time, he has only recently come on my radar.  He had a cameo role in The Ghost Writer, and I've recently seen him on video in How to Steal a Million (1966).  He was also the villain in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and also, of sorts, in The Godfather: Part III (1990).

The finale of The Lady from Shanghai (1947) ends with a shootout in the hall of mirrors in Playland's funhouse.  I haven't seen enough of Orson Welles's movies to know if this is typical of his work, but I could barely understand a word of his Peter Lorre-esque dialog. The clip ends with Welles walking out of the funhouse into Playland.

Finally, an excerpt from Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945) has a thug chasing Costello on the tracks of a roller-coaster, with hilarious consequences.  Eventually, Costello is zipping around the roller-coaster standing on nothing but a single axel.


Gumby Dharma (excerpt)

I was aware of Gumby as a child, and had a Pokey bendable toy I found at the dump, but mostly Gumby was before my time.  This film chronicles the character's creator, Art Clokey.  The trailer doesn't leave me too interested in Clokey's life, but it did make me want to see more of Gumby.  He is claymation in the most literal sense, looking and behaving like clay, morphing himself into various shapes and sizes as he embarks on diverse adventures.  Clokey says he chose Gumby's green hue to make him racially neutral.  The trailer features an interview with Gary Meyer, the founder of Landmark Theatres. 48 cuts.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Seeing both a clip from a movie and a trailer for a movie back-to-back is a good experiment in which is more effective in getting me to buy a ticket.  In the case of The Lineup, I'd definitely like to see more of that movie.  Neither the clip nor the trailer from The Lady from Shanghai left me with that feeling.  From what I could tell, Rita Hayworth entraps Orson Welles to help murder her husband, or something like that.  There is a standout moment when, in court, the prosecuting attorney shouts at Hayworth, "isn't it true that you kissed him?", as if kissing were the most damnable crime.  We'll always have drama; it's only the details that change.

Remembering Playland at the Beach

Beginning in the late 1800s as a few ragtag attractions, Playland at the Beach quickly became San Francisco's own amusement park, with a roller-coaster, carousel, funhouse, diving bell, arcades, restaurants, and many other rides and attractions.  This documentary shows photographs from early in the park's history, video footage from the fifties and sixties of adults and kids enjoying themselves, and interviews with various people who either worked at Playland, or remember what great fun they had there.

The park was open from noon until midnight, every day of the year.  Originally (and this seems to be a trend with many types of entertainment), the park was just for adults.  When roller-coasters were a new thing, there wasn't any precedent to say they were just for kids (in fact, looking back at those rickety things, only a crazy person would let their child onto one).  The place thrived during the war years as a great place to take a date.  In later years, Playland was frequented more by children, who on a limited budget could spend an entire day roaming around, taking a trip down the five-story slide in the funhouse, or riding one of eighty bumper cars.  Its popularity declined in the late sixties, perhaps precipitated by the destruction of the signature ride, the Big Dipper, closed in 1955.  The entire park was demolished a day after its closing in 1972.  On its location now stands a row of condominiums (pictured below).

From the official site you can click through to some excerpts from the film which will give you a sense of the personalities of the various interviewees.  Most are thrilled to have had Playland in their lives.  One man with purple sideburns recounts growing up nearby without knowing the park was there; when he finally discovered it as a teen, he was hooked, eventually working there.  The cackles of the park's mascot, Laughing Sal, could be heard from miles away, and to many her laughter was solace.  Not so to one curmudgeon who provides some very humorous moments during the film describing the horrors of every aspect of the park.  He hated the funhouse.  He hated the roller-coasters.  He says of the diving bell that although most attractions get your adrenaline pumping by presenting the illusion of danger, on the diving bell he actually thought he was going to die.  This man has been scarred, and now we all get to enjoy his misery.

When Walt Disney was dreaming up Disneyland, he traveled all over the country examining existing amusement parks to come up with a list of dos and don'ts.  The film credits George Whitney, Jr. (son of one of Playland's early visionaries) with convincing Disney that his Jungle Ride could not feature live animals, thus spurning on Disney's innovation in animatronics.  (A lesson not employed by the diving bell, itself a model for Disneyland's submarine ride, which had live fish who must have been terrified if not ejected every time the submersible rushed to the surface of the water.)

