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10 Years Ago Today: The San Diego Cinema That Defined Who I Am As a Moviegoer Closed Its Doors

The exterior of the AMC Encinitas 8, which closed January 28, 2007.

Ten years ago today, an ordinary movie theater that looked like any other built in the 1980s—with the customary shoebox auditoriums, pink-tiled concession stand, forever ketchup-stained carpeting, hallways barely wide enough to contain the exiting masses, and a distinct absence of any of the electronic signage that has become ubiquitous in today’s megaplexes—closed to the public and was shortly thereafter demolished and turned into a Staples office supplies store.

I mourned—and still mourn—the occasion as if I had lost a family member.

Looking at photos of the AMC Encinitas 8, or the AMC Wiegand Plaza as it was originally named in 1982—after the city’s longtime builder family, who pioneered Encinitas in the late 19th Century—you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as just another ’80s multiplex to bite the dust. It was the kind of complex that, if still around today, would have almost certainly been converted into one of those recliner joints where they serve $15 frozen chicken tenders and $18 New Amsterdam martinis with your $22 movie, like the one-time Edwards La Costa 6 three miles down El Camino Real, now a Cinépolis “luxury” cinema. Indeed, the very similar Burbank, CA mall AMC that I attended throughout college to remind me of my high school days scooping popcorn was just converted into one of those faux-fancy “fork and screen”-style theaters, with its former self barely recognizable to the everyday onlooker. Continue Reading »

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Critic Speak Podcast: Episode 15

Amy Adams stars in "Arrival," reviewed on this week's edition of the Critic Speak Podcast.As the famed Nobel Laureate Aaron Lewis of the classic rock band Staind once sang, “It’s been awhile.” In the case of the Critic Speak Podcast, over three years.

So James and I thought it was about time to record a new episode and see just how many of you would still listen.

On this edition of the podcast, we’ve got reviews of the new(ish) theatrical releases “Bad Santa 2” and “Arrival,” as well as discussion of streamable picks “Too Late” and “Morris from America.”

Forgive the shoddy recording — I forgot how to work Skype in the intervening years.

Listen Here

… and tell your friends. We’re back. At least for this episode.


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Review: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Andrew Garfield in Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge."

War is hell, but it might be even worse if you’re unarmed. That’s exactly how Desmond Doss ran into battle, and on purpose. A Virginia country boy and devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss rescued nearly a hundred men in one of a nasty war’s nastiest patches of scorched earth without firing a shot.

It’s through Doss’ moving and atypical World War II story that Mel Gibson triumphantly slips back into the director’s chair. “Hacksaw Ridge,” his marriage of ’40s-style heroism and contemporary blood-and-guts combat terror succeeds as both a character study and a grisly war film.

The first half of the film establishes Doss’ personal stakes. Doss, wonderfully played by Andrew Garfield, honors his faith by refusing to touch a weapon or even fight in self-defense.

Early on, after saving a man injured in a car accident seemingly by happenstance, Doss meets nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) while waiting at the hospital. She’s an achingly beautiful nurse whose heart he immediately sets out to win in a series of scenes that lay the syrup on thick without becoming too saccharine.

But despite falling in love and having a work deferment from the war, Doss can’t abide “sitting out” the conflict while others fight. So despite being a certified conscientious objector, He joins up to train as a medic. Doss finds himself immediately ostracized by his fellow recruits during training, as they think is refusal to fight is rooted in cowardice instead of conviction. His superiors are so eager to rid themselves of him that they court martial him, resulting in a trial where his constitutional rights come into play.

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Conversation: Critics Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalThe eighth annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 6, proved to be bigger than ever. Over 15 days, nearly 77,000 attendees—an 8% increase over 2015—binged on 283 films from 51 countries presented on six screens. Among them were Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon. They talk here about the festival’s expansion, seeing too many movies, and why a black-and-white French-language curio was the funniest movie of the festival.

Eric Beltmann: Not counting short films, Shelly, we saw 74 movies between us at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. The remarkable thing is that I kept running into moviegoers who were easily outpacing us. There’s no question that the festival continues to engender a thriving a local film culture, but perhaps it has also created an ecosystem in which lunatics can flourish. Might we be a little mad? How do you survive the festival? More importantly, have you recovered yet?

Shelly Sampon: I ran into several of those marathon viewers as well, both in person and on social media. What continues to amaze me year after year, and you’re included in this group as well, Eric, are the number of people who see dozens upon dozens of films over the course of the two weeks while still maintaining their full time jobs! I definitely think we are a little mad for what we do, and truthfully I find that the number of films I’m able to digest and review each year diminishes. I watched 28 films this year (though I miscounted and thought I had actually seen 30, so that makes my face itch a bit) and though wished I could have seen more, I was okay with the slate I saw.

As far as recovering? I think I’ve pretty much recovered, though I did take a movie break for about two weeks! I finally broke the fast yesterday when I watched the documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” but even then I still had to remind myself that I was just watching “for fun” and didn’t need to sit down and review the film afterward. (For the record, it’s a really interesting film, particularly for us film geeks who have studied Truffaut’s book of the same title!) I’m curious, Eric, after seeing so many this year, did you have a “movie fast” after the festival?

