Behind the Scenes

Jack London
100 Washington (at the Embarcadero), Oakland
(510) 433-1320
Admission: $7.25, $4.75 kids/seniors/students, $4.25 matinee
Parking: free

The Jack London Cinemas are a block north of the main entrance of Jack London Square, at the foot of Oakland's downtown. They're the Bay Area's first taste of the so-called new generation of multiplexes. These are owned by Signature Theaters, formerly Harris Theater Group, owned by the East Bay's Phil Harris. There's free parking in a very large garage across the street. Though there are nine theaters here, what lines there are dissipate quickly. The theater's large lobby manages to be sort of social; there are cafe tables scattered around, and the theater does what it should do, which is let people inside to line up before the movie starts. (All that said, the ambience is a bit suburban: Abstract bits of neon and curved ceiling hangings give the place a slightly space-agey look. It certainly doesn't say Oakland.) Most moviegoers will find the theaters themselves a welcome surprise: They're all wider than they are deep, and all have what's called "stadium seating" -- basically, every seat is a comfy airline-type affair, very cushy and reclinable, with unobstructed views of the tres big screens. There's leg room, too. Projection and sound in this very new affair seem to be impeccable. The staff was accommodating and refreshingly non-automatonic on our visit.

1881 Post (at Fillmore)
Admission: $7.50, $4.75 kids/seniors/students, $4.75 matinee
Parking: $.50 with validation

The Kabuki was the first corporate multiplex in San Francisco proper. The enormous AMC chain, currently operating more than 1,800 screens in 23 states, spent $14 million rehabbing the site of the Kabuki Theater in Japantown. The theater was designed to run art films on half its eight screens, and was originally greeted with some trepidation from the local art-house industry. But the theater has since won over many of its detractors and gets a lot of praise for its competent staff, attention to technical issues, and its hosting of the S.F. Film Festival. It's been successful as well -- too successful, some crowded moviegoers might feel. The main room, a 750-seat comfort den with 70mm capability, in particular is cited as one of the best screening rooms in the city; the others range from 150 to 300 seats and in typical plex style suffer a drop-off in ambience. There's very cheap validated parking (when the lot isn't full, a not-infrequent occurrence). One complaint: When you exit the theater, you're not allowed to drift back down to the lobby -- instead, workers waving batons like airport tarmac routers herd customers out the grungy fire exit. AMC will have a much larger presence in town when a new 14-plex (!) is completed at Van Ness and O'Farrell.

549 Magnolia (at Dougherty), Larkspur
Admission: $6, $4 kids/seniors/Film Institute members, $4.50 matinee
Parking: free

This intimate 325-seat Marin house was recently taken over by the Film Institute of Northern California, the nonprofit organization that puts on the Mill Valley Film Festival. The Lark reopened as a repertory theater in February of this year with Singin' in the Rain, an occasion made bittersweet by Gene Kelly's death that day.

1572 California (at Polk)
Admission: $7.50, $4.25 kids/seniors,
$4.25 matinee
Parking: $3 validated

A tiny trio of screens in the Polk Gulch. There's a shabby gentility about the Lumiere, almost a European feel to the boxy rooms and the narrow staircase to the bathrooms. This was part of the Surf chain, now owned by Landmark (see Embarcadero). Despite the attempts of the theater to dress up the starkness (some large-scale paintings à la Basquiat to accompany Basquiat, for example), the fact remains that the Lumiere is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to art houses in S.F.; the projection tends not to suck, but the high and small screens have a remote feel.

2055 Union (at Webster)
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors,
$4.50 matinee
Parking: local garages

As a building, this art deco neighborhood palace is a nice place: There's an upswept loge in the back that actually provides nice unobstructed views of the screen, and the deco railings are a small pleasure. But its staff is so intent on following corporate dictates -- like mouthing the words "Welcome to United Artist Theaters" Stepford-style to everyone who walks in the door -- that everything else becomes a joke. The projection is probably the worst of any major theater in San Francisco; the screen is regularly so dark as to effectively ruin the force of the movie. The sound is often muffled as well, and on one recent visit the film was out of focus and was being projected off-center! A complaint improved the focus but not the skewed projection.

2290 Powell (at Bay)
Admission: $7.50, $4.25 kids/seniors, $4.25 matinee
Parking: free evenings and weekends

This is a modern palace, built by the Plitt chain in the '60s, now fallen on hard times. The Northpoint's 980-seat auditorium and massive screen make it one of the most powerful moviegoing experiences in the Bay Area; only the Grand Lake and the Coronet can compare. While for years the favored screening room for the likes of American Zoetrope, the operation, Cineplex Odeon's sole S.F. redoubt, is something of a white elephant; indeed, in a striking admission of defeat, the theater began running a series of older, 70mm wide-screen films this fall; the program ends with a showing of 2001 this weekend.

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