Monday, April 30, 2012

Unlike a Writing Desk

When box office historians look back on this past weekend, it will likely be referred to as "the weekend before The Avengers." Four major motion pictures were released in a last-second grab for cash before Marvel's superhero movie could end all hopes for their final grosses. It's a shame, because all four films had been ones in which I'd held at least some interest, some for months to this point; Aardman's animated Pirates: Band of Misfits, Jason Statham kicking ass in Safe, and the reunion of Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and Judd Apatow (with a little Emily Blunt for good measure) in The Five-Year Engagement were all atop my must-watch list. But as a few people might know, I've always been fond of the renowned poet and author (and Boston-born) Edgar Allen Poe. From The Tell-Tale Heart to Annabel Lee, I've never lacked for interest in Poe's tales of the macabre. I even used the final line from his lesser-known Imp of the Perverse as my yearbook quote. And so with Todd sharing my love of the bard, we made The Raven our destination film Saturday evening. Directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and starring everybody's favorite Cusack (hint: it's not Joan), The Raven already had a few things going in its favor. Now it had to show that it deserved being seen over the three other potentially entertaining titles from this week.

Cusack manages to fit in a little light reading.
These are the final days in the life of the renowned and beggarly author Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack). Poe works as a reviewer for a Baltimore newspaper, having been unable to overcome the mental block that has all but ended his fiction-writing career. Despite being drunk most of the time, he still finds the time and charm to woo the lovely Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose father thinks Poe as less than nothing. Poe's life becomes more interesting when he is approached by Police Inspector Fields (Luke Evans), who informs him that murders resembling those in Poe's short stories have begun popping up in Baltimore, and the police need him to shine a light on why. Poe agrees to lend his unique perspective to solving the mystery, but ends up at the center of the investigation when the killer kidnaps his beloved Emily. Challenging the author to a game of wits, the murderer sets events in motion that can only end in misery and death.

Someone's feeling a little Dark Knight-esque.
No question, the main reason to see this film on the big screen is if you're a fan of Poe's work. That being said, you might not be enamored with Cusack's take on the legendary author. It's obvious that this a lot of inspiration was taken from another literary figure turned film hero (cough... Sherlock Holmes) in building a story for Poe, but what results is a mixed bag of insane ideas and unfinished thoughts. The actor delivers his lines well enough; it's everything else that's the problem. First, he's got a lousy screenplay giving him out-of-place, gotta-be-unintentional humorous dialogue that feels utterly wrong amid the stark, bleak environment. It's extremely sad to see Cusack emulating Nic Cage, and one wonders how the National Treasure failed to secure a bid as the star in The Raven. On top of Cusack's bad lines, there's also a distinct disconnect between the drunk, depressed Poe that history remembers and this film's take on the character, especially once he's needed for the investigation. Poe does not appear to get drunk; indeed, Cusack looks like he's acting drunk while sipping colored water, a showing of his There is no "emotional journey" with this film's Poe; one moment he's feeling this, the next he's not, and there is no gradual change in behavior that should be natural for this type of story. This is not Poe as history remembers him, and this is not Poe as we would want to remember him, either.

Poe begins to wonder where it all went so wrong...
Well, at least there's a strong, thought-provoking story for us to latch onto... wait, what? No? In the words of Jay Sherman, "It stinks"? Huh. In discussing with Todd after the show, we delved into what made this murder mystery wrong on so many levels. First of all, the police work in the film was shoddy at best. Luke Evans' character was obviously the smartest of the bunch (outside of Poe, of course), but even he shies away from the most obvious queries, from how the killer knew of Poe's secret love for Emily Hamilton to his obvious infatuation with Poe's writings. Fields obviously knows about Poe's work (otherwise why would he contact Poe to help?) but needs to constantly ask Poe about things he should have already researched himself? The film's characters follow along with the plot set for them, never questioning why they cannot go in another direction. Why? Is this ineptitude on the part of Inspector Fields or screenwriters Ben Livingston (a nobody actor with no writing experience) and Hannah Shakespeare (who doesn't live up to her namesake)? I think we know the answer. Sure, the film does a good job making sure you never guess the killer (mostly because he barely appears until the end), but this was no Sherlock Holmes mystery, and the fact that the murders were based on Poe's works is really the only reason this movie is called The Raven and not Generic Early American Murder Mystery Movie. McTeigue manages to fit in some nice visual elements, but not nearly enough to make this a good cinematic experience.

Emily Hamilton is so beautiful, it's almost as if she never existed...
Other major issues abound, for instance how potential clues are introduced only to be cast aside, and the characters having to verbalize every single thought because otherwise we probably wouldn't be able to tell what was going on. While I don't even care that the film is completely historically inaccurate, even I have to laugh when one of the characters killed in the film is Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who in real life wrote Poe's scathing obituary. In a film where only Griswold and Poe actually existed in real life, I suppose I wouldn't care so much about the lax historical objectivity had the film not stayed completely within social conventions. In the 1978 novel Poe Must Die by Marc Olden, the bad guys employed magic and pagan gods in their deliberations, and the result was a science fiction  story that WORKED because it was so out there. There were several opportunities for The Raven to really knock this concept out of the park. Unfortunately, McTeigue and team were unwilling to stretch away from the classic murder mystery pastiche, and their film suffers for it.

Mmmm, tastes like chicken!
This was definitely NOT how I wanted to cap off the Spring movie season. The Raven tries in earnest to become a new Sherlock Holmes, but both the character and the film itself fail to live up to modest hopes, and that's a shame for the legacy of one of my all-time favorite authors. Destined to dwell among the lower ranks of mediocre 2012 titles, this film had tons of potential but not one bit of the will to realize it. Poe is still a viable historical and literary figure, and chances are somewhere down the line someone will attempt to do him justice in yet another feature film, likely surrounding the mystery of his death. But will any filmmaker treat one of America's master storytellers with the degree of respect he deserves? Or at least hold his work in high enough regard to create an excellent story?

Quoth The Raven, "Nevermore."

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