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Column Fri Jan 15 2010

The Book of Eli, The Lovely Bones, The White Ribbon, A Town Called Panic, and The Spy Next Door

The Book of Eli

I've poured over all of the possible synonyms for the first word that popped into my brain to describe the long-overdue new movie from The Hughes Brothers (From Hell, Dead Presidents, Menace II Society, American Pimp), but nothing quite does it justice. So I'll just say it: The Book of Eli is a cool movie. It's not a great movie; it's far from a masterpiece. But it is unabashedly cool, and I don't use that word often. But when you combine one of the coolest American actors of his generation and pit him against one of the coolest British actors ever and then throw in Tom Waits in a supporting part, well, that math lands you squarely at Cool.

The weirdest thing of all is that the more religion this movie injected into its original story by screenwriter Gary Whitta, the more I dug it. The filmmakers have crafted a desolate, desperate, stark world to wage this new kind of Holy War. I got completely caught up witnessing Denzel Washington's stoic brand of heroism and Gary Oldman's spitfire take on Carnegie, the one-eyed king in a morally blind society that exists after either God or man ripped a hole in the sky decades earlier and torched most of the earth, leaving only a few survivors. The gift of reading has pretty much disappeared, and only a few of the oldest inhabitants of our planet still know how to read a book. Eli (Washington) is a crusader, a man walking east to west to deliver a book because a voice told him it was the right thing to do years earlier. Any hints of civilization have turned into ugly, slightly radioactive Wild West towns, with trading posts (wet naps apparently fetch a high price), bars, whores, and the occasional gunfight. Oldman runs one particular such community, and he's desperately searching for a particular book that he believes will finally bring some order to his way of life.

Eli is also a fighter extraordinaire, and more than once we see him take out a dozen aggressors in seconds. And the blood doth flow. It turns out that Eli possesses the very book Carnegie has been searching for--a bible. Carnegie fully believes in the power of religion to tame the savagery of his corner of the world, and no scenery goes gleefully unchewed as he sets out to prove that. And I'll admit, as much as he overplays the part, it's fun to watch Oldman cut loose like he used to in films like Sid & Nancy, State of Grace, Dracula, True Romance, Leon the Professional, or The Fifth Element. This is classic, out-of-his-cage Oldman, and I've missed him.

Not to take anything away from Washington, who gives us a portrait of this sensitive assassin doing what he believes to be God's work by taking the book to the West. Along the way, he meets up with Mila Kunis' Solara, who Oldman gives Eli as a gift on his first night in town, but he ends up taking her on as an apprentice of sorts. Her mother, Claudia (Jennifer Beals, still beautiful), is Carnegie's ill-treated lady, who wants nothing more than her daughter to get as far away from their living conditions as possible. Carnegie's muscle is Redridge, played by Ray Stevenson (from Punisher: War Zone and "Rome"), who brings a touch of unexpected nobility to his role. And the aforementioned Mr. Waits is a trader with a fabulous mane of hair and a detailed outlook on the way things work 'round these parts. The weirdness continues deep into the film when Eli and Solara run into an elderly couple (named George and Martha, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) living in and protecting their solitary home.

But it was the religious aspect of The Book of Eli that intrigued me the most. Carnegie is the smartest person in this movie; Eli is the most driven. Hell, if Carnegie wasn't so blatantly evil, we might actually be rooting for him to help stop all of the terrible things that are happening every day in this place. His reasoning is sound, even if his methods are despicable. Eli's dark and mysterious demeanor wore on me after a while, especially when you find out that his story and secrets aren't so shocking. Still, the Hughes Brothers have created something awesome, from the almost black-and-white look of the movie to the clear tributes to the Mad Max movies, A Dog and His Boy, and several other post-apocalyptic works. But they make it all the more fascinating by turning an experiment in working religion into a geek-friendly environment, in a largely respectful way. Even at its most outrageous, The Book of Eli still held my interest and made me increasingly curious where this fairly simple story would take us. And I never could have predicted where this tale ends up. January releases continue to impress me, and this maybe most of all.

