DVD Review: The Book of Eli

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This is a Spoiler Alert people!  This movie has a bit of a ‘twist’ ending which I will talk about.  If you haven’t seen it and don’t like spoilers you might want to watch the flick before reading this.

Anyway…I was born and grew up during the Cold War.  Ah, the good ol’ days.  Younger readers might not know it but we were reasonably certain that the whole world was going to be blasted into the Dark Ages with Nuclear Missiles. 

Sound scary?  More like awesome!  At least according to the scads of movies I watched like A Boy and His Dog and The Road Warrior and Steel Dawn.  There were enough of them that post-apocalypse was a whole genre and they all had the same tag line–“In a post-apocalyptic world a lone warrior…” 

Of course the Berlin Wall fell and then the Soviet Bloc fell and I had a basement full of canned food and a crossbow I would never use to fight off gasoline pirates.  After the Cold War ended movies stopped being about nuclear winter and started being about horrible diseases (Outbreak, Twilight).  But then the Hughes brothers go retro and give us a classic post-apocalypse movie.  Written by Gary Whitta and starring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. 

Everything is as it should be.  We have a blasted skeleton of a world where human life is cheap and soap and water are valuable.  We have the Lone Warrior walking through the desert.  No surprise that Denzel is both calm and cool but tough and menacing.  He fights and kills when he has to but tries to avoid trouble and just “stay on the path.”  In addition to his pump shotgun, bow, and sword, he carries a book.  He reads from it every day before locking it and carefully wrapping it up. 

We then meet Carnegie the Overlord of a small town.  Carnegie just happens to have road crews out searching for books.  For one book in particular and it’s not hard to figure out that book is the very one carried by our Lone Warrior.  It’s also not hard to figure out that the book is a Holy Bible.  The two men meet and when Carnegie finds out about the book he’s willing to kill to get it.  The Warrior fights his way out and retakes his Path.  He’s followed by a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis) who’s curious about him and why the book is so valuable. 

Of course Carnegie and his henchmen pursue them and eventually the Warrior is cornered and has to give up the book in exchange for Solara’s life.  Carnegie takes the book and shoots the Warrior, leaving him for dead.  He doesn’t die though and manages to keep up his quest despite his grievous wound.  With Solara’s help he travels West to Alcatraz and finally names himself (Eli, of course) and tells the people there he has in his possession a King James Bible.  Alcatraz is apparently a sort of armed monastery where a small group of literati are saving books from the world that was. 

Of course as soon as the bad guy gets the book and the good guy just lets it go; savvy movie goers know that something’s up.  They start trying to figure out the twist and there is one.  Normally I don’t like to spoil endings but I’ve already gotten into an argument about this ending so I’m just going to say it.  Eli is blind.  When Carnegie gets the lock open on the bible it’s written in braille.  Back at Alcatraz Eli recites the book he’s read every day without fail for thirty years to be transcribed. 

This is how to do a ‘twist’ ending.  It’s a trick and a payoff to be sure but it isn’t a gimmick.  It affects the story but it isn’t the point of the story.  It’s subtle enough that I had to go back and watch it and say ‘I’ll be damned, that dude was blind the whole time.’ 

The movie obviously deals with religion and faith but this too is subtle.  By moving the story to a world where nobody has religion or faith, the storyteller can move past contemporary ideas of both.  In fact there’s no real preaching to the story.  The book means one thing to Eli and another to Carnegie.  Carnegie is the ‘bad guy’ no doubt but he’s not evil.  He wants the book to give people hope so he can rebuild a civilisation with safety and order.  Sounds kinda reasonable actually. 

So what we have here is a well paced and beutifully shot action movie with a couple of strong leads.  We also have an engaging story about what’s worth fighting for beyond mere survival.  The Wasteland Warrior character brought full circle to his archetypal roots of a knight on a spiritual quest.  In short, some good Storytelling.

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Hidden Treasures

Last night I had the pleasure of sipping one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons I’ve ever tried. It wasn’t terribly expensive (less than $10 a bottle), yet its qualities surpass many which sell for far more. A person doesn’t often stumble upon a treasure like this, so needless to say, I’m going back to the store where I purchased the wine and stocking up on few more bottles. After all, it’s these sorts of unexpected surprises that help make life interesting.

