The Book of Eli (2010)

Book of Eli-Movie (2010)

“In the time before…”

Back in January of 2010, a movie hit theaters and began with those rather clichéd words.  And it feels to us as if we’re talking about an ancient allegory, too.  We missed THE BOOK OF ELI when it initially hit theaters, but we’re catching up with it now.  Well, at least we’re getting to it before it journeys all the way to DVD.
The tale is a post-apocalyptic one in which our intrepid hero (Denzel Washington) feels called upon by a higher power (you know Who) to make a years-long journey to get a very important book (you know what) to a specific destination for a very important purpose.  You see, in this squalid future, there is perhaps only one of these books left (not too many other books either), and it must be protected and preserved at all costs.  So then it follows, of course, that there is a bad guy (Oldman) who wants to get his hands on the book for his own nefarious purposes.
As for the cause of mankind’s state in the film, who really knows?  We just screwed up big time, blew everything to hell, and really damaged our ozone layer, radiating ourselves and scorching the Earth in the process.  Yep, things they be a mess…in more than one aspect.
This reviewer can remember the good ol’ days when he was a young’un and rode bikes about 8 miles into town with his best bud one summer day to catch the a nifty little sleeper called THE ROAD WARIOR (1982).  Didn’t know much about it, other than the fact that it was a low-budget Aussie film with some no-name, hungry actors, and it promised some hip action for those with the thirst.  Well, it turned out to be an extra fun surprise, not to mention a star-making little jaunt for some actor named Mel Gibson and a director named George Miller.
Twenty-nine years and countless post-apocalyptic films later, it would be nice to be able to say the same for THE BOOK OF ELI; but alas, such just ain’t the case.  With a couple of A-list actors in the leads, there be no hungry no-namers to jump onto the scene.  With a budget of at least $80-million, the low-budget, devil-may-care spirit is out, too.  And with the post-apocalyptic genre having been beat to death with both good and bad whips, this somewhat plodding effort doesn’t bring much to viewers that’s different or entertaining.  However, with a ‘B’ or ‘C’ cast and some shakier production values on the technical side, it might make for good (translated schlocky & entertaining) midnight TV fodder on the likes of CREATURE FEATURES – another neat little blast from the past where just those kinds of movies ended up, to the joy of puberty-stricken teens all around.
Now, this is not to say that THE BOOK OF ELI boasts no positives.  When you’ve got a charismatic lead with the talent and gravitas of Denzel Washington, you bring instant strength to just about any film.  And Washington delivers here as well.  In fact, he’s the main reason for watching a stale piece like ELI.  It sure isn’t for Gary Oldman, who hams it up pretty good, even in the quiet moments.  And it isn’t for screenwriter Gary Whitta’s script, which does nothing to enlarge the genre or give us interesting – or at least fun – characters to hiss or cheer.  Mr. Whitta comes from the world of video gaming and video game journalism.  It shows in THE BOOK OF ELI, which feels rather like a game concept transposed to the big screen.
In addition to the positive contributions from Washington, there are a couple of other factors at work: one is the technical flair brought to bear by cinematographer Don Burgess.  It may not be ground-breaking, but the gritty, monochromatic imagery is an effective and appropriate approach to the film.  Another is the stylish direction of the Hughes brothers (except for some silly slow-mo’s).  They have a sense for tone and action, but they lack the ability to guide a writer who needs guidance and tell a compelling story.  In the end, it’s too bad that the pieces don’t come together to form a cohesive whole.  One senses missed opportunity and potential.
But back to Denzel Washington for a moment.  He brings a laudable reverence to his character’s spiritual beliefs without being preachy (more on that in a minute); it’s just too bad the rest of the film is too muddy in its development and too dopey to match such heart-felt care.  Through it all, fortunately, it remains clear that Washington cares, and admittedly, that alone is kind of refreshing.
As pointed out, there is a religious element to THE BOOK OF ELI, but it exists primarily as an element of the story, not to proselytize.  Regardless of the fact that a few have labeled the film as preachy (e.g., Kim Newman from Empire Magazine), it is not.  The titular book and the main character’s faith in the words contained therein are the MacGuffin used for the story’s progression, but the journey hardly equates to preachiness.  If such is what a viewer feels, I would submit that it comes from his or her own baggage, not from anything intrinsic to the film.
After all, in one of the movie’s more lunkheaded but predictable machismo moments, our heroine (Mila Kunis) passes on a logical life-choice and the message contained in the book, in order to go back to what she just spent most of the movie trying to get away from (presumably to go get her mother?) .  And Oldman’s character is interested in the book as a means to manipulate and control the masses – not for any truth in it that he believes should be adhered to.
In the end, there is a nice little twist – if you accept that divine intervention is involved; however, we’re left thinking that, although elements are intriguing or entertaining on one level or another, this post-apocalyptic world wasn’t mapped out thoroughly enough before committing it to celluloid.  As for this reviewer, give him book worm Henry Bemis in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Time Enough at Last,” based on Lynn Venable’s short story of the same name.; now there be some slick, ironic and entertaining end-of-civilization storytelling.  And there’s certainly the other post-apocalyptic tale released not too long before THE BOOK OF ELI.  You know the one I mean?  It involves a bleak, thoughtful trek down THE ROAD.

