Friday, December 18, 2009

A Review of Peter Jackson's Latest - THE LOVELY BONES.

Hey everyone ... ready for the weekend? I know I am, and I'm psyched not only for some rest and relaxation, but also because this is going to be one for the books in terms of the pop-cultural universe. I've got my ticket for Avatar in IMAX 3D on Saturday, so be sure to check back here for a review soon.

In the meantime, hope you've had the chance to check out my Best of the 00's series. So far, I've published entries on the best TV, Comics, and Music of the decade, and I've got a couple more posts still to come.

Finally, one more time, Happy Hanukkah - it's hard to believe that tonight is already the eighth and final night of the holiday.

Now, I've got a review for you of The Lovely Bones, the latest from Peter Jackson. Speaking of Best of the Decade, Jackson emerged as one of the breakout talents of the 00's by seemingly coming out of nowhere to direct The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the best epics ever in cinematic history. To that end, Jackson earned enough cred with me that I am curious to see any new movie he puts out, and so, even if the subject matter wasn't exactly up my alley in terms of the types of films I'm usually into, I was still really interested to check out Jackson's latest.


- I can see why some found The Lovely Bones not to their liking, but for me, it worked. It worked as a powerful, emotional, thought-provoking film. It worked as a cinematic experience that, to me, proved to be both immersive and intense. Some have complained that director Peter Jackson's influence on the book adaptation softened the harsh and tragic themes of the novel, and others have stated that Jackson's brightly-colored, fantastical flourishes were just too much. Again, for me, the movie came together really well. Peter Jackson, I think, is one of the most interesting and talented directors working today. He is a storyteller whose works, even those dealing with the coldness and harshness of reality, are told through the prism of epic fantasy. It's a style of storytelling that doesn't go down easy for many, but it's one that I've long been a fan of. The Lovely Bones is a story that, taken at face value, is extremely hard to stomach - especially in the translation from the printed page to the visual medium of film. It's just too sad, too brutal. But what Jackson has done here is to accentuate the grand themes that drive the narrative. There are moments of realism, characters that feel three-dimensional and fully-drawn - but they are counterbalanced by magical, mythical, and even hopeful overtones that give meaning to a bleak story that would have been depressingly meaningless without them.

The Lovely Bones, set in the 70's, tells the story of Susie Salmon, a fourteen year old girl with her whole life ahead of her. Susie is a smart girl navigating the perils of her early teens just like any other kid her age. She's in a film club at school. There's a British boy in the club she has a crush on. Her parents are starting to feel a bit overbearing, and the only one who seems to talk to her like an adult is her boozy, glamorous grandma. Suzie is a normal girl with a bright future, and then ... she is murdered. Her life is taken suddenly and violently by a creepy neighbor, a killer and a rapist who preys on young girls. He is a monster hiding in plain sight. The Lovely Bones begins as a nostalgic, even funny family drama, but then transitions into something else. Because Susie's story doesn't end in death. On earth, her family and friends desperately try to come to terms with their loss, even as they resolve to figure out who killed Susie and bring the criminal to justice. And in a place that is not quite earth, and not quite heaven, Susie watches as events unfold in the aftermath of her death. From this ethereal, surreal fantasy world, Susie tries to will her family towards peace and closure so that she too can find it, and move on to a more permanent and peaceful afterlife.

It's a multifaceted story, but I think Peter Jackson does a pretty remarkable job of balancing the different tones that the story demands. The shifts from earth to the afterlife are pretty seamless, because even the more mundane scenes are tinged with a foggy, misty sheen of nostalgia and memory. Jackson also accomplishes a very difficult feat, in that he at times shifts from straightforward narrative into more abstract, metaphorical storytelling. Again, this is where I can see a lot of people getting thrown off, but it mostly worked for me. Concepts as abstract as the afterlife sometimes are better served by abstract storytelling, afterall. The tonal duality of the movie reminded me a bit of movies like Big Fish or Jackson's own Heavenly Creatures. And I think he pulls it off here, which is a huge testament to his craftsmanship as a director.

I also really liked the movie's cast. The young actress Saoirse Ronan is excellent as Susie - she turns in a very soulful, very wise-beyond-her-years type of performance, and helps to really sell the emotion and drama of the film. Mark Wahlberg is also really good as her dad. At first, he seemed a bit on the bland side, but after tragedy occurs, I was impressed with how Wahlberg's character evolved, with the actor transforming himself into someone who looks and acts like he has survived the abyss and is still trying to overcome grief and sorrow and rage. Rachel Weisz is pretty good as Susie's grief-stricken mom, although she doesn't quite shine here as she has in some other roles of hers.

