Sunday, April 30, 2017

On the Big Screen :: A (Frustrating) Day at the Movies: Comical Shoot-Outs, Free-Wheeling Pandas, and a Friendly Cannibal Invites You All to Dinner.

As I’ve belabored elsewhere, our local cinema leaves a lot to be desired in a “I laugh in their face whenever they ask if I’d like to become a premium member” sense. I mean, they force you to sit through over twenty minutes of previews (-- not an exaggeration --) for films that at least 2/3rds of which will never, ever play there. And this is why I occasionally abandon my small micropolitan community and head to Lincoln or Omaha for an all day movie binge to catch films that likely won’t make it into the hinterlands of our beloved Stadium 7, which is also kinda like the Hotel California in that if you find the sticky seat or splotched spot on the floor you may never, ever leave again.

And so, off to Lincoln I went this last Thursday for a proposed triple-feature at the Marcus Grand Theater, my cinematic Shangri-La-multiplex, if you will, with the nice comfortable seats with the retractable arm rests, the minimal previews, and the wide selection of features. But things were a tad ominous when I entered the building and saw one whole wing of theaters was roped off and tarped over due to some kind of remodeling effort. And then, when I laid out my day of viewing with the cashier, everything was normal with the first feature but for the second and third I had to pick a reserved seat in the newly remodeled theaters with the new and much ballyhooed “Dreamloungers”.

Now, I hate having to pre-select a reserved seat (-- for reasons I’ll get into later--) but I had been to a theater with those kind of oversized Naugahyde-covered recliners before at a different venue, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of them, this apparently is the future of cinema, making a trip to the movies the exact same experience as staying in your basement. That’s me shrugging right now.

Anyhoo, my first feature of the day, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (2016), was in a theater that hadn’t been refurbished yet and so I got to pick my own seat on a first come first seated basis as the cinematic gods intended since moving images first flickered. The film itself takes place in 1978 and concerns a brokered arms deal between two IRA members, Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), looking to buy some M-16s from a smarmy South African arms dealer, Vernon (Sharlto Copley), and his right-hand man, Martin (Babou Ceesay), in an abandoned factory along the Boston waterfront. Brokering this deal is Justine (Brie Larson), and moderating this transaction is some hired mercenary named Ord (Armie Hammer).

Now, despite not getting quite what was asked for specifically, it appears the exchange of money for guns will go off without a hitch with everyone satisfied and happy. Well, at least it was until mere coincidence rears its ugly head when the local thugs hired by each group to do the heavy lifting prove to have a volatile history (Sam Riley, Jack Reynor), which soon escalates into a massive firefight between the now opposing factions. Complicating matters further for this free-fire-for-all shoot-out is the location, which is tailor-made for ricochets, and whose low-lighting has loyalties switching as stray shots turn into friendly fire. And as the damage adds up and things devolve into everyone for themselves, things get even trickier when two more shooters show up, hired by someone already there, who had intended an ambush to take the guns and the money and leave no witnesses before the shit hit the fan, leaving the audience to sort out true allegiances and figure who, if anyone, will still be standing come the end.

Turns out reserved seating wouldn’t have been that much of an issue as I wound up with a private screening of Free Fire. And let me tell ya, you all missed a pretty great movie. You kinda wind up rooting for everybody in this thing -- except for Steve-O (Riley), who gets exactly what is coming to him. (And come to think on it, everyone kinda gets exactly what they got coming to them in this thing.) The action is great, the characters endearing, and the comedy is delightfully black and morbid. Sharlto Copley kinda steals the movie as the vainglorious dolt Vern, and I fall more in love with Brie Larson with each successive movie I see her in, but, holy crap, between this and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) the resurgence of Armie Hammer has been equally fun to watch. That dude deserves a bigger box office break. And so, with its brief, but action-packed run-time, I guess one could consider Free Fire to be nothing more than a disposable actioneer. But don’t be surprised if you keep digging it back out of the trash to watch over and over again.

Thus and so, the only real complaint I had during my first screening had nothing to do with the movie but the amount of construction noise leaking through the walls. Nothing like a power saw and stripped screws leeching into your movie. Luckily, my lone but out loud laughter was enough to drown most of that out. Thankfully, the next showing was in a theater further away from this demilitarized zone. And so, after a quick bathroom break, I made a beeline for my next feature, the Disneynature documentary, Born in China (2016).