The same could be said of certain books I’ve encountered over the years. While it’s never a waste to familiarize yourself with “the classics” or other novels that are regarded as important or noteworthy, some of the best books I’ve read (and ones that I often go back to and reread simply for the pleasure of experiencing the stories once again) would be considered by many readers to be rather obscure. Here a few of my favorites:

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. Garner is a superb fantasy writer who remains somewhat unknown and underrated in the United States. In many ways, this novel foreshadows the blend of fantasy and reality that J.K. Rowling made famous in the Harry Potter series. I picked up The Weirdstone… on a whim back in high school (I had just read The Lord of the Rings and thought the picture of the wizard on the cover was cool), and since then, I’ve read every Garner book I could find, including the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath. Elidor is another great Garner novel, as is The Owl Service.

The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic. Here’s a novel I read for a college class on American Realism. If I ever go back and work on a PhD., I will do my dissertation on Frederic. Read this book and you’ll realize that, although times have changed, clergymen never do; truly, there are no new temptations under the sun. Frederic’s writing has all the gritty realism of a Stephen Crane with a touch of Mark Twain-esque humor thrown in to keep the story lively. Fans of classic American literature will enjoy this one.

The Good Men: A Novel of Heresy by Charmaine Craig. Based on an actual court case in medieval France involving a religious sect who claimed that human desires are innately evil, here’s a novel which transports the reader into a world marked by superstitions and inquisitions. Period details and religious questioning bring characters to life who are profoundly (and disturbingly) human. It’s a must read for lovers of historical fiction.

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Ever wonder what prompted Claudius to murder his older brother and thus acquire both his former sister-in-law and the throne of Demark? Updike imagines a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet which brings new life and insight into some of the Bard’s most famous tragic characters.

Black Robe by Brian Moore. While many novels immerse readers in different times and places, this one does it superbly. A seventeenth century Jesuit missionary is sent to the New World to convert the natives to Christianity. In the end, it is the priest who is transformed. The 1991 film version of the book is worth a look, too, as is Moore’s novella, Catholics (one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite books).

These are but a handful of my favorite—albeit obscure—literary treasures. What are yours?

DVD Review: Fanboys

At one time Star Wars was a strange interface between the insular geek world and the rest of the soulless masses.  A lot of people saw the original trilogy so even if you weren’t talking to a fellow geek the person at least had some idea what you were talking about.  He might not know the name of Chewie’s home planet but he probably knew Chewie was a wookie.  He could probably tell you that Luke’s father was in fact Darth Vader, even if he couldn’t tell you why Vader wore all that…stuff.  Star Wars was a shiny geek badge that everyone recognized.  We loved it.

Then something happened.  Something bad.  It started with the re-release of the trilogy.  The film stock was remastered and the soundtrack updated for modern theaters.  So far so good.  The effects were cleaned up and enhanced.  Some of this was superfluous: extra tentacles in the sarlac pit, say.  Some of it was filmmaker indulgence:  redoing Luke’s speeder.  Some of it was pretty good:  most of the new Bespin stuff was all background; maybe not essential for storytelling but it looked amazing.

Star Wars geeks already know where I’m going with this and it’s only three words.  Han shot first.  But not in the re-release where a digitally mutilated Solo ‘avoided’ a blaster shot from Greedo that was never in the original.  Fans sensed a great disturbance in the Force.  I won’t go into the horrors I’ve endured since that moment, others have gone over it in great depth, but it was obvious that Lucas had been seduced by the Dark Side.

The Flick:  The point being there are three distinct Star Wars ages.  Original Trilogy (good), theatrical re-release (WTF), and everything after the re-releases (unreasoning depression where fans try to hold on to the original love and forget they ever heard the words midichlorian). 

Fanboys isn’t really about Star Wars.  As the title plainly states it’s about people who love Star Wars.  The movie opens Halloween night in Ohio, 1998, six months before the release of Episode One.  Three friends, Linus, Hutch, and Windows arrive in full Star Wars costume.  They meet an old friend dressed as a car salesman.  That’s not his costume, he came to the party from work.  Eric has put aside his childish love of Star Wars for adult responsibilities and his friends got left behind with it.  The interaction is awkward since the other three clearly have no shame in their love of ‘all things Lucasian’.  They complain about their storm-trooper armor binding, they argue about how cool Boba Fett was or wasn’t, and they talk about Linus’ plan, developed in the fifth grade, to infiltrate Skywalker Ranch. 

