Madison-area drive-ins stay ahead of the digital tsunami


Over the weekend, I wrote a story for The Cap Times on the precarious existence of many of America’s drive-in theatres. The future was already shaky for drive-ins (only about a tenth of the 4,000 to 5,000 drive-ins operating in the 1950s) still exist, and they now face an existential threat — digital cinema.

Most theaters have already switched from 35mm film to digital projection (in Madison, only the second-run Market Square and on-campus venues still show 35mm) as the studios make fewer and fewer film prints available. Digital looks better, it never degrades, and playing a film is as easy as pressing a button, unlike swapping and threading film reels.

But digital projectors also cost $80,000 to $100,000, and that cost has been prohibitive for many drive-ins. Now, as the summer season is over, studios have said they’re all but stopping 35mm prints in 2014, which could wipe a lot of drive-in theaters out. Honda attempted to draw attention to the problem with its contest, where fans got to vote for which drive-in theater got one of nine free projectors courtesy of Honda.

Luckily for Madison fans of retro al fresco cinema, our local drive-ins were ahead of the curve. Goetz Sky-Vu Drive In Monroe went digital last year, and Hi-Way Outdoor Theatre in Jefferson was one in the first in the nation to go digital back in 2010.

Read the story here.



“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey”: It goes on and on and on and on


“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” screens Monday through Thursday at Point and Eastgate Cinemas. R, 1:53, two and a half stars out of four.

In 1981, while Journey was packing arenas around the world on its “Escape” tour, the band’s future lead singer was a kid on the streets of Manila, singing for his supper.

Arnel Pineda grew up poor, and for a time was homeless, performing for spare change to live on. His unlikely journey to the spotlight is chronicled in Ramona S. Diaz’s engaging but shallow documentary “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.”

Steve Perry’s voice was the essential ingredient in ’80s hits like “Open Arms” and “Faithfully,” and he left Journey foundering when he quit the band in the mid-1990s. They went on with a replacement singer, seemingly chosen as much for his physical resemblance to Perry has his vocal resemblance, but when his voice gave out a decade later, the band was stuck.

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The anti-cynical tonic of Cinematic Titanic

CT Group Shot

Did anybody ever deliberately start watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on purpose? It feels like every fan I run across (myself included) has an origin story with the cult ’90s TV series that sounds like this: “There was this show on, and I didn’t know what was going on! But it was just so funny, and I just kept watching more and more and more . . .”

That was from the woman sitting next to me at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee for “Cinematic Titanic,” which features five of the creators/performers of the series, including the trio that begun it back in its Minneapolis public-access days — Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and J. Elvis Weinstein, along with Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl. (The trio who ended the series on Syfy in 1999 — Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett — went on to start the equally worthy Rifftrax.)

Rifftrax has focused on doing new commentaries for famous and recent films that can be synced up to your DVD, as well as live nationwide broadcasts. Cinematic Titanic has kept its focus on old movies, mixing DVD releases with live shows like the Pabst Theatre two-night stand.

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


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.


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


“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.


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


“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.”


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


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.