It was the weekend from hell. I think we’ve had more movies lined up for a single issue before, and I know I’ve reviewed as many as nine, so it’s not just quantity. By judicious whining, I managed to fob off both Whiteout and Broken Hill on Justin Souther, leaving me a mere eight titles to wrestle to the ground, but what titles they were! Oh, I had no problem with the special showings—screening Shoot the Piano Player was, in fact, the highlight of the weekend—but otherwise … . Well, when the entire weekend of new releases—apart from a documentary—never actually climbs past the mediocre, it’s discouraging.
The coming weekend isn’t much different in terms of quantity, but it at least looks like it might offer an item or two of interest. No, I’m not holding out much hope for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which manages to wear out its premise in two-and-a-half minutes of trailer. And Love Happens boasts a trailer that makes me want to go watch a Rob Zombie movie just to wash off the goo. Of course, either or both of these may simply be the worthy victims of bad trailers, but any optimism I can muster is definitely of the cautious variety.
This leaves us with four other new titles—exempting Lynch Mob and Soul Power, the reviews for which appear in Wednesday’s Xpress—opening this Friday, and all four have points of interest or potential interest. The most tantalizing one, from my perspective, is Cold Souls from first-time filmmaker Sophie Barthe. How anyone can fail to be intrigued by a movie—cited as being in the Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) vein by supporters and detractors alike—that’s ostensibly based on a dream Woody Allen had about seeing his soul and finding it looked like a chick pea is beyond me. Now, take that idea and imagine a world where it’s possible to have your soul removed and put into storage for use at a later time. Then feature Paul Giamatti as an actor who opts for this procedure because he think his soul is getting in the way of him playing Chekov. Yes, it does sound pretentious. But after Tyler Perry and Sorority Row, pretension sounds pretty good. I am so there when this opens at the Fine Arts on Friday.
If that sounds a little outre, there’s Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! (don’t forget the exclamation point, warns the distributor) with Matt Damon, an addle-brained corporate player who thinks that it will actually be good for his career if he blows the whistle on his company’s involvement in price-fixing. It’s based on a true story, too, for what that’s worth. The trailer promises a fairly funny film. The trick is that you never actually know what you’re getting with Soderbergh. OK, this is clearly not in his obscure mode like Full Frontal (talk about pretentious twaddle!), nor is it art-house fare like his two-part Che Guevara biopic. At the same time, it doesn’t really look to be quite in the Ocean’s Eleven realm of mainstream crowd-pleasing. Friday will give us the answer, when it opens at most corporate theaters.
Calling the early word on Jennifer’s Body brutal is something of an understatement—and the venom may well be deserved. Look, director Karyn Kusama gave us Aeon Flux (2005), which is hardly something that induces optimism. Worse, the trailer looks cheesy and obvious. Worse yet, the damned thing stars Megan Fox. None of this bodes well, but I can’t get away from the sense that at least some of this is backlash at screenwriter Diablo Cody, who is being knocked down a peg or two after flying too high too fast with Juno. Apparently, there’s something in human nature that just itches to do this sort of thing, since you see it happen all the time. With this in mind, I’m still interested, but prepared to be less than whelmed.
Now, when you look at this week’s Xpress you’ll note that there’s no mention of a movie called My One and Only opening. That’s because this sneaked into the listings—out of nowhere—several hours after the deadline on upcomers. No, this is not a film version of the Gershwin-filled 1983 stage musical that starred Tommy Tune and Twiggy. Instead, it’s a kind of biopic of the early years of executive producer George Hamilton (the plot synopsis adheres pretty closely to his bio). While I question that there is a crying need for a movie on this topic, I will note that it looks like it could provide the most worthwhile role for Renée Zellweger in ages (as George’s Southern-belle mom). It might also be the most interesting project Richard Loncraine has tackled since he directed Richard III back in 1995. I’m at least intrigued. As near as I can tell, the Beaucatcher has an exclusive on this one.
Word to the wise, Taking Woodstock will be history come Friday, and Extract and Gamer are in sharp decline. (500) Days of Summer is only holding on at the Carolina. In the Loop and Adam will go to split shows at the Fine Arts, while the estimable (but underperforming) World’s Greatest Dad drops to two shows a day at the Carolina. District Nine is still holding its own at some theaters, while Inglourious Basterds is holding up in general.
For those of you who missed the wonderful Easy Virtue—perhaps the most playful film of the year—during its theatrical run, it makes a welcome appearance this week on the DVD front. Director Stephan Elliott more than justifies the reputation he earned in 1994 with this (fairly loose) version of an early Noel Coward play, while Jessica Biel truly comes into her own as an actress. There’s fine work from Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas, too. Plus, the film boasts one of the quirkiest—yet completely apt—sound tracks you’ve ever encountered. This should be on the short list of titles to catch up with.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is also out. I didn’t think this was as bad as most people seemed to—but then I have no investment in the source material. I can’t, however, say that I have any great desire to revisit it. On the other hand, I would actively avoid revisiting Benny Boom’s Next Day Air, which, despite the peculiar endorsement of critic Armond White, was one of the most tedious wastes of talent I encountered all year.
