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Drive-in movies: Catching up with the past.

This article or something like it appeared in The Tacoma Ledger on 8/6/2012. lol.

If you ever spent time during the summers of your youth visiting a drive-in movie theater, you likely have a soft spot for this kind of movie-going today. As a kid I remember being amazed in our family car watching Back to the Future Part III. I also can’t seem to forget that ancient fear from having witnessed Gremlins 2 in the middle of the dark night outdoors. Yes, I did see some movies that were not sequels, but regardless, I remember the drive-in with fondness.  Even in this HD-IMAX-digital-surround sound era of movie entertainment, I still hold a sacred place in my heart for the 35MM film-distant screen-celluloid-AM radio experience I get at the drive-in.

I recently visited the Valley 6 Drive-In Theater in Auburn and talked with its operations manager, Keith about a variety of topics related to drive-ins. Keith has been with Valley 6 since 1991, but even before that he was essentially raised at the drive-in. While growing up his family helped operate the Rodeo Drive-In just up the road in Bremerton, Washington.

Even beyond the notion of drive-in theater as historic Americana, there’s an interesting theme of legacy that pervades Valley 6. One employee, while helping his son search for a job came to Valley 6 and after getting some information, both father and son ended up finding employment there. Keith says there have been several parent-child tandems having worked at Valley 6.

Back in 1969, Valley 6 originally opened with only three screens. Due to a growth in demand, in 1980 it was extended to include all six screens currently on the site. One of the more nostalgic parts of the whole campus is the one 1969 screen that is in disrepair but still standing. It’s a deteriorating hollow phantom of an icon that stands to remind us that the drive-in is an historic pastime that has entertained many generations. Drive-in theaters are also emblematic of many forms of mass entertainment that are in their twilight stages.

It’s readily accepted that technological advances in movies have turned the drive-in theater movie into an antiquated experience, but it’s just one of many forms of popular cultural activities that are being replaced by more personalized forms. The drive-in movie, even more-so than at an indoor movie theater, is an experience where patrons are very cognizant that they are taking part in a collective form of entertainment together. The proliferation of streaming and on-demand movies that can be watched with seemingly infinite variety on home-entertainment systems or even on mobile devices is gaining precedence in the way we choose to watch movies over the older but more social practices.

Personalization of culture has also been occurring in television with cable channels specializing on every major interest while network television increasingly struggles to retain ratings with traditional mass-appeal models of programming. And of course printed news, such as our beloved Ledger no longer hold primary sway about current events when faced against internet news sites, blogs and even RSS readers. These news resources allow so much customization of content that one can now fine-tune their own editorial slant just by consuming the exact news they want from amongst the entire internet.

While customization of activities, information, and experiences helps nourish such modern virtues as diversity and individuality, traditions such as the drive-in may be one means that we can preserve a sort of social cohesion that also gives us a sense of being part of something bigger. The Valley 6 drive-in theater has over 3000 vehicle stalls that allow a multitude of families and groups of various walks of life to experience something together.

While walking around the Valley 6 grounds I surveyed groups of people spread across multiple vehicles hanging-out, some sitting along the backs of trucks, vans and SUV’s, and some in fold-out chairs, many of them engaging each other with friendliness in the sweet fading sunlight. Many of their children were also playing frisbee and other games in the grassy spot under the white projection screen. The scene was expressive of a certain easy-going togetherness that seemed perfect on a warm summer night.

My companion and I were told that in addition to the regular movie showings, the Valley 6 has been reserved for a variety special occasions such as high-school class reunion events where movies from the graduating year were shown to the alumni. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is put on regularly for raving fans. Once, a large extended Indian family even held a get-together with an outdoor dinner with dancing and celebrating to a Bollywood film on the drive-in screen.

