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Lucas Black

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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.

Gods and Broncos.

The B-movie preview that went over best at the midnight District 9 (even though it blatantly rips off everything off from Constantine to Preacher to The Prophecy to The Matrix): the trailer for Scott Stewart’s Legion, wherein fallen angel Paul Bettany must protect the unborn Chosen One 2.0, as well as the hardest working man in show business (Dennis Quaid) and a gaggle of other puny humans — Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Kate Walsh, Adrianne Palicki, Willa Holland, and Charles S. Dutton — from, apparently, the wrath of God. (If the January release date didn’t tip you off, there’s a way-too-long, spoileriffic red-band trailer floating around which suggests this is basically as good as it gets. Still, it made for a fun two minutes.)

Also in the trailer bin: our first look at Jared Hess’ Gentlemen Broncos, with Michael Angarano (of Snow Angels), Jennifer Coolidge, Jemaine Clement, Mike White, and Sam Rockwell. I’m not a huge fan of the pedigree, tbh — I didn’t think much of Nacho Libre and thought Napoleon Dynamite was wildly overrated — but this does have the power combo of Jemaine and Rockwell in its favor.

The Hell Jar.

Generally well-made and well-acted, and at times beautifully shot (particularly in the oil-fire sequence late in the film), Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, alas, doesn’t really work. One marine recruit’s account of his time in “the suck” and his service in Gulf War I, which involved a lot of waiting around in the Saudi desert with nary an enemy combatant in sight, the film is strangely flat and uninvolving for most of its run. It must’ve been hard to figure out a way to make a movie about anxious boredom seem compelling to an audience, and I haven’t read Anthony Swofford’s much-acclaimed memoir, so I don’t really know how much the source material is at fault, but stocking Jarhead with war movie cliches and nods to other, better films was not the correct answer.

As the movie begins, Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) undergoes a mercifully brief stint in Basic Training (a la Full Metal Jacket), before being assigned to a unit under the severe but well-meaning Staff Sgt. Siek (Jamie Foxx). Soon, Iraq invades Kuwait, and Swofford’s unit (which includes an excellent-as-usual but somewhat miscast Peter Sarsgaard, and memorable turns by Lucas Black and Jacob Vargas) find themselves in the Saudi desert, and the interminable waiting begins. Trained to be lethal killing machines, Swofford & co. are all dressed up with no place to go, so they spend their days hydrating, pining over their (serially unfaithful) ladyfriends, running chemical attack simulations, and rather unsuccessfully staving off insanity with machismo and masochism. Finally, they’re given the chance to fulfill their training, only to discover to their disgust that marine infantry are somewhat extraneous in this particular conflict, and they’ll have very little chance to exorcise their ingrained bloodlust. (To which I say, better than the alternative — I suspect very few veterans of live combat situations would share their disappointment.)

In almost any war, long stretches of waiting followed by intermittent bursts of activity is the soldier’s lot, so perhaps Jarhead should be commended for trying to bring this reality into focus. But, I have to admit — and admittedly, I’m as civilian as they come — a lot of the movie rings false. And, even if the many implausible details are in fact true and documented, the movie does itself a disservice by wallowing in broad war movie cliche. We’ve got the aforementioned hellish basic training, the sergeant with a heart of gold, the private who goes bug-nuts psycho in the field, the obligatory descent into madness by the protagonist, so on and so forth. In its best moments, Jarhead riffs on these obvious nods — marines hoop and holler to the valkryie scene in Apocalypse Now, and Swofford complains that The Doors’ “Break on Through” is “Vietnam music.” But most of the time, Jarhead just feels like more of the same.

In sum, if you want to see a great Gulf War I movie, watch Three Kings. Jarhead, unfortunately, is at best a low two-pair.

Oil & Smoke.

In the movie bin, Jake Gyllenhaal welcomes the suck in the full trailer for Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (teaser noted here) , and John Turturro directs an all-star cast to song and dance in this first clip from Romance & Cigarettes.

Cogs and Grunts and Hirelings.

More trailers for your perusal: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper and Jamie Foxx brave Operation Desert Storm in the trailer for Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, Charlize Theron channels Liquid Television for Frances McDormand in MTV’s live-action version of Aeon Flux, and Robert Downey Jr., Michelle Monaghan, and Val Kilmer attempt to solve a Hollywood murder mystery in this look at Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.

A Frigid, Starry Peak.

Well, I haven’t read the Charles Frazier novel, but I’d say “Cold Mountain” is an apt and colorful metaphor to sum up this film, its stars, and even its director’s entire body of work. For like Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, and as with The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain is beautiful but distant, occasionally breathtaking but often chilly, and not so much high as just plain stilted. In fact, the hike up and down this Cold Mountain includes definite moments of grandeur, but more often than not it feels like a bit of a slog. At times, it’s even glacial.

