3 Reviews: Book of Eli, Lovely Bones & Dr. Parnassus
3 movie reviews
THE BOOK OF ELI**+(Two a Half stars out of 5)
THE BOOK OF ELI: The Post-apocalyptic genre has had its successes (Such as the "Mad Max" series) and its failures (Remember "The Postman"?) The Hugh's Brother's The Book of Eli falls somewhere in between. There are enough good points to make it entertaining but enough flaws to cause it to fall short of excellence.
The good parts are the cast. Denzel Washington has the screen presence to give his man-of-few-words hero Eli the gravitas that the role needs. Gary Oldman, as always, makes a nasty villain (Although he's had his share of good-guy roles lately, too) and Mila Kunis makes a lovely leading lady. Strong supporting turns from Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits and the uncredited Malcolm McDowell add to the glass-half-full side of the film.
The half-empty side, however, is the vagueness and missed opportunities in the plot that leave you asking why when you should be enjoying the film. The story had the potential to be something unique and provocative but it misses its chance by a hair, making it all the more disappointing.
The plot revolves around the mysterious Eli (Washington), one of the survivors of a non-specific Apocalypse 30 years earlier. Eli has been walking west across America for 30 years. (He must be lost because people have done it in a year). His prized possession and inspiration is the book his carries with him, wrapped like a baby in blankets. Eli reads his precious book every day, without fail. What is this book and why is Eli so determined to bring it West?
Eli comes across something that could generously be considered a town. Here he meets dastardly Carnegie (Oldman), his blind, ill-treated wife Claudia (Beals) and her beautiful daughter Solaras (Who is apparently the only hot babe left in the country.) Carnegie is at first intrigued by Eli's fighting abilities and wants to hire him. Yet he soon discovers that Eli has something which Carnegie wants even more.
Ever since the apocalypse, Carnegie has been searching for a certain book which has "the right words" to unite all the scattered towns, under his rule. He wants to use the persuasive narrative of the book to win over the lost and confused dwellers of the wastelands and create an empire for himself. ("The book is a weapon!" he shouts) He is thrilled to learn that Eli has the last existing copy of this special book. (Which we're told several times its "Not just a Book!") I won't spoil things by saying what this special Holy Book is, suffice it to say that Eli is a man of Faith, being guided by a voice from above and is possibly protected by a higher power.
Not surprisingly, Eli won't part with the book. He manages to escape the poor excuse for a town, with Solaras in tow, to continue his trek West. Carnegie and his main henchman Redridge (Ray Stevenson) are in hot pursuit. Carnegie wants the book and Redridge wants pretty Solaris for himself.
The movie has a Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid showdown in a remote cabin, which belongs to two aging but still feisty survivors named George and Martha (Played by Michael 'Dumbledore' Gamon and Frances de la Tour.) There are, in fact, losts of inside jokes for movie lovers here, if you look for them. For instance, when some of Carnegie's henchmen bring him a pile of books, one of them is "Dracula". Oldman, or course, played Dracula on screen.) Washington's early peripatetic wanderings are visually reminiscent of the Akira Kurasawa/Toshiro Mifune Samurai classic Yojimbo.
There is much talk here about faith and religion, which is interesting since the Hughs Brothers also made a film called From Hell. This one, however, misses the opportunity to address and debate heavier issues. Why is this particular Good Book more valuable than other such religious tomes (which you'll see late in the film if your looking)? Wouldn't two intellectuals like Eli and Carnegie actually want to seize the chance for intelligent conversation for the first time in 30 years? Is Eli really protected from On High or is he just lucky? Is he really hearing the voice of God or is he just imagining it? These are subjects that a smarter film might have delved into.
Despite the missed opportunities and some silly scenes (Such as when a thug's hand is cut off and his reaction is to ask "What'd you do that for?") the movie does manage to hold your interest. Washington and Oldman make an excellent hero/villain combo. This isn't really a bad movie as long as you don't go in with particularly high expectations.
THE LOVELY BONES***(3 stars out of 5)
THE LOVELY BONES: On the surface, the dark subject matter of this film might lead you to believe its either a horror film or a police procedural tale or a weepy melodrama. Actually, its none of those. Director Peter Jackson (Best known for the blockbuster 'Lord Of The Rings' trilogy) uses ingenious visuals to tell us about the life and death and Afterlife of a young girl, tracing her journey from the small town of her birth to the gates of heaven.
