Since it has been authoritatively proved that a significant portion of the American public can only survive an entire day with their family if at least two or three hours of that day are spent in a darkened movie theater — offering the illusion of togetherness without actual interaction — it is my civic responsibility to enlighten you on your options. This year — filling that space between the turkey and the Alka Seltzer — we have a fairly pleasing variety of diversions at our disposal. I should note that when I say "our," I mean "your." I worked Thanksgiving every year for ten years when employed at a movie theater. That was a sufficiency for one lifetime. Maybe more.
Two of this week's offerings are of the art film variety and I've seen both of them. We have Stephen Frears' new film Philomena — opening at The Carolina and the Fine Arts — and we have The Book Thief — opening at The Carolina. You'll know soon enough that Philomena was my Weekly Pick and from that you may deduce that I think it's the better of the two. But then it's from Stephen Frears, who is one of our best — and somehow least touted — filmmakers. This may well be the self-effacing Mr. Frears' own fault, since he's prone to claiming that he's not a visionary filmmaker. I believe the exact words were, "I've never had a vision in my life," and that may well be, but he's no mean stylist and has been serving us up many fine films for about 40 years now. This latest — a fact-based comedy-drama starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan — is no exception. Oh, it may not stand the world of film on its ear like some of Frears' movies have — My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Dirty Pretty Things (2003) — but it's a solid, solidly entertaining film with fine performances. And it's a lot more stylish than might at first be realized, since Frears is so adept at making the style so much a part of the fabric of the film that it slips by unnoticed.
That said, I would by no means sell The Book Thief short. It isn't as good, no, and it's an often uneven film, but it does have considerable merit. It boasts beautiful production design and fine performances by Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and a young lady named Sophie Nélisse (whom you may have seen in Monsieur Lazhar in 2011). Certainly, the film is far better than some of its detractors are claiming. The frequent complaint that The Book Thief doesn't show the extent of the horrors of the Nazis, fails to take into account that we spend the film in the company of a young girl in a relatively small German town. We only see things from her perspective and her limited understanding of what's going on around her. I should note that I saw this at a press screening with a covey of critics (it's safer if we travel in packs). Naming no names, two loved it, two liked it — with some quibbles — and one wasn't so hot on it. (I was in that second group.) Make of that what you will. It is certainly not a bad choice.
And then we have three other choices ...
First up, alphabetically, is Black Nativity, an updated version of Langston Hughes' 1961 musical play by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. Ms. Lemmons, it should be remembered, made the excellent Talk to Me back in 2007. By all rights, you might expect this film — especially since it's being released by Fox Searchlight — to be positioned for a platform release on the art-house circuit. Instead, it's being hawked as a faith-based movie (Bishop T.D. Jakes is one of the producers) and being shunted into a semi-wide release — and without the benefit of much in the way of reviews. (The limited reviews at the moment are pretty much split down the middle.) As near as I can tell, it seems to be only at the Biltmore Grande, locally.
The most likely big winner for the family trade this year is Disney's animated Frozen, a new take on Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Ice Princess" — complete with songs and a dose of female empowerment. It stars the voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Alan Tudyk and Ciaran Hinds. And it comes to us with 36 positive — often glowing — reviews and three negative ones. The biggest complaint among the middle ground is that the movie's ersatz showtunes aren't all that memorable. The most promising review comes from Bill Goodykoontz at the Arizona Republic, who says (in part), "What's especially encouraging about it is how directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee take a classic tale — Anderson's 'The Snow Queen' — and update it, without beating us over the head with references that draw attention to the modernization." Even if he can't spell "Andersen," that might get me into the theater.
Finally — for those of you wanting some red meat to round out the day — there's Homefront which offers us Jason Statham as an ex-DEA agent whose retiree rustication in the backwaters of Louisiana are shattered by his run-in with local meth drug lord Gator Bodine (no kidding) played by James Franco (no kidding). It comes from director Gary Fleder, whose last theatrical film was the underwhelming Runaway Jury ten years ago. Well, why not? The screenplay is by Sylvester Stallone — and it's been lying around longer than that. Its Rotten Tomatoes score just keeps going down for some reason.
What do we lose this week? Well, the Fine Arts is dropping 12 Years a Slave, but it's staying on at The Carolina. The Carolina, however, is dropping Great Expectations and Blue Is the Warmest Color is being cut to one show (8:20 p.m.) a day.
Here we have a pretty slack week. First of all, the Hendersonville Film Society is going on its annual December hiatus. (It will return in January.) Then there's no Thursday Horror Picture Show this week. The first year of the THPS, there was a solid turnout, but the second year, it was practically empty, so Thanksgiving was deemed a day off from horror. However, World Cinema is showing Luis Bunuel's surrealist classic The Milky Way (1969) at 8 p.m. on Fri., Nov. 29 in the Railroad Library in the Phil Mechanic Building. The Asheville Film Society kicks off its December calendar with Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie (2001) on Tue., Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina. More on both films in this week's Xpress with full reviews in the online edition.
It's a pretty low-wattage week with RED 2, Jobs, Getaway and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me being the primary theatrical new releases.
Notable TV Screenings
They aren't exactly unusual, but Friday's triple bill of Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941), Christmas in July (1940) and The Palm Beach Story (1942) makes for a swell evening — and it starts at 8 p.m. on TCM on Fri., Nov. 29. On the off chance that you've never seen the Coens' underrated The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the movie is showing on Mon., Dec. 2 at 8 p.m.