Surprising Summer Hits

There’s an interesting article on movie theaters in the August 22 issue of Time Magazine (the one with the “25 Most Influential Hispanics in America” cover). Titled “Is Luxury the Ticket?” it describes some theater chains that attract customers by adding comfortable seating and good food, and sometimes even stand-up comedians before the movie. In other words, they’re putting on a better show. (I’d include a link to the article, but unless you’re a Time subscriber, you won’t be able to read it online, anyway.)

I applaud this strategy, but what really caught my eye was an unrelated comment in the second paragraph: “Theater owners and industry execs blame the [current box-office] drop not on this year’s bombs but on last year’s hits, namely Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.”

So that’s it? The difference between last year’s “Movies are better than ever” celebration and this year’s “The industry is doomed” hand-wringing is two movies?

And look at these two. They’re both rated R. One’s a documentary, and the other has subtitles (it’s not even a foreign language film; it was a dead language film). These factors alone should have forced these flicks into the art film ghetto and out of blockbuster consideration.

From the studio’s point of view, these were the least of their sins. These movies were controversial. Almost everyone in America was deeply offended by one of these movies long before either of them were in theaters. And people don’t go to movies that offend them sight unseen. No wonder the major studios wanted nothing to do with these two.

But a funny thing happened on their way to obscurity. Each became a must-see event for the half of the population was that offended by the other. And strangely enough, half of the population is enough to generate a pretty big hit.

There’s a lesson for the Hollywood studios in this: Take risks. Back movies with points of view that aren’t universally accepted. Hey, these movies are cheaper to make than The Fantastic Four.

And there’s a lesson for theater owners, too: Make your theaters a destination worth going to. Add gourmet food. Redecorate. Put in chairs as comfortable as my recliner. And if the latest Hollywood blockbuster is a piece of junk, show something else.

Like what the Parkway is doing. Oakland’s in-spot for pizza, beer, and a second-run movie is dipping carefully into revival scheduling this week with a two-movie series (if you can call two movies a series) titled “Our Favorite Comedies.” The movies in question are Best in Show, which is wonderful, and Murder by Death, which is not. But let’s hope the trend continues.

Speaking of trends, the Balboa must have started one earlier this year. Both the Rafael and the Stanford have Garbo series coming up.

So, let’s see: Studios should fight the current trend by making more daring movies. Theaters should fight it by putting on a real show. And what should moviegoers do? Turn off the TV, leave the house, and go to one of the movies listed below.

Noteworthy: Without Fear, Pacific Film Archive, Friday night. This 1972 film from then-Soviet Uzbekistan sounds fascinating (I haven’t seen it). Set in the 1920’s, it concerns the culture clash between Communism and Islam. Since it had to get passed Soviet censors, I’m going to guess that Communism wins. Part of the Archive’s Films From Along the Silk Road: Central Asian Cinema series.

Recommended: Best in Show, Parkway, Friday through Tuesday. Christopher Guest’s dog-show mockumentary has more than its share of hilarious moments. The rest of it is pretty funny, too. Part of the Parkway’s Our Favorite Comedies series.

Recommended: Red Eye, Presidio, ongoing engagement starts Friday. Who knew that Wes Craven could make a really scary movie with almost no stage blood (okay, Music of the Heart lacked gore, but it wasn’t very scary, either). Set almost entirely within the confines of an airliner’s coach cabin, Red Eye is an old-fashioned nail-biter in the Hitchcock tradition, keeping you on the edge of your seat with every little thing that you don’t like about flying. Unfortunately, as with Collateral (last year’s neo-Hitchcock gem), logic and plausibility are thrown the wind in the last half hour to give you an “exciting” finish. Despite the flaws, it’s still a wonderful ride…or flight.

Recommended: College, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday night. This is probably the worst feature Buster Keaton made while he had creative control over his work. But weak Keaton is still better than 90% of the comedies you’re likely to see, even when he includes some extremely racist humor. Also, while most of College is clearly Keaton playing it safe and conventional, the last few seconds of the movie are among the most bizarre, surreal, and honest things he ever did. Accompanied by Bruce Loeb on the piano.

Recommended: Mary Poppins, Lark, Sunday and Monday. The best live-action movie Walt Disney ever made, and one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really is wonderful in this movie. So what if it takes liberties with the books.

Recommended: Shadow of a Doubt, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Sunday night. In Alfred Hitchcock’s first great American film, a serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. The locations were shot in Santa Rosa. Warning: This is a DVD, not film, presentation.

Noteworthy: Queen Christina, Rafael, Sunday night. Not really a great movie, but an interesting one for a number of reasons. Queen Christina reunites one of the great romantic teams (on and off camera) of the 1920’s–Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. It has the best part Gilbert got after talkies destroyed his career. And finally, this 1933 MGM spectacular is a good example of just how free movies were about sex before the production code came in and cleaned them up. Part of the Rafael’s Greta Garboseries.

Recommended: Them!, Castro, Wednesday. The best giant mutant insect movie of the 1950’s. Hmmm, that sounds like damning with faint praise. Okay, how about this? A thoughtful, entertaining film about the dangers of nuclear testing…specifically the dangers caused by giant, mutated ants. Let me try that again. Not only is the scientist more intelligent than the military, but so is his beautiful and available daughter (who only screams once). Part of the Castro’s Cold War Series, on a double-bill with Panic In Year Zero!

Recommended: Girl Shy, Stanford, Wednesday night. Harold knows all about seducing women; in fact, he’s written the book on it. Too bad he’s absolutely terrified of them. One of Harold Lloyd’s funniest films. Accompanied by Chris Elliott on the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Noteworthy: Mahanagar and Charulata, Stanford, Thursday and the following Friday. I’ve seen far too few Satyajit Ray films. These two, both concerning women’s roles in Indian marriages, are among those I haven’t seen, but would like to. A nice bit of variety from the Stanford’s usual American Classic programming.