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

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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Food, Inc. a Top-Selling DVD?

If you've been in contact with me recently, you'll know that I've become addicted to listening to podcasts recorded at the Commonwealth Club of California. I can't go more than a minute without referencing one of these interesting lectures/discussions. The discussions cover a wide range of topics, including state and federal policy, technology, the economy, and, in this case, food.

While washing the dishes just now I was listening to a May 18, 2011 talk by Anna Lappe entitled "Diet for a Hot Planet". She pits the disinformation machine of Industrial Agriculture (read: "Eeeevil") against the consensus (btw, if not everyone yet agrees, it's not yet a consensus) that we need healthy, sustainable farming. I'm on her side. But then, to demonstrate how enlightened the general public is, and therefore how skeptical we are of Industrial Agriculture's attempts to trick us, she says, "I just recently saw that Food, Inc. was just named as one of the top-selling DVDs of all time" (13:34).

Whuuuut? Food, Inc.? The documentary? Have I been asleep at the wheel while a documentary of all things has catapulted to the top of the DVD sales charts? Let's consult The Numbers, that great gospel of information (which, by the way, lists Food, Inc. as the 180th highest grossing film for 2009).

2009's DVD sales chart is topped by Twilight, at 10,233,407 units sold. Wow, that's a lot. How a lot is it? Well, if Food, Inc. is going to step up to the challenge, it will need to sell DVDs to approximately 17 times as many people as saw the movie in the theater. Which means that each person who saw Food, Inc. in the theater must have rushed home, phone-treed their top 16 friends (let's assume the theater goers will treat themselves to a copy), and shouted, "Listen up, peeps: Food, Inc. is so incredibly good, you need to rush out right now, not to the theater, where you can see it for $10, but to the video store, where in approximately five months you can BUY the movie for a mere $20! Go, go, go!"

To date, Food, Inc. has earned $4,215,785 in DVD sales. That's not quite enough to make it into the Top 100 for either 2009 or 2010 (assuming all of its sales were lumped into one year). Okay, but wait; there are a lot of different ways to slice the data. Maybe Anna Lappe is talking about top-selling documentary DVDs. Huh, huh? And we'll use a strict interpretation of the word 'documentary', so that Food, Inc. needn't compete with the indomitable Jillian Michaels: 30 Day Shred ($12,018,213 in DVD sales to date). But Michael Jackson's This Is It has grossed $44,715,642. That's right, the King of Pop.

So, um, what list is Anna Lappe talking about? Maybe she's talking about Amazon's best-selling list, per this article. Now I'm rather skeptical. Food, Inc. is ranked #12 in 2010 (not too bad, but also not #1). It was ranked 38th for its DVD debut week. Searching, searching. BOOM, there it is. For the week of January 25th, 2010, Food, Inc. is indeed the biggest seller; so big, in fact, that it is the biggest seller of January altogether. Though it drops to #4 the next week, and keeps dropping thereafter. By February 8th, Michael Jackson and Jillian Michaels have re-assumed their proper place in the world.

Okay, so I was wrong. Food, Inc. was a top-selling DVD. Emphasis on was. The week of Lappe's talk, though, it wasn't even in the top 100 (though Jillian Michaels held strong at #14). In my opinion, it's a mis-representation to say that a DVD "was just named as one of the top-selling DVDs of all time" when, in fact, it topped one vendor's list for one week, a title claimed by, presumably, approximately 500 other titles at one point or another. Also, "all time" implies a cumulative effect, looking across, you know, "all time". But since over "all time" Food, Inc. has brought in just over $4 million in DVD sales, and the week of Lappe's talk, for just that single week, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never earned $8,766,313 in DVD sales, I must conclude that, in fact, I was not asleep at the wheel: Food, Inc. is not a best-selling DVD of all time.

I'll let Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($217,527,512 in sales) duke it out with Twilight (10,233,407 units) to determine the semantic definition of "best-selling". But Food, Inc. will be lucky to get nose-bleed seats at that fight.

