Film reviewer expands on hectic schedule

To quote a colleague from a recent conversation outside a Los Angeles screening room, “No two film critics are alike,” to which I add, “and no two film critics are going to see the same films.”

This is especially true during the holiday season, with its compression of more than 100 films in limited and wide release opening by Dec. 31.

So what follows may be a report on how I caught 83 films between mid-October and Dec. 2, but it’s completely personal, a case of one film critic’s choices and priorities during the period when studios and independent distributors bring out their big publicity guns for the push towards Oscar.

For starters, I’m determined to never allow screener bans or inconveniently scheduled “all-media” screenings or any other awards-season distractions to sway me from regularly attending film festivals, since it’s only at festivals that I can catch both upcoming releases early and those many, coveted films lacking a U.S. distributor.

Besides, I reason as I furiously mull through my months-long schedule trying to set screening dates, I can always catch up with “Master and Commander” after it opens. (As it happens, the Peter Weir/Russell Crowe epic had its all-media screening right in the middle of AFI Los Angeles festival at the ArcLight, so I plan to catch up with it under the best possible conditions at Fox’s superb Zanuck Theater.)

On Oct. 18, when the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. (of which I’m a member) votes to cancel awards in response to the MPAA’s screener ban (though they have since rescinded that decision), I spend the afternoon and evening at the Hollywood Film Festival on review assignment for Variety, and, with no awards on the horizon, it feels somehow liberating. Suddenly, I can free myself of the tendency that kicks in this time of year to think of everything I see in terms of awards, and simply watch movies as movies.

In between the regular train of all-media evenings (for “Beyond Borders,” “Matrix Revolutions,” “Elf,” “Love Actually” and “House of Sand and Fog”) are early press screenings for AFI’s festival (“James’ Journey to Jerusalem” and “Sexual Dependency,” which is Bolivia’s flashy entry in the Oscar race); mini-festivals of new Argentine films at the Egyptian (“Arcibel’s Game”) and films by Italy’s Taviani brothers (the rarely shown “Under the Sign of Scorpio”); another few stops by the Egyptian to take in a retrospective series (care of the experimental programming org Filmforum) of the provocative films of Thom Andersen; and quick dashes over to my favorite commercial house in town, Landmark’s Nuart, to see their latest in either regular run (“Porn Theatre”) or early morning press screenings complete with coffee (“Carnage,” “Au Hasard Balthasar”).

At the same time in late October and early November, the wave of films being promoted for awards starts rolling in.

Here come “21 Grams” and “The Gospel of John” at the Wilshire screening room, a new favorite haunt for critics. But then I see that the acclaimed Diego Lerman film “Suddenly” is about to close a week earlier than expected at the Regent Showcase, so it’s a dash across town from the Century City “House of Sand and Fog” screening to La Brea, just in time for the last show.

The commercial releases have to wait another week with the start of the AFI festival, which includes indies (“The Big Empty”), foreign Oscar hopefuls (“I’m Not Scared,” “Evil”) and indie Oscar hopefuls (“Monster”) in a ridiculously delayed premiere screening at the Dome.

Premieres are a real problem, especially this time of year. Critics hate them because they always start painfully late and cause needless hassles and deadline pressures. An all-media affair at the National for “The Missing” or “The Haunted Mansion” is fairly easy (even the electronic wand search has now become routine), but the premiere bash for “Timeline” in the same theater is a zoo.

More exciting is the well-attended opening weekend of film programming at Disney Hall’s Redcat, CalArts’ space for alternative performances and screenings. As Thanksgiving approaches, the crowds at screenings get absurd: At Samuel Goldwyn Films’ cramped room, for the fine “Japanese Story,” a man actually watches the movie sprawled on the floor.

I regret going to another cramped room — Landmark’s Westside Pavilion Cinemas — to see Lions Gate’s “Shattered Glass,” because the film’s widescreen image is marred. Ironically on the same day, Lions Gate, a non-signatory to the MPAA and thus free of screener ban restrictions, mails a triple DVD set of its three films chosen for awards push: “Glass,” “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and “The Cooler.”

As I expected when the ban took effect, the lack of screeners gets folks back to the bigscreen. The DGA facilitates this with a guest card for LAFCA members to attend DGA member screenings in the guild’s big, wonderful theater.

By the end of November, I’ve used the card twice, for packed screenings of “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Cold Mountain” (both received warm rounds of applause). A few days before, the premiere of “In America” was held at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater.

By early December, I’ve managed to view 21 of the 56 foreign-language Oscar submissions, with only three or so of these on screeners provided by publicists. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. screening of the Czech entry “Zelary” at the Interactive screening room brought out the fraction of that group’s membership who are dedicated foreign film fans.

Amidst it all, I can’t make the all-media showings of “Cat in the Hat” and “The Last Samurai,” but then, there are multitudes of screening opportunities advertised daily. For some reason, this season of film viewing doesn’t feel as hectic as last year, when back-to-back unspoolings of “Chicago” and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” weren’t uncommon.

And it’s certainly never as crazed as any single day at a major fest such as Toronto.

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