While ordinary folks might have been snoozing last year, some crazy cineastes were just warming up. Beginning last November, each Friday and Saturday the Roxy in Burlington offered midnight screenings of niche films that drew up to 100 predominantly young viewers.
"We had some guys from Enosburg who came three weekends in a row to see the director's cut of Donnie Darko," recalls Merrill Jarvis II, who manages the family-owned theater. "They had never even been to the Roxy before."
After a break for the holidays, the late-night gatherings will resume with what Jarvis is calling "Kung Fu Madness." The fare, known as "chopsocky," probably never opened in Vermont for a regular run.
These are older Hong Kong productions with non-stop martial arts action: Kung Fu Cult Master (January 21 and 22) is a 1993 release featuring Jet Li, who went on to become a major star. Return of the Chinese Boxer (January 28 and 29) dates back to 1975. Crippled Avengers (February 4 and 5) is a chestnut from 1978. And Taoism Drunkard (February 11 and 12) came out in 1983.
On February 18 and 19, the program will switch gears with Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation Festival. This American compilation of short pieces from around the world is only appropriate for the 18-or-older crowd.
"We'll keep showing these films indefinitely," Jarvis explains. "Burlington does have an active night life."
A few blocks away, some winter evenings will be devoted to more sedate entertainment - starting at an earlier hour. "The Spirit of Cinema" begins its new season this month at the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts. This event is the brainchild of Tom Bacon, a 35-year-old marketing entrepreneur who is also a film buff. His goal is to foster a more low-key, less commercial atmosphere than exists at more mainstream venues.
"I was looking to create a fun, alternative, communal experience," Bacon says. "It's not so much about the movie as it is about the audience."
In 2004 his audiences grew steadily, though the room only holds 50. A low ceiling and level floor create sight lines that rule out foreign-language pictures because subtitles would be too difficult to read.
The first screening, at 7:30 p.m. on January 20, is Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Director Paul Mazursky's 1969 comedy addresses sexual mores in a counterculture zeitgeist.
Malcolm X, Spike Lee's 1992 biopic about the civil-rights activist, is on tap for February 5. This is a special afternoon presentation, with the time not yet determined, to celebrate Black History Month. Denzel Washington portrays the charismatic and doomed leader.
On March 17 The Harder They Come, by Perry Henzell, is likely to rock the joint. This 1972 classic about Jamaica's reggae scene offers a memorable Jimmy Cliff soundtrack that includes wonderful tunes such as "Many Rivers to Cross."
The final selection in the series, on April 21, is Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, a wry 1973 adaptation of a Raymond Chandler detective story. Elliot Gould plays Philip Marlowe, a noirish Los Angeles private eye.
Admission is a suggested $5 donation. While the project breaks even, Bacon volunteers his time and even hands out organic popcorn made by his wife Amy. Beer, wine and snacks are also available from a concession. These accoutrements add to the "spirited" ambiance.
"If I can build a reputation, hopefully people will come even when they're unfamiliar with the films," Bacon theorizes. "Who knows where it's going to go?"
On a more somber note, Bus 174 is a Brazilian documentary about the 2000 hijacking of a Rio bus and the five-hour standoff that ensues. The young lone gunman, Sandro do Nascimento, takes a dozen passengers hostage. Director Jose Padilha traces how the police and media handle the situation - very badly.
This is a gripping expose of a society with thousands of homeless street kids, a recipe for violence that is all too common in Latin America. As a small boy, do Nascimento himself wound up rootless after his mother was murdered. The film, which examines the terrible inequities of a developing nation, will be shown for free at Middlebury College's Dana Auditorium at 3 and 8 p.m. on January 22.