As you can see, I opted to go with Weekly Reeler, despite the idea that it might make it appear like I’m announcing my weekly bender. I decided to run that risk, because that’s just the kind of risk-taker I am. Well, actually, I went with it just because the name appealed to me more than the others. Of course, it’s a name that will be overtaken by technology ere long as digital cinema becomes the norm rather than the exception and reels become a thing of the past. Then movies will either waft into theaters via satellite, or else be delivered on hard-drives. This gives rise (so to speak) to the prospect of Cranky Hanke’s Hard-Drive. Just think of the resulting confusion from that.
New in Theaters
Except for the marvelous Tokyo! (see the review in Wednesday’s Xpress) and the exquisite beauties of Cherry Blossoms, theres not much to be said of last week’s movies. The three big mainstream releases were pretty grim. Even the best of them I can’t imagine watching again, while I’d actively avoid contact of any kind with the other two.
And what of this week? Well, this is Wolverine week, of course, or to be precise about it, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. As the first sighting of lightning bugs announces that summer is underway to some of us, so this announces that cinematic summer is here. (Cinematic summer comes earlier than real summer—the better to cash-in at the box office.)
I know very few people who aren’t in some way jazzed over the prospect of Wolverine. What’s most interesting about this is that nearly everyone I’ve spoken to on the subject seems to want to see it mostly so they can tear into it. We’re told this is because of that workprint that somehow made it to the internet and which was apparently disappointing. Judging a movie from a workprint is the height of foolishness, because the final product is almost certainly going to differ substantially. I better understand fan trepidation grounded in an apparent lack of faithfulness to the source material, and caution born of what a lox the last X-Men movie was. Friday—or possibly midnight on Thursday in some cases—will offer the proof.
The other mainstream offerings—Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Battle for Terra—are pretty much on suicide missions going up againt Wolverine. At least it’s turned out that the reported running time for Ghosts of 150 minutes was a mistake and that the film only lasts 101 minutes. This has to be in its favor. All reports indicate that Terra—despite any possible quality—is too dark and grim to cut it as a kiddie flick, meaning that the audience most likely to go for this animated bout of sci-fi will probably be watching Wolverine.
In the less mainstream realm, Tokyo! is still with us, and this is in my category of a must-see. I’ve had reports of people going to this film strictly for the Michel Gondry episode that opens the movie. I can understand that, but viewers who leave—as some have done—as soon as his contribution is over are cheating themselves. Also out of the big picture category is the French romantic comedy Shall We Kiss?, which a number of critics have likened to the works of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer (not that anyone outside of cineastes think of Rohmer much these days). That’s probably reason enough to give the movie a shot—especially if superheroes aren’t your thing.
New DVDs of interest
Since the mainstream stuff consists of sterling titles like Hotel for Dogs, The Uninvited and Bride Wars, it’s a perfect time to consider delving further into that box-set of Paramount pre-code movies that came out earlier this month. (I’m not stranger to pre-code movies and I’m still shaking my head in wonder over the shower-room scene in the 1934 film Search for Beauty—not to mention the movie’s overall strangeness.) If you’ve already been there and done that, you might consider Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun. It’s imperfect to say the least, but it’s a special kind of imperfect—the kind of imperfect you only find in the 1968-1975 era of movies.
The less said about such things as a box-set of movies based on the novels of Nicholas Sparks the better. The same is true of a double feature of movies featuring Beethoven the dog, though I suppose you could increase your canine viewing experience by combining this with Hotel for Dogs. Why you’d even consider such a thing is beyond me, but you never know. I’m hoping that Marc from Orbit DVD will show up in the “comments” section and offer some information on a few more esoteric releases this week, because a good shot of esoterica could only help with this week’s crop.
Notable TV screenings
A Letter to Three Wives May 1, 2 p.m. FMC
This 1949 star-fest is probably writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s first great directorial effort. The premise is that a woman named Addie Ross has written a letter to three wives—Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern—telling them that she’s running off with one of their husbands, but not revealing which husband. The three women—via flashbacks—try to figure out which it is. It’s witty, perceptive and even moving. Unlike many writers who turn director (his writing credits go back to 1929, but his directing only starts in 1946), Mankiewicz proves himself a pretty interesting visual stylist. In fact, several of the best moments in the film are strictly directorial touches.
How to Steal a Million May 1, 8:30 p.m., FMC
William Wyler is not a filmmaker generally associated with romantic comedies—The Good Fairy (1935) and Roman Holiday (1953) to one side. His is a name generally thought of in connection with weightier subjects (or at least more pretentious ones), but late in his career—between the grim The Collector (1965) and the huge Funny Girl (1968)—he managed to find time to pull off this romantic caper comedy starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn. It’s a slight affair centered on Hepburn and O’Toole stealing a bogus statue from a museum in Paris in an effort to keep her father (Charles Boyer) from being linked to art forgeries. The film has a nice little charm to it, but its real value lies in its testament to the power of star qualitty, which O’Toole and Hepburn has in abundance.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang May 2, 8 p.m., TCM
Fury, May 2, 9:45 p.m., TCM
TCM serves a pair of what were once called “problem pictures” or “message movies” with Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936). The two movies present an interesting contrast in styles that has something to do with studios and with the changes from the pre-code era to that of the iron fist of the production code. There’s nothing unusual about a film like Chain Gang coming from a studio like Warner Bros. Socially relevant dramas—often of the “ripped from the headlines” stripe—were their stock in trade. The Democrat-minded studio saw itself as a force for social change. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chain Gang—an indictment of the harsh treatment of prisoners in prison camps, as well as a look at the “forgotten man” (WWI veterans who couldn’t find work). Indeed, the film even ups the drama of its fact-based story by grafting on a downbeat ending. The real life counterpart of Paul Muni’s character was saved by the governor of New Jersey who refused to extradite him after his second escape. In the film, no such good fortune comes to Muni, giving us one of the indelible images of the Depression with Muni retreating into the darkness and his chilling answer to how he lives on the soundtrack.
