A few goodies come our way this week. The splendid The Last Station opens Friday at the Fine Arts and The Oscar-Nominated Short Films (both live-action and animated) does the same at the Carolina. Both of these are reviewed in this week’s Xpress, so I’ll say no more about them here, other than to note that these offer the chance to expand your knowledge of what’s up for Oscars this year.
The big news otherwise, of course, is the arrival of the new Martin Scorsese picture Shutter Island—a film everyone was shocked to see removed from the awards season lists, especially in favor of a February release. The question is, why the delay? The film has a strong cast—Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson—and a genuinely creepy trailer. Plus, it’s a Scorsese film, which is a sure sign of generating some degree of interest right there—at least among people who actually care about movies. So what’s the deal? Rumor is that the film has played well with test audiences, but few major critics have weighed in on it yet, so it remains shrouded in mystery. I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s a mystery I’m particularly keen on solving.
As I was writing those words, the trades—Variety and Hollywood Reporter—have been added to the early reviews, and both are positive, well, in their way. Kirk Honeycutt writes in the Reporter, “Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a remarkable high-wire act, performed without a net and exploiting all the accumulated skills of a consummate artist. It dazzles and provokes. But since when did Scorsese become a circus performer?” He goes on to praise the film, but pegs the film as “lesser” Scorsese in that it isn’t “deep.” In Variety, Todd McCarthy opines, “Expert, screw-turning narrative filmmaking put at the service of old-dark-madhouse claptrap, Shutter Island arguably occupies a similar place in Martin Scorsese’s filmography as The Shining does in Stanley Kubrick’s.” Just to be sure we don’t take that as unstinting praise, he later remarks, “This is high-end popcorn fare adorned with a glittering pedigree by a powerhouse cast and crew.” You know, there’s a lot to be said for high-end popcorn fare. Consider me officially jazzed by the prospects. For the deeply committed, I just got word that the Cinebarre is opening Shutter Island at midnight on Thursday.
I’m far less interested in Jeb Stuart’s (presumably not the Confederate general) Blood Done Sign My Name, which also opens this week. I’m sure this fact-based low-budget and apparently faith-based film about the murder of a black Vietnam veteran in a small North Carolina town is well-intentioned, but when have any films that fit this description been anything more than TV-movie level—if that? The N.C. setting—and the fact that the film was shot in Charlotte, Shelby and Statesville—may boost local interest. Of course, the film will be a must-see for Ricky Schroder completists.
Still around and of interest are Crazy Heart (Fine Arts, Carolina, Regal Biltmore Grande), The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus (Carolina), A Single Man (Carolina), Sherlock Holmes (Carmike) and An Education (Carolina).
How overwhelming this week’s offerings might be is a little up in the air. Law Abiding Citizen, which came and went without much notice (and which I didn’t see), is out, as is the very good Coco Before Chanel. However, both Good Hair and Black Dynamite are films that never played here, but both have the potential for being worth a look. Both are also pretty much unknown quantities.
Notable TV screenings
Svengali 10:15 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 18, TCM
One of the more overlooked classic horror films is Archie Mayo’s Svengali (1931) starring the great John Barrymore in the title role. I’ve never been quite sure why this film receives as little attention as it does—maybe it’s simply the fact that Archie Mayo isn’t normally all that interesting of a filmmaker. Or maybe it’s the fact that aspects of the story—especially those concerning the virtue of leading lady Trilby (Marian Marsh)—seem pretty old-fashioned. In either case, it’s too bad, because it means a lot of people are missing a very entertaining and often surprising film. The plot revolving around an unscrupulous—as well as unprincipled and unclean—Polish singing teacher, Svengali, who hypnotizes and transforms a promiscuous painters’ model, Trilby, into a sensational star isn’t much. What’s done within its confines is another matter. The film is all Caligari-esque in terms of design and atmosphere, and despite being obvious model work, the sequence where the camera “flies” over the rooftops of the city when Svengali sends out his hypnotic message to Trilby is stunning. Barrymore is at his finest, too, managing to make Svengali menacing, funny and ultimately heartbreaking. He keeps the film aloft at every turn—so much so that you’re not quite sure whether its surprisingly downbeat ending is really downbeat at all.
Ruggles of Red Gap 8 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 23, TCM
Americana is usually wasted on me, but Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) is a rare exception. The story—which had been filmed before and would be filmed again—concerns a butler, Ruggles (Charles Laughton), who is won in a poker game in Paris by Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles) and taken back to the small western town of Red Gap—mostly at the behest of Egbert’s social-climbing wife, Effie (Mary Boland), who hopes Ruggles can civilize her roughneck husband. As might be expected, nothing goes according to her plans. Little that happens is unexpected, but it’s executed with such charm and such good humor—and by such a perfect cast—that you absolutely won’t care. I cannot think of anyone or anything in this movie that could possibly be improved on.
One Hour With You 9:45 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 23, TCM
Ernst Lubitsch’s penultimate Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald vehicle One Hour with You (1932) is one of the director’s finest and most deliciously sophisticated works. Lubitsch had already filmed the story as a silent called The Marriage Circle (1932), but the talkie with its perfect stars, its witty scoring, some nice tunes and a delightful supporting cast is easily the better film. It’s a sex farce of the decidedly pre-code kind (two years later it could not have been made) that finds MacDonald’s best friend (Genevieve Tobin) out to sleep with none other than MacDonald’s husband (Chevalier). The situation is perfect, so far as the friend’s husband (Roland Young) is concerned, because he’s after divorce evidence. It also suits MacDonald and Chevalier’s friend (Charlie Ruggles), who is hopelessly in love with MacDonald. What will likely surprise you is how adult all this is—and how it’s handled, because it doesn’t take the expected virtue-rewarded route. Other surprises await. Try it and see.