Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Hey Film Fans!
Here’s my journal of my four-movie, four-theater trip to Tucson on Saturday, complete with photos, stories, and reviews of the four films. Please keep in mind, not all of these films were ones I was interested in seeing; the ones I’d originally planned on watching either disappeared by the time this weekend rolled around, or were not released yet (as was the case with the Coen’s film), or were chosen based on the time of the screening, and where they were playing.
I’d thought about making this trip a few months ago, when I was searching for Arizona theaters at the Cinema Treasures web site, and had discovered the Fox, a recently restored old-time theater in the heart of downtown Tucson. After re-opening 31 years after it had closed in 1974, the Fox was predominantly home to concerts and stage plays, but on occasion they’d screen a movie or host a film festival. After checking the theater’s web site, I found that they were showing a slate of older movies through November, and the one I chose to attend—based entirely on which Saturday I had free, and the availability of my Mom’s air-conditioned, gas-efficient vehicle—was Nosferatu, a silent film airing on October 3rd.
I then decided to make a full day of it, and see two movies that day. Then, I thought, since I’m down there, why not three? Then, not long after that, I got another idea: why not make it a full day of movies, and set a personal record of seeing four movies in one day? So that became my plan. Beware of spoilers!
HARKINS CASA GRANDE 14
CASA GRANDE, AZ
10:30 am – $6.50
After some last-minute changes to the schedule the night before, when I discovered I’d be hard-pressed to make my second movie’s deadline in Tucson, I revamped my schedule and moved Zombieland to the morning, where it had a sixty-minute earlier start time than The Invention of Lying. I left the apartment a little after 8:00 am and traveled south on the I-10, giving myself some leeway in case of heavy traffic or other delaying surprises. As it turned out, it was a smooth, quick ride to Casa Grande, with nothing exciting along the way except that deserted Nickerson Farms restaurant I’d spotted a year earlier, still abandoned and still standing 27 years after it had closed.
I noticed the Harkins Theatres building as I approached Florence Boulevard, just off the freeway on the left, so I had no trouble figuring out where I had to go. The problem was, I was nearly 90 minutes away from showtime, so I had plenty of time to kill. The theater stood in the midst of several retail stores, so I parked, took the first of my theater photographs, and headed over to a nearby Target, where I spent a good chunk of time checking out their selection of movies and books.
By that point, I was getting hungry, having skipped breakfast in anticipation of having a large popcorn and drink at the show, so with a long thirty minutes still left in my countdown, I headed back to the theater, bought my ticket, purchased my snack food lunch, and found a seat—top row, far right—in a nearly deserted auditorium. I was in the theater’s biggest house (the theater itself was nearly an exact duplicate of the Harkins theater next door to my apartment complex), and by showtime it had reasonably filled. The few ratings I’d skimmed over for Zombieland the previous day were all good ones, and I was hoping I’d agree with them; as it turned out, this was my favorite movie of the four I’d see today.
Zombieland (2009) – I really had a good time with this one…an immensely fun and laugh-out-loud horror-comedy flick, with four survivors of a zombie holocaust heading for LA in search of a rumored safe haven at an amusement park. Surprisingly, the emphasis of the story was on the interactions between the four humans (and an unexpected and short-lived fifth), and not their battle with the undead, who basically remained in the background until the end. Jessie Eisenberg, who played one of the two leads along with Woody Harrelson, also served as the film’s narrator, and occasionally offered up one of his many trusted rules of survival in a zombie world, which were quite hilarious when demonstrated on-screen. Make no mistake, this film was a comedy, with the expected amount of violence and gore included, but I was most impressed with the many small, quiet moments between the characters—both heartfelt and credible—that helped the story achieve a level of class and realism I wasn’t expecting. Comparisons will probably be made to Shaun of the Dead, but that’s okay; they’re both great zombie comedy films, and Zombieland is definitely one worth checking out. (8/10)
IT MIGHT GET LOUD
THE LOFT CINEMA
2:45 pm – $8.75
I’d discovered the existence of the Loft Cinema when I was researching theaters located in the Tucson area, in preparation for this trip. It’s a small art house cinema, located not far from the University of Arizona campus, and had been showing, as of a week ago, a British comedy called In The Loop, which looked like a winner, especially with reviews comparing it to the works of Monty Python. But of course, once my weekend arrived, it was nowhere to be seen. Now, I was left with three disparate choices: It Might Get Loud, a rock documentary; Seraphine, a foreign film about a housekeeper-turned painter, which had won some French film awards; and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs Goldberg, another documentary, this one about a Jewish woman who wrote and starred in a popular radio and television show from the 1940s and 1950s.
