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Posts in: July 2010

Talk Radio (1988)

Why does Talk Radio feel so bland and lifeless? Eric Bogosian anchors the film with a great performance as Barry Champlain, a Tom Leykis/Howard Stern-style shock jock. Oliver Stone, an energetic filmmaker who never shies away from going a few hundred degrees over the top, directed. Yet the film itself is oddly hollow.

Could it be that time has not been kind to Talk Radio, that the nature of the callers and Barry’s reaction to them no longer hold any shock value? This will undoubtedly sound strange, but I have a sense that the main problem with the movie stems from opening it up beyond its stage roots. The film is actually at its best when it focuses on Barry and the callers, and the backstage melodrama surrounding a media conglomerate (represented by the intriguingly ineffectual John Pankow) syndicating Barry’s Dallas-based show nationally. Whenever it strays away from that, attempting to turn into a study of Barry’s many character flaws, it becomes watch-checkingly tedious.

The grueling “character study” portion of the film revolves mainly around Barry’s relationships with two women: Laura (Leslie Hope), the attractive producer he’s currently sleeping with, and Ellen (Ellen Greene), his ex-wife. Once Ellen arrives on the scene, the film grinds to a screeching halt for an extended flashback, contrasting Barry’s rise to radio prominence with the collapse of his marriage. Even though a few moments tied to these flashbacks occur in the third act—notably program director Dan (Alec Baldwin) dismissing Barry as a disposable “suit salesman” (a reference to his pre-radio job) and Ellen trying to liven up the show by calling in, resulting in caustic Barry verbally abusing her—the sequence is very long and adds little to the story beyond seeing Bogosian in a somewhat hilarious Howard Stern wig.

Similarly, the film centers on recurring threats from various redneck callers, many of who are involved in neo-Nazi organizations and have big problems with Barry’s Jewish heritage. Barry reveals himself as surprisingly well-versed in their propaganda, able to easily poke holes in their arguments and dismiss their threats as silly hoaxes. The conversations themselves are lively and engaging, but they have the unfortunate side effect of turning Talk Radio into a “message movie,” leading to an obvious, over-the-top ending that’s frustratingly unearned. The movie’s over 20 years old, but I still have reservations about ruining the ending. Let’s just say the last five minutes could have used the disinterested restraint of latter-day Oliver Stone, not the frothy melodrama of his heyday. With a more subdued ending, the bigotry subplot could have succeeded in tackling its issues subtly.

Although the film spans several days, Bogosian’s stage play takes place over the course of a single night of Barry’s show. Film and theatre are, obviously, different media, and generally straight-up “let’s just film the play”-style adaptations don’t translate well. However, Stone’s directorial style lends itself to a more straightforward adaptation, as evidenced by his skillful handling of the call-in segments that do appear in the film. (Although, on a boring technical note, Stone’s abuse of the split diopter, instead of taking the time to set up proper deep-focus shots, gets distracting—certain shots make it appear as if the background characters have paid a visit from Heaven.) Stone could have easily taken a cue from the play and made a visually compelling, emotionally energetic slice-of-life showing the inner workings of a late-night radio show. Instead, the film breaks up the radio-show scenes, surrounding them with the aforementioned redundant flashbacks, as well as scenes bluntly foreshadowing the ending.

Talk Radio has a number of great moments, and it may be worth seeing for Bogosian’s performance alone. However, the film itself is a disappointment. Fans of Bogosian would do better to check out Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (that’s not sarcasm—he’s really great in that movie).

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The Package (1989)

Andrew Davis, director of one surprisingly great Chuck Norris film (Code of Silence) and two of Steven Seagal’s best efforts (Above the Law and Under Siege), made two films that contained the story beats of a typical ’80s action flick in a much more subdued, realistic fashion. One is probably his most well-regarded work, 1993’s The Fugitive. The other is the much less well-known The Package, a Cold War relic that packs a satisfying punch despite its relative lack of action.

Gene Hackman stars as Johnny Gallagher, a Green Beret tasked with transporting a soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) back to the U.S. for a court martial. The soldier escapes, and Gallagher quickly discovers the soldier assumed the identity of a different man. However, Gallagher himself gets arrested for losing his “package,” which hinders his quest to track down the soldier and learn his true agenda. With the help of his lieutenant colonel ex-wife, Eileen (Joanna Cassidy), Gallagher escapes from military custody and tracks the unknown soldier to Chicago and quickly unravels the plan: he’s a hired assassin who needed to get into the U.S. without a passport to carry out his mission—the assassination of the President.

Here’s where the Cold War politics enter into it: the President and the Soviet General Secretary intend to sign a treaty at the site of the first nuclear reaction, the University of Chicago. The treaty will ultimately lead to total nuclear disarmament on both sides. Mysterious forces within both the U.S. and Soviet militaries don’t want this treaty to happen. Gallagher, Eileen, and ex-Green Beret-turned-Chicago cop Delich (Dennis Franz) work together to unravel this conspiracy and find the soldier—eventually identified as Boyette—before he can carry out his plan.

