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A Week in the Dark

An ode to the rich variety of the Capital Region cinemagoing experience

by Shawn Stone on December 14, 2011 · 1 comment

It’s late on a Friday afternoon. Most people are hanging out with friends after work, or they’re making their way home. Maybe they’re already home, preparing dinner or getting ready to go out for the evening. In one of the two large auditoriums at the Madison Theater in Albany, however, there are nine of us sitting in the dark. We’re waiting for the show to start.

This is where I always wanted to be.

Where I grew up, the nearest movie theater was 21 miles away—and when I was almost old enough to drive, the local bank foreclosed on the building and demolished it. This added another 10 to 20 miles to the trip, depending on how badly I wanted to see a particular movie (and my tolerance for the mosquitoes that swarmed the local drive-in). So, long before I became a part-time movie critic, I resolved to live where I could go to the movies whenever I wanted.

The Capital Region is a pretty good place for this. Check the movie pages; look at all those theaters. (We may even have more than we can support. Time, and the Great Recession, will tell.) Most of the local colleges and public libraries offer some kind of film presentations.

If you enlarge the scope to include Metroland’s entire coverage area, it’s a film bonanza. The Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls has an exemplary 35MM series. There’s a film society, Saratoga Film Forum, which shows stuff even the regional arthouses never do, plus the invaluable screenings of documentaries and foreign films at Hudson’s Time & Space Limited and Albany’s the Linda. And over in Massaschusetts, MASS MoCA and the Clark Art Institute are film culture havens.

Here, I’m looking strictly at where I live, work, and go to the movies regularly. As a way to dig into at the current scene, here’s week’s worth of film experiences in the Capital Region.

Back to the Madison: The familiar whirring of a film projector starts up, and it’s showtime, complete with color, widescreen, and sound. Following a series of previews which, typically, reveal too much about what the advertised films are about, the feature comes on.

The show is a science-fiction thriller titled In Time. It’s not terrible. It’s the work of a director, Andrew Niccol, who has before and here again employs sci-fi to comment on contemporary issues. In 1997’s Gattaca, it was genetic profiling; In Time tries to dig into economic inequality. Because Niccol wants to go on making movies, these social-problem films are cast with very pretty people.

That’s not the problem here; the problem is that In Time has had all the rough edges smoothed away. There’s some sting to it—there’s a wonderfully contradictory character who serves the economic order despite being exploited by it, and a few good jokes about the fears that haunt the dystopia’s (and our own) economic overlords. But the characters played by Amanda Seyfried and Justin Timberlake become a 23rd-century Bonnie and Clyde, and there’s no blood.

The film’s shortcomings are entirely on the filmmakers, though. The presentation by the folks at the Madison is just fine.

The Madison Theater is the oldest neighborhood house left in Albany. When Warner Bros. opened it in 1930, they sent Al Jolson up from New York for the premiere. That’s the equivalent of Sinatra opening the Knickerbocker Arena.

Actually, it’s cooler. Jolson was on top in 1930.

A multiplex was built inside the vast original auditorium in the 1990s. Though the theater went through some rough times in the early aughts (the after-effects of which remain visible in the various screening rooms), the Madison still serves its original purpose.

Which is why I’m grateful it’s there.

After watching Amanda and Justin drive off, unconvincingly, into the sunset, it’s time to head over to a New York State Writers Institute screening at UAlbany’s Page Hall.

Some of my best local filmgoing memories are tied to this long-standing program. Some are related to filmmaker events; I remember Toni Morrison introducing Spike Lee to a packed room. Lee was there to answer questions about his brand new “joint,” School Daze.

Up until a few years ago, the Writers Institute still ran 35MM and 16MM film. Prints being harder to come by these days—alas—they’ve long since switched to video.

Tonight’s film (on DVD) is the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The pianist who was supposed to accompany the film had to cancel, so we get a pretty good prerecorded score instead. A crowd of 30 people assembles to watch Lon Chaney swing from the bells of a medieval cathedral that was re-created on the backlot at Universal City almost 90 years ago. It’s not a great film; the director, Wallace Worsley, doesn’t give the story much shape.

