FILM To paraphrase Christmas Vacation (1989), 2012 is poised to deliver the biggest late-December film glut since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Fucking Kaye. From Wednesday, December 19 to Tuesday, December 25, no less than 12 new movies are opening in the Bay Area, doomsday be damned.
Because I would not want to steer you wrong in this most wonderful time of the year — and since the movie everyone's buzzing about, Zero Dark Thirty, doesn't open in San Francisco until January 4; trust me, it's worth the wait — I'm taking a cue from the man with the bag and making a list, checking it twice, etc. Who's naughty, and who's nice? Read on for my rundown of this year's holiday movies.
Top of the food chain: Er, unchained. Django Unchained (out Tue/25), that is. Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino's 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist.
There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino's taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker's favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django's still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it's a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking "sport" of "Mandingo fighting," and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance.
And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he's rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It's a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve.
A disaster movie to make you rethink your tropical vacation: Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (2007's The Orphanage) directs The Impossible (Fri/21), a relatively modestly-budgeted take on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, based on the real story of a Spanish family who experienced the disaster. Here, the family (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, three young sons) is British, on a Christmas vacation from dad's high-stress job in Japan.
Beachy bliss is soon ruined by that terrible series of waves; they hit early in the film, and Bayona offers a devastatingly realistic depiction of what being caught in a tsunami must feel like: roaring, debris-filled water threatening death by drowning, impalement, or skull-crushing. And then, the anguish of surfacing, alive but injured, stranded, and miles from the nearest doctor, not knowing if your family members have perished.
Without giving anything away (no more than the film's suggestive title, anyway), once the survivors are established (and the film's strongest performer, Watts, is relegated to hospital-bed scenes) The Impossible finds its way inevitably to melodrama, and triumph-of-the-human-spirit theatrics. As the family's oldest son, 16-year-old Tom Holland is effective as a kid who reacts exactly right to crisis, morphing from sulky teen to thoughtful hero — but the film is too narrowly focused on its tourist characters, with native Thais mostly relegated to background action. It's a disconnect that's not quite offensive, but is still off-putting.
A disastrous movie to make you rethink procreation: A spin-off of sorts from 2007's Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's This is 40 (Fri/21) continues the story of two characters nobody cared about from that earlier film: Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife) and Pete (Paul Rudd), plus their two kids (played by Mann and Apatow's kids). Pete and Debbie have accumulated all the trappings of comfortable Los Angeles livin': luxury cars, a huge house, a private personal trainer, the means to throw catered parties and take weekend trips to fancy hotels (and to whimsically decide to go gluten-free), and more Apple products than have ever before been shoehorned into a single film.
But! This was crap they got used to having before Pete's record label went into the shitter, and Debbie's dress-shop employee (Charlene Yi, another Knocked Up returnee who is one of two people of color in the film; the other is an Indian doctor who exists so Pete can mock his accent) started stealing thousands from the register. How will this couple and their whiny offspring deal with their financial reality? By arguing! About bullshit! In every scene! For nearly two and a half hours! By the time Melissa McCarthy, as a fellow parent, shows up to command the film's only satisfying scene — ripping Pete and Debbie a new one, which they sorely deserve — you're torn between cheering for her and wishing she'd never appeared. Seeing McCarthy go at it is a reminder that most comedies don't make you feel like stabbing yourself in the face. I'm honestly perplexed as to who this movie's audience is supposed to be. Self-loathing yuppies? Masochists? Apatow's immediate family, most of whom are already in the film?
For theater geeks only: By contrast, the audience Les Misérables (Tue/25) hopes to reel in is abundantly clear. There is a not-insignificant portion of the population who already knows all the words to all the songs of this musical-theater warhorse, around since the 1980s and honored here with a lavish production by Tom Hooper (2010's The King's Speech).
As other reviews have pointed out, this version only tangentially concerns Victor Hugo's French Revolution tale; its true raison d'être is swooning over the sight of its big-name cast crooning those famous tunes. Vocals were recorded live on-set, with microphones digitally removed in post-production — but despite this technical achievement, there's a certain inorganic quality to the proceedings. Like The King's Speech, the whole affair feels spliced together in the Oscar-creation lab. The hardworking Hugh Jackman deserves the nomination he'll inevitably get; jury's still out on Anne Hathaway's blubbery, "I cut my hair for real, I am so brave!" performance.
For Marion Cotillard fans disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises: Hathaway's Dark Knight co-star also has a new movie out this week. Unlike Hathaway, Rust and Bone (Fri/21) star Marion Cotillard never seems like she's trying too hard to be sexy, or edgy, or whatever (plus, she already has an Oscar, so the pressure's off). Here, she's a whale trainer at a SeaWorld-type park who loses her legs in an accident, which complicates (but ultimately strengthens) her relationship with Ali (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, so tremendous in 2011's Bullhead), a single dad trying to make a name for himself as a boxer.
Jacques Audiard's follow-up to 2009's A Prophet gets a bit overwrought by its last act, but there's an emotional authenticity in the performances that makes even a ridiculous twist (like, the kind that'll make you exclaim "Are you fucking kidding me?") feel almost well-earned.
For those who are more Black Christmas (1974) than The Christmas Story (1983): Yes, Virginia, even smaller genre flicks get Christmas release dates. Irish import Citadel (Fri/21 at the Roxie) begins with terror: a young pregnant woman, on the verge of moving out of her soon-to-be-condemned high-rise, is attacked — while her husband, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), looks on helplessly — by a pack of hoodie-wearing youths who inject her with a mysterious substance.
Though the baby lives, the woman dies, and Tommy becomes a haunted, paranoid husk of a man. Not that you can really blame him; the housing project he lives in is nearly deserted, and those hoodie-wearing gangs seem to be increasing (and are increasingly interested in his infant daughter). After an ominous build-up, the darkly disturbing Citadel can't quite keep the momentum going, though James Cosmo (Game of Thrones fans will recognize him even out of his Night's Watch blacks) offers an amusingly over-the-top performance as a foul-mouthed priest.
Thriller Deadfall (Fri/21), set amid a howling blizzard, has an all-star cast: Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a creepy-close brother-sister team who crash their getaway car after a successful casino heist; Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam plays a vengeful boxer just out of the slammer (with nervous parents played by Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek); and Treat Williams and Kate Mara are an antagonistic father-daughter team of cops chasing after most of the above. Bana's glowering performance is the high point of this noir-Western, though if the snowy landscape were a character, it'd be the most important part of the ensemble.
And the rest: Tom Cruise plays Lee Child's taciturn ex-military investigator in action thriller Jack Reacher (Fri/21) — featuring a villainous Werner Herzog; Sulley and company return in Pixar's enhanced re-release of its 2001 animated hit, Monsters, Inc. 3D (Wed/19); more 3D in acrobatic fantasy Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (Fri/21); a son (Seth Rogen) and mother (Barbra Streisand) drive cross-country in comedy The Guilt Trip (Wed/19); and Billy Crystal plays a harried grandpa on babysitting duty in Parental Guidance (Tue/25).