Bombast: Holiday Tour
A few months ago, in August of last year, I wrote a roundup of summer movie miscellany which doubled as a tour of the (mostly) independent movie theaters still struggling to make an ever-less-viable business model work in a New York City that is ever more determined to convert all square footage into shitty apartments with slate counters. I wrote then that “humble, independently operated neighborhood houses, are at this point at even greater risk of being priced out of New York than people” and, as if to prove this point, despite an eleventh-hour rally, one of the theaters discussed in my Queens roundup, the Sunnyside Center Cinemas, has ceased operations as of January 1.
Theatrical moviegoing is not, I trust, under any grave, immediate threat. When I hit the multiplex over the holidays, it was well and truly mobbed, in spite of the fact that the bill of fare was worse than any in recent Christmases past. Much evidence indicates, however, that the venues for theatrical moviegoing which remain are going to be fewer, larger, and more homogeneous in their offerings, so take advantage of what variety still exists, while variety still exists—in the immortal words of the Dog Brothers from MTV’s Sex in the 90s, “Who wants to have the same cereal for breakfast every day?” With that in mind, I explored some more of this nation’s endangered moviehouses, as well as their histories, personal and otherwise.
Theater: Tower Theater, Miami, Florida
I was in Miami at the end of December to cover the 9th Borscht Film Fest for Artforum. This was my first time in the city immortalized in song on the Big Willie Style LP, so I took the opportunity to get in some sightseeing, which included walking the length of the Venetian Causeway between Miami Beach and downtown Miami, eating stacks of every dead animal flesh imaginable between two pieces of bread (this is called a “Cuban sandwich”), and paying a visit to the historic Tower Theater in Little Havana.
On December 20, 1926, Miami-based moviehouse chain Wometco (Wolfson-Meyer Theater Company) opened a new first-run venue on 15th Ave and Tamiami Trail, with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments as their first attraction. Today, the theater on that spot, the Tower, is the oldest in South Florida still functioning, boasting a distinctive Art Deco façade which includes a corrugated metal marquee and, topping the building, a 40-foot steel spire. You might assume that this feature provided the theater with its name, but apparently that came from Nelson Tower, its first manager—the spire was added as an afterthought when the theater was remodeled by Robert Law Weed before reopening on October 3, 1931. (If comments on the invaluable website CinemaTreasures.org are to be believed, the theater has cycled through a few different towers since.)
When the Tower first opened, its clientele would’ve principally been the Georgia crackers and Jews who lived in the neighborhoods of Riverside and Shenandoah. The history of the Tower through this period is somewhat obscure, and it isn’t until the late Fifties and Sixties that it again begins to appear in recollections. This is when the Tamiami Trail, SW 8th St through Miami, became known as the “Calle Ocho,” the Tower Theater became “Teatro Tower,” and the surrounding neighborhood became Little Havana, the capital-in-exile for Cuban refugees. During this time the Tower, whose programming was a mixture of Latin American and Hollywood fare projected with Spanish subtitles, is remembered as a cut-rate ESL classroom for newly arrived Miamians.
With a double bill of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Uncommon Valor, the Wometco era at the Tower unceremoniously ended in 1984. The building was bought shortly thereafter by McDonald’s, who were considering turning it into a greasepit before settling on a location down the street. It was purchased to become part of a “Latin Quarter Specialty Center” in 1987, then sold to the City of Miami in 1991, which in 2002 handed over theater operations to Miami Dade College, who are still today managing the theater. Throughout, the Tower has been subject to repeated renovations, reopening to the public after the most recent round in spring of 2014. The programming today is more-than-usually-demanding art-house fare, with Spanish subtitles. There was a trailer for Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu before my feature, and Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is Now Playing, along with the Simon Bolivar biopic The Liberator. The Tower stands immediately across the street from Domino Park, a renowned gathering place for first-generation anti-Castro Cuban exiles, and as I was in Miami days after President Obama’s announcement of the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, I was hoping to see something in the way of angry placards or brandished flags. It was pretty quiet, though, so I just saw Birdman instead.
