Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Dec. 23-29: The big holiday push

In theaters

Well, here we are at the week when Hollywood decides what people are just dying to see on the biggest moviegoing day of the year: Christmas. The prophets and visionaries have declared that this year that comes down to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, It’s Complicated, Nine, Sherlock Holmes and Up in the Air. Our local theaters have added Me and Orson Welles and The Young Victoria to the list. (You have to live in more sophisticated realms to get Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus also added into the mix.) With certain obvious exceptions (they’re furry and speak in high voices), it’s a pretty tasty array.

Of course, locally, everything is more than a little skewed thanks to weather woes. What should have been the big deals last week—Avatar, Precious, The Road—are now going to be big deals this week, since it was between difficult and impossible to get to the theaters to see them. With that in mind, it may be just as well that we aren’t slated for Dr. Parnassus this week. (Worry not, Gilliamites, it’s scheduled to hit the Carolina Asheville on Jan. 8.) As is, we’re looking at movie overload.

However, before you start making your plans for all the new stuff, take note of the fact that a few very worthwhile titles will be gone by Christmas. If you haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, Pirate Radio or The Damned United, time is just about up. The first two strike me as among the year’s best (Fantastic Mr. Fox is on far more “10 Best” lists than not) and both really need to be seen on the big screen. For that matter, An Education and A Serious Man—both worthy titles—will still be around till Christmas. Here’s the breakdown—Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Damned United will be at the Carolina. Pirate Radio is at the Carmike, and An Education and A Serious Man are at the Fine Arts. (Note that A Serious Man is only showing at 4:20 p.m.)

Of the films that are opening, you’ll find reviews of Me and Orson Welles, Up in the Air and The Young Victoria in this week’s Xpress—and they posed an interesting quandary, because each one of them is of sufficiently high quality that they all might have been my Pick of the Week. Me and Orson Welles has a slight edge, but the other two are virtually a wash. All three really are that good, but all three are very different films, so the best I can suggest is that you make your choices based on which seems to be the kind of movie that would be most appealing to you—and note that Up in the Air opens on Dec. 23, giving you an extra couple days on it.

I suppose it’s worth noting that Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel also opens on Dec. 23. I cannot possibly imagine actually wanting to see this thing—the early reviews from Great Britain suggest that it’s even worse than the first film. I find that difficult to believe, but there you are. That Fantastic Mr. Fox has to move out of the way to make room for warbling rodents only adds to the insult. If luck is with me, someone else will be reviewing this—and in the immortal words of Vivian Stanshall, “The thing that’s worth doing is worth forcing someone else to do it.”

An almost equally dicey, but very different, proposition is the Christmas Day opening of Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated—which at some point in its existence was almost certainly known as Untitled Nancy Meyers Project, since before some painfully generic title (think Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday) gets slapped on a Meyers’ film, they go by that more intriguing title. So far, the generic titles have more than suited the films themselves. That this one stars Meryl Streep—with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin in support—may or may not make a difference. That this one is rated R is mildly intriguing, but I’ve yet to see the Nancy Meyers movie that wasn’t way too long and ultimately a disappointment. That’s too bad, because the idea of making stylish (they are that) adult entertainments built around characters who aren’t in the full flush of youth is appealing. Maybe this one will be different, but the early reviews indicate it’s just going to be more of the same.

Much more tantalizing is Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which is also destined to be the most controversial of the Christmas releases. The hardcore Holmes traditionalists—whatever that means exactly, since there’s hardly a consistency as concerns what constitutes a proper Sherlock Holmes movie—are already bemoaning the film’s very existence for its lack of faithfulness to the stories. Now, bear in mind that Holmes has gone through all manner of changes over the years—including fighting Nazis—and has managed to survive. For that matter, the most famous Dr. Watson—Nigel Bruce—played that character as bumbling comic relief, whose major function was to say, “Amazing, Holmes!” That’s certainly not in keeping with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

So what we’re looking at is Guy Ritchie’s rethinking of the Holmes and Watson stories. If you can wrap your mind around that concept, then the real question is probably going to be how you feel about Ritchie’s hyper-kinetic, attitude-driven style of filmmaking. In other words, if you liked the way Snatch (2000) and RocknRolla (2008) were made, then chances are you’ll at least be in tune with the approach taken here. The difference may lie in the period setting and the content. Regardless of the movie’s Guy Ritchie-ness, there’s also the draw of seeing Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Most of the early reviews indicate that the duo’s chemistry alone is reason enough to see the film.