One of the real standouts though is Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, the ultra-creepy killer whose mild-mannered exterior only barely conceals his incredibly disturbed psyche. Tucci's effective acting combined with Jackson's tension-filled directing makes for some scenes that are absolutely bursting at the seams with intensity. There was one scene in the film, in which George is slowly approaching a potential victim holed up in his attic, that is so tense that a woman in my theater actually audibly gasped in horror - so affected was she by the mere thought of what might potentially be about to occur. I think that dichotomy, that look at the innocence and hopefulness of Susie, mixed with the dark evil of George, is what makes The Lovely Bones so layered and interesting. It's why I think that Jackson's sweeping visuals and grand directorial style or warranted - even though this is in some ways a small-scale story, it's also, in its own way, a story about hope versus despair, good versus evil.

There are a couple other standouts in the cast. Susan Sarandon is a lot of fun as Susie's hot-to-trot grandma. She provides some much needed light-heartedness and comic relief, and is one of the characters that everyone rallies around, because she's sort of the good-hearted rock of the family. I also was really impressed by the actress who played Susie's younger sister, who eventually becomes the unlikely hero of the movie. You really start to root for her, and she nails some pivotal moments in the film.

As you can probably tell, I was generally a fan of Peter Jackson's approach to the material, although there were some moments that struck me as a little too much. One plot point that felt a bit off was the relationship between Susie and her schoolgirl crush. It was sweet at times, but sometimes crossed over into the realm of just plain cheesy. I don't want to go into another plot element that bothered me for fear of spoilers, suffice it to say that a couple moments that Jackson seemed to play up as being hopeful and catharctic came off as oddly bleak and depressing - basically, in contrast to the tone he was going for as the movie drew to a close.

Mostly though, I really appreciated Jackson's unique approach to this movie. So many filmmakers would have just gone for dark and gritty, or cold and bleak. Jackson's movie has darkness and bleakness, but it's told such that, in its own way, it's as "big" and lofty a movie as Lord of the Rings.

And by the way, props to Jackson for actually going ahead and making a movie like this. I wish more directors known for blockbusters would take the time to flex their muscles a bit on smaller and more personal films. To me, The Lovely Bones is a great example of how a simple story of personal tragedy can, with the right vision behind it, become a mini-epic in its own right.

My Grade: A-

- Alright everyone, check back soon for more Best of the Decade posts, and a review of AVATAR!


  1. I respect your opinion but i have to disagree with your review, i thought the movie was awful. The reason why Stanley Tucci stands out is because he's almost the main character in the film while the other actors around him are given next to nothing to do. Tucci is a great actor but he's given most of the film. Mark Wahlberg tries hard but he's left with really nothing to do. The reason Rachel Weisz does not shine as much as you would have liked is the fact that the director cut a good portions of her scenes out of the film ( and they did film them) Susan Sarandon also had most of her scenes cut as well and her character does not come across very well at all because of it( The montage with her cleaning the house was embarrassingly bad and out of a completely different movie altogether.

    As for the film being dark? What movie did you see? With all the CGI effects that Peter Jackson puts into this film, you could have thought that you were seeing a live action "Teletubbies" movie right in front of you with Saoirse Ronan as a guest star. I understand that they did not want to address the rape and murder of a child but to sweeten it to the point of nausea is worst than addressing what happen.

    In my opinion, its a really bad film

  2. Hey Molly, thanks for your comment.

    So I don't know, I guess I just saw things a lot differently than you did, and obviously having not read the book I probably came at the movie from a much different angle.

    That said, I think that Jackson made it pretty clear what happened to Susie. I don't see how showing a rape scene would have added to the film. It would have been pretty much unwatchable and a distraction from the rest of the story. I thought Jackson did a fine job of conveying the horror of what happened in an elegant manner that was emotional and painful. If he were more graphic, I don't think it would have fit into the tone of the film.

    And my whole point was to say that Jackson was telling a dark and bleak story, but NOT in a grim and gritty manner. I thought that the fantasy imagery emphasized the fact that these characters, stuck in a mundane and tragic "real" world, were also characters in a much grander story, a much bigger tapestry, than they themselves realized. That to me was the hopeful message of the movie - that even when tragedy strikes, hope can spring up around it. I don't know if the tone / message of the book is completely in contrast to that, but I liked that the movie took a different approach to addressing personal tragedy.

    I mean, think of a movie like Million Dollar Baby. To me, that film became bleak to an absurd and pointless degree. What were we supposed to take away from the movie? I thought with The Lovely Bones, the story was rendered more effective because of the fantasy context that Jackson put it into. I wouldn't want every movie to utilize that style of storytelling, but I think in this one, it worked.