The Spanish subtitles were something to look at, at least. For example, did you know that the Spanish equivalent to the phrase “break a leg” is mucha mierda, or “lots of shit”? I didn’t—or at least not until I watched Birdman at the Tower Theater.
Otherwise, I took exactly nothing away from Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s A Middle-Aged Batman with Enormous Wings tale, the story of Hollywood action star Riggan Thomson’s attempt to revivify his career and establish his Serious Artist cred by staging a Raymond Carver story on Broadway, which may or may not be a film à clef about Iñárritu and star Michael Keaton’s own creative crises, and is a sort of perfect storm of things that I don’t care about. (Magic Realism, Edward Norton, needlessly ostentatious camerawork, cutesy alternative titles, the creative crises of Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Michael Keaton, or any alter ego.) Admittedly these are mostly temperamental aversions, and hardly grounds for outright critical dismissal, but I saw it on vacation and I don’t have to be rigorous, so I’ll leave it at saying that Riggan’s “Will he, won’t he?” death wish is mucha mierda. Like the bathroom graffiti in The Mother and the Whore says—or am I thinking of the Pointer Sisters?—“Jump, Narcissus!”
Theater: Showcase Cinema De Lux, Cincinnati, Ohio
The Showcase Cinema De Lux is an 18-screen multiplex in the northern reaches of the Greater Cincinnati area, just beyond the I-275 lasso, with all the architectural charm of your average Petco superstore. It was opened in 1998, and renovated to its current appearance in 2004. It is a building of no historical or aesthetic importance whatsoever. Nor, to be honest, was the demolished theater whose footprint it was built on, that of the dearly departed Showcase Cinemas Springdale.
Showcase Cinemas Springdale held some importance to me, however. It was the first movie theater that I ever worked at, starting in the summer of 1996, when I was 15 years old. I can fix this date with some certainty because, when I first started, I would without fail sit in on at-random chunks of the movie The Rock during my half-hour breaks. (After my first interview, I stuck around to watch Independence Day on the house.) I would work at various Cincinnati-area theaters in concession-usher capacity at various times up until the summer of 1999, though my memory of which theater I was at and when is a little hazy, and usually tied to the closing-credits music of assorted contemporary movies, music which one would hear several times during a shift while waiting to stream into the theater with broom and long-handled dustpan as soon as the house lights went up. My ’99 stint at Showcase Kenwood Mall, for example, is inexorably tied to “You’ll Be in My Heart” from the end of Disney’s Tarzan, and Elvis Costello’s nauseating “She” playing out Notting Hill.(This was also the summer of Runaway Bride, and I still recall with considerable horror the cardboard-stand image of Julia Roberts lacing up her huge, white running shoes.) The General’s Daughter was the one movie that everyone looked forward to sweeping up after, because the end credits really swung. The highlights of this stint included seeing Eyes Wide Shut two days before the rest of Cincinnati, and spitting tight game at the girls who worked at Sbarro while I was buying my daily pink lemonade. The identifiable lowlight came during our area-exclusive run of The Blair Witch Project, when some dude offered me $50 to let his date and him into a sold-out show, and I let them in for free, an acte gratuit which haunts me to this day.
But I digress. The original four-screen Showcase Springdale first opened on July 11, 1973. With this, National Amusements, a Dedham, Massachusetts–based theater chain chaired by Sumner Redstone*, were making their first venture into southwestern Ohio. Per the invaluable-as-ever CinemaTreasures.org: “Local advertising touted the following amenities upon the theatre’s opening: exclusive rocking chair loungers, acres of free lighted parking, climate controlled for year round viewing pleasure, the most modern sound and projection equipment, showcase art gallery featuring works by local artists, reduced rates for groups and organizations.” Springdale also had not less than two theaters equipped for 70mm projection, its primary competition for large-format screenings being the state-of-the-art Carousel Cinemas on Reading Road, whose exclusive engagement of Earthquake in Sensurround many still speak of fondly today.