Like Above the Law, The Package seeks to expose corruption within the U.S. military. This puts it at odds with the majority of thrillers at this time, which painted our military as unstoppable badasses. Portraying the Army as a vast, complex organization that contains some heroes, some villains, and a hell of a lot of people occupying a tricky gray area instantly makes the film more compelling than one might expect from a Cold War thriller. Obviously, because it’s a movie, the heroes prevail, but Davis and screenwriter John Bishop never make the story as black-and-white as, say, The Delta Force.

Davis’s directorial restraint is the film’s biggest strength. From a story standpoint, The Package could have easily starred Seagal and featured long gunfights, big explosions, and trademark aikido beatings. Everything about the story screams, “Big, ballsy action movie.” Instead, Davis eschews the big spectacle in favor of quiet character moments. For instance, an early scene in which Gallagher and Eileen reflect on their divorce casts a strain over their relationship throughout the rest of the movie. Moments like these lend credibility to the outlandish conspiracy plot, giving it almost a Day of the Jackal docudrama feel.

That’s not to say the movie lacks for action. It’s fairly subdued, but it does have some well-choreographed stunt sequences—car chases, shootouts, a few explosions here and there. However, the focus on characters over squibs lends authenticity even to these sequences. In addition to that, Davis—a Chicago native—has a keen eye for the details of our miserable winters. The streets and alleys are not thoroughly plowed, causing the cars to fishtail awkwardly on turns and fail to stop. It lends the action sequences a believable sloppiness.

Davis takes full advantage of his superior cast. Hackman and Cassidy do great work at creating their uneasy relationship. Hackman plays a tough guy with more conviction than Stallone or Schwarzenegger. His menacing glare can strike more fear than all the chiseled biceps in the world. Cassidy manages to find the vulnerability in a stoic, career military woman. Although everyone in the cast does a solid job, the most noteworthy supporting players are Franz as a cheerful family man and John Heard playing a huge douche-nozzle (who, not surprisingly, plays a key role in the conspiracy).

The Package may seem like an artifact of a forgotten war against a forgotten enemy, but the skillful direction and great acting allow it to transcend its era. It remains a suspenseful, well-crafted thriller.

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Weak Link

So I have a reason other than laziness for not updating lately. In addition to the fact that I don’t really get access to big “summer movie”-type scripts, nor do I have much desire to read them (especially after bearing witness to the travesty called Jonah Hex), I’m making a big push to launch a new site with one of my best friends from college.

“Zuh?” you’re undoubtedly saying. Well, here’s the skinny: longtime readers recall that I once “worked” for a bottom-rung film-review website. My friend Mark also wrote for the site, and both of us left with a great deal of disappointment and lessons learned. So last summer, in the midst of a Vicodin-fueled haze after my wrist surgery, I concocted the world’s greatest idea (according to my drug-addled mind): we’d create our own bottom-rung film-review website. With the myriad lessons learned from our miserable experiences, we’d attempt to carve out own niche in the online world of film criticism.

Once the drugs wore off, this seemed like a terrible idea. However, a stone-cold sober Mark loved the idea and kind of forced me to see it through, by virtue of the fact that I hate disappointing other people (and consequently end up disappointing myself). While I designed the site, Mark and I hashed out what we’d write about—what angle could we come up with to get readers who typically fall through the cracks of film sites? We came up with some ideas that may prove unsuccessful, but we’re going forward out of a combination of stupidity and bravado.

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Three O’Clock High (1987)

Three O’Clock High seeks to answer a question that has plagued moviegoers for generations: what would happen if John Hughes made a movie out of Franz Kafka’s The Trial? The answer is alternately funny, surreal, surprising, and suspenseful. It could have easily come apart at the seams, but director Phil Joanou and star Casey Siemaszko maintain an air of emotional honesty throughout. No matter how strange the circumstances get, it’s easy to relate to the increasing anxiety of Siemaszko’s character, Jerry Mitchell.

Jerry is pretty much a high school Everyman. He edges toward nerdy (he writes for the student paper and runs the school store), but one of the nice surprises of Three O’Clock High is its willingness to eschew the obvious high school stereotypes. Jerry never faces relentless mockery or bullying. He merely has the misfortune of crossing paths with a genuine psychopath, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson).

Buddy has just transferred to Weaver High, after expulsion from various other local schools. Rumors swirl immediately. Buddy is most notorious for hospitalizing a dean who dared to touch him. Buddy, you see, does not like to be touched. At all. By anyone. When Jerry is tasked with interviewing him for the newspaper, he makes the mistake of playfully clapping a hand against Buddy’s shoulder. It doesn’t go over well: the comically menacing Buddy challenges Jerry to a fight after school.
 Terrified, Jerry spends the rest of the day trying to get out of it, but none of his plans work. Buddy makes short work of the hulking jock Jerry hires to fight on his behalf. He also tears the alternator out of Jerry’s car. Even Jerry’s bizarre attempt to get detention—thus preventing the showdown “honestly”—fails, for hilarious reasons I won’t spoil.

As the day drags on, Weaver High School becomes a playground for strange, colorful characters (which include Mitch Pileggi as a security guard who takes his job very seriously and Anne Ryan as Jerry’s off-kilter, psychic-obsessed girlfriend). The quirkiness of the characters contributes to the gradual fever-dream feeling that permeates the second half of the film. Everyone feels a few ticks off-center, including Jerry, and the heightened reality lends a strangely epic quality to the fight itself.

Tonally, Joanou pulls off quite a feat in portraying high school as both horrifically nightmarish and patently absurd. He trots out every trick in the slick, stylish director’s book—long Steadicam takes, perfect match cuts, super-low angles, camera movements that defy description. Flashiness like Joanou’s can get annoying when it feels like it’s overcompensating for a shallow story, but Joanou manages to make his stylistic abuse both match the action and enhance the dreamy feel of the narrative.

The story combines deft satire with an encapsulation of the average high school experience: fear, confusion, and anxiety intermingling with increasingly serious interactions with the foreign world of adults. Jerry is a kid in over his head, and Three O’Clock High ultimately reveals itself as a goofy coming-of-age story, with his decision to fight instead of run away symbolizing his ascent into manhood. Its aversion to stereotypes reveals the strange characters as deceptively complex, which again underscores the coming-of-age themes: Jerry starts to realize the cracks in the façade of the adults around him, and he realizes his classmates—and even Buddy—aren’t as boring and predictable as they may seem.

Like many ’80s high school movies, the hair, fashions, and Tangerine Dream soundtrack may seem a little dated. However, the story and characters hold up remarkably well. This is the sort of movie any teen can enjoy and relate to, but it also manages to capture the alternately fond and frustrating memories most adults feel when looking back on their high school experience. Why Three O’Clock High isn’t held in the same regard as the John Hughes oeuvre, and why the bulk of its teen cast didn’t move on to bigger and better things, mystifies me.

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Shortcut to Happiness (2001/2004/2007?)

When I saw Shortcut to Happiness in this month’s cable listings, I thought, What? A comedy with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, and I’ve never even heard of it? I figured, at the bare minimum, I would have seen a couple of reviews when it was released in 2004. How could a movie with such well-known actors, produced and directed by star Alec Baldwin, slip through the cracks?

It’s impossible to review this movie without acknowledging its troubled production history. After all, its most significant problems—editing and music—are rooted in post-production, and Baldwin had left the project and removed his name from the director credit long before post-production was completed. So here it is in brief: principal photography was completed in 2001, but the investors lied about having enough money to make the film. Consequently, according to Baldwin, the investors were investigated for bank fraud and “the Feds” took the film away from him. Once the Feds released the film, a rough, incomplete cut was screened at film festivals in 2004, in the hopes of securing funds to complete it. When that didn’t work, Baldwin left the project. It languished because, in the midst of the chaos, the film’s production company had gone through all sorts of splitting, merging, and absorbing, so half a dozen companies claimed ownership, each cutting their own versions of the film. Thanks, one assumes, to Baldwin’s high-profile, Emmy-winning role in 30 Rock, producer Bob Yari picked the film up in 2007 and sold one of the many cuts to Starz, sandwiched between more well-known movies like The Illusionist and Find Me Guilty. There it remains, playing regularly on Starz, unavailable on DVD.

Buried within the mediocre end result is a fairly compelling comedy about the meaning of success—should one sell out for money and fame or commit to a more spiritually rewarding but less lucrative path? Baldwin plays Jabez Stone, a struggling New York writer who believes he’s finally writing something worthwhile. Unfortunately, nobody will read his first novel, much less his incomplete second novel. Desperate, he sends the first manuscript directly to high-profile editor Daniel Webster (Anthony Hopkins). To Stone’s surprise, Webster actually reads it, but he does not like it. One fateful night, muggers steal Stone’s laptop—which contains the only copy of his new novel—and his typewriter breaks. Enraged, Stone hurls his typewriter out the window of his apartment and kills an elderly woman.

This is the film’s crossroads. It could have developed into a much more interesting movie had they continued down this path. However, Jennifer Love Hewitt shows up as a variation on the Devil, and it starts to adhere rigidly to the basic plot of “The Devil and Daniel Webster”: Stone trades his soul for 10 years of fame and fortune but quickly finds the price—loss of friends (both literally and figuratively), loss of time, and loss of dignity—is too high. Stone is forced into the position of hired hack, pumping out beach reads quickly and efficiently. In one of the funniest running gags, the titles of Stone’s novels suggest the vacuous redundancy within its pages: A Loss of Feeling, Remembrance of a Loss of Feeling, and (my personal favorite) A Certain Numbness of the Extremities.

As expected, the third act revolves around a trial for Stone’s soul, with Webster arguing on his behalf in front of a jury populated by famous authors and presided over by Stone’s successful former friend (Dan Aykroyd), who was killed in order for Stone to achieve his success. In a film that contains many sharp jokes aimed at the entertainment industry, and strong performances by everyone (including, surprisingly, Hewitt, who is cute but generally the weak link in every film she’s in), this third act feels like a bit of a cop-out. Since its 1937 publication, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” has had so many spoofs, homages, and adaptations, the trial for Stone’s soul lacks suspense and emotional punch through sheer overuse. The screenwriters have multiple opportunities to stray off the beaten path of their source material, but every time it seems like the story will head in a more interesting direction, it snaps back to a story that has, unfortunately, become a cliché.

