Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler July 15-21: Pottering Around

Special screening

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

In theaters

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.

 

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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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21 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler July 15-21: Pottering Around

  1. Ok, I’m mentally back from a very busy three weeks.

    [rec] is excellent and further affirms that the best horror films are coming out of Europe these days. Many people still haven’t seen QUARANTINE… see this one first. To me it was worth watching both, but I can see where [rec] would lose its edge. The original is MUCH more unsettling to me.

    The HBO movie GREY GARDENS will no doubt give Emmy awards to both Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange (they love it when movie stars act on tv). The film expands on the Maysles Brothers classic giving flashbacks and what happens after the documentary was shot.

    Television shows are dominating our stores this week. The smash hit MAD MEN is out with its second season. Also, probably the most requested show of all time (for us), THE STATE, finally makes its debut. Is it too late or will it still pack a punch? Anthony Bourdain’s popular NO RESERVATIONS is releasing its fourth season as well.

    12 is a Russian version of 12 ANGRY MEN. For more kinkier tastes there are the Japanese pink films SECRETS OF A DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE and PASSIONS OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY. More Japanese is a box set of the 60s samurai series SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH.

  2. Ken Hanke

    To me it was worth watching both, but I can see where [rec] would lose its edge.

    So, are you saying that if I didn’t think much of Quarantine, I’m probably fine with skipping [rec]?

    And thanks for stopping by with some input into esoterica and TV.

    Now maybe Chip Kaufmann will drop in and tell us something about the two John Gilbert silents that are coming out from Flicker Alley — neither of which am I even slightly familiar with.

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    Ask and ye shall receive…From my review on amazon.

    Once again Flicker Alley has done silent film fans a huge favor by compiling and releasing this DVD of two John Gilbert movies from different stages of his career. BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT dates from 1926 and reunites Gilbert with his THE BIG PARADE director, King Vidor. It’s a typical MGM picture of the day with lavish sets, smooth camerawork, and colorful supporting players. Gilbert, in an attempt to outdo Douglas Fairbanks, swashbuckles his way through this Rafael Sabatini story in grand style but Sabatini is no Dumas which is why I prefer MONTE CRISTO out of this set. I have always loved this story of the unjustly accused Edmond Dantes getting his revenge on those who wronged him even if takes 20 years. It’s also great to see another “lost” Fox film turn up. While it lacks the polish of the later MGM effort (it was shot in 1922 when Gilbert was 25), the film contains an emotional resonance the other doesn’t have and Gilbert gives more of a performance here.

    Both films were reconstructed from incomplete prints which some may find a distraction but we’re lucky to have these titles at all so a big round of thanks to everyone involved for making it possible. The Mount Alto Orchestra provides a fine score for BARDELYS (there’s an alternate piano score by Antonio Coppola) while Neal Kurz’s piano score for MONTE CRISTO is an absolute delight as well. Rounding out the set are lots of supplements that include an audio essay for BARDELYS and a featurette REDISCOVERING JOHN GILBERT with Gilbert’s biographer (and daughter) Leatrice Gilbert Fountain who is now in her 80s. Like other Flicker Alley releases, this one is a must for silent film aficionados. Don’t let the price put you off. Remember, you get what you pay for (especially with silent film releases).

  4. Television shows are dominating our stores this week. The smash hit MAD MEN is out with its second season.
    MAD MEN is superb, and I’d recommend it to Ken if I didn’t know his distaste for television, aside from THE PRISONER and WIFE SWAP.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Don’t let the price put you off. Remember, you get what you pay for (especially with silent film releases).

    I’m not put off by the price so much as just wanting some guidance as to whether it’s worth it. I like John Gilbert, but I really mostly know him from his talkies — many of which I think are undervalued. The one I have never managed to see is the notorious His Glorious Night. I don’t expect much — not in the least because Lionel Barrymore directed it, and for such an over-the-top actor, Lionel’s direction tends to be restrained to the point of non-existent.

  6. Ken Hanke

    if I didn’t know his distaste for television, aside from THE PRISONER and WIFE SWAP.

    That last crack is pretty cold. (Also you didn’t factor in The Avengers, Rock Follies, Rock Follies ’77 or the Ken Russell TV films.) It’s really less a distaste for TV than a conscious choice not to get caught up in something with possibly dozens and dozens of episodes. Who has the time?

