Saturday, May 31, 2014

Checking out the new Assembly Row theater with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Other Woman

Hey, a new theater opened in the Boston area! This is a thing I am in favor of! How is it? I checked out The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Other Woman to find out!

The first thing to note is that, for right now, the AMC Assembly Row 12 is kind of off the beaten path - the 90 bus stops at the Assembly Square plaza across the street in both directions, while the 92 is a block or so further away going northward from Sullivan Square (during business hours), neither of them arriving very frequently. An Orange Line station in Assembly Square is scheduled to open in the fall, but in the meantime those of us without cars will be getting there via Sullivan, and it's a bit of a hike, especially in the rain. And while there are a lot of trains and buses that come to Sullivan, but no particular one is very frequent, especially during the evening. The first time I went there, I was able to catch the 90 both ways; the second time, I walked back to Sullivan and waited a long time for the subway at 9:30-ish.

Here's the first view of the theater as you approach:

Old Assembly Square Theater

Oh, my mistake, that's the old Assembly Square theater, also a 12-plex, also owned by AMC when it closed six years ago. I never made my way out there, but it's kind of interesting that the last two theaters to open in this area are essentially replacing ones that shut down in the same area (the Showcase SuperLux opened its six screens a block away from the AMC Chestnut Hill 5-plex that closed about five months before it opened) with higher-end substitutes. The area is still down screens in recent years - the Circle closed in 2008 and Harvard Square closed in 2012.

It's worth noting that the two that haven't been replaced were in locations where you could get off the subway and basically cross the street, with a town square all around; the new ones are part of retail developments with lots of parking. Assembly Row isn't quite the suburbs, but it's still part of a trend away from the neighborhoods and into complexes. Not having seem this place really busy yet, I'm not sure what the atmosphere will be. It is kind of strange to see a whole new theater opening across a parking lot from a shuttered one (and kind of wasteful, really).

Speaking of parking...

The reels are a lie

Half-kidding here... But should a brand new theater that is all DCP from the get-go and thus never has projected 35mm film (and probably never will) be using that as its decoration? Sure, the hard drives that studios ship these days and the "play" triangle aren't exactly evocative the way film reels are, and there are a bunch of symbols hanging around that don't necessarily match what they indicate physically any more, but...

Well, darn it, I'm just kind of weirded out by cinemas that not only don't have film, but never have.

Theater entrance

And there's the front of the place, which actually faces another building, making it kind of tough to get this picture. Near as I could tell, the theater was the only thing open in the Assembly Row development when I went there, although the Lego store would open a few days later. You've got to have a kid to get in, though.

Once inside, it's a pretty good spot. Prices are about the same as AMC's Boston Common plex, if not exactly the same. There's escalators way up to the third floor, and I suspect the lobby could get very crowded on busy nights, with really only room for two or three spaces stations at the box office and as many kiosks. There are a couple more kiosks upstairs, but considering that it might be a somewhat slower process considering that the place has assigned seating.

There's a bar upstairs, but the general impression I got was of the theaters I saw when I visited the UK: Not only the assigned seating, but how the concession area is set up:


The "Marketplace" set-up is kind of like a convenience store for things like candy and bottled drinks and the like, with standard nachos and popcorn in a grab-and-go case up back. The concession stand, then, is reserved for stuff that actually needs people to prepare it - pizzas and mozzerella sticks that need to be warmed up, and a selection of fries and hot dogs with various toppings. There's also an area where you can get ice cream or baked goods. You take all this to checkout counters, which is where you can also purchase cups to use in the Code Freestyle machines.

The new selections weren't bad at all - I had a "peanut butter brownie stack" on my first visit and chili fries on the second. The first was pretty good, although it's served in a plain cardboard box that's likely easier to wrangle through a couple more stations and a closed door than a simple plate could be but actually kind of difficult to work once in the theater. It was quick, though, more so than the fries, which were new enough for the staff to need to consult a manual. Those wound up kind of a squishy mess which I found myself trying to remove bits of pepper from. I'm on record as being a big fan of the soda machines, since it lets me put together a raspberry-lime Coke Zero.

After that's all done, it's into the theater:

Theater #6

That's screen #6, where I saw The Other Woman. Those first three rows show up as two-person couches when you select your seats at the box office, and the cupholders are configured that way. I'm not sure whether you can actually push the divider that is in the middle away and have one person leaning on another or getting his/her legs up if attendance is light enough to not have someone sitting in the next seat. I didn't try any of the seats in the main section, but they looked pretty nice, and the way the room is designed actually makes the seats on the other side of the aisle from the center block look kind of cool - rather than just being the places with terrible sightlines, they're designed to have a "private box" feel.