The Valley 6 shows primarily blockbuster type movies for understandable reasons. The drive-in, in addition to being a cultural treasure is also a business, and they must negotiate with movie distributors and adhere to amounts to be paid in royalties. These royalty agreements siphon-off much of what the theater makes from admissions. That means that, like indoor theaters, drive-ins must make most of their profits via concessions sales. So outside of the more occasional special screening, the theater must show movies that are in most-popular demand and will consistently bring in the largest number of visitors. It’s also why the business asks that visitors not bring in outside food or drinks. But wanting to retain loyal customers, staff at Valley 6 are more friendly than vigilant about this request. Visiting the concessions stand between showings of a double feature is a noble act of compassion and support for the continuing health of the theater.

As another measure of Valley 6’s kindness, Keith even offered to show us the projection room. In there are the three film projectors for one half of the six total screens. These mechanical marvels were a sight unto themselves. They are 1960’s era machines that still run strong and are each about the size of a small horse. Even more behemoth than these in terms of circumference were the film reels which lay flat and measure over a yard each in diameter. These huge spindles have upwards of 3,000 feet of 35 millimeter film spun round them. The film crisscrosses over and under head in an elaborate pulley system and it’s a wonder that it never gets twisted, tangled or caught at any point along it’s winding string-game.

After the tour we got one more example of how well-run the place is and how nice the employees are. We came back to our car during the previews of the movie only to find the car’s lights flashing rudely! A staff-person was quickly taping-up cardboard to cover up the annoyances. Murray, my troublemaking dog had learned a new trick and stepped his paw upon the emergency flashers button in the center console. Even in the darkness others might have seen my face flushed red as I apologized profusely for the blunder. They showed understanding, so I only still owe penance to a few hundred others that were there.

If you’ve never been to a drive-in or haven’t visited since Gremlins 2, then I suggest you get to one this summer. These icons of historic American culture are well attended, but they’re not exactly dominating the movie theaters industry either. The Valley 6 Drive-In itself has been rumored to be closing multiple times during the last few years due to the march of new suburban neighborhood development in the valley; but Valley 6 lumbers on with high-spirits and continues to provide the South Sound with multiple windows for peering into Tinsel Town. These landmarks will probably stay in business only as long as we support them with such rituals as seeing a drive-in movie once every summer.

The Puget Sound region has six currently operating drive-ins. In addition to Auburn’s Valley 6 Drive-In and the Rodeo Drive-In in Bremerton, there are theaters in Sultan, Colville, Oak Harbor, Shelton, and Port Townsend. Most are operating throughout the rest of summer and into September.

We’re all a little Jerry Springer

I wrote this when the movie was new – about 7/9/2012. Oopsies.

Your Sister’s Sister is now playing at The Grand Cinema in Downtown Tacoma.

Here’s the scenario: A guy is home alone with his best friend’s sister, the two of them end up having carnal relations, and the whole thing blows-up when the best friend/other sister finds out. Now, would you have watched this on:

A: Daytime television? Or,

B: High-quality independent cinema?

You friggin cheats! You already knew this is a movie review! You saw it’s a discussion of the new release, Your Sister’s Sister. You would have chosen, ‘A’ if you weren’t so “Look at me. I’m soooo smart.  I can observe stuff.”

Whatever. The point is, we tend to classify anything that has sensational scandal and drama as low-brow and trashy. Though we must not forget that Macbeth and The Twelfth Night of Shakespeare are really just Maury Povich and Days of Our Lives in a different vernacular.

That said, You’re Sister’s Sister does involve the fore-mentioned love triangle scenario, and to good effect too. Instead of a talk show set, the movie takes place in a family cabin in the alternatingly serene and moody forests of the Pacific Northwest. Jack, played by the rising filmmaker and acting star, Mark Duplass, is told by his best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt) to visit her family’s empty cabin in order to achieve revitalization through some old-fashioned mountain solitude. Not too raunchy.

But wait, Iris’s sister Hannah, played very-hottily by Rosemarie DeWitt, is already at the cabin! And she’s just broken-up with her partner of several years!

