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Movie Review – 'The Wolfman'

February 12, 2010 Leave a comment

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The remake of The Wolfman isn’t so much a throwback to the classic horror icon as much as it turns the Universal movie monster into an action star.  For a movie that’s been sewn together from different directors, different cuts, and even different scores, The Wolfman manages to come out as a good film despite its scattered tone, limited characterization, and over-reliance on gore.  The Wolfman shouldn’t work as a movie but somehow it succeeds not only as a fun action flick, but as seductive eye candy with thoughtful subtext about sexual repression and an exploration of mercy killing as monstrous.

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The year is 1891 and Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro) has returned home to Blackmoor, England after the news that his brother was killed by either a beast or a madman.  Well, “killed” is a bit of an understatement.  Ben Talbot suffered an extreme case of flesh-ripped-off-skeleton.  Lawrence, feeling guilt over having abandoned his brother to a fate of living with their mad father (Anthony Hopkins), decides to stay and find what sent his brother’s skin and life away.  He also wants to comfort Ben’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) but in that sweet, sexually repressed Victorian England kind-of-way.

Working off a lead that Ben had been interacting with gypsies, Lawrence goes to investigate at their camp, but with it being a full moon, the creature comes along and decides to ruin everyone’s day.  This is where The Wolfman shows its true colors as an action movie.  There are no jump scares in Wolfman as much as excited anticipation about which villager is going to get the business next (hint: it’s the one who looks scared and confused and has no one else in the frame with him).  After a hearty time of ripping out people’s hearts, the beast attacks and bites Lawrence.  The gypsies manage to save his life, but we know that was probably not the wisest of ideas.

The Wolfman has breathless pacing that both helps and hinders the film.  Lawrence is attacked by the beast within the first 10-15 minutes and the film never slows down.  For an action film, that’s terrific, but for a film that’s decked out in gorgeously gothic sets and costumes with lush cinematography by Shelly Johnson, it feels like we’re missing out at times.  It’s obvious that there’s a lot of this film on the cutting room, especially when it comes to the characters.  Hopkins gets to be delightfully crazy and Hugo Weaving, as Inspector Abberline, gets to be a bad-ass anti-villain, but Lawrence and Gwen only come alive because Del Toro and Blunt know how to act, which is great because there’s nothing in this cut of the film that distinguishes their characters as real people.  None of the cuts wreck the narrative to the point where you fall through a plot whole too big to escape, but this isn’t a movie built around a slow burn of suspense and thoughtful character study.  It’s about the Wolfman tearing folks up.

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Even though it indulges in gore and violence, The Wolfman is an earnest movie.  It really does want to evoke the classic Universal monster and sometimes that comes off as cheesy, but that self-seriousness is crucial to the film’s success.  You’re asking audiences to buy into a man-wolf hybrid.  The special effects are incredible but the audience can’t treat the creature as real if the film doesn’t do it first.  Without that belief The Wolfman would be a cowardly parody trying to hide in irony and smart self-reference rather than trying to do right by the classic movie that came before.

But the earnest approach and simple story belies not only the beauty of the film’s world, but David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker’s intelligent script.  Not only have they reset the character back to Victorian England, they’ve seized on why that era is important to the character.  Not only is there the historical context of sexual repression, but there’s also the conflict between scientific hubris and man in his “natural state”.  Our main character is given over to the beast yet the advent of science dismisses such a literal transformation and this misunderstanding leads to…unpleasantness.  Science, the representation of order and reason, is in direct conflict with the savage and animalistic nature of man.  It’s a nice idea to pick up in between bouts of the Wolfman showing his hatred of other people’s internal organs.

I also liked the subtext about the nature of mercy killing and if that’s an act of human kindness or a savage act working under the pretense of nobility.  The film makes sure that Lawrence neither has the ability or the opportunity to kill himself, but he wants to die and we learn early in the film that silver bullets only work if they’re fired from someone who loves the beast.  It’s a twisted message that the only way to save someone who’s lost their humanity is to kill them.

