Jan 21, 2010

Review Post 61: The Book of Eli / Descent Part 2 / Up in the Air

DIR: The Hughes Brothers
CAST: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis

Allen and Albert Hughes made a splash with their directorial debut Menace II Society, but their follow ups; Dead Presidents and From Hell (boasting, from Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, two of the worst accents in cinema history) had me convinced that these twin brothers were one hit wonders. The Book of Eli may not have the same restless energy that made Menace II Society feel so dangerous, but it does mark a return to form and suggest that its directors may yet do something really special again.

In this post apocalyptic actioner Denzel Washington plays ‘the walker’, who has spent the 31 years since the world as we know it ended (with ‘the flash’) walking across the USA with a mission; to carry the last existing copy of one very important book west, where he believes he will find a place that it can be kept safe and where its power will be used for good. Along the way he comes to a small community of other survivors, presided over by Carnegie (Oldman), who is searching for the book, and plans to use it to rule and control what remains of humanity.

There are two things that the pre-publicity for this movie is attempting to hide. The first is both hugely obvious and so essential to what the film is that I have to disclose it here, the second I will not discuss. So, lets just say it for those who haven’t worked it out; ‘the book’, yes, it’s a bible. The reason I have to mention this is that it is this that lifts The Book of Eli out of the mass of post apocalyptic action films and makes it somewhat of a different beast. You can see it as an allegory, with Washington’s walker as a messiah, touched with the duty of bearing God’s message. You can also read the film as an indictment of organised religion. It’s stated that after ‘the flash’ religion was essentially blamed, and thus all but died out and Oldman (very much in the mould of a televangelist) wants to use the message of the bible to control people and gain profit for himself. This is a pretty vicious message to deliver; especially in a mainstream film that will likely play on over 1000 screens in the USA, but it’s undercut by a respect for the message itself that begins to border on preachy.

Ultimately I think The Book of Eli’s comments on religion, and its sermonising, are an interesting device, and they at least show that some thought has gone into the film at a level significantly deeper than ‘that would be cool’. However, the sledgehammer subtlety of both the satire and the ultimate embracing of Christianity did make me feel like I was being preached at in stereo. Strip away these overtones, and what remains is an entertaining futuristic western, with some really strong action sequences and a handful of decent performances.

Denzel Washington is reliably solid, if not brilliant, as the walker. For the most part his performance is strong, convincing as a man who has been on a lonely mission for more than half his life, and suddenly has to get used to having a friend (Kunis, whose Solara tags along with Washington rather than remain with abusive stepfather Oldman). The surprise is how well Washinton handles the action. He’s not known as a screen fighter, but training from Bruce Lee’s protégé Dan Inosanto has meant that Washington is able to do all of his own fighting. To their credit, the Hughes Brothers allow us to really see the action, often shooting in long takes and allowing us to see Washington from head to toe as he fights. It’s through these choices that it becomes clear how hard Washington has worked on the physical aspect of the film, and how well it has paid off.

Among the supporting cast, Gary Oldman largely reprises his role in Leon, frothing at the mouth and hamming outrageously as Carnegie. He’s not bad exactly; he knows how to do this and make it fun, but it’s not a remotely believable performance and does sometimes feel like it belongs in a different movie from the one Washington is in. Mila Kunis looks beautiful enough, even in unflattering clothes and without make up, to tempt the holiest of men. She gives a perfectly adequate performance, but the film ends at exactly the point that I really became interested in following her character. You have to credit casting director Mindy Marin with imagination, in some of the smaller roles she’s gone for some really unexpected choices, notably surprising cameos from Tom Waits and British character actors Michael Gambon (boasting an atrocious accent) and Frances De La Tour as a heavily armed couple of pensioners.

Allen and Albert Hughes give the film an appropriately washed out style, with dust the recurring motif. The whole world appears to have turned to dust and there are no bright colours left; everyone is clad in blacks and greys and browns. They also create action scenes that entertain and (Michael Bay take note) whose geography is always completely understandable. Most of the action also manages to serve the story, rather than feeling like the result of a script meeting in which someone said ‘we need an explosion’ (Michael, are you listening?) It’s not an especially original looking film, but it’s extremely well made, has some memorable moments (an early fight in silhouette especially) and is engaging to look at without being show offy.

The final twist, sadly, doesn’t work, and actually makes Denzel Washington’s performance seem weaker in retrospect. The Book of Eli is a pretty majorly flawed film in some respects, but it’s perfectly entertaining and it does have something to say (or, in fact, something to shout) and that’s pretty rare in a major Hollywood film.

