A Whole Lotta Holiday Film

Dennis Harvey December 21, 2006

Hollywood is the Santa that bestows gifts every Yuletide — but you have to pick which ones you want, then pay for them. That might be a kinda coal-in-stocking way to put it, but let’s face facts: Even if you never tire of watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (or even “Olive, the Other Reindeer”) for free each year, holiday tradition cries “multiplex!” at least as loud as it does “peace on Earth,” “born in a manger” and “must have PlayStation 3.”

As usual, what you’ll find at your local film emporium is a mixed bag of goodies both escapist and prestigious, plus some instant Xmas trash. In San Francisco we are lucky to get most of the awards-bait releases before anyone else (save LA and NYC), so the choices are more diverse than they would be in, say, Boise. (But think of everything Boise has that we don’t!)

Still, you gotta be careful lest your two-digit dollar expenditure result in 150 minutes (or 90 that feel like a 150) of slow-drip celluloid torture. The studios and distributors do not necessarily have your best interests in mind: After all, last month they released “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj.” Some very angry people who actually paid $10 for that privilege might yet go postal at any moment.

We haven’t seen everything that’s going to light up screens over the holidays, but we have seen a lot (since many year-end movies get screened in advance for awards consideration by local critics’ groups), and we’ve heard rumors about the rest. As a result, this will not be a pleasant, neutral, thinly veiled plug for all holiday-season releases. It will be fussy. It may turn cranky. It wants you to know that a sold-out “Dreamgirls” show just might fatefully lead you to something even better you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of seeing. Or to something far, far worse.

Note: All release dates noted below are subject to change, due to marketing re-strategizing and distributor whim.

This being SF, and knowing that so many of you really do want to see “Dreamgirls” (which opened Dec. 15) a.s.a.p., let’s cut to the chase. This splashy screen translation of the 26-year-old Broadway musical is better than you might have feared and probably as good as you need it to be. Which is to say, those who can’t wait for the wigs and the gowns and the catfights and the diva wailing and such will be amply rewarded. Bill Condon (writer-director of “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey”) has made a crowd-pleasing yet intelligent adaptation that, for my money, is better than the filmed “Chicago” (which he wrote the screenplay for). And needless to say it’s so much better than last year’s duds “Rent” or “The Producers.”

Jennifer Hudson lives up to the hype. Eddie Murphy excels in a real change-of-pace role. Jamie Foxx nails the most complex part. and Beyonce is pretty. (She also sings well, and if her acting lacks personality, maybe that’s partly because her character is supposed to suffer the same lack.) Quibbles? “Dreamgirls” was always a glib, clich&eacture;-ridden story with Broadway-belter songs that bear little real relation to the original Motown hits they’re supposed to evoke. If the sum is more showmanship than Art, it’s still going to thrill a whole lot of people, some of them even heterosexual.

“Dreamgirls” is the kind of movie that Oscar loves. But that aside, the big commercial guns aimed at your 2006 seasonal wallet are less aren’t likely to attract many awards. You might think any movie featuring Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, Rachel Weisz. Djimon Hounsou and John Malkovich would come dripping with prestige — a Tom Stoppard adaptation, perhaps? — but “Eragon” (which opened last week) is instead a CGI-effects-laden fantasy adventure with dragons ‘n’ stuff. Word is that it’s nothing special, and nearly sunk by a lead acting “discovery” (Edward Speelers as the titular hero) in the great wooden tradition of Sofia Coppola in “Godfather III,” every Luke Skywalker ever, etcetera.

For inspirational uplift of the “based on a true story” sort, there’s Will Smith as a San Franciscan struggling to keep himself and his son from homelessness in “The Pursuit of Happyness” (12/15), and Matthew McConaughey as a university football coach trying to boost morale in the wake of a terrible tragedy in “We Are Marshall” (12/22). Advance word on both has been ho-hum.

Then there’s “Rocky Balboa,” the first “Rocky” movie in 16 years, with writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone as a sixty-ish hero in humbled circumstances, but still up for one last training montage and nationally broadcast bout. Frankly, I couldn’t see the point (though to his credit, Sly plays Rocky as a sweet dummy who’s been punched in the head too many times), but some of my fellow critics confessed to sentimental tears. Go figure — me, waiting for the “Rambo” sequel, which will presumably have no room for the maudlin.

Expected to be a big hit is “Charlotte’s Web” (which opened last week), a movie based — like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” before it — on a book so beloved it’ll pack ‘em in no matter how badly Hollywood screws matters up. Which at least a couple reports have indicated it did, once again. Nonetheless, the mix of live action and animation, Dakota Fanning, and animal voices from the likes of Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Robert Redford, and Oprah Winfrey should be foolproof, at least commercially.

The other big family flick is “Night at the Museum” (12/22), with Ben Stiller as a Museum of Natural History security guard who discovers that exhibit figures come to life at night — including Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Attila the Hun, Napoleon, and hungry dinosaur skeletons. What, an effects-laden fantasy comedy with Robin Williams?