In the special-release realm we find the “Screwhead Edition” of Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness. Apart from selling the same movie again to fans of Raimi and Bruce Campbell, I’m not real sure why this is out. Perhaps someone who is keener on Raimi than I am will explain. Alan Parker’s Fame is back among us just in time to bone up on the 1980 original before the rather awful-looking remake hits theaters. The same concept was obviously behind the latest DVD incarnation of The Wolf Man, but since the remake has been moved to 2010, the idea is lost—and possibly so is this apparently superfluous DVD. At least for now. The Wolf Man is still listed as coming out today, but it also hasn’t been released yet according to Amazon. In any case, I can see nothing to justify Universal releasing this title a third time.
Notable TV screenings
Those suffering the pangs of thwarted Orangutaniana will be pleased to know that Dunston Checks In returns to Fox Movie channel at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 20. (Since this is coincidentally my birthday, I’m debating whether to feel honored or insulted by the programming.) Otherwise, we have a week with a few choice titles coming to us via Turner Classic Movies.
Number Seventeen 6 a.m. Wednesday, Sept 16, TCM
This extremely odd Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1932 is, I fear, little appreciated. I think the blind spot that people have with this title is that they want it to make some kind of narrative sense, which it only barely does—and only if you’re being generous with your definition of “narrative sense.” The movie is as close as Hitch ever came to the “Old Dark House” genre, which makes it interesting from that standpoint alone. The story—such as it is—concerns a diverse group of people ending up at the titular address one gloomy night. It has something to do with a stolen necklace, though it’s hardly clear how or why everyone showed up. There’s also a deaf mute, who, this being Hitchcock, really isn’t, but the reason for the pose is never addressed. None of this really matters, though, because the film is mostly Hitch playing with effects—and very nice ones they are. The last 10 minutes of the film comprise a wild chase involving a train and a bus. It’s sufficiently fun that it’s easy to overlook Hitch indulging his penchant for model work. Actually, the model work is surprisingly good (at least up to the train crashing into a ferry), and the thing that most gives the game away is simply that some shots wouldn’t have been possible any other way.
Strange Cargo 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, TCM
Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo (1940) is nothing if not strange. It may in fact be the weirdest and most personal picture to come out of MGM during the post-code era of the studio system. Borzage’s filmography tends toward a very personal mystical religious tone, but I’m pretty sure this is the only of his films where it’s very possible that one of the characters—an escapee (Ian Hunter) from a French penal colony—actually is God. (That’s certainly the conclusion Clark Gable’s character draws at one point.) That, however, is not the only reason the film is strange, since, for what is clearly a spiritual work, Strange Cargo is also a heavily sexualized film. (Just watch the fetish-ized attitude Gable takes toward Joan Crawford’s lipstick-stained cast-off cigarette.) It may not be quite in the same league as the films Borzage made when he had something like complete autonomy at Fox in the waning days of silents and the early days of sound, but it’s not that far from it.
Sons of the Desert 6 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, TCM
Sons of the Desert (1933) is generally considered to be the best feature film ever made by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—with Way Out West (1937) being its most serious competition. I’d probably agree if it hadn’t been the only feature film I owned (on Super 8 sound, no less) for over a year, which is to say that I’ve seen it a few too many times to want to sit through it again more than every few years. Assuming you haven’t seen it to death, it likely is the closet the Boys ever came to capturing the essence of their short films in a feature. It has the tone of a short film, with its simple premise that finds Stan and Ollie concocting a wild scheme that allows them to bamboozle their wives and sneak off to the annual convention of their fraternal order, the Sons of the Desert. The problem with their plan is that the ship they’re supposed to be on sinks in a typhoon, and the jig is up when their distraught wives go to a movie and see newsreel footage of the pair at the convention. (Actually, the premise is taken from their 1928 short We Faw Down and elaborated on.) The film is beautifully crafted, and the results produce one of the true classics of the comedy film.
Hi, Nellie! 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22, TCM
Paul Muni was the prestige star at Warner Bros. after George Arliss departed with producer Darryl F. Zanuck when the latter left to form 20th Century Pictures, but early on Muni was occasionally allowed to star in less overtly “artistic” roles. Mervyn Leroy’s Hi, Nellie! (1934) is probably the most laid-back movie of his career—and one of the most enjoyable. It’s a pretty straightforward newspaper comedy/mystery that features Muni as a fast-talking, wise-cracking newspaperman (was there any other kind in the 1930s), who comes a cropper on a big story and is demoted to the “Heart Throb” column as Nellie Nelson, giving advice to the lovelorn. Naturally, it’s through this loathsome assignment that he hits on the biggest story in ages and finds his path back to the big league. It’s hardly earthshaking stuff, but it’s slick, fast and funny—and helped no end by a supporting cast of pros like Glenda Farrell, Ned Sparks, Berton Churchill and Douglass Dumbrille. (And if you don’t know who they are, you need to catch up on your 1930s movies.) Plus, it’s just nice to see Muni not hiding behind a crepe beard or a dialect for a change.