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Why film writers sometimes get it wrong

Rebecca Ascher-Walsh says, Plush screening rooms are great, but movies are best judged with an audience

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Why film writers sometimes get it wrong

Two or three times a week, often in the middle of the afternoon, I head to a plush screening room, curl up on a leather ottoman, and watch a film with a few colleagues. No lines, no nonsense, no hassle.

It’s completely the wrong way to go to the movies.

After eight years of this luxury viewing, I’ve realized that when it comes to my own taste, I have no idea what I think. I’m slobberingly dependent on audience members around me to instruct me on how to react — and my guess is, so are a lot of other entertainment journalists. Just as some people advise seeing certain movies on the big screen — and not being so lazy as to wait until they come out on video — so too should they instruct ”don’t see something with other entertainment journalists.” Because frankly, we’re often lousy judges ?- especially when it comes to big summer or Christmas fare that’s meant to be seen with cheering or hollering. Watching ”Deep Blue Sea” by yourself is probably like riding Magic Mountain solo — fabulous in premise, but is it fun to scream when no one else can hear you?

To wit: In order to help build buzz, Artisan screened ”The Blair Witch Project” for us several months ago, and frankly, many of us just didn’t get it. ”SO not scary,” we muttered as we left the screening, trying to figure out what, exactly, happened in the last scene. But how much were we distracted from the horror of the film by our own fear that we might make fools of ourselves while seated next to our colleagues?

Laughing hard can be just as embarrassing as screaming into a workmate’s ear. When I went to see ”Notting Hill,” I was so convulsed with giggles at one point that I grabbed the hand of the person next to me. That hand, unfortunately, belonged to my boss. Talk about a buzz kill. I learned my lesson and went to see ”American Pie” with strangers: I waited in line for my ticket, I bought my popcorn, and when everyone else started giggling, I knew it was safe, and I joined right along. I wasn’t surprised to hear that many of my colleagues, who went to see it together at a screening, didn’t laugh once. After all, I’m the person who left ”Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” years ago after sitting through five minutes of it, thinking, ”We’ll never have to cover THIS stupid movie.”

Of course, there are some movies that definitely benefit from a cushy viewing: Last year, I went to Planet Hollywood and was the sole audience member for a private screening — set up at my convenience — for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ”Legionnaire.” Personally, I thought it was a work of genius, but it occurs to me that the people who made the decision to put the movie out directly on video might not have had their own waitress bringing them a cheeseburger and Coke mid-movie.

So now I’ve learned my lesson: If the movie’s going to be low-brow fun, like ”Deep Blue Sea,” or ”American Pie,” I’m heading to a theater where no one will think less of me for laughing until I drool. As for ”Ace Ventura,” luckily, that’s one of those movies that happens to play very well on video.