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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

70. Inception

Cinemark Movies 10 Redding

As I've mentioned before in this blog, it was during an uncomfortably warm week in July, 2005 that I first became such a frequent theater-goer that it seemed worthy of note. Three times that week (including twice on Friday) I stopped by the Grand Lake Theatre on my way home from work, to sit in an air-conditioned auditorium rather than return to my baking apartment. You might think that seeing Fantastic Four three times in one week is just a different sort of hell from the one I was escaping, but remember, I'm a fan of all things superhero. (I can't speak as highly for the other movies I saw that week: Bewitched, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Wedding Crashers.) Little did I know that a greater climate challenge awaited me five years later.

Fast forward to July 17, 2010. The place: Redding, CA. I was traveling northward to go on an annual camping trip with my family. But there was a movie I was burning to see (seriously, I was burning). So I stopped off at the Cinemark Movies 10 to see Inception. The temperature: 105 degrees. My eyeballs were boiling in their sockets. My shoes melted with each step I took across the smoldering parking lot. The sun was like... like... like a giant ball of burning gas, millions of times larger than the earth, and incredibly far away yet still able to slap me around every once in a while just for the fun of it. Would I make?

The ticket line was unusually long for a Saturday matinee. I think many others had the same idea: if they could just penetrate the cool interior of the theater, they would be safe. And better to be seated in a cool dark place than to walk around inside the nearby Costco all day pretending to be shopping. Thankfully, the theater has electronic ticketing and its circuitry had not yet melted in the heat, so I sped through the door. (I once dated someone who was infuriated by my unknowing pronunciation of the 't' in Costco; I'm sure that's what finally drove us apart; that or my adding a 't' to 'across', as in 'acrosst'.)

Redding, with a population of nearly 90,000 people, is nestled into the northernmost end of California's Central Valley. Though the city is located two and a half hours west, southwest of my hometown (Alturas), it is also the first larger city when heading in that direction, and so was the target of many a school trip or shopping expedition in my youth. The city has a gorgeous view of Mt. Shasta to the north and Mt. Lassen to the east; is bisected by a river and has two large bodies of water nearby; and is encircled by hills thick with manzanita and these giant scrubby trees that I think of as oak, but probably aren't. It would be a great place to live if it weren't TEN THOUSAND DEGREES.

The city has hosted a total of four theaters. The Redding Theater, built in the teens and demolished in the 1950s, was the city's first. The Cascade Theatre was built in 1935 in the art deco style that, I believe, had already fallen out of prominence at that point. The theater is still open today for live performances, and from the photos on their website it appears to have been carefully restored to preserve its beauty. (Their calendar of events is currently listing holiday showings of It's a Wonderful Life at the nearby Riverfront Playhouse, so by my criteria, that means Redding actually has a fifth movie theater to its name.)

The city's third theater, the Cinemark Movies 8 (what boring names these modern theaters have), was built in 1988. This theater has some special importance to me, and I had really hoped to visit it for my project, but to no avail. The summer after it opened, my dad, my favorite cousin and I saw a double feature there: Uncle Buck and The Abyss. Uncle Buck was forgettable. But The Abyss still ranks in my book as one of the greatest movies ever made. My dad still recalls how we just sat outside on the curb after the movie ended, speechless and exhausted. The other memorable thing about this theater is that, following that double feature, I always remembered the theater as being "futuristic" in its design. It was the coolest, most dazzling theater I had ever been in! It was sooooo cool, in fact, that twelve years later when I was coming home for Christmas, from grad school, with my new girlfriend, I just had to show it to her. I mean, how cool am I to know where the coolest theater in the world is? And let me tell you, it was every bit as "futuristic" as I had remembered it (keeping in mind that the quotation mark on the left of "futuristic" means "according to a child", and the one on the right means, "and if by futuristic you mean something from an 80's Paula Abdul video"). You can see some very telling photos here and here. I sure know how to charm the ladies. (Of course, after seeing Ocean's Eleven that day, I drove us off the icy road, over a snowy embankment, and upside down into an icy ravine, which eternally bonded us and made that 80's theater mere chump change in contrast.)

The Cinemark Movies 10 is Redding's newest theater. It was built in 1995, with apparently the same eye toward futurism as its older counterpart across the river. You can see example photos here. During my visit in 2010, the theater was in the middle of expanding the theater from 10 to 14 screens. Though the additional screens weren't yet open, their adjoining structure had already been built, and the existing auditoriums had been renumbered, from 1-4 and 5-14 across the hall, with 9-12 nowhere to be found.

There is a large arcade to one side of the lobby, a party room, and an additional concession stand in the hallway for busy times. The theater seats a total of 1438, with 289 seats in its largest auditorium. This was my second visit to the theater, the other being in June, 2003 for Down with Love (also to escape from the heat). When I left the theater after Inception, I swear it was even hotter than when I had gone inside. You know those movies where someone gets into their car at night, and the killer jumps up from the back seat and strangles them? Pretend it's me getting into the car; switch it from nighttime to daytime; and the killer is the sun; and that's what happened when I got back into my car. I'd ask you to cry for me, but your tears might be the only liquid water left on this earth.


The Last Exorcism

Yuckers. Here's the rundown on the possession genre. It has to be a young woman or girl who is possessed, because anyone less pure seeming just wouldn't be worth saving after the crap they pull in these movies. The girl in The Exorcist? Worth saving. The boy in Christine? Not worth saving. Patricia Arquette in Stigmata? Worth saving. Oh yeah. Any movie where a creepy little boy gets possessed? If his finger starts saying "murder" backwards, don't take any chances. In The Last Exorcism, a successful exorcist comes to a small farmhouse to save the farmer's teenaged daughter. The movie is filmed in a handheld style, popular in these Blair Witch-inspired supernatural thrillers. Much wrenching of bones and body contortions follow. How would you like to be auditioning for this role? "In the first seen, you need to be able to cry and be sympathetic. In the next scene you crawl across the ceiling and look like you're going to eat the camera man. Then in the third scene we'll use CGI to fold you in half." Sounds like a blast. 97 cuts.

Tron Legacy (Trailer 2)

It doesn't have quite the same pulse-pounding cyber-slamming music as the first teaser trailer, but it spends less time dallying in the real world and more time lathering us up with the gorgeous world of Tron. Neon never looked so good. 61 cuts.

The Social Network (Trailer 1)

Set to a choir's rendition of Radiohead's "Creep", the screen flashes with anonymous profile pictures from Facebook, innocuous status updates, and button clicks. It's actually a bit ominous, and could warp into a serial killer movie at any moment. But it turns out to be an expose of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, with the wonderful tagline, "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies". I'm not typically a fan of rise-and-fall movies, but am intrigued not only by the timeliness of the story, but by the fact that Zuckerberg is still on top, and perhaps not even yet in his zenith. The trailer is quite good. 111 cuts.

Charlie St. Cloud (Trailer 2)

Booooring. This looks like a Hallmark movie. It's way too sincere and sentimental for my tastes. And Zac Efron is too pretty. In contrast to the first trailer, which is all about Zac's relationship with his dead brother, and the dead brother resenting Zac hanging with the local hottie, this trailer is all about Zac hanging with the local hottie, and getting some props from his younger brother. The movie ranked 97th in 2010's box office, just behind what is my favorite movie of the year (no spoilers), and in front of Brooklyn's Finest. It does not deserve to be in such company. 123 cuts.

Due Date

Odd couple movies are typically forgettable, but all the slapstick/crude/non sequitur humor generally lends itself toward an amusing trailer. Not so this one. Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach Galifianakis (I bet he has a macro to type out his own name) travel together across the country, battling each others' personalities, where Galifianakis is the intolerable but nevertheless likable manchild, and Downey is the joe-everyman, humorless childman who is destined to stomp too hard on Galifianakis's feelings, and end up feeling bad about it. Let's just cut to the end where they hug and make up, and Galifianakis gets in one last zinger. This movie was hyped as the next The Hangover, but came in only 26th for 2010, in contrast to The Hangover's surprise 6th place in 2009. 72 cuts.