Eric tries to go about his business but Hutch and Windows come to him at work with horrible news.  Linus has a terminal illness and will be dead in four months.  Not just dead, but dead before he can see Episode One.  To repair the friendship Eric revives the plan to break into Skywalker Ranch so they can watch a print of the movie before it hits theaters. 

What follows is a straightforward buddy/road movie that’s very well done.  Like all quests our fanboys’ journey is episodic but the movie doesn’t feel choppy.  Neither does it lag, the pace is near perfect and full of jokes and gags that feel like real moments.  The gags are definitely geeky in nature; this movie is about fanboys and for fanboys and Star Wars fans are going to get more out of it than people that think Chewie’s friend is named ‘Hans’.  It’s not just referential humor but a similar quest structure with the friends representing different Star Wars characters. 

That concept could have been a crutch but the movie owns it and makes it seem original even when the scene is as close as literally jumping down a chute into a trash compactor.  The actors are pitch perfect but special mention goes to Dan Fogle as Hutch and Kristen Bell as Zoe the girl geek.

Fogle has a similar chubby smart-ass look and style to Jack Black but always keeps it warm and genuine.  He doesn’t get into the manic brashness that Black’s characters can show.  That brash volume can grate but Fogle is likable no matter what he’s doing.  Even if it’s starting a fight with Trekkie’s in Kirk’s future hometown.  Also, the man ad libs a crack at Windows in a spot on Palpatine impression. 

Kristen Bell plays Zoe the hot girl geek who harbors romantic feelings for Windows.  Despite looking like an adorable pixie Zoe is the tough one of the group instead of weak and pining.  She refuses to be left out of the expedition and demands her due of respect.  She gets that respect by securing her alpha status through combat with Hutch.  Plus the lady gives Carrie Fischer a run for her money by totally rocking a Leia slave-girl outfit at the end of the movie.

They make their way cross country through a slew of well done cameos.  Eventually reaching California and Skywalker Ranch where they manage to break in.  They even find a copy of the movie but are thwarted by security at the last moment.  Mr. Lucas though is ‘mildly flattered’ by the near act of piracy and if they can prove they’re fanboys through a simple quiz they can go free.  More than that, aware that Linus is dying, he will get to watch Episode One.

As Linus says after the whole adventure is over, “It was never really about the movie.”  Fanboys is about staying true to your friends.  It’s about holding on to as much of the wonder you had when you were a kid as you can.  It’s also about staying true to yourself and being comfortable with yourself and it’s even about facing your mortality with a sense of peace.

The Story:  Since this is a blog about writing I have to say some thing about the story.  Several movie sites were following this flick prior to release and they kept reporting conflict between the film makers and the producers.  Most of us were anticipating the film with the log line about childhood friends who go on one last adventure before their friend dies.  Then the movie was shot and before it was released there were rumors that the whole matter of Linus’ illness and death would be cut out of the movie.  I promise you that movie would have sucked.  

Apparently the feeling was that Linus dying was too much of a downer for a comedy.  This is obviously the formulaic thinking of ‘film industry’ rather than the storytelling of ‘film maker’.  Yes Linus dies and it’s poignant even sad but it’s also the driving force of the story even though it’s notin the forefront of the action.  Without it, it’s just a bunch of idiots committing breaking and entering when they could just buy a ticket like everyone else.  

There’s a low point in the movie where everyone has to decide if they’re going to go back home because the doctor says Linus should; or if they will keep on because that’s what Linus wants to do.  Apparently the posited ‘happy no death’ cut would have had Linus with only a concussion in this scene.  Weak, man.  Weak.

Movies should have the right ending for that movie.  If that sounds like it’s not a big deal ask yourself how good a movie Thelma and Louise would be if they lived at the end.  Let story tellers tell the story.

Anyway.  Enthusiastically recommend Fanboys for geeky good vibes and one of the truly great last lines.