The Wolfman doesn’t wade around in these ideas or anything deeper than a puddle of blood.  It’s a bite-sized Milky Way stuffed inside a filet mignon.  Both the action scenes and the setting work well, but it would have been nice to embrace the full drama and gothic horror of the setting rather than racing to the next slaughterfest.

Rating: B-

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Categories: MOVIES, REVIEWS

Roger Ebert on 'Smash His Camera's' Ron Galella: A National Treasure

January 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Roger Ebert on ‘Smash His Camera’s’ Ron Galella: A national treasure

January 29, 2010 |  7:00 am

Jackie O Talk about karmic connections. I had just started reading Roger Ebert’s wonderful essay about Ron Galella, the notoriously relentless paparazzo, who is profiled in the new documentary “Smash His Camera,” when I heard the news about the death of J.D. Salinger, who might have been the only celebrity reclusive enough to have actually escaped the jittery glare of Galella’s camera. As for virtually every other star, from the swinging ’60s on, Galella rarely missed his prey.

Galella snapped ’em all, the kind of star that you have to refer to only by one name: Sinatra, Jackie O., Capote, Liz and Dick, Brando, Jagger (both Mick and Bianca), Elvis, Sophia, Redford, Nicholson. I haven’t seen the film, which debuted this week at Sundance, but the reviews have largely been good. Ebert nicely captures the stylish if slightly sleaze-ball appeal of Galella, who represents a natural bridge between the first generation of tabloid icons like Weegee and today’s less distinctive TMZ-style celeb stalkers. How did Galella get his money shots? Here’s what Ebert has to say about Galella’s working style, which makes it sound as though he would’ve made a great CIA agent or Hollywood private eye:

He hid in bushes and behind trees. Driving like a madman, he outraced celebrities to their destinations. He bribed doormen, chauffeurs, head waiters, security guards. He lurked in parking garages. He knew the back ways into ballrooms. He forged credentials. He chased his prey for blocks on foot. Year after year, he outworked, outran and outsmarted the competition, and he ran with a ferocious pack. Even now when he is wealthy, he hasn’t stopped standing in the cold to get his shot.

Ebert goes on to recount Galella’s epic battles with Jackie Onassis, who eventually got a court order preventing Galella from being within 75 yards of her at any time. Marlon Brando was once so ticked off by Galella that he punched him in the jaw so hard the photographer lost five teeth. No matter. The next time he went after Brando, he wore a football helmet. (Ebert has the photo up on his site, along with Galella’s classic shot of Jackie O. crossing the street, the wind blowing her hair across her face. She’s never looked more glamorously enigmatic.)

At Sundance, someone asked Robert Redford about “Smash His Camera,” surely knowing that Redford, like so many celebs, had his share of run-ins with Galella. It turns out Redford had one victory, eluding Galella while shooting “Three Days of the Condor,” though it wasn’t easy, because it involved almost as much skulduggery as Redford uses in the film itself.

So was Galella a scuzzy pest or a brilliant photographer? Or both? Ebert makes the case that as much as Galella harassed Jackie O., no one else captured her essence the way he did. As with most things, we’ll remember Galella’s work long after his pain-in-the-butt intrusiveness is forgotten. After all, we are all voyeurs at heart. As Ebert recalls, it was Andy Warhol who said, “A great photograph shows the famous doing something unfamous.”  

Photo: Jackie Onassis. Credit: Ron Galella

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Categories: FILM FESTIVAL, REVIEWS

Sundance Review – Documentary 'Teenage Paparazzo'

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Teenage Paparazzo

 (Documentary)

Teenage Paparazzo
‘Teenage Paparazzo’

A Reckless Prods. presentation in association with Jloar Prods. and Bert Marcus Prods. Produced by Adrian Grenier, Matthew Cooke, Bert Marcus, John Loar, Robin Garvick and Lynda Pribyl. Executive producer, Sandlot Venture Group. Directed by Adrian Grenier. Written by Grenier, Thomas De Zentotita.

