' Cinema Romantico

Friday, April 29, 2016

Summer Movie Preview: Best/Worst Case

I know, I know. It’s not even summer, you say! It’s April! It’s thirty-nine degrees with a chance of snow! How can it be “The Summer Movie Season”? Well, the summer movie season waits for no weather report. The summer movie season is a season unto itself, one that begins in late April and ends in mid-August, give or take, depending on how much expired product major studios have left sitting in their stock rooms and need to unload, thereby transforming the eighth month of a year into a dumping ground for perishable motion pictures that have, rest assured, perished. So suck it up. This is the once-great mattress we threw down underneath an on ramp and we have to sleep on it.

Happy Summer Movie Season!
The summer movie season of 2016 looks no different than any other summer movie season. Sequels, remakes and reboots, oh my, and something called The Angry Birds Movie, which I do not understand and will not address. Even so, summer movie season is a way of life whether we like it or not, and so we here at Cinema Romantico, as we do each and every “summer”, examine a few of the more extensive tentpoles from the viewpoint of what their best and worst scenarios could be. Join us, won’t you?

Summer Movie Preview: Best/Worst Case Scenarios

Money Monster (May 13). Best Case: The preview was just another infamous Clooney prank! Ha ha ha! The “Money Monster” refers to the name of Clooney’s yacht at his place on Lake Como where he and Jules film a Cary Grant/Grace Kelly-ish heist-ish trifle remarkable for its fluffy revelry. People wonder why in the hell these two have not been fronting films together for years. Twenty-five more George/Julia movies are commissioned. Worst Case: True to the trailer’s terrifying word, despite finally getting these two true blue movie stars back in a movie together, they are barely ever allowed to be on screen together at the same time.

The Nice Guys (May 20). Best Case: Shane Black proves to really be onto something with this “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” pseudo-sequel, every ten years releasing another one with a new leading duo, beginning with the 2025 release of “Hayride with Dracula”, starring Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts because finally someone grasps that these two need to be in buddy cop movie together. Worst Case: The film is so successful that Black is hired to helm the inevitable “Central Intelligence” (see below) sequel, “Federal Bureau”, starring Kevin Hart and Kevin Nealon.

The Buddy Cop movie of my dreams.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (May 20). Best Case: Rose Byrne renounces Seth Rogen to join forces with Chloe Grace Moretz and Kappa Kappa Nu as the sorority crushes the fraternity. Worst Case: Seth Rogen & Zac Efron stop the Sorority’s Rising with minimal help from Rose Byrne, eliciting a “Neighbors 3” which functions as a crossover with “Old School” which becomes required viewing for all Skulls initiations.

X Men: Apocalypse (May 27). Best Case: It actually is the Apocalypse – the Superhero Movie Apocalypse, that is, and the screen will split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every superhero and every superhero movie’s director were moved out of their places. For the great day of their wrath will have come, and who will be able to stand? Worst Case: The Apocalypse merely engenders a rebirth, with a re-booting of “X Men”, as all the principal characters are played by members of TNT’s cast of “Dallas” – call it, “X Men of Dallas.”

Central Intelligence (June 17). Best Case: As the CIA operative chasing Dwayne Johnson’s character, and in a nod to Michael Keaton in “The Other Guys”, Amy Ryan speaks almost exclusively in Boyz II Men quotes. Worst Case: It makes you remember at every turn that the trailer employed the lamentable phrase “A Little Hart and A Big Johnson” because it’s just that clever.

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We interrupt this summer movie preview to provide a still from the forthcoming “High Rise” (May 13) in which Sienna Miller apparently plays the character I have long dreamed she would play in a movie - that is, a cigarette smoking, martini slurping faded diva haughtily judging everyone from on high.


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Independence Day Resurgence (June 24). Best Case: Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the leader of a violent splinter SETI group. Cable Repairman David Levinson has, in the ensuing twenty years, found a way to break up the cable company monopoly. Russell Case, like Geppetto, Figaro and Cleo winding up alive in Monstro’s belly, is alive inside the remnants of the alien spaceship (please don’t ask) and returns to re-save the day. Worst Case: I don’t want to imagine a worst case for this movie. I just want this movie to be Emmerich good.

