Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Dec. 16-22: Avatar arrives, as do a couple long-awaited titles

In theaters

Before we get down to the theoretical event of the week—and possibly of the year—I want to note that something else is showing up locally this week. I’m not sure I’ve ever fielded more questions about when a movie is going to get here than I have in the case of The Road. Well, here it is—or rather it will be come Friday at the Carmike and the Carolina. And if you’re wondering why it didn’t make it into the print edition of the Xpress this week, blame it on the Weinsteins dragging their feet over the film’s allocation until late in the afternoon (read: post-deadline) yesterday. Now, it’s up to you to get out there and support the film.

A close second in terms of questions about its arrival has been Precious, which also makes its way to Asheville this week—on no less than three screens: the Fine Arts, the Carolina and the Biltmore Grande. I question the wisdom of opening it on that many screens, since the hoopla over the film was over a month ago now. Of course, it is still vying with Up in the Air (which opens next Friday) as the title that seems most likely to snag the Best Picture Oscar, so we’ll see if it is or isn’t being spread too thin. My review of it appears in this week’s Xpress.

And that brings us to the main steaming pop-culture event. Clocking in at 162 minutes and costing a staggering $500 million (including $100 million in promotions), James Cameron’s Avatar comes barreling into town on Friday. In some cases, it comes in late Thursday night with midnight shows. (The only one I have confirmed is Carmike, but I’d be surprised if the other theaters aren’t doing this, as well.) The late show is for the diehards, of course, since by the time trailers have been tacked onto the film you’re looking at three-plus hours. Other points to remember are that you have to plan your viewing if you want to see the theoretically ground-breaking 3-D version. While Avatar is on multiple screens at most venues, not all showings are in 3-D. The Carmike is the area’s only all-digital theater, which means that all shows will be 3-D. The Carolina, the Epic and the Biltmore Grande have one digital house per theater, so only one of their screens will be in 3-D. Of course, the 3-D showings will run $3 to $3.50 extra.

What to make of all this? What indeed. I freely confess I am not excited by the trailers—no, not even the three-and-a-half-minute one. But I also admit that Cameron simply doesn’t make the kind of movies that interest me and nothing about Avatar appears—at least on the surface—likely to change that. The cool effects work isn’t enough to sell me. Is there more than that? We shall see. I’m willing to be persuaded.

Also on tap this week is Marc Lawrence’s romantic comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans?. OK, I like Hugh Grant. I like Lawrence’s other two rom-coms, Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics. So why am I not excited—even slightly—by this? Well, I’m sure it’s partly the fact that I’m not overly fond of Sarah Jessica Parker, but I think it has more to do with the whole tired “city folks out in the country” premise. Nothing about the trailers has done a thing to change my mind.

Still around and worth catching are A Serious Man and An Education, which are sharing the upstairs theater in split shows at the Fine Arts. This will almost certainly be their final week, since The Young Victoria is slated to open on Christmas. Pirate Radio is on for another week at the Carmike, but with Avatar, The Road and Did You Hear About the Morgans being joined on Christmas Day by Sherlock Holmes and Up in the Air, this is probably its last week, too.

On DVD

Inglourious Basterds comes to DVD this week. That’s pretty much all you need to know when all is said and done. At the same time, we do get Ang Lee’s massively undervalued Taking Woodstock, which might find a bigger audience on DVD than it did in theaters. At least I hope it will. Also up are The Hangover and G-Force, neither of which I’ve seen—and no one has convinced me to change that. In the case of G-Force, no one has tried to. The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, on the other hand, I did see. I won’t be seeing it again.

Notable TV screenings

There’s precious little showing up on Turner Classic Movies this week that qualifies as noteworthy. By that I mean, there’s not much that’s out of the way, unusual or rare. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of worthwhile films—only that they’re most movies that crop up pretty frequently.