It is unfortunate that we don't have more footage of the park's early years.  I'm hopeful, with today's preponderance of video cameras, that future generations will have ample material from which to construct documentaries of whatever subjects fascinate them.  Regardless, this movie conveys what a fun destination Playland was for San Franciscans (my parents have silent film footage of them at the Playland when they were dating).  Perhaps all beauty must fade, but I'm certainly sorry to have never seen this place.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Captain Blood

Paramount Theater

(Previously reviewed)

This is the most beautiful theater I've seen so far, and therefore the building most likely to inspire dawdling, taking in the sights, enjoying the splendor.  But when the movie ends, the ushers descend like paratroopers to kick everyone out.  I've had an usher walk up to me, say, "Thanks for coming," and then stand there staring at me, waiting for me to get scarce.  Tonight, as I headed into the aisle, I heard an usher tell a still-seated patron, "The theater's closed now."

In defense of the Paramount, it takes a long time to clear out thousands of people, and employees want to go home at night.  But in defense of patrons, these classic movies have no closing credits (time we normally would have spent exiting or chatting), the theater is gorgeous, and no other theater's staff behaves in this way, even when shows run past midnight.  And it's not the entire staff that kicks us out, either.  Ken Walters was happily chatting up some folks in the aisle.  Meanwhile snipers in the rafters where targeting seated patrons with adrenaline darts, sure to get those feet moving.  I get the sense that the Paramount contracts out to some ushering union or organization, and that the usher organization runs a very tight ship.  This might be appropriate for their other performances (symphony, bands, ballet, stand-up comedy), but after a fun movie it seems a bit rude.

Come on, double-oh-five!


Tonight's news comes to us fresh from 1955.  An earthquake in the Philippines has killed hundreds and toppled or twisted many buildings and streets.  In Paris, RAF Captain and war hero Peter Townsend comes from behind to win a horse race.  People celebrate Easter around the world, including in Yosemite, Hollywood, Rome, and New York.  At the White House, kids roll Easter eggs on the White House lawn.  Walking down a greeter's line, President Eisenhower accepts eggs as gifts from some kids, only to give them away to other children further down the line.  What a scam!

The 1958 Looney Tunes cartoon "Baton Bunny" has Bugs Bunny conducting an orchestra.  At various points he pantomimes being a cowboy, being a Native American chasing the cowboy, and then being the calvary, running down and shooting the native.  (Remember the fifties when it was childhood entertainment to pretend to kill an already-decimated people?  Good times.)  Bugs's conduction is complicated by a fly buzzing around his head; he waves his baton frantically about trying to shoo the fly, only to succeed in changing the orchestra's tempo.  When the performance has ended, the house is empty, but the fly gives an appreciative clap.

No luck tonight in Deco-win, but there were a few memorable moments.  Ken Walters, addressing the audience but realizing his microphone wasn't working, said, "Larry, run up and get me turned on."  Later, the wheel spinner announced the numbers 6-4-1, but the ever astute Mr. Walters corrected her, "You sure that's not 8-4-1?"  Good thing, too, because for some reason noone had 641, but we had a taker for 841.


King Kong (1933) (Trailer 2)

This trailer is evidence that the advertising gimmick of recutting trailers to suit particular occasions goes way back (i.e. the teaser, the full trailer, the it-opens-tomorrow reminder, the critics-are-raving and audiences-are-thrilling bragging, the you-gave-us-ten-dollars-so-why-not-twenty ploy, and finally the home video release).  I don't know if this trailer is for a re-release or what, but it certainly assumes that audiences are already familiar with the plot.  Giant gorilla.  A dame.  New York City.  Swatting at airplanes from a skyscraper.  Did we mention the giant gorilla?  Cuts unknown.

Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955)

Perhaps fueled by post-colonial guilt, the story of Tarzan was popular in film from the first movie in 1918 well into the late 1960s, averaging one film a year.  What was the attraction of seeing Tarzan year after year after year?  I just don't know.  Beginning in the late 1960s, the character saw less attention in the U.S., but did receive several foreign adaptations.  My introduction to the character came in the form of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), with Christopher Lambert in the lead.  There are four indications that a character's popularity has reached its nadir.  1) His films show only in Mexico.  2) He's featured in a string of unsuccessful television shows.  3) He's made kid-friendly by a Disney cartoon.  4) He's played by Christopher Lambert.  Anyway, the most famous portrayal of Tarzan was probably by Johnny Weissmuller, who wore the loincloth twelve times from 1932-1948.  Tarzan's Hidden Jungle comes after Weissmuller's run, and after Lex Barker grabbed the vine five times.  Gordon Scott stars in the first of his six performances as the king of the jungle.   Here's the basic plot: a good looking guy with a shaved chest and no comprehension of the English article gets to wrestle with giant jungle beasts, rescue a beautiful woman from quick sand, and deliver some come-uppance to encroaching colonials and their servants who are just trying to earn a buck.  I can't venture a guess at the material covered by the first thirty films, because this one seems to hit on all the major points.  Cuts unknown.

Captain Blood (1935)

Pirates, arrgggh!  They're such a wonderful archetype, in both of two rigid incarnations.  First, we have savages who roam the seas looking to rape, loot, pillage (not sure how that differs from looting), and avoid bathing.  Parrots and peg-legs, warts and black teeth, hooks and sneers, these are not attractive men, but they give our hero someone to kill with impunity, and for that we owe these brigands our gratitude.  Second, we have gallant heroes rebelling against oppressive societies by embracing the freedom of Neptune's skin.  Legitimate businessmen all, they tame the seas with their nautical mastery, bringing much-needed goods to the far reaches of the Earth.  With the wind blowing through their clean, lightly-colored hair, they laugh merrily, drink Napa Valley wine, and gladly lay their jackets over defeated villains so a passing lady needn't get her shoes bloody.  God bless 'em.

James II ruled England in 1685.  Many Protestants felt he was too sympathetic to Catholics, and thus rose up in arms against him.  Doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) has no love for the King, but fighting and adventuring are in Blood's past.  He spends his days caring for the sick.  It is in this capacity, while tending to a wounded rebel, that Blood is arrested and tried as a traitor.  He makes a defiant speech in court (first having the audacity to present a defense at all), which would have won him a quick execution were the colonies not in need of laborers.  Instead of meeting the rope, Blood and his fellow condemned are shipped off to the island of Jamaica where they are auctioned as slaves.  In walks Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) and his fair niece, Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland).  The Colonel wants to see Peter's teeth, but Peter refuses.  Angered, the Colonel is content to let someone else work Peter to death in the sulfur mines.  But Peter's defiance endears him to Arabella, so she buys him for herself.  (Now, I know what you're thinking.  "Those two look just like Robin Hood and Maid Marion!"  What, just because they're English?  You racist.)

Let me jump ahead to the part we've all been waiting for, when mild-mannered doctor-by-day, insurgent-by-night Peter becomes Captain Blood, scourge of the Caribbean.  Does he kill people?  Yes.  But they were all bad.  And the Hippocratic Oath, like stop signs, is really more of a suggestion than a principle.  What makes Captain Blood's ship so warm and fuzzy is that his crew have so much in common.  They're all English (actually, Blood is Irish), hate the King, hate court appearances, hate baring their teeth to fussy mustached plantation owners, and love making an honest living by stealing at sword point.

Blood, who has charisma by the barrel full, makes pirating look respectable.  He solicits loyalty by reminding his crew that they were once slaves together, and by providing economic incentives to be courageous in battle (600 pieces of eight for losing a right arm; 500 for the left arm).  Rather than sleeping around in port cities, Blood spends his free time brokering a deal with French pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone) on similar capitalistic principles.  When Peter and Arabella are reunited, Peter is more dashing than ever, and now has a ship full of treasure.  Whereas she bought him for but a few coins, he gains her release (from less good-natured pirates) with a bag full of diamonds.

