Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Book of Eli: ****

The Book of Eli
Warner Brothers
Alcon Entertainment
Silver Pictures
Directed by the Hughes Brothers
Rated R for some bloody violence
Running time: 1:58
Spoilers below

Younger moviegoers may ask, "Who the heck are the Hughes Brothers?" Great question. Since their stunning 1993 debut Menace II Society, they haven't made any significant films. Well, welcome back and what a comeback! This is an amazing return with an exclamation point.

As I noted in my Tweet, the desert landscapes of New Mexico set the tone for the quiet desolation of a post-apocalyptic America in which the power went off 30 years before. Denzel Washington is headed west with his book and his date with destiny. Mila Kunis, the Russian-Jewish immigrant actress best known for her comedic work in That 70's Show, will surprise audiences with her serious turn here. She's quite effective, I thought, as Washington's unwanted sidekick. Gary Oldman is splendidly evil, as usual, and his Carnegie character wisely recognizes the power of the book Washington possesses.

This film is not for children or those who are queasy at the sight of blood and violence resulting from hand-to-hand combat in movies. I highly recommend this film. Those who plan to see the film should stop reading now.

A rabbi I know and trust tells this story, and I suspect it's true: a group of five Torah scholars imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp decided to memorize the Chumash text (first five books of the Bible--the Torah), one man per book. They knew the Nazis were destroying sefrei Torah (Torah scrolls) and were unsure if any would survive the war. If we memorize the text, they thought, we would still have the Torah in the postwar world.

I thought of that story as I was watching the film. I had a pretty good idea of what Book Washington had. It didn't occur to me that he had memorized it. It is possible but highly unusual; unlike Islam, rote memorization of text is not celebrated in Judaism or Christianity.

No way was Eli blind. Impossible to be blind and be a hand-to-hand combat expert like he was. Maybe he was farsighted. But not blind. Interesting that the directors would assume their audience would recognize Braille text. Even before the computer age, very few blind people could read Braille (10 percent, I believe). Learning it was extremely tedious. Now that blind people can carry a hand-held reader that can read text aloud, why bother? (For the elevator. Of course.) I wouldn't be surprised if there's an App for that.

I instantly thought of the secret of The Sixth Sense, revealed at the end of the film. Was The Book of Eli true to its character? Did Washington really never respond to what we could see? I didn't think it was consistent in the same way.

I didn't understand the reference to hands and checking for unnatural growth. The film never explained it.

I loved one of the final scenes of the film: the publisher shelved his new copy of the King James Bible next to the Stone Tanach (Old Testament). The Stone Edition is the one most commonly found in orthodox Jewish homes.

Great concept that an evil boss, as leader of a town/community, would place so much value on a copy of the Holy Bible. Did he intend to declare himself the Messiah, the reborn Christ?

Jennifer Beals is also great. Beals has had quite a career, from Flashdance to (more recently) The L Word and now a dramatic turn as Oldman's blind lover.

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