The original Parkway Speakeasy Theatre opened in 1926 on the southeast side of Lake Merritt. Built as a single screen theater, the balcony was later carved out from the lower level to form a separate auditorium. Circa 1997 (source) the theater came under new management that saw a shift toward theme nights, second-run films, and, what would make it most well known, serving food and beer and replacing raked seating with couches. I can't count how many times people raved about the Parkway to me before its closure in 2009. I can only conclude that people who are enthusiastic about sitting on a couch and drinking beer while watching a movie don't actually go out to the movies more than a couple of times a year, because otherwise the Parkway would have been swimming in it. I only visited the old Parkway once before it closed, to see the Korean horror movie The Host. I had an unfavorable impression: the lobby was cramped, the upstairs auditorium was a bit dingy, and the movie was disgusting.
Fast forward three years. The New Parkway theater opened in December, 2012, the only new theater in Oakland in the past 17 years. It hides in a graffiti-decorated brick-faced building on 24th Avenue just off Telegraph (an old glass-sheet factory, according to this source), amid nearby bars and a surprisingly active night life for Uptown Oakland. (I worked Uptown a decade ago, when tumbleweeds came out every evening at five o'clock.)
A large bicycle rack sits right out front and is often crammed full of bikes on a busy evening. Inside the front door, patrons can either form a queue in the express line to buy just tickets, or move down the counter to buy tickets and order from a food menu. Even further down the counter there is another express line, one just for candy and drinks. I appreciate the segregation; if I'm cutting it close to showtime, I can get a ticket and go grab a seat without waiting behind people who are deciding what to have for dinner.
The menu has a medium-sized selection by restaurant standards, but is incalculably better than what is available at most movie theaters. Having eaten more than my fair share of Red Vines in recent years, I am deeply appreciative of the chance to eat real food at a theater. I confess, I used to poo-poo this notion, mostly out of ignorance (fearing distracting noises from my chomping neighbors, and suffocating aromas, and my own inability to focus on the movie while eating; none of it true). But I am now completely on board. I can leave work, meet my girlfriend at the theater, enjoy dinner, and then move into the auditorium just in time for the main event. Outstanding.
All this wouldn't mean much, though, if the food weren't both healthy and tasty. It is both. On all four of my visits thus far I've ordered the Vegan Mystery Meal. When ordering, I'm not told what I'll get, other than that it'll be vegan; a great concept. The dishes have ranged from crispy tostadas topped with sliced red cabbage, to beans and grilled mushrooms tossed with a salad, to a sort of potato casserole. Not only is the dish different from night to night, it changes with each person who orders it. If my girlfriend goes back to the counter to order the same thing I'm having, too bad! The world has moved on, and, as she tells her kids at school, you get what you get and you don't get upset. The mystery meal also comes in vegetarian and gluten-free varieties. The Big Salad hasn't been a big hit with us, but as dinner winds down we usually pick up an order of super salty saucy fries on our way to the screening room. (The menu includes the refreshingly honest disclaimer: "Vegan and gluten-free dishes are made in the same kitchen as our other dishes and thus may have some cross-contamination.")
Using an opt-in tracking system (take heed, NSA), you may sit wherever you like, whether in the bustling downstairs, or the cafe-like balcony, or in their eventual seat in the auditorium. Once seated simply place your order placard into a device at your table/seat, and the kitchen staff will know where to find you. If you're in the lobby waiting for your food but the movie is about to start, just re-register at your new seat. No problem.
The lobby's busyness will fluctuate throughout the evening as showtimes come and go. I've been one of only a few people there, and I've been standing in long lines for a sold out show. Contrasted to most theaters I've visited, this theater might actually be a place I'd visit just for dinner, or to hang out, even if a movie wasn't on the agenda (unlikely, but not a bad idea). Partly this is because admission is in the hallway, past the lobby, so there's no requirement that patrons see a movie. And partly because the ambiance is attractive enough that I'd actually want to. There are several Cinemark Theaters with ticket takers past the lobby and concession stand, but they haven't made themselves into desirable chill spaces. In addition to movies, food, and drinks, the New Parkway also has a (limited) selection of board and party games on a shelf in the balcony, complemented by art supplies for kids. Although I don't particularly care for the game selection, what this tells me is that it's okay to bring my own games to the theater, order a snack, and have a good time with friends, just as I might in any other cafe. Movie + vegan food + games = conspiracy theory: was this theater built with me in mind?
