Oct 13, 2015

GoodFellas and good food at the Alamo

Firstly, a confession of sorts: I don't have the statistical knowledge to thoroughly discuss the finer points of today's moviegoing market from an economic standpoint. More to the point, I don't want to. Anyone actually interested in this kind of metadata is welcome to it; not me. Even if there were 72 hours in a day and our lives comparably longer for it, I'd likely still find it a corrosive waste. (Oh, your stock in Disney went up again? I'll let you know the next time a Marvel movie doesn't put me to sleep.)

That said, I feel more than qualified to talk about today's moviegoing market from a consumer standpoint. That word, consumer, carries baggage of the ilk I just tried to distance myself from, yes, but even an idealized perspective on film as art must acknowledge the forces at play, even when we're reticent to play by their rules. We're consumers of a product that, from case to case, may or may not also be art (the reverse can also be said on rare occasions), in an industry entrenched with injustices since its inception. On a playing field where John Ford explicitly distanced himself from the term artist, or where Roger Ebert once placed Spider-Man 2 in his top five films of the year while also maintaining that it is not art, I think the closest we can come to truth is to acknowledge that everyone has their own version, and few, if any, are without some level of implication, and that the more gates are open, the better off for everyone.

As a consumer of movies born in Ronald Reagan's United States, it should come as no surprise that Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas was a watershed moment in my cinematic upbringing. Even though the first time I saw it was in the form an edited, pan-and-scan television cut, it's hold was remarkable. Flash forward 18 years, and I've since purchased it three times (letterbox VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray), but when my local Alamo Drafthouse announced that they would be hosting a screening of the film's new 4K restoration to be served with a specifically curated four-course meal, there was no doubt that I would have to be there.

I've not kept track of which classics I've seen theatrically in 4K; off the top of my head, this and last year's re-release of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre might be it. Much as I love the tactile resonance of physical film, I have eyes, and both of these experiences were a glory. Watching GoodFellas again this past weekend, I was struck by the level of grain that was captured in the restoration, and with the exception of the absent reel markers and inevitable scratches, as well as the occasional freeze frame employed by Scorsese (in which the flickerless projection is most apparent; pictured), the experience was almost film-like.

Hollywood is fighting to keeps asses in seats, but if there's a way to fight the growing trend of people saving their dollars by waiting for Redbox, it's the Alamo way, which I've come to think of as being an improvement on the comfort many people take in the living room experience. You likely know the general deal – the theater is also a full-service bar and restaurant. I'm not a food critic, but as someone who enjoys good things, I've never had so consistently excellent an experience with either such establishment (I just checked my Letterboxd records, and I've seen at least forty-four shows there in the last five months, and I think I've ordered food or drink at all but one of those times). The GoodFellas dinner was four courses, beginning with a light tomato and mozzarella cheese salad, then crostini with olive salad and garlic, followed by a main course of baked ziti, and a dessert of tiramisu, which I should have taken into account before driving home. The leftovers themselves would shame a great many stand-alone restaurants, where projection and aspect ratios and crowd control aren't all matters of concern. When I'm no longer in driving distance from an Alamo location, to paraphrase James Joyce by way of Sean Penn, I'll feel the lack.

The GoodFellas screening, alas, did not go off perfectly, albeit in ways that made me feel all the better about where I was. I find myself judging theater chains in much the same way I find myself measuring my favorite comedians against each other, which is to say, how they function when something goes wrong. The (I'm assuming) family that was seated immediately to my right has already accelerated my eventual transmogrification into a grouchy Clint Eastwood type defending his plot of land, and as much as I wanted to wring their necks, the feeling towards them that I'm trying to settle on is abject pity. Their lack of awareness concerning their surroundings was awe-inspiring; despite the “THIS AUDITORIUM IS NOW A NO TALKING ZONE; KEEP YOUR CELL PHONE DARK, SILENT, AND OUT OF SIGHT” announcement that plays immediately before the movie, these evolutionary prodegies took out their phones and used their screens/flashlights to look at their menus, despite the warm illumination beckoning from the helpfully-placed lights under their tables. Before long, a runner swooped into to explain to them that cell phones were not allowed for any purpose and that they could read their menus easily with the provided lights, and with what I imagine must be a highly practiced tactfulness, in place of the string of nasty similes I'd have probably unloaded as an offended patron.

But all had not ended; at least three in this group of five sustained a low chatter through the film's opening scenes with the young Henry Hill. Already infuriated, I turned to the two closest to me, roughly 15 and 20 year-old boys, and told them flatly that if they kept talking I would report them. Someone already had, however, and another runner (maybe it the same person; how they do their jobs so well in the dark is beyond me) arrived promptly to issue a firm warning.

