Friday, January 22, 2010

Closing the Book: THE BOOK OF ELI - Reviewed!

Man, this week has been crazy. I've had so much I've wanted to write about, but just haven't had the time to update the ol' blog as much as I'd like. That said, I'm back with some pre-weekend musings, so keep readin'.

So, it's been cold and rainy here in LA. In most places this wouldn't be remarkable, except here in LA it's practically the apocalypse whenever things get wet. One thing about LA though - the rain usually comes and goes here really quickly. I think that's why people get so freaked out. They don't have any time to adjust. So actually, now that it's been raining for several days straight, it's not that bad. People are realizing that rain isn't all that big of a deal. Craziness ...

Meanwhile, it was a short week at work due to MLK Day, but it didn't really feel that way. Lots going on, as you can imagine, and so this coming weekend couldn't come fast enough.

Anyways, I have a couple of movies I've been wanting to talk about, so let's get to it. Looks like I've only got time for one review today, so for now, here's a look at Denzel Washington's latest action flick, The Book of Eli ...


- 2010 started out with one campy-but-fun sci-fi actioner in Daybreakers, so I was hoping that The Book of Eli would keep up the momentum and be yet another cool genre flick to help kick off the year. There seemed to be a lot of potential in the concept, and the cast was, at least on paper, really excellent as well. And yet, I thought that The Book of Eli turned out to be one of those movies that never really lived up to its promise. Some badass action scenes scattered throughout the film kept things decently entertaining, but the plot ultimately seemed to fall apart under its own weight. There are some really interesting stylistic flourishes in this one, but the substance just isn't there.

The Book of Eli features a pretty cool premise - the kind of semi-gimmicky yet thought-provoking hook that could have been the setup for a classic Twilight Zone episode back in the day. The movie takes us to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the earth has now been bereft of resources and law and order for decades. Only those who've made it to middle-age remember what things were like "before." One such man is Denzel Washington as Eli - a badass nomad who travels through the desolate wasteland on a somewhat ambiguous journey West. Eli carries with him a pack of items that he uses to barter for food and water (and old-world relics, like a beat-up iPod), but he also carries a bible - purportedly, the last copy of the book in existence. Eli is carrying his book on a prophetic mission of faith, but of course, there are others who want to get their hands on it, knowing the book's power as a tool of manipulation and control. Enter Gary Oldman as Carnegie, the defacto leader of a ramshackle town, looking to build his power base and branch out beyond the confines of his little village. Oldman is a book collector, sending out his servants to find copies of the great works of literature, all the while hoping that they'll stumble onto an elusive copy of the holy bible. When Eli wanders into Carnegie's village, the two begin their battle for the book.

As you can see, the movie is predicated on some pretty ambitious, lofty concepts. There is definitely something intriguing about the premise, and I could see it working as a very simple, Twilight Zone sort of parable. But The Hughes Brothers, the film's directors, aren't content with that. They overload the movie to the point where it ends up feeling muddled and directionless. Some of their choices work, others don't.

I mean, the movie undoubtedly has some badass action scenes. In fact, I think my favorite part of the film was the action, which gets shockingly brutal at times. And yet, The Hughes Brothers imbue the brutality with a Kill Bill-esque sense of over-the-top cartoon gracefulness. The film has that whole post-apocalyptic samurai theme going for it, and the elegant action scenes reinforce that motif.

It also helps that the cast is so talented. Denzel Washington does his best to sell the material, and it's always fun to see him play the badass. Denzel is probably one of the few actors who could make the part of Eli work as well as it does. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman is always good as the villain. And yet, his par there is pretty underwritten and not all that memorable. Again, Oldman does the best to make things entertaining. But he really doesn't have much good material to work with. There are some other really good actors scattered throughout the movie (Tom Waits, Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon), including one potentially awesome surprise cameo from a sci-fi legend. Too bad the cameo doesn't amount to much ... I actually thought Mila Kunis was pretty good here too. I definitely think she has the chops to do more action-oriented stuff like this. Hopefully working with icons like Washington and Oldman rubbed off on her.

So I really dug the action, and the cast is pretty great. But where things start to fall apart is in the script. It starts out with some promise as the premise is initially laid out. But man, it just becomes more and more groan-inducing as it goes on. For one thing, the tone is pretty all over the place. I mean, something like Daybreakers knew from moment one that it was a campy sci fi genre flick. The Book of Eli tries to have its cake and eat it too, with moments of totally cartoonish action and action-movie tropes - moments that totally contrast with the dead-serious, ultimately heavy handed scenes that try to hammer you over the head with the movie's broader themes. Especially in the wake of THE ROAD, which I thought did an amazing job of telling a multilayered, thematically rich post-apocalyptic story, The Book of Eli was hard to take all that seriously. Things get even worse towards the end of the movie though. The plot stumbles forward without ever really tying its different plot threads together, and then ... well, and then there is a big twist of M. Night proportions. It's a twist that is surely supposed to make our jaws drop in shock and awe, but I have to say it felt really hokey. Even worse, it was totally incidental to the actual plot of the movie. It really changed nothing about the story except to add one more unnecessary wrinkle to an already overstuffed script.

If the movie had ended on a huge bang, I think this one could have been much easier to swallow. But the movie builds and builds towards ... something ... but ultimately fails to deliver any sort of satisfying payoff. There's a whole lot of meandering around without much in the way of resolution. If this were, in fact, a Twilight Zone episode, then surely there'd be some great, climactic reveal that would have left us reeling.

One other note on the overall stylistic tendencies of the film. I think the uber-stylized direction of the Hughes brothers is ultimately a bit much. Sometimes it's cool and results in badass action scenes, but other times, it seems to detract from the movie rather than add to it. So much of of the movie's look and feel just seems repurposed from any number of other movies, videogames, etc. Again, there are some really inspired moments, but those aren't enough to really leave you feeling good about the film.

I think The Book of Eli may be worth checking out, but if you only see one stylized sci-fi action film this January, I'd go with the superior Daybreakers. And if you only see one recent post-apocalyptic drama, definitely go with The Road. As it stands, The Book of Eli has its share of cool moments, but ultimately is only so-so.

My Grade: B-

- Okay, I'm out of time for now but will be back soon with a lot more, so stay tuned. Coming up: a review of YOUTH In REVOLT, a TV Roundup, and a more thoughts on CONAN O'BRIEN and the Late Night Wars!

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