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page created: 11/3/05
originally published: 6/21/05

Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #10
Great Expectations

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Oh, hi. Sorry I'm late. Hope you all weren't waiting too terribly long. On the plus side, I do have a good excuse. Your humble scribe can now officially call himself a novelist with more or less a straight face. I spent the last week finishing up my second (and last) book for the good people at Troma Entertainment. Don't ask when you'll be able to find a copy. Your guess is as good as mine on that score. But rest assured, if there's any news, you all will be the first to know.

At any rate, let's get back to business as usual here in the Electric Theatre. Today is the first official day of summer, although as far as Hollywood's concerned the season started over a month and a half ago. Yep, it's check your brain at the door time at the movies. Time to sit back, enjoy the AC and an ice cold Coca-Cola while watching impossibly good-looking people blow stuff up real good. And this installment of the Electric Theatre brings us more than a few summer clockbusters now playing at a theatre near you. But I've still got a few smaller pics for you to check out, not to mention a couple of last season's megahits that I only just caught up with thanks to the miracle of DVD. But for now, screw all that! Who wants to watch a guy dressed up like a bat kick ass and take names?

The A-Picture - Batman Begins

I like Batman a lot. Always have and, God help me, probably always will. Even so, count me among those who felt that it was too soon after the abysmal Batman & Robin choked the life out of the character to attempt a relaunch of the franchise. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan has directed a movie better than any previous Batmovie. The difference between this movie and Tim Burton's 1989 Batman can be summed up in one line of dialogue. In Burton's movie, Jack Nicholson as the Joker asks, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" It's a laugh line and a good one, mocking the inherent absurdity of all the Batarangs and Batcopters. But now, you can imagine Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer sitting in the theatre and asking, "Yeah, that's right! Where does he get them?" Turns out, the answer's a lot more interesting than you might think. The entire movie is staged as sort of a prologue, with scenes whipping by with a real sense of urgency, right down to the placement of the movie's title. I always liked Michael Keaton as Batman but Christian Bale runs rings around him, grounding the character in a way no other actor has. The rest of the all-star cast is rock solid, especially Liam Neeson as Bruce Wayne's tutor and Gary Oldman as, believe it or not, the most normal, well-adjusted person in the entire film, Sgt. (someday to be Commissioner) Gordon. Katie Holmes is the weak link in the cast but in her defense, love interests have never been the strong suit of this series. It's an underwritten part there only because it's a Hollywood law that it must be (plus, the fact that I cringed every time I saw her had less to do with her performance than with the fact that I'm just sick of seeing her every place I turn... not necessarily her fault). It could be argued that with tentpole movies like these, the best you can say about them is that it makes you want to see another one. That burden weighs particularly hard on any movie with the stones to put the word "begins" in its title, virtually guaranteeing a follow-up. In that regard, Batman Begins passes with flying colors. It's the best movie of the summer so far and I can't wait to see the next one. I just hope it sports a more exciting title than Batman Continues. (*** ½)

Cinderella Man

The second best movie of the summer so far would have to be Ron Howard's depression era boxing biopic. Phone-tosser Russell Crowe stars as James Braddock, the washed-up fighter who inspired a nation with a comeback driven out of hunger and desperation. I find boxing movies to be inherently interesting for some reason (oddly enough, the worst one I've seen is Michael Mann's Ali) and this one is no exception. The bouts are extremely well staged and thoroughly believable. Crowe may be a total prick in real life but he proves time and again that he's a hell of a good actor. But the man of the year is once again Paul Giamatti, who I would officially now watch in anything from a lead in an independent movie to a supporting role in something like this to host of a drywall instructional video. Cinderella Man can be a bit by-the-numbers but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This is a rousing, old-fashioned movie. The tune it plays may be familiar but it's played extremely well. (***)

Lady Snowblood

Gotta give that Quentin Tarantino credit for one thing. When the man steals, he steals from the best and he steals blatantly. Lady Snowblood is a blood-drenched Japanese samurai picture from 1973 and for those of you keeping track, Movie #72 on our Kill Bill References Checklist. This is based on a manga by Kazuo Koike, author of Lone Wolf and Cub (and I realize that I may have lost some of you here but trust me, this is a good thing to people who follow comic books). Lady Snowblood was born in prison, the daughter of a woman who had sworn to avenge her husband's murder and her own rape. The girl is raised to carry out that vengeance. Swords flash, bodies fly, and blood gushes in great sprays. Lady Snowblood is a terrific action movie and worth checking out whether or not you enjoyed Kill Bill. (*** ½)

