A good-enough entry into the post-apocalyptic genre that nevertheless leaves you longing for something better, the Hughes Brothers´ The Book of Eli at least marks a return to filmmaking for the talented directors, nine years after From Hell and a decade and a half removed from their best work, Dead Presidents and Menace II Society.
Eli stars Denzel Washington as the titular character, who (with his book) wanders the barren wasteland of a post-apocalyptic (presumably Southwestern) United States. He searches for fresh water, hunts cats to survive (and uses fresh “cat oil” in lieu of chapstick – it´s great for the lips), and disposes of roving Road Warrior-like gangs in mere seconds. The first 20 or 30 minutes of the film are the best; we don´t quite know what happened or what´s happening, but a richly detailed feel for the setting more than makes up for the lack of story.
Soon Eli finds himself in a makeshift town – think Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns; one of the villains even whistles the main theme from Once Upon a Time in America throughout (why they use the theme from Leone´s one popular non-Western, I do not know). He´s there for a quick charge for his iPod and some water from the local saloon, but soon he´s sidetracked by the ‘mayor´ of the town, Carnegie (gee, I wonder if the name is referencing anything). Carnegie is played by Gary Oldman in a bizarre performance that seems to draw from Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, and Robert Evans. I wish I could say it was more memorable.
A plot soon develops, and a collective sigh sweeps through the audience; not that the story here isn´t without interest, but it lacks the awesomeness that the genre yearns for. Mad Max – and particularly its sequel, The Road Warrior – defined the post-apocalyptic genre in the late 70s/early 80s, and I´m still waiting for a film that live up to those standards. (Beware mild spoilers through next few graphs)
As many will soon deduce, the book that Eli is carrying with him is the Bible. And not just any Bible, but perhaps one of the only ones in existence; Bibles were burned some years ago, thought to have been the cause of the Great War that left the world in decay. Unlikely, sure – at the very least, this is the digital post-apocalyptic age, and Eli could fit the information from the Good Book 100 times over in his iPod. And I wonder what happened to the Qur´an or the Torah, but I digress
Eli is travelling west with his book because a vision from God told him so. Carnegie wants that book bad, and he´s willing to do anything to get it. His blind servant Claudia (Jennifer Beals), her daughter Solara (Mila Kunis), and his right-hand man Redridge (Ray Stevenson) get mixed up in his quest. Carnegie wants to use the power of the Bible for his own evil purposes (though he seems smart enough, and the rest of the characters stupid enough, to be able to create his own religion for them to blindly follow) and Eli wants to use the teachings for good. It´s not the most compelling story, but it makes for interesting stuff, the blatant good/bad use of Christianity rare for mainstream Hollywood fare.
Deep in the third act, however, Eli begins to drag. A semi-predictable, but wildly implausible ‘twist´ doesn´t help. Note for filmmakers: audiences are willing to accept one big implausibility in a film, but when you include that implausibility in a twist ending, you´re asking for trouble. Had we known what was up from the beginning, no issues.
The Book of Eli is Washington´s movie, and he carries it easily; disheveled, soft-spoken, and usually hidden beneath sunglasses, he still radiates a strong presence. Supporting cast doesn´t offer too much, though Stevenson has two nice scenes, and Tom Waits shows up as an iPod repairman. And while the script by Gary Whitta feels rather unfinished and less than fully satisfying, the Hughes Brothers have turned it into an entirely watchable film.
Biggest kudos go to the production team, who have turned the potentially cheesy material into something unusually (for the genre) serious. Most post-apocalyptic landscapes look similar: ravaged deserts with crumbling roads and abandoned automobiles, but I´m pretty sure the production designers and some of the other crew on The Book of Eli are fans of Bethesda´s Fallout 3; certain shots, and the overall tone of the film, are strikingly similar to the popular (and immensely satisfying) video game.
Equal parts Kevin Smith (Clerks), Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape), and Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise/Sunset), writer-director Alex Holdridge´s In Search of a Midnight Kiss is an intriguing little L.A.-based indie. While initially offputting – much like its two main characters – it slowly grows on you and becomes more affecting along the way.
Wilson (Scoot McNairy) has been in a funk since his girlfriend left him some months ago and is now halfway around the world. He´s another lonely soul in Los Angeles, and one of the film´s first scenes finds him masturbating to a photoshopped picture of his roommate´s girlfriend. Of course, roommate Jacob (Brian McGuire) and girlfriend Min (Kathleen Luong) walk in on him in the act.
Now, in your usual comedy (see: American Pie), this would a racy throwaway gag that, at best, displays the desperation of the main character. But Midnight Kiss turns it into a major plot point, referenced throughout the film and determining the course of two major plot threads.
Anyway, it´s New Year´s Eve, and Jacob convinces Wilson to try and find someone. Using as little effort as possible, he places an advert on Craig´s List: “Misanthrope seeks misanthrope.” Soon he gets a call from a quick-tongued girl who wants to meet him in a few hours. No name, no description; “to be honest, I´m meeting four other guys before you, and I´m going to choose one of you to spend the rest of the night with.”
Wilson agrees, grudgingly, cleans himself up, and eventually meets Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a young, attractive woman who doesn´t want to waste any time. She chats with him for a few minutes, sends him to another table while she conducts another “interview”, and then calls him back. He’s the winner, apparently, and the duo take off on foot for their New Year´s date – she won´t get in a car with a stranger, of course.
The rest of the film is basically a redux of Linklater´s Before Sunrise, as Wilson and Vivian walk and talk about life and love and everything in between that can sustain a 90-minute film. Upon introduction, these characters haven´t done much to endear themselves to us, but by the end, it´s been a real pleasure to spend time in their company. Short asides feature Jacob, who is about to propose to Min, and Jack (Robert Murphy), Vivian´s raving, cartoonish ex-boyfriend.
Murphy also contributes to the best aspect of the film: gorgeous B&W cinematography that showcases an urban L.A. that is rarely seen in cinema. An abandoned cinema and the shut-down Los Angeles stock exchange, among other sites, are turned into unusually romantic destinations. The same could be said for the city of L.A.: much of Midnight Kiss feels like a (realistic) love letter to the city. It makes a nice comparison/addition to Thom Anderson´s Los Angeles Plays Itself.
One complaint: Vivian´s revelation towards the end didn´t quite ring true for me, and unnecessarily takes focus off the relationship between the two leads.
Also opening: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (showtimes | IMDb), an adaptation of the popular children’s book from director Chris Columbus (Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, & the Chamber of Secrets). Uma Thurman, Pierce Brosnan, and Sean Bean costar, but it’s screening only in a Czech-dubbed version on Prague screens.
And: Dešťová víla (showtimes | IMDb), a Czech fairy tale from director Milan Cieslar starring Vica Kerekes, Jakub Gottwald, Miroslav Donutil, Simona Stašová, Jitka Sedláčková, and Jaromír Dulava. Screening in Czech.