Sunday, February 26, 2012

"The Artist"

Here's what I wrote about The Artist after I saw it for the first time on Dec. 11.


Amid the passel of highbrow kudos for The Artist, somewhere in the breathless recitations of silent-film history and cinematic analysis of its technique – the kinds of laborious salon talk reserved for movies that are good for you but aren’t actually very entertaining – this gets lost: The Artist is delightful, charming, funny and altogether wonderful.

Yes, it’s a silent film, as much as a film filled with evocative, memorable music can be considered “silent.”  It’s a dazzling recollection of the Hollywood that lives in the minds of anyone who loves the movies, impossibly glamorous, always giddy fun, and even when the story turns dark, never for a moment a downer.

Yes, it’s in black and white, but isn’t that the way you imagine Hollywood was when it was at its best?  You know the time, when men wore hats and women wore dresses and everyone looked ready to head to the nearest cocktail party, even in the middle of the afternoon.

The Artist swoons for a time gone by, never once being too clever for its own good. There are only two ways you could effectively tell a story about this period of Hollywood legend, when silent movies gave way to talkies, and the musical version has already been done flawlessly in Singin’ in the Rain.  That’s the movie The Artist most resembles: exuberantly optimistic, joyously simple – and words aren’t necessary for a plot that had already been worn thin by 1927, when The Artist begins.  Hollywood star meets ambitious actress, they fall in love, the actor’s popularity wanes while hers rises, and in spite of it all they never quite fall out of love.

No, words would just get in the way, and without them, every moment of The Artist is a surprise. It’s splendidly acted by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, actors you may never heard of or seen on film, but who are so appealing and attractive that they make the most ideal movie stars you’ve ever seen.

To see The Artist is to fall in love with movies again.  Anything else you see for a while may pale in comparison to a movie shot in gorgeous black and white, whose emotions are so big they rarely even need title cards.  Toward the end, when the music swells (it’s Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo) and the action intensifies, you’ll be – as they used to say – on the edge of your seat.

It may not be perfect; the stubbornness of the title character is indeed a little wearying after a while. But the flaws are minor and the accomplishment is grand, indeed.  You may walk into The Artist a cynic, disgusted by the state of modern cinema, fed up with the greedy insistence on Hollywood to pander to the masses, but give it half a chance and you’ll succumb to its infectious charms and its great, big heart.

Viewed Dec. 11, 2011 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks

LIVE from Los Angeles! The Academy Awards! In My Living Room!

I've never tried a Live Blog before, but it was very popular in 2006 and 2007, so I thought, "Better late than never." And I figured the Oscars would be a good thing to Live Blog about because they are live and I started a blog last week, but mostly because they are about the movies and also because I don't need to go anywhere.

Let's just make one thing clear: I was not invited to the Oscars this year.  I thought that might be because I moved on Dec. 30, which has caused all sorts of things to get delayed in the mail.  It's not, though.  It's because I'm not a member of the Academy and the few people I know who do get invited to the Oscars have never bothered to see if I want to go with them.

I take solace in the fact that those I know who have gone say it is really boring and you can't see anything except what's being projected on big screens all throughout the theater, so you might as well be home watching it on TV.

So, here goes my Live Blog.

Almost.  I have to run to the grocery store first.  Be right back.  (I hope I'm right back.  Will I make it in time?  The suspense is killing me.)

5:28 p.m.
They always talk about a billion people.  Last year, 37 million Americans watched the Oscars.  So, 970 million people outside of the U.S cared about the Oscars?  That just seems really hard to believe, since only about 10% of Americans watch.  But, Hollywood has never been particularly good at math.

5:30 p.m.
I wonder if they've ever considered doing the Oscars at different malls all over the country.

5:35 p.m.
I always like these openings.  But this one feels an awful lot like the intro to a theme-park attraction.

5:40 p.m.
"Watching millionaires present each other with golden statues."  That sums it up.

It can't be very easy to write jokes about movies that most of the "billion people" watching have never seen.

Does it seem like most of the audience can't understand a word he's saying?

It's funny that the set designer always bases the Oscar set on the kind of glorious, single-screen movie palace that doesn't exist anymore.  Better that, I guess, than a set that looks like the Regal 16 at Equestrian Crossing.

5:45 p.m.
Tom Hanks should host the whole dang thing.

I guess that guy's prepping didn't extend to getting a haircut.

Cinematography: Hugo over Tree of Life?  Hm, interesting.  I think that says less about Hugo than it does that Academy voters, like most people, didn't understand The Tree of Life, but, boy, it sure did look really beautiful.

Production Design: Does this mean that Hugo is getting consolation prizes, or did Oscar voters choose Hugo down the line?  Hmmm ... this is interesting.  But since Hugo and The Artist combined have grossed about $70 million, it continues Oscar's trend of honoring movies that most people haven't seen. That's why the ratings keep going down.

Meryl Streep may not get an Oscar, so she dressed like one.

5:55 p.m.
If someone is playing a "drink whenever you see Tom Hanks" game, they're flat on the ground by now.

That was a lovely montage, but what was the point?  If we're watching this, it's likely we like movies.

It's always curious ... do they not give these actors the scripts in advance?  Because most of them can't read the TelePromTer with any flair.  How is that?  These are supposed to be the best, highest-paid actors in the world.  But loved that way of introducing the nominees.  Terrific idea of showing the clips and having commentary.   Kind of renders the hosts unnecessary.

