Weekly Reeler: Movie Talk for May 20-26

Special Local Film Event

Some of you might remember Joe Chang’s film Neutral, which debuted in Asheville back in the fall of 2007. For a local work, it was unusual, in that Joe insisted on shooting the film on 35mm—something that gave it a visual richness not often seen in such productions. Neutral was—and is—also one of the very few Asheville-based films that attempts to capture something of the sense of the city itself, which is perhaps why it struck me as an “existential drama.” It certainly captures the quirkiness of Asheville—and it does so without feeling forced or mean-spirited or condescending. That, I suspect, is a large part of what attracted no less a personage than John Cameron Mitchell—who became a champion of Neutral—to the film. I know it’s what attracted me and earned the work a good review in the Xpress (www.mountainx.com/movies/review/neutral).

Well, this week Neutral comes to DVD, and to celebrate the event, there’s a free screening tonight—Tuesday, May 19—at 8 p.m. at Firestorm Cafe & Books, 48 Commerce St., downtown Asheville, and then again this Thursday, May 21, at 9 p.m. at the Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave. The Grey Eagle event also promises “Music, Magic, Comedy, Video Clips, Free Stuff, Discounted DVDs.” Musical performers for the night are Night’s Bright Colors, the Neapolitan Children and Kovacs and the Polar Bear. Here’s a terrific chance to show support for the local filmmaking scene—and to have a good time in the bargain.

New in Theaters

Four new films open locally this week, and they cover quite a spectrum. I’m not even sure which of the four is set to be this week’s “big new thing,” though I can guarantee which one isn’t.

The first of the lot is McG’s Terminator Salvation, which opens on Thursday—or in some cases, at midnight before dawn even breaks on Thursday—and attempts to convince us that there’s post-Arnold life in the Terminator series. To prove this, they’ve not only tapped the directorial services of McG, the man who made Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) and the lachrymose We Are Marshall (2006), but also the acting services of Christian Bale, a performer who takes things very seriously indeed. You may, in fact, recall that Mr. Bale had a well-publicized incident on the set of the film where he abused a member of the crew because the man broke his concentration while he was deeply immersed in his character. (Uh, this is an effects-driven movie about robots. I guess it’s now the first method-acted effects-driven movie about robots.)

When I was pulling together the upcomers for the print edition of the Xpress yesterday, there was only one review of the film—a very positive one from Variety. Since that time, however, seven more reviews have surfaced. Of those, six are of the brutally negative variety. Like the man says, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

The other big hopeful contender is Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. I wasn’t exactly thrilled by Mr. Levy’s original Night at the Museum (2006), but it was harmless enough and went on to make a lot of money. A more expensive sequel was a sure bet and this is it. It looks like more—and more and more—of the same. You have Ben Stiller and most of the rest of the museum-displays-come-to-life cast back. You have more simian value (really, who doesn’t enjoy seeing Stiller slapped by a monkey?) and you have Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart (who never looked this good the best day she ever had). This last poses an interesting test, since I’ve been of the opinion for some time that putting Amy Adams in anything will make it worth watching. This will sorely test that theory, I fear.

Testing of another sort arrives with the Wayans Brothers’ Dance Flick—yet another in the seemingly interminable series of “movie parodies.” In its favor is the fact that it wasn’t made by those offspring of Satan, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Then again, it was made by the Wayans, who are probably at least first cousins of the Prince of Darkness. The trailer is dreadful and the Wayans’ batting average is, well, not good. The fact that Paramount is sending it out to go head-to-head, toe-to-toe or some other random body-part-to-body-part with Terminator Salvation and Night at the Museum 2 strongly suggests that Dance Flick has already been written off as a flop.

Outside of the mainstream, we have the Fine Arts bringing us Is Anybody There? starring Michael Caine and Bill Milner. You know who Caine is, but Milner is the kid from last year’s Son of Rambow. The review for this one—as well as that for the held-over Valentino: The Last Emperor—is in this Wednesday’s Xpress.

Noteworthy DVD releases

It’s another pretty drab week for DVDs—unless,of course, you’re just dying to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop in the privacy of your own home. People stayed away from Fanboys by the millions when it played (very briefly) in theaters, so it can hardly fare any more poorly on DVD. And, of course, there’s Tom Cruise as the improbable Nazi from Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. The very fact that Samuel L. Jackson’s dress-up Nazi in The Spirit was far more convincing is a testament to Cruise’s effectiveness in the role. The movie is nice to look at, though.

If those don’t entice you, My Bloody Valentine 3-D is out—in both a home 3-D version and a 2-D version. The 3-D was brilliantly done in the movie’s theatrical release, but I’m not holding out much hope for it on DVD. The film itself is pretty funny. Too bad it’s meant as a straightforward horror picture.

Timed to play into the release of Valkyrie is Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941), which stars Walter Pidgeon as a Brit hunter who gets a shot at taking a shot at Hitler (no prizes for guessing whether or not he succeeds). It’s not prime Lang, but it’s certainly watchable and entertaining.

Hopefully Marc from Orbit will stop by and enlighten us on some marvelous piece of esoterica that has escaped my notice in the DVD realm.

Notable TV screenings

The pickings are slim this week. FMC is mired—yet again—in showing the same, very limited set of movies (I know Fox owns more titles than they tend to run to death). TCM, on the other hand, is awash in war movies for Memorial Day Weekend. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, though war movies mark an area where I’m hardly expert, because I just don’t much care for the genre (with notable exceptions).

