Requiem for a Repertory Cinema: Toronto Underground, RIP 2012

Sad, but inevitable I’m afraid, news out of Toronto today, as one of the last few fully independent Repertory Cinemas, The Toronto Underground Cinema, announced that it was shuttering its doors permanently come September. Issues with the building owners (involving a liquor license) as well as the ongoing slow death of 35mm print distribution have pushed the financials of operating a 700 seat repertory house beyond any fiscal sense for the three owners: Nigel Agnew, Charlie Lawton, and Alex Woodside.

More than a few patrons were often confused by the well spaced scheduling of regular programming at The Underground since it quite successfully hosted Toronto After Dark’s sixth year (The Bloor Cinema, TADFFs usual haunt, was under massive renovations before gathering Patronage from HotDocs as a supported repertory venue. TADFF announced a few weeks ago that it was however returning to the Bloor come October.) With the Lightbox just around the corner, and even the corporate Cineplex up the street getting into the Rep Cinema game (showing Roman Holiday, Blazing Saddles, Robocop and such on occasional Sunday afternoons), not to mention Cinecycle, The Bloor, Projection Booth, and several other operational Rep cinemas all vying for the same eyeballs, it was only a matter of time before the shoe dropped on someone. That someone is Toronto Underground.

Personally, I’ve seen such diverse films as Hard Core Logo, The Innkeepers, A Lonely Place to Die, Speed Racer, Ghostbusters II, Fright Night, Manborg, Pontypool, and Mad Monkey Kung Fu. The venues specialty was always 1980s trash cinema, something that has a close place in my heart. TUC opened its doors in 2010 with a double bill of Clue: The Movie and Big Trouble in Little China and will close September with screenings of apocalyptic horror film Night of the Comet and concert Doc, The Last Waltz.

In the immortal words of Jack Burton, Toronto rep cinema-goers should heed the following advice: “You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president. “

Local Theater Showcase: The Bloor Cinema Reborn

Photocredit:  CHARLA JONES/TORONTO STAR

This edition showcases a particularly special cinema. The very cinema that started Rowthree, as the original founders happened to like the extra leg room offered by the eponymous third row of the Bloor. However that row is long gone, as the cinema has been undergoing a several month overhaul of the interior and exterior space after it was acquired to be the permanent home for the HotDocs Festival.

This history of the cinema near the corner of Bathurst St. and Bloor St. is a lengthy one, spanning nearly 100 years. For those keeping score at home, that is pretty much the span of distribution of feature length films. After being knocked down in the 1940s to the bare walls, then rebuilt, it functioned for a time as a soft-core porn theater in the 1970s before re-opening in the 1980s back to a neighborhood cinema under its up until today, moniker of The Bloor Cinema (the names of the past have been many: The Madison Picture Palace, The Midtown, The Capri, The Eden.) As of today, it is the Bloor Hotdocs Cinema. but let’s be honest, people are just going to call it The Bloor, and current owners, the Blue Ice Group had the good sense to have the type-size of The Bloor significantly larger than it’s Hotdocs subtitle.

Photocredit:  Kurt Halfyard

I had the chance to preview the cinema which is still a bit covered in drywall dust and not-quite-dried maroon paint. The exterior marquee signage has yet to be completed, but the cinema is set to open March 16th, 2012 as a doc-heavy repertory cinema and home to both the Hotdocs film festival, as well as renting itself out to the thriving festival scene around Toronto. The interior has undergone a massive face-lift and re-design. A much bigger lobby with the concession area shunted off to the side, there is an unusual glass wall that allows someone in the lobby to see into the auditorium (along the lines of people viewing a police interrogation (or daycare or focus group) behind one-way glass.) One can see the stage, the backs of all the seats, and a bottom sliver of the screen. The screen and stage have also been moved a lot closer to the front row of seats and the back seats are gone to make room for the expanded front lobby area. By my guess, if Andrew, John and myself had met at Toronto After Dark in 2012 instead of 2006 (assuming that TADFF goes back to the Bloor and does not stay at the Toronto Underground Cinema) this website would be called RowSeven.com.

Photocredit:  Kurt Halfyard

Things are very handsome and new and shiny: modern multiplex seats and the latest state-of-the-art projection (*DCP) with 7.1 Dobly Digital sound. Gone is the “Kevin Smith shat here” (possibly penned by the man himself who was there often enough) graffiti in the Men’s Room toilet stall. The seat count, while reconfigured, is basically the same; 710 seats in total, 271 on the main floor with the aisles along the walls instead splitting up the now-quite-wide rows. The new Bloor has an air of the type of slick interiors of a multiplex, but it still retains curtains in the front of the screen, a large second floor balcony which now does not have dozens of unusable broken seats. Somebody mentioned that there may be a bar on the second floor atrium (there is no mention of this in the press kit, but this would have been handy when Andrew & I were allowed to occupy the cinema all by our lonesome at 3am one night in 2008 to record our centennial podcast on Thomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In!) I am more hoping that they have fixed the dreadful acoustics that used to be up there.

