Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Oct. 14-20: Wild things and others

In theaters

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.

On DVD

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.

 

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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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31 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler Oct. 14-20: Wild things and others

  1. Ken Hanke

    I think it’s Spike Jonze, Ken.

    Right you are — and I knew that the minute you said it (actually I think his name is Spiegel). I have in any case fixed same. Thanks.

  2. "Peaches"

    Well since Beaucatcher isn’t getting it and Carmike has a strict “you’re not getting any help from us” stance towards movie reviews… seems rather doubtful, let us know when you might be seeing it Friday though!

  3. Ken Hanke

    Well since Beaucatcher isn’t getting it and Carmike has a strict “you’re not getting any help from us” stance towards movie reviews…

    You fail to factor the Carolina into this mix.

  4. Steven

    I was under the impression that Paranormal Activity was getting a release this weekend.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Not unless it’s at the Epic or the Regal Biltmore. I have yet to see the listings for either theater. Paranormal Activity is going wider this week, but how wide I haven’t heard. I admit to grave skepticism about this movie — likening anything to Blair Witch is the last way to get a positive reaction from me — but I am curious about it.

  6. Dread P. Roberts

    I was under the impression that Paranormal Activity was getting a release this weekend.

    This is being tagged as one of the scariest movies of the last decade or so. Which certainly intrigues me. But given the fact that I feel very much the same way about Blair Witch as Ken, this is one that would have to wait until after I read the MntX review, before I would go see it. Why risk potentially wasting the time and money, when there are willing victims in our midst who will voluntarily sacrifice their souls (for a small fee, mind you) to the movie gods in my stead?

  7. Ken Hanke

    But given the fact that I feel very much the same way about Blair Witch as Ken

    I remember when that came out and a friend of mine called me up and said, “Don’t go out of your way to see it — and by ‘out of your way,’ I mean doing anything that involves leaving your driveway.” Of course, I didn’t heed that advice. More fool me.

    Why risk potentially wasting the time and money, when there are willing victims in our midst who will voluntarily sacrifice their souls (for a small fee, mind you) to the movie gods in my stead?

    Every so often it truly saddens me not to be able to say, “You couldn’t pay me to sit through” something. I constantly prove that you indeed can.

    I will say that there is nothing I find harder to rely on forming any kind of opinion about or expectation of from reviews than a horror picture. You have two basic problems. Fans of the genre often cut a horror film undue slack because it simply is a horror film — sometimes from a misguided sense of having to bolster the genre. (You see this on horror-centric websites all the time.) Non-fans, on the other hand, can be too hard on the genre — and, worse, they often see so little of it that they can be easily impressed by films that are far less special than they think they are.

    I have no idea if Paranormal Activity is everything that’s being claimed or not. I do know that nothing I’ve read about it has encouraged me. I would like nothing better than to find my suspicions that it’s going to be dull wrong.

    However, that won’t be known this week, because I’ve seen the Epic and Biltmore Grande listings now and they’re not down for it either. My guess is that it will show up next week if last week’s grosses (an average of $49,000 per theater) are reflected in this week’s when it goes wider.

  8. Dread P. Roberts

    Well, that was a nice little bite-sized, ‘screening room’-esque bit of info on some of the psychological underpinnings of the horror genre. It is certainly an interesting subject, that could probably be expounded upon, if one desired to do so. I’ve often wondered if the horror genre is the most subjectively driven (or least accessible, if that sounds better) of all the various movie genres. But then you have films like Jaws (1975), which I’ve read was the first movie to be distributed in theaters as a “wide release”. During its run in theaters, the film beat the $89 million domestic rental record of the reigning box-office champion, The Exorcist, becoming the first film to reach more than $100 million in U.S. box office receipts. That is two horror movies competing for first place…hmm. This makes it sound like horror movies are (or were) Hollywoods best bet; but then we are led to believe otherwise through other sources. It presents a bit of a conundrum in my mind.

  9. Ken Hanke

    It is certainly an interesting subject, that could probably be expounded upon, if one desired to do so.

    One might be inclined to do so one day. This actually goes back a long way where non-fans are concerned. I won’t deny the merits — though in some ways I think they’re exaggerated — of the Val Lewton-produced horror movies from the 1940s, but they got their original critical boost because James Agee — who didn’t normally review horror pictures — went lollipops over Cat People (1942).

    But then you have films like Jaws (1975), which I’ve read was the first movie to be distributed in theaters as a “wide release”.

    True in the sense of wide as something like we know it today, though I doubt that Jaws hit 4,000 screens on opening weekend.

