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.
In Brief: One of those thoroughly charming little films that got lost in the shuffle, The Emperor's New Clothes showed up in Asheville with no promotion from Paramount Classics (remember them?), was shunted to the upstairs theater at the Fine Arts and lasted, unsurprisingly, one week. It was in no way a reflection of the quality of this beguiling historical fantasy that offers an alternate version of what really happened to Napoleon (Ian Holm) and who really died on St. Helena. Whether or not it's believable, it makes for a beautiful tall tale that should be better known.
In Brief: SHOWING CANCELLED. Neil Jordan's beautiful, brilliant, lonely and weirdly moving rethinking of the vampire movie, Byzantium. never made it to Asheville. It was deemed lacking in audience for our town, which I dispute, but that's another matter. What it really lacked was a big name star and serious promotion from IFC. However, here's the opportunity to see Jordan's unusual film about a 200-plus-year-old pair of mother (Gemma Arterton) and daughter (Saoirse Ronan) vampires hiding out from vengeance-seeking vampire overlords in a dreary British seaside town during the off-season.
Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris
The Story: An inept sheep rancher becomes involved with a notorious gunslinger's wife. Predictability ensues. The Lowdown: Stupefying in its unfunniness, arrogance and outright narcissism, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a shoo-in for my Worst of the Year list come December.
In Brief: Admirers of the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing will find much of its plot is drawn from both Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel, The Glass Key, and from Stuart Heisler's 1942 film version. Conceived as a follow-up to cash in on the surprise popularity of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942), Paramount had mystery writer Jonathan Latimer add a romance between their characters — something the Coens borrowed. This second film adaptation of the novel may be less stylish than the (rarely seen) 1935 version, but the romance and the slick production values make it an essential film noir mystery thriller. The Asheville Film Society will screen The Glass Key Tuesday, June 10 , 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 look into the lives of a group of aimless, upscale teens. The Lowdown: A mixed-bag debut for writer-director Gia Coppola. A lot of it is typical lifestyles of the ennui-ridden overprivileged, but there are moments of near brilliance and an ending that makes up for much.
In Brief: Possibly Luis Buñuel's most accomplished Mexican film, Nazarin is a complex work about the impracticality — even impossibility — of living a life by the strict example of Jesus Christ, as depicted in the efforts of one priest who tries to do just that, but finds himself constantly at odds with the Church and society. By turns devastating and slyly comic. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Nazarin Friday, June 6, 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.
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Jono Temple, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites
The Story: Retelling of Sleeping Beauty that presents the evil Maleficent as a scorned woman seeking revenge on the man who betrayed her. The Lowdown: Despite an amusing performance from Angelina Jolie, Maleficent is a sloppy, overly designed movie that completely disposes of the appeal of the title character.
In Brief: More than a simple remake of F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu (1922), Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) is more of an extension of and homage to the Murnau film. Herzog, of course, was free to drop the pretense that this wasn't Dracula (copyright on the book had lapsed) and called his characters by the names from Stoker's book. But the tone is more in keeping with Murnau — and with elaborating on things (like linking Dracula to the plague) that Murnau would have lacked the budget to flesh out. It doesn't supplant Murnau's film — and it isn't better than it — but the Herzog film serves as a wonderful companion piece to it. The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Nosferatu the Vampyre Thursday, June 5 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Starring: Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bill Nunn, Melanie Thierry. Peter Vaughan, Clarence Williams III
In Brief: The Legend of 1900 (1998) was Giuseppe Tornatore's bid to really take the next step after the art house success of his Cinema Paradiso (1988). Nothing else had had its success, so he decided to make something similar in style and scope — and in English. The results were not what he hoped for. Many people seem to love the movie, and there's no denying that it looks terrific. But the story of a man born on an ocean liner who never sets foot on land becomes increasingly hard to buy into, and the whole thing lacks a true emotional center. But it looks swell. The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Legend of 1900 Sunday, June 8, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Emjay Anthony, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr.
The Story: An upscale chef finds himself when he quits his job and starts his own food truck business. The Lowdown: An unfailingly pleasant little comedy that would benefit from more conflict and a sharper tone, but it's a proven crowd-pleaser that will play well to food and food-truck aficionados.
Starring: Henrietta Crosman, Heather Angel, Norman Foster, Lucille La Verne, Maurice Murphy, Marian Nixon
In Brief: John Ford's Pilgrimage (1933) is one of the director's best films — and one of his least known and revived. The reason is not hard to fathom — just look at the cast list. How many of them have you ever heard of? Exactly. You've probably seen Henrietta Crosman, but not many movies star a 72-year-old character actress. Yet she's perfect in the role of a harshly repressive backwoods woman whose actions send her son off to WWI because he wants to marry a girl (already pregnant) she disapproves of. When he's killed, she still refuses to acknowledge the girl or her grandchild. Ten years later she gets a chance at redemption on a pilgrimage to see her son's grave. An amazing and moving film.