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page created: 12/8/05
originally published: 12/7/05

Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #22
Wax On... Wax Off

Jahnke's Electric Theatre - Main Page

Can I get an amen, brothers and sisters? No? Oh... um... okay. This is awkward. Well, welcome to another installment of Jahnke's Electric Theatre just the same. I didn't want an amen, anyway.

Anyroad, I've wasted another two weeks searching for the very best (or at least, better than the very worst) in motion picture and televisual entertainment. Not too shabby a lot this time out, either. Let's begin at the beginning but put on your serious face for a second, will you? We've got some Major Issues to confront in this week's...

The A-Picture - Syriana

It's Oscar season at the multiplex, so that means you can expect plenty of Very Important Movies about Very Important Issues in between the usual Hollywood funfests. Usually I find it difficult to get overly excited about movies like this, even when they're done well. There aren't too many that I feel compelled to watch a second time. Syriana is a notable exception. Stephen Gaghan, Oscar-winning screenwriter of the Very Important 2000 movie Traffic, writes and directs this sprawling story that takes the multi-character template of his earlier film and transplants it from the drug world to the oil-rich regions of the Middle East. But unlike Traffic, Syriana doesn't allow you into its world easily. Soderbergh's film was somewhat simpler, starting with the launching point that most everybody agrees that drugs are bad for you. But with Syriana, the issues and dangers are far more complex. This is a movie that's not afraid to appear smarter than its audience and demand that the viewer pay strict attention in order to catch up to it. More importantly, the story is laid out in so compelling a fashion that you want to give it that attention. The large ensemble cast is terrific across the board and I suppose I'd be remiss if I didn't say that my man-love for George Clooney continues unabated with this film. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance as CIA op Bob Barnes, a spy who might not be totally burned out but is nearing the end of his wick. I was particularly impressed by how far he let himself go for this part. His paunchy, bearded CIA agent is how I imagine James Bond would really look after a couple decades on the job. Syriana isn't a complete success, missing the bullseye occasionally when it comes to dealing with some characters’ personal lives. Most of that material feels shoehorned in in an attempt to stave off criticism that the characters weren't fully fleshed out. Personally, I think we get more than enough personal material in seeing how these characters deal with the corruption, corporate greed, and double-dealing they deal with every day. Syriana is a troubling, thought-provoking and intense film that may well turn out to be the best Very Important Movie of the year. (*** ½)

Arrested Development

Before we continue, let's tip our hats in tribute to the continuing genius that is Arrested Development. In the wake of Fox's announcement that they were canceling the show, I went out and bought the first two seasons on DVD in an attempt to demonstrate that the show does have an audience. I spent the Thanksgiving holiday watching season one in its entirety. It's official. While there are other comedies on TV currently that I like (HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras and yes, The Simpsons, for instance), there are none that I love with as much unbridled passion as Arrested Development. If the show offered nothing other than Will Arnett's performance as Gob Bluth, the would-be magician of the family, I'd watch it religiously. But this is the rare ensemble comedy where every single character and every single performance is hysterical, even ostensible straight-man Jason Bateman. If you haven't been watching Arrested Development, please please please start. And if you don't already have the first two seasons on disc, go buy them. Fox is almost certainly a lost cause but maybe some other network will see the potential and pick the show up. But if these are indeed the end times for the show, keep your Monday nights free and enjoy it while it lasts. Who knows when we'll see another comedy of this caliber again? (****)

Aeon Flux

In what must be the shortest window ever between an original and its sequel, Charlize Theron reprises her North Country role as... OK, maybe not. But this movie is a lot more amusing if you think of it as North Country II. I've never seen the cartoon upon which this is based so I have no way of knowing if this is a faithful adaptation or not. Theron is the title character, obviously, a resistance fighter 400 years in the future in the last city on Earth after mankind was decimated by a plague. I can't really say I liked this movie much but I certainly didn't hate it. Aeon Flux has some good ideas and neat moments and the look of the movie, heavily influenced by the likes of The Fifth Element and Barbarella, is pretty cool. But I didn't really enjoy it as much as either of those other two movies and if you didn't like something as much as Barbarella... well, that's not exactly aiming for the stars now, is it? (**)

Born into Brothels

Last year's Oscar winner for Best Feature Documentary, this is an affecting look at the children born to and raised by prostitutes in Calcutta's notorious Red Light District. What makes this different from other non-fiction looks at children in hellacious circumstances like Children Underground is that co-director Zana Briski makes herself very much a part of the story. She teaches photography to a group of children and is active in trying to help the kids leave the brothels and get a start on a better life. Born into Brothels didn't quite hit home for me the same way the truly brilliant 1984 documentary Streetwise did. Nevertheless, this is a moving examination of a part of the world rarely seen. (***)

Bride & Prejudice

Jane Austen goes Bollywood! If your reaction to that sentence is, "It's about time!", you'll have a grand time with this slight but extremely colorful musical comedy. On the other hand, if your reaction is "wha-huh?", don't bother. Director Gurinder Chadha of Bend It Like Beckham fame does a reasonably good job of bringing the style and tradition of big Indian musical cinema to a Western audience. And if you must update Austen's Pride & Prejudice to the present day, I suppose putting it in Indian society is the best place for it. I liked maybe half of this movie. It's very bright and colorful and all the people are beautiful and some of the musical numbers are fun. But Bollywood musicals might just be a form of cinema I simply don't get. However, it is quite amusing to see the usually very grave Naveen Andrews from Lost singing and dancing in a big production number. (** ½)

Melinda and Melinda

For me, Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers whose great films make it worth sitting through all of his less-than-great films. Because he's so prolific, turning out a new movie every year like clockwork, I consider those less-than-great films to be practice movies. Warm-ups for the real thing. He's due for a great one any time now, because he's had plenty of practice the last few years. Melinda and Melinda has a very Woody Allen premise. Over dinner, two playwrights (one of whom is played by notable cinematic dinner guest Wallace Shawn) hear an anecdote. One of them spins the story into a comedy, the other into a tragedy. But neither of them is really all that interesting. Radha Mitchell plays Melinda, the focal point of the story, in each version and she's quite good. Will Ferrell is OK but he's just another in a long line of actors who end up "doing" Woody Allen in Woody Allen films. Very few of Woody's movies are actively bad and this one is no exception. It's just kind of tedious. I was actually more interested in the conversation between the playwrights at the restaurant than in the dramatized stories. The last scene almost makes the whole movie worth watching. (**)

And that's all I've got to say about that. Over at The Bottom Shelf, I've tried to class up the joint with reviews of bona fide classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Deer Hunter, so enjoy that while it lasts. I'll catch you all back here in fourteen. Go in peace. Jahnke


Dedicated to Noriyuki "Pat" Morita

"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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