The Raven (2012)


The Raven

Edgar Allen Poe or John Wilkes Booth? You decide.

(2012) Thriller (Relativity) John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Shannon, Sam Hazeldine, Pam Ferris, Brendan Coyle, Adrian Rawlins, Aidan Feore, Dave Legeno, John Warnaby. Directed by James McTeigue

 

It is no secret that Edgar Allen Poe was one of the greatest writers in the history of American literature. He was the Stephen King of his day, his interests tending towards the macabre but while King is a superior storyteller, Poe was the better writer (assessments I think both King – and Poe – would have agreed upon).

The death of Edgar Allen Poe is shrouded in mystery. He was discovered raving in the streets of Baltimore (on a park bench according to this film but history doesn’t give us that kind of detail) and died in a Baltimore hospital four days later. To this day the cause of death is unknown. This movie gives us one theory.

As the film opens Poe (Cusack), a raging alcoholic, is flat broke trying to get drink on credit in a bar. Few know who he is; fewer still his accomplishments. His critical essay on Wordsworth’s most recent book has been killed by Henry (McNally), the editor of the Baltimore Patriot. Poe is desperate for the funds; Henry wants something along the lines of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe is well-aware that his best days as a writer are behind him and despite the encouragement of a sympathetic typesetter (Hazeldine), he is unsure he has another great story in him.

In the meantime, Det. Fields (Evans) of the Baltimore Police Department, has stumbled onto a grisly murder. In a locked room, a mother has been found with her throat slit and her daughter stuffed up the chimney having been strangled. There’s no way in or out and the officers entering the room distinctly heard the door lock before they broke in. How did the killer get away? The detective discovers an ingenious latching mechanism on  the window which had appeared to have been nailed shut. Fields recognizes the set-up of the murder, but from where?

After some research, he discovers that it is similar to a story written by one Edgar Allen Poe, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He calls Poe in for consultation, and when Poe’s literary nemesis, Rufus Griswold (Warnaby), turns up cut in two – by a blade hanging from a pendulum – he realizes that there is a killer on the loose bent on recreating murder scenes from Poe’s work.

Poe would rather concentrate on wooing Emily Hamilton (Eve), with whom he is deeply in love (and who loves him right back) but her father, the hot-headed Captain Hamilton (Gleeson) would much rather use Poe for target practice with his revolver. Nonetheless, Poe is ready to announce his engagement to his beloved when she is kidnapped by the dastardly fiend who makes his game with Poe far more personal. Poe will have to use clues discovered on the bodies of the victims to find his fiancee before time runs out – and the killer might be closer to him than he realizes.

Keep in mind when watching this that it is meant as pure entertainment. If you’re one of those looking for historical accuracy, you’re in the wrong theater. McTeigue, best-known for V for Vendetta, has concocted a nice little yarn that puts Poe in the position of being Sherlock Holmes but quite frankly, Poe is overshadowed in the detective department by Fields who is more Holmes-like.

It is also no secret that John Cusack is one of my favorite actors and he isn’t disappointing, although he seems a bit more prone to chewing scenery here than he is normally. He bellows like a rampaging bull from time to time and tends to overplay. Still, few actors grasp the nuances of their characters better than Cusack and his regret, frustration and general pessimism bring Poe to life. Cusack’s Poe is a weary man, resentful not that he finds himself unable to write but that he is largely responsible for the mess that he’s in with his drinking and debauchery. The death of his first wife weighs on him heavily and there is a sense that Emily might just be his only way to salvation.

There are some wonderful scenes here, like one where Poe is drinking with the killer and the movements of the two men are literally mirror images of one another. There is also a chase through a misty forest which has a surreal quality that Poe might have approved of. However, for all the good scenes there are a few that don’t work very well, such as the ball scene where Emily is kidnapped. It seemed a bit too formulaic.

Eve is a little bland as Emily; it’s hard to see how Poe would have fallen in love with her. Gleeson gleefully chews scenery and seems to be having a great time. Evans has a thankless job of being the stolid heroic Fields but his heroism must remain second fiddle to Poe’s. I wouldn’t mind seeing a film about Fields somewhere down the line although given the anemic box office of this film that is about as unlikely as finding out the real cause of Poe’s death is.

