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Doug Jones

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They Kick Ass for the Lord!

(With all apologies to Father McGruder.) Yes, y’all, the End of Days has come. There is a hole in the sky. John Cusack is off floating on his ark. Hobo Viggo and son are somewhere on I-95, “carrying the fire.” And, for their part, bad-ass evangelist Denzel Washington is apparently the last Jehovah’s Witness on Earth, and the fallen angel Paul Bettany is trying to take his broken wings and learn to fly again. (Did you know that every time a bell rings, an angel is shooting somebody in the face?)

In any event, I saw Allen and Albert Hughes’ The Book of Eli and Scott Stewart’s Legion on subsequent weekends (with another vaguely religious-themed movie in between, which I’ll get to in a bit), and they seem like they merit discussing together. Both are post-apocalyptic B-movies, and, weirdly enough, that’s B as in Bible: Both use Judeo-Christian themes as a pretext for ninety minutes or so of Matrix-y ass-kicking. And neither are as smart, entertaining or satisfying in their B-movieness as the Spierig’s recent Daybreakers. Of the two, Legion probably comes closer to finding that popcorn movie groove, just because it makes no bones about being unabashedly dumb — but it too slips off the rails in the final half-hour.

More on that in a bit. Let’s take the Hughes’ Book of Eli first. I should start by saying that I’m glad to see the Hughes brothers making a movie again, although I wish it was one a good deal better than this goofy drek. Their assured, eminently quotable 1993 debut Menace II Society is one of my favorite films of the nineties, and in a perfect world it should have gotten all the many props that went to John Singleton’s more Hollywood’y Boyz n the Hood of 1991. (“Now O-Dog was America’s worst nightmare: Young, black, and don’t give a f**k.“) And their take on From Hell in 2001 was laudably strange and decently compelling — It’s definitely not the worst Alan Moore adaptation out there, by a long shot.

To their credit, the Hughes give this post-apocalyptic America a bleached-out, Big Sky look that’s eye-catching…for the first half-hour of so. (After awhile, there get to be way too many slo-mo hero shots of Denzel and his eventual protege, Mila Kunis.) And, during that opening half-hour, it seems like Book of Eli might make for a pretty solid spaghetti western or samurai flick. There are two kinetic six-or-seven-on-one melees in particular, wherein a motley assortment of Borderlands-style goons and Mad Max castoffs meet the business end of Denzel’s machete, that suggest The Book of Eli will make for a pretty fun B-movie ride.

But then it all starts falling apart, mainly as a result of terrible writing. For it soon becomes clear that Denzel, a.k.a. Eli, is attracting attention in this World Gone Wrong because he is carrying — I kid you not — the Last King James Bible on Earth. Yes, somehow — only thirty years after the nukes fell — every single bible out of every single house, apartment, bookstore, mega-mart, and motel room on the planet has been destroyed…but one. This is apparently, it is said, because the survivors blamed the Bible for the End Times coming and destroyed them all. How the few remaining survivors managed to relay this message all around the world after communications had stopped is left unexplained. Nor do they show the poor irradiated schmoes who were forced to wander from burnt-out church to broken-down motel over those thirty years, scouring the Earth for the estimated 7.5 billion copies of the world’s most reproduced book. And they only missed one!

But that’s not all. So, Denzel is toting around that last Good Book, and the Big Bad of the local Bartertown — Gary Oldman — wants its immense persuasive power for his own. I forget the exact wording, but he does some monologuing to the effect of: Only with that bible in my possession will I have the words to exert my domination over the remnants of humankind! So, in other words, if he gets the Book under his thrall, Oldman will be the new prophet-king of social control. To which I say…huh? First off, at the risk of offending certain readers’ religious sensibilities — move along, Tom Cruise — hasn’t Oldman’s character ever heard of L. Ron Hubbard or Dianetics? (Or seen Zardoz, for that matter?) If you want to set up a new religion with yourself at its center, you don’t really need a KJV bible to do it. Second, it’s made abundantly clear that Oldman knows the bible pretty well from his early days anyway. He can’t just…wing it? How much more would you need other than the stories, which everybody knows, and a few choice excerpts like the Lord’s Prayer?

