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page created: 2/14/06
originally published: 2/8/06





Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #25
Back in Black


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Once again, I apologize for the long dry spell between Electric Theatres. Technical difficulties, don't you know. I briefly considered switching over to Jahnke's Acoustic Theatre in the interim but I didn't have all of your addresses to mail the letter to. Failing that, I tried doing Jahnke's A Cappella Theatre but I'm not sure if you all heard me or not.

Anyway, I'm now armed with a brand spanking new computer which should last for at least six months or so before it biomes totally obsolete. Fortunately, this all happened in January, the great fallow patch in the studios' theatrical release schedule, so I don't feel like we really missed too much. So, sad as I am to disappoint you, I do not have reviews of Big Momma's House 2 or Annapolis. I do have a few flicks with 2006 copyright dates on them for you in a bit, but to begin with I have a rare triple feature to kick things off. Three movies from 2005 that I really should have seen theatrically but for whatever reason, did not. They're all out on DVD now and are each well worth your time and attention.


The A-Pictures...

1. Broken Flowers

I'm a big fan of director Jim Jarmusch but even so, I was surprised at how much I loved this movie. The golden age of Bill Murray's career continues here with his performance as Don Johnston, a wealthy and seemingly retired computer engineer. As the movie opens, he's losing the latest in a long line of girlfriends. That same day, he receives an anonymous letter from an old flame, informing him that he fathered a child with her and that young man may now be trying to track him down. With the assistance of his amateur sleuth neighbor (a wonderful Jeffrey Wright), Don narrows the list of women who may have sent the letter down to a handful and embarks on a cross-country trip to find the truth. Murray is a perfect fit for the deadpan universe of Jarmusch and he gives Don just the right combination of wit, charm, weariness and pathos. Even more remarkable is the parade of A-list actresses Jarmusch enlists to play Murray's old girlfriends, including Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton and Frances Conroy. Broken Flowers is a movie of great subtlety, wonderfully dry humor, and deep sadness. As usual, Jarmusch avoids answers and explanations. But by the final scene, every line on Murray's face tells us that this pink letter has changed his life forever. (*** ½)


2. Grizzly Man

I mentioned this one very briefly in my Honorable Mentions for the Best of 2005, but it deserves a longer consideration. Werner Herzog's spellbinding documentary tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers in the wilderness observing and living alongside ferocious grizzly bears. He wasn't a scientist, just a very passionate man who truly believed these bears would do him no harm as long as he abided by their rules. Eventually, Treadwell was proved wrong as both he and his girlfriend were killed by a bear. Herzog sifts through hours and hours of video footage taken by Treadwell in an attempt to discover what lay behind this complex man's exterior. If he's unable to ultimately find any easy answers, Herzog at least poses several fascinating questions. By the movie's end, it's impossible to simply dismiss Treadwell as a kook who lost touch with reality. But likewise, it's equally difficult to embrace him as a naturist and an animal lover. Grizzly Man is a thoroughly absorbing documentary on a par with Jon Krakauer's brilliant books Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. (*** ½)


3. Lord of War

In a year when political movies like Syriana and Munich got so much attention, I'm surprised at how unsung Andrew Niccol's gun-running thriller has been. Nicolas Cage stars as an arms dealer who works his way up from humble beginnings selling Uzis to mobsters to become unbelievably rich selling black and gray-market missiles, tanks and automatic weapons to African dictators. Niccol employs some bold filmmaking techniques, including the single best opening title sequence I've seen in a long time, following a single bullet from its manufacture to its ultimate use. The film walks a fine line between pitch black comedy and paranoid thriller, mostly with great success. Perhaps the movie's biggest flaw is its tendency to gloss over details that would help smooth Cage's transition from no-name street kid to international arms dealer. But the movie's strengths outweigh its faults. It has a look and attitude unlike most other films and an intelligent script to back up those surface virtues. (*** ½)


Now in Theatres...