The Lovely Bones

People are going to have problems with Peter Jackson's take on Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones, especially people who have read the book. Hell, I have problems with it and I never read the book. But I'm still recommending the film because there's just enough here to admire from a craftsmanship standpoint from both the filmmakers and the actors. And in the end, I saw the story as one about how hard we sometimes hold onto a loved one who is taken from us unexpectedly. Of course, it's also about a child-murdering bastard, and it's about the closeness and necessity of family.

The dividing line on The Lovely Bones could very well occur over the vision Jackson gives us of Susie Salmon's (played by Saoirse Ronan) world of The Inbetween. Susie's death was violent and sudden, and as a result she is clearly not ready to move on to what we assume is heaven. She lingers, somehow able to watch her family's struggle and fractured attempt to find her killer, and even inspire them in small ways to continue the search. And the world that Susie occupies is the product of her young, still maturing mind. It's a place that literally revolves around her, and it changes like a giant mood ring, somehow tied to her emotional swings. I've seen a couple of critics mistake The Inbetween for heaven, and that tells me they weren't paying attention. The Inbetween is made up of Susie's dreams, ideals, visual cues, and inner turmoil. At first, she thinks it's cool that she can watch over her family, but eventually she comes to realize she's torturing herself and them with her presence.

There's a part of me that believes that The Inbetween is also the product of Susie's father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), who misses his eldest daughter more than he can express to even his wife (Rachel Weisz). The film's early scenes, including Susie's abduction, murder, and the early stages of the investigation of her disappearance are some of my favorite, thanks in large part to Ronan's rock solid performance. There's a look in her eyes that sells even the most far-out moments in this film, and she couldn't be more perfectly cast.

But The Lovely Bones' not-so-secret weapon is Stanley Tucci and Salmon family neighbor George Harvey, who also happens to be a child killer. Does he look a little too much like the creepiest guy in the neighborhood? Kind of, but Tucci so completely inhabits this monster that it doesn't matter. He's as capable of vanishing into the background as he is being right in your face and completely undeniable. His actions as he plots how to catch and kill his next victim are so casual and matter of fact that you almost forget what he's up to. Tucci is so damn good in this movie that he sometimes underscores what's wrong with other sections of it.

There are times when the film's most potentially interesting moments or characters scurry away just as we're getting interested in them, while far less compelling moments are pushed to the forefront. The investigation of Susie's disappearance (led by a detective played by Michael Imperioli) isn't particularly gripping, while the scenes of the Salmon family falling apart are terrific and there aren't nearly enough of this internal struggle. Plus, Rachel Weisz has one of the most expressive and awe-inspiring faces in movies today, and she's barely in this movie. When she gets emotional, I got emotional. When she cried, I was right there with her. But she vanishes from huge chunks of this movie and leaves a huge void.

Instead, what we are left with is the single worst sequence in Peter Jackson's catalog--a comic relief music montage featuring a wacky Susan Sarandon (as Weisz's boozy, smoking mother) and the younger Salmon children trying to keep the household together while husband and wife attempt to focus on saving the family. Not only is the tone horribly off, but also it just isn't that funny. I literally cringed. The characters Jackson lets us spend time with improve the movie, but a disproportionate number of them are simply sketches of interesting characters, and that frustrated me.

Thankfully, later in the film, Rose McIver steps to the forefront as Susie's sister Lindsey, who, years after Susie's death, takes an interest in the case and, in particular, Mr. Harvey down the street. The sequence in the trailer where she breaks into his house to search for evidence is truly terrifying, and McIver ended up giving one of my favorite performances in The Lovely Bones. But the moments I felt the most enriched were those set in the Inbetween, which is both a beautiful and terrible place that never ceased to amaze me. Jackson doesn't go overboard with the visuals, but at the same time, he shows us places and things we've never seen before. It's a place that is both soothing and the cause of much anxiety and fear--kind of like this movie. I really did get pulled into the world of Susie Salmon and those she watched over. But nearly as often, I kept getting yanked out by the bipolar nature of the storytelling. Still, there's more than enough going on in The Lovely Bones to recommend it, with a mild warning that cinematic whiplash may occur.

