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page created: 11/10/05
originally published: 5/31/05

Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #9
Sith City Spectacular

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Greetings, younglings! Welcome back to your Electric Theatre.

So here's the deal. We've been fortunate enough to have a few of these little electrograms roll by without opening the doors of the Hell Plaza Octoplex. Well, we're going to do things backwards this time out. You see, I've got some thoughts on this here new Star Wars opus and they're none too kind. Now I suppose I could just do a regular old Electric Theatre and recommend something up front, then work on down the Octoplex. But there's this big ole white elephant in the room and it might be a little awkward to ignore it.

So no A-Picture this week. Not that there aren't some fine movies for your viewing pleasure a little further down. But first, let's talk turkey. Things might get a little rough but don't worry. When it's all over I'll hold you like I did by the lake on Naboo.

Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

OK, call me a hater. Call me a cynic. Call me the boy who could not love and forgot how to dream. Whatever, man. Episode III blows.

To put this into some kind of context for you, Episode II merely sucked whereas Episode I is one of those rare films that both sucks and blows. In comparison to these films, Return of the Jedi (and no, not Episode VI... never Episode VI) is a masterpiece. Yet compared to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi itself kinda sucks. Funny how these things work.

I'm going to operate under the assumption that if you have any serious interest in seeing Revenge of the Sith, you've already done so. If you haven't and don't want my snide remarks poisoning your mind, feel free to skip this whole thing. For the rest of you... look. I swear to god I went into this with an open mind and low expectations. I really, really wanted to like this movie and went in ready to compare it solely to the other two prequels. Forget comparing it to the original trilogy or even to regular movies. I figured that basically anything had to be pretty good compared to The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Right?

And for at least a few minutes, I was cautiously optimistic. The opening battle scene, while it didn't conjure any fond memories of Star Wars at least conjured fond memories of Star Tours at Disneyland. Unfortunately, that feeling lasted less than five minutes. The second that sequence is over, we're catapulted into the next whirligig action scene. And within the first sixty seconds of it, we've seen half a dozen things that are impossible. Not unlikely. Not improbable. Physically impossible. Science has never been the strong suit of these movies but come on. I can sooner accept that Han and Leia can leave the Millennium Falcon with no more protection than an oxygen mask strapped over their nose and mouth than I can accept that octogenarian Christopher Lee can do backflips. Once it's been established in these opening minutes that anybody can do anything without getting hurt or even tired, I lost interest. George Lucas has just removed the concepts of jeopardy and consequences from the equation and drama just ain't dramatic without 'em.

Even the folks who like this movie are willing to concede that the performances are a little wooden and the dialogue a little stiff. A little? I've heard better dialogue and more emotional line readings on an episode of Superfriends. And poor Hayden Christensen is constantly being singled out for his performance in this movie. I'm going to go on record right now and say Hayden Christensen is a fine actor. Check out Shattered Glass if you don't believe me. His bad performance here is not his fault. It's the direction or lack thereof. How else do you explain that Samuel Jackson, usually considered a pretty good actor, gives one of the worst performances of all time in this movie? His fight with the Emperor or Darth Sidious or Palpatine or whatever the hell Lucas was calling that character that day? My friends and I had more realistic death struggles when we played Star Wars when we were nine years old. The only actor who comes across at all well is Ewan MacGregor, partly because he was probably drunk through most of the filming but also because all he really had to do was imitate Alec Guinness. He does that well and has from the beginning of this misbegotten trilogy.

Then there's those big and mighty action scenes, all computer-fabulous and ready to rock. These things are so absurdly busy, they literally give me a headache. And who knows what's going on in half of these scenes? In the original trilogy, we had action scenes with clearly defined objectives, a beginning, a middle and an end. In The Empire Strikes Back, the bad guys discover the good guys on the ice planet. The bad guys attack. The good guys fight back to buy some time to get the hell off the ice planet. It's very exciting and you can actually figure out where people are and why they're doing what they're doing. In Sith, Yoda lands on the Wookie planet and within thirty seconds, all hell has broken loose. Then we cut away from it and don't ever really go back to it for any length of time. Are we supposed to care? Are we supposed to be excited by any of that? Or are we just supposed to register the fact that Lucasfilm's computers can render a ton of shit?

