In Brief: John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef (1963) is a bona fide Christmas movie if ever there was one — but with the unusual setting of a South Seas island (played by Kauai, Hawaii, with studio work at Paramount in Hollywood). The truth is that while this is housed in a John Wayne vehicle in the John Ford barroom brawling mode, it is also a deeply felt statement on racial tolerance. The plot revolves around “Guns” Donovan (Wayne) and “Boats” Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) trying to prevent snooty Bostonian Amelia Dedham (Elizabeth Allen) from discovering that her estranged father, Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden), married a Polynesian woman and had three children by her. Of course, things go somewhat awry, especially when she and Donovan become romantically involved. At the heart of the film is the most charming, touching and funny Christmas pageant ever made. The mere spectacle of Lee Marvin as “the King of the United States of America” bringing the baby Jesus a windup gramophone and Dorothy Lamour gravely singing “Silent Night” in a very leaky chapel is enough to put it over, but the whole movie is a delight. The Asheville Film Society will screen Donovan’s Reef Tuesday, Dec. 23, 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: Yojimbo (1961) is one of Akira Kurosawa’s most entertaining films — and it was his biggest hit in Japan. I suppose you could say that’s because it’s one of his most accessible, though how a dark-humored Japanese Western based on an American hard-boiled crime novel became accessible is something of a puzzlement. Nonetheless, its story of a slightly seedy — and utterly cynical — wandering Samurai cleaning up a rough and tumble town by letting the bad guys do all the work for him had, and still has, immediate audience appeal. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Yojimbo Friday, Dec. 19, 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
In Brief: Somewhere between a really creepy mystery and a prestige picture, Stuart Walker’s Mystery of Edwin Drood was an attempt to match Walker’s film of Great Expectations (1934), and it is a part of the little known director’s best works that also included The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) and Werewolf of London (1935). Universal took Charles Dickens’ final — and unfinished — novel and gave it an ending. Actually, they also removed much in the way of a mystery element — at least for the viewer, since there’s never much doubt as to who murdered the title character. At the same time, the screenplay manages to capture some great Dickens characters and a genuine sense of the author’s work. Surprisingly, the film was allowed to completely paint John Jasper (Claude Rains) as an opium addict (drug use of any kind was forbidden by the Production Code). What Walker brings to the film is a pervasive sense of unsettling atmosphere — so much so that the film earned its position as part of the Shock Theater package of Universal horrors. The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Mystery of Edwin Drood Thursday, Dec. 18, 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: Fact-based story of Cheryl Strayed, based on her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The Lowdown: A strong performance from Reese Witherspoon, a solid screenplay by Nick Hornby and assuredly creative direction by Jean-Marc Vallée make Wild a very good movie indeed.
The Story: A comedian and actor — who’s trying his best to be taken as a serious artist — spends the day with a New York Times reporter on the weekend of his wedding to a reality star and the opening of his new, big film. The Lowdown: While it takes its time to get its footing and has the occasional misstep, the parts that work soar, making for an intelligent, raunchy, adult and genuinely funny film.
The Story: The story of Moses with CGI. The Lowdown: Theologically dubious, dramatically inert and just plain boring even with all its state-of-the-art effects. And it goes on for two-and-a-half very long hours.
The Story: A single mother and her son are plagued by a mysterious creature known as Mr. Babadook. The Lowdown: An absolutely superb horror film that is actually a good bit more than a horror film. Done in a classical formal style, it may remind you of Kubrick's The Shining and the best of Polanski's horrors. See this movie!