  7. Who has the time?
    Well, normally I’d make the argument that compared the time it takes to watch a movie – getting to the cinema, buying the tickets, watching the ads, watching the film (rarely under 2 hours these days), then the return journey home) – it’s not that much of an investment, especially as you can whack on a DVD whenever you feel inclined, at any time of day, and depending on the series, you can be more assured of the quality level. It’s a lot easier to whack on an episode of THE WEST WING than exert the effort to go see UP, for example. Not that I don’t think UP looks good from the trailer or your review, and I probably will get around to seeing it, but on a Wednesday night, when I have to get up and go to work tomorrow, I’d rather watch three episodes of STATE OF PLAY.
    Of course, the time argument can often run the opposite way, depending on one’s level of self-control. I found season three of THE WEST WING so addictive that after watching the first episode, I proceeded to watch the succeeding twenty-three. This marathon finished at about 2.30am, and included several hastily put-together meals, and consumed my Saturday. So yes, watching TV shows can definitely eat into your spare time.

  8. It’s really less a distaste for TV than a conscious choice not to get caught up in something with possibly dozens and dozens of episodes. Who has the time?

    Thankfully, a few thousand of my customers have found the time!

  9. Ken Hanke

    Thankfully, a few thousand of my customers have found the time!

    Yes, but they probably aren’t working them in around four to nine movies and reviews of movies per week.

  10. Ken Hanke

    So Ken, did you see the midnight showing of HP last night?

    Actually, I’m heading to the Beaucatcher for the 11:50 show this morning. Circumstances have made this the first Harry Potter picture I didn’t see in advance. It feels kind of odd.

  11. Natasha

    Looking forward to your review of HP – especially since you think Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the HP movies (I agree with you on that one.)

  12. Ken Hanke

    Well, normally I’d make the argument that compared the time it takes to watch a movie – getting to the cinema, buying the tickets, watching the ads, watching the film (rarely under 2 hours these days), then the return journey home) – it’s not that much of an investment

    Well, kinda sorta maybe. You’re working on the assumption of the DVD being in your hand or at least in your household. Throw that out of the mix and all your time factors are into play for both.

    Plus, despite the fact that I’ve got a really nice set-up with 5.1 sound and all, I’ll still take going to a theater and seeing a movie any day of the week over watching something at home. It just isn’t the same experience.

    And in all honesty, yes, I consider television inferior to theatrical films. But that’s largely because it’s such a different animal, meaning it’s a matter of taste. I tend to prefer things more self-contained. I don’t really want to spend years watching the same characters in a continuation of the same story or type of story. And, yes, I know the same thing could be applied to, say, the need for 8 Harry Potter movies — the saving grace there is that they’ve managed to keep them at something like the level of an event or a treat that isn’t doled out too often. The last series TV I watched was Oz. I liked it fine — for two seasons. By the third season, I simply didn’t care anymore.

    I think a lot of it for me is that I spent so many of my younger years working my life around a schedule of what was on TV and when (“No, I can’t do that tonight, The Avengers is on,” “Well, I have to be home by 8 because Kolchak is on”) that television just feels like a trap like that — one I don’t care to fall into.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Looking forward to your review of HP – especially since you think Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the HP movies (I agree with you on that one.)

    Well, I just saw it a while ago, and though this is by no means going to turn into a review, I will say I was not disappointed in any way.

  14. And in all honesty, yes, I consider television inferior to theatrical films. But that’s largely because it’s such a different animal, meaning it’s a matter of taste. I tend to prefer things more self-contained. I don’t really want to spend years watching the same characters in a continuation of the same story or type of story. And, yes, I know the same thing could be applied to, say, the need for 8 Harry Potter movies—the saving grace there is that they’ve managed to keep them at something like the level of an event or a treat that isn’t doled out too often. The last series TV I watched was Oz. I liked it fine—for two seasons. By the third season, I simply didn’t care anymore.

    If I posted you a DVD of the original STATE OF PLAY miniseries, do you think you could find the time to watch it?

  15. Ken Hanke

    If I posted you a DVD of the original STATE OF PLAY miniseries, do you think you could find the time to watch it?

    How long is it?

  16. Ken Hanke

    300 minutes all up if I recall correctly, over six episodes.

    300 minutes, huh? I’ll probably hate myself, but I will agree to at least give it a try.

  17. Ken Hanke

    If there’s some particular e-mail address you want me to send my mailing info to send a note to XpressMovies@aol.com — or I can send it to address you post here from.

  18. Sunday

    Ken, I must say that your opening paragraph was hilarious. I’m glad you had that experience, for the sake of your readers if for no other (good) reason.

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