12-8-97: Christmas Movie Slate

The Aisle Seat

by Andy Dursin


For anyone who didn’t catch last weekend’s Siskel & Ebert (I’m probably the only one), TITANIC was not only reviewed but came out being praised by both critics as a “marvelous example of old-fashioned Hollywood epic filmmaking.” Both critics pointed out that the believable love story, fueled by Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, is more than pure Hollywood melodrama, complemented by intelligently-utilized special effects, and, of course, an apparently amazing final hour. Both S&E felt stronger about this film than they did about AMISTAD, which received the requisite “two thumbs up” but (and this is in keeping with the majority of the early reviews) doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch as Spielberg’s past successes.

Nevertheless, AMISTAD opens this week (Wednesday in major metropolitan areas, Friday nationwide), but is more than likely to be run out of the box-office race by SCREAM 2, which features horrific murders, cute young actresses, and a tongue-in-cheek script. I’ll see both, but what do you think most pre-Christmas partygoers are going to want to see?

Also opening–and sure to be seen only if the other offerings are sold out–are Tim Allen’s Amish comedy FOR RICHER OR POORER and HOME ALONE 3. No further comments are necessary on either of those.


It’ll be interesting to see how SCREAM 2 does over the next month ($100 million seems like a given at this point), particularly since ALIEN RESURRECTION has fueled speculation that the popularity of sequels is falling by the wayside in Hollywood again. Variety ran a piece last week claiming that ALIEN’s lackluster financial performance will surely doom other follow-ups, but to be honest, what did this particular franchise really have going for it? ALIENS shocked everyone by going above-and-beyond the typical sequel framework, but that movie opened in 1986… six years later, ALIEN 3 opened and bombed, and another five years later, we now have ALIEN RESURRECTION doing the same. This series hasn’t had a hit in over a decade, and hasn’t produced a decent entry since that time, either. But does that mean the popularity of sequels is headed downhill? Doesn’t look that way to me, though it does appear that Fox has milked the cow out of H.R.Giger’s creature creation for perhaps the last time–and deservedly, at that. As for other sequels, Warner Bros. will find out if Mel Gibson is worth $40 or so million when LETHAL WEAPON 4 goes before the cameras in a few months. (Is it me, or isn’t this another series that really pushed the brink of mediocrity the last time around?)


No movies for me this week (I never really was compelled enough to pay to see another John Grisham movie, even if it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola), so here are some items of interest airing on your favorite cable/satelitte channel this week:

BUFFALO SOLDIERS (Sat., Dec.13, 9pm EST; 14th at 1pm; 16 at 10:30pm; all on TNT): Ted Turner loves westerns, and now he’s gotten into the “historical” aspect of the genre with this original tele-film, starring Danny Glover, that has gotten a handful of positive notices from the press. Joel McNeely’s score was even mentioned by Variety, so film music fans may want to tune in just to hear it. Good to see Turner producing this kind of fare on the small-screen; TNT was also behind THE ROUGH RIDERS, John Milius’s rousing, old-fashioned Teddy Roosevelt piece that debuts on video in the near future.

ON THE SECOND DAY OF CHRISTMAS (Lifetime, Dec.14th, 6pm EST): Nope, this isn’t an “Intimate Portrait” of Santa Claus, but rather a surely-tepid TV movie with Mary Stuart Masterson (infinitely more deserving than a “Lifetime Original Movie”) as a pickpocket with a cute little kid. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I only mention it here because it’s another sad example of an ’80s star going the way of TV movies these days–unfortunately, we can now add the refreshingly offbeat Masterson (or, should I say, formerly refreshing?) to the list of fading, usually-out-of-work-stars like Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Penelope Ann Miller, and Patrick Dempsey who are finding ample time to appear in mediocre tripe like this.


