The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is one of the best movies of 2010. It’s a solid post-apocalyptic story that is wonderfully acted, artfully shot, and remarkably well-written. It may also be one of Denzel Washington’s best performances to date.

Here’s a peek:

The deets:

Released January 15, 2010

Written by Gary Whitta

Directed by the Hughes brothers

Starring: Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Ray Stevenson

Rated R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

The world is a destroyed, hot, bleak, savage, regressed place and Eli (Washington) is a nomad heading toward the west coast of what was once the USA. He holds a copy of the Bible, potentially the only copy left. He subsists on any creature, barring humans, he can kill and cans of food, reading the Bible every night and hoping to find batteries to help him listen to music.

Eli is an accomplished warrior, wreaking matter-of-fact and brutal havoc on anyone who tries to hurt or stop him. But he is also kind and lives by principle, and it is his merciful heart that exacerbates some trouble he gets in when he arrives in a town run by Carnegie (Oldman). It’s hard to imagine what Carnegie did before the apocalypse, because he’s obviously very suited to megalomania. Carnegie sees a spark of something interesting when Eli passes through his bar and kills a bunch of people who are trying to bully him.

So Carnegie takes Eli in and we meet Carnegie’s significant other, Claudia (Beals)n and Claudia’s  daughter Solara (Kunis). Solara is foisted upon Eli to see if he wants her; he declines and Solara sees the sacred book. Now Carnegie, convinced that the book has the power to give him total power, wants it. But Eli knows that Carnegie is corrupt and vile.

We have a showdown as Eli, with Solara along for the ride, tries to escape from Carnegie’s men, led by Redridge (Stevenson), who carries a torch for Solara. The showdown is not the end of the film, because The Book of Eli is about much more than a wanderer who brings justice upon some bad guys. That’s pretty much any Clint Eastwood western.

The Book of Eli is more about what drives people to do what they do, what people are capable of when they’re devoted to a cause–rotten or noble. Watch for the ultimate reveal, then watch The Book of Eli again to see if the reveal makes sense.

It does.

Critique

The Book of Eli is an action film with a brain and some very smart and effective actors. The motivations of each character are powerfully visible and they make each character really interesting to watch.

The story arc is, on its face, fairly simple. Special wanderer making his way to a destination is waylaid by some baddies and wanderer has to bring down the fires of justice upon the baddies. As mentioned above,  this story is fleshed out by Eli’s need to get to a certain place while keep in his sacred book safe, but also while helping some other people out of a bad situation. And the reveal, again the reveal, makes the story of the film all the richer.

The setting is delightfully bleak, with most everything visible in shades of sepia and gray. Washington, Oldman, and Beals deliver deep performances that give us a peak into a past of pain and adjustment to the horrible modern conditions.

Finally, the direction takes its time to let scenes develop. This adds a gravity to the movie and helps we viewers become fully wrapped up in this world.

The Book of Eli is not your normal post-apocalyptic film, despite plenty of homage paid to Mad Max. This movie is a might strong exploration of what it is to be human and what survival and thriving really mean.

Content warnings: brutal and sometimes graphic violence, some language.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

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The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy offers just over two hours of entertaining and engaging action movie-ness. It’s the final minutes that weaken the film.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released August 10, 2012

Written by Tony Gilroy, and Dan Gilroy (inspired by the series by Robert Ludlum)

Directed by Tony Gilroy

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Donna Murphy, Joan Allen, Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Zeljko Ivanek, Scott Glen, Albert Finney, and David Strathairn

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

The Bourne Legacy offers a story that runs parallel and then somewhat beyond the stories told in the three preceding Bourne films starring Matt Damon, and which Tony Gilroy had a hand in. It helps that Gilroy has a firm handle on the story, themes, and arcs in the Bourne series; with someone else at the helm, The Bourne Legacy would have felt like a blatant and useless cash grab.

This film follows Aaron Cross (Renner), an agent from the same genetics-altering, super agent-making program that created Bourne. As Bourne causes havoc, the directors of this program, called Operation Outcome, decide that every agent in the program needs to be closed out, erased, and that they will start the program again after the fallout from Bourne has settled. The main spy boss is Eric Byer (Norton in one of his best roles), who served with Cross in combat and who it appears recruited Cross into the program. Byer sets off the events that ensue as Cross escapes the first attempt on his life and discovers that his handlers are trying to have him killed.

It’s important to note that Cross has heightened abilities, brought to him by ‘chems,’ two colored pills that enhance his sensory and physical capabilities. He’s out of chems and needs  to get more before he regresses and becomes totally incapable of coping with life. To that end, he seeks out Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz), the doctor whom he had seen several times to have blood work done and to get more chems. He has to find her while dodging those who want him dead. While Cross makes his way to Shearing, she barely survives one of her colleagues going completely nuts and shooting up the lab in which they work.