I actually really like this design a lot - these are actually some of the more comfortable seats I've ever used at a theater, comparable to the LuxLite section at the SuperLux and honestly not that far off from Jordan's (I've actually been thinking that it might be time for the furniture store to upgrade a bit; they've mainly just got buttkicker speakers as an advantage in the comfy seat race). It just seems very well-thought-out compared to a lot of layouts which often seem kind of random.

Oddly, the Imax theater where I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems much more a standard set-up with something more like typical theater seats - no couches, the seats still pretty plush in large part due to newness, generally arranged in the same way as usual. Not bad at all, but it is kind of odd for the amenities of that room to sort of be a step down in some areas from the rest, as you are paying extra, and given that the projection is likely 4K all around, I'm not sure the Imax branding gets you a whole lot more than the other screens in the building.

So, what's the verdict?

If I lived in the eastern part of Somerville or on the northern half of the Orange Line, this would probably become my default theater just by default; thus far, it's looking about as good as digital projection is going to and I'd have to go past it to get to Boston Common. I kind of like the "marketplace" set-up - it reminds me of the theaters I visited in London - especially since it can be incredibly frustrating to be stuck in line behind a half-dozen people who don't know even think about what they want until they are actually standing at the counter, and being able to just grab some Twizzlers quickly would be a real boon when running late for the movie.

One thing I do wonder about is how scalable this is - it's been nearly twenty years since I worked a theater concession stand, and I don't know how well the market area will be restocked during a rush. Also, while I'm starting to come around on reserved seating and like the crazy soda machines, they do force the customer to make more decisions than previously, and I can see them becoming a bit of a bottleneck with limited stations available. I haven't yet been here on a busy night, so I don't know how that works.

One other thing that I noted is that the actual movies playing are pretty standard, to the point where I don't think Fathom events or one-off programs like the classics AMC plays at Boston Common on Sunday & Wednesday have shown up at all yet. To a certain extent, that's expected in the summer, where the studios are pumping out a lot of stuff that will take every screen you'll throw at it, and maybe the programmers are playing it safe until they get an idea of what the neighborhood likes. I also kind of hoped that it might create a bit of a ripple effect - that if some of the blockbuster audience goes here, maybe AMC will program more foreign/indie/low-profile films at Boston Common (ditto Showcase at Revere). It hasn't happened in any noteworthy way yet - Boston Common got Locke and Aberdeen, but that's not a uptick that lasted more than one slow week - but I don't know if we'll see any sign of it until August, when the demand for everything being released becomes less overwhelming.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2014 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, Imax 3D)

One doesn't usually set out to damn something with faint praise; it's usually inadvertent, the result of trying to be positive about something that doesn't merit it on closer examination or only liking something that you are expected to love. So maybe what I'm trying to do here is damn The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in spite of having some faint praise: It's not good, but it's also not quite the joyless and confused exercise in point-missing that its predecessor was.

After an unnecessary flashback to his parents Richard and Mary (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz), we see Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) running late for his high-school graduation, although in his defense it's because he's chasing a highjacked truck full of nuclear material as Spider-Man. Along the way, he bumps into Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an electrical engineer who goes mostly unnoticed at OsCorp, although that may change when an industrial accident winds up giving him electrical powers rather than just killing him outright. Speaking of OsCorp, founder Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) is on his deathbed, bringing son Harry (Dean DeHaan), a friend of Peter's from childhood, back into town. Meanwhile, Peter's girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is considering heading abroad on a scholarship to Oxford.

Because, apparently, none of the four writers credited on this thing remember that almost all kids, especially those as academically inclined as Peter and Gwen, have actually got their college plans worked out well before their high school graduations. There are a lot of stupid, common sense-defying things in the script because they are narratively convenient at one particular moment, from that to the terrible workplace safety violations at OsCorp to how Peter and Gwen seem to go back and forth on being together entirely based on what the next scene requires, our spending a good chunk of the climactic battle on things completely disconnected from the rest of the movie. It's one thing to believe that the not-exactly-wealthy Richard Parker apparently maintained an elaborately disguised secret laboratory in an abandoned subway station - making a superhero movie larger than life everywhere the filmmakers can get away with it beats the heck out of being too embarrassed to put the Lizard in a lab coat the last time around - but it's tremendously frustrating to see things happening without there being reasons that the audience can buy into.