I’m sure you’d agree, the pickings were slim. They were screening Darkman that night at 10:00, but that would throw my whole schedule into a frenzy, and I wasn’t sure if Darkman was worth the effort, so with just those three other films at my disposal, I decided to first watch their trailers at home on IMDb, and base my decision entirely on which preview I liked best. Well, with what looked like an interesting story, and all those awards staring me in the face, I went with Seraphine…’til I discovered that, for whatever reason, the Loft didn’t have an afternoon screening on that particular Saturday. Great. So, I went with my second pick, It Might Get Loud, since its subject matter hit closer to home than that of an elderly Jewish woman who graced TV screens in the 1950s.
My friend Durand had warned me the night before that the Tucson freeway system through town was a complete mess—he’d been there recently on a business trip—and that I’d have to take side streets and frontage roads to get where I needed to be. Even then, I reached the Tucson area a lot sooner than I expected (Google Maps must add an hour onto drive time for lunch stops and bathroom breaks), and zoomed off at Exit 254, wondering how the people continuing on towards downtown on the freeway would handle a sudden snarl of dead-stop traffic not too far on ahead. But as I continued on the parallel frontage road, now traveling at 40 mph and without one other car in front of or behind me, I began repeatedly glancing to my left as dozens upon dozens—perhaps hundreds—of happy motorists traveling at a supersonic 75 mph were cruising along the I-10 without a construction vehicle, sign, person, or roadblock in sight.
It remained like this all the way to Speedway—not one hint of construction work on the I-10—so I promised myself I’d definitely be taking the freeway out of town when I left that night. And without any construction delays to deal with, I was once again an early arrival to my movie…nearly two hours early, actually. I continued on towards the Loft, whose location I found easily enough, then decided to continue on down Speedway, cut down to Congress, and check out the other two theaters on my list, the Fox and the El Con, and get my photo-taking sessions out of the way. And that’s when I found out where all the construction workers and their barricades were hanging out that day: yep, smack dab in the middle of downtown, between me and the now-elusive Fox Theater.
Wonderful. I weaved my way through orange cones and traffic cops at a tricycle’s pace, finally pulling out of it all a few blocks from the Fox, where I somehow happened upon a 15-minute-only parking space ten feet from the theater’s entrance. I pulled in, hopped out with both cameras—digital and film—and began snapping away at the Fox’s tall marquee. I then hurried across the street, hoping for an all-encompassing view of the theater facade and ticket booth, but then had to wait for a young couple taking their own picture…while lying down on the sidewalk, right in front of the theater, ruining my shot. Argh! They were dressed in what appeared to be matching soccer uniforms, and took about thirty pictures before standing, teasing me by almost stepping out of frame…then stepping back in again, this time to study a freaking map!
So there I waited, and waited, wondering when a police officer would swing by and accost me for loitering, when the two finally moved off…and were replaced by another Manchester United husband-and-wife team, who followed the lead of the prior soccer cast-offs and got comfortable on the sidewalk for another series of photos! What the heck! Is this why the streets were clogged up? For some sort of twisted MISL treasure hunt? Finally, the sidewalk was clear of hooligans, and traffic had just stopped at the adjacent light, so I quickly snapped off several pictures before hopping back in the car and heading east again, towards the El Con. But the shenanigans at the Fox had eaten up too much valuable time, and now it was too late for any more picture-taking; I drove back to the Loft, got a few photos of their art deco marquee (with nary a soccer player to be found), then headed inside.
After paying too much for a ticket (a freaking $8.75 for a matinee showing), I didn’t even bother looking at the snack bar; I was directed to head up a flight of stairs to my movie, which surprised me, since from the outside the theater appeared to be a one-story affair (ah…’the Loft’…I get it!). But there was a screen up there, and a decent number of seats, including a long sectional couch up at the front, for those who truly wanted to relax, or maybe sleep. About a dozen people were already inside, clustered in the first few rows, so I took my customary position in the back, again against the wall, this time on the left. And even though a sign on the front door had read ‘no outside food’, I proclaimed to myself that Sweet Tarts were not food, and dug into the roll I’d snuck in as the previews began.
Not the greatest theater, not the biggest screen or best sound, and not the best film print…but the place was cozy, and definitely unique, so I wasn’t griping too much. But after sitting through this snoozer of a movie for $8.75, I was wishing I had the option of Monday’s ‘Mondo Monday’ screening of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster instead, for a more wallet-friendly price of $2.00.
