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A tale of two theaters

Posted by Ty Burr  May 12, 2008 11:04 AM

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I went to two movies this weekend with my family -- just another paying customer scarfing down Junior Mints and waiting for the previews to end. Friday night Lori and I took the girls to see "Son of Rambow," the deeelightful British comedy about two boys in 1980s England who decide to make their own "Rambo" movie. It was at the Coolidge -- the site of so many primal movie memories of my own misspent youth -- and it was playing the big screen: Huge, gorgeous visuals and all-encompassing sound. And the theater was a third full. Worse, there were hardly any other kids there. Suddenly it struck me once again how a movie's title can work against it; when I mention "Son of Rambow" to my friends -- educated, articulate, upper-middle-class booshwah like myself -- I can see their lips start to curl as they assume it's some rank spin-off from the underbelly of Sylvester Stallone. Sorry, it's not: It's about the most purely enjoyable 90-odd minutes I've spent in a movie theater recently, and the same goes for the wife and daughters -- my 11-year-old couldn't stop chattering joyously about the movie on the ride home.

So where was the family audiences? Easy -- they were at "Speed Racer," or "Iron Man," films that are sold to them with multi-million dollar ad campaigns and tie-in cross-promotions. Films with stars. Films that are easy to find at every multiplex in the land and that are, by default, the only ones that exist for 95% of the moviegoing public.

Saturday night, Lori and I caught up with "Baby Mama" -- I almost talked her into "Iron Man" but failed -- at the Circle Cinema in Cleveland Circle on the border of Brookline/Boston/Newton. That's another theater I have primal memories of: I can recall seeing classics like "E.T." there as well as weird turn-of-the-70s product like "The Star-Spangled Girl" starring perky, forgotten Sandy Duncan and a young Tony Roberts. It was part of the wave of theaters built in the 1960s and 1970s either conceived as multiplexes or, like the Circle, begun as single-screens and chopped up later; those that are still in operation provide, by a long shot, some of the worst filmgoing experiences in the greater Boston area. The much-feared Dedham Showcase finally closed its doors a few weeks ago, but The Fresh Pond Cinema in Cambridge continues its reign of cinematic terror, and the Circle is no better.

We saw "Baby Mama" in Theater 6, a long, thin shoebox of a screening room that holds what feels like about 150 people. It was crowded if not sold out. The screen itself is slightly larger than a good-sized home entertainment plasma screen; the picture is infinitely worse. The visuals were dim, the sound horrendous, with a constant low-level static that made it sound like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were delivering their lines in a wind tunnel. The last time the sound heads on the projector were cleaned must have been when I saw "I Love You Alice B. Toklas" there in 1967.

How was the movie? We thought it was terrible, and whether that was from the lackluster script, too-easy sentiment, or pitiful projection, I find it difficult to say. The rest of the audience seemed to enjoy it all right; the middle-aged women sitting behind us laughed at every joke, the dozens of middle-school girls who took up the first three rows spent most of the movie giggling and checking their incoming text messages. For most people, this is what going to the movies means in 2008: crap movies, crap presentation, but at least you get a night out with your spouse or friends.

What would these moviegoers think of "Son of Rambow," a film that is the finest "family movie" currently playing in this country by dint of the fact that the whole family (nine and up) can enjoy it on different levels? And how in the world can I or anyone else convince people to go see it?

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1 comments so far...
  1. Thank you for bringing up the travesty that is the "Circus Cinema". It is one of the worse places to see a film in New England and has been for almost 20 years.

    Sadly nothing will be done to replace that theater until a competitor comes along in the area. The area theaters that compete with the Circle directly are the West Newton and the Chestnut Hill which are not much better.

    Ty sez: At least the West Newton programs off-Hollywood movies and is one of the few to cater to an audience over the age of 30 (sometimes to a fault). And it's beloved in the way a slightly dotty but fundamentally cool aunt is. But, yes, the projection and sound quality is far from the best. As for the Chestnut Hill, I agree: feh.

    Posted by The Hey May 12, 08 02:53 PM

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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