Old 01-14-2010, 11:10 PM
Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones

Here's the link to my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:


The Lovely Bones (2009)

The team behind the brilliant "Lord of the Rings" brings us something completely different with their new project, "The Lovely Bones." After "King Kong," it was hoped that director Peter Jackson would return to more imaginative and engaging stories. Unfortunately, what Jackson achieves with "The Lovely Bones" is strike two.

The film starts in 1973 by introducing us to the Salmon family. There's Jack (Mark Wahlberg), Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and their three kids, Susie (Saoirse Ronan), Lindsey (Rose McIver), and Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale). Susan's life is going pretty well. Her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) predicts that her life will be long, especially after saving the life of her brother. But, as Susie points out, her grandmother is often wrong, like on this occasion.

On her way home one night, 14-year-old Susie is stopped by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who wants to show her a clubhouse that he has built underground. Susie reluctantly agrees and goes down into the cellar-like construction. However, when she wants to leave, George will not allow it. As Susie had told us, this is the day that she was murdered.

This was a film I was really looking forward to, so imagine my disappointment when it turns out to be a mostly forgettable experience. Much of the film revolves around Susie being caught on a celestial plane somewhere between heaven and Earth. This is shown in the form of beautiful landscapes that rapidly change as Susie wanders about.

Then we quickly realize that the film is becoming bogged down with CGI special effects, at least where Susie is concerned. Some of these effects are neat such as giant bottled ships crashing upon a shore or the leaves of a tree taking off like birds, but the film seems so preoccupied with them, concentrating much more on them instead of the human element of the story.

As for Susie herself, she is not given much to do besides wander these landscapes, that is, until the end of the film, which is a whole new problem I'll get to a bit later. She also narrates a lot while she wanders, telling us about her murderer, or about her father as he attempts to find him. Susie does at least get some other characters to interact with when she meets some of George's other victims, most notably a girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo).

From early on, there were some questions that stuck out from the film, such as, why did Susie go down into the hole with a man she hardly knew? or how did nobody notice that George was digging and building this contraption in a spot that could be seen from several houses surrounding it? It's big questions like this that start to bog the film down as the audience is forced to ask themselves about things that aren't adding up.

There was a mixture of interesting and unnecessary characters, the unnecessary one being the grandmother played by Susan Sarandon. After the tragedy of Susie's murder, there is a completely inappropriate montage of her helping out around the home, making the film suddenly feel like a comedy. She ends up playing only one important function, and that's not even until the end of the film.

The best performance of the bunch comes from Stanley Tucci as George Harvey. He gives a genuinely creepy performance as a man who has the bizarre compulsion to murder these women. He kind of stands out as a weirdo of the neighborhood, which makes it strange that Jack doesn't suspect him immediately. However, George has probably had plenty of practice when it comes to having to change neighborhoods and blend into them.

The ending itself was a strange mixture of things. It's as if the filmmakers couldn't figure out how to end the story so they tried a little of everything in an attempt to wrap it up. More than one part of it turns out to be just silly. Not only that, but it feels incomplete. We're never really sure what has happened and why. It also incorporates another character, Clarissa (Amanda Michalka), who feels forced into the film and is only there to serve as a medium for Susie.

Despite the ending being a mess, it's still an interesting film to look at. However, it could have been much better had the filmmakers not been so dependent on the CGI and instead, focused much more on the characters. The main character in particular felt like she was left behind in the celestial world and forgotten by the filmmakers. The film is visually interesting, but far from "lovely." 2.5/4 stars.
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Old 01-17-2010, 09:06 AM

(Peter Jackson, 2009)