(I can't resist this bit of irony. Shortly after Lappe's talk, the Commonwealth Club hosted a lecture entitled "Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America". You're undermining America, Anna Lappe. Go, Twilight! But seriously, people. Eat your veggies.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Regal City North Stadium 14

(Previously reviewed)

I can't help myself. I try to mind my own business, but when a theater so nicely posts their auditorium seating capacities, just asking to be blogged about, I need to step up to the task. In my previous post I had estimated that the theater seats a total of 3,500, but the actual figure is 4,117 (not counting a mysterious passcode-protected door that is labeled as seating 24; is that the private party suite?).

In addition, the theater has two long party rooms frozen in a perpetual state of birthday festivities.

Tickets are only $6.00 on Tuesday nights. That, coupled with the 96-degree heatwave today, made for a packed theater tonight; long lines at the box office and concession stand, and a nearly full auditorium even for Bridesmaids, which has been in release for almost a month. My original movie quest in 2005 began as I ducked into the Grand Lake Theater to escape the heat, and apparently I'm not the only one with this idea. My best friend likes to watch movies while at the gym (Cardio Cinema); I like to watch movies while being air-conditioned. It felt sooo good that I was a bit reluctant to leave; as I write this, it's past midnight, and still 83 degrees.

(Earlier in the year, my friend Elizabeth and I nearly got frostbite trying to get to a theater in Berwyn to watch the abysmal Season of the Witch. That movie was absolutely terrible. Terrible within seconds of its beginning. So bad that Nicolas Cage was one of its finer qualities. Yet I was quite tempted to watch it again, just so I wouldn't be forced back out into the freezing air.)

Despite an admission from the lead that they went astray in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and would correct their error with this sequel, Transformers 3 looks boring. 2012 gorged me on disaster, but Hollywood is still pushing the genre (in this third installment, Shia LaBeouf promises "a lot of death, human death"). Even a decade after 9/11, destroying Manhattan is still out of favor, but that doesn't stop movies from stomping through every other city with an even remotely recognizable skyline. Their next target: Chicago (as if the alternating cold and hot isn't enough of a hardship, we were also the target in this year's Source Code). In fact, if you look beneath Optimus Prime's left armpit in the standee pictured below, just to the upper left of a darkened stop light, you'll see my girlfriend's office building. On fire. Being destroyed by the Decepticons! Now look here: if those mean-n-nasty robots want to have a rumble on the Pyramids of Giza or try to hump Megan Fox's leg, that's their business. But when they try to trash my girlfriend's office building, and on a day when she's dressed up to go to court, well, that's just plain rude. Time to call in the big guns. Go, Optimus!


A Virgin Mobile ad called Manufacturing Sparah has a high-strung power executive slamming together two strangers to create the next celebrity couple. With callous efficiency she steps them through their media stance ("Sparah has no comment"), their planned wardrobe malfunctions, Sarah's hit single, a mansion, and phones for tweeting. It is well worth a watch. "Tweet that sh*t!"


When you take the typical raunchy man-child comedy, bursting with absurd supporting characters all competing to be the biggest ass (and therefore to make a man like Adam Sandler actually look somewhat attractive), but cast the entire film with women, we're halfway toward something good. Then let a very talented comedian (in this case, SNL's veteran Kristen Wiig) write the script, and suddenly all that dead space in between the fart jokes gets filled up with meaningful character development. It's stunning how similar this movie is to a male-filled buddy comedy, and yet how fresh it feels, and how funny it is.

Kristen Wiig is Annie, a down-on-her luck baker whose business tanked in the recession; whose lover (Jon Hamm) is grotesquely honest ("I want you to leave but I don't know how to say it without sounding like a dick"), and whose best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married. Annie and Lillian have been friends since childhood, and so without hesitation Lillian asks Annie to be her maid of honor. The complication is that Lillian's new friend Helen (Rose Byrne) is supremely better suited for the task. In an uncomfortable and predictable toast at the engagement party, Annie and Helen both verbally stake out their territory with regard to Lillian's affections. Classic (and tired) Meet the Parents fare.

