Monday, July 23, 2012

In the Land of Movies

This month, my movie-going daughter, Jane, and I spent two weeks in the L.A. area, the land of movies and many wonderful cinemas, staying with her aunt, uncle, and grandmother in Pacific Palisades.

I was hoping for a showing of Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur at the Egyptian, but no such luck. Gone With the Wind was playing at the Aero, but I’m not a fan.

Anyway, Jane had dibs on first viewing, so we took in Katy Perry: Part of Me at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I expected merely to tolerate this life-story/concert pic, but I rather enjoyed it. I had no idea Perry was the daughter of Evangelical Christian parents, both of them ministers. My favorite part comes when Perry’s parents are hanging out in the dressing room before the big performance, and Katy asks her mother which of her songs is her favorite. “’I Kissed a Girl’”? she teases. “Not that one,” her mother says sweetly, refusing to sound shocked. Katy Perry’s stage fashions are beyond bizarre, but she’s a good performer, and I liked the little added drama involving her side trips overseas to spend breaks with her hubbie, Russell Brand, how this wears her down to the point of collapse, and how their breakup threatens the show. Will she go on stage or give up? We know she’ll get out there and belt out “Firework.” As for Russell, he’s a creep. I think his accent's a put on.

I was at least hoping that The Amazing Spider-Man would be playing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, one of the best movie-viewing venues in the world. But that magnificent screen bordered by those opulent curtains was still showing Tyler Perry’s: Medea’s Witness Protection. Go figure! At least we took time to look at the footprints of the Harry Potter and Twilight casts, along with other famous footprints.

Jane and I viewed the new Spidey film at the Arclight’s Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard. This theater is a luxurious, sophisticated setting for viewers who are very serious about watching a film without any distracting nonsense. You get to pick and reserve specific seats in the massive theater, the chairs are wide and comfy, and the screen is wonderfully large. However, throughout this forgettable addition to the superhero genre, I found myself yearning for a much more stunning epic worthy of this massive screen. What I liked about The Amazing Spider-Man: the performances of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, and the music video in which Peter progresses from tre flips on his skateboard into Spider-Man stunts.

What I couldn’t understand: soldiers get turned into lizard-monsters, but we never see them rampage through the city while Spider-Man is fighting the bad scientist.

Later, Jane and I and the relatives took in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. This was a group choice. I would have been happy to miss Allen's latest effort. But we saw it at the Landmark at the Westside Pavilion, another amazingly dignified, comfortable cinema devoted to serious movie watching. The seats are reserved. An articulate usher introduced the film. Later I had the chance to compliment him for his dramatic delivery, and I asked him if he were an aspiring actor. “No,” he said, “An aspiring director.” Ah, in the L.A. area, many people aspire to many things. I love hanging out at Starkbuck’s in Santa Monica or Pacific Palisades and peeking at the many laptop screens showing screenplays in progress.

To Rome with Love is sometimes funny, mostly silly. A couple of the subplots grow tedious, especially the one in which a mild-mannered businessman, played by Roberto Benigni, is inexplicably taken for a celebrity and hounded throughout Rome by paparazzi. The subplot involving Woody Allen as a retired music agent leads to a bit of ridiculousness in which he promotes a mortician with a fabulous operatic voice who can only sing in the shower. And, yes, this story goes where you hope it will not go. With the shower on stage, it’s not clear where all the water goes. In another subplot, Penelope Cruz is entertaining as a prostitute who must pose as a country boy’s bride, and it’s fun to watch Ellen Page imitate Woody Allen’s stuttering, run-on delivery. Amazing how Allen can get most any performer to deliver lines like him. Woody Allen has some funny moments, but he overplays them. As the music agent, Allen plays a character restless in retirement, which he takes as the last step before death. Ah, Woody, you could have a very enjoyable retirement with all your money.

Unfortunately, Jane and I flew home on the 20th, so I couldn’t see The Dark Knight Rises at the Arclight and had to see it at a lowly mall multiplex. (Inexplicably, Grauman’s Chinese was showing Katy Perry: Part of Me.) Nolan’s talent for memorable visual sweep is worthy of a massive screen. The film is perhaps too long, but Nolan keeps up the pace, and Hans Zimmer’s score dramatically accompanies enough action to keep you attentive throughout the two hours and forty minutes. Not merely seated in its superhero genre trappings, this final Dark Knight installment provides enough personal drama and non-CGI action to make the experience worthy of a repeat viewing, something I can’t say for this year’s The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man. I especially like the development of the character of Blake, performed wonderfully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Blake is a police officer, driven to fight crime; like Batman, he is an orphan who has suffered the effects of society’s ills. Fittingly, Blake turns out to be, uh, SPOILER ALERT, Robin.

Jane and I made a side trip to Disneyland, her favorite place in the world. California Adventure Park had just opened up its new Cars Land, based on Pixar’s Cars, so as the crowds packed into the replica of Radiator Springs, we scored many rides in Disneyland with little wait-time. When we went over to California Adventure Park, we were able to take in a few favorite rides, including my favorite: The Tower of Terror.

The Tower of Terror uses its meticulous set design and its use of a mock Rod Serling introduction to get you into the atmosphere of this 1930s hotel turned into a haunted dimension. All this builds suspense for the ride. Once you and your fellow lost souls are locked into your service elevator, a screen shows the hapless hotel patrons zapped by a strange force and whisked away to the Twilight Zone. Reminiscent of The Shining, you see them at the end of a hallway, beckoning forlornly until they disappear, and you feel sucked into a movie, not just locked into a ride. Then comes the sudden plunge. There’s nothing like that feeling of floating when the elevator takes a sudden dip, rises up, and dips again, suspending you between gravity and weightlessness.

Taking a cue from great films, the ride uses its atmosphere and carefully timed introduction to build suspense and create a memorably dramatic moment. I observe today that films hurry too much to get to the action that would be much more dramatic if more time was taken to build up the tension. This is one of my main criticisms of Prometheus. Nowadays, it seems, films are afraid to slow down.

Hollywood Land in California Adventure Park, the location of the Tower of Terror, employs splendid artistry to create a loving replica of old Hollywood. The palm-lined street diminishes into a matte backdrop that often blends perfectly with the real sky. Recently remodeled, Hollywood Land includes a replica of Carthay Circle, the iconic location of the Carthay Circle Theatre where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs first played.

With replicas of old Hollywood at Disneyland and Universal Studios, with all the preserved single-screen cinemas and the new cinemas that appeal to reverent movie-viewers, with new films advertised on huge billboards that rise many stories overhead as you drive along Sunset, the Hollywood area is movie mecca for this movie-goer.

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