Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler April 14-20: Action vs. the superfluous

Special screening

I received information on the following special showing too late to get it into the paper, so I’m offering it here:

Death and Taxes will be shown at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St., at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 15th. The film features 28 people from across the U.S.—including Julie Butterfly Hill, Susan Quinlan and Juanita Nelson—who offer their motivations for and methods of resisting the war machine with their tax money. With music by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Antibalas and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Death and Taxes explores war-tax refusal and redirecting tax dollars to peace. A potluck will precede the showing at 6:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. Post Production Director and editor Carlos Steward will be present for comment, and there will be opportunity for discussion with seasoned peace-tax payers and war-tax resisters and counselors. For more information, call 273-3332.

In theaters

Nearly everything this week is action-oriented—whether it’s the Actionfest Film Festival at the Carolina or the arrival of the highly anticipated release of Kick-Ass—and the one release that isn’t, Death at a Funeral, would seem to scale the heights of superfluousness. This may seem somewhat limiting, but if you peruse my take on seven of the Actionfest features in this week’s Xpress, you’ll find that it’s actually a pretty diverse lot. Most assuredly, at least two films in Actionfest—The Good, the Bad, the Weird and The Square—are among the weekend’s best bets. And there’s one film, Harry Brown—starring Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer—that I didn’t see, but am mighty curious about.

In terms of regular releases, there are only two offerings. First and foremost is Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Former Guy Ritchie producer, Vaughn made his mark as a director with the very good Layer Cake (2004) and then staked his claim as a filmmaker to be reckoned with by making the delightful Stardust (2007). This round he and his Stardust co-writer, Jane Goldman, have adapted a series of comic books by Mark Millar (who also provided the source material for the rather forgettable Wanted (2008)). The concept finds an ordinary kid (Aaron Johnson) who—despite having no powers—decides to transform himself into a superhero called Kick-Ass. In this incarnation, he finds himself joined by odd father-daughter pairing Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz).

Now, that may sound like a nice family-friendly movie, but it’s not. The film is R rated. The violence is apparently somewhat cartoonish, but bloody and very violent indeed. And then there’s the foul-mouthed Hit-Girl, who not only swears with abandon, but uses that word—the term for a part of female anatomy that Brits take in stride, but which has been known to send Americans scrambling for the exit in high dudgeon. Is it risky? Probably. There’s already been a certain amount of objections to such young characters involved in so much violence, and I suspect that’s going to get worse as soon as parents who don’t pay attention to just what they’re going to see take some innocent tots to see “that new comic-book movie.” In a burst of good will on my part—and owing to the logistics of the week—I’m letting Justin Souther review this one, but I plan on seeing it.

And then there’s Neil LaBute’s Death at a Funeral. If his unintentionally hilarious remake of The Wicker Man (2006) and the ordinariness of Lakeview Terrace (2008) didn’t completely destroy LaBute’s credibility as a filmmaker, this Americanized remake of Frank Oz’s not quite three-year-old Brit original of the same title should do it. The original was a wild farce and so, it seems, is the remake. In fact, the remake appears to be an almost exact copy that’s been retailored to fit the talent of Chris Rock and the supposed talent of Martin Lawrence. Hell, Peter Dinklage even reprises his role from the first film. In truth, the trailer doesn’t look exactly terrible. What it does look, however, is like the most unnecessary undertaking in the entire history of motion pictures. I suppose that’s an accomplishment in its own right.

And while I was writing the rest of this column, word came in that another film—in limited release—The Joneses is opening at the Carolina. I know very little about this one, except that it’s an indie that stars David Duchovny and Demi Moore as a couple who move into a gated community and proceed to win the goodwill of their neighbors, who are oblivious to the fact that the pair are secret employees of a marketing firm. As a satire of American society, it could be good—or it could turn out to be Indie Basic 101 stuff. Might be worth a shot, though.

I’m happy to report that The Ghost Writer is still hanging around—and was pleasantly surprised to see a pretty well-attended showing of it when I gave it a second look at the Fine Arts last week on a Wednesday evening, no less. (However, bear in mind that the Fine Arts isn’t running the film Friday through Sunday because of HATCHfest.) I haven’t received confirmation yet, but I’d be surprised if Shutter Island is still around by this weekend. Alice in Wonderland is still playing in 3-D at the Beaucatcher, but I have yet to hear if the 2-D version is hanging on anywhere.

