MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Book of Eli, The Spy Next Door, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Lovely Bones and 35 Shots of Rum

The Book of Eli (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Allen & Albert Hughes, 2010

The end of the world arrives again this week, though thankfully only in the movies.

In The Book of Eli — an exciting but, for me, finally disappointing sci-fi thriller from the Hughes Brothers — Denzel Washington plays a lone, sacred warrior wandering westward through the ruins of the Apocalypse, shepherding the last copy of the Holy Bible (King James Edition) through a blighted landscape of car -wreck plains and parched cities. Eli, traveling ever onward though the blasted country, guards the scriptures (and his life) from a water-hording tyrant named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), while single-handedly kicking and sword-slashing to death whole vicious gangs of slimy chopper-riding thieves or truck-driving thugs and killers, a surly wild bunch who seemed to have modeled their lives and wardrobes on the scurvier villains of The Road Warrior.

Washington, meanwhile seems to have modeled Eli on some combination of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune in their bloodier samurai epics, Oskar Werner’s Montag in Fahrenheit 451, and Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow’s performances as Christ in King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Amazingly, he nearly brings it off. Washington is one of those movie stars who has the ability to really hold the screen with reaction shots and a near-wordless intensity, and when he doesn’t use his Nicholson-ish smile, he‘s able to look so tense and fraught, you fear that something awful is imminent –which, in this movie, it often is.

The Book of Eli is both an action saga and a religious-themed fable-drama, and it needs someone with Washington‘s burning sincerity and convincing grace under pressure to make the hero believable and the premise acceptable. It also probably needs someone with Oldman’s ability to play evil from the inside as its heavy. And someone like the Hughses at the helm, to really get into showing us this kind of After-the-Fall wreck of a world.

It has them all. But it needs something else too, and we’ll get to that later.

Anyway, Eli, toting a backpack containing his bible, and with his chopping-knife ready at hand, has been walking toward the west coast for 30 long years (one of many serious implausibilities in Whitta’s script, along with Anita Ward‘s Ring My Bell on the Victrola, the seeming absence of renewable food supplies, and lots of others), when he meets a female decoy with an ancient, broken-wheeled shopping cart, and the movie’s first set of bad guys, and dispatches the whole gang snick-snick-snee-kabloom, with a Fistful of Dollars panache worthy of Mifune’s Yojimbo.

Mess with the best and die like the rest. Afterwards, Eli arrives at the sub-Wild West city bossed by Oldman‘s Carnegie (whose own method of winning friends and influencing people, a la namesake Dale Carnegie, involves dispensing the sole local water supply and killing dissenters). There Eli runs into Tom Waits, appropriately at the bar, as well as Carnegie‘s dumb-as-hell murdering minions, his blind wife (Jennifer Beals) and his red-hot stepdaughter (Mila Kunis as Solara, the role Sarah Palin was born to play). Soon, Eli and Solara are on their way west, with Carnegie’s road warriors right behind them — and the movie settles into its familiar chase-in-the-desert groove. And I pretty much enjoyed it, on its own clichéd level, for most of its length.

Still and all, the movie fell down at the end (in a series of twists I won’t describe), which is also when, finally, Eli reached his goal and the story, finally, got irredeemably pat. Up until then, every cliché in Gary Whitta’s script — and there often seemed to be as many of them as there are “begats” in Genesis — was somehow counter-balanced by the striking visuals produced by the Hughses, their production designer Gae Buckley, the fantastic monochrome or sepia camera-work of cinematographer Don Burgess and the performances of Washington and Oldman (and other survivors-along-the-way like Waits as the barroom handyman/engineer and Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour as a hospitable but tough old couple named George and Martha).

The script is the culprit. Not because it’s religious — that spiritual-moral side is actually one of the movie‘s strengths — but because it doesn’t concentrate enough all the way through on the meaning/metaphor of the bible, and its fierce attraction for both Eli and Carnegie, and also because it gets too sentimental and incongruously holy and bloody at the end. There’s nothing very original about The Book of Eli to start out with, and it’s pretty standard post-apocalypse stuff all the way through, albeit very well done. But it needs to deeper from the first act on, and when the uncredited Malcolm McDowell shows up in a Frisco climax to help deliver the meaning of it all, it’s too preachy, too late.


The Spy Next Door (One Star)
U. S.; Brian Levant, 2010

55-year-old Jackie Chan is still limber and seemingly stunt-ready. But, at least by the evidence of this stinker of an action family-comedy, he has trouble picking screenplays. The Spy Next Door, very loudly misdirected by Brian Levant (that’s the dog, not the composer), casts him as Bob Ho (Don Ho’s cousin?), a karate-happy, gadget-and-weapon-laden retiring C.I.A. troubleshooter, disguised as a mild-mannered pen salesman, to the disgust of two of the three children of Gillian (Amber Valletta), the lady next door whom Ho is trying to woo.

When Gillian leaves for a while, it’s Ho’s big chance to ingratiate himself with all the kids, a goal sabotaged by his mild manners and also by his amazing ineptitude at household chores. (Couldn’t he hire a maid?) And the “Ho-ho-ho-with-Bob-Ho” campaign is also complicated by a Russian plot involving Magnus Scheving, Katherine Boecher, Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez — who look and act less like spies and spooks than, say, some new temp judges’ panel on American Idol. Soon, everything you could have predicted is happening — but not the way you’d want to see it. This movie‘s end-credits blooper reel is better than the whole picture.

