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Theaters Are Back — But Are They Safe?

August 23, 2020
Theaters Are Back — But Are They Safe?
Illustration by Jason Kauzlarich

Journalists are used to putting their lives on the line to bring you the big stories. Accompanying troops into battle. Going overseas to report on authoritarian regimes like China. Joining the police on ride-alongs as they cruise the streets for criminals.

Venturing into a theater auditorium in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

It was a weird experience, to be sure, going back to the Alamo Drafthouse after five months away. For a while—given the health of the nation and the health of the exhibition industry—it felt like The Hunt back in March would be the last movie I was ever going to see on the big screen. But theaters are back open, at least in my neck of the woods, and it’s . . . well, it’s different now.

There’s the COVID equivalent of security theater: the temperature check at the door to ensure that no one who has a fever can get inside, a truly empty gesture since asymptomatic patients are the most likely to spread this thing. It’s not until you understand both the point and the pointlessness of the act that you can truly accept the oddity of this whole situation, the tenuousness of it all. The fiction we’re sharing that allows any of this to take place.

There’s also the altered food-delivery procedure. The Alamo Drafthouse is one of those joints that offers tableside service throughout the presentation: You order popcorn and pizza and sodas and beers, and it all comes right to you, unobtrusively and with speed. Well, usually you do that. You used to do that. Now you order everything ahead of time and it comes out to you once the show starts. I got a popcorn and a soda. The popcorn came in an aluminum bowl with some cellophane on top; I don’t know the science on this, but I can’t help but feel as though all they’re doing is adding more points of contact, more chances for someone carrying disease to interact with my food.

And then, of course, there are your fellow patrons, and this is the truly sticky wicket. You are required to wear masks when not eating or drinking, the better to keep potentially sick people from spreading the disease. In the case of my Thursday-evening screening, it was like participating in a 10-way trust fall, hoping that you can count on everyone else in attendance to do the bare minimum and try to stall the spread of this thing.

Seeing a trust fall fail is an ugly thing. Potentially funny, sure. But demoralizing for those taking part.

When the lights went up it was clear that, of the ten or so folks in attendance, a handful—two for sure, maybe three or four—didn’t bother putting their masks back on once their popcorn was finished. And look, I get it: as a glasses-wearing American, throwing a mask on sucks. Fogs up the lenses, etc. I ended up watching much of Unhinged slightly blurry. And maybe it doesn’t really matter. I can’t imagine sitting still in a theater 10 feet from the nearest person is any less safe than going to the gyms that have reopened in New York City or the restaurants that have reopened in much of the country or the tightly packed protests that have swept through our cities, mask or no mask.

Still, the Drafthouse is a theater that prides itself on enforcing rules, famously ridiculing those who complain about its no-texting, no-talking policy and ejecting those patrons who don’t want to act like civilized citizens of its empire in the flickering dark. If the Alamo Drafthouse can’t ensure that people keep their masks on while the projector whirs . . . well, what chance does anywhere else have?

And yet, and yet. It was so . . . refreshing to return to the theater. To sit back and let the big screen dominate your vision while enjoying a salty snack and a refreshing beverage. To hear the sharp intake of breath from a person two aisles over during a moment of unexpectedly tawdry violence. To be alone together, enjoying a motion picture.

But that “together” part is obviously still a bit dicey. So, I shall limit my trips to the theater as sharply as possible, choosing odd times and auditoriums in which as few of the reserved seats as possible have been claimed before I get there. And I’ll continue to hope against hope that this debacle ends sooner rather than later.

Review: Unhinged

As you’re watching Unhinged, something jumps out at you. It’s awkward and you try to ignore it, but it’s right there, right in front of you, dominating the field of vision as The Man (Russell Crowe) hops out of his 4×4 and commits an act of unspeakable violence in the film’s opening moments.

Russell Crowe is enormous.

It’s like Russell Crowe ate the villainous semi from Steven Spielberg’s Duel, absorbing not only the truck’s girth but also its malevolent spirit. This is not intended as a fat joke, I swear: Crowe’s size gives added weight (I’m sorry) to his character’s vicious demeanor, increasing the heft (seriously, I’m so sorry) of his performance. It’s a meaty, hammy role and Crowe tears into it with gusto, gleefully going psycho in a way we haven’t really seen from him since Virtuosity. He’s legitimately terrifying, all the more so because of the bulk his character is carrying. This isn’t a guy with a trainer paid for by Disney to make sure his cookie-cutter abs pop in the trailer for some superhero movie or some Netflix series.

This is a bear. This is a nightmare made flesh. This is a bad day manifested into a 350-pound ball of walking, talking, road-raging hate.

Why is The Man so angry? Well, if a montage of news clips and viral-video footage is to be believed, it’s because we live in an increasingly angry society. The sort of world in which crowded roadways and short fuses mean we’re all just moments away from life-or-death confrontations with strangers. The sort of world where Rachel’s (Caren Pistorius) decision to lay on the horn rather than give The Man a warning tap—as well as Rachel’s status as an avatar for all the people who have screwed with The Man in recent years: all the bosses who fired him, all the women who left him—means that people are gonna have to die.

A spare 90 minutes, less with credits, Unhinged doesn’t waste much time, moving us efficiently from chase to chase and kill to kill. We don’t learn much about The Man nor do we learn much about Rachel—they’re both going through divorces, though they’ve each obviously taken the dissolution of their marriages differently—because who they are before this One Bad Day doesn’t really matter. It is a movie that is very much in its moment, with a refreshing immediacy that keeps us from being turned off by its undeniable nasty streak.

Unhinged is a pretty straightforward action-thriller, one that’s firmly in the world of high-concept B-movie (“It’s like Falling Down meets Duel!”) but elevated by the sort of performance that only an actor of Crowe’s caliber can deliver. Don’t get me wrong: Pistorius holds her own as the put-upon Rachel, serving capably as an audience proxy. She doesn’t deserve this—no one would—and she seems confused as to how she wound up in this nightmare. But by the end of the film, oddly, it feels as if writer Carl Ellsworth and director Derrick Borte want us to feel as if she—and, by extension, we—have learned a lesson about being a little kinder and more patient in a world filled with cruelty.

Because you never know when The Man is going to come for you.

Assigned Viewing: Alpha

As I mentioned on Friday, if the Criterion Collection is looking to increase its diversity quotient by adding more films by black directors to the canon in the wake of a big New York Times piece about the paucity of African-American auteurs in its ranks, it could do worse than selecting Albert Hughes’s 2018 stylist action-epic Alpha for inclusion.

Even if the good folks at Criterion continue to sniff at Alpha, however, you should check it out. It’s streaming on Starz and the Blu-ray’s only $10 if you don’t have access to that channel. The story is pretty straightforward: following a buffalo hunt in prehistoric times, an injured young man must join forces with a lone wolf in order for both of them to survive. It is a myth made real, the tale of the first domesticated dog—a joining of forces that would change the destiny of both our species forever.

Hughes’s use of an invented foreign language heightens the importance of the visual storytelling prowess on display here. Yes, there are subtitles, but you don’t even really need them to understand what’s going on. It is, as I wrote, pure cinema. And well worth your time and money.

I’m always right, as those who follow me on Twitter already know, but I’m also happy to hear from people who are wrong. If you have questions, comments, or complaints, drop me a line by responding to this email. And if you’re tired of hearing from me, just click on that “update preferences” button at the bottom of this missive. —SB

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association