Blu-ray Reviews: “The Book of Eli,” “Shutter Island,” and More

Hollywood has had a bigger-than-average hard-on for the post-apocalypse lately, what with John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (finally) arriving in theaters just a couple of months before Denzel Washington hit the corpse-strewn road for the Hughes brothers’ The Book of Eli. Neither movie did much of anything at the box office, possibly owing to the fact that the real world can feel pretty goddamn apocalyptic lately, but Eli makes its Blu-ray bow this week, and takes its shot at home market redemption.

As soon as you lay eyes on the cover, with its shot of a brooding, bearded, shades-rockin’ Denzel Washington staring into the gray distance, you know The Book of Eli comes with more budgetary ammo (and less highfalutin literary ambitions at its core) than the dank and grimy The Road, and initially, Eli actually does a fairly fine job of adding a nifty popcorn gloss to the ruin of man. In the early scenes, when Washington strolls through dusty landscapes, camps under abandoned overpasses, and relaxes to Al Green on his iPod, Eli suggests a hip, less gonzo take on the sort of resource-poor future depicted in movies like The Road Warrior and, um, Waterworld. It doesn’t last, but it does give you something to cling to when you’re sitting through the end credits, pinching the bridge of your nose and sighing.

The Book of Eli is, as it turns out, a pretty traditional post-apocalyptic showdown flick, with Washington playing the stoic Messiah figure (for reals, yo — what do you think Eli’s Book is, hmm?) and Gary Oldman playing, well, Gary Oldman. Mila Kunis is also here, doing her damndest to play rough and dirty but instead coming off as the most adorable little badass since Natalie Portman in The Professional. The difference, of course, is that The Professional doesn’t make you chuckle and roll your eyes, and it’s certainly never boring, which is Eli‘s cardinal sin. The Hughes brothers had an interesting message here, about religion and its perceived complicity in acts of violence; with a braver studio system and a more appropriate cast, I think things might have turned out differently. But this movie has a pair of wildly divergent goals, and the Hugheses never really bother trying to stitch them together. There’s something brave and beautiful about making an action movie that dares to believe in God — unless it doesn’t stand behind its convictions. I don’t want to spoil the plot, or the “twist” at the end; suffice it to say that I don’t think Washington’s character had any business doing most of what he does, and The Book of Eli‘s religious overtones make the movie’s muddled message feel cheaper. More than anything, it reminded me of Walter Hill’s rather lame Yojimbo remake, Last Man Standing, although that movie at least had the benefit of Christopher Walken in the cast and a nasty Ry Cooder soundtrack.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the way Eli looks, and on Blu-ray, you can expect to soak in the movie’s bleached palette and many spectacular deaths in glorious hi-def, while the knives and bullets come flying at you from an immersive DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The special features, meanwhile, are a good deal more expansive than the film probably deserves — you get additional scenes, a Maximum Movie Mode that gives you storyboard art and behind-the-scenes insights from Washington and the Hughes brothers, a trio of featurettes, and an animated short filling in the back story of Oldman’s character, the villainous Carnegie. Toss in the digital copy disc that comes bundled with the movie, and The Book of Eli would be a fine value, if it weren’t for the main feature.

Of course, our fascination with the end of civilization is nothing new; the post-apocalyptic thriller is a genre that’s been around long enough to have its own classics. Take, for instance, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which imagined an army of scary-as-hell aliens bringing humanity to the brink of extinction — only to be felled by our planet’s many viruses. It’s a brilliant story with all kinds of resonant themes, and the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise version, now making its Blu-ray debut, should have been a grand slam.

It didn’t really work out that way, but with a new hi-def transfer and five years of hindsight, War of the Worlds doesn’t seem like such a disappointment. It is certainly not, as the box promises, “one of the most awe-inspiring cinematic experiences of all time,” but it does add a suitably modern layer of dark paranoia to the classic story, and although Cruise got top billing, it has an incredible secret weapon in Dakota Fanning, whose naked horror gives Spielberg’s War a perspective other remakes haven’t had. It’s Cruise’s derring-do that puts asses in seats, and everyone knows that — but when Spielberg zooms in on Fanning’s eyes, blown open to saucer width, filled with a child’s uncomprehending fear at the sight of giant tripods destroying life as we know it, you feel the movie teasing at an unexpected depth. It never really gets there, and by the time Cruise is conveniently finding hand grenades and chucking them into alien vessels at the very last second, you will most likely have forgotten what War of the Worlds might have been — but all in all, it’s sleek, good-looking popcorn entertainment from a pair of guys who know a thing or two about how to deliver it.

On Blu-ray, War of the Worlds has all the audiovisual heft you’d expect from a five-year-old Spielberg movie — dim the lights, crank the volume on your home theater, and let it go to work. Visually, it’s more or less of a piece with Minority Report, with a cold color palette and a layer of grain that may annoy some viewers, but it’s technically flawless, and the special features are voluminous: Nine featurettes (from “Revisiting the Invasion” to “Scoring War of the Worlds: We Are Not Alone”), galleries, and the theatrical trailer. It’s far from Spielberg’s best work, but while you’re waiting for him to get around to releasing E.T. on Blu-ray, this will help you kill a couple of hours.

