It wouldn’t take much for the movies to be better this week than last, especially since Couples Retreat was the only mainstream release. Now, I didn’t see the film, but I saw the trailers and I read Justin Souther’s review (which appears in this week’s Xpress)—and that’s as close as I plan on getting to Couples Retreat. If nothing else, we get some variety of choices this round.
The big movie this week is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are—a feature-length adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s very short children’s book. The interest in this ranges from enthused to cautious to downright hostile (one person on the Xpress forums likened the prospect of the movie to having his childhood raped). Personally, I have no horse in this race. The book was not a part of my childhood, and I’m ambivalent about Jonze’s movies. But I’m definitely curious.
Parts of the trailers charm me and parts appall me, which I actually find encouraging. I also find it encouraging that the film has been likened to the work of Wes Anderson. (That it’s also been tagged with that moronic “instant classic” appraisal is another matter.) I’m always in the mood for a potential controversy. They keep things interesting. Friday will tell the tale—unless I can find a theater that’s doing a quality-check screening of the film on Thursday night.
I can’t say I’m nearly as jazzed about Law Abiding Citizen, though the trailer showing Gerard Butler exacting his revenge on the justice system that failed him looks amusing in its goofy over-the-topness. I don’t see this being some stealth masterpiece sneaking into theaters, but I’m not dreading it. On the other hand, there’s the PG-13 remake of the 1987 R-rated thriller The Stepfather, and that could well be worth dreading. The original wasn’t all that terrific, though its parody of “family values” taken to an extreme was amusing in the era of Reagan. Its value on that level 22 years later remains to be seen.
Also on the semi-mainstream front is I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell—a would-be outrageous comedy that opened in limited release back in September, made very little money and garnered some blisteringly bad reviews. For some inexplicable reason, it has been booked into the Beaucatcher. The fact that the movie is being distributed by Freestyle Releasing probably says it all. Yes, they lucked out with My One and Only (2009) and The Illusionist (2006), but their name usually festoons things like Nobel Son (2007), In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2006), Delgo (2008) and The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008). You are warned.
Time would be better spent with last year’s Foreign Language Oscar winner Departures (review is in this week’s Xpress), which opens Friday at the Carolina Asheville. And there’s a good chance that the same is true of the acclaimed French film Séraphine at the Fine Arts.
Still around are Inglourious Basterds (if you haven’t, you should), (500) Days of Summer, Bright Star,The Informant!, Capitalism: A Love Story and The Invention of Lying. All of these are certainly worth catching.
The biggie for most folks this week is probably Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. I wasn’t as amused by this as a lot of people were (it needed more talking goat, I think), but it’s not a bad horror comedy. And if you’re a hardcore Sam Raimi fan, it may be more than that. Also up is The Proposal, a not particularly good romantic comedy that nearly transcends its limitations thanks to the chemistry of Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. I’ve certainly spent far less pleasant evenings at the movies. Speaking of which, the dismal-beyond-words Land of the Lost with Will Ferrell comes out this week. Most people steered clear of this stinker in theaters. Let your good taste be your guide.
Notable TV screenings
Is there any point in mentioning that Fox Movie Channel isn’t offering anything of note (not even of orangutan proportions) this week? No, I didn’t think so. Once again, it’s left to Turner Classic Movies to provide things of value, though even they dropped the ball in one case by not offering us a Bela Lugosi birthday bash (his 127th) on Oct. 20. Of course, if you’re like me, this is easily rectified by a walk over to the DVD shelves. If not, well, there’s a pleasant new set of Lugosi-Karloff films that includes the underrated comedy/mystery/musical You’ll Find Out (1940) and Zombies on Broadway (1945). Neither may be prime Lugosi, but the former does give him—along with Karloff and Peter Lorre—several terrific moments scaring bandleader Kay Kyser. Plus, Lugosi looks pretty snazzy in a turban as a bogus spirit medium. The latter—despite having one of the great titles—isn’t so hot, but any movie that includes knockabout comedy with Lugosi and a capuchin monkey is OK in my book.
Wheeler and Woolsey-a-thon Wednesday, Oct. 14, starting at 8 p.m., TCM
A line-up of four early Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey films—The Cuckoos (1930), Hook, Line, and Sinker (1930), Caught Plastered (1931) and Peach-o-Reno (1931)—takes the spotlight for one evening, and while it may not be the best possible sampling of Wheeler and Woolsey (where is the 1933 film Diplomaniacs?), it has its pleasures—and it’s certainly instructive if you’ve never seen this once wildly popular comedy team. The duo are perhaps an acquired taste and these early talkies are even more so.
