the traveler's resource guide to festivals & films
a site
part of Insider Media llc.

Connect with us:


"Eli" is Coming, But You Won't Want to Go

Directed by Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Written by Gary Whitta
Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gam
bon, Tom Waits
To say that The Book of Eli is vastly more entertaining than The Road isn't really praise, in the same way that "apocalypse lite" isn't really an endorsement. The movie's ruined America looks grim enough, but damned
if Washington doesn't have the light of the future tucked into his backpack, because... well, because he's Denzel Washington.

Some 30 years after a devastating war, America is one sorry-ass heap of rubble and despair where predatory savages lord it over less ruthless folk and much of the world is sightless, thanks to the searing light that still pours through the hole in the sky left by that last great war.

Unlike the majority of people scratching out a hardscrabble existence in this nasty new world, Eli (Washington) was born "before:" Before "the flash" that stripped away the Earth's vegetation, before water became more precious than gold, before literacy crept to the top of some list of useless skills no one can read anyway.

Eli — whose Zen calm belies his formidable skill with a blade
is a man with a mission, a pilgrim whose manifest destiny is taking him endlessly west. Unfortunately, he's forced to make a stopover in a brutal little frontier town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a constant reader whose love of good books belies his lust for a particular good book... the good book, you might even say, and it happens to be in Eli's backpack. And yes, this is all as obvious as you think: Eli is carrying the last Bible on Earth, and the despotic Carnegie wants it because he knows that when it comes to manipulating the weak, the desperate and the soul sick, no-one beats the guy with the word of God at his fingertips.

As directed by the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society) and written by Whitta, The Book of Eli is both derivative (start with Mad Max, Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller Jr.'s 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz) and silly. The look is great, all desaturated cinematography, ruined landscapes and grimly ironic product placements: Hats off to K-Mart, J. Crew, Motorola and the various other companies that were willing to slap their logos on bits of the movie's devastated future ruins. But at its core, the movie makes no sense; the minute you start asking questions like "Why doesn't Carnegie just pull a  and make up his own holy book," it falls apart.

If action-oriented gloom and doom is your thing, you'd do better to dust off your DVD of The Road Warrior a dystopian vision of the future that still packs a remarkable punch than to sit through this portentous nonsense.

 For more by Maitland McDonagh go to

Tolstoy at "The Last Station"

The Last Station
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry CondonChistopher Plummer and Helen Mirren in The Last Station
Based on Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station follows the last days of Leo Tolstoy, Russia’s most famous writer and a man aware of his imposing legacy to the Russian people, which was at odds with his own family’s well-being and wishes.

Hoffman’s film resembles his earlier A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which starred Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer) in that there’s a pleasing visual palette, several name actors and a sense that Hoffman is afraid to deal with the material’s more troubling aspects and so remains on the surface. That approach could be excused in Dream, since Shakespeare’s play’s comedy is often accentuated at the expense of its nightmarish darkness.

In The Last Station, Hoffman’s uncertainty results in a stilted history and literary lesson and middling cinema. Hoffman and his source novel enter Tolstoy’s world through secondary characters like the charismatic Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), Russia’s leading Tolstoyan, who convinced the elderly writer that he should leave all copyrights of works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina to the Russian people in perpetuity.

There’s also Valentin Bulgakov (MacAvoy), whom Chertkov hires as Tolstoy’s estate secretary so he can spy on Tolstoy’s wife Sofya (Mirren), an intelligent, stubborn woman dead set against the Tolstoyans, whom she considers an illegitimate religious cult, and especially Chertkov, because she distrustingly believes he's having her husband draw up a new will that will leave his family in the dust.

Hoffman wants us to relate to Valentin, our guide. The young man is understandably unnerved meeting the great writer, and if his constant, nervous sneezing grows tiresome—there’s even a scene when, during an argument between Leo and Sofya, Valentin sneezes and both stop to say, “God bless you." So it's plausible that he’s even moved to tears after meeting and speaking with Tolstoy, who queries him about his ordinary life.

But Hoffman stacks the deck dramatically. The inexperienced Valentin falls for Masha (Condon) a headstrong woman who lives on the estate with the Tolstoyans: after she deflowers him one night, he’s smitten. This may be true, but Hoffman errs by having McAvoy overplay Valentin’s incessant bumbling to indicate Valentin’s uncertainty, and ends up with an unsatisfying hybrid of romantic comedy and absorbing backroom drama.

Hoffman is on firmer ground with the Tolstoys’ complicated, convincingly lived-in relationship. The credit for humanizing rather than deifying Tolstoy and his wife Sofya is due to the commanding performances of Plummer and Mirren, who have a rare screen chemistry. Even a throwaway scene in which they cluck like hens and laugh while reminiscing about their younger, more fertile days shows their mastery, together and apart. Mirren is a mite showy as Sofya—who feels she’s been wronged by her husband’s minions, including daughter Sasha—but she’s in splendid form throughout, especially during her snippiest moments, haranguing Chertkov with snappy repartee.

Plummer is even better. This accomplished theatre actor gives it his all as if he’s playing Lear, Prospero or another meaty Shakespearean part. And he might well be: with a long, bushy, scraggly beard and keen, excitable eyes, Plummer plays Tolstoy as the monarch of a kingdom he knows might be crumbling. In a scene with McAvoy discussing an long-ago assignation Tolstoy had with a young woman, watch Plummer’s entire face light up at such a vivid memory, regardless of his life with his wife and family in the years since.

