Holiday movie-goers guide

Christmastime brings not only good cheer (at least in theory), it also brings an onslaught of good movies (again, in theory). Hollywood wisdom decrees that this is the time of year when “important” movies should make their appearance. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Christmas Day is the big movie-going day, a phenomenon grounded in the notion that, by mid-afternoon, a trip to the movies might just prevent a good deal of familial bloodshed.

That same wisdom holds that a film released at the end of the year stands a better chance of ending up on “Ten Best” lists, garnering critics’ society votes and receiving one or more of those little bald-headed, genitally-deprived golden statues.

As evidence of this wisdom, the Christmas movie season kicks off today with a film clearly designed with Yuletide joy in mind — Blade Trinity. This third entry in the Blade series sees the writer of Blade 2 promoted to director. For me, the surprise is that anyone would lay claim to having written Blade 2, much less be rewarded for having done so.

Things get potentially better on Friday with Ocean’s Twelve, a sequel to the phenomenally successful Ocean’s Eleven. All the A-list stars are back, as is director Steven Soderbergh. What could go wrong? Well, for starters, the movie’s a sequel, and that’s usually not a good sign. Worse, the original screenwriter, Ted Griffin, has been replaced by George Nolfi, who gave us the egregious Timeline. However, the cast and the director make it a tantalizing prospect.

The season really gets underway next week, with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. OK, I admit I’m hooked on the Snicket books — the film incorporates the first three. And I like both the look of the trailer (even with the pilfered Edward Scissorhands score) and the idea of Brad Silberling directing. Also, the kids look just right, and the ubiquitous Jude Law strikes the perfect tone with the narration. My only fear — and the trailer suggests it might be justified — is that the character of the villainous Count Olaf has been too much geared to Jim Carrey’s comic persona. Regardless, this is the only family-oriented Christmas release that doesn’t look like an affront to our intelligence. And with Timothy Spall, Meryl Streep, Bill Connolly, Luis Guzman and Cedric the Entertainer on hand, this one could be very tasty indeed.

Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, debuts the same week (though don’t be surprised if we don’t get it till Christmas Day). With a star-studded cast, the Scorsese name and an epic scope — not to mention epic length (169 minutes) — it’s obvious that Miramax is hoping for big things with this one. However, since Miramax contended that it hurt itself by releasing both The Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain too late in the year, it’s odd to find the company on the same path again. But this movie is clearly an ambitious work by one of our most important filmmakers, and as such, it deserves serious consideration.

Then there’s the new James L. Brooks’ opus, Spanglish, starring a “more mature” Adam Sandler and boasting a major Oscar-bait supporting role for Cloris Leachman (isn’t it a little late in the day for the “comic” drunk, though?). In essence, this looks like a romantic comedy with notions of being “something more,” which means it’s pretty standard Brooks fare, nonthreatening with a nonthreatening message. Sandler garnered some critical respect with Punch-Drunk Love, but it remains to be seen if he can crash the mid-cult mainstream with Brooks’ help.

Other films for the pre-Christmas week include: Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside; the new collaboration between filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actress Audrey Tautou (Amelie), A Very Long Engagement; and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for these limited releases to make it to Asheville before 2005.

Scheduled to open on either Dec. 17 or 25 is Bill Condon’s Kinsey, a truly remarkable work that played as the closing entry at the Asheville Film Festival. I cannot overstate what a brilliant, thought-provoking and adult film this is, but I’ll also warn that it is frankly sexual and quite apt to offend some viewers.

Depending on whether you believe the regional distributor or the booking offices, the frequently announced (and frequently rescheduled) Finding Neverland will probably grace our screens on Dec. 17 or Christmas Day. I’ve given up even guessing on this one, but its Best Picture award from the National Board of Review will likely help get this highly fictionalized biopic of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie (played by Johnny Depp) into town.

At this writing, it’s completely up in the air as to whether we’ll be getting the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera during Christmas week. Regarding Asheville’s inclusion in “limited” releases, things are looking up. After all, we did get Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Closer when only 500 theaters nationwide were afforded bookings. But there’s no word on this one. The trailer looks spectacular, suggesting a Ken Russell-by-way-of-Baz Luhrmann style, and this just might be a case where director Joel Schmacher’s surface gloss is exactly what’s required. The bad news is that if we don’t get Phantom Christmas week, there’s nearly a full month’s wait before the film goes “wide.”

Equally up in the air is the horror film Darkness — what is it with horror movies this season? This first English-language film from Spanish director Jaume Balaguero stars Lena Olin and Anna Paquin, and it was a huge hit in Spain. Early word on these shores is less enthusiastic, but the movie offers a change of pace — assuming it opens locally.

We’re assured of getting Meet the Fockers, though, and whatever this sequel to Meet the Parents is or isn’t, it has the built-in box-office draw of Barbra Streisand (playing Ben Stiller’s mother) in her first film role since 1996. The first movie was a hit, and with the Babs Factor in place, this’ll have to be a real dog not to be an equal or greater success.

Also certain to appear here is John Moore’s remake of Robert Aldrich’s 1965 film of the same name, The Flight of the Phoenix. The movie chronicles a group of crash survivors in the desert as they build a plane from the wreckage in order to escape their plight. Questions abound. Is Dennis Quaid in the same league as Jimmy Stewart? Is Moore the equal of Robert Aldrich? (Having seen Behind Enemy Lines, I’d say no.) Will the improved effects take up the slack? Will this version retain the original’s twist? Only one way to find out.

For those looking for something more adventurous, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou opens on Christmas Day. The movie looks like the typical (if that word can be applied here) Anderson blend of cerebral humor, low-jokes, quirky characters and an equally quirky pop-music soundtrack. This Jacques Cousteau parody boasts three of the stars — Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston — from Anderson’s last movie, The Royal Tenenbaums. Oddly, though, Anderson’s usual writing partner, Wilson, isn’t in the mix this time. At any rate, I can think of much less desirable Christmas presents than a Wes Anderson movie.

Speaking of undesirable presents, Joel Zwick’s (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) Fat Albert also comes out Christmas Day. I suppose we needed a movie nearly as appealing as Benigni’s Pinocchio for those who’ve been especially naughty this year.

As a final note, let me toss out a few tips about holiday movie-going. The nature of the multiplex cinema is that the films will open in the biggest and best houses, so if you want to see these movies at their best, try catching them in the first couple weeks. If crowds are a bugaboo, go on a weeknight or see a weekday matinee. Don’t show up for a popular film late, or with only a few minutes to spare, and expect your seat of choice or the ability for your entire party to sit together. After all, even a family that hits the movies to escape Christmas at home might want to share an aisle at the theater.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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