Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New West Morality Tales

I watched two episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel this morning. The first "No Visitors" concerns a wagon master who considers himself a prophet of God. The wagon master places a town under his thrall by uniting them in fear, bigotry and self-serving religiosity. The town has ostracized the one town doctor (June Lockhart)because of her gender and has banded together to prevent Paladin from bringing a woman and her sick child into town. They choose to believe the bible toting wagon master who says the child has typhoid fever instead of the doctor who diagnoses the malady as a case of three day measles. It turns out the pompous wagon master had left the woman and her child to die in the wilderness because she had spurned his lecherous attempts to "marry" her when her husband died - announcing that God had told him it was his "duty" to do so. It is telling that this episode with its thinly veiled metaphors is as topical today as it was in 1957.

The second episode, "Scorched Feather" is written by Bruce Geller (Mission: Impossible) and concerns Monsieur Robert Cielbleu who hires Paladin to protect former scout Billy Blueskies (Lon Chaney, Jr.) from a young but dreaded Comanche war chief. Cielbleu is the son of Billy Blueskies and Blueskies has spent a lot of money buying an education, refinement and social respectability for his son. Turns out Cielbleu and the Comanche war chief are the same person - a result of a liaison Blueskies had with a Comanche woman - a woman who dies in an army massacre made possible by Blueskies scouting. So, in essence, Blueskies' refined, educated "passing" son has hired Paladin to protect his father from his other "true" identity, the blood thirsty, revenge seeking Comanche who wants to avenge his mother's death. The young man has literally gone schizoid, trying to live in two different cultures, and is trying to honor both his father and his mother. Good stuff.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Star is Born

Mila Kunas' performance in The Book of Eli surprised me. Going in I was not a fan. I found her eight year run as Jackie Burkhart on That 70's Show to be the weakest link of a talented and underrated ensemble cast. As Burkhart, she was shrill, selfish and annoying - like nails on a chalk board. But, and this is where movie stardom comes from, the camera loves her. As I was watching "Eli" it occurred to me that Kunas with her big eyes and pouty lips looks like a young Angelina Jolie. There was a toughness - a rod of steel in her character. On screen with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, she holds her own. And, narrow as she is, Kunis looks like sex. All our hardest working female stars look like sex: Angelina Jolie, Halle Barry, Rosario Dawson, Kate Hudson, Penelope Cruz, Scarlet Johansson, and now, Kunis. Watch her work.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Gospel of Eli

The Book of Eli reminds me of a story I once heard about a pastor who wore his Christian faith proudly. One day a knucklehead said
"So, if I slap you, you're going to turn the other cheek?"
The pastor gathered himself before stating with conviction, "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, but if you slap me you will know I AM NOT JESUS CHRIST!"

The Book of Eli is a one hour and fifty-eight minute meditation on that anecdote. The Eli of the title is a righteous man but he is nothing nice. When he tells a highwayman that if he places his
hand on him again he will not get the hand back, he means it and follows through with brutal efficiency.

Rugged, world worn and taciturn, Eli (Denzel Washington) is on a mission from God, having received the call a year after something tore a hole in sky killing and blinding untold millions. Following that voice, he uncovers the last bible on earth and begins what will become a thirty years trek across a desolate post-apocalypse landscape - with no knowledge of where he is going but with an un-erring resolve to get there.

Brutal efficiency is also an apt description of The Book of Eli as directed by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes. With their muted palette of grays and sepia tones, the Book of Eli doesn't engage you so much as goose you with brief explosive bursts of efficiently choreographed violence followed by long dry stretches of stagnant exposition. Eli is bleak in both landscape and execution. A good chunk of the opening scene has no dialogue at all leaving us to see the world as Eli sees it - through sound, touch and faith.

Denzel Washington is iconic and moves through this movie like the cinematic monument he is. Eli is like an amalgam of his greatest hits, evoking everything from Glory to American Gangster. In this performance, there is the righteous determination of El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) and Reuben Carter (The Hurricane); the steely ruthlessness of Creasy (A Man on Fire) and Frank Lucas (An American Gangster); and the unbowed confidence of Trip (Glory) and Jake Shuttleworth (He Got Game). In fact, the movie evokes fond memories with a Trip-like moment involving Eli, a dead body and a pair of much needed new boots. No flogging ensues.

How you respond to the Gospel of Eli will depend on your Christian faith or lack thereof. It will either warm and inspire you or leave you completely cold. I find myself somewhere in the middle. While I enjoyed the movie overall, I found its pop evangelizing a little pushy. Further, it irked me that Eli often appeared to be the last black man alive. As he rolled through through desparate towns and over desolate highways, with few exceptions, he encounters nothing but haggard-looking white people.

Sure, Jennifer Beals has an extended role but she is so light-skinned that she plays the mother of Mila Kunis (who is an Angelina Jolie-esque revelation in this movie).

It is somewhat disheartening in a movie directed by two black directors and starring our greatest black actor to witness a future that still has no place for black people.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Ugly Bones

I hate this movie. Words cannot describe how much I detest
Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely
. Sir, how dare you? How dare you? How dare you! Mr.
Jackson, you are not allowed to manipulate me in such a callous,
slick and blase way. How do I hate this movie? Let me count the

I have been the victim of maudlin movie manipulation before.
Some of the best loved movies of our times tug shamelessly
at our emotions, coaxing tears from our ducts and "aw"s from
our collective throats. Ghost, Terms of Endearment, Forrest
Gump, Steel Magnolias, Wuthering Heights, Titantic, Kramer
Vs. Kramer, Beaches, Ordinary People, Bambi,
for crissakes,
all wallow in mawkish, life-affirming sentimentality, wringing
us with wrenching emotion but making us feel better as we
sniffle our way out of the theater.

What is most offensive about The Lovely Bones is that Peter
Jackson lards the profoundly awful circumstance of Bones,
a lovely duckling of a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) is raped
and murdered on the precipice of promising womanhood by a
chillingly banal murderer (Stanley Tucci), with all the five-
hankie accouterments - the dotty, booze swilling grandmother
(Susan Sarandon), the impossibly cute mop-headed little brother
(Christian Thomas Ashdale), the plucky also-dead girl guide
(Nikki SooHoo), the misty-eyed boyfriend (Reece Ritchie) -
without leavening the the profoundly awful circumstances one

Bones is relentlessly cold and matter-of-fact, full of "just the
facts ma'am" hokum as it devolves into an wholly unsatisfactory
mishmash of police procedural and "Hello God, this is Susie"
candy-coated aphorisms. Jackson exhibits the same ham-
handed technical proficiency he did in King Kong where his big
lumbering gorilla walked and breathed but could not coax an
iota of the deep emotion the shaggy, stop action puppet elicited
from us in the original. Both big hairy apes die atop the Empire
State Building but only once do we care.

It is as if Jackson were tone deaf to audience's needs. He seems
infinitely more interested in the obsessive details of the victim's
meticulous father (Mark Wahlberg) placing ships inside bottles
or the obsessively detailed notebooks of the creepy murderer
than he is in conveying simple human emotion. There is some
business with a baseball bat. It is employed. But it is the audience
that is pummeled.