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Screen Shot: ‘Book of Eli’ starring Denzel Washington

This bleak, violent, post-apocalyptic picture is involving up until the point you realize it’s just another example of religious propagandizing. Starring Denzel Washington as a mysterious stranger who walks alone and comes upon a town ruled by a dictatorial Gary Oldman (fabulously chewing it up like an older version of his drug-addicted bad cop in The Professional), the grizzled solitary man carries a Bible, speaks in riddles, and winds up dressed as a Moslem in a progressively dull movie. The Book of Eli borrows nihilism from The Road Warrior and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood, a cheap trick from The Sixth Sense, and preachy religion from any of a variety of recent Christian pics. Also featuring Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) in the film’s best performance as a blind woman and a young actress named Mila Kunis as a nubile type. Its theme that religion will save the world is pure hokum. Despite fine turns by leads Washington and Oldman, this book sermonizes more of the same.

Screen Shot: ‘Leap Year’

The romantic comedy Leap Year starring lanky Matthew Goode (Watchmen) as an Irishman who meets a real estate decorator played by chirpy Amy Adams (Doubt) on her superstitiously pre-marital jaunt across Ireland has a few soft spots but is largely humorless. This effort from the director of the stylishly vacant Shopgirl is less than inspired but it beats watching the dreadful megahit Avatar, which I finally saw after Christmas at the suggestion of a pal in Seattle and a nephew who promised me it was the greatest movie ever made. James Cameron’s animated diatribe against civilization is apparently causing people to practice what the movie preaches: CNN reports that audiences are having suicidal thoughts.

Fall 2009: Peikoff, OCON and Ayn Rand

This fall, I am working on projects and studying Objectivism, and reading new biographies of its creator, Ayn Rand. My review of Yale University Press’ Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein is available for purchase in the fall edition of a print publication. The foremost expert on Objectivism, Leonard Peikoff, will deliver a 6-part lecture course at the 2010 Objectivist Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) reports. Dr. Peikoff’s forthcoming book, The DIM Hypothesis, in which he presents a new philosophical theory, will be the basis for the course. For more information about this exciting news, read the announcement in ARI’s latest Impact, which is packed with interesting information (incidentally, my movie review of the pirated, 1942 Italian film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s We the Living is published in the electronic edition, with a brief history of the motion picture). The review is one of a series of articles for this site; others include this op-ed about the 1936 novel. I’m planning to post new, exclusive interviews about We the Living, about both the book and the movie, in the future.

Screen Shot: ‘Surrogates’

Disney’s Surrogates is a generic affair yet it is not without value. Written and directed by the creators of this year’s Terminator: Salvation, another dystopian picture about a society in which economics and state are mixed, Surrogates poses some interesting questions. Bruce Willis stars as a cop who, paired with Radha Mitchell (Feast of Love), investigates the murder of a young man who is the son of the inventor of the robotic surrogates that everyone uses as proxies for dealing with reality. That’s about it. With an underlying theme that it takes courage to face reality while most fake reality, certainly a timely message in this text-messaging age of heads buried in technology as a religion instead of as a tool for living, Surrogates scores some points. But it gets bogged down in static characters, a lack of suspense and a thinly plotted climax. Still, borrowing from Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Westworld, and, of course, Blade Runner, this slice of science fiction about a world in which everyone wears a mask, with society’s charismatic leaders urging us to “sacrifice yourself for the greater good,” offers more than most in the genre. A touch of irony: in one scene, the hero chases one government-sponsored machine by commandeering another: the Toyota Prius.

Disney Loses Dick Cook

Earlier this month, I pondered whether Disney’s deal to buy Marvel Comics signaled an end to Walt Disney’s legendary commitment to creating wholesome stories—with characters in motion pictures and theme park attractions that evoke childlike wonder. Now that Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook has apparently been ousted by Disney’s Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger, we may be closer to having an answer.

The most interesting report comes from CNBC’s Julia Boorstin, who suggests that Disney’s movie slate may rely increasingly on others, reinforcing my concern that Walt’s original creative philosophy is being incrementally phased out or rejected by Mr. Iger. This would be a mistake in creative and in commercial terms, leaving Disney no more distinct that any other Hollywood studio and making the Burbank, California-based studio merely another entry in delivering me-too cultural cynicism. Disney was already well on its way with a mediocre slate of forgettable movies—Enchanted, Up, Pirates of the Caribbean—while Dick Cook was in charge but the honorable chairman, who worked his way up from Disneyland cast member during his 38 years at Disney, understood Walt’s benevolent sense of life and the need to make movies in a private, proprietary artistic system that nurtures and cultivates the individual’s creative vision (Frank Marshall’s man-dog Antarctica adventure Eight Below comes to mind). He built solid relationships with artists based on trust and respect and he deserved better than an abrupt departure.

If Boorstin’s sources are correct that a scaled back studio leaves Disney free to create fewer bigger, better movies, I see no reason why Dick Cook could not have made that happen—unless Cook had some fundamental objection to corporate plans for the studio. Movies such as The Proposal prove that quality pictures can be made, marketed, and sold to the public and Disney can’t be counted out. The number of recent missteps—overexposing its products and depleting the sense of magic and mystery at the recent self-promotional D23 exposition, bland, bleak movies such as Up and Wall-E and the dreadful decision to release Mel Gibson’s primitive horror movie Apocalypto after his anti-Jewish tirade—is offset by good calls on High School Musical, dumping Walden Media’s Christian Narnia movies, and remaking Disney’s California Adventure as a tribute to Walt Disney and early 20th century Americanism. That mixed record and risky moves such as Disney’s train tour for the expensive A Christmas Carol, pushing cash-strapped consumers to buy movies on the pricey Blu-Ray discs, and upcoming remakes Tron, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (with Terminator: Salvation director McG on board, it might be good) and the new picture, Surrogates, Disney’s future as a great, American movie business might be in jeopardy. Dick Cook’s departure makes that look more likely. Knowing who replaces Dick Cook, who worked his way from Disneyland to promoting the studio’s most imaginative recent achievement, The Little Mermaid, and creating Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store, will provide a leading indicator. In the meantime, Disney has lost one its best minds.