Is it just me, or does Glenn Close in "Albert Nobbs" look more like Dobby?

Warwick Davis!  WARWICK DAVIS!

When they cut to the audience, I'm surprised how few people I recognize.

Was that Barbra Streisand or a Gelfling?

Wow, that star-studded ode to the magic of the cinema was decidedly unmagical.  There's a reason these people do best when they are scripted!  That was an awful lot of talent falling very flat.

Just caught up with the "Dictator" red carpet gag with Ryan Seacrest.  There was really only one problem with the gag and with the overall stunt to get Cohen's character to be part of the Oscars ... it's not funny.  Like, did you even crack a smile?

6:07 p.m.
Sandra Bullock is awesome.  Especially when she speaks German.  She and Liz Lemon should get together.

Foreign Film: "A Separation" is hugely deserving.  That was a brilliant, unforgettable movie in any language.  Sadly, when you cut away to the audience, most people were clearly not paying attention.  Did I mention Sandra Bullock rocks?  Seriously.  She's gone from borderline joke 10 years ago to brilliance!  Love her!

Supporting Actress: Aw, she brought her mom!  (Jessica Chastain, I mean.)  Octavia Spencer -- who's that guy?  She deserved the award, but, boy that was probably the best, strongest category tonight.  Any of them deserved to win. Nice speech.  Years ago, when the actors used to thank their agents and managers, it was OK -- now it just sounds odd when they thank corporations.

6:18 p.m.
OK, this is good stuff.  "I didn't get the thing with the kids."  "There's lots of ugly faces in this film. I've never seen so many unattractive people."  "Was one green, or am I nuts?"  Sadly, that focus group actually would have resulted in changes today.  Hey Academy: More Christopher Guest!

Well, at least Tina Fey and Bradley Cooper can read.  They may even have rehearsed!

Film Editing: Hm.  I didn't see it, so can't comment too much -- but if it was as well done as The Social Network, then it's deserved.

I miss getting a quick explanation of what the sound categories are.  They are so important to the overall enjoyment of a movie, but in the Oscars they are relegated to second-class status.  Another win for Hugo (sound editing) ... interesting.  They're spreading the love around, for sure.

They really are selling these things short.  There is a great opportunity to help the "billion people" understand why these categories are important.  And why the same film often wins both, as just happened for Hugo (sound mixing), at the moment the big winner of the evening.  Wonder if that will change?

6:47 p.m.
Sorry, I was making a pizza.  Priorities.  Pepperoni, sausage and olive, if you must know.

The Cirque du Soleil thing must have been great live.  On TV ... it was a giant commercial and that's how it came across.

Best Documentary: Kind of a surprise.  Given how many excellent films got shut out of the category, I fully expected the celebrity-backed Paradise Lost 3 to take it home.  Glad it didn't go to a sequel to a sequel!

Chris Rock, did your mother tell you it's not polite to talk about how much money you make?  Especially after you just said it wasn't hard work compared with "real" work?  That came across as completely tone deaf. 999.8 million people are thinking, "Why do they give him a million dollars to do that?" The people in that room are thinking, "He only makes a million dollars for an animation project?"

Best Animated Film: Not Disney. Not DreamWorks. The times, they are a-changin'.

6:53 p.m.
More Emma Stone, please.  Emma Stone, Tina Fey and Sandra Bullock -- all the Oscars needs.

Visual Effects: Come on, couldn't we se a bit more of the work?  Fascinating that Hugo won.  There really needs to be a separate category for best animated performance.  Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was astonishing.  But Hugo over Potter, too.  Verrrrrry interesting.

Supporting Actor: OK, trophy hasn't been given out when I'm writing this.  Doesn't it seem logical that a group made up primarily of senior-citizen actors will choose a senior-citizen actor?  I thought Beginners was fine, but it wasn't nearly as good as its reputation.  Max Von Sydow ... so, really, there are three silent performances this year?

Yep, Christopher Plummer.  I still only see Captain Von Trapp, sorry.  Nice speech.

I have a feeling this is all heading toward a Hugo win for Best Picture.

7:10 p.m.
This is the time of the awards when I always think, "Just get on with it."  If they'd just move it along at this point instead of more cutesy filler ... why do they do this?  It would be like having an entertainment act after ever play during the Super Bowl.

Dear Next Year's Producers: I just found six minutes you can cut out of the show.

Best Original Score: What the ... ?  No formal training in music?  The scores for The Artist (winner) and Hugo were both extraordinary.  Glad to see that the "controversy" over the use of the music from Vertigo didn't have an impact.  But, man, this show is continuing the tradition of ... boredom.  Come on!

Will Farrell, Zach Galifianakis, Sacha Baron Cohen -- when comedy actors think they're funny is when they are the least funny.  Will Farrell is like the Chevy Chase of the 21st century.  Not in a good way.

Best Original Song: Oh, wow, at least that incredible tension is over.  All the world was wondering.  And now we'll be humming Man or Muppet for the next few days.  What's that?  You don't know the song?  Never heard of it?  Hm. Yeah.

7:25 p.m.
One of life's great mysteries to me: Why is Angelina Jolie the "biggest movie star the world'?  I don't get it.

