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Four things I learned this summer

The summer of 2010 isn't likely to go down on record as anyone's favourite. Except for Toy Story 3, which succeeded critically, commercially and artistically, the big movies weren't great and the better movies weren't hits. But I did manage to learn a few lessons on my summer vacation:

1. 3-D only matters if the film itself has dimensions.

This was the first full-on 3-D summer of the modern age, and the powers that be in Hollywood are going to keep pumping out glasses-required flicks for our foreseeable future. (They've invested all that money in new technology and theatres, after all.) But I'm sure I'm not the only one who's already feeling 3-D fatigue. Except for Avatar, which is back on the big screens because James Cameron didn't make enough money the first time around, I haven't really seen a film that was worth the headache (both figurative and literal) of adding that fuzzy-edged third dimension. Cameron's back out on the interview trail, insisting that every movie - including The Hurt Locker, the film that bested Avatar for best picture of '09 - would be better in 3-D. But I don't think audiences have been convinced yet.

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Admittedly, I haven't seen Piranha 3-D, whose reviews do suggest that it has found a compelling use for the third dimension: augmenting jiggle shots, especially for body parts that have already been augmented. Hollywood wisdom suggests that as far as new technology is concerned, however porn goes, so goes the industry. So 3-D-XXX can't be far, um, behind.

2. Comic actors can give us too much of a good thing.

I love Steve Carell and Zach Galifianakis, but their summer effort, Dinner for Schmucks, went down like rancid leftovers. In Little Miss Sunshine, Carell proved that he can act, and Date Night confirmed that he can even be a leading man, given the right circumstances (and co-star). But in Schmucks, his trademark dim-witted routine skated too close to brain-damaged to be funny.

As for Galifianakis, he's been pumping out movies the way the oil spill gushed crude, and who can blame him? Scruffy, chubby guys can earn a place on movie posters in a way their female counterparts never will, but they have to seize their luck, and Galifianakis has, from The Hangover and the HBO series Bored to Death on up. Yet he could do nothing new with his mind-controlling IRS investigator in Schmucks. And his upcoming road comedy, Due Date, looks like more of the same, even though he's got no less than Robert Downey Jr. for a straight man.

Luckily, in their next films, both Carell and Galifianakis are following the prescription that worked for Jonah Hill and Will Ferrell this summer: They're setting aside their shtick for something deeper. Hill worked his standard soft-voiced boy routine in Get Him to the Greek, but in the indie film Cyrus, he was something else altogether, smart and bold and scary. He proved that he deserves a long career (though I expect he'll need a significant weight loss, à la Seth Rogen, to capitalize on it). Ferrell turned in one of his better performances in The Other Guys because he toned down his wise-ass and gave ground to Mark Wahlberg, a real-deal actor whose pecs are only incidental to my love for him.

Carell can make audiences genuinely fond of him like no one else, so I live in hope that his next effort, Crazy, Stupid, Love, due in spring 2011, will expand his range. It's a more serious comedy, about a father whose life is unravelling, and Carell is always sweet with kids - witness his charming voice work in this summer's surprise hit, Despicable Me. Galifianakis's next film demands more from him, as well: He plays a depressed psychiatric patient in It's Kind of a Funny Story, which will be at the Toronto International Film Festival. And Ferrell, too, will use TIFF to showcase his more dramatic chops - as he did previously with Stranger Than Fiction and Winter Passing - in his next film, Everything Must Go. (He plays an alcoholic who tries to jump-start a new life by holding a massive lawn sale.)

I realize it would be hard to resist playing the same old thing when everyone seems to be clamouring for it, but audiences can get fed up fast - witness the listless box office of Eat Pray Love, which suggests that Julia Roberts can't pull them in the way she used to. A little stretching can't hurt.

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3. Hollywood loves lesbians, as long as they have better sex with men.

In the summer films The Kids Are All Right and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it happened to be true to the characters played by, respectively, Julianne Moore and Noomi Rapace that their sexuality was on a continuum - that they were more bisexual, or pan-sexual, than strictly lesbian. Coincidentally, that was also true for the character played by Amanda Seyfried in Chloe. As well as the characters played by Seyfried and Megan Fox in Jennifer's Body. Oh, and the characters played by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Mia Kirshner in the first season of The L Word, and - right, pretty much every lesbian character we ever meet on screen. Except for their jilted female partners, that is, who are usually older and slightly less hot, and whose stage direction almost always includes the words "glowering furiously."

I do believe sexuality is on a continuum, and that labels are so 20th century, and that the funny, touching sex scene between Moore and her wife (Annette Bening) in The Kids Are All Right said more about married sex than lesbian sex. But do the sex scenes with men really have to be so much longer and more rip-roaring than those with women? Are the guys who run Hollywood really that insecure - wait. Never mind.

4. Summer is still for kids.

Inception was brainy, and Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, Salt and Knight and Day at least tried to give adults some action, but summer's biggest bucks were made by animation, in any dimension: Toy Story 3 ruled the season with $404-million (all figures U.S.), followed by Shrek Forever After ($237-million), Despicable Me ($231-million) and How to Train Your Dragon ($217-million). Live-action pics pitched squarely at teens and tweens also did well: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse made $297-million, and added together, The Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Sorcerer's Apprentice grossed over $619-million.

In other words, a good buck - if not always a good time - was had by all.

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