Ghostbusters (July 15). Best Case: The funniest stuff was deliberately kept out of the trailer, the rare delayed gratification Hollywood marketing ploy, and the movie soars as the quartet of female paranormal investigators don’t simply duplicate but duplicate and expand. Kate McKinnon becomes a damn star. Worst Case: That was the funniest stuff in the trailer. Projectile Vomit for everyone!!!

Star Trek Beyond (July 22). Best Case: Fed up with J.J. Abrams constantly referencing the past in previous “Star Trek” reboots, new director Justin Lin reboots the reboots, re-imagining James T. Kirk as a by-the-book intellectual, Spock as a piratical anarchist, Bones as a fiery stand-up comic, Scotty as an ex-member of the IRA, and Uhura as less Starfleet communications officer and more Naomie Harris in “Miami Vice.” Worst Case: Much like Benedict Cumberbatch turned out to be Khan (spoiler alert!) in “Star Trek Into Darkness”, Idris Elba turns out to be interstellar con man Harry Mudd.

Jason Bourne (July 29). Best Case: Fed up that the government has AGAIN employed some shady black ops to try and take him out, Jason Bourne decides his only recourse is to slyly spring a trap where he lures unwitting, dimwitted America into nuclear war with unwitting, dimwitted North Korea. They blow each other up. Jason Bourne lazes on a beach in the south Pacific with Nicky Parsons. Worst Case: As Jason Bourne lazes on a beach in the south Pacific with Nicky Parsons, a shady dude (Michael Sheen) emerges from the palm trees. The Moby song plays. The Shady Dude says: “Jason. Do you want to know what you really are?” Jason and Nicky sigh.

Suicide Squad (August 5). Best Case: Jared Leto saves his grandest prank for last, rigging it so that every digital projector in the world showing the “Suicide Squad” will automatically incinerate mid-movie. Worst Case: The movie rips the box office a new one. It so successful that producers decide to forgo the sequel and that sequel’s sequel eventually giving way to the reboot and simply making the reboot the sequel to the original.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Officially Withdrawing Our Cinematic Endorsement


It's old news by now, considering that it happened less than 48 hours ago, but we here at Cinema Romantico would be remiss in not also pointing out the Hoosier-land fiasco. That is, President hopeful Ted Cruz, politicking in Indiana, standing in the gym that "Hoosiers", my beloved "Hoosiers, made famous and employing my favorite scene in the movie, the famous scene near the end when Coach Norman Dale measures the court at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as a metaphor for his own campaign. Even here I begin to get suspicious because I always get suspicious when President hopefuls want to co-opt treasures of the cinema in an attempt to score political points. Except that in the case of Cruz it merely got worse.

"The amazing thing is, that basketball ring in Indiana, it’s the same height as it is New York City and every other place in this country."

That's what Ted Cruz said. In comparing "Hoosiers" to his own campaign he called a basketball hoop a "basketball ring." You want to give him the benefit of the doubt; you want to say he misspoke; you want to say it's not that big of a deal. And it's not that big of a deal, not in terms of actually electing a President, which I get. But. Cinema Romantico cinematically endorsed Ted Cruz. And Cinema Romantico cinematically endorsed Ted Cruz because we chose to believe that Ted Cruz's affection for "The Princess Bride" was real. Because who lies about their favorite movies?

I'm beginning to suspect that Ted Cruz lies about his favorite movies. He's trumped up "Hoosiers" as a favorite movie too, but this whole "basketball ring" seriously calls that into question. You can't have actually watched "Hoosiers" more than twice and not know it's not a basketball ring. Furthermore, you can't have watched "Hoosiers" more than twice and accidentally call a basketball hoop a basketball ring. Even a slip of the tongue wouldn't somehow convert basketball hoop to basketball ring. No, this stinks to high heaven of watch-a-Youtube-clip-quick-before-you-take-the-stage. And if Ted Cruz did lie about a favorite movie all in the name of political gain...well, there can be no higher act of treason in the eyes of Cinema Romantico.