This traveling circus more or less behaved for the rest of the movie. A head-slapping highlight: the shining star sitting closest to yours truly asked his maybe-sibling, during the wailing strings of “Layla,” “what's getting made?,” reaffirming my belief that some people simply don't deserve good things. What happened next was something I'll never forget: during the final, cocaine-fueled stretch of the film, this ne'er-do-well in training took out his phone. The screen wasn't on, but he nonetheless took out his phone and was fidgeting with it, unable to sit still lest the mortal terror of existence overtake him, apparently, audibly tapping it at one point until I gave him a glare that I find myself hoping haunts him later in his life during moments of intimacy.

In hindsight, I realized that I could, and should, have raised an order card -- as per the warnings, cell phones should be out of sight, screen illumination notwithstanding -- but at that point, I was more concerned with Michael not letting the sauce stick. These experiences, frustrating though they are, serve two purposes: they remind us how good things are otherwise, and they satisfy a certain anthropological interest on my part. As a young adult in an Apple age of convenience, I'm terrified of losing my autonomy and diminishing my attention span; I realize that I don't need to worry that much. Here I am, trying to carve out time to rewatch The Turin Horse uninterrupted; this little oaf, and likely the bulk of his infected gene pool, on the other hand, couldn't even make it through motherfucking GoodFellas – arguably the cinematic equivalent of lighting in a bottle.

In the words of Robert De Niro's Jimmy (not Joe Pesci's Tommy), “what is the world coming to?” But I know better; it's long been like this, just in different forms and details. There's always a tide to fight, against thoughtlessness and impatience, and anyone who loves anything will eventually have to at least figuratively get into bed with something or someone they don't like. It's as possible to avoid bad crowds as it is to avoid insects, and to have even the vainest hope of doing either, you'll probably have to move to Antarctica. In the dozens of trips I've made to Alamo, I can count the negative impressions I've gotten from my fellow patrons on one hand, which is not just a better success rate than virtually every other theater I've ever attended, but also even the most ideal Thanksgiving meal with one's extended family. At the end of the day, the only bad thing about the GoodFellas dinner party was that more people didn't show up. Remember the Alamo.

Sep 26, 2015

My Summer at the Alamo

I was going to start this piece off by addressing my dedicated readers, but that would be a misnomer. Indeed, I have some friends and colleagues who seek out what I have to say, to which I am flattered, but in order to be dedicated, there must first be something to dedicate oneself to, and the fact is that I've barely written much of anything for almost a year, and the writer's block had started kicking in well before that. One of my editors offered, some time back, that it seemed like I just didn't love writing about movies anymore, and he was right, no matter how much I didn't want to believe it.

I don't intend to dwell on this, but instead to embrace it as some sort of necessity in my personal life. I moved to Pittsburgh following my mother's passing, and for all of what seemed like the right reasons, I moved to Denver earlier this year. It didn't take long to realize that I need to go back, for reasons I couldn't see except from afar. I'm comfortable with this, but it doesn't mean the temporary limbo I've found myself in is any less strenuous. For now, though, I'm optimistic, and I trust in patience and my gut, and that they're pulling me in the right direction. They have so far.

Denver it is for now, and as I so often have, I've found some refuge from life's more weathering aspects at the movies. Work, exercise, and sleep (even more of a necessity than usual as I'm trying to kick caffeine for good) take up most of my time, otherwise, and at this point, there's no sense in trying to maintain much sense of objectivity. I've been a fan of the Alamo Drafthouse since a trifecta of visits I made with a friend to one of their Austin locations in the summer of 2010, at which I was blessed with the opportunity to see the now cult-certified Miami Connection in its effective public re-premiere. When I recently learned that Film Freak Central critic and friend Walter Chaw had become the general manager of the new Littleton location, I was ecstatic, and seeing this location was near the top of my list of things to do once I got to Denver.

Walter proved to be just as affecting and generous in person. We first met at a further nexus, of sorts, for yours truly. One Matt Zoller Seitz was attending the screenings of two films in a cross-promotion of his books on the films of Wes Anderson and the not-yet-published Oliver Stone Experience. Matt's presence in both the film world and my life, and as someone who has also experienced great loss, can't be put in words that I think do it justice. He's been like a personal lighthouse, or Yoda, perhaps. We spent the night talking about the films being screened, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Natural Born Killers, and also “Bojack Horseman” and the yet-unreleased Jurassic World, and how fucking hard and great life can be. Whatever forces are or are not at work in the universe, it felt like exactly where I needed to be, wherever else I'd go from there.

