Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: How to Spend Christmas

I’m sure a lot of you view Chistmas as a moviegoing day. I’ve never quite gotten the hang of the idea myself, though I did get bamboozled into going to see Vanilla Sky in 2001, even though I’d aleady seen it once. That was also my first actual encounter with the idea of trooping off to a movie on Dec. 25, so imagine my astonishment when I found myself parked behind the theater in a section I thought only existed for romantic trysts and dealings of dubious legality. (Indeed, that does seem to be its function 364 days out of the year.) Assuming, however, that this is your cup of lapsang souchong, I’ll offer a few glimpses at what’s out there.

There’s certainly no shortage of product this year. By my reckoning, there are at least 16 new (as in not second-run) titles out there. For that matter, come Christmas Day there will be seven new films this week alone. Now, whether all these films are viable candidates for Christmas Day is another matter—and one that depends a great deal on the natures of the families heading out to see them. Of the new titles, I’ve seen The Adventures of Tintin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, My Week with Marilyn and We Bought a Zoo.

The Adventures of Tintin—which is rated PG—is a safe enough bet for most families. It’s bright and colorful and it moves—a lot—making it good for the younger children, though it might be a little long for the more restless. Apart from the (comic) drunkenness of Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis), there’s not much here that could be considered inappropriate for children—unless, some innuendo that will zip right past all but the most sophisticated child is going to bother you. (For example, there’s a passing reference suggesting someone’s amatory inclinations for sheep.) I can’t say it strikes me as particularly good for Christmas viewing, but that depends on what you’re looking for.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is rated R—and it’s pretty darn R. In fact, it has everything that will get you an R within its rather lengthy 158 minutes. Since I haven’t reviewed it yet, I’m going to merely note that I didn’t find it an improvement over the Swedish original, but was impressed by how quickly it moved—especially, since I knew nearly everything that was going to happen. That said, it’s certainly not family fare. (If you’ve seen the original or read the novel, you already know that.) It’s also about the furthest thing I can think of as suitable Christmas entertainment. However, if you’ve had quite enough of your family and the general bonhomie of the season, a chilly blast of murder, rape, serial killings, torture, and mutilation may be just what the demented doctor ordered.

My Week with Marilyn is also R rated—but with much less reason. The folks at the MPAA say it’s “for language,” but there’s some partial nudity and a good deal of innuendo and palaver about sex. Now, I found nothing about the film offensive on any level, but, let’s face it, I’m jaded and my daughter is in her mid-30s, so it’s some considerable time since I even considered these things on a personal basis. Overall, the film—with its somewhat sentimental and bittersweet tone—strikes me as one of the more appropriate films out there for Christmas Day. The 1950s setting provides a pleasantly nostalgic feeling to the whole thing that makes it go down very nicely.

We Bought a Zoo comes with a pretty squeaky-clean PG stuck on it. The MPAA reckons it has “language and some thematic elements.” Since this “language” tag there’s so fond of (most movies have language) means dirty word, I think I counted three uses of “shit” and one two utterances of “damn.” The very nervous may object. The “thematic elements” I’m guessing refers to the family coping—not always very well—with the recent death of the wife/mother. It’s not too different in this regard from any number of Disney “classics” you could name. You can tell it’s a Cameron Crowe picture from the occasional classic pop/rock on the soundtrack and a hint of autobiography around the edges of the main character, but it’s totally inoffensive—maybe even innocuous and a little gooey. It is, however, perfectly suitable as somewhat bland Christmas Day fare. My grandmother would have loved it.

I haven’t seen Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but Justin Souther happened to be coming out of it just as I was coming out of We Bought a Zoo. He said it was “fine,” which is code for saying it was about what he expected—no more, no less—and well done for the type of film it is. He also indicated that he liked the fact that it was a little goofy in that the gadgets often don’t work properly (a la Spy Kids and “another quality Machete product”).  My guess is that it’s a solid bet for families looking for non-animated action. The MPAA puts it in PG-13 land “for sequences of intense action and violence.” I will merely note that their definition of “intense” and mine are not the same.

No one I know has seen The Darkest Hour—the PG-13 rated sci-fi horror picture opening on Christmas Day. The trick here is that modern horror and PG-13 are rarely good friends. There are, of course, exceptions—The Ring (2002) and Insidious (2011) come immediately to mind—but I’m doubtful this is one of them. That I confess is based on the trailer, which is too in love with showing people disappearing in bursts of CGI dust. I do like the girl in the red-spangled dress breaking up into so much sparkly red confetti. I think that looks very festive. The MPAA says it has “sci-fi action violence” (anyone know what makes sci-fi action violence different from plain old action violence?) and “some language” (partly Russian, no doubt, given the setting).

And then there’s Spielberg’s War Horse.  It gets a PG-13 “for intense sequences of war violence.” I haven’t seen it (I will, but not on Christmas) and I don’t know anybody who has. I expect a hearty acceptance from audiences over the combination of Spielberg and a sentimental story about a horse in WWI. The trailer makes it look like it’s Spielberg at his most Spielbergian—sweeping scenic views, crane shots, much swelling John Williams music. And if that appeals to you—and you like horses—so, I suspect, will the movie. For those looking for a Christmas “event” movie, it’s probably essential. After all, it’s “epic.”

Personally, if I was inclined to trundle into town and go to the movies on Christmas, I’d almost certainly just go for a third look at Hugo. And it strikes me as suitable to the season, too. I don’t know that it’s particularly seasonable, but Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a lot of fun.  The Descendants would be OK for slightly weightier fare, and if you’re feeling cynical about it all—but not to the point of serial killers—Young Adult might suit. Otherwise, I’ll merely say that whatever you do, you should avoid those damned Chipmunks. I can think of no more awful way to spend Christmas or any other day.

Me? Anyone remember last year when I opted to get copies of the 1951 Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim, Holiday Inn (1942) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947)? Well, this year I’m going to actually get to watch them. And I might drop an old not-necessarilly-seasonal favorite—like Road to Rio (1947) and Whoopee!—into the mix. And without a doubt, I’ll find the time to visit one of my favotite Christmas scenes of all time. Whatever you choose for your own amusement, I hope you have a very fine holiday.

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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4 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: How to Spend Christmas

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    The MPAA puts it in PG-13 land “for sequences of intense action and violence.” I will merely note that their definition of “intense” and mine are not the same.

    In this case, I think they’re on the money, although that doesn’t mean ‘savage and/or bloody’ action and violence. I think the film’s worth seeing for one masterfully staged sequence around the mid-point set in Dubai that makes grand use of IMAX cinematography and was about as suspenseful as you could possibly get in a scene featuring a character you know can’t die for the film to continue. Still made me inch forward in my chair.

    And Merry Christmas.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I think the film’s worth seeing for one masterfully staged sequence around the mid-point set in Dubai that makes grand use of IMAX cinematography

    One question — does this require seeing it in IMAX? It’s a pretty hefty drive to the nearest one of those.

    • Jeremy Dylan

      Nope. I saw it in a regular multiplex and got the oomph factor just fine. It may carry extra impact in an IMAX cinema though.

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