What’s playing in Madison theaters, Sept. 20-26, 2013

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All week

Prisoners” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance) — Once I heard that “Incendies” director Denis Villeneuve was directing this thriller, I had a hunch it would be something unusually dark and disturbing. Hugh Jackman and Terence Howard play fathers trying to find their abducted daughters, resorting to unsavory means when the detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes up empty-handed.

Battle of the Year” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Even by dance-competition movies, this one is supposed to be mighty cheesy, with Josh “Sawyer” Holloway leading a ragtag group of dancers all the way to the top. In 3D.

Thanks for Sharing” (Sundance) — My full review is here. The ads portray this as some kind of fizzy romantic comedy, but it’s about one-third comedy, two-thirds drama, and all about sex addiction. Still want to take that first date to it? Actually, it’s pretty good, refreshingly grounded for such potentially salacious material.

Hannah Arendt” (Sundance) — My full review is here. Barbara Sukowa plays the intellectual and New York writer who coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe the Nazis, and took tremendous flak from fellow Jews as a result.

The Wizard of Oz IMAX 3D” (Star Cinema) — Remember how you endured “Oz The Great and Powerful” and wished that you were seeing the original Wiz on the big screen. Now you can, and the 3D upgrade is supposed to put you righ there on the yellow brick road.

Friday

The Punisher” (7 p.m., UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall) — Doug Goldblatt knows action. The UW-Madison alum was the editor on such essential ’80s action films as “The Terminator” and “Rambo,” and he’ll present his 1989 version of “The Punisher,” starring Dolph Lundgren as the vengeful anti-superhero. FREE!

This is the End” (7 p.m, Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St.) — My full review is here. Looking back, I think “The World’s End” gets the nod as apocalypse comedy of the summer, but this raunchy and bloody comedy is a close second, as Seth Rogen, James Franco and others play themselves dealing with end times. FREE!

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“Thanks for Sharing”: A movie about sex addiction that rubs you the right way

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“Thanks for Sharing” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:52, three stars out of four.

“is that even a thing?” one character in “Thanks for Sharing” asks about sex addiction. “I thought that was just something guys said when they got caught cheating.”

Sex addiction is a thing, although the movies haven’t done much with it, aside from the overwrought “Shame,” which turned it into an epic tragedy. Stuart Blomberg’s “Thanks for Sharing” is refreshingly grounded because it treats it like any other addiction. Substitute booze and pills for online porn and prostitutes, and this could be any other addiction drama.

While the ads are selling “Sharing as a fizzy Nancy Meyers-esque romantic comedy, in truth it’s about two-thirds drama and one-third comedy. Blomberg (who co-wrote the superior “The Kids Are All Right”) balances the light and dark well, and if the film goes into the familiar places we expect from addiction dramas, it does so with realism and empathy.

Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is a successful Manhattan environmental consultant who is five years “sober” with sex addiction. Yep, it’s the same 12-step program as any other, with meetings, sobriety medallions, bad coffee. He takes pragmatic steps to avoid temptation — he doesn’t have a TV, his laptop is locked in Ultra SafeSearch mode, and he stays off the subway, where close quarters can lead to unwelcome contact.

Adam meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) at a gourmet bug-eating party (hey, no carbs!) and is smitten with her. She’s a cancer survivor and marathoner, and Adam is reluctant to tell her about his sordid past. But it comes out, of course, and the couple have to wrestle with trust issues.

Meanwhile, Adam’s sponsor is Big Mike (Tiim Robbins), a gregarious small-business owner who has both sex and alcohol addiction in his past. His sins were revisited on his son (Patrick Fugit), a former drug addict trying to stay clean. They’ve also got trust issues to work out.

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Thirdly, and most comedically, is Adam’s sponsee, Neil (Josh Gad), who is a straight-up pervert, rubbing up against women on the subway and taking upskirt photos of his co-workers. Forced into the program by the courts, he’s reluctant to go along, but starts wising up by helping a female sex addict (the singer Pink), a novelty in the meetings.