That was the best Alamo experience I've had so far, and I don't expect it to be topped. But one of my first – the opening night of Mad Max: Fury Road – came close, and that the movie itself represents a sort of encapsulation of my life right now (Charlize Theron helped me see the Furiosa in my own life, and patriarchy just sucks, seriously) makes this all feel like a memoir chapter just waiting to be written. It's certainly defined my summer. To make some perfect even better, opening night of Fury Road was screened with one of the Alamo's famous multi-course, beer-paired meals served throughout the movie. Black bean pork chili, served with tortillas and – I love this – in a can, because Mad Max.

You'd be fair in thinking that the servers walking about during the movie would be terribly distracting, but on the whole, I find they're not. In the dozens of visits I've made to the theater since, I keep experiencing moments where my drink or check seems to have suddenly apparated, because I wasn't even aware the runner had stopped by. Tip them well. They deserve it.

Anyhow, Mad Max, opening night. There almost aren't even words for it. I've seen it now seven times theatrically, plus I don't know how many times at home, plus twice in manually-adjusted black and white, plus once in the newly-unveiled fan edit subtitled “black and chrome.” I've come to the determination that it's the greatest action film in at least a quarter century. It has the cinematic moment of the year to date, for my money's worth, and it was that moment that solidified just how capital-M Motherfucking awesome the Alamo is.

You know the moment? Yeah, you remember it. When Nux has chased Furiosa into the storm, and Max grabs the flare at the last second, and the two vehicles collide, and the flare drops, and expires. I get chills just thinking about it. That moment proved that the Alamo was a special place because, for the next 45 seconds, the movie is essentially silent, and so was the audience. No talking. No whispering, which is also talking. No clanking glasses or silverware in a theater full of delicious food and beer that had already been served to its patrons. Other audiences I've seen it with have somehow been noisier, with only their asses in regular movie theater seats and popcorn and Skittles as their instruments. Some great feeb even made an MST3K-esque joke once, at a second run theater, about Max's car insurance going up (which literally makes zero sense in context). Not us. We were in rapture. I had found my place of worship.

The diversity and emphasis on the quality of the films that play at Alamo are well worth what is, in my mind, the most significant investment I have to make when visiting it – the time. 40 minutes' drive each way, if I'm lucky, and the necessary return drive limits one's alcohol choices, not that a second feature with a quesadilla isn't a bad way to sober up (and hey, I thought Trainwreck was kind of awesome, too).

In the further interest of full disclosure, I feel that I should add that while I have been a paying customer at the Alamo, I have also been treated as a guest on a number of occasions. My budget at the time of Matt Seitz's visit did not allow for me to attend both screenings; I committed to Life Aquatic, no offense to Mr. Stone and one of the best films of the 90s. Walter had me as a guest at Natural Born Killers, which also came with three beers and an amazing cheeseburger that they then replaced with a fresh cheeseburger when I asked for a doggy bag! It was, no doubt, one of the great nights of my moviegoing life, and an oasis in my own personal desert, and without Walter's generosity, it likely wouldn't have amounted to a third of what it did.

I assume that it's stating the obvious that the moviegoing experience kind of blows these days, mainly, if you're not careful. I saw a Terrence Malick film with a general audience once; never again (which is to say, no evening shows at the cineplex, which is where I saw his The New World. I similarly refuse to go to a horror movie on an opening night anymore, although the exception I made for It Follows at Pittsburgh's Hollywood Dormont theater was carefully vetted and ultimately rewarding one, because great horror films rarely play better than they do with a mostly full and respectful audience at a professionally maintained, classy theater. (If you get a chance, their 35mm copy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is beautiful). The Mile High Horror Film Festival is next week, and I'm silly with excitement. Typical horror movie crowds notwithstanding (words I hate to write, for I love the genre so), I feel like I'll be able to trust my fellow patrons. It took three months of regular visits for me to see someone on their phone there, during a movie, and the offender was quickly removed after myself and others had already complained. That level of infrequency is, as far as I'm concerned, a miracle. But maybe it isn't. It only makes sense that great business courts great clientele, and Alamo has both.

There's so much going on at the Alamo that I frequently have to pick and choose, not just because of the needs of my wallet, but because the screenings are literally overlapping. Alas, you can't do everything you want, film or otherwise, a fact that has resulted in a much more humble and rewarding life since I've taken it to heart. What Alamo guarantees, however, is that there will always be something awesome there, whenever you can go, and as a proponent of film exhibition, screenings of Chinatown, The Dark Crystal, Grace of My Heart, Do the Right Thing, Time Bandits, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Creature from the Black Lagoon (in 3D!), Scanners, The Abyss, Never Been Kissed, and an amazing genre oddity known as The Devil Fetus, among others, on 35mm, have been a great boon to my soul. This coming month sees a lot of great horror fare on the format, from The Changeling to Carnival of Souls to Antichrist. I wish I lived closer; it's the largest contributor to my odometer, by a walk.

