By the time this installment of CinemaDope hits the newsstands, many of you will be too busy to read it. You’ll already be packing up for an annual trip to visit family, or frantically cleaning the baseboards in advance of your mother-in-law’s arrival on the scene, or (perhaps most likely) you’re still shopping, lost in a feverish, last-minute rush to snatch up some hard-to-find thing that is sure to make the Christmas magic bloom. God help you poor souls.
For those of you living a life less frantic, the week ahead offers some holiday goodies new and old, most of them, this year, served with a moral lesson or two that would make Scrooge stand up and take notice.
It’s been that kind of year, I suppose—between monster storms and fiscal cliffs, maybe we don’t feel like a frothy holiday flick fits the bill. But, hey: there’s no reason a great movie can’t also teach us a thing or two. So if you find time to opt out of the holiday merry-go-round (or if you never got on in the first place), drop into your neighborhood theater for one of these cozy afternoon diversions.
Starting on Friday, Dec. 21, Amherst Cinema screens It’s A Wonderful Life for three days in a row, at 2 p.m. daily. Frank Capra’s 1946 picture has become shorthand for the season itself, but its tale of an almost-ruined banker—the bulk of the movie is essentially one guy trying to talk another guy out of killing himself—is hardly the usual Yuletide fare. Jimmy Stewart stars as small-town hero George Bailey, while screen legend Lionel Barrymore appears as his nemesis Henry Potter, the miserly businessman set on taking over Bedford Falls. The only person standing in both men’s way is “Angel Second Class” Clarence Odbody, who is tasked with saving George from his darkest thoughts. It’s a classic, but Frosty the Snowman it ain’t.
If you prefer your depression and wretchedness with a bit more European flair, be sure to catch Les Miserables, opening Christmas Day at Cinemark Theaters in Hadley. Based on the endlessly popular stage musical—itself based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel about poverty, injustice and redemption—this version stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the reformed prisoner at the center of the story. After breaking his parole, Valjean has reinvented himself, becoming a town mayor and successful businessman. But the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe) has never given up the hunt for his old prisoner, and Valjean’s new life threatens to unravel when the officer arrives in his town.
What happens next is, for Valjean, even worse: he gets away with it. Or at least he could: just as Javert suspects the truth, another man is arrested and identified as Jean Valjean. It’s a bargain—his freedom in exchange for another man’s—that the true Valjean refuses to make; his honesty sets in motion a life on the run as he tries to elude Javert while still finding time to care for Cosette, the illegitimate daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of his factory workers.
The story is epic, sprawling over decades and pulling together a number of seemingly disparate strands; Hugo’s immense novel is a plump and beautiful thing that defies easy summation. Suffice it to say that there is every good reason that the story, in all its forms, has maintained such an enduring appeal for the last 150 years.
Also this week: Two Who Dared comes to the Frances Crowe Community Room at the Media Education Foundation in Northampton for a free Friday night screening. It is the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, a young Unitarian minister and his wife who traveled to Prague just before the Nazis arrived. They worked tirelessly to secure safe passage out of the city for the oppressed, undaunted by the presence of the Gestapo. When the risk finally proved too great, they returned Stateside—only to promptly turn around and set up shop in Nazi-controlled France.
Theirs is a remarkable story, and very much the story of a partnership—so much so that the filmmakers changed the title (it was originally known as The Minister’s War) to better reflect the equal standing of Martha Sharp’s contribution to the effort. It screens at 7 p.m.; for more information, visit northamptoncommittee.org.•
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.