I’m seeing movies in theaters again! On March 22, I saw Tenet in IMAX at the AMC Lincoln Square theater at 68th and Broadway here in New York City. This was my first time back in a theater in over a year, since March 14 of last year, when I saw Hitchcock’s Stage Fright at Film Forum. I’ve had both of my COVID-19 vaccination shots, so I felt reasonably safe. The experience of being back in a theater was oddly underwhelming, though. It was like I’d always been there, that I’d never left. I think this was largely because this particular theater doesn’t have the same meaning for me — as a theater — that venues like Film Forum or Walter Reade do. It also felt weird being one of only 25 or 30 people in an auditorium that holds around 600. There wasn’t that communal feeling of seeing a movie with an audience, because there basically wasn’t one.
I’d thought that my return to movie theaters would take place at Film Forum, which wasn’t slated to reopen until April 2. But when I learned that Tenet was showing on the IMAX screen at Lincoln Square, I knew I couldn’t wait. I didn’t know how long it would be there, and didn’t want to chance missing it. Christopher Nolan had shot most of Tenet in IMAX, and that’s how I wanted to see it. But last year, as movie theaters in New York City remained closed, and it seemed unlikely I’d be able to do so, I purchased a digital copy of Tenet to see on our flat-screen, rather than not see it at all.
As I’d expected, Tenet was visually spectacular on that IMAX screen, which is reportedly the largest in the country (80 feet high, 100 feet wide). Its narrative remains extremely complex (okay, confusing), which isn’t helped by a sound mix that renders much of the dialogue incomprehensible. When I’d watched it at home, I’d used closed captions, but that was not an option at Lincoln Square. I’ve always liked time-travel stories, and that aspect of Tenet, to the extent I understood it, is pretty cool. John David Washington is a charismatic presence, and Robert Pattinson is excellent.
Here is a brief clip from Tenet that shows how well Nolan can shoot and edit a sequence. There’s a feeling of physical weight to what’s on the screen in his films. Imagine seeing this on a screen six stories high.
Seeing Tenet got my feet back in the water. Eight days later, on May 30, I returned to Lincoln Square to see Nobody in their Dolby theater (better picture, earthquake-level sound, more expensive ticket). By this time, I’d re-activated my Stubs A-List membership, which means that for $19.95 a month I can see up to three movies a week at AMC theaters, IMAX and Dolby included. All I have to do is see one or two films and the month is paid for.
My attraction to Nobody was that it starred Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as the unlikely protagonist in an action movie, and was written by Derek Kolstad. Kolstad wrote the John Wick films, which I like, especially the first one. Nobody is pretty good, in a no-redeeming-social-value kind of way. Here’s the trailer.
Film Forum reopened on April 2 and I was there to see La Strada (1954), directed and co-written by Federico Fellini. I’d seen the film many years ago and had forgotten most of it. I wasn’t as knocked out by it as I expected I would be, but I can see why it made such an impact. La Strada received many international awards, included Best Foreign Language Film at the 1957 Academy Awards. Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, is other-worldly and heartbreaking as Gelsomina, playing opposite the brutish Anthony Quinn. The film looks great in a 4K restoration.
It was great being back at Film Forum. Of course, things don’t feel the same, not with only a few people at each screening. Theaters are allowed to have concessions, but Film Forum has elected to play it very safe and doesn’t, for the time being. Tragically, this means NO POPCORN. Their popcorn is the greatest in the world, certainly the best popcorn I’ve ever had in a movie theater. I just have to be patient.
And then, for my sins (no doubt), three days later I went back to Lincoln Square to see Godzilla vs. Kong in IMAX. Based on what I’d seen and heard, I didn’t expect much. It was even worse than I feared, terrible, incoherent. So why did I go? Probably just to see it in IMAX. And with my A-List membership, it didn’t cost me anything, other than two hours out of my life that I’ll never get back. Maybe I should be more careful in my choices. My biggest objection, other than the fact that the narrative makes no sense, is that the battles taking place in urban environments would result in huge numbers of civilian casualties, a horrendous death toll. But because of the PG-13 rating, none of that can be shown or even acknowledged. No blood, no bodies. That said, I’ve got to admit, the image below is pretty cool.