Now the news isn't all grim in this movie. There's maybe fifteen to twenty minutes of stuff that I genuinely enjoyed. I thought Cartoon Yoda looked a lot better in this installment than he did in the last one. At least it seemed like the real people were actually looking at him this time instead of just to his left or right. I thought the fight between Yoda and the Emperor in the Senate room was pretty cool, though that may have just been surprise that the room that was the scene of the most boring, god-awful scenes in the previous movies was finally being put to good use. And that final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin... well, I liked the beginning and the end of it. All that stuff in between where they're doing everything except throwing lavaballs at each other was a bit much. In fact, there was enough raw footage in Sith that I liked to make me wonder if it would be possible to take all three prequels, redub them and edit them down to one good movie.

So Star Wars is over or at least, I sincerely hope it is. The main reasons I've outlined here are why I think Revenge of the Sith is simply a bad movie. I'm not even going to go into why it's disappointing as a Star Wars movie (but believe me, I've got a dossier full of some of the nerdiest reasons you can imagine). But I know a lot of folks have really enjoyed Revenge of the Sith and if you're one of 'em, I'm happy for you. I was (and on some levels, still am) a huge fan of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and I wish I could have enjoyed the prequels at all, much less at that same level. If you do, great. But you'll never be able to persuade me that the bottle of sparkling cider you're drinking from is Dom Perignon. (**)


And now for something completely different. Crash is the directorial debut of Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis and the latest in a long, long line of movies depicting Los Angeles as a hellish melting pot of racial tensions on the verge of exploding. The good news is that Crash is better than some films of its type. The bad news is that you've probably seen something very much like this before. For the first half hour or so, I had a sinking feeling in my chest that I was in for Grand Canyon, Part II (for the record, I really hate Grand Canyon). But eventually, Crash's all-star ensemble of characters stops delivering speeches about race relations and the story itself kicks in. Once the movie relaxes into itself, Crash is actually quite good, although it's an easier movie to admire than to really embrace. None of the characters are all that sympathetic, many of them are downright awful, and even those who you do like end up making bad decisions. The large cast is quite good, especially those who are playing the least likable characters (including Sandra Bullock as a flinty desperate housewife). Top acting honors, however, go to Terrence Howard as a TV director numbed by the casual racism he experiences every single day. Crash is one of those movies like David Mamet's Oleanna which is clearly designed to do nothing other than provoke post-show discussion. At its worst (which is unfortunately early on), it seems more like a social studies project than a movie. But at its best, the discussions the film is trying to provoke are worth considering. (***)

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

It's the movie so nice, they made it twice! A while back, Morgan Creek Productions decided to give turning The Exorcist into a franchise one more time (never mind the fact that previous attempts to do so had not exactly set the world on fire). My interest was piqued when Paul Schrader, author of Taxi Driver and director of such films as Auto Focus, was hired to do the job. Well, the studio hated the movie Schrader turned in, fired his ass, and hired Danish hack Renny Harlin for a do-over which became the execrable Exorcist: The Beginning. Now, thanks no doubt to some fine print in Schrader's contract, his version has been released. And while I'd love to say it's a masterpiece... really, it still isn't very good. Don't get me wrong. It's much, much, much better than Harlin's crapfest. The movie makes more sense now and at least it's interesting, which is way more than you could say for the other one. But Dominion is most fascinating as a compare-and-contrast with Exorcist: The Beginning. It's a bizarre look into the studio mindset because you can tell exactly what the studio didn't like and wanted changed. As a movie unto itself, Dominion is an interesting failure. As an object lesson for aspiring filmmakers, both movies should be taught in film schools from now on. (** ½)

