Sunday, March 11, 2018

Test-Driving the New Icon Theater in the Seaport with Red Sparrow & A Wrinkle in Time

As mentioned back in December when I spent an afternoon & evening at AMC 12-plex in South Bay, Boston is currently in the middle of one of its biggest theater-building booms in recent memory, and the Kerasotes Showplace Icon Boston (as it is listed on Fandago and the like) is the second of three multiplexes opening up within the city limits within a twelve month period, with ArcLight planning to open one near North Station as part of a retail development on the site of the old Boston Garden sometime later this year. It's taken me a bit of time to see enough there to really get much of an impression of it, but that's partly on my schedule, which has involved the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival and vacation and work and Oscar prep. This weekend, I checked out a couple things there, so I think I've got a good handle on the experience.

The Seaport area has been developed at a pretty good pace over the past few years - it used to be that when I got off the Silver Line or, before that was a thing, crossed the bridge from South Station, it was pretty easy to find the ICA or Harborlights or wherever else I was going from the milk bottle or the Barking Crab. That's not exactly the case any longer; the building this theater is in is one of several retail/entertainment spots that have sprouted along with a bunch of condos. If you're one of those places' residents, it's pretty great to have a neighborhood theater. If you don't, it's accessible enough - as the photo above shows, it is right next to the Courthouse stop on the Silver Line, and the 4 bus also stops nearby. If it looks like the Silver Line is going to be crowded with people going to the airport, it's about a ten minute walk from South Station.

Presumably, the condo-dwellers are young singles and couples more than families, and that's what makes this site particularly appealing for Kerasotes; though at one point the chain was a sort of generic multiplex, these days they specialize in high-end theaters with a full bar and lounge, no children under seventeen allowed to evening shows, and strict rules about them being accompanied during G and PG-rated matinees. It is, unmistakably, a new sort of "adult theater".

And part of that is that it is expensive - from weekday matinees at $11.50 to weekend premium-screen presentations at $21. Fortunately, members of their "Extras" program can drop that range to $10 to $17.50 if they order using the Kerasotes app or online, which is surprisingly competitive with other places, especially on a weekday afternoon, although they don't accept MoviePass. Concessions are kind of pricey as well, especially since the app and website currently only show offers for Chicago and Minneapolis. I have so far found the ordering on the app mostly straightforward, although I had to double-check once the first time I ordered concessions to go along with my ticket (somehow popcorn and a soda became two popcorns). When you order ahead, a button appears in the app to request the folks at the concession stand start preparing it along with an order number. Depending on what you choose, it's worth hitting that button at the front door (for popcorn) or before getting on the silver line (for nachos).

Once you get there, things can get a little counter-intuitive. Often the person working the box office will be standing beside the kiosks rather than behind the counter to show you how to use them - the scanner for the app's QR code is underneath the panel, though there are no indications to put your phone there. There are separate lines for ordering snacks, picking up popcorn & soda, and picking up hot snacks (flatbread pizza, nachos, creme brulee) or drinks. There's also a bar/lounge area, where you can order drinks or a meal that can be brought into the theater with you. Why I can't order a burger on the app and have it ready when I get there but must instead wait at the bar for a basket to bring in, I don't know.

So, the big question is, do you get what you pay for?

That's a view of theater #2, where I saw A Wrinkle in Time in 3D on Sunday; it's similar to #5, where I saw All the Money in the World back in January. It's a familiar enough sort of look by now - good sized screen, power recliners, built-in tabletop to put your food and drink on. These seats are heated, which can be kind of surprising at times - the button for the heater is right next to the one to lean back, and when I went in January, there was at least one moment when I accidentally pressed that button and was kind of alarmed at the sudden warmth at my bottom and (ahem!) slightly below. I'm not sure that's a feature I'm anxious to get used to.

The important thing, though, is that the picture is phenomenal. All of the screens are 4K laser projection, resulting in an impressively clear bright (when that is warranted) image. This was even the case with A Wrinkle in Time, which I watched in 3D without feeling much in the way of ill effect from the standard RealD polarized glasses. Though that is a scope movie, there was no masking of the screen, but it was not terribly distracting - perhaps the laser system doesn't illuminate the unused space the way that conventional digital projection does? In any event, as someone who likes to sit relatively close (I was in row C), it looked a lot better than I'm used to digital projection looking from that distance.

Sound was also pretty good - bass produced a decent rumble, for instance, and the dialogue and music were always crystal clear - but sitting that close probably puts me a little off the sweet spot. As I anticipated in my post about Early Man, something was definitely off in that there were no children in the audience for this movie very much made for them - though kids 7 and up are allowed at matinee screenings, it's not like the policies encourage them to be there (though I did run into an 8-year-old boy in a suit in the men's room, which seems fitting).

The food on Sunday afternoon was the bourbon bacon caramel popcorn, which was kind of strong for my taste, more for the caramel flavor than the bourbon flavor. The regular bacon popcorn I had in January was also pretty good.

The main theater, so far as I can tell, is screen #6, the "Icon-X" screen, seating about 190 compared to the 86 the other ones I was in held. The big screen is, unusually, a full 2.39 times as wide as it is tall, compared to the usual 1.85. It looks just as terrific as the smaller one from my seat in the fourth row, even brighter without the 3D glasses. The opening scenes of Red Sparrow looked downright fantastic.