If you missed CBS’s annual airing of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS last week, fear not–the special is on video, and Vince Guaraldi’s classic jazz score is available on a Fantasy CD. (It’s not the actual soundtrack from the program, however. While we’re on the subject, why doesn’t someone do an actual “soundtrack” recording of John Scott Trotter’s re-orchestrated Guaraldi tracks from the Peanuts TV specials? Not that Guaraldi’s jazz improvisations aren’t brilliant, but I’d like to have both available nevertheless.) Scanning through the TV listings at first glance, you may want to keep your eyes opened for these perennial favorites (we’ll find more for next week’s column):

A CHRISTMAS STORY (Dec.11 at Midnight EST, and all day & night Dec.24 and Christmas Day on TNT; letterboxed version airs on TCM, Dec. 23 at 12 Noon): I remember seeing this movie when it opened in 1983 and bombed in theaters (even at 9 years old I recall how poorly it fared in multiplexes!). Only after a couple of years, and the blossoming videotape market, did Bob Clark and Jean Shepard’s nostalgic and heartwarming ’40s piece become a bona-fide perennial classic. Unfortunately, now this one-time sleeper hit is threatening to become the most overexposed film of the entire season–between Turner’s TBS, TCM, and TNT channels (the latter showing it non-stop for 24 hrs. starting at 8pm on Christmas Eve!), the movie is being shown 17 times in December alone! If you get sick of the movie, but still want to warm to its period setting, check out the underrated and not-quite-as-funny but still amusing 1995 follow-up IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY (retitled MY SUMMER STORY on video only), which reunites Clark and Shepard, and stars a new cast consisting of Charles Grodin (thankfully restrained), Mary Steenburgen, and Mac Culkin’s little brother. Funny how MGM, just like its predecessor, didn’t have a clue how to sell this movie to the public, and watched it die in limited theatrical release.

SCROOGE (Sat., Dec. 20th, 8pm; Dec.24th at 11pm; both on WGN Chicago): This 1970 Leslie Bricusse musicalization is one of my all-time favorite renditions of “A Christmas Carol,” thanks to Albert Finney’s great performance as Scrooge, Terence Marsh’s atmospheric sets, and Ronald Neame’s superb direction. Even Bricusse’s score is way above average by his standards, with a couple of memorable songs standing out (“Thank You Very Much” may be his all-time best); the supporting cast, including Kenneth More, Judith Evans, and Alec Guinness, is likewise outstanding. This TV airing ought to be used as a “last resort” to seeing the movie otherwise on video; the best looking print is on Fox’s newest batch of VHS tapes and–better yet–their marvelous letterboxed laserdisc, which presents the movie in its full Panavision frame. Great fun all around.

THE SNOWBALL EXPRESS (Sat., Dec.20th, 10pm EST on Disney): I swear, I was never a big fan of live-action Disney movies growing up–you could never throw on SUPERDAD with Bob Crane or any Kurt Russell “invisible shorts” picture and think I would sit through one of those would-be comedic outings as a kid. HOWEVER, this 1972 Disney comedy has remained one of my favorite kid comedies, and still sports more than its share of entertainment these days–Dean Jones, Harry Morgan, Johnnie Whittaker, plus other familiar faces populate this silly but compulsively watchable comedy, and the yueltide airing ought to serve it well at this time of year.


SNOW WHITE: A TALE OF TERROR (*1/2): It looked intriguing on paper, all right–Sigourney Weaver as the Wicked Witch, Sam Neill as Snow White’s father, and an unsettling tone right out of the Brothers Grimm. Alas, the filmmakers of this (deservedly) never-theatrically-released dud substituted kiddie corn for an equally formulaic “adult” tone that never once is adventurous or menacing enough to scare anyone over the age of 12. Sigourney tries her hardest, but the frustrating script can’t make up its mind whether to paint a “realistic” psychological study of the classic story, or settle on Charles Band-style grade-B horror. It all ends up stuck in a no man’s land that’s a total waste of time for everyone involved; even John Ottman’s primarily electronic score offers few surprises.

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