Although the third act can be blamed on Baldwin and his screenwriters, it’s not the film’s biggest problem. The film’s stilted editing causes each shot to hang a half-beat too long, which is the death knell for a comedy. The dialogue has a vaguely screwball patter that sort of works when both actors are in the same shot. Whenever the film cuts back and forth between two or more characters, the timing gets thrown off. Compounding the problem are the ill-fitting musical selections, which seem haphazard and almost never fit the tone of the scene. It feels like somebody involved in the production owned the rights to a handful of pop songs and tossed them in because it was cheaper than composing original music.

Better choices may have salvaged this film, but it’s a moot point. What matters is how the film turned out, and the answer is, unfortunately, “Not well.” I can lament the wasted cast or the troubled production destroying the possibilities of a good film, but that doesn’t change what it is: a mediocre curiosity that’s ultimately not worth seeing.

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The Last Airbender (2010)

For most of its runtime, The Last Airbender suffers from the problem that has plagued the last few Harry Potter movies: familiarity with its source material is required to understand the movie itself. As a critic, the fact that I know nothing about the Nickelodeon cartoon that inspired this film (“Book One” in a proposed trilogy that will probably never see completion) is a boon—I don’t have to worry about high expectations souring my opinion or familiarity obscuring the fact that the story doesn’t make any sense. However, as a moviegoer, my ignorance is a constant source of annoyance.

The plot is overly convoluted from the moment its opening crawl explains the movie’s world to the audience. See, it takes place on a pseudo-Earth world divided into four kingdoms, each guided by one of the four natural elements (water, fire, earth, and air). For millennia, a Chosen One became “the Avatar,” someone with the ability to harness all four of these elements. This Avatar, apparently, kept the peace between the four kingdoms by virtue of being a total badass. However, 100 years before the start of the film, the last Avatar (a child) disappeared without a trace, leading to a long war perpetrated by the Fire Kingdom.

Purely by coincidence, the action opens with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother/protector, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), uncovering Aang (Noah Ringer) in a Water Kingdom iceberg. Aang was the Avatar, and now that he’s thawed out and back to normal, the Fire Kingdom wants him…well, not dead, exactly. It’s sort of unclear what they actually want from him. Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) repeatedly says that killing him will just cause a new Avatar to be born, but he never takes the time to say why he wants the Avatar. Maybe he just wants to keep Aang prisoner so he can continue his war effort.

The crux of the conflict revolves around Aang’s inability to master other elements. See, he’s an “airbender,” someone with power over air, but he fled from his Avatar calling before he could master the others. Katara offers to teach him to harness water. She starts out as “the last waterbender,” although she’s not terribly good at bending water, and later in the movie other members of the Water Kingdom have an unexplained good grasp of waterbending. See what I mean when I said the plot doesn’t make much sense?

At any rate, the survival of the remaining kingdoms hinges on Aang’s ability to master water, which (as anyone who’s played a Final Fantasy game knows) is the only element that can defeat fire. Aang has a hard time learning, in part because he keeps getting kidnapped by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a reluctant agent of Zhao whose father (played by Cliff Curtis) rules the Fire Kingdom. Later, Zuko has a change of heart and releases Aang, but then he’s backed into a corner and must bring Aang back to his father. Like I said, convoluted.

The third act consists of an orgy of violence and special effects on par with a kiddie version of 300 or Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I won’t spoil it for those of you brave enough to see this movie, but I’ll describe its most basic problem: writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan refuses to lay out the mythology in advance. This issue causes problems throughout the film (in addition to the confusion about who can and can’t bend the water, Aang has the ability to resurrect the dead and shouts that the oppressed citizens of an Earth Kingdom village should use their powers, even though earlier it’s established that only a select few have these powers), but never more than in the third act. Rather than packing the last half hour with revelations that deepen the audience’s understanding of how this world works, it feels like Shyamalan is making things up as he goes along. It builds to a laughable deus ex machina that’s followed by a smash cut to a scene that sets up the sequel by introducing a never-before-seen character who receives one passing mention earlier in the film.

Audiences who have seen the cartoon may cheer these nonsensical moments, but they exist to alienate the uninitiated portion of the audience simply looking for entertaining, thought-provoking fantasy. The Last Airbender feels incomplete, but not disjointed. It’s like the Reader’s Digest condensed book version of the cartoon series. The story has an assured flow from one scene to the next—it just lacks any concrete reason for these scenes to follow one another, for these characters to take the actions they do, and for the convoluted mythology to rear its ugly head and save the day.

The older actors—notably Patel, Mandvi, and Shaun Toub—do their best to bring a certain level of vitality and emotion to their characters. Patel has easily the most complex and interesting character, but he’s hindered by the screenplay’s insistence on forcing Zuko to do things that don’t really make any sense. Still, he does a fine job with an unenviable role. The same can’t be said for the younger actors. I feel mean for bashing kids, but Ringer makes Jake Lloyd look like Jackie Coogan (look it up). Peltz is a little better, but not much. Their characters anchor the story, but the actors themselves can’t convey the necessary emotions to make the audience feel any empathy or enthusiasm for their struggles. Coming from Shyamalan, this is a big surprise. In the past, pretty much the only reason to watch his movies was to marvel at his ability to coax great performances out of so-so actors.

