#101 - The Light That Burns
1967 - 2009
Evening, squire. Welcome to the final issue of Jahnke’s Electric Theatre of 2009. Yes, the Theatre will be dark next week for the holidays but will reopen on January 4 with the first of two big best-of specials. I realize this makes me probably the last person on the internet to chime in with one of these. Personally, I prefer to let the calendar year end before committing to my favorites. I hope you’ll find them worth the wait.
Last week’s absence was the result of a pre-Christmas trip to London. While I was there, I took time out from hoisting pints in local pubs to take a trip up Portobello Road to visit one of the oldest working movie theatres in the city. Built in 1910, it just so happens to be called the Electric Cinema.
Pretty nifty, eh? Next time I’m in the UK, I hope to get up to Birmingham to check out their Electric Cinema. Predating London’s cinema by two months, it’s the oldest working movie theatre in the country. If you know of any other Electric Cinemas or Electric Theatres near you, please let me know! I’d love to collect ‘em all.
One last thing before we begin. You have probably already read that the Bits team lost a dear friend over the weekend: Paul Prischman, gone far too soon at the obscenely young age of 42. I have little to add that hasn’t already been said apart from extending my own condolences to Paul’s family and friends. Paul was a wonderful person and he’ll be missed more than words can say. It was with deepest sadness and the utmost love and respect that I dedicate this week’s Electric Theatre to him.
NOW IN THEATRES
After years of anticipation and a level of hype befitting the return of the self-proclaimed King of the World, James Cameron’s ambitious 3-D Avatar has finally landed in theatres. Cameron is a fascinating figure, arguably the most polarizing mainstream filmmaker the world has ever seen. While I admire his drive and his genuinely inventive use of technology, he’s made just one film that I consider a true masterpiece (that being 1984’s The Terminator, although Aliens is a very close second). His other movies each have major flaws that keep me from fully embracing them. This makes for some frustrating viewing, especially in a case like The Abyss, which I think is about 75% great and about 25% rambling nonsense. I went into Avatar with fairly low expectations and was surprised to find that the movie is both better than I expected and much, much worse.
From a purely technical standpoint, Avatar is beyond reproach. Cameron’s attention to detail serves him well in creating the alien world of Pandora, as well as the futuristic bases and ships of the Earthlings. An early image of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) waking from cryogenic stasis in a rich, deep, zero-g environment is breathtaking, especially in 3-D. At first, the Na’vi and Pandora’s wildlife are a bit jarring and I wonder if the 3-D works against the realism of the effects in some respect. The addition of depth is meant to add a level of immersion but I find it somewhat distancing. It’s one level of artificiality too many. But by the movie’s end, the Na’vi are utterly convincing. It’s the best kind of visual effect. You understand that what you’re seeing isn’t real but you accept it without wondering how it was accomplished.
But for a movie that works so hard to show its audience something they’ve never seen before, Avatar feels awfully familiar. Nobody is going to argue that Cameron’s greatest strength is as a screenwriter but even by his standards, the script for Avatar feels lazy. The humans have come all the way to Pandora to drill for a mineral called Unobtainium? Really? I guess Rocky and Bullwinkle already depleted Earth’s supply of Upsidaisium. It must be so precious because it’s imbued with Hardtogetitis. Every character feels recycled from earlier Cameron efforts, from the caricature of a tough marine played by Stephen Lang with neck veins a’poppin’ to Giovanni Ribisi’s imitation of Paul Reiser in Aliens. Even the alien world feels familiar. Anybody remember Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series? Sure, the look of the film is impressive…for a while. But that can only carry your interest so far. At times, Cameron gets so caught up in playing tour guide of Pandora that he lets things drag on far too long. After about an hour, I was used to the sights and sounds of Pandora and hungry for something to connect with. But the story is so by the numbers that it was impossible to be invested in what was happening. Apart from a few dizzying leaps and views down from stunning heights, I wasn’t even engaged on a visceral level.