 With: Austin Visschedyk, Adrian Grenier, Jane Visschedyk, Paris Hilton, Eva Longoria Parker, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, Mario Lopez, Lindsay Lohan, Perez Hilton, Alwy Visschedyk, Jane Sieberts, Steve Sands, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Connolly, Kevin Dillon, Lewis Black, Whoopi Goldberg.
 

The curiosity attracted by a “Teenage Paparazzo” as driven as any adult snapper yields a tricky helmer-subject relationship, celebrities discussing celebrity, and sophisticated musings on the ever-escalating American obsession with fame in Adrian Grenier’s excellent feature. This is Grenier’s second full-length docu behind (and in front of) the camera, and its behind-the-glitz peeks, human drama and sharp guiding intelligence should get it wider exposure than his first, 2002’s “Shot in the Dark.” Whether that will translate to niche theatrical release or a straight path to cable — the helmer’s principal employer, HBO, would be the natural fit — remains to be seen.

Grenier begins by describing his own “really weird” experience as the object of paparazzi attention, since what he’s famous for is playing a movie star who draws just such attention, on a TV series (“Entourage”) that satirizes the world of modern Hollywood celebrity. One night out, blinded as usual by flashlights, he was struck by the presence of a towheaded little boy, 13-year-old Austin Visschedyk, among the most aggressive career “paps.”

Wanting to explore that profession (the word actually comes from the Italian one for “mosquito”), he befriended Visschedyk. At an age when most kids only daydream about the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, the Hollywood native is actively chasing them for stolen photo ops, dashing between moving cars at 3 a.m. for shots that might net him up to $2,000.

He’s clearly talented, as well as amazingly precocious (and foul-mouthed). Though questions are certainly begged: Is this anything for a 13-year-old to be doing? Shouldn’t he be at school? (He’s home-schooled.) Where’s the parental supervision? (His mostly supportive mom and mildly disapproving dad, who live separately, are bullied by their son into exerting almost no disclipinary control.)

In exchange for actually hanging out with a celebrity, Visschedyk becomes Grenier’s own subject, as well as his guide to the frantic, high-stakes, adrenaline rush of paparazzi work. At first the adult photogs are highly suspicious, thinking the star only wants to make them look bad — which would be easy. But the helmer goes to great lengths to understand their profession, even taking a stab at ambush-shutterbugging fellow celebs himself, and interviewing prominent targets such as Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

Of course, many have negative feelings about such constant invasion — something the paps rather resentfully believe is the natural tradeoff for wealth and fame — though several allow that Visschedyk is so “cute” they don’t mind him so much. But when the teen’s novelty begins to attract media beyond Grenier’s own film crew, Grenier starts to worry he’s helped create a monster.

Pic also brings in fans, psychologists, historians, tabloid editors and more to explore our absorption in “parasocial relationships”: identifying, whether via sympathy or snickers, with public figures whose character and problems we only “know” through TV or tabloids. (Stats note the average American now spends 6 1/2 hours communicating not with live people, but with media — not including cell phones.)

Covering a wide range of material and ideas in engaging fashion, “Teenage Paparazzo” reps a triumph of organization for Grenier and editor Jim Curtis Mol. Lensing is all over the map, from high-grade HD to grainy on-the-run footage.

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Categories: REVIEWS

DVD Review – THE HURT LOCKER

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

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The road to victory for The Hurt Locker was slow and steady. The film began screening in 2008, and got a huge Variety pan when it played the Venice film festival. When it opened in the summer of 2009, the reviews were much warmer, and by the end of the year it was a list topper. Now it’s in real contention for Best Picture, Writer and Director at the Oscars, even though it did very little business stateside. The story of a crew of a bomb squad when a new guy (Jeremy Renner) seems crazed to his new staff (Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty), it is the first film about Iraq that has crossed over, and home video will get it in front of way more people, especially with all this late-coming buzz. My review of The Hurt Locker after the jump.