The Return of Dr. X Wednesday, Dec. 16, 7 a.m., TCM
Here’s an interesting movie that I spent years dismissing—mostly because it has nothing to do with Michael Curtiz’s classic Doctor X (1932). And while there’s no denying that, I suppose there’s some marginal connection between the synthetic flesh of the original and the synthetic blood of the “sequel.” Regardless, I was pushed into reassessing the film when I was asked to write about it as a tie-in with an interview with director Vincent Sherman, whose first film it was. Looked at without thinking about it in terms of the original, it turned out that The Return of Dr. X (1939) was actually a pretty classy and stylish B picture—at least for most of its length. It’s also the only horror film that can claim Humphrey Bogart as its villain. And what a villain he is. It’s a strange performance—silky, effete, possibly even gay. It’s also a rather chilling performance. Bogart plays an executed killer who has been brought back to life by one of those well-meaning but misguided scientists (John Litel). Bogart’s character, Dr. Maurice Xavier, was himself a scientist, who was sent to the chair for starving a baby to death to see how long it would take. (Yes, it’s one of those experiments that seem to have no practical value, but you know how those mad doctors are.) The downside of bringing him back is that keeping him alive requires transfusions of a rare type of blood, turning Xavier into a kind of vampire. All this is good stuff, but then the movie reaches its last section where Jack Warner insisted on doing the one thing he had instructed Sherman not to do, i.e. put Bogie in gangster mode. (Warner’s original instructions were, “For God’s sake, get him to play something other than Duke Mantee,” the role in The Petrified Forest (1936) that got Bogart his contract.) Then Warner turned around and wanted a big shoot-out ending, which effectively required his smooth mad scientist to turn into Duke Mantee. Oh well, the film is still pretty nifty for most of its length.

Silk Stockings Tuesday, Dec. 22, 1 a.m., TCM
Rouben Mamoulian’s Silk Stockings (1957) was pretty much the end of MGM’s cycle of golden-age musicals—and it too often gets short shrift because it’s a musical remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939). In all honesty, it’s not only a first-class musical with some pretty terrific Cole Porter songs (and one not-so-terrific one), it also has a wittier screenplay than Ninotchka. Moving the story to contemporary times and changing a fight over the ownership of some Russian jewels to a fight over a defecting Soviet composer (known for his classic “Ode to a Tractor”) paid serious dividends. The scenes involving George Tobias as the commissar of arts are much funnier than the one given to Bela Lugosi in the original. (It’s hard not to wish to hear Lugosi deliver them.) But, of course, it’s true draw is as a musical, and it certainly scores there. Fred Astaire’s teaming with Cyd Charrise (his second) is a pure delight, and Mamoulian’s mastery of the Cinemascope frame is wonderful—even though he despised the widescreen shape. If you want to compare the two films, TCM is running Ninotchka immediately afterwards.

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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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35 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Dec. 16-22: Avatar arrives, as do a couple long-awaited titles

  1. Dionysis

    “That Bogart picture sounds like quite a number. Is it available on DVD?”

    Yes it is. It is among six movies contained in a box set titled ‘Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection;, which also includes Doctor X, Mad Love, The Devil Doll, Mark of the Vampire and The Mask of Fu Manchu. It retails for $29.99.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Yes it is. It is among six movies contained in a box set titled ‘Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection;, which also includes Doctor X, Mad Love, The Devil Doll, Mark of the Vampire and The Mask of Fu Manchu. It retails for $29.99.

    An excellent summation. I don’t suppose you also know where I put the Doctor X/Return of Dr. X disc, do you? (I think it’s time to clean off the desk…again.)

  3. Dionysis

    ” don’t suppose you also know where I put the Doctor X/Return of Dr. X disc, do you? (I think it’s time to clean off the desk…again.)”

    Check under your coffee cup; they may not be a coaster.

  4. Dread P. Roberts

    Yes it is. It is among six movies contained in a box set titled ‘Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection;, which also includes Doctor X, Mad Love, The Devil Doll, Mark of the Vampire and The Mask of Fu Manchu. It retails for $29.99.

    WOW, that’s quite a package! I’m going to have to throw that on my wish list. Thanks for the info.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Check under your coffee cup; they may not be a coaster

    Naw, wherever it is, it’s still in the slimline case…I assume anyway.

  6. Ken Hanke

    WOW, that’s quite a package!

    You have no idea how difficult it is for me to keep from turning that statement into something dirty.

    I’m going to have to throw that on my wish list.

