Even though HELLBOY II was called the “closing night” gala, with a huge after party to match, one more day remained of LAFF. But it didn’t seem like it would have much to offer me: family festivities provided pony rides for the kids, while the sparse remaining screenings were mostly things I had already seen. With little interest in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 3-D, I hadn’t even tried to push the WB publicists as far as ticket availability.

Then, just as I was preparing to leave, I ran into my friends Bill and Debbie, who had extras. Can’t say no to that! In short order, we found ourselves inside the Mann Village Theater.

Now, you probably think the Village is an awesome theater for a premiere, and that’s probably because you’ve never had to sit on the balcony, as we did in this assigned-seating screening. This was a problem in many regards. First of all, Debbie has a knee injury that gives her terrible trouble with stairs. We tried appealing to the staff to find her a seat downstairs, but no such luck; seeing no wheelchair or crutches, they were just dismissive. And there is no elevator to the balcony, so she had to take the stairs, painfully, one at a time.

Then, the legroom. Or lack thereof. The balcony seats are worse than the most uncomfortable airline seat you’ve ever had; I could not fit without spreading my legs into a wide stance. Debbie’s a good deal shorter than I, but with a bad knee it was no picnic for her either.

We moved into the two seats at the very back row of the whole theater – being at the end of a stairway, they had infinite legroom – and hoped no-one would show up proclaiming them to be the assigned sitters. We lucked out on that score.

Still, we wondered if we’d be able to enjoy a 3-D movie from that far back. Would the illusion reach us all the way up top in the nosebleed area? Well, perhaps not quite like it would have if we’d been lower and closer, but it still worked quite effectively.

In the decades to come, when James Cameron’s dream of every movie being in immersive, lifelike 3-D becomes reality, perhaps people will watch JOURNEY and criticize its poor grasp of science, or the oddly creepy way it pits a 13 year-old boy and his 40 year-old uncle as romantic rivals for a 20-ish girl. Perhaps, like the unfortunate audiences who will see this thing in flat 2-D in some theaters, they’ll criticize the obvious lighting mismatch in the bluescreen scenes (see picture above). Maybe they’ll wonder how appropriate it is that a 3-D family movie gives us at least one decent look at a wet T-shirt in 3-D.

But for right now, they’ll shut the f**k up about all of that, because the 3-D will blow you away. This is apparently the first live-action (a relative term with so much CG, but anyway) feature to be actually filmed in the Real-D process used in cartoons like MEET THE ROBINSONS. Crystal clear, without the usual “ghosting” of images or headache-inducing color filters, this is the future of “event” movies. Even watching Brendan Fraser brush his teeth becomes an exciting adventure. I have a friend who, when drunk, will invariably start yammering on about how “a three-dimension movie will change your life!”

I don’t know if this will do that. But it’s definitely going to change cinema. Possibly not for the better, depending on your perspective. This is the movie-as-theme-park-ride taken to an extreme, with just a bare minimum of plot and characterization designed to string together a bunch of unrelated action sequences that seem as though they were made up as the writer went along. No 3-D trope gets left behind; even the yo-yo from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3-D gets taken for a spin.

The story, such as it is, doesn’t so much adapt the Jules Verne novel as imply that Verne was transcribing a factual account of a journey down a volcano tube to a land of dinosaurs. Trevor (Fraser), a down-on-his-luck science teacher, is taking care of Sean (Josh Hutcherson), the son of his long-lost brother who disappeared in Iceland. Following way too much set-up (get to the dinosaurs already, and quit taunting us with measuring tapes and falling objects!), the two of them travel north, meet the attractive daughter of yet another crazy scientist who believed Verne (KnoWhutIMean?), and all three go up into the mountains to check out a seismic sensor left there by Trevor’s bro. Deadly lightning attacks (literally – this lightning seems to be pissed at Fraser specifically; maybe it saw THE MUMMY RETURNS), and our heroic trio hide in a cave, which promptly collapses. The only way out is down, via mineshafts and tunnels that were apparently built by the Thuggee cult.

By the time you get to the part where Trevor and Sean are playing baseball with large flying piranha fish, or Sean’s jumping across floating platforms like a long lost Super Mario sibling, you may start thinking to yourself, “You know, that WANTED movie was pretty darn credible, relatively speaking.” But if you’re thinking at all during this flick, then you obviously haven’t been pummeled into quivering submission by the 3-D. And I don’t see how that’s possible.