I have news for the writers and producers of the Oscars: Screenplays are about a LOT more than dialogue.  It would have been REALLY cool if the segment had showed how the screenplays set the stage, establish character, really are the entire blueprint for the movie. It's not just about writing dialogue.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Another good group of nominees.  Good choice for The Descendants, very amiable speech by Alexander "I Knew I'd Be Up Here" Payne.

Ha.  The Artist really screwed with that "let's show dialogue on screen" concept.  Best Original Screenplay -- I'd like to see any of these films win.  So happy for Midnight in Paris.  What a wonderful film.

Uh-oh, here come the talking heads again.  How cool would it have been to have mixed in real people?  What are they supposed to be doing here?  Their favorite movies?  What makes movies work?  I don't get this.  Adam Sandler: Jack and Jill was the truth.  You got that one right.

Watching commercials.  Hey Google, guess what?  Not everyone wants every picture saved instantly.  Remember Anthony Weiner?

7:37 p.m.
Those sci-tech awards actually looked fascinating.  I'd MUCH rather see more about those than best score and best song.  That stuff impacts ALL filmmaking.  At least give us an idea of where we can find more about those creations online.

The Bridesmaids: Cute.  Funny.  I wish these films had better distribution.  Again, couldn't the Oscar website host them, so we could check them out?  At least have the winner up as soon as it's announced.  Hey, that movie has Ciaran Hinds, who is terrific in John Carter, though his role is pretty brief.  Just had to get a John Carter mention in here somehow.

Documentary Feature: Once again, all of those movies look interesting -- can't the Academy tell us where we might find them?

James Cromwell has a crappy seat.  Poor guy.  There also seem to be a lot of empty seats toward the back of the auditorium.  Are even the attendees that bored?

Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger has been astonishingly accurate so far.  Very curious to see if The Artist goes all the way, because it seems to have been mostly, um, quiet up until now.

7:51 p.m.
Best Director: That was actually a minor nail-biter.  Such a fitting honor for a guy who tried something different, who wanted to experiment with the medium, who went backward to show the way forward.

Meryl Streep remembered her glasses.  Cute.  The Color Purple and Beloved aside, I still don't get what major contribution Oprah has made to the film industry.

8:04 p.m.
Oh, boy.  Here it comes.

I think it's getting a little out of hand ... this has become a major production.  Doesn't it seem Whitney Houston should have had at least, I dunno, maybe a sound bite?

8:13 p.m.
Coming up on three hours and still more filler.

Best Actor: Let's be honest, as much as the guy from A Better Life seems to be liked by the Hollywood insider club, can we all admit about six people saw this movie?  Even my mom, who sees any movie involving Mexicans, had never heard of it.

Come on, really?  They use the "sound" scene from The Artist?  Lemme guess, because the producers thought more people would "relate" to it?

Jean Dujardin over Clooney?  Now there's a real upset.  Incredible.  Clooney had a lock on the thing.  Not to say I'm not happy about it.  Very cool.\

$5 tickets for a 15-minute Oscar performance?  Now, that's an awesome idea.

Brangelina looks like they are really struggling to keep it together.

A tap dance!  Now there's an entertainer.

Great observation from earlier in the evening by my pal David:

"It was really weird that they gave an Oscar to "Saving Face", a film about a plastic surgeon helping women in Pakistan (who were attacked with acid) and then cut to Sandra Bullock who looks like a 
brunette Joan Rivers who is getting plastic surgery just because."

8:25 p.m.
Glenn Close ... we need to see MUCH more of her on the big screen.  She's one of the best actresses anywhere, but in typical Hollywood fashion, no one seems to know what to do with her, so she's on a TV series.  She looks radiant tonight.

Rooney Mara ... huh?  I don't get it.  (Yeah, I know, I haven't seen the movie, but I still don't get it.)

Meryl Streep was fantastic in that role, but the movie ... meh.

Michelle Williams -- still didn't see that movie, either.  I'm curious about it.  Gotta say, though, she seems single-mindedly determined to be a serious actress.

Wow ... another complete surprise.  I really didn't think they'd do it quite yet.  Love that both she and Viola Davis were in the front row.  No one knew for sure!  Love the look of surprise that was really on her face.  "But ... whatever."  Love it.

I know she's a great actress, that she's a consummate pro, but Meryl Streep always comes across as believable, sincere and genuine, despite her fame.  Maybe she really is just acting?  I hope not.

8:33 p.m.
Tom Cruise.  Interesting choice.

I'm still going with The Artist.  But I won't be surprised by Tree of Life, The Help or The Descendants.

Oh, yeah, or Hugo.

Or, come to think of it, Midnight in Paris.  Really good nominees this year.

This is the first time I've actually wanted  to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Very nice montage there.  Love how they're doing this.  Actually feels suspenseful!


Awesome.  Very pleased.  The Artist is a fantastic film.  Some find it too lightweight, others think it's too clever or somehow not really that important because it's got a "slight" story, or complain it's just a novelty.

To them, I say ... it's a movie.  It's a glorious movie.  It sends the audience out of the theater feelign happy, feeling joy.  Now it will have a bigger audience -- more people will discover it.

OK, that's done.  Now I'm gonna watch The Amazing Race.

Good night!

"Happy Happy"


Happy Happy takes place in a small, snow-covered country town in northern Norway in the middle of winter, but the place sure feels a lot like Woody Allen's New York of the 1970s and 1980s.  Director Anne Sewitsky tries hard to match the style and spirit of those movies, and almost succeeds.