The White Ribbon

There are few filmmakers more worthy of discussion and debate than German-born Michael Haneke, who has consistently shattered and shocked us with such works as Benny's Video, Code Unknown, Cache, The Piano Teacher and two versions of Funny Games. The Palm d'Or winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival (as well as two other Cannes awards), Haneke's latest, The White Ribbon, is at alternating moments his most and least accessible work, as he strays somewhat from moral ambiguity and relishes in the pure art of story telling. Set in Germany in the years just prior to the start of World War I (the film ends with news of Archduke Ferdinand's assassination spreading through this Protestant village of Eichwald in the northern part of the country), the story is an examination of several events involving both the parents and children of the village, both families that are poor and those that are better off.

In many ways, Eichwald feels like a cursed community, and the stark, striking black-and-white cinematography lends the story an iconic feel, as if this village stands for all ill-fated villages across the world. A series of bizarre incidents is plaguing the town, including a child murder. And while it's clear that someone is deliberately causing these incidents (a barn set on fire, a wire set up on a horse path to trip a horse and throw its rider), it becomes clear early on that the film is less about finding the culprit and more about watching the consequences of his/her actions and how they end up dividing the community even more than class lines already do. The film does a wonderful job of showing us how fear and anger almost organically destroy the fabric of society. Nothing too heavy or anything.

With an almost two-and-a-half-hour running time, Haneke takes his time letting us get to know each character and how each family behaves and adheres to its rituals. The children of the local pastor are some of the worst behaved and the most severely punished. It's rough watching one of the adolescent boys have his hands tied when he goes to bed so he doesn't succumb to self-indulgence. The rich baron who essentially owns the village is on the receiving end of much disdain, especially from the tenant farmers. Tucked away amid the disdain and gloom is also a sweet love story between the local schoolteacher and the daughter of one of the farmers. Certainly, films of the past by the likes of Robert Altman and John Sayles have shown us these kinds of communal cross-sections, but never for a community quite like Eichwald, where they apparently eat spite for breakfast. Some of the more difficult scenes to watch involve seeing how innocent and genuinely good members of the community are swallowed up or transformed by the creeping panic that sets into the town's fabric.

Like all truly great film works, The White Ribbon (the title comes from a ribbon the pastor ties on his children's arm to symbolize a commitment to purity) is worthy of multiple viewings; each of which will likely result in noticing different aspects to this richly realize tapestry of paranoia, hatred, resentment, and bitterness. Gee, I wonder if Haneke was symbolically trying to show us the birth of the emotional bed where Nazism was born. I guess we'll never know. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

A Town Called Panic

One of the single most joyous works of pure brilliance that I saw at Fantastic Fest last year was co-directors St├ęphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's A Town Called Panic, a crudely rendered stop-motion bit of Belgian genius that, like all great children's fare, is as much a treat for youngsters as it is for their stoner parents and grandparents. Based on a cult television series from Belgium, Panic shows us a day in the life of three best friends that all live together--a cowboy, an Indian, and a horse. What's utterly impossible to comprehend about this movie without seeing it is that the characters are just plastic figures that barely move or change expressions. Some of the characters have a grass-like base so they can stand up. But thanks to some lively vocal work, all of the characters come to life and have such enjoyably unique personalities.