THE BOOK OF ELI (Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros. 2010; 118 min.) Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes.  Screenplay by Gary Whitta.  Produced by Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Joel Silver, and David Valdes.  Executive produced by Susan Downey, Erik Olsen, Steve Richards, and Richard D. Zanuck.  Cinematography by Don Burgess.  Production Design by Gae S. Buckley.  Art Direction by Christopher Burian-Mohr.  Costumes by Sharen Davis.  Special Effects Supervision by Yves De Bono.  Visual Effects Supervision by Jon  Farhat, Justin Jones, Allan Magled, Chris Wells, and Edson Williams.  Music Composed by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne.  Edited By Cindy Mollo.  Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits.  MPAA Rating: R – for some brutal violence and strong language. 

SHUTTER ISLAND Press Conference – Horror Film Podcast

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of SHUTTER ISLAND
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of SHUTTER ISLAND

The embargo on the SHUTTER ISLAND press conference has lifted, so I’m putting it out for your entertainment and enrichment. However, I believe the embargo on criticism is still in place, so I can’t really set this up in the way that I’d like. You’re just going to have to wait for the BRAND NEW Cinefantastique Podcast to get my opinion (as well as that of editor Steve Biodrowski) on the film.
Suffice it to say that SHUTTER ISLAND is Martin Scorsese’s latest work, a dark exploration of the human psyche that has Leonardo DiCaprio’s U.S. Marshal going to the titular island to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from a hospital for the criminally insane. There, he discovers more than a smattering of sinister doings, and a couple of doctors — played by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow — whose ministrations may or may not figure in the conspiracy. Curiosity piqued? The film opens on February 19th.
Click on the player to hear the New York press conference that featured Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Kingsley.

The Wolfman is a delightful remake by and for Aficionados

The-Wolfman-Poster-Benicio-del-Toro-405x600Today, on Lincoln’s birthday you can see the Oscar wining actor and horror film fan, Benicio Del Toro take on the iconic role of Lawrence Talbot, the tormented protagonist from Universal’s 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr. classic, The Wolf Man.
Given Universal’s sorry track record with their recent re-makes of horror film classics, I was not expecting very much from this new version of The Wolfman, especially since director Joe Johnston replaced Mark Romanek only three weeks before the start of principal photography. Which is why I was rather pleasantly surprised when I loved how this re-imaging by star Benicio Del Toro and director Johnston has turned out.   However, it certainly appears that this new re-make won’t be winning much mainstream critical praise. In fact, a friend of mine who attended the press screening with me felt that the movie was “incredibly bad!”
Yet, I really can’t imagine anyone who grew up watching horror films on late night TV, or reading Famous Monsters of Filmland, as Benicio Del Toro did, won’t find something to like about this movie. For me, I found it to be a sheer delight, combining as it does, references to Universal, Hammer, AIP and many other classic horror films. It starts out with a close-up on a tombstone, with the classic werewolf poem, “Even a man who is pure in heart…” as some blood red credit titles unfold over a nearly black and white background. It ends over 100 minutes later with more beautiful end credits, again in blood red, over drawings and diagrams taken from books on lycanthropes, werewolfs and loup-garous’s. It reminded me of nothing less than the stunning satanic opening credits to the Hammer film masterpiece, The Devil Rides Out.