Like most addiction dramas, this a film about addicts trying to go straight, and the sober trying not to stray off the path. But the performances are uniformly appealing, especially Ruffalo’s low-key charm and earnestness in the lead role, and Robbins as Mike, who wants to be sort of a Super Sponsor to others so he doesn’t have to make his own amends.

The characters are connected through empathy, one helping another and then turning around and being helped in return. For a topic that could be so potentially sensational, and characters whose behavior is sometimes appalling, “Thanks for Sharing” is surprisingly affirming.

 

 

“Hannah Arendt”: A great thinker looks at evil through a haze of cigarette smoke

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“Hannah Arendt” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:49, three stars out of four.

In 2009, writer-director Margarethe Von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa made a film called “Vision,” about the life of a 12th-century Benedictine nun who fought against church elders over some of the doctrines of her church. Filmmaker and actress reunite for “Hannah Arendt,” another film about a strong-willed woman willing to defy all around her to pursue what she believes to be right. But this woman is by no means — for one thing, she smokes a lot.

Other than that, “Hannah Arendt” is a fascinating look inside the philosopher and writer, and in particular the one series of articles she did for the New Yorker that made her the most famous, and notorious. The magazine’s William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) assigned Arendt to cover the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. As Arendt sat in the court, she didn’t see Eichmann as a monster, but rather a chilly bureaucrat who insisted that he was just a cog in a very large machine, serving his function, and as such shouldn’t be held accountable for the morality or immorality of that machine. When someone describes Eichmann as a scary creature, she responds, with a touch of wonder, “He’s a nobody.”

Arendt wrote about this in her New Yorker articles, coining the famous phrase the “banality of evil” to describe the atrocities committed by ordinary men who truly believe they are not doing wrong. The articles would come to change the way the Western world thought about the nature of evil, but at the time, Arendt was excoriated by her fellow Jewish thinkers as an apologist for the Nazi regime.

If they thought they could cow Arendt into recanting her articles, they had another thing coming. Sukowa (a frequent collaborator with Von Trotta going back to “Berlin Alexanderplatz”) makes Arendt a flinty, wily woman, always seeming to appraise people through the haze of her cigarette smoke. It’s both an amazing piece of impersonation and a subtle, canny performance that suggests the sharpness of Arendt’s thinking. But Arendt is not an unfeeling person — she dotes on her ailing husband Heinrich (Axel Milberg). She just has no use for nationalism. “I never loved any people,” she tells one colleague from Israel. “I only love my friends.”

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Like “Vision,” “Hannah Arendt” is a story of what happens when ideas clash with emotions, the individual against groupthink. The film ends with a stirring defense by Arendt in front of her classroom that should convince anybody, but her detractors on the faculty are unmoved. They see her as a monster, therefore her views are monstrous, therefore they will not even engage with them.

Some of the film is a little stage-y, and some minor characters in party scenes speak as if they are reading directly from editorials, rather than talking as human beings. But overall “Hannah Arendt” is an engaging look at a small skirmish in one corner of 20th-century thought that illuminates an age-old battle between reason and emotion.

Instant Gratification: “The Robber” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant

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Pick of a week: “The Robber”My full review is here. An Austrian marathon runner finds a new method of pushing his body to the limit — robbing banks in broad daylight and outrunning the cops. This thriller is as lean and mean as its protagonist, with minimal dialogue and stunning foot chase scenes.

Drama of the week: “The Kids Are All Right” — A lesbian family’s life is turned upside down when their children want to contact their biological father. What could be a high-concept premise turns into a comic and dramatic look at family and responsibility, with great performances all around.

Classic of the week: “Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis” — Far from the definite restoration of Fritz Lang’s dystopian classic, Moroder (heard on the latest Daft Punk album) added color tinting and an ’80s pop soundtrack.

Comedy of the week: “Love Actually” — Not all of the many, many plotlines work (Colin Firth and the maid?), but there’s enough good stuff, and certainly enough good British actors, to carry this tale of Londoners looking for love.