Based on the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, the story surrounds the murder and rape of sweet, 14 year old Susie Salmon. (Beautifully played by Sairse Ronan). The movie spares its audience by having the murder take place off screen, obscuring the horror of the event with a clever visual twist. Rape is never explicitly mentioned, only hinted at (Unlike in the novel which is much clearly about what poor Susie went through in her last moment.)
Susie is unwilling to pass on to Heaven, because she feels she has unfinished business here on Earth. She watches from her limbo between Heaven and Earth as her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) try unsuccessfully to deal with the tragedy. Dad becomes obsessed with finding the killer while mom runs away to work in a southern orchard. Diva-like Grandma (Susan Sarandon) arrives to take care of the two remaining kids while dad Jack tries to solve the crime, continually bothering detective Fenerman (Michael Imperiori) who is the investigator assigned to the case.
Susie is encouraged by a friendly spirit to move on but she is too attached to the past. She even watches her high school crush (Reece Ritchie) who she almost shared her first kiss with. (He's the kind of perfect fantasy boy--good looking, sensitive, classy, well dressed and with an English accent--that seems to have popped out of a teenage romance book) As she observes, she enjoys her private paradise, which continually alters to suit her mood. It takes the form of everything from an idyllic forest to a red carpet party entrance.
Dad's obsessions cause him to make some unwise moves but he isn't the only one who has suspicious of creepy next-door neighbor George Harvey. Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose Mclver) is also on the scent, causing the murderer to target another Salmon sister.
Mark Wahlberg does a nice job as the grieving father. Rachel Weisz gets much less to do as the underused character of Susie's mother. The great Susan Sarandon is completely wasted here in the comedy relief role of the boozy, overbearing grand-mother who comes to help and causes a series of slapstick 'I Love Lucy' moments.
Much better used here is Stanley Tucci who is coldly menacing as the fiend without a conscience who kills and rapes women and children. His smiling, oily entrapment of young Susie is so convincingly done, you just want to choke him. Evil George watches the ramifications of his horrid work from his house across the street, all the while pruning his roses and playing innocent.
Saoirse Ronan is a wonderful young actress, having hit the ground running with her oscar-nominated performance in Atonement.She is perfect here as the epitome of a sweet, innocent teenager whose life is tragically cut short, and her narration is melodiously calm with just the right touch of angst.
Jackson, mostly known as a fantasy/sci-fi director, does a nice job here but he often seems to be having a hard time balancing the story between the fantasy world of Susie's ever-changing afterlife limbo and the small Pennsylvania town where her family tries to deal with their grief. Jackson goes all out on Susie's Never-NeverLand but his camera does very little in the real world sequences. He does, however, manage to capture the look and feel of 1970s America effectively, just as the recent film The Box did.
In regards to the Afterlife scenes, Peter Jackson is focused mainly on the visuals here. That is both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, the imaginative imagery of Susie's private heaven is brilliantly realized. It comes across as a combination of Oz, Avatar, and the cover of a 1970's Rock album. However, on the negative side, Jackson seems more interested in giving us something fascinating to look at rather than something to think about. His conception of heaven tells us very little about Susie, or of any type of theological afterlife.
The title 'Lovely Bones' is a metaphor for the way everything in Susie's life is ultimately connected, like in that old song 'Dem Bones' ("My toe bone is connected to my foot bone. My foot bone is connected to my ankle bone", etc., etc.) The book does a better job in illustrating this than Jackson does in the film. Perhaps if Jackson was less centered on the visual aspects of the film he might have more effectively captured the essence of what Sebold was trying to convey. Instead, the movie seems to be more about a serial killer and his victim than about the web of relationships in the town and the effect the murder has on them.
'The Lovely Bones' is the kind of film that could easily have been very depressing. Yet the colorful, imaginative imagery and the innocent, peaceful tone of Ronan's voice, along with the surprisingly uplifting dialog makes this picture into something almost hopeful. The last line sums up the script's intentions and its a nice thought.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS***(3 stars out of 5)
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS:The wild imaginings of Terry Gilliam have taken us to many strange places over the years and so its no surprise that his latest effort is as surreal and fantastic as anything he's ever done. Gilliam loves to create tales that obscure the borders between imagination and reality, as if they were self imposed barriers that could and should be ignored. He's done this on many films, including Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen and his ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Which is rumored to finally be going back into production) and now again with the story of Doctor Parnassus.
