#55 - Roadgames

Dedicated To
Richard Franklin
1948 - 2007

Added 7/16/07

Howdy, folks. Apologies for the Electric Theatre’s absence last week. Fact is that I hadn’t seen all that much. So instead of tossing off a half-assed review of a movie most of you probably had already made up your mind about, I decided to wait a week and write a column using my whole ass. And just so you know, I’ll be in Las Vegas this week with the rest of Team Bits for EMA and in San Diego the week after for Comic-Con. Which means it’ll probably be another two weeks before the Electric Theatre reopens. Dry your eyes, friends. We’ve got plenty to talk about right here, right now.


The A-Picture - Rescue Dawn

I haven’t loved or even liked every Werner Herzog movie I’ve seen but even at his worst, he’s one of the most fascinating directors out there. It’s heartening to see that forty years into his career, he’s still making challenging, provocative films like the extraordinary 2005 documentary Grizzly Man and now Rescue Dawn. Based on a true story Herzog previously explored in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Rescue Dawn stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a German-born American citizen eager to pilot his first mission in what was then still known as the Vietnam Conflict. Shot down over Laos and hopelessly lost in enemy territory, Dieter is captured and taken to a makeshift prison camp. He’s thrown in with a small group of captives from all over, including two Americans (played brilliantly by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) who have been prisoners for two years. While the rest of the prisoners have lost hope and to some extent, their minds, Dieter formulates a plan for escape. Bale is remarkably good as Dieter and he’s given a run for his money by both Zahn and Davies, looking gaunt, feral and in Davies’ case, almost Manson-like. Bale captures the inspiring optimism that Dieter conveys in Herzog’s earlier film, smiling at the locals as he’s marched through a village with his hands bound and inspiring his fellow POWs to make a last-ditch attempt at escape. As is the case with many of Herzog’s films, nature is a key element with the tortuous landscape becoming another character in the narrative. Unlike in so many other Vietnam movies, in Rescue Dawn the jungle seems alive, keeping the men a prisoner even more than the Viet Cong themselves. Herzog’s film is a stunning tale of survival and a top-notch addition to the pantheon of Vietnam War movies. (* * * ½)

Talk To Me

One of the problems I have with most biopics is the subject is usually so legendarily famous that it’s difficult to make the audience feel like they’re seeing something they don’t already know. That’s not the case with Talk To Me, a funny and compelling new movie that snuck in under my radar and won me over completely within its first ten minutes. Unless you’re from Washington, DC or are a radio aficionado, odds are you don’t know much about Petey Greene, an ex-con who became a groundbreaking DJ on DC’s WOL-AM in the late 60s and into the 70s. He spoke from the heart for people who had no voice and played a large part in keeping DC from tearing itself apart after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. As played by Don Cheadle, Greene is a smart, funny, quick-witted man who can’t quite believe the position he’s found himself in. He’s pressured to become bigger than he’d like by ambitious programming director Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). The relationship between these two similar but fundamentally different men is at the heart of Talk To Me and Cheadle and Ejiofor play off each other with precision and glee. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who several years ago made the terrific and underrated Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me captures the era perfectly, from the dialogue to the music to the fashions. The movie occasionally lapses into standard issue biopic tropes, succumbing to a serious case of the montages more than once. But for most of its running time, it’s a fresh and fascinating examination of a slice of history and life that we haven’t seen quite like this before. (* * * ½)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Truth be told, I’m fairly ambivalent about the Harry Potter series. I’ve seen all the movies and apart from the third one, neither loved or hated any of them. And while I liked Prisoner of Azkaban quite a bit at the time, I haven’t seen it since and my memory of what made it superior to the others has faded quite a bit. As for the books, I’ve read only one and coincidentally, it just so happens to be Order of the Phoenix. I thought it was OK but obviously it didn’t inspire me to read any others. However, unlike some other pop culture phenomena that I just don’t get, I have no problem with those who are heavy-duty Potter fans. Everyone I know that’s into it is extremely smart and I respect their opinions, so whatever problems I have with the series are mine and mine alone. I went to see Order of the Phoenix on opening day, not so much because I’m a fan but because I had nothing better to do. I felt like a bit of a faker sitting in the audience surrounded by people who were genuinely excited to see the movie and before long, I found their enthusiasm infectious. I was particularly charmed by a girl sitting in front of me, probably about 12 and there with someone I assume was her dad. She was just at the age where she’s about to be too image-conscious to go out in public with her parents and before the movie started, she was doing her best to appear cool and teen-jaded. But once the movie started, all that melted away and she clapped enthusiastically at her favorite parts. Any movie that can do that to an almost-teenager can’t be all bad. Indeed, I enjoyed Order of the Phoenix perhaps more than I thought I would. Screenwriter Michael Goldbenberg and director David Yates have streamlined J.K. Rowling’s doorstop of a novel into a relatively brisk and entertaining movie. The young star trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are maturing into pretty good actors, even though the naturalness they had in the first film is occasionally now replaced by some stiff, actorly mannerisms. Since the kids are now able to carry a bit more of the load themselves, the vast supporting cast (which I assume will one day comprise the entirety of the Royal Shakespeare Company) is given less to do. That’s a bit of a shame considering how good these actors are but Alan Rickman still manages to steal every second of screen time he has as Snape and Imelda Staunton couldn’t be more ideally cast as Dolores Umbridge. I still think Order of the Phoenix ends on a gigantic anti-climax but that complaint is a holdover from the novel. I don’t necessarily ever need to see this movie again and if I really started to think about it too much, it would probably all fall apart. But as a big-budget summer entertainment, Order of the Phoenix is a fun ride. (* * *)

