#41 - Failure to Communicate

Dedicated To
Stuart Rosenberg
1927 - 2007

Added 3/19/07

Good morning, afternoon or evening to you, cyberpals. Welcome to a slightly different edition of the Electric Theatre. In addition to the usual random assortment of theatrical and DVD titles, I’ve got a couple 70s cult classics that you’ll need to make an effort to track down. But before we get to those, let’s take a trip to everybody’s favorite cinema of the damned.


Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Dead Silence

I’ve already gone on record with my hatred of the movie Saw (check out this review at the Digital Bits to refresh your memory) so a fair question at this point would be, why did I even bother going to see director James Wan’s follow-up? The honest answer: I’m a sucker. This time around, Wan and his screenwriter partner Leigh Whannell have come up with a ghost story surrounding a ventriloquist dummy and a legend about a spirit that rips your tongue out if you see her and scream. Ryan Kwanten stars as Jamie, a young husband who receives the doll in an anonymous package and shortly thereafter loses his wife to the ghost. He returns home to bury her and investigate her death, followed by Donnie Wahlberg, channeling old episodes of Columbo as a detective who thinks Jamie killed his wife but nevertheless decides to dig up a bunch of graves to check up on a story he doesn’t believe in. Dead Silence makes not one minute of sense. We’re not talking a few plot holes here. This is a plot abyss, a cinematic black hole from which no logic can escape. I can’t imagine the ventriloquist’s creepy, unamusing old vaudeville act would pack the house like it does. Even the kids’ poem about the ghost is lazy, trying to rhyme “Shaw” with “dolls”. The use of the old Universal logo at the beginning suggests that Wan and Whannell were going for an old-fashioned feel. Instead of the old Universal horrors, however, their movie mainly resembles the old Poverty Row B-pictures from the 40s with Bela Lugosi. I can easily picture old Bela intoning the line, “A stroke will change a man.” After this and the Jigsaw Killer’s doll in Saw, it’s become apparent that either Wan or Whannell or both suffer from pediophobia (fear of dolls). I certainly wish them well in dealing with these issues but encourage them to do so privately from now on and not on the big screen. (*)


One of the best things about living in Los Angeles is having the opportunity to see classic movies on the big screen that sometimes you wouldn’t be able to see at all. One of the best places for that is the New Beverly Cinema, a revival house that programs double features of both recent and classic movies. For the next several weeks, the New Beverly has been taken over by Quentin Tarantino and the folks behind the monthly Grindhouse Film Festival, showing double and sometimes triple features of 70s cult classics that inspired Tarantino’s upcoming Grindhouse. I hope to catch at least a couple more of these in the next few weeks but last week, I saw one that included one of my favorite movies of the 70s…

The A-Picture - Rolling Thunder

William Devane stars as a Vietnam vet recently returned home to San Antonio after spending years as a POW. He has a hard time readjusting. His wife wants a divorce, he struggles to connect to the son he barely knows, and is uncomfortable with his status as a local hero. The readjustment gets worse when he’s robbed and tortured, both physically and mentally, by a sleazy gang of good ole boys. Scripted by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould and directed by John Flynn, Rolling Thunder sets things at a slow boil and gradually ramps up the intensity. Devane is terrific and Tommy Lee Jones has one of his best early roles as a fellow POW. I’d seen Rolling Thunder before and enjoyed it even more the second time around. It delivers the low-budget action goods but goes several steps above and beyond with its nuanced screenplay and top-notch cast. This really is one of the great unsung movies of the 70s and richly deserving a DVD release. (* * * ½)

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The poster for this movie always freaked me out when I was a kid, so I was eager to finally see it. Unfortunately, pretty much any movie you can come up with in your head to go along with that poster is going to be scarier than the film itself. Based on a true story, director/producer Charles B. Pierce’s movie is actually more of a crime procedural detailing Texas Ranger Ben Johnson’s pursuit of a hooded killer that terrorized Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946. No trouble remembering the movie’s timeline because both the narration, which masters the obvious at every turn, and the on-screen subtitles remind us of it at every opportunity. Pierce also gives himself a prominent role as a comic relief cop named Sparkplug. If you removed all of Sparkplug’s business and everything else that doesn’t have anything to do with the actual case, the movie would probably run about 20 minutes. The Town That Dreaded Sundown has its moments but for me anyway, none of them worked on the level they were intended. (* *)


Blade: Trinity

The Blade saga has always walked a fine line between kinda cool and pretty stupid. The third time at bat tips the scales in favor of the latter as a new crew of vampires (led by Parker Posey of all people) awakens Dracula from his slumber to take on Wesley Snipes’ half-human/half-vampire killer. He reluctantly teams up with the Nightstalkers, a band of vampire slayers armed with cool weapons and annoying personalities led by Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel. While the movie has a couple entertaining moments, there’s nothing here that’s anywhere near as much fun as the opening scene of the first movie or the monsters of Blade II and even the best moments are sabotaged by Reynolds, acting like he’s in a different movie altogether. After this, Blade probably won’t be back but if he does turn up again, I hope he leaves the Nightstalkers at home. (* *)

Game 6

Don DeLillo has written some of the best novels of the last thirty years, including White Noise, Libra and Underworld but Game 6 proves that skill in one medium does not immediately transfer to another. Michael Keaton stars as Nicky Rogan, a successful playwright sweating both the premiere of his latest show and the sixth game of the 1986 World Series between the Mets and his beloved Red Sox. The screenplay is immediately recognizable as DeLillo’s work, combining familiar themes and obsessions like baseball, toxic chemicals and, unfortunately, monologues that in a novel would be internalized but here clumsily become dialogue. Keaton seems a bit bewildered throughout while the excellent supporting cast (which includes producer Griffin Dunne, Catherine O’Hara and Robert Downey Jr.) fares somewhat better, perhaps because they have less to try and figure out. Game 6 may have worked better as a short story than a film and while some of this works, I hope DeLillo sticks to novels from now on. (* * ½)

Half Nelson

I’ll not argue with Ryan Gosling’s Oscar nomination for this indie film, easily his best work since the brilliant but little-seen The Believer. As you probably already know, Gosling plays a high school teacher well into a downward spiral of addiction who connects with a student (Shareeka Epps, equally good) after she discovers his secret. Half Nelson is an actors’ showcase, meaning that without the performances of Gosling, Epps and Anthony Mackie as a drug dealer, there would be no movie. Both in terms of his acting style and choice of roles, Gosling seems to be becoming the new Edward Norton, which is too bad for Norton since it doesn’t seem like he’s been around long enough to warrant needing a new version of him. Half Nelson is certainly well worth seeing for its excellent cast but director/co-writer Ryan Fleck and producer/co-writer Anna Boden will have to kick it up a notch with their next feature to really prove themselves. (* * *)


Reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Shane Carruth’s Primer is an ingenious little no-budget science fiction movie that doesn’t insult your intelligence. Carruth and David Sullivan star as engineer/inventors who create a machine in their garage that apparently makes time travel possible. Unlike most time travel movies that throw up their hands in defeat at the paradoxes inherent in such premises, Primer revels in them, deriving tension from the endless loops the guys find themselves in. Carruth isn’t afraid to make a movie so dense that it requires you to work to figure out what’s going on. Indeed, you might find as I did that thinking about Primer afterward is more enjoyable than watching the movie itself. In an age when most movies get worse the more you think about them, it’s refreshing to see one that bucks the trend. (* * *)

Your pal,