As someone with experience both showing movies (I was a projectionist at Allentown, Pennsylvania's 19th Street Civic Theatre) and serving food in exchange for an hourly pittance, I know how hard it is to pull off either of those things with consistent quality. Alamo does well by it's customers, and everything else is just superlatives at this point. The extent and variety and creativity of their events is mind-boggling, from exquisitely curated meals based around a particular movie (the molten lava cake at the end of Terminator 2 was a brilliant touch) to filmmakers and other artists visiting the theater (tonight, I'll be seeing L.A. Confidential with James Ellroy in person), to all manner of audience participation (the Inside Out message board, pictured, broke my heart even more than the movie itself), concerts, and special menu items. At the Littleton location, you can still order the They Live-inspired Kick Ass Bubblegum Milkshake, and you should.

To brings things full circle, the melancholy heart of the matter of my life now is, I don't feel at home in Denver. My family and loved ones are far away, and my family, as am I, are getting older, and as much as I'm glad to have made a change in my life, I don't think this is it. It reminds me of Matt Seitz's blog The House Next Door, and more specifically, the adage from which it takes its name: Sometimes in life, you have to drive around the block backwards in order to get to the house next door. I think that that's what I'm doing.

Until this leg of the journey ends, the Alamo feels like home – as all good movie theaters do. Every Alamo location I've been to is second-to-none by any standard, and the fact that a good friend is holding the reigns to this particular location only makes it better that I'm lucky enough to be there this much at this time of my life. If justice prevails, there will be one in every major city before three more Star Wars movies are released, at which point you can all tell me how right I am.

Jun 12, 2015

Rebels of the Neon God (1992): A-

After the existentially fraught, almost magnificently crushing experience of Stray Dogs (released stateside last year), Tsai Ming-liang's debut feature, 1992's Rebels of the Neon God, feels positively mainstream. Never officially released in the United States before now, it's a remarkable film, not only for the fact that Tsai's use of composition and extended, languid takes was already formidable-bordering-on-consummate, but also for the rear view it offers into the west's own global effects, now presented not unlike something preserved in amber.

The neon god of the title refers to Nezha, a Chinese deity evoked explicitly by at least two characters, but more so does it refer to the cityscape habitat this film's small band of characters find themselves struggling vainly against, almost unaware. Two small-time thieves are our introduction to this world, as Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Bing (Chang-bin Jen) break into a payphone and various other vending machines for the loose change waiting inside. One senses that their handiwork is less out of financial need than because they're feeding into their own projections of machismo; a telling moment occurs early in the film when Tze's girlfriend, Ah Kuei (Yu-Wen Wang), asks him after a night of drinking if they raped her, her tone equal parts casual and disturbed. Their story intertwines with that of Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a troubled student struggling to satisfy the wishes of his parents.

Rebels features many cameos by popular works of western cinema, from a poster of Rebel Without a Cause in the back of an arcade to an implied shout-out to Taxi Driver when one of the characters purchases a gun for some casual target practice.  These hallmarks are but a piece of the socio-cultural architecture that at once shapes and torments these characters, who spend most of their time laying down (not necessarily sleeping), or pleasuring themselves, and each other. A flooded apartment building suggests another metaphor for a roving, ill-defined existence within the film's larger microcosmic framework; sandals, cigarette butts, and other detritus is cast about as dirty water surges upward from the floor's intended drain, much like these characters have less autonomy than they realize within a society unable to quell its own moral plumbing.

Tsai's film is nothing if not a great expression of sadness and longing, particularly the kind so often impossible to articulate when one is in the midst of depression. Numerous details are left unexplored -- why Hsiao Kang's scooter is towed, for instance -- with the cumulative impact being that so much of life affects us without explanation, and maybe it's fruitless to dwell on those aspects. The minimalist story, such as it is, is tertiary to Rebels' lyrical and visual qualities. The acts of vandalism perpetrated by these characters seem minute compared to the larger dehumanization implicit in nearly every frame. An act of revenge instills one of these souls with a momentary catharsis, but the scenes proves melancholy, as the viewer knows better the fruitlessness of such deeds (see also: the wasted efforts to plug the aforementioned apartment drain). Rebels of the Neon God is one of the great films about modern unrest and the pangs of youth. I can't wait to watch it again.