Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Feb. 10-16: A werewolf for Valentine’s Day

In theaters

The pickings look decidedly less grim this week than last. And there’s undeniably something for just about everyone, running the gamut from PG- to R-rated fare. Now, exactly how well each category is represented remains to be seen.

Though it was obvious that the idea was that Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief would be the “next” Harry Potter, those prospects become dimmer by the moment. Yes, they brought in Chris Columbus to direct, hoping he’d bring whatever magic he gave to the first two Harry Potter movies. After Rent (2005) and I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009), Columbus was probably hoping that would be the case, too. So where’s the big push? Why has the film been kept from critics (if we exempt those Australian professional enthusiasts from Urban Cinephiles)? Both are good questions.

It’s also worth looking at the parade of young adult and children’s literature adaptations that have already come and gone without getting near Harry Potter levels: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007),  The Golden Compass (2007), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008). These films—at least two of which have genuine merit—now lay scattered like so many blown roses across the garden of pop culture. If they couldn’t make the grade, I don’t hold out much hope for tales involving re-monkeyed Greek deities. On top of that, there’s the very telling fact that the film hasn’t been booked on more than one screen per theater locally, signaling that expectations are generally not high.

Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day has a built-in audience based on star power and the fact that a movie called Valentine’s Day that’s released on Valentine’s Day weekend would almost have to work at it not to succeed on some level. Yesterday, when I wrote the blurbs on the upcoming films for the print edition of the paper, Valentine’s Day only had one rather gushy review from Urban Cinephile (again). Today, the trades—Hollywood Reporter and Variety—have weighed in. To say they have not been kind is being kind. I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt at this point, since I’m not expecting anything more than good-looking fluff.

And then there’s The Wolfman, which actually seems to have the most hopes pinned on it. It’s certainly the film I’m most interested in seeing. Of course, all the delays and all the build-up might well be setting us up for a huge letdown. Classic horror fans are skeptical, of course, with the memory of Van Helsing (2004) still fresh in their minds. But this is clearly a more seriously intended work—whatever it is. And whatever it is, is more and more open to question. A couple weeks ago, it supposedly ran 102 minutes. Then a 125-minute running time popped up. The theaters have it down at 112 to 117 minutes. Who knows? I guess we’ll find out come Friday.

Still hanging on are The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Carolina), A Single Man (Fine Arts and the Carolina), Crazy Heart (Fine Arts, the Carolina and Regal Biltmore), Sherlock Holmes (Carmike) and Up in the Air (Carmike and the Carolina). An Education is still at the Carolina this coming week, but cut down to three shows a day. Anyone still wanting to catch Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans needs to make haste to the Fine Arts, because after Thursday, it’s only going to be a hallucinatory memory. This Thursday is also the final day for Fantastic Mr. Fox at Asheville Pizza and Brewing.

On DVD

You can ignore the rest, but the Coen Brothers’ Oscar-nominated A Serious Man comes out this week. If you haven’t seen it, you should—especially if you want to be up on your Oscar nominees. Also out are The Time Traveler’s Wife (did pretty lame in theaters), Couples Retreat (as bad as you might expect) and The Stepfather (even worse than you might expect). Stick with the Coens.

Notable TV screenings

Roberta 6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 11, TCM
William A. Seiter’s Roberta (1935) has always been the most overlooked of the Astaire-Rogers films from their greatest period. In part, this was due to the fact that MGM bought it from RKO in order to do a remake, and—as was typical of MGM—then suppressed the original to prevent “unfortunate” comparisons with their version. This kept the film unseen for a very long time. As often happens, this factor played against the film when it did become available. People expected too much and the film was branded a disappointment. It doesn’t help that the film is something of a step back from The Gay Divorcee (1934), because it returns Fred and Ginger to the status of second leads—à la Flying Down to Rio (1933)—with their story being subordinate to that of Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. Know these things going in, however, and Roberta is a film of no little charm. Even the Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne parts (Dunne gets to sing “Yesterdays,” “Lovely to Look At” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) are pretty good. Fred and Ginger aren’t badly treated either. They’re given much better comedy routines here than they were in Flying Down to Rio, and then there’s “Let’s Begin,” “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” “I Won’t Dance” and a terrific ballroom dance to a medley of songs from the film. It may not be their best film, but it’s certainly far from their worst.

Call Me Madam 10 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 11, TCM
Ethel Merman never quite worked in the movies, though she certainly made a few. She was too big, too brassy, too Broadway for mass consumption. The one real exception to this is Walter Lang’s 1953 film of the stage show Call Me Madam, which Merman had starred in for a whopping 644 performances. The thinly-veiled comedic take on the real-life Perle Mesta who had been appointed ambassador to Luxembourg by President Truman was perfect for Merman. The story itself is fictional, and Mesta’s name is changed to Sally Adams and the country fictionalized as Lichtenburg, but there was never any doubt who Merman was playing—nor is there any doubt that it’s supposed to be Harry Truman who is constantly calling Merman to complain about the critical reception being given to daughter Margaret Truman’s attempt at a singing career. A treasure trove of Irving Berlin songs helps immensely, as does the participation of George Sanders (an excellent romantic partner for Merman), Donald O’Connor and Billy De Wolfe. Even Vera Ellen, who usually annoys me, comes off nicely. It’s a big, fun musical that isn’t seen as much as it should be.

