The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is not an action picture. Let’s be clear about that up front. Yes, it has a few action sequences, and one of them is a real doozie. The thing is, all the marketing for the film has played up the action. I think this is a pretty special movie, one that deserves to be approached for what it really is. If the promise of action gets you in the door, fine; just be prepared to see something more ambitious and meaningful than you’d typically find in a post-apocalyptic thriller.

The exact cause of that apocalypse is never expressly stated, although we do get a few clues along the way. Denzel Washington plays a man named Eli who has spent 30 years walking across the barren landscape holding – and I don’t consider this a spoiler, as you find out rather early in the film - the last remaining copy of the Bible, which he has sworn to protect. Gary Oldman plays Carnegie, who has appointed himself leader of a small community of survivors who live in what’s left of an old town. Carnegie holds the key to a steady supply of fresh water, so a lot of people are willing to do what he says, including a few henchmen who will kill for him. He also has one thing he’s long been looking for: a Bible, which he believes will allow him to expand his power. When Eli crosses his path, Carnegie decides he must have that book, at any cost. Eli has no intentions of giving it up, even under threat of death. Carnegie’s adopted daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) tries to help Eli continue on his journey without having the book stolen.

That’s a thumbnail plot description. I don’t want to give much more away.

For the first half of The Book of Eli, I wasn’t sure I was liking it. Despite a typically intriguing Denzel Washington performance and a cool color-saturated visual style that almost makes the movie look like it was filmed in black-and-white, I kept thinking, Do we really need another Mad Max rip-off? The movie seemed interesting but slow, and as though it was not going anywhere.

Then, about an hour in, the real nature of Eli’s journey is revealed. Suddenly, I was very hooked. About this revelation, I will say only this: it intentionally mirrors other journeys you may have heard about. When transported to a post-apocalyptic setting, such a journey opens up a world of meaning. In this moment, everything that happens to Eli is imbued with a new weight. We don’t know where he’s going until the final moments (“West” is all he ever says) but I couldn’t wait to find out.

This is a movie that will inspire a lot of fights. People are either going to really dig the true subject matter, or they are going to really hate it. I think there is something to be said for any movie that tries to fiddle with your expectations. How many post-apocalyptic movies have we seen over the decades? Dozens? Hundreds? This one lulls you into believing you are going to see one more, then introduces a completely fresh angle that separates it from all others. Perhaps the ending will baffle some folks. I heard several at my screening confirming a significant plot detail with each other once the end credits started to roll. Is the conclusion a little over the top? Yes, but necessarily so. There is no subtle finale for this story. It wouldn’t work if it didn’t inspire awe or disbelief.

The Book of Eli was directed by Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society). Not only do they give their film an appropriately eerie visual style, they also show great patience in letting the specifics of the story unfold. When action does occur, it is filmed with camera movements that are innovative without detracting from the narrative. Most of all, I give them credit for having the guts to make this movie in the first place. The Book of Eli has something extremely thoughtful to say and it was designed to make you think about what it is saying. The Hughes Brothers could have thrown in a lot more gratuitous explosions or shootouts; instead, they’ve chosen to stick with their mission, just as Eli sticks with his.

This film grew on me in a big way.

( out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

The Book of Eli was a moderate hit when it was released theatrically back in January. I suspect it will find a much larger audience on home video, especially since Warner Home Video has packed the Blu-Ray disc with some really outstanding special features. The Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack (as well as a straight, featureless DVD version) will be released to stores on June 15.

The movie, which looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray, comes with an optional "Maximum Movie Mode." When watched this way, the viewer gets about 40 minutes of picture-in-picture commentary from the Hughes Brothers, Denzel Washington, and other key participants. They provide insight into various thematic and production-related issues.

Also part of Maximum Movie Mode is "Focus Points," an entertaining and informative ten-part series that looks at the film from different angles:

- "The Look of Eli" has the Hughes Brothers explaining their decision to desaturate the film of color. They also talk about creating graphic novel-style books for the cast and crew to look at in order to get a feel for what the movie would be like. Examples from these books are presented for us to see as well.

- "Underpass Fight" looks at how one of the film's key action scenes was created. A green screen was used (you'd never know) and Washington did his own fighting, in just one continuous take.

- "Building Carnegie's Town" reveals production design secrets. The team found a rundown New Mexico town, then built facades onto the existing structures to create the post-apocalyptic world.

- "Motorcycle Brigade" will please fans of "Orange County Choppers." In this segment, we see how the prop builders stripped down some motorcycles, only to rebuild them using assorted parts (an old tractor seat, road signs, etc.). The idea was to suggest that Carnegie's men salvaged junk to keep their bikes working.

- "Eli Goes to Battle" shows how CGI and fight choreography were combined to create yet another of the movie's signature action sequences. The shot the Hughes Brothers wanted to do was so complicated that it involved digitally removing equipment from the shot, but the result was well worth it.

- "Eli's Mission" is a short piece in which cast and crew talk about the philosophical motives behind the main character's journey.

- "Shootout at George and Martha's" is one of the two best Focus Points. The highlight of The Book of Eli is an extended shootout at an isolated farmhouse. This section shows how cameras attached to bungie cords and CGI were mixed together to create what appears to be a seamless shot.

- "Eli's Weapon of Choice" centers on the weapon carried by the main character. The Hughes Brothers wanted Eli to have a Samurai sword, but Washington felt a machete was more in keeping with the character. They compromised, coming up with the unique blade you see on screen.

- "Solara Causes Mayhem" is the other best Focus Point. Here we see the various tricks used to create a spectacular car crash. In order to get all the necessary shots, the crew had to dig up a road so that the camera could be partially buried, thereby allowing a truck to drive over top of it. I love this kind of moviemaking nuts-and-bolts, so this was a particularly fascinating segment.

- "Apocalyptic San Francisco" wraps up the Focus Points by showing how CGI was used to make it seem like the famous city was affected by the story's apocalypse.

After the Focus Points, you will find even more goodies. "Starting Over" is a featurette in which experts are interviewed about what it would be like to re-establish society following some kind of apocalypse. This ties in with the movie quite nicely, and it's pretty compelling to hear some perspectives on an event we all hope would never really happen. Then you move on to "Eli's Journey," which goes into more detail about the character's arc. It's a more in-depth version of what's in the Focus Points, but it's still good to watch because you can see how deeply everyone involved in the movie cared about giving the story some substance. Love it or hate it, The Book of Eli was not made mindlessly.

"A Lost Tale: Billy" is an animated sequence the Hughes Brothers had created to give viewers some of Carnegie's backstory. Made using the "motion comic" approach Warner Home Video used for one of their Watchmen spinoffs last year, the 5-minute feature is like a graphic novel come to life. It's beautifully drawn, and it gives us just a bit more psychological perspective on the film's antagonist.

There's also a soundtrack featurette, in which the composer, Atticus Ross, talks about how he scored the film. It's short and not real in depth, but still worth watching if you love film scores.

The only real dud on the Blu-Ray is the miniscule selection of deleted scenes, which run less than two minutes and are generally very short silent snippets.

Thankfully, the vast majority of the supplementary material is excellent, making this a disc that's worth owning. A digital copy of the film comes in the pack as well.

The Book of Eli is rated R for some brutal violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 58) minutes.