Like the old West Wing poet-in-residence once said, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me...you can't get fooled again. And I won't. Cinema Romantico hereby withdraws its cinematic endorsement of Ted Cruz and bestows it, however pointlessly, on Jeb!, our fellow Ricky Bobby devotee, instead.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Breaking Down the 2nd ID4: Resurgence Trailer Reaction Shots

As Cinema Romantico has previously noted with unbridled joy, "Independence Day", that rollicking barrel of absurd movie monkeys, was all about the reaction shot. Roland Emmerich puts his actors in front of the camera and tells 'em an alien ship or a fireball or a something-or-other is up in the sky and "ACT O.M.G.!" And they did. And they did in the first trailer for the mildly-awaited "ID4" sequel, as Cinema Romantico broke down several months ago, and they did again in the second trailer for the mildly-awaited "ID4" sequel that just dropped last week. My hope is that this is but a tiny taste of the all-you-can-eat reaction shot salad bar to come...

Breaking Down the 2nd ID4: Resurgence Trailer Reaction Shots


Oh yeah! Brent Spiner is back, baby, and he is looking suitably spazzed! (Also, note Bill Pullman's out-of-focus reaction shot in the background. Even when he's not the focal point of the frame, he's reacting. What a pro.)



Serious Goldblum.



Bewildered Goldblum.



I don't know who she is but good to see she got the Reaction Shot memo that I imagine Emmerich handed out the first day of shooting. 



When you've been through the shit once before, you keep your composure the second time around.



I might have imagined this one.



Good to see Patricia's got that famous Whitmore resolve.




This is a strong variation of the traditional "A distress call?" reaction.



Group Reaction Shot, with additional bunny ears, which can only foretell wondrous things.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Phoenix

Christian Petzold’s noirish 2014 thriller “Phoenix”, which is released today as part of the Criterion Collection, is based, loosely, on a 1961 novel by Hubert Monteilhit. And the film nods at “Dark Passage” (1947), in so much as its protagonist’s face is surgically reconstructed, and it nods even more at “Vertigo” (1958), in so much as it finds a man re-shaping a woman into the woman he once loved even though the woman he’s re-shaping is the woman he once loved. But whatever its influences, “Phoenix” erupts into its own thing, which, as chance would have it, is what “Phoenix” is all about, reclamation of identity, re-possession of one’s self.


As “Phoenix” opens WWII has ended and Nelly (Nina Hoss), a German-Jew, has survived a concentration camp, albeit with a horribly disfigured face, put there essentially by her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who sold her out lickety split to the SS to save his own hide. Dude’s a rascal, no doubt about it, but Nelly can’t bring herself to believe he would have turned coat, and when a surgeon presents an opportunity to re-construct her face into something else entirely, making her someone else completely, she declines. “I want to look exactly like I used to.”

Her face winds up as close to exactly as it was as is possible, and rather than fleeing the nation, she tracks her beloved Johnny to the Phoenix, a nightclub where they used to work, and where he is now busing tables, eking out a post-war living in rubble-strewn Berlin. It’s like the last chance saloon in some sci-fi western, and Petzold shoots its red sign so that it smolders, the embers of a Nazi nation.

He recognizes her - eh, kind of. He recognizes her as someone who looks an awful like his ex-wife, the one who vanished into the camps and presumably died. But, as he explains, he can get his hands on her inheritance if they can pretend this woman really is his wife (which she is). Is it a stretch to believe that Johnny wouldn't know this woman despite her facial reconstruction really is Nelly? Not necessarily, because the way Petzold films it, and the way Zehrfeld plays it, suggests a subtle knowingness and a simultaneous repression, a refusal to accept what's right in front of them, and emblemizing a desperation for so many Germans to instantly move on in the wake of what has happened, a scrubbing of all things from the past.

And so what comes to transpire, while very straight-forward, effortlessly opens up into so much more, an exploration of identity on both a personal and a national level. And even if you can, as they say, hear the gears of plot grinding, that’s part of the point; if we block out the noise of those gears to so often indulge in movies on the screen, so too do Nelly and Johnny block out the noise of their semi-obvious reality. And what they feel is communicated in the moments where they linger, with a look, with a word, like they know, they sense it, and rather then latch onto it, they are content to let it go.