Photocredit:  Kurt Halfyard

Time will tell if the Bloor continues its tradition of repertory screenings in between the multitude of documentaries that will be the mainstay of the rebranded cinema. Alfred Hitchcock films, The Secret of Nihm and The Darkside of Oz (Wizard of Oz set to Pink Floyd) and occasionally Robocop or other eighties blockbusters were much of the programming along with Rue Morgue’s cinema macabre nights and local film premieres and first run features prior to the facelift. They are kicking things off with an amusing middle ground, as the cinema reopens to the paying public with a documentary on Roger Corman. Apropos if you ask me.

Repertory Cinema Going: Toronto Turf Wars

Normally, I do not slow down my car when I pass a traffic accident, or road-side drunken scuffle. But I would be lying if the churlish tone of this Onion A.V. Club article, out of their Toronto chapter, didn’t catch my eye for its vaguely hipster-ish tone. The article questions whether or not programming quality at Toronto Rep cinemas has declined, or become more ‘pandering,’ and then goes out to draw battle lines between the Toronto Underground Cinema and TIFF Bell Lightbox; with the concrete and glass Lightbox being a corporate Goliath and the basement Underground being David.

“The Lightbox tends to get a bad rap from people who are suspicious of its sleek, corporate upholstery, of its cumbersome brand name, and the fact that there’s a condo perched on top of it. More relevantly, there’s the criticism that the Lightbox tends to poach on the wistful, nostalgic programming that keeps places like the Underground afloat. As much as the Lightbox prides itself on its eclectic programming purview, stuff like its Back To The ’80s program seems downright predatory. And while we love their ongoing Nicolas Cage retrospective (if only because it gives us an excuse to write 1,000-plus words on Nicolas Cage every week), a “midnight series” that kicks off at 10 p.m. seems to speak to a certain fogeyishness that pervades many of the building’s attempts to capture audiences outside of its better-heeled crowd of card carrying patrons of the arts.”

Film goers should perhaps count blessings that there is a plethora of operating repertory houses in this city that allows this sort of territorial pissing match to exist. And even if there is some overlap hither an yon, there is a lot of great, exotic, classic and yes, safe, rep-house programming going on in this city. Too much for even the most dedicated cinephile to keep up with. I am guessing that the author, local film critic John Semley, is going for an inquisitive piece (i.e. “lets just throw this out there”) but it comes across far more to these eyes like a facile accusation.

I thought I’d let folks weigh in, and let me know if this sort of imaginary or real ‘turf war’ happens in your fair city.

Quick. Everybody Move To Toronto!

Every big city has its (admittedly shrinking) share of repertory houses, but only Toronto has Mamo! to succinctly and knowledgeably outline the programming of said theatres. Here Matt and Matt discuss the 2012 Winter Season at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox for The Substream.

And what delightfully eclectic programming they have his season. I’ll save the surprises for those who watch the video below.

Local Theater Showcase: The Elgin-Wintergarden (Toronto, ON, Canada)

The last existing double-stacked Edwardian Theater in the world, the Elgin-Wintergarden is a marvel to behold. I bring people to this theatre just to show them the theatre, let alone what is actually showing there. While it is a live-theatre auditorium for most of the year, whenever the Toronto International Film Festival rolls into town, it becomes the classiest place in Toronto to catch a movie, gold gilt ceilings, plush seats, a huge balcony, and up until 2006 free beer (if you got there early and had a VISA gold card). While I did manage to catch a production of Stomp at the Elgin many years ago, I’ve seen dozens of films there, from Robert Lepage’s Possible Worlds, to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke to Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance to Terry Gilliam’s Tideland to Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay. Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon The Brain, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, live foley artists and a Castrato singer was one of the best film watching experiences in my lifetime. Thus, it will always be a cinema to me. (Part of me regrets the poor timing of being too young to experience it as a sleazy grindhouse in the 1970s! One owned by Famous Players no less!)

Would you like to know more…?

Local Theater Showcase: The Highlands Cinema (Kinmount, ON, Canada)

There are several unique and unusual things about The Highlands Cinema in Kinmount Ontario. The five-screen multiplex theatre, oddly located in a very rural area north-east of Toronto, has the motto: “You remember not only the movie, but the theatre.” This certainly true, albeit not necessarily for the programming, which consists entirely of summer blockbusters (in the the tiny town of Kinmount, the business is seasonal and the place is only open from spring until fall to locals and cottagers.) For layout and overall presentation of ‘going to the movies,’ however, the Highlands is likely the most unique and pleasurable place that I’ve seen a movie in Canada.

The first unusual aspect is that there is a museum within the complex. Free to browse with the purchase of a movie ticket, and wedged in the corridors and nooks and crannies that connect the multiple auditoriums, the collection on display has thousands of items of movie memorabilia. Articles, objects and other esoterica, from posters to even the shipping canisters (notably an embossed 35mm can for 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Vintage projections systems (8mm, 16mm, up to gigantic 1940’s 35mm projectors) pleasantly clutter the museum space along with lobby cards, photos of famous cinemas (now long gone), movie props and clothing of each era of cinema from the 1900s until the 2000s.

