Hugo, Directed by Martin Scorsese, Rated PG, 127 mins.
The Descendants, Screenplay and Direction by Alexander Payne, Rated R, 115 mins.
Melancholia, Directed by Lars von Trier, Rated R, 136 mins.
To get to the picture show at Valley View Center, my movie buddy and I had to walk through the desolation of the mall. It's still beautiful and still has a palatial 150 ft ceiling in the middle. The floors are clean and the plants have been watered, but it's hollow. Our footsteps echo. There aren't any shoppers to speak of, even on the four days of the busiest shopping, and the day after Thanksgiving.
We were early on the first day, so we walked the entire perimeter of both floors. We counted the empty storefronts -- carefully camouflaged with gay advertisements -- until we grew tired of counting. We talked about what used to be here, and what used to be there. We wondered what happened, and we asked the same question that has been bothering us since the Great Recession started, "What can they do with an empty shopping mall after all the shoppers have gone?"
On the upside, another long-standing question was answered for us: "Why did so many people go to the movies during the last Great Depression?"
On the first day, we saw "Hugo" in 3D. It's a wonderful moviegoer's movie about movies. The dreadful hopelessness of an orphaned child in 1930s Paris is happily rescued by movies and by moviemakers.
There are a lot of clips from early French filmmaker Georges MÈliËs, to whom the entire film seems dedicated. There are a lot of other tributes to films and filmmakers. I don't think it's a coincidence that the title character, played very ably by Asa Butterfield, is a ringer for early child star Freddie Bartholomew. A barely-connected subplot gives actor Christopher Lee a chance to display the movie majesty that made his Dracula pictures so elegant. Sasha Cohen almost steals the movie with his villain's portrayal. He is a gendarme lifted directly from Inspector Clouseau. Several other headline stars add cameo performances.
"How wonderful!" we might exclaim, and "What recession?" we might ask.
"The Descendants" is another excellent exploration of contemporary people by Alexander Payne. Super star George Clooney is more than the box office guarantor; he is perfectly cast as the tragically comic lead. With his character's wife in a coma, Clooney has to figure out what to do with his two daughters and the rest of his relatives. Like "About Schmidt" and Payne's other movies, it's a lot better than it sounds.
If the recession is getting you down, then Melancholia might be the perfect film. Danish auteur Lars von Trier spends the second half of the movie preparing for the end of the world, and the first half showing why it was too dreary to save to begin with. My movie buddy was relieved when I told her, afterward, that I didn't like it either.
Our problem with "Melancholia" might not be a distraction for other people. We've liked Lars Von Trier's other weird films, but he didn't give us anybody to like in this one. An ultra-rich artsy family indulges some other ultra-rich artsy people in a decadent wedding reception at their opulent estate, where they usually have nothing more to do than to dress up like Englishmen and ride around on their horses.
It seems almost fortunate, for them, that von Trier has arranged for a large planet to smash into the Earth and kill everybody. For us, it was at least the end of the long movie.
Too bad it didn't also end the recession, which was still vacuuming the life out of Valley View Mall each time we left the magic movie world.
Photo: A still from the film Hugo's official website.