The film also lacks Shyamalan’s trademark suspense. Even at his worst, Shyamalan had the rare ability to create an atmosphere of dread and a sense of suspense rivaled only by Hitchcock. Why didn’t he bring any of that to this story? This feels like a by-the-numbers big-budget kids’ movie. Instead of suspense or mystery, the film has an air of, “Hey, kids, you already know the story, so kick back and have fun.” This is par for the course for most recent kids’ movies, but it doesn’t make for gripping cinema.

Like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, this movie spends more time trying to create a franchise than trying to develop a single satisfying film. Changing some elements—a stronger screenplay, better casting—could have made it a decent movie, but it’s too late for that now. There’s no kinder way to say it: The Last Airbender is both a failure and a mess.

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The Book of Eli (2010) by Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham

Note: Gary Whitta is the only credited writer in the finished movie, but the screenplay used for this column also listed Anthony Peckham’s name.

This might sound like a strange statement, but here it goes: screenplays, on the whole, aren’t meant to be read. By anyone. Over the course of 100 years, everyone in Hollywood who isn’t a writer but must—for one reason or another—read a screenplay has beaten the literature out of screenwriters. (If you don’t believe me, search online for screenplays for films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Sunset Boulevard and compare the prose to something like Avatar, and you’ll understand what I mean.) This does not mean writers don’t write great scripts despite the constraints of the medium; it just means that they operate differently from literature. They serve as a blueprint for a film yet to come, not something that should be consumed for pleasure.

There are many schools of thought as to why this evolution has occurred. Many attribute it to the egos involved in making a film. If one makes scene descriptions too vivid and/or filled with camera jargon, the director may feel like he or she can’t make a creative contribution. If one fills scenes with dialogue inflection notes, descriptions of facial expressions, or “business” for the characters, the actors don’t feel like they can make creative contributions. And so on and so forth, until screenplays are worn down to nubs that mostly rely on robotic dialogue and clipped, turgid descriptions of action to tell the story. Legitimately great writing stands out because it’s so rare in an industry where the hallmark of a great screenwriter is the ability to condense lofty (and not-so-lofty) ideas into a haiku.

(I know that last paragraph sounds like I’m denigrating the entire screenwriting community. I’m not; it actually is, in its own way, exceptionally challenging and rewarding to write a screenplay that “gets away” with creating imagery that’s vivid enough to be interpreted correctly by the filmmakers but not so vivid that they feel as if the writer is “directing on the page.” But that still doesn’t mean a screenplay should be mistaken for literature, or even an accurate depiction of the finished film.)

The Book of Eli, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind and attempts to operate as a work of literature unto itself. It tells a fairly basic neo-western story set in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland a few decades in the future. Writers Gary Whitta and Anthony Peckham pack the screenplay with dense, disturbing imagery, building a decaying world that rivals only Philip K. Dick’s nightmarish Dr. Bloodmoney in its portrait of survival. It opens with three solid pages describing the horrors of this world, peppered with stark reminders of how things used to be. It’s a breathtaking opening that tosses aside pretty much every modern screenwriting convention in the book (Screenplay by Robert McKee) in favor of telling a really good story.

The opening pages of The Book of Eli effectively absorbed me into its universe, and it hooked me all the way. I even remained onboard in its goofier moments, because even when the story got a little shaky, the writing was just too good to dismiss.

Here’s how the story goes: Eli is a professional badass. He knows all the tricks of the nomadic scavengers who steal, rape, and kill to survive. He knows his way around swords, guns, and arrows. He can hunt and forage and take advantage of what little shelter still remains. In short, he knows how to survive. And he’s walking through a mysterious desert on an unknown destination. He carries with him a thick, leather-bound, gold-leafed King James Bible, with a big lock to keep it safe. He reads from it nightly. This, for those who don’t understand how titles work, is The Book…of Eli.

The Bible becomes the MacGuffin in this western story, which pits Eastwood-esque antihero Eli (played by Denzel Washington in the movie) against raving maniac Hawthorne (for reasons unknown, his name became Carnegie in the movie, and Gary Oldman played him). Eli is on some sort of unknown quest that has to do with keeping the Bible safe. Hawthorne (I’ll just call him Carnegie from now on, to avoid confusion) wants the Bible for himself, because although he doesn’t exactly remember its content, he remembers the power its words wielded over the world. He wants that power for himself. Right now, he controls a small California town from the luxury of an abandoned movie theatre. He wants more for himself, and he sees the Bible as the way to get it. Even before Eli’s arrival, he sends his crew of illiterate bikers out to scavenge for books. Nobody’s found one.

When Eli arrives in town to get a battery recharged (he uses a car battery to charge a worse-for-wear iPod, which is great product placement for Apple, but the condition of my well-maintained four-year-old iPod suggests to me that it wouldn’t actually weather 30+ years and an Apocalypse), Carnegie is intrigued by his presence. In stark contrast to the rest of the survivors, Eli and Carnegie remain able-bodied and mentally intact. They can both read, and they both know how to stay alive in this world.

