THB #270: A Weekend of Movies
I went to that place for magic.
To laugh, to cry, to care. Because after 10 days in COVID lockdown, I needed that.
That indescribable feeling I have get when the lights begin to dim and I know that I am about to experience the work of hundreds of artists, all working to express themselves to me, to us, with a clarity of experience, for a room full of strangers, together for that ride... for the best and the worst and everything in between.
(Apologies to Nicole Kidman and Billy Ray.)
You don’t have to want that experience the same way I do.
You are not a heathen if you just want to sit on your couch and pipe all the content you can consume and 1000s of times more at the whim of your remote control.
But if you have any empathy, you can feel that there is a very real difference between sitting in a movie theater, with strangers around you, with the lights down and the sound up in a way that your neighbors cannot hear, giving yourself over to the work.
The experience of filmed content is as different in the various venues as is a road trip in your own car or a flight on a plane or a train trip or getting on a bus. There is a wide world of people who have strong feelings about what they prefer or even what they simply will not do. There is nothing wrong with that, even if their feelings are the distinct opposite of our own.
Getting back to the movies this last few days, having been cooped up at home with all the streaming options in the world for 10 days, was a reminder of how much I love movies in a theater… and why.
On Tuesday, I cleared COVID. So I rushed to the movie theater to see Glass Onion, wearing a mask. Netflix would make an awards stream available the day after, as the movie left its exclusive run in 680 or so theaters. It was a Tuesday at 5pm… and the theater was full. Tuesday is the weakest day of the week at movie theaters. But this one, with the constraint of the film leaving, was full.
I don’t need an audience to tell me how to feel. But there is a delight when an audience feels together, like a school of fish, turning this way and that at the behest of Rian Johnson’s slight of hand.
The movie starts with a knock on a door. Kathryn Hahn answers. She lives in a big house. She is getting ready for something. It’s May 13, 2020. The courier wears a mask. Her husband run around the house. Her husband looks half-stoned. Wait… there is an assistant. And a camera. The box has a card, “Love, Miles.” Husband shouts to wife, now being made-up in the lights of a camera set-up, “It’s from Miles!” This means something. She is the governor of Connecticut, doing a live-shot on CNN.
Cut to a giant wearhouse with some sort of rocket in it. Next character in the story…
You can consume this on a television. Yes, you can. (I just did, to write out this first minute of the film.) But there is something different about the shared experience of this with strangers. In one minute, Rian has moved the school of fish 10 times already… look this way… feel this way… be surprised by this answer to the question your mind formed… move on to the next character and a whole different series of questions and answers you didn’t expect.
I didn’t go to see Strange World at the movies this week. I missed the press screenings and then I was stuck at home with the COVID and was anxious to see what the film actually was that Disney was failing to market effectively. And I got that opportunity to do so at home, thanks to a digital screener. But between two movies at the AMC at The Grove, I stepped into a theater that turned out to be running the film at 9pm or so Saturday night. Sparse crowd. So I sat for 15 minutes or so.
I didn’t even know what movie I was walking into… I just had time to kill before the trailers started on Violent Night. But after a couple of minutes absorbing what I had already watched twice on my TV, I felt it. The movie was a notably better experience on that screen than on my 75” TV with Dolby ATMOS sound (which was probably not at the highest quality sound on the stream). This is a movie of big, bold color and big spaces. The good and the bad of the movie didn’t change. But there is a distance that watching at home brings that forces you at be immersed in a movie theater. The film was better.
The earlier show that night was The Menu, a Searchlight film that felt a bit like a programmer. Is it horror? Is it a thriller? The film has familiar, quality actors. It read, in the trailers, like a high-end episode of The Twilight Zone… which has been true of all three of Jordan Peele’s films. But the film opened modestly the weekend before Thanksgiving and then held better than one might have expected for a genre film.
I just wanted to make sure to see the film on screen before it went away. I was pleased to find a movie that was a big step better than I expected. Mark Mylod is, primarily, a television director and his previous films didn’t shower him in glory. But this film is along the lines of one of the Agatha Christie movies. Excellent cast of familiar actors. A who’ll do it? To whom? And what will they do? Mylod brings a strict angularity to the image and aural experience, which is quite compelling.
The theater I saw it in, in its third weekend, was pretty close to full. And that added to it. Tension just plays differently in a room of strangers than it does on your couch.
The late show was Violent Night, which was in The Grove’s brand new Dolby Screening Room… a little surprising, but with the light output for Thanksgiving, it made sense.
The 10pm show was not as full as other screenings had been. But it was at least half full. The film is junk food. And again… exactly the kind of thing that is better with an audience… the rare case when you want people expressing themselves through all the surprises. I got pretty much what I might have expected from the writer/director of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. The film is a little schizophrenic, as the core is Santa Claus losing his faith in the world and his mission. Like Bad Santa, Santa is drinking heavily at the bar… only this is really Santa. When trying to deliver a gift to the only nice person in a household of spoiled, mean rich people, Santa gets caught in the middle of a robbery with heavily armed, kill-happy bad guys. And suddenly, we are in a cheap Die Hard. Tone flies around as fast as Santa’s reindeer.
I would have loved to have loved this movie. But it was a bit too erratic for me to feel the joy of a great discovery. Still, I had a good time. And more than a little of that was being in a movie theater with an audience.
On Saturday night, I went to a screening of Babylon on an AMC Prime screen in Century City. The film is under review embargo for another 10 days, so what I can say about the film is limited.
As it turned out, Paramount made the film available for awards viewing on Thursday or Friday. So I had the option of not going back to the movie theater to see it again. I had done the double feature just the night before, so I wasn’t sure if I needed to go out again. In fact, I watched about 20 minutes of the film on my TV before I decided to absolutely go to the movie theater to see it a second time.
I was so glad I did.
Babylon is so thick as a film that while I remembered and mentioned the elephant excrement sequence a few times, I had forgotten, until I turned on the screener, that golden showers soon follow. Damien Chazelle turns up the volume, literally and figuratively, are barely lets the audience breathe for almost exactly half of the 3 hour, 10 minute running time.
I’ll discuss the structure of the film in 10 days, but that first 90 minutes, in particular, demands to be seen in a movie theater. The beat of the film, driven by drums and a trumpet, is relentless and no matter how good your home sound and picture, cannot be experienced in the same way on your television. And you won’t have a similar movie experience this year… or in any year soon.
I almost hate to say it, but the first half of the film demands to be seen on a big screen with great sound… and the second half, fitting the themes of the movie, should be watched at home on your television as it becomes about the diminishment of that first 90 minutes of movie magic and love. Of course, don’t do that. Because Chazelle has more beautiful stuff up his sleeve in the second half, including a 5-minute closing sequence that evokes the emotions around all of film history.
That said, in this analysis itself lives the dichotomy of the theatrical experience and the home entertainment experience. Seeing the movie twice, I thought it was a 3-act movie and with the help of the screener, on my TV, I now realize it’s a 2-act movie (very Kubrickian). That changes my perspective on analyzing the film in a very real way. Also, getting to see how it plays on my television, I am that much more aware of the need for people to see it in a theater. Unlike some films, it is not completely damaged by the small screen experience. But seeing it first on your television would be like experiencing it through the wrong side of a telescope.
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