Not to give the game away, but The Book of Eli also suffers from a truly dumb Shyamalan ending which I will not disclose here. (Suffice to say, A Clockwork Orange notwithstanding, Malcolm McDowell showing up in the late going of any film isn’t usually a mark of quality. And if you really want to know the final turn, I’ll give a hint in spoiler-vision: “What do Rutger Hauer and Zhang Ziyi have in common?“) Now, to be fair to The Book of Eli (and as an AICN commenter pointed out), a lot of sci-fi and fantasy B-movies have plot devices that make it hard to sustain disbelief — time-traveling robots from the future, for example. True, Eli‘s central conceit is roughly similar to the plot of the very good A Canticle for Leibowitz (although that book takes place centuries after the nuclear holocaust, and the Catholic priests involved aren’t trying to preserve the Bible per se.) And, even the next movie I’m about to discuss makes less sense up front than Book of Eli‘s goofy “all the Bibles are gone!” schtick.

The difference is, in those other movies (Legion aside), once you accept the premise that robots can time-travel, Earth is now populated by damn dirty apes, vampires have taken over or whathaveyou, the rest of the story makes decent sense in that world, and is pretty darned entertaining to boot. The Book of Eli…not so much. For one, Denzel’s character is too superhuman throughout — After the first few fracases, there’s no sense at all that he ever might be in danger. More problematically, perhaps realizing that fundamental problem, the screenwriter (Gary Whitta) instead decides to punctuate pretty much every scene with women in sexual peril, a decision which is supremely lazy and, after awhile, borderline misogynistic. (Were you to play a drinking game involving one beverage for every time Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, or any other woman in The Book of Eli is threatened with rape or violence, or those threats are acted upon, you may just end up drunk enough to stop wondering what the hell is wrong with Gary Whitta.)

Anyway, all that aside, there are a few small glimmers of entertainment here and there in the later going, although they’re mostly meta moments: Michael Gambon and Frances De La Tour escape Hogwarts long enough to show up as gun-totin’ redneck cannibals, and both play it like they’re on some kind of dare. And Dracula does get to share another scene with his Renfeld, the inimitable Tom Waits. (Oldman and Washington are professionals anyway — neither condescend to this lousy material.) In the end, though, The Book of Eli is a bad movie with a dumb premise that doesn’t even seem to understand how bad or dumb it is. And that ultimately just makes it worse.

****


Now Scott Stewart’s Legion, on the other hand, wears its B-movie badness like a badge of honor, and that gets some points from me. I mean, Dennis Quaid and Charles Dutton as two short-order cooks, fending off demons in their middle-of-nowhere diner (in a place called Paradise Falls, no less)? These guys are hardened veterans of this sort of thing. They know the score, and they help bring the right sense of proportion to the rest of the survivors, including Adrianne Palicki, Tyrese, Kate Walsh, Willa Holland, and the underrated Lucas Black (who, on Sling Blade alone, really should’ve played Jake Lloyd’s part in The Phantom Menace.) In every scene they’re in, Quaid and Dutton manage to wordlessly convey their understanding that: Look at best, we’re making Tremors here, people.

In Legion, the End of Days wasn’t a man-made screw-up this time. Rather, in a fit of Old Testament wrath, our Father who art in Heaven decides that the whole mankind experiment has totally and utterly failed (maybe He caught wind of the whole reality-TV thing) and thus sends down a few plagues — locusts, angels, and whatnot — to smote us all into oblivion. Fortunately for us, the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) isn’t down with the new program, and so he clips his wings, dons some choice duds and a ridiculous amount of firepower, and becomes humankind’s protector, or at least the protector of an unborn child that apparently will be some kind of second Messiah. (Think John Connor, but biblical.) And if he can save a few diner patrons while he’s at it, well the more the merrier.

So, in other words, if The Book of Eli was a post-apocalyptic western — a Stranger comes to Town and all that — Legion is really more of a zombie movie. It’s a bunch of random strangers thrown together by crisis, trying to survive against impossible supernatural odds without killing each other. Or, in other words, it’s The Prophecy meets Night of the Living Dead meets The Terminator meets Assault on Precinct 13. (At times, it also feels a lot like the considerably better Prince of Darkness, but without Alice Cooper around to play the possessed folk.) And, even more than with Eli, I vibed into its flagrant b-movieness for the first hour or so of its run.

