#100 - Eye In The Sky
1945 - 2009
Well, hi there. Welcome to, believe it or not, the 100th issue of Jahnke’s Electric Theatre! This little column/blog/call-it-what-you-will has come a long way since its humble origins back in February of 2005. JET started life as a biweekly newsletter emailed to a handful of friends and family who claimed to be interested in what movies I’d seen lately. Later that year, Professor Bill Hunt suggested posting them on The Digital Bits, foisting them on to poor innocent strangers who’d never once even pretended to be interested in my opinions. Today, it’s the cornerstone of a global empire featured on its own little stand-alone site. It even has its own Facebook fan page. Never once did I think this project would have fans. Hell, before I even started it, I sent out apologetic e-mails to my original subscribers asking if they were really, really sure they wanted to read this. Turns out that a lot of you really did and I’m eternally grateful to each and every one of you.
The Electric Theatre numbering system was inspired by my love of comic books (this is why the year-end Ten Best columns are referred to as “Annuals”). In keeping with that tradition, I thought I’d celebrate this occasion by making #100 a special double-sized issue. In addition to two big theatrical releases, there’s a jumbo Tales From The Queue waiting for you. So let’s get to it and pass the cake!
NOW IN THEATRES
Up In The Air
At this point in his career, George Clooney doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove. His easy charm and handsome features make him a throwback to the classic movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age. But he’s smart enough to realize that can only carry him so far. He works with some of the finest filmmakers in the business, including Joel and Ethan Coen and Steven Soderbergh, and has directed some excellent work of his own. As an actor, he’s adept at light, witty comedy but isn’t afraid to make himself look ridiculous. But he’s also capable of digging deeper into dramatic roles and has the Oscar to prove it. By now, we all think we have a handle on who George Clooney is. All of which helps make Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air one of the most surprising and mature movies of the year.
Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, an axman who travels around the country delivering downsized employees the bad news that their services are no longer necessary. He’s the ultimate frequent flier, zipping in and out of people’s lives and enjoying elite status at every airport, rental car agency and business accommodation in America. His high-sheen life is threatened when a young go-getter (Anna Kendrick) proposes a new, more efficient way of doing business online. Ryan rebels against this, of course. But what’s fascinating is that while his motives are basically selfish, his conclusions are fundamentally correct. He does have more experience dealing with people than his young colleague. In fact, he’s much better at reading strangers than those closest to him, including the sisters he’s shut out of his life (Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey) and the new casual girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) he meets in hotels around the country.
In lesser hands, Up In The Air could play as a standard redemption of a scoundrel story. But Reitman and Clooney have something far more interesting in mind. Yes, Ryan comes to see how shallow and lonely his life really is but it’s difficult for him to do much about it this late in the game. On the road, Ryan is a man of importance, capable of using his smooth manner and good looks to be either friendly and approachable or cold and imperious, depending on the situation. Take that away from him and he’s simply a guy in a virtually unfurnished apartment in Nebraska. Kendrick is surprisingly good as the young career woman discovering that life doesn’t always go according to plan and Farmiga is outstanding as Clooney’s female counterpart.
Jason Reitman’s track record as a director hasn’t exactly blown me away until now. Thank You For Smoking was amusing but never as sharp a satire as I wanted it to be. Juno simply rubbed me the wrong way, though admittedly that was primarily the fault of Diablo Cody’s twee screenplay. With Up In The Air, Reitman has delivered the first great film of his career. It’s bracingly timely to American life in 2009 but filled with so many keen observations about the human condition that I don’t expect it will appear dated in ten years time. It’s smart, funny, bittersweet and packed with top-notch performances by first-rate actors. But make no mistake, this is George Clooney’s movie and he runs with it. It’s his finest performance to date and it reaffirms him as the preeminent movie star of the decade. (* * * ½)
Cormac McCarthy is by no means the easiest author to adapt to the screen. But after the Coens scored with No Country For Old Men, I was eager to see other filmmakers take a crack at it. When it was announced that John Hillcoat, director of the magnificent outback Western The Proposition, would be adapting The Road, my hopes were raised. But while Hillcoat’s film is a respectful and worthy telling of the story, it’s not quite the powerhouse I’d wished for.
Viggo Mortensen stars as one of the few survivors of a never-specified apocalypse. His wife (Charlize Theron) felt that mere survival was pointless and took her own life. So Mortensen travels with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the coast, doing whatever it takes to protect the boy and trying to convey to him the vital necessity of staying alive and “carrying the fire”.
