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page created: 12/23/05
originally published: 3/15/05

Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #4
Escape from L.A.

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Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

I had a pretty good run there for awhile. Plenty of movies I liked. Some I liked a lot. None I outright hated. I've certainly seen enough movies to know that this could not last. And when the streak ended, it would end hard.

Not that this is the worst batch of flicks I've ever suffered through. Far from it. It's just that even the good ones aren't great. This week's A-Picture, for example, is really nothing more than a B-movie. But it is the movie I enjoyed the most this time around and rules are rules. Those of you who have missed the Hell Plaza Octoplex will be glad to see it's once again business as usual down there. And in between, a fairly large amount of trash (both Euro and domestic) that, even if I enjoyed, I'd be hesitant to recommend to many people. So for this issue, more so than usual, proceed at your own risk.

The A-Picture - Runaway Train

You know it's been a rough couple of weeks when the best movie you saw stars Eric Roberts. Jon Voight plays a hardened criminal who's spent the last three years welded into his cell in a maximum security prison in Alaska. He's finally let out of the cage and promptly escapes with eager sycophant Roberts tagging along. The two guys make it to a railyard where they have the misfortune to hop a ride on a train whose engineer has a heart attack just as they're pulling out. Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, Runaway Train is often as stupid as a basket full of brain-damaged puppies, with clunky dialogue and situations that make absolutely no sense even by the loosest of standards. However, it's exciting and entertaining enough to make you forget most of that, Voight is always fun to watch and the snow-covered scenery is breathtaking. This was based on an abandoned screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, who I can only assume would have handled the story more artfully than this. (***)

The Alamo

John Lee Hancock directs this two-hour-plus sleeping pill depicting the legendary Texas siege. Supposedly more historically accurate than other filmed versions of this story (which I cannot imagine would be a difficult goal to achieve), this Alamo is far too reverential of its subject matter and lacks the good old fashioned square-shouldered Hollywood mythmaking ability of, say a John Wayne. Billy Bob Thornton is appealing as David "Don't Call Me Davy" Crockett... good enough, in fact, that you'll wish you were watching a movie just about him instead. By the way, turns out there really is no basement at the Alamo. (* ½)

The Backyard

A documentary look at the wild, wild world of backyard wrestling. It's a terrific subject but director Paul Hough doesn't quite do it justice. The movie is frustratingly scattered, as if they just loaded all their footage onto a computer and hit "shuffle" instead of editing it properly. And the people that Hough spends the most time with aren't always the most interesting folks on screen. Still, it's a pretty amazing spectacle and the creativity and energy these kids put into their backyard death matches is often remarkable. The movie is at its best when Hough shuts up and allows the kids to speak for themselves. The Backyard is amusing and engaging but not the great, penetrating documentary that could be made about this phenomenon. (***)

Daddy and Them

Billy Bob Thornton's back, this time as the writer, director and star of this long-shelved family comedy. When Thornton's uncle (the late Jim Varney) is arrested for assault, Thornton, his girlfriend (Laura Dern), and her family take a road trip out to support his family, which includes Andy Griffith as Thornton's daddy. The first hour of this is not bad with surprisingly funny cameos by Jamie Lee Curtis and Ben Affleck as Varney's squabbling, married attorneys. But after awhile, it begins to spiral in on itself, telling the same story over and over again until all the charm and humor of the first hour is just a memory. Billy Bob Thornton is an often great actor, a talented screenwriter (check out the excellent, underrated One False Move) and a capable director. Hopefully Daddy and Them was just the result of an off-day. (**)

Night Train Murders

If you've seen Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, then you've basically already seen the Italian rip-off, Night Train Murders. And if you've made it this far in your life without seeing Last House on the Left, then you have absolutely no interest in seeing either it or this. Two young girls are humiliated, raped, beaten and murdered by a pair of thugs and a mysterious older woman. When one girl's parents discover this, they take justice into their own hands and murder the thugs. Good times. Night Train Murders isn't as vile as Last House. Few films are. But this also isn't as memorable, though it does have its moments of genuine discomfort. (**)

99 Women

Hey, who's up for a good old Women in Prison exploitation flick? 99 Women isn't as much fun as such classic WIP movies as Jack Hill's The Big Doll House but it does have a few things going for it. First and foremost is Mercedes McCambridge and Herbert Lom, chewing the scenery grandly as the sadistic warden and governor. Plus, director Jess Franco films the frequent flashbacks with his usual lunatic style, drenched in lurid colors and spotlighting odd, disorienting angles. And even if everything else in the movie was terrible, it's still a great title. By the way, this and all the other Eurotrash movies this week will be featured in an upcoming column at The Digital Bits. (** ½)

Rocketship X-M

An early example of so-called "serious" science fiction filmmaking, Rocketship X-M is mainly of interest today due to its weird, dated science. Lloyd Bridges heads a team flying the first manned rocket to the moon. Unfortunately, the ship is knocked off course and the crew winds up on Mars instead (although, according to the chief science officer, this is a happy accident because now they can explore without cumbersome pressure suits). Rocketship X-M may well be an important film in the treatment of space travel in the movies. But today, it holds up a lot less well than other, more frivolous sci-fi pictures of the 1950's. (**)

Venus in Furs

Jess Franco's back and this time, I don't even know what the hell his movie's about. James Darren stars as a jazz trumpet player who watches while a blonde girl is assaulted and killed by a trio of wealthy perverts (including Klaus Kinski!). Or was she? Or did he? Or is it all just a dream? Narratively, Venus in Furs makes no sense at all (you know you're in trouble when the voice-over narration just makes things more confusing). But it is fun. It's a trippy, sexy, switch-off-your-mind and just-let-it-happen relic of the late 60's/early 70's, complete with a free jazz soundtrack by Manfred Mann. Venus in Furs ain't for everybody, that's for sure. But if it's your happening, baby, it'll freak you out! (** ½)

Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - The Jacket

Which is worse, a horror movie that isn't scary or a thought-provoking art film that isn't smart? If you can't decide then this is the movie for you. It's two bad movies in one! Adrien Brody stars as Jack Starks who, in the film's one good scene, is shot in the head during the first Gulf War. He recovers and a year later, we find him wandering the snow-covered roads of New England. He helps a young girl and her drunk junkie mom fix their truck, then accepts a ride from someone who murders a state trooper. Brody is framed for the killing and by the way, this all happens in the first ten minutes or so. Still with me? Well, it doesn't matter 'cause all that was pretty much just an excuse to get Brody committed to an asylum under the care of craggy-faced Dr. Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson treats Brody by putting him in a straight-jacket and shoving him inside a morgue drawer for hours at a time. What therapeutic value this might have is never made clear but one unintended side effect is that it sends Brody into the future. 2007 to be exact, where he hooks up with Keira Knightley, the grown-up version of the little girl he helped at the beginning of the movie. The Jacket would be incredibly confusing if it weren't so deadly dull. It isn't scary, it isn't compelling, and the only thought it provoked in me was that it was too bad poor Keira Knightley had to do a gratuitous nude scene for this crap. If you find yourself with two hours to kill, you're better off watching a jacket than The Jacket. (* ½)

And that'll slam the door on another two weeks here at The Electric Theatre. 'Til next time, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.

Adam Jahnke

Dedicated to Debra Hill

"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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