While Allen's pessimism masks an incurably romantic optimism ("Most of us need the eggs"), Happy Happy can't hide its rather bleak view of marriage, love and romance.  In the end, what we'll remember most about these characters is their acute sadness.

In Norwegian, the title translates to "insanely happy," which may be a more accurate way to describe what these people are; you'd have to be crazy to put up with this kind of emotional misery.  Married couple Kaja and Eirik live in the middle of nowhere with their slightly off son.  Because it's just the three of them in a little house, Kaja has decided they are happy, even though Eirik would rather be off "hunting" (after a week or so away, he buys a bucket of fresh meat to bring back).  When the family sits around the breakfast table, father and son torment the doggedly sunny Kaja with grim stares.

Enter Sigve and Elisabeth, refugees from the city who have decided the solace of this snowy countryside will help them repair the emotional wounds of a recent infidelity.  With their adopted African son in tow, they move in to the only other house in sight, just steps away from Kaja and Eirik.

The loopy, simple-minded Kaja is determined to be friends with the more sophisticated couple.  In short order, though, she starts an affair with Sigve, made all the easier by the fact that her own husband refuses to have sex with her.  

For a movie with rather little plot and few characters, Happy Happy oddly gets sidetracked by unsatisfying story strands, trying too hard, instead, to be quirky and charming, but the result isn't the romantic, Norwegian Fargo it hopes to be; too much of it feels forced and often uncomfortable, and the story focuses on the wrong things.  Instead of a potentially interesting complication with Eirik and Sigve, for instance, there's a bizarre, uncomfortable subplot involving the two couples' young boys playing slave and master. 

As long as it sticks to the story of the affair between Sigve and Kaja -- and the effect it has on their respective spouses -- Happy Happy is often quite appealing.  The actors are generous and sincere.  Henrik Rafaelson's Sigve is a big, lumbering man who looks something like Liam Neeson and has a soft, sensitive side that his wife no longer sees.  Agnes Kittelsen is nervous and childlike as Kaja, a pretty, petite woman who has husband has told her one too many times that she's flabby and unattractive.  She's clearly neither, she's just with the wrong man, and thinks she may finally have found the right one.

But the film turns bleak and unsatisfying.  As it nears its conclusion, one character has an abrupt change of heart that doesn't ring true. I think its makers probably believe Happy Happy ends on a hopeful note, though to me it felt sad and lonely.  Kaia, Eirik, Sigve and Elisabeth wind up understanding each other even less than they ever did.

Happy Happy starts with some sad-but-smiling characters, shows them brimming over with happiness and love for a few moments, then takes it all away again -- even the smiles.  Those winters in Norway sure are brutal.

Viewed Feb. 25, 2012-- Video on Demand

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"John Carter": Initial Thoughts

Though I've only started this blog a few days ago, I want to honor the request Disney has made to other media for a "full-review embargo" of John Carter.  Instead, here are a few initial thoughts:
  • I hope they'll reconsider the embargo, because early word has been that  John Carter is a failure, and this is completely wrong; John Carter is a fantastic, memorable movie, and the more people who can start spreading that word, the better
  • John Carter tells a crackerjack story that has genuine depth and surprising emotion, though for the completely uninitiated (like me), it can be a bit confusing at times
  • I'm fascinated to think what John Carter might have been like if Star Wars hadn't existed -- sometimes it leans a little too heavily on the visual style of those movies
  • Even at more than two hours, I wished it were a little longer and more slowly paced in some segments
  • Andrew Stanton directed Wall-E and Finding Nemo, but this is a better film than either of them
  • Not being much of a TV watcher, I didn't know who Taylor Kitsch was, but he does a terrific job in this movie (though his name is still kind of funny), as does his leading lady, Lynn Collins, also previously unknown to me; they're both tremendously engaging and have great on-screen chemistry
  • Having known nothing at all about the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, I was not aware that the story is set during the Civil War, and I loved the way the story on Mars has parallels
  • There is so very, very much more to this story than two giant monsters chasing John Carter like the posters show; that would be a little like advertising The Wizard of Oz by focusing on the Winged Monkeys carrying Dorothy -- John Carter is rich, multi-faceted, fascinating and fulfilling.  
That's all I'll say for now, except to reiterate: John Carter is far from a failure.  I was unprepared to like it as much as I did.  I'm eager to see it again.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Catching Up: "50/50"


Playing tragedy for laughs is no easy feat, and too often comes across as forced and maudlin.  For every Terms of Endearment there's a Bucket List.  50/50 is somewhere in the middle, which isn't a bad place to be, neither as profound as it might want to be nor as lightweight as it easily could have been.

It's anchored by the always reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor who I hope won't succumb to Big Screen Talent despite his roles in Inception and the upcoming Batman threequel.  Levitt has the rare ability to be intense but never unlikable, a characteristic that serves 50/50 well.  This isn't a movie about a man dying of cancer -- it's a movie about a man who doesn't understand why life is more difficult than he expected it to be.  The cancer part is easy, the way it changes his world view is the hard part.

That's what 50/50 does best, showing the way he has to adjust to a different world view.  To its credit, 50/50 doesn't romanticize the illness -- Adam, the Gordon-Levitt character, is no angelic martyr whose life might be cut tragically short; he's just a man who has gotten sick, and no one in his life, he above all, knows exactly what to do about it.

