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Malcolm McDowell

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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.

Death, Revenge, Love, and Slyders.

Some short thoughts on recent DVDs witnessed…

Dead Man: Many cinephiles whose opinions I trust have told me to check out Jim Jarmusch’s stuff, so I figured a good place to start would be this black-and-white western featuring Johnny Depp and a slew of my favorite character actors. Alas, I found Dead Man to be slow, scattershot, and for the most part uninvolving. Depp is William Blake, a fellow who is forced to flee the frontier town run by an industrialist strongman (the late, great Robert Mitchum) after an unfortunate love-triangle mix-up, and who, despite being unrelated to the English poet and mystic of the same name, nevertheless encounters enough shamanist mysticism in the wilderness to make even Oliver Stone blush. Blake’s tour guide on his increasingly bizarre escapades outside “civilization” is an Indian named Nobody (Gary Fisher), who speaks in riddle-like profundities (and, occasionally, passages from Blake) in the manner of filmed Native Americans since time immemorial.

Basically, I thought Dead Man was kinda goofy. It never established much of a rhythm or a narrative, and as an episodic travelogue, it’s hit and miss. Billy Bob Thornton as a lonely trapper and Alfred Molina as a priest peddling smallpox blankets probably make the most indelible impressions, but other quality actors (particularly John Hurt and Gabriel Byrne) needed more to do. Frankly, I just don’t think I got it. Why does long-winded, cold-blooded killer Michael Wincott sleep with a teddy bear? Why is frontiersman Iggy Pop dressed like a Willa Cather heroine? (Presumably, the answer for Jarmusch fans is “Why Not?” I suppose I could just as easily question David Lynch’s dwarves or the Coens’ similar non-sequiturs.) Perhaps I went in with abnormal expectations, but I found Dead Man‘s “funny” parts stiff and the “profound” parts stilted. I’ll definitely get around to the rest of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, but, sadly, this counts as a strike against him.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: Mike Hodges’ reinvention of Get Carter was also a disappointment. It strives mightily to be a somber, Unforgiven-like tale of unfulfilling revenge and redemption denied, but turns out instead as a slow, plodding affair that feels a bit like Eyes Wide Shut, in that a great director’s once-pioneering vision now sadly comes off as somewhat stale and antiquated.

The movie throws you in in media res, with pretty-boy n’er-do-well Davy Graham (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) dealing to and scamming the London glitterati while his brother Will (Owen) seems to have taken a page from Matt Foley and is now, literally, living in a van down by the river. Very shortly, horrible, droogie-like things are done to Davy by none other than Malcolm McDowell, resulting in the former’s suicide, and lean, mean wildman Will blows back into town to settle the score. The rest of the film consists of Owen slowly seething (to impressive effect) while his former mates and enemies cringe, cower, and — like us — await the inevitable denouement. It eventually happens, but lordy does it take awhile to get there. Jamie Foreman (soon to be Bill Sykes in Polanski’s Oliver Twist) deserves marks as the Graham boys’ flawed and frantic lieutenant, but otherwise there’s not much to go on here. If you want to see Hodges direct Owen, rent Croupier instead.

Love Actually: Oof, where do I start? Ok, I knew going in that this probably wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. But a good friend of mine had it sitting on his TV, he recommended it as “like Sliding Doors” (which, much like Next Stop Wonderland, was a romantic comedy that I really enjoyed), and it had a bunch of actors I like (Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Emma Thompson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and much of Team Hitchhikers: Martin Freeman, Alan Rickman, and Bill Nighy.) But, as many of you probably already know, Love Actually is, actually, godawful dreck, a schmaltzfest of grotesque proportions. I was complaining about the occasionally saccharine taste of In Good Company only yesterday, but Love Actually makes that film look like Requiem for a Dream.

The film follows multiple couples in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and is set in an alternate universe where no love goes unrequited (among the beautiful, of course), at least without a wink and a kiss. In fact, in this Fairie-England, where Hugh Grant (doing his pre-About a Boy faux-self-effacing schtick) is the new Prime Minister, it’s even considered somehow romantic to make an unabashed play at your best friend’s wife. Look, I know I’m a cynical sort, but my heart warms to certain well-made fare. But this…um, not so much. From a wholly implausible joint press conference (Billy Bob Thornton cameos as a prez who combines the worst of Clinton and Dubya), to Grant cavorting around 10 Downing Street a la Risky Business, to Liam Neeson constantly interacting-cute with his Padawan stepson, to Colin Firth venturing to 19th century Portugal, to the, um, musical numbers, this film all too often made me want to claw my eyes out. Most of the time, I was hoping I’d see more of Bill Nighy, the movie’s saving grace, as an aging rocker trying to make one, last improbable comeback with a sellout remix of The Troggs’ “Love is All Around.” But, by the end, even that storyline gets smothered in sugary sweetness. For the love, actually, of Pete, stay away from this lousy film.