What makes a good director? What does an auteur need to do in order to prove his worth? Does he need to show a clear and personal cinematic voice throughout his body of work, discus common themes and employ a distinct and unique visual style? Or is a mere knack at making good movies without any common themes or distinct voice enough? There is no correct answer to this question, as every lover of film has his or her own elements that he or she looks for in a director. That said, I think it is safe to say that, no matter which way you look at it, Peter Jackson has definitely proven himself to be a good director. He is responsible for the greatest cinematic achievement of the decade and one of the greatest of all time, not only managing to film the un-filmable trilogy of novels, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but also delivering three absolutely incredible films in the process. But Jackson had already proven his worth, at least to me, before The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in December 2001. He showcased a distinct and unique style on his early, low-budget horror films and spoofs, but also showed a steady hand and clear vision with Heavenly Creatures, his first foray into more dramatic and real-world-based material. The Frighteners and King Kong were also both very different but very unique and enjoyable works of entertainment. All of the signs pointed towards The Lovely Bones being yet another entry in a string of successes from the New Zealand-based director. It was one of my most anticipated movies of the year – which is probably why I was shocked and surprised at how uneven, imprecise and flawed it turned out to be.

It really is quite a big mess of a movie: some of it is just imbalanced, but some of it is just plain bad. Not one element of the film is consistently good in any way. Its flaws start on the most basic of levels: the storytelling one. I had not read the novel this film is based on, but I had heard the praise it received, and when I heard the premise, it immediately piqued my interest: The basic idea of a girl helping her family com to terms with her untimely and sudden murder from the afterlife sounded to me like an exceptionally interesting subject to deal with, and what could have proven to be a very unique and imaginative take on the depiction of a family coping with indescribably tragic grief. Indeed, the scenes in the film that deal with the family's reaction to Susie's murder provide the briefest moments of genuine emotion in the film; other than them, the movie never seems to find any emotional consistency. It will go from long and indulgent depictions of Susie wandering around her personalized heaven and meeting other figures in this afterlife that help guide her along the way, to police procedural scenes that portray the detective's investigation of the case, to a comic interlude in which Susie's eccentric and outgoing grandmother takes control over the household while everyone else is falling apart, to suddenly becoming a thriller as Susie's sister decides she will break into Susie's murderer's house in order to collect evidence against him, to a really bizarre scene in which Susie seems to possess the body of another girl in order to bid one last goodbye to the boy she loved. The movie is sprinkled with other strange scenes that lack any coherency or explanation in the context of the film, such as one scene in which Susie goes through a laundry list of her killer's past victims for no apparent reason, or another brief but totally unexplainable moment in which Susie's young brother explains to his grandmother that "Susie is in the in-between": in the mythology of the movie this is true, but how the little brother knows this information is entirely beyond me. Without going into too much detail so as not to spoil it, we are shown a scene tacked on at the end of the film of one of the characters meeting his demise, that it just seems so pointless that I just have no idea why it was included. All of these scenes seem so out of place that the movie as a whole consequently ends up feeling completely cold and emotionally detached: save for a few fleeting moments, nothing at all in the film feels in any way genuine.

On the acting front, once again the film proves to be frustratingly inconsistent. On the one hand, it is anchored on two genuinely fantastic performances. Saoirse Ronan once again proves that she is one of the most talented young actresses working today: her performance is very genuine, heart-felt and emotional, and her portrayal of Susie is entirely believable and sympathetic. She also puts on an impressively convincing American accent despite her actual accent being a thick Irish drawl, and, like in her wonderful supporting role in Atonement, her distinct look accentuates the intensity of her performance. But the scene-stealer is without a doubt Stanley Tucci, whom I have always liked and considered underrated throughout the years: he has played a surprising variety of roles, but never one quite as dark and extreme as in this film. He displays distinct mannerisms and speech patterns that help craft his character, but what is most incredible is that he actually manages to make this off-putting, sociopath pederast and child murderer sympathetic. It is clearly the crowning achievement of the film. Unfortunately, none of the other performance live up to those two mentioned above, despite some really impressive names rounding out the cast. Mark Wahlberg is laughably bad as Susie's grieving father who does not at any point feel right for the part, Rachel Weisz seems like she's sleepwalking, and Susan Sarandon just feels out of place. Ryan Gosling was replaced by Wahlberg days before shooting commenced, supposedly because he felt he was too young for the role – this is most unfortunate, as I think that an actor of his talent would have been able to play older than he really is, and perhaps bring some much-needed authenticity to the performance as well. Not that it would have helped the rest of the movie, but it would have been something.