Okay. Let me back up for second and confess to something. I was a little hesitant to see this film, what with it being a Disney animal documentary and all. Why? Well, we all know what happens in a Disney nature documentary, right? Right. [ArmsFlailing/] THEY’RE GONNA KILL THE MAMA ANIMAL BECAUSE THEY ALWAYS KILL THE MAMA ANIMAL IN A DISNEY NATURE DOCUMENTARY!!! [/ArmsFlailing] *thud* You know it will happen, I said. I know, I answered. You will start blubbering like you always do, I said. I know, I also said. And you will turn into a sobbing puddle of goo like you always do with these kinda things. True, I said. Still, Circle of Life and all that. And so, as I bravely entered the theater, bracing for the worst, I found something that did reduce me to remorse, but it had nothing to do with the movie.

No, the movie itself was fantastic, immersive and beautifully shot as the cameras and our narrator, John Krasinski, took us by the hand and led us on a year long adventure into the wilds of China, splitting time between a giant panda and her cub (Ya-Ya and Mei-Mei), a golden snub-nosed monkey (Tao-Tao) trying to find his place in the family clan after the birth of a little sister, a herd of antelope-like chiru and their reproductive migration, and a mother snow leopard (Dawa) trying to raise two cubs in a desolate rocky landscape.

Often hilarious and sometimes harrowing and, yes, sometimes melancholy, this film is a treat. Not gonna lie, though. There were some tears as [SPOILERS] casualties included one baby monkey snatched up by a hawk and one baby sheep felled by a predator; but where I really lost it is when the snow leopard gave her all for her offspring but came up short. And while the film called for optimism in the face of this kind of sacrifice and tragedy, the ultimate and unrevealed fate of her cubs kind of left me on a bit of a bummer despite everything else being pretty delightful -- especially watching a runaway panda bouncing uncontrollably down a hillside.

Still, my biggest regret of seeing Born in China was not what I saw on screen but what I was forced to sit on to watch it, bringing us back to those Dreamloungers. Now, as I said before, I had been to one showing at an AMC theater that had recliners and that is exactly what they were: single seat recliners. What the Marcus theaters were offering, however, was not a single seat recliner but a small two person loveseat with a retractable divider arm. Taking this in when I found my designated seat, I muttered “You gotta be f@cking kidding me.” The theater was otherwise empty as it was nearly twenty minutes until the next showing. First I tried to sit in it with the arm down and, being a very large man, one buttcheek got caught, leaving my ass at a 45-degree angle. That wouldn’t do. Next, I tried again with the armrest up. No 45-degree angle this time but you were still partially sitting on a hump with a pitiable small space left for some poor sap if they reserved the seat right next me.

It was at this point, completely frustrated, I contemplated going back to the ticket line and purchasing the second seat next to mine to make sure that didn’t happen -- I mean, I don’t like to get that intimate with a complete stranger, which isn’t really fair to them or me but it’s what you gotta do to fit in a world not built for your specs. And for a minute, as I envisioned the whole multiplex made over this way, I got really angry at this ruination and was almost ready to just chuck the whole thing, demand a refund for the second and third feature and go home. But I decided to wait it out and, if someone did wind up beside me I would apologize for the inconvenience and move to another empty lounger -- if they’d let me. (I lucked out as only four more people showed up for the second screening.) Again, yay, reserved seating. I mean, what happens if you get stuck by some obnoxious asshole? Or some fat-ass like me taking up a third of your seat? Or some tweener who can’t separate themselves from their cellphones. Or a rowdy family of six? Before, you could just move to another empty seat. Now, you might hesitate since that seat might belong to someone else, too. Madness. I also gave a morbid chuckle when the Marcus Theaters’ CEO came on screen and welcomed the audience to his theater and encouraged everyone to go for the large popcorn. Not with these limiting seats, buddy. Forget it.

And so, feeling bluer by the minute, I dragged myself toward the next theater and the final feature for the day. Again, I thought about buying the extra ticket but the small crowds of the first two features found me deciding to risk it again. And besides that, screw them. Why should I have to pay for a second seat due to your ill-conceived remodel. And another thing about these damnable Dreamloungers. Why put the controls on the inside of the armrest where the slightest contact from your thigh causes them to engage, either flopping you forward or backward as they recline and retract with no warning? Yeah, screw this noise, I thought. I am never coming back here again. Ever.

