Thursday, May 10, 2007

Movie Moguls Must Have Felt Like This

I did something today that I haven't done in about a year – I went to a movie. In a real theatre yet. And I liked it!

Okay, here's the set-up. It was a conjunction of circumstances. First, there's a new theatre in town – the Galaxy – which I hadn't been in yet. Second, a few months ago General Mills had a promotion where if you bought a specially marked package of cereal you'd get a free adult admission to one of the Cineplex chains of theatres (some restrictions apply) of which the Galaxy is one. It was going to run out this weekend so if I didn't use it ASAP all those bowls of Cheerios my mother and I ate would have been for naught. Third, thanks to the Spiderman fan boys, the Galaxy was open in the afternoon on a weekday – not a common practice in Saskatoon. Fourth, and finally, they were showing something that I actually wanted to see. No, it wasn't Spiderman 3. My free admission wouldn't work for that and to be honest I read the reviews. No, the movie I wanted to see was Lucky You starring Eric Bana, Robert Duvall, Drew Barrymore and a veritable host of poker players who are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a season of the World Poker Tour or the World Series of Poker.

I'll get to the movie in a bit, but first the theatre. It's amazing. At least it's amazing to someone who has become used to theatres that might seat 150 people at a time, where the lack of quality of the sound system is only exceeded by the sight lines, the ratio of screen height to room size, the quality of the seats, the cramped lobby, and the house lights that are never really dark. The lobby at the Galaxy is huge and not only includes the concession stand but also tables to eat the overpriced food but also a video arcade. The concession stand is also huge and besides popcorn, candies and soft drinks also offers hot dogs, nachos, pizza and frozen yogurt. There's a choice(!) of butter or margarine for the popcorn and if you order a small drink the girl might tell you that you're better off ordering a bottle of pop which is a dime cheaper. The prices at the concession are a crime of course. It says something when the price of a soft drink, tub of popcorn and a candy bar costs more than the movie you came to watch – and it's called a deal! I bought a hot dog and a bottle of Coke for just over $7.50 and headed for the theatre showing the film I was going to see.

Stadium seating is amazing. I picked a seat that looked to be about halfway up the screen and in the middle of the row. The seat was amazingly comfortable and tilted back slight when I sat in it. The projector was already in operation even though I had taken my seat at least five minutes before the start time listed in the newspaper. They were showing a combination of ads, promos for the theatre chain's magazine and music videos. As usual the sound was too loud but over time I got used to it. Eventually – it seemed like about 10 minutes after the show was supposed to start the picture actually rolled. By that time two other people had arrived and had taken seats well below me. Yes, this movie was going to be seen by a total of three people.

As for the movie itself, it was good but not great. Eric Bana played "Huck" (short for Huckleberry) Cheever. He's a professional poker player who is down on his luck. We first see him pawning a digital camera which we later find out wasn't actually his. We watch him as he builds up his bankroll from what he got at the pawn shop to enough to play in the big money game at the Bellagio. Along the way he meets Billy Offer, a young singer from Bakersfield who is temporarily living with her sister Suzanne played by Debra Messing. He also encounters his nemesis: his father L.C. Cheever, in Las Vegas to play in the 2003 World Series of Poker (or rather a fictionalized version of the 2003 World Series – the date is a problem because the 2003 Main Event was the one that Chris Moneymaker won, the beginning of the current Poker boom). L.C. breaks his son, something that happens repeatedly in the film. Huck hooks up with Billie and after bedding her, "borrows" her money (without asking). He runs it up, hoping to get a stake to enter the Main Event but eventually loses it all. Time after time he gets his entry fee only to lose it or have it snatched away. He alienates the patient Billie who is alternately fascinated and disgusted by him. When he eventually makes his entry fee into the Main Event he drives to Bakersfield, where Billie has run to for a few days, just to tell her. He works his way through the crowded field in the tournament, finally making the final table which includes a couple of professionals we've seen earlier in the film, several Internet players ... and L.C. going for his third Main Event bracelet. The finale sees the father finally explaining his past actions to his son and a surprising decision by Huck at the end. The cast of Lucky You is seeded with a host of top professionals, some of whom actually get more than a few seconds of screen time. Sam Farha, playing himself, has by far the most lines, while "Johnny World" Hennigan may have the most interesting part playing a player at the final table of the Main Event who barely acknowledges the existence of any of his opponents and certainly won't shake hands with the people he's eliminated.

How good is this movie? Let's put it this way: someday someone is going to make a movie about the world of Poker players and tournament Poker that is the game's answer to Grand Prix or Le Mans for Auto Racing or The Hustler or The Color of Money for Pool. This isn't it. There have been good, even great Poker movies – Rounders and The Cincinnati Kid come to mind immediately, but this film is lacking as a movie about Poker. The romance in the film is also underdeveloped. There's no real explanation of why Billie keeps coming back to Huck. Even the reconciliation between father and son seems forced. On the whole I found the film adequate, even enjoyable at times, but hardly great, and at time just barely good.

Sitting in that empty theatre – well empty except for the two people sitting below me who may not even have been aware of my presence – I started to think that this must have been what it was like for one of the great movie moguls like Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner, sitting and watching a movie with no one to bother you. About all that was missing was the ability to smoke a cigar and to be able to tell the projectionist to stop the film because I'd seen enough. On further reflection though I realized something; while this may have been an almost luxurious experience it wasn't the movie going experience. The thing that has always made going to the movies superior to television has been that movies are a shared experience. You go to the movies with someone. You talk to them about the movie – preferably after the movie is over. You even share the overpriced popcorn. In a comedy you laugh when the people around you laugh, not when someone pushes a button that plays a laugh track tells you "this is funny, listen to the laughter." At its heart, television is a solitary experience. You may talk about a show you saw the next day at work in hope that they saw the same show, or you might read about it in a blog, but the experience isn't shared at the instant it occurs. Watching a movie in a theatre with only two other people in the audience (who may or may not be aware of your presence in the room) is in some way like watching TV on a really really big screen.

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