In Brief: As it turned out, Il Grido (1957) marked the end of Michelangelo Antonioni's neorealist period. When he returned in 1960 with L'Avventura, he had pretty completely transformed himself into the introspective, artier, more impenetrable filmmaker we think of as Antonioni. It is perhaps not surprising since that was the same year that Fellini edged into being the fabulist filmmaker he'd always been edging toward with La Dolce Vita. Whatever the specifics, Il Grido remains a fairly solid neorealist film — only its somewhat peculiar ending suggests anything in the way of a change. It's a typical international cast affair, starring low-rent Hollywood tough guy Steve Cochran as Aldo, a man for whom happiness — or even contentment — seems an impossibility. When his girlfriend (Alida Valli) tosses him out in favor of another man, Aldo takes their daughter and becomes a wanderer, sifting through his past and searching for a future that leads him only back to where he started. It's rather grim stuff, and by its very nature it tends to meander, but it's a good example of Antonioni in neorealist mode. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Il Grido Friday, Dec. 5, 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
In Brief: Though Kurt Neumann's Secret of the Blue Room was a hardy — and well-loved — staple of the old Shock Theater TV package, it's really more of an old dark house mystery than an outright horror film. (That's only reasonable, I suppose, since it's partly made on redressed sets from James Whale's 1932 The Old Dark House.) But it has a solid atmosphere, a creepy story and a terrific cast. Plus, it marks the fourth and final time that the very familiar chunk of Swan Lake was used on the credits of a Universal horror. The whole thing was a remake of a German movie — and it possibly uses exterior shots from that film. Universal must have really liked it since they remade their remake twice — The Missing Guest (1938) and Mystery of the Blue Room (1944). This one is easily the best. It's a reasonably good mystery — though not one particularly hard to solve if you've seen many such mysteries. But that cast — Lionel Atwill, Gloria Stuart, Paul Lukas, Onslow Stevens, Edward Arnold — and the Universal atmosphere make it a treat. The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Secret of the Blue Room Thursday, Dec. 11, 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 self-sufficient frontier woman and the claim-jumper whose life she saves undertake transporting three dangerously unbalanced women back east. The Lowdown: A beautifully made and acted revisionist western — leavened with dark humor — that proves to be one of the year's most compelling films.
In Brief: It's become something of a Christmas staple now, but The Lemon Drop Kid was originally not well-received. Why? Well, it's a Christmas movie that came out in April — and it was all Bob Hope's fault. When he saw the finished film — intended for Christmas 1950 — he thought it was weak and needed work. Considering the work it needed included the addition of the song "Silver Bells" and its elaborate production number — directed by Frank Tashlin, as was all the additional footage — Hope's instincts were sound. Supposedly based on the Damon Runyon story (which had been filmed straight in 1934), it's really a Bob Hope vehicle with Runyonesque characters and dialogue. Hope plays Sidney Milburn, a racetrack tout professionally known as The Lemon Drop Kid. The story is all about Milburn trying to get the money to repay Moose Moran (Fred Clark) over a bet the Kid accidentally touted him away from. The plan becomes a scheme to collect money for an "old dolls home" — built around Nellie Thursday (Jane Darwell) — that he plans to use to pay off Moran. It's funny, sentimental and one of Hope's last really good movies. The Asheville Film Society will screen The Lemon Drop Kid Tuesday, Dec. 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: Marital drama about what happens in the wake of a threat where the husband shows himself to be less than his wife assumed. The Lowdown: The critics are mostly agreed that this Swedish drama about marital discord and patriarchal dysfunction is great stuff — Sweden has chosen it as its Oscar entry. Maybe so, but I found it a lot less than great.
In Brief: Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi (The Money Order) (1968) is the sort of movie that is much prized by folks suffering from cultural inferiority complexes and by those who dote on the esoteric for its own sake. It’s a movie from Senegal — and is apparently notable for being shot in Wolof (the common language) rather than French. It tells the story of what happens when Ibrahim Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye), a rather lazy 60-something-year-old man with exalted notions of his own importance, receives a money order for F25,000 from a relative in Paris. This supposed windfall turns into a curse when cashing it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare — made just that much worse by all the people out to get a piece of that money. The pacing is slow. The characters are not likable. And once the basic idea gets underway, the film becomes predictable. The major point of interest lies in the depiction of a country in the throes of adapting to its postcolonial state. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Mandabi Friday, Dec. 5, 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: The three best friends at the center of Horrible Bosses are screwed out of a business deal and concoct a kidnapping plan to save themselves. The Lowdown: A generally entertaining — if none too spectacular — comedy with a few clever bits that’s held up by its cast.