It’s a film that functions as an allegory, one that is forever teetering on being too insistent, working as nothing more, and yet the characters’ respective situations are all so much a part of their surroundings that the political fuses impeccably with the personal. And while the title is a hit-you-over-the-head metaphor for rising from the ashes, it is no less apropos, and made effective by not forcing the film’s protagonist to carry the weight of the entire nation on her shoulders. No, the political here is personal, and a reminder that everyone in the wake of Hitler-induced rubble had to shake off his sizable vestige.

That shaking off is brought home in the film’s powerful, unforgettable concluding sequence, the details of which I will not reveal, and simply say that it is not German absolution but one woman’s salvation, a persecuted person who has been forced to hold her breath for a decade or more suddenly able to......exhale.

Monday, April 25, 2016

River of Grass

River of Grass is the nickname for Florida’s expansive wetlands, the Everglades, long thought uninhabitable, as Cozy (Lisa Bowman) explains in an early voiceover, though this has since changed, invaded by freeways and strip malls, this ode to the natural world overrun by the machines of man. Latter day auteur Kelly Reichardt, for whom “River of Grass” served as an auspicious feature film debut in 1994, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the less-caffeinated version of Sundance, might have made that observation her focal point. She is a director who favors stillness in her frames and nature in her themes. “River of Grass” is still interested in landscapes, but they are less about wildlife than the ones trying to run out nature, the shabby environment of southern Florida, where it is principally set, where homes look like shantys, motels looks like shacks. And whereas her films often revel in, or draw fear from, silence, here the soundtrack is piled high with jazz drum solos, all of which seem to resemble the noise occupying a place in the mind of Cozy, a mother not devoted to her daughter and not in love with her husband, and whose dreary stay-at-home life is slowly winding its way toward absolutely nothing.


Latter day Reichardt is also not a noted humorist, preferring solemn observations, which doesn’t mean she’s tedious but that she opts for serious observations about matters near and dear to her heart. “River of Grass”, however, is funny, really funny, albeit darkly funny, with a twisted and bleak viewpoint of the world. After all, it’s jumping off point is a hilariously dry scene in which a detective, Ryder (Dick Russell), loses his gun in the midst of a chase. Not knowing, however, where or when it went missing, he scours his house for it like he’s lost his jacket. He never finds it. Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), however, who looks like Timothy Olyphant if Timothy Olyphant was a south Florida vampire, does find it. He lives at home with his grandmother. He has no job. He has nothing to do. He takes the gun to a bar and meets Cozy who, as it happens, has just walked out on her child and husband without telling them.

Turns out that Ryder is Cozy’s dad, which means that his gun is with his daughter, though she doesn’t know it and he doesn’t know it, which sounds like the set-up to another joke. But the punchline isn’t what you expect, because “River of Grass” roundly refuses to make a big deal out this development, treating it merely as meaningless coincidence rather than some cosmic unifier. And if per the Law of Chekhov’s Gun, this gun has to go off, when it does the significance of the gunshot is skewered too, because when Cozy and Lee Ray Harold shoot someone and go on the lam, it is quickly revealed that they only think they shot someone. No one was shot at all. This marks “River of Grass” as unique – a Lovers on the Lam movie in which the lovers are not really on the lam, outfitting the proceedings with a tragedy so depressingly comic you almost want to cry, and that comicality is what makes the pointed lack of empathy for these two bozos immaterial; there is no intent to engender empathy, just to observe.

This suboptimal Bonnie & Clyde decide to flee the Sunshine State, but they can’t because they have next to no money, and thus hole up in some halfway house posing as a hotel where they are forced to shoot Palmetto Bugs in the bathroom. Lee Ray Harold subsequently goes on a “crime spree”, a crime spree which consists of plundering a drier at a laundromat and stealing his sack of groceries after another guy commits the robbery Lee Ray Harold couldn’t bring himself to attempt. Cozy fancies them as a kind of modern variation of Kit and Holly in “Badlands”, but they are not; they are not even close.