Seth Rogen is his best buddy, Kyle, whose role in 50/50 is less defined, and is the reason the movie falters.  Rogen's a generous, likable actor, but 50/50 isn't sure what to do about that.  Most of the time, he's the pal with good intentions, but it takes a long while for the movie to really get to the heart of what's going wrong -- that cancer is changing Adam in imperceptible but permanent ways, and that means the two of them are growing apart.

There's the girlfriend who can't hack it, the parents who are trying their best even though one of them has Alzheimer's disease, the young therapist who speaks in sweet aphorisms but is just as helpless as any of them.  These are vaguely defined roles, and some awfully good actors -- Anjelica Huston as the mother, Anna Kendrick as the therapist, Bryce Dallas Howard as the girlfriend -- flail about looking for the characters in an underwritten script.  They're types, not people.  The movie really goes wrong when it tries to develop a romantic relationship between therapist and patient.

What it gets very right, though, is the uncertainty behind the diagnosis, the fear Adam has that he might not get to live the life he imagined, the life he never really started to live in the first place, despite his best efforts.  Gordon-Levitt nicely gets to the heart of a man who had an idea of what he wanted to be, and now might not get to be it.

He's the prime reason to see 50/50, though for a great example of what he can do, try the vastly underrated crime-thriller The Lookout instead.  Mostly, 50/50 is a little too chirpy, a little too tidy.  There are moments, excellent moments, when Adam and Kyle are together and the actors show the fear both of them have -- one for his life, the other for his friend.  Had 50/50 focused more on them and less on the quirky, charming characters who are trying, really trying, to understand all this, it might have come out ahead.  As it is, 50/50 is a pretty apt title, indicative of how much it gets right and how much it gets not wrong, exactly, but not quite where it needs to be.

Viewed January 20, 2012 - Video on Demand

3-D or Not 3-D?

It's nothing new, this 3-D thing.  There was a 3-D film as far back as 1922, and in the 1950s, of course, there were cheesy, comin'-at-ya films designed in response to the rise of TV -- moviemakers had to figure out a way to offer audiences something different than they could see in their homes, and you couldn't possibly get Cinerama, Cinemascope, Smell-o-Vision and 3-D on the boob tube.

Now, the public may be dumb, but it's not that dumb, and they saw 3-D for what it was: a gimmick, a gag, a diversion that didn't add a single thing to the movies they saw except, possibly, a headache.  Plus, those cardboard glasses cut into your ears something fierce.

So, 3-D came and went quickly, and though some big-name filmmakers (Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney among them) flirted with the concept, no one took it terribly seriously.  There were better ways to dazzle audiences ... like, for instance, making better movies.

In the early 1980s, the VCR began to take hold.  People were starting to stay home from the movies, driven both by higher ticket prices in the midst of a recession and ... well, lousy movies.  So, Hollywood dusted off the old gimmick and trotted it out again with some new bells and whistles, and for a few years movies like Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D and Friday the 13th, Part III in 3-D became popular.  But they were lousy films, though this time 3-D found a permanent home in theme parks, with short 3-D films added to Disneyland and Universal Studios.  But, both audiences and filmmakers realized there was a better way ... like, for instance, making better movies.

We think it all changed with Avatar, but we're wrong.  The underlying technology had always been interesting to some filmmakers, particularly those working in newer media like IMAX and digital animation, and by the mid-2000s, 3-D was a novel gimmick to movies like The Polar Express and My Bloody Valentine 3-D.  Because it was new, because it was aimed primarily at kids, 3-D films grossed more than 2-D films.  Hollywood loves money, and they started reckoning that if 3-D films that bad could make that much money, better 3-D films could make more money.

That's when Avatar came along.  Unlike any other film released in 3-D in the previous 50 years, Avatar was designed for three dimensions and shot with 3-D cameras.  People who would never have considered going to see a 3-D film were fascinated by the promise, and they went to Avatar in droves.  It became the highest-grossing film in history.

And then, something weird happened.  Instead of consistently out-grossing their 2-D counterparts, 3-D films started underperforming.  When given a choice, audiences were not always choosing 3-D.  Surefire, can't miss 3-D movies were ... missing.

Why were movies as diverse as Step-Up 3-D, Piranha 3-D, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Gulliver's Travels, Rio, The Green Hornet, Tron: Legacy and the Oscar-nominated Hugo suddenly failing to score with audiences?  Worse, why, when they were released in both 2-D and 3-D, were fewer and fewer people opting to see these films in three dimensions?

An entire industry was ready to change its way of doing business -- big-name directors were embracing 3-D, talking about how they could offer something artistically new in the format.  Companies were planning to offer "permanent" 3-D glasses for sale, so you could take your own stylish pair to the movies.  Television manufacturers were beginning to create 3-D TVs, to extend the experience into the home.  And though there were some gargantuan hits, like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King and Toy Story 3 (do you follow the common theme there?), audiences seemed overall to be shunning 3-D.

Despite those setbacks, there's still a rah-rah, go-team mentality among many in the industry that insists 3-D has a future -- though they seem a little less bullish, a little less gleeful than the post-Avatar days.

Perhaps that's because when many of these executives see their 3-D movies, they see them with perfect projection that compensates for the noticeable loss in brightness on the screen.  It's common knowledge among the lowly class that pays to see movies that 3-D films are dim, murky and make your eyes tired in different ways than the red-and-blue glasses did, but no less irritatingly.

