Review: The Book of Life & The Girl From Monday

STUDIO: Olive Films | DIRECTOR: Hal Hartley | STARS: Martin Donovan, P.J. Harvey, Thomas Jay Ryan, Bill Sage, Sabrina Lloyd, Tatiana Abracos
RELEASE DATE: 5/14/13 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray None
BONUSES: featurettes for both films, short film “Sisters of Mercy”
SPECS:
NR (Book)/R (Girl) | 147 min. | Comedy drama | anamorphic widescreen | stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

 

The common perception these days is that sci-fi and fantasy movies have to involve CGI effects, “A-list” stars and clearcut heroes and villains. The two terrific features included on this Olive release by indie master Hal Hartley harken back to the model of Godard’s Alphaville: take present-day urban locations, give them an odd, “alien” feeling and make certain to blur the lines between friendly and malevolent characters. Oh, and good acting trumps “marquee value.”

The Book of Life movie scene

P.J. Harvey and Martin Donovan return to Earth to begin the rapture in The Book of Life.

The 1998 feature The Book of Life, is an absurdist delight that was made as part of the French-funded series “2000 Viewed By…” (intended to celebrate the millennium). Hartley conjures up a vision of Jesus (Martin Donovan, Collaborator) and his sidekick “Magdalena” (P.J. Harvey) returning to Earth to begin the rapture, as Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) schemes to keep the world from ending.

Hartley imbues this scenario with his hallmarks: razor-sharp deadpan dialogue, imaginative editing and striking compositions. He tackles the serious moral issues posed in the overwrought Book of Revelation, while making certain that both Jesus and Satan posses an ample amount of 20th-century world-weariness (both are clad in business suits and maintain an urbane, blithely sarcastic edge).

The cast, comprised of members of Hartley’s usual stock company of actors, does a wonderful job of delivering his extremely precise dialogue. To her credit, rocker P.J. Harvey (in her only acting turn to date) makes an eye-catchingly cool Mary Magdalene and is featured in one of the film’s most memorable bits, where her character goes into a music store and sings lines from “To Sir With Love.”

Book of Life was a turning point for Hartley, as it represented his first feature shot on digital video. He resumed that practice in 2005 (after No Such Thing in 2001) with The Girl From Monday, a caustic sci-fi fable about a near-future America in which a revolution has taken place, resulting in the “Triple M” corporation taking over the country.

The Girl From Monday movie scene

Tatiana Abracos is The Girl From Monday.

In the film, an ad agency employee (Bill Sage) is intrigued by the underground movement attempting to overthrow the “dictatorship” of the consumer” that envelops society. This is complicated when he meets an attractive spacewoman (Brazilian model Tatiana Abracos) looking to return to her planet.

The low-budget, Alphaville-derived approach to making the familiar seem unfamiliar works excellently here, as Hartley depicts NYC as a corporate-run state by adding only a few stray elements (like storm-troopers with futuristic-looking goggles) and kinetic camerawork to convey an environment that really isn’t all that alien, given the city’s current economic situation.

Hartley playfully imparts his message about consumer culture in sequences where his characters discuss the concept that sexually active individuals are “the best consumers” — at one point Sabrina Lloyd’s character sensibly entices Sage with the phrase, “Let’s fuck and increase our buying power….”

This package is one of five releases in the “Hal Hartley Collection” from Olive. The titles, all sold separately, include the perfect feature Trust, his debut film The Unbelievable Truth (which contains an impressive featurette offering a solid summation of his career), the three-part experiment Flirt and his latest feature, the characteristically engaging (and wonderfully deadpan) Meanwhile.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”