All that the De Lux retains of its predecessor are the ENTER and EXIT signs and the “touted” parking-lot grid, which could admittedly use a fresh coat of paint. In addition to manifold theaters, the De Lux has added a concession island selling delicacies that would’ve been unfathomable during my time wearing a concessioner smock, as well as a Food Court where the moviegoer can “[i]ndulge in a slice of freshly baked Famous Famiglia Pizza®, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a delicious Starbucks™ latte, Nathans Famous® hot dogs, burgers, and much more…” There’s also Chatters Bar & Grill, apparently so named because it’s a fun and cool environment in which to analyze the movie that you’ve just seen over signature cocktails, where my companion and I sat to discuss…
Movie: Big Eyes
When Showcase Cinemas flung open its doors in 1973, the moviegoer might have chosen between John Milius’s Dillinger, Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North, and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar. On Christmas Day, when my ladyfriend and I set out to see a matinee, we would’ve settled for a National Treasure: Book of Secrets or a Jack Reacher—not to speak of The Wolf of Wall Street—but this yuletide season held no such bounty. After being turned away from a Sold Out screening of The Interview** at the Esquire (est. circa 1911), my companion and I headed due north for an afternoon show of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, stopping only to pet the live donkey in a nativity crèche in the industrial suburb Lockland, which would remain the identifiable high mark for entertainment that afternoon.
The Tim Burton movies released during my adult life have seemed so uniformly disinterested and slapdash that I’ve often wondered if the entity that we call “Tim Burton” is actually a studio run by an army of pale and sullen interns hired out of Hot Topics from around the country, a teeming factory floor populated by willing minions, of the sort that he has always delighted in showing. (Big Eyes, for example, has Amy Adams’s Margaret Keane consigned to a furniture-painting warehouse.) His choice of “Burton-esque” subjects (Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows) is so by-the-numbers, his Gothic-clutter aesthetic so photostat-predictable—are we sure he isn’t just drag-and-dropping the same gnarled trees and Victorian bric-a-brac from one project to the next?—that his work scarcely announces a conscious authorial intervention at all. In fact, you don’t need the participation of Tim Burton to pull off a “Burton-esque” project. Wait, did he do Into the Woods? How about that insipid-looking Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe that I see subway adverts for?
I was nevertheless intrigued by Big Eyes, for not only was this Burton’s reunion with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters of 1994’s Ed Wood, his last movie that I can rouse myself to defending full-throatedly, but because it’s an imposter’s movie about artistic imposture, telling the story of Margaret and Walter Keane—she who painted the mass-market masterpieces which sold like hotcakes in the Sixties, and he who took the credit. It is also, as it happens, an exceedingly clumsily made movie about artistic imposture, full of scenes that run into a wall rather than hit a mark, never threatening to develop a rhythm but, at best, as in Christoph Waltz’s pinball-antic courtroom scene, occasionally running rampant. The appeal of Burton is, as ever, in the art direction rather than the direction. Here he has the valuable contribution of Bruno Delbonnel, who also shot Burton’s Dark Shadows and, most recently, Inside Llewyn Davis, and who gets some memorable exteriors of the Keane’s arriviste home in Woodside, California, with the shrubbery lit in Pop Rocks colors. I also enjoyed Terence Stamp in the role of New York Times art critic John Canaday. Canaday was in fact an American, mostly raised and educated in the South, but after Mr. Turner’s depiction of John Ruskin as a Terry-Thomas-esque toff and Lindsay Duncan’s brittle, bitter, martini-pickled spinster in Birdman, it was nice to see a villain-critic with at least a dash of Mephistophelean panache.
Theater: DanBarry Dollar $aver Turfway 10, Florence, Kentucky
Again, I am drawing attention to a theater that has no strong claim for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The DanBarry Dollar $aver Turfway is scarcely 20 years old, though it was built in a slapdash, EIFS Art Deco style calculated to lend it a patina of Golden Age glamour. This intention is somewhat betrayed by the fact that it lies adrift in a vast ocean of parking lot, in sight of the Turfway Park horse-racing track. Thus set off, it looks a little sad and a little seedy, and the movie-reel-and-ticket-stub-themed carpeting within shows wear-and-tear, but the tickets are three dollars, so who cares?