And yet it weaves a spell. The audience takes it all in quietly. (Academics!) The scene that gets the biggest reaction is comic: A starving poet tries to eat, while the hero keeps interrupting the poet for information. Aside from reaffirming the obvious fact that someone else starving is timeless comedy, it reaffirms the power of the communal experience. It really is funnier because we’re all enjoying it together.

This is the reason we all came out on a cold evening.

Regal Entertainment Group operates most of the screens in the Capital Region. The important point about Regal is that they do a first-rate job of projecting movies, whether on film or in digital form. They don’t vary their programming much—it’s mostly this week’s Hollywood release schedule—but they do plug some art films into Crossgates Mall around Oscar season, and they show Bollywood and other Hindi-language films at Latham and Crossgates periodically.

They also torture us with an elaborately produced program of long-form commercials in the 20 minutes leading up to the official screening time. I don’t begrudge them the revenue, especially in these days of declining attendance, but I also don’t care about whatever crappy new show is coming soon on ABC.

(Sigh.)

Regal are always first in the region when there’s some new technology, from digital projectors to 3D to IMAX Digital and beyond, which is the point of my weekend visits to their best cinemas on Saturday and Sunday.

It’s snowing Saturday; maybe that explains why there are only 30 people at an opening weekend matinee of DreamWorks’ Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots in 3D at the Regal Crossgates Stadium 18. Still, those who paid their $13 enjoy a lovely 3D presentation. Even better, in terms of visual quality, is the presentation of Johnny English Reborn at Colonie Center Stadium 13 on Sunday. Sadly, there are only a dozen people on hand to enjoy the splendor of the Sony 4K Digital Projector, which really is the best digital image this side of spending the IMAX digital surcharge.

For some reason, Colonie Center’s Regal multiplex always finishes a couple of hundred votes ahead of its Guilderland neighbor in our annual Readers’ Poll, but I prefer Crossgates. Bigger auditoriums are better.

Speaking of which: You can’t get any bigger, or better, than the Palace Theatre in Albany and Proctors in Schenectady. The two cities are lucky to have these golden-era movie theaters around, and still showing movies once in a while. After all, most of their movie-palace rivals were demolished long ago, and both the Palace and Proctors are primarily performing-arts venues focusing on live programming.

Alas, while the Palace isn’t showing any movies this week, Proctors is screening J.J. Abrams’ widescreen sci-fi spectacular Super 8 on Monday.

It’s hard to imagine that a place like Proctors was built as movie theater. Or that uniformed ushers took your ticket and led you to your seat. Now, you’re lucky if some unhappy kid shows up to break up the heated seating disputes that often crop up at sold-out screenings; in today’s theaters, you’re on your own.

On this afternoon, the presentation at Proctors is excellent, and the power of the film is akin to what it was when I saw Super 8 in IMAX Digital.

I’m spending the middle of the week at the Spectrum 8 Theatres. It’s unavoidable; the perennial winner of Metroland’s Best Of award has the best programming. And, like Regal Crossgates, it’s a destination theater—people come from over an hour away to see movies in what was once, like the Madison, an Albany neighborhood theater owned by Warner Bros.

On Tuesday evening, it’s Margin Call, a smart, suspenseful drama about the kind of Wall Street assholes who drove the world economy into the ditch. It’s also the kind of movie that’s perfect for people who complain that “they don’t make movies for adults anymore.” Happily, 33 people—a good house for a Tuesday night—have turned out. On Wednesday, it’s a trip down memory lane for the folks at the Spectrum, as they present, for one night only, the newly “restored” Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis. (Here, restored means they took an old print and made it look slightly less crappy using digital means.) Back in the olden days—specifically, 1984—Munich-based Eurodisco soundtrack king Moroder (American Gigolo) set his own music, adorned with the vocal stylings of Freddie Mercury, Pat Benetar and other songbirds of the era, to Fritz Lang’s crazy 1927 sci-fi epic and turned on an entire generation to crackpot German philosophy and sexy robots.