High Society 8 a.m.,  Sunday, Feb. 14, TCM
No, Charles Walters’ music High Society (1956) isn’t in the same league as George Cukor’s non-musical version of the same play, The Philadelphia Story (1940). It’s grotesquely over-lit and often awkwardly staged. Subordinate players like Louis Calhern and Sidney Blackmer suffer tremendously when compared to the actors in the original. But Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Celeste Holm stand in remarkably well for Cary Grant, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburm and Ruth Hussey and that pushes the film from mediocrity to a genuine pleasure. The Cole Porter songs certainly help. (I confess that my parents’ soundtrack album from the film was my first great musical passion—around the age of 4.) For everything it might lack, there are few delights to equal Bing and Sinatra performing “Well, Did You Evah?.” And the big love song “True Love” has the interesting distinction of having been covered by George Harrison on his 33 1/3 album. All this and Louis Armstrong, too.

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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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9 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Feb. 10-16: A werewolf for Valentine’s Day

  1. All I know about “The Lightening Thief” is that a large percentage of the 10 to 15-year-old crowd can’t wait to see it. Because of that, I’m surprised it’s only booked at one theater locally.

    Both my daughter and I loved the book, so we’ll give the movie a chance.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Oops, you said one screen per theater, which means, I assume, it’s showing at more than one?

    Yes, it’s booked at every first-run theater except Fine Arts, Cinebarre and Beaucatcher, but no one has it on more than one screen. That’s unusual for a movie that’s expected to do significant business. Even Valentine’s Day and The Wolfman are booked for multiple screens at some local venues. For whatever reason, theater chains are apparently no longer expecting big things out of it.

  3. The Lightning Thief should be huge, but Mr. Columbus’ name scares me. My kids will drag me to it anyway.

    One huge release on dvd is the British prison biopic BRONSON. Absolutely amazing film with some tips of the hat to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and will be a huge cult hit for years to come.

    Also is the two volume Sony collection BAD GILS OF FILM NOIR… each with four films apiece.

  4. Ken Hanke

    The Lightning Thief should be huge, but Mr. Columbus’ name scares me. My kids will drag me to it anyway.

    I’m making no value judgment, though I don’t think the trailer looks very good. I’m merely noting that the film isn’t being pushed or booked as if there’s much faith in it. That usually means that the studio wasn’t thrilled with the results. That’s not to say that studios can’t be wrong. (The producer of Se7en got one look at the finished film and was certain he’d never get work again.)

    I think what a lot of people miss is that the Harry Potter phenomenon came about because a lot — maybe most — of the readership was way past the target range of the material, and not because parents were reading their children’s books. They were being read by older high school and college age folks. I don’t see the books in question here being carted around by that set.

  5. Yes, they brought in Chris Columbus to direct, hoping he’d bring whatever magic he gave to the first two Harry Potter movies.
    Columbus brought all the magic of a chartered accountancy convention to his Potter movies.

    For everything it might lack, there are few delights to equal Bing and Sinatra performing “Well, Did You Evah?.”
    One of the few tunes I’m unable to skip if it comes on my iPod while on random selection.

    Have you heard? Professor Much ate his wife and divorced this lunch!

  6. Ken Hanke

    Columbus brought all the magic of a chartered accountancy convention to his Potter movies.

    That’s rather unfair. He faithfully brought the books to the screen with solid professionalism. There’s something to be said for that. That does not change the fact that everyone who has come after him did a better job.

    For everything it might lack, there are few delights to equal Bing and Sinatra performing “Well, Did You Evah?.”
    One of the few tunes I’m unable to skip if it comes on my iPod while on random selection

    You know the CD version is slightly cut for reasons I don’t understand. When Bing does his “ba ba ba bum” and Sinatra sings, “Don’t dig that kind of croonin’, chum,” that’s followed in the film and on the LP with Bing responding, “You must be one of the newer fellows.” The CD drops that line and kills the joke. Unfortunately, you can probably imagine what condition the once-favorite record of a four-year-old is in today.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Oh, and I erred. Well, I didn’t so much err as I finally got the listings from the not very helpful Biltmore Grande and they are putting in two prints of Percy Jackson — as well as two prints of the other openers.

    And, Jeremy, you live in Australia, can you shed some light on who these Urban Cinephile folks, who seem to a.) see everything before anyone else, and b.) tend to gush over most of it are?

  8. Ken Hanke

    Just received a pretty reliable review on The Wolfman from a pretty reliable film historian, Bill Warren. I would call the review respectful and respectable without being anywhere near over the moon (full or otherwise). However, it has not dampened my curiosity to see for myself…tomorrow.

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