    During its run in theaters, the film beat the $89 million domestic rental record of the reigning box-office champion, The Exorcist, becoming the first film to reach more than $100 million in U.S. box office receipts. That is two horror movies competing for first place…hmm.

    I’ve never actually thought of Jaws as a horror picture — more of a stunt film thriller with then-state of the art effects. But it’s an interesting point. Of course, that wide release helped that gross (as did the PG rating).

    This makes it sound like horror movies are (or were) Hollywoods best bet; but then we are led to believe otherwise through other sources. It presents a bit of a conundrum in my mind.

    Well, yes and no, because there’s a significant difference with films that have a pre-sold literary audience. Except for the classic tales and Stephen King that’s pretty unusual for the genre. And these are two movies out of how many? Horror today usually sells well on opening weekend and then drops sharply, but today it’s also generally one of the most inexpensively produced genres, so it doesn’t matter that much.

  10. Dread P. Roberts

    True in the sense of wide as something like we know it today, though I doubt that Jaws hit 4,000 screens on opening weekend.

    According to Wikipedia: “When Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, it opened at 465 theaters. The release was subsequently expanded on July 25 to a total of 675 theaters, the largest simultaneous distribution of a film in motion picture history at the time. During the first weekend of wide release, Jaws grossed more than $7 million, and was the top grosser for the following five weeks.”

    I’ve never actually thought of Jaws as a horror picture—more of a stunt film thriller with then-state of the art effects

    I’ve thought the same thing, but it is often listed as a horror picture, and it was voted number one on AFI’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
    (Now, ones opinion of AFI’s credibility is another matter.)

    http://web.archive.org/web/20071030070540/http://www.bravotv.com/The_100_Scariest_Movie_Moments/index.shtml

    …today it’s also generally one of the most inexpensively produced genres

    That brings me back to an interesting thing about Paranormal Activity, with a supposed budget of roughly $15,000. Even this detail harkens back in my mind to when Blair Witch opened.

  11. Ken Hanke

    According to Wikipedia: “When Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, it opened at 465 theaters. The release was subsequently expanded on July 25 to a total of 675 theaters, the largest simultaneous distribution of a film in motion picture history at the time.

    And that, of course, is but a fraction of a wide release today. Couples Retreat opened at 3,000 theaters last week — and that’s theaters, not screens, which raises it to 3,800. There’s no point in trying to compare revenue. In 1975 a ticket was much less. That same summer people were outraged that the Floriland Theatre in Tampa, FL was charging an unheard of $3 a ticket for their exclusive engagement of Tommy. (And that price was partly excused because of having to bring in special equipment and speakers to handle that film’s “Quintophonic” sound.)

    (Now, ones opinion of AFI’s credibility is another matter.)

    I wasn’t going to bring that up, but…

    That brings me back to an interesting thing about Paranormal Activity, with a supposed budget of roughly $15,000. Even this detail harkens back in my mind to when Blair Witch opened.

    True enough, though it’s worth remembering that that figure is for its original production and doesn’t include any tweaking done after the fact to it by the distributor. (Robert Rodriguez’ $7,000 El Mariachi was much “sweetened” by the distributor that picked it up.) Still, it’s pretty much a no-lose proposition. There’s no way it won’t make money. It already has.

  12. Justin Souther

    Every so often it truly saddens me not to be able to say, “You couldn’t pay me to sit through” something. I constantly prove that you indeed can.

    And what they can’t pay you to sit through, they’ll pay me to sit through.

  13. Jim Donato

    I lived in Orlando so my wife thought we should “support the home team” as it were, so we ended up at a 2nd run theatre seeing Blair Witch Project. “Where’s the ****ing map!” has subsequently become a laugh line whenever we are traveling or even hiking. That was its sole entertainment value for us. Not a film. More of a Film Flam. I’ve only seen about an hour of Jaws on TV, but pardon me for thinking it played like a comedy. It couldn’t have been the editing for TV!

  14. Ken Hanke

    And what they can’t pay you to sit through, they’ll pay me to sit through.

    And that often takes me whining enough in the bargain to coerce your participation. I have no shame.

  15. Dread P. Roberts

    I’ve only seen about an hour of Jaws on TV, but pardon me for thinking it played like a comedy. It couldn’t have been the editing for TV!

    Not that I really care a great deal about defending the merits of a movie about a killer shark, but bear in mind that the movie is 34 years old now, and it shows. At the time of it’s release the effects were somewhat ‘groundbreaking’, and I’ve heard from several people that originally saw it theatrically, that it was terrifying. With that said, I’ve never met anyone below the age of…say 30’ish, who thought the movie was at all scary. Either we whipper snappers are just too damn desensitized by so-called ‘modern’ horror, or we’re simply not as stupid and gullible as the majority of teenagers in the mid-’70s (just kidding).