I should say up front that this is a far better Confederate-centered Civil War film than the vile Gods and Generals. The chaos and carnage of the Battle of the Crater that opens the film seems much more real and visceral than anything in the godawful G&G. Whatsmore, the historical aspects of Mountain generally feel right (In fact, much of the film seems like a fictionalization of Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention, which vividly describes how the lives of Southern women were transformed by the war experience and the collapse of the Confederate patriarchy.)

Unfortunately, the respectable versimilitude of the film keeps getting undermined by the wattage of its star power. From Stalingrad to Petersburg, nobody in the business does starving-but-handsome-and-resolute-warrior as well as Jude Law these days, and he’s quite good here despite the frequent accent-slippage. But, frankly, Nicole Kidman feels all wrong here. It’s not that she’s bad per se, it’s just that, like her ex-husband in 19th-century Japan three weeks ago, she never seems like she fits this milieu at all. (It doesn’t help that she spends most of the end of the film in an outdoor outfit that looks Banana Republic-coordinated.) Finally, others have noted the lack of chemistry between Law and Kidman, and I too thought the central romance here was rather uninvolving.

But, even if the two leads’ remarkable frigidity wasn’t distracting enough, Law and Kidman are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, in the spirit of the film, I’ll go ahead and torture this metaphor even further…Perhap sensing that the romantic low burn here might be too dim a fire to heat the screen for 150 minutes, Anthony Minghella has packed Cold Mountain so full of stars and cameos that it starts to feel like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. From Lucas Black getting bayonetted in the opening minutes to Jack White procuring cider at the very end (in yet another of Minghella’s quintessentially ham-handed symbolic moments, but I’ll get to that later), famous faces keep appearing around every corner of the poor, white backcountry South, and it took me out of the movie almost every time. Basically, I found it hard to become engrossed in the film when I kept thinking things like “So, that’s what Kathy Baker‘s been up to…she got married to the manager from Major League,” “James Rebhorn‘s his doctor? He’s toast,” “Well, Jena Malone didn’t last very long,” “and “Hey, that’s Cillian Murphy. Between him and Brendan Gleeson, this is like a sequel to 28 Days Later…um, except it has no zombies and it’s set in the Civil War South.”

Ok, perhaps that’s an unfair criticism, but I’d think even people who don’t go to the movies much are going to be distracted by all the Hollywood faces flitting about. I should say while I’m on the subject that Brendan Gleeson is very good (as always) here – Not only does he handle the accent like a champ, but he conveys more emotion in one winsome smile or knowing grimace than many of the central characters do the entire film. As for other good performances…Despite lugging around a baby that’s as big as she is, Natalie Portman proves here that she can still act when not forced in front of a bluescreen. (By the way, after the Portman episode, why didn’t Inman take one of the Union horses?) Giovanni Ribisi moves into the frontrunning for the Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel biopic. And, Renee Zellweger…well, she moons and mugs through this film like a Best Supporting Actress award was her birthright, but she still gives Cold Mountain a very-much-needed jolt in the arm every time she shows up. (She’s particularly energetic when compared to the staid Kidman.)

On the flip side of the coin, somebody should’ve told Donald Sutherland that different parts of the South call for different accents…he sounds miles away from a Charlestonian. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the best thing about Minghella’s Ripley, is perhaps the worst thing about Cold Mountain. Completely unconvincing in his role here, he’s a walking, talking anachronism.

All the unnecessary star voltage aside, of course, this movie eventually rises and falls on its director, and all of Anthony Minghella’s strengths and weaknesses are present here. (I should say that I loathed The English Patient and enjoyed Ripley until Jude Law was killed, after which the film meandered to its conclusion.) Both Patient and Ripley have some very beautiful and striking moments, but more often than not the imagery is so “artfully” composed as to become hamhanded. The same goes here for Mountain…we’ve got a lamb running around in wolf’s clothing, we’ve got a dove trapped in a church until Jude Law sets it free (you do the math)…in fact, we have enough fluttering, portentous birds on a wing here to make John Woo blush. Perhaps these capital-S Symbols are in Frazier’s novel too, but I’d still think a subtler director could have mined them more dexterously. And, while I didn’t know the ending coming in, Minghella foreshadows the conclusion so laboriously (even having Kidman break it down step-by-step to Zellweger) that I spent the last twenty-five minutes just waiting for the other shoe to drop, which killed any real emotion I might’ve felt about the denouement.

Looking back, I’ve been pretty harsh here, so I should repeat that Cold Mountain is not a bad film at all. In many ways, it’s quite good. But, Oscar buzz notwithstanding, it’s definitely not great…in fact, I even found it less involving than The Last Samurai. In the future, were I looking to recommend a film that captures the despair and devastation afflicting the Confederate homefront in the waning days of the war, I just might pick Cold Mountain. But, as for attempts to give The Odyssey a Faulknerian palmetto-and-spanish-moss recasting, give me O Brother Where Art Thou? any day of the week.

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