There are too few scenes like that, however, as Hoffman concentrates on the standard romance between Valentin and Masha, even ending the film with their tearful reunion when the great man has died and thrown the whole country into mourning. Opposite McAvoy, Condon is a fiery, sensual Masha, while Giamatti tries without much success to keep pace with these British and Irish actors in a period film set in Russia (but shot in Germany, by the ace cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid, who gives us a gorgeous palette of trains, woods and blue skies).

Throughout The Last Station is ivory-tinkling that’s not unpleasant but a little monotonous. Too bad that music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky wasn’t used, since they were contemporaries of Tolstoy; fellow Russian Sergei Yevtushenko’s serviceable score instead keeps the movie mired in mediocrity.

A Regal Thompson in "The Emperor Jones"

Written by: Eugene O'Neill
Directed by: Ciaran O’Reilly
Starring: John Douglas Thompson, Henry Smithers, Michael Akil Davis, Sinclair Mitchell

Director Ciaran O’Reilly has done a brilliant job in staging Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 psychological thriller about the self-appointed emperor of a Caribbean backwater whose “subjects” suddenly turn on him. In this Irish Repertory Theatre production, John Douglas Thompson is overpowering as Brutus Jones, a black American who has fled from a Southern chain gang and, persuading the locals that he can be killed only with a silver bullet, takes over in a “revolution” that removes the erstwhile chief.

Dressed as he assumes befits an emperor, Jones wears a blue coat with gold epaulets, jeweled pins, brown boots, and a crown of silver leaves. He speaks illiterate black English and exudes brutality. Figuring his tenure is limited, he squeezes his subjects with taxes and stashes the loot in foreign banks.

As crooked as Jones is Henry Smithers (Peter Cormican), a white British trader who helped the newcomer get his start and now sucks up to him.

O’Neill’s Emperor may be an unschooled chain-gang escapee, but the author makes it clear that there’s not a lot of difference between him and the big-time white crooks back home.

Brutus explains to Smithers, “Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does. For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks. (reminiscently) If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.”

But when Smithers reveals that the local blacks have disappeared from his “court” and are meeting to devise charms against the silver bullet, reality shifts. Brutus must make his escape through the forest to the coast, where he hopes to be picked up by a French gunboat that can take him to Martinique.

The trip through the forest tracks Jones’s psychological disintegration as he progresses from arrogance to fear to terror and madness. His imagination transforms every shape and sound into a threat. In his stage direction, O’Neill writes, for example, “From the formless creatures on the ground in front of him comes a tiny gale of low mocking laughter like a rustling of leaves. They squirm upward toward him in twisted attitudes.”

The forest of floating blue and green striped fabric tree trunks (by Charlie Corcoran) hide and reveal giant puppets and masked actors that haunt Jones with representations of his real and historical past. The puppets (by Bob Flanagan) embody one of Jones’s victims as well as a chain gang overseer and convicts who wear striped pants and wield pick axes. The guard strikes Jones with a whip.

He is threatened by the crocodile god (Michael Akil Davis) and the terrifying beaked witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell), who he fears will demand payment for his sins.

His hallucinations take him back in race memory imagine whites – puppet-headed men squiring women puppets –attending a slave auction. And he is on the block. In hatred and fear, he demands, “Is dis a auction? Is you sellin’ me like dey uster befo’ de war? And you sells me? And you buys me?” He shoots his pistol at the visions of auctioneer and the planter.

O’Reilly creates a surreal mood with the help of Flanagan’s supernatural puppets and masks, Antonia Ford-Robert ’s fantastical costumes, and eerie evocative music by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson. The apparitions move to Barry McNabb dreamlike choreography.

But the soul of the production is Thompson’s powerful, expressionistic and disturbing performance.

The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre at Soho Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
New York City
(212) 691-1555
Opened December 22, 2009; closes January 31, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg



Kevin's Digital Week 8 -A Vision and Bohemia

Blu-ray of the Week
La Bohème
Robert Dornhelm’s film of Puccini’s melodious opera might intersperse black and white sequences with vivid color for the familiar story of bohemian artists populating the garrets of Paris, but that’s not why anyone’s watching. Instead, it’s because of the biggest operatic names currently going: Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon. Netrebko, not only ridiculously photogenic — even when Mimi wastes away from TB — but also a terrific actress and splendid singer, fares better than her co-star, who plays Rodolfo with little sense that the camera moves in far closer than even a first-row seat in the opera house.

The movie’s minuses are that cast members (including nice turns by Nicole Cabell as Musetta and George von Bergen as Marcello) lip-synch badly, and the musical balances are hit or miss, with the orchestra drowning out singers even in intimate moments. Overall, La Bohème is a perfectly good Blu-ray transfer, with the colors of both the locations and Puccini’s glorious music meshing well. Extras include a long interview with Dornhelm, shorter talks with the singers, and a 28-minute making-of featurette.

DVD of the Week
Visions of Europe
(Acorn Media)
This 10-disc set comprises a dozen programs from the excellent public television series (originated at WLIW on Long Island) that feature aerial shots of dazzling locations all over the European continent, from London to Athens. Not only is this high-definition footage dazzling in and of itself—how can you go wrong with the natural wonders and man-made monuments and buildings of Italy, France, Greece, Austria, Germany and England?—but, combined with astute and sparing narration, along with well-chosen music (from classical pieces to traditional and popular tunes), this is an exhilarating journey across a continent.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve already visited any of these places or are only hoping to someday. Now, what we really need is for the entire Visions of Europe series to be released on Blu-ray.

Newsletter Sign Up

Upcoming Events

No Calendar Events Found or Calendar not set to Public.