Foreign film of the week: “Poetry”My full review is here. In this beautifully sad South Korean drama, a grandmother tries to make sense of her life, including her grandson’s role in a horrific crime, through a poetry class.

“Between Us”: Taking turns hosting the dinner party from hell

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“Between Us” screens Monday through Thursday at Point and Eastgate Cinemas, check marcustheatres.com for showtimes. R, 1:30, two-and-a-half-stars out of four.

Most dramas would be content with one disastrous evening that ruins the obliterates the friendship between two couples, but Dan Mirvish’s “Between Us” opts for two. By the end of it all, I’m guessing nobody’s getting a Christmas letter this year.

A brief prologue shows the friendship that once was, between two talented photographers and their wives, Carlo (Taye Diggs) and his wife Grace (Julia Stiles), and Joel (David Harbour) and his wife Sharyl (Melissa George). In grad school, the photographers were inseparable, even as their friendly rivalry laid the groundwork for recriminations to come.

In the first dinner party, Carlo and Grace are invited out to the gigantic exurban home of Joel and Sharyl. Joel has “sold out” and made a fortune in advertising, “spending 113 billable hours trying to get honey to drip just right off a granola bar.” He’s filled with self-loathing, with extends to loathing everyone in his life, including the tightly-wound Sharyl.

The second dinner party — really more of an extended argument over milkshakes — happens a couple of years later. Joel has found some measure of inner peace, possibly religious-driven, and he and Sharyl have come back to New York to make amends. Only now Carlo and Grace are the ones at each other’s throats — Carlo’s run out of high road in his pursuit of being an art photographer, and living in New York has put the couple massively in debt.

Instead of presenting these scenes sequentially, the film cuts back and forth between them, creating mirror images of tension. Some may complain that it’s essentially a stage play on film, but limiting the locations and keeping the interest squarely on the characters works to its benefit — whenever Mirvish tries to break the theatrical mold, such as in a dream sequence where Grace imagines visiting Brazil, the momentum of the film dissipates.

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The dialogue gives the actors plenty to dive into, like a doubles match Neil LaBute play, and the performances are uniformly strong. Diggs finds layers of resentment and insecurity under his cool-guy exterior, and between this and “Silver Linings Playbook,” Stiles is coming close to perfecting the brittle spouse role. But it’s the lesser-known Harbour who steals the show, consumed by self-hatred in one scene, touchy-feely entitlement in the next, but all the while somewhat amused at the predictable downward arc his life has taken.

It’s the script that lets these four actors down, shifting the characters from real humans to broad types and back again. Every time we think we’ve gotten to something real, the screenplay inserts a “This is what a rich person would say” or “This is what a New York boho would say” line that pulls us back out. “Between Us” is a showcase for great actors who could have used more consistent material to springboard off of.

What’s playing in Madison theaters, September 13-19, 2013

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All week

The Family” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance) — A mob family relocates to the south of France’s in  Luc Besson’s high-concept R-rated comedy, which is not getting very good reviews.

“Insidious: Chapter 2” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Geez, we’re only on Chapter 2? The PG-13 jump-scare series about spirits haunting ghosts and people continues onward.

Austenland” (Sundance) — My full review is here. Most critics are panning this Keri Russell film, but I thought it was a refreshingly goofy entry in the increasingly formulaic rom-com genre.

Crystal Fairy” (Sundance) — My full review is here. Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffmann are two very different Americans lost in Chile and looking for a magical cactus in this shaggy road comedy with surprising bite.

Friday

The Great Gatsby” (6:30 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — My full review is here. Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to jazz up the Jazz Age classic with hip-hop and 3D didn’t work, although Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly at ease in the title role. FREE!

L’Avventura” (7 p.m., UW CInematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall) — The Cinematheque presents a newly struck 35mm print of MIchelangelo Antonioni’s seminal 1960 Italian film. FREE!

Frances Ha” (9:30 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — My full review is here. Greta Gerwig absolutely sparkles in Noah Baumbach’s French New Wave-inspired comedy about a New York dancer finally moving into adulthood. FREE!