  16. Ken Hanke

    That was its sole entertainment value for us. Not a film. More of a Film Flam.

    You’ll get no argument from me, though I give it points of a kind for inventing the “snot-cam.”

    I’ve only seen about an hour of Jaws on TV, but pardon me for thinking it played like a comedy. It couldn’t have been the editing for TV!

    I never saw it theatrically, but I have seen the whole thing and I can’t say I found it even slightly scary. Now, it was heavily excerpted in a seminar on special effects I covered for the paper 6 or 7 years ago, and the rubber shark effects pretty much brought down the house.

  17. Ken Hanke

    At the time of it’s release the effects were somewhat ‘groundbreaking’

    True enough, but so were the effects in King Kong from 76 years ago and as a film it holds up rather better than Jaws, even if its effects seem rather quaint today.

  18. brebro

    I saw Jaws theatrically and found it to be both sink-in-your-seat suspenseful (the constant, fearful dread of not knowing when the shark would appear, apart from his introductory theme music) and jump-out-of-your-seat shocking (the, by now de riguer and clichéd, sudden jumping-out-at-you thing with a musical jab or other insistent sound effect where before had only been quiet… too quiet. In this case the disembodied head from the sunken boat that falls out when Matt Hooper plumbs the depths to inspect it; and the scene where Sheriff Brody is ladling out chum from the aft of the vessel and the shark’s head bursts from the formerly placid water with the titular jaws agape). The fact that it no longer provokes such reactions may be due to modern audience desensitization or the fact that I was only 11 years old at the time.

  19. Ken Hanke

    and jump-out-of-your-seat shocking (the, by now de riguer and clichéd, sudden jumping-out-at-you thing with a musical jab or other insistent sound effect where before had only been quiet… too quiet

    That was actually an old technique in 1975, dating back at least to 1932. It was refined in the 1940s and called a “bus” after the first instance of it, which was a false-scare shock effect involving the sound of air-brakes on a bus in Cat People. The musical sting was added some time later. It was certainly heavily used in Night/Curse of the Demon in 1957 and most of the Hammer horrors pictures of the late 50s and into the 60s.

    The fact that it no longer provokes such reactions may be due to modern audience desensitization or the fact that I was only 11 years old at the time.

    My guess is it’s a bit of both. I very much doubt that Sleeping Beauty would send me hiding beneath my theater seat now, but it did in 1959.

  20. brebro

    That may be it. I also remember having to leave the room during a Saturday afternoon showing of the 1958 film, “The Blob” on WLOS’s “Shock Theater, so filled with fright was I. Upon more recent viewings I don’t know how the image of strawberry preserves and Steve McQueen could have had such a horrifying effect. Especially with that groovy theme song at the beginning.

  21. Ken Hanke

    I also remember having to leave the room during a Saturday afternoon showing of the 1958 film, “The Blob” on WLOS’s “Shock Theater, so filled with fright was I.

    Ah, the trailer for The Blob scared the hell out of me when I was about three years old. I was convinced that the scene where it came oozing out of the projection booth was actually taking place behind me.

    Upon more recent viewings I don’t know how the image of strawberry preserves and Steve McQueen could have had such a horrifying effect.

    It is hard to conceive. Side note trivia: I interviewed the woman who wrote The Blob twice a few years ago — more from the standpoint of her earlier career as a B movie actress named Kay Linaker (she called herself Kate Philips as a writer). She was an absolute delight and into her 90s was teaching a class in screenwriting at a college in New Hampshire. See? Write a movie like The Blob and you, too, can secure gainful employment teaching.

  22. Ken Hanke

    I thought Ishtar was the scariest thing I had ever seen.

    I suspect Tess Harper would agree with you. Now, most of her footage ended up on the cutting room floor, but two scenes remain and I couldn’t resist sticking one of them in her clip reel when she was at the Asheville Film Festival back in 2007. You could hear her groan when it came onscreen all through Diana Wortham Theater. I don’t know what she was complaining about. I had to sit through the damned thing to find the clip.

  23. Ken Hanke

    Do you happen to know if Bright Star is leaving Friday?

    It leaves the Fine Arts, but it’s still at the Carolina.

  24. The only worthwile things about the original STEPFATHER were Terry O’Quinn’s performance and the satire on Reaganism, neither of which are present in the new version. Pointlessness abounds.

  25. ElsaS3475

    Where the wild things are… it was so nice. As they expected, I cried.

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