Monday, December 24, 2012

East Bay Express

Three time in three days, I trekked to the East Bay.  I went to the Niles Essanay in Fremont, Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley and the New Parkway in Oakland.  I had never been to the Elmwood or New Parkway (or the Old Parkway).

Ben-Hur starring Ramon Novarro & Francis X. Bushman; directed by Fred Niblo; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis; (1925)
Django starring Franco Nero; directed by Sergio Corbucci; Italian with subtitles; (1966)
Beasts of the Southern Wild starring Quvenzhané Wallis & Dwight Henry; directed by Benh Zeitlin; (2012) - Official Website

I saw Ben-Hur at Niles Essanay, Django at the Elmwood and Beasts of the Southern Wild at the New Parkway.


Since I've written so much about the New Parkway, I guess I should start with it.  Given a half day off from work on the 24th, I ventured over to Oakland for the 6:45 PM screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The theater is located on 24th Street between Telegraph and Broadway.  As I approached the theater, I thought the building had been tagged (i.e. graffiti).  There is no traditional signage for the New Parkway.  "The New Parkway" is spray painted on the outside wall.  There are some images of three guys (two with Oakland A's caps and one with a SF Giants cap) with dollar signs for left eyes that I thought was some leftover Occupy Oakland commentary.

The first thing I noticed when walking in is that the lobby was spacious and looked like a cafe.  If the food is good, it wouldn't surprise me if the cafe could be operated as a stand-alone business.  The only object to indicate that a movie theater is nearby is the old school film projector used as ornamentation.  The box office is at the concession bar which includes six (if I counted correctly) beers on tap.  The kitchen is semi-open so you can see the food staff preparing food.

I ordered a grilled cheese with tomatoes which was a little dry.  Honestly, I could have made a grilled cheese of similar quality and I'm an average cook at best.  I don't think they pressed the sandwich with oil or butter. My mother made great grilled cheese - the secret is too use butter but not too much!  On the day I went, a complimentary beverage was included with the price of admission.  Having driven, I passed on beer and selected an Italian soda.  The food is delivered via a wireless system.  I was given a plastic card.  When I sat down in the theater, each table had a wireless card reader.  I inserted the card into the reader which informed the staff where I was seated.  The food was delivered to my table.   There was a button on the card reader console which indicated I could order food from my seat.  I didn't try that feature.

The theater consisted of a floor space with mismatched couches, booths, love seats, chairs, coffee tables and various bric-à-brac.  Behind the floor were three levels of stadium style terraces with individual seats and love seats.  Next to each seat is a side table for one's food.  The entire effect of the interior is an industrial space with garage sale chic furniture and Oaklandish graffiti art on the walls.

There were only 8 or 10 people at my screening.  It was Christmas Eve but the turnout was still a little disappointing.

As for Beasts of the Southern Wild, it wasn't my cup of tea.  A fantasy involving a child's imagination, the film explores death and the circle of life while mixing in what appears to be Hurricane Katrina footage and the prehistoric beasts from the title.  There were a lot of shots of piles of crayfish and the bayou.  There was a particularly interesting scene where four young girls visit a floating brothel and begin dancing with the ladies.  Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, the daughter and Dwight Henry as Wink, the father give strong (borderline crazy) performances.


The Elmwood is on a stretch of College Avenue I had never been to before.  A nondescript single screen theater which has now been divided into three screens, the Elmwood was most notable for the interesting looking neighborhood it resides on.

Django, undoubtedly re-released to take advantage of Tarantino's upcoming Django Unchained, left me underwhelmed.  Set in a fetid, muddy Southwest US town where the Mexican, ex-Confederates and ex-Union soldiers speak Italian, Django was long on violence and Franco Nero's steel blue eyes.  Much preferring Leone's Man With No Name trilogy, Django's extended scenes of violence and silence left me bored at times.  The beautiful Loredana Nusciak (born Loredana Cappelletti) is ridiculously cast as Django's Mexican love interest.


A healthy crowd turned out on Saturday, December 22 for the silent version of Ben-Hur (projected from a Blu Ray).  Hewing closely to the 1959 film's plot but clocking in at approximately an hour shorter, the silent version doesn't have the grandeur of the William Wyler/Charlton Heston classic.  The most expensive silent film ever made, Ben-Hur was a blockbuster hit when it was released.  I thought Francis X. Bushman's Messala overshadowed Ramon Novarro's Ben-Hur.  Ben-Hur looked to be no match for Messala whereas Heston and Stephen Boyd seemed more evenly matched (not to mention the homosexual undertones).  

The chariot race scene is still exciting although there weren't any blades on Messala's chariot but Ben-Hur's stallions were white.  The silent Ben-Hur is a significant film in its own right but I simply prefer the Charlton Heston version.

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