In short, for aficionados of classic horror films, there is very much to admire in this exquisitely crafted re-make. All others, I’m sure, will be much happier watching the DVD of Universal’s re-make of The Mummy, or one of it’s insipid sequels. I thought they were all awful, but awful films can also make an awful lot of money, can’t they!
In any case, just looking at the artistic talent that worked on this film, one can only be very impressed. It’s also rather marvelous to see how many key players of the film are actually real genre aficionados, including make-up artist Rick Baker, composer Danny Elfman, production designer Rick Heinricks, screenwriter Andrew David Walker and even producer Rick Yorn. Now, add on top of that, these top artisans: Film editor Walter Murch, costume designer Milena Canonero, Cinematographer Shelly Johnson, and many others far too numerous to mention. The end result is the combined talents of over ten Academy Award winners. Which is even before we add the stellar cast into the equation!
At any rate, it appears that by co-producing the film, Mr. Del Toro and Rick Yorn were able to assume enough control to make the movie into a serious homage to the original picture, rather than the kind of the absurd and totally over the top mis-mash of monster lore that Universal unleashed with their truly awful Van Helsing movie.
Benicio Del Toro recalled that one of his earliest recollections of the art of acting was while watching Lon Chaney, Jr. playing The Wolf Man when he was growing up in Puerto Rico. ” We wanted to honor that classic movie,” explains Del Toro, “and also the Henry Hull movie The Werewolf of London. We knew it would be exciting to make it in the classic, handcrafted way. ”
Producer Rick Yorn adds, “Growing up, these monster films really had an effect on my brothers (including Pete Yorn) and me. When I first came out to Hollywood, I wanted to remake one of them. Then, a few years ago, when Benicio and I were walking out of his house, I saw the framed one-sheet for The Wolf Man. It shows a close-up of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the monster. I looked at the poster, then back at Benicio—who had a full beard at the time—and said, ‘How would you feel about remaking The Wolf Man?’ ”
The result of that interaction between a star and his agent is this stylish horror film, which beautifully captures the Gothic atmosphere of the Universal horror classics, as well as much of the pathos the audience feels for a hero who is beset upon by fate.
As Curt Siodmak noted, he based Lawrence Talbot on Aristotle’s Greek notion of Hamartia. “It means that a person must suffer by the whim of the gods, though he has not committed a crime,” as Mr. Siodmak explained in his 1993 introduction to his original script for The Wolf Man. “We all have Hamartia in us, and suffer in life’s mishaps and pain, without having been guilty of any misdeed. That was the pivot of my idea for The Wolf Man.
Scriptwriters Andrew David Walker (Sleepy Hollow) and David Self have embraced that concept and brought even more psychological depth to the movie by making Del Toro’s character a successful actor, like Edwin Booth, who has specialized in playing Hamlet on stage in America. When he is called back home to investigate the death of his brother, Ben, Larry Talbot is faced with an Opedial crisis in his real-life, and Anthony Hopkins as his distant father, even gets to utter the famous line from Hamlet, “To be or not to be.”
It turns out that Larry Talbot’s mother died early in his childhood, and that tragedy has turned his father, Sir John Talbot, into a morose and moody man, who can no longer face reality. So he sends the young Larry off to America, and in his sorrow, he lets the family estate drift into a kind of beautiful decay.
But Sir John also has a few skeletons in his closet, that he has never revealed to his children. Like Claude Rains in the original movie, Sir John is superbly played by Anthony Hopkins, (who ironically is Welsh), which suggests nothing so much as the tragic figure Vincent Price played as Locke in Roger Corman’s Poe story, Morella.
Of course, although Vincent Price’s work in horror films remains beyond reproach, I really can’t say that Mr. Price was a better actor than Anthony Hopkins. Nor is Lon Chaney a better actor than Mr. Del Toro. But that brings up my biggest objection to the re-make of The Wolfman.
Namely, why couldn’t some name “horror” stars be included in the cast. Couldn’t Elena Verdugo be included in a cameo role? And while Geraldine Chaplin is quite a fine actress, her two major scenes as Maleva are quite a disappointment. Since Maleva’s scenes are very much underwritten, what was needed to give them more power was was to have a great genre actress play the part. In this regard, Barbara Steele would have been rather perfect, but then again, when you compare the Moscow Art Theatre’s great Maria Ouspenskaya against any actress living today, you are going to be a little bit disappointed. Even Katherine Hepburn couldn’t better Maria Ouspenskaya when Warren Beatty persuaded Hepburn to take Ouspneskaya’s old role in his re-make of Love Affair.