The film is an interesting artifact of the industry.  Coming just a few years after silent movies disappeared, the movie retains some aspects of that legacy in the form of text, mid-movie, that fills in the gaps between scenes.  Flynn has many great speeches, one of which talks his men out of a mutiny Tom Sawyer-style.  His facial expressions are acted to the back row, but hey, with a face like that.  A few good sword fights, lots of laughs, and the climactic battle sequence is so chaotic you have to assume that at least twenty actors actually died during its filming.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

44. Promised Lands

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was built in 1993.  Strictly speaking it is not a movie theater, but it has a dedicated projection room, it shows movies, and is open to the public, so that counts in my book.  In my journey to visit one hundred theaters, I'm trying to get a sense of the diversity of viewing experiences available to us in the Bay Area, and certainly the YBCA offers diversity by being not just a movie theater, but also an art gallery and performing arts venue.

The YBCA shares the same block with Yerba Buena Gardens and the Metreon, and is right across the street from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (which also shows movies, and so will be seeing me soon).  It is easily accessible by a number of MUNI lines, and by the Montgomery BART station.

The YBCA has two buildings.  Stage performances occur in the building accessed from Howard St.; the screening room is located in the same building as the art gallery, accessed from the gardens (above) or Mission St. (below).

I'm going to go out on a limb and say the building falls within the Bauhaus style of architecture, with its minimal adornments and functional components (lobby = box + pillars + stairs).  It certainly looks clean, I'll give it that.  I'm not a big fan of this modern, industrial style, but neither do I dislike it.

Various tables in the lobby are covered with freebies, a few of which relate to film.  A tabloid-sized guide to their center has a section on upcoming film screenings.  Like the Pacific Film Archive Theater, the YBCA shows films in thematic groups, such as "The Word and the Image: Films by Marguerite Duras" (four films), and "Independent Inuit Film: The Fast Runner Trilogy" (three films).  Among the dance-related freebies I spotted a postcard for an upcoming performance at Dance Mission Theater (not a movie theater) by Double Vision, a performance group I've followed off and on now for several years.  I mention them not only because I enjoy their bizarre work, but because their work crosses over into the film medium on occasion.

The screening room is located on the second floor, and does not allow the taking of photographs.  Which is why I was chastised for this one (below).  The auditorium has just 84 seats, and they're not terribly comfortable.  The room is bare-bones, but it gets the job done.

Neither the YBCA nor the PFA have attractive auditoriums, but both screen films not available anywhere else.  What earns the PFA three stars, rather than the two I give to the YBCA, is the depth of its collection, and the frequency with which the theater makes that collection available to the public.  The YBCA shows films more as a recurring special event than as an ongoing commitment to the medium.



Promised Lands (1974)

Of everyone I know, I'd say I know the least about the conflict in the Middle East.  I've never taken a personal interest in the troubles of Palestinians or Israelis, or of their neighbors (except when we outright invade them), so I've never really paid attention.  Since my movie project is partly about broadening my theater horizons, I'm also using it to take in a wider variety of films than I might otherwise see.

In October, 1973, writer Susan Sontag went to Israel to document the Arab-Israeli war that begin on October 6 when Egypt and Syria invaded territory they had lost to Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967.  (Sounds a lot better than a Hundred Years' War.)  By her own account, Sontag attempts to "represent a condition, rather than an action", and to this end she conducts a few interviews, but mostly just sets up her camera and lets it roll.

Soldiers pack their bags, preparing to depart on old school buses, heading to the front lines.  Friends and family mourn at a mass service in a cemetery.  A man reads with disgust from an Arabic primary school text meant to instruct children on the lowliness of Jews.  Exhibits at a wax museum reenact the conflict (from the Jewish perspective) of the past seventy years.

Throughout the film we return to an interview with a man who recounts his perspective on the war.  He has fought in each incarnation of the war from the late forties until the late sixties, but now, feeling he is too old to fight, he instead wages war as an intellectual.  He recognizes that both sides, Arab and Jew, have legitimate claim to the land.  Of his own people he says, "We're intruders... an abscess in the Arab nation... that they have to get rid of... so they keep trying."  He draws parallels to an occupation the Arabs successfully repelled (the Crusaders), and one they did not (in Spain), and says the Jews want to be more like Spain, and dig their feet in.  In another contrast, he says that Shakespeare can entertain us with tragedy by killing everyone in the end, but "there's no solution to tragedy.  It works in theater but not in life."  A life in which "every few years you'll have a war and every few years a whole generation will be destroyed."