Regrettably, then, I was in a pretty foul mood when I carefully settled in for the third and final feature, The Lost of City of Z (2016), as best I could, which I was going into kinda cold, sold on the recommendation of a friend (-- thanks, Dave), who loved the source novel by David Grann, and beyond that really having no idea what I was about to see as my Dreamlounger reclined and retracted on its own through the whole damned movie at the minutest of shifting. (Never. Ever. Again.)

Turns out the film was good. Damned good. Real damned good. How good? I didn’t think about the infernal contraption I was sitting on for nearly two hours and twenty minutes, that’s how good it was as the film spun the true story of famed British explorer, Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who first journeys into the Amazon with his trusted Corporals, Henry Costin and Arthur Manley (Robert Pattinson, Edward Ashley) to survey and find the source of a river to settle a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil at the behest of the National Geographic Society in 1906. There, deep in the jungle, Fawcett finds evidence and the remains of an ancient advanced civilization but when he brings his tale back to Britain he is met with scorn and ridicule and prejudice by the scientific establishment “who regard all indigenous populations as mere savages” and therefore completely incapable of building what he described. (The Incan city of Machu Picchu wasn’t 'rediscovered’ until 1911.)

Undaunted, Fawcett mounts a second expedition into the Amazon to bring back even more proof of what he refers to as the Lost City of Zed (Z). This, however, ends in both disaster and failure. Then, his ambitions are seemingly sidelined permanently after suffering injuries during a gas attack fighting in the trenches of World War I. All the while, Fawcett’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), has stood by his side -- mostly metaphorically as her husband spent years away from home on his adventures, leaving her to raise their three children on her own. His constant absence also estranges the father from eldest son, Jack (Tom Holland). But this is eventually reconciled, and together, father and son decide to go on one last adventure into the jungle together to find Zed in 1925 only to never be heard from again. And like with the real-life Fawcett, the film ends rather ambiguously on whether the expedition was a success or failure.

Tearing into the history of this film a bit shows it went through several casting changes before settling on Charlie Hunnam for the lead, replacing both Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, but he acquits himself rather well and carries the epic scope of this film with ease. I did not recognize Robert Pattison at all, nor Tom Holland until the very end. And while this film felt like a bit of a throwback to the works of David Lean and the early films of Werner Herzog -- especially Aguire, the Wrath of God (1972), the biggest impression I took away from the film was how much the level, even-handed portrayal of the natives in The Lost City of Z was a raised middle finger to the likes of Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi and their exploitative cannibal atrocity movies. Cannot recommend this one enough.

Heck, I can honestly highly recommend all three films I partook in for this triple-feature. As for the venue, well, I’m still kinda bitter and think I have time for one more dig on the Dreamlounger before wrapping this up, specifically the very loud snoring from one of my fellow patrons reclined-up and sacked-out two rows up during the last film. Yay. Going to the movies is fun. Well. It used to be. *sigh* 


Unknown said...

Lincoln theaters haven't been the same since they allowed the demise of the great Stuart Theater. And yes, I'm aware it's now the super elegant and pricy Rococo, but it's not the same thing. Personal history, I saw The Searchers there as a five-year-old, graduated Lancaster County 8th grade on the stage, saw Young Frankenstein as a midnight movie, and saw the very first 1 PM showing of Star Wars there. While they didn't have barcoloungers, the Stuart had a great screen, a fine sound system, and usually the best movie in town. Also had the pleasure of going ape for a day, one memorable day in 1974, as they showed all of the Ape movies in a row. Man, do, I miss that theater.

W.B. Kelso said...

You know, I'm pretty sure I saw the re-release of Star Wars (the awful Special Edition) in the 1990s at the Stuart. Helluva show palace.

I have very fond memories of my own hometown theater, the Rivoli and the Strand, which I go into greater detail in my review of Blackbeard's Ghost if you all got some time to kill.

Circling back to the Marcus theater, those seats are a pain, especially if you have to squeeze into them, meaning you are constantly rubbing against the control mechanism, meaning you get a film and a floorshow with each ticket bought. Huzzah! (Yep. Still bitter.)

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