What the hell happened to Peter Jackson? Somewhere near the end of his cycle of Lord of the Rings films, specifically Return of the King, I noticed a change.
Becoming engrossed by his own style, he began wallowing in the vastness of what he'd crafted from Tolkien's epic--which is why the damned thing had 15 endings--and thus began to seem a little self-indulgent. The cultural impact of those films garnered Jackson a level of respect that, while not unearned by any means, was as much a product of the books he adapted as anything he brought to the table in getting them on film.
Remember, before Rings, Jackson's sole U.S. film was The Frighteners, a critically well-received, goofy, imaginative ghost comedy that was really quite likeable but flopped at the box office. Before that, the portly Kiwi was cranking out low-budget gross-out horror comedies like Braindead and Bad Taste; fun movies that clearly didn't take themselves too seriously. Something happened during the making of Rings that seemed to change all that.
Now, with The Lovely Bones, the seeds of that budding, self-serious pretension have given rise to a cloyingly saccharine film that, thanks to some truly marred execution, literally had my jaw dropped by some moments of sheer awfulness.
Based on the Alice Sebold novel (to which if this film is faithful, I will never read) of the same name, The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) a young girl living in Pennsylvania in 1973. One evening Susie takes a shortcut home through a field where she encounters her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a middle-aged, divorced fellow who encourages Susie to come see the underground fort he claims he built for the neighborhood children.
Once George gets Susie alone, he rapes, murders and dismembers her body (all of which happens off screen).
Susie awakens in her own personal Elysian Fields, a sort of idyllic middle ground between life and death, where she can see her family grieving, her friends move on and her murderer going about his life--unpunished. Another spirit, Holly (Nikki SooHoo) joins Susie in this Limbo and tries to help her reconcile her death. Susie--seeing the havoc left in the wake of her untimely demise--wants only to get through to her loved ones to ease their grief and try to point them to the man responsible for it.
Working from a script he wrote with longtime partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson elicits some painfully overwrought performances from a script that comes off like it was written by daydreaming tween girls with a misguided affection for Stephanie Meyers-level prose. Loaded with syrupy dialogue, Susie narrates most of the film in an annoying lilt from beyond the grave, spouting naïve bromides about the nature of life, death and love.
Worse, the script is tonally all over the place, and Jackson runs with it in a way that's damn near amateurish.
The jolting changes in tone were baffling coming from the guy who made Heavenly Creatures, which pulled off this balancing act much more dexterously. One moment, he's amping up the sadness of Susie's horrible death, the next she's in a candy-coated musical number in Heaven. Conversely, her family begins to disintegrate from the strain of what happened, and Susie's mom Abigail (Rachel Weisz) leaves home to pick apples in California (seriously).
So her alcoholic mother, Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) moves in, and suddenly the movie turns into a slapstick comedy as the boozy matriarch makes funny by doing things like screwing up dinner and putting too much detergent in the washing machine so that it boils over in suds. Hilarity! Then, back to the digital FX soaked afterlife and blatant tear-jerking manipulation.
When Susie meets the other souls on the verge of crossing over and Jackson makes a montage of it set to Song of the Siren, I almost choked on my belief that life is worth living. So bad.
About the only thing more painful was watching Mark Wahlberg's stunningly awful performance as Susie's father, Jack. He sounds more like a teenage girl than the teenage girls in the film, and his delivery boils down to him reading all his lines in a desperate, pleading tone that had me pulling my hair. I couldn't believe Jackson would call cut and print a performance like the one Wahlberg gives here. It's literally embarrassing. No wonder he's shopping around a Four Brothers sequel.
As Susie, Saoirse Ronan isn't nearly as horrible, though she is overly emotive at times. She's young and has plenty of time to grow into her talents. Wahlberg has no such excuse. Rachel Weisz is phoning it in as Susie's mom but considering the whirlwind of crappiness around her, it's just as well she flew under the radar.
About the only performance worthy of praise is Stanley Tucci's as the incredibly creepy and twisted George Harvey. He commits himself fully to being a detestable, skin-crawlingly sick bastard, and his performance is a truly memorable one. In the sole scene in the movie that got under my skin, Susie has just awoken to the afterlife in Harvey's bathroom, where he soaks in a blood-stained tub. Susie's realization of what's happened combined with the image of a clearly satiated Harvey relaxing in his bath, nailed the horrifying indignity of her fate. That sent a shiver through me. Too bad everything else about the movie and its story are so maddeningly pointless and bungled.