Now you jerks already know what happens next because you couldn’t just play-along for what would have been an exciting quiz. It’s fine. Before that though, writer/director Lynn Shelton leads up to the inevitable with a great scene montage where Jack and Hannah begin getting to know each other and drown their sorrows using the best of social lubricants, tequila. You know what’s destined to happen next – they’re gonna hump.

It’s here that Shelton makes one of her more adept screenwriting decisions and continues onto this scene in a tone of hyper-realism. Their advance toward the “magic moment” becomes both playful and awkward. There’s a lot of humor and tenderness in seeing the two attractive co-stars bumble their way toward a largely uninspiring result. This very human depiction of passion is also very refreshing and a unique thing in cinema.

I promise I haven’t spoiled anything, that’s only the first twenty minutes of the movie. This movie is actually more about the repercussions of an affair where the bonds of family and friendship are ruptured. The artistic and narrative handling of this is pretty good overall though not without some pretensions. For example, at one point there’s a sobbing apology made by Jack that is either made melodramatic by the written dialogue of the scene, or Duplass is simply incapable of crying authentically on screen. I can’t decide. But later we’re treated to a bruising man vs. bike wrestling match. Yep, you read that correctly. Here Duplass shows the kind of virile frustration and convincing sorrow that WWF Smackdown has been trying to get right for decades.

All three characters look toward the remaining bulk of the movie with tumult in their hearts. Shelton develops their personas well enough that the viewer naturally comes to grasp what each of them needs to figure out about themselves just as they’re going through hell to do it. I think here is where the art of drama like this distinguishes itself from the daytime talk-show. Like with Shakespeare and other more-literary fiascos, this movie explores the hearts and minds of characters as they learn lessons as they struggle with internal demons or the cruelty of the real world. Conversely, Jerry Springer capitalizes on the predictable explosiveness of freshly revealed deceits.

I promise I haven’t yet spoiled the movie and I don’t intend to. I will say that Your Sister’s Sister did reward me (It’s hilarious when I say it that way! Sorry) with a resonating story that also offers up a challenge to traditional domestic relationships. The contemporariness of its conclusion left me reflecting deeply about alternative ways of viewing love and relationships, both romantic and familial.

Age ain’t nothing but a number

This article or something like it appeared in The Tacoma Ledger on 7/9/2012. My bad.

Wes Anderson’s latest movie, Moonlight Kingdom falls right into line with his previous works with meticulously planned settings, plots, emotions and literally everything else. It may have begun as a compulsion of his to control every aspect of a movie, but it’s now acknowledged as his signature style. And at this point, if it was at all remedied and he was to loosen the reins at all we would be disappointed. With Moonlight Kingdom, we treasure all his idiosyncratic creations and would likely revolt if they were stripped away for the trifle benefit of Mr. Anderson’s mental health. Thankfully his continued legacy of obsessing has left with this wonderful story.

I think more than anything, this movie is constructed around a theme of love that obliterates all concepts of age. The relationship that this movie centers around is between a young boy, Sam and a young girl, Suzie played astonishingly by first movie actors, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Both are polite yet fiery children who seem to defy everyone’s efforts to understand them. They are even violent. They each feel the unbridled intensity of emotions that most of us have been taught to suppress for whatever reasons. Vicariously, we follow them on their adventure and through them feel the urge to be free of such emotional incarceration. We also find ourselves wanting to understand them as intimately as the two of them understand each other.

Anderson fans and others will perhaps want to roast me for this, but I’m going to put this movie in a shocking context for a moment. I do it because I found it to be a profound moment in cinema. Recently at a library staff training, (I also work in libraries) we reviewed American libraries’ sacred code to defend intellectual freedom, that is the rights of every citizen to engage in entirely free expression and also the rights of people to have access to all varieties of information. One exemption to these constitutional rights is creating or viewing child pornography. The reason of course is because creating or viewing child pornography is a crime that victimizes children. Not uncomfortably, but interestedly, I found Moonlight Kingdom to be gesturing toward a blurry middle ground.

