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 Batman, The 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, ncm.com has rerouted to firstlookonline.com, 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). 4c.org, esurance.com (code it and load it), Sony's make.believe (a company should never admit to having made the movie 2012), priceline.com (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
Megamind (Trailer 2)
Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
Alpha & Omega
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.
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.