Sunday, April 29, 2012
The age old issue that arises for every generation is the impact of the media on society. Does watching movies, playing video games, and perusing literature prompt us to imitate the actions of fictional characters in certain situations? “V for Vendetta” director James McTeigue with “Loverboy” scenarist Hannah Shakespeare and rookie writer Ben Livingston have contrived a complicated but uninspired serial killer murder mystery about Edgar Allan Poe. Basically, an anonymous criminal has decided to use Poe as a blueprint for his diabolical deeds. The idea isn’t even that original. Back in 1973, horror icon Vincent Price played a vengeful Shakespearean actor in “Theatre of Blood” who murdered several callous theater critics in re-enactments of death in Shakespeare’s plays. No, Poe is not the serial killer stalking and killing innocent victims. Beware, although “The Raven” (** out of ****) gets some of Poe’s biographical details correct, the filmmakers err horribly in other instances. Ironically, the poor slob cut in two by a giant pendulum outlived Poe and did his best to destroy Poe’s literary legacy. The individual referred to here is Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Sadly, “The Raven” unravels about an hour into the narrative, and McTeigue and his scribes have tacked on a finale that looks like loose threads being tied up. The biggest mistake that the filmmakers make is the absence of red herrings to throw us off the scent. Simply put, "The Raven" never allows us to guess the identity of the villain and the alternatives to the villain are none. Consequently, the mystery part of this movie is woefully underwritten.
You can almost imagine how this formulaic thriller with gorgeous costumes and atmospheric locales came about during the pre-production phrase. Presumably, the studio picked Poe not only because he was one of America’s leading literary lights of the nineteenth century, but also the copyright has long since lapsed on his literature. Imagine this scenario at a production conference. Studio Executive # 1: “Let’s make Edgar into an action hero like they did Sherlock Holmes?” Studio Executive # 2: “Of course, the authorities will threaten to arrest Poe if he refuses to help them solve the crime.” Studio Executive # 1: “The police want Poe to psychoanalyze the killer to predict his next move.” Studio Executive # 3: “Our killer must imitate the homicides from Poe's stories.” Studio Executive # 2, “Naturally, Poe has a blonde girlfriend straight off the cover of Cosmo. She must be abducted by the killer and held hostage.” Finally, Studio Executive # 1 says: “Presto, we’ve got the greatest hits of Edgar Allan Poe. We can make allusions to “The Pit and Pendulum,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”
“The Raven” opens with some minor biographical details about Poe and his mysterious death on May 7, 1849, in Baltimore, Maryland. Typically, movies about a hero who dies are usually box office poison. Moreover, Poe is such an obnoxious fellow that you don’t care what happens to him. He admits at one point, “I’ve got nothing left,” adding, “I’ve used up all my tricks.” The Edgar Allan Poe that “The Raven” presents is an egomaniac skidding into obscurity. A hopeless alcoholic, Poe doesn’t possess enough money to purchase his next drink. Initially, it appears that he has no friends except for a pet raccoon named Carl. If all this weren’t awful enough, Edgar learns he is not going to be published. Earlier, he assured a bartender that he would be living like a sultan when the newspaper published his literary criticism. Since he cannot pay for a drink, Poe appropriates a stranger’s drink. outside Before he realizes what has happened, Poe finds himself unceremoniously expelled from the taven. Actor John Cusack strives to make this tortured, nineteenth century genius appear sympathetic, but there is little to like about him.
Predictably, the first image is a raven perched on a tree branch overlooking a park where our dour protagonist is sitting on a bench. Afterward, the filmmakers backtrack about a week before with a scene that looks straight out of the first “Sherlock Holmes” movie with Robert Downey, Jr. A madman has slashed a woman’s throat with a razor, strangled her daughter, and stuffed the daughter’s body in a chimney. When the police arrive, they hear a key locking the door from within and have to smash their way into the room. They are genuinely puzzled because they can find nobody else in the room. Further, the window through which the suspect could only have escaped is nailed shut. Detective Inspector Fields (Luke Evans of “The Three Musketeers”) arrives and manages to open the window. Eventually, he remembers that he read about a similar incident in the macabre fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Fields recruits a reluctant Poe to serve as a crime consultant.
When Poe isn’t dabbling in real-life murders, he is having an affair with stunning Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve of “Sex in the City 2”) whose father has nothing but contempt for him. Indeed, Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson of “Safe House”) threatens to shoot Poe on sight if he catches the renowned author with his daughter. No sooner does Poe propose to Emily than the insane psycho kidnaps her, and things really come to a boil. The murders in “The Raven” are not for the squeamish. Make no mistake, McTeigue earns his R-rating for bloody violence and grisly images. The pendulum scene ranks as the most graphic as the descending blade eviscerates a book critic and then gets jammed in the table where the man lay. The problem with “The Raven” is that it lacks the compelling quality that a good murder-mystery requires if we the audience are to overlook some of the far-fetched plot logistics. Reconsider the pendulum scene. When Poe visits the scene of the crime, he is impressed by the size of the counterweight. Where could a killer—insane or not—buy a pendulum of that size and install it without attracting attention? This question and others—like the spring loaded window nails are things that shouldn’t concern us. Furthermore, The filmmakers never provide us with a gallery of suspects to choose from as the killer before the reprobate reveals himself. Ultimately, the villain doesn't amount to much. Despite his diabolical exploits, he comes off as hopeless colorless. Unfortunately, McTeigue doesn’t orchestrate the action with enough verve to distract us from these questions. "The Raven" stumbles from one anemic scene to next with little energy.
Cusack is acceptable as Poe, but looks morose and miscast. Poe probably was never in the physical shape required to pull off the stunts that Cusack's double does. Luke Evans does an exceptional job as the police inspector who will go to any lengths to solve the crime and get his man. Alice Eve is a feast for the eyes. Meanwhile, Brendan Gleeson and Kevin McNally, who plays Poe’s editor, are squandered in thankless peripheral roles. "The Raven" qualifies as Poe-thetic!