Saying that any of these is the “best” is of little value out of context, though The Cuckoos—which is partly in surprisingly good two-strip Technicolor—is almost certainly the most interesting. It was adapted from a stage show called The Ramblers, which had starred the even-more-forgotten comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough when it was on Broadway. The Cuckoos was apparently very much re-written for Wheeler and Woolsey, but it retains that quaint 1920s stage-show feel. The ensemble numbers are barely wedged into the story, and the film exists only as a vague structure for songs and comedy routines. Probably the most surprising aspect of the film is to see how closely Woolsey’s encounters with the statuesque Jobyna Howland resemble any number of scenes with Groucho Marx and Magaret Dumont. The comedy often verges on the surreal. A scene where the boys try to spend the night in a hotel room beset by increasingly strange intruders is sufficiently odd that it needs to be seen to be believed. The Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby songs are pretty good, and one Technicolor production number, “Dancing the Devil Away,” is a standout. Be warned that it is a 1930 film and it creaks in the joints, but chunks of it are choice.
The closest to a stand-out film is the much brisker Peach-o-Reno, which finds the boys as divorce lawyers in, of course, Reno. It’s much faster paced than the other titles, and if it doesn’t quite showcase them at the height of their powers, it’s not far from it. If nothing else, it boasts one of film’s most unusual endings—an all-singing, all-dancing courtroom finale. That’s not something you’re going to see every day.
The Devil Doll Saturday, Oct. 17, 7:45 a.m., TCM
Tod Browning’s last horror picture The Devil Doll (1936) may not be the filmmaker’s best, but it’s probably his most accessible. The film’s based on a novel by A. Merritt called Burn, Witch, Burn (which has nothing to do with the 1962 film Burn, Witch, Burn!, which was adapted from Fritz Leiber’s horror novel Conjure Wife). By the time Browning and the screenwriters got through with it, the witch aspect of the story was completely gone, as was Merritt’s New York gangster milieu. Instead, The Devil Doll became a story of a couple of Devil’s Island escapees—Lionel Barrymore and Henry B. Walthall—with the latter being a mad scientist who has perfected a machine that reduces people (and anything else) to the size of dolls. When Walthall dies, Barrymore uses this device to exact his revenger on his crooked business partners, who’d railroaded him into prison. It’s not likely to scare you, but it’s still pretty creepy on occasion. The ending is also a bit surprising because it clearly violates the production code by having things wrapped up with an impending suicide. Then as now, however, censors weren’t terribly bright.
The Walking Dead Sunday, Oct. 18, 6 a.m., TCM
Today we think of Michael Curtiz mostly for films like Casablanca (1942), but during his tenure at Warner Bros., he did a little bit of everything, including four horror films. The last of these is The Walking Dead (1936), an odd and fairly somber Boris Karloff vehicle that touches on some pretty heavy concepts as concerns what happens to the soul if someone is brought back from the dead. In this case, of course, the reanimated corpse is that of Boris Karloff as a man who was wrongly executed for a murder he didn’t commit. The film turns into a decidedly eerie revenge story with Karloff getting even with the gangsters responsible for his execution, but there’s an interesting twist to the way this is handled. I’ll say no more about that and leave it as a surprise.
A Night in Casablanca Monday, Oct. 19, 5 p.m. TCM
The Marx Brothers penultimate film, A Night in Casablanca (1946), is far from being one of their best movies. It is, however, a vast improvement over the three MGM films that came before it—something that’s even more remarkable when you notice how threadbare the production values are. Groucho plays Ronald Kornblow, who is perhaps the worst hotel manager on earth. (“The first thing we do is change the numbers on all the rooms,” he announces, countering objections about the guests going into the wrong rooms with, “Yes, but think of the fun.”) That hardly matters because he’s been hired only because managers at the posh Casablanca hotel are all quickly murdered by incognito Nazi Sig Ruman, who wants the job for himself in order to find a cache of stolen art treasures. Groucho was hired simply because no one else was dumb enough to take the job. Despite the best efforts of Ruman to bump him off and the best efforts of Chico Marx (president of the Yellow Camel Cab Co.) to protect him, Groucho comes out on top. Give it a shot. It’s better than you’ve probably heard.