    Most definitely. It’s a pretty terrific set and the print and transfer quality is excellent. I think the Mark of the Vampire disc includes the trailer with Lugosi talking to the audience (he gets more lines in the trailer than in the film).

  7. Dread P. Roberts

    You have no idea how difficult it is for me to keep from turning that statement into something dirty.

    I’m positive that this wouldn’t be the first time this sentence was taken out of context (probably coming from me, no less), nor will it be the last. But, I mean really, what’s wrong with admiring such a cheep, attractive, immense package?

    It’s a pretty terrific set and the print and transfer quality is excellent.

    I just pulled it up on Amazon, and I am very pleased to see such a favorable response to this. This is a pleasant surprise to come across, and if Christmas wasn’t right around the corner, I would more than likely already be ordering it.

  8. Dread P. Roberts

    …there I go misspelling the word “cheap” again. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I just have some sort of weird, sub-conscious infatuation with the squeaky cry of baby birds, that I’m not aware of.

  9. Dionysis

    “…there I go misspelling the word “cheap” again.

    You’re not alone; I meant to write “that may not be a coaster” but ended up with ‘they’. Less spelling error than simple sloppiness.

  10. Ken Hanke

    But, I mean really, what’s wrong with admiring such a cheep, attractive, immense package?

    Nothing in the least — regardless of whether or not it involves baby birds.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I find it interesting that all we’ve talked about here is a 1939 horror movie and admiring packages. I see no evidence of unconfined joy over the prospect of The Road/

  12. Dionysis

    “I find it interesting that all we’ve talked about here is a 1939 horror movie and admiring packages. I see no evidence of unconfined joy over the prospect of The Road/”

    From what I’ve heard about The Road, it’s a bleak and depressing tale, however well-acted. I’ll have to wait for reviews before I decide to see it.

  13. Dread P. Roberts

    I find it interesting that all we’ve talked about here is a 1939 horror movie and admiring packages. I see no evidence of unconfined joy over the prospect of The Road.

    I’ve read the book, and that was about all the depression that I needed. Classic horror movies from the 30’s are far more interesting to me. Though I do recall seeing several individuals inquire about The Road in these forums, so it is a little odd that no ones said anything.

    The funny thing is that I have a friend who keeps telling me how grim and depressing the book for The Lovely Bones is, and yet I still want to see the movie, and I haven’t been persuaded otherwise.

  14. I’ve spent the day having people verbally assault me for my lack of interest in AVATAR, telling me I’m a fool for not wanting to see it and questioning my love of film. This attitude is starting to really piss me off. Has anyone else been encountering it?

    I’ve taken to telling people this: I have a list of 2009 releases I want to see. The list includes THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS, DISTRICT 9, IT MIGHT GET LOUD, TAKING WOODSTOCK, THE INFORMANT!, A SERIOUS MAN, SHERLOCK HOLMES, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, THE FANTASTIC MR FOX, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS and UP IN THE AIR. If I get through all of those by the end of the year, I’ll go see AVATAR.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I’ve read the book, and that was about all the depression that I needed. Classic horror movies from the 30’s are far more interesting to me.

    I haven’t read the book. (Justin has and that’s why he’ll be reviewing it. He has a much greater literary bent than I do.) I do, on the other hand, agree that classic horror — and even not-so-classic horror — from the 30s is more interesting to me on a wholly personal level. That said, I do intend on seeing The Road.

    Though I do recall seeing several individuals inquire about The Road in these forums, so it is a little odd that no ones said anything

    And that doesn’t even take into account the dozen e-mails I’ve gotten about when it’s going to open. I’ll be interested to see what the turnout is for it this weekend.

    The funny thing is that I have a friend who keeps telling me how grim and depressing the book for The Lovely Bones is, and yet I still want to see the movie, and I haven’t been persuaded otherwise

    I haven’t read the book. I have seen the film and while I can’t say I was wild about it, I didn’t find it particularly depressing. I don’t think it opens wide till mid-January, so I haven’t really toyed with the review of it yet. But all in all, I admired much about the movie, but came away mostly wondering what the point of making it was.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I’ve spent the day having people verbally assault me for my lack of interest in AVATAR, telling me I’m a fool for not wanting to see it and questioning my love of film. This attitude is starting to really piss me off. Has anyone else been encountering it?