The movie carries a decent entertainment value which overshadows the unevenness of the structure and the sometimes egregious liberties with history and fact that the writers chose to take. Again, one must remember this wasn’t intended to be a documentary about Edgar Allen Poe but a fanciful tale of what might have been. It doesn’t always work but for those deciding what to see if The Avengers is sold out, this makes a pretty decent alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you interested from beginning to end. Cusack channels Nicolas Cage a bit here.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven in quality. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the murders are pretty gruesome and there are some pretty disturbing images from time to time; definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released online on the anniversary of Poe’s death (October 7, 1849).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Hell

EDGAR ALLE POE LOVERS: The character who was murdered via “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Rufus Griswold, was an actual person who actually survived Poe. Griswold had a vendetta against Poe and was inexplicably named as his literary executor, using his position to assassinate the character of Poe after his death, portraying him as a drug-addled, depraved madman, using “letters” purported to have been written by Poe but later proven to have been forgeries as proof.  His murder was more wishful thinking than fact-based in this context.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: FriendsWith Benefits

She’s Out of My League


She's Out of My League

Beauty and the Geek.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (DreamWorks) Jay Baruchel, Alice Eve, T.J. Miller, Nate Torrence, Krysten Ritter, Lindsay Sloane, Mike Vogel, Kyle Bornheimer, Jessica St. Clair, Debra Jo Rupp, Adam LaFevre, Kim Shaw. Directed by Jim Field Smith

There are some couples who are perfectly suited for one another. Everything just seems to mesh. You just take one look at them and you know they were meant to be together. Then there are other couples that you wonder what the hell they’re doing together at all.

Kirk (Baruchel) works for the TSA at the Pittsburgh airport. An awkward, gangly sort but a sweet guy at his core, he has just gotten over a breakup with Marnie (Sloane), a bitchy sort who inexplicably has charmed Kirk’s parents and is essentially part of the family now, including her new boyfriend. They’re getting ready to take a family trip to Branson, Missouri – complete with matching t-shirts. Henpecked Kirk is the object of scorn even in his own family.

Then who should walk through his security check station but Molly (Eve), a super-hot party planner who was once a lawyer. When she forgets her iPhone, Kirk offers to return it to her when she returns to Pittsburgh. When he does, the two hit it off and she invites him to one of her parties. Before long, his sweet nature wins her over, much to the chagrin of his friends as well as hers.

His friends are basically slackers with jobs including Stainer (Miller), Jack (Vogel) and Devon (Torrence). They opine that Kirk is basically a five – at best – and Molly is a ten – a hard ten. And, as we all know, you can never move more than two places in either direction. This whole relationship is an aberration, against the laws of nature.

Naturally Kirk’s own insecurities begin to take root. He’s painfully aware of how much better looking Molly is than he is and is convinced that Molly is pity-dating him. What’s surprising is that Molly has insecurities of her own and between the two of them what could be a good thing could rapidly become a nightmare.

As the recent crop of romantic comedies go, this is better written than most. However, there are places where you feel like Smith, a member of the British sketch troupe The Dutch Elm Conservatoire and making his feature film directing debut here, is going for a Judd Apatow-like feel to the film but without the bite Apatow brings to his projects. Unfortunately, the script is too sweet at its heart to really do that effectively.

The source of the sweetness is primarily Baruchel. He has a nasal, somewhat pedantic delivery of lines that I’ve found annoying in other movies but it works here. His character is nerdy but sweet-natured at the core, which is the kind of role he seems to do best in having played it in several other movies.

Alice Eve is suitably gorgeous here, and she plays her role with a little more smarts than you might think it called for. Other movies would have just asked for interchangeable cleavage which is how some reviewers seemed to think this one was. Nah ah, ink stain breath; this is a part that required depth and Eve provided it. End of story.

There are elements of romantic comedy 101 here, however plus the Apatow wannabe syndrome. Those serve to torpedo the better elements of the movie which, in places, are charming and sweet. Some of the humor – such as a premature ejaculation bit and a very strange bit on male genital grooming – almost seemed like they came out of other movies.

The relationship between Kirk and Molly is what works best about the movie. These are two seemingly disparate people who get together for all the right reasons – something that is less common in reality than you might think. When the movie concentrates on that relationship, it is at its best. When the movie delves into comic reasons to break them apart, well, not so good.

WHY RENT THIS: Alice Eve is actually pretty good and totally hot. The movie is sweet in places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Baruchel’s sad sack character is too much like other characters he’s played. Plot seems too much like an Apatow movie, only without Judd Apatow.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of bad language and some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During a scene when Kirk’s friends are teasing him about a premature ejaculation, Jack’s hamburger is seen to have French Fries in the bun. This is how they are served at Primanti Brothers, a Pittsburgh institution. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a faux talk show starring Torrence as a date advice host.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48.8M on a $20M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Tooth Fairy

Crossing Over


 

Crossing Over
Harrison Ford is getting tired of the “Didn’t you used to be Han Solo” jokes.