Whatever else you care to say about the Christmas offerings, it’s hard to deny—especially with moviegoers being snowed in (I still haven’t made it out of my driveway) last weekend—that there’s a very wide variety of choices.

On DVD

In time for Christmas, the distributors have rolled out a pretty impressive threesome in mainstream titles this week: (500) Days of Summer,District 9 and Extract. If you missed these in theaters, they definitely belong on your list of titles to check out. District 9 is of particular note, but all have their merits. Mike Judge’s Extract is a film that never really found its audience at theaters, so I’m curious to see if it fares better on DVD. It certainly deserves to. I suppose I should note that Sandra Bullock disaster called All About Steve. The curious may be sufficiently curious to see if it could possibly be as bad as was reported at the time of its oh-so-brief theatrical run. I haven’t decided if I’m quite that curious personally. My immediate guess is no.

Not much in the way of special releases this week either. There is a big box set of Paramount-owned Audrey Hepburn titles, which assumes you don’t already have Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and My Fair Lady (1964). It further assumes you want to own War and Peace (1956) and Paris When It Sizzles (1964), which I find somewhat more improbable. That said, if you don’t have the more desirable titles, it might be worth looking into. Sabrina is one of Billy Wilder’s most underrated movies, and Stanley Donen’s Funny Face is probably the single most underrated musical from the 1950s.

Notable TV screenings

Thank Your Lucky Stars Wednesday, Dec. 23, 7 a.m, TCM
David Butler’s all-star (well, all Warner Bros. stars) musical from 1943 is by no means a good movie. It’s a big, splashy wartime morale booster film, with a silly plot involving Eddie Cantor shoehorned into a bunch of musical numbers and skits that mostly feature name stars doing things they’re not known for. As is the case with most such affairs, it quickly becomes apparent why they’re not known for these things. But for curiosity’s sake, it does offer Bette Davis singing (well, sort of) “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” a lament over the lack of available men during wartime (“What’s good is in the army, what’s left will never harm me”). And there’s also Errol Flynn doing a musical number, which isn’t quite as ghastly as you may expect, but does make it clear why he was never in a Busby Berkeley musical. There is, however, one bona-fide highlight with the great Hattie McDaniel performing “Ice Cold Katie.” This alone makes the film memorable as more than a WWII souvenir.

Christmas in July Thursday, Dec. 24, 9:45 p.m., TCM
Despite its title and it being shown on Christmas Eve, Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940) has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. OK, so the phrase “it’s like Christmas in July” is worked into the dialogue, but that’s as close as it gets. (Sturges’ original script, which dates back to 1934, was called A Cup of Coffee.) It’s little more than a B picture in terms of size and star power. But it’s also quite the sweetest and most charming movie Sturges ever made. Oh, he made better movies, but this is in many ways my personal favorite. Dick Powell—too old for juvenile leads and too young for his hard-boiled reinvention a few years later—stars as a youngish man who works as an office drudge, but who dreams of bettering his lot in life by entering slogan contests. When the film opens, all his hopes are pinned on having created the winning slogan for the Maxford House Coffee contest—“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.” The problem is that the judges are being held up in making a decision by one stubborn judge (Sturges regular William Demarest), so the winner isn’t announced on the expected radio show. Taking advantage of this, some of Powell’s co-workers play a practical joke and fake a telegram telling Powell he’s won, which leads to a big promotion and a rash of buying gifts for everyone on the bogus winner’s block—all on the strength of money not yet in his possession. You can probably guess what happens, but that won’t have any bearing on how funny the dialogue is or how warm and winning the movie is. You know, it’s really not a bad choice for Christmas Eve, come to think of it.