The Town
Wow. This trailer is intense. Ben Affleck is a bank robber who falls in love with his hostage, Rebecca Hall. Jeremy Renner is his "don't forget where you came from" pal who keeps him dishonest, and Jon "Don Draper" Hamm is the FBI agent who hounds them. Great music. Nuns with machine guns. Piles of cash. Lines drawn in the sand. Competent adversaries. And as much as I'm lukewarm about Affleck's acting, his directing in Gone Baby Gone was exceptional. I'm really sorry to have missed this movie; it probably ranks right near the top of 2010 movies I wish I had seen in the theater. 137 cuts.


I'm a sucker for a movie with a good premise. You know, that one-sentence pitch we hear over and over throughout Robert Altman's The Player, as various screenwriters and directors try to hold Tim Robbins's attention (strategy hint: don't open with “The Graduate 2: it's twenty years later, and Mrs. Robinson now lives with her married daughter). There are movies with a boring premise ("man tries to save girl, while uncovering a conspiracy") that turn out to be quite excellent (Spartan); and movies with a great premise ("six people awake in a labyrinth of square rooms with no memory of how they got there") that are absolutely terrible (The Cube). That a premise might sound exciting or boring is all in the telling, but even when I hear about a movie where "a bunch of short people try to destroy an evil ring", I immediately perk up at "evil ring", even though the description tried to make it mundane. And I challenge you to make The Whales of August sound interesting; it's been twenty years since I saw the trailer for that snoozefest, but I still wake up in a bored sweat some nights just thinking about it. All this is to say that although a good premise greatly increases the chances of getting me into the theater, the movie must stand on its own.

Inception has an excellent premise. A team of experts use psychic espionage to steal industrial secrets from unsuspecting dreamers. Team of experts? Yes. Psychic espionage? Yes! Stealing secrets from dreams? YES! When I saw this trailer before Sherlock Holmes earlier in the year, I marched right up to the projection booth, kicked the door in, and said, "Show it. Now."

You might think I'd be apprehensive about the premise, given how disappointing most dream-based movies are. I'm thinking of Dreamscape, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Generation X (which has superheroes, so I had to watch it, but is beyond straight-to-video bad; I had to order it from some specialty shop that digs up unreleased superhero garbage). The problem with dreams in movies is one of perspective. If the dreamworld looks too real, enough to trick us into thinking we're not watching a dream, then we feel defrauded later to learn it's a dream, because no dream actually has that much detail or is that logical. But if the film hedges the other direction, and makes the dream appropriately surreal and nonsensical (like the awesome dream sequences in Paprika), then whereas the protagonist might not know it's a dream, we certainly do, and are thus less invested. And there goes the surprise. So how does Inception solve this problem? Quite brilliantly, actually.

First, they tell us when they're about to enter the dream world. Nothing hides the man behind the curtain better than pulling back some other curtain, somewhere else in the room, diverting our attention. Second, they stress the importance of making the dream world as convincing as possible, otherwise the forgery will be detected. Third, they warn us that without certain totems, cues from the outside world, we can have no assurance that our 'real' world isn't itself a dream. Layers upon layers.

Leonardo DiCaprio used to be an architect, i.e. someone who builds dream worlds. Ken Watanabe, having once been duped by DiCaprio's dreamweaving skills, approaches DiCaprio, asking him to assemble a team to infiltrate the mind of a rival corporate icon, Cillian Murphy, and convince Murphy to dissolve his empire. This will be no easy task, DiCaprio says; this requires inception. A typical dream sortie involves extraction, trying to steal an idea from someone's subconscious. Inception means that we are not merely tricking someone into thinking a false world is real, but we're actually planting an idea so deeply and delicately in their mind that when they finally wake up, they'll think the idea is their own; it will stick. Inception is like an organ transplant; if done incorrectly, the body will reject the organ. DiCaprio's lieutenant, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, says inception can't be done. But DiCaprio says he's done it before. To his own wife.

DiCaprio used to be an architect, but when his wife (Marion Cotillard) died, his architecting skills were compromised. Cotillard now exists in his subconscious, and actively tries to sabotage his efforts. And let me tell you, when she's in the scene (or threatening to be in the scene), she brings the heat. Therefore, the less DiCaprio knows about the dream world in advance of the mission, the better. So he hires rookie Ellen Page as the team's new architect. The team is rounded out by a forger, Tom Hardy (someone who specializes in creating false identities within the dream), and a chemist, Dileep Rao (the one who cooks up the cocktail to keep everyone asleep).

Here's the thing: this isn't telepathy. In the world of Inception, there is a whatever-device that drugs people, connects their minds, and lets them share a dream together. The movie doesn't waste time trying to convince us of the impossible science that would permit such a contraption. It's a believable conceit of the movie that the device is fringe and cobbled together, with a subculture surrounding its use. If it were any more peripheral, we'd wonder how such a sophisticated device got into the hands of these criminals; if it were more mainstream, we'd doubt that any aspect of society could remain unchanged in the invention's shadow.

Inception is flat-out awesome. The cast, with additional performances by Lukas Haas, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, and Tom Berenger, are all transfixing. I could not blink. Everyone is just so good. Watanabe, Murphy, Postlethwaite, and DiCaprio all represent competing interests, and each gains our sympathies. It's tough to know who exactly to root for. Are there any bad guys in this story? And Gordon-Levitt looks smashing in his suit; he is one cool cucumber.

The visuals are stunning, and is one of the rare cases these days where the movie is good enough to deserve its effects. The music is ominous, pounding on us to impress that the stakes are incredibly high (a person stranded in the dream world would be lost in limbo for eternity). And the film layers dream upon dream, where we are struggling to keep track of all the various layers at once, each with its own setting, and own speed of time. There are scenes as surreal as any in The Matrix, but grounded in the physics of the dream world.

I can't recommend this movie highly enough. I think it will be one of the rare gems from 2010 that will improve with age.

Friday, December 9, 2011

71. Salt

AMC Eastridge 15

Opened in 2005 (source), this AMC theater anchors the Eastridge mall in southeastern San Jose. Though large malls like this, with an enormous footprint, seem to be out of favor these days, and this one in particular feels a bit remote, the inside is surprisingly nice. It's spacious, with a large, open food court.

I love these panels of movie stars from various decades, with Holly Golightly flanked by Morpheus. (They alternate male/female until a smoldering Antonio Banderas dares to transcend traditional gender roles.)

The theater is laid out a bit like an airport. A big foyer, ticketing, and snacks, followed by a long hallway leading to the concourse.

Here is one such hallway.

The carpet is punctuated with tiled flooring that features movie quotations. ("There's no crying in baseball.") I appreciate that the quotations aren't attributed, challenging us to recall the source.

AMC has done a nice job with its thematic collages, including posters for classics, comedies, romances, westerns, foreign, action, and sci-fi (below). Oh, wait, does that mean Apollo 11 is sci-fi?

Plush red seats. Grand auditoriums. Multi-colored lights on the wall. The theater seats a total of 2954 people, with its largest of fifteen auditoriums seating 279. The theater showed 154 different movies in 2010, ranking 19th among all the theaters I surveyed (its ranking is roughly proportional to its number of screens).


The Other Guys

Misfit, mismatched cops Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg try to graduate from desk work to crime fighting. Wahlberg is a big ball of anger, wanting to be released and fly "like a peacock". Ferrell is an awkward, straight-laced, affable paper-pusher who admires the precinct's two top cops (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson) even though they treat him like garbage. The movie doesn't look great, but the trailer has many amusing lines. 108 cuts.