Yet the film doesn't limit itself to an immature duel between Lillian's friends. Yes, Annie is given every opportunity to embarrass herself, and who is she to decline? As the characters wade through cringe-worthy scene after scene, though, an odd pattern begins to develop: Annie and the slapstick supporting cast become sympathetic. Jaded wife Rita (Reno 911!'s Wendi McLendon-Covey) predicts a dismal future for newlywed Becca (The Office's Ellie Kemper); neither gets enough screen time, but neither are they wasted. Megan, the abrasive, butch, man-eater brother of the groom (Melissa McCarthy, stifled in Gilmore Girls but outstanding in The Nines) is constantly played for lowbrow humor, and yet we really like her. Even when not in the foreground, these three comedians are deliciously expressive. Helen is the most stiff, yet without being too catty. And Annie... well, we spend a lot of time with Annie. More than we'd expect from an ensemble comedy.

The movie would have been better titled Maid of Honor, for its claustrophobic attachment to Annie's wreck of a character arc. Aside from her fellow bridesmaids, she has her own supporting cast of extreme personalities: the afore-mentioned dirtbag bedfellow; her too-smiley and reluctant employer at a jewelry shop; some creepy British roommate siblings; a mother who doesn't drink but goes to AA meetings because she likes to give speeches; and finally, Nathan (Chris O'Dowd), a friendly Irishman who is also a member of the Wisconsin state police. Annie is unconsciously determined to trash every aspect of her life, and we know that were we in her shoes, we could sidestep most of her errors. Yet she's fun to be with, and is by far my favorite character. As Nathan persists in trying to overcome Annie's prickly exterior, I am reminded that usually it's a woman who is inexplicably doting on some jerk of a man; but here, Annie is both off-putting yet sincere and likable, making Nathan's response all the more believable.

The scenes in Bridesmaids are long. Consider a typical action movie, in which conversation is sparse but a meaningless car chase might spread itself out over seven minutes. Contrast that to a bunch of funny women just talking to each other for the same length of time. It's revolutionary, really, replacing car chases with dialog. What craziness will Wiig think of next? Whereas a traditional comedy might cut a scene short for comedic effect, Bridesmaids just lets the camera keep rolling, such that the jokes have time to mature, peak, plateau, then peak again. The film's graphic opening scene telegraphs that we're about to experience the under-represented side of the schism between male and female pacing. This film is both gross and witty; quick and steady; and deeply satisfying. I hope to see more movies in this vein.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Regal City North Stadium 14

I'm not going to do a proper review of the Regal City North Stadium 14. If I ever catch up on my backlog of theaters visited from 2010 (104 in all), perhaps I'll have the energy to revisit these subsequent venues in more detail, but I doubt it. But that's no reason to deprive you of shiny pictures!

Earlier this year I moved to the warm, balmy city of Chicago. Where the words "sidewalk" and "snow" are interchangeable, and where a vegan restaurant can be nonetheless greasy and deliciously filling. So far Chicago doesn't appear to have the same density of older theaters that I came to appreciate in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it's still fun to explore, and I'm told there are a few treats awaiting my attention.

This particular theater was acquired last year from the dissolving Kerasotes Theatres circuit as part of an antitrust concession that allowed AMC to gain a dominant foothold in the Chicago area. I guess the Justice Department's idea of antitrust is to make sure the second largest theater circuit doesn't gain too much on the largest circuit.

An adjacent parking garage charges a flat rate of $2.00.

The City North has an attractive lobby, with a large and inviting arcade area to one side, and a loooong concession counter to the right, stretching the width of screens 12 and 13 combined.

The theater has fourteen auditoriums, the largest of which seats fewer than 500 people. I'd guess that the theater seats ~3,500 in all. I love floor plans!


The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo (Teaser)

Why is the outstanding Swedish Millennium trilogy being remade in English? Are we Americans so averse to foreign films? Perhaps the movies just received too narrow a distribution? Let's assume that the distribution market is well calibrated, having given our domestic audiences as many showings of the original three films as we were willing to pay for. In the Bay Area last year, Män som hatar kvinnor (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Flickan som lekte med elden (aka The Girl Who Played with Fire), and Luftslottet som sprängdes (aka The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) were granted 5,454 showings, spanning nine months, in 28 theaters (the number of participating theaters decreased as the trilogy progressed). Thus each installment is averaging only enough showings to keep ranks with such wide releases as Extraordinary Measures (see this chart to get an idea of how quickly the public passed on that snoozefest) and Skyline (not yet reviewed, but I'll give you a sneak peek: it's the one movie I attended last year that I'd take back if I could; and remember, I saw Legion, so I've got some serious street cred). So that would seem to suggest that the trilogy was thrown out with the trash.