It’s fascinating to view “River of Grass” through the prism of time, not just in comparison to Reichardt’s later output but in contrast to the wave of crime films that were released in the mid-90’s, particularly in the wake of Tarantino, when so many would be auteur hepcats tried making crime films for yucks and stylistic kicks. “River of Grass”, however, lands somewhere off the grid, more akin to George Armitage’s wonderful and woefully underrated odd duck crime thriller “Miami Blues”, which also refused in any way whatsoever to romanticize or thoughtfully unpack the criminal mind. The criminal mind, in the case of Cozy and Lee Ray Harold, is woefully inadequate, so much so that they are ultimately foiled by a tollbooth, which is one of the most gloriously purposeful climactic letdowns I’ve ever seen in a film, leaving you stricken with laughter, until it suddenly, almost elliptically, turns, as if Cozy has become hell bent on becoming the Bonnie Parker she only thought she was, before she passes a place the movie has already been, like she’s just driving in circles.

There’s this shot in “River of Grass” that just floored me. It’s early, after Cozy gets pulled over by a cop, but not really pulled over by a cop, because she knows the cop and he just saw her and wanted to talk, dispense some advice. Reichardt sets the shot on the side of a freeway, a not-yet-operational elevated mixmaster towering behind them. It’s all-white, and looks almost futuristic, like an alien-approved skyway stretching up toward the clouds. The mixmaster is not yet operational, however, and so the roads go nowhere, like Cozy’s life, maybe like all our lives.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Roustabout (1964)

David Letterman’s farewell show on NBC in the summer of 1993 had one sit down guest, Tom Hanks, who gave an incredible comical interview, perhaps highlighted by his digression on old Elvis movies, of which he’s a fan. He indicated that “Viva Las Vegas” had been his favorite Elvis movie until he saw “Roustabout”, which rocketed to the top spot, and which I found interesting because my two favorite Elvis movies would be exactly reversed. As it happens, both films were released in 1964, six months apart, and each one, in its own way, inhabits the disparate nature of his cinematic oeuvre. The former is emblematic of his sixties output, the travelogue films, as they are sometimes called, commissioned by producer Hal Wallis as fluffy movie star vehicles in exotic locales. And even if that’s all “Viva” is, it’s still his best movie star vehicle, with some great songs and set pieces and legit molten lava chemistry with Ann-Margret. The latter, on the other hand, was an attempt to re-create the rebellious spark of the Elvis movies from the 50’s. But whereas that spark in the 50’s was more a product of youthful swagger, in “Roustabout” it is brewed with anger.


His character, Charlie Rogers, is written as an orphan, which has aroused the anger, which is conveyed in the opening scene where, making his living as a musical performer, he is confronted by a few bratty college kids representing the pretensions of polite society for which Charlie Rogers has no time. “I’ve seen more action in a zoo,” says one brat. “From which side of the cage, pal?” demands Charlie, which is one of the all-time Elvis movie comebacks. This leads to a brawl which lands Charlie in jail before he gets sprung by a waitress at the club where he plays, though if she thinks this’ll curry favor, she’s wrong. “Just because you bailed me out doesn’t mean you own me,” he intones, a shot that was probably aimed at Wallis and Colonel Tom Parker more than the actual character.

The same thing more or less takes place not long after, when Charlie rides his motorcycle up alongside jeep on the highway to flirt with the pretty young girl, Cathy (Joan Freeman), in back. Her father, Joe (Leif Erickson), doesn’t take kindly to this Elvis-ish ingrate and runs him off the road, damaging his ride and his guitar. Ye gods. But Joe’s wife Maggie (Barbara Stanwyck) intervenes, promising to pay for repairs, and when Charlie agrees, he finds himself whisked away into their world, one of a traveling carnival...a struggling traveling carnival, that is, which Elvis helps rescue from the financial doldrums, as he must, with a little rock ‘n’ roll.

This plot, like most every Elvis movie plot ever, really doesn’t inspire. Charlie’s sour dynamic with Joe never finds a genuine charge and his romance with Cathy never really ignites, not that it matters. Emotionally, it’s less about Freeman than Stanwyck, who convincingly emits a care for this young rebel in her charge, even as the two bicker. Elvis, obviously, was nowhere near the actor that Stanwyck was, but when he was actually cast opposite an actor, someone who could really throw down, Elvis would throw down too, and it would benefit him immensely, as it does here. He’s engaged, and because he is, he entertains.

