The Story: A hotshot defense attorney is forced into defending his estranged dad’s murder charge. The Lowdown: A gooey mess of shameless Oscar bait clichés that’s watchable and little else.
The Story: The story of how Dracula got the way he is. The Lowdown: Slapdash, but slick, horror done in comic book terms. Too little horror, too much CGI — and yet another attempt to make a great villain sympathetic with an origin story. Phooey.
In Brief: According to the credits, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich were the stars of Billy Wilder's excellent film version of Agatha Christie's hit play Witness for the Prosecution. But let's face it, the movie belongs to Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robards, the ailing but wily barrister defending Power on a murder charge. The premise finds Sir Wilfrid — with bossy nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) in tow — fresh out of the hospital after a heart attack. In theory, he is only to handle quiet, easy civil cases, but this quickly proves to be purely a theory when — mostly because he's after a forbidden cigar — he hears the case of Leonard Vole (Power), an American war hero charged with murdering a 56-year-old widow for her money. His only slender hope is the testimony of his wife (Dietrich), who, as things turn out, is not his wife (owing to a previous marriage) and ends up being the title witness for the prosecution. It's a clever, twisty tale with a surprise ending that the producers were very protective of (the film ends with a voice-over asking viewers not to reveal the ending). Dietrich is excellent, and so is the supporting cast. The only weak link is Power, who looks too old and frankly sick for the part. But the real draw here is Laughton. The Asheville Film Society will screen Witness for the Prosecution Tuesday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
In Brief: Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932) is without a doubt the grimmest and most completely horrific of all “golden age” horror films. That’s a statement that few are going to argue with. (It was banned — much to the delight of H.G. Wells, who hated what the filmmakers had done with his source novel — in the UK until 1958.) Its horrors are more straightforward and more in-your-face than anything else of the time. It's a nasty bit of goods, but it’s a magnificent nasty bit of goods. This ultrastylish tale of the sadistic Dr. Moreau and his island full of half-human horrors (led by Bela Lugosi) he’s made from animals — not to mention his plans to breed one of them with a shipwreck victim (Richard Arlen) — is just as slick as it is “sick,” and one of the absolute essentials of the first wave of horror movies. Kathleen Burke (billed as The Panther Woman) got her role as the sexy half-human Lota by winning Paramount's "Panther Woman of America" contest. The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Island of Lost Souls Thursday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
The Story: A put-upon young boy gets his wish that his family finds out what a bad day is like when they're on the receiving end. The Lowdown: A very long 80 minutes of obvious slapstick and loud performances pitched to the family-friendly crowd, which should demand better.
The Story: Documentary about a very peculiar art forger — one who makes gifts of his forgeries to altogether-too-credulous museums. The Lowdown: Immensely likable little documentary about a singularly strange man with a penchant for gifting museums with his forgeries of the works of famous artists. It's pretty indifferent as filmmaking, but its subject and the questions it raises carry it.
In Brief: This debut feature from Iranian director Maryam Shahriar is a specialized film for specialized tastes. Those with a keen interest in Iranian cinema should probably add at least a half-star to my rating. Others might approach this slow-moving, unrelentingly grim movie about a young rural Iranian woman (Altinay Ghelich Taghani), forced into having her head shaved and farmed out to a nearby rugmaker to supervise the weaving of Persian rugs, with caution. In essence, she's been stripped of her sexual identity and sold into slavery (or maybe it's weavery). Basically, it's 90 minutes of hard luck and quiet desperation with a main character who rarely talks. I can't say it isn't well made — though I suspect the Facets DVD does it no favors — but neither can I say it appeals to me. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Daughters of the Sun Friday, Oct. 17, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com
The Story: Eight intercut — sometimes connected — stories of life in the age of omnipresent social media. The Lowdown: It's a worthy idea and there are some moments of grace, but this takedown of society losing actual human connection through its online and text messaging simulation of interaction is too unfocused and overstuffed to be the movie it wants to be.
In Brief: Ken Russell's last large-scale theatrical work, The Rainbow (1989) was the most elaborate of the three films he made for producer Dan Ireland at Vestron Pictures. In many ways, it was an attempt to recapture the quality of Women in Love from 20 years earlier. After all, D.H. Lawrence's novel was the book that led to Women in Love. So surrounding himself with a cast he mostly knew and trusted, Russell set out to make a masterpiece. While he didn't quite do that — thanks to a central casting error — he came pretty close and made a beautiful, deeply sensual film, his most ambitious work of the 1980s. What he hadn't reckoned on was the restructuring of Vestron and the closing of their theatrical arm, leaving him with a very good — sometimes great — movie that almost no one got the chance to see. The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Rainbow Sunday, Oct. 19, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
In Brief: Lisi Russell (Mrs. Ken Russell) joins the Asheville Film Society to introduce this special Budget Big Screen showing of Ken Russell's Lisztomania (1975), a movie she was slated to costar in — that is until her mother found out about it. It is hands down the most unrestrained film ever made by the filmmaker — a man not exactly known for restraint. It's a big, outrageous comic strip take on the lives of Franz Liszt (Roger Daltrey) and Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) — with a guest appearance by Ringo Starr as the pope. In other words, it's 19th century musical giants, the rock stars of their day. It has vampires, Adolph Hitler (as the Frankenstein Monster), Nazis, Thor, a mad scientist, Charlie Chaplin, a flame-throwing piano, a rocket ship — everything you could hope for in a musical biopic and more. It is unlike anything you've ever seen. That's a promise. The Asheville Film Society is showing Lisztomania Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in at The Carolina Asheville as part of the Budget Big Screen series. Admission is $6 for AFS members and $8 for the general public. Special guest Lisi Russell (Ken Russell's widow) will introduce the film with Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
In Brief: Yes, it's got a ridiculous title — and boasts an even more ridiculous, yet utterly charming, monster — but Roy Del Ruth's The Alligator People is actually one of the better horror movies of the 1950s. The script by Orville H. Hampton is tightly constructed and reasonably literate (within the limits of the concept), and the acting is good. The real selling point, however, is Hollywood veteran Del Ruth's utterly professional handling of the material. He and the cast keep admirably straight faces in a tale of a young woman (Beverly Garland) discovering that her new husband (Richard Crane) is mutating into ... well, an alligator thanks to a misguided medical experiment by a refreshingly not mad scientist (George Macready). Plus, there's a booze-soaked performance from Lon Chaney Jr., a kind of backwoods Captain Hook, who is obsessed with shooting alligators (not that he ever hits one) in revenge for one of the critters inhospitably eating his hand. A lot of fun and better than it should be. The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Alligator People Thursday, Oct. 9, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
The Story: After people disappear due to the rapture, those left behind must deal with the chaos and aftermath. The Lowdown: A goofy, cheap, idiotic thriller with a disappointingly restrained Nicolas Cage performance at its center.