Now we can move on to the realm of prestige and arthouse films, thank God, which are many and diverse this year. A few have already attracted awards buzz, most notably Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” (opening 12/20 at SF’s Embarcadero, expanding in early January). After the box-office failure of “Flags of Our Fathers,” Warner Bros. had understandably reduced hopes (and bookings) for this Japanese-language companion piece, but it may turn out a sleeper yet, given the critics-group prizes already bestowed on it. It’s a solid piece of large-scale historical storytelling.

In a similar vein, albeit to more mixed results, there’s Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German,” with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett in a lovingly retro-crafted yet emotionally remote B&W intrigue set in Berlin just post-WW2; and confusingly sound-alike “The Good Shepherd” (12/22), second-time director Robert DeNiro’s ambitious yet dreary CIA saga. It features a miscast Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as Cold War agent and unhappy wife, plus half the veteran actors in Hollywood wasted in dull support roles. Another marital mismatch is the subject of “The Painted Veil,” but this W. Somerset Maugham adaptation about Brits in 1920s China is handsome, well-acted (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts) and ultimately much more rewarding.

For more in a literary vein, there’s “Notes on a Scandal” (12/27) a strong translation of Zoe Heller’s juicy novel “What Was She Thinking?” It’s about an English schoolteacher (Blanchett) who foolishly enters into a relationship with a 15-year-old student, and the older fellow teacher (Judi Dench) whose “sympathetic ear” turns out to mask a disturbed, scheming mind. If that pesky other English actress of a certain age, Helen Mirren, weren’t already copping all the awards for “The Queen,” Dench’s turn here would no doubt top many a nomination list.

In a different vein entirely, a futuristic Britain of sterility and punitive social divisions is etched in Alfonso Cuaron’s (“Y tu mama tambien”) downbeat but impressive “Children of Men” (12/25), with Clive Owens as reluctant protector of the last pregnant woman. But the grown-up fantasy most likely to attract major attention is from another Mexican director working internationally: Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (12/29) has already won several prizes for its offbeat mix of depressing family drama, historical background (Franco’s newly won Spain in 1944) and whimsical/disturbing childhood imaginings, complete with CGI FX.

Finally, Zhang Yimou’s third martial-arts epic “Curse of the Golden Flower” (12/22) with Gong Li and Chow-Yun Fat has been compared unfavorably in some quarters to its predecessors “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers” — but judging from the previews, it’s at least certain to be gorgeous-looking.

Further off the beaten path, local arthouses and rep theatres offer many worthy diversions, of which these are just a sample: “Le petit lieutenant” (12/15) an engrossing French police drama; Danish odd-couple romance “Soap” (12/22); “Sweet Mud” (12/15), a low-key period tale set amongst Scandinavian-heritage farmers in post-WW1 Minnesota; coming-of-age tale “Off the Black” (12/15), with Timothy Hutton and Nick Nolte as parental figures dealing with an unhappy teenage boy; and psychoanalysis-themed Spanish comedy “Unconscious” (12/29). Two documentaries opening at the Roxie are “Words of My Perfect Teacher” (12/22), a portrait of eminent Buddhist Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, whose fans include both Bernardo Bertolucci and Steven Seagal (both featured in the documentary); and Matthew Barney: No Restraint” (12/29) profiling the multimedia artist and his famous spouse/sometime collaborator Björk.

You might ask, where amidst all these holiday releases are movies with an actual Yuletide theme? Well, pickings are slim, mostly limited to titles already out (and disappearing fast): The respectable but uninspired Biblical “Nativity Story,” generally dissed slapstick fest “Deck the Halls,” OK kidpic “Unaccompanied Minors” and poorly reviewed “The Holiday” — the latter, alas, the sole current option for fans of romantic comedy.

There will be no romance (though probably some sex) and few laughs (unless unintentional) in “Black Christmas” (12/25), a remake of the 1974 Canadian proto-slasher pic set in a rapidly de-populating sorority. Offended by the film’s release date, some Christians have accused its distributor of being insensitive and hypocritical — the latter because its corporate parent company also recently announced plans for “faith-based” future product specifically targeting religious consumers. The movie industry? Crassly exploitative?? Perish the thought!

If absolutely none of the above appeal, you might want to catch up on some of the award-attracting features that are likely to stick around for a few more weeks, including “Little Children,” “The Queen,” “Babel” and (yes) “Borat.” Or if you’re ready just to curl up with some classic Hollywood flicks on DVD, why not see them on the big screen instead? The Castro’s “Holidays with the Stars” series (12/26-1/1) is gold-plated, with evenings dedicated to Gable, Bogart, Harlow, Hepburn (the first and second one), Roz Russell, and the Three Stooges.

Already heard about something that you didn’t spot amongst the preceding? No doubt it’s coming up soon after the new year. Films scheduled for release on January 5 alone run a gamut from the sublime (“Venus,” a Hanif Kureishi-penned valentine to Peter O’Toole) to the pernicious (“Hostel: Part 2”), with arty big-budget serial killer tale “Perfume” (based on the literary best seller, and directed by “Run Lola Run’s” Tom Tykwer) somewhere in the middle.