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Welcome Back to the Movies

The images flashed across the screen larger than life. King Kong, twenty times taller than the Empire State Building, slapped his foot angrily down into the ocean, causing a tsunami that washed over the East Coast. Then Gojira, or Godzilla as we call him, sprinted up from the depths of the ocean floor, whipping his prehistoric lizard’s tail around cars and buildings, and finally around Kong (who now goes by one name like Cher), entangling him and falling, falling, falling with him until they both splashed down, splitting the city in two. As they engage mano-a-mano, we think we know for whom to cheer because Kong is trying to save the life of a brave little girl played in later stages by Millie Bobby Brown. Thus, he has the superior moral position.

I sat rapt at the edge of my seat, waiting for the next clip, the rap music pulsing from the screen, propelling me ever forward. Which beast would emerge the ruler? But this was only a trailer for the movie and not the movie itself, so a script scrawls across the screen, promising to deliver the goods to theaters near you on March 31st, 2021.

This is Saturday afternoon at the movies, in an actual movie theater. I'm watching action on the big screen and pushing my mask down discreetly below my chin to munch on a bag of buttered movie popcorn. This is as good as it gets. I was in some kind of paradise, even if only for two hours. 

The next trailer advertises the film “Sound of Metal,” which I had seen at home streamed from my TV monitor. But I didn’t know the real impact of the sound design until I saw it or rather heard it on the big screen. The crisp loud sounds of the band’s music reverberate when the drummer’s ears (Riz Ahmed as Ruben) are still working relatively well. But they turn into dull indistinct noises and then piercingly brash screeches of metal on metal as his hearing is fading away. He searches for remedies and tries to rearrange his life until things “get back to normal.” But as we have learned from 2020, things don’t just go back to normal. They either evolve or devolve into a “new normal.” And as the film methodically and lovingly takes its time showing, so do things in Ruben’s life. 

Ruben (Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict, and the film takes us on a journey through his stages of denial, anger and acceptance. But watching the preview scenes of Chicago actor Paul Raci as the head of a Recovery House for the Deaf community prompted a visceral reaction in me. Raci is communicating by way of sign language, and subtitles appear on the screen as a translation for the hearing. When he is sitting with others who cannot hear the film fades into silence. It is heightened on the big movie screen in a way that was not as dramatic when I was watching it at home. Raci's face is animated and earnest, and the sounds, both the distorted and the sound of silence, frame his actions. Raci has received an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actor, and observing his craggy demeanor in the trailer reminds us why. His every gesture in the film is filled with such empathetic authenticity that it fairly vibrates. (This is not to take away from the other nominees in this year's Oscar category for Best Supporting ActorDaniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield for "Judas and the Black Messiah," Leslie Odom Jr. for "One Night in Miami..." and Sacha Baron Cohen for "The Trial of the Chicago 7"—I'm just pleased to see Raci included among them.)

But that is going too far into the story, because what caught my attention Saturday afternoon was how the sounds I heard on the screen filled my gut with an apprehension, causing me to relive the film as a full-body experience rather than just an intellectual one. I know that music and sound profoundly affect us, but I didn’t connect this with adding that extreme emotional richness to the film until I experienced firsthand the difference between streaming the movie at home and just watching the previews for it at the movie theater. Don’t get me wrong: streaming movies at home have literally saved at least part of my sanity this last year. And there is an intimacy about watching films on the small screen that make them more immediate and close to the bone. But I am overjoyed that movie theaters are opening again. Now the awards categories of Sound Mixing and Sound Design won’t seem so esoteric to me this year. When I returned home, I eagerly sought out our critic Nell Minow’s interview with the film's director, Darius Marder, and its sound designer, Nicolas Becker. How did they actually put us into the ears and head of a musician going deaf? Even if you have seen this at home, it’s worth seeing again on the big screen just for the sound.

I want to see "Godzilla vs. Kong." And I want to watch Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges relish their roles as a Mother-Son American upperclass family  breezing through Paris like grifters in “French Exit.” After the trailer for that movie was shown, the scattered groups of people in the theater clapped in anticipation of seeing Michelle Pfeiffer chewing the scenery as a socialite widow who has gone broke after spending through her inherited money. (See our critic Christy Lemire's review here.) We follow Pfeiffer as she goes to Paris to try to regain some of the glamour of her previous life.

I had heard fun things about "French Exit" when it was at film festivals, but let’s face it, last year I just didn’t pay as much attention to films and festivals as usual. Being in lockdown mode changed my home viewing habits and I, along with millions of others, tuned in to documentaries or mini-series like “The Queen’s Gambit,” or comedy skits from Dave Chappelle, and even guilty pleasures like “Schitt’s Creek.” So now, I can’t wait to give my full attention over to giant screens and Dolby sound. I won't be distracted by emails, or Zoom meetings, or answering the door for the cheerful UPS person to deliver more “stuff.” I just want to kick back and allow my imagination to merge with the images on the screen for two whole hours at a time. 

And I haven’t yet told you about the film that took me out to the movies in the first place: Darius Marder’s debut feature, “The Courier.” Benedict Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, an ordinary British businessman who is enlisted by the MI6 and a CIA operative to go to Moscow during the Cold War period of the early 1960’s to smuggle out documents that prove that Krushchev is secretly planning to install nuclear weapons in Cuba. Yes, this film is based on true events. Connections are made in Moscow between retired Russian officer Oleg Penkovsky (in an intense and immensely believable performance by Merab Ninidze), and Cumberbatch, the Courier of the title. Cumberbatch portrays him as a good-natured bloke who just wants to get home to his wife and son. In real life, it is said he delivered thousands of important documents.  

I had seen the previews of this film about a half dozen times on television, but the impact of the film on the big screen, with good sound, spacious comfortable movie seats and popcorn, was much better than even I anticipated. The transformation of Cumberbatch from lovable husband and father to spy is handled delicately with the help of Jessie Buckley as his wife. I will not tell you more because I don't want to spoil any surprises. Just know that it makes it worthwhile to go out to the movies. (You can read our critic Odie Henderson's review here.)

And just as a disclosure, I felt more comfortable going back to the movies because I have had the first shot of my COVID vaccination. I am being as careful as I can not to test its efficacy, so I called the theater to check their procedures before going. The AMC theater I visited seemed to be employing good hygienic protocols. Everything looked and smelled clean and sanitized, and audience members were seated appropriately spaced from each other. I am scheduled for vaccination number two this week. Moviegoing, here I come.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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