My wife often jokes that I care more about the fate of local business people than I do about movies. It was a sad time for my part of North Baltimore this weekend.
Friday I picked up my last take-out meal at Saigon Remembered on York Road (right across the street from the Senator). The restaurant closed two days later.
Sunday my wife and I were the last customers on the final day of Daedalus Books & Music at Belvedere Square (next door to Saigon Remembered). We had just come down York Road from the penultimate showing of "Water for Elephants" during the closing day of the AMC Towson Commons multiplex.
The contrast been the final hours of AMC Towson and those of Daedalus and Saigon Remembered couldn't have been greater. Saigon Remembered's owner, Trang Nguyen, not only, without hesitation, prepared a special that was off the menu (basil chicken), but also packed as farewell surprises a delicious mango tart for my wife and a piece of chocolate cake for me. How did she remember our tastes in dessert when we had ordered it only two or three times since 2001? I guess that's the mark of a born restaurateur.
Daedalus was full of avid book-buyers to the end. Sure, they were drawn partly by its unprecedented closing-weekend half-price sale -- but even that stock-clearing ploy played as a thank-you to loyal customers. They all said variations of "we'll miss you" when the staff rang them up at the cash registers. ("It's good to feel the love," said one cashier.) As the shelves thinned, new titles popped out at me, bringing home the joys of browsing that you can't get from the Internet. My last purchase was Spalding Gray's "Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue." It reminded me of how much I enjoyed Steven Soderbergh's Spalding Gray film, "And Everything is Going Fine," when it played at Maryland Film Festival 2010. My wife bought a storybook for one of our nieces; when she noticed a nick on the front cover, the cashier waited patiently for her to find a pristine copy. So Daedalus really closed at roughly 8:04, not 8, last night.
The final gasp of AMC Towson was a different story.
The theater had already pulled the movie titles off the marquees. As we approached the box-office, a lone man asked the ticket-seller if there were any special prices for closing day. When the potential customer heard the answer was no, he walked away. The ticket-seller was upbeat to the end, politely trying to interest me in an AMC program that gives you discounts on concessions for an annual fee. But inside the mood was glum, everything looked worn and shabby (the morose lighting didn't help), and the rest rooms were messy or malfunctioning. Only about a dozen people showed up for "Water for Elephants."
As for the movie -- even as circus films go, "Water for Elephants" is no "Trapeze." I found it hard to get past Robert Pattinson's imitation-James Dean "sensitivity." Maybe I should say "Neo-James Dean": no matter how many variations Pattinson works on looking love-struck or wounded, he's as inexpressive as Neo or any other Keanu Reeves action figure. Watching "East of Eden" earlier in the day on TCM, I'd been struck all over again by what an amazing subject Dean was for the movie camera. Every plane of his face revealed a rush of emotion. Dean looked like he couldn't contain his feelings. Pattinson looks like he's struggling to sustain them -- the same ones, over and over again.
It's a miracle that Reese Witherspoon pulls out a real performance as the equestrian star who learns how to ride an elephant. She appears genuinely conflicted as a character caught between true love and loyalty, even though Pattinson gives her zero inspiration as her circus-vet lover and Christoph Waltz, as her ringmaster husband, does his limited, hammy specialty: authoritarian sadism. The director, Francis Lawrence, beautifully evokes a picture-book Depression (with the help of production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West), but the best reasons to see "Water for Elephants" are Witherspoon and the elephant.
Photo of Daedalus Books & Music by Kim Hairston