In Brief: No one and nothing is quite safe at Mrs. Rittenhouse's (Margaret Dumont) swanky Long Island house party when the Marx Brothers show up. Worse, one of them, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho), is her guest of honor. Zeppo is his secretary and, as usual, mostly fades into the background, while Signor Emmanuel Ravelli (Chico) and his accomplice, The Professor (Harpo), have been hired as musicians. What's bad news for Mrs. Rittenhouse is a lot of fun for the rest of us. There's a sort of a plot about a stolen painting and a mostly unobtrusive romance, but the film is primarily there to showcase the Marxes and some of their most famous routines. It's on the stagebound side, but it hardly matters.
In Brief: This year's feature winner at the Twin Rivers Media Festival is an extremely likable — mostly due to its energetic cast — sex comedy that benefits to some degree by name performers, Gary Busey and C. Thomas Howell, in key supporting roles. The fact that it's mostly gorgeous looking in bright, pop art colors is another plus. It's a fairly basic romantic comedy about a young man (Andrew Lawrence) who doesn't think he wants a relationship but actually does — if only he was a little better at them. It would probably help if he didn't gravitate toward obvious head-cases. Apart from the presence of a transgendered hooker (Kelly Mantle), there's little here that's surprising, but it's well done and pleasant.
The Story: After discovering her husband’s infidelity, a down-on-her-luck former fast-food employee and her alcoholic grandmother set off on a road trip. The Lowdown: An ugly, unfunny comedy of the supposedly raunchy R-rated variety that’s little more than noisy and grating.
Starring: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, Dalton Sutton, Camron Owens, Dylan Cole
The Story: Story of a dysfunctional, motherless family in Texas, focused on the older, delinquent son. The Lowdown: An indie-basic tale of disaffected youth and their alcoholic dad in rural Texas. Some aspects are pleasing, but you've seen it all before.
In Brief: Back in their day, the Hammer horror films were considered to be quite graphic and bloody. Today, they seem positively restrained, but don’t sell the studio at its best short — and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) is definitely Hammer at its best. Premise-wise you mightn’t think so, but somehow transporting a monster from Greek mythology to Germany circa 1900 actually works. Of course, realism isn’t exactly a staple of horror, nor is it a staple of Hammer, with its theatricality, its fairy-tale aura and its use of color that evokes the pre-Raphaelite painters. These latter elements, however, can create a potent mix of sinister creepiness, as they do here, especially with the presence of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
In Brief: As good as it is on its own merits, Blood Simple worked as the Coens Brothers' announcement of themselves to the moviegoing world — showing off, to the best of their ability on a low budget, exactly what they had to offer the movies. So much of what they indeed proved they did (and do) have to offer is in — even if only in sketchbook form — this one very savvy show-off movie. It constantly draws attention to itself and the filmmakers, showing over and over again how clever and original it is. I can only think of two other films that have been so effectively used a debut in this manner — Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1995) and the Wachowski Brothers’ Bound (1996). Here we are 30 years after it first appeared, and it hasn't dated at all. If anything, it's even better than it seemed in 1984.
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ko Ah-sung
The Story: The last remnants of humanity, broken into class structures, are all aboard a super train that endlessly circles the otherwise frozen world — until revolt breaks out. The Lowdown: Brilliant, creative, exciting, suspenseful — and with much more on its mind than the usual blockbuster, Snowpiercer is a front-runner for one of the year's best films.
The Story: On their final night living together, three best friends find an extraterrestrial that shadowy government agents are after. The Lowdown: While it has its heart in the right place, this tween adventure flick is far too derivative and far too distracting within the confines of its found footage artifice to be more than passable entertainment.
In Brief: Harry Lachman's Dante's Inferno (1935) may be more of a curio than anything else, but what a curio it is. It was an expensive production with most of the money being spent on an elaborate vision of the title Inferno (based on Gustave Dore's engravings) — and the film would be worth seeing for this sequence alone. The story itself is still pretty solid, with Spencer Tracy (just before his move to MGM) as an unscrupulous carnival barker turned promoter, whose view of the Inferno attraction is to "put hell on a paying basis." He also has a tendency to cut corners and ignore safety standards — and thereby hangs much of the drama.
Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Chris Coy, Dorian Missick, Sean Harris, Joel McHale
The Story: Fact-based hooey about a police sergeant who becomes involved in a case of demonic possession in the Bronx. The Lowdown: A somewhat atmospheric but way too long horror picture that has nothing new to offer.