The Green Hornet

(Previously reviewed)


Attributing the movie to M. Night Shyamalan does not inspire confidence. The man has been on a steady decline since, well, The Sixth Sense. The seams have been showing in all his movies, with the author/director's heavy hand weighing down more forcefully in each subsequent story. The Happening was the final slap in the face. (The Last Airbender made me slap myself in the face.) So do I really want to see his next movie? No thank you. The trailer is well crafted, with vertigo-inducing shots of upside-down waterfronts and skyscrapers, and menacing block-letter text stretching to fill the screen. A bunch of random people get trapped in an elevator, and are soon afflicted by attacks from who knows what. Each other? A ghost? The eponymous devil? Who cares. I think Devil is an allegory: each of the characters in the elevator represents a facet of Shyamalan's psyche that he wants to punish for interfering with his previous movies. The man in the suit represents all the times Shyamalan wishes he had listened to Corporate about letting someone at least read his script before the first day of principal photography. The security guard's bald head is a symbol for the untextured motivations he gives his characters ("Trees are making people kill themselves; you don't want to be made to want to kill yourself; run."). The red-headed woman, well, Shyamalan is obsessed with red, because it's "deep" and "it means stuff" and Hawthorne liked it. Etc. 80 cuts. More lacerations.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

(Previously reviewed)

Paranormal Activity 2

(Previously reviewed)

The Last Exorcism

(Previously reviewed)


Dwayne Johnson is released from jail; he puts on a leather jacket (nothing says, "You could be next" better than wearing someone else's skin); he gets in a hot rod; and he goes out looking for revenge. His best friend or perhaps brother was killed. Maybe by a preacher? The script writes itself. The movie looks terrible, with Johnson steam-rolling through each scene looking for trouble, just as he has in movies past. Pectorals are farther than they appear. 65 cuts.


We've seen this plot play out innumerable times. Secret agent/cop/detective/wetworker/best-there-is-at-what-he-does gets too close to the truth. Some shadow organization frames him, pinning on him the very crimes he sought to uncover. Innocent people turn up dead; loyalties are tested; and the trail leads inevitably to the top. By the end, our hero has rooted out so much filth from the system, it's difficult to imagine how the society will survive all its gaping holes. I'm thinking of sci-fi movies like Minority Report and Logan's Run; secret agent movies like Mission: Impossible and Eraser; and cop movies like The Negotiator. In each case, the villains would have done well to heed Michael Clayton's disgust, "I'm not the guy you kill; I'm the guy you pay off." (Not that our heroes would take a bribe, but it could at least save the bad guy a bloody death.) When the machine turns against its own zealot, it creates an unimaginable adversary: one who is knowledgeable, highly skilled, difficult to locate, and very pissed off.

But there's something different about Salt. We know from the trailer that Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is an American spy who is accused of being a mole for the now-defunct KGB. That a walk-in so casually testifies to this fact during interrogation would seem to warrant immediate dismissal, and Salt's colleagues aren't at all convinced. But Salt is suspicious; it's almost like she can read the script, and she knows that she's about to be the target of a vast conspiracy. So she begins an investigation into the truth that, naturally, only serves to further implicate her. Her fellow agents, headed up by the wonderful Liev Schreiber, are forced to hunt her; Salt's family is put in danger; and Salt herself must become every bit the threat she was imagined to be, just to clear her name.

It's fantastic.

I've never been a fan of Angelina Jolie, but she was made for this role. She's kicked a lot of ass in her time, as Lara Croft, Mrs. Smith, Fox (Wanted), Franky (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Grendel's mother (Beowulf). But Evelyn Salt tops them all. She is on the run for the entire movie, evading her pursuers, sneaking into the most tightly secured environments, smashing through windows, busting heads. Boom! She has the talents and rage of Daniel Craig's 007, but exists in a more realistic world of consequences. We never leave her long enough for the script to magically teleport her to an exotic locale in a new outfit with a bankroll; she's got the clothes on her back, and no way out of the city; she must run, constantly; she must punch her way to the truth. When she's captured, she escapes by the most brutal means. At one point she uses some's body as a silencer.

The rest of the cast is fascinating. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an agent from a different division, is tasked with her apprehension, and bears down on her with all the competence we would hope our government to actually have in such a case. Daniel Olbrychski, Salt's accuser, is both mysterious and personable. What are his motivations, and why has he singled out Salt?

Writing this review a year late, I can see with clarity how Salt fared at the box office. According to The Numbers, it ranks 20th for ticket sales in 2010. I'm actually pleasantly surprised by this (I'd be happier if Salt weren't immediately preceded in the list by The Other Guys). But in terms of plot similarity, Salt stomped the comp: The A-Team (#41), Knight and Day (#42, sadness), and The Losers (#114, had to really scroll for that one). And Salt was only beaten out by two other movies with a female lead (Alice in Wonderland, #2; and Twilight: Eclipse, #5; I haven't seen Tangled, but I gathered from the trailer that it's told more from the rogue's perspective). What's refreshing about Salt, too, is that the role is pretty much gender-neutral; throw Tom Cruise into the same role, and the movie could carry on with few adjustments. It's not too often that a non-pregnant, non-wanting-to-be-pregnant leading role goes to a woman.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What's Wrong with Netflix?

When home video was just a fledgling young thing, my family used to drive three hours to Reno, through the desert, uphill both ways, just to rent BetaMax tapes. We'd mail back the tapes when we were done watching them (we invented the movies-by-mail model and I'm expecting royalty checks from Netflix any day now). Fifteen years later, BetaMax was dead, but we could rent VHS tapes from a local video store at a rate of 5 movies for 5 days for $5.00. Good times. Jump ahead another decade, and Blockbuster Video offered unlimited rentals for a $30/month subscription fee. That plan was awesome, but it stressed me out; every minute I delayed in walking down the hill to return my just-watched movie meant my price-per-movie was increasing.

Then along comes Netflix. Suddenly I can select movies from the slothful position of my computer chair; pick them up the next day in my downstairs mailbox; and mail them back from work when I was ready for more. Ordering online meant I could manage queues; it's like telling the grocery store to first send me beans, then tortillas, then salsa, then vegan sour cream; then more beans. In addition to the "fun" queue, I had the addiction queue (TV shows), education queue (documentaries), and I-might-not-leave-the-couch-but-I-know-culture-when-I-see-it queue (classics). It was good to be alive. I'd awake each morning and shout from my window, "I'm happy as hell and I'm going to take it some more!" Depending on how many discs my neighbors and I had coming each day, the USPS would alternate between lining up shoulder-to-shoulder on the street to bucket-brigade the little red envelopes to our doorsteps like a parade of army ants, or, when the volume was unusually high, they'd just airdrop three tons of DVDs from a mile up and hope for the best.

Netflix was also known for their recommendations algorithm. If you liked Toy Story, Netflix would plumb the intricacies of your consciousness to determine that you might enjoy Toy Story 2. They'd even run contests to see who could improve the algorithm. It was a brilliantly complex formula that went something exactly like this: "You liked Quantum of Solace? That's a James Bond movieSean Connery was James Bond oncenobody's renting Zardoz these days You'll love Zardoz!" Pure genius. At one point, I had rated so many movies that Netflix stopped making recommendations for me. But after I invited the algorithm out for a few drinks and apologized for being overly zealous about our relationship, it nows offers me the following rock-solid 31 recommendations (see below). Once I mentally sift out the two that show up twice and the one (The Avengers) that's already in my queue (it takes real insight to predict I'll like something that's already in my queue), I need only look to WordGirl: Tricks and Treats and The Backyardigans to know that Netflix hates me. I give it nearly four thousand discrete points of data, and it gives me The Backyardigans?