Carnegie’s interest in Eli increases when Eli dispatches several of Carnegie’s toadies, who tussle with him in a bar fight. In an attempt to curry favor, Carnegie offers Eli food, lodging, and the “company” of a young barmaid, Solara (played by Mila Kunis). Eli has no sexual interest in the girl, but Solara finds him fascinating. She wants to know about the way things used to be, and neither Carnegie nor Solara’s blind mother will satisfy her curiosity. The next morning, when she says grace before breakfast, Carnegie realizes what Eli has. This sets up the conflict that drives the rest of the script: Carnegie will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but Eli’s the only man in 100-mile radius who won’t play by Carnegie’s rules.

The script takes its time establishing the world and the characters before descending into an orgy of well-written, deeply satisfying violence. While on the run from Carnegie, Eli and Solara develop a sweet, father-daughter relationship. The writers wisely keep this far, far away from anything romantic, a refreshing change of pace. It builds to a twist-filled third act that satisfies because the writers manage to make the twists rely on the characters’ perceptions of each other, not on some weird mindfuck for the audience.

The familiar elements of the story—it’s pretty much a classic western structure, right down to the shootout on Main Street—are energized by the harrowing post-Apocalyptic backdrop and the writers’ impressive attention to detail. They never take for granted the way the priorities in this world have changed (after spending the night in the home of a man who, at some time in the distant past, hanged himself in a closet, Eli trades his beaten-down walking shoes for the dead man’s pristine pair) or the fact that the younger characters, notably Solara, have never experienced the way things used to be. All they’ve ever known is this hellhole, and the writers never hit a false note in portraying that. Even when Eli, late in the script, describes his “religious quest” to Solara—the idea that, after a year of wandering the ruins of his planet, “a voice” began speaking to him, led him to the last remaining Bible, and told him exactly where he needs to take it—the writers never say, “He really did hear God talk to him,” which leaves some impression that he could just be crazy. The script has ample opportunity to get stupid, but the writers never overplay their hand.

The finished film is a different story. Remember all that talk earlier about not “over-writing” a screenplay for fear of “directing on the page”? Well, the Hughes Brothers don’t fear directing on the page, because there’s not a scene description that’s been written that they can’t over-direct. The Hughes Brothers have style to spare, and they direct The Book of Eli with a flare that frequently detracts from the drama at hand. Their artistic tricks can be very effective, particularly during action sequences (the siege on the cannibals’ house in the second half of the film is staggeringly impressive). The quieter moments don’t fare so well, lending a glossy, comic-book feel to a script that’s about as gritty and depraved as The Road, just with a lot more ass-kicking and a nice spiritual message.

The Book of Eli‘s overt message—that the Christian Bible is the most important thing in all of civilization—doesn’t have much to do with why I liked the script. Call me a heathen, but I don’t have a religious bone in my body. However, as someone who’s paid attention to human history, I’d be an idiot not to acknowledge that—whether I agree with it or not—the Christian Bible is, at the very least, one of the most important things in all of civilization. The script is remarkably secular, however. It preaches the importance of the Bible as a tool for enlightenment and understanding. That’s really all it is: a book of fables designed to help people understand the world in which they live. There have always been people like Carnegie using it as a weapon of exploitation, which is one of the great strengths of the script. Neither Eli nor Carnegie seems to have found religion—they’re just two men who understand the Bible’s role in shaping human history.

This subtlety gets lost in the finished film, in which Washington plays Eli like a stoic apostle whose function is to spread the word on behalf of a God he really does have a personal relationship with. Meanwhile, Oldman plays Carnegie as a greasy, simpering asshole. Both of these guys are typically fine actors—among the best of their generation—but their performances here lack the shades of gray that exist on the page to the film’s great detriment.

Speaking of performances that miss the mark: Mila Kunis. She impressed the hell out of me in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but she plays Solara as too tough and streetwise to make her interest in Eli ring true. In the script, she’s timid and sort of mousy, naïve and gleeful about anybody who can connect her to a past she missed on account of not yet being born. This characterization makes some of her stupider decisions—such as saying grace in front of Carnegie and following Eli out of town—pretty believable, but that believability gets lost in Kunis’s glowering read on the character.

A perfect example of the Solara problem comes early in the film, when Eli reads a Biblical passage to her. Keep in mind, this is the King James Version, which is full of “thees” and “thous” and other Elizabethan words Solara would never have heard before. Solara responds with, “That’s beautiful—did you make that up?” Although that moment in the movie does not exist in the draft of the script I read, it’s the sort of response that would have fit with the wide-eyed naïveté of Solara on the page. However, it rings false when Kunis says it—a more believable reaction for her take on the character would be along the lines of, “What the hell does ‘maketh’ mean?”

