Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler: April 29-May 5

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.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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26 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler: April 29-May 5

  1. Captain Ahab

    Arrgh….”weekly reeler”? Sounds like a fishing report to me! I would call it “Cinema Swizzle”
    if you wanted my salty opinion. Yargh!

  2. There’s actually a lot of interesting things out this week on dvd.

    First up is the Belgian JCVD. Those initials stand for Jean Claude Van Damme, who is playing a hyper-reality version of himself. He is having money problems, his career is on the skids and he is in the midst of a custody battle. Retreating back home, he gets caught up in a robbery, but is he a victim? His best role ever.

    The French have been doing horror right lately, and MARTYRS could be the best. The movie is very very disturbing and bloody, but this one takes an unexpected left turn that left me yelling, “WTF???” For the record, I love shouting “WTF” during a movie.

    I’ve never seen Stephen Frears THE HIT before, but thanks to Criterion, I now have. Also out on Criterion is Nagisa Oshima’s IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES and EMPIRE OF PASSION.

    The last week of the month is “Rykodisc Week,” with a whole bunch of bizarre stuff is unloaded onto the renting public. Art house fare like HAIRDRESSER’S HUSBAND is intermingled with trash like NAKED RASHOMON and a four disc WAR GODS (with Steve Reeves). It’s like Christmas for me.

  3. Andrew Leal

    I have mostly fond memories of “How to Steal a Million” (I have the VHS floating around somewhere), but correction, M. Hanke (and a certain disenchantment at this shocking demonstration that you are not, after all, infallible): the father is played by Hugh Griffith. Boyer basically has a cameo as the antique dealer.

  4. Ken Hanke

    See? I knew you’d have news to impart on the DVD front, and you did.

    And, of course, in so doing you’ve prompted me to want to see Martyrs and The Hit. I usually like Frears’ work and The Hit has somehow escaped me. I think I’ll pass on JCVD, though.

    For the record, I love shouting “WTF” during a movie.

    Makes him very popular at kiddie matinees, I’m sure.

  5. And, of course, in so doing you’ve prompted me to want to see Martyrs and The Hit. I usually like Frears’ work and The Hit has somehow escaped me. I think I’ll pass on JCVD, though.

    JCVD is about as far away from a Van Damme movie as you can get. I really enjoyed it.

    THE HIT was a pleasant surprise… even more so with the great cast: Terrance Stamp, John Hurt and a very young Tim Roth.

  6. Dread P. Roberts

    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, for one, am glad to see the Weekly Reeler as the chosen name. I doubt anyone will mistake the column for the random slurs of a drunk. But if that did happen, the idea of a grumpy old alcoholic ranting and raving about movies has it’s own degree of appeal and charm.

  7. Sam

    “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.”

    Let me point out that the pace of technology often outpaces language’s ability to change. I’ve heard people still say they’re going to the “record store” rather than the “CD store”, or the “video store” rather than the “DVD store” (apologies to Marc at Orbit)–they’re terms that are just easier for those of us of a certain age to say.

    The term “movie” will probably be here for a long time, but how about “film”? If movies will no longer be made on film, will the term “Film Festival” become obsolete? How about the American Film Institute?

    My point is, I guess, that “Weekly Reeler” will probably not become obsolete that quickly.

  8. Ken Hanke

    as far away from a Van Damme movie as you can get

    A position I like to maintain.

    But I’ll think about it.

  9. Ken Hanke

    and a certain disenchantment at this shocking demonstration that you are not, after all, infallible

    I am only infallible when speaking “ex cathedra.”

  10. Ken Hanke

    Let me point out that the pace of technology often outpaces language’s ability to change. I’ve heard people still say they’re going to the “record store” rather than the “CD store”, or the “video store” rather than the “DVD store” (apologies to Marc at Orbit)–they’re terms that are just easier for those of us of a certain age to say.

    True enough. I still tend to think of albums that were later transfered to CD in terms of which side a song is/was on. For that matter, the fact that I think of them as albums at all is probably archaic in some way. (It’s possibly more archaic than assumed, since the first things called albums were multi-record sets of 78s, which in fact resembled photo albums.) And it hasn’t been very long since the rather charming term “photoplay” was used in copyright information on films (it may still be on occasion).

  11. Ken Hanke

    Viewing Update

    One of the things I wanted to use this column for was to update movie information that might otherwise go unnoticed, but could be of use to moviegoers. With that in mind — and having finally gotten all the listings for this week — I’d like to note that Sunshine Cleaning disappears from the Epic, the Co-ed and the Biltmore Grande this Friday, but opens at the Carmike. If you haven’t caught this film — and it’s well worth it — here’s another chance.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Also worth consideration is this poll/sweepstakes being held by MGM —

    http://www.mgm.com/sweeps/

    It’s particularly worth noting for those who would like to see The Music Lovers get a DVD release. Are you listening, Marc?

  13. It’s particularly worth noting for those who would like to see The Music Lovers get a DVD release. Are you listening, Marc?

    Noted and voted!

    Have you checked out Warner Archives yet? If you don’t know, they are burning dvds on demand. There’s no special features, random 10 minute chapter stops, but the prints look great. We’ve already ordered a few and plan on getting a lot more…

    http://www.wbshop.com/Warner-Archive/ARCHIVE,default,sc.html

  14. Justin Souther

    It’s particularly worth noting for those who would like to see The Music Lovers get a DVD release.