Yet The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo received more local showings than did any other limited release, besting the third in line (City Island) by nearly 700 showings (The Girl Who Played with Fire had the 2nd-most showings, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest was 28th). So in the context of a limited distribution, the trilogy was a smash success. The Numbers ranks the films 137th, 145th, and 161st out of 667 films for 2010 domestic box office gross. So the economic strategy seems to be clear: the films have been vetted and exalted by the limited-release public; now we just need a way to re-package them for mass consumption.

Enter Daniel Craig. Rugged Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig, who re-invigorated a superspy already flogged to death by five previous leads. The man so charismatic that being alone in a room with himself is considered a date. Daniel "you'll die an orgiastic death if you stare into his steely blue eyes for too long" Craig.

The opening of this trailer had me convinced that the next Bond film would demonstrate a genre overhaul, eschewing pop action in favor of dramatic intrigue. In 173 beat-pounding cuts (second only to the The Expendables), we are dragged through urban and wintry rural landscapes. Motorcycles. Voyeurism. Tattoos. Appearances by Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård, Embeth Davidtz, and Steven Berkoff (where has he been?). In the eponymous role, relative newcomer Rooney Mara tries to fill the very large boots of Noomi Rapace.

This trailer is exceptional. Easily one of the ten best I've ever seen. The techno music and fast cuts add an intense snap to every glance or turn of the head. What might be just a man looking up from reading a book suddenly seems of life-threatening importance. As the trailer draws to a close, large print text smashes onto the screen, Kill Bill-style, and the music wrenches into overdrive. Outstanding. See the trailer, then rent the original trilogy.

Oh, and because my mother is a librarian, I'll put in a plug: the trilogy is adapted from a series of novels by Stieg Larsson, which has also been translated into English.

Green Lantern (Trailer 2)

This is going to be a great movie, despite Ryan Reynolds's inherent dopiness (on a spectrum from the disciplined John Stewart to the irreverent Guy Gardner, Reynolds is definitely on the far right). The film is not at all shy to delve deep into the messy but fascinating lore of the Green Lantern corps, an order that predates but is similar to Lucas's Jedi. I can't wait.

This trailer has so much gooey goodness in it, so much eye candy, how can I rate it at only two stars? Because, like the trailer before it, it reveals entirely too much. Does the trailer really need to step me through each sequence of the plot, from how he gets his ring, to how he gets his physical? If there are any lurking villains absent from the trailer, I will be quite surprised. The only improvement here over the original teaser is that they dropped a boring car chase, which doesn't quite rate in the same dramatic category as, say, zipping into a wormhole, meeting a bunch of aliens, and saving the planet from a tentacled doom. The teaser, with its great music, is excellent; this second trailer is not. 131 cuts.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1
Okay, I haven't actually seen this trailer yet. But I wanted to bask in the glory that countdowns are no longer reserved just for movies. The art of trailers is finally coming into its own.

X-Men: First Class

The brilliance of Stan Lee's The X-Men (1963), with its fictional mutant class, is that, like the U.S. Constitution, its premise of non-discrimination is flexible enough to defend groups of people the author probably didn't imagine would need or be deserving of protection. Writing the initial comics during the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his most famous speech, Lee no doubt had racial equality in mind. But could he have foreseen that the X-Men would eventually come to stand also for equality regardless of sex, national origin, physical ability, or sexual orientation? That we should tolerate and learn from those who are ideologically alien to us? The X-Men canon asks that we look beyond superficial differences and divisive groupings, to instead recognize each other as unique individuals equally deserving of our respect and compassion. But unlike your workplace sensitivity training, this lesson comes dressed in yellow spandex and looking to throw down.