I'm a fan of Peter Jackson, and I'm always going to be interested in what he does next. Maybe more so now. The Lovely Bones is, sadly, the worst Jackson film I've ever seen and it wouldn't surprise me if it winds up being one of the worst films of the year. The year is young, though.
All About a Book
Albert and Allen Hughes spent the past nine years in director jail after their muddled adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel From Hell. Now on parole, the Hughes Brothers return with The Book of Eli, a Yojimbo-inspired, post-apocalyptic action vehicle that finds Denzel Washington looking mean and walking in slow motion. A lot.
I usually try to avoid spoilers whenever possible, but it would be impossible to really talk about The Book of Eli without revealing what that book is. It's really not much to spoil if you've been paying attention to the advertising, but if you want to go into this film completely untainted you should probably skip this one.
Once again we find humankind has been mostly wiped out by nuclear war when we meet Eli (Denzel Washington), a lone traveler making his way West through the shattered landscape. Armed with a wicked machete and Bono's sunglasses, Eli carries a book that he will stop at nothing to protect--the last copy of The Bible.
He's a peaceful man but if any of the brigands that haunt the roadside attempt to take the book, he'll send limbs flying with the deadly precision of a samurai. Eli doesn't go looking for trouble, but in a world loaded with thieves, cannibals and rapists, it often finds him.
The only real problem is uncontaminated water, which is in short supply. When Eli finds a dusty, desert town populated by outlaws, his attempts to get a refill land him under arrest (after a slight misunderstanding involving a few beheadings) and dragged before Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the leader of the nascent community.
Since Eli can clearly handle himself, Carnegie wants to entice him to join his band of outlaws, but Carnegie has a mission of his own. He's hunting high and low for books but looking for one in particular. Bet you can't guess which one. Unsurprisingly, Eli and Carnegie's relationship quickly becomes contentious.
The Book of Eli is an inert, silly two-hour exercise in style over substance. And I do mean silly. Be it the slow motion shots of Washington walking down the road like a badass or Gary Oldman's campy scenery chewing, I found myself snorting plenty at the unoriginal, one-note shallowness of it all.
For one thing, we're supposed to buy into the idea that there's only one Bible left. It's implied that the war that led to humanity's near extinction was caused by religion, so the survivors presumably went to every house, bookstore, Best Western and church and destroyed all the Bibles. Not likely.
But even if I could get past that scenario, Carnegie's motives for wanting a Bible--that he might wield it as a tool to re-ignite civilization--are only vaguely defined, the script never gives a hint as to how or why that would work, much less if it's a good idea.
The basics are in there for the bigger questions and themes, but the script (penned by Gary Whitta and heavily re-written by the Hughes') is too stripped down and simplistic to really answer them. The script makes its rules at the convenience of the plot. The world it creates is mostly a façade on which The Hughes Brothers slickly paint in their overly stylized, highly derivative visual language.
They seemed more concerned with cool looking cloud formations and tastefully composing the action carnage with comic book framing than breathing real life into the characters. The results are a cool looking flick with some neat action sequences that just crawls--shockingly lethargic and tedious.
Performances are serviceable with Oldman being the only real stand out. His take on Carnegie is just as one-note as the rest of the proceedings, but he throws himself into it with his typical gusto. Sporting funny glasses and an accent that weirdly reminded me of Robert Vaughn, Oldman loads his performance with all the angry grimaces and tooth baring tics of a really stressed out wannabe dictator.
Denzel Washington is OK as the brooding Eli. The nature of the story doesn't allow a lot of room for his natural charm, so he plays up the benevolent warrior aspect--a prophet with a blade who loves mankind even when he reluctantly has to chop them to death. Actually, Washington was surprisingly adept and convincing in the fight scenes, which were easily the best-staged element of the film thanks to The Hughes Brothers arty, if contrived compositions.
Mila Kunis is entirely miscast as Eli's sidekick, Solara (Carnegie's stepdaughter), who he attempts to use to tempt Eli to stay in town and join his crew. She's too slight and flawless looking to be believable, considering the world she lives in. Plus, her ultimate arc was one of the biggest eye rollers in a film so loaded with them I think I got a glimpse of my own frontal lobe.
January used to be considered a dumping ground for movies that the studios had no confidence in. The January graveyard still exists, and The Book of Eli is the latest casualty to be buried there.
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