The other big difference between the regular screens and Icon-X is the sound, with Icon-X having Dolby Atmos. Red Sparrow doesn't necessarily show off that sort of surround the way a big action movie might, but it's very nice. I do wish I'd had the chance to experience this room with a crowd - it's a big room in terms of dimensions, but how truly nuts is it going to get during the next Avengers and Star Wars movies?

Saturday night's food was the Bacon Jam BBQ Burger from the Lobby Lounge, minus the blue cheese and onion rings. It's a good burger, although, as I said before, I'm not sure why I had to get it at the bar.

(The bar is nice, I guess; I don't drink.)

One thing that has struck me is that I've yet to actually see a movie with a crowd at the Seaport theater; part of it is that I haven't exactly been choosing to see Black Panther opening weekend, instead going to things that have either been out for a bit or, like A Wrinkle in Time, really don't fit with the theater's generally-adult clientele. But I also think it's a question of what niche it fills. It shows the same movies as the AMCs at Boston Common and South Bay (two and three stops away on the T), only for more money, and while there are some nice options for concessions, it's also surprisingly limited in terms of the basics, with plain M&Ms, Milk Duds, Twizzlers, and chocolate-covered blueberries your only choices for candy. So far, it hasn't gone far out of the mainstream to cater to those with elevated tastes, and it's not the super-premium experience you get out in Chestnut Hill where they will bring steak tips to your seat and then a half-hour later bring dessert. Yeah, it's cool that someone stands at the front of the theater and welcomes you before the previews, but it seemed kind of awkward both times this weekend.

At a couple months in, they don't seem entirely settled in yet, either. They forgot to give me 3D glasses for Wrinkle, and I figured that they might already be waiting at the seat like in the SuperLux or that there'd be a bin to grab from, but I opted to dig into the bin where you return them after the movie rather than go ask the question. The menu in the lounge doesn't seem to have reached its final form, and things are often set up in a way that is just different enough from the standard multiplex to be confusing.

I'll grant that I don't necessarily go in for the fancy accoutrements at theaters the way some do; a place's beer selection is wasted on me, as is the food to a lesser extent, and those who have read some of my other moviehouse reviews know that I'd kind of rather have people packed in with extra screens showing something unusual than everybody having a little more elbow room and the reaction to what's on screen being diffuse. Ultimately, I think, the question for the Icon will be how important people think it is to keep kids/teenagers/folks who can't drop $20 on a movie out on the one hand and how much premium projection is worth on the other. It's technically the best digital projection in metro Boston - it's a production to reach Newton or Reading on the T, and there's just the one Dolby screen at South Bay - and while I wouldn't want to pay their prices all the time, it's certainly worth considering.

The projection is good enough for me to shift a bit of my business there, especially on busy weekends when I might be exceeding my MoviePass allotment or wanting to see something on a premium screen. It's no bad thing to score high on the most important part of seeing a movie, right?

Red Sparrow

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 March 2018 in Showplace Icon Boston #6 (first-run, Icon-X DCP)

Red Sparrow is a gloomy, grinding machine of a spy film, the sort of thing that feels like a relic of the Cold War from the start and seems to make concessions to the 21st Century begrudgingly, right down to the 3.5" discs exchanged in a pivotal scene. There's purpose to both its throwback and joyless natures - Putin's Russia is arguably trying to return to the years when the world revolved around the conflict between America and the USSR, and this film seeks to dismantle the myth of the seductive Soviet spot - but are those aims enough? Is what's left entertaining enough to be worth it?

It's right on the line. This is a spy story where all of the espionage seems to be the goal in and of itself, not a means to another end, but it's one that keeps all of that cranking along in a fashion that's impressive and intriguing without seeming romantic. There's a fair performance by Jennifer Lawrence, one that seems to hit one dour note until there's reason to remember the moments where she was something else. The opening is beautiful, even if it doesn't really get much out of how it contrasts the precise with the seemingly sloppy.

It's a tricky situation, in some ways - the filmmakers never really find the right way to undercut one fantasy in order to find something more genuinely dramatic underneath. It's a nice, polished try, though.

A Wrinkle in Time

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2018 in Showplace Icon Boston #2 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Boy, I wish there were kids in the theater where I saw this, because as an adult who didn't particularly love the book when I read it in elementary school, it's really not meant for me, and I've got no idea whether the young audience it is for would eat it up or not. The film of A Wrinkle in Time is a whole bunch of things I don't like, story-wise: people talking in deliberately cryptic fashion, protagonists who just sort of get tugged along rather than taking an active role, big science fiction ideas reduced to "feel really hard". It's not what I've grown used to considering good in a story at all, but it could well resonate with its intended audience.

But, on the other hand, just look at this thing. It's gorgeous, whether in terms of there being a lot of great, well-used visual effects and stereoscopy, effort to pull from diverse cultural sources (and be striking in original ways) in the elaborate sets and cosine design, and just framing things well. It's eye-popping. And feel it, especially in the last act; you'd have to have a heart of stone not to love Storm Reid's Meg at the end.

Reid, it turns out, is the best bit of casting in a movie where that seems like it should be a huge strength, but most is just off or seems to be asking too little of the actors. It seems like the adult cast could do a lot more, even before getting to how the Oprah Winfrey, while perfectly cast, seems too much larger than the film (something it almost seems to be commenting on directly). Then there's the poor kid playing Charles Wallace, seemingly giving the filmmakers just what they want despite the fact that what they want is annoying and the kid is entangled in all of the film's worst "this happens for no reason and don't ask questions" impulses.

That stuff drives me nuts, but, again, this movie isn't for me. I just wish I'd seen how it played for the Megs and Charles Wallaces of the world.

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