Sontag has attempted to be hands-off, yet every scene feels contrived.  She flashes images of a cross and a television antenna, one after the other, back to one, back to the other.  She cuts from a social scene at a church, with people milling about happily in their Saturday best, to the charred remains of a tank, abandoned on the side of a road, and a burned corpse face-up in the sand.  When a man herds goats in the distant hills we hear the ring of the church bells as if we were still in the city.  And while our eyes scan across the various people at the Wailing Wall, we hear one woman's plea in particular (though we never see her).  Sontag perhaps felt she was merely showing what she saw, but what I see is someone in an editing room trying to turn their mundane footage into art.  Her camera is too distant from the subject, never giving us access to the narrative of conflict, or to individual struggles.  Instead we watch lazily from the sidelines as unrelated images slide past.

The movie ends with a torturous scene in which a psychiatrist tries to reenact a shell-shocked patient's traumatic war experience.  The patient, having been drugged, cowers face-down on a bed, pulling a pillow over his head, while the psychiatrist and an orderly play sirens on a tape recorder, slam doors, bang on the mattress, and jostle the bed.  This goes on for-ev-er.  This scene must have lasted at least ten minutes and did nothing but test my patience and convince me that the psychiatrist is cruel.  However inept, the psychiatrist seems well intentioned.  I have no idea what Sontag hoped to accomplish with this scene other than make me dislike her.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

To Catch a Thief

Alameda Theatre and Cineplex

(Previously reviewed)

I'm not sure that I've mentioned before just how comfortable the seats are at the Alameda.  These seats are C-O-M-F-Y!  Just the right height, just the right recline angle and spring, and I can sink into them.

You probably didn't know this, but Red Vines are the Cary Grant of snacks.



To Catch a Thief (1955)

Cary Grant is so tan I had to put sunblock on my eyes just to look at him without getting melanoma.  In this marvelously flippant tale, Grant stars as John Robie, a retired cat burglar famous for having been sent to a French prison for his exploits, freed by accident during the German invasion of France in World War II, and then joining with his fellow prisoners as part of the French resistance against the Germans.  With that honorable addition to his career, John was pardoned and now lives in quiet isolation in the hills above the French Riviera.  Years later, his solitude is threatened when a string of copycat burglaries against the Riviera's rich-and-famous suggests to the police that John has come out of retirement.  John begins to case a resort's bejeweled clientele, in the hopes that he might catch the real thief and clear his name.

Along the way, John is brazenly courted by oil heiress Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly, twenty-five years Grant's junior).  She kisses him, invites him swimming, takes him on a picnic, and brings him home with her.  John has seen enough action to be somewhat immune to seduction, frustrating Frances but further enticing her as well.  It's soon revealed that she knows John is the cat burglar, and it doesn't hurt his appeal.  She practically invites herself along for his next heist.  Soon John is trying to fend off Frances, keep his cover, and catch the real thief before the police decide he's good enough.

Despite their age difference, and Grant looking like a piece of leather, Grant and Kelly have chemistry.  Grant delivers his trademark charm, Kelly is beautiful, and the writers are generous in giving witty lines to everyone.  Frances's mother, concerned that her daughter is too nice, laments, "I'm sorry I ever sent her to finishing school.  I think they finished her there."  Frances tells John, "The man I want doesn't have a price," to which John replies, "That eliminates me."  There is a bit of mystery about the identity of the burglar, but mostly we're just along for the fun ride.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

43. Karthik Calling Karthik

Big Cinemas Fremont 7

The first disappointment in my film quest this year came in January when the Naz 8 closed down in Fremont, without my having visited it yet.  I already regret not having frequented and documented some of the more beautiful theaters in San Francisco that have since shut down, but here was a theater that I planned to visit, expressly for this project, yet it shut down prior to my arrival.  Earlier this month I was thrilled to learn that the theater was soon to reopen, under the new management of Big Cinemas, a national circuit with twenty-three theaters in fourteen states, including the Towne 3 in San Jose.  Now that the theater has reopened, I visited it as soon as I could, as if it might close down again any moment.  (I've been traumatized!)

