Bruce! A mining town strikes out against a monster in 'My Name is Bruce.' (Photo courtesy Image Entertainment)

Season's Gleanings, a Holiday Preview

Dennis Harvey December 15, 2008

‘Tis the season to be jolly—unless you’re looking for quality year-end movies, in which case you’d best prepare for some sobering dramas. That’s the general verdict on a slate that, more than ever this annum, has seen the major studios’ weightier, more risk-taking ventures crammed into the last weeks of the calendar.

Already out as of last week are a trio of heavyweights adapted from other media. Director-scenarist John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning play Doubt casts Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as antagonists at odds over allegations of sexual abuse at a New York Catholic church and school in the early 1960s.

Ron Howard is behind the camera for Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan’s own adaptation of his equally well-traveled theater piece, with role originators Frank Langella and Michael Sheen cast as the disgraced former U.S. president and Brit chat-show host in a behind-the-scenes recap of their famous 1977 broadcast duel. Both of these are solid "openings up"  of primarily dialogue-driven creations that might easily have stiffed on-screen, with impeccable performances in satisfyingly complex parts.

The third prestige item opening last week—albeit only in SF, along with L.A. and NYC—is Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliott) and scenarist David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s internationally bestselling novel The Reader. It’s an initially steamy, then chilling portrait of the relationship between a 1950s Berlin teen (David Cross, with Ralph Fiennes as his much older self) and an elusive older woman (Kate Winslet, with whom he has a sex-tutorial affair—then years later discovers the awful truth about her Nazi-era activities). What unites all three of these movies is their scrutiny of individual and institutional morality, as well as the subjective nature of guilt.

If you’re looking for uplift, the aforementioned will be about as welcome as the proverbial coal in stockings. Fear not, however, as there is some formulaic sentimentality on tap, from such unlikely sources as Keanu’s Day the Earth Stood Still sci-fi remake and Clint’s crankypants-codger-with-heart-of-gold turn in Gran Torino (which, rather incredibly, won him the L.A. critics’ Best Actor prize). Then are overtly holiday-themed flicks like critically dissed but popular Witherspoon-Vaughn vehicle Four Christmases and the Latino-cast ensembler Nothing Like the Holidays.

If you’re reading this, however, odds are your taste in seriocomic Yuletide family-dysfunction blowouts runs more toward Arnaud Desplechin’s all-star French A Christmas Tale, with Catherine Deneuve as the terminally ill yet unflappable matriarch of un famille with more problems than a season of Jerry Springer episodes. It’s deft, droll, and hilarious.

Last-minute Oscar bait being saved for 2008’s final week (see below), this immediate weekend introduces a mongrel mix of big commercial titles and miniscule oddities. It’ll be interesting to see who triumphs in the box-office boxing match between Will Smith and Jim Carrey. Former stars in the inspirational tearjerker Seven Pounds, which according to my sources is an indigestible contrived sapfest—which a broad swath of America just might love to death. In Yes Man the erstwhile Ace Ventura plays a grump persuaded to say "yes" to any and every opportunity (or even idle suggestion) for a full year. Inspired by Danny Wallace’s nonfiction memoir, directed by Peyton Reed (The Break-Up, Bring It On) this could be great, or the formulaic sellout of a great idea. Competing for the family dollar is digital animation feature The Tale of Despereaux, which features a starry vocal cast (Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, William H. Macy, etc.) in Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry-winning story of a mouse, a rat and a servant girl. The preview looks cute…if a whole lot like Ratatouille.

While those three big-money efforts duking it out, there are plenty of alternatives available to San Franciscans this weekend. One is cult movie star (Evil Dead) turned writer-director Bruce Campbell’s My Name is Bruce, in which he plays himself…hired for his cinematic ass-whupping to clear a small town of its actual ancient killing-machine monster. It promises to be in-joke fanboy fun. A more serious fantasy tale is told by Nacho Vigalondo’s Spanish Timecrimes, whose hapless hero finds his uninvited time-travel adventures corkscrew him into a black hole of escalating, insoluble consequence. Check this ingenious story out before Hollywood ruins it (a remake is duly planned).

Meanwhile, the Red Vic Movie House is decking its halls Haight-style: With the premiere of new surfing documentary Ride-On (Dec. 19-23). And Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has an arsey double-bill up for grabs in Muppets Musical Moments, a compilation of broadcast highlights in which our felt frenz sing-a-long with the likes of Paul Simon, Debbie Harry and Elton John; plus new feature documentary (shot by seven high school students!) Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake, about the seminal NYC noise-rock band. Both play this Friday and Saturday evenings.

Christmas itself brings a bulky load of new movies both awards-heatseeking and oblivious to such. In the latter camp, put Adam Sandler vehicle Bedtime Stories, which promises CGI-dominated fantasy comedy a la Night at the Museum, and will likely require even less critical approbation to achieve massive success. Will treacly bestseller Marley & Me repeat its print popularity? Dunno, but the blond-on-blond thought of Owen Wilson plus cuddly Lab canine already has us eager to pet…something or other.

For the 13-year-old boy that every major studio executive imagines as his target audience, there’s PG-13 The Spirit, with Gabriel Macht as the titular Marvel Comics "dark" hero and Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes and Jaime King as his beeyachtes (OK, maybe not Sam). Other demographics are sought out by Hurricane Season, which offers an array of celebrated African American actors and entertainers—Forest Whitaker, Benjamin Button’s Taraji P. Henson, Isaiah Washington, Bow Wow and Lil’ Wayne—in a post-Katrina inspirational sports saga.

But that’s just the fluff. A whole lotta mistletoe will go ignored around the downbeat impact of 2008’s last prestige releases. But that shouldn’t stop you from queuing up—here, at last, are most of the year’s serious stabs at artistic worth. As you’ve no doubt heard, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a rebirth for fallen star Mickey Rourke as a pro wrestler struggling to get back into the limelight. Revolutionary Road reunites Titanic co-stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio in a much more bitter period "romance" that casts them as disillusioned wife and husband in mid-‘50s suburbia. It’s based on a terrific novel (by the late Richard Yates), and overall does it justice.

Then there’s Bryan Singer’s beleaguered star vehicle Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise plays failed real-life Hitler assassin Claus von Stauffenberg. Suffice it say: Oscar won’t be circling this dead bird, to be sure.

Still wearing that smile upside-down? Have a valium: Sing-along Sound of Music plays the Castro Dec. 26-30. What a relief to find "The Hills Are [still] Alive" minus terrorists, global warming or other apocalyptic signals. Memo to Julie Andrews: Stay on that mountain forever!

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