DIR: Jon Harris
CAST: Shauna MacDonald, Krysten Cummings, Gavan O’Herlihy

When I heard about this film I had two initial thoughts: How? and Why? I now know the answer to the former [Sarah (MacDonald) wakes up in hospital, but soon gets dragged back into the caves with a search party to look for her (very dead) friends]. The latter, however, remains a mystery. If you saw The Descent anywhere but in America you’ll likely share my initial bafflement about the possibility of a sequel, because the whole point of the first film’s ending was that (spoiler alert) EVERYBODY’S FUCKING DEAD. However, in the US, the film ends with Sarah’s escape from the caves and drops the reveal that it’s a dream sequence, thus leaving the film open to exploitation… sorry… continuation.

The thing that was so wonderful about Neil Marshall’s original film was the simplicity of it. 20 minutes to establish some characters, half an hour of white-knuckle claustrophobia and then the capper; half an hour of a good, nastily violent, monster movie. Despite this absolute simplicity the film was involving, because Marshall understands how to set up characters that we’ll sympathise with in short order, and then when they’re trapped we actually care, and that’s what makes things frightening. I’ve seen hundreds of horror films and the thing that unites all the really scary ones, be it Martyrs or The Silence of the Lambs or even Halloween is that I’m invested, that I care about the characters escaping. The Descent Part 2 is not scary. At all.

The screenplay is credited to James McCarthy (his debut), James Watkins (writer/director of crappy asbo slasher Eden Lake) and J. Blakeson (whose The Disappearance of Alice Creed marks him as one to watch, and who will soon be attempting to tipp-ex this out of his resume), and it feels exactly like a film written by committee. There are plenty of people in the film, but none really developed enough to call characters (and that includes Sarah). There’s lots of incident (much of it drawn near verbatim from the original), but little connective tissue. It feels as though each of the three screenwriters has written some scenes featuring the same vaguely defined people and then they’ve been bundled together. There’s only a thin through line and the now mixed gender cast (three boys and three girls) robs this instalment of the interesting casting gimmick of the first.

There are a couple of agreeably nasty scenes (one, where two characters have to cross a chasm using the body of Sam (Myanna Buring) is especially yucky) but none are ever less than predictable. The thudding inevitability really got to me when the grizzled cop (character traits: is a dick, has white goatee) played by Gavan O’Herlihy handcuffed himself to Sarah. As soon as that happened I knew the exact play by play of the next sequence and, shot for shot, was proved right. Most of the violence looks pretty much the same as that in the first film, there’s no evolution either in the look of the crawlers or in the way that Sarah fights them. I had watched the original film the night before seeing this, and the violence really was like déjà vu.

Jon Harris, who edited the first film, makes his directorial bow here, and his work is solidly adequate. That wouldn’t be such a problem except that he’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Neil Marshall, who is a proper filmmaker with a particular and interesting eye. Rather than find his own way Harris apes Marshall’s style, meaning that this film comes off as a low grade photocopy of the original, rather than something cut from the same cloth. In the most irksome moment Harris shows us the single best scare from the first film (the characters see it on the camcorder on which it was recorded), which still made me jump. Then Harris basically repeats that same scare, and it doesn’t get us. That’s the difference between a filmmaker and a shooter.

You won’t catch the cast of The Descent Part 2 acting. Now, when I say that about Jennifer Jason Leigh or Saoirse Ronan it’s a compliment. I’m saying that they disappear into their character so totally that you forget who they really are. That, as you may have guessed, isn’t what I mean right now. When I say you won’t catch anyone acting it’s because there is precious little acting in this movie. Oh lots of people say lines at each other, lots of people pretend to bleed, but there’s never any sense of connection or reality. The Descent followed six girls into a cave. The Descent Part 2 follows six actors on to a soundstage. The saddest thing is the sidelining of Sarah. Not only is she our point of identification (being the only person we’ve seen before) but Shauna MacDonald can act. Unfortunately she has almost nothing to do for the first hour of the film. That said, when she’s allowed to step up to the plate she’s as capable and ferocious a final girl as before.

The cut and paste screenplay results in some moments of egregious stupidity, notably an entirely out of character moment for Sarah and a jaw-droppingly stupid, utterly unmotivated coda. I really wanted to like this film, even an unrequired sequel can turn out to be brilliant (see Before Sunset), but The Descent Part 2 plunges into a cave system, discovering hitherto unplumbed depths of utter redundancy. It’s not without exhilaratingly visceral moments but, while bloodletting can be fun, what’s the point when you don’t give a shit?

