Friday, May 13, 2011

Movie Review: "The Book of Eli" by David Pretty

Greetings, Movie Mutants!

For some reason, I've been watching a lot of films recently that proudly wear their influences on their sleeve. Some, like Underworld, take their inspirations and build on them to create a reasonably original addition to the fantasy/sci-fi oeuvre.  Many others, however, lazily trowel on a second helping of "been there/done that" and don't even bother to come up with anything new or substantial.

Which brings me to The Book of Eli.  Since we learn right away that the film is set in a ruined, post-apocalyptic world, instantly we get shades of the Mad Max series, Children of Men and a slew of lesser imitators.  But what gives you hope is the presence of the visually ambitious Hughes Brothers in the director's-seat-built-for-two.   

Sorry, but I love these guys.  Although they played fast and loose with the original source material of Alan Moore's From Hell, they still turned in a thought-provoking and visually compelling rendition of that tale. Yes, I'll confess that I'm predisposed to buy what these guys are selling, but, hey, I also used to say that about Neil Marshall and Alex Proyas...

A bold and creative visual stamp is ultimately what will allow a film like this to rise above it's creaky premise. Keep that in mind as you watch the film's trailer:

Pretty friggin' cool, huh?  It's like Fallout: The Motion Picture...

The film begins in a shattered, desiccated forest where ash falls like snowflakes.  A figure resembling the killer from My Bloody Valentine waits patiently in a camouflaged bivouac as a hairless cat enters the frame, sniffs at an abandoned corpse and begins to feast.  Soon an arrow is loosed and the cat goes from repugnant scavenger to Combo Plate # 4.

This intro is so bizarre and visually arresting that I couldn't take my eyes off the screen for the next one-hundred and seventeen minutes.  Next we see our stoic protagonist, the titular Eli (Denzel Washington), walking across the blasted landscape carrying his End-Of-The-World Happy Meal off to where he might enjoy it in some semblance of peace.  En route to temporary shelter he navigates a landscape that makes the environs of The Road Warrior look like Lake Placid.

After discovering an abandoned cabin, he scavenges a pair of new boots from a suicide victim, takes a shower with the help of a KFC moist towelette, and then sits down to a relaxing night of feline fricassee and light reading.  It's here we're introduced to the other titular element that will prove important to the story: Eli's book.  It's a big, leather bound, tightly-guarded monstrosity that our hero studies intently.

The next day, Eli is waylaid by a pack of roadside hijackers and the Brothers Hughes show us in no uncertain terms just what he's capable of in defense of the tome in question.  In an almost balletic sequence, we witness Eli efficiently dispatch his attackers in a shadow play of hacked limbs and nasty eviscerations.

He eventually reaches the remnants of a destroyed town, which comically features the blackened and abandoned husk of a J. Crew clothing outlet.  A vicious biker gang rolls up to the local saloon and delivers a parcel of stolen plunder to Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who we first see reading a biography of Benito Mussolini.  Can you say, 'foreshadowing', kids?

When the bikers dump their ill-gotten gains on Carnegie's desk we're surprised to see that it isn't practical stuff like fuel, canned goods or Scope mouthwash but books.  Lots of 'em.  The town's overlord isn't impressed by the bountiful haul of O magazine back issues and Dan Brown paperbacks, however.  Turns out he's looking for a very specific book, one that, through script convenience, just so happened to roll into town courtesy of a stoic, machete-wielding librarian.  

Eventually Eli is tempted into Carnegie's tavern with promises of water.  Naturally, there's static and when Eli is forced to defend himself in his own inimitable way, Carnegie is suitable impressed.  He offers "Sir Hacks-A-Lot" a permanent gig but Eli adamantly refuses, insisting that he has to keep traveling west, where he's heard of a refuge.  Undaunted, Carnegie demands that our hero sleep on it.  During the night he offers up several compelling temptations to stay via the coerced advances of his own blind mistress Claudia (an impossibly youthful-looking Jennifer Beals) and when that fails, Claudia's beautiful daughter Solara (Mila Kunis).

Instead of taking advantage of Solara, Eli proposes discourse instead of intercourse.  During their dialogue more is revealed about the world before "The Flash" thirty years prior.  "People had more than they needed.  We had no idea what was precious and what wasn't. We threw away things people kill each other for now," he tells her.  Transfixed by his antiquities, Solara doesn't resist when he insists that she say grace with him before their meal.  With that, a pivotal clue about the nature of the Book is revealed.      