Hillcoat certainly succeeds at capturing the grey atmosphere of this terrifying new world. The bleak images of devastation are both awe-inspiring and frightening. But the film remains somewhat cold and distant, which is odd considering the raw emotions that are dealt with. Viggo Mortensen is certainly one of the most intense actors working today. I don’t think the man could recite “Mary Had A Little Lamb” without instilling it with a kind of grim urgency. But at a certain point, his natural intensity starts to work against the film. I kept wondering how much more interesting it would have been if a slightly softer actor like Bill Pullman had played the part. As it is, Mortensen’s obsessive need to survive borders on mania. He excels in quiet moments, such as allowing himself a final moment to reminisce about his wife, and I’d have liked to see a few more of those. Kodi Smit-McPhee is quite good and remarkably understated as the boy. But the most interesting scenes are those few that introduce new voices, including a practically unrecognizable Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce.
In many ways, The Road is an excellent movie, offering up considerable food for thought and creating the bleakest vision of a post-apocalyptic world I’ve yet to see on film. If anything, it is perhaps too cerebral. It’s interesting without being fully engaging, which makes it something of a disappointment. Hillcoat has made a movie about carrying the fire which sadly lacks spark. (* * *)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
When I introduced this feature earlier this year, I had no idea what to expect. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I really didn’t know how many of you would respond to my request for recommendations of underrated, little-known gems. At worst, I feared nobody would write in and I’d just quietly forget the whole thing. Well apparently, you were all just waiting for somebody to ask. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Many of you sent in lists. It’s safe to say that TFTQ won’t be going anywhere for a long, long time.
In my original post, I laid out three ground rules for TFTQ. For those of you keeping score at home, they were:
1. It must be something available on disc in these United States.
2. It must be something I haven’t seen before. If you suggest something I’ve already seen, I’ll let you know and you can try again.
3. If I don’t like your recommendation and write a negative review, you can’t take it personally.
I needn’t have worried about Rule #3. You all have excellent taste and I can honestly say that each and every suggestion I’ve received so far has been time well spent. Rule #1 has been a bit trickier, thanks to discs going in and out of print and the large number of readers from abroad who have sent in ideas that sound great but are frustratingly difficult to lay hands on. I keep track of all the suggestions, however, and have not yet lost hope of tracking down titles like the 2006 Russian film Peter FM.
It should come as no surprise that Rule #2 has been the toughest. I’ve seen a movie or two in my day and unless I’ve written about it (and you painstakingly comb through every review I’ve ever posted), you have no way of knowing what I’ve seen and what I haven’t. I do reply if you suggest something I’ve seen but I realized that this rule was preventing a lot of very worthwhile titles from receiving their due. So for this anniversary edition of JET, I thought I’d throw open the curtain on these rule-breakers. I’d seen these before but you might not have. Regardless, all of these are worthy of your attention and deserve a bigger audience.
Brotherhood Of The Wolf
In all honesty, this 2001 French horror-adventure is my least favorite movie here and for purely personal reasons. A few years prior to its release, I’d written a screenplay based on the identical legend of the Beast of the Gevaudan. Needless to say, I thought my version was better. But Christophe Gans’ movie is stylish and well-regarded by many, plus it co-stars the beyond beautiful Monica Bellucci, so I can’t completely dismiss it.
Curse Of The Demon
Also known as Night Of The Demon, this is one of the most underrated films from director Jacques Tourneur. Dana Andrews stars as a psychologist intending to debunk the myth of devil-worshiping cults. But before long, things start to happen that make him think there may well be demons afoot. An intelligent, beautifully filmed horror film that deserves to be as esteemed as the classics Tourneur made for producer Val Lewton.
The Day The Earth Caught Fire
Great, serious science fiction from director Val Guest detailing the way people react to news that the Earth is on a collision course with the sun, thanks to nuclear testing. Very much ahead of its time and still gripping today. A movie that should be seriously studied by all the Michael Bays and Roland Emmerichs of the world.
Arguably Ken Russell’s best film, this 1971 classic still hasn’t been released on DVD here in the States. Unbelievable. Oliver Reed gives one of his best performances as a priest who challenges church doctrine, so he’s put on trial for witchcraft. A stunner of a film that should be as well-known as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible instead of languishing in obscurity.