In Brief: Alejandro González Iñárritu and his writing partner Guillermo Arriaga made their bid to move into the mainstream with Babel (2006), a film that was nothing if not ambitious. Taking their standard approach of multiple stories that ultimately connect to create a larger picture, they moved a step further by making the stories global — the U.S., Mexico, Morocco and Japan. They also attempted to become grander in terms of theme, trying to create a movie that examines the difficulty humans have in communicating with each other. And in the main, they succeed. But at what? They made a film that’s more to be admired than liked, more to be thought about than felt. It’s a good film — maybe close to a great one — but one that I have no desire to revisit. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Babel Friday, Oct. 10, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com
The Story: When a man's wife goes missing, the attention shifts from sympathetic to suspicion that he murdered her. The Lowdown: Deeply cynical, darkly funny, sometimes brutal, very powerful filmmaking that may make you a little queasy, but will almost certainly entertain you to no end.
The Story: A young couple are menaced by a creepy doll that's possessed by a demon. The Lowdown: Fairly perfunctory horror that purports to be the origin story of the doll seen early on in last year's The Conjuring. There are a few good shocks, but a lack of atmosphere and a truly awful script pretty much negate them.
In Brief: These are the first two movies in Universal's famous Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The studio opted to bring the duo back by streamlining and updating the concept. Instead of costly period pieces, they would make Holmes and Watson contemporary and build a series of classy B-pictures around them. So the debut entry, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, found Holmes tackling fifth columnists working against England through a broadcaster calling himself the Voice of Terror. Slick, quick moving and shamelessly propagandistic, it caught on with the public, paving the way for the superior Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, where the series hit its stride. After all, if Holmes fighting the Nazis was good, Holmes fighting Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill oozing malevolence) and the Nazis was even better. It was less of a propaganda piece, had a better sense of the characters and benefited from director Roy William Neill, who would helm the remaining ten films in the series. Neill brought a strong sense of atmosphere to the series that made the films look more expensive than they were. His approach defined the series and made Rathbone and Bruce the defining Holmes and Watson for a generation. The Asheville Film Society will screen Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
The Story: A down-on-his-luck failed writer inherits a Parisian apartment from his late father, only to find it inhabited by a mother and daughter, who — due to a quirk in French law — he must also take care of until the mother’s death. The Lowdown: A surprisingly dark look at the effects our parents — and their choices — have on children, but one that’s tonally uneven and a bit of a mess.
The Story: A disgruntled psychiatrist goes on a journey — literal and spiritual — to try to understand what makes people happy. The Lowdown: It's too long, takes too long finding its footing and doesn't offer any new answers, but Hector and the Search for Happiness is a pleasant little movie that wears its heart on its sleeve and isn't afraid to be a little corny, making for a pleasing, likable trip to the movies.
In Brief: Often touted as being a faithful adaptation of John Buchan's novel, Don Sharp's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978) — the only version of the story where 39 is spelled out — might better be called "more faithful than the earlier versions." As a film, it's not in the same universe as Hitchcock's 1935 version, but it's slick fun that seems more inclined to want to cash in on the popularity of the Agatha Christie films than anything else – but with a lot less budget. Robert Powell makes a good lead — though he lacks the humor of Robert Donat in the Hitchcock film — and the rest of the cast certainly help. The most distinctive aspect of this version may be the decision to play it like a thrill comedy, especially in its climax with Powell dangling from the face of Big Ben. The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Thirty-Nine Steps Sunday, Oct. 12, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
The Story: Fact-based story of reporter Gary Webb, who linked the CIA to using the drug trade to fund Nicaraguan militias. The Lowdown: Slick, glossy crusading reporter movie with a strong lead performance, but also lacking in being anything other than a basic example of its genre.
The Story: A status-seeking villain demonizes and plans on destroying a peaceful community of harmless trolls to achieve his goals. The Lowdown: Not quite up to the two previous films from the Laika studios, but with more than enough twisted creativity to make it very worthwhile.