 

 

(MGM) Harrison Ford, Jim Sturgess, Alice Braga, Alice Eve, Cliff Curtis, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Justin Chon, Summer Bishil, Jacqueline Obradors, Melody Khazae. Directed by Wayne Kramer

 

 There are those in this country who want to build walls. Not decorative ones; ones that will keep illegal aliens from coming in, and by illegal aliens we mean Latin Americans. Immigration is a very emotional issue for many people; all of us are immigrants from somewhere back in our family tree. Even Native Americans crossed a land bridge to get here.  

Los Angeles may be the ultimate melting pot in that regard. It draws people from all over the world like moths to a flame. While most are aware of the Mexican population in Los Angeles (most of whom arrived here legally incidentally), there are immigrants from all over the world that live in the City of Angels, many awaiting their call to receive that Holy Grail – U.S. citizenship.

 

For those coming in using the other route, there are people like Max Brogan (Ford), an immigration agent. He is a good man with a conscience doing a job that requires none. During a raid of a garment factory, he comes face to face with Mireya Sanchez (Braga), an undocumented worker who begs Max to pick up her child from child care, which Max does, but even that feels inadequate so he escorts the kid back to Mexico to the grandparents.

 

Max’s partner Hamid Braheri (Curtis) comes from an Iranian family whose patriarch is about to get American citizenship, but a tragedy strikes the family when Hamid’s sister is murdered along with the married man she’d been having an affair with.

 

In the meantime, a young Bangladeshi schoolgirl named Taslima (Bishil) presents a paper in her high school civics class that comes dangerously close to defending the 9-11 hijackers, but in reality is just asking for people to see things from their point of view. This creates a storm of controversy that starts from her being called names culminating with a by-the-book FBI agent (Obradors) knocking on her door, threatening to deport her family.

 

Taslima will be defended by immigration attorney Denise Frankel (Judd) while her husband, green card adjudicator Cole Frankel (Liotta) engages in a relationship with Australian actress Claire Sheperd (Eve) exchanging sex for a green card.

 

All of these stories entwine somewhat peripherally, but are told concurrently a la Crash or Babel. These types of movies need a firm hand to keep the stories separate but at the same time maintaining audience interest. There’s a tendency for people to get less invested in multiple story lines than they might in a single story line, so it behooves the filmmaker to make all of the story lines compelling.

 

That doesn’t happen here. That’s not to say that there are no compelling story lines here; certainly the Max Brogan character provides a moral center, and having Harrison Ford act as your movie’s moral center is an enviable position to be in for any filmmaker. Curtis is also a likable actor and his moral conflict between his ethnic culture and American law also makes for a compelling tale.

 

However, the Claire/Cole liaison seems out of place, almost as an excuse to get the very gorgeous Eve naked. Not that I’m against seeing a beautiful woman naked, but it seems gratuitous here. And while I like the debate stirred up in the Taslima sequence, there seems to be some preaching going on here, making Taslima the innocent victim of a goon squad of FBI storm troopers, which seems a bit cut and dried to me.

 

In the spirit of “let the buyer beware” you should be warned that this movie took two years from filming to release. The initial edit was over two hours long and the studio heads demanded that the final cut be trimmed down to an hour and a half, or the movie would go direct-to-video. The filmmakers made the cuts, but the studio essentially sent it direct-to-video anyway, giving it a very limited, unpublicized release. There is certainly evidence that this was filmmaking by committee in places.

 

There is certainly room for debate on the subject of immigration, and while I have a tendency to be sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant (both legal and otherwise), I can see that there are both sides to the story. Unfortunately, this is a movie that doesn’t really allow too much thought, settling instead for clichés. Still, at least its existence might encourage those who see it to think about the issue, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

 

WHY RENT THIS: A stellar cast in a movie that examines a hot-button issue that continues to plague our country even now.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Another case of too many threads and too many plots.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s the holy trinity of language, violence and sex; all present and all inappropriate for younger audiences. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn originally had a small role in the movie, but it was reportedly cut at his request due to the backlash from the Iranian-American community over an honor killing subplot, which they thought to be misleading and inflammatory. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)