The problem is, Stewart and co-writer Peter Schink don’t really seem to know where they want to take this thing. You know that old saw about throwing a bunch of characters together in a room and pretty soon they start to write themselves? Well, if Legion is any indication, sometimes they don’t. And so the movie starts to lose its early head of B-movie steam by the middle going, as the various survivors pair off and spin their wheels with “character-building” conversations that go nowhere. There are a few funny exchanges, most of which made it into the ubiquitous trailer. (“I don’t even believe in God!” “That’s ok, He doesn’t believe in you either.“) But even more than in most of these flicks, I found myself sitting around waiting for the next attack just to get things moving once more.

And that brings us to the other big problem. The ground rules here don’t make a whole lot of sense. So these zombies are angels? Clearly, gunfire cuts through them like butter, so they don’t seem any different from, you know, zombies. And why are they attacking in waves like this? What’s the plan here? I know the Lord works in mysterious ways, but…is He really one for acid-drenched booby traps? Schink and Stewart have one clever conceit here — that the most innocuous-looking people around are the ones you’ll really need to worry about to go bugnuts evil at the drop of a hat. But they just keep reusing it. When an old lady attacks (again, as per the trailer), it’s a clever reversal of expectations. But when little kids and the ice cream man later do the same, it all gets a bit redundant.

By the time the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand, seeming, in all honesty, pretty straight-to-video) shows up in the last half-hour, Legion just gives up any pretense of coherence. I can barely explain anything that happens after the remaining few souls scramble out of the diner, other than to say it really isn’t worth trying to explain anyway. To its credit, Legion may not suffer from the dreary self-seriousness of The Book of Eli, but the last reel is just as convoluted and nonsensical. And, as such, both movies end up feeling a bit like the lurid daydreams of an ADD-afflicted teenager, one who’s fallen asleep after way too much Red Bull, Bible Study, and Modern Warfare 2. It’s time to wrap this up, so if you’ll forgive a really terrible pun: Lacking conviction and passionate intensity, sadly, neither of these flicks are worth a second coming.

Hell is Crowded. So is Hellboy II.

Give the devil his due: I said of the underwhelming Hellboy in 2004 (which I watched again last week, and remained underwhelmed by) that hopefully, like Bryan Singer and the X-Men series, Guillermo del Toro would be able to work out the kinks in time for the sequel. Well, four years have passed, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army is now upon us. And the verdict? Well, HB-II: TGA is by almost every reckoning a brisker, more confident, and more satisfying movie than its predecessor. (I say “almost” because, with the transition from Nazis and Lovecraft to the World of Warcraft, Hellboy seems slightly out of his milieu this time.) That being said, I felt The Golden Army, while entertaining throughout, didn’t quite cohere for me as a film: It plays more like a sprawling collection of fun ideas, haphazardly strung together, than a movie of a piece. Now, originality goes a long way, and I’ll give del Toro bonus points for really letting his freak flag fly this time ’round. (If nothing else, HB-II occasionally seems like a test FX-reel for The Hobbit.) Still, while I was impressed by the breadth of del Toro’s imagination, I can’t say I ever felt absorbed by it. For whatever reason, and not for lack of trying, Hellboy II: The Golden Army left me reasonably amused and distracted for two hours, and not much else.

The films begins with a stop-motion fairy tale. As a (goofily-designed) preadolescent in 1955, Hellboy was told the tale of the Golden Army, an unstoppable goblin-forged force commanded by an elven king in his war against that teeming, grasping nuisance, humanity. But dismayed by the carnage wrought, said king ultimately decided to sign a truce with humankind — men get the cities, elves get the forests — much to the consternation of his son, Prince Nuada. Cut to the present day: The humans have, as WALL-E foreshadowed, plowed through the forests for their strip malls and parking lots, and thus Nuada (Luke Goss) has returned to fight the ancient war anew.

But, standing in his way, for better or worse, are the motley protectors of humankind, the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development). Among their number, the kindly, bookish fish-man Abraham Sapien (Doug Jones, not too far removed from Threepio), the powerful pyrokinetic Liz Sheridan (Selma Blair, all blue fire and bedroom eyes), and, of course, Big Red himself, the kitty-loving, cigar-chomping spawn of Lucifer, Hellboy (Ron Perlman, clearly having fun). But, one must ask, in a war between the freaks and the humans, why are Hellboy et al on the side of the latter, particularly when mankind seems to fear and despise their lot? Clearly, the BPRD gang have some considerations to make.