The Hurt Locker movie poster.jpgThe film opens with Sgt. JT Sanborn (Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldrige (Geraghty) losing their former bomb disposal expert, only to have him replaced by SFC William James (Renner). James begins his relationship with the men by showing a cavalier attitude towards their situation and not listening to his men. But as they continue to work together, they see a man who is keyed up to what he’s doing, but takes more chances than men about to walk from their tour of duty feel comfortable with. James seems a bit of a head case as he likes to listen to hard music, smokes all the time, and has a collection of the diffused bits from his travails, and the men even contemplate some friendly fire. But when they’re on a stakeout where they’ve got to take out some snipers, they somewhat relax into him. But James aggravates them further when his hunt for people who killed a young boy gets them in trouble.

With all this late stage praise, there was to be a backlash, and I’ve seen some bristle at the film’s attention. Though the film is excellent, it is also fair to say that it is just an action film in a war milieu. The problem is that most action films are so junked up on special effects, that rarely do you get to see a sustained bit of action tension, and director Kathryn Bigelow directs the shit out of this movie. Every set piece is a stunner, and for the first time in a long time for a war movie the language she uses to tell the story doesn’t seemed cribbed from either Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott. The money shot of the film became the poster image, but if it wasn’t spoiled for you, it’s a hell of a moment, where a bad situation gets infinitely worse. It also works symbolically for the situation in Iraq without the film ever beating you over the head with it. And that’s one of the great strengths of the film, while also seeming to have a practical understanding of the job and the situation at hand. There’s a great verisimilitude here.

The Hurt Locker movie image (5).jpgIt also shows in the denouement (one of the best endings of any film this year), what happens to men who become adrenaline junkies, and how their fate ultimately becomes decided by being unable to go back to a normal life. Bigelow keeps the film moving, with interesting characters that are defined by their actions, and also peppers the film with cameos (Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangeline Lily) to remind you that you are watching a war film. That’s smart, but it also keeps you off balance as some of the cameos end abruptly, keeping the main characters (all played by actors not known for much more than supporting work) in jeopardy, because if the famous people can die, than a character actor might not have much chance.

I thought The Hurt Locker was one of the best films of the year for this; it’s strange to think this isn’t a mainstream entertainment, but this may have been the failure of marketing, as the film was wounded by that early screening. That may have helped the film in the long run. Cause this is one for the ages.

Summit’s DVD presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The transfer is solid, as to be expected. Extras include a commentary by Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal, a short making of (13 min.) and an image gallery. Perhaps if the film cleans up at the Oscars, we might see a double dip with a longer behind the scenes piece. I would celebrate that.

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Categories: REVIEWS

Sundance Movie Review – 'The Runaways'

January 24, 2010 Leave a comment

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With fantastic performances from Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon, The Runaways delivered the goods at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Based on the book Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story by Cherie Currie, The Runaways tells the coming-of-age story of the teenage rock band The Runaways and how they came together in the mid 1970’s.  Kristen Stewart stars as Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning is Cherie Currie, and Michael Shannon stars as the über-eccentric Kim Fowley – the man who put The Runaways together.

While there was a lot of debate if the film would show a no-holds-barred account of what The Runaways really went through back in the 70’s – like the drug use and the in-band make-out sessions – not only does the film show a warts-and-all look at what happened to the band – at times you’ll feel like you’re watching documentary footage from the era as Stewart and Fanning are really playing and singing in the film, and they both deliver inspired performances.  For more of my thoughts on the film, hit the jump:

The_Runaways_movie_image_Dakota_Fanning_Kristen_Stewart.jpgThe first thing to know is if you’re wishing you were at Sundance to see The Runaways, Apparition bought the film and it’ll be released in America on March 19, 2010.  So it’s only a short wait.

The movie opens in 1975 Los Angeles.  We’re quickly introduced to Joan Jett and Cherie Currie and what they were going through in their lives.