This colleague is likely manipulated into doing this as part of the spy bosses’ efforts to end the program and avoid getting found out.

The violence in the lab and the great sequence where Cross rescues Shearing from some bad guys in her house are the highlight. Once Cross and Shearing get together, they head to the Philippines, to a secret lab there, to get Cross ‘virused out’ of the chems– meaning he will have his enhanced abilities permanently.

All of this leads to some breathless chase scenes and the unleashing of a very enhanced agent who is directed to find and kill Cross and Shearing. There’s not much of a climax to the action, however, despite there being a somewhat effective emotional wrap-up to this story arc. The film ends somewhat abruptly, leaving it wide open for more story to be told.

Critique

The acting is by far the best part of this film. The story is, ultimately, pretty small fry, given that it’s shoehorned into the events of the Bourne films and is essentially about a guy’s desire to not depend on pills for the rest of his life. But it’s a simple story and the action and pacing are crafted well enough that the movie never lags. The writing is definitely better than average, with the characters behaving like people and the action unfolding from individual choices. Also, Cross is a little smarter than Bourne.

Edward Norton’s Byer is a pleasure to watch. He’s ruthless, incredibly smart, and somehow sensitive. This guy just gets better as he gets older. Renner and Weisz, both very charismatic actors who know how to get right to the emotional core of a character without going over the top, work great together. Weisz particularly does a great job. In fact, her character is actually the best written character in the film. This is no passive woman, nor is she a lady who cannot be phased and is thus boring. She’s human, tough, smart, and determined. Renner is quiet and very effective.

The filming is great, setting the scene intimately when we need to focus on the characters, but grounding the viewer in a world of people, life, beauty, and death.

The Bourne Legacy is, surprisingly, highly recommended. Never over the top, somewhat understated, lacking somewhat in punch and resolution, but a pleasure to watch.

Content warnings: some harsh language, plenty of action and violence

Writing: 4          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

Cement and increase my legacy by sharing this post. If you don’t, a super agent will come and give you a big noogie. Don’t forget to check out the generally inaccurate reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. 

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Total Recall (2012)

Total Recall did not need to be remade. That said, the new film is pretty good, despite the fact that it doesn’t really add anything new.

Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released August 3, 2012

Written by Kurt Wimmer, Mark Bomback, Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, and John Povill. Based on the short story by Phillip K. Dick

Directed by Len Wiseman

Starring Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Colin Farrell, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho, and Bill Nighy (for perhaps 4 minutes).

Rated PG-13 

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Total Recall is a reboot of the original Arnold Schwarzzenegar film. The story is similar. Doug Quaid (Farrell) is a regular guy who feels unfulfilled in life, despite having a good job and Kate Beckinsale as a wife. Seriously. Cast Chelsea Handler or some other horrible person as his wife, and I’ll believe it.

In any case, Quaid has been having vivid dreams that involve a beautiful woman and him escaping from bad guys.

Quaid decides to try out Rekall, a procedure that embeds you with memories of some kind of fun event, like going to a beach, being a famous celebrity, or even being a spy. His friend,  Harry (Woodbine), tries to convince Quaid to not do the Rekall thing, but Quaid goes ahead and on a lonely night (Seriously? Kate Beckinsale, guys..) he goes to get the procedure. Mcclane (Cho) runs Rekall and he gets Quaid started with a memory package of being a spy.

But all is not well. Apparently the science of implanting memories into a person’s brain has found that if you try to implant memories of something that actually happened to a person, there will be some kind of mental break and bad things can happen. Just as the memory package is being downloaded into Quaid, all hell breaks loose and it appears that Quaid might actually be a spy, or that he might have some kind of dark history.

Quaid unleashes some deadly skills he didn’t know he had and heads home, whereupon his wife tries to kill him. This begins the action of the movie, with the entire thing essentially being a chase film. It turns out that the world this movie is set in is run by a guy named Cohagen (Cranston), who wants Quaid dead, and that Quaid’s wife is one of Cohagen’s minions.

On the run, Quaid connects with Melina, the woman from his dreams and he begins to uncover the truth of his past.

And that’s where we stop so we don’t give spoilers. But let’s take a moment to look at the world. This is an Earth that has been decimated by biological warfare. All that remains of human society are a federation based in England and the Colony, where Australia is now. Travel between these two places is accomplished by The Fall, which is where a huge ship uses gravity to move through the Earth, somehow going through the core and showing up on the other side of the planet in 18 minutes.

Physics and geology don’t exist in this film. Gravity obeys the laws of the screenwriter.

Critique

The physics of The Fall were so bad, so incredibly stretched, that it actually detracted from the film. Despite this and the fact that Total Recall really doesn’t offer anything new from the original, this 2012 Total Recall is still a fairly entertaining film.