And those are the flaws that are all apparent before getting into how Sony seems to be learning the wrong set of lessons from Marvel's Avengers franchise: Once again, the story in this film seems incomplete, leaving connections unmade and deferring explanations for what is happening now until later rather than telling a satisfying story in each movie but giving hints of a larger world. Things from the original comics pop up and the audience is expected to cheer in recognition, rather than because the filmmakers have demonstrated how cool they are even without two generations of familiarity behind them. It's kind of baffling how the writers often seem to consistently make the wrong choice in how to adapt the source material, changing it in ways that weaken the characters by overemphasizing how Peter and Harry are following in their fathers' footsteps because of their DNA but keeping a forty-year-old climax intact despite how it is in a very different context and isn't nearly as suited to the pacing of movies to come out every few years than monthly serialized comics.

(At times, the operating philosophy seems to be "do the opposite of what Sam Raimi did", and while there's something to be said for not repeating the same thing in such close succession, Raimi at least had a clear vision of the character, and arbitrarily switching things up from that leads to chaos. Some folks may now be referring to the previous Spider-Man cycle as "the cheesy Sam Raimi movies", but a big heart worn on the sleeve is no sin in this genre.)

There are, at least, a lot of steps in the right direction here. Where Spidey often came off as a selfish jerk in the previous movie he's often funny and downright likable here, a working-class superhero of the people. Heck, I was feeling pretty upbeat during the first scene in which he confronts Dillon in his "Electro" form; it's visually cool even as the hero tries to defuse the situation without violence (points for good characterization within an action scene!) and has the goofy visual of Spider-Man wearing a fireman's helmet (points for whimsy!). Pity that getting from the first to the second is so awkward. The action is generally impressive, too: Director Mark Webb and his stunt & effects teams do a great job of making the physics of how Peter swings from building to building feel realistic without making the audience feel nauseous and still capturing the imagery from the comics, while what's going on is bright, clear, and make good use of 3D.

The cast is limited by what's in the script, but they do their best. I'd really like to see Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in a well-written romantic comedy (heck, let Webb direct it); just as was the case last time, the scenes of Petter and Gwen just hanging out and being together might be the easiest parts to excise from a bloated movie, but they're easily the most enjoyable to watch, and there's never any doubt that the pair are committed to their characters. Jamie Foxx is stuck with a character broad to the point of stereotype, but does pretty well with it, though he stumbles a bit on the transition to super-villainy. Dean DeHaan kind of struggles to establish a personality for Harry, but he's at least got something to do, which is more than can be said for Sally Field with her truncated subplot or Chris Cooper and Paul Giamatti with their glorified cameos.

Given that this is an improvement over the last Spider-movie, it's actually not unreasonable to hope that number three could actually rise to the level of being pretty good, especially if whoever is in charge of the franchise at Sony is looking at Garfield leaving the series and decides that there's no point in stretching stuff out any further. Even if that happens, though, that final movie (before another likely restart) will have to be more than amazing to make up for these two misguided movies, and I don't know if the studio's current Spider-Man team has it in them to make something spectacular.

(Formerly at EFC)

The Other Woman

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2014 in AMC Assembly Row #6 (first-run, DCP)

The Other Woman is an utterly average comedy, but I'll cop to some affection for it just because it seems so refreshingly generous in spirit. In the same way that Frozen surprised me by never losing sight of how it was about sisterhood to fall back on needing rescue by a boyfriend, The Other Woman sets up a situation where its three main characters being rivals would be the most natural thing in the world and then makes even the airhead played by Kate Upton smart and self-assured enough to realize that it would do them no good. It wavers on occasion, but generally briefly and in a fairly honest way, so that by the end it can not only have an epilogue where the women are not territorial and catty, but it's so natural that it's no big thing.

That almost seems to catch the filmmakers by surprise; Cameron Diaz's Carly Whitten has a mini-speech at the end about how all of this has made her a better person, but the thing is, it kind of hasn't, because Carly certainly seems like a decent human being from the word go, with part of the fun being that she can be sexually aggressive without coming off as callous or bitchy. She's got a flatter arc than you might expect, and I wonder if that wasn't the original plan until the studio decided to soften Carly up because audience's often hold bad behavior against women far more than they do men (I doubt it was Diaz, as one of the things I like most about her is how relatively unconcerned she seems to be with her characters being likable). It also means that the filmmakers sometimes seem to have problems going for the kill when the joke demands it; even the gross-out humor winds up being pretty innocuous, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau never gets the room to become a particularly entertaining bastard.

It's got a fair amount of good bits to it, though, even if they don't necessarily build to the huge laugh very often. To a certain extent, it spends a lot of time getting by on being pleasant more than hilarious. It's funny enough, and while I do wonder if the filmmakers could have traded some of the good cheer for sharper jokes, that could have very easily led to something that was no fun at all.

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