For an uncomfortably close look at cinematic apocalypse, just rent Valentine’s Day, a Garry Marshall-directed marshmallow mound that answers the riddle “How many beautiful people does it take to screw up a romantic comedy?” The number, in case you’re curious, is something like 20, from actors who have previously demonstrated real charm and/or talent (Hector Elizondo, Julia Roberts, Kathy Bates, Queen Latifah, Shirley MacLaine) to lovingly lit hair models (Jennifer Garner, Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Alba), one alleged comedian who should be punched (George Goddamn Lopez), and a pop star who should burn any script anyone sends her ever again (Taylor Swift). What are all these people doing here? What story could possibly require all of them to squeeze into a single movie? I don’t know, and neither does Marshall.

Even by the earthworm-level standards of the genre, Valentine’s Day is a terrible movie. The acting isn’t particularly awful, and the script doesn’t give any of the stars anything terribly stupid to say, but God, is it dull. And it’s 125 minutes long! No movie that gives George Lopez any amount of screen time needs more than 89 minutes to get its point across, and that goes double for a movie like this one, that’s supposed to float along all cute-like and make you feel good about love. Instead, Valentine’s Day lumbers along like an ox with a piano bolted to its ass. Actually, you know what? No. If you saw an ox-piano, you wouldn’t be able to look away, and you’d want someone to put it out of its misery. With this movie, you’re the miserable one, and looking away is all too easy.

The Martin Scorsese-directed adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island focuses on another kind of apocalypse — the emotional kind — and it’s riveting. Scorsese reunites here with Leonardo DiCaprio (whose Boston accent is distractingly lame, but not a dealbreaker), who plays a federal marshal sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an asylum for the criminally insane. Gleefully gothic to its sopping wet core, Shutter Island initially comes across as a good old-fashioned mystery thriller, one with the added benefit of taking place in 1954, when men wore fedoras and ties — but it has something else up its sleeve, something hinted at throughout the picture so cleverly that you’ll want to go back and watch again to see how all the pieces fit.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Scorsese surrounded DiCaprio with talent. The always-excellent Mark Ruffalo plays DiCaprio’s partner, who provides an increasingly welcome anchor as Island comes unhinged, and they’re joined by Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, and Emily Mortimer — plus Robbie Robertson, who provides a score that’s almost a character unto itself. Some critics sniffed at the movie for its unapologetically pulpy genre thrills, but the hell with them; Scorsese’s having a blast here, and so will you. Watch it late at night with the curtains drawn.

On Blu-ray, Shutter Island sounds and looks great without being showy about it; this is the kind of darkly framed movie that could easily have been a murky mess, but things stay just sharp and clear enough to keep you peeking in the shadows. And it’s Scorsese, too, so you get plenty of beautifully composed shots. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Twinkie prepared by artisans, and I loved it. The special features are somewhat slim — a pair of featurettes that take you behind the scenes and somewhat self-consciously deconstruct the movie’s big secret — but that’s a relatively minor complaint for a movie this entertaining.

For apocalyptic chills, though, nothing compares to Collapse, the slim, horrifying documentary that plops outsider political journalist Michael Ruppert in front of the camera for 80 minutes and lets him tell us all the ways we’re headed for disaster. Ruppert, who ran the political ‘zine From the Wilderness for years, has been dismissed as a loony conspiracy theorist, and I pray his detractors are right, because if they aren’t, our children’s lives are going to make The Road look like a sitcom.

Ruppert’s case, laid out patiently and in detail, is that we’re running out of oil, and since we depend on oil for pretty much everything, our shit is all fucked up — and neither coal nor nuclear power nor tidal generators nor solar nor wind will save us. The best we can hope for is a quick collapse, so our infrastructure is still semi-intact when the generations who inherit our mess start over with an oil-and-George-Lopez-free economy. It’s a grim nightmare scenario, and pretty much everything Ruppert says makes sense; watching Collapse makes you feel like Wile E. Coyote during those few seconds after he runs off the cliff and he’s just hanging there in the air, wondering how he could have been so stupid.

Collapse was filmed by Chris Smith, who brought you The Yes Men, but none of that movie’s humor is here; in fact, Collapse isn’t so much directed as recorded. Ruppert sits and talks, scaring the hell out of you, with bits and pieces of extraneous and/or archival footage blended in. Rinse and repeat. It’s grimly spellbinding, and one of the most gripping thrillers to see release in years. Is Ruppert right? I don’t know. As I said, I certainly hope not. But he comes across as a smart, fairly reasonable guy who knows what he’s talking about, and what he has to say confirms every dark suspicion you might have ever had about human civilization. It’ll linger with you like a nightmare for weeks.

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  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I'll be getting Shutter Island even though several of my most trusted critics bagged on it (and one of them spoiled the plot twist out of spite.) I can't help it. Scorcese + noir-ish hardboiled cop plot = can't be all that bad.

    The brilliance (yes, brilliance) of Valentine's Day is that it knew exactly why it existed. It was there as an excuse on Valentine's Day, a place for the happy loving couples to canoodle and, occasionally, look up at the endless parade of pretty people onscreen. It's a distraction of colors and sounds, like turning the TV on when you leave, just so the dog doesn't feel abandoned.

    I'll give Spielberg this much: he's one of very few directors that, by the end of the movie, gets you a little closer to not “seeing” Tom Cruise onscreen. He's never 100%, but I've found myself able to suspend disbelief more frequently when it's Spielberg at the helm. I also applaud that, in both War Of The Worlds and Minority Report, he forces Tom to hold his breath to stay hidden from the marauding CGI.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    Tom Waits charged the iPod. Seriously.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Now I guess I have to see the movie. I didn't know Tom Waits was USB compatible.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    Tom Waits can do whatever he wants.