Lords of Dogtown

The birth of skateboard culture in Venice, California, in the early 70's would make a terrific movie. In fact, it already has: Stacy Peralta's 2002 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. But apparently Peralta wanted to exploit his past a little more and thus we have this fictionalized version which is certainly worth watching if you've sworn a blood oath to never, ever watch a documentary. The rest of us are better of with the real thing. This has its moments, a good rock soundtrack, and a surprisingly good performance by Heath Ledger. But with the documentary so readily available, there's just no real reason for this movie to exist. (** ½)

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are amazing physical specimens. No doubt about it. So there are certainly worse ways to spend two hours than watching them posing on the big screen. Too bad the movie surrounding them is such a piece of crap. Pitt and Jolie are a couple whose marriage is on the rocks and don't realize that they're both assassins working for competing agencies. So basically this is like a less plausible version of True Lies and I, for one, didn't think such a thing was possible. There's some OK action here, I guess, but nothing so spectacular you can't find it done better elsewhere. The stars are appealing enough to prevent this from being an actively bad movie but even if you like it, I defy you to remember any of it half an hour later. (**)

Ocean's Twelve

Speaking of Brad Pitt, he's back along with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, and all the rest in Steven Soderbergh's glossy but needless sequel to Ocean's Eleven. The story is almost beside the point but for the record, Andy Garcia's casino owner has tracked down the gang and wants them to repay the money they've stolen plus interest. To do so, they've got to head to Europe ('cause it's the only place they can work and so the cast can have a nice vacation) and pull another job. If you liked the first one, you'll probably get a kick out of this. I enjoyed it for the most part. Some of the banter between the group is pretty funny, especially when it involves Matt Damon's eager-to-please Linus. It's nice to look at and the score by David Holmes is a spot-on tribute to the Italian lounge music of the 60's. The main problem with this movie, and it's kind of a big one, is that the heist itself is treated like such an afterthought. I guess the reason to see this is for the interplay between the stars and on that score it delivers. But if you've made the mistake of caring about what these characters do, get set for a disappointment. (** ½)

Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's

This is a fine, bittersweet documentary about the closing of Chasen's restaurant, home of the world-famous Chasen's chili and a genuine Hollywood landmark. The cameras are there during Chasen's last week and we get to know the staff, many of whom had worked there for over twenty years. This was the first film directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team that would later make American Splendor. Off the Menu is as its best when we hear from the restaurant staff and actually loses some focus when it talks to celebrities about their memories of the restaurant. There's one moment of clarity when producer David Brown admits that it's Hollywood's own fault the restaurant is closing because people stopped going there, in search of someplace trendier. Off the Menu could use more moments like that. But taken on its own modest terms, this is a heartfelt tribute to a bygone era. (***)

The Return

Two boys are shocked to come home one afternoon and discover that their father, a man who disappeared twelve years ago, has inexplicably come back. The father takes his children on a road trip ending at a remote island, ostensibly to reconnect but his real motives remain much murkier. The debut film from Andrei Zvyagintsev, this 2003 Russian film has a quiet, understated power. I was never certain where this story was going to go and in the few moments I thought I did, I was usually wrong. Zvyagintsev has made a handsome and stylish film that slowly but surely sucks you in. I look forward to seeing what he does next. (***)

Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Meet the Fockers

Oy vey. The follow-up to the genuinely amusing Meet the Parents is a colossal waste of time, talent and energy. You've got a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and Barbra Streisand and you do this with it? Two painfully long hours of jokes about senior citizens having sex and babies whose first word is "asshole"? This is the laziest kind of sequel, one that figures that if a joke worked the first time around, it'll go over like gangbusters if you do it again, exactly the same way. You know they're desperate for laughs when a scene of failed jokes ends with an out-of-nowhere pratfall. Meet the Fockers is a sad, embarrassing spectacle for all involved. (* ½)

And that'll do it for the Electric Theatre this week. See you all again in two weeks (this time for sure) with more discussion of the politics, philosophy and aesthetics of world cinema. Plus, next time we got zombies!!!

Adam Jahnke

Dedicated to Anne Bancroft

"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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