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Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #32
Bravo for Adventure

Jahnke's Electric Theatre - Main Page

Face front, true believers! Time once again to swing wide the doors of the Electric Theatre. Sorry this week's installment is a bit late. I just returned from a trip to Boston (a most lovely and wonderful city, I might add) and have been running late on pretty much everything ever since. At any rate, we'll get to this week's A-Picture in the DVD section but first, let's get the big guns out of the way.

Now in Theatres...

The Da Vinci Code

I've read books both before and after seeing the movies they're based on but this was the first time that I split the difference and did both. I read half of Dan Brown's megapopular bestseller on the plane to Boston, saw the movie while I was there (at the Harvard Square Theatre, appropriately enough, just a short walk from where Robert Langdon supposedly teaches his symbology classes), and finished it on the plane home. There are things I enjoyed about both the novel and the film. I also have some major problems with both. But I have bigger issues with the movie than the book, so I guess Dan Brown wins. I assume, by the way, that you have some idea of what this thing is about and if you don't, my summarizing it here probably isn't going to pique your interest any further, so I'll dispense with all that. Brown's book tells a swift, reasonably entertaining story in M&M sized chunks, spiced up (or padded out, depending on how uncharitable you're feeling) with lengthy pauses to deliver information about art, religion, history, etc. The book's biggest flaw is Brown's writing style, which is about as clumsy and graceless as a three-legged cat on an ice skating rink. Ron Howard, on the other hand, is a talented craftsman behind the camera, making movies that are usually entertaining at the least and sometimes much more than that. I know a lot of folks who wouldn't be caught dead admitting they liked one of his films but I've enjoyed quite a few, with pictures like Apollo 13 and the underrated The Missing being particular standouts. So I was disappointed that Howard turned The Da Vinci Code into such a snoozefest. This has all the elements to be a crackerjack thriller with a couple wrongfully accused of murder on the run from the law, exotic locations, and arguably the ultimate treasure hunt revolving around a series of cryptic clues and ciphers. But there's almost no sense of jeopardy or urgency to the chase at all. The devotion to Brown's text also hurts the movie, filling it full of useless flashbacks that I'm quite sure make absolutely no sense to anybody who hasn't read the book. Even some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel and the cadence of human speech is not Brown's greatest gift as a writer. As for Tom Hanks, well…I've been his most ardent champion since 1984's Splash, finding something to enjoy in even his lamest movies. And I can sort of see the logic behind casting him as Robert Langdon. With his long hair and casual, everyman manner, I'm sure they were trying to make Langdon the cool professor from college, the one everybody loves and talks about who always has a long waiting list to get into his classes. Unfortunately, that character choice wasn't passed along to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who turns Langdon into a passive do-nothing with a gift for solving puzzles. There were two ways to make The Da Vinci Code into a good movie. The first would have been to concentrate on the book's lofty ideas and controversial theories, turning it into a European art-house thriller like those directed by Truffaut and Chabrol in the 60s and 70s. Of course, this would not have been a very popular movie, so I'm not surprised they didn't follow that route. The other way would have been to go all the way in transforming this into a splashy American adventure, rewriting all the dialogue, condensing some of the subplots to streamline the story and giving Langdon much, much more to do. Don't forget, Indiana Jones was an archeology professor as well as an adventurer. I'm not saying Langdon needed a bullwhip but it couldn't have hurt. Howard's Da Vinci Code isn't terrible. It's nice to look at, it delivers at least some of what made the book entertaining, and anything that gives Jean Reno work is fine by me. But when the best thing you can say about a thriller is that it gives you the opportunity to examine some great works of art, something isn't working. (**)

X-Men: The Last Stand

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of sequential art or, as most people would say, a big comic book nerd. Like many comics fans, I spent quite a few years following the adventures of Marvel's merry mutants. I quit reading some time in the late 1980s. Not so much because I lost interest but because I'd have had to get a second job in order to afford to keep up with the plethora of X-titles Marvel was beginning to put out. So I've never been particularly bothered by the changes made to the characters and stories in the X-Men movies. It would be impossible to make a truly faithful film adaptation of X-Men. It would require a TV network with unlimited resources devoted to nothing but X-programs. The X-Men movies have stood on their own merits so far, usually surprising me by being better than I expected them to be, and this latest installment is no exception. First the bad news. This is a massively busy movie, trying to jam way too many characters and plot points into its running time. This movie could have been much improved by eliminating some characters (I'm looking at you, creepy bald kid who's the source of the mutant cure) and beefing others up. The death of at least one major character is treated in such an off-hand way you're not even sure he's actually gone until you see his grave and Angel, who is featured so prominently in the movie's advertising, barely has anything to do at all. Brett Ratner's most unfortunate contribution as director can be heard in the inclusion of some amazingly lame wisecracks punctuating the film's major action sequence. Having said that, this is certainly Ratner's best film to date, though that's not saying a whole lot. He keeps things moving at a fast clip and stages the action effectively and entertainingly. With this and The Da Vinci Code, Ian McKellen proves that he may well the best actor of all time. Whether he's doing Shakespeare, Tolkien or X-Men, McKellen invests totally in the world he's supposed to inhabit. As with all the X-movies, McKellen's performance as Magneto makes the movie worth watching even if you couldn't care less about mutants and superheroes. The Last Stand is definitely the least of the three X-Men pictures but anyone who thinks it's unwatchable needs to go back and check out Superman IV: The Quest for Peace or Batman and Robin to remind themselves just how far off the tracks a once-promising superhero franchise can get derailed. X-Men: The Last Stand is fast, fun, and respectful of the source material, which is all I really expect from any of these movies. (***)

Now on DVD...

The A-Picture -
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Now that Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling have been convicted, what better time to go back and figure out how this whole thing got started? Alex Gibney's Oscar-nominated documentary (this week's A-Picture, by the way) spells the entire affair out in a way that makes sense even to people like me who think blue chip stocks have something to do with Tostitos. The movie is eye-opening and disturbing, vividly showing how unfettered greed and arrogance bring out the worst in people with far-reaching, often unexpected results. The movie would simply be an interesting case study if I was naïve enough to believe that what took place at Enron was an isolated and unique situation. But with corporate greed running amok, it serves as a wake-up call. (*** ½)

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession

Back in the late 70s and into the 80s, Los Angeles was home to Z Channel, a unique, pioneering pay-TV station that brought an incredibly wide range of movies into LA homes. The man behind Z was Jerry Harvey, a film buff whose appreciation for movies ran deep and wide and who was tragically bedeviled by personal demons that ended both his life and his wife's in a murder-suicide in 1988. Xan Cassavetes (daughter of John) directs this documentary exploration with a fan's enthusiasm, giving Harvey and his amazing channel all the praise that is rightfully theirs for their groundbreaking work. Perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. There are more than enough interviews with prominent Z Channel fans like Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne. The documentary's best moments come from Harvey's friend and Z Channel Magazine contributor F.X. Feeney, as well as people like James Woods and Theresa Russell whose films were helped immeasurably by exposure on Z Channel. Even with the countless options available on TV today, there hasn't been anything quite like Z Channel since. Cassavetes' documentary is a valuable reminder of a story that otherwise would have faded into obscurity. (***)

That'll wrap things up for this week. Join me again in two weeks as I continue my magical mystery tour of the summer movie season. Not sure what exactly I'll be seeing but don't be surprised if I've got the son of Satan, a bunch of talking cars, and some inconvenient truth. Excelsior!

Adam Jahnke

Dedicated to Alex Toth

"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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