Eric: I wish I could say that my first post-fest movie was “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” since the book-length interview belongs on any movie lover’s shelf and I’ve been eager to see the adaptation for more than a year. Alas, my first movie ended up being “The Birth of a Nation,” a movie that proved director Nate Parker still has a thing or two to learn from masters like, um, Hitchcock and Truffaut.

I took a break from watching movies for about a week, but only because I was writing about movies—it was a forced detox rather than a fast. For me, the challenge of the festival isn’t the glut of movies, it’s the relentless working, driving, and sleep-depriving. I have my survival schemes, including a trusted backpack that has traveled 13 festivals with me, but one thing I don’t have to pack is stamina. That’s just always in my pocket. Sure, I’m fatigued by Day 15, but give me one long nap and I’m ready to start catching more movies, especially the multiplex offerings that I missed while prepping for and covering the festival. In fact, my screening of “The Birth of a Nation” was quickly followed by “The Girl on the Train” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” (Who could have guessed that the Tim Burton movie would prove to be the least muddled?)

Shelly: One thing that really became apparent this year in particular were the number of people that read my reviews and wanted to know how they could see those films. Since most of them don’t receive a theatrical release, the best I can recommend is to keep checking Netflix. Do you find it frustrating, particularly when it comes to really good films, that it’s difficult to share our festival viewing experiences with people?

Eric: I’m not sure frustration is quite the right word, because while I love discussing my favorite movies from the festival, the real subject of those conversations is really enthusiasm for cinema in general, and that’s always transferable. For example, after being knocked out by “Cameraperson” at the festival, I described Kirsten Johnson’s visual essay to my high school students. My goals were to clarify that such movies exist, to model how passion for such movies has value, and to spark their own interest in works beyond the multiplex. If my students also end up specifically seeking out “Cameraperson,” that’s a bonus. Continue Reading »

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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Eric Beltmann’s Top Five

Kirsten Johnson examines her career in documentary filmmaking in "Cameraperson," Eric Beltmann's favorite film of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Kirsten Johnson examines her career in documentary filmmaking in “Cameraperson,” Eric Beltmann’s favorite film of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Each screening at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival began with a chuckle, as Alice Cooper reminded filmgoers that it’s actually pronounced “Mill-e-wah-que,” which is Algonquin for “the good land.”

That beloved sound bite from “Wayne’s World” was included in the festival’s sponsor trailer, which ran before every movie. It was a discordant choice, since this year’s trailer—think of it as an annual short film that thanks the festival’s major backers—otherwise used a timely election theme to celebrate the city’s arts-and-commerce scene: With Cooper’s rock standard “Elected” blaring on the soundtrack, Milwaukeeans headed to fictional polling places to pull the lever, presumably, for their favorite local philanthropists.

There was something felicitous about how the trailer weirdly fused corporate sponsorship with the 2016 election, a 1992 comedy, and a 1972 radio hit, especially since “Elected” exists as a sweeping reinvention of an earlier Cooper song. All those moving, repurposed parts coalesced to become a fitting emblem for this year’s event. After all, many of the best movies at the 15-day Milwaukee Film Festival, which ended Oct. 6, were acts of strange and exciting synthesis.

The Top Five

I’m still grooving on what Kirsten Johnson achieves in “Cameraperson,” which can be categorized as a documentary but is closer to a personal, poetic memoir. For two decades Johnson has labored as a camera operator on notable nonfiction projects (“Citizenfour,” “The Invisible War”), and here she mines her archive for marginalia that have unusual beauty, raw intimacy, or private resonance. By presenting these snippets sans context, Johnson is able to assign them new meanings and re-consider them as artifacts of her own travels and experiences.

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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Week Two Picks

The subjects of "Almost Sunrise," the Centerpiece film at this year's festival, undertake a 2,700 mile march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica.

The subjects of “Almost Sunrise,” the Centerpiece film at this year’s festival, undertake a 2,700 mile march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica.

One of the hottest titles at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival is coming to West Bend, and the wait won’t be long.

“Almost Sunrise,” the festival’s Centerpiece Film, concerns two Iraq veterans now battling depression, anxiety and guilt. Together they embark on a 2,700-mile mental health march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica. Along the way, the former soldiers reveal their traumatic war experiences and meet other anguished veterans. The documentary plays the festival Oct. 1 (Oriental Theatre, 7 p.m.) and Oct. 2 (Oriental Theatre, 10:30 a.m.), but seats are scarce.

The good news? On Oct. 3, director Michael Collins will bring “Almost Sunrise” to West Bend for a 7 p.m. screening at UW-WC’s Theatre on the Hill. Both Collins and Anthony Anderson, one of the film’s subjects and a West Bend native, plan to answer questions from viewers after the movie. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Anderson, who served two tours in Iraq, is proud of how the film honestly represents the struggles that many veterans experience as they try to reintegrate into normal life.