It’s hard to dislike Jackie Chan, but it’s easy to dislike this over-slick, unoriginal ho’ of a movie. Just walk in for the blooper reel and you cant go wrong. Ho!

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.-U.K.; Terry Gilliam, 2009

I’m generally partial to Terry Gilliam, but this troubled production, in which, unhappily, star Heath Ledger died in mid-shoot, shows just how ingenious, and how wildly, visually imaginative, Gilliam can be. Ledger, playing Tony, a carnival worker in the seedy, traveling coach Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, at his most off-handedly Shakespearean), has been replaced in the unshot scenes by three other stars — Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who are respectively billed as “Imaginarium Tony 1-3.” And it works!

Not only does it work, Imaginarium seems to me one of the better fantasy movies of last year. Co-written by Gilliam and Charles McKeon (the team on Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil), it’s the tale of a duel-of-wits among Dr, Parnassus (carny magician and the world’s oldest man by a thousand years or so), all the incarnations of Tony, and the satanic Mr. Nick (Tom Waits again), who will carry off Dr. P’s fetching honey-bunny daughter Valentina (supermodelish-looking Lily Cole), unless he’s paid off with five souls. Watching all this are carnival associates Percy (Verne Troyer, in a super-size performance) and lovelorn Anton (Andrew Garfield).

The Imaginarium is a behind-the-mirror wonderland in Dr. P’s show, where Ledger‘s Tony turns successively, into Depp‘s, Law’s and Farrell’s Tonies — and all the latter three deserve a triple round of applause for so ably helping to preserve their colleague/brother-at-arms’ last role. The Imaginarium is also where Gilliam is able to exploit his wildest, weirdest flights of fancy. If you like him, trust me, you’ll like this. Huzzah!


The Lovely Bones (Three Stars)
U.S.-New Zealand; Peter Jackson, 2009

Peter Jackson — or should we say “Sir Peter Jackson” — has a high old CGI time here, adapting Alice Sebold‘s spooky-lyrical novel about the ghost of a poignant young teenage murder victim watching from Heaven the aftermath of her murder: the fates of the serial killer who destroyed her and the family and friends she left behind.

It’s a stunning-looking movie, with two remarkable performances — Saoirse Ronan as the victim, Susie Salmon, and Stanley Tucci as the neighbor/killer, George Harvey. Bravo to both. And the heavenly effects are, as you‘d expect, spellbindingly over the top. Jackson and his effects people, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) keep sliding you from one psychedelic fantasy-scape to another, with such nonstop virtuosity that Bones becomes almost oppressively imaginative.

Ronan helps hold it altogether. The young star of Atonement gives us the near-essence of girlhood, innocence and live-wire young beauty. Tucci is blood-chilling. Perhaps he’s watched tapes of the creepily bland and self-effacing serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. At any rate, Tucci catches that sense of oddly reasonable-sounding mushy calm that Dahmer had, and when George’s psyche begins to splinter in several scenes, it’s primally scary.

The rest of the cast are more ordinary, though Susan Sarandon has a grande dame scene-stealing turn as salty old Grandma Lynn. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, as Susie’s parents, however, rarely ring true.

The Lovely Bones is something of a disappointment, but only because Jackson and his co-writers (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, are also responsible for the first 2000 decade‘s best movie achievement, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since The Lovely Bones is not, obviously, in that category — not even one of this year’s best movies, there’s been a tendency to over-knock it. Had this movie come out of nowhere, it might not have been so savagely treated by some. But heaven can’t be captured by a computer; knighthood can have its drawbacks. (Going wide this week.)


35 Shots of Rum (Three and a Half Stars)
France; Claire Denis, 2009

Claire Denis, the marvelous French writer-director of Chocolat and Le Beau Travail, is a poet of everyday life, a filmmaker who can make magic out of the simplest tasks or events — whether preparing a meal, taking medication at evening, or dancing after hours in a little restaurant. In 35 Shots of Rum (or 35 Rhums) Denis returns to her favorite subject: the consequences of racial relations between blacks and whites in France and her one-time colonies. And once again, she fills the screen with life and poetry and humanity. But Denis universalizes her subject matter in another way. She turns her story into a classic statement, like those of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, on parents and children, and the pain of parting.

It’s her best film, I think. In following the lives of her subjects — quiet African émigré train engineer Lionel (Alex Secas) and his bright bi-racial college student daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) — and also of their apartment building neighbors (and prospective lovers), the cheery taxi driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and sullen Noe (Gregoire Colin, a favorite actor of the director’s), Denis manages to create a little piece of time and space that seems almost flawlessly real.

Like Ozu, Jean Renoir, or Vittorio De Sica, Denis is a master of cinematic realism. She never pushes a scene too hard, never takes a characterization too far. Her rhythms don’t seem artificial or imposed. Instead, we seem to be eavesdropping on life: on real people and honest emotions. To some audiences (and critics), this may mean that 35 Shots of Rum — whose title refers to a contest of Lionel’s, like the 50 eggs in Cool Hand Luke — will seem too slow. But that’s a superficial judgment. Compared to the moving everyday world Denis creates here, most other films are too fast. 35 Shots of Rum, a subtle and true family tale, makes us a gift of life. (Music Box, Chicago)

– Michael Wilmington
January 14, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon