At The Picture Show
Of death and the apocalypse
Catching up on some of the early 2010 releases I missed
The Lovely Bones
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel
by Alice Sebold
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan
Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver, Reece Ritchie and Carolyn Dando
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 15 minutes
(out of four)
Once thought a sure Oscar contender, Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones - based on
Alice Sebold's bestseller - came and went over the holidays amid less-than-stellar
(some outright vicious) reviews. It's a sentiment I can understand; the film wears
its heart and its imagination so prominently on its sleeve that it leaves itself wide
open for scorn.
While some of that scorn is deserved - amazing as it may sound, the film features
just as many clumsy, superfluous metaphors as does Sebold's prose - I don't think
it's quite the catastrophic failure it was purported to be.
By the very nature of the story, The Lovely
Bones has to strike a very delicate balance as it shifts between life and afterlife.
Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) has been murdered by a leering
neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), and has moved on to the "in-between,"
an extravagantly detailed middle ground between earth and heaven. Then there's
the life she left on earth, and the way her death has penetrated the lives of those she
knew - her parents, her sister, her grandmother, her budding boyfriend, and one
particular classmate named Ruth Conners.
I admit I laughed when I heard some of Jackson's visual dreamscapes in Susie's
"in-between" compared to Claritin commercials or DayGlo. Yet some of his visual
ideas are stunning, both in their detail and in the way he juxtaposes the imagery
with that of life on Earth. Then again, that very juxtaposition is, in other
sequences, Jackson's handicap - some of the "in-between" sequences take such a
literal approach that they cross over into the infantile.
At their best, the afterlife scenes are a rather beautiful visual personification of a
human soul. It reflects both the joyful exuberance of a young teenage girl, and the
darkness and sadness that she left behind on earth.
This was misunderstood by some, notably Roger Ebert, who in his asinine review
criticized the film for making Susie's afterlife such a joyful place. The film, he
argued, was making the case that, "if you're a 14-year-old girl who has been
brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to." I
would put this to Mr. Ebert: Would he rather Susie's afterlife be a wholly
miserable experience? Would he rather the film prolonged her suffering? Really?
But I digress. It seems to me the main thrust
of the film should be the interaction - both metaphorical and metaphysical -
between life and afterlife. And at times, that is exactly what Jackson accomplishes.
At others, however, he gets too squarely in one mode or another - this is the part
where it's a thriller, this is the part where it's an awkward, broad comedy (i.e. all of
Susan Sarandon's scenes), this is the part where it's a procedural, etc. - and the
film's two settings feel too separate. They should be intimately linked, and too
often they're not. The film has a wavering sense of mood and purpose. Jackson
will establish a tone with one scene and shatter it the next. Apologists may defend
that as simply being emblematic of the characters' collective mindset, but I'm not
buying it. It just seems sloppy.
I find far too much to admire in The Lovely Bones to dismiss it - including Ronan's
performance. But if there's one thing that swung me one way or another, it is
Jackson's utterly crass decision to design a suspense sequence that juxtaposes a
teenage girl's loss of virginity with the spectre of said girl's dead, decaying body.
Of all the ways to illustrate the things he's going for in that sequence, he chose just
about the most offensive one.
The Book of Eli
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Screenplay: Gary Whitta
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer
Beals, Michael Gambon and Tom Waits
Rated R / 1 hour, 58 minutes
(out of four)
We're obsessed with the apocalypse these days. Biblical, nuclear, environmental,
existential, what have you. I suppose the end of the world - or at least the end of
the world as we know it - has always been an area of interest for people. But lately
it seems we're getting a new apocalyptic scenario every week or so. These next
two are two such examples.
First up is The Book of Eli. Now, I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing - or
neither - but while watching the film, I blindly assumed it was based on a graphic
novel. Everything about the film evoked that style - the monochromes, the era-bending sets and costumes, the stylized violence. I thought I eventually might pick
this particular comic up. Only it turned out not to be the case. That said, I'd have
to assume that the aesthetic was deliberate on the part of the Hughes Brothers,
whose previous feature film, From Hell, was adapted from Alan Moore's graphic
But while From Hell, for all its flaws, very
nicely illustrated its gothic setting, the Hughes' stylistic approach in The Book of
Eli seems more arbitrary. And I think I would have felt that way even if it had
turned out to be based on a graphic novel. (In much the same way I hated Zack
Snyder's 300, regardless of how much the tone and color palette may have
matched Frank Miller's comics.)
The problem is, the film seems to want to show us a sort of gritty reality, but the
sheer artifice of the style makes that impossible. Its veneer is too thick.
And speaking of thick, Gary Whitta's script certainly doesn't leave any room for
gentle strokes. In his tale about one man (Denzel Washington) trying to protect the
world's last remaining Bible from the bad guys (led by Gary Oldman), he's all too
up-front (and talkative) about his allegorical messages. Yes, it is a powerful tool
used to control the masses, for both better and worse. You only need to tell us
once. We get the point.
The Hughes Brothers don't allow logic get in the way, either. I especially enjoyed
how Washington and Mila Kunis are given cool designer shades to wear, while
everyone else is stuck with bulky old goggles. Hey, I guess they've gotta look like
movie stars, after all.
Director: Scott Stewart
Screenplay: Peter Schink and Scott Stewart
Starring: Paul Bettany, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki, Tyrese Gibson, Dennis
Quaid, Charles S. Dutton and Kevin Durand
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes
(out of four)
The town where Legion takes place is called Paradise Falls. Since this is a movie
about archangels fighting for and against the fall of mankind, that moniker should
tell you all you need to know about the film's idea of subtly.
And here I thought The Book of Eli was too obvious.
The film takes place in a time when God has apparently lost faith in mankind, so he
sends his angels to kill them all. The archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) will have
none of it, however. He's even cut off his wings to prove how serious he is in
fighting God's plan of mass extermination.
Out in Paradise Falls, plop in the middle of the New
Mexico desert, a microcosmic cast of characters gets caught in the middle of this
war, with plague and pestilence coming at them from all sides and Michael as their
sole protector. Among these characters are a pregnant young woman, whose
unborn son has no (present) father, and a doting young man intent on caring for the
child (and the woman) himself. I'll let you figure out those parallels.
What Legion intends to do narratively could be an interesting experiment, as it
inverts and subverts the religious imagery with which we're so familiar. But its
attempts at any kind of allegorical or existential profundity are painted in such
broad strokes, the entire thing comes across as laughably absurd.
Read more by Chris Bellamy