Spring Breakers” (midnight, Union South Marquee Theatre) — Harmony Korine gives the people what they think they want in this candy-colored tale of guns and bikinis in south Florida. FREE!

Saturday

The Great Gatsby” (6 p.m. and 9 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — See Friday listing.

Army of Shadows” (7 p.m., UW Cinematheque) — Jean-Pierre Melville’s grimly unsentimental thriller about the French Resistance only surfaced a few years ago, and it’s a masterpiece, suspenseful but also eloquent in the moral compromises good makes to fight evil. FREE!

“Spring Breakers” (midnight, Union South Marquee Theatre) — See Friday listing.

Sunday

River of No Return” (2 p.m., Chazen Museum of Art, 800 Langdon St.) — Otto Preminger’s 1954 film follows a river rat (Robert Mitchum) help a saloon singer (Marilyn Monroe) find her husband on the raging rapids in this CinemaScope classic. FREE!

The Great Gatsby” (3 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — See Friday listing.

Monday

Between Us” (1:45 and 9:30 p.m., Eastgate, 9:30 p.m. Point) — This lacerating indie film stars Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs in a tale of two couples who reveal secrets over the course of a dinner party.

Dazed and Confused” (4 p.m. Eastgate and Point) — School’s out for summer in Richard Linklater’s knowing evocation of ’70s high school life. Twenty years after its release, we get older, but it still stays the same.

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Paul McCartney and Wings — Rockshow” (6:30 p.m. Eastgate and Point) — Did you miss Paul at Miller Park? Catch him in his prime in this concert film, taking during Wings’ 1976 world tour.

Tuesday

Between Us” (4 p.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

Paul McCartney and Wings: Rockshow” (6:30 p.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

Frances Ha” (7 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — See Friday listing.

Dazed and Confused” (9:30 p.m., Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

Wednesday

Between Us” (4 p.m., Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing

Dazed and Confused” (6:30 p.m, Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

Frances Ha” (9:30 p.m. Union South Marquee Theatre) — See Friday listing.

“Paul McCartney and Wings: Rockshow” (9:30 p.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

Thursday

Between Us” (4 p.m., Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

Dazed and Confused” (6:30 p.m, Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

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Stoker” (7 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — My full review is here. Park Chan-wook’s American debut is an exercise in style, but what style, a Gothic thriller in which a teenage girl (Mia Wasikowska) contends with a mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) who arrives after her father’s death. FREE!

This is the End” (9:30 p.m., Union South Marquee Theatre) — My full review is here. Looking back, I think “The World’s End” gets the nod as apocalypse comedy of the summer, but this raunchy and bloody comedy is a close second, as Seth Rogen, James Franco and others play themselves dealing with end times. FREE!

“Paul McCartney and Wings: Rockshow” (9:30 p.m. Point and Eastgate) — See Monday listing.

“Austenland”: A comedy that tosses all sense and sensibility out the window

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“Austenland” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1;37, three stars out of four.

Diehard Jane Austen fans might see “Austenland” as something of an abomination. It takes the world of a Jane Austen novel — the clever dialogue, the elegant setting, the romantic plot turns — and turns it into something goofy and crass.

Lighten up, Darcy. The tone of writer-director Jerusha Hess’ comedy is appropriately ridiculous because the premise itself is so ridiculous. In the film (based on Shannon Hale’s novel), Austenland is sort of a theme park for lovelorn Jane fans. For a hefty fee, women get to play-act as a Jane Austen heroine, dressing in costumes, learning how to play whist in the drawing room, and, of course, getting wooed by the park’s stock of handsome male actors. It’s like Pride and Prejudice Fantasy Camp.

And it sounds like heaven to our Jane (Keri Russell), a bookish Yank who is such an Austen-phile that she has a Colin Firth Fathead watching over her bed. Unable to deal with 21st-century men, she cashes in her life savings for a trip to Austenland. Unfortunately, as Austenland’s matriarch ( Jane Seymour) explains, she only has enough money for the Copper Package. So while Platinum Package members get to wear the best dresses and sleep in the fanciest rooms, Jane’s accommodations are one step above “charwoman.”

