Madstone's David takes on Tampa's megaplex Goliaths

click to enlarge CINEMA PARADISO: The arrival of Madstone - Theatres here gives cinephiles cause to celebrate. - VALERIE MURPHY
CINEMA PARADISO: The arrival of Madstone Theatres here gives cinephiles cause to celebrate.

I have seen the future of post-megaplex movie-going, and its name is Madstone.

OK, I exaggerate. The megaplexes aren't going away anytime soon, at least not as long as people enjoy being herded into cavernous, personality-less airport hangers echoing with the electronic screams and incessant drone of video games. And the megas, of course, are where Hollywood dumps its biggest products.

On the other hand, if the whole more-is-more experience of the megas has begun to seem ever more like a more-is-less proposition, there's now a very attractive alternative.

It's hard not to gush when the subject of Madstone Theatres comes up. For film lovers in Atlanta, Ann Arbor, Denver and the seven other cities where Madstone Theatres have sprung up over the past few years, the small but extremely savvy chain of specialty theaters has turned out to be a reason to celebrate. And when Madstone opens its brand theater in South Tampa's Hyde Park neighborhood next week, Bay area cinephiles will find themselves joining in that celebration.

The party starts this weekend, when Madstone throws open its doors for three days of free movies, but more of that momentarily.

Madstone's basic philosophy isn't all that different from that of fine local venues like Tampa Theatre or Beach Theater. They all strive to show interesting films in comfortable surroundings. But with seven individual screens at its disposal, Madstone's Tampa venue will be able to present a range of independent, foreign and classic films that the Bay area's other specialty venues can only dream of. Bluntly speaking, you can expect Madstone to offer a showcase for some of those smaller, edgier, artsier or older films that even Tampa Theatre and Beach Theater have traditionally been reluctant to take a chance on.

Madstone doesn't like to pigeonhole itself, though, and has no problem showing high-profile Hollywood product, as long as it has merit. Smart, meticulously crafted Hollywood moneymakers like Mystic River and Master and Commander routinely show up in Madstone theaters alongside anti-blockbusters like The Station Agent or Lost in Translation.

For that matter, Ron Howard's powerful The Missing is one of the films slated to open Tampa's Madstone venue on Nov. 26, along with acclaimed indies like Sylvia, Shattered Glass and Gus Van Sant's provocative Elephant. Madstone founder and CEO Tom Gruenberg sees the open-minded but carefully selective booking policy as a cornerstone of Madstone. By programming a genuinely good mainstream movie next door to an interesting non-mainstream film, you create the possibility of introducing moviegoers to types of films they might not ordinarily seek out.

Beyond that, Madstone Tampa will offer a variety of unique film events and programs, the likes of which have never been seen in the Bay area. Wine tastings and dinner discussions will accompany selected film screenings, special community-oriented film series and festivals will take place on a regular basis, and some movies will show up hot on the heels of their appearances at international film festivals, even before those films have secured a domestic distribution deal. There's even an innovative membership program entitling Madstone members to reduced prices for films, invitations to private screenings and member-only events, and many other perks. Membership enrollment forms will be available at the theater and by visiting

Madstone's Tampa venue stands on the site formerly occupied by AMC Old Hyde Park 7, now renovated and remodeled into a handsome and exceptionally comfortable space that all but encourages moviegoers to hang out for a while before or after the film. Comfy chairs dot a sophisticated but user-friendly lounge area stocked with a full library of film books and a selection of vintage board games. The concession stand is essentially a gourmet café, complete with cappuccino, smoothies, wine and beer (license pending), and sandwiches and pastries supplied by the master bakers at Pane Rustica. Adjoining the lobby but hidden away by sliding doors is a room called a "flex space," available for guest speakers, musical performances, rants or anything else that strikes the fancy of general manager and all-around cinema savant Margaret Murray.

Madstone doesn't officially open for business until Nov. 26, but the celebration kicks off this weekend, when the theater throws open its doors to give the public a sneak peek. And when Madstone throws a party, they do it right.

From Friday, Nov. 21, through Sunday, Nov. 23, Madstone will treat Tampa Bay to a free weekend of films. The movies featured are all guaranteed crowd-pleasers, and include Amelie, Pulp Fiction, Adaptation, Sunshine State, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Dr. Strangelove. Free passes can be downloaded from the Madstone website:, or by visiting the box office after 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 21.

You can't really go wrong with any of these films, and you certainly can't beat the price. Tarantino's brazenly convoluted, frequently astonishing Pulp Fiction and Kubrick's brilliant black comedy Dr. Strangelove probably need no introduction. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's sweetly elemental Amelie is a fairy-tale trifle, but a trifle gilded with something approaching genius, a Looney Tunes freakout brimming with imagination and emotion. Y Tu Mama Tambien, on the other hand, is rougher stuff, a blatantly sexual Mexican road movie detailing a mobile menage a trois composed of two 17-year-old boys and an attractive older woman. The movie might have been just another American Pie in lesser hands, but turns out to be a gem, alternately wry, exuberant and bittersweet.

Then there's director Spike Jonze's Adaptation, a nervy, nearly indescribable meta-adventure in which real life and reel life are blended into a richly self-reflexive, iconoclastic stew. Jonze's elaborate and intricate head game is admittedly a snake eating its own tail, but it's also thoroughly intoxicating, very high energy and, in its own way, a lot of fun.

The final offering in Madstone's freebie weekend, John Sayles' Sunshine State, is a thoughtful and entertaining panorama of American life, Florida-style, not unlike Sayles' own Lone Star. Set in a rundown Florida beach town (shot mostly on Amelia Island, just north of Jacksonville), the film is crammed with local color, weaving dozens of characters into a complicated web that's equal amounts soap opera and ideology.

It's a great lineup and it only hints at what's to come. It may be business as usual at the megaplexes this week, but don't let that fool you. There's something in the air. For folks with an appreciation for movies that don't qualify as crap, the future is here. And that future, if we're all lucky, belongs to Madstone.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.