Jett was a loner trying to figure out her look and a way to play guitar when women were considered groupies and not members of a band.  At the same time, Cherie Currie was a tenth grader idolizing David Bowie and hanging out in the same local clubs as Jett.  When Joan Jett runs into Kim Fowley outside a venue, she pitches the idea of an all girls rock band and after some makeshift rehearsals and band auditions, The Runaways are born.

It’s when the group is forming that we get some awesome scenes of Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley.  Also, to help get the group ready for the road and what being a rock star is all about, Fowley makes the girls go through band camp where he teaches them the ropes and delivers some killer dialogue.  Remember, at the time, an all girls rock band had never been done and Fowley realizes he might have a huge hit on his hands.  Finally after some local parties, the band hits the road and we watch as The Runaways make the big time.

As the journey unfolds, the teenage girls begin to experiment with drugs, their sexuality, and how to survive as a band, which Cherie Currie pushes too far in almost every way.

Again, the performances are fantastic across the board, and Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning really impressed me with their portrayals of these still-living rock stars.

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What I really liked about the movie is that it doesn’t take any sides about The Runaways story.  Writer/director Floria Sigismondi paints a realistic portrait of Los Angeles in 1975 and what was going on in Joan Jett’s and Cherie Currie’s lives.  We get to see how each of them lived and what brought them together.  And after they got famous and made it in the record industry, Sigismondi paints a portrait not of judgment or condemnation, but simply as it was.  The story has enough ups and downs that she didn’t need to use a heavy hand to tell the story, which some filmmakers might have done.

The other thing to know about the film is that while the movie has a great supporting cast featuring Scout Taylor-Compton (Lita Ford), Alia Skawkat (Robin who is a fictional composite of all the people that played bass in the band), and Stella Maeve (Sandy West), they’re relegated to background players with only a few scenes.  Sigismondi focuses on the Jett-Currie-Fowley relationship, and it’s a smart decision that pays off.

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Of course what would a review of The Runaways be without some mention of the rumored make out scene between Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning?

Yes, the movie has such a scene, but it’s tastefully done.  You never get the feeling that Sigismondi is using either actress more than is necessary to show the two had a night together.  But it’ll be very interesting to see what the Twilight fans think of this scene, especially Stewart’s teenage fanbase.

My larger question is what parents are going to do with their kids who want to see Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett?  Even though the film doesn’t glorify or condone any questionable action in the movie, you see Kristen Stewart (and Dakota Fanning) doing drugs, kissing girls, and walking around with not much clothing on.  The Runaways is an R-rated film that explores a different era and I think depending on the kid, some parents may have to do some actual parenting and say that while Stewart plays Bella Swan and Joan Jett, Bella Swan is nothing like Joan Jett.

Exercise common sense.

Final Thoughts

While some Sundance movies have a lot of buzz before the festival, The Runaways will ride its Sundance momentum into theaters this March and should be able to mint a lot of coin from worldwide audiences.  Also, with a killer soundtrack and an honest portrayal of The Runaways, the band should enjoy a bump in sales and a lot of new fans finding their music.

But more than anything, The Runaways is a great movie filled with honest and real performances from its experienced and talented lead actors.

Definitely recommended.

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Categories: REVIEWS

DVD Review – "The Cove" Great Documentary about Dolphin Killing

January 17, 2010 Leave a comment

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A documentary about the inhumane treatment of dolphins near Taiji, Japan, The Cove combines an exciting and illegal mission with an activist’s desire to expose an issue. The film juxtaposes a group of activists’ scheme to document the goings-on of a heavily guarded cove with footage that gives a history of dolphin captivity and explains what makes these animals relevant and unique. The film is directed by Louie Psihoyos, a photographer who founded the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS). Ric O’Barry, a now activist who was once known for capturing and training the dolphins used on Flipper, is also a key figure in the film. More after the jump.