Live Free or Die Hard

Speaking of movies you don’t want to think about too much…I had basically no hopes for this movie but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, I actually kinda liked it. This time out, John McClane (Bruce Willis, of course, in fine form) is given what should be a routine assignment, escorting computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long, proving himself equally adept on PCs as Macs) to DC for questioning. He winds up neck-deep in the biggest threat he’s faced to date as the country’s computer network is attacked and taken control by a former DOD computer expert (Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood). Fortunately, the bad guy is East Coast-based so McClane can cowboy up and kick his ass. Presumably Jack Bauer is taking care of things out west while the vast midsection of the country is left to fend for itself. I like both of the first two Die Hards quite a bit and if nothing else, Live Free Or Die Hard is a marked improvement over the painfully stupid Die Hard With A Vengeance (which, I’m sorry, is every bit as idiotic a title as this one). At least this time, it kind of makes sense on its own terms why McClane would get roped into this. Willis seems to be having a good time returning to the character and the action, while frequently cartoonish, is nevertheless pretty spectacular. Olyphant makes a great bad guy, keeping a calm, I’m-smarter-than-you arrogance even when things start to fall apart. Long takes some time to warm up to but eventually he won me over and even Kevin Smith’s brief appearance wasn’t all that out of place. The movie’s biggest drawback is some weird picture/sound sync problems that I have to assume are the result of post-production tinkering to get an unwelcome PG-13 rating. In spite of myself, though, I found myself enjoying the hell out of Live Free Or Die Hard. It isn’t in the same league as the original but it’s a perfectly entertaining buttered popcorn movie. (* * *)

Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Transformers

I have absolutely no nostalgic interest in Transformers, the apparently cool-as-hell line of toys that came out in the mid-80s, several years after I had lost interest in such things. I have even less interest in Michael Bay, the glossy hack who turned Pearl Harbor into a win for our side. The closest he’s come to making a good movie is The Rock, which is pretty far away from actually being a good movie. So there was no reason in the world why I should enjoy Transformers and sure enough, I didn’t. At best, I figured it’d be the sort of movie I would be mildly amused by as long as they focused on the action and kept the dialogue to a minimum. But nobody in this movie would shut up! Ever! Not the vacuous humans and not even the stupid robots once they showed up, which wasn’t soon enough for my tastes. And they’re not just talking, they’re shouting at each other! About absolutely nothing! Things seem to reach their low point in an endless scene about halfway through when Shia LaBeouf attempts to hide the Transformers from his clueless parents. Amazingly though, things continue downhill. The effects are OK, I guess, but the robots transform so quickly that I could barely make sense of what was going on. And while it’s pointless to ask questions about something like this, I just can’t help myself. For instance, why would Optimus Prime turn back into a semi truck at any point during the climactic battle in downtown LA? Under what circumstances would a big rig be a more efficient form than a bipedal robot? For that matter, why are the Autobots stupid enough to only transform into things like sports cars and utility vehicles while the Decepticons turn into fighter jets and tanks? And what I don’t know about Transformers lore could fill volumes but isn’t Megatron supposed to be the main bad guy? If so, how come he doesn’t show up until the last third? Transformers is a big, lumbering mess of a movie. If you took every summer blockbuster that’s been released since I started going to movies (including, off the top of my head, Independence Day, WarGames, Gremlins, Armageddon and the list could go on and on), tossed them all into a blender to distill out their most clichéd moments and mixed in a handful of toys, you’d get this movie. As much as I hated this, I will admit that I assume it’s a better movie than the other multi-million dollar toy commercial that’s coming out this summer, Bratz. I’m really hoping I don’t have to find out for sure. (* ½)

Your pal,