On DVD

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio comes out this week. The bad new is that it does appear—based on the listed 116-minute running time—that it is the cut American version called Pirate Radio and not the longer, better The Boat That Rocked that played in the rest of the world. I’d been hopeful that they might retain the U.S. title, but give us the whole film—especially after seeing footage from the cut “Lazy Sunday” sequence being used to promote the movie on pay-per-view. Apparently, this is not the case. If anyone finds out otherwise, let me know.

The rest of the week’s mainstream offerings are all titles that either went straight to video or received such scant release that they almost might as well have. Even the cult-and-classic stuff is fairly lacking. Nothing against 8 1/2 (1963), Brief Encounter (1945) or Jules and Jim (1962), but these are hardly new to DVD. However, as part of the Essential Art House line, they’re priced more economically than they were in their original Criterion releases. In the realm of no-frills burn-on-demand DVD (expect to see more of this), it’s nice to see The Best Man (1964) show up, but I can certainly live without Dick Van Dyke in Fitzwilly (1967)—didn’t do a lot for me when I was 12, and I’m not anxious to revisit it.

Notable TV screening

Turner Classic Movies is still pretty much in standard mode, but a couple unusual items have made it through this week.

The Mysterious Island Thursday, April 15, 6:15 a.m., TCM
No, this isn’t the more famous 1961 Mysterious Island, but the considerably more obscure 1929 part-talkie hybrid oddity. The plot bears little relation to the later film and, in fact, is something of a tapestry of Jules Verne stories. The film itself is a jumble, which is often the case with these hybrids. In this case, it likely doesn’t help that the film went through three directors. It was started three years earlier as a very ambitious two-strip (red and green as primaries) Technicolor project involving prestigious directors Maurice Tourneur and Benjamin Christensen. Problems with filming made the production drag on and on to such a degree that it crossed over into the dawn of sound, at which point it was partly reshot by Lucien Hubbard to incorporate some dialogue scenes (pretty stodgy). A synchronized musical score (pretty effective) and sound-effects track (often pretty lame) were added—and the whole expensive mess lost a fortune. Today, only one reel of color footage exists and all that’s shown (when it is shown) is a black-and-white version. I’m not going to say it’s good, but it’s definitely fascinating. It seems to prefigure the realm of “steampunk” in some ways. The model work is quite striking, and while the effects are crude, they have an undeniable charm—and check out those really weird duck-billed undersea creatures.

The Palm Beach Story Sunday, April 18, 2:15 p.m., TCM
This may not be exactly rare, but Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) isn’t one of TCM’s holdings—and I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon. This may not be Sturges’ best film, but for my money, it’s his funniest. It’s all about sex (referred to as “Topic A”) and money. Joel McCrea is Tom Jeffers, an inventor (he has a plan for an airport that’s stretched over a city like a tennis racket) whose wife Gerry (Claudette Colbert) manages to pay off their considerable debt with money she receives from a crusty millionaire (Robert Dudley) called the Weenie King (“Invented the Texas Weenie—lay off ‘em, you’ll live longer”) who is being shown the apartment they’re about to be thrown out of. Gerry decides that their only hope is a divorce—after which she can snag a rich husband and fund Tom’s invention. Naturally, she goes where millionaires are—in this case Palm Beach. En route, she becomes involved with John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), who is filthy rich (as the name implies) and obsessed with small sums of money and not tipping (“Tipping is un-American”). After finding out that Gerry has left, the Weenie King funds Tom to go after her. It’s all incredibly manic and the dialogue truly sparkles. Also on hand is Mary Astor as Hackensacker’s sex-crazed sister, who has a strange man (Sig Arno) in tow who speaks no known language. (When Gerry suggests that this fellow might be a duke in view of Astor’s fondness for titles, Hackensacker retorts, “Might be her hair-dresser, too. She goes out with anything.”) Not to be missed.

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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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13 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler April 14-20: Action vs. the superfluous

  1. Me

    I wish that pesky Ghost Writer would finish its run i was really hoping to see Greenberg this weekend looks like its not going to happen.