The Spectrum Theatres actually showed this the first time around, not long after opening. This time it’s being shown on Blu-ray disc, not film, but the Eurotrash Metropolis looks—and sounds—pretty good. It’s still a deliciously eccentric exercise, which over 30 people turned up to enjoy.

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

If it’s Friday, according to my schedule, this must be Schenectady. Well, Rotterdam, anyway.

There may be only nine of us with our glasses on for A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas at Rotterdam Square Cinemas, but we’re laughing, hard, all through the picture. You may have the impression, if you’ve never seen any of the previous comedy exploits of Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn), that they’re just dumb doper movies. You’re absolutely right. And yet, stoner comedies are interesting because they’re permitted to get away with behavior that “straight” comedies aren’t. And on top of the drug humor, teen sex, bloody slapstick and various un-PC ethnic stereotypes, there’s a running gag with Neil Patrick Harris as a deathless version of “Neil Patrick Harris” that’s just brilliant.

The presentation/projection is good. This smaller multiplex was originally run by Loews, and is now operated by the Central New York-based chain Zurich Cinemas. They show the same movies Regal does. At Rotterdam Square, Zurich also offers the D-Box viewing system on one screen: These are special chairs that tilt and rock—like an amusement-park ride—in synch with the onscreen action. It was on offer this Friday with The Three Musketeers, a film I’d already reviewed. So I passed on the experience.

This multiplex has the added value of being in The Mall That Time Forgot: The single-level Rotterdam Square is a trip back in time to less aggressive shopping spaces, something I never thought I’d write about a building from the 1980s.

A few minutes away, downtown Schenectady beckons, along with Connecticut-based Bow Tie Cinemas’ Movieland. Located on State Street a few doors down from Proctors, Movieland is an urban gem. The building is shiny and attractive; the staff is friendly and efficient; and, on this lovely fall evening, business is brisk.

I buy a ticket for Tower Heist and stroll into the auditorium, which, though four years old, still looks brand new. A good crowd of more than 80 people—mostly older—file into the auditorium with me to (hopefully) laugh at this post-economic-collapse caper comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller.

Happily, we do laugh at it. (It’s almost as funny as Harold & Kumar.) First, of course, we have to watch commercials; they’re lower-key than the hard sell you get at Regal, though, so it’s somewhat less annoying.

Too bad Albany doesn’t have a shiny new multiplex like Movieland showing Hollywood megahits a few doors down from the Palace Theatre; that would make a heck of a bookend to the theater district.

On the other hand, Troy doesn’t have any kind of commercial movie theater downtown. Troy’s Proctor’s Theater is abandoned and endangered; the old mini-multiplex at the Troy Atrium has been closed for a long, long time.

Still, on Saturday evening I am able to close out my week of moviegoing at a major film event in downtown Troy: The premiere of the DANCE MOViES commissions at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s gleaming, ahead-of-the-state-of-the-art performance temple, EMPAC.

EMPAC’s been doing this annually since 2007 (before the EMPAC building even opened), and they’ve fostered the creation of some wonderful films: “20 new works by choreographers, filmmakers and visual artists” that have been shown all over the world.

In her introduction, curator Hélène Lesterlin explains the expansive criteria employed to pick the winners; the definition of “dance movie” is elastic. Very stretchy, in fact, judging by the winners: Spring Cleaning, by veteran experimental filmmaker Pooh Kaye, is an exuberant stop-motion movie that sets a “wild girl” in a witty landscape of active flora; Paulo Fernandez’ striking but muddled Fauna showcases bodies—dancers? actors?—bound by costumes and confined by changing spaces; Alison Crocetta’s visual installation A Circus of One is an amusing return to the prehistoric cinematic values of the 19th century, an endeavor that is not without merit but is also akin to re-creating cave paintings; and Danièle Wilmouth’s 15 minute-long Fanfare for Marching Band, a beautifully directed gasser of a dance movie.

What holds this disparate program together for the kind of high-minded arts consumer who digs EMPAC presentations?

The same thing as any other great film presentation: Showmanship!

