Presents and Lumps of Coal

November 28, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

At long last, December is upon us (or close enough so it doesn't matter). This one month - 31 days long - is the critic's reward for enduring the other 11. I like to think of the movies released during the Holiday season as presents. The majority of them succeed in their goal: reminding the viewer why motion pictures are worth the time, effort, and money needed to experience them. Of course, there are a few of these gifts that would be better left unopened. And there are some lumps of coal, as well. Here are the four December movies I'm most looking forward to, as well as the four that would likely have been better left to be released in a less prestigious month. (February, anyone?)

First, the bad. In a perfect world, I would probably skip all of these films. The reality is that I'll likely see two of them. Aeon Flux is the only major release for the weekend of December 4, and it's not being screened for critics. If there's any action on the part of a distributor guaranteed to set off warning bells, that's it. The hope is that bad reviews will not kill the opening weekend box office. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Aeon Flux, like Doom, is review-proof. Even if every review of the film is negative, it won't hurt the box office. It does, however, show that Paramount has little faith in the movie's performance. I'll see it, but I'm not enthused. After all, there has to be some value in seeing an Oscar winner in a funny suit doing all sorts of contortions, doesn't there?

Casanova looks bad. The trailer caused me to make a mental note to avoid the film at all costs. Then I saw that the director was Lasse Hallstrom, and I became conflicted. Hallstrom doesn't have a spotless record, but he is capable of making a great movie. So I'm on the fence. But, if you go by the advance publicity, this one smells worse than a dead deer left rotting in the sun for a week.

Two movies I will not see: Wolf Creek, an Aussie import that represents Dimension's annual Christmas horror movie. I have seen enough of these in the past to know that I can find something better to occupy 90 minutes of my time. Then there's Cheaper by the Dozen 2. I skipped the first one, so how likely is it that I would see the sequel?

The four films I'm excited about are (in order of decending level of anticipation): King Kong, Munich, The New World, and Match Point. I'll write a great deal about King Kong over the next two weeks, so I don't want to belabor the point here. Munich looks like it could be the next great Spielberg film, worthy of being placed alongside Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler's List. The New World has the potential to be the first truly great film about the founding of the Americas. Finally, rumor has it that Match Point reverses Woody Allen's recent directorial death spiral. That, and the presence of Scarlett Johansson, makes it worth seeking out.

There are a couple of noteable absences on this short list. The first is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I have to admit not being all that excited about the film. Yes, it's a major endeavor, but I'm not aquiver with anticipation. I know the story well enough, having read the book several times and written a lengthy paper on Christian symbology in The Chronicles of Narnia. But that's not it. Frankly, I think the reason is that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe seems a little simplistic to make a great fantasy motion picture. The bloodiness and sense of danger isn't there (at least in the book). I'm hoping I'm wrong, but I am approaching this movie with a measure of skepticism. Fastasy lite isn't my thing. The Lord of the Rings had an edge, and Harry Potter is developing one. Let's see where The Lion ends up falling. If it enthralls me, I'll be thrilled about Prince Caspian.

My expectations for The Producers aren't high, either. I'm not a fan of the 1968 Mel Brooks feature - clever premise, lackluster execution - and my dislike for the film kept me from seeing the Broadway musical. Maybe all the songs will improve the product. What The Producers really needs is an injection of humor - I found the original movie to be almost devoid of genuinely funny material.

None of what I have written above is intended to represent anything more substantive than quick encapsulations about my level of excitement based on the material at hand. For each movie (at least the ones I see), I will clear my mind as I enter the theater and give the production a chance to work on its own merits. Hopefully, one of these titles (or something not mentioned here) will give 2005 its first, long-delayed 4-star rating.