In Brief: Horror meets the biographical film in Ken Russell's Gothic (1986) — a stylish and very wild and woolly take on Lord Byron's (Gabriel Byrne) house party at the villa in Switzerland with Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) and Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall). This, of course, was the famous party that led to Mary writing Frankenstein. In Russell's take, these people are more like dissolute rock stars — complete with groupies and people cashing in on their notoriety — whose drug-fueled antics lead to madness and the creation (real or imagined?) of untold horrors. Did it happen like this? Well, let's say it could have, and it certainly provides one wild and creepy ride. The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Gothic Thursday, July 3 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Starring: Will Rogers, Anne Shirley, Irvin S. Cobb, Eugene Pallette, John McGuire, Berton Churchill, Stepin Fetchit
In Brief: Will Rogers' last movie, and his third in collaboration with director John Ford, is one of the comedian's most popular and one of his best. Rogers plays a patent medicine salesman with dreams of being a steamboat captain — dreams that are put on hold when his nephew (and future riverboat pilot) comes up on murder charges. Most of the film deals with trying find the witness to the murder who can clear the young man, but the point lies in Rogers' easy comedy and painting a loving — but not uncritical — picture of river life in the 1890s. It's a charming movie that I suspect Mark Twain would have loved. The Asheville Film Society will screen Steamboat Round the Bend Tuesday, July 8 , 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: Giant robot Optimus Prime must stop an old nemesis and his former allies — mankind. The Lowdown: A loud, noisy, stupid and incredibly angry movie that’s far too long and only occasionally interesting thanks to its screwy worldview.
Starring: Walter Matthau, George Burns, Richard Benjamin, Lee Meredith, Carol Arthur, Rosetta Le Noire
In Brief: Mystifyingly popular film version of an equally mystifyingly popular Neil Simon play about an attempt to reunite two aging vaudevillians for a TV special. Almost as mystifying is the reason for doing this, since the one-time partners cordially detest each other, but without the attempt, there's no story. The sole point of calm in this work that constantly confuses loud for funny is George Burns, who underplays every scene and walks off with what accolades there are. The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Sunshine Boys Sunday, July 6, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
The Story: Documentary about cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky's incredibly ambitious, never-made film of Frank Herbert's Dune. The Lowdown: One of the most entertaining documentaries in living memory — especially for movie fans. It paints a compelling and enjoyable portrait of what may have been a milestone of 1970s filmmaking had it actually been made. That it stars the irrepressible, outrageous filmmaker himself helps make it a pure pleasure.
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper
The Story: After a drunken one-night stand, a comic finds herself pregnant, faced with a suitor she doesn't want and an impending abortion. The Lowdown: Yes, it's been critically lauded, but personally, I found this abortion-themed rom-com mostly tedious, unfunny and cursed with an unlikable main character.
Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell, Norm Rossington, John Junkin, Victor Spinetti
The Story: The Beatles perform a televised concert, have various adventures and nearly lose Ringo in the process. The Lowdown: Here we have one of the greatest — and arguably most important — films of the 1960s getting a two-day (Saturday and Sunday) re-issue in honor of its 50th anniversary. Oh, it's not like A Hard Day's Night has ever been entirely away — in fact, it had a national re-release back in 2000 — but it's always a treat to see this on a big screen with an audience. Plus, this new restoration ought to look, and sound, great.
Starring: Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Françoise Dorléac, Ed Begley, Oscar Homolka, Guy Doleman, Vladek Sheybal
In Brief: The Asheville Film Society's annual birthday salute to British filmmaker Ken Russell (1927-2011) reaches back to Russell's first shot at international fame, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the third film in Michael Caine's Harry Palmer (the "thinking man's James Bond") series. Caine had been impressed by Russell's TV work and had him hired for the movie. The results didn't set the world on fire, but they did result in an interesting, entertaining and oh-so-very-1960s spy film — a movie that Russell made more his own than you might think, and one that paved the way to international acclaim a couple of years later.
The Story: Before taking her final vows as a nun, a novice is sent out into the world to meet her only relative and learn about her past. The Lowdown: Strong, beautifully shot character drama that seems to be being taken for more than it is because of topics it touches on. Definitely good, but not-so-definitely great.
The Story: A pair of outsiders — 13-year-old girls — decide to start a punk rock group in 1982 Sweden. That they have no clue how to play music is only part of the problem. The Lowdown: A slight but charming and winning little movie that beautifully taps into the essence of early adolescence without a hint of condescension.
The Story: Two groups of friends head to Vegas for a wedding — and bachelor and bachelorette parties. The Lowdown: A meandering, overstuffed rom-com that is innocuous at best, but force-feeds its points and is often too shrill and aimless to work.