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.
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.