Located in the Gateway Plaza Shopping Center, the Big Cinemas Fremont 7 still has remnants of its previous ownership, as seen by the sign, below, at the shopping center's entrance.  I was told by the staff on several occasions that Big Cinemas will soon be remodeling the theater, in two phases (first one side, then the other).  Though the many temporary signs are unattractive, I appreciate that the theater has reopened prematurely, rather than making us wait for the remodel.

The Naz 8 was so named because it had eight screens at a previous location.  In this location, it only had seven screens, as the Fremont 7 now has.  As the Naz 8 did (though with a few aberrations), the Fremont 7 shows exclusively Indian movies, catering to the large Indian population in the Bay Area, and a healthy reminder that India releases nearly twice as many films per year as does the United States.  A sign out front lists not only the movies being shown, but their spoken language (e.g. Hindi, Telugu, etc.).  I had been nervous that the film I was seeing might not be subtitled, but it was, as were most of the trailers.

On Tuesdays all movies at the Fremont 7 are $5, and the candy is $1.  They also have samosas at the concession stand.  The first employee with whom I interacted seemed a bit suspicious of my intentions as a reviewer, perhaps exacerbated by my having arrived prior to the remodel.  But everyone else was pleasant enough.  The staff are all quite young, perhaps in high school or college.

The lobby showcases several standees for upcoming films, and has glossy, half-sheet movie posters as well.  Benches are tucked awkwardly into two corners.

Above and below you can see the glitzy decor surviving from the Naz 8 days.  These are perhaps some of the last photos that will be taken before the remodel, so I look forward to seeing how they change things.  Though the interior currently looks like that of a casino, at least it tries to be magical, unlike most Cinemark hallways I've seen.

The theater is divided into two hallways, one coming off each side of the lobby.  The left hand hallway leads to auditoriums 1-4, while the right-hand hallway leads to auditoriums 5-7.  The theater seats a total of 1339, with 258 seats in its largest auditorium.  The seats are narrow and stiff, but comfortable nonetheless.


I arrived waaaay too early, and thus sat through the looped pre-show at least four times.  Interspersed throughout the ads were fun dance segments, much like the South Africa commercials of late, but these were for Sony, the provider of the pre-show entertainment.

An ad for Indian television network Aapka Colors coming to the U.S. has megastar Amitabh Bachchan telling us of India's actors, "India loves them.  So will you."  Resistance is futile.

In a behind-the-scenes interview, Bachchan (who has nearly two hundred film credits) discusses the make-up from his recent film Paa, which has him looking a lot like a Ferengi.  In an unfortunate side effect, throughout Karthik Calling Karthik I imagined that Phone Karthik looked like Bachchan's Paa persona.

A Citibank ad has a mother caring for her son in a hospital, after he crashed a motorcycle.  I wasn't clear, but she addresses us as if we were her elder son, who had lent her his Citibank card to help pay for the hospital bill.  The commercial has an interesting tonal friction; the mother is just relieved, that her son is okay, and that they were able to pay for the hospital stay.  But the son is just itching to turn to the camera and brag about the motorcycle stunts he was able to pull off before his crash.

Some dance-a-thon in a hotel banquet hall had my attention every time it came on during the pre-show.  Dancers performed traditional dances to electronic music, sang on the stage, and sang in the audience.  This seemed to be for some sort of music awards ceremony.

On my way to the theater I heard a song on the radio that was so common, so unoriginal, that I tried to imagine who among millions of Americans would buy it, but couldn't fathom a single person wanting to actually own the song.  Lo and behold the pre-show featured excerpts from the song's video, which I've now identified as "Down" by Jay Sean.  Just about every chorus ever written is stupid when you just read the lyrics, without hearing the music and the voice, but I'll submit this chorus in my defense anyway.  "So baby don’t worry, you are my only, You won’t be lonely, even if the sky is falling down, You’ll be my only, no need to worry, Baby are you down down down down down, Down, Down, Baby are you down down down down down, Down, Down, Even if the sky is falling down."  Each of those capitalized 'Down's last several seconds.