Between the delicious food and fun atmosphere, a wall plastered with movie-related promotional material and another wall devoted to a rotating collection of original artwork, it might be easy to forget you're here to see a movie. Here's a tip: when you get your ticket, make sure you find out 1) which of the two auditoriums you'll be in (it's not printed on your ticket), and 2) when the auditorium will open for seating. (The auditorium number is written on a chalkboard in the hallway if you forget.) Sometimes this is obvious because a line forms, or because a staff member makes an announcement; but I've been the chump spacing out in the balcony while all the best seats get taken.
Auditorium #1 seats 145 people. Several small tables dominate the central floor, with a hodgepodge of seating wrapping along the walls, and an upper balcony with chairs at odd angles on the side and slightly raked rows of narrow tables at the back. I've sat off to one side on the ground level, and didn't really mind being at an angle. The back row on the ground level, with seats low to the floor, has poor sightlines, blocked by the taller chairs in the middle of the room.
Auditorium #2 seats only 125 people, but is the larger and more plush space, with an even wider variety of seats along the floor (one is a beauty salon chair), and raked rows of couches in the back. I haven't sat down below, but I've enjoyed a movie even from a couch in the back corner of the auditorium.
The theater is focusing on first-run independent movies, second-run mainstream titles, and a backlog of favorites to populate their various theme nights (the theater was one of only 13 in the country to play Byzantium). All for only $6.00 a ticket. The New Parkway also shows short films, has mini festivals, and this week is broadcasting the playoff games between the As and the Tigers. Because the theater's debut post-dates my data collection from 2010, I don't know how many different titles they will have shown by the end of this (their first) year, but I imagine it will be much higher than the typical two-screen theater with just two engagements per week.
Interestingly, of the nine Bay Area theaters I've rated 5 stars, five are in the Easy Bay, and three of those are in Oakland. Joining the ranks of the Grand Lake, Piedmont, Jack London, and Paramount theaters, the New Parkway is a welcome addition to Oakland's movie scene, and one I plan to frequent.
A humorous public service announcement shows an odd looking man holding flashcards depicting the various things patrons should not do during the movie. Don't talk, don't text, don't hit, don't doodle, don't splash, etc. A nasally voice-over offers artistic interpretation, in case the flashcards aren't clear enough. Quite amusing.
Much Ado About Nothing
I'm a huge fan of Shakespeare's plays, but I've yet to see a stage or film adaptation that I've enjoyed. This could be the one, with its stellar cast and the Joss Whedon promise of excellence. Set at a party or perhaps wedding, self-proclaimed "love gods" endeavor to make two spatting adversaries (Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof) fall in love by evening's end. The mostly black-and-white trailer is punctuated with flashes of color (a blue dress, a golden martini, and neon outlines of thematic words like 'obsession', and 'hatred'), and is scored by a catchy jazz-like layering of cymbals, horns, and vocal sounds. Great editing work, and pure fun. 89 cuts.
I recall reading a YA novel as a kid that, to my naive standards, established the definitive laws of vampirism. It included familiar tropes like propagation through biting, and an aversion to garlic and Holy Water. But also included a bit of lore that has stuck with me ever since: if you pour a line of sand outside your windows, a vampire attempting to enter your room at night will be compelled to count each sand crystal in this protective barrier, and, being engrossed in so lengthy a task, will surely perish at sunrise. Although this fallibility wasn't original to my YA novel (it's called Arithmomania), what I failed to recognize as a child was that there is no definitive study of a mythological creature. Each author of a vampire story is empowered to cherry-pick the lore that best suits their narrative. A good author can even invent lore, gifting yet more options for vampire writers who follow.