More surprising is that a film like Fury should come from solidly Republican MGM. Lang’s film is a blistering indictment of mob violence and lynching involving a small town that takes justice into its own hands and kills—or so it seems—an innocent man (Spencer Tracy) who just happens to fit the description of a kidnapper. The first part of the film is everything you could want in this kind of movie, as is much of the film overall when it transpires that Tracy escaped from the burning jail he was left to die in. His desire to revenge himself on the mob by pretending to be dead and watching them be prosecuted for his murder works, but this is MGM and the production code. That means that something approximating a happy ending is a necessity. It doesn’t ruin the film and nothing can dispell the grimness of Lang’s overall vision, but it also isn’t wholly believable.
Bombshell, May 3, 8 a.m., TCM
Victor Fleming’s 1933 film Bombshell (or Blonde Bombshell as it was sometimes called) stars Jean Harlow in one of her best roles as Lola Burns, a slightly addled, pretty crude movie star, whose attempts at culture and poise are always undermined by her screwy family (notably Frank Morgan as her drunken father) and her own shortcomings. The only thing that stands between her and career suicide is her glib talking press agent “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy), who, not surprisingly, is also in love with her. The film is actually one of the best Hollywood satires around and leaves almost no stone unturned and no sacred cow untoppled.
The Man in the Iron Mask May 4, 9 a.m., TCM
Yeah, it’s far from prime James Whale (his career never really recovered from the regime change at Universal in 1936), but this 1939 swashbuckler isn’t bad—especially if you’re a Whale completist. It’s a surprisingly solid film from independent producer Edward Small (whom Whale found appallingly crude) and although Whale was apparently bored by the project and indifferent to the whole thing, there’s little sign of it in the finished film. Whether or not he really did insist on puffing away on a cigar while sitting under the camera is open to question (I see no onscreen evidence), but it makes a good anecdote to convey Whale’s cavalier attitude at this point in his career.
Crime and Punishment May 4 , 11:15 p.m., TCM
This week’s real rarity is Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment, which he made for Columbia Pictures in 1935. It was Sternberg’s first film after losing his contract with Paramount, and his discomfort—not to mention reduced budget—shows throughout the film. It’s not a bad film, nor is it a disastrous attempt to putting Dostoyevsky’s novel on the screen. Certainly the cast—Edward Arnold, Peter Lorre, Marian Marsh and the great Mrs. Patrick Campbell—is interesting, and the look of the film is as close to being pure Sternberg as the budget allowed. (Far worse things lay in Sternberg’s future.) Though the film was issued by Columbia on VHS years ago, it’s never made its way to DVD and is rarely shown on television.
Island of Doomed Men May 4, 4:30 a.m TCM
Oh, alright, this is junk pure and simple. It’s also pretty enticing junk with Peter Lorre as the sadistic ruler of a penal colony. And nobody does sadistic better than Lorre, who has a field day abusing both his wife (Rochelle Hudson) and the prisoners. He even shoots a pet monkey (“Keep that monkey away from me!”), proving himself a thorough louse.
Old San Francisco May 5, 10 p.m., TCM
I once theorized that this 1927 film—a silent with a synchonized score and sound effects—was the reason Darryl F. Zanuck was made a producer at Warner Bros. You see, Zanuck wrote the story for Old San Francisco, so promoting him to a production head probably seemed an easy way to be sure he never wrote anything again. This is a pretty awful movie as far as the plot is concerned, but that’s also part of its camp appeal these days. The very idea—which the film seems to put forth—that the San Francisco earthquake was the result of God answering Dolores Costello’s prayers to save her from being raped by evil half-Asian Warner Oland is certainly one of the more imponderable concepts in the history of film. As filmmaking (Alan Crosland) it’s not bad, and the earthquake effects are fairly spectacular. But in all honesty, the real reason to see this is its cheesy melodrama.
In Old Arizona May 5, 1 a.m., TCM
I’m personally looking forward to this early talkie, because I’ve never seen In Old Arizona (1929), which was much praised at the time for its use of outdoor sound shooting. Chances are it’ll be hard to understand what the fuss was about today. After all, the next year King Vidor’s Billy the Kid was praised for the sound of frying bacon (it was a simpler time). Also, director Irving Cummings was rarely more than an adequate craftsman, and his direction of another 1929 film, Behind That Curtain (a Charlie Chan movie that all but removes Charlie Chan from the proceedings), is painfully leaden. (Every bad thing you’ve ever heard about early talkies is in that one movie.) Still, as history it’s essential—and the prospect of oh-so-American Warner Baxter as the Cisco Kid is pretty enticing, too.
The Gay Desperado May 5, 2:45 a.m, TCM
If TCM and FMC keep up at the rate they’ve been going, they’ll soon have shown every movie Rouben Mamoulian made. (And if they show City Streets that’s swell with me.) This 1936 musical comedy was an attempt to make Italian singer Nino Martini into a star. Since you’ve probably never heard of Nino Martini, you can guess how successful the attempt was. (Another clue lies in the Milestone DVD cover which only mentions his co-star Ida Lupino.) The truth is that this isn’t a bad comedy about Martini being kidnapped by a Mexican bandit (Leo Carillo), who wants to turn his band of thieves into Americanized gangsters. The problem is that the movie is also a musical, and the songs are largely unmemorable. For Mamoulian fans, however, the film is especially valuable as the place where the director fell in love with all things Spanish—something that would bear better fruit with The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941). Even so, the visuals in this first outing of the type are often stunning.