Wow.  This trailer is so bizarre, yet so entertaining.  It's like a music video, with cool special effects.  The plot appears to be that of a master thief using techno-wizardry to pull off the perfect heist, but needing to also elude various pursuers and woo various women.  Amidst it all, he has time to face the camera and sing and dance.  That's my kind of hero.  I've now visited the official site, trying to track down this trailer, and have discovered that the plot is basically that of the The Bourne Identity, but with singing, and thirty additional minutes of hair blowing in the wind in cool ways.  The other trailers for this movie come across as cheesy, but the trailer I saw (but can't locate) is awesome.  Cuts unknown.

Karthik Calling Karthik

Karthik (Farhan Akhtar) is a poster child for being pathetic.  At what is either an architectural firm or title company he slaves long hours for an ungrateful, belligerent boss, while writing daily emails (never sent) to the office beauty, Shonali (Deepika Padukone), who, of course, doesn't know he exists.  In his private life Karthik is extorted by his landlord and unhelped by his therapist, to whom he relates his grief for causing his brother's death when they were children.  Karthik is miserable.  But just as he is about to commit suicide, he receives a phone call from someone claiming to be him.  The Karthik on the phone tells our Karthik that if he listens, and does as Phone Karthik says, Karthik will soon have a better job, the love of Shonali, and his landlord off his back.  After a trial run, Karthik discovers that indeed Phone Karthik's advice does lead to an improvement, and soon Karthik's life is turning around for the better.

The film's dialog, which switches between Hindi and English mid-sentence, is refreshing.  Karthik threatens Shonali's boyfriend that he'll reveal to Shonali that the boyfriend is married.  The boyfriend asks why Karthik is doing this, to which Karthik replies, "because I like the sound of a slap".  Shonali tries to get the non-drinking Karthik to imbibe with her.  He asks her, "If I do drink, will you take advantage of me?"  No, she assures him, to which he replies, "Then what's the point?"

The romance between Karthik and Shonali is captivating.  Karthik's secret phone calls loom over them, but it's easy to see how Karthik's personality could win over Shonali, and vice versa (unlike most romances, this film endows its female lead with more than just good looks).

And just when everything is going perfectly, there is an intermission, followed by...

...More trailers!

A man has three girlfriends in three different cities, but they find out about each other, with hilarious consequences.  This trailer doesn't have subtitles, but a man's philandering transcends language.  Lots of slapstick humor, including a monkey slapping the cheating man in rapid succession, once in slo-mo.  Stars Deepika Padukone, from Karthik Calling Karthik.  73 cuts.

An adventurer falls for and runs off with his friend's lover, only to incur the wrath of a casino, a goon squad, the U.S. border police, a truck driver, and probably the pilot of a hot air balloon.  Lots of steamy romance, destructive chase scenes, and cultural jokes.  111 cuts.

Karthik Calling Karthik (continued)
The film is not so long that it needs an intermission, but how relaxing to have the film paused while I traveled to the restroom and the concession stand, instead of missing part of the plot.

As we might expect from this sort of story, soon Karthik takes his new life for granted, much to the dissatisfaction of Phone Karthik.  There are many plot developments which we assume will come to fruition.  When there is a secret, it must out.  When there is hubris, so too must there be humiliation.  What's surprising about this film is how successfully it incorporates these givens, without their arrivals being telegraphed.  I was also impressed at the film's shifts in tone.  It meanders between comedy, romance, drama, and thriller seamlessly, without jarring transitions.  There is a particularly tense scene when Karthik is being chased where the film trusts us to watch closely to figure out what is going on, rather than spelling it out for us.

There are many elements that, were I more familiar with Bollywood films, might seem run-of-the-mill (such as the excessive but entertaining music montages), but since I'm not, the film comes across as original and culturally interesting.  The movie isn't doing too well in the Indian market, but I would gladly watch it again.