The second-run house is a phenomenon that I’ve missed above all others since becoming a New Yorker some five-score years ago. (Well, that and quality of life, and not having to endure a constant, suffocating anxiety during my every waking moment.) Most of my formative moviegoing was done on the cheap, at cut-rate houses in and around Cincinnati: the Norwood Central Parke II Cinemas and the Super Saver Cinemas 8 at the ill-starred Forest Fair Mall, whose glass-block-and-strobe-light façade was rumored to have caused many an apoplectic seizure. (The disco lights had been eliminated when I last visited the Super Saver, since rechristened “The Screens at Cincinnati Mills,” to watch a battered 35mm print of the 2013 DreamWorks Animation film Turbo in a theater redolent with the perfume of loaded diapers.) Both of the abovementioned theaters have since closed, leaving the DanBarry Turfway among the last of an endangered species, the workingman’s moviehouse. Unsubstantiated rumor has it that packs of wild dogs now roam the corridors of Forest Fair Mall/Cincinnati Mills, a story that I elect to believe.
Movie: Beyond the Lights
For its first half-hour or so, Beyond the Lights seemed like it might actually be the smart, skillfully made, below-the-radar mainstream movie that I’d been told about—first by friends, then by Manohla Dargis, who included it in her list of the Best Movies of 2014. The film opens with a bedraggled working-class white mother (Minnie Driver) driving through black Brixton with her young, mixed-race daughter, Noni, desperate to find someone who can “do” black hair on the night before Noni is set to compete in a talent contest. When the girl, singing a rending version of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” places as a runner-up, her mother drags her offstage and commands her to toss the trophy—nothing but number-one will do. This is followed by an audacious leap-forward cut to a music-video clip: “Masterpiece,” Kid Culprit featuring Noni, now having achieved her number-one, all grown up, wearing S/M togs, delivering catatonic Autotune come-ons, and played by the magnetic Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Noni is living in Los Angeles, having cut three successive ringtone-ready hits with Culprit, with whom she is in a stage-managed, red-carpet-ready romance. On the eve of an awards-show triumph, a tipsy Noni tries to throw herself off of a hotel balcony, and Kaz (Nate Parker), a police officer moonlighting as security, hauls her in, beginning a worlds-collide romance between the two. Where Beyond the Lights began to lose me was in Noni’s journey from peddling fantasy to discovering her real self, and the very binary attitudes that the movie has toward “authenticity” and “fantasy”—the former depicted as wholly good, the latter as wholly worthless, even as the movie traffics in its own off-the-rack fantasy of authenticity, with working-class Kaz always clad in pressed clothes, pristine sneakers, and driving an extended-cab pickup with nary a scratch on it. As the movie ends, Noni, having shed her hair extensions and traded in her onstage lingerie for laundry-day lounging clothes, performs for her hometown crowd, singing a self-penned song about which I can remember absolutely nothing, and indulgently smooching her new love in front of the crowd. Being true to thine own self, apparently, is a matter of completely foregoing showmanship. Any paying audience member would have a right to be pissed—though the audience we’re shown look like they’re at a Chumbawumba reunion. Not that this fact necessarily undermines the narrative of Noni’s spiritual progress, but “Masterpiece” is, objectively, 10 thousand times better than this uplifting twaddle.
All of the film’s original music is courtesy of songwriter/producer The Dream, who co-wrote Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” among other Billboard comers. In pairing Kid Culprit, played by the lanky, white Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly, with Mbatha-Raw, director Gina Prince-Bythewood seemingly intends to evoke the platinum-plated duo of Ri-Ri and Eminem. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that MGK is playing an amalgam of Eminem and Chris Brown.) The film freely mixes and matches pop press narratives—beginning as the forlorn little-girl-lost Britney Spears of “Lucky” then emerging as the triumphant singing-her-own-words Britney of “Everytime,” she’s just Noni-from-the-block who can’t forget to beeeee reeeeeal. Like Birdman, Beyond the Lights deals with a celebrity who finds herself literally and figuratively perched on a ledge, trying to separate sincere artistic ambition from commercial calculation. And while Beyond the Lights is by far the more satisfying of the two pictures, I can’t find beacons of hope in films which, in their obsession with the mental health of the rich and famous, tacitly reinforce the Us Magazine/TMZ obsession with celebrity, scandal, and rebranding.
