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

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Saw 3D


Saw 3D
Betsy Russell goes on the Saw workout with remarkable results.

(2010) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flanery, Chad Donella, Gina Holden, Laurence Anthony, Dean Armstrong, Naomi Snieckus, Rebecca Marshall, James van Patten, Anne Greene. Directed by Kevin Greutert

This is a film that visibly demonstrates the virtues of leaving while you’re on top. But the question is, is this franchise doing that or going out with a whimper?

Again, because of the possibility of spoilers for previous films in the series that you may not have seen and might want to (trust me, the series goes down a bit better if you know the mythology front to back). The apprentice of Jigsaw (Bell) has escaped the trap of Jigsaw’s wife (Russell) who now goes to the police in the person of Detective Matt Gibson (Donella).

In the meantime the apprentice is setting his sights on Bobby Dagen (Flanery), a survivor from a previous Jigsaw trap who has written a self-help book on the subject and has become the flavor of the week more or less. In the meantime, the police once again think they’re closing in – but when the fur flies, the body count will rise and the end comes thanks to a surprise character from the first movie who turns out to be the most surprising twist of all.

Greutert, who had hoped to direct Paranormal Activity 2 but was forced to direct this due to a contractual obligation, continues the formula that has sustained this series through seven films and the wear and tear is beginning to show. There is nothing here that really differentiates it from the other films in the series.

Part of my issue with the film is that there was never much doubt about what the outcome was going to be with each individual trap. Greutert would ratchet up the suspense but then well, you get the picture. This happens with each and every trap without fail. It would have been nice if there had been at least a smidgeon of a possibility that someone would get away but by the last few traps it was just a matter of waiting for the damn thing to go off.

The cast here is solid as always, although as with all the Saw films after the third one, it sorely misses Jigsaw as a contemporary force. Like the last three movies, the seventh movie only shows Jigsaw in flashback and thus the movie is robbed of its most interesting character. Elwes, the best-known of the cast, reprises his role from the first film in what is essentially an extended cameo. He looks a little embarrassed to be there, to be honest. Hope the paycheck was good.

Props must be given to the producers for not going the cheap route and doing this in 3D conversion; it’s actually filmed in 3D and the effects for such are pretty amazing. However be aware that those 3D home video sets that use the darker glasses, the movie is pretty dimly lit to begin with and you might have trouble seeing some of the things going on.

I admit there is a vicarious thrill in watching people get offed in such fiendishly clever ways, and usually the victims deserve their fates although the two-timing wench from the movie’s prologue might have received a somewhat extreme punishment for her crime. Still, the franchise has undoubtedly run out of steam and while seeing the surviving victims from past movies come together in a support group session was one of the movie’s highlights, this is definitely a series that is ready to at the very least take a long break and regroup, if not sail off into the sunset altogether.

WHY RENT THIS: Lots of blasts from the past. This is supposed to conclude the franchise so if you followed it this far…

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a very satisfying conclusion and a bit of a letdown. The traps lack any kind of suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and blood and torture and bad language but no sexuality to speak of.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the second straight film in the series to feature a winner of the “Scream Queens” reality television series in a featured role; Gabby West here, Tanedra Howard (who also appears here) in Saw VI.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has a featurette on every trap from every film in the series – all 52 of them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.2M on a $20M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Six Days of Darkness concludes!