Friday, April 27, 2012

... and my soul from out that shadow shall be lifted

 Much like the criticism of Edgar Allan Poe's work and life, "The Raven" is a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Since this is a fictionalized version of Poe's last few days, I'm going to skip sorting fact from fiction. It's a futile cause. Suffice it to say that there are some real people characterized in the film. Like Poe, few met the same ends in real life as they did in the film.

Let's get right to the good stuff.

John Cusack took the sensitive and broody character he is known for and cranked it up. His Poe is similar to his role in "High Fidelity": sure, he's the hero, but he's always the most likeable guy in the room. He has problems. What makes Cusack's portrayal of Poe stand out from past performances is the extent of the character's depression. He fights against the tragedy that he knows is all but inevitable.

Poe truly comes to life in the depiction of 1849 Baltimore director James McTeigue and his team put together. (McTeigue is best know for fucking up "V is for Vendetta," so it's a credit to him that he didn't drop the ball on this one.) The production and costume design are pitch perfect.

Luke Evans as Detective Fields simmers with strength and pairs well with Poe. In voice and look, he reminded me of a young Michael Rooker.

As part of the production design, the set pieces for some of the murders are top-notch. The sets managed to look inventive but still within the proper  period. No steampunk variations here.

Speaking of the murder set pieces, this is where things get a bit odd. Late in the film, the villain (no, I won't tell you who it is), says something about how in the future people will line up to see the horrific wonders created from Poe's imagination and the villain's doing. In other words, screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare are crediting Poe with the invention of "torture porn" and films such as the "Saw" franchise. It's not a far-fetched idea, it just felt like it was pushing an issue that didn't need to be brought up.

This reference made the film feel about ten years too late. If such a line had been spoken in 1999, it would have seemed portentous. Here, it felt more pretentious.

I also felt that I never had a chance to play along. Various references, keys to the overall plot, were revealed before I had the chance to say to myself, "That's from 'The Masque of the Red Death' or "Hey, isn't that the name of the guy in 'The Cask of Amontillado'?" Without the opportunity to be a fellow gamesman, the sense of true mystery was lacking.

Whether in the script or in via improvisation, the actors occasionally slipped into language that felt too modern. Barely a handful of actors sounded like they belonged in the time period and it was a bit of a distraction when someone did sound like they belonged in the midst of others who did not.

All in all, "The Raven" was a pleasure to watch. It may not be the definitive Poe film, but until something else comes along, it's best we have. (Unless you watch Jeffrey Coombs in "The Black Cat," one of the "Masters of Horror" entries.)

THREAT LEVEL: ORANGE. It's fun and enjoyable to look at. Cusack and Evans are hardcore, but if you are looking for splatter, you'll get a little. If you are looking for a window into Poe's life, better just read. Except for anything by Griswold; his work will kill you. (For more information on our ratings, visit the WARNING SYSTEM page.)

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