Last week it was stuff blowing up, Meryl Streep trussing ducks, psychos in paradise and a quirky comedy romance. This week it’s all about aliens in a prison camp, time travel, an anime goldfish princess, car salesmen and high-school band high jinks. No, unfortunately, this isn’t all contained in the same movie—then they’d have something. Instead, what we have are five different movies wandering (in one case, slinking) into town.
District 9 is easily the most anticipated of the lot. This sci-fi tale—with allegorical overtones—about aliens (the outer-space kind) in a prison camp in South Africa has gotten a lot of press. Better still, it’s gotten a lot of positive press. The fact that Peter Jackson’s name is on it—as producer, not writer/director—almost certainly helps. But the word is that it’s an intelligent film that doesn’t forget to be hardcore sci-fi in the bargain—and R-rated sci-fi at that. It is said to be very violent and gory. Then again, I never cease to be surprised by the weak tea that gets tagged as violent and gory when such things stray outside the horror genre. If you’re really jazzed about this one, some theaters—I know the Carmike and the Cinebarre are among them—are opening the movie at midnight on Thursday. (Well, 12:01 a.m., so it’s technically Friday morning to keep the studio happy.)
The next most anticipated movie ought to be The Time Traveler’s Wife, with its best-selling source novel and stars (Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams), but reviews are barely starting to surface and a gushing review from Pete Hammond isn’t selling me on anything. Justin Chang in Variety calls it “fairly irresistible nonsense,” while Kirk Honeycutt in The Hollywood Reporter finds it considerably more resistible. The real question to me is whether fans of romance pictures and fans of sci-fi movies are all that interchangeable.
More interesting, though perhaps less mainstream, is Ponyo, the latest animated film from Hayao Miyazaki. Anime fans are certain to want to see this, since Miyazaki is a god in that circle. This, however, is more of a children’s film than Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth considering—especially if you have kids you might generally leave at home for an evening at the Fine Arts Theatre. This time you can take them with you.
The less said about Bandslam the better. At least that’s my guess, though the trades—Variety and The Hollywood Reporter—weighed in positively on it, but neither sent their top critics to it. Truthfully, it’s probably harmless, which is more than I can say about The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard—a comedy starring Jeremy Piven that scales the heights of obnoxiousity in its trailer. The prospect of adding 87-and-a-half minutes to that trailer alarms me.
It’s worth noting that Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro still has a couple more days at the Fine Arts before it moves out to make room for Ponyo on Friday. (500) Days of Summer is still in town, too. The Hurt Locker is holding at the Carolina Asheville and expanding to the Carmike 10.
Unless Marc from Orbit DVD shows up to announce something, this isn’t an exciting week for DVD releases. I Love You, Man is coming out, as is 17 Again. I never saw either one, but then again no one has ever convinced me that I need to. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone’s even tried. The French film The Class also makes its debut. It’s a good film—and if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look—but I can’t get excited about seeing it a second time. If I’d made the leap to Blu-ray, I’d be all about picking up Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, but I haven’t made that leap, so I’m only looking at it for future reference.
Notable TV screenings
Strange Interlude TCM, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 6 a.m
I’m not sure why anyone would start a day-long set of Clark Gable movies with the 1932 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, but TCM is doing just that. If you’re not up on your O’Neill, Strange Interlude is fairly typical—all about insanity and repression and family skeletons. In other words, the usual cheery stuff. It differs, however, in that this is the play where people “think” aloud. You may have seen it parodied in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930) where Groucho says, “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude,” whereupon the others in the scene freeze in position while he steps forward and speaks his thoughts. Well, the play worked that way, too. As a consequence, Strange Interlude takes five-plus hours to perform. With judicious pruning and the use of voice-over on the soundtrack, the movie gets this down to 109 minutes. The rest of the cast no longer freezes when someone thinks, which is a plus, but the approach makes the thoughts sound rushed. Well, it’s interesting, unusual and only occasionally outright funny.
Red Dust TCM, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 8 p.m.
As the day of Clark Gable stretches into night, Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932) steals onto the scene—and it’s a pre-code trash masterpiece with Gable overseeing a rubber plantation in French Indochina (Vietnam) where a sharp-tongued lady of easy (or nonexistent) virtue played by Jean Harlow shows up and takes up loose-living residence with him. The arrangement more or less works till the rubber company sends out Gene Raymond and his very proper wife, Mary Astor. It doesn’t take a Hollywood scriptwriter to figure out where this is going to lead, but here it happens in very pre-code ways that are still refreshing in their harshly cynical manner. It’s worth it alone to see Harlow read a bedtime story (“A chipmunk and a rabbit. I wonder how this works out?”)—not to mention the scene where she cleans out the parrot cage and looks at the offending bird and asks, “What you been eatin’? Cement?” The film is followed by John Ford’s remake Mogambo. I can’t really recommend you bother with that.
To Sir, With Love TCM, Friday, Aug. 14, 6 p.m.
James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love (1967) pops up as part of a Sidney Poitier set of movies—complete with Lulu singing the title song. This is something of an oddity, since it’s part of what can loosely be called the “British Invasion” in movies, yet it boasts an American star with Poitier, which makes it seem less so. That said, Clavell uses many of the effects—the school-outing montage, for example—of the Invasion school, while mixing them with something of the earlier “kitchen sink” British school of realism. Story wise, this is one of those “teacher who made a difference” affairs, but it’s perhaps the best and most entertaining one ever made.
Love Letters TCM, Monday, Aug. 17, 6 p.m.
Jennifer Jones—aka Mrs. David O. Selznick—can be one of the most annoying and amateurish actresses ever. And she’s not free of the things that make her annoying in William Dieterle’s Love Letters (1945). Her appalling habit of holding her eyes so wide open that you can see the white all the way around the pupil and her penchant for showing off more teeth than the law allows is very much in evidence. (You’d swear there was someone just off camera hissing, “Eyes and teeth!” at her.) But the film is such a gloriously romantic bit of nonsense thanks to Dieterle’s direction and the presence of Joseph Cotten in the male lead that you might not mind. The concept is a strange blend of Cyrano de Bergerac and cheesy melodrama. Cotten wrote love letters for a friend during the war, and said letters sold the guy to Jones. Unfortunately, he couldn’t live up to those letters, and bad things—including murder and madness—followed. Of course, Cotten himself falls in love with Jones in the aftermath and tries to sort it all out. It’s overheated rubbish—the screenplay is by Ayn Rand of all people—but it’s terrific overheated rubbish.
Portrait of Jennie TCM, Monday, Aug. 17, 8 p.m.
Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten and William Dieterle are back with Portrait of Jennie (1948), which is probably the most romantic movie ever made. It’s also one where Jones’ acting actually works. The film is a romantic fantasy, with Cotten as a struggling painter who meets a strange little girl (Jones) who grows into adulthood over the space of a few weeks. Of course, she turns out to be from another time altogether. Though only 86 minutes long, the film is an elaborate affair—complete with a very convincing hurricane at the end. Dieterle lays on every effect at his disposal—putting textured screens over some shots, tinting the hurricane scenes green, throwing in a Technicolor shot—and the whole thing is awash in Debussy (as remonkeyed for the movie by Dmitri Tiomkin). There’s a kind of draggy section involving Cotten painting a mural in an Irish bar, but overall this is a kind of masterpiece.