Back to Film Forum on April 9 to see Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). This is a great film, one of his best. I am always struck by how supernaturally beautiful Grace Kelly is in every scene. James Stewart is wonderful, as is Thelma Ritter. Not to mention Raymond Burr as the suspicious guy across the courtyard. It’s an intensely pleasurable film. I remember seeing it at the New York Film Festival in 1983. Rear Window, along with Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, and Rope had been held out of circulation by Hitchcock for a number of years. After his death, they were going to be shown again. Rear Window was the first to be re-released. Stewart was at the Saturday afternoon screening I attended at Alice Tully Hall. I was seated a few rows from the front and to the side. Stewart was there to introduce the film, and from where I sat, I could see him standing just off stage, waiting to be called out. It was exciting to see him standing there in the backstage shadows before anything happened. As I recall, it had been raining heavily that day. When he came out he said, “My gosh, you people will go out in anything.” Or words to that effect. He then went on to say that he had just seen Rear Window for the first time in many years, and that he thought it “held up pretty well.” He was right about that.
An interesting thing about the following trailer is that near the end, Stewart turns to the camera and speaks directly to us about the film. You don’t see this very often.
On April 16, I was back at Film Forum to see two films by Pedro Almodóvar: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and a new 30-minute short, The Human Voice (2020). I’d seen Women when it was released here in ’88, but had forgotten most of it. It was probably the first Almodóvar film I’d seen at that point. I didn’t like it much this time around, but The Human Voice was great. It stars Tilda Swinton in her best David Bowie look, and she is magnificent.
The next day, April 17, my wife Nancy and I went to the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, which is part of Film at Lincoln Center. We were there to see French Exit, a new film with Michele Pfeiffer. We didn’t like it much, though Pfeiffer has gotten rave reviews for her performance. The most significant thing about this was that it was Nancy’s first time in movie theater in over a year. She’d gotten her second vaccination shot three weeks prior, and was ready to join me.
I know the trailer makes French Exit looks promising (that’s what trailers do), but the film just didn’t work for us. Sometimes you get on the ride, and sometimes you don’t.
Two days later I was at Lincoln Square to see Ben Wheatley’s environmentalist horror film, In the Earth. This is very strange going, with more than a few WTF moments. For the most part, I was into it, though I haven’t thought about it much since.
Film Forum again, April 22, to see The Truffle Hunters (2020), a terrific documentary set in a region of Northern Italy where old men and their dogs hunt for the white Alba truffle in the forests, often at night. It’s always a pleasure to be shown something you hadn’t seen before and knew nothing about, especially when it’s done as well as this. The relationships of the men and their dogs is quite moving. A review by David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter can be read here. It reflects the extremely positive response the film has received.
Two days later, back at Film Forum to see Gunda, a film I’d been wanting to see since I first learned of it last year. Directed by Viktor Kosakovsky, Gunda is a documentary about pigs, chickens, and cattle, but not like anything you’ve seen before. It has a very different way of looking at things. No music, no narration, no humans on screen at all. For the entire movie we’re just seeing animals be, watching them in long takes at close range. Gunda centers mainly on a mother sow and her litter of piglets. It makes a nice companion piece to The Truffle Hunters, in a way. They’re both dealing with things in a very elemental way. A review by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, which can be read here, gives a good sense of the film, as does the trailer below.
April 28, at AMC Lincoln Square to see The Courier (2020), a spy drama with Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s not great, but it’s not bad, either, and has a nice John Le Carré vibe. Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British business man recruited by MI6 and the CIA to get intel on nuclear arms from a Russian mole. Based on a true story, The Courier is set in the early 1960s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis waiting in the wings. Benedict Cumberbatch is very good here. An actor I was not familiar with, Merab Ninidze, is excellent as Oleg Penkovsky, the high-level Russian official who passes information to Wynne, at great risk to them both (naturally, as it’s a spy movie).
And to bring this up to date, last Saturday we went to the Quad Cinema to see Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021). It was our first time to the Quad since they’d reopened. They have a great facility and it was nice to be back, though not exactly overflowing with people, as you can see from the shots below. Then again, it was a Saturday afternoon with beautiful weather, so maybe for some there were better things to do.
Street Gang is WONDERFUL!!! Sesame Street is an institution, and an important one. From an educational, cultural, and entertainment point of view, it’s close to unique. Directed by Marilyn Agrelo, Street Gang skillfully weaves together archival footage from the program and behind the scenes with interviews to tell the extraordinary story of the beginnings and development of the show. Agrela had made an earlier documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, about students from several New York City elementary schools who learn ballroom dancing in order to compete in a city-wide dance contest. It was inspiring and entertaining in its message, as is Street Gang.
Okay, I’m seeing movies in theaters on big screens again, but I’ll continue to stream films at home. I got used to that out of necessity during the last year. Viewing habits continue to evolve. Meanwhile, as part of my arbitrary repertory program, I’m about to watch Appaloosa (2008), a Western with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. Until next time, be safe. — Ted Hicks