    Not so far, though I have had one critic gush over how wonderful the trailer looks — and she was quite shocked when I said I thought it looked terrible. I guess I’ll know soon enough — like in about 6 hours, which means I better stop writing and get a nap in soon.

    I’ve taken to telling people this: I have a list of 2009 releases I want to see. The list includes THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS, DISTRICT 9, IT MIGHT GET LOUD, TAKING WOODSTOCK, THE INFORMANT!, A SERIOUS MAN, SHERLOCK HOLMES, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, THE FANTASTIC MR FOX, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS and UP IN THE AIR. If I get through all of those by the end of the year, I’ll go see AVATAR

    Well, I’ve seen most of your list except for Parnassus and Sherlock Holmes. (I’ll definitely see the latter next week and there’s a slim chance I’ll see the former the following week if a screening can be arranged.) I found Men Who Stare at Goats ultimately a bit disappointing, and have concluded that I really didn’t like Where the Wild Things Are, but otherwise that strikes me as a pretty solid list of things that should be seen. You might want to add Me and Orson Welles to it. I can’t remember if you’ve seen Easy Virtue and/or Tetro.

    At the same time, I have to say that I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing people who have seen Sherlock Holmes froth at the mouth about how it’s a sham of a farce of a mockery or two travesties. I love seeing Sherlockians all wound up like that. Did they think the Basil Rathbone films were faithful adaptations?

  17. You might want to add Me and Orson Welles to it.
    I would, but I can’t seem to find out when we’re getting it down under. I’m very eager to see it though.

    I can’t remember if you’ve seen Easy Virtue and/or Tetro.
    Neither. EASY VIRTUE I definitely want to catch at some point and TETRO is another one that hasn’t reach antipodean shores as of yet, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t exactly the kind of idiosyncratic nuttiness that appeals to me.

    So that’s 15 films to get through before I can devote myself to James Cameron’s ATTACK OF THE SMURFS. Plus coming in early 2010 we have THE WOLFMAN, SHUTTER ISLAND, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and GREEN ZONE, all of which I’m more keen on seeing than AVATAR.

    At the same time, I have to say that I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing people who have seen Sherlock Holmes froth at the mouth about how it’s a sham of a farce of a mockery or two travesties. I love seeing Sherlockians all wound up like that. Did they think the Basil Rathbone films were faithful adaptations?
    The thing is, I’m a pretty die-hard Holmes nut and I think the film looks great from the trailers, and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the characters in Doyle’s stories. Certainly a lot more faithful than the aforementioned Rathbone/Bruce flicks.

  18. Dread P. Roberts

    I do intend on seeing The Road.

    I intend on seeing it too. For what it is, I won’t deny that it looks well made – and I found the book to be very well written from what I can recall. It’s just not something I want to see during the holidays, despite the benefit of the big screen. Perhaps I’ll catch it at the Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company.

    Plus coming in early 2010 we have THE WOLFMAN, SHUTTER ISLAND, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and GREEN ZONE…

    Now that’s a list worth getting excited about!

    The thing is, I’m a pretty die-hard Holmes nut and I think the film looks great from the trailers, and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the characters in Doyle’s stories.

    Aside from Guy Ritchie’s wonderful hyper-stylization, I agree. I feel like the casting is perfect. Really people, what’s wrong with a little stylization? As far as I’m concerned, that just enhances the experience. It’s like putting a spot of bright red color, on the palette of a drab, neutral painting.

  19. Chip Kaufmann

    If Julie Taymor can reinvent TITUS ANDRONICUS & THE TEMPEST why can’t Guy Ritchie reinvent Sherlock Holmes?
    The original stage play by William Gillette wasn’t exactly faithful to Doyle so SH has been reinterpreted from the earliest days.
    There are a handful of great Sherlock movies all different. It’s simply a testament to how great and durable the characters of Holmes and Watson are.