But Netflix doesn't just hate me, it hates the United States Postal Service. After single-handedly keeping that archaic institution afloat (delivery-by-mail imploded in the late nineties when the debut of Hotmail meant that we could now receive junk mail electronically), Netflix slaps the USPS in the face by offering streaming. Netflix, that gigolo, has secretly been courting broadband cable as its preferred method of delivery. So, the USPS closed up shop and four people noticed, while consumers everywhere rejoiced that they could now slow down their neighbors' internet speeds by streaming movies all night long. The Golden Age of Home Video had yielded to the Diamond-Crusted-Platinum Age of Never Watching Anything Because I Can't Choose From Everything. It was glorious. Oh, and it was free with existing memberships.

Could such a business model continue indefinitely? Unlimited streaming + DVDs for less than $20/month? You might recall the night that Netflix firebombed every Blockbuster Video that still had the audacity to open each the morning (it didn't make headlines). Or the time Netflix locked Hulu in a closet and said Hulu couldn't come out until it had watched its Zooey Deschanel ad for cotton twelve million times (Hulu was quoted as saying it enjoyed the experience and hoped that Zooey would soon sing about polyester as well). Well, the time has come. Netflix has stomped every ball it can find, except those of its customers.

On July 12, Netflix sent an email to customers notifying us that they would be separating their by-mail service from their streaming service "to better reflect the costs of each." I.e. they are moving toward a streaming-prefferred model, and those of us who enjoy antiquity can pay extra for it. But who cares, right? A friend of mine had already begun chucking DVDs from her collection that were available via streaming. I created a field in my movie database to track which films were available via streaming, such that I could queue it up right from my database. Streaming is here, it's dear; get used to it. Now, if you're one of those crazy conspiracists who believes that national bandwidth is finite and we're headed for a major clogging of the interwebwaves and we can't all stream Netflix, well, you're right, but you're also craaazy, so we'll ignore you for now. Instead, let's focus on selection.

According to Netflix, they have "thousands of movies & TV episodes available to watch instantly", and, via a deal with Starz Play, the Starz titles are "incremental to the continually growing Netflix library available to watch instantly. Starz Play includes approximately 1,000 movies, Original Series, and other entertainment". Thousands? That sounds pretty good to me. Especially if they are adding titles faster than I can watch them. But let's unpack these statements a bit. There is a big difference between thousands of movies, and thousands of TV episodes. If you're a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and you should be), you're in luck, because Netflix has all 144 episodes available for streaming; and when you're done with that, you can waste your time on streaming all 110 episodes of Angel (sorry, Angel fans). Of course, if you actually want to go back and watch the campy Buffy movie, you're in trouble; it can't be streamed. Netflix made the right choice to favor the show over the movie, but it also just burned 254 of its "thousands of movies & TV episodes" to do so. And while Buffy is hogging the server space, some great movies are being left out in the cold. Of my 44 favorite movies (movies I've seen at least four times, and want to see at least once every two years from here on out), only 8 are available for streaming (18%). Who didn't make the cut? Well, Clue, of course, but Clue never gets any love. But also the Star Wars trilogy (Starz Play couldn't get the inside track on that one?), the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Truman Show. If ever a movie cried out to be beamed directly into everyone's household on the basis of its theme alone, it's The Truman Show.

At one point early in the streaming era I did an audit of every movie I had seen that I wanted to see again, of which there are more than 700. Of those, Netflix had 25% available for streaming. That seemed promising, as this was during the infancy of the streaming service. If they already had 25% of my favorite movies, imagine where they'd be in a year's time! But then I revisited the audit a year later. They still had only 25% of these movies available for streaming, and it wasn't the same 25%. At least half of the movies that had been available for streaming were no longer available. I credit this delta to Starz Play, which allows its movies to be streamed, but only for a limited time (so you might put a movie in your queue, only to find it removed a few weeks later when the movie is no longer available). Whereas X-Men has since rolled off the streaming servers, you can still make the world a more depressing place by watching 3000 Miles to Graceland. While once I shouted from my window with glee, now I shout, "What, did we lose a war? That's not America!" So, our first few lessons are that we shouldn't throw out our DVD collections just yet, we shouldn't rely on streaming alone to take the place of video rentals, and we should think of streaming more like On Demand (with its time-sensitive availability) than a digital movie collection.

I received another email from Netflix this morning, purportedly apologizing for the terseness of the July email. Frankly, I didn't find anything wrong with the July email, other than its contribution to the misperception that their streaming service is robust enough to displace the by-mail service. But today's email made my jaw drop. After a few paragraphs to the effect of, "We're sorry . . . yadda yadda . . . we did it because . . . yadda yadda", the CEO slams us with this: "In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to 'Qwikster'. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. [What, quicker than streaming?] We will keep the name 'Netflix' for streaming.... A negative of the renaming and separation is that the and websites will not be integrated." Boooom! I can't believe my eyes. The company that put corner video stores out of business with its simple red envelopes is going to throw its brand recognition into the trash. Yeah, that's how badass they are; they could call their service Dumpster and still get a million new customers a day.

I always thought it was called Netflix because I rented my movies on the Net, but now I realize that it has to do with speed of delivery, with Net Speed being somewhere between Qwik Speed and Ludicrous Speed. So, okay, the envelopes come with a different name on them, but they're still red. Qwikster is more difficult to spell, but not to say. You'll get two bills instead of one, but they're electronic anyway. For me, the killer is the two websites. You mean to tell me that if I'm going to maintain both services, I need to log into this new website and re-rate 3,726 movies? That one service will have no idea that I just watched and abandoned The Company via the other service, and will continue to recommend it to me? (I mean the Chris O'Donnell spy movie, not the excellent Robert Altman ballet movie.) That to manage my two queues will entail logging into two websites, rather than toggling between two tabs? Am I the only one wiggin' out here? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

So, because Netflix and I go way back, I decided to send them a cautionary email, that I, as a single yet incredibly important customer, find this impending division to be on the lesser side of really, really bad. I replied to the CEO's email. And I received an almost immediate reply (that's how important I am). kindly informed me that I'm an ass for thinking a human being actually checks, and that if I have something to say, I should do so via their website. So, I tried. Let me tell you, their website is not designed to handle customer service complaints. I can report a damaged DVD and they'll have someone in my living room in ten minutes to load up a new disc and rub my feet. I can report an envelope has gone missing in the mail and they will execute forty-seven blue mail boxes in retribution. But try to tell them they're business is messed up? I can either suck it up, or call a 1-800 number.

Or blog about it to my five readers. Mua ha ha!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Last Airbender (2nd viewing)

Upon completing my second time through Avatar: The Last Airbender (the television show, not the terrible movie reviewed here), I've concluded that I enjoy this show more than any other, animated or not. It has risen above my other favorites: Star Trek: Voyager, Foyle's War, Justice League, and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. I enjoy the show so much, I've already started back through for a third time, and have been second guessing my review of the movie. The trailers for The Last Airbender are so good, and the show is so good, I must have been delusional when I trashed the movie. Right? It couldn't be as bad as I wrote. So, in honor of Team Avatar, who are forever hopeful, I have given the movie a second chance.

Let me tell you: my previous review was too kind. This movie is trash, trash, trash.

I mentioned that Shyamalan was faithful to the Season 1 arc to a fault. Well, he wasn't. The movie spends ten minutes re-creating the first episode, and nearly an hour hammering out the final three, leaving just forty minutes for the other sixteen (2.5 minutes per episode). Avatar: The Last Airbender is not, like most serials, a show bloated with fillers. With just one exception, each episode advances the plot and character development. Minor characters who Shyamalan omits for brevity play crucial roles later in the series: Roku, Suki, Haru, King Bumi, Bato, the Freedom Fighters, June, Jeong Jeong, the Mechanist, and Teo (Haru is shown, but at too young an age to be of use to us). Avatar isn't supposed to be like The Incredible Hulk, with the team just wandering from town to town helping strangers they will never seen again. Avatar's first season is about showing the world that the Avatar has returned, and building up an army of allies (they will need that army later on).