Just like an Austen heroine, Jane finds herself choosing between two suitors. One is an actor (J.J. Feild), playing a Darcy-esque prig named Henry Nobley. The other is a groundskeeper at Austenland who is “out-of-game” (Bret McKenzie of “Flight of the Conchords”), who seems to offer the chance at a genuine, non-make-believe relationship. Will Jane choose reality, or the fantasy she’s chased all her life? Complicating matters is that Nobley is so convincing that one almost wonders if there’s a real spark of attraction underneath that waistcoat.

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“Austenland” starts off silly and gets increasingly sillier — Jennifer Coolidge is a riot as a crass rich American who becomes Jane’s confidant, and blurts out very un-Austen-like lines like “Shut yer hole” in the drawing room. When a hunky new suitor (Ricky Whittle) who can’t keep his shirt on appears, we’re sure we’ve wandered into the realm of pure farce, somewhere between a rom-com and a French & Saunders sketch.

But I liked it, especially the eagerness of Hess (who co-wrote “Napoleon Dynamite”) to mercilessly tweak the conventions of romantic comedy, making the laughs broader and goofier as the movie progresses. And yet, what really sells the film is Russell, who is so slyly charming, attuned both to the zany comic moments and its wistful romantic undertone. She’s a great actress who, aside from FX’s “The Americans,” has been really underused in recent years — maybe it’s time to put her in a real Jane Austen movie. One that doesn’t quote Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.”

“Crystal Fairy”: Strangers in a strange land

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“Crystal Fairy” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:38, three stars out of four.

In “This is the End,” Michael Cera drew big laughs for playing himself as a callous Hollywood bad boy, because the image of him snorting coke and banging hotties was so different from his usual sweet and gentle persona.

In “Crystal Fairy,” Cera plays a character who is in many ways as unsympathetic, only this time he does it for real. The result is a strong and bracing performance, balanced out beautifully by another very different strong performance by Gaby Hoffmann.

Cera plays Jamie, a drug tourist of sorts who lives in Chile on an endless, unspecified source of income. His life seems focused utterly on chasing that next high, almost monomaniacal in his pursuit. Under a “Hey, that’s cool,” veneer, he seems deeply uncomfortable with other people when he’s straight, a mix of arrogance and social awkwardness. It’s only when he’s high, it seems, that he can finally forget himself.

At a party, Jamie hears word of a rare cactus, the San Pedro, from which a potent form of mescaline can be made. He urges his friends to come with him on a road trip in the Chilean desert to find some and, in a moment of addled intimacy, invites a girl he just met at a party to come as well.

The next morning, Jamie and his three Chilean friends set out on their trip, only to find they have another passenger — the girl, who Jamie has completely forgotten he invited. She’s a neo-hippie named Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann), a free-spirited type who is comfortable in her skin as Jamie is ill at ease in his, unabashed about walking around naked in front of the others, insistent on sharing her deepest personal secrets. With the three Chileans as kind of an audience, Jamie and Crystal Fairy spar all the way into the desert.

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The offhanded, naturalistic approach Silva takes keeps you on edge — you’re never sure if something horrible or wonderful is waiting for these pilgrims in the desert. Both Jamie and Crystal Fairy are, in their own way, completely alone in this world. Jamie treats his journey with the self-absorption of a traveler on a business trip, while Crystal insists she’s deeply connected to every other living thing, oblivious to how precious and overbearing she comes off to others. If you’ve ever backpacked through Europe, you’ve sat next to both these types on a train.

I wish the three Chilean men (all played by Silva’s brothers) were more deeply drawn, and just when the film inches towards some kind of epiphany for Jamie and Crystal Fairy, Silva ends it, as if not wanting to compromise his loose approach with an actual climax. Still, “Crystal Fairy” is a funny and authentic look at two very distinct types of Americans abroad, who can’t escape themselves no matter how far they go.