    And no mention of that classic, Sleepaway Camp II?

  15. Kevin F.

    Sleepaway Camp II has been available on DVD for years! I have the Sleepaway Camp box set!

  16. Ken Hanke

    Have you checked out Warner Archives yet? If you don’t know, they are burning dvds on demand. There’s no special features, random 10 minute chapter stops, but the prints look great. We’ve already ordered a few and plan on getting a lot more…

    My problem with the Archive stuff so far is that it’s either titles I don’t want, or it’s titles I have perfectly fine DVD-Rs I made myself off TCM. Someone’s gonna have to prove to me that these are a great improvement before I go for anything in this first batch. I’m not ponying up $20 a title just to get rid of the TCM logo popping up. In your situation — for the store — I see the appeal. Now, here’s the thing — they have lots of titles I would go for in those archives…

  17. Ken Hanke

    And no mention of that classic, Sleepaway Camp II?

    And on top of this snidery, you wouldn’t sit through Goats of Girlfriends Past with me…

  18. Bob Barnwell

    Ken, I’d like to see a Hanke inspired film festival junxtapositioning old flicks like “The Gay Desperado” with more current gay genre films like “Pink Flamingos”. Granted, “The Gay Desperado” doesn’t approach the artistry of “Pink Flamingos”, but what the heck. It does show the evolution (or devolution depending on your point of view) from the 1930s-40s era, to the anything-goes era of artsy twisted film no-a-days. Watching these two masterpieces back-to-back would make for a great afternoon at The Fine Arts. Dontchathink?

  19. Ken Hanke

    Watching these two masterpieces back-to-back would make for a great afternoon at The Fine Arts. Dontchathink?

    Though it’s never occurred to me to pair those particular films, similar ideas have circulated my brain on and off for years. I like the concept and I’d certainly be up for it — if anyone would go along with it.

  20. Tonberry

    Getting ready for the new “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” movie, I decided to stop by and read what you thought of the previous “X-Men” films. I remember the first two movies being a pretty big deal at the time. They’d eventually take a back seat to Spidey and Batman in popularity, and now it feels as if the first two movies are criminally underrated. After “Hellboy 2,” I’ve always felt that it was the best comic book movie produced so far, but I’d forgotten about “X2.” Why? The awful third, “X-Men: How to kill a franchise.”

    There is a trend you’ll notice in every super hero trilogy; the first two movies are usually good, if not great. But when it comes to number three, it all goes to hell. My take on this is because the second movie, where in the comic book universe the sequel usually bests the original, makes so much money for the studio; that they take the third movie and make it a cash cow.

    I’m still waiting for the comic book/super hero trilogy where all three films are respectable. Is it possible for Nolan to pull it off? The problem with Batman is with the title character himself. In all the Batman movies, Bruce Wayne only seems to shine and develop in the first movie, before the more colorful villains completely dominate in the future sequels, forcing the dark knight to take a back seat. We will just have to wait and see what Nolan will do.

    My bet would be on Del Toro for a great, third “Hellboy” movie. That is if it will ever happen. He’s really booked up with directing the “Hobbit” movies (according to IMDB to be released 2012), and aftewards, I’ve read he’d be very interested in making a “Frankenstein” movie. So chances are slim for HB3, but I’d rather see that than the Hobbit movies (gasp!)

    As for my thoughts on the up and coming “X-Men Origins,” well, I’m not expecting much, nor am I as excited as I want to be. My predication is that it’ll be like the Universal Monster Mash Up classics of the 40’s, but instead of fan service to the monster kids, it’ll be fan service to the comic book nerds. We’ll see a bunch of the X-Men beating the crap out of each other, looking as cool as possible (case in point: Gambit.) But it really looks like it’s going to be all “SMACK!” “BOOM!” “CRASH!” with no real character development. A shame for me, since Wolverine is my personal favorite super hero. (And I admit to being a tad annoyed when the trailer revealed a pretty cool plot twist from the Origin book.) Plus, it’s not like the previous “X-Men” movies haven’t centered around Wolverine. Origins has got to be better than the third X-Men movie…I hope.

  21. Ken Hanke

    My predication is that it’ll be like the Universal Monster Mash Up classics of the 40’s, but instead of fan service to the monster kids, it’ll be fan service to the comic book nerds.

    I can’t say too much — otherwise there’d be no point in my review — but it’s considerably better than the monster rallies and has a degree of gravitas without succumbing to the Nolan nihilism level.

    Is it better than third X-Men movie? I think I can say that, yes. It appears that Gavin Hood knows more about filmmaking than that spoiled fratboy Brett Rattner.

    However, bear in mind that I am looking at this strictly as a movie. I have never read an X-Men comic in my life, so don’t ask me about its faithfulness to the original or its lack thereof.

  22. Hurrah Weekly Reeler! While I can’t intelligently converse about movies on a regular basis, I’m thrilled I was able to help with the column title.

  23. Tonberry

    I’ll be very interested in reading what you have to say. It’s got a 38% on rotten tomatoes as of now; your comment here is about the most positive I’ve read. I’m unsure if I still want to catch it in the theaters…I know I’d be better off seeing “Tokyo!”

  24. Ken Hanke

    I’m thrilled I was able to help with the column title.

    And thank you for that help.

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