The second is the genesis of this particular cinema. Owner/operator/collector Keith Strata originally turned his house into a small movie theatre. He then started adding screens and and expansion until he hit five individual screens. His house (he no longer lives there) is a fair bit back and away from the main road. This places the entire parking lot in the middle of a forest! There are these narrow one-way connecting roadways to little parking ‘bays’ that hold about a dozen cars each. It is a strange and surreal experience simply parking at the Highlands. One can only imagine walking out of the Blair Witch Project into the sparsely lit copses of trees and cars.

highlands_kinmount_2

The third thing is that the Highlands Cinema like has the most theatre screens per capita in North America. The entire town of Kinmount (with its permanent population well under 500) could fit into the all the seats and still have plenty of empty ones. The cinema sees about 50,000 visitors per season, so that places attendance over one thousandfold the number of locals. And yet the majority f my visits I have sat in one of the cosy auditoriums with nary a single empty seat.

For someone who values aesthetics, it is fantastic how the memorabilia and design has spilled into the the auditoriums themselves. Each one is decorated differently. One is lined with classic posters – when one-sheets were akin to tapestries, much, much longer than they were wide. Another is charmingly faux-art deco – gargoyles and all. Yet another looks like a typical multiplex auditorium, giving the set of 5 auditoriums the feel of the breadth of cinema exhibition. Top quality seats, apparently salvaged from prestige movie and vaudeville houses that have been tragically demolished are used in a few of the individual auditoriums – with an interesting mechanical reclining feature, that is pretty cool for seats made at the turn of the century, and have an almost steam-punk retrofuture feel.

The museum stuff which lines all the corridors between the screens is the central attraction for me; it has to be one of the largest private collections in the world (I am not exaggerating here, the collection is immense.)
For anyone looking for a film going experience like that of a bygone age (classic candy: liquorish whips!) with no Toyota advertisements, previews or Reward Club promos – the feature just starts when the lights go down – then this is the place.

I recall seeing half a dozen movies there over the decade since I’ve been aware of the theatre: Michael Bay’ The Rock, Aardman’s Chicken Run, sci-fi spoof Men In Back, The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, as well as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Yes, I remember the theatre more than the films, but because the venue is such a rich experience, each one of those blockbuster viewings I treasure.

[This has been the second entry in our Local Theatre Showcase, If there is a theater in your area you hold dear to your heart and would like to spotlight, contact andrew@rowthree.com with details.]

Local Theater Showcase: The Parkway (Minneapolis, MN, USA)

As a new experiment here at RowThree, I thought it might be fun to every once in a while put a spotlight on a local theater in some part of the world that for one reason or another stands out above the rest in its area. Maybe this theater has really great seating. Maybe they sell popcorn on a stick. Maybe they feature only NC-17 rated films. Or maybe it’s as simple as great ambiance that is simply unparalleled. If you have a theater in your area you’d like to mention here at RowThree, feel free to contact me for more details.

The Parkway exteriorFor this inaugural posting, I’d like to point you in the direction of The Parkway Theater in southeast Minnepolis. Once a real hole in the wall that was hard to sit in for the mildew odor and the burned out seats that had your back stiff in about ten minutes, The Parkway has really come around in the last three or four months.

Attached to a Mexican restaurant (same owner), this theater allows its patrons to move from the noisy crowd of the bar, after a hearty meal, into the comfort of the theater without ever trampling through the cold wind and snow of a Minnesota winter. Better still, drinks and food from the restaurant are allowed into the screenings since all the money goes to the same place anyway. If you’d prefer not to enter the restaurant, soda, beer, margaritas and extremely tasty popcorn are all available at the concession stand (mmmm tequila).

While still in renovation, the theater is really coming along nicely and it’s apparent that when fully functional will look fabulous. The smelly curtains adorning the walls have been removed and local artists have painted huge murals featuring interpretations of the performing arts circa 1930-1940.

Newly renovated exterior MarquisThe front few rows of regular theater chairs have been recently removed and in their stead are large, leather love seats with tables big enough for drinks and food to comfortably rest upon. Mighty comfortable!

But the best thing about The Parkway is its new program director who has really taken the reins and given Minneapolis exactly what it needs: more truly independent film! While still showing some of the high profile Hollywood hits on the weekends, The Parkway shows late night cult films, an early morning kids movie series and during the summer, a “Home Grown Cinema Series” which shows only locally produced films from Minnesota. All of this plus student film seminars and even harder to find, rare screenings such as the Raiders of the Lost Ark remake (our review).

All of these things help make this little known gem of cinematic greatness in Minneapolis a new found joy where I’m sure more than a good chunk of my pay checks will be going in the foreseeable future.

For more details, quite an interesting history (used to be a skin flick theater and gorgeous architecture was discovered after removing the ceiling) and showtimes, check out their also recently renovated web site at www.theparkwaytheater.com.

Again, if there’s a theater in your area you’d like to spotlight, contact andrew@rowthree.com for more details.