The show, in its twenty-episode first season, has seven hours to tell its story. Shyamalan has under two hours. So clearly he needed to cut. I disagree with the choice to cut so many recurring characters, but let's move on. Shyamalan doesn't just cut, he jumbles and compresses. He takes a hall of statues from episode 1,  a traitorous steward from episode 8, has him speak a line similar to that of a fisherman in episode 12, and sets the whole thing in the temple from episode 17 so that Aang can be captured by the archers from episode 13. Wow. That's some serious plotbending. He removes more than half of Aang's transitions into the Avatar state, including the one that showed his true power to Zuko, and the one that allowed him to work through his shame at having abandoned the world. Aang's speech to Zuko about being friends? Aang had plenty of time to say it, as he crouched over Zuko's unconscious body; but instead he waits until their final fight scene. (In season 1, Zuko is a constant nemesis to the team, such that in season 3 the team fondly refers to all that time that Zuko spent chasing Aang; in the movie, when Zuko and the team have another run in, Katara says something like, "Oh, you're that character from the first scene in the movie; I think I can vaguely remember you." What kind of villain never shares screen time with the heroes?)

In the show, Zhao verbally spars with Zuko when he suddenly notices the twin Katana blades on Zuko's wall, rousing Zhao's suspicion that Zuko is the Blue Spirit. In the movie, Zhao either uses x-ray vision to see through the Blue Spirit's mask, or telescopic vision to read ahead in the script, but either way he knows immediately that it's Zuko. Afterall, he's quite winded from all his frequent trips back to the Fire Nation capital, so he doesn't have a lot of time to mess around here.

It's bad. Really bad. The voiceovers are bad (even the opening monologue, which could have been lifted directly from the show, is bad). The ADR is bad (we hear Zuko shouting, but his jaw isn't moving). Opening lines don't make sense (Sokka approaches Aang, Katara, and Yue, and says, "Aang needs to tell you something". So, um, if Aang had something to say, why did he wait for the entry of and formal introduction by another character?). Closing lines are non-sequiters (Aang says he knows how to defeat the invaders, which should be pretty good news to anyone listening; Katara replies, as if she's reading from a different page of the script, "We have to get out of here.").

I mentioned in my previous review that the pronunciations are off. It's not enough that Shyamalan decided to overhaul the ethnicities of the characters and uproot it from east Asia; but he also thinks he knows better how to pronounce everything. Iroh (EYE-roh) is changed to EE-roh. Sokka (SOCK-uh) becomes SOOK-uh. Zuko's challenge of Agni Ki (AG-nee KAI) is instead AG-nee KEY. It makes sense to read The Lord of the Rings and screw up some pronunciations; but Shyamalan had an audio track as part of his primary source! That these errors didn't grate on his ears is further evidence to me that he watched the series with the sound off while running on the treadmill listening to a podcast about How to Lose Fans and Alienate People.

Then there's the misattribution. Sometimes, it's just economical to transfer a line from one character to another, especially when the line needs to be spoken, but the original character is no longer in the scene. Shyamalan doesn't stop there, though. He cut up Katara's lines onto strips of paper and handed them out to everyone else while she was in taking a nap one day. Sokka pocketed a handful; Aang took a juicy one; even Ozai, Momo, and a key grip grabbed a few zingers. What, did Jackson Rathbone's role as Twilight's ever-constipated Jasper entitle Sokka to some additional dialog? Or was it that after Shyamalan purged every modicum of humor from the script, the remaining six lines of dialog imploded with Sokka at its center?

The most dangerous aspect of stealing dialog is that is also robs a character of their opportunity to become flesh and blood. Without his jokes, Sokka is just standing around like a bug-eyed stooge who talks like his sister should. Shyamalan cut the scenes where we see Sokka aggressively defending his village from the Fire Nation. Instead, he urges Katara to take no action. This inverts one of Sokka's defining character traits, that he doesn't want to get involved in other peoples' business, but is fiercely defensive of his own family. In the show, Sokka wants to head straight to the Northern Water Tribe; in the movie, he wants to dally in the Earth Kingdom to liberate villages (could of used that attitude back in your home village, you punk!).

Aang is also void of humor and goofiness. He's also without shame. What takes half a season to articulate to his closest friends, the movie makes clear in his first encounter with Katara, in which he basically says, "I ran away from home. Guess I shouldn't have done that. Oops." To which Katara could say, "Yeah, oops, you got my mom killed. Oops, my tribe was destroyed. Oops, it's been a hundred years without hope, you humorless cue-ball." Aang doesn't have inner conflict about running away and turning his back on the world; he never feels the shame about accidentally burning Katara while learning firebending; he never comments on the fact that everyone he knew is now dead; he just travels through the world with a look of consternation, like he's not quite sure what he's going to have for dinner that day.

Though he is fated to play an increasingly more important role in the series, Zuko's portrayal in the film is flat. He has one mention of restoring his honor (a word he uses ad naseum in the show), and a nice line where he practically apologizes to Katara for knocking her out, pleading that he must capture Aang in order to restore, you guessed it, his honor. But other than that, he has all the whininess from the show, with none of the prowess or dignity or rage. Zhao doesn't fare much better. He starts out just as cocky and insulting as his animated counterpart (voiced by the superior Jason Isaacs), but soon falls under Ozai's shadow. Zhao's most sadistic accomplishment in the show, his idea to kill the moon spirit, is attributed in the movie to Ozai, with Zhao standing by, looking perplexed. (Ozai's best line from the movie is in a deleted scene, in which he tells a messenger to wait in place until a growing fire is three fields wide, and only then may the messenger attempt to put out the flame.)

But let's get down to the biggest character smear in the movie, that of Katara. Shyamalan doesn't pull any punches when it comes to putting women back in their place. Sure, he omits some strong female supporting characters, like Suki, June, Smellerbee, and Aunt Wu. At least that's consistent with his agenda to include zero supporting characters. But Katara? She is the emotional core of the group, the responsible parent, the compassionate one, the one with rage, the one with mad waterbending skills that she teaches to herself! Shyamalan kicks her in the ovaries.

Katara is never shown to be a strong waterbender. In the show her unchecked emotion is what frees Aang from his icy imprisonment; in the movie, it's Sokka's boomerang. That time Katara got herself arrested to rescue her friend Haru? Nope, didn't happen. Katara's idea to visit the Northern Water Tribe? Uh-uh, cupcake; that was Sokka's idea. That time she got so mad at a character named Jet that she whipped him in the face then froze him to a tree? Or flew to a cave to comfort a guilt-ridden Aang? Or learned how to heal others? Nonsense, says Shyamalan; girls can't do that stuff! In the show, Katara takes down their enemies, and she takes them down hard. In the movie, Sokka shoves her aside to protect her.

And finally, let's talk about sexism. The show tackles the topic head-on. The opening scene of the series has Katara lecture her brother about his expectation of traditional roles, and how she's not going to stand for it anymore (it's this outburst that cracks the ice to free Aang). On Kyoshi Island, Sokka's first sweetheart, Suki, lays it on the line when she says, "I am a warrior, but I'm also a girl". She doesn't have to choose. In the world of Avatar, girls can fall in love and still defend their villages. Nothing beats the conflict when Team Avatar finally arrives at the Northern Water Tribe. Master Pakku refuses to teach Katara, because in the Northern Water Tribe, women are healers, not warriors. Oh no he didn't! Katara doesn't just call him a sexist pig, she challenges him to a duel and lets loose a fury of waterbending that would have flattened anyone other than a master. It's simply awesome and should inspire a generation of girls to run for President and bury their enemies in snow. What happens in the movie? Pakku immediately accepts her as one of his students, though their one scene together was cut from the theatrical release.

