Thursday, December 28, 2017

Checking out AMC South Bay: Greatest Showman & Dolby Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It's been three and a half years since the last theater opened in the Boston area, with AMC Assembly Row starting operations just a few months after the Showcase Cinemas SuperLux in Chestnut Hill, both replacing nearby theaters that had closed some time earlier. There has been a lot of upgrading since then - Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Kendall Square have all put in new seats and revamped their concession stands in that time - and the new multiplex in South Bay represents the first in a wave of openings in Boston that doesn't just represent equilibrium or rearrangement: In addition to these 12 screens, there are new multiplexes expected in the Seaport (per Fandango, in as little as a week and a half!), North Station (although that still seemed to be all construction when I was there on the way home for Christmas), and near Ruggles during 2018, with two new screens coming to Harvard Square later. It's exciting for those of us who love going to the movies.

Or at least, potentially so.

It does not escape my notice, for instance, that what is screening at AMC South Bay during its first few weeks is a subset of what is screening at AMC Boston Common, three stops up the Red Line. Odds are that this will also be the case at Showplace Icon in the Seaport and the ArcLight on Causeway, based on what they're playing at their other locations, although, granted, it can be tough to tell at this time of year, when there's a lot of overlap between the mainstream and the boutique houses. There does not seem like a lot of indication that the people opening these theaters have any particular plans to set them apart by what plays there.

On the other hand, maybe sheer saturation will force that to happen. It already has, to a certain extent, as Boston Common has started catering toward the nearby Chinatown audience and playing more small films in the past few years as the places at Assembly Row and Fenway got fancier and siphoned some of the audience for the blockbusters off (and, at the same time, they have not updated the seating to put fewer people in each screen). I wonder how these places will go about differentiating themselves in a year's time, when there are something like a hundred screens easily accessed by the T, twice what there was five years ago.

Because that's not something AMC South Bay is looking to do right yet.

It's surprisingly nondescript from the outside, silvery rather than AMC's usual red and white, and also around the corner from the big sign at the top of the post - you need to look for it a bit once you get off the bus. Transit access is, thankfully, pretty good - I took the #10 bus from Andrew Station on the Red line to get there in the afternoon (the #16 also makes that same two-stop trip; the #8 connects to Kenmore and Ruggles), but it was a pretty easy walk back to Andrew when Star Wars got out at 10:15pm and I didn't feel like standing around in the cold. There's a ton of parking at the shopping center if that's more your thing. It's still kind of sparse inside the lobby, something I suspect will change a bit once more people know it's there (or if I visit one a weekend instead of a Tuesday afternoon/evening, albeit one during school vacation).

There were some bumps once inside - not only was MoviePass not yet recognizing the theater, but the first ticketing kiosk I used rejected both of my credit/debit cards, although it kept my seat reserved, meaning I had to choose another, less optimal spot when I got to one that would let me pay (I probably could have actually sat in D7 rather than C7). When going to the concession stand for Star Wars, we all wound up forming one meandering line for several stations, with the manager hollering to form five but no ribbons up yet.

I didn't get a photo of the upstairs lobby, and it's kind of a weird set-up - the escalator comes out in one corner, near the self-serve candy case along the right wall, with the concession stand along the back, and following the wall counter-clockwise, you go from the candy to the grab & go popcorn & nachos, to the pick-up for hot food (and maybe where you order it, although it wasn't manned on Tuesday), then the liquid-not-entirely-unlike-butter dispensers, the check-out, and the Coke Freestyle machines. I suspect that there are free-standing candy cases which can be brought out on busier nights - the one there was way too small for a 12-plex - but where you would order, say, mozzarella sticks or hot dogs is not obvious, though based on the only menu screens being on the right-hand side of the stand, it's probably near where you would pick up (in a surprising omission, they did not have the chicken tenders or chicken & waffles that are the best things at other AMCs). It seems badly designed, potentially making one walk back and forth through a crowd of people or wait in line with one's rapidly-cooling food as the clock counts down toward the movie actually starting, tempted to just make a run for one's seat. The soda machines proved a bit finicky, as well - aside from their always seeming short on ice no matter where I find them, one was spurting in a way I'm surprised didn't get my hands sticky.

Don't dock the place's rating too hard for most of that, though - it's been open just over two weeks, and there's kinks to work out, although the design of the concession stand doesn't seem quite so easily remedied. Most everybody there is new, even if some managers or team leaders did transfer from Boston Common or Assembly Row.

Once you get past the soda machines, you get to an area with the bar (showing local sports with the sound on, which is different from the Macguffin'ses other local AMCs) on the left and the premium theaters on the right. I'll get back to them. A right turn after that leads to screens #3 through #12.

This is what one sees upon entering screen #5; the curved screen isn't a bad size. Like Assembly Row, there's a front section with a mild slope, a moat where you'll find the handicapped seating, and then a much steeper main section. I, as usual, opted for the front, a bit disappointed that the seats in that section don't recline the way they do at Assembly Row (and where, arguably, it's most necessary). The Greatest Showman was still watchable from row C, although it used up pretty near my entire field of vision sitting in the center.

That's the back section from the front, and if you'll pardon me being a bit of a curmudgeon, I find myself a little more worried about the trade-offs of this type of seating a little more each time I got to a theater arranged this way. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the recliners and cup-holders and comfy seats as I'm in them, but I also can't imagine this sort of plush seating when I go to see a concert or a sporting event. It seems like it would be subtly isolating, maybe not in a way that's immediately obvious, but if you want to see something with a crowd, there's a difference between having the reaction two feet away on either side and three feet away, with fewer voices filling a room of the same size.

