Thursday, August 7, 2008

Say it ain't so...the dwindling state of the theatre-going experience in Toronto

It's one of several paragraph-long newsblips in the "Up Front" section of this week's Now magazine, rumblings that the Cumberland cinema may be the next movie theatre in this film-lovin' town to face the wrecking ball. Heartbreaking, but I suppose inevitable. I'd been meaning to write something on the first-run movie houses of Tee-Oh, and there's one more reminder that everything in this entry may well be rendered obsolete in a year or two. If you're a Toronto filmgoer reading this, there's probably nothing new here save my own personal reminiscences; if you're reading this from elsewhere, I suspect some nods of recognition are a'comin'.

Hogtown's suffered the fate of most other big North American cities, by which I mean the consolidation into plexes and the slow decimation of the standalone and independent arthouse theatres. Still, there are a handful of decent venues, many of which are taken over by the Festival Group in early September. The best, in my opinion, first-run theatre in the city closed almost four years ago. Any other Uptown fans here? Right, I thought so. The Uptown had the biggest, most cavernous main theatre in my Toronto experience, as well as two decent-sized basement rooms. Barely a bad seat in the house and the perfect spot to see genre work that calls for a big screen like the first two Matrix flicks, both of which I caught there opening day. The fate of the Uptown is well-known, and no doubt nationally common save for the fatal twist: the owners were unwilling or unable to pony up and cave to activist group pressure and retrofit the front entrance (an admittedly steep escalator) to make it wheelchair-accessible, and it was shuttered for good shortly after the cutain closed on TIFF 2003. The following summer, as the building was being demolished, a wall collapsed onto a nearby language school, killing (if memory serves) a South American exchange student.

As well, not long after I moved back to TO, the threeplex at the Hudson's Bay Centre was sealed up, and the Eaton Centre theatres closed; the latter wasn't exactly a palace, with its lousy projection and a labyrinthine hallway to get to the theatres, but it was the only remaining half-price second-run place downtown.

So what does this leave? The Paramount, which to me and everyone I've talked to about it, will always be the Paramount and not the freaking Scotiabank Theatre (sigh...) with its four huge front rooms, IMAX screen and nine back rooms, not a single one of which is a shoebox. It's right downtown and for a multiplex makes a surprisingly good location for fest screenings. There's also the Varsity for your slightly upscale flicks (Persepolis, inevitably the latest Coen brothers, In Bruges) as well as a decent cross section of the H'wood product of the day. Plus about half the Varsity rooms are turned over to the festival, and I'll always love the place for the proximity it allowed me to Lou Reed last year. I don't think the Beaches quite counts as downtown (no idea what the census calls the dividing line but I figure the Don River is the cutoff point) but I can't let this go without mentioning the Beach Cinemas because, as they're four blocks from my apartment, I'm there most weekends, especially during the summer. It's a multi, but it's part of the Alliance chain so the programming is a decent mix of slightly-left-of-centre and mainstream, the ticket prices are the cheapest in town with a membership, all the theatres are sizeable and have great sound and projection and the snack bar is above average.

The less said about the new AMC (Yonge & Dundas) the better; I think I need to see a movie with more than eight people in the auditorium to really form an opinion on the place. But that's my fault, I guess, for going there to see War Inc. and American Teen instead of the stellar studio product that clogs 90% of the AMC screens on a given weekend.

Which leaves us with the first-run arthouses. There's the possibly soon-to-be-gone Cumberland, which is sensibly totally taken over come festival time. Why not, since you can hit the Four Seasons with a rock from the snack bar, so the stars don't have far to walk for their premieres. And then (shudder) there's the Carlton. Whenever I see that a movie I've been looking forward to is opening there I can't help but wince and weigh just how much I really want to see it. Partly it's the atmosphere: I don't think I've ever seen a movie at the Carlton with more than twenty people in the auditorium (you can almost see the tumbleweeds rolling across the lobby), whether the movie was great (Tristram Shandy, Bee Season, Don't Come Knocking), middling (Angel A) or crap on toast (She Hate Me). Not that you can realistically squeeze all that many more people into screening halls that are about the size of my living room with tiny screens way up high that leave you with a crick in your neck the rest of the day.

However, the Carlton can at times seem like the Varsity compared to the most unpleasant theatre experience in town, the Canada Square. Up at Yonge & Eglinton, a block south of the Scotia's sister multi, is a bizarre little indoor mall with a ten-or-so-rooms theatre at the south end. Finding a gotta-see listed at the Square is worth two winces and a couple of out-loud curses. I mainly go to matinees on weekends and the mall, the kind of retail hallway built as an afterthought on the ground floor (or lower) of an office block, is 90% closed for business as I trek from the subway to the box office, so I can't help feeling like a trespasser, like I've missed the KEEP OUT sign on an abandoned building slated for renovation. Often there'll be one little boutique open for shits and giggles and the clerk at said salon or newsstand will sit there looking forlorn and depressed in the near-dark as what little foot traffic there is on a Sunday passes by. I've seen a few decent movies at the Canada Square, but for some reason virtually everything I catch there is a disappointment in some way, not to mention a downer as a movie, and I walk out pummeled by dreariness. I've got to be imagining this, but somehow almost every movie I see there had a myopic DP and a set dresser on Prozac; that's the only way to explain such mopey, murky offerings as the Strangers With Candy movie, the execrable Art School Confidential, and Walk All Over Me, the Canadian domme-com that begs the question "How can a movie featuring Tricia Helfer and Leelee Sobieski in fetish gear for most of the running time be so deathly dull to watch?" I'm convinced that the venue has tons to do with it.

Okay, this went on a lot longer than I'd planned it to. I did mean this to be a generally informative survey, but the imminent demise of the Cumberland drives home once again the sad fact...we're losing the great non-rep screens in town one at a time. If we're not careful, Toronto will turn into (ick) Ottawa, with its one arthouse, its one second-run house, its zero single-screen houses and its half dozen multiplexes being the only option for seeing any kind of flick that the distributors deign to drop on the capital.

Attica! Attica!

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