Had I not watched the show, I might conclude that Katara was a last minute addition to the script to get girls to come see the movie. The fact that The Last Airbender has not one but two meaningless female characters (Katara and Yue) actually does put it a good distance beyond most movies in terms of pandering to half the world's population. Had I not seen the show, I might think that this movie was just a mangled rip-off of Dungeons & Dragons written by a deranged Willy Wonka who years ago forgot how to laugh. Had I never seen the show, I'd have no idea what an amazing and powerful character Katara is. Or how funny, pessimistic, and loyal Sokka is. Or how Aang is a fun-loving, optimistic, wise, thrill seeker.

Go watch the show, beginning to end, and forget that this movie ever existed.

By the way, the DVD's chapter breaks are too few and far between to be useful. I was curious to see, for such a horrible movie, which scenes were so bad that they didn't make the final cut. Let me tell you, the first deleted scene is just awful. Team Avatar has just liberated some Earth Kingdom village, though they wear orange instead of green, and they celebrate by doing what looks like a fairly realistic tribal dance. The problem is, the world of Avatar isn't in our world; they shouldn't be dancing like we do in our world. They should dance like they do in season 3, when Aang and Katara share an amazing duet. If you can survive the first half of the scene, you'll be rewarded with a stereotypical reprisal of Whoopi Goldberg's phony soothsayer character from Ghost.

Oh, what, that's not enough of a reward? Well then, because I'm feeling generous, he's the shot I mentioned in my previous review, of Princess Yue's erect, circumcised hairdo. I mean, seriously, did Shyamalan even watch this movie? How did this scene make the cut?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

69. Despicable Me

AMC Mercado 20

The City of Santa Clara, incorporated in 1852, is wedged between Sunnyvale to the west, San Jose to the east, and Campbell to the south. (An aggressive push to develop the town, by giving each resident 100 square yards of land but with the condition that a house be erected on that land within three months, resulted in 23 houses being imported all the way from Boston. How crazy is that?) The city is home to Santa Clara University (a fellow Jesuit school), and Mission College (just north of this theater).

The theater anchors the Mercado shopping center. The theater looks quite new, but the street sign (below) is very 60s. The city's population is over 100,000, most of whom live south of the CalTrain tracks. This map shows that homes and business are mostly in the south, whereas the industry, movie theater, Yahoo!, and Paramount Great America are in the north. According to Gary Lee Parks's Theatres of San Jose, Santa Clara has seen at least two other movie theaters come and go: the Franklin, and the Casa Grande (aka the Santa Clara).

The box office juts out from the theater quite a bit, with an attractive atrium in the center of the space in between. While at the box office I heard someone request to see this movie in 3-D, the first I've seen where a person took action in favor of 3-D.

The staff was very helpful, including giving me permission to photograph the lobby, and by adding up the total seating capacity. The theater seats 3,705 among its twenty screens (the 9th largest I surveyed), with the largest auditorium holding 410.

The theater offers a diverse range of films, more so than most circuits: the AMC Mercado 20 showed 203 different movies in 2010, putting it in 3rd place among all the theaters I monitored during the year, and fifteen movies ahead of the enormous Century 25 Union Landing. Of the theater's more than 30,000 showings for the year, it granted 542 to Despicable Me (second only to Inception's 549). The theater also showed classics like BatmanThe Princess Bride, and The Sound of Music (with a sing-a-long component).

Don't be fooled by the giant IMAX sign out front; this refers to one of those mini-IMAX screens, noted here.

There is a door inside the mens' room that is labeled "Film Crew Only". I'm curious. Is it the VIP toilet for the projectionists? Are the film canisters stored in the bathroom? Must the projectionists navigate to the projection booth via a clandestine passage from the mens' room, meant to dissuade women from pursuing the profession?

In my auditorium, the back row of the front section was the perfect distance for my tastes. I tend to favor sitting closer rather than farther, but I think it would be unwise to sit too far back in this particular auditorium. The seats are wide, with flat backs and wider armrests, giving the appearance of more space, even though they are still pretty much schmushed together.

This was my third visit to the Mercado 20, the other two times being in 2008 with my best friend to see Iron Man and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.


Cartoon Network shows a bunch of teen jamming. The slogan is "Check it." Advertising tries so hard to be hip. Commercials like this one, geared toward children, usually feature kids much older than the target demographic, as if to argue that if highschoolers watch cartoons, it must be cool for younger kids too.

National CineMedia (NCM), who brings us the pre-show in most American theaters, is also touting a new web interface akin to Rotten Tomatoes to aggregate reviews for movies and provide "exclusive features". They argue that their reviewers are diverse, and so are their points of view. No you can find a reviewer just like you!

[Since seeing that spot, has rerouted to, which I find notable for the various spelling and grammatical errors, below.]

Someone named Holly Madison is in Las Vegas to film a reality TV show (I don't recall which one). She looks like Paris Hilton; is she someone other than Paris Hilton? Is she the next in a string of celebrities famous for being famous? Am I the only one who has never heard of her?

But there's more. Unnatural History, Disney's light show, Nanny McPhee Returns, and a guy getting carried on a couch for AT&T U-verse (it's disheartening how being plugged in is celebrated)., (code it and load it), Sony's make.believe (a company should never admit to having made the movie 2012), (William Shatner: "You win this time, good twin."), and a man sleepwalking in the savannah to get a Coke. Sprint's zombies are back, Eric Clapton is on tour, a policy trailer asks that we keep the "aisles clear of personnel" (whatever that means), and the people behind me wax nostalgic for the days when ads were just slides, not video commercials. What, and miss all the fun?


Nanny McPhee Returns

(Previously reviewed)

The Smurfs

(Previously reviewed)


(Previously reviewed)

Megamind (Trailer 2)

(Previously reviewed)

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

(Previously reviewed)

Alpha & Omega

(Previously reviewed)

Wow, six trailers, and all previously reviewed. If this selection of trailers is indicative of the quality of upcoming children's movies, you'd be better off keeping your kids out of the theater until they're old enough to watch R-rated movies.

Despicable Me

A strange auto-pilot activates when we encounter a moment in a movie that is familiar to us from the trailer. "Oh, here comes that joke; wait for it..." And then suddenly I'm hyper-conscious of myself, and the audience, experiencing together this thing that we've all already experienced before, separately. Are we laughing louder because it's more familiar? Because we've been trained to laugh at this particular part? Is it as funny in the context of the movie as it was in the context of the trailer? (Trailermagicians have no respect for continuity when piecing together a joke) I am most self-aware when the scene is a humorous one, but really every familiar scene is a slight distraction. Like on Disneyland's Splash Mountain, when we finally come over the edge, about to slide down the log chute, and it's exciting and terrifying, but also I'm thinking, "Oh, I'm here now; the place I could see from the waiting line down below." Those of us with semi-reliable memories only get one chance to see a movie for the first time; yet even then there can be pockets within the movie, exposed by the trailer, that jar us from the fairytale.

(After seventeen years as a fan, I finally saw my favorite singer, Mary Fahl, in concert this week. She played my favorite songs, but also many I had never previously heard. What a contrast in my reactions. The comfort and excitement of hearing the favorites is also balanced by the memories I bring with me; hearing the songs live takes me out of the moment, because I start to think of all the other contexts in which the songs have meant something to me. Contrast that to the new songs; I was not primed to enjoy them as deeply, yet they were more captivating, more in-the-momenting, because I had no other context in which to consider them. When Fahl played my favorites, she took me on a journey; when she played her new songs, she kept me soundly in place, absorbed.)

