ZERO STARS/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras C
starring John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson
screenplay by Ben Livingston & Hannah Shakespeare
directed by James McTeigue
by Walter Chaw I'm no nineteenth-century cop, but I personally would begin by interrogating the guillotine-pendulum maker. James McTeigue's abominable The Raven posits legendary Marylander Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) as a crazed, alcoholic, frustrated-artist type who has a bar tab the length of his arm to go with a fiery temper and a quite-requited, it turns out, affair with toothy Emily (from Aardman Studios: Alice Eve), daughter of Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). Alack-alay, what should happen but a wax museum breaks out as a critics-hating serial killer (just like Theatre of Blood, which I should've revisited instead) enacts scenes from Poe's stories whilst dressed in the hat and cape of McTeigue's V for Vendetta protag. Good copper Det. Fields (Luke Evans) is hot on the miscreant's trail, enlisting Poe as a Poe expert to try to get one step ahead of the well-read marauder. There is, alas, no ratiocination the equal of the mystery of Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare's (no relation, I hope) bewilderingly bad screenplay. No one, no one, could deliver these lines--a mush of anachronistic phrases and "period" posh--with conviction, much less the miscast Cusack and a motley band of supporting players. The good news is that The Raven is funny. The bad news is that it's so awful, it makes you the kind of person who watches a movie just to be superior to it.
Consider newspaper publisher Mr. Maddux (Kevin McNally, "Downton Abbey"'s Mr. Bryant), who, at the scene of the "Pit and the Pendulum" kill, clarifies that the deceased wrote "some poetry, mostly criticism--you know, the easy stuff." Basically, fuck you, too, pal. Poe has a few choice words for critics as well, and for Longfellow--all of it striking me as beneath a project set during this period, which saw criticism as a complementary art and not a parasitic one. Particularly as Poe was himself a sometime literary critic. Clearly a poison pill from the screenwriters, then, and a pre-emptive strike against the avalanche of disdain that would inevitably follow upon release of the film, it...oh, never mind. It's not worth the effort to face off against people who plunk the bully-in-the-bar comeuppance scene from the similarly execrable Roxanne into their Gothic nothing, having Cusack/Poe spew treasures like "you overgrown mouth-breather!" and "you wouldn't recognize an authentic American literary voice if it hissed in one ear and slithered out the other." The stirring ripostes from our genius-author! "You mental oyster!" Oscar Wilde, he ain't. It's unspeakable and tone deaf, and when it's not making an ass of itself by trying to expound some kind of mystery plot, it's making an ass of itself trying to do a romance, or pay off tidbits of research like how Poe sold "The Raven" for nine bucks. If I were an asshole, I'd say that nine bucks is probably also the current going rate for Livingston & Shakespeare's next script.
McTeigue, for his part, delivers a dankly-lit, damp-feeling picture indistinguishable from any number of modestly-budgeted Victorian whodunits though punctuated by gross corpses, an unthrilling theatre chase, and a lugubrious hunt through misty woods. The only thing missing is Johnny Depp, although Cusack delivers a performance arrogant enough for the both of them. Of course feral Emily is eventually kidnapped and made a hostage in a premature-burial situation; of course crusty Capt. Hamilton comes to recognize Poe's worthiness as suitor to his rake-like daughter; and of course the murderer is the last/first one you suspect, because this isn't the first/last terrible movie you've ever seen. It says volumes about either the film or me that my favourite moment is when Poe picks up his pet raccoon Carl and the beast, apparently unused to being handled in this way, shoots its legs out and gives off a little chirp of alarm. The Raven is one of those dangerous movies that makes everyone feel like they have a shot at becoming an actor, director, and/or screenwriter simply because no real craft is displayed in any of those disciplines. What it should do instead is serve as a warning that a decent high-concept could conceivably get your baby on-screen, but at the cost of demonstrating that "can" isn't the same as "should." It also ought to indicate to you that the folks behind this gem were probably themselves inspired to give it a shot by an awful movie they saw a couple of years ago. If you're a big fan of Poe, you may get a kick out of trainspotting which stories the murders in the film are based on, but then again, if you're a big fan of Poe, you're likely literate, so it all cancels out in the end.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Distribution rights for The Raven fell to Fox in the U.S. and VVS in Canada; we received the latter company's Blu-ray/DVD combo-pack for review. The picture was shot in 35mm but the 2.40:1, 1080p transfer has the soft, grain-free texture of digital photography. Still, the image produces a broad range of gloom, with shadow detail mostly good and only brief, minor banding during one of our entombed chicken-lady's many hilarious attempts to peck her way out of her box. If she'd chewed her way out, it would have made infinitely more sense than the way she Kill Bills herself free using Victorian-lady kung fu. The sets and costume design--the best and only reason for enduring the film--are cleanly presented, albeit not especially tactile. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is booming and enveloping, featuring wonderful dimensionality and a lamentable clarity in scenes like the one where Emily reads Poe's "Annabel Lee" to him like a foundling backwoods idiot adopted into Victorian society by a waistcoated Silas Marner. What I mean is that it doesn't appear as though Alice Eve can read. I say this out of concern, the poor thing. Note that while the tech specs are presumably identical for Fox's release, where VVS crams the film onto a BD-25, Fox grants it the luxury of a BD-50.
McTeigue and producers Trevor Macy, Aaron Ryder, and Marc Evans combine for a rousing commentary track that reveals nothing of interest, fawns over the cast, and narrates the on-screen events as if there were something surprising or well-done about the thing. I also learned that they didn't actually shoot the movie in 19th-century Baltimore. It's hard to hear these guys go on about how much they admire this project, frankly. A note of annoyance: If you even want to get to the commentary, you need to go to the SET-UP menu--it's not accessible through the "audio" button on the remote and the menu is not terribly logical to navigate. On the Blu-ray but not the included DVD, additionally find "The Raven Guts: Bringing Death to Life" (14 mins., HD), your basic making-of sporting talking-head contributions from cast (Eve/Cusack) and the screenwriters, who helpfully inform us that Poe wrote grisly, spooky tales.
In "The Madness, Misery, and Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe" (10 mins., HD), we learn that Poe was a warm family man until his wife died of tuberculosis, and that he ultimately earned around fifty bucks for "The Raven." Here, Cusack calls him "the first Goth," which made me wish it were the Eighties and Cusack was still doing movies I love rather than movies I hate instantly. "Behind the Beauty and Horror" (2 mins., HD) is a promotional fluffer, while "The Raven Presents Cusack/McTeigue" (3 mins., HD) rehashes the company lore of why these two were drawn to this project like moths to a...not flame--what do moths like that is neither fiery nor possible metaphors for creativity and knowledge? "Music for..." (5 mins., HD) is worthless and forgotten, and the block of six "Deleted Scenes" (11 mins., HD) boasts extended moments and otherwise-useless effluvium that could have been inserted or left out with no appreciable change in quality or sense. The disc starts with forced (and LOUD) but skippable HiDef trailers for End of Watch, Arbitrage, Fire with Fire, and Killer Joe. For the record, I would watch the Killer Joe trailer sixty times before watching The Raven again just once. Follow Walter Chaw on Twitter