In 3-D, movies just don't look very good.  Distract yourself for a moment by doing something like finding your bag of popcorn or your drink, or looking down at your watch, and you've done more than take your eyes off the screen, you have to re-adjust yourself.

Keep in mind, most 3-D films are still aimed at younger audiences -- the teen and tween set.  When they go to movies on date night, they often like to do things other than look at the screen.  Ever tried making out with 3-D glasses on?  (For the more chaste among us, ever tried simply resting your head on someone's shoulder while wearing 3-D glasses?)

Of course, 3-D's also a cash-cow.  Movie theater owners, studios, 3-D technology companies, they all make money from the 3-D surcharge.  Though this has never been done with any other technology invented for the movies, 3-D movies cost significantly more to see than do "standard" movies.  With a few films, like Avatar or Alice in Wonderland -- movies that take us somewhere we've never been, that give us real spectacle -- it's worth the extra three bucks.  Piranha, not so much.

In boring old 2-D, movies can envelop us, enrapture us, take us on flights of fantasy, show us a world we've never seen (even if that world is right down the street), move us, infuriate us, illuminate our minds, touch our souls.  They do that just fine in two dimensions, because movies themselves are illusions.  They are dreams.  They miraculously fool us into believing we are, for a couple of hours, somewhere, someone, something other than we are.

I've yet to meet anyone who came away from a 2-D movie thinking, instinctively, it would have moved or entertained them more with a third dimension, that if only they had been able to sense the spatial difference between Debra Winger and those two little boys, Terms of Endearment would have moved them more.

Except in rare situations (and even in those, it's certainly arguable), 3-D is always unnecessary.  Not usually, not frequently, but always.  And part of that may have to do with what we're left with when we are done watching a movie, what we're left with at the end of any day -- memories.  Unless I'm completely unique and my experiences are different than everyone else's, we don't remember in 3-D.

We can recall the images, we can recollect the sounds, we can piece together the moments, and in our minds, they unspool themselves and play themselves out much like a movie.  Funny how that works.

Besides, there are better ways to dazzle audiences, to get them to put down their hard-earned money, to fill theater seats ... like, making better movies.  Sixty years later, Hollywood is still trying to learn that lesson.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Favorite Films: "Defending Your Life"

Of course, it would be this way: Just when you think you don't have to deal with another shred of bureaucracy because, you know, you're dead, you wind up in Judgment City, filled to the rafters with lawyers and assistants, with rules and systems so stringent you can't even get out of your seat on the convenient tram.

This isn't heaven, though its clockwork precision makes it clear someone is in charge.  "And it's not hell, either, although I hear Los Angeles is getting pretty close," says one of the bigwig lawyers, whose job it is to guide the newly dead through a process that determines whether they are sufficiently advanced to "move on" and walk through the pearly gates -- or whether they'll have to get right back on that tram and start all over again.

Defending Your Life is about as smart as comedies come, unnervingly observant about the way we struggle through life, remembering those lessons our first-grade teachers taught us to do our best, to try to do the right thing -- only more aware than ever, as adults, that those nice ladies spent their days in landscaped elementary schools, not dealing with the kooks and backstabbers and nutjobs whose only purpose is to stymie our success.

We're cynical adults now, immune to cute little aphorisms that promise us happiness.  The thing is, happiness is there; it always is.  The way writer-director Albert Brooks sees it (and he's probably on to something), we're just too damned scared to let it happen.

In Defending Your Life, Brooks plays Daniel, a jittery, discontent advertising man who wishes he had more money, wonders if he married the right person, and has very poor driving skills, because -- bam!  He drives straight into a bus, winds up in Judgment City and, well, you know what they say about love, that it finds you when you least expect it.

It comes in the form of angelic Julia (Meryl Streep), who has lived a very different life than Daniel.  She's one of those people to whom everything seems effortless: making friends, finding satisfaction, rescuing cats from burning buildings.  In Daniel, she sees someone more interesting than accomplished, someone who wants to be better, just doesn't know how.

So, the catch in Judgment City, with all of its gleaming, futuristic polish, is that your only task there is to review some days of your life and plead your case for why you made the right choices.  These lawyers are good, they choose the right stuff -- that is, the worst stuff, the stupidest mistakes, the poorest decisions.  When it's done, Daniel and Julia clearly won't be headed to the same place.

All they have is now.  All the can go on is what they feel.  No past, no future, just this.  Brooks clearly paid attention in his cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions, and what he's done in Defending Your Life is cut straight to its core in the most entertaining, engaging way possible.  Daniel has a choice: Forget what he knows and go with his gut; ignore what he's "learned" and pay attention to what he knows.

Defending Your Life is big-hearted and breezy, generous of spirit and humanely gentle.  Most of us are Daniel, Brooks knows.  We wanted to do right, we just couldn't help ourselves.  But there's always a chance.

Bouyed by a jaunty Michael Gore score, a production design that presents Judgment City as a sparkling Disney theme park, and a luminous, understated turn by Meryl Streep, who's rarely been less studied and more relaxed, Defending Your Life is the movie I most tell people who are struggling with life that they need to watch.  We all struggle, Brooks makes it clear -- but as long as the struggle leads to something better, it's worth it.

