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The Lovely Bones Ain’t Lovely

December 27, 2009 1 comment

I can at least call this film an interesting failure. Based on the novel “The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold, the film is about the murder of a young teenage girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) and how her murder impacts those close to her. Set in the 1970’s Susie narrates the story from a heavenly purgatory. She witnesses her father (Mark Wahlberg) not being able to cope with her death and watches his ongoing obsession into finding her killer. Her father ends up neglecting his wife (Rachel Weisz) who can’t accept that Susie is gone. Susie also keeps watch over her killer, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who on the outside appears to be the Salmon’s harmless next door neighbor.

I read the book over a year ago and remember liking it a lot. I’m not a die-hard fan who demands that director Peter Jackson absolutely stay faithful to the novel. I was curious to see what he would do with the film, especially the heaven sequences. While Jackson creates some really intriguing visuals when the film shows us Susie in heaven, the film is empty emotionally. The book left me feeling very emotionally affected. The film has none of that. Jackson has a hard time balancing the visuals of Susie’s heaven with the drama occurring on earth.

I found the emotional drama between the Salmon family seriously lacking. The loss of the daughter and each member of the family’s reaction to it comes across as just barely hitting the surface. I wanted to see more of the family dynamic and see how it destroys their lives. Seeing the two parents just crying wasn’t satisfying enough to represent their pain. Rachel Weisz’s character gets shafted in the film. Her character in the novel has a much more absorbing character arc. Her actions in the film and it’s impact on the family is totally ignored in the film. Mark Whalberg almost borders on “The Happening” type acting here. The only two very good performances in the film are Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci as the killer. Tucci is appropriately disturbing as the child killer.

The visuals that Jackson uses to represent heaven are the film’s most fascinating moments. I remember in the book the heaven was very vaguely described. Jackson gives us a heaven that is full of big colors and images that are metaphors for what her family is going through back home. Some of imagery in alluring, but at times it comes across as distracting and at time ridiculous. One sequence has Susie being the star of her own fashion show. This comes across as very silly. But I guess a dream of a young teenage girl is to be in a fashion show. Jackson does an interesting thing where he will intercut major scenes taking place on earth with Susie experiencing the same thing in heaven. He lets the visuals speak for themselves. This is an intriguing way to let important scenes play out but it’s not always successful in getting his point across.

Jackson and his screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, needed to omit some of the novel’s storylines from film. Trying to cram in all these different plots robs them of any poignant impact they might have had. Characters, like Susie’s sisters, are not properly developed. I found Susie’s voice over in the film to be very annoying. The information that she tells the audience is redundant and at times unnecessary. Some of the film’s suspenseful moments are handled effectively well. I only wish the emotional scenes were handled with the same care. In the end, the film’s two narratives never come together in a satisfying way.

2 Stars

Clooney, Reitman & Crew Deliver an Outstanding Film with Up in the Air

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Up in the Air

With this film director Jason Reitman I think cements his status as possibly one of our great future directors. With each successive film Reitman has grown as a filmmaker. I didn’t care for his debut, “Thank You For Smoking,” but I really enjoyed his follow-up “Juno.” I think “Up in the Air” is without a doubt his best film. The writing, direction, and the cast, is a step above the rest.

Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, is a man whose job is to fire people. Companies from around the country hire him to come to their company and fire their employees. He is an expert at it. Watching him fire people is like watching a fine artist at work. All this traveling requires that Bingham essentially live in the air. On the rare occasion when he returns to his apartment we see it is lonely and empty. Traveling is his life and he loves it. He has no use for an ordinary life. Along his travels he encounters two women who challenge his life. One of them is a female version of himself, Alex, played by Vera Farmiga. The other is a young employee at his company, Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick, who Bingham takes on the road to show her the ropes.

2009 has been a standout year for Clooney. He was the best thing in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” and his voice work was fantastic in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” With this film Clooney ends the year with another strong performance. He is completely charming, but doesn’t rely on it to carry the role. We get to see a real vulnerability behind all his charm and good looks. There is one great scene where we see Clooney at work. He fires J.K. Simmons with such sincerity that it had me thinking that I wouldn’t mind being fired by Clooney.

The two female leads are also strong. Vera Farmiga finally gets a chance to shine. I love the scenes between her and Clooney. When the two of them go at with the dialogue it reminded me a bit of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell going at it in “His Girl Friday.” Anna Kendrick is completely engaging as the hot-shot newcomer who threatens Clooney’s way of life. There is a great scene where the two go at it for the first time and the cutting back and forth between the two reminds you of two boxers going at it. Kendrick puts up a tough persona, but we are able to see cracks in her hard armor.

The screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kerns, is terrific. There are a number of great one liners. The dialogue and the way the actors deliver the lines is delightful to hear.

The film mirrors the real life economic downturn that is facing the country today. Reitman uses real life out of work employees in the film. When I first heard of this, I wasn’t sure how this element would be incorporated into the picture. But Reitman blends the unemployed into the film in a nice, non intrusive way.

Just when the film reaches a level of sentimentality, the film pulls the rug out of the audience and Clooney. I kind of did see this event coming just when it was about to happen. A lesser filmmaker would have possibly went for the easy way out. I really liked the ambiguity of the ending. Where does the man in the air go now? The more I thought about the film afterwards, the more in stature the film grew.

I think Roger Ebert sums it up best about Reitman during his review of this film. He “makes smart, edgy mainstream films. That’s harder than making smart, edgy indies.” Reitman is a real talent, who has a knack for balancing humor and drama to produce a fully satisfying picture.

4 Stars