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Everyone’s a movie critic. It’s the great American pastime. We all emerge from the wondrous darkness shaking our heads over the moguls’ folly. If only they had called us for a final rewrite. I’m different, though. Movies are fine. It’s the theaters that upset me. In a bygone era, the great movie palaces dazzled with splendor and triggered our dreams. (For a nearby remnant, try the Byrd in Richmond, Va. — if the costumed concession sellers, gilded d�cor, or thousands of colored lights don’t get you, the organ rising out of the stage surely will.) Nowadays, you stand in long lines, get bombarded with ads, and are lucky to escape one step ahead of the cleaning crew. Considering the going rate for the Redskins, Kennedy Center events, and arena concerts, movies still are a bargain. They remain the height of mass entertainment, attracting the greatest stories, stars, and budgets. But they deserve suitable presentation. As a film collector who has run thousands of prints through dozens of projectors, I’m sensitive to the limits of movie technology. But I also appreciate its capabilities. In our era of living room theaters, DVDs that cost less than two admissions, and the promise of high-definition television, movie theaters need to stay above the competition — and I know they can. My ideal show would have convenient parking; minimal box office lines; a dark theater; comfortable seats with good sight lines; a large, evenly lit screen; a sharp, steady picture; rich, strong sound; and only a few brief trailers. OK, this isn’t the Land of Oz. Here on Planet Earth, area is rented by the square foot, previews aren’t selected by curators but dictated by distribution contracts, and a single projectionist can’t possibly guide a dozen shows at once. Like celluloid heroes, we all gotta follow our dreams. And so, over the last few months, I pursued mine and compared a decidedly unscientific sample of local screens with my cinematic ideal. Local for me is Bethesda, Md., so if you live elsewhere you’ll undoubtedly have a different set of convenient locations. I’ll offer no comment concerning so-called movie refreshments; since those horror stories a few years ago about the heart-stopping sludge used to pop theater corn, I’ve resisted them quite well. One recent trend is encouraging, though — the increasingly common practice of starting the grueling ordeal of promos, ads, and coming attractions well before the appointed hour and turning down the house lights only once the feature begins. Here’s what I found. Like any good movie plot, let’s start in the dumps and build toward the climax. I need to warn you, though — there’s a tragic ending. United Artists Bethesda, 7272 Wisconsin Ave. Many like to view life through rose-colored spectacles. Here, you can’t avoid viewing movies that way, thanks to exit lights that bathe the screen in a red glow. Indeed, they’re more intense than anything projected; seeing a movie here is somewhat like trying to watch the road through oncoming headlights. The picture didn’t fill the screen, misadjusted masks leaving blurry borders on top and each side. In bright scenes the picture flickered noticeably, something shiny behind the translucent screen produced annoying reflections, and projector clatter could be heard in quiet passages. The cleaning crew barged in the moment the credits rolled. Location, location, and location — the only reason I ever go here. Cineplex Odeon Uptown, 3426 Connecticut Ave., N.W. To most area film buffs it’s heresy to even suggest such a thing, but the Uptown has two serious design flaws. True, it’s attractive in red velvet, the comfortable seating all faces the screen, and both picture and sound are superb. Yet the auditorium and lobby doors are aligned so that blindingly bright light from the street (and anything reflective passing by) spills onto the screen and spoils the mood every time a patron enters or leaves for the call of refreshment or nature. This would be so easy to fix with a simple baffle, but every time I’ve urged this through the years, management politely thanks me for my interest and occasionally sends a free ticket, but the problem persists. Second, the screen is much too deeply curved, so that horizontals bend into a “U” and pans become nauseatingly distorted. Yet toward the front half of the house, the peripheral vision from its sheer size is hugely involving. (The problem is diminished in the balcony, but so is the visceral excitement.) Cineplex Odeon Cinema, 5100 Wisconsin Ave., N.W. Another of the nearly extinct species of single-screen theaters, the Cinema solved the urban space problem by burrowing down 20 feet. Forget about atmosphere — this is a cavernous underground box with plain walls, concrete floors, and minimal d�cor. But it’s efficient, and comfort is compromised only by hard plastic armrests. The only technical glitch was one overloud trailer and lights being left up during the first minute of the feature. Had my show been better attended, the single, sluggish ticket seller would have been even more frustrating. Regal Cinema Rockville Town Center, 199 E. Montgomery Ave. It’s rare to find a consensus opinion on anything in Washington, but ask any moviegoer in the Dupont-to-Gaithersburg corridor for their favorite theater, and this is it. The Rockville has a lot going for it: an easy walk from Metro, a short hop from I-270, lots of parking, nestled in an attractive suburban government/retail area surrounded by decent eateries, a dramatic descent by escalator to roomy auditoriums with stadium seating. It may not have much personality, but it’s a convenient, functional, and reliable way to see a movie. Mazza Cinema Club, 5300 Wisconsin Ave., N.W. If you’re the type who likes to pay extra to fly first class, this club’s for you. Like the privileged space on an airplane, you’ll get wide leather seats, broad armrests, extra leg room, upscale food and mixed drinks, all in a smaller cabin (120 seats) than the other five auditoriums on the top floor of the Mazza Galleria in Friendship Heights. But the extra tariff ($3 above the standard $9.75, already the area’s highest) doesn’t entitle you to smoother skies than the peasants next door. The picture had a hot spot in the center. The sound had a pronounced, ringing midrange and was painfully loud for two of the five trailers. While I thought the seats were wonderful, my five-foot-tall mother was uncomfortable. As we left our privileged sanctum to rejoin the teeming masses, the spell was abruptly broken by an usher having a very loud and provocative argument with an elderly patron, a harsh reminder that first class doesn’t always mean classy. Muvico Egyptian 24, 7000 Arundel Mills Circle, Hanover, Md. With the profusion of local screens, it seems crazy to drive nearly to Baltimore just to catch a flick. But the ads claimed this newcomer to be “The World’s Premium Movie Experience,” so I just had to check it out. The first impression is a punch line to some joke about what you get when you mix Hollywood and Vegas — everything is outlandish in size and exotic in d�cor, from the colossal entrance and faux columns to the friezes over the concession counter; the theme even extends to tiling in the vast immaculate bathrooms. The screen was huge, the sound fine, and the reclining seats luxuriant. There’s even valet parking and a kids’ playground (not to mention a sprawling mall, brought to you by the same folks responsible for Potomac Mills). The only annoyance was a 15-minute wait to leave the parking lot, suitably vast but with only a single exit lane. Want to know what I really remember, though? As we left the auditorium, a uniformed employee personally thanked each of us for coming and hoped we’d return. Even if his ulterior motive was to keep us from sneaking into another show, I was impressed. Glitz and all, Muvico is a class act, and its sheer scale is a much-needed reminder nowadays that the movies were meant to be larger than real life. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the Washington, D.C., communications firm Pepper and Corazzini and can be reached at [email protected].

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