In another aside, I find it quite strange that I watched Orson Welles perform King Lear in his 1953 debut on TV last night on the just released DVD of King Lear. Which made me think of how high-brow this version of The Wolfman actually is. Which is why I think the two writers of the script have to be given special note: Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. I found it rather astonishing that the two writers of this movie get only two short paragraphs in the press notes, while there are ridiculously long credit bio’s for some executive producers who probably had next to nothing to do with the movie.
No doubt, Orson Welles would not have approved.
And here is what Orson Welles himself had to say about death, which is ultimately what most horror films are really about:
ORSON WELLES: King Lear is Shakespeare’s masterpiece and, stripped of its classical or stage trappings, it’s as strong now and as simple and as timeless as any story ever told. And what is simple for the story of King Lear—what is truly important—is not that the tragic hero is an old king, but that he’s an old man. Just such an amiable, egocentric family tyrant as holds sway in the domestic scene even nowadays. Of course, we’ve been so famously liberated from the spice of the forbidden that nothing can be counted as truly obscene. But there is one exception: death.
“Death” is our only dirty word. And King Lear is about death and the approach of death, and about power and the loss of power, and about love. In our consumer society we are encouraged to forget that we will ever die, and old age can be postponed by the right face cream. And when it finally does come, we’re encouraged to look forward to a long and lovely sunset.
“Old age,” said Charles de Gaulle, “old age is a ship wreck”—and he knew whereof he spoke. The elderly are even more self-regarding than the young. To their dependents the elderly call out for love, for more love than they can possibly receive, and for more than they are likely—or capable—of giving back. When old age tempts or forces a man to give away the very source of his ascendancy over the young—his power—it’s they, the young, who are the tyrants, and he, who was all-powerful, becomes a pensioner.
Now, after that digression, let us return to The Wolfman. I must say I found it quite wonderful that the writers decided to set the story in the Victorian age of Bram Stoker, Jack the Ripper, and of course, Queen Victoria. I also found it rather strange that, just by chance, I had watched the Hughes brothers film about Jack the Ripper From Hell , last week, and was rather astonished to find that in The Wolfman, Inspector Aberline was lifted from the real-life story of Jack the Ripper. Now, just imagine if Johnny Depp had agreed to reprise his role as Inspector Aberline in The Wolfman?
Of course, that could never happen, given that Depp makes over $15 million a movie these days, but it’s still sort of fun to think about. But it’s also a sad commentary on stars and their agents. Johnny Depp couldn’t possibly be expected to play a supporting role in a movie, could he?
No, of course not, but thankfully, who cares, because I found it was a masterstroke of writer’s acumen, making The Wolfman all the more exciting by having an actor like Hugo Weaving brilliantly handling the role of Aberline. And speaking of Queen Victoria, Emily Blunt, who plays the old Evelyn Ankers role of Gwen Conliffe, certainly knows something about the Victorian era, after playing The Young Victoria herself.  Before I saw The Young Victoria, I went in not unlike how I approached The Wolfman.  I had thoughts of the original Broadway cast in my mind,  in this case, Helen Hayes and Vincent Price playing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, although I had never actually seen them perform in the play.
However, after I saw The Young Victoria, those images had been completely erased from my mind.  So it was for The Wolfman. Ms. Blunt certainly has proved her worth as a period actress, and gives a marvelous performance as Gwen, evoking the kind of pathos Elena Verdugo did with Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot in her gypsy role as Ilonka in House of Frankenstein.