There are detailed notes on each film. The event (sold out, natch) is in the 300-plus seat Theater, a venue equipped with a wonderful large screen and perfect sight lines. There’s a sleek, pleasing café open and serving snacks just a few steps from the theater. And not only are all the filmmakers present for a post-screening Q & A, the star of Fanfare for Marching Band, the “punk” marching band Mucca Pazza are flown in from Illinois to march everyone out of the theater with brassy blasts.

One week later, on a Saturday afternoon, I’m at the coziest theater in the Capital Region, the Scotia Cinema. Like the Crandell Theatre in Chatham, it’s that modern rarity, a one-screen house. The interior decoration doesn’t look like anything is left from when it opened in 1929 as the Ritz, but, judging from the layout of the auditorium, the viewing experience can’t have changed much. The room is long, not wide, and there’s a gentle slope to the floor; no stadium seating here.

The place is buzzing with activity. There’s a line out the door as families queue up for Dolphin Tale, a fish-rescue story that nominally features some kid actors and Morgan Freeman, but really stars a handicapped dolphin as herself.

There are so many adults; this is a big difference from when I was a kid in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Our parents used to drop us brats at the door to buy a little time for themselves—and give us a taste of independence. That day is gone.

You know what I really love about the Scotia Cinema? It has a balcony. Whenever I see a film at the Palace, I head straight for the balcony; when Proctors’ balcony was closed for Super 8, I was very disappointed. There’s something about being perched up above things that, even if you’re not in a “royal box,” gives you that Statler-and-Waldorf feeling.

The movie is a hit with the younger set. They may fidget, wander up and down the aisles, and whisper pleas for popcorn money at their parents, but the film “plays” and they’re clearly into it. Making my way to the steps that lead back down to the entrance, I hear a mom ask her kid, “Did you like it as well the second time?”

“Yes!”

Only six weeks have passed, and the local moviegoing scene has of course continued to evolve. The new Regal Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX multiplex is now open. (“RPX” is Regal’s name for their in-house giant-screen digital cinemas; game on, IMAX.) The Madison seems to have eased up on 3D presentations lately—Puss in Boots, Arthur Christmas and Hugo were all shown “flat”—while Scotia Cinema closed for a few days to allow installation of a digital projection system.

Christmastime is here. Theaters are adding extra screenings to capitalize on school vacations, and opening a host of lavish, star-heavy entertainments to lure us adults into the dark, too.

See you there?

{ 1 comment }

hitchboy7 December 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm

The largest reason why certain venues don’t rank as high is the audience behavior. In recent years, Crossgates 18 has become a location where kids under 18 can go, especially when the rest of the mall is out of bounds due to Crossgates’ 18 and over rules during certain times. Unfortunately, moviegoers who wish to watch the films they pay tickets for are distracted by teenagers talking, using their cellphones, throwing things around, and not watching the movie.

In addition (sorry Crossgates) adults leave their younger children-teen) in theaters while they go shopping in other parts of the mall. If the kids act up, the parents are not there to resolve the matter, and the moviegoer is once again subject to dealing with it themselves. Parents leaving their children in this manner is just irresponsible – what if something happens to their children and they are not around? Hence, the theater becomes a ‘babysitter.’, also comprised of frustrated moviegoers.

The following happens at most theaters, to varying degrees.

Screaming children? Not a good idea. Parents want to get out and see a movie and enjoy yourselves as well, and that’s okay. Everyone needs time to have fun. However, they need to be responsible if their children are acting up and halt it as soon as possible. “Stop it!” still works, or take the kid(s) outside.

The distracting actions are not only limited to youngsters. Adults can be disruptive, too, especially hopping on their cellphones or talking too much, or another personal favorite – kicking the back of a chair someone’s sitting in.

This disruptive percentage of the audience has forgotten that people pay to watch the movies, not to watch or listen to them not pay attention to the movie. I wish they would realize and learn this and stop going to the movies unless they are there to watch the films.

Basic moviegoer rule: Enjoy the movie experience; don’t annoy the audience. If people would follow this more, everyone could enjoy the films more and the venues that provide these.