That’s arguably the main thread of Hellboy II, but there’s quite a bit else going on — too much, in fact. Y’see, Hellboy very much wants to take the team public, and he and Liz are having some space issues, and Liz has a secret of her own, and Abe may have met the (elvish) girl of his dreams, and, along with last film’s comic relief (Jeffrey Tambor), there’s a new freak in town, an ectoplasmic German martinet named Johann Krauss (Seth McFarlane, of Family Guy). Oh, and let’s not forget the Troll Market (a showy cantina-style setpiece in the middle going), a (IMHO, strained) Barry Manilow musical number, and even an encounter with the Angel of Death.

Now some might rightly argue that I’m looking the gift hellspawn in the maw here, and that one should just sit back and relish the cornucopia of imaginative riches on display. Fair enough — There are some memorable images throughout (I particularly liked the autumn of the elemental), and this is miles more interesting than, say, The Incredible Hulk. But I still think the movie would’ve been more captivating had it been less episodic. Despite the many innovative ideas on display, The Golden Army — much like Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — at times feels more like a notebook dump than a movie. (But as I said, if this what it takes for del Toro to clear the mental decks pre-Hobbit, I’m all for it.)

Nevertheless, if Hellboy was too little, and Hellboy II turned out to be too much, I’d still probably be up for a Hellboy 3, several years from now, on the other side of Middle Earth. Particularly if it goes back to plumbing the Cthulhian depths suggested in the original, the third film could end up being juussst riiight.

Kael’thas called. He wants his look back.

It’s the Burning Legion vs. the forces of Tempest Keep, with the U.S. of A. caught in the middle, in the full trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Looks like a healthy dollop of summer fun, if nothing else.

The Devil You Know.

“We have company.” Big Red, Selma, Pa Bluth, Abe Sapien, & co are back fighting Cthulhuian monstrosities (and what look to be Warcraft blood elves) in the new trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I said of the first one that del Toro deserves another chance to tell a crackling Hellboy story without being burdened with all the origin stuff. So, hopefully, this’ll be more fun from the word go.

Terror & Pan.

In the movie bin, Robert Rodriguez wallows in 70’s B-movie kitsch in the new trailer for Planet Terror, his half of Grindhouse, with Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn and several others. And, more promisingly, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth gets another trailer, albeit one with Mr. Movie Voice.

Trailer Convoy.

Several items for the trailer bin:

* Diane Lane and Thomas Jane go on the lam to escape hitmen Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in this glimpse at John Madden’s Tarantino’ed-up version of Elmore Leonard’s Killshot. (Johnny Knoxville and Rosario Dawson are involved in some fashion as well.)

* Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li gear up for some trademark Zhang Yimou wire-fu (a la Hero and House of Flying Daggers) in the new teaser for Curse of the Golden Flower.

* Nicole Kidman ventures through the photographic looking-glass as Diane Arbus in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, the new film by Secretary‘s Steven Shainberg, also with Robert Downey Jr. (Mirrored here.)

* Helen Mirren jumps from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II in this look at Stephen Frears’ The Queen, concerning Buckingham Palace’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana. (I have zero interest in the subject matter, frankly, but I do like Mirren, Frears, and James Cromwell, and there’s an iffy Tony Blair impression here by Michael Sheen, to say nothing of the guy playing Prince Charles.)

* Finally, Guillermo del Toro returns to the faerie Spain of The Devil’s Backbone in this rapid-edit teaser for Pan’s Labyrinth. (Being on a lousy hotel connection, I couldn’t get this link to work, but I believe the same teaser is mirrored here.)

Flash and the Pan.

It’s not the best quality — Still, the Spanish trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth, seemingly a companion of sorts to The Devil’s Backbone, is now online.

You remind me of the power.

Who do? You do. The eerie new teaser for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a sequel of sorts to Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, is now online. (Click through the ad.)

Crabgrass (and Martian) Frontiers.

Some trailers for movies I doubt I’ll see: Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni keep up with the Joneses via armed robbery in Fun with Dick and Jane, Eomer and The Rock wield BFGs in the totally unnecessary film version of Doom, and suburban housewife Julianne Moore pens her way to big bucks (much to the chagrin of man-of-the-house Woody Harrelson) in The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio. Ho-hum. Also in film news, Ellen Page is Kitty Pryde in X3, which sits better with me than the idea of Eli of Freaks & Geeks as Angel.

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