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Part of the film documents the attempt to infiltrate a single cove in Taiji. There, dolphins are caught for captivity. Those that aren’t chosen for aquariums are instead taken by the fishermen to be sold as meat. Attempts to keep the public from accessing the cove are aggressive and, for the most part, successful. In order to make the film, though, a team had to be assembled to be able to get footage of the activities there. Throughout, the film shows how the team came together and how they were able to capture such telling images.  This gets better as the film nears the end, where it shows the fascinating equipment used and the precautions that had to be taken to remain stealth.

The pacing of the film is somewhat uneven, making it feel a bit unfocused. In it, different short segments are cut between the interviews and the footage of the mission. Though the intercutting itself works, the order of the segments seems a bit arbitrary. One point introduced far too late is the amount of mercury found in dolphin. This makes the argument much more substantial, especially to people who might not see the concern with the treatment of dolphins. The placement of this information gives non-animal lovers a chance to dismiss the film without learning the implications this has for humans.

Ric O’Barry is a figure that is present throughout the film and seems to be the brainchild behind the project. O’Barry was once known for capturing the dolphins used on the Flipper TV show. Since then, he’s changed to instead fighting against dolphin captivity. His story, though it would make a great narrative film, seems too much a quest to overcome a feeling of personal guilt. Though interesting, it is at odds with the rest of the film, which focuses more on the issue than on individual stories.

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As someone who isn’t ever too disturbed by images seen onscreen, I was able to sit through the film without ever having to avert my eyes. For those less stoic than I, though, the film could be difficult to watch. Since this is actual footage, there isn’t the usual comfort that the images seen are false. I would suggest having someone fast forward through the really ugly parts, since there’s only really a small segment with graphic images towards the end

When it comes to documentaries that seek to convey a political message, I tend to be wary. They are often one-sided and thus come off as overly manipulative. The Cove sometimes seems to fall into this trapping. The few conversations with people not involved in the mission seem mere attempts to find a weak spot and expose it. However, throughout the film I found myself more willing to trust that it wasn’t trying so much to change the views of the spectators. Rather, it aimed to reveal something to the public that otherwise would be lost to those not knowledgeable about the subject.

The Cove was able to hold my attention throughout, with the help of some really great images and appropriate music. However, it might have attempted to throw too much information at the viewer. The film also seemed a little too caught up in wowing the audience with its own accomplishments, since the same people who staged the mission made it. Despite some problems, The Cove is still a noteworthy film that is able to make an argument in an interesting way.

Special Features: “Special OPS Camera” is about the cameras used by the Oceanic Preservation Society during the mission. This should be interesting to those who would like to learn more about the technical aspects of the secret filming. “Freediving” has stunning underwater images set to music. It’s probably a little long, but great nonetheless. The “Deleted Scenes” segment shows more about the OPS and Surfers for Cetaceans “Paddle Out,” which was briefly shown in the film. It also includes a short and mildly funny scene of O’Barry choosing a wig to go undercover. It ends with footage of the Taiji Whale Festival, which is rather boring since it includes no interviews. “The Cove: Mercury Rising” is about twenty minutes long and elaborates on the mercury poisoning problem. It shows some clips from the film, making it somewhat redundant. It does, though, offer information about mercury that the film could have used more of.

Film: A minus

Special Features: B plus

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Categories: REVIEWS

Movie Review – "The Book of Eli" by Collider.com

January 15, 2010 Leave a comment

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I loves me a good western and The Book of Eli fits the bill.  Don’t let the post-apocalyptic setting fool you; The movie opens on a shot of a six-shooter, the main character (Denzel Washington) is headed west and doesn’t reveal his name until the end of the movie (thus making him that old west archetype, “The Stranger”*), an old saloon, and other trademarks of the western genre along the way.  But the post-apocalyptic setting provides a nice twist by removing almost all modern technology except for a heavy arsenal of weapons…and an iPod.  The Hughes Brothers have made a well-shot, well-edited, and exciting film, but it also features a very heavy-handed religious message.  It’s a hurdle, but The Book of Eli manages to clear it.