It’s an entertainment with an edge, though, one that never really dissipates, even if you keep expecting it to, like these old carnival vanguards will get him to shape up. Elvis often shaped up in his movies, like in “Blue Hawaii”, which I might love but nonetheless gets tripped up when it tries to make Elvis into a moralizing adult. In “Roustabout”, he never softens, not even in the service of the obligatory happy ending, an emotionally static character if there ever was one, and thank goodness. In real life, Elvis didn’t quite go down swinging, of course, but at least here he was still good for a few punches.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Moviegoing Experience is Dying


You likely heard about the kerfuffle last week when new AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron suggested setting aside auditoriums where texting on smartphones would be allowed. The Internet, as the Internet can, gnashed its teeth, and Mr. Aron retreated to his corner approximately 24 hours later, declaring his open-texting idea, which was merely floated, not truly proposed, never mind enacted, dead. I'm strenuously against texting in theaters; I'm strenuously against smartphones being turned on theaters; I'm so strenuously against this that I thought Mr. Aron’s proposal was actually appealing. Since people are going to use their phones in theaters anyway, giving them their own theaters, or even cordoning off a couple rows in back for the social media addicted, might prevent them from being sprinkled throughout the audience instead and annoying those who would rather watch a movie sans the text message. Nevertheless, texting comes across to me not as the problem, but as part and parcel to the problem.

This whole debate about movie-going etiquette isn’t new. Three years ago David Edelstein wrote a piece for Vulture bemoaning the new normal of texting & talking movie theater patronage which prompted desperate-to-be-a-provocateur Anil Dash to unleash a rickety screed telling movie theater shushers to shut it, and that because a movie theater is a public space it can and should be treated like any other public space, never mind that different public spaces have different societally agreed upon rules of etiquette. Matt Zoller Seitz, along with a host of others, dismantled Dash’s attention-demanding lunacy, writing that Dash “wants the world to be like his own living room, and is petulant that it isn’t.”

Nearly every theater I go to in Chicago anymore has come to resemble not so much movie theaters as I once knew them as living rooms I have to pay upwards of $15 to get into. There are tray tables for treats affixed to black leather reclining seats, often reserved, like you’ve called no take backs on your favorite plush easy chair. Sinking into them feels just like home, so it’s no wonder many people see fit to treat it that way, kicking off their shoes to relax (like the screening of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” I attended), or getting up and leaving and then coming back, and getting up and leaving and then coming back, and getting up leaving and then coming back, and getting up and leaving and then coming back (like the screening of “The Homesman” I attended) or scrolling through their illuminated phone so often they prompt a couple that has been openly conversing throughout to admonish them (like the screening of “Spectre” I attended) which was one of the more surreal WTF? moments in my ample moviegoing history. More than ever before people are clamoring for the home theater experience at the theater, and because more theaters are obliging, the more the once disparate venues have become virtually interchangeable, with people treating a night out the same as a night in.

Movie theaters have never been completely noise-free zones, of course, but all noise is not necessarily a problem. I think of the murmur that went up in the theater where I saw “Big Fish” at the sudden appearance of Steve Buscemi, as patron after patron after patron could be heard to whisper “It’s Steve Buscemi!” I think of the cheer – an honest to God actual cheer – that went up in the theater where I saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel” when Bill Murray first appeared. Even Dash recounts one of these moments, writing of a guy at a showing of “Transformers” who rose to his feet and shouted “Yeah!” at an excitable moment. Dash, however, incorrectly associates this moment with people texting or having running conversations when the “Yeah!” guy actually offers evidence of a movie-goer truly engaging with the experience. Texters and talkers, on the other hand, do precisely the opposite. The theater invites you to engage with the experience, unlike your living room where the lights are often up and distractions abound, and by making the theater more like the living room, the experience is gradually going extinct.

“We are vulnerable when we go to the movies, open to fear, and love, and disgust, and rapture, surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world.” That’s how Alyssa Rosenberg once described going to the movies. It’s an eloquent analysis, but increasingly it sounds more akin to an implausible utopia. What Rosenberg depicts is meeting a movie at its level; more and more, people that go to the theater expect the movie to meet them at their level.