Ooh, and plesiosaurs. I love plesiosaurs. Don’t think I’ve ever seen them in a movie before, either. Loch Ness monster movies don’t count.

I fear that dumb-ass mall multiplex projectionists may screw this thing up for some of you not in major cities – I’ve certainly been burned by The Block in Orange enough times. The ONLY way to see this is under perfect circumstances. As a 2-D movie, or inevitable DVD, it probably fails. As a 3-D experience, though, it rocks your ass.

And now for a totally different topic – two days ago, at the fest, I saw an excellent little film called AMERICAN SON.

Just did a search on imdb, and found that director Neil Abramson is the one who brought us the Jerry Springer movie RINGMASTER (and thereby the acting career of Jaime Pressly), which literally caused me to say aloud, “oh my god, you’re f**king with me!” Because, yeah, I enjoyed RINGMASTER. But it has nothing on this.

Checking again, I just realized that the star of AMERICAN SON is DRUMLINE’s Nick Cannon. I didn’t realize that either. Dave Chappelle was right to be scared – this kid has got the goods.

I will admit that, like much of the American public, I’ve avoided a lot of the movies associated with the Iraq war. The L.A. film critics association, of which I’m a member, gave Best Documentary last year to NO END IN SIGHT, and despite getting a DVD in the mail, and two valiant attempts, I never made it through. I found REDACTED surprisingly appealing considering that I hate modern-day Brian de Palma, and skipped LIONS FOR LAMBS and STOP-LOSS. I popped GRACE IS GONE out of my DVD player after 15 minutes, figuring I could guess the rest. I did watch THE KINGDOM, but was pretty drunk and fell asleep in the middle. So I think I relate to many of you on how appealing I find most of these things.

And so I hope you’ll believe me when I say AMERICAN SON is different. It may be the first Iraq war-related movie that can equally appeal to both left and right (though not the part of the right that gets super-offended by boobs and profanity) because it never judges the morality of the war. Its hero is a marine named Mike (Cannon) on leave for the 4-day Thanksgiving weekend, with the sudden knowledge that he’s about to be shipped to Iraq. Not wanting to taint things, and hoping to enjoy the full-bloom effects of a romance kindled on the bus ride home, he tells no-one of his imminent status, yet that choice continues to haunt him. Mike isn’t a deserter; he joined the Marines to test himself, and by God, he will stick to that. But it’s not an easy choice, and that’s what the movie’s really about.

Right off the bat, Mike lies to bus-mate Cristina (Melonie Diaz, of RAISING VICTOR VARGAS and LORDS OF DOGTOWN), knowing that if he were to tell her the truth, that she wouldn’t be willing to emotionally invest in him. Upon his return to Bakersfield, we see that his stepdad is Tom Sizemore (casting director shorthand for “drunk”) while his dad is Chi McBride (casting shorthand for “responsible black man, despite appearances”). Meanwhile, his former best friend Jake (SPY KIDS franchise alumnus Matt O’Leary) has turned into a delinquent and gun-runner, because what else is there to do in the run-down desert suburb hell that is Bakersfield?

Amid all the despair and poverty that the old ‘hood presents, Mike’s choice to join the military is certainly understandable. But is his decision any less suicidal than that of the despairing who live here every day? Like Spike Lee’s THE 25TH HOUR, AMERICAN SON deals with the human repercussions of larger national decisions, though unlike that bigger-budget flick, it resists obvious analogy. Jay Hernandez shows up as a young veteran with one leg and a shirt bearing the slogan, “I went to Iraq and all I got was crippled.” He belabors the joke, as one promoting it would. But it ‘d take a simplistic mind to label the film anti-military as a result.

The only problem I have is that the movie mostly maintains a gritty tone throughout, but then gives us a truly “Hollywood” sex scene towards the end, with blue filters and “romantic” music and carefully staged choreography so that various body parts always just so happen to block our view of Diaz’ nipples. After the unabashed boning of the SEX AND THE CITY movie, such scenes come across as doubly fake, and in a flick that’s been shooting for reality all along, this is a killer. It doesn’t ruin the movie altogether, but the reality of the situation takes a big hit that never totally recovers. If you were going for sanitized, why not go further, to appeal even more to righties?

See it anyway. Just don’t expect that the movies have sexually matured.

LA Weekly