Great Theaters, Zorgons, and Digital Harry Potter

I suspect that Los Angeles has the greatest concentration of first-rate movie theaters in the country. True, there are fewer and fewer premier-quality movie houses even there than in the past. At least two have disappeared in the past 12 years. And every time I visit the Village or National in Westwood (two of the biggest and the best) I wonder how long the crowds (which rarely fill more than half of either theater, even for a hit movie on a weekend evening) can continue to support the maintenance of such a large space in such a pricey real estate market. Nevertheless, there more such theaters here than in any other large metropolitan area in the US. Which is, as you would expect, when you think about it.

When I lived in Santa Fe, I used to fly to LA once or twice a year to go to the movies. Really. As my home theater continued to improve, the movie theater situation in New Mexico looked more and more grim. Santa Fe had only one reasonably good theater—the only screen in town at the time to sport DTS sound. None had Dolby Digital. But it wasn't even close to first-tier status when compared to the best theaters in LA.

Santa Fe is a smaller town than most people imagine (about 60,000), but even in Albuquerque, an hour down the interstate and by far the state's biggest city (around half a million), the situation was dire for anyone familiar with what was possible in film presentation. There were three or four THX-certified theaters there, but you couldn't tell it from the sound!

But I didn't fly to LA just for the occasional flick or two. I'd stay for a week or so, always in the prime seasons for films worth seeing on the big screen (either early summer or late in the year), and take in as many as a dozen movies.

This often meant multiple movies per day. Planning ahead for seeing two movies in one day, and the order in which you will see them, is an art I still haven't entirely mastered. You can't just see them in any random sequence. While they may both turn out to be good films, but if you watch the one likely to be more emotionally engaging first, you won't fully appreciate the other when you experience it so soon afterwards.

You also have to game other things as well on such a movie-going safari. Do you want to see There's Something About Mary at a matinee in a big, nearly empty theater, or should you wait until the weekend? Do you want to stand in a line around the block for the first day of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? Do you want to pay midweek afternoon parking fees to go to a theater lacking reasonable parking accommodations, or go to a less desirable theater where there's free or cheap parking?

As for seeing three films in a day, I've only tried it once or twice, and don't recommend it. It's like Thanksgiving. It's hard to enjoy the pumpkin pie after you've stuffed yourself on turkey.

The irony is that since I've been living in LA I've frequented these great theaters no more than I did when I lived in Santa Fe—and possibly even less! The reason is simple; before, I was on vacation, with my work 1000 or so miles away (I was far less into laptops and fast internet connections back then). Today, the siren-call of the word processor is just up the freeway.

But this past holiday week I resolved to devote a day to catching up on some new films. Saturday was a 2-movie day, and to make the most of it I chose two films that called out for a really big screen experience: Zathura and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

We can dispense with Zathura rather quickly. Yes, it was reasonably entertaining, escapist fun, with good special effects and a surprising twist near the end (a twist that gave the film a shot of warmth it had sorely lacked up until then). It's a sequel (more or less) to Jumanji (kids find a game, play it, and find themselves stuck in a fantasy world they can escape only by finishing the game). And it does have a more interesting setting than that earlier film (outer space rather than a jungle). But it lacks an interesting cast (no Robin Williams, no young Kirsten Dunst). It was one of those films that we all take a flyer on once in a while—hoping that it will be better than we really expect it to be, only to find out that it isn't. If you haven't taken it in already, it offers more as a future DVD rental than as a compelling theatrical experience, complete with $8 ticket, overpriced popcorn, and that noisy 2-year old two seats over.

Only the big screen makes seeing a movie like this in the theater a tempting proposition. But even in LA all movie experiences are not created equal. I saw it at The Bridge, on LA's west side. It had already migrated to one of that multiplex's smaller theaters, and the presentation wasn't anything to write home about. It did have the good black levels we expect from film (the numerous star-field shots never looked washed-out), but the somewhat soft image was far inferior to what I expect to see on the eventual DVD. And the sound was merely loud.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, playing in digital projection at the Village in Westwood (one of the best theaters in town), was another matter entirely. For me it was the best of the Harry Potter films to date. By far. The series has improved with each installment, but until now I couldn't shake off my mixed feelings about the first two. Now, however, the leads have matured, the stories are more complex, and the directors have become progressively more attuned to the material. Unlike the earlier movies, I actually look forward to seeing this one again. (But take that PG-13 rating seriously; this is too dark a film for very young children.)

In every respect but one, the Village presentation was first-rate. From mid-auditorium (I estimate about 1.5 screen-widths back), the image was stable, amazingly bright (on the big, 50+ foot Village screen), superbly crisp (though not at all digital-looking), and the colors true.

But the blacks and shadow detail were poor. Pro digital projectors put out so much light that providing deep blacks often seems to be beyond them. But I have seen better blacks than this from other theatrical digital presentations. And this film is a nightmare for such digital projectors. More than half the film is very dark in both tone and photography. The opening dream sequence and the climactic graveyard confrontation, in particular, constantly reminded me that I was watching digital projection. Despite the fact that this was easily the sharpest-looking Harry Potter film I've seen (I found the earlier ones, either in the theater or on DVD, a little soft-looking) the lack of rich blacks was genuinely annoying. You'll see better blacks from a good home theater projector, particularly one of the better single-chip DLPs (not to mention a good CRT).

The sound at the Village can be edgy, and this film was no exception. But the theater does have phenomenal dynamic range and deep bass—in my opinion the most powerful bass of any theater in town. Based on my experience of other films seen there, I expect it will sound noticeably sweeter and smoother on the DVD.

And special kudos to composer Patrick Doyle for the film's score. Fortunately, John Williams was busy this year. I was growing increasingly annoyed by his scores for the first three Potterfilms, and found Doyle's work a refreshing change.

Both the picture and sound in this film have what it takes to produce an exceptional home theater experience. And the drama will keep you watching. If release dates run true to current trends, we can expect to see the DVD by early spring.