Blu-ray review: “Wish You Were Here”

 

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A man stumbles, shirtless, bloody and shell-shocked, among garbage piles and wild dogs in a remote part of Cambodia.

How he got there, what it meant, and how he’ll with it are the central questions of the Australian thriller “Wish You Were Here.” Writer-director Kieran Darcy-Smith tells his tale in a deliberately fractured manner, jumping back and forth between moments during a vacation in Cambodia and the aftermath back home in Australia. The result is a film that is exactly the sum of its parts, no more and no less.

Dave (Joel Edgerton) begrudgingly agreed to go on that vacation with his wife (Felicity Price), her younger sister (Teresa Palmer) and the sister’s new boyfriend (Antony Starr). We catch brief, color-saturated glimpses of them dancing in the streets, taking drugs. But back home in Australia, everyone seems haunted and wary. Well, not everyone — the boyfriend didn’t come back.

What happened to him is revealed in dribs and drabs of information, as Darcy-Smith cuts back and forth between Australia and Cambodia, What anchors the film is Edgerton’s performance. So often called on to play masculine, even menacing figures in “The Great Gatsby” and “Animal Kingdom,” here he’s very convincing as a scared and possibly guilty man. It’s a canny performance, because Danny can only reveal emotionally to the audience at a given point in the movie only what the plot has revealed dramatically.

Finally, the film gives us our answer, but then shuffles off the stage rather quickly without dealing with the consequences. The result is a film that’s engrossing when you watch it but, like a vacation taken a long time ago, quickly dissipates in your memory.

The Blu-ray release, which captures both the fiery reds and oranges of Cambodia and the cool blues and grays of Australia, includes making-of featurettes and cast interviews.

 

 

Marcus Theatres gets into the indie/classic movie game

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Point Cinemas is gunning for Sundance.

I mean, it’s not quite that personal. But it seems pretty clear that Marcus Theatres, which owns both Point and Eastgate Cinemas in Madison, is looking at the success that Sundance and other arthouses have had in other markets, and are looking to replicate that success in their theaters. Which is an interesting move for the nation’s sixth-largest movie chain — can they bring that boutique feel to a building that has 16 screens?

Sundance and other theaters (particularly in the Landmark chain) have upped the ante for the moviegoing experience with more inviting exteriors, including lounges and alcoholic drinks that you can bring into the theater. So Point responded with the swanky new Take Five lounge, which looks nothing like a snack bar and everything like a hotel lounge, with a full bar.

Now Marcus (and Point) seems to be going after Sundance’s kind of programming with its Theatre Entertainment Network. Marcus has had such success with non-traditional types of programming (live theater, Rifftrax broadcasts, one-night-only screenings) that they’ve dedicated one screen at Point and Eastgate to this kind of fare, at least on weekdays. That also means limited runs of independent movies — the French-Canadian comedy “Starbuck” is playing once a day at Point and Eastgate through Thursday. And it means classic films — “Animal House” is also screening there through Thursday. They also have a series of comic short films, the “LOL Short Film Festival,” playing through Thursday.

Next week brings the indie drama “Between Us” and Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” for limited runs, while the horizon shows the Mads Mikkelsen drama “The Hunt” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It’s kind of a grab bag (there’s also a Kirk Cameron special and a Paul McCartney & Wings concert in there somewhere), but Marcus can afford to experiment. In the days of 35mm film, it would have been unwieldy to have one-time-only showings of films, since it takes so long to change reels. In the age of digital, it’s just a matter of playing this file instead of that file. And with most of the movies costing $5 (special events are invariably more), it’s a good deal for audiences as well.

Whether audiences will respond is another matter — it seems strange that movies show at different times on different days, making it perhaps harder for viewers to plan to see one of the films. Sundance has had success at building a loyal following of older, pickier customers who will only see movies at Sundance — can Point do the same thing and also appeal to the masses? In any event, it’s a good thing that good movies will get a chance at theatrical distribution, and if Marcus thinks showing independent and classic movies is a sound business strategy, that’s great — one less screen showing “Getaway.” This is an interesting move worth watching.