I know, movies aren't concerts or basketball games, and when I'm seeing something of somewhat more limited appeal, I kind of expect people to sit in a checkerboard pattern but... Opening night, packed house for a horror movie or comedy or thing like Star Wars or Avengers where you're going in part for the communal reaction, do you want it diffuse like that? I struggle with this question, and it really makes me hope that Boston Common and the indies stick to old-school seating, even if it is a little less comfortable. The way a tightly-packed auditorium can enhance a movie is a thing I don't think people will recognize they miss when it's gone - it's just too counter-intuitive given how much emphasis recent cinema construction has placed on creature comforts (which, again, I enjoy a lot!) and competing with the home theater experience. You've got to not only weigh something concrete against something intangible to worry about it, but you've got to be pretty fanatical about the theatrical experience as well.

I may be wrong about all of that, though. At any rate, these standard screens are a pretty acceptable way to see a movie, right on par with the ones at Assembly Row and Fenway.

After a few minutes poking around the shopping centers for new shoes and such, I came back to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi on the Dolby Cinema screen, which is the main thing that sets AMC South Bay apart from other local theaters. It cost me $11 because Stubs members pay $5+surcharges on Tuesdays, so that makes it about a $20 ticket most evenings. I wound up in the second row center, much like when I saw it in Imax 3D at Assembly Row. Screen #2 at South Bay is a nice, jumbo-sized screen, and even the front rows recline (although not as far back as I'm used to with that sort of seat).

It's the presentation that is supposed to make Dolby Cinema special, as it does with Imax, RPX, and all the other premium formats, and although I can't say definitively that this is the second-best digital screen in the area (after the 4K laser Imax screen at Jordan's in Reading) because I haven't been to the XPlus/MX4D screens in Revere, it's very nice. The surround sound is terrific, both in terms of thudding bass when TIE fighters blow up and impressively directional effects. It's a little more difficult to quantify the picture to my eyes, but it certainly appears 4K sharp compared to the lower-resolution digital Imax screens at Boston Common and Assembly Row, and the claims of more vivid colors and deeper blacks certainly seem to have merit. I do wonder if this necessarily moves the needle for a lot of people - it is hard to explain the difference HDR can make to non-obsessives, for instance, and while the Dolby pre-show brag reel points out how dark its black is versus standard projection, culminating on a "the projector is still on!" text and voice-over over a dark screen, it's not something a lot of folks think about. I know folks who make blacks the center of their "why film is better than digital" arguments, but even if someone does get it, do they agree it's worth a $6 up-charge? Or more, if they're looking at the difference between MoviePass and $20? I've got no idea right now; ask me in February when I'm deciding which screen I want to see Black Panther on.

I probably won't wind up at South Bay very often, although that's as much a matter of geography as anything - I live near Davis, so getting to this place means taking the T past the Somerville Theatre and AMC Boston Common, and it's a much shorter ride to the basically identical AMC at Assembly Row. But if I lived in Dorchester, Roxbury, and other parts of the very much underscreened southern part of the city, I'd be some kind of thrilled to have something much closer to my neighborhood.

Greatest Showman

* ½ (out of four)
Seen on 26 December 2017 in AMC South Bay #5 (first-run, DCP)

I feel for Hugh Jackman and everyone else who can both act and sing - there was something magical about the classic movie musicals of decades past, and every once in a while you see one that does something great with the form. But too often, their desire to do a musical leads them to sign on to things like The Greatest Showman, where they idea seems much more exciting than anything that could come of it. There may be a fine moment or two in the final film, but it spends most of its time somewhere between bad and unwatchable.

Initially, it just seem thin, which isn't necessarily a problem. Indeed, more films could do with sprinting through the foundational stuff the way this one does, having young tailor's son Phineas Barnum (Ellis Rubin) meet and fall for Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn) with little more than a sight gag and a montage before they're grown, played by Jackman and Michelle Williams, and raising two adorable moppets (Austyn Johnson & Cameron Seely) of their own. It plants enough of a seed of an inferiority complex to be referenced later without giving the whole opening act over to a different cast or investing too much in any one specific symbol, and if it drags, it's still a good job of seemingly delivering all the depth certain elements appear to need.

Still, that efficiency can easily turn into just not doing necessary work. The film gets to a moment when Barnum and the audience are looking out the window of his soul-crushing office job and sees a landscape divided between another building filed with sad drones and a cemetery, and while the filmmakers obvious are still trying to get to the good stuff, it hasn't earned that shot yet. Admittedly, I hate that image more than most - it tends to smack of condescension when not used with care, like the artist can't bear imagine punching the clock the way his or her audience does, and this film has spent roughly twelve seconds on trying to show that Barnum is not suited for that sort of life. It's one of the first of many times that director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon rely on familiar patterns rather than specific actions to build the story, but one that feels particularly weightless: It's where they could have shown sort of spark within Barnum, but instead just serves as the set-up for a little off-screen opportunism on Barnum's part.

Full review at EFC

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

* * * * (out of four)
Seen on 26 December 2017 in AMC South Bay #2 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

On first viewing, I said The Last Jedi was the best Star Wars since the original and didn't really think my opinion on that would waver, and I'm glad to see that, on a second viewing, I still think that. Indeed, I'm willing to accept the argument that it is the best of the series, as it's got more going on than the first one did, but you've got to give A New Hope credit for what a lightning bolt it was at the time and how the new one needs the rest to build on while the first just needed itself.

It may work better the second time through - it's thematically rich enough to reward digging a little deeper, based on what one saw or read before, and not being so eager to find out What Happens Next lets the more relaxed parts breathe. It doesn't hurt, I suppose, to not be watching through 3D glasses makes the length a little more comfortable.

So, it's still great. I'll probably watch it one more time in theaters, and really cannot wait to see what Rian Johnson does with the entire galaxy far far away to play with.

Full review at EFC

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