You don't want to know what's written in the book of Judge Patrick Bromley.
After nearly a decade-long hiatus, brothers Allen and Albert Hughes return to filmmaking to deliver one of 2010's biggest and best surprises.
Facts of the Case
Sometime in the distant future when the planet has been scorched by some sort of apocalyptic event, a lone traveler named Eli (Denzel Washington, Man on Fire) is walking towards the west coast of the United States for an undisclosed reason. Fully capable of defending himself against the bands of aggressive nomads he encounters (thanks to impressive fighting skills and the ability to wield a big-ass knife), Eli eventually arrives in a town ruled by a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman, True Romance), who is relentlessly pursuing a lost book that he believes will give him power. Believing that Eli may have knowledge of the book, Carnegie sends one of his servants, a beautiful young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) to get more information. Inspired by his faith and commitment, Solara instead decides to join Eli on his quest, which inspires the wrath of Carnegie. Pursued by Carnegie and his number-one henchman (Ray Stevenson, Punisher: War Zone), the pair must stay on the path and continue their journey to deliver Eli's book.
I'm not the first to say it, and I'm positive I won't be the last, but 2010 has been a pretty terrible year for movies. Maybe we're still living in the aftermath of the writers' strike. Maybe the back half of the year will be loaded with original, thought-provoking and well-made gems (I'd hold my breath, but I would be dead by the time The Twilight Saga: Eclipse comes out). Every week brings a new disappointment, it seems, with more sequels and remakes (and it's obnoxious, call-it-what-you-want-it's-a-remake cousin the "re-imagining") from source material that doesn't call out for a single movie adaptation to be made from it, much less several. It's a pretty grim time for us movie fans.
This kind of climate makes it easy for something like Allan and Albert Hughes' post-apocalyptic western The Book of Eli to come along and score big points just for being a terrific surprise. In another year, it might be just another well-made genre offering that finds life on DVD sometime down the road. This year, though, it's one of the better movies I've seen and one that I'm happy to suggest that readers proactively seek out instead of just catching it during a late-night HBO showing two years from now, prompting the inevitable "Why didn't I see this cool-ass movie when it came out?" It's that kind of movie.
What I've always liked about the Hughes brothers as filmmakers is that they seem to be interested in typically B-grade genre stuff but consistently elevate it to A-list with smart casting, excellent production design and sheer moviemaking skill. The Book of Eli (their first narrative film since From Hell in 2001) is the brothers' most unabashed genre mash-up, combining elements of the western, post-apocalyptic science fiction and the samurai film with sweeping strokes of comic book action and religious overtones. It almost totally works—if not for a lack of humor and a pretty big dose of pretentiousness (brought on by said lack of humor, the religious subject matter and the fact that it stars Denzel Washington). It's unfortunate that the brothers make films so rarely, but here's hoping that The Book of Eli's artistic and commercial success reenergize them into making another movie sooner rather than later. As the geeks continue to inherit the Earth and genre films become the acceptable, big-budget norm, they're just the kind of directors we need to keep giving geek movies a good name.
Though well-acted and even better-directed, The Book of Eli is not without its share of problems. An extended sequence two-thirds of the way into the film involving Michael Gambon as a cannibal slows things down somewhat just when the movie should be propelling towards its conclusion—though it does give license for the Hughes brothers to stage one of the film's coolest action set pieces (inspired, it would appear, by the stunning single-take sequences in Children of Men). And though it was a common critique of the movie when it was released this past January, it's true that the Mila Kunis character doesn't really work. I wasn't bothered by the fact that she was always perfectly made up (a lot of reviewers seemed to be, but that's just nitpicking compared to the larger issues at hand) and her performance is fine, but the character really doesn't work as written. By the end of the movie, the brothers do their best to justify her inclusion, but by then it's too late. She rarely amounts to more than the "take me with you" character found in a lot of genre movies, and we never are made to understand what's motivating her choice. She's a writers' construct—an opportunity to provide the movie some glamour and perhaps extend its appeal to some female viewers, but not much more. Does she sink the film? Absolutely not, but she winds up being a pretty glaring problem on an otherwise tight screenplay.