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Eli impressed me right out the gate by having no dialogue for almost the first ten minutes of the movie.  By the end, we know almost everything we need to about the Stranger and the world he inhabits.  The stranger walks through the beige deserts and crumbled cities of what used to be our country (the look of the film called to mind the videogame Fallout 3), but remnants of modern civilization remain. The Stranger is an excellent survivalist, and he shows off a resourcefulness that seems obvious yet it’s rare in the post-apocalypse.  When he goes into an empty house, he’s careful.  He always runs the faucets to see if there’s the slightest chance of water.  In the speechless opening of the film, he discovers a person who has hanged himself.  Rather than walking away from a tragic moments, the Stranger does what is necessary and checks the dead man’s pockets and then takes his shoes.  Washington has such gravitas that the character’s scavenging feels more like stoic pragmatism.  Later, there’s a scene where the Stranger’s actions (or inaction) is almost unforgivable but the Hughes frame it in such a way that we no longer question the character’s commitment to his mission, but understand he still has humanity.  It’s a difficult balancing act, but Washington and the Hughes make sure we’re on the character’s side because we can appreciate him beyond his ability to kill enemies ten times before they hit the ground.

However, that is entertaining to watch and after showing off his finishing moves to a group of unlucky highwaymen (like in the western, the hero’s fighting ability is never in question), the Stranger eventually arrives in a shanty town run by a man named Carnagie (Gary Oldman) who just so happens to be looking for the book the Stranger is carrying.  Following an fast-paced but well-cut action scene where the Stranger slices up a room full of people trying to kill him, Carnagie offers the Stranger the appealing job of being a henchaman.  Stranger isn’t interested but stays the night as a guest/prisoner.  Carnagie tempts him with his blind lover’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), but the Stranger, being a soft-spoken noble warrior, refuses her advances and instead they share a meal where the Stranger says grace.

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That’s when it’s clear that the book is the Bible.  Carnagie wants to use it as a weapon to control the hearts and minds of the remaining populace, while the Stranger presumably wants to use it as a force for good and there’s something out west that will allow him to do it.  I know it seems like I’m dodging spoilers when this isn’t a mindfuck of a movie, but it’s more enjoyable to let it open up, especially since the previews have sold it more as a standard post-apocalyptic action flick.

And the action does not disappoint, and neither do the performances, cinematography, and overall direction.  They all need to click together because the movie gets very preachy, to the point where it’s a little uncomfortable.  Personally, I found it a little funny as I kept thinking of Patton Oswalt’s “Sky Cake” bit from his latest album, “My Weakness Is Strong” (in short, people do good things because they believe when they die they’ll get to go up in the clouds and eat all the cake they want; religious wars happen when there’s disagreement about what type of baked good await in the afterlife).  But the heavy reliance on “Christianity will save the world,” does raise the question of why new myths don’t just replace established religion.  Carnagie and the Stranger are significantly older than everyone else so they’re among the few literate people in the world, but before Christianity, cultures had religion; they just didn’t write it down.  It was an oral tradition used more as a way to explain the outside world rather than a user’s manual for why you should be good to your fellow man (”Sky cake!”).  It doesn’t make sense why Carnagie can’t just make up a new religion and use that to control the people.  Maybe it’s because the character has no charisma and no depth. Gary Oldman has played some great villains in his time and he’s wasted here.

But on the whole, The Hughes Brothers have created a solid western and done so in a clever fashion by putting it beneath the guise of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  It’s a confident film that trusts the story its telling and how it’s being told.  If you don’t mind the promotion of extreme measures resulting from blind faith, then you should show some thanks to The Book of Eli for being an exciting, well-made, clever film. Blessed be the western. Amen.

Rating —– B

*IMDb gives the character’s name, but the movie doesn’t strongly hint at it until halfway through and then only confirms it in the last ten minutes or so.  If you think my referring to the character as “The Stranger” is lame, too bad.

Posted via web from MovieDriver – Hollywood Teamster

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