I’ve felt for some years as if something weird is going on. Thanksgiving hits, and all these dark, depressing, ochre-hued movie trailers start popping up on the tube (which is what brings me my football, and therefore must be turned on).
I know that this is because films are being positioned for the Oscar nominations. Don’t bother explaining it to me. My point is that it seems really out of sync with the spirit of the holidays. It makes you wonder what it’s like to be inside the head of a Hollywood professional: to see the magical, thankful, brightly lit family time from late November to the New Year coming, and think, “Sepia-ochre toned scenes! Melancholy back-lighting! Scraggly-bearded actors projecting menace and failure! Women looking faithless, soul-scarred, and alarming! Bleak, hopeless landscapes! Tragedy! Death!”
This seems to say a lot about Hollywood at any time of year, but the juxtaposition with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year strikes me as very peculiar. I think the pattern really became apparent to me the year the Cher/Christina Aguilera film Burlesque (Steven Antin, 2010) came out on Thanksgiving Day. Definitely not anything you’d take the kids to see, and it made me wonder what the Hollywood brain trust thinks people are doing on Thanksgiving Day.
Maybe they’re watching Godfather marathons on AMC? I’ve never thought of the Godfather movies (or hours and hours of James Bond, for that matter, or a Law and Order marathon) as holiday fare. Movie programmers for the TV channels seem to, however. Admittedly, I pick up my impressions of what’s going on on the tube from seeing the commercials during football, and just occasionally during a favorite movie (e.g., White Christmas, which was showing on AMC last week). I may have a view skewed toward the young-to-middle-aged male audience. But I don’t know any guys in that demographic who spend their holidays watching The Godfather.
At any rate, it certainly makes friendlier fare a relief to the spirit. It makes you more than mildly grateful that Tyler Perry is out there to give the world A Madea Christmas. The flick might be silly; who knows, I haven’t seen it; but it will have cheerful colors and some light and life to it, instead of looking like every scene was shot against a smoky sunset in a cemetery in New Orleans.
This year has seemed to offer an especially depressing cinematic harvest, at least if I go by the trailers enlivening my TV viewing. First there was Out of the Furnace (Scott Cooper), which looks like they probably hand out knives at the door so you can just slit your wrists while seated conveniently inside the theater. The commercials for that one – which reportedly has a brothers-and-family theme – seemed to emerge right before Thanksgiving.
Then the trailers started sliding in for Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers flick that apparently wants us to be interested in the death throes of folk music ca. 1960. For me, that cultural priority during the holidays is right up there with burlesque shows. It’s not that I don’t trust the Coen brothers. It’s probably a pretty good movie. The critics seem to like it. But it just looks so freaking dark.
American Hustle (David O. Russell) looks no better. Frankly, if I see “American” slapped onto one more title suggestive of cynicism and blank-souled vice, I’m going to hog-tie America and make everybody listen to a dramatic reading of all 150 Psalms, while doing push-ups and helping your neighbor with a household chore. But then, it’s probably not America that needs the tough love so much. Get over yourself, Hollywood. And lose the gloomy, ochre-sepia video effect, for crying out loud. It’s been made old and busted enough by couture-house perfume ads. I’d rather watch beer commercials. I’d rather watch Dennis Haysbert sell insurance.
Here Comes the Devil (Adrian Garcia Bogliano) at least looks like pretty standard horror-flick fare, if timed weirdly for release right before Christmas. Her (Spike Jonze) just looks kind of creepy; I know the critics like it, but give me Madea any day for morals-in-the-story about relating to your nearest and dearest. Anchorman 2 (Adam McKay) is presumably as raunchy and mindless as Anchorman 1, which isn’t necessarily bad: you can’t mess up Will Ferrell, if you’re in the mood for him. I confess, I’m not always.
Two stand-outs that look like major relief are, of course, Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which also reached theaters this past Friday. I’m dubious about Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, but you don’t have to sell me on Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers. (This reminds me of Jim Geraghty’s enjoyable takedown of another Thompson holiday vehicle, 2003’s Love Actually (Richard Curtis). I can’t find the Geraghty rant online, but it was in his Morning Jolt email from 23 December. The whole pastiche of movie-related impressions this year is a forcible reminder that much of the Hollywood craft involves throwing a bunch of stuff out there to see if anything sticks.)
I assume Peter Jackson won’t screw up this installment of The Hobbit. Somehow, I feel like I would have responded to the Hobbit series with more interest if we hadn’t already had the whole LOTR trilogy, which – especially if you have the boxed-edition director’s cut – wrings you dry and wears you out. And at such a time in history as this, to boot.
But then comes Christmas Day, on which we are promised The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese), 47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch), and Grudge Match (Peter Segal). Granted, it’s not like I would go see a movie on Christmas Day anyway, because that’s never been what I do. But I especially wouldn’t go see those movies. For one thing, I’m so afraid the De Niro-and-Stallone-as-oldsters shtick in Grudge Match will fall flat. I’d be afraid to peek. But seriously, just look at the titles.
Lone Survivor (Peter Berg) also comes out on the 25th, and I imagine I’ll see it at another time (it’s about Operation Red Wings, a Navy and Army Special Forces operation in Afghanistan in 2005, for which Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor). There’s something hitting me the wrong way about seeing some of Hollywood’s biggest faces in the trailer for this one. But I’d give it a chance.
If you want something lighter, you’re stuck with Justin Bieber in Believe (oy), and Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller). Setting aside the whole Danny Kaye comparison, I have to say that the trailer looks like a Hallmark Feature Presentation ran over Evan Almighty, and the forensic investigators are trying to reconstruct the accident. Meh. The original Mitty is a James Thurber short story: a spare, perfectly rounded capsule of uncompromising human recognition for the reader, from which the blurted words “Puppy biscuit!” are the memorable slice, and aren’t supposed to be overshadowed by the scenes of mountain-top derring-do.
December winds down with August: Osage County (John Wells), which apparently is a vehicle for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts to join other of our top actresses in being ochre-toned (are they saving money or something?), backlit, and potty-mouthed. It looks like this one should be subtitled Women in Black, which would at least set us up for the New Year’s Eve release of Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear (Isaac Florentine) on disc. Who would have thought the hard-media release of a ninja movie would come off as kind of charmingly wholesome against the backdrop of a holiday cinematic parade?
I suppose there are worse things than feeling like the Hollywood cultural mentality, just down the road from home, is another planet – probably one that hosts a galactic penal colony. You just have to ignore it for the holidays, and have yourself a Merry and Blessed Christmas.