Bell, Book and Candle TCM, 6:15 p.m., Wednesday, May 20
Richard Quine’s film version of John Van Druten’s play isn’t a great movie, but it’s pretty good as a late-in-the-day example of a studio-system romantic comedy—with, in this case, fantasy elements, since it’s all about the romance of publisher James Stewart and modern-day witch Kim Novak. Slickly produced and fleshed out with performers like Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold, the movie’s a fun time, if nothing else. And actually, it is a little bit else when you realize that Van Druten’s play is loaded with gay subtext—the underground world of witches and warlocks in 1950s New York City is a thinly veiled depiction of the gay underground of the time.

Lady in the Lake TCM, 6:15 p.m., Thursday, May 21
When light leading man Robert Montgomery came back from WWII he wanted two things: a change of image and a shot at directing. He got both with Lady in the Lake (1947)—perhaps the strangest movie to come out of MGM in the 1940s. Montgomery mayn’t have been exactly original in trying to present himself in a new light by playing Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe—after all, it had worked for crooner Dick Powell in 1944 with Murder, My Sweet. His approach to directing, however, was about as original as you could get.

Somehow Montgomery convinced MGM to let him undertake a bold experiment. He would tell Lady in the Lake entirely with a subjective camera. Apart from cutaways to Montgomery giving the standard Marlovian narration to the audience, the film was seen completely through the character’s eyes. This presented not only a technical nightmare, since the camera had to be very mobile at a time when nobody used hand-held shots, and every scene had to be in a single unbroken take. It also effectively kept the film’s star off the screen for most of the movie. Apart from the narration bits, the only time we see Montgomery it’s his reflection in mirrors. To add to the strangeness of it all, the film was topped off with an a cappella choir for a musical score—something which now has the disadvantage of sounding like scene transitions from the dismal 1950s sitcom I Married Joan.

Does it work? Oh, hardly at all. It’s awkward at best and completely distracting at worst. Plus, Montgomery’s voice performance sounds arch and phony, while the other performers—forced to talk directly to the camera—tend to look very ill at ease. They probably were, too, since not only were they doing the one thing they’d been trained not do—look into the lens—but the long takes meant that if they muffed a line, the scene had to start over from the beginning. That it doesn’t work, however, doesn’t keep Lady in the Lake from being one of the most daring and fascinating attempts in the history of film—as well as one of the screwiest.

The Big Parade TCM, 2:15 a.m., Monday, May 25
King Vidor’s silent classic The Big Parade (1925) is one of the more interesting war movies out there. It’s too long and too big, but it presents an unusual picture of WWI in that it manages to be very much a pro-camaraderie work, while being both anti-war and very much anti-conformity. The idea of the dehumanizing effect of being turned into just one of many—a Vidor preoccupation that found stronger expression in The Crowd (1928)—is very forceful. Definitely worth a look.

The Lost Patrol TCM, 4:30 a.m., Monday, May 25
John Ford’s 1934 The Lost Patrol—about a troop of British soldiers lost in the desert of Mesopotamia—is a work that has not held up all that well, but has its compensations. The interplay between the soldiers is pretty typical of Ford—though the inclusion of Boris Karloff as a religious fanatic, who becomes thoroughly unhinged due to the grim circumstances, is an unusual aspect. Unfortunately, it’s also an awkward one, because the usually restrained Karloff is anything but restrained here. It’s entertaining in its over-the-top way, but it’s also something of a distraction.


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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2 thoughts on “Weekly Reeler: Movie Talk for May 20-26

  1. Another good week in the dvd front.

    The best HBO series in years, TRUE BLOOD, is finally out. It was created by SIX FEET UNDER’S Alan Ball and deals with vampires who have “come out of the coffin” in Louisiana.

    Criterion gives us more gems. First up is the three dvd box set of Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura (PIGS, PIMPS & PROSTITUTES). Second is an excellent crime film from the 70s by Peter Yates (BULLITT). THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE stars Robert Mitchum in one of his best performances as a small time hood trying to stay out of prison.

    Why didn’t OUTLANDER get a wide release? Was the plot of Vikings vs. Aliens too much to handle? Or was it the Weinstein Company, who are the worst movie studio in the business? Whatever, this movie is actually good and well worth a rental.

    On the blu-ray front, Pixar’s A BUG’S LIFE is considered a “lesser” film from them, but looks great in hi-def and good fun.

    A favorite of mine (and probably not Ken’s) is Charles Bronson. This week we see two of his movies packaged together: Don Siegel’s TEFLON and the thriller ST. IVES.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Why didn’t OUTLANDER get a wide release? Was the plot of Vikings vs. Aliens too much to handle? Or was it the Weinstein Company, who are the worst movie studio in the business?

    My guess is a combination of reason no. one and the fact that it’s not exactly rife with bankable stars. Really, if Jim Caviezel isn’t playing JC, no one seems to care much. I’ve no idea how it fared in test screenings or limited release. The fact that it pulled in well under $1,000 per screen on in its opening weekend probably explains a lot. You have to admit that Vikings vs. Aliens suggests a kind of dubious wide appeal.

    A favorite of mine (and probably not Ken’s) is Charles Bronson. This week we see two of his movies packaged together: Don Siegel’s TEFLON and the thriller ST. IVES.

    I’m kind of ambivalent about Bronson, though I have a good friend who wants to bear his children, which I can’t understand.

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