Minor Spoilers Ahead: A lot was made of the fact that The Book of Eli features a "twist" when it was first released earlier this year. It's not really a twist, though—just a reveal that plays like a punch line to everything that's preceded it. Watching the movie a second time, it does seem to play fair, and without being too heavy-handed about it goes a long way towards boldly underscoring one of the film's major themes (if it was a network TV series, this would be the name of the show). Though not entirely necessary to the story being told—there's no real reason the Hughes had to structure their screenplay this way save for the element of surprise—the reveal never feels gratuitous, which has become increasingly difficult to find in the post-Sixth Sense world. Like Daybreakers, another inventive, political, futuristic genre offering from earlier this year (directed by a pair of brothers, no less), The Book of Eli has more on its mind than just action and cool bursts of violence—though it's got plenty of that, too. The movie is all about the power of ideas, and how those ideas can be used to either inspire or control man. It's critical of organized religion while at the same time making a kind of case for it, and if that sounds to you like the movie tries to have it both ways you might not be wrong. It's a film about faith and the need to believe in something bigger than yourself, and its criticism are not of religion but of those who would use the faith of others to wield control over them. Not that that kind of thing ever goes on today.
Warner Bros. releases The Book of Eli in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, featuring a truly striking HD transfer of a carefully crafted, heavily stylized movie. The VC-1-encoded 1080p transfer looks fantastic, presenting the movie's bleak, washed-out photography exactly as intended; what it lacks in color it more than makes up for in contrast, detail and deep, inky black levels that are often an essential aspect of the movie's photography. It's a nearly flawless transfer, and viewers seeing The Book of Eli in standard definition don't know what they're missing. The same can be said for the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD audio track, which is expertly done and engaging in all the right spots: the action beats have real kick, while the (many) quieter dialogue sequences are paid just as much care and attention. There are also a lot of nice smaller touches—mostly background details—that help round out the audio track and make it a true immersive experience.
The Book of Eli comes with one of my favorite bonus features, the Warner Bros.-created "Maximum Movie Mode." Instead of a standard commentary track, the Blu-ray-specific MMM offers a combination of commentary, picture-in-picture interviews, production artwork and branching featurettes. The Book of Eli doesn't make the best use of the capabilities (that would be the Watchmen Blu-ray, in case you're wondering), but still offers an excellent, comprehensive look at how the film was created. My favorite aspect of the feature was the production artwork and storyboard comparisons, as they demonstrated just how specific the Hughes' brothers vision for the film was and just how well their vision was realized. The full featurettes can be accessed by pressing 'enter' when they come on, or accessed separately within the special features section of the disc by choosing the "Focus Points" option. Two longer featurettes, "Starting Over" and "The Look of Eli," cover the creation of a post-apocalyptic world for the film, as well as the movie's visual design, casting and use of religious themes and metaphor.
Also included is an animated short, "Lost Tale: Billy," which focuses on the villain, Carnegie, as a young boy. Like The Matrix and Southland Tales, it's an example of filmmakers attempting to expand their universe in other mediums; it makes sense that the Hughes brothers use something similar to the graphic novel format, as much of The Book of Eli has the feel of a sophisticated comic book. A short piece on the movie's score, "The Book of Eli Soundtrack," and just under two minutes of deleted and alternate scenes have also been included. Additionally, the Blu-ray set comes packaged with a DVD copy of the movie, as well as a digital copy for your computer and portable media devices.
In a movie year as disappointing as 2010 is shaping up to be, a movie that does its job as well as The Book of Eli looks a lot better by comparison. Overlong and a bit pretentious, it's very well directed, boasts some good performances, and gives just enough of an original spin on familiar genre archetypes to become something that not only works, but will likely earn repeat viewings and grow in estimation over time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Maximum Movie Mode
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