Let me not mince words –Nothing about this movie should be confused with anything illicit. That free speech training was still bubbling in my thoughts as I was watching this movie and that is the only reason I was aware of the presence of a possible flashpoint. Herein lies the really gratifying power of this movie – that we understand the film’s emotional message of love is stronger than any politics of censorship, therefore as we watch, all controversies are at once removed from the table.

I most definitely remember being in love at an early age. As you’ll note, nothing in that statement is in quotes or diminished in its validity. We too often rationalize childhood love in terms of juvenile crushes or puppy love.  Childhood is so ripe with feeling and sensory novelty, and as kids we have yet to classify and judge everything as known. So when I first experienced love I had to feel it out and grapple with it. Although I have tucked it pretty well away into my memory, I still wonder about that other person who placed that lovely burden on me. In Moonlight Kingdom childhood love is portrayed as impactful as any love between two adults, but it glows with a vividness that only exists from childhood.

Moonlight Kingdom is expertly crafted to help viewers of any age revisit childhood and make real this defining period of our lives. Anderson meticulously renders family homes and family dynamics. He brings back his neat cinematic trick of moving scenes through a cross-section of a set such as a family home or a church theater along with abundant simultaneous action from a myriad of characters in separate rooms. It affects a childlike sensation that there are always more spaces, things and people to explore. Landscapes are rich and colorful and so are the objects, play-things and tree-forts lending the best chromatic shades to the images of youth. Geography is always present too as scene interludes include traveling maps and guides to the Island where the movie takes place making the scenes feel like panels in a comic book. The final touch is to place this movie in a representation of the 1960’s that should capture anyone’s sense of innocence.

Moonlight Kingdom is populated by stars, but most of the movie follows child actors and Anderson manages carefully their work and this creates rigid dialogue between the children, but somehow is has intended outcome of seeming more potent this way. Stars such as Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton shine brightly in scenes, but it’s the kids who earn our hearts with their earnestness.

Youth, memory, imagination and of course love now playing at The Grand Cinema.

Playing this weekend in: 1986

Karate Kid Part II

John Avildsen got it all right. He hit the nail right on the goddam head actually. Take a young, witty and street-wise east coast kid, Daniel-san and stick him for training with the wisest old guy from all of Japan and you have a start. Toss in a gang of white-bread teenage hooligan bullies who are only a switchblade and a hard-knock life short of a 1980’s inner-city street gang. Finally, make all these principals into clavicle-breaking karate virtuosos, and after a thunder-strike chop to your forehead you’ll realize you’ve just been blasted by a great movie! That was The Karate Kid (1984).

Oh, the damage two years can do to a movie concept. The sequel, Karate Kid II pretty much lacks all of the promise and delivery mentioned above. It’s badly written, scripted, and just an all-around awful production; and yet, it was the top-grossing movie of this weekend circa 1986. There’s something to be said about expectations for a follow-up movie that capitalizes on the remaining luster of the original. The odd thing is, this movie had all the same primary character actors, same director (for shame, John Avildsen), and the same writers. So all I can think is that Columbia Pictures ordered a move ahead onto Part II as soon as it became evident that they had struck gold with the first.

Again, it’s bad, but there is one redeeming quality…a bad-ass end fight:

It all begins with some celebration in some ancient Japanese castle ruins. I can’t tell you anything about this spot because, well, it was introduced somewhere earlier in the story that sucked too badly to remember. Then…

Dude zip-lines on lantern strings down to Daniel-san at the center of the castle. That’s dope!

Next, dude orders the bridge leading to the fight-spot off into the depths of some encircling volcanic lava or some shit.  Also dope!

Daniel-san FAILs at his signature crane-jump-kick. Aw daaaamn…

At this critical point, these Japanese drum rattle things are used convey to Daniel-san increased strength and focus – it was dope!