At best, Gilliam films tend to be odd and disorganized (Gilliam himself admits he's more comfortable wrestling his way through chaos than he is with a smooth production because it gets his creativity flowing) and this one was struck by such a major setback midway through production that you have to give kudos to Gilliam for managing to make something of out the poor hand he was dealt. He doesn't entirely succeed but its a marvel that he finished the film at all.
The big discussion topic that hovers over the production of this film is the sad death of Heath Ledger, who plays the vital role of Tony here. Ledger passed away half-way through shooting, before he'd filmed any of the behind-the-mirror fantasy sequences. To complete the film, Gilliam had the clever idea to have celebrity stand-ins replace Ledger for the fantasy sequences, since Tony's appearance is supposed to change every time he goes through the magic mirror. Therefore, Johnny Depp(the best of the three replacements), Jude Law and Colin Farrell substitute for Ledger in three pivotal scenes. Gilliam makes the transition appear rather seamless, which is to his credit.
The strange story revolves around ancient Doctor Parnassus (The great Christopher Plummer) who centuries ago won a wager with the devil--here called Mr. Nick (Tom Waits)--for immortality. However, he eventually became sour about this triumph because an eternity of old age and endless wandering is not exactly a victory, especially after he is smitten by a beautiful young woman. But she'd never love an old gypsy wanderer. Thus, he makes a second bet with Mr. Nick for youth and increased power. The flip-side of the deal is that the devil gets his first born when she reaches her 16th birthday.
Now the widowed Doctor Parnassus is running a small travelling troupe of actors, including his cute daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) who is days away from her sweet 16. Mister Nick, always looking to make things more interesting, offers Parnassus yet another bet. They'll bet on the souls of five strangers. If Parnassus can use his magic mirror (its never explained where he got it from) to lead 5 souls to redemption in the next two days, Valentina will be spared. But Mr. Nick isn't going to make that easy, constantly trying to trick and mislead the people Parnassus is trying to redeem. (Once a person goes through the magic mirror into the fantasy world called the Imaginarium, they are faced with choices that will decide their ultimate fate.)
Enter Tony (Ledger) who the small group of actors rescue when they find him hanging by his neck from a bridge. Tony claims to have amnesia but really doesn't. What's he hiding? Valentina starts to fall head-over-heels for the charismatic Tony, which causes jealousy on the part of Anton (Andrew Garfield) who has an unrequited crush on Valentina. Parnassus's oldest and most loyal friend Percy (Verne Troyer) doesn't trust Tony either.
However, Tony proves to be good for the act when he uses his charm and charisma to bring a larger audience of women to the travelling show, convincing many of them to step into the magic mirror and live out their fantasy. But Tony also comes with baggage. Who are the four Russian men following him? Why was he hung? To make things worse, Anton's jealousy of Tony causes Anton to make some imprudent and adolescent moves that create more trouble for Parnassus and the group.
The ending of the film gets a bit convoluted and some things aren't really explained, (I can't say much about a small pipe that figures into the plot but is never given much explanation) probably due to the lack of Ledger's presence. Gilliam seems to have hobbled the loose ends of the script together has best he could, but as it approaches the end, the loose ends become looser and questions remain unanswered.
The cast does an overall good job. Its great to see Plummer still giving strong performances, and Ledger--who has more screen time than you might expect--does a good job as the charming Tony. None of the other characters are particularly interesting except for Mr. Nick. Tom Waits is a scene stealer here, despite having very little on-screen time. His version of the devil is similar to the amiable and mischievous version of Lucifer that Peter Cook portrayed in the original 'Bedazzled'.
As always, Gilliam's visuals are innovative, original and a treat to behold. There isn't a more visually oriented director out there today than Gilliam, who creates the most wonderfully surreal sets. Like any Gilliam film, it would be unthinkable in the hands of a different director. The shadows of some of his past work are on display here for an keen eye to catch (The scene of the male policemen dancing in skirts seems like something directly lifted from Gilliam's 'Monty Python' days.) This movie comes as close as any Gilliam film to being linear, but that's never really the point of a Gilliam film. Gilliam likes to take us into a world where imagination is not reserved for children's fantasies but is instead the order of the day. Visually, as always, he succeeds. Story-wise, he falls just a hair short.