DIR: Jason Reitman
CAST: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga

Up in the Air arrives in UK cinemas feted by US critics and audiences alike. I’ve heard several people say that this film numbers among the best of the 21st century so far. I’d like to share that enthusiasm (if only because its been a while since I saw a great new film), but while I liked Up in the Air, sometimes a great deal, I can’t quite whole heartedly embrace it.

I like George Clooney. I liked him on ER, I liked him in From Dusk ‘til Dawn, I liked him in Michael Clayton, I even liked him in the rather average The Men Who Stare at Goats. Nobody liked him in Batman and Robin, but I digress. Despite the fact I like Clooney, and he’s very good here, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that I’ve seen this performance before. The best actors go away on screen, and whether it’s the sheer bludgeoning force of his celebrity or the fact that this just seems like a George Clooney performance, Clooney never manages that as Ryan Bingham. From the sardonic voiceover to the effortless charm that manages to stay just the right side of oily, it just doesn’t feel new, or specific.

Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is loaned out by his employers to other employers who want someone else to fire their staff for them, a job that sees him on the road 322 days of the year (“which means I spent 43 miserable days at home”). Then along comes a young hotshot (Kendrick) with the idea that they can do their ‘transition counselling’ over the internet via video conferencing. It’s when Bingham has to take this young colleague; Natalie on the road with him that Up in the Air really, well, takes off. This story does lend itself to an episodic structure, but to its credit the screenplay by Sheldon Turner and director Reitman does manage to find a couple of through lines in Bingham’s relationships with Natalie and with his on the road lover Alex (Farmiga).

The two female stars of Up in the Air are hogging the awards attention; both were nominated for Golden Globes and today both have been nominated for BAFTAs. Its not undeserved attention. Vera Farmiga is a sensational actress; she’s been toiling away in supporting roles for about a decade, getting her first real notice for her appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. I’ve said before that her dedication to her roles and her ability to be just about anything and look just as the part demands (a gorgeous woman, she’s dressed down effectively several times) reminds me of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Alex isn’t her best role, actually she’s a little bit of a sketch (handily self summarised when she says to Bingham “think of me as you, but with a vagina”) but Farmiga gives her character and life that almost certainly weren’t on the page. It’s not her most award worthy performance, not by a long shot, but the fact the mainstream is noticing Farmiga at last is a great thing.

The real star of this film, for my money, is Anna Kendrick. Like Farmiga she’s been quietly building a career in indies (Rocket Science) and supporting roles (she’s the one thing in the Twilight films that quiets my urge to destroy the screen). Up in the Air is what she must have been waiting for, it’s a brilliant role, perfectly suited to her and she just eats it up. Kendrick’s Natalie Keener is a brilliant, if rather brittle, 23 year old who seems to be becoming a mover and shaker in the business of firing people in very short order. This initial take on the character is beautifully played and rather funny, but it’s when that façade begins to slip that Kendrick excels. The cracks of emotion as she warms to Bingham, the empathy she can’t quite repress as she does her job, these things help to humanise Natalie, but it’s when the floodgates open that Kendrick earns her near inevitable Oscar nomination. When Natalie breaks up with her boyfriend it initiates the best sequence of the film; an endlessly funny fifteen minutes of total brilliance for both Kendrick and the movie as a whole, it’s the highlight of a beautifully judged performance.

The frustration of Up in the Air is that it sometimes just runs off the rails, becoming sentimental despite its main character’s lack of sentiment. At one point the story takes a major detour for Bingham to attend his Sister’s (Melanie Lynskey; good, and underused as ever) wedding. This whole sequence feels as though you’ve nodded off and woken up in a different (cliché laden) film, and though it does end rather less than conventionally (and yet, utterly unsurprisingly) the film does indulge, in a way that seems entirely out of character for Bingham, in one of those grand romantic gestures that features in every rom-com you’ve ever seen.

This is a film that has moments of greatness, but as a whole isn’t great. I was entertained by it, I laughed a good few times and I saw one genuinely fantastic performance. I think the real problem is that it’s just not all its been built up to be. Most of the time this is an amiable, enjoyable film. It’s got a refreshing intelligence and wit and is amusing without resorting to vulgarity, but there are times when it just sits there, rather like a man waiting for a plane, just marking time before the next spark of inspiration, the next brilliant bit. Uneven then, but worth driving, if not flying, to see.

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