Rick Baker's impressive makeup for Del Toro as the Wolfman

Hopefully, I will have more to report on the wonderful make-up effects done for The Wolfman by Rick Baker in the future.  But as Rick Baker himself told me when he was asked to work on Wolf, with Jack Nicholson, the studio handler’s would not even let him get near Mr. Nicholson, which almost ended Baker’s participation on that film.
Likewise, while I’d love nothing more than to present a long and detailed interview with Rick Baker here at CFQ,  I doubt it will actually happen, as the handlers at Universal probably won’t be interested in such a story.

Book of Eli opens January 15

Oscar-winner Denzel Washington goes post-apocalyptic on us, in this action-adventure film from Albert and Allen Hughes (whose last work was the Jack-the-Ripper film, FROM HELL, adapted from Alan Moore’s graphic novel). Washington plays one of those archetypal loners out to save the remnants of humanity, this time by protecting a sacred book filled with the secret that will, well, save humanity. Mila Kunis and Ray Stevenson are in the supporting cast. Warner Brothers is distributing.
Not sure this means anything, but I find it interesting that this week’s big genre release, like last week’s DAYBREAKERS, comes from a brother-brother directing duo. How will the Hughes Brothers fare in head-to-head competition with Michael and Peter Spierig?

Green Hornet: Seth Rogen at Comic Con

THE GREEN HORNET is not due out until July 9, 2010, but that didn’t stop Sony Pictures from unveiling the new Black Beauty at this year’s San Diego Comic Book Convention. In the video, Seth Rogen, who stars as debonair newspaper publisher Britt Reid (alias The Green Hornet), has a few words to say about how faithful the big-budget feature film will be to the character’s past incarnations.
Starting this September, THE GREEN HORNET will be directed by Michel Gondry from a screenplay by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, based on characters by Fran Stiker and George W. Trendle. Besides Rogen, the cast includes Nicolas Cage and Cameron Diaz.

Daybreakers Release Date: January 8, 2010 – Watch the Trailer

DAYBREAKERS is a futuristic film in which the world is overrun by vampires, who have drained the human population dry until they face a serious food shortage. Ethan Hawke plays Edward Dalton, a researcher hoping to find a synthetic substitute before the human population reaches extinction.  He hooks up with a band of humans intent on keeping the species alive. Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill co-star for director-writerss Michael and Peter Spierig, who did the rather cool Australian zombie flick UNDEAD back in 2003. Distributor: Lionsgate. Release date: January 8, 2010.

Laserblast DVD & Blu-Ray: Day the Earth Stood Still, Bedtime Stories, 2010, Final Destination