Despicable Me is preceded by an impressive array of trailers. Some are single-scene trailers; I appreciate these because they accurately convey a movie's tone, without spoiling more than a scene. Others are well-edited romps through the movie's entire plot. With four solid trailers under my belt heading in, I was a bit apprehensive about whether the movie could surprise me. The film opens with the revelation that the Pyramid of Giza has been stolen, an amusing scene, but spoiled in detail by one of the trailers. Not the best way to start a movie (like sequels that open with footage from the previous movie), but at least it's out of the way. Then we get a scene of Gru (Steve Carell), the Pyramid thief, driving a silver tank monstrosity to get his daily coffee. Oh, the line is so long, what will he do? Freezeray his way to the front! Funny stuff, but also in the trailer in full. Will there be any surprises?

Gru, sporting an annoying faux-East-European accent, is difficult to figure out. He's an evil genius, but only in the 1960s comic book sense: he pulls off egomaniacal, grandiose heists, all affronts to the common man, but doesn't really seem to hurt anyone along the way (assuming that one thaws comfortably from being freeze-rayed). Gru has the unfettered genius of Dexter (Dexter's Laboratory), dour disposition of Raven (Teen Titans), and social awkwardness of Gonzo (Muppet Babies), all unhindered by any sense of morality. He wants to be the biggest, best villain in the world, and he'll swat anyone in his way. Most of us won't put up a fight in the competition for biggest jerk, but Gru does have one arch-nemesis: Vector (Jason Segel). Vector doesn't have Gru's natural talent for mischief, but he is well-financed, and has all the inside dirt to make him an annoying thorn in Gru's side (oh, but the trailer already revealed Gru's failed attempts to gain admittance to Vector's secret layer).

A Hollywood movie would never actually make us side with the villain (unless you count Tom Cruise's many pricktastic performances), so when does Gru turn good? Well, nothing melts the heart of a crotchety old curmudgeon faster than the unfettered joy of a child (Up, Disney's The Kid, The Shining, etc.), so bring on the cuteness. The script contrives a reason for Gru to want to temporarily adopt a trio of orphans, all girls, and all super adorable. (Super Villain vs. Super Adorable?) The youngest is impossibly optimistic that her adoptive parents will have a pet unicorn, but instead finds, as she enters Gru's foyer, a stuffed cat, in the mouth of a stuffed dog, dangling limp from the mouth of a stuffed lion's head mounted on the wall. Gru is starting in last place for the World's Best Dad contest (he makes the girls sleep in hollowed out bomb casings). A typical movie could afford to have the eldest girl be a resentful brat, but with Gru so utterly unfit to parent, all three must be unwavering in their goodness (and emotional maturity), and ever willing to bust out their Care Bear Stare to transform Gru into a human being.

Have I given away too much, that the unlikable troll finds something better to live for? Whether you've seen this plot a hundred times before, you're sure to enjoy the stop-em-dead moment when Gru first sticks up for his wards. Though the movie might take us down memory lane to explain why Gru is so diabolical, what needs no explaining is that he is an over-achiever. Why steal a pyramid when you can steal the moon? When he finally decides he rather likes being a dad, he tackles the task as if his worldwide glory depends on it. Though my favorite trope is the nothing-left-to-lose-revenge flick, I'm also a sucker for bad-ass-villain-turns-good (there's no one better to have on our side than someone our adversaries fear).

By the way, even prior to adopting, Gru is not alone in his nefarious pursuits. He is backed by an octogenarian scientist (whose impaired hearing is played for laughs) and an army of pill-shaped, yellow minions (Gru knows them all by name) who greet Gru like he's a rockstar. Much more satisfying that hanging out in the evil lair with Dr. Horrible & Moist, or Megamind & Minion (more on them in a later post).

So, does Despicable Me surprise more than disappoint? Yes. It's characters are fun and engaging, and the hi-jinks, though mostly spoiled in the trailers, are fantastic.

Friday, June 10, 2011

68. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Century 20 Downtown Redwood City

Anchoring a revitalized downtown Redwood City, the Century 20 occupies an entire city block, with the  shops and restaurants opening up onto the street from the ground level, and the theater's auditoriums filling the upper level.

(I wonder if there is a reason, beside brand familiarity and the cost of rebranding, for retaining the Century imprint, now that Cinemark controls most of these theaters.)

The box office is located on the ground floor, connected to the upper level by a long escalator.

The concession area and theater floorplan remind me of the Century 20 Oakridge, though this theater has more attractive lighting and trim on the walls.

Something I enjoy about theaters is that they are perpetually pushing new products. Except in the case of displaying classic movie posters as decoration, the hallways are typically lined with posters from upcoming movies. Between these posters and the trailers before the movie, the theater is working hard to paint a promising future. I like the optimism. Imagine going to the supermarket, and seeing a sign that read, "Last week to get Cheerios. Next week: Blammios!"

I also like the stonework in this theater. Whether real or faux, the tiles lining the hallway walls are a nice touch, as are the mosaics encircling the support pillars.

The seats (which look better in red than in blue) are plush and comfortable, with unusually good schproing. The auditoriums are lit by large, angular light fixtures.

I came to this theater unprepared: I had my notepad with me, but no pen. Luckily, my friend Mica was with me, and she recognized our ticket taker, Sam, as someone who worked at her summer camp, and Sam was kind enough to lend me a pen for the duration of my stay. Whew. Close call.

Diagonal from the theater is Courthouse Square, a large plaza beside the remodeled 1910 courthouse (now a museum), and, according to the Mercury News, a "hot spot for free entertainment all summer long". This particular evening was no exception; the plaza and streets were packed with people enjoying an outdoor concert. Good luck finding parking!

The nearby Fox Theatre, built in 1929, showed movies right until the end of 2009. They've now re-opened as a venue for live performances. According to a post on Cinema Treasures, the Fox will sometimes show movies, though I don't see evidence of this on their events schedule. This article regarding the Fox's closure in 2009 makes no mention of the adjacent 20-screen theater as a cause of the Fox's poor fortune. Perhaps they were poised to peacefully co-exist.

This visit marks the peak of my olfactory experience of my project. Whether everyone in the audience but me decided to buy hotdogs, or whether patrons smuggled in some various and interesting smelling snacks, my sense of smell was overwhelmed.


A documentary called My Generation follows nine high-school friends, re-uniting ten years after they graduated. Drama ensues. Looks really well done. But wait, is that Kelli Garner? Well, you know, she's not super famous, so maybe she just happens to be one of the people in the documentary? No dice. This is a fictional, scripted documentary. Could still be really good, but if drama this good also happened to be true? That would be outstanding.

A commercial for Dragon Quest IX endears itself to me when Seth Green talks a nervous teen into wearing a purple fur pancho over to the cute girl's house. And she likes the cape (Nerd gets girl: 2 points). And he corrects her, "It's a pancho" (Nerd stays true to nerd roots: 3 points).

Justin Timberlake is surprisingly fun to watch, but not fun enough to make me want to buy a 3-D television. In the arms race between theaters and the home market, can't the home market concede at least one (stupidly unnecessary) gimmick to the theaters?

Old Spice guy is back. Nothing can top, "I'm on a horse", but in typical sequel fashion, the special effects try to compensate for inferior scripting. But one really can't argue against "the dream kitchen he built with his own hands". Women ovulate from the smell of dream-kitchen-hands.

An incredibly clever clip for The Other Guys has Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell flying through the air, in slow motion, shooting their guns, framed as if in a movie poster (and indeed these look like the very shots on the movie posters). Sloooow motion, And then slooooowly colliding with each other, and getting entangled in the wires that are now so clearly holding them up. Trash talk ensues. Great work.

The volume was down low during the entire pre-show, and what a positive change that was. When something looked interesting, the volume was loud enough for my focused ears to hear it; otherwise, it was comfortably low enough to have a conversation (the crowd was noisily and happily chatting during the entire pre-show). Every pre-show should follow suit; don't compete with the audience. Of course, as it would turn out, this audience was going to talk whether the volume was down or not. The audience was quite loud during the movie, fidgeting about, and talking back to the screen.


