April 22, 2014

Denzel Washington arresting in ‘Eli’

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By SEAN O’CONNELL
Post-apocalyptic America has become a popular place for filmgoers to hang, whether we’re walking “The Road” with Viggo Mortensen or seeking “Salvation” in the latest “Terminator” installment. Maybe Hollywood’s preparing us for the planet’s demise in 2012?

We head back to the scorched-earth landscapes of an undetermined future in “The Book of Eli,” a pensive thriller from Albert and Allen Hughes. The title sounds metaphorical, but there’s an actual tome carried by dutiful Eli (Denzel Washington) as he marches silently through endless miles of ash and dust. Black-clad Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants the book – the title of which is a minor spoiler that I’ll leave for you to discover – and sends a small army of “Road Warrior” rejects to retrieve it. Easier said than done.

Washington’s arresting, as always, playing the lethal keeper of this literary flame. His trademark sunglasses can’t distract from the actor’s forceful solemnity and indistinguishable charm. Oldman’s a worthy foil, underplaying his character’s menace to good effect. Mila Kunis chips in as the prettiest (and cleanest) nuclear-holocaust survivor we’ve ever seen. The searing, white-washed landscape – New Mexico, mostly – is gritty enough, with the Hughes brothers’ spectacular production teaming going to great lengths to construct a believable, foreboding future. “Eli” does wander, and the pace gets noticeably quicker during a balletic fire-fight at an isolated farmhouse, which finds the brothers zooming their cameras to impossible angles during seemingly unbroken shots. More of that experimental artistry would have been appreciated. Overall, though, “Book” is well worth flipping through, and you’ll have much to discuss afterwards.

Another film opening wider this week takes its cues from an actual book, in this case Alice Sebold’s best-selling “The Lovely Bones,” about a murdered teenager (“Atonement” star Saoirse Ronan) witnessing the aftermath of her death from a dreamlike limbo halfway between heaven and earth. “Bones” isn’t a traditional whodunit, because we watch Susie’s murder at the hands of her predatory neighbor (Stanley Tucci). But in the hands of director Peter Jackson, the film succeeds as a taut, “will-he-get-caught” mystery as it also explores the notion of acceptance following the loss of a loved one. I couldn’t finish Sebold’s novel, having been turned off by the graphic depictions of rape and murder on a child. Thankfully, Jackson softens the gore and focuses on the afterlife, using special effects to enhance a vision the only way he knows how. “Bones” isn’t lovely, but it certainly is good.
That’s more than I can say about Tom Ford’s directorial debut, “A Single Man,” which plods along after a grief-stricken school teacher (Colin Firth) as he mourns the loss of his lover (Matthew Goode). Ford made his name as a fashion designer, and shows good visual sense behind the camera. At times, he attains a surrealism usually reserved for David Lynch. But the somber twist ending loses its impact in the wake of the Coen brothers’ equally jarring – but far more effective – denouement to “A Serious Man.” By the close of Ford’s film, I just felt cheated.

Ratings:
“The Book of Eli” – *** out of 4
“The Lovely Bones” – *** out of 4
“A Single Man” – *1/2 out of 4


Denzel Washington Premiere in Hollywood

About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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