And of course, dopest:

“Playing this weekend in” is a bumbling attempt at a web log series where I watch and write about a movie that was opening this upcoming weekend in some god-forsaken time in the past.  The idea is that it was a top-grossing movie in the box office at that despicable time and you likely would have chosen to see it because of your lack of time machine or adequate foresight. To see other articles in this series click on the playing_this_weekend_in descriptor tag-thing. Hope you enjoy it.

Drama [rhymes with “lamb-a,” not “lama”]

Ha ha. I’m still here!

Continuing with the trip across genres of movies, we can’t wait too long before talking about drama. I don’t know why I say that. I’m not concerned about hurting its feelings and I really don’t give a shit if it feels unappreciated. Well now I’m just being a jerk about it. I’m going to be an adult about this and talk about drama.

Despite the way I just treated it, drama is what I enjoy most. It’s probably because I’m a bit of a sentimental fellow, but I also think drama has the intrinsic characteristic of connecting humanity at our most developed levels of thought and interaction. For example, I talked about horror recently and I used primal kinds of adjectives like “paranoid,” “traumatic” and “chilling.” Actually, I’m not sure I used “chilling,” so I’m calling B.S. on that one before anyone else calls me on it. Anyway, we all feel such instinctive reactions to the events in horror movies and that is how they contain mass appeal; but drama is similarly universal, just usually on a more cerebral level. Of course, I’m not saying you have to be some kind of stuffy intellectual to enjoy the fruits of drama, but it does require greater levels of empathy, critical thinking and overall consciousness than an average adventure story or comedy is going to demand. A shot to the nuts will make me laugh every time, but only a well written, acted, and directed movie will bring a tear to my eye.

Without further ado, some drama that I’ve watched and liked:

Marty (1955)
Marty is a feature film remake of a gem with the same name from the good ol’ days of playhouse television. It’s the story of an average Joe in New York, except his name is Marty. The drama comes in as he confronts his own low self-esteem especially regarding the opposite sex. The viewer is charged with an agonizing task of being his proverbial “wingman” in a very awkward but real world. You’ll find it rewarding tying your emotions to his fate. Available at Tacoma and Pierce County Public Libraries or rent from Netflix.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
I saw Good Will Hunting in the theater when I was pubescently young and still trying to figure out what adulthood was. Even though I was wet behind the ears then, this movie has endured in my mind as a very good funny and sentimental drama. It’s typical of American style dramas in that Matt Damon and Robin Williams do create some over-the-top performances of heavy-hearted issues such as child abuse and widowhood. It’s just a good story, and again, it’s thankfully American, so you won’t be upset by the ending. Available at Tacoma and Pierce County Public Libraries or streaming on Netflix.

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
Take an ill-fated love affair and set it within a discussion of the tragic bombing massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and now you’re cooking with something truly depressing. This is not all about glumness though; it’s about mid-life and all of life that leads up to it. It’s a demanding watch, but Alain Resnais was doing something very new and profound with the way that we experience time in a movie. Hiroshima Mon Amour will make us reconsider the non-linear nature of our memories and how they so affect us today. Available at Pierce County Public Library or rent from Netflix.

Rashomon (1950)
Rashomon is a highly influential film by Akira Kurosawa and is based on the short story, “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. I mention both because both are extremely sharp tellings of an intense psychological tale. This one also focuses on aspects of memory, especially the subjectivity of how one person perceives and reports about an event, in this case the murder of a samurai. The acting is very melodramatic, but this is intended to hammer through the emotions as they relate to the plot. It’s like an epic version of my favorite drunken game – telephone! Available at Pierce County Public Library or rent from Netflix.

