Your Weekend at the Movies with a Book

01/15/2010 9:44 AM |

Nice book, Eli.
  • Nice book, Eli.

The Book of Eli: Studios’ boldness about January movies continues; five or ten years ago, a Denzel Washington apocalypse thriller (or, later this month, a Mel Gibson action drama) coming out this month would come with the assumption of alarm or wariness from execs, and audiences would be encouraged to follow suit. But The Book of Eli staked this date out ages ago, and there wasn’t accompanying bad buzz until reviews started coming in this week, and really, that’s no different than any number of big-ticket summer movies. So I’m not saying it’ll be good, but the Hughes Brothers, who came on the scene with Menace II Society and have been keeping a low profile since their ambitious, interesting, but disappointing-as-it-related-to-its-source-material From Hell did mediocre business in 2001, are slick and stylish directors who seem well-suited to this kind of pulp. That is to say: this looks like a spiritual-hokum knockoff of The Road, only there’s no ineffably but vastly superior book to compare it to, and I have a soft spot for Denzel doing blatant genre stuff. Maybe this is a summer movie without quite so much fatty tissue.

Fish Tank: Judging by several years’ worth of press screenings, British cinema is composed almost entirely of twinkly faux-saucy underdog comedies and tedious kitchen-sink grit. Fish Tank very much belongs to the latter group, but minus the tedious stuff: Andrea Arnold’s new film pulses with restless energy, and its misery isn’t contagious. It’s about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a poor British teenager with a lousy mum who sees the faint hope of something better in an older man—her mum’s laid-back, encouraging new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender)—and also dreams of becoming a hip-hop dancer; so, yeah, it’s basically halfway between Precious and An Education, as Mark observes, plus a pinch of Step Up 2 the Streets. Why, then, did I like it at least as much as any of those movies, maybe a little more (yes, even more than Step Up 2 the Streets)? I think it has to do with the fact that we meet Mia shortly before she decks another mouthy girl in the face, and soon after she repeatedly visits a vacant lot in an apparent attempt to steal a horse. She’s a fighter, but not romanticized—her dancing, for starters, is ok but unlikely to punch her ticket out of poverty. Arnold’s camera tracks along her subject, capturing some lovely images of Jarvis against bummed-out English landscapes. There’s scarcely a shot in the movie that isn’t either of Mia, or from her point of view, and that closeness pays off with the story’s creakier narrative bits. Certain developments with Connor (played wonderfully by Fassbender) will not surprise anyone, but the movie convinces us that they might surprise Mia—and lets us experience some relief that she’s not surrounded by monsters, just plain old lousy human beings. Also, forgive me, but hard-drinking and cussing eleven-year-old younger sisters are just kind of hilarious. Arnold has made the kitchen sink compelling again.

The Spy Next Door: I like that, especially in his English-language movies, Jackie Chan is often cast as a generic “spy,” as if most of a spy’s skill set is made up of the ability to scramble up walls and use household and/or warehouse items as kung-fu props. The Spy Kids are more convincing spies. I don’t like that Chan is stuck doing babysitting comedies alongside Billy Ray Cyrus. I especially don’t like the idea of Billy Ray Cyrus encouraging stage parents everywhere to push their way onto their creepy kids’ TV shows and then star in their own movies.