Fairy Tale: A True Story

Here's a nice little surprise: a gentle, sweet movie from 1997 that casually and effortlessly evokes the same feelings Finding Neverland labored so hard to summon. The year is 1917 and two young cousins snap some photographs of honest-to-goodness fairies in their back garden. The best experts in England can't disprove the authenticity of the pictures and the girls become a nationwide phenomenon, attracting the attention of such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole who, as usual, commands the screen just by looking into the camera) and debunker Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel). There is no more appropriate word for this movie than "charming". Fairy Tale sweeps you along with lovely period detail, fine performances (especially by the two lead girls) and a simple faith in magic. If I ever do one of those "best movies you probably haven't seen or heard of" books, expect this to be in the family section. (*** ½)

The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle

This, on the other hand, probably won't be in that book and certainly not in the family section. The Sex Pistols' movie is finally out on DVD and it's pretty much as big a mess as I remembered. It's a hodgepodge of documentary footage, live concert performances, animation and staged antics with manager Malcolm McLaren outlining his ten rules for making the band. There is some terrific stuff, including performances of "Pretty Vacant" and Sid Vicious doing "My Way". But a little of McLaren goes a long way. You're much better off with the more objective (and infinitely more coherent) documentary The Filth and the Fury, also directed by Swindle director Julien Temple. (** ½)

Mad Love

Originally called Joan the Mad in its native country of Spain (a much more interesting title, I think), Mad Love tells the true story of the Castilian queen who was imprisoned for more than half a century after her husband, Philip, and court had her declared mad. The film posits that Joan was simply crazy in love with Philip and jealous over his inveterate womanizing. Directed by Vicente Aranda, Mad Love is kind of a snooze dramatically and nowhere near as good as Elizabeth or Queen Margot (the two movies it's compared to in the trailer and why I was conned into watching this in the first place). However, it is visually spectacular. If you're really interested in lighting and cinematography, it's almost worth watching for that reason alone. Almost. (**)

National Treasure

If you were concerned that Nicolas Cage was going to turn into a serious actor again after Adaptation. a couple years back, don't worry. He's once again back toplining the goofiest of goofball action epics. This time, he's treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates, whose family legacy is a quest for untold riches buried by our founding fathers back in 1776. But because treasures are no fun if they're underground, they left clues all over the place in the forms of word games, puzzles, and sixth grade American history. This movie is patently ridiculous and impossible to take seriously on any level. I was disappointed that Cage's character was relatively tic-free this time out, robbing me of my one guaranteed piece of entertainment in movies like these. Some of this is kind of fun, I guess, but it disappeared from my memory almost while I was watching the film. However, the actor playing the janitor toward the end of the film is brilliant. I hope National Treasure II focuses on him exclusively. (**)

Sands of Iwo Jima

What better way to celebrate Memorial Day than with a good old-fashioned World War II flag-waver? John Wayne plays Stryker, a tough-as-railroad-spikes sergeant whipping a new platoon into shape in the Pacific Theatre. Even if you've never seen a WW2 movie before, if you know the clichés, then you know this movie. Sands of Iwo Jima wasn't the first movie of its type but it follows the template religiously. You could set your watch by the beats of this movie but that's OK. The Duke's in fine form, whether he's barking orders at his Marines or showing his softer side when he discovers a dance hall girl is hiding her baby in the next room. The battle scenes incorporate some actual combat footage, lending the climactic Iwo Jima sequence some dramatic heft. Not the best movie of its kind but certainly enjoyable. (***)

That'll do it for this week. Over at The Digital Bits, it's a biopic-o-rama in The Bottom Shelf with new reviews up for The Aviator, Kinsey and Ed Wood. Check 'em out and I'll see you all here again in a fortnight. May the Force be with you.


Dedicated to Ismail Merchant

"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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