The next morning Solara makes the grievous error of leading her mother in prayer before breakfast.  When Carnegie overhears this he recognizes where the words came from and catches up with Eli before he gets out of Dodge.  During the confrontation, the following exchange occurs:

Carnegie: I need that book!  I want that book!  I want you to stay, but if you make me have to choose I'll kill you and take that book.
Eli: Why, why do you want it?
Carnegie: I grew up with that book, I know its power!

When the Walker refuses to give up the goods it instigates an impeccably choreographed gun battle.  During the shoot-out it almost seems as if Eli is protected by some invisible force.  He manages to escape the ambush and flees town with a devoted Solara in tow.  It isn't long before Carnegie and his convoy of reprobates are hot on their heels.  Eventually this leads to a final confrontation that's as inventive and vicious as it is visually stunning.

I'm sorry, but I like this film probably more then I should.  I think it's probably because a lesser, but similar film, like Doomsday didn't even bother to install a thematic engine underneath the hood of all the spectacle.  I like what The Book of Eli says about the importance of the written word.   In fact, it's ironic that the main villain of the piece states this better then anyone else when he screams at a hesitant henchman: "It's not a fuckin' book, it's a weapon! A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate."

Indeed, Gutenberg would have been proud.  That', Johannes Gutenberg, by the way, not Steve.
Even as dire as everything seems to be in The Book of Eli, the central message of the film is almost giddily optimistic.  The screenwriter, Gary Whitta, seems to be telling us that as long as we have art, culture and expression, we'll never descend into the realm of the savage, regardless of how poorly we treat each other.  I can attest to to Eli's convictions since there are certainly a few books in this world that I'd gladly risk my life to protect if there was only one copy left (1984, I'm looking in your direction).

I'm not going to keep harping on about how visually slick the film is, just suffice to say that the sets, costumes, camera sets up, special effects and the desaturated colors all add up to a compelling cinematic experience.  And mercifully, unlike in a Michael Bay shlock-fest where dynamic scenes are faked using Ginsu-style quick cuts and hyperactive zooms of blurry, kinetic motion, the Hugues Brothers set their cameras w-a-a-a-a-a-y back form the action so we can keep tabs on the scene's narrative and really savor the chaos.

I love the cast.  Denzel Washington is serene, Zen-like and quietly intense.  At no point did I ever doubt his ability to kick ass and take discretionary names.  In such a high-concept film, the weight of the proceedings depends almost entirely on his convictions and the sanctity of his mission.  He passes this challenge consistently and as a result, we're drawn into his plight.  The scene where he's forced to realize that his faith in the Book hasn't made him invulnerable after all is particularly convincing.

I'm delighted that Mila Kunis managed to get That 70's Show albatross off of her neck.   Not that I'm terribly surprised since she can effortlessly segue between authentic charm and smoldering sensuality.  Admittedly, the role of Solara isn't the meatiest part ever, but she puts her talents to good use to emphasize the modest arc the script ekes out for her.  Through it all she's unpretentious and genuine as she goes from hapless waif to devoted follower and finally, a master of her own destiny.

And finally there's Gary Oldman.  Y'know in a way, it's actually kinda funny to see the guy on screen without some sort of elaborate costume, crazy makeup effect or, at the very least, some pimp facial hair.  Unburdened by the trappings of wardrobe and prosthetics, Gary really seems to be having fun here.  Let's face it, the guy could probably sleepwalk he way through the role of Carnegie, but he actually invests considerate effort in the part and  keeps us rapt with an entire host of surreptitious glances, pained expressions and strained line deliveries.

Notwithstanding his penchant for reading books about former Italian dictators, Oldman's slow-burn of villainy starts with his willingness to pimp out his own girlfriend and her young daughter and then culminates with him gleefully blowing the bejesus out an elderly couple's home.  At one point he catches a slug in the leg and as his physical condition continues to deteriorate, he becomes increasingly erratic, twitchy and feverish.  This translates into the thespian equivalent of Oldman going off the deep end and it's a blast to witness, especially in light of the unconventional poetic justice that Jennifer Beals' character metes out in the end.   

As if that wasn't enough to watch, in the film's most subversive and humorous scene, the aforementioned elderly couple turn out to be a pair of gun-toting, tea-swilling, trap-constructing, disco-listening cannibals.  Hey, what's not to love here?

Well, for the sake of full disclosure, there are a few things.  The foundation of the film's premise is pretty creaky.  Characters do things arbitrarily and events just "seem to happen" purely to serve the plot.  Not to mention that the hairless cat is let out of bag way too early when it comes to the nature of the Book and how it might be salvaged.  

But through it all, dammit, I still had a fun time.  I'd recommend you see it.

   Tilt: up.

No comments:

Post a Comment