Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Aug. 12-18: Aliens, time travel and anime

In theaters

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.

On DVD

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.

 

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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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25 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Aug. 12-18: Aliens, time travel and anime

  1. Dionysis

    As a big fan of sci-fi/horror movies (especially when there are aliens involved), I am among the “jazzed” about District 9. Maybe not jazzed enough to hit a midnight screening on a work night, but pretty jazzed nonetheless.

    My answer to your question “whether fans of romance pictures and fans of sci-fi movies are all that interchangeable” is an emphatic ‘no’. The previews of ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ seemed to put it more in the ‘romance pictures’ category. This is one that I’ll actually decide whether to see it or not largely (or maybe exclusively) based upon your review.

    As for the animated films, the usual: eh.

  2. Dionysis

    Oh, and re: ‘To Sir, With Love’ (one of my favorite films), I’d tried for a couple of years to locate a copy of this at a reasonable price, as it has been out-of-print for years now. In the after-market, it’s going from around $40 used to over $100 new (I kid you not). Two weeks ago, I was perusing the discount DVD bin at Big Lots and found a stack of about 8 or 10 copies for $3 a pop! And in widescreen, no less.

    I love it when that happens.

  3. Dread P. Roberts

    I’m very interested in District 9 in a ‘curious if it’s really that good’ sort of way. I am holding out for more reviews before I make the leap to see it in theaters. Also, even though I myself am not really a big anime fan, I love Hayao Miyazaki’s work. He’s never disappointed before, but for some reason the trailer for Ponyo just doesn’t have me as exited as I want to be.

    The real question to me is whether fans of romance pictures and fans of sci-fi movies are all that interchangeable.

    Well, even though I never actually saw it, there’s The Lake House – just like this new flick, the trailer actually kind of reminded me of yet another time-bending, sci-fi romance caper – Somewhere in Time (1980) with Christopher Reeve. Also, even though there isn’t any time traveling involved, Ghost was a pretty big hit for this weird sci-fi romance sub-genre. I’m sure there are others that I’m not thinking of right now, so the genre is hardly a new idea (not that you’re saying it is).

  4. Dionysis

    “Have you seen the trailer for Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”? That’s an upcoming animated film that has me excited!”

    No, in all honesty I haven’t, and I tend to tune animated films out. However, I’ll check out the trailer. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. Two weeks ago, I was perusing the discount DVD bin at Big Lots and found a stack of about 8 or 10 copies for $3 a pop! And in widescreen, no less.

    I go there every two weeks or so. I found a bunch of Warners musicals, FREAKS, and Paul Bartel’s PRIVATE PARTS. Can’t beat those!

    There is actually quite a bit of interesting titles out this week. The very limited ALIEN TRESPASS is out… kind of a spoof of 50s sci-fi. Whether it can beat the incredible LOST SKELETON OF CADAVARA we shall see. The quirky indie romance GIGANTIC stars the eternal “it” girl Zooey Deschanel and new “it” boy Paul Dano. Two television shows are out: the reboot of 90120 and the VERY VERY funny British PULLING SEASON 2. Read the bold letters… do NOT miss PULLING!

    Besides THE CLASS, French films are well represented with PARIS 36 and APRES LUI, with Catherine Deneuve.

    More oddball stuff. The INGLORIOUS BASTERDS piggybacking is upon us with the Italian war film EAGLES OVER LONDON. Also out is a Rudolph Valentino collection, Japanese pink (A TALE OF SORROW), the “scandalous” DEVIL IN THE FLESH and my favorite genre, spaghetti Western (ARIZONA COLT RETURNS).

  6. Ken Hanke

    Two weeks ago, I was perusing the discount DVD bin at Big Lots and found a stack of about 8 or 10 copies for $3 a pop! And in widescreen, no less.

    Was it anamorphically enhanced for widescreen TVs? I might go look if it was. My DVD has a full-screen version on one side. It’s supposed to have a letterboxed version on the other. In actual fact, it has a Godzilla movie.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I’m very interested in District 9 in a ‘curious if it’s really that good’ sort of way.

    That’s pretty much where I am. Big fuss and all, the trailer simply doesn’t do much for me. I guess I’ll know soon enough.

    I’m sure there are others that I’m not thinking of right now, so the genre is hardly a new idea (not that you’re saying it is).

    Most of the titles mentioned seem more fantasy than sci-fi to me (which may be the case here) — in fact, they kind of seem to have more in common with Portrait of Jennie than not.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Have you seen the trailer for Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”? That’s an upcoming animated film that has me excited!

    Gotta admit the draw for me is more that it’s Wes Anderson than that it’s animated.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I go there every two weeks or so. I found a bunch of Warners musicals, FREAKS, and Paul Bartel’s PRIVATE PARTS. Can’t beat those!

    I am forever hearing of such finds, but never seem to experience them first-hand. Timing must be everything.

  10. Dionysis

    “Was it anamorphically enhanced for widescreen TVs?”

    While I haven’t opened it yet, it states that it is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen.

  11. Dread P. Roberts

    Any word on if the rock-doc “It Might Get Loud” is going to play in Asheville?

  12. Ken Hanke

    Any word on if the rock-doc “It Might Get Loud” is going to play in Asheville?

    Not so far. Documentaries are a hard sell (as a rule, they’re my least favorite type of film, for that matter) unless they’re signed by Michael Moore. Because of that, there are also fewer prints made of them, meaning that it usually takes a while for them to filter down to the hinterlands.

