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San Diego
Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Hooray for Hollywood’s Ability to Keep $9.7B Movie Biz Rolling

It’s that time of year when movie critics feel compelled to list their 10 favorites for the recent year, many of which I haven’t seen and some I’d not heard of before.

Since I’m not one who earns a living watching flicks and writing what I think about them, there are no official recommendations here.

Nonetheless, I marvel at Hollywood. Despite its ups and downs, writers’ strikes and various woes through the years, it continues to survive as one industry the country hasn’t figured out how to divest itself of.

According to the Los Angeles Times, moviegoers forked over more dough in 2007 than the year before. Theater revenue in the United States and Canada rose 4 percent to $9.7 billion last year, the second consecutive increase following a 2005 downturn.

The bump was attributed to higher ticket prices, as attendance was flat at 1.4 billion tickets sold, the same as in 2006. I couldn’t find a breakdown for counties.

But you have to credit the film industry for hanging on in a time when people are increasingly turning to the Internet for entertainment. Perhaps it’s because producers have finally figured out that audiences, at least some of them, want to go back to the past, not the future, or even the present.

For instance, unlike many films in recent years that showed heroes and heroines desperately seeking answers to dilemmas by tapping on computer keyboards or talking on cell phones , “The Firm,” is a classic example , many recently released movies depict times before online came on line. OK, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is an exception.

But “The Great Debaters,” a relative newcomer, underscores my point. Denzel Washington both starred in and directed it and also starred in “American Gangster,” another new flick with a pre-digital plot.

“The Great Debaters,” which is based on a true story, is about how small, black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in 1935 went on the road to challenge big league universities.

That was after Washington, in his role as Mel Tolson, the debate coach, wrote letters to the larger schools. Of course, people communicated through letters in those days, but the emotion conveyed when he opened and read the responses was almost palpable.

Maybe it’s the human element that is so grabbing, versus watching messages conveyed via e-mail a la “You’ve Got Mail,” a 1998 release. That’s an on-screen screen, kind of like watching a movie of people watching TV. Or perhaps it’s because we’re tired of seeing computers, one of our everyday trappings, as props.

Another example of a film that detours from the information superhighway is “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which came to theaters in late September. Directed by Sidney Lumit, it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Andy, and Ethan Hawke, who delivers a remarkable performance as his younger brother Hank, and it kept me on the edge of my seat, particularly when Hank went nutso in a phone booth.

Not to lament the phone booth, a vanishing commodity on the landscape, but I appreciated how well it framed the tension of that moment. Characters can’t really emote using a cell phone, even if they toss it in a fountain, as the heroine did in “The Devil Wears Prada,” a 2006 movie about a wannabe serious journalist working for a fashion magazine.

Neither are there cell phones in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” released a couple of months ago. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the film is set in West Texas in 1980. It stars Tommy Lee Jones, the king of staring off into the distance, as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and co-stars Javier Bardem, the king of looking just plain weird, as professional hit man Anton Chigurh.

Bardem, meanwhile, also stars as Florentino Ariza in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” a film based on a novel about unrequited love in the late 19th century that is finally requited in the first part of the 20th century. At one point, Florentino, then an old man, rides down the street in an early model automobile with a girlfriend, a college student whom he dumps.

I hope that this trend continues, because Hollywood seems to favor pairing old men with women young enough to be their daughters. Also in vogue again is nudity and violence , the industry must be spending gazillions on fake blood , so check ratings if these offend.

While one very recent box office favorite, Mike Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War,” starring Tom Hanks as the Texas congressman, did show a cell phone, it was one of the earlier ones that we referred to as car phones, and it appeared only briefly at the end.

As far as “No Country for Old Men,” “The Great Debaters” and “Charlie Wilson’s War” go, Hollywood may have reinvented the Western about that wild and reckless period in history when folks didn’t have computers and cell phones to make life easier on the frontier.

– – –

Historic Balboa Theatre Reopens:

After a five-year, $26.5 million renovation and restoration effort by the city of San Diego’s Redevelopment Agency, the 83-year-old Balboa Theatre, once an eyesore in the center of downtown, has reopened.

The Balboa, which first opened in 1924 as a vaudeville house, then became Teatro Balboa, a movie house in the 1930s. A portion of the building was used in the 1940s by the Navy to house sailors waiting to ship out.

It was saved from the wrecker ball in 1959 when it was acquired by the Russo family and it continued to be movie theatre until its closure in the 1980s.

The city Redevelopment Agency acquired it in 1986. Its diverse lineup of performances for the year begins with a performance by Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight!” at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 19.

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