More than the light dusting of snow I awoke to this morning, this week’s mainstream releases are a testament to the fact that winter is still very much upon us. There are only two new films in the mainstream realm this week: Mel Gibson’s supposed comeback vehicle, Edge of Darkness, and a “whacky” romcom with designs on boosting Kristen Bell into full movie-star status, When in Rome. Of the two, I admit to holding out some slight hope for Edge of Darkness, though it scarcely looks like it has much new to offer. The other, however, looks teeth-grindingly awful based on the trailer. I do have some marginal interest in seeing if the whole film can possibly be as bad as the trailer promises.
Fortunately, we have two non-mainstream releases from 2009 making their way to town this week. Werner Herzog’s magnificently twisted The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans opens on a split bill with Broken Embraces at the Fine Arts, while the perhaps more accessible The Messenger comes to the Carolina. Both films are reviewed in this week’s Xpress, so check them out there.
Still around are A Single Man at the Fine Arts, which also expands this week to the Carolina. Broken Embraces hangs on at the Fine Arts, but gives up most of its showings to Bad Lieutenant, which is your cue to catch this Pedro Almodóvar gem while you can. I wouldn’t wait too long for Bad Lieutenant either, since it really doesn’t seem destined to be a crowd-pleaser. Also worth remembering is Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is still at both the Carolina and Asheville Pizza and Brewing. And if you still haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes, rectify that.
Also, while I don’t think it exactly works all the way through, it’s notable that Rob Marshall’s Nine is returning to the area this week at the Flatrock Cinema. A few people have asked me what happened to this film. The answer is simple: It tanked. But, if you’re one of those who missed it when it first appeared, this is a second chance to catch up with it.
Well, I’ve seen worse weeks. Drew Barrymore’s Whip It—a much better film than it has any right to be—comes to DVD this week. It’s not a great movie, no, and it’s largely predictable, but it’s predictable in a satisfying way. In other words, if it didn’t follow the path it does, you’d almost certainly feel cheated. I admit I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by Bright Star. As a film, I found it tepid, however well made it was—and it was well made. On the other hand, it does encase a truly wonderful performance from Asheville’s own Paul Schneider and is well worth checking out on this basis alone. I might also note that the women I saw the film with were considerably more taken with Bright Star overall than I was.
Also up is Saw VI. You know what it is. You know what it will be like. Seeing it once in the theater will do me just fine. That’s probably about the same thing I’d say concerning Michael Jackson: This Is It. I liked it much more than I expected to, but unless you’re a hardcore fan, I can’t imagine a need to revisit it. The Boys Are Back has an unintentionally ironic title, since they can hardly be back because they were never here. I’m not even sure the film, which stars Clive Owen, got a theatrical release of any kind. It might be worth checking out, based on Owen’s presence and a trailer that didn’t look bad. Whether or not Surrogates or I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell are worth a look, I leave to you. I’m not that interested in the former, and I’m happy to take Justin Souther’s word on the latter.
Notable TV screenings
Scarlet Dawn Thursday, Jan. 28, 4:15 a.m., TCM
William Dieterle’s Scarlet Dawn (1932) is a generally overlooked pre-code delight about the Russian revolution. It centers on a Russian nobleman (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and his adoring servant (Nancy Carroll), who flee Mother Russia and end up as White Russian refugees in Turkey. It’s fairly predictable stuff. Let’s face it, you know that Doug and Nancy are going to fall in love and to hell with class distinctions. That doesn’t keep it from being engaging—and there’s a funny scene involving the difficulty of finding a Christian witness for their marriage. It’s all done in a stylish and brisk (the film is slightly under an hour) manner. And there’s also the glorious Lilyan Tashman at her slinky best on hand as Doug’s former mistress. The attitude of the entire film is perhaps best summed up by Fairbanks’ relief over Tashman having jettisoned a lover he hadn’t cared for—“I’ve never bothered too much about morals, but taste is so important.”
“Road” Picture Marathon Thursday, Jan. 28, starting at 8 p.m, TCM
In one nice block TCM brings on five of the “Road” pictures starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. All that’s missing is Road to Rio (1947)—the rights to which are somehow in flux—and The Road to Hong Kong (1962), which is kind of negligible anyway. What you do get are Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1945) and Road to Bali (1952). Singapore has the slight drawback of being a part of a series that hasn’t quite gotten its bearings. Bali has the greater drawback of feeling a little tired and late in the day. Both have their merits, however.
My personal favorite is Zanzibar, which works as a “Road” picture, but also qualifies as a savvy spoof of all African adventure movies. In fact, the story that served as its basis, “Find Colonel Fawcett,” was a straight adventure yarn—until the boys and their gag writers got ahold of it. Tradition has it that Road to Morocco is the best of the series—which may have something to do with having a popular title song. Of course, it also has talking camels and one of the best uses of non-writing to get out of an impossible situation I’ve ever seen. Those are hard to ignore, as is the surprise of hearing Hope ask, “What are you doing? Making reefers?” when he finds Crosby putting gunpowder into the cigarettes of their Arab captors. (How did that pass the censor?) Utopia has its points, too—including a talking fish and a bear that complains about not getting “one stinking line.” There’s also Bing losing a talent contest to a performing monkey, but the last section is a little draggy—and worse, no one thought to put in a “patty cake” routine. If you don’t know what that means, then you need to see these movies.
One Way Passage Tuesday, Feb. 2, 6:45 p.m, TCM
Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage (1932) may just be the most romantic film ever made. But don’t let that scare you, because it’s romance that’s balanced by wit and some pretty cynical comedy—the latter mostly supplied by the magnificent Aline MacMahon as a con woman called Barrelhouse Betty. It’s the shipboard romance between a man (William Powell) being taken back to the States to be executed for murder and a woman (Kay Francis) who is dying of a heart condition. Yeah, it’s about as stacked a deck as you’re likely to find, and it probably sounds absolutely awful. But somehow or other the script and the playing and Garnett’s sophisticated direction makes it all work. And it’s unforgettable.