Worse than that—I hate to get shallow, but she looks like she just walked off a Vanity Fair shoot. Washington, Oldman, and even Jennifer Beals as the blind mother are all dressed down and grimy. To paraphrase Mystery Science Theater 3000: “In the future, survivors rub themselves with old oil filters.” Kunis sticks out like a lovely, lovely thumb in this universe. She’s clearly wearing makeup (especially evident on Bluray), which it’s hard to believe exists in a world where hotel-sized shampoo bottles are a novelty, and she even makes post-Apocalyptic fashions look stylish. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to make her look that good and that different, but every second she’s on screen is bound to take viewers out of the moment. It just doesn’t fit.

Although the performances aren’t necessarily bad, the story loses much of its impact as a result of the actors’ handling of the characters. Moments that worked beautifully on the page just don’t hold up.

Maybe the direction is to blame for the performances, in addition to the comic-book sheen. After all, what the script describes as rusted-out junkers rumbling through abandoned streets becomes, in the film, Mad Max knockoffs plated with so much armor it’s amazing the suspension doesn’t just collapse. A sequence of nail-biting suspense, in which Eli and Solara unwittingly enter a house occupied by cannibals, is played like a bad Three’s Company episode. Finally, the finished film leaves audiences with no choice but to accept that Eli is, indeed, a shepherd of God’s word, led by the Big Man Himself on his quest. Eli literally gets shot in the neck in that Main Street shootout, but nothing happens—not a scratch on him. This moment does not exist in the script, nor should it.

I know this article has sounded like relentless hostility, but that’s more tricky gray area: I didn’t dislike the movie. It’s passable entertainment. I have an issue with it because it could have been great, a well-written, multifaceted exploration of the positive and negative effects of religion on society, with tons of ass-kicking. Not as emotionally draining as The Road, but a movie that’s nonetheless filled with smart ideas and a complex point of view. Whatever the reasons, the finished film robs the script of its subtlety and complexity, which makes it a disappointment despite its merits.

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Quigley Down Under (1990)

In the ’80s, the U.S. experienced a short-lived fascination with Australian culture. I chronicle this fleeting obsession in detail in my 3500-page nonfiction book Why the ’80s Should Hold Nostalgia for No One: Essays on Unpopular Culture. Quigley Down Under came at the tail-end of this cultural shockwave, right around the time Americans started to pay attention to Australia’s dark side and lost interest in the country. A well-made if unexceptional western, the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does tweak the conventions just enough to remain compelling and avoid the most obvious clichés of the genre.

The story revolves around Matt Quigley (Tom Selleck), an American sharpshooter who arrives in Australia to work for Marston (Alan Rickman). Immediately after his arrival, he encounters Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacomo) being forced onto a wagon to work as a prostitute for Marston. When Quigley discovers Marston has hired him to kill the aborigines on his land (“They always manage to remain just out of rifle range,” he laments), he reacts by tossing his new employer through a glass door. Not surprisingly, Marston has his men take Quigley and Cora (who is convinced Quigley is her husband, Roy) out into the desert to kill them. That Quigley manages to escape from certain death and rescue Cora comes as no surprise.

The remainder of the story focuses mainly on developing the difficult relationship between Quigley and Cora. This is the film’s major strength, as it allows Quigley to have more depth than the traditional taciturn outlaw, and it allows Cora to become one of the western genre’s great female characters, on par with Jill McBain from Once Upon a Time in the West or, I don’t know, Cat Ballou. When finally revealed, her backstory is heartbreaking, and the way it shapes her current actions (including mental illness that may or may not be affected to keep others at a distance) makes the development of her relationship with Quigley a treat to watch.

The battle of wits between Quigley and Marston is almost relegated to “subplot” status, but that’s okay because it’s a little disappointing. Selleck and Rickman both do fine work in their roles, but the screenplay has them separated for nearly the entire film, which makes their mutual disdain less than palpable. Marston’s only solution to the Quigley problem is sending more men after him. Considering the ease with which Quigley keeps killing his men, it seems like Marston would think outside the box a little. Nevertheless, the final showdown—which, true to Marston’s wide-eyed obsession with American cowboys, echoes the quick-draw cliché of many westerns—is satisfying.

Director Simon Wincer does a great job showing off his native Australia. Despite the story’s somewhat unsavory, anti-Aussie bent, he makes every shot look like an inviting, panoramic postcard. Although he does a fine job with the banter-laden romantic scenes between Quigley and Cora, Wincer struggles—as I imagine any director would—to make the action sequences truly exciting. When the protagonist’s main method of dispatching the bad guys consists of shooting at them from great distances, there’s only so much he can do to make it a thrill-ride. Luckily, the story focuses more on the romance than the action, so these awkwardly orchestrated sequences pass by quickly enough to continue enjoying the movie.

All in all, Quigley Down Under is not a perfect movie. The hero hides behind rocks and shoots at people from ¾ of a mile away, the villain is marginalized throughout most of the second act, and the direction is competent but uninspired—yet the performances and the presence of Crazy Cora make up for the movie’s other flaws. It’s a fun, consistently engaging neo-western.

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Thirteen Days (2000)

Docudramas are a precarious high-wire act. A filmmaker must take an event well-known by the general public and pack it with the drama and suspense necessary to make a quality film. A writer must manipulate facts in order to create a dramatically satisfying narrative without straying so far from the truth that it might as well be fiction. Actors must portray well-known figures without coming across like a Saturday Night Live impressionist—impeccable, yet soulless. In all cases, even the tiniest misstep can cause the whole film to fall apart instantly.

