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Jahnke's Electric Theatre

Jahnke's Electric Theatre #36
Yes I Can, If Frank Sinatra Says It's OK


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Greetings, patient ones. I apologize for the long absence between Electric Theatres and hope that the void in your life hasn't been too overwhelming. To add insult to injury, I have just a handful of pictures for your consideration this time out. On the plus side, however, it's a nice variety. Let's kick things off with two dueling A-Pictures, as different as night and day, both highly recommended.


The A-Picture (Part I) - Little Miss Sunshine

Whenever an indie comedy generates a lot of buzz at Sundance, my first reaction is one of intense skepticism. Comedies that play the festival circuit are usually whimsical, quirky, cynical, obtuse or any deathly combination of the above. The one thing they frequently are not is funny. Little Miss Sunshine, the feature directorial debut of music video and commercial vets Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is a rare example of an indie comedy that remembers to include the laughs. Greg Kinnear stars as the patriarch of an uber-dysfunctional family that includes a teenage son (Paul Dano) who has taken a vow of silence, a heroin-snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin), and the brother-in-law (Steve Carell), a gay Proust scholar coming off a suicide attempt. When their daughter (Abigail Breslin) unexpectedly wins a spot in the national Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, the family loads up a beat up VW bus and makes the trek from New Mexico to Redondo Beach. I've read criticism of this film that says these aren't characters but rather sitcom caricatures and perhaps that's a valid point. The quirks these folks display are a little too perfect, a little too unreal. But you could make the same complaint about Arrested Development and that was one of the funniest entertainments of all time, and I include both movies and television in that. Steve Carell is unquestionably one of the best comedic actors working today and if all this movie had going for it was him, it would still be worth seeing. Now add in the underrated Kinnear working at the top of his game, the always outstanding Toni Collette doing terrific work with what is admittedly the most underdeveloped character in the mix, and the phenomenal Alan Arkin. With a cast like this, it would be difficult to make a movie that wasn't at least watchable. The secret weapons here are Dano and Breslin, matching these pros every step of the way. There are a few drawbacks here. The movie occasionally drags a bit and not every bit is a home run. But the laughs that do connect are so satisfying that they more than make up for the film's shortcomings. (* * * ½)


The A-Picture (Part II) - The Descent

It is really hard work being a horror fan these days. To the untrained eye, it may appear that it's a golden age. There's certainly plenty of ‘em being released. Unfortunately, most of them are either remakes, for junior high and high school kids (the dreaded PG-13 horror flick) or worse yet, both. What a thrill it is then to see The Descent, a horror movie that's genuinely horrifying and made for grown-ups. Shauna Macdonald stars as a young woman who loses both her husband and daughter in a terrible car accident. One year later, she gets together with a group of friends in the Appalachian Mountains for some spelunking, part of an annual tradition of extreme sport vacations. As you might expect, once they're down below, things go horribly wrong. It spoils nothing to reveal that the ladies are not the only things living down there. What's surprising about The Descent is that the hideous beasties aren't necessarily the worst things facing them. Macdonald is a horror filmmaker's dream actress, willing to go down into the deepest parts of her psyche to reveal fear, doubt, despair, and madness. Director Neil Marshall made his mark a few years ago with Dog Soldiers, a surprisingly good werewolf flick, and here establishes himself as one of the best of the new generation of horror filmmakers. If your idea of a good horror movie begins and ends with whatever the latest Americanized bastardization of a so-so Asian picture is, you might not be ready for The Descent. But if you want to see something really scary, grab on to something and head below. (* * * ½)


Scoop

Woody Allen's movies come in three distinct flavors. At the top of the menu are his main course films, movies like Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and last year's Match Point that can hold their own with the best movies I've ever seen. At the very bottom you'll find dog food, scraps like Anything Else and Alice that are like leftovers that have been warmed up once too often. In the middle are what I'd call his dessert movies. Light, fluffy confections that aren't necessarily memorable but are perfectly satisfying for the time it takes to enjoy them. Happily, Scoop belongs to this middle group, territory also occupied by the likes of Small Time Crooks. I say happily because from the trailer, you couldn't be blamed for assuming it would fall to the bottom of the heap. Scarlett Johansson, having apparently enjoyed her experience making Match Point, stars again as a journalism student who is visited by the spirit of a recently deceased reporter (Ian McShane from Deadwood). He wants her to pursue a scoop he received post mortem, that a rich playboy (Hugh Jackman) may in fact be the notorious Tarot Card serial killer. Woody himself costars as the Great Splendini, a two-bit magician who ends up helping Johansson. If you've been following Woody Allen's career over the years, some of this material will seem old hat. But if you're enough of a fan to have been following his career, you'll probably get a kick out of this anyway. Scoop is easily one of his most dispensable films, yet it's still got enough life in it to be enjoyable and that's more than I can say for a lot of Woody's recent output. (* * *)


World Trade Center

A few months ago, Hollywood gambled that America was ready to relive the horrors of September 11 with the release of United 93, an extraordinary film that frankly, many people really weren't ready for. Well, if you weren't ready in April, perhaps you will be now as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center has hit theatres. Of the two, this is certainly the easier movie to take. United 93 was a story of sacrifice in the face of impending doom. World Trade Center, on the other hand, is a story of hope and survival, telling the true story of Port Authority cops John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two of the last survivors to be pulled from the rubble of the towers. Stone's intentions couldn't be purer and the movie has something of a World War II vibe to it, similar to John Wayne's Sands of Iwo Jima. On the one hand, this makes the movie far more palatable to audiences who feel they don't need to be reminded of the worst feelings of 9/11. On the other, it makes the film itself feel far more artificial than United 93 ever did. That film felt genuine and immediate. World Trade Center feels like an impeccable restaging. Stone gets top-notch performances from his cast, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jimeno's pregnant wife and a reigned-in Cage, radiating enough authority to make you believe his men would follow him into the tower tempered with the confusion and fear brought about by the rapidly unfolding events of the day. But too much of World Trade Center felt like it was being kept at a distance. Toward the film's end, Stone succeeds at capturing the sense of community that miraculously spread across America for a tragically short time after the 11th. The film could have used more of that, as could the country as a whole for that matter. For some, World Trade Center may be as close as they want to come to reliving that day. I totally understand and appreciate that. At its best, this is a heartfelt tribute to the first responders. But for me, Stone's good intentions were slightly undermined by the odd unreality that seems to be inherent in big budget productions like this. (* * ½)


That'll wrap things up for this week. I hope to be back sooner rather than later and next time, I hope to bring some snakes with me. Join me, won't you?

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


Dedicated to Mickey Spillane and Bruno Kirby

"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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