In Brief: Jean Renoir's 1931 satirical comedy Boudu Saved from Drowning is perhaps the great filmmaker's first true masterpiece. Its story of what happens when a well-meaning bookseller rescues an indolent and ungrateful tramp, Boudu (played by the great Michel Simon), from drowning himself in the Seine is a simple one. But it leaves plenty of room for Renoir to poke fun at the bourgeois world of the French middle class and its pretensions.
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle
The Story: Standard showbiz biopic on Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The Lowdown: If you're wild about the music of Frankie Valli, this probably passes muster, but it's also a sloppy, cliché-ridden mess of a movie that never breaks free of its biopic-basic approach.
In Brief: So far as I'm concerned, Dario Argento disciple Michel Soavi made the absolute best Italian horror film of all time with 1994's Cemetery Man. This story of a cemetery — presided over by Rupert Everett (who tends to leave the film off his résumé) — where the dead (at least some of them) tend to come back to life after they're buried has a little bit of everything. It has surreal evocations of René Magritte, a plot turn right out of Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927), some seriously loopy ideas, a terrific visual panache — and the one thing most Italian horror lacks: a coherent plot with an actual structure. Horrific, funny and strangely haunting.
Starring: Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, James Wilby, Jeremy Northam, Bob Balaban
In Brief: It seems that Robert Altman and Bob Balaban got together and decided that Altman's multicharacter ensemble approach with its overlapping dialogue was just right for one of those house-party-murder mysteries — and they were right. Actually, they were more than right, since the resulting film, Gosford Park, was more than a classic mystery. It also spoofed its own genre, Hollywood, the movies — and managed to be a deconstruction of the upper classes that has more in common with Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) than with Agatha Christie. A brilliant film.
The Story: Officers Schmidt and Jenko head undercover again, this time at college. The Lowdown: Not as fresh as the original, the movie’s more interesting as a parody of Hollywood franchises and a critique of gay panic in buddy cop flicks, but doesn’t have much going for it as a comedy.
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Allen Vincent, Arthur Edmund Carewe
In Brief: Michael Curtiz returned the horror genre with Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which was only natural since the previous year's Doctor X had been the film that had put the horror genre on the map at Warner Bros. Again, Curtiz was working in two-strip Technicolor, with the same stars -- Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray -- and with the same blend of Expressionist horror with the snappy repartee of a very modern reporter. The most striking change in the formula was making the reporter a woman (Glenda Farrell). The results were, if anything, more successful -- financially -- than Doctor X.
The Story: The tale of a young immigrant woman forced into a life of prostitution as the only means to make her way in the New World and get her tubercular sister off Ellis Island. The Lowdown: Richly melodramatic and beautifully detailed fable on the myth of the American dream as experienced early in the 20th century with perhaps allegorical nods to the present. Powerfully acted, written and directed and a lot more complex than it may seem on the surface.
Starring: (Voices) Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill
The Story: New adventures and new challenges for Viking boy Hiccup and his trained dragon, Toothless. The Lowdown: Not as fresh or funny as its 2010 predecessor – and with a curious lack of focus in its first half – but with a bang-up second half, much visual beauty and a surprising emotional resonance.
In Brief: Fritz Lang's 1927 science fiction masterpiece about social upheaval in a fantastic city of the future. Sure, it's melodramatic -- after all, its Lang, whose heart belonged to pulp fiction -- but it's also a visual spectacle like no other. One of the most influential films of all time -- and still one of the greatest.
The Story: In post-apocalyptic Australia, a taciturn loner goes to great lengths – including murder and mayhem – to recover a stolen car. The Lowdown: An alternately violent and tedious road movie of the post-apocalyptic variety that remains watchable thanks to some odd touches and an interesting performance from Robert Pattinson.
The Story: Four short documentaries about the perils of coal ash ponds. The Lowdown: The four short films being presented at 7 p.m. on Thu., June 19 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville (admission is free) are fairly straightforward activist documentaries that serve as a basic introduction to the important issue of coal ash ponds.
In Brief: As Louis Malle movies go, Atlantic City (1980) qualifies as almost action-packed. It's also one of his most accessible and one of those late-in-the-day examples of the era when the line between art movies and the mainstream was less obvious than it would soon become. It's a remarkably congenial tale – with dashes of melodrama and mayhem – about people at the ends of their ropes in the title city during the days when the city was being revitalized into its casino-driven new prosperity.
In Brief: British comedian Will Hay – little known in the U.S. – stars in Convict 99, one of his best films. As is usually the case, he plays a lazy, incompetent and not particularly honest English schoolmaster, only here he's mistaken for an Australian expert on prison reforms and given the job of warden at a large penitentiary that he proceeds to run along the lines of a boys' school. As an introduction to the star's brand of very British comedy, this is probably the best place to start.
In Brief: This 1994 Australian comedy-drama was more than a surprise hit. It also introduced the world to Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, who starred as a pair of flamboyant drag queens, along with Terence Stamp as a transsexual. This is the tale of their trek into the outback via the bus of the title. Though promoted mostly on its comedy and camp value, not to mention its disco soundtrack, the film is about equal parts comedy and frequently quite moving drama. It's a gem of a warm and winning film.
The Story: A functional alcoholic literature teacher and a physically-impaired art teacher lock horns over which is more powerful -- words or pictures -- while becoming increasingly involved with each other personally. The Lowdown: A contrived screenplay is trumped by star power, directorial skill and witty dialogue. Flawed, yes, but very enjoyable and satisfying. Check it out.
In Brief: After fleeing Nazi Germany, Fritz Lang stopped in France and made this 1934 version of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom for Fox's European branch. The results are uneven, but fascinating, and provide us with our introduction to Charles Boyer. Part of the problem with the whole thing stems from the inescapable fact that Molnar's play is ultimately a weird apology for wife (and child) beating as not necessarily a bad thing. Still, the drama has its moments and the film its merits.
In Brief: The ultimate cult item in the Coen Brothers' filmography, the impossibly convoluted The Big Lebowski (1998) was hardly a hit when it first appeared. Roger Ebert gave it a mildly positive review as a "genial shambling comedy," which still strikes me about right. However, time and taste have proved kind to the film, making it a solid, if wayward, classic of its kind.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
In Brief: Possibly the most beloved of all movies, Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942) is a combination of happy accidents, studio professionalism and plain dumb luck that came together to create the most perfect of all Hollywood studio movies, a perfect blend of studio system efficiency that still allowed for personal creativity. It has more quotable lines and crowd-pleasing scenes than a dozen other movies put together. If you've (unthinkably) never seen it or if you've only even seen it on TV, this screening is a chance to see it on the silver screen and to understand how it came to be called the silver screen in the first place with its gloriously shimmering images. If there is such a thing as a truly perfect film, this may be it.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton, NoahTaylor, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way
The Story: A cowardly public relations man forced into battle against aliens finds himself repeating the day every time he gets killed. The Lowdown: Clever and fast-paced with a welcome streak of dark humor, this sci-fi actioner is undeniably entertaining, if ultimately not terribly substantial, despite an intriguing premise.
The Story: A trio of eco-terrorists blow up a dam. The Lowdown: A very slow-moving thriller that doesn't deliver much in the thrill department, although it's worth considering that most critics found this much better than I did. Fans of director Kelly Reichardt will definitely be interested.
The Story: Two teens suffering with the effects and after-effects of cancer fall in love. The Lowdown: A goopy, manipulative little movie that suffers from inefficient plotting, flat direction, a milquetoast disposition and some truly wrongheaded story decisions.