Burt Reynolds doesn’t command a lot of respect as a filmmaker but his 1978 black comedy is truly underrated and deserves a second look. Reynolds learns he hasn’t much time to live so he decides to take his own life, without much success. The late Dom DeLuise is brilliantly funny as a mental patient who really, really wants to help Burt out.
Flirting With Disaster
David O. Russell’s 1996 comedy stumbles a bit but has more than enough highlights to make it worthwhile. Ben Stiller goes on a quest to find out who his birth parents are, accompanied by wife Patricia Arquette and case worker Tea Leoni. They’re good but the best moments belong to veterans Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin. Their work elevates this to a must-see.
Several people wrote in to recommend Christopher Nolan’s 1998 debut feature, scheduled to receive the Criterion treatment sometime next year. It’s a sly puzzle of a movie about a writer who follows strangers, ostensibly to get inspiration for his work, and gets more than he bargained for when one of his subjects turns out to be a thief and takes him under his wing.
The Girl Next Door
Emile Hirsch stars as an awkward teenager who blossoms under the guidance of his new neighbor, a porn starlet played by Elisha Cuthbert. This movie should not work on any level yet it does thanks to astute direction by Luke Greenfield and the winning, believable performances of Hirsch and Cuthbert. Special mention must be made of Timothy Olyphant, spellbinding as an old “associate” of Cuthbert.
Adam Green’s 2006 movie is a love letter to and revival of the blood ‘n’ boobs slasher flicks of the 80s. A cut above most other movies in the genre, thanks in large part to Green’s palpable love of the genre, his enthusiasm and genuine skill behind the camera. I’m sure I’m not the only horror fan looking forward to his next movie, Frozen.
I Come In Peace
Dolph Lungren needs love, too! If you see only one low-budget action flick starring the blonde behemoth, make it this one that pits him against an alien who comes to Earth to manufacture drugs from human beings. Goofy, delirious fun.
Richard Donner’s long-lost 1980 drama finally resurfaced on DVD this year and it’s one of his most heartfelt films. John Savage is terrific as the depressed survivor of a suicide attempt who comes to appreciate life after he’s befriended by a group of physically handicapped guys who hang out at a local bar. A totally organic film that makes you want to walk through the screen and grab a beer with these characters.
George Miller’s inspirational, fact-based 1992 drama is often overlooked but it’s far better than you might think. Nick Nolte stars as a man who teaches himself science and medicine in a quest to cure his son, suffering from a rare and fatal disease. In other hands, this would be Movie-of-the-Week material. Here, it’s honest, emotional and gripping.
The Monster Squad
Fred Dekker’s beloved cult horror-comedy-adventure from 1987 might now be on the verge of becoming overrated thanks to its devoted and vocal fan base. Still, it’s hard not to get a kick out of this blend of classic monsters and smart-ass kids.
One False Move
Quite simply one of the best neo-noir movies of the past couple decades (along with another which I’ll discuss in a minute). Bill Paxton is great as a small-town sheriff forced to contend with some LA crooks hiding out in his town…as well as the condescending big-city cops chasing them. The first movie written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, expertly directed by Carl Franklin. It’ll make you wish Thornton picked up the pen more often.
You don’t see a lot of low-budget science fiction movies but Shane Carruth’s 2004 film Primer proves you don’t need big effects to make good sci-fi, just big ideas. A group of scientists invent a machine that…well, let’s just say it doesn’t do what they wanted it to do…it does something much bigger. A genuinely fascinating movie that you should not watch alone because you’ll want to discuss it with somebody as soon as it’s over.
Red Rock West
This is the other great neo-noir I was referring to above, a modern classic from director John Dahl. Nicolas Cage is in top form as a drifter stranded in Wyoming, mistaken by J.T. Walsh as the hitman from Texas he hired to off his wife. The real hitman is Dennis Hopper and he’s not too pleased when he learns of the mix-up. A wonderfully twisty little movie with some of our finest actors having the time of their lives.
Rock & Rule
Utterly bizarre but hypnotic animated sci-fi about an evil rock star who kidnaps a beautiful singer to summon a demon. I’m not sure if this is a good movie or not but it’s definitely unique with a killer soundtrack featuring the likes of Blondie, Cheap Trick and Lou Reed.
Brad Anderson’s 2001 movie doesn’t seem to get enough credit, even from voracious horror junkies. It’s a genuinely creepy and unsettling movie about a group of asbestos removers who start losing their grip while working at an abandoned mental hospital. If you can, watch this with no distractions…lights out in a quiet room. You will be scared.