  20. Vince Lugo

    Even Disney has done Holmes (sort of) with The Great Mouse Detective, an underrated film with a fantastic climax inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s equally fantastic “Castle of Cagliostro”. I’m not a big Holmes fan (I just don’t dig Doyle’s style of prose), but I like Robert Downey Jr., so I’ll be trying to see his take on the character.

  21. Ken Hanke

    The thing is, I’m a pretty die-hard Holmes nut and I think the film looks great from the trailers, and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the characters in Doyle’s stories.

    You see, I like the stories — or did last I read them, which is some time ago — but I’m not morbid about it. I like Rathbone-Bruce series and the Arthur Wontner one. I like Hammer’s one-shot. I like Billy Wilder’s film — at least till it gets to the central plot about the Loch Ness Monster and it starts to bore me. I could go on, but the point is these movies aren’t that much alike and they’re not much like the books. Moreover, it’s not exactly like the writings themselves are great literature — they’re populist stuff that happens to have lasted mostly because of the characters. Anyway, if Holmes and Watson can survive the Paul Morrissey Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, they can certainly survive Guy Ritchie.

  22. Ken Hanke

    Really people, what’s wrong with a little stylization?

    You certainly aren’t expecting an argument from me on that point, I hope.

  23. Ken Hanke

    If Julie Taymor can reinvent TITUS ANDRONICUS & THE TEMPEST why can’t Guy Ritchie reinvent Sherlock Holmes?

    I can’t think of a reason myself. I just like watching fanboys of any age or genre get all worked up about something like this. I especially like the assumption that everyone should be outraged. I made the mistake of commenting on my interest in seeing the movie before doing my top 10 in the midst of other critics. My favorite response — apart from the heresy charges — was that one person’s “buddy” had seen it and that it was like Ritchey’s more recent work — “in other words, not good.” The assumption that I would be persuaded by the nameless buddy struck me as somewhat less odd than the presumption that I agreed that Ritchey’s recent work was not good. And at least in the case of RocknRolla I do not agree with that.

  24. Dread P. Roberts

    You certainly aren’t expecting an argument from me on that point, I hope.

    No, absolutely not.

  25. Ken Hanke

    Without giving too much away, what did you think of Avatar?

    Without saying too much — not in the least because I prefer giving a movie as much time as possible to settle in my mind before nattering about it — I’ll say that I didn’t hate it. It’s not at all the sort of movie that excites me, but it was better than I’d expected.

  26. Dread P. Roberts

    Is the ‘revolutionary’ 3-D effects for Dances With Smurfs really all that much more of an improvement over other recent 3-D affair? Do you really ever get use to the video game-ish look of the creatures? How the hell am I supposed to get emotionally involved with these grown up smurfs? Does Dr. Manhattan make a cameo? Why does James Cameron parade about, acting like he’s a movie star, instead of a director? …Alas, so many questions, so little time.

  27. Ken Hanke

    In order — no, your mileage may vary, that’s your call, no (his CGI big blue willie would preclude his presence in a PG-13 movie), because his ego is sufficient.

  28. Dread P. Roberts

    So I just went with a group of people to see Avatar (3-D) yesterday evening. I was pleasantly surprised. Yeah, the script was just as cliché and predictable as other reviewers are claiming (think Dances with Wolves on another planet); but if gorgeous visuals are something that you really enjoy, then do not miss this one on the big screen, or you will regret it. I caught myself on a couple of occasions completely awestruck by the scenery, which is not something that I was expecting. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t have high expectations, and the trailers didn’t do it for me, but I thought the special effects really were truly impressive. Plus, I felt like Cameron actually created competent, well made action sequences. These days that’s a big plus.

  29. Dread P. Roberts

    But do you think it will change film as we know it?

    Hell no. It’s just purdy to look at.

  30. davidf

    “But do you think it will change film as we know it?”

    If nothing else, maybe it’ll keep Robert Zemeckis’ future motion capture stuff from looking so damned creepy.

  31. Sean Williams

    The Apocalypse of Saint John offers conclusive proof that Robert Zemeckis is the False Prophet:

    And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live.

    “And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak…”

    Doesn’t that sound exactly like motion capture?

    Also, I’m pretty sure that this encoded message refers to Forrest Gump:

    http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/uncyclopedia/images/c/c1/Biblecoderetard.PNG

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