Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Dec. 30-Jan. 5: A nice breather

After weeks of heavy-duty release schedules, it turns out that nobody is opening anything on Jan. 1. In fact, if it weren’t for a press screening of The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus (which opens next Friday), we wouldn’t have any movie reviews in next week’s paper—something I can’t recall ever happening. (There’s one other possible screening, but it’s up in the air right now.) Really, this isn’t such a bad thing from my perspective, since Mr. Souther and I have to do our 10 Best and 10 Worst lists for the first issue of the new year—not to mention the extended online version, which will include our combined efforts to come up with the 100 Best of the decade. It’s probably not a bad thing from your perspective either, since it affords some extra time to catch up with what’s already out there.

One thing that ought to be noted in terms of catching up is that Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles was so steamrolled by bigger titles—not to mention a lot of people being behind on their viewing because of the snow—that it closes after only one week. This is very unfortunate, because it’s a really great little movie that deserved support, but that’s not something it received. It’ll be at the Carolina through Thursday, so get there if you can. I do not think you’ll regret it. The one positive thing about this is that they’re bringing Fantastic Mr. Fox back to replace it.

Now that Sherlock Holmes has had its bang-up opening weekend and people have had time to see Avatar, I’m hoping to see at least a little more attention given over to other worthy movies that were overshadowed by their popularity. While Sherlock Holmes is a terrific picture and certainly deserved its reception, it’s a shame to see such worthy fare as Up in the Air and The Young Victoria being almost overlooked in the rush to see the “bigger” movies. While it’s deeply flawed, I’d also say that Rob Marshall’s Nine (review appears in this week’s Xpress) is worth a look—and maybe more.

And just in case you find yourself with a little spare time on your hands, it’s worth noting that Asheville Pizza and Brewing is bringing in Pirate Radio for its 10 p.m. set starting this Friday. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you have, it’s a movie I find merits more than one viewing.

On DVD

The mainstream titles this week aren’t exactly inspiring, though 9 is not without interest and Jennifer’s Body should have done better at the box office than it did. Paranormal Activity was a kind of fluke-event movie and the event is over. It was a better movie than I expected, but it’s not something I can imagine ever watching again. A Perfect Getaway, on the other hand, is a movie I regret having seen even once. I strongly advise against it. All in all, it’s just not much of a week.

Notable TV screenings

Trader Horn Saturday, Jan. 2, 6:30 a.m., TCM
Perched in some never-never land between a preposterous African adventure and a quasi-documentary is W.S. Van Dyke’s Trader Horn (1931), the first big talkie location shoot. In some ways, it’s responsible for Van Dyke’s Tarzan the Ape Man, which came out the following year, since much of the backbone of Tarzan comes from left-over location footage Van Dyke shot in Africa making Trader Horn. The movie is more of a curio than anything else, though it’s an undeniably entertaining curio. The plot has Trader Horn (Harry Carey) and his greenhorn companion Peru (Duncan Renaldo in the world’s damnedest pith helmet)—along with Horn’s faithful gun bearer Rencharo (the film’s only actual African native, Mutia Omoolu, who probably gives the best performance in the film)—searching for Nina (Edwina Booth), the daughter of a missionary (Olive Carey). Unbelievably, Nina has become “The White Goddess” to a savage tribe that captures our heroes. What follows is predictable, and it’s all pretty silly—and frequently wanting in the politically correct department—but it’s also fascinating.

W.C. Fields triple feature Sunday, Jan. 3, starting at 8 p.m., TCM
TCM serves up an odd assortment of W.C. Fields movies with It’s a Gift (1934), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) and If I Had a Million (1932). The first, It’s a Gift, is generally considered Fields’ best. I have a personal preference for the same year’s You’re Telling Me, but it’s a near thing. This is Fields at both the top of his game and at his most unfettered by studio interference. He plays henpecked husband Harold Bissonette (pronounced “Bis-o-nay” out of deference to his would-be snob wife), who runs (ineptly) a New Jersey grocery store, but dreams of buying an “orange ranch” in California—a dream that comes true when his Uncle Bean dies. It’s a rather shabby, shambling movie that breaks down into various comic set pieces, but that’s part of its charm—that and Fields in a perfect blend of the sarcastic and the sympathetic. His encounter with the blind Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon), who blissfully ploughs his cane through a plate glass door (“Had that door closed again, huh?”), is a gem, as is the rightly famous sleeping-porch sequence.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (which Fields wanted to call The Great Man) is Fields’ last starring film. Its plot is nearly surrealistic, with Fields playing himself. A large chunk of the film consists of him reading his latest script to a studio executive (Franklin Pangborn), which, of course, is translated into the imaginary film. It’s definitely odd and a lot of it’s funny, but the film is also saddled with too much of Universal child star Gloria Jean singing (Gloria Jean was the studio’s answer to their own Deanna Durbin, which never made a lot of sense). The bigger problem—for me, anyway—is the decision to end the film with a big slapstick chase sequence. Oh, it’s nicely done and Fields’ asides keep it amusing enough, but it really isn’t Fields at his best. However, there’s enough about the film to keep it afloat in over capacities.

If I Had a Million isn’t really a Fields’ movie, but an all-star (extending to the directors) series of stories that are held together by a dying millionaire (Richard Bennett) giving his millions away—one million at a time—to a variety of Paramount contract stars. Some of these are great, some not so much. Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland have perhaps the best sequence, while Gary Cooper (the biggest star in the movie) gets the worst. Fields and Alison Skipworth have a nice bit as a pair of retired vaudevillians who buy a fleet of cars and go around punishing rude drivers (called “roadhogs”). It is perhaps the first use of road rage in a film. Also very worth catching the film for is the Charles Laughton sequence directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The director is the real star here, an assessment you’ll understand when you see the very stylish and almost silent sequence.

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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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3 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Dec. 30-Jan. 5: A nice breather

  1. Vince Lugo

    I look forward to seeing your picks for best of the decade. I would argue that Shrek 2 deserves a place on the list. Not only is it Dreamworks Animation’s finest film overall, but it has, in my opinion, one of the best and most exciting climaxes of any film this decade (starting with the line “We’re going to need flour. Lots and lots of flour.”). When they made Shrek the Third, it’s like they knew they could never top Shrek 2 and didn’t even try and that’s why that film was so disappointing.

  2. Ken Hanke

    While I like Shrek 2 a lot — and the original, for that matter — I have to admit that it’s not really a movie that has stayed with me.

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