The Shop Around the Corner Friday, Dec. 25, 5 a.m., TCM
If you have to be up early on Christmas—either because of children or stuffing a turkey—there could be few better companions than Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Now this film actually does have a Christmas setting—and makes good use of it. The plot may sound familiar, since it deals with two employees—James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan—at a store, both of whom dislike each other and both of whom have secret romantic pen pals. Those secret pen pals are, of course, themselves. Yes, it’s the original You’ve Got Mail (1998), and it was also musicalized as In the Good Old Summertime (1949)—but neither of those versions get anywhere near this version’s charm. That’s in large part due to Lubitsch, though I wouldn’t sell the stars—or the supporting cast—short. I’m not terribly fond of Lubitsch’s MGM films, but this is hard to fault.

Sherlock Holmes-a-thon Friday, Dec. 25, starting at 8 p.m., TCM
In an attempt to cash in on the current interest in Sherlock Holmes—thanks to the new movie—TCM has put together an assortment of Holmes movies for Christmas night. The titles are The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (1931), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and A Study in Terror (1965). It’s certainly an interesting assortment—ranging from the most famous screen Holmes and Watson (Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) in the two films that made them synonymous with roles, to Billy Wilder’s daring (at the time) rethinking of the characters in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and including one film, The Sleeping Cardinal (1931), under its U.S. title as Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, which stars Arthur Wontner. Unless you’re a Sherlockian, Wontner’s name is probably unfamiliar to you, but among Holmes fans, he’s generally considered the best screen Holmes of all time. It’s certainly worth catching that one at least—and for a low-budget early British talkie, the movie itself is surprisingly good (let’s hope the print is). And if that’s not enough for you, the following day is made up of all 12 Rathbone-Bruce films that were made—with modernizations bringing Holmes up to date—at Universal between 1942 and 1946.

Broadway Bill and Riding High Monday, Dec. 28, 8 p.m., TCM
Here’s an intriguing double-feature—Frank Capra’s original Broadway Bill (1934) and his own 1950 remake of the same story, Riding High. The original was a film that Capra wasn’t entirely pleased with, because his star, Warner Baxter, was afraid of horses—a decided drawback in a horse-racing picture. So when Paramount asked him to remake it with Bing Crosby—a man definitely not afraid of horses—Capra liked the idea. Whether he was as pleased with the decision to dig up as much of the original cast as possible—so that they could use their footage from the old film whenever possible (never mind they’d all aged 16 years)—is another matter. The results aren’t exactly perfect, but the comparison is interesting, and it’s still one of Crosby’s pleasanter 1950s vehicles. There’s a certain charm to having Bing perform two songs, “The Horse Told Me” and “Sunshine Cake,” live in the film rather than record them beforehand and work to the playback. There’s a freshness—an off-the-cuff quality—to the unusual approach that perfectly complements Crosby’s laid-back screen image.

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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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7 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Dec. 23-29: The big holiday push

  1. steph

    The Shop Around the Corner was also musicalized as SHE LOVES ME.

  2. Ken Hanke

    The Shop Around the Corner was also musicalized as SHE LOVES ME.

    Was it ever filmed?

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    I’m looking forward to A STUDY IN TERROR which is the first time Holmes tackles Jack the Ripper (1979’s MURDER BY DECREE w/Christopher Plummer and James Mason was the better known second time around). I have STUDY on VHS and Sinister Cinema DVD-R but it’s in full screen. Sony had planned to first time release it on DVD in conjunction with the new SHERLOCK HOLMES movie but pulled it at the last minute.
    John Neville (of ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN fame) makes a fine traditional Holmes and you get to see Judi Dench in one of her earliest film roles. Released in 1965 at the height of the BATMAN TV show craze, Holmes was billed as “the original Caped Crusader”. For some reason it didn’t do well at the box office. I can’t imagine why. Hopefully TCM will show it in the proper ratio.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Hopefully TCM will show it in the proper ratio

    No indication, but it seems to me that most of Sony-owned titles they run are letterboxed. I know The Wrong Box is. I have vague, but pleasant memories of the film. I don’t think I’ve seen it apart from catching on broadcast TV a very long time ago.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I just saw SHERLOCK HOLMES. Oh boy, what a show.

    Pretty terrific, isn’t it?

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