In the end, it may be Cameron’s King of the World ego that prevents Avatar from being anything more than an expensive demo reel of state of the art visual effects. Clearly he wanted to create a world from the ground up. The planet is called Pandora but it might just as well be named Cameronia. But while the place is new, the story has been told a million times before by much better storytellers. There are hundreds of great, unfilmed science fiction and fantasy novels out there. If only Cameron could use his talents to bring one of them to the screen instead of trying to sell us on a sci-fi remake of Dances With Wolves, then we might have something truly memorable. As it is, Avatar shines brightly but fades out far too fast. (* * ½)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
The audience for a movie about cockfighting is probably even smaller today than it was back in 1974. At least back then, something like this could reliably be booked into drive-ins across the South. But if you can get past the inhumane subject matter, this Roger Corman production works as both an entertaining exploitation movie and as a downbeat, fascinating character study.
Warren Oates stars as Frank Mansfield, a first-rate cockfighter who blew a chance at the championship thanks to his big mouth. He vows to not speak until the coveted and rarely given Cockfighter of the Year prize is his. Things don’t go well at first. He loses his trailer (and girlfriend) to rival Harry Dean Stanton. But he regroups and teams up with Richard B. Shull. Together, they sweep the circuit and make their way into the finals.
At this point, you either think this sounds so odd that your curiosity is piqued or you’re wondering why on earth anybody would want to watch this. For one thing, this is a part of the South rarely seen on screen. Written by the great Charles Willeford (who also wrote the novel Miami Blues) and directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop), the movie is gritty, detailed and authentic. It’s unavoidably violent, as it should be to portray this quasi-sport. Undoubtedly the biggest reason to see the movie is Warren Oates. Oates had a remarkable screen presence and Cockfighter gives him one of his very few lead roles. He grabs a hold of it and doesn’t let go, showing us a vivid portrayal of an obsessively ambitious but weary man with almost no dialogue. Oates doesn’t need words, though. His eyes tell us all we need to know.
Cockfighter is a rambling, episodic movie but it’s always entertaining and considerably more cerebral than it might appear. More than anything, though, it’s a tremendous showcase for Warren Oates. Sooner or later, almost all movie fans become fans of this underrated character actor. And if you’re a fan of Warren Oates, Cockfighter is required viewing. (* * *)
Death At A Funeral
In one of the oddest and fastest bits of remake news lately, this 2007 British comedy has been turned into a vehicle for Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence due in theatres next year. What makes this particularly strange is that the trailer for the remake suggests that it’s virtually identical to the original. Peter Dinklage even appears in both of them as the same character. It seems more like a new production of the same material, akin to taking a successful West End show and transferring it to Broadway with a new cast. The live theatre analogy seems apt, since Death At A Funeral feels very much like a stage play in the tradition of the classic British farce.
For a farce to work, several elements need to work in perfect harmony. The cast must be fully committed and invested in the urgency of the material, no matter how ridiculous things get. That’s certainly the case here. Matthew Macfadyen leads the ensemble with unflappable deadpan charm. Alan Tudyk gets a lot of mileage out of a single gag: he’s given what he thinks is valium but is in fact a very powerful hallucinogen. It’s an old joke but it works thanks to Tudyk’s performance.
The cast is let down a bit by the other two key ingredients. Dean Craig’s screenplay has its moments and is pleasant enough but never seems to get out of first gear. The movie establishes its tone with its first joke and never deviates from it. That first joke is cute but everything that comes after only hits that same level of comedy. I kept waiting for something really funny to happen but it never does. The movie makes you smile and chuckle a bit but never provokes a big sustained laugh. Also, the direction by Frank Oz seems oddly paced at times. There are several moments where Oz cuts from one story to another too quickly, as if he hasn’t allowed the moment to play itself out yet. A good farce needs to flow smoothly so that the outrageous behavior of the characters seems natural and thus funnier. Death At A Funeral lurches a bit, making that same behavior feel irritating.
Despite its flaws, Death At A Funeral is lightly amusing and the basic structure of a really good comedy is there. I’ll admit I’m curious to see if the remake smooths out these imperfections or merely enhances them. The original is reasonably entertaining but if you really want to see British farce at its finest, you should stick with Fawlty Towers. (* * ½)
Thanks to Brian DeLeon and Greg Robinson for this week’s TFTQ recommendations! Remember that if you have a suggestion (or a whole bunch of suggestions) for TFTQ, you can either shoot me an email or let me know through the official JET Facebook page. I’ll see you back here in 2010 with my picks for the best movies of the year and the decade. Until then, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.