I can't offer an unbiased review of this film. The Uncanny X-Men was by far my favorite title during my comic book-reading years, I've enjoyed all the feature films to date, and I would even be glad to re-watch the kids' show X-Men: Evolution. My favorite character? The uptight leader, Cyclops, who was once described as being an even more devout follower of Charles Xavier's dream than Xavier himself. But I could easily name twenty characters in the X-Men universe that I think are stand-out awesome.

Team-based superhero movies are my favorites. Sure, I'll watch anything with superpowers; but there is something lonely about the solitary efforts of Superman, Batman, Elektra, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, etc. I want a team. The Fantastic Four (I make no apologies). The Avengers (can't wait). The Justice League (I promise to buy ten thousand tickets if it will get this movie made). Heroes vs. villains; good vs. evil; bamf vs. ... um, well, Nightcrawler really has no equal, does he? The X-Men movies have teams in spades. Rising from six core members in the first film to nine in the second, and finally topping out at ten in the third. And the baddies keep pace with their own sinister team-ups. These films feature so much superpowered goodness, it's impossible to even contemplate all the permutations of who would win in a fight. As Syndrome says in The Incredibles, I'm still geeking out about it.

Let's do a run-down of the movies to date. X-Men was so good, it basically gave birth to a now-thriving sub-industry that has grossed nearly $17 Billion worldwide in the past decade. X2: X-Men United is, of course, the best superhero movie ever made. X-Men: the Last Stand tore a hole in me. As superhero movies go, it's one of the best, but those writers knew exactly what to do to elicit my despair. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a good movie (again, no apologies). Though it suffers a bit from the lone hero model of most other comic-inspired movies, it does manage some great team-ups, including a delicious assortment of mutants at the end, foreshadowing the founding of Xavier's Institute for Gifted Youngsters. So X-Men: First Class is standing in a long shadow. But I wasn't worried going in, because its trailers are kick-ass.

A prequel, the film is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which also coincides nicely with the original debut of the X-Men comic. Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) are played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, roughly equivalent in age to each other, and with nearly as large a gap between their age and that of their predecessors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) as between this film's setting and that of 2000's X-Men. (The least consistent age gap is for Moira MacTaggart; there are only six actual years between Rose Byrne and Olivia Williams, even though 44 years separate their films.) Other than a few inconsistencies here and there, the film stays within the canon established by the others, including some nice cameos that cement the relationship. Me likey.

This is the sixth paragraph of this review. Hopefully you took one look at how many stars I gave the movie, and then rushed out to see it, rather than slog through this text in lieu of enjoying the primary source. X-Men: First Class is excellent. It succeeds as a superhero movie, with scene after scene of cool power demonstrations. There are several big showdowns, and none go quite as I was expecting. The effects for the various powers are well done. At one point there is an aerial chase that finally does justice to the power of flight. Costumes, codenames, secret lairs, secret identities, training sequences, and allusions to a wider world of mutantkind. In terms of superhero geekiness, this movie outdoes itself.

But more than anything, the prequel stands out as a convincing character study. Fassbender is captivating as Magneto. He is commanding, emotionally vulnerable, and frighteningly zealous. He would dominate the screen among a lesser ensemble, but McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence (as Mystique) are able to hold their own. Though the film covers a short period of time, the friendship between Xavier and Magneto is soundly established. Xavier's stewardship of Mystique, whom he loves as a sister, casts an interesting light on the previous films in which they are adversaries (though, to my knowledge, they never actually share any screen time together).

The newly formed X-Men find themselves pitted against a powerful order of mutants, the Hellfire Club, bent on inciting humans to annihilate each other. Xavier's dream of peaceful co-existence is contrasted to Magneto's hostility toward humans; he might align himself with the Hellfire Club if he wasn't so picky about the company he keeps. For the rest of the team, we spend the most time with Beast, whose own deformity, as he calls it, allows the science nerd to establish a romantic connection with the perpetually self-conscious yet beautiful Mystique. Not everyone is given so nobel a character background, so we're left to wonder exactly why they would sign up for such a dangerous mission.

I can only hope that this film performs exceptionally well, because I can't wait for more.