Red (Trailer 2)

Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren as ex-CIA operatives, coming out of retirement to clear their name and show the younger, punker generation a thing or two. Sign me up! Explosions, car chases, bullets whizzing, rocket launchers, crotchety personalities. Oh, and Bruce Willis standing up (with gun firing) from a car as it spins away from him. A hero has never done anything so cool before. 129 cuts.

Eat Pray Love (Trailer 2)

I need to reach back all the way to Steel Magnolias (1989) to find a Julia Roberts movie that looks this boring. Roberts wants to "marvel" at something, she tells her friend, Viola Davis; but she says it with such gusto it's as if she's accusing Davis of stealing her mojo. Ever since Roberts's extreme performance in Erin Brockovich (which I enjoyed), I've been particularly sensitive to her out-of-character, confident, lay-it-on-the-line speeches. (America's Sweethearts delivered one, in which Kiki gets so mad at John Cusack, she forgets who she is for a moment, and suddenly delivers a speech as if she were world-renowned actress Julia Roberts. An incredibly spot-on performance from a character who is supposedly not an actor.) Roberts is fed up with her life, and wants to travel the world, see the sights, and eat well. All understandably fun objectives. Also a bit pretentious, to flit about enjoying the food and culture from less wealthy cultures, while still retaining one's right to return to a life in the U.S.; her character should marvel at even having that luxury. I'm becoming more of a foodie as I get older; I'd enjoy this movie more if it focused more on food. When Julia Roberts eats a pizza, it's difficult to see anything other than Julia Roberts eating a pizza; when the critic in Mystic Pizza eats the pizza, it's easy to see that someone is eating food. 124 cuts.

Charlie St. Cloud

(Previously reviewed)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2

It's quite unusual to see a trailer that is simultaneously advertising two movies, and contains footage from both. As with the Twilight Saga, the final book is being broken out into two films (a decision that might have benefited the pacing of The Last Airbender). This trailer is full of Harry Potter goodness. The kids all grown up; an army of evil wizards; a dragon; a showdown between Harry and He Who Shall Not Be Named. Having now seen the first of the two parter, I can say that although this trailer favors the second part, those scenes from the first part reveal barely anything about its plot. 78 cuts.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

(Previously reviewed)

Paranormal Activity 2

Ug. Not my kind of movie. I'd prefer to avoid trailers like this. As a trailer, it does a good job of being immediately spooky. (It's all about tone; this trailer makes it spooky to see a woman standing in a doorway, whereas the trailer for Harry Potter somehow doesn't make it spooky to see a pasty-skinned man with no nose.) But it also flings someone into our face and then jumps out at us, so it's a bit of a cheap shot. It's interesting how a movie like The Matrix can deliver a useful tool (bullet time) to the action medium, whereas a movie like The Blair Witch Project can popularize an annoying trope that I wish would go away (first person cameraman perspective). 25 cuts.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Several of my friends have read the Twilight series, and related to me how off-the-hook the drama is, with Bella wallowing in a perpetual state of teary angst. Given these descriptions, I never would have imagined that the film adaptations could be so freakin' good. And consistently good (a feat all the more admirable because the director has changed for each release to date). The Twilight Saga is a compelling example of how riveting drama can be. What keeps it from sinking into melo-drama is that the characters are consistent with the pressures of their environment, taking themselves entirely seriously. Yes, Bella acts like her relationship with Edward is just the most important thing EVER; and she would just DIE without him; but hey, he's immortal, and people are constantly trying to kill both of them, so I'll give them some slack in the over-reacting category.

In the first film, Bella falls for Edward, who turns out to be a vegetarian vampire (i.e. he only kills non-humans). Swooning ensues. In the sequel, Edward dumps Bella, but only for her own protection; and she falls miserably into the arms of her friend Jacob, who turns out to be a werewolf. More swooning (mostly from the audience, when Jacob first takes off his shirt). Where will the story take us next?

In the opening scene of this third of five movies, a young man leaves a social hotspot during a downpour, but neglects to put on his hood (a sure sign of bad things to come; always put on your hood, kiddies). Something skitters in the shadows. "Who's there?" he calls. (Who actually says that? Who wants to strike up a conversation with things that go skittering about?) He begins to feel uneasy, then panicky, then chased, and sure enough, along comes a mean old nasty vampire to have a chomp. But wait, we recognize the mean old nasty vampire: it's Victoria, the bitter survivor of the first film's climax that saw her meaner, nastier boyfriend decapitated, dismembered, then burned to ash by Edward and his family. (Originally played by Rachelle Lefevre, she is now reprised by Bryce Dallas Howard; I dislike recasting; it disrupts the illusion.) Victoria hasn't quite gotten over it (noone in the Twilight universe ever does). What's the use of being immortal if it doesn't also entitle you to hold eternal grudges? So Victoria has a plan for revenge: recruit an army, kill the Cullen clan, spike the football, do a victory dance, and who knows, perhaps even have some fun along the way.

Victoria's plot is meant as mere reassurance, that by the movie's end we are promised a seriously super-powered throw down. With that enticement safely squirreled away, we are now free to just hang out with Bella & Co. True to the first two movies, the pacing is perfect. Long, slow scenes of people talking. As an audience we have the luxury of settling into a scene, getting comfortable with, and seeing it play out. I bet David Mamet would have a fit; the scene doesn't cut abruptly when someone loses their temper; instead we stay with the moment, watch the characters deal with the outburst, talking things through. A deeply satisfying process.

Each of the relationships is exquisite. Edward and Bella are the only mortally-mismatched couple I can think of where their temperaments are similar enough that it actually makes sense for them to be attracted to each other (excepting Aragorn and Arwen, because they grew up together; and Aang and Katara, because he hasn't aged emotionally). At one point, with danger looming, Edward says to Bella, "If I asked you to stay in the car, would you?" That's a refreshing change from the Hollywood standard of men commanding women, and forgetting that just mere scenes ago the women demonstrated that they refuse to be commanded. Edward wants to protect Bella, but he doesn't give her orders, nor is he ignorant of her personality, that she prefers to take an active part in her own story. When Edward warns that it's dangerous for him to be near her, Bella, recalling the previous movies, correctly replies that it's more dangerous for him to be away. She's right; and he listens.

Bella, silly voiceover aside, is captivating. Her performance is so close to the surface of her skin, she's seething emotion. At one point, stung by a remark, she says, "I can't believe you said that." In any other movie she would have gone home and stewed, but not our Bella. She's mature, and honest, and she confronts problems immediately.

I'm a sucker for teams, and Twilight knows it. I recall that during the first movie, I was concerned that the less important members of the Cullen clan would be killed off. That's how it goes, right? By making them weak, it would make Edward seem all the stronger when he prevails. Uh uh, cupcake. That's not how we roll in Twilight. Our team is Bad. Ass. We've already seen a few origin stories in the previous films, and now we're treated to some more. Just as in the first film's climax, when the gloves come off, each Cullen has the opportunity to demonstrate their violent prowess. They defer to each others' expertise and give each other props.

Then there's the entire Jacob arc. Whereas the first movie was Edward-heavy, and the sequel was Jacob-heavy, the two now must share the screen together, and things do not go smoothly. At one point, at Bella's house, the tension is so thick, you could, uh, stake a vampire on it? Bella's dad walks in, and whatever adult-informed sense he has about boys being boys, it's awesome how clueless he is about what's really going on. Like in some Shakespearian tragedy, Bella's warring men might actually kill each other. Yet when Edward needs help to protect Bella, whose loyalty does he absolutely not question? AT one point, there is a steamy scene in a tent that is so close to soft porn, someone must have slipped some fan fiction into the script when no-one was looking. Not safe for work.

All that, and yet the film is patient to let itself be just a build up to even larger things to come in the two-part conclusion (coming soon). I can't wait.