Despite Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent, Thirteen Days doesn’t make those missteps. It takes place largely in three rooms within the White House and focuses primarily on “special assistant to the President” Kenny O’Donnell (Costner) and the Kennedy brothers (Bruce Greenwood as the President, Steven Culp as Bobby—both excellent), but it manages to have a sweeping, epic quality. The film gives audiences a fly-on-the-wall view of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 days in which the U.S. and Soviet Union hovered on the precipice of nuclear war. Like the film itself, the events depict a diplomatic dance, and any tiny misstep could have potentially destroyed the world. Stakes don’t get higher than that.

The story wisely presents itself as a talky political thriller. It avoids melodramatic pitfalls by emphasizing the work, not the personal lives of the people doing the job. It defines the characters by how they react to the discovery of incomplete Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, rather than showing their family lives. Only O’Donnell’s family is seen, but writer David Self and director Roger Donaldson handle these moments with appropriate restraint. Even O’Donnell’s desperate warning for his family to leave town doesn’t go over-the-top. The dialogue (much of it allegedly taken directly from recordings Kennedy made during this time) crackles with tension without being too showy or clever.

More than anything, Thirteen Days is a film about strained working relationships—within the federal government, between the U.S. and the Soviets, between the Kennedys and O’Donnell—trying to remain civil during a difficult time. The drama and suspense comes from these long-existing tensions finally boiling over. Excellent acting across the board helps to convey the characters’ thinly veiled hostility without spelling everything out. Every role has a lived-in feel, including what amounts to glorified cameos by Christopher Lawford and Charles Esten as pilots who sense danger when they keep getting calls from the President and his inner circle. Even Costner, despite his struggles to maintain a working-class “Southie” accent, does a terrific job as O’Donnell, who effectively serves as the conscience for the Kennedy brothers.

Despite his varied career, Donaldson has never made as good a film before or since, which is disappointing. He manages the nearly impossible feat of making the familiar Cuban Missile Crisis into an unpredictable, nail-biting thriller. He also shows great skill at working with actors that doesn’t really shine through in films like Species or Dante’s Peak.

Thirteen Days holds up as one of the most well-made docudramas of recent years. It’s well worth seeing for anyone interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis but not quite interested enough to pick up the daunting 800-page book on which the film is based.

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The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals has all the elements of a classic western: an all-star cast, excellent production values, interesting characters, sweat-inducing location shooting in Death Valley, and a plot with a few genuine surprises. All these elements, while solid individually, just don’t hang together as well as they should. Don’t get me wrong—it has its moments, but as a whole, it’s unsatisfying.

The plot begins with a simple setup: the new wife of a wealthy man (Ralph Bellamy) has been kidnapped by Mexican revolutionary Jesús Raza (Jack Palance with a tan and an awful Frito Bandito accent), so he offers $100,000 to a team of “professionals” to kidnap her back. These include Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), a serious-minded weapons expert and general leader of the pack; Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), a skirt-chasing explosives expert whose shady past gives him a personal connection to Raza; Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), a horse wrangler; and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), a badass with Apache tracking and bow-and-arrow skills.

What follows is basically a mash-up of The Magnificent Seven and Ocean’s Eleven: a Wild West heist to retrieve Mrs. Maria Grant (Claudia Cardinale, not dubbed for once) from her captor. The heist sequence is engaging and incredibly well done. The only problem is, it’s too short, taking up about 10 minutes of the film. The preparation for and execution of the heist goes by quickly enough to be disappointing. Writer/director Richard Brooks spends a slow hour with the professionals moving through Mexico toward their destination. In between lengthy gunfights with Mexican banditos, Brooks takes his time establishing the characters, their contributions to the team, and the minutiae of what they do. The attention to detail would be admirable in a more exciting film, but the characters all seem bored with each other and the work they do. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Brooks or the actors—this is a professional crew of people who know each other, know how to work together, and have pulled similar jobs before. The aloofness toward each other and the complexities of the plot fits the characters, but it doesn’t make them engaging.

Aside from establishing the characters, very little of what occurs in the first hour pays off in the second. The second half is generally more engaging than the first, focusing on the messy aftermath of the heist and throwing in unexpected plot twists to keep things interesting. Still, Raza doesn’t have the screen time or character development to work as an effective villain. Hell, the sultry/trampy Chiquita (Marie Gomez) has more depth than Raza does. Brooks should have done a better job of building him up in the audience’s mind, making us fear him long before he makes an appearance. Early references to his skills as a soldier don’t cast that needed pall over his character, making the climactic shootout feel more like an unneeded distraction than the clashing of titans.

Maybe it’s my fault. I go into every western expecting it to blow my mind the way Once Upon a Time in the West did, but few films (western or otherwise) live up to that towering cinematic achievement. Whatever the reason, The Professionals just didn’t work for me. Fans of Brooks (and Lancaster) would do better to check out Elmer Gantry. It’s not a western, but it’s fantastic.

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