  13. Dread P. Roberts

    Documentaries are a hard sell (as a rule, they’re my least favorite type of film, for that matter)

    Oh, I would usually agree (although I was very fond of last years “Man on Wire“). In most cases, if given the choice, I would much prefer a more cinematic, fantastical world in which to escape – I really am quit baffled by this recent trend of people defending movies with unlikable characters (among other things) in light of the fact that they are supposedly ‘realistically’ portrayed. Why the hell would anyone think that ‘realism’, for it’s own sake, automatically makes a movie better? Despite the subjective nature of movies, I still don’t see the basis for an argument over the belief that realism automatically equals quality. But I’m obviously not really talking solely about documentaries, so I’ll get back to that. Believe it or not, I’ve never, ever actually seen a documentary in a theater. In fact, as far as I can recall, Man on Wire was the first one that I wished I had seen in theaters. My interest for “It Might Get Loud” is mainly generated by the presence of Jimmy Page, and Jack White to a slightly lesser degree.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Oh, I would usually agree (although I was very fond of last years “Man on Wire”). In most cases, if given the choice, I would much prefer a more cinematic, fantastical world in which to escape

    In the immortal words of Quentin Crisp, “Even the worst movie is at least better than real life.”

    Believe it or not, I’ve never, ever actually seen a documentary in a theater

    So you’re the one who’s responsible for documentaries not doing well in theaters, eh?

    My interest for “It Might Get Loud” is mainly generated by the presence of Jimmy Page, and Jack White to a slightly lesser degree

    I can understand the former at least, but it’s the dynamic of this that’s the real problem with documentaries. Even more than with narrative film your interest level in a documentary is going to hinge almost entirely on what it’s a documentary about.

  15. Dread P. Roberts

    I just hopped over to RT to check out the status of oddly lavishing praise given to “District 9“; and as luck would have it, the glorious Armond White has posted the first negative review. As of now, he has a mere 402 negative, sci-fi fan-boy bashing comments. I just felt inclined to share my ethereal (perhaps an exaggeration) comical amusement.

  16. Kevin F.

    Timing is everything at Big Lots. I’ve made some massive finds there, other times I’ve gone once a week for weeks in a row and found nothing.

    The Warners deals have been insane. I recently watched GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 and have a bunch of great things like EACH DAWN I DIE, QUEEN CHRISTINA, and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY to watch eventually. All $3, of course. To say nothing of the $3 MGM/UA titles I bought nearly two years ago (again, for $3) that I still have not watched.

  17. Ken Hanke

    As of now, he has a mere 402 negative, sci-fi fan-boy bashing comments.

    And of those maybe five or six have actually seen the movie.

    Here’s the thing — I’ve seen the film and think White’s wrong, but at the same time, I’m not particularly perturbed by him being “wrong.”

  18. Dread P. Roberts

    And of those maybe five or six have actually seen the movie.

    Yeah, that’s the part that makes me shake my head in sorrow over the shear pathetic nature of it all. Every time. Truth is, I doubt that it’s even that many of these kids that have seen this.

    Here’s the thing—I’ve seen the film and think White’s wrong

    So, without really saying anything about the movie, would it be worth it for me to see it this weekend?

    I’m not particularly perturbed by him being “wrong.”

    Neither am I. I can’t recall ever really being perturbed solely on the basis of another persons opinion of a movie. As I’ve stated in the past, this is something I just don’t fully understand. But I am ‘amused’ by all of this nonetheless. When I saw that this little sci-fi caper had an RT score of 100% on Tuesday, I was almost waiting in anticipation for this silly moment.

  19. Ken Hanke

    So, without really saying anything about the movie, would it be worth it for me to see it this weekend?

    Yes. I will also say this much (for what it’s worth) — I’m not sure what I thought the film was going to be like, but whatever that was, the film itself was nothing like my imagining.

    When I saw that this little sci-fi caper had an RT score of 100% on Tuesday, I was almost waiting in anticipation for this silly moment.

    Oh, I understand that. What baffles me is this fanboy (someone will object to my use of that term, no doubt) mindset that fixates on this 100% rating. I’ve even seen them worry that “someone’s going to come along and ruin it.” How shaky must one’s conviction about the quality of a thing be that a single voice of dissent could undermine that conviction? Put another way, aren’t there a number of people you’d just as soon didn’t share your tastes?

  20. Dread P. Roberts

    Put another way, aren’t there a number of people you’d just as soon didn’t share your tastes?

    Absolutely!

  21. Dread P. Roberts

    I’m not sure what I thought the film was going to be like, but whatever that was, the film itself was nothing like my imagining.

    Wow…I can now fully appreciate and agree with this assertion, having seen this movie last night, and it’s still resonating in my mind. What a pleasant surprise! I can’t recall ever seeing a movie about aliens with so much humanity. I actually found myself caring about these aliens that had previously looked so generic to me in the trailer(s). Best alien movie that I’ve seen to date? Perhaps, but I need a little more time to let it fully sink in.

  22. Ken Hanke

    Wow…I can now fully appreciate and agree with this assertion

    I was hoping that vague statement would become clear.

  23. Pieter W

    District 9 was a pleasant surprise. I am so happy that it turned out the way it did since I’d been getting excited about the movie about a month before its release, which is something that I normally don’t do since I don’t want to disappoint myself.

    Being a South African and an avid fan of sci-fi, this film was definitely double the fun. A refreshing break from the usual Hollywood routine (while still having aspects of a blockbuster film).

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