The locally produced—and locally popular—Golden Blade III: Return of the Monkey’s Uncle has a special showing on Thursday, July 16, at Asheville Pizza and Brewing on Merrimon Avenue. You can meet the cast and crew at 8 p.m. and see the film at 9:30 p.m. The screening is a fundraiser to send the director and at least one actor to the Los Angeles Film Festival, where Golden Blade III is going to be shown.
For more information, go to http://goldenblade3.com/press.html
Well, let’s see, there’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and then there’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In fact, everywhere you turn, there’s Harry Potter. Of course, there are a couple documentaries opening—Food, Inc. at the Carolina Asheville and Tyson at the Fine Arts—but, face it, it’s pretty much box-office suicide to be anything other than Harry Potter this week. And I’ll be honest here—no one cares in the least what I think about the new Harry Potter. Well, no one cares right now. If I end up giving it a bad review, doubtless quite a few people will care a great deal and will let me know in no uncertain terms. Hell, I got taken to task merely for not loving the first film enough. But what are the chances of me giving this new entry a bad review? Very slim indeed is my guess.
The fact is that from the very beginning the Harry Potter films have been pretty darn classy affairs. They may not always be terribly exciting filmmaking, but they have always been solid, nicely constructed and well-acted, with surprisingly coherent action scenes. The kids may not be particularly compelling characters—unless you happen to be a kid yourself—in the earlier films, but the array of entertaining character roles (played to the hilt by the finest scene stealers money could buy) more than make up for it. But perhaps the best thing of all—apart from the fact that the best of the entries actually do catch a sense of magic now and again—is that I’ve never left a Harry Potter movie feeling I’d been ripped off or that my time had been wasted or that my intelligence had been insulted. In order to realize just what an amazing accomplishment that is, all you need do is sit through that orgy of orgasmic awfulness Twilight.
I can’t claim that I’m exactly excited by the prospect of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Its position in the series feels too much—at least in theory—like a film that’s going to be stuck in a holding pattern. The actual film may be more than that. We shall see. I have no suspicion that the new film will get me as cinematically high as Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban did back in 2004. I even find it unlikely that I’ll feel the need to see Half-Blood Prince more than once. But I do expect to be glad I saw it that once and to be satisfied by what I will see. When you’re talking in terms of summer blockbusters, those are fairly hefty expectations. You have to wait till next week for things to return to normal with 3-D guinea-pig action.
New on DVD
DVD releases appear to be hiding from the Harry Potter juggernaut this week as well. Most of what’s out there consists of movies that never made it into general release—what the devil is this Horsemen movie? This actually looks like it could be one of those rare cases of a movie that never got anywhere that might turn out to be good. (Seriously, for as much as distributors make boneheaded plays, most of the time there’s a reason why you never heard of that movie on the new release rack.) It would have a hard time not being more worthwhile than the only widely released title this week, The Haunting in Connecticut.
Also up is [rec], the original Spanish version of Quarantine. Now, we’re told that this is much better than the U.S. remake. However, Quarantine is supposedly a shot-for-shot copy of [rec]—something that makes me suspect that the original is pretty much the same, which leads me to believe that I can probably live without it. If anyone wants to convince me otherwise, I’ll be glad to listen.
Notable TV screenings
Well, the Fox Movie Channel Web site is back up and running, but the selection hasn’t altered much, which is to say that they’re still showing Dunston Checks In—just in case you missed the first 437 showings. Things over at Turner Classic Movies are brighter, but there’s not much that sets my pulses pounding.
William Dieterle TCM, Wednesday, July 15, 6:15 a.m.
The Firebird (1934), A Dispatch from Reuters (1940), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and Syncopation (1942)
You may recall that I kvetched in no uncertain terms that TCM didn’t include William Dieterle in their Great Directors series. As if to atone for this oversight (not because of my ranting, I assure you), they’ve turned July 15 over to him. Unfortunately, they’ve done a pretty poor job in selecting the movies. I only listed the better—or more interesting—ones, which happen to come at the beginning of the day. With the exception of The Devil and Daniel Webster (a movie I confess I don’t like as well as I’m supposed to), none of even these are major works by this intriguing filmmaker. Where are The Last Flight (1931), Her Majesty, Love (1931), Six Hours to Live (1932), Jewel Robbery (1932), Scarlet Dawn (1932), Madame DuBarry (1934), I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), Love Letters (1945)—or what is perhaps the most romantic film ever made Portrait of Jennie (1948)? Wherever they are, they’re not here (and TCM owns at least five of those titles).
What we do get is occasionally interesting, though. The Firebird is an alarmingly reactionary film, which is strange for both Dieterle and for Warner Bros. It functions as a cautionary tale about—believe it or not—the degenerative effects of (gasp!) “modern art.” When it gets right down to it, the film’s message seems to be that exposure to modern art—particularly Mr. Stravinsky’s composition “The Firebird”—leads to promiscuity, infidelity and even murder. So you remember that and think twice about the repercussions of anything that even hints of culture.