Visually, the film is, for the most part, quite well done, but is not without its flaws as well. Some of the images Jackson uses to depict Susie's heaven are truly imaginative and quite otherworldly: the best sequence of the film involves the immediate aftermath of Susie's murder, in which she finds herself in a white room with her murderer submerged in a bathtub at its center, which later we learn is actually a bizarre and distorted version of the room in which she was murdered, or at least, disemboweled. That sequence really gets under the skin, and many of the other images are quite distinct and memorable as well – it's interesting to see the elements from her brief life that Susie brings over to construct her personal heaven, such as the ships in bottles her father builds, or the gazebo. Jackson also uses the heaven to visually portray Susie's feelings: when she's happy about something going on back in the real world, heaven is sunny and full of birds flying overhead and life; when she is sad or angry, she finds herself alone, in the middle of the ocean or caught in a rainstorm. That said, while the ideas may be good, the execution is anything but. My only explanation to excuse the really shoddy CGI – and there's no other word I can use to describe it, except perhaps just plain "bad" – on display throughout the film is that WETA Digital's best animators were busy at work on James Cameron's Avatar, and Jackson got stuck with the sloppy seconds that provided him with some of the worst and most obvious Cgi since G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Fitting for a terrible B-movie? Sure. But in a prestige film such as this, helped by Peter Jackson of all people, the man who brought us the flawless and revolutionary CG imagery of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong? Completely inappropriate, and inexcusable. The cinematography is actually quite good – the film has a very distinct flow to it and is definitely well framed, well-lit and well-shot – except that once again, Jackson manages to ruin even this by frequently injecting annoying shots that are clearly shot on low-grade digital cameras. I can only imagine why he would have done this – all of these shots are extreme close-ups, and it seems like Jackson is merely exploiting the ability of these cameras to keep everything in the frame in sharp focus, including objects that are literally pressed up against the lens – but the combination of digital photography with 35mm film did not work in Public Enemies, did not work in Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, and it most definitely did not work in this film. I understand these directors' urge to experiment, but I really wish they would just stick with one format, preferably film.

The Lovely Bones was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Everything looked like it was lining up to be something truly special: Peter Jackson returning to his Heavenly Creatures roots and telling a domestic and real-world-based story injected with a fantasy element but, for the first part in more than a decade, not actually existing exclusively in a fantasy world. A story based on a critically acclaimed novel. An all-star cast of genuinely talented individuals. What we ended up getting, though, is nothing less than the biggest disappointment of the year. I combed it from beginning to end and honestly, the film has very few redeeming qualities at all: the two aforementioned performances remain its strongest point, while the rest of it just turns out to be a big, self-indulgent, emotionally detached, inconsistent and incoherent mess. Jackson made so many bad choices as early as the conception stage that I still can't believe this is the same director that brought us the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so fine-tuned, so perfect, every element flawlessly lined up. This film never seems to know what story it wants to tell: is it a murder mystery? Is it a family drama? Is it a romance-from-beyond-the-grave? I certainly don't know, and it doesn't seem like Jackson does either. Even the writing is stiff: many sequences are accompanied by very overt voice-overs by Susie, which are clearly and obviously lifted directly from the first-person narration of the novel (again, I haven't read the book, but I know it is written in first person, so I assume these passages are lifted directly from its pages) and while the first-person stream of consciousness style works well in a novel, in the film, it just comes across as flaccid, sloppy writing as Robert McKee so eloquently put it in Adaptation. The lame performances. The digital shots. The bad CGI. The overall lack of any heart or passion. I really wanted to like this film, but the more and more I think about it, the more I realize that there really isn't much to like about it at all. And the fact that it's such a missed opportunity and that I anticipated it so much makes it all the worse.

RATING: 5/10.
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