Christopher Smith’s horror-comedy follows a group of co-workers to a remote cabin for a weekend of team-building exercises. Corporate life goes out the window, however, when they’re targeted by a gang of maniacal killers. Severance didn’t quite live up to its brilliant premise for me but it’s still clever, funny and worth checking out.
One of my favorite movies of recent years, written and directed by fellow Troma alum James Gunn. Nathan Fillion is terrific as a sheriff whose little town is overrun by an alien plague of slugs, transforming the citizenry into mutants, zombies and freaks. Wildly original and endlessly entertaining, this is the kind of movie studios aren’t supposed to make anymore. I have no idea how this snuck through. And while you're waiting for Gunn's next flick, be sure to check out his hysterical web series PG Porn.
Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, Stardust is a charming fantasy-romance in the vein of The Princess Bride. I wasn’t entirely won over by it at first but the movie has stayed with me and grown in my estimation since. If nothing else, it’s worth watching for Michelle Pfeiffer’s wonderful star turn and a funny cameo appearance by the great Ricky Gervais.
State And Main
Hollywood loves sending itself up and David Mamet’s 2000 comedy is a prime example of this, showing the disastrous effects a film crew has on a small New England town. A terrific movie with a gigantic cast of A-list talent, including Alec Baldwin, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sarah Jessica Parker in what may be her funniest performance ever.
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
Not the recent Travolta/Washington remake, nor the 1998 TV-movie remake, but the still unrivaled original from 1974. Walter Matthau is peerless as the rumpled transit cop who takes on a group of subway hijackers led by Robert Shaw. Exciting, funny and propelled by a terrific score by David Shire, this is one of the very best movies of the 1970s.
Three O'Clock High
Phil Joanou’s high school comedy had quite a following when I was in film school back in the late 80s. It seems to have lost a bit of its luster since then, which is too bad. Casey Siemaszko is a dweebish teen facing a 3PM deadline for a schoolyard fight with bully Richard Tyson. A funny and energetic film, this is the Raising Arizona of teen flicks…no surprise since both films employed cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld.
If you think all Japanese horror movies are the same, you obviously have never seen Higuchinsky’s 2000 mindbender Uzumaki. Disturbing and bizarre, it’s about a small town that becomes obsessed by, then transforms into, spirals. A fantastic fever dream of a movie, although Junji Ito’s original manga is even better.
With A Friend Like Harry...
The term “Hitchcockian” is thrown around far too often but in the case of this French thriller from 2000, it really fits. Laurent Lucas meets a man who claims to be an old school friend. He doesn’t recognize him but Harry (Sergi Lopez) can remember details that verify his story. They begin to renew their friendship and Harry, disappointed that his friend’s dreams of being a writer have gone unfulfilled, decides to help out by getting rid of “distractions”. Directed by Dominik Moll, this is a wonderful, exciting movie that can be compared to Strangers On A Train. I’ve been surprised that Moll hasn’t done more since this.
Many, many thanks to everyone who has contributed to TFTQ so far: Phil Baird, Dan Barrett, Mychal Bowden, Shawn Boyer, Rob Buck, Brian Canio, Casey Cartmill, Kelly Certain, Matthew Dahlquist, Brian DeLeon, Todd Doogan, Cheryl L. Fattman, Jay Hall, Andrew Hansen, Niels Hansen, Patrick Harris, Joe Hoopman, Jay Kranz, Robert Krehbiel, Al Kuenster, Angela Lee, Mike MacMillan, Benjamin Mah, Alan McKenzie, Tisha Nagel, Dan Peters, Christina Petro, Bill Pierson, Greg Robinson, Matt Rowe, Robert J. Sautter, Christopher Seay, David Shultz, Marc Sperhauk, Dave Steiner, Murray Stevens, Jim Temple, Christopher Tiffany, Paul Veloz, John Wao, David Weicker, Brian Woods, Brian Young, Kurt Zimmer and anyone else I may have inadvertently forgotten or who didn’t sign your email. TFTQ has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable projects I’ve undertaken since starting at The Digital Bits and I hope you get just as much out of it as I do. As always, if you’ve got a suggestion, either send me an email or become a fan over at Facebook and let me know. I’m looking forward to the next hundred.
Now then, the Electric Theatre will be taking a short break next week but I’ll be back with a pre-holiday installment on December 22. After that, the Theatre will be closed for the holidays but will return with two new issues the first week of January: the annual best (and not-best) of 2009 and a special look at my favorites of the decade! See you in a fortnight.