I've seen few films as wise and knowing about this uniquely American condition of feeling we haven't done enough, of beating ourselves up for the simple fault of being human.  None of us is perfect, but each of us has perfection buried somewhere in us, ready to rise up at the most important time.

More than any of his films before or since, Brooks puts his sarcasm on hold and goes for heart.  The result is splendid, almost transcendant -- a cinematic tonic recommended whenever life isn't going exactly the way you planned, brimming with optimism and hope for even the saddest sacks among us.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Favorite Films: "Titanic"

The only thing Hollywood likes more than success is failure, and almost exactly 15 years ago, tongues were wagging about the bloated $200 million budget and epic catastrophe James Cameron's Titanic was turning out to be.

The only film anyone could compare it to was the mega-flop Cleopatra, which had almost ruined Twentieth Century Fox in the 1960s, and now Fox was one of the studios behind Titanic.  Worse, the movie's groundbreaking digital effects couldn't be complete in time, and in April 1997, 85 years after the ship Titanic sank, the movie's release date was moved back eight months.

This was going to be cinematic failure of a gargantuan, unprecedented level.  It needed to be seen.

There was a palpable sense of perverse excitement in the audience that night at the AMC Theater on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica -- Dec. 19, 1997.  Long before the Internet had taken hold, before word could be spread instantaneously, this audience wanted to see just how bad Titanic really was.

Some three and a half hours later, James Cameron had proven the impossible could still be done, that the cynical smirks could be wiped away the old-fashioned way, with pure spectacle.

Titanic will be released in 3-D later this spring, a week before the 100th anniversary of the disaster.  I'm not a fan of 3-D, which apart from being dark and dim is, in every case I've ever seen but two (Avatar and Hugo) adds absolutely nothing to the experience of going to the movies.  Converting films to 3-D ignores the basic fact of why movies work: Because we immerse ourselves in them.

Titanic doesn't need 3-D, but at this point only a fool would bet against James Cameron.  In two dimensions, the only way I've ever experienced it, Titanic envelops its viewers in spectacle and drama. Naysayers will argue, rightly, that the dialogue is at times clunky; to watch the scene in which Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) dismisses the work of a hack artist while Rose Dewitt-Bukater (Kate Winslet) says the paintings are by "somebody Picasso" is as eye-roll-inducing as ever.  As the ship sinks with spectacular authenticity, Cal's crony shoots at Jack Dawson (Leonardo di Caprio) in a ridiculous subplot.

Titanic doesn't get everything right -- but it gets so much right so consistently that to watch it in a movie theater is to experience that most rare of cinematic pleasures: to discover the thrill of going to the movies all over again.

Everything about Titanic is larger than life, from the ship itself to its love story.  The emotions here are big, the passion with which they're conveyed palpable.  It is a grand film, an epic, one that revels in its scale.  And yet, it succeeds on the most intimate level, too: Jack's death scene, with Rose barely able to speak, whispering a desperate plea -- then forcing his frozen hand from his so she can save herself is made all the more moving by James Horner's haunting score.

Cameron's framing device of Old Rose (Gloria Stuart) and the deep dives to Titanic may begin poorly -- I've never cared for Bill Paxton's performance -- but add immeasurably to the story.  About an hour and a half into the film comes the justifiably famous shot of Jack and Rose on the prow of the ship, embracing against a deep orange sunset ... and Cameron dissolves to the prow as it was 85 years later, 2 1/2 miles under the ocean.  "That was the last time Titanic ever saw daylight," Old Rose says.

Later, she will take the Heart of the Ocean diamond, the prize Paxton's salvager character seeks, and throw it back to the sea.  She has had it all this time, she has never let it go.  And now she does.  It can mean nothing to anyone except those who are forever beneath the sea.

Like the ship itself, Titanic was designed to be grand in every possible way, including this gesture.  Grand it is -- magnificently so.

Catching Up: "In Time"


There are few movie-watching disappointments as great as a science-fiction premise gone wrong.  And, boy, does it go wrong in In Time, a would-be thriller with not a single thrill.

The setup for In Time is this: At some point in the future, time is literally money and becomes the currency.  Everyone is born with a glowing-green digital readout in their forearm (the upkeep on these things must be crazy), and at age 25 it begins a countdown.  Depending on their social status, they have more or less time than other people, who are divided into "time zones," with the worst time zone being downtown L.A., not surprisingly.  The best time zone is filled with matte paintings of big houses on cliffs, where really, really rich people live, people with, like 5,000 years to spare.

Justin Timberlake lives in downtown L.A. with his super-hot mom who is forever 25.  She has a few more hours until she "times out," so they're going to go celebrate tonight.  But the bus fare has gone up, now it costs two hours for a ride and she only has one.  So, she runs to see him, little knowing that a mysterious rich man has arbitrarily given 100 years to J.T. in a bizarrely homoerotic scene -- the man is tired of living, so J.T. takes his time and becomes really, really rich ... but, ho-ho, not rich enough to save his mother, who dies in his arms, just steps away from him after that long run home.

Oddly, no one in the future has cell phones, so they can't just call and tell each other what's happening.
So, anyway, J.T. goes on the run and ends up in the rich part of town, where he is bound and determined to get even.  So far, actually, despite its lack of clarity on its rules and a rather unimaginatively designed production (why don't futuristic movies actually look futuristic anymore?  Hollywood has priced itself out of imagination), it's not terrible.