Colin Farrell is a fine actor and he carries the film well. Kate Beckinsale is brutal and wears tight black clothes, rather a lot like what she does in Wiseman’s Underworld films. Jessica Biel is surprisingly engaging and adds a nice heart to the film. Bryan Cranston is sufficiently over the top as the villain Cohagen. Bill Nighy is totally wasted in his few minutes of screen time. John Cho’s character is interesting and goes away too early. Bokeem Woodbine’s character of Harry is a plot device and is not allowed to fill the space of a real person.

Again, the movie is entertaining and engaging. The action sequences aren’t much new, but the filming is well done and the production design did a convincingly gritty devastated humanity.

It’s the script. Sure, this is an action movie, but action movies are allowed to be smart and challenging. The direction is also a problem, in that scenes are cut short, not allowing characters to grow and fill the spaces with authenticity.

Back to the script. The central idea of this movie is the question of what is real and what is recall. This question is so sparely treated, so lightly explored, that it’s irritating. In the moment when Quaid has to decide if he is living reality or existing in a mental creation, I wanted the movie to really explore the implications of the two options and try to do something challenging. But no, it doesn’t. With some deft writing and a bit of creativity, audiences could spend this entire movie wondering “Is this all real or a fabrication? Is he in Rekall?”

Disappointing. Add to that the simply awful physics of The Fall and the characters not really doing much more than what the plot wants them to do, and Total Recall is not something I care to recall for any real length of time.

Content warnings: A three-breasted woman bears her chest briefly, plenty of violence and gun battles, some harsh language.

Writing: 2          Acting: 4           Overall: 3

It’s unbelievable to me that Total Recall has a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes that is twenty points lower than the rating for John Carter, but that Total Recall isn’t being slammed as a flop. John Carter is a vastly superior film which made a lot more than Total Recall is going to make. Go to Rotten Tomatoes and complain.

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Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s latest outing, is delightfully silly and rambunctious. It’s also a little concerning. Here’s a preview:

The deets:

Released June 29, 2012

Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

Directed by Wes Anderson

Starring Kara Hayward, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jared Gilman, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel.

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Moonrise Kingdom opens with a narrator (Balaban), whom we see on film talking right at the camera, setting the scene. The scene is an island in 1965, days before a historically awful storm. We are introduced to Sam (Gilman) and Suzzy (Hayward) who meet in a field in order to run away together. They met a year previous and have been penpals, planning their getaway for some time. They are in love and intend to make a life for themselves.

They are also twelve.

Sam has run away from his scout troop’s camp, headed by Scoutmaster Ward (Norton), who is dedicated to his boys and the Khaki Scouts. Suzzy has run away from her lawyer parents, Murray and McDormand, and her three younger brothers. She has a temper. The Scoutmaster, the parents, and the local policeman (Willis) rouse the island in a search for the lovebirds, with the rest of the Khaki Scout troop tracking them quite effectively.

The lovebirds live in a vacuum; uncaring and unaware of the world around them. That’s why what happens with clothing and experimentation isn’t more concerning. It’s still a little much, Mr. Anderson, but it is forgivable in the wide context of the film.

The story of chasing the lovebirds down, trying to keep them apart, and their efforts to be with each other and the redemption of a few characters, is set against the backdrop of a catastrophic storm that will lay waste to the island.

Critique

This is a quirky, arty, generally easily digested film. The scenes are very distinct from each other; the characters seem to be caricatures but are actually very endearing and authentic; and the dialogue is snappy. This is not a movie for everyone, however.

You need to know that the lovebirds are twelve, they strip to their underwear at a certain part of the movie, and there is some sensual-type activity– although it’s not gratuitous and it’s very authentic to the characters and who they are. There is no sex, but there is some experimentation.

On a similar note, it’s useful that the narrator is talking right at the camera, that the colors and scenes are so clearly artificial, that the transitions are so artful, because it makes very clear that this is a story, a fantasy, an occurrence in somebody’s imagination. It makes it harmless and innocent. This is important.

Folks, it’s a Wes Anderson film. A story is told, it’s full of great characters, the story is absurd but heartfelt, and the set pieces are challenging and more about image than atmosphere. As is usual with Wes Anderson, it’s hit and miss, but mostly hit. It’s not hard for actors to fill the molds created by Wes Anderson’s screenwriting, but some of these folks do particularly well. Bruce Willis and Bill Murray do a very nice job, as do the two young actors who carry the story. Tilda Swinton is wasted and Frances McDormand is workaday.

Content warnings: some lower-level swearing, some very underage sensuality, lots of smoking

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5          Overall: 4

Spread my own personal moonrise kingdom by sharing this review with all of your friends and enemies. Check its page out on Rotten Tomatoes as well.

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