Boyz N the Hood (1991)
One might say Boyz N the Hood emerged from the early 1990’s during the height of street gang culture in America. To many it certainly seemed like slice of real life in the central Los Angeles neighborhoods where it was set. But part of me always wrestles with the idea of whether this movie had the effect of opening eyes or just feeding a mass media machine that demanded fresh violence and disturbing images of the big city. Either way, director John Singleton made an amazing debut with this incredibly gripping story about the obstacles that many young black men faced (or face) just trying to grow up into healthy adulthood. The movie is violent and tragic, but it’s presented in a sensitive way that many other movies portraying inner city troubles failed to accomplish. Powerful characters also help Boyz N the Hood to commendably refrain from being purely exploitative.  Available at Tacoma and Pierce County Public Libraries or streaming on Netflix.

Sugar (2009)
I’m an obsessive baseball nut. Baseball will be written about in any place I write and Sugar is a really good excuse to do just that. Sugar is not Major League or Field of Dreams. Sugar is real, like really real.  Hundreds upon hundreds of Latin American boys, and I mean like 15 and 16 year old boys are imported into the United States every year with the hopes of making it to the Majors. The problem is, they are boys and boys rarely have the kind of experience and maturity to begin an independent life in a completely foreign land and on top of that have the added pressure of competing for one’s livelihood at a very difficult game. Dominican youth Miguel Santos, nicknamed, “Sugar” will struggle just to order breakfast at an English-only-speaking American restaurant, so you can see where this is going to be an emotional grind. My advice is to be hopeful for Sugar’s prospects beyond the end of this move and don’t think exclusively in terms of success and failure. Available at Tacoma and Pierce County Public Libraries or streaming on Netflix.

I’ve rated a bunch of other movies at www.criticker.com/profile/ewdewald

Considering the Big ‘L’

I had seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World on Friday and afterward expected to write a column for the Ledger about apocalypse dynamics. Well, I saw Moonrise Kingdom tonight and was pretty swept up by the power of it, so I’m changing the game plan. So here’s a less handsome version of what I planned to write about Seeking a Friend. Don’t be sore. Go see Moonlight Kingdom and you’ll feel better about life in gen. (That’s short for “general.”)

Seeking a Friend is a fine movie. That’s enough rating. Here’s what I really want to say:

Remember a few months back when the Powerball jackpot reached some obscene dollar amount? The question everybody was asking everybody else was, “what would you do with a take like that?” Boy, people emptied their dreams right out onto tables for us to peruse. Many mentioned the typical private jets and gifts to family and friends, but I also heard through some grapevines at least a couple of people said they would leave their spouses for guaranteed trade-ins. Whohahoah.

Anyway, the idea of an apocalypse, like winning the lotto is a game changer for sure, and the scenarios that Steve Carell’s and Keira Knightly’s characters navigate through in Seeking a Friend represent a full spectrum of reactions to such change. There are all the normal things you’d expect such as existential moping, bucket lists, free love and rioting. But there are many aspects about the end of the world as it’s portrayed here that you probably wouldn’t have considered right-off.

Particularly touching is the way some characters create new, more intimate families amongst themselves from the people near them. Such are the hilarious folks at Friendsies, a TGIFridays-like feel-good restaurant where thanks to no certain amounts of ecstasy they feel really good. But this is not pure self-centered hedonism like we witness from others in the movie, you find yourself loving them in the way that they LOVE everything.

Some people, probably for their own sanity live in complete denial and they mow their lawns and do their jobs such that you wonder if they ever got the news that these are their last hours.

While those examples are unique portrayals of the what happens when the end is near, it’s really the Carell character’s struggles with his own life state that draws you nearest this story. There is a solution to his final troubles, and you can’t help but enjoy the voyage to alleviate them. Knightly too makes for an endearing companion along the way.

At some point you should watch this movie, if nothing else but to give a thought to the theme itself: Life, the Big ‘L.’ Don’t go too deep though. Seeking a Friend is often very sappy and over-sentimental, but it’s surely entertaining.

Some movies that I liked centering on the Big ‘L’ as it’s topic: Ikuru (1952), Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), About Schmidt (2002), In Bruges (2008), 25th Hour (2002)

And I’ve rated a bunch of other movies at www.criticker.com/profile/ewdewald