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

I learned a long time ago never to dismiss a movie directed by Albert Brooks out of hand, so despite the fact that the trailer for this isn't great, I was still excited to see this. Brooks stars as Albert Brooks, comedian and actor, who is commissioned by the U.S. government to travel to India and Pakistan on a mission to learn what Muslims find funny in an attempt to win their hearts and minds. The last time we saw Albert Brooks, the movie character, he was an egomaniacal filmmaker burning down a family's house so his movie could have a big finish in Real Life. Not much has changed. Brooks is far more worried about finding material to fill his 500-page report than in actually relating to Muslims and eventually brings India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war. Looking for Comedy is not one of Brooks' best films but considering that each of his first four movies as director (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America and Defending Your Life) were works of utter genius, this isn't a major complaint. The film is certainly leagues better than his last effort, 1999's lackadaisical The Muse. Granted, now may not be the best time to enjoy a movie called Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, what with the riots and protests caused by cartoons over there recently. But if you can set that aside and tune in to Brooks' low-key wavelength, you'll find much to enjoy here. (***)


Underworld: Evolution

2003's Underworld was one of those movies that seems like it's based on a comic book or video game, even though it really isn't. On the one hand, you've got your vampires. On the other, your werewolves (or lycans, as the movie insists). They've been at war for centuries and Kate Beckinsale is the leather-clad, gun-toting vamp who falls for a lycan and begins to learn the truth behind the war. Evolution ought to expand on this back story and kick things up to the next level but it's basically just the same movie in a different location. There's some nifty special effects and the movie isn't half as mind-numbingly stupid as it perhaps should have been. But I also don't think it's particularly memorable, either for good or ill. If you loved the first Underworld, you'll probably enjoy this one, too. As for me, I didn't hate the first Underworld and I didn't hate this one, either. (**)


Also on DVD...

Chain Camera

This experimental documentary directed by Kirby Dick is quite eye-opening, especially for those of us who haven't set foot inside a high school in a few years. For one year, Dick supplied the students of a Los Angeles high school with video cameras and asked them to record their lives for one week. At the end of the week, they were to pass the camera along to another student. What we see is raw, surprisingly honest, and unflinchingly real. Not surprisingly, some of the kids use the cameras to goof around. But even those who start off taping themselves practicing wrestling moves eventually open up. Chain Camera will surprise you. Not just with how much things have changed since you were in high school, but also with how little. (***)


Herbie: Fully Loaded

This Love Bug for the 21st Century opens with a montage of footage from all the earlier Herbie movies. I watched this sequence in total shock, realizing that I must have seen every one of those movies, probably more than once, and can hardly remember a single thing about any of them. Fully Loaded seems about as harmless and forgettable as any of those earlier Disney comedies. Lindsay Lohan gets behind the wheel as the daughter of racing legend Michael Keaton. Dad won't let her race (Mom's dead and he just can't chance losing l'il Lindsay, too) but naturally, it's in her blood. It's up to Herbie to spill that blood and let her realize her full potential! Look, I don't even know why I bothered to watch this. It's a Herbie movie, OK? You get what you pay for. Considering some of the kids' movies they've been coming out with lately, this could have been much worse. (**)


Serenity

First off, I've never seen so much as a second of Joss Whedon's Firefly, the short-lived sci-fi series that preceded Serenity. Secondly, I don't much care for Buffy or Angel or anything else Whedon's been involved with. Some of Buffy's all right, I guess. It's just not my cup of hooch. But I do like good science fiction, so I figured I'd might just as well give Serenity a shot, especially since I had been assured that I didn't need to know anything about Firefly before watching it in order to enjoy it. That much, at least, is true. Serenity stands on its own merits as a feature film. However, I wasn't so taken with its merits that I wanted to rush out and see what I'd missed. Serenity is a reasonably enjoyable sci-fi movie, but originality isn't exactly something I'd accuse it of. I had an acute sense of deja vu throughout the entire film. Not necessarily specific ideas or scenes, the kind of theft/homage that Quentin Tarantino regularly engages in. In a way, Serenity feels like it's borrowing ideas from... well, everything that ever came before it. At its best, Serenity took me back to the 1980s and the height of my interest in science fiction. At its worst, my mind started drifting to other movies, books and TV shows from that era that I'd enjoyed more. (***)


Well, that's a good start, anyway. This is by no means a complete list of all the movies I've seen since the last regularly scheduled Electric Theatre but it is a good cross-sampling. Over the next few weeks, I'll try to work in some of the other, older titles here and there. I've seen quite a few good older movies recently that have probably flown under your radar. Meanwhile, my good friends over at The Digital Bits are probably hoping that I'll spin a few DVDs for The Bottom Shelf pretty soon. I have a backlog of reviews for that section that I can finally start spitting out, thanks to my boss new toy, so watch for those.

Until then, it's good to be back in business. Thanks for inviting me into your consciousness. I'll be back in seven and seven.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


Dedicated to Chris Penn and Al "Grandpa" Lewis

"Electric Theatre - Where You See All the Latest Life Size Moving Pictures, Moral and Refined, Pleasing to Ladies, Gentlemen and Children!"

- Legend on a traveling moving picture show tent, c.1900


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