Special Xmas Jam movies
As usual at this time of year, there’s a selection of musically-inclined Xmas Jam cinematic esoterica booked to play at the Fine Arts Theatre. Also as usual, I haven’t seen any of these films, but there’s a list of the titles and when they play in the movie listings in Wednesday’s Xpress.
Perhaps because I’ve already seen The Damned United and Invictus (reviews for both are in this week’s paper), this seems like a very light week, especially this close to Christmas. Once you cross those off the list—and you really shouldn’t, especially The Damned United—the only big release you’re left with is Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Try as I may, I simply cannot get excited about this one. Maybe it’s the fact that retro Disney in the same year that gave us Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up and Coraline just makes my yawn reflex kick in. Maybe it’s the fact that the trailers don’t excite me. Maybe it’s the prospect of a bunch of Randy Newman songs. Of course, this gives me the benefit of low expectations and the possibility of a pleasant surprise. Then again, I went to Transylmania with low expectations last week and … let’s say I was amply rewarded.
What intrigues me is that it’s not being shoehorned into as many auditoriums as possible. Neither the Carolina, nor the Beaucatcher have it on multiple screens, while the Epic and the Grande only have it on two. That’s low for a Disney movie—especially for a Disney movie at this time of year. It strongly hints that this isn’t expected to be the huge hit you might think. I guess we’ll find out this weekend.
My own view is that you’re likely to be on much firmer ground with either Clint Eastwood’s Invictus or Tom Hooper’s The Damned United. Without going into detail here, I’ll note that though the former involves rugby and the latter involves soccer, no particular knowledge of or fondness for either game is required. And if the name Tom Hooper means nothing to you—and it probably doesn’t—it might be worth considering that The Damned United is the latest collaboration of writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen, whose previous encounters gave us The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008).
The only other thing opening is Larger Than Life 3-D, which is a concert film with the Dave Matthews Band. I’m not at all sure why Dave Matthews should be seen larger than life and in 3-D, but there you are. This is one of those “limited” engagement things. Certainly you recall when Michael Jackson’s This Is It entered its fifth week of its exclusive two-week run? Chances are greatly increased that Larger Than Life actually will play for one week only. After all, the eagerly-awaited Avatar shows up next week, and even the Carmike 10 with its three houses of 3-D screens is likely to want all of them for that.
The choices are a little tastier this week than has been the case for a while. Only the cynical might suggest that the Christmas season could in any way be responsible for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Julie and Julia and Public Enemies all coming out in the same week, but who’s complaining? Actually, I saw Harry Potter a second time when Warner Bros. sent a copy for my “consideration” a week or so back. A smart move on their part, since I found it even better than I remembered it—and I’d remembered it as pretty darn good. I freely admit, on the other hand, that I’d completely forgotten that Public Enemies even existed.
If there’s somebody on your Christmas list who you really, really like, Criterion has come out with a 25-movie Akira Kurosawa set. Of course, it has a list price of $399.95 and an Amazon price of $284.99. And it probably won’t fit in a Christmas stocking. Now, for people you don’t like so much, I see there’s a two-disc set of “highlights” from Jerry Lewis: 1967-69 Jerry Lewis Show. I vaguely remember liking the show when it was on. Of course, I might have been 14 by the time it went off the air, so it’s probably wiser for me to leave it to vague memory. However, if anyone wants to get me the Kurosawa set …
Notable TV screenings
Mostly we seem to be faced with the usual suspects for the Christmas season. TCM will doubtless make sure we’ve all had enough of Christmas in Connecticut (1945) before this is over. Gad, what a stiff that movie would be without Sydney Greenstreet (“Do I smell kidneys?”). However, there are a few less-than-stock items this week.
Swing Your Lady 12:45 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 9, TCM
I warned you that this was coming and now here it is. Apart from having a certain notoriety as Humphrey Bogart’s worst movie (his own assessment), this 1938 comedy about a promoter (Bogie) and his quarter-witted wrestler (Nat Pendleton) who gets bested by a lady wrestler (Louise Fazenda) in the Ozarks is pretty grim stuff. At least that’s how I remember it from TV many years ago. It’s a prime example of hillbilly humor Hollywood style—with everything that implies. It also has songs (Penny Singleton performs the title number). Unfortunately, Bogart doesn’t sing. That would make it a must-see—or a must-hear, I suppose. I hope to catch it in DVR fashion, since I’ll be at a press screening of The Lovely Bones when it’s on.
The More the Merrier 6 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 10, TCM
This 1943 wartime comedy from George Stevens comes at the very end of his pre-pretentious era, meaning it’s his last film that doesn’t smack of self-importance. Rather, it’s a very enjoyable romantic comedy—with a bit of slapstick—starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea that’s set during the housing shortage in Washington D.C. during World War II. The plot involves Arthur renting a room to a visiting bigwig (Charles Coburn), who in turn rents half of his room to McCrea—partly because he takes a liking to McCrea, but mostly because he’d like to liven up Arthur’s romantic life. It’s fast-paced, good-humored fun of a kind we almost never see anymore.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen 8 p.m., Monday, Dec. 14, TCM
Here’s a real curio. Determined to win an Oscar, Frank Capra opted to make his one and only art film with The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), a fascinating piece of Hollywoodized exotica done in the manner of Josef von Sternberg. Well, at least it’s done in the manner Capra thought was Sternberg. In essence, it’s Capra’s Shanghai Express—right down to him bringing in composer W. Franke Harling to cook up an ersatz Shanghai Express score. The irony to all this is that it was in large part due to the Academy not recognizing him or Shanghai Express as Best Director and Best Picture that Sternberg quit the association. Capra fared even less well with General Yen, which became his only movie to actually lose money—despite the fact that it was chosen as the movie to open Radio City Music Hall. (Radio City found there was no place to go but up after that, and as a gesture opted to open all of Capra’s subsequent—and profitable—movies.) It’s really not that bad, but it verges on the silly too often—and it does so without Sternberg’s deliberate sense of the absurd. Still, it’s well worth seeing and enjoys a reputation among Capra’s detractors as the only good film he ever made, which basically just means it’s not a populist work. And it most certainly isn’t.