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Preachy Book of Eli a disappointment
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Preachy Book of Eli a disappointment

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Eli (Denzel Washington) thinks he has been walking west for 30 years. It's been about that long since the war that destroyed the known world, and it wasn't too long after that that he started his dangerous trek.

Eli stumbles into a town of murderers and thieves controlled by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man maybe as old as Eli and desperate to find a book he believes will allow him to become ruler of this still relatively new dystopian world. But this loner, Eli, isn't buying what the wannabe despot is selling, and he set

s back out on his journey in a flurry of gunfire and severed limbs with an unwanted companion, Solara (Mila Kunis), by his side. In many ways, Albert and Allen Hughes' The Book of Eli - their first feature film since 2001's From Hell - is a more action-oriented cousin to John Hillcoat's late 2009 effort The Road. Both are set in a world devastated by an unnamed and unexplained war, and both feature protagonists on cross-country journeys that have a profound effect on their respective lives. But where The Road is a dark, depressing and deeply melancholic saga of sacrifice in the face of unavoidable annihilation, The Book of Eli is a tale of redemption trying desperately to be both a thrilling large-scale epic as well as a treatise on faith and forgiveness.

The thing is, neither movie is ultimately all that successful; both having major issues that make enjoying them difficult. But while my concerns regarding The Road had more to do with my familiarity with the stunning Cormac McCarthy novel on which it's based, my problems with the Hughes brothers' latest have more to do with their picture's pacing and tone. For all the talk of its surprise conclusion (a conclusion I personally had figured out early on), writer Gary Whitta's screenplay is surprisingly threadbare. There is very little in the way of meat on this picture's bones, and while I appreciated its points of view, I didn't particularly enjoy being beaten over the head by them.

That is exactly what the directors do, however, and the film turns into a deeply religious polemic that felt like a highly didactic sermon that refused to end. The Hughes want to have their cake and eat it, too, delivering eye-popping action set pieces filled with blood and gore while putting forth Christian philosophies that directly oppose much of the narrative they are surrounded by. Worse, the pair pace things like a funeral march, giving everything so much pomp and circumstance that when the ultimate revelation came, I felt so pummeled it was frustratingly difficult to care.

There is still much to applaud. The cast is universally solid, especially an underutilized Jennifer Beals who makes an indelible impression as Solara's mother and Carnegie's paramour Claudia. Her character is so beautifully written, so multifaceted and hauntingly tragic, I found that I was drawn to her each time the story turned back her way. Beals - an actress I've never particularly cared for - doesn't just rise to the occasion but pole vaults right over it, and only three weeks into a new year I can already say her performance is one I'm going to remember and cherish all the way into December.

As for the film's look, while the washed-out monochromatic photography isn't original, that doesn't make it any less terrific. From a purely visual aesthetic, Don Burgess' (Enchanted) cinematography and Gae Buckley's (He's Just Not That Into You) production design are sensational. Combine their work with Atticus Ross' (New York, I Love You) ethereal score, and the effect is utterly hypnotic.

It should be pointed out that Albert and Allen do not make bad movies, but other than their 1993 debut Menace II Society, they just don't seem to be able to make complete ones. Their scripts always seem like they are only halfway there, not as fully formed or as completely fleshed-out as they should be. Yet they are always well-acted, beautifully photographed, and filled with indelible moments. They are intriguing and fascinatingly imperfect curio pieces, movies you sit in the theater longing to be better than they sadly are.

That is the case with The Book of Eli. I never wanted to leave my seat, never felt the inclination to be anywhere else other than where I was. All the same, I kept hoping and praying the film would do something to make my being there feel more than just passably tolerable. I wanted it to wow me, to show me things that took my breath away while giving me a story worthy of approval. But this never happened. For all the Hughes' efforts, in the end, disappointment was the only thing the pair was able to get out of me.

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