It Might Get Loud (2009) – An uninteresting documentary about three rock guitarists—Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, The Edge from U2, and Jack White of the White Stripes—who were brought together for one day to sit around and discuss…wait for it…guitar playing. It was odd that most of the film was made up of backstory, old footage, and solo interviews, instead of the actual gathering, which now that I think about it, would probably have caused even more heavy eyelids. Page came off as the most entertaining, and had some funny comments, while Edge supplied some good information about the technical side of his guitar work…but White was way out of his league, and seemed out of place compared to the other two legends (and he was dressed like a moron). Guitar enthusiasts and full-on rock fans would probably appreciate this more, but I couldn’t have cared less, and actually nodded off a few times. And yes, Elisabeth Shue made it into the ‘special thanks’ portion of the end credits. (5/10)
7:30 pm – $8.00
Now I really had some time to kill—three hours worth—but I’d planned it this way, so I could have some quality time for dinner and a walk around downtown Tucson before my next film. Unfortunately, during my travels around Speedway and Congress earlier, I’d spotted nothing but fast food places and tiny hole-in-the-wall dives, and nothing at all along the lines of a bar & grill, or a pizza place, or even a locally-owned restaurant that suited my needs. My explorations of downtown would probably have to wait for another time, too…probably a weekday, because I sure hadn’t seen anything open (or anything, period) on a Saturday afternoon.
I worked my way back over to the El Con area, where I remembered finding on a map that a shopping mall was in the vicinity of the theater, one which I’d hoped was littered with a variety of dining choices, or at least a food court or two. Well, all I saw as I pulled into the desolate parking lot was a Rubio’s…and that was all I was going to find. The mall was about as dead as a mall could be, with nearly all of its shops empty and dark, and only a few scattered hangers-on still open for business. I knew immediately I wasn’t going to find a place to eat in this retail graveyard, so I asked a security guard where the theater was located, took some photos there, then grabbed my Bill Bryson travel book and headed over to Rubio’s, which was, incredibly, more crowded than the mall was.
I ordered a fish taco combo plate and found a table with a view, where I kicked back with my book and relaxed for a bit. The dinner was good, but not sufficiently time-consuming; after I’d finished, I still had nearly two hours remaining before my next movie began. After some thought, I decided to just give up and head over to the Fox area, search out a hopefully inexpensive place to park, and work off the fish tacos by hiking around the downtown streets before Nosferatu started.
I still had no idea where I was going to park, but I got lucky as I approached the theater along Congress, and spotted a ‘Fox Theater Parking’ sign, which pointed to an approaching side street. There I found a public garage, which charged an economical $2 flat rate to park for the evening, and which was only a block from the Fox. I happily pulled into a spot on the second level, headed downstairs, and began my walking tour of Tucson, only to find that there was still nothing really available, or really there, to experience. I few swanky cafe-like restaurants were open for business, but everything else was sealed tight for the evening.
Finally, after working up a sweat from walking back and forth along the same lonely square grid of cross streets, I figured I’d be better off waiting in the air-conditioned comfort of the theater, and made my way there. When I’d first seen the exterior of the Fox, I was a little disappointed; it seemed to be in good shape, but the marquee and box office weren’t as impressive as I’d hoped. Well, that all changed once I stepped inside; it was like walking into a brand-new movie palace of the 1930s, complete with a fashionable lobby, old-style drinking fountain, the original seats re-upholstered in a classic style, original designs and artwork on the walls and ceiling, and best of all, an actual balcony, with four rows of loveseat-style seating! It was quite a wonderful place to watch an old movie…I really had a feel of what it must have been like to experience a motion picture in the first half of the past century.
I spoke for a bit with an usher, a man who seemed to know quite a bit of the theater’s history, and he explained that the Fox had closed in 1974, and had remained dormant until the early 2000s, when the restoration project had begun. He also told me that part of the clean-up campaign included removing the people; puzzled, I asked him what he meant, and he clarified that quite a few homeless people had taken up residence in the broken-down auditorium, and had to be ‘relocated’ when the restoration began. For some reason, I found this tidbit to be quite disturbing.
I went back downstairs and checked out the seating in the main auditorium, which was excellent in its own way. From here, the screen seemed much more imposing, and the size and depth of the stage gave me the impression that I was about to witness a vaudeville act. I liked the view from here, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see a movie from a balcony vantage point…something I hadn’t done since I’d seen The Empire Strikes Back at the Ironwood Theater in Michigan in 1980. I realized I hadn’t discovered a bathroom or a snack bar yet, and after checking with another usher, found both at the front of the lobby. I only had $5 bills on me, and needed change for the parking garage kiosk, so I indulged in a bag of M&M’s, chatted for a moment with the two twenty-somethings working the snack bar, then returned to the balcony and planted myself, alone, in a love seat in the fourth row.
The movie started at exactly 7:30—no advertising or previews here—and I was a little shocked and disappointed that the film was being shown, via laptop computer, on DVD. But then I reminded myself that I’d seen several films in the recent past that were presented digitally, which was basically what was happening here, and that the sharpness, clarity, and sound of the film I was watching was, well, fantastic. Plus, you really couldn’t tell it wasn’t film, so what was the point of worrying about it? I just settled in and enjoyed the show, in one of the coolest old-time theaters I’d ever been to.