Harold & Kumar go to White Castle: White Castle…hmmm, those are some fine little burgers, particularly in quantity. I haven’t had a 12-pack of Slyders in a dog’s age. In fact, I think there’s a Castle a couple of blocks over at 125th and 7th. Man, how awesome would that be right now? I…I, uh…oh yeah, Harold & Kumar, right. Yeah, that was pretty a funny movie.

Admittedly, Harold & Kumar is for the most part a check-your-brain-at-the-door kinda film. For all of its clever 21st century savvy about 80’s-movies racial tropes, H & K is still ultimately a lowest-common-denominator college comedy. Yet, while some of the vignettes definitely fall flat, I found Harold & Kumar just enough of a variation on the age-old After Hours road-trip formula to be really amusing. John Cho and Kal Penn are both charismatic and engaging as our wayward, famished, and thoroughly stoned protagonists, and Neil Patrick Harris earns special plaudits for showing up as himself (albeit more-than-slightly tweaked) and just going for it. All in all, I highly doubt H & K is everybody’s bag, but — despite the gross-out gags and retro thinking — it is at times a rather intelligent dumb movie.

In the Company of Men.

Contrary to his admission in Ocean’s 12, I’m happy to report that Topher Grace did not in fact “phone in that Dennis Quaid movie.” In fact, he, Quaid, and much of the supporting cast make In Good Company a sometimes saccharine but ultimately worthwhile evening at the movies. Like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Todd Louiso, Grace is great at bringing to life characters that we all know in real life but rarely see onscreen, and his turn here as aspiring but well-meaning corporate shark Carter Duryea is no exception. And Quaid, who’s slowly taken on a rugged, masculine resonance in his middle-aged period — sorta like Harrison Ford 6-8 years ago — is equally good as displaced and disgruntled ad sales exec Dan Foreman (probably one of the most goofily symbolic character names since Tom Hanks’ “Chuck Noland” in Cast Away.)

In fact, that “Foreman” gimmick is probably the main problem with In Good Company. It’s painted in broad strokes, and at times, the scriptwriting wheels grind so loudly in this so-warmhearted-its-dopey flick that it took me right out of the film. Quaid’s Foreman doesn’t just love his job — he loves his job, with an intensity and naivete that’s, if not unbecoming, at least unrealistic in a guy his age. Similarly, Grace’s overcaffeinated, underexperienced Duryea seems to know instinctively he’s trodding the wrong path from the get-go, which kills what little uncertainty we had about where the story is going. The one real bad guy (Clark Gregg) is really bad, Duryea’s self-absorbed trophy wife (Selma Blair) is really self-absorbed (their foyer is a shrine to her image), and so on. (Scarlett Johansson, rounding out the top bill as Quaid’s daughter and Grace’s post-Blair love interest, is at turns girlish and womanly as the script necessitates…and I didn’t find her believable at all. Then again, I’ll admit, Lost in Translation notwithstanding, I’m starting to find Johansson as annoyingly mannered as Jeremy Davies on his bad days.)

To be fair to In Good Company, my taste in corporate satire runs closer to Brazil, Office Space, The Office, Glengarry Glen Ross, and In the Company of Men than it does to films like this one, which I think almost undoubtedly speaks worse of me than it does this movie. As he also showed in the surprisingly moving About a Boy, writer-director Paul Weitz is magnanimous to a fault with his characters — at times, he doesn’t seem to want to think badly of any of them. And, particularly with Grace, Quaid, and role players like David Paymer working their mojo, In Good Company‘s kindness is contagious — Annoyed by the sugary-sweetness of it all at first, I found myself slowly and inexorably won over by the movie in the middle hour. By the time Quaid speaks truth to power (in the form of Malcolm McDowell’s Murdoch-like Teddy K) in the final act, I knew the movie was selling me a seriously implausible view of just desserts and the corporate life. But, ultimately, I didn’t mind so much.
Just as the film condemns globalization and “synergy” while throwing in more gratuitous product placements per minute than I’ve seen in some time, In Good Company nevertheless eventually won me over with its generosity of spirit. As Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute, and by the end, I was another satisfied customer.

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