“My hope is that the people of West Bend will learn from the film and consider the impact military service has on service members, their families, and the communities they come from,” Anderson said in an email. Continue Reading »

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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Scheduled Guests

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalWho knew Bud Selig likes fabulist movies spoken in Farsi?

There he was, sitting directly behind me during a 2010 Milwaukee Film Festival screening of Shirin Neshat’s “Women Without Men,” a work of magic realism about four Tehran women.

I’ve often had the good fortune of bumping into public figures at festivals—Harold Ramis, Susan Sarandon and Alex Gibney, for starters—and never felt especially starstruck. Selig, though, was another story. After all, the Milwaukee native wasn’t just the MLB commissioner. He was also the person most responsible for bringing major league baseball back to our city in 1970, and therefore responsible for my eternal obsession with the Brewers.

That handshake was special, I confess.

Such moments are part of the pleasure of a film festival. Movies, of course, are the main draw, but the unique convergence of diverse people with only one thing in common—movie love—can yield spirited conversation or even lasting relationships. For example, three years after meeting her while standing in line, I remain friendly with a documentary filmmaker from Iran.

Nearly 50 visiting filmmakers are scheduled to appear at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, supplying ample opportunities for attendees to make their own red-letter memories. Continue Reading »

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Introducing the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalTopping my Netflix queue today are “The Forbidden Room,” an absurdist ode to early cinema from Canada, and “Winter Sleep,” a prizewinning drama from Turkey.

If we scroll past the blockbusters, the relentless, rotating inventories of streaming services remind us that unique movies are always being made all over the world—and that filmgoers seldom have a chance to see them on the silver screen.

The central paradox of modern film distribution is that the switch to digital has narrowed rather than expanded choice in American cinemas. By killing off the physical media market, digital has robbed distributors of a lucrative second revenue window, which means they now must take fewer risks with the theatrical window. In the late ‘90s, for example, I could see a German import (“Run Lola Run”) and a Spanish-language documentary (“Buena Vista Social Club”) the same afternoon at a Brookfield multiplex, but today those screens are preoccupied with surer bets like superheroes and sequels. Even the local niche theaters now book only the most mainstream independent titles.

Everything else is squeezed out, doomed to be needles in the online haystack.

Starting Sept. 22, though, the eighth annual Milwaukee Film Festival will bring vetted world cinema and unusual regional films to neighborhood screens. The 15-day festival will showcase 119 features and 163 shorts from 51 countries, a provisional oasis for parched cinephiles in southeastern Wisconsin. Continue Reading »

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Review: “Cell”

Samuel L. Jackson prepares to fire his shotgun in the movie "Cell."

In the years since George Romero singlehandedly created the zombie genre with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” he befriended and partnered with horror fiction magnate Stephen King for 1982’s “Creepshow,” a delightfully cheesy and colorful chiller anthology. And though King has gone on to write and even direct more movies, he never tried his hand at the zombie film until “Cell,” based on his 2006 novel. It seems like King has taken precious little from his friend’s apocalyptic masterworks, penning a script (with Adam Alleca) that’s nearly devoid of the satirical wit and claustrophobic dread that made “Night,” “Dawn,” and “Day” horror classics.

The zombies in “Cell” come about not through a virus or radioactive dust, but through cellular signals that scramble the brains of anyone who uses a mobile phone. This sends graphic novelist Clay (John Cusack), whose smartphone ran out of juice moments before “the pulse” turned people into psychotic killers, fleeing a bloodbath at the Boston airport. He quickly teams up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), a capable transit employee and Vietnam veteran, and Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), a teenage neighbor, in a trek to New Hampshire to rescue his son and estranged wife. The trio expands as they encounter other survivors, and contracts when events cull them off. Aside from a death that’s surprising for both being unexpected and handled with moving solemnity, the plot points move along predictably, at least until an ending that suggests King doesn’t realize that ambiguous is usually the wrong way to go with genre pics.

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Preview: 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival

"All the President's Men" kicks off the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood tonight, with subject and Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein in conversation with "Spotlight" scribes Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer before the feature presentation.

“All the President’s Men” kicks off the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood tonight, with subject and Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein in conversation with “Spotlight” scribes Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer before the feature presentation.

In his compulsively readable new book “Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies,” film critic Owen Gleiberman recommends limiting one’s intake at film festivals to three movies per day. Four movies or more, Gleiberman contends, is just too many, and keeping one’s slate to three “guarantees you won’t fail to respond to the nuances in that final movie of the day—and therefore wind up punishing it—all because your system is literally fed up with images.” But what about at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs tonight through Sunday, where there are more than three movies a day that one will likely never, ever be able to see on a big screen again, especially if one doesn’t live in Los Angeles or New York?

It’s a delicate balance, I find, because Gleiberman’s conception of a saturation point of cinematic images for the human nervous system undoubtedly still applies to a festival of older films, but at the same time, I also find that some contact with the movies may be better than no contact at all. At Sundance or Toronto or Telluride, you know you’ll have some opportunity for future big screen viewings of most, if not all, of the movies in the coming year. But at TCMFF, you’ve often only got one shot, one opportunity, as Eminem crooned in “8 Mile.”

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