    Ken would you guys ever consider doing tv show reviews i was curious to see what you thought of shows like Treme and Breaking Bad?

  2. Ken Hanke

    Your being very generous to Justin this week, Ken. Are you making up for foisting THE LAST SONG onto him?

    It really is a logistics thing more than anything else, though I do try to see that he gets something tasty once in a while.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I wish that pesky Ghost Writer would finish its run i was really hoping to see Greenberg this weekend looks like its not going to happen

    I’m personally delighted by the performance of Ghost Writer, but this decision had a lot to do with it being hard to open a film with the Hatchfest screenings this weekend. Ghost Writer is holding up nicely, but it will likely be replaced with Greenberg next week. Next week will also see Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother opening at the Carolina.

    Ken would you guys ever consider doing tv show reviews i was curious to see what you thought of shows like Treme and Breaking Bad?

    I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, but it would be difficult and would require a major inducement to get me to undertake it. I’d have a hard time just catching up with the medium. I’m not kidding when I say that I haven’t followed a TV series since Cagney and Lacey went off the air. I don’t think Mythbusters counts, nor does watching the first two seasons (I lost interest after that) of Oz on DVD.

    Still, I would consider it (it’s definitely an area the Xpress overlooks) if it was offered to me. But I’m not watching American Idol or Dancing with the D List Stars.

  4. Me

    Yeah I would’nt expect an American Idol review nor would i want to read it, i was just thinking maybe the the top notch shows on tv.

  5. Ken Hanke

    i was just thinking maybe the the top notch shows on tv.

    Therein, I suspect, lies the central problem — these would have to be chosen somehow and I wouldn’t know where to start. And then I’d need to be brought up to date on the previous episodes. It’s pretty daunting.

  6. Steven

    Roger Ebert really, really didn’t like Kick Ass.

    I can’t say I’m too surprised. His complaints mirror his review of Robocop 2.

  7. Roger Ebert really, really didn’t like Kick Ass.

    No, he really didn’t. Which is odd, as he gave a glowing review to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, to which many of the same arguments could be leveled.

    I would encourage people not to be put off by Ebert’s review and see the film. It might be Vaughan’s best yet. I think it is.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I can’t say I’m too surprised. His complaints mirror his review of Robocop 2.

    Okay, I’m not encyclopaedic on Ebert’s reviews, but did you actually approach this thinking he wouldn’t like it based on him not liking Robocop 2? Granted, I can see certain similarities — but only after reading up on Robocop 2, which I scarcely remember at all.

    Actually, his review for Kick-Ass is kind of odd. At one point he notes that the reasons for the title character becoming a “superhero” are tedious to explain. Then he turns around in the next paragraph and says that the kid’s problems in high school are “engaging.” I’m having trouble putting the two together. Maybe when I see the film it will make sense.

    Ebert is hardly alone in his overall reaction to the film, which makes the film more rather than less interesting to me.

  9. Ken Hanke

    No, he really didn’t. Which is odd, as he gave a glowing review to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, to which many of the same arguments could be leveled

    Although I tend to think the negative reactions to the film are kind of silly (at least in theory, since I have yet to see it), you do have to factor in that the objections have a lot to do with the age of Hit Girl. That does change the dynamic a bit from Inglourious Basterds.

  10. Me

    I don’t understand why every one went bonkers over the Kick Ass trailer. It looked like it was trying to hard to be “edgy”, im tired of super hero comic book movies, when will somebody make the next Crumb or American Splendor.

  11. Ken Hanke

    when will somebody make the next Crumb or American Splendor

    The problem with that is self-evident — they don’t make much money. That makes them a much harder sell to the studios. Nothing to do with the quality of the films, but they’re not commercial.

  12. Vince Lugo

    KEN HANKE: “nothing to do with the quality of the films, but they’re not commercial.”

    This is why Robert Kirkman’s excellent comic “The Walking Dead” is being done as a tv series instead of a movie, by Frank Darabont no less. Yes the story takes place in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse and there’s plenty of zombie related violence (at least in the early parts of the story), but ultimately, that’s not the point and it’s much more of a human story. If it were a movie, it probably wouldn’t do well but as a tv series I think it’ll do just fine.

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