Nosferatu (1922) – The classic silent vampire film from German director F.W. Murnau, featuring the creepiest and ugliest vampire this side of that bloodsucking bastard from Salem’s Lot. Murnau and Max Schreck—who plays the Dracula-like Count Orlok—combined to create a truly frightening creature, and the director’s Expressionist scenes were both wonderful to look at and frightening to experience. The introduction of Nosferatu, standing in long shot and staring at the camera, was the stuff that nightmares are made of. Unfortunately, the rest of the film (basically, any scene without the vampire) was slow and uneventful, and almost seemed superfluous. Still, from a cinematic standpoint, it was definitely worth a viewing; the print I saw was the full 94-minute Kino version, beautifully restored and with the original score (which was excellent) and color tinting retained. (7/10)
THE INVENTION OF LYING
CENTURY EL CON 20
10:00 pm – $9.75
After Nosferatu let out, shortly after nine, I found myself standing under the Fox’s brightly-lit marquee and feeling like I should be strolling around for a bit, enjoying the nightlife, like one might do in Manhattan or Chicago (or even San Diego). Unfortunately, there would be nothing like that here. I now had my shortest gap between films—just under one hour—and since there wasn’t anything worth enjoying around there anyway, I retrieved my car from the garage and headed east again along Congress to my fourth and final theater, and movie, of the day.
The Century El Con 20, named so because of the El Conquistador Mall it was located next to, had a towering facade that had looked kinda cool when I’d found it on the Cinema Treasures web site; that and its name were my sole reasons for seeing a movie here. The film I was seeing was another one that had just opened the previous day, The Invention of Lying, a comedy that a few film critics had reviewed positively in yesterday’s paper. I was hoping to also catch the new low-budget ghost movie Paranormal Activity at midnight, but the girl at the box office sadly informed me that it was sold out, and had been for a few days. So for me, it was to be a four-movie day, instead of a sudden five.
When I stepped into the main lobby, I was surprised by two things: the size of the snack stand, which resembled a small supermarket, and the long line of high school punks lounging on the floor, waiting to see Paranormal Activity, which wasn’t starting for another two hours! Even though I’d eaten dinner not that long ago, I was in the mood for more popcorn, so I got myself a medium popcorn and medium drink—remember, that was a medium popcorn and drink—and about had a heart attack when the cashier rang up my total: $10.75! Hell, a large popcorn and drink at Harkins cost me just $5.50! After paying, I studied my measly offering as I walked towards my auditorium, and promised myself I’d never buy food at a Century theater again.
I wasn’t expecting a big crowd for this movie, but when I sat down—top row, far left—and looked around me, I saw that there were quite a few people scattered about, mostly young couples and a few small pockets of families. I’ll give the Century folks some credit; at least their theaters were comfortable, and the screens were big. And as I sat there, munching on sub-standard popcorn, I thought it was interesting that I wasn’t in the least bit bored with watching movies yet. Here I was, viewing my fourth film in twelve hours, and it felt like I was just sitting down to my first. Not once during the day did I feel like I was overdoing it, and besides nodding off during It Might Get Loud a few times, I was actually feeling pretty good at this late hour.
Unfortunately, this movie wasn’t the grade-A presentation I was hoping to round out my day with; if there ever was a film that was worthy of sleeping through, this one was it.
The Invention of Lying (2009) – A botched attempt at some sort of whimsical comedy romance, that wasn’t handled well at all, and was too far-fetched to be taken seriously. The problem I had started with the very first scene; the conceit that was introduced was that the human populace had no understanding of lying…it just didn’t exist. What the filmmakers didn’t understand was that not lying and speaking one’s mind were two different things! It was an “oops, did I just say that out loud?” landscape, instead of one where everyone told the truth. What was also ridiculous was, when one man (Ricky Gervais) began to lie, every person he interacted with automatically believed him; were we supposed to assume that it was a world of idiots, too? Sheesh. Add to that an overly-sentimental screenplay that tried to push all the typical buttons, washed-out cinematography, and a revolving-door of unnecessary guest appearances, and you had yourself an end product that was far more irritating than entertaining. And the use of a bouncy ELO song seemed to me like sacrilege. (3/10)
And so, that was my Tucson Cinema Saturday. My last film wrapped up at ten minutes before midnight, and after sitting in the car for a few moments, writing down some notes for my reviews, I headed out on Speedway, merged onto the construction-free I-10, and headed for home, which I reached around 2:30 am. After 291 miles traveled, four movies, four theaters, 14 preview trailers, two bags of popcorn, two rolls of Sweet Tarts, one bag of M&Ms, two fish tacos, and about eight hours of listening to 92.9 FM, The Mountain, I was definitely ready for some sleep.