But it becomes terrible so quickly, you'd think it was running out of time.

Following a clever poker scene that ends up with J.T. owning literally 1,000 years, he winds up at the home of the ultra-rich people (they're "worth eons," we're told), and then the cops barge in.  For reasons that are never at all clear, they get really mad when time-poor people suddenly become time-rich.  They want to take back that time.

So, the rest of the movie becomes a chase film.  But why?  What happened to J.T.'s determination to stick it to the rich folks?  Wouldn't it have been much more interesting to see how he gets them back and ends up with so much time that he is immortal -- then realizes that this world has become so uninteresting, there's not much point to immortality?  I would have liked to have seen a showdown of ideas, to have seen In Time be more than just a chase through digitally altered L.A. in spiffy retro cars that owe a little too much to director Andrew Niccol's previous film, the lugubrious Gattaca.

At least its depressing vision of a dead-end future gave Gattaca a reason to watch.  (Though, I confess, I fell asleep two of the three times I attempted it, both in the theater.)  In Time tries to become "Bonnie and Clyde" with time, but the longer it goes on, the stupider and less interesting it becomes until, by the final showdown I was ... you guessed it ... nodding off.

A movie about the preciousness of time should not seem to last an eternity.

I want my two hours back.

February 18, 2012 -- Video on Demand

"A Separation"


We forget too easily that people live in Iran, real people with real lives that are much more like ours than we know. They are unified by a a religion, but they are, more than anything, individuals -- and, just like any individual, burdened by the unknowable human heart.

In A Separation, there is a man and a woman, married but at a crossroads. She wants to leave Iran; he once said he would, but now needs to stay. She cannot understand his position. But, then, in A Separation, no one can understand anyone else's position, even if they realize the underlying logic that drives it.

The wife, Simin, leaves her husband, Nader, and their daughter, Termeh. This is the action she has been forced to take. Termeh, too, is forced to make her choice: To stay with her father and her grandfather, who is mostly bedridden by Alzheimer's -- staying with him to the end is what Nader must do; in his mind, there is no option. To help around the house while Simin is gone, Nader hires a caretaker, whose life has forced her to accept this job though she has grave doubts it is suitable for her devout religious beliefs. And then, something happens. We see it happen, but we can't be quite sure of exactly what we've seen. We know the reasons it happens, but that doesn't mean it makes sense.

A Separation then turns from being a domestic drama filled with raw emotion into a courtroom thriller unlike any we've ever seen, taking us into the Iranian legal system, which operates in a fascinating way. Who is at fault? Is there blame? Is there justice? And who can be trusted when everyone, in his or her own way, is telling their truth?

With one surprising exception, no one in A Separation lies. But no one exactly tells the truth, either; they tell their truth, and that's quite a different thing. They want to do what's right -- and that turns out to be the worst thing for everyone.

Did what happened actually happen? That question is answered, but not cleanly, and that's the point in A Separation: No one can know. Try to explain yourself in an unexplainable situation, and you'll see the trouble. Yes, I just let go of her hand for a second to get my wallet, and then ...

For these people in, in this situation, in this moment, everything they do and feel and say makes sense, even -- especially -- the things that don't. But that isn't good enough for the law, which demands an answer, or for the Quran, which insists on obedience.

The trouble is, those things run contrary to the way people are.

In that deeper sense A Separation seems to be saying something about the world, too. Iran and the West are constantly at war, and it is a war that has no end -- because it is a fight about integrity, about which each side's beliefs are better, more worthy; that kind of a war, we see here, is not winnable, certainly not on a personal level, much less a global one. Worse, it can have no end, because no one person, much less a society, can possibly be right about everything, or to do exactly what they should every single moment of every single day. We do stupid things.  We do things that no one else would do. We make mistakes, and we know they are going to be mistakes but we make them anyway -- and shouldn't there be some allowance for that? That is not the way we have set things up.

Acted and directed at all levels with fierce honesty and passion, A Separation is raw, visceral and deeply affecting. The movie is set in a country and culture that is alien to most of us; the emotions and the people it shows us are heartbreakingly familiar.

Viewed on Feb. 18, 2012, at Laemmle Town Center 5

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Enjoy the show

Movies have been part of my life since ... birth?  I can't know that for sure, but as long as I can remember, I have lived at the movies.  For a while, I was lucky enough to get paid for writing about them, in my "past life" as a newspaper reporter; when the resident film critic would go on vacation or just have too much to do, I got to fill in.  That part of my life is over now, but writing has always been part of me, too.  So it makes sense to combine these two passions, to write about what I see -- whether in the theater (still the best way, and my favorite, to see a movie), on DVD or Blu-Ray, or just from my memory.  My hope: That my writing will help you, too, to discover new films, to rediscover old ones, to relive your own moments watching shadows and light move on a screen.

Although I live in L.A., and make my living as part of the overall entertainment industry, I am and always will be in awe of the movies -- I am, and always will be, one of those people Norma Desmond widened her eyes and paid homage to in "Sunset Boulvard" ... one of those wonderful people, out there in the dark.

Here, you'll get my thoughts on films I've recently seen, and movies I can't forget.  I hope you'll share your own thoughts, too.  Because no matter what life throws at you, the best way to get through it -- good or bad -- is to follow the advice of the ticket taker at your local movie house and just ...

Enjoy the show.