In a slightly unusual turn of events, this week’s Reeler serves as a pretty decent guide to the Christmas movies since four of the five movies hitting on Christmas Day have been seen and reviewed, so there’s very little crystal gazing involved. Of course, there was supposed to be a sixth movie opening Christmas, but the less said about that the better. Anyway, virtually everyone has voiced an opinion on that already — without much to go on. I’d love to take credit for the fact that this week’s Xpress — which also includes Annie, The Hobbit and Night at the Museum — serves as a one stop Christmas movie guide, but it just kind of happened.
First up — alphabetically and my personal pick — is Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. I admit to being pro-Burton and biased in this matter. I have championed his work for almost 25 years. I wrote one of the first serious pieces on his work for Films in Review (which mysteriously ended up in a compilation book without my knowledge) and a book on him. I even kind of defended Planet of the Apes (and I still prefer it to the original). However, the reason for my choosing it as the most worthy of the Christmas releases has as much to do with the fact that it’s the only truly personal film this season. No matter how good other films may be, this is the one that could only have been made by a specific filmmaker. And for those of you who suffering from Burton burnout, you might be surprised by Big Eyes. While thematically of a piece with the director’s other work and stylistically not dissimilar, there’s nary a sign of the usual gothic trappings — and there’s no Johnny Depp. It may be at other theaters — it’s considered a “medium” release — but I know it’s at The Carolina.
Then we have Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, which I suspect is the big semi-art release of the season. (It opens at The Carolina and the Fine Arts at least.) It’s a fine film and would be my second choice. On the surface, it’s essentially a biopic, but it’s a biopic presented in the unusual manner of a mystery-suspense thriller. In some hands, that might be a recipe for indigestible muck, but here it really works. I doubt it’s quite as deep as it thinks it is, but it’s still compelling entertainment — and emotionally effective, employing a device I’ve only seen used once before. Definitely worth checking out. And Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are terrific.
Up next is Rob Marshall’s film of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods — the film that musical theatre fans feared would be Disneyfied into something much lighter than the show’s dark revisionist take on fairy tales and the whole idea of “happily ever after.” Well, they can breathe a little easier, because it’s more or less still on the dark side. It is most certainly not a betrayal of the source material. That said, it is better as a straightforward record of the show than it is as a movie. As filmmaking, it’s…well, workmanlike and sometimes stagey. That doesn’t keep it from being entertaining — and Meryl Streep’s witch is a delight — but it’s not terribly exciting filmmaking. Maybe it didn’t need to be. It’s definitely at The Carolina, but you can count on it being at the Epic and the Regal Biltmore Grande, too. If the IMDb ticketing info is correct, the UA Beaucatcher beat out the Carmike for it. (The two can’t have the same movies.)
Finally, there’s Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. Upfront, I didn’t much care for this. Oh, it’s well made in its Oscar-bait way, but it has no real identity of its own, and it’s just not as emotionally effective as it’s clearly supposed to be. It’s too safe and too bland. The Railway Man did the true story prisoner of war business better. This will not keep it from being very popular simply on the strength of its subject matter. I find it interesting, though, that — at this moment at least — there are more critics in the thumbs down column than not. It is at The Carolina for sure — and apparently at the Carmike. I expect it to be at the Epic and the Regal Biltmore Grande, too.
The unknown quantity in the mix is Rupert Wyatt’s (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) The Gambler. This is a remake of the highly-regarded — but I suspect little seen — Karel Reisz 1974 film starring James Caan. (The interested can check it out on Netflix Streaming.) I haven’t seen the Reisz film for ages and mostly remember it as a downer that made good use of the Mahler First Symphony on the soundtrack. This new version may or may not be as much of a downer (one reviewer calls the ending of the new film a “copout”). It stars Mark Wahlberg in the James Caan role. (I have some doubts about believing Wahlberg as a college professor.) The story appears to be essentially the same — a gambling addict sinking further and further into debt on a path of self-destruction. It isn’t exactly my idea of a Christmas movie, but here it is. At The Carolina and apparently the Epic and UA Beaucatcher. I suspect it’s also at the Regal Biltmore Grande.
This week we lose The Babadook — not because it underperformed, but simply because of space. The Fine Arts loses Birdman, but The Carolina is keeping it for two shows — 1:35 and 6:50. Otherwise, everything of note is pretty much status quo.
Because of Christmas, this week is pretty simple. It consists solely of the Asheville Film Society’s showing of Mark Sandrich’s Holiday Inn (1942) starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire on Tue., Dec. 30 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina. There’s a review in this week’s Xpress — and an extended review in the online edition.
The only thing of note this week seems to be Pride, which is very much of note indeed.