A Dispatch from Reuter’s isn’t bad, but it’s also just another entry into the kind of biopic that Dieterle helped to create for Paul Muni starting with The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1936. Here, however, we get Edward G. Robinson rather than Muni. This would be much more instructive if it was paired with Madame DuBarry, since you’d at least be able to wonder how Dieterle went from the historical romp of the DuBarry picture to the strained seriousness of this one.
The Devil and Daniel Webster is an acknowledged classic about a poor farmer (James Craig) who makes a bad bargain (as such bargains tend to be) with the devil (Walter Huston) and how Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) wrangles him out of it. Something about it has always been a little off-putting to me (probably the lack of charisma from James Craig), but I try it again every so often to see if I’ll warm to it.
Syncopation I included simply because I’ve never seen it or even heard of it. It purports to cover “syncopated” music from ragtime leading up to the year the film was released, 1942, which seems pretty ambitious. The cast is certainly interesting—Adolphe Menjou, Jackie Cooper, George Bancroft, Connee Boswell—and I’m willing to give it a try.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream TCM, Friday, July 17, 12:30 p.m.
Now, here’s a movie that ought to be included in a Dieterle retrospective, even though he shares directing credit with Max Reinhardt (there’s little doubt as to Dieterle being responsible for the visual grandeur of the film). It’s a peculiar film that marked Warner Bros.’ bid for a “prestige picture.” Warner Bros. had always tended to be a kind of “populist” studio. They had a very liberal and even crusading mind-set—and they lacked the gloss of middle-brow MGM as well as the sophistication of très snob Paramount. Their prestige was mostly limited to George Arliss movies—and in 1934 when Darryl F. Zanuck left Warner Bros. to start 20th Century Pictures, he took Arliss with him. Left without a prestige star—Paul Muni hadn’t inherited that mantle yet—the studio seems to have had an attack of culture and made this. Hey, no one had tackled Shakespeare since The Taming of the Shrew in 1929 (with its notorious credit, “Additional Dialogue by Sam Taylor”), so why not?
In a brash move (it probably seemed like a good idea at the time), they imported Max Reinhardt, the most controversial adapter of Shakespeare to the stage at the time, to bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the screen. He did not disappoint in terms of … interesting departures. He happily shuffled things around to no very discernible point. (If there’s a reason for splitting “Captain of our fairy band, Helena is here at hand, and the youth mistook be me, pleading for a lover’s fee. Lord, what fools these mortals be,” so that the rhyme is destroyed, I can’t detect it.) And while Reinhardt retained the traditional use of Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music, he threw in other Mendelssohn pieces (using part of the “Scottish” Symphony to set Shakespeare to music!) and threw out perfectly good songs.
Reinhardt, in fact, was so much of a pain that he found himself parodied that same year in the studio’s Golddiggers of 1935, where the character (played by Adolphe Menjou) brags about his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream “with an all-Eskimo cast.” Well, the film mayn’t have an all-Eskimo cast, but it has a Warner Bros. all-star cast, which can be just as bizarre, since we’re treated to James Cagney, Dick Powell, Olivia DeHavilland, Joe E. Brown and Mickey Rooney (to name but a few) let loose on the Bard. At least in the case of Rooney’s Puck (you’ll pray for lightning to strike him at every appearance), almost anything would be preferable.
However this Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most visually striking films ever made. (Cinematographer Hal Mohr wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but won it anyway thanks to write-in votes.) Ignore the stunt casting (OK, Victor Jory’s Oberon is pretty darn good) and the shuffled lines and just marvel at the look of the film. There’s never been anything quite like it.
Ma and Pa Kettle-athon TCM, Friday, July 17, 8 p.m.
Ma and Pa Kettle (1949), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951) and Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952).
In keeping with the idea espoused in The Firebird that art rots your moral fiber: a set of four Ma and Pa Kettle movies. There’s no chance in hell that these will damage you with degenerate art—or art of any kind. The Kettles—played by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride—were something of a fluke. Both had played backwoods characters of this type before, but in 1947 they were teamed in an A picture called The Egg and I. It was an adaptation of a popular novel and it starred Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray as a city couple who opt out of the city for country life and farming—mostly at his behest. (Yes, it spawned Green Acres, even if not officially.)
It was a popular film, but what was most popular about it were Ma and Pa Kettle—a raucous hillbilly couple with innumerable children. The basics were that Ma was cagey and outspoken, while Pa was close to being the laziest man who ever lived. Audiences loved them. (Think of them as a more intellectual Larry the Cable Guy minus flatulence.) And Universal loved them, because they realized that not only was there “gold in them thar hillbillies,” but Main and Kilbride were a lot cheaper than Colbert and MacMurray, so the studio could keep more of that thar gold.
The films being shown are wholly representative. I first encountered Ma and Pa Kettle in a re-issue about 1963. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. I was also 8 years old.