In the past two decades, and owing in large part to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight books, cinema and television have been flooded with vampire narratives. These vampires are invariably immortal blood suckers. But otherwise, each incarnation embellishes the tale in its own way. In Buffy (1997), vampires are demons inhabiting dead human bodies; and they're inexplicably proficient in martial arts. In Twilight (2008) they have super speed and super strength, sparkle in the sunlight, and can choose to feed on deer instead of humans. The excellent Ultraviolet (1998) mini-series (not the movie) asks what vampires would do in a world without humans, while Daybreakers (2010) actually shows us that world. Vampires can be traditional (Shadow of the Vampire, 2000), disgusting (Blade II, 2002), scheming (Underworld, 2003), or simply misunderstood (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, 2009). In the case of Ultraviolet (the movie, 2006), they might be vampires in name only.
Like playing a new trick-taking game, part of the joy of watching a vampire movie is in identifying the nuances of this specific take on the genre, i.e., learning the rules of the universe. Where do these vampires come from? What can they/can't they do? How can they be killed?
Neil Jordan's Byzantium, abandoned by the studio and released in only a handful of theaters, unencumbers the genre from its familiar tropes. More in the vein of Låt den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008), Byzantium carefully selects a few, essential vampire traits, and proceeds not with a supernatural thriller, but with a character study.
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) has been a vampire for two centuries, wandering the British Isles with her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), for the duration. (Disappointingly, the film doesn't rationalize how, after two centuries, Eleanor would still be any less mature and autonomous than her mother, who has less than a two decade head start, but we are free to conclude that Eleanor's emotional development halted along with her aging.) Clara works as a stripper and sometimes prostitute. Does she use a vampire's superhuman power of seduction to enthrall her clients? No; the film is wise enough to realize it's sufficient just to be Gemma Arterton. Eleanor passes the time writing and rewriting her and her mother's story, then throwing the pages to the wind or sea for fear of them ever being read. How Eleanor reacts when one of her pages finds its way into the hands of an elderly man immediately sets her apart from her mother's more direct method of preserving their secret.
When someone from their past forces the two to uproot, they arrive in a coastal village that Eleanor remembers from her youth, though Clara claims to have never been there before. Here is the second and central difference between mother and daughter. Clara looks forward obsessively, both to wipe away her misery from before she became a vampire, and to obliterate all her wrongdoings since. She does what she must to protect herself and her daughter, but moves on before idleness can lure her into reflection. Eleanor, in contrast, cannot let go of the past. Trapped in an endless melancholy, she writes as if she is trying to create some fulfilling life for herself that predates her current condition.
Eleanor soon befriends a hemophiliac waiter with leukemia (Caleb Landry Jones), and it's unclear whose condition is more dangerous to the other. Their interactions have all the awkward haltings that I loved in the Twilight saga, where everyday teenaged angst is suddenly sensible given that the paramours might actually die for their affections. In turn, Clara takes pity on a john (Daniel Mays) who is devastated after losing his mother. Eleanor warns off her beau; Clara does not, expressing her pity by using the john's inherited hotel to open a brothel (the eponymous Byzantium Hotel).
The film is fantastically patient with its scenes, allowing its characters to drift quietly across beautiful, lonely landscapes (this is the rare film where I found myself admiring the composition of the shots). This patience makes it all the more powerful when the narrative is perforated by violent action. Though the movie clings more sympathetically to Eleanor's self-restraint, I was nonetheless fascinated with Clara's unending motherhood, her protective instincts stretched out century after century. Eleanor resents her mother's callous lifestyle, yet her naivety often forces Clara's hand in defense.
In any supernatural story I am hungry for the lore. I want to know how it all started, and which physical or metaphysical rules govern this fictional world. Byzantium, via the clumsy use of Eleanor's narration and writing (nothing is more boring on the big screen than writing; and nothing more heavy-handed than narration), does reveal the supernatural origins of our characters, and these origins prove much more interesting than merely having been bitten late one night. We never quite get to the absolute roots of how vampirism itself began, but what we do see is more satisfying than the tired "so-and-so was cursed, and so became the first vampire" tale.
The supporting cast are painted quickly but with depth, each existing believably within this world that is just like ours, but for a few aberrations. Eleanor's and Clara's relationship is engrossing, underscoring how different a journey two people can have, despite traveling together for so long. It's a shame this movie was so under-promoted; it's now my favorite vampire movie.