Theater: Concourse Plaza Multiplex Cinemas, 214 East 161st Street, Bronx, NY
More than any other borough, the Bronx has felt the pinch from the contraction of exhibition venues which began with the great digital-changeover purge. As noted in a New York Times piece last May (“Options Dwindle for Bronx Residents Trying to Escape to the Movies”), with the recent closure of the American Theater in Parkchester and the Whitestone Multiplex Cinemas, the birthplace of Bobby Bonilla now has only two movie theaters serving the 1.4 million souls who call it home. (This does not include the charming, Spanish Revival–style Pelham Picture House, a two-screener on the Bronx-Westchester County border that specializes in genteel art-house stuff.)
In fact, the Concourse Plaza Multiplex, opened in 1991, doesn’t really appear at first glance to be functioning. I drove by it twice, failing to perceive a movie theater where one was meant to be, before finally parking by the Bronx Supreme Criminal Court to investigate on foot. Finally I discovered, crouched in the southwest corner of a strip mall containing a Food Bazaar and sundry other amenities, a black-and-white vinyl sign reading “CINEMA OPEN DURING CONSTRUCTION” and an entrance below it. Descending through a gridwork of tube scaffolding serving an indeterminate purpose, one enters the surprisingly vast, entirely subterranean world of the Concourse Plaza, which is laid out on a split-level plan, taking one past the rather impressive ticketing kiosk before one descends still further into the building’s bowels.
By now the holidays had given way to the early months of January. This is a magical time for movie-lovers, for this is when the flotilla of filmed theater on award-qualifying runs begins to loosen its grip on the moviehouses and multiplexes, and when pure cinema re-emerges from its hibernation. By “pure cinema,” of course, I mean movies about deeply angry men killing, maiming, and—in this particular case—waterboarding their way through flocks of enemies.
Movie: Taken 3
Director Olivier Megaton, who handled the latest adventure of ex-CIA-operative-and-very-particular-set-of-skills-possessor Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), as well as Taken 2, is to the stable of Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp directors what Robert Wise was to the Lewton posse. I guess that makes original Taken director Pierre Morel the Mark Robson? There’s definitely no Tourneur, at any rate. Actually, I wish I’d thought this comparison through a little better.
Taken 3 is a Papa John’s pizza. It is, make no mistake, utter garbage, but on one day out of the year it might hit the spot. There is a comfort-food quality to watching Neeson desperately loping across the screen yet again, though all the razzle-dazzle cutting in the world can’t imbue him with the appearance of gazelle-like speed. At any rate, a good hype-man can sell anything—remember how The Price Is Right announcer Rod Roddy could make a popcorn popper sound positively life-changing?—and there were a few in my small crowd who were volubly excited every time Mills pistol-whipped anyone, which was often, not to speak of the spontaneous applause that erupted when he finally got to haul out and put a stomping on Dougray Scott, to the point where what I was looking at seemed much more exciting than it actually was. Taken 3 concludes not with destruction, however, but with rebirth, as Mills discovers positively that he’s going to be a granddad. Can Taken 4 and a purloined incubator be far off? Thus does the circle of life continue, and the release schedule cycle begin anew…
* A striking piece of Wikiprose from Sumner’s entry: “Though he was warned that he might never be able to live a normal life, eight years later he was fit enough to insist on playing tennis nearly every day and to launch a hostile takeover of Viacom.”
** As it transpired, the showing was sold out at least in part because one Jason Best had purchased 50 passes from MovieTickets.com in hopes of reaping a windfall from resale. The entire sad affair is detailed in this Variety piece.