More importantly, the story feels like it was written by someone completely unaware of the historical social roles that a cowboy, Indian, or horse have in the world. The horse sleeps in a bed and falls in love with another horse that is also a piano teacher. Cowboy and Indian want to buy Horse a birthday present, so they go on the Internet and get a little more than they bargained for. Every frame of this 75-minute slice of heaven is filled with original ideas. I desperately need these filmmakers to shoot a new movie every month so I can get my necessary injection of creative force and pure inventiveness. The randomness of the characters and their adventures reminds me more than anything I've seen since the first Toy Story of the insane situations I used to put my toys in as a kid, and how I didn't care if my Star Wars figures played in the same playset as my Micronauts or Buck Rogers action figures or whatever else I could dig up.

When I heard that A Town Called Panic was being distributed in some cities, I got genuinely gleeful and giddy. If you have to kill your grandmother so you can inherit her wealth to buy a plane ticket to a city that is showing this movie, then that's what you have to do. Don't ask questions and stop looking at me funny. Just go see this surreal experiment in fun and random behavior. Did I mention the robot penguins? Go discover them for yourself and see this movie. You'll be shocked and amazed, and you'll have a big smile on your face the entire time, I promise. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Spy Next Door

Over the last 20 years or so, I've pretty much conditioned myself to see every Jackie Chan movie available to me. I don't care what he does in it, if the film is screened or I get a DVD of something that went unreleased in the states, I'll watch it. There are usually one or two action sequences that make it worth the pain of sitting through whatever dopey story has been concocted for Chan. But with The Spy Next Door (and the upcoming Karate Kid relaunch, with Chan taking on the Mr. Miyagi), I'm seriously considering changing my stance, and it's not simply because The Spy Next Door is so terrible that it represents an abscess in Chan's career. No, it's because of the opening credits of the film.

"What could be so awful about the opening credits of this movie?", you ask. If you are a Chan fan, you'll understand. You see, Chan plays Bob Ho, a Chinese spy working for the CIA (as most Chinese spies in the United States do). Ho has had a long and solid career, and now he hopes to hang up the hi-tech gadgets and weapons to settle down in the suburbs with his girlfriend Gillian (model Amber Valletta) and her three shithead kids. "But what does that have to do with the opening credits?" Behind the opening credits are a series of clips of some of Jackie Chan's best movie fight sequences and stunts from over his many years as the top action star in the world. By doing this, the filmmakers are implying that all of these awesome, without-a-net stunts were done by Bob Ho during his countless missions. They are taking the great work done by Chan and his team, and throwing shit right across these great movies by associated those films with The Spy Next Door. So within the first five minutes, a great shit cloud hovered over this film that never went away.

Chan does get to take part in a couple of his signature fight scenes where he uses whatever implement is in the room to help him beat the bad guys. There's a sequence in a kitchen is probably the best example of this. But Chan has lost himself in the same place so many action stars have--in a movie made for kids. I whole-heartedly reject the premise that kids' movies get some sort of pass--no matter how awful they are--because they're made for youngsters. Parents should hold the films their offspring see to a higher standard because it will shape the films they appreciate and seek out for the rest of their lives. If junk goes in, junk will inevitably come out. And just to be clear, when your film's only other big stars are Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez, you are, in fact, fully submerged in a junky movie.

Through plot contrivances that only happen in terrible movies, Gillian has to go out of town and is forced the leave the kids in Jackie's care. Oh, the hilarity! It practically writes itself. Those kids are devious and clever, and their acting has as much dimension as a burnt gingerbread man. And their motivation is completely schizo. In one scene, Chan charms them and somehow wins them over. Then in the next scene, they're fucking with him again. I can't believe they made a kid's movie that doesn't make sense or adhere to any definition of logic. When will the madness stop? Right now, that's when. If you are a follower/worshipper of Jackie Chan the way I have been for so many years, it needs to cease and desist right now. I have to see his movies because of my job; you don't. And if you have kids, take them to something good, not this crap. I want you to boycott future Jackie Chan films until he either retires or gets his act together and stop all this brainless pandering. Sorry, Jackie, but you hurt me first.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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