Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Movie Review: The Raven

The Raven
Directed by James McTeigue
Originally Released: April 27, 2012
Running Time: 110 minutes

* * (out of four)

The year is 1849. Edgar Allen Poe, the famed gothic poet and short-story writer, is discovered wandering Baltimore, delirious, and is taken into the custody of a nearby hospital. Less than five days later, Poe is dead, a few months shy of his 41st birthday. The Raven weaves a fictional tale around the final days of Poe’s life. Borrowing from the mystery of Poe’s demise, The Raven casts Poe (played by John Cusack) in the role of spontaneous detective, called upon by Baltimore police authorities when a series of deaths bear striking resemblance to the macabre tales for which Poe is famous. As it turns out, the serial killer is not merely a fan of Poe’s work. Clues alluding to the killer’s next target are left behind at the crime scenes, clues that Poe himself is the most apt to unravel. With the pendulum in full swing—sometimes literally—Poe must decipher the clues that play off of his expansive body of work, a mask of red death here, a tell-tale heart there. As if that weren’t enough, soon things get really personal.

As I watched The Raven, I found myself thinking time and time again: “Gee, I didn’t know that Edgar Allen Poe was so much like John Cusack.” And there’s the problem. Modestly entertaining plotline aside, The Raven never successfully transports the viewer back to 19th-century America. At the film’s forefront, Cusack is the easiest to blame. His performance is too High Fidelity to convince us that Poe hails from a Baltimore devoid of Starbucks and McDonald’s. When Poe waxes eloquent, Cusack is as believable as a pop star on Auto-Tune. But Cusack is not the lone offender. As Emily, Poe’s recently betrothed, Alice Eve looks ever-ready to whip out her Blackberry and check her messages. In an ironically lifeless performance, Luke Evans fares better as Detective Fields, lead investigator of the suspicious deaths. As Emily’s father, Brendan Gleeson outshines the rest of the cast simply by casting a faint glimmer of acting prowess. It is a shame he isn’t given more opportunity to flex his thespian muscles.

Clearly, director James McTeigue bears some responsibility for The Raven’s inability to take flight. His far superior 2005 film, V for Vendetta, suffered from the same stilted tone that makes the journey to another time and place a needlessly difficult task for the moviegoer. The costumes, staging, and other technical details are done right, but one almost wishes McTeigue had committed the sin of having his onscreen Baltimore residents anachronistically speak with a Cockney accent. At least it would have clouded the average American’s judgment about just how well McTeigue had captured the feel of 19th-century America. The thinking goes something like this: The 1840s are foreign. Cockney accents are foreign. Therefore, everyone in the 1840s had Cockney accents. In this case, such logic might have swayed the cinematic jury to a more favorable verdict, underlying injustices aside.

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