This is one of those busy weeks when th, ere seem to be more science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies released on DVD and Blu-ray than you can count. Actually, there are not that many, but when new titles come out in three iterations (e.g., single-disc, double disc, and Blu-ray), the number of releases can seem overwhelming. Below we try to perform the valuable public service of separating the cream from the crop…
The Day the Earth Stood Still(Fox DVD & Blu-Ray)
Even though this presented a rare example of Keanu Reeves casting being spot-on, not many critics  felt all warm and fuzzy about Fox’s spectacle-sized update of Robert Wise’s classic science fiction film of cold war paranoia and religious symbolism. Cinefantastique Online even went so far as to trash it twice, once in a review by Steve Biodrowski and once in a review by Dan Persons (who complained of “brainless storytelling “). Par for the course these days, DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL arrives in three versions: a two-disc widescreen DVD, a three-disc widescreen DVD, and a three-disc Blu-ray set (thank god the HD-DVD format is gone, or there would be one or two of those, as well). One thing we especially like about the Blu-ray set is Fox’s decision to include Wise’s original film (also available separately) as the third Blu-Ray disc; in other words – it’s the best extra of 2009!
Bedtime Stories (Blu-ray & DVD)
This Adam Sandler film (about an uncle telling bedtime stories that come through) was a hit in theatres last year. It arrives on home video in three different versions: a single-disc DVD, a two-disc DVD (+Disneyfile); and a three-disc Blu-ray & DVD combo (including a digital copy). DVD bonus features include a blooper reel, deleted scenes, and two featurettes. The Blu-ray ports these over, adding BD-Live asthe only exclusive Blu-ray bonus feature. (NOTE: Amazon announced this title for last week; currently, they list a release date of April 5 for the Blu-ray and April 7 for the DVDs.)
2010: The Year We Make Contact(Warner Bros Blu-Ray)
What should have been the silliest sequel ever produced actually turned into a relatively interesting Sci-Fi think-piece in the hands of cinematographer-director Peter Hyams. In 2010(“The Year We Make Contact” is just a promotional title), Roy Scheider picks up the reigns of Dr. Heywood Floyd (following William Sylvester’s turn in Kubrick’s 2001), who has been made a scapegoat of sorts after the HAL incident and the deaths of the astronauts aboard the Discovery spacecraft. Without notable career prospects and with nuclear conflict between America and the U.S.S.R. seemingly drawing closer (remember, the movie may have taken place in 2010, but it was filmed in 1984), Floyd jumps at the chance to hitch a ride aboard a Russian ship to investigate what actually happened on Discovery’s mission. He’s joined by fellow Americans John Lithgow and Bob Balaban and Russian Helen Mirren before arriving at the derelict Discovery still in orbit around Jupiter. While in orbit, Balaban, the designer of the HAL 9000, manages to reactivate the long-dead supercomputer (still voiced by Douglas Rain, without whom the producers would probably have had to junk the idea of revisiting HAL at all) and Scheiderreceives a most unexpected visitation – Dave Bowman himself (a returning Keir Dullea).
Based on a novel by Arthur C Clarke, 2010 wisely dispenses with a visual or intellectual approach that might seem to echo Kubrick’s style in 2001, and instead fashion a sturdy adventure tale of the sort that Hyams can excel at when given the right equipment (see his superior Narrow Marginfor an additional example). We’ve enjoyed the film on cable and look forward to viewing Hyams’ carefully designed photography on Blu-Ray (like the work of the great British cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, Hyams’ smoky, filtered style can look awful when transferred to video without care). The only extras are the trailer (which is actually quite good) and a vintage featurette.
Final Destination(New Line Blu-Ray)
Forget about the 17 sequels that we’veseen birthed by the studio in the nearly 10 years since Final Destination was released, the original film is still the same effectivelittle shocker that gave us the giddy thrills that all grade ‘B’ horror films are supposed to. Even Tony Todd, who has sleepwalked through more of these movies that any 20 of you have seen, seems engaged in the material. New Line’s Blu-ray offers the same special features as the previous editions (back when seeing an “alternate ending” as an extra on a DVD was actually exciting!)
Those are the top-tier science fiction, fantasy and horror home video releases for this week, but there are many more DVDs and Blu-rays for eager fans looking for subject matter as diverse as animation or cult horror.

  • House is a new direct-to-video thriller starring Bill Mosely and Michael Madsen. The DVD is reviewed here.
  • Dog Soldiers arrives again, this time in a DVD with Steelbook Packaging. Read a review of the film here.
  • Tales of Desperaux, an animated family fantasy about a talking mouse arrives on DVD and Blu-ray.
  • The Boys from Brazil, an early cloning thriller, starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, gets another DVD release.
  • Nosferatu (1922) proves the dangers of being in the public domain, with yet another DVD release. This one includes a t-shirt with poster art, in case that’s enough to get you to purchase the film again.
  • The Giant Spider Invasion arrives in a Director’s Cut DVD (something we never expected) and a Two-disc Director’s Cut DVD (something we really never expected).
  • And also, a bunch of DTV titles you probably never heard of.

Check them out below or in the Cinefantastique Online Store.