Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler for July 1-7: All this and Perry Mason, too

In theaters

This week there’s a little something for everybody out there. The big offerings, of course, are Michael Mann’s Public Enemies and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (sometimes in 3-D, depending on where you see it—and your willingness to cough up the extra three to three-and-a-half bucks for that third dimension). I’m guessing that there’s more interest in the former than the latter—Johnny Depp as John Dillinger vs. Ray Romano’s voice coming from an animated woolly mammoth sounds like a no-brainer to me—but who knows? These days it seems that all a family-friendly movie has to do is be mediocre to draw a crowd, and the Ice Age movies tend to be better than mediocre. My money is on Depp—and at least one local theater (the Carolina) is betting yours is, too, since they’re getting a jump on things by starting it at midnight (well, 12:01 a.m.) on Tuesday.

My personal interest this week is the new Woody Allen picture, Whatever Works, which opens Friday at the Fine Arts. Everything about this movie gives me hope—from the funny trailer to the fact that the reviews so far have been almost exactly split. What’s that? I’m encouraged by the fact that only 50 percent of the critics have liked it? Yes, indeed, that’s true. Not only is it often true that movies critics don’t agree on are far more interesting, but in the case of Allen’s pictures, the ones with the best reviews are very often my least favorite. Match Point (2005) garnered Allen his best reviews this century. I thought it was rubbish. Scoop (2006) got a lousy 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I thought it was terrific. I still do.

It’s not simply a case of me being a contrarian, though I’m sure some will argue that point. The fact is that there’s a tendency to overrate movies that break with tradition as concerns what a filmmaker or a star usually makes. As a result, Match Point got all manner of unearned bonus points for not being “like a Woody Allen movie,” while Scoop came in for a good deal of unearned abuse for being “the same old thing.” Well, it really wasn’t the “same old thing” in that it was the first movie with Woody in it that actually accepted the fact that he’s getting on in years. But it was a Woody Allen comedy, and while I admire his more serious films—especially his more serious comedies like Manhattan (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980)—what I want out of Allen are comedies. And Whatever Works has all the earmarks of being something like vintage Allen.

Also on tap this week is the documentary Every Little Step, which details the history of A Chorus Line and the casting and staging of its 2005 Broadway revival. This also opens on Friday at the Fine Arts, and it comes with scads of glowing reviews. But let’s face it, like all documentaries it’s predicated on one’s interest in the subject matter. If you’re not particularly interested in A Chorus Line—and I confess I’m not—then it’s hardly likely that Every Little Step is going to set you aflame with anticipation. If, on the other hand, you are interested, I’d suggest that you lose no time in seeing the movie this weekend, because I doubt it’ll play very long, especially since Duncan Jones’ (aka Zowie Bowie) science fiction film Moon is slated to open next week.

New on DVD

If you missed Two Lovers when it played locally you can now catch it on DVD. This slightly downbeat romance starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow probably isn’t the sort of thing you’ll want on your shelves, but it’s certainly worth a rental. On the other hand, there’s Jonas Brothers: The Concert Experience. If you’re one of the millions who avoided this when it was in theaters, consider yourself fortunate—and walk on the other side of the store to avoid contact with it in DVD form. Much the same can be said of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, though it does score points on the “so bad it’s funny” level.

Far tastier—from my perspective—is Tokyo!, the grouping of three short films by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho. This is a film that never found an audience locally, and indeed had a significantly high number of walkouts. While some of that may be attributable to viewers who went only to see the Gondry entry (which is up first), that probably doesn’t account for all of them. I thought the film was great, and so did a lot of people I know, but it’s clearly not for everyone. The publisher of a certain local paper went to see it and asked me afterwards if I stuck by my five-star rating. I said that I did. He countered by saying that while he’d liked the movie, he felt much the same way about it that he felt about the late Beethoven string quartets—that they’re technical marvels that don’t appeal to casual listeners who aren’t really into music. I can appreciate that.

Notable TV screenings

Once again Turner Classic Movies is proving to be more cineaste-friendly than any place else on TV. (Multiple showings of Dunston Checks In on Fox Movie Channel, though.) Their Great Directors series is over, but that doesn’t mean a lack of interesting programming of movies you aren’t likely to see anywhere else is. Alas, this week peaks on July 1 and doesn’t offer much out of the ordinary for the rest of the week. Still, take what you can get.

Perry Mason Festival TCM, Wednesday, July 1, starting at 9:45 a.m.

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934), The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935), The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936), The Case of the Black Cat (1936) and The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937)

Long before Raymond Burr set foot in a courtroom, Warner Bros. produced a short-lived series of Perry Mason movies under the heading of their Clue Club Mysteries imprint. It was short-lived primarily because Erle Stanley Gardner—creator of Perry Mason and author of the books—absolutely hated the films and refused to sell them any more. Presumably, Gardner objected to the injection of comedic elements into the works and the attempt to make the Perry Mason character something like William Powell’s Nick Charles from The Thin Man. (At that time, everyone wanted a Thin Man knockoff. )

The odd thing about Gardner’s objections to the films—at least the two I’ve actually compared to the source novels, The Case of the Curious Bride and The Case of the Velvet Claws—is that they’re not particularly unfaithful adaptations of the stories. For that matter, the Thin Man aspects to one side, Warren William’s portrayal of Perry Mason is perhaps somewhat more in keeping with the character of the books than that of Raymond Burr on the TV show. Gardner’s original Mason was more of an active detective than the TV incarnation would suggest. The books and these old Warner Bros. films have their courtroom drama elements, of course, but they’re first and foremost mysteries.

If you’re interested in checking out what Perry Mason was like in his brief big-screen days, but don’t want to sit through all six movies, the best of the lot is probably Michael Curtiz’s The Case of the Curious Bride. The fact that Curtiz directed the film is almost certainly why it’s a cut above the other entries, which is to say that it’s far and away the most stylish of the six. And as a bonus, the film offers Errol Flynn—fresh from Tasmania by way of one movie in Britain—as the corpse. OK, so he does show up in an unusual flashback that depicts his murder, but it’s hardly what you’d expect from the guy who, later that same year, would become one of the studio’s biggest stars in the same director’s Captain Blood.

The other entries—especially the Warren William ones (he bailed after the first four)—aren’t bad. They may not be exactly classics, but they’re brisk fun and offer a different Perry Mason than the one you’re likely used to.

Fog Over Frisco TCM, Wednesday, July 1, 9:45 p.m.

Grouped into a set of movies about “public enemies” in honor of the new film (or as counter programming to it) is William Dieterle’s astonishingly fast-paced Fog Over Frisco (1934). Dieterle is perhaps the last great unsung filmmaker of the “golden age,” and the fact that he didn’t make the cut for TCM’s Great Director series is inexplicable. A strange man (he always wore white gloves while directing), Dieterle—at least through 1948—was a visual stylist almost equal to Josef von Sternberg. The difference is that Dieterle’s films were rarely what you’d call arty in the Sternberg sense. Fog Over Frisco most certainly isn’t in the least arty. It’s 68 minutes of pulpy trash that features Bette Davis as a socialite who gets into bad company with gangsters. This is the kind of role that caused Davis to sue the studio in an effort to not squander her talents on, well, this kind of thing. While that’s understandable, Fog Over Frisco is both a lot of fun and a visual delight from start to finish.

 

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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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