In Brief: Before the arrival of George Romero’s reinvention of the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead (1968), schlockmeister Edward L. Cahn’s Zombies of Mora Tau — made for even schlockier producer Sam Katzman — was pretty much the foundation of the zombie sub-genre for an entire generation of horror fans. Oh, it wasn’t a particularly good movie, but it was the one that turned up most often on TV — and was unusually straightforward in its depiction of zombies as an entity unto themselves. There are no evil masterminds here like those in White Zombie (1932), King of the Zombies (1941), Revenge of the Zombies (1943) or Zombies on Broadway (1945). And there’s nothing psychological as in I Walked with a Zombie (1943). No, there are just zombies — an implacable gang of the walking dead. (Hey, they even wander around underwater — something Romero didn’t get around to until Land of the Dead in 2005.) Basic and even simpleminded? Sure — after all, its target audience was mostly teenagers. But it’s also pretty atmospheric and a solid zombie picture. The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Zombies of Mora Tau Thursday, Dec. 4, 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: The Madagascar penguins get a movie of their own in which they match wits with a villainous octopus. The Lowdown: Breakneck paced, filled with rapid-fire gags and wordplay that are impossible to keep up with and blessed with a pleasing lunacy, Penguins of Madagascar mostly works but goes on a little too long.
In Brief: The Asheville Film Society eases into the Christmas season with Life Begins at Eight-Thirty — a film I’m pretty sure most of you have never heard of. It’s something I bumped into about 45 years ago on a long-defunct TV station that kept going by booking generally obscure movies and 1950s TV shows. I never expected to see it again, but here it is. It is not a Christmas movie (though it opened on Christmas Day), but it does start with star Monty Woolley as an abusive — and drunk — department store Santa insulting the crowd. (I’ll be honest, it was this scene that most stuck with me.) The film itself is a surprisingly effective comedy-drama about a washed-up alcoholic actor, Madden Thomas (Woolley), his caretaker daughter Kathy (Ida Lupino), the young composer Robert Carter (Cornel Wilde) in love with her, and Carter's aunt, Alma Lothian (Sara Allgood), who has been in love with — and abused by — Madden Thomas for years. The movie walks a fine line since few things are less funny than alcoholism, but it wisely leaves most of the humor to Madden’s sober sarcasms. Overall, it’s ultimately a very sentimental film — and an incredibly satisfying one. The Asheville Film Society will screen Life Begins and Eight-Thirty Tuesday, Dec. 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.
In Brief: George Arliss — in his final Hollywood movie — takes on Cardinal Richelieu, and the results are more or less what you expect. In his version of Cardinal Richelieu (1935), the old boy is just as wily as the real one, but he's now become the wily hero of the story. In other words, this has only the slightest connection to history. Oh, it's kind of in there — like Richelieu's desire to create a united France and his chicanery in doing so — but the spin is a little skewed. It is what might best be called an historical romp of the sort Arliss was famous for. Actually, Arliss had envisioned a different film, but when everyone became enthused over him dusting off Bulwer-Lytton's hoary old melodrama, the enthusiasm won out. The results — with Richelieu dividing his time between bringing young lovers together and saving the country — are pretty specious as history, but they're certainly entertaining fun. The Asheville Film Society will screen Cardinal Richelieu Tuesday, Dec. 2, 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: Some movies are leisurely paced. Some are deliberately paced. Still others are glacially paced. They all are on the slow side — in varying degrees. Depending on where you land in it, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (1997) covers all the bases of slowness. And yet, I have to admit that it held my interest for its entire length. In essence, the film consists of Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) driving around the arid Iranian countryside trying to find someone who will bury him after he commits suicide. That's it. But there's something almost hypnotic about it, especially as the conversations with his various prospects increase in complexity. We never learn much about Mr. Badii — including the reason for his planned suicide — but that may be part of why the film works as well as it does. I wouldn't want to see it again any time soon, and I find its appeal limited, but I'd say it's worth at least one watch — assuming you have the patience. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Taste of Cherry Friday, Nov. 28, 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: The first half of the final chapter in The Hunger Games series finds the rebels preparing for an all-out war with the government. The Lowdown: More intelligent, more interesting and generally better made than its predecessors, but it's a film that would be hard to even follow for a newcomer.
The Story: A bamboo cutter and his wife find a tiny girl in a bamboo sprout and decide to raise her into a princess. The Lowdown: Visually beautiful but far too long a film for such a simple storyline.