Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2010

Of death and the apocalypse

Catching up on some of the early 2010 releases I missed

The Lovely Bones
Paramount Pictures
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 novel.

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.

Screen Gems
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

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