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Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #35
Apples and Oranges

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Avast, ye scurvy dogs! Welcome back. Some interesting stuff for you this time out, starting with one of our favorite genres here in The Electric Theatre. Yep, it's time for yet another left-leaning documentary! I sure know how to show you a good time, don't I?

The A-Picture - Who Killed the Electric Car?

I hate cars. I concede their usefulness and admit to loving road trips, drive-ins and a good car chase in the movies. But I hate driving, hate the constant maintenance cars require, and think that probably about half the drivers on the road today should have their licenses revoked. If this means that I was predisposed to like this expose about the short life and mysterious death of the electric car, so be it. In 1990, the state of California passed the Zero Emissions Mandate, a law aimed at curbing pollution that required a certain percentages of all vehicles sold in the state be emission-free. Within the next several years, auto manufacturers led by GM introduced electric vehicles that were just that. Today, they're all gone, as is the Mandate. Whodunit? In classic Agatha Christie style, everybody. Director Chris Paine does a great job putting the story together, laying out the facts in broad strokes, then going back to take a closer look at each of the suspects, including the auto industry, the government, even consumers like you and me. Most interesting is information about the fuel alternatives that are being pursued today, including hydrogen fuel cells. I'd have liked to hear more about the hybrids that are on the road today and how they compare to the electric car, though the reasons why the Japanese are leading the way in this technology now is eye-opening. This is a better film than An Inconvenient Truth, the other eco-doc now playing. That film suffered a bit due to its over-reliance on just one voice, no matter how well-informed Al Gore may or may not be. Paine interviews a wide range of individuals from all sides of the debate, including (inevitably, since this is a California story) celebs like Mel Gibson. Who Killed the Electric Car? isn't quite a great documentary. Some economic realities of the electric car, such as the fact that you pretty much had to be a homeowner in order to have one so you could have some place to plug it in, are glossed over a bit too lightly. But it remains a fascinating and ultimately frustrating story. By the film's conclusion, you'll be amazed any progress is ever made in the auto industry. (* * *)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

First off, let me say that I consider Pirates of the Caribbean to be one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century. No, not the movie. The ride at Disneyland. And yes, I'm serious. There's something about it that's so compelling and immersive that I find endlessly fascinating. As soon as the ride's over, I want to get back in line and do it again despite the fact that I know exactly what's going to happen and that I'll never enjoy it as much as I did that first time. That's basically the same feeling I was hoping for from Dead Man's Chest and happily, that's what I got. The first Pirates movie succeeded for three reasons. First of course is Johnny Depp's endearingly eccentric performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. Second is that it was a genuinely well-made piece of popcorn entertainment with plenty of exciting action set-pieces and some good laughs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that our expectations were low. Really, did anybody expect anything from a movie based on a theme park ride? Dead Man's Chest has those first two bases covered but the third is gone and can never be recaptured. Even so, I found much to enjoy about this installment and got pretty much exactly what I wanted. The action is, if anything, even more spectacular and over-the-top. Depp does what he did in the first movie, so if you didn't like him there, you won't like him here, either. Likewise, if you're expecting some sort of deepening of the characters, you'll probably be disappointed. Then again, you should probably have your head examined for wanting these living cartoons to grow as individuals. I was glad to see virtually everybody from the first movie return and enjoyed the performances of newcomers Stellan Skarsgård as Bootstrap Bill Turner and Bill Nighy as the tentacle-faced Davy Jones. Like the first movie, Dead Man's Chest goes on a bit too long. Also, the decision to end with a cliffhanger shoves the series uncomfortably into saga territory when I think it would have been better served as a trilogy of unrelated adventures. Even so, Dead Man's Chest is an enjoyable romp. I sat down wanting to see pirates, sea monsters, exciting action and Johnny Depp swanning about in eye shadow for a couple hours and the filmmakers delivered those elements in spades. The novelty may have worn off but Pirates of the Caribbean is still a fun ride. (* * *)

A Scanner Darkly

The mindbending work of Philip K. Dick has been notoriously difficult to adapt to film. Even when the end result is a good movie, like Blade Runner, it still manages to miss capturing the essence of Dick's original story. We don't even need to talk about what happens when the end result is a lousy movie, like Paycheck. Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly comes closer than most to nailing it. Animated in the same pioneering rotoscope technique Linklater used in Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly follows Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover narcotics agent who has become hooked on the hallucinogen Substance D to maintain his cover. His paranoia only intensifies when he's assigned to surveillance detail on himself. You see, Bob's superior doesn't know who Bob really is, their identities concealed within scramble suits that turn them into a blurry pastiche of different faces and bodies. So when one of Bob's roommates (Robert Downey Jr.) turns narc and suggests that he has evidence connecting him to terrorists, Bob becomes the primary focus of his own investigation. No question, it's all fairly confusing but if you pay attention, it's far from insurmountable. Linklater does a great job capturing the paranoia and shifting realities of Dick's novel. Despite that, A Scanner Darkly eventually began to grate on my nerves. The animation was used far more effectively in Waking Life, a movie I really didn't expect to like but did. In that movie, the fluid animation effectively became the movie, capturing the dream state and flowing naturally from one scene to the next. Here, with a narrative (no matter how disjointed) to follow, it becomes distracting. Equally distracting are the performances and dialogue. I honestly don't know if I should blame Linklater's script or the delivery by Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane (amazingly, Keanu is the least irritating performer in the cast). At times, such as the scene in the tow truck where Harrelson, Downey and Reeves bicker about Downey's leaving the door of their house unlocked, I wanted to cover my ears and shout “Please just stop talking!” I like Richard Linklater and admire him for making risky, experimental movies like this. But in the end, I found A Scanner Darkly easier to appreciate in theory than in practice. It's a noble effort but for me anyway, it didn't quite gel. (* * ½)

To conclude, I thought I'd initiate a new feature into The Electric Theatre. From the comments I get, it seems that most of you sadists get quite a charge out of when I endure something truly terrible. So on weeks like this where I dodged a bullet and somehow managed to miss seeing something Hell Plaza-worthy, I'm going to shine the cold, harsh light of contempt on one of the worst movies I've ever suffered through. Don't worry, I've seen quite a few, so there should be plenty.

Inducted Into the Hell Plaza Octoplex Hall of Shame...


It takes a lot for me to not want to see Bo Derek naked. Back in the mid 1980s, it took even more. John Derek's excruciating Bolero manages to do the impossible. Bo stars as a self-proclaimed “rich bitch” determined to lose her virginity (yes, it's a fantasy) in the most romantic and extravagant way possible. Her first attempt with a sheik doesn't pan out, despite him pouring honey on her naked body. This may be the least erotic scene in movie history, as the backlit sheik rises from her belly with snotty ropes of honey hanging off his nose and chin. She eventually finds true love with a bullfighter in Spain but he loses his... ahem, virility in an accident. Bo vows that he will rise again. The climactic love scene takes place in a fog-shrouded netherworld beneath a neon sign that reads “extasy”. George Kennedy, apparently hard-up for work after the disaster movie cycle of the 70s waned in popularity, co-stars as Bo's extremely tolerant butler/chauffeur. This movie is painfully bad and mind-numbingly dull. John Derek was an inept filmmaker (I could dedicate an entire wing of the Hell Plaza Octoplex Hall of Shame to his movies) but in retrospect may have been something of a genius as a psychologist. If his aim was to ensure that no man would ever again lust after his gorgeous wife, he succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.

Finito! I'll catch you all in a couple weeks. I have no idea what I'll be seeing between now and then but you can probably be fairly confident that it will not include Little Man.

Adam Jahnke

Dedicated to Syd Barrett

"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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