The Book of Lovely Bones (Weekly Links)

Wahlberg, Tucci, Lovely Bones

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

The Lovely Bones (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

As we learn on the opening page of “The Lovely Bones,” the narrator is a 14-year-old girl who has recently been murdered. This provides an unusual perspective for the telling of her life story…and its aftermath.

A movie made from Alice Sebold’s big bestseller must deal with this tricky device. For instance, the filmmaker will have to conjure up the narrator’s world, which isn’t quite heaven, but is clearly a projection of an adolescent girl’s imagination.

Who better for the job than Peter Jackson, right? Not only because his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy proved his ability to visualize a complex world, but because his early film, “Heavenly Creatures,” was an extraordinary act of empathy with teenage girls—albeit disturbed ones.

Jackson had the right qualifications for the job, but something went awry in his approach to “The Lovely Bones.” This is a strangely unsatisfying movie that seems uncertain about which direction to take.

It has, however, one superb element: the central performance, by Saoirse Ronan (the Oscar-nominated kid from “Atonement”). She plays Susie Salmon, the girl who calmly tells us about her horrifying murder at the hands of a neighborhood sicko.

He is played (this is not a whodunit) by Stanley Tucci, who does strong work in a creepy role. Susie’s grief-stricken parents are played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, her obnoxious grandma by Susan Sarandon.

Rolling out in a somewhat shapeless flashback, “The Lovely Bones” begins to arrange itself as a conventional serial-killer thriller: Wahlberg’s frustrated father looks as though he’s going to assume the mantle of action hero. That approach, while unappetizing, might have worked, but Jackson doesn’t commit entirely to it.

We also spend plenty of time with Susie in her candy-colored wonderland, a place that mostly recalls the forgotten Robin Williams vehicle “What Dreams May Come.” It certainly is eye-filling, and you get the sneaking suspicion that creating these kinds of visions is what drew Peter Jackson to the project.

But flights of fancy shouldn’t feel heavy-handed, and these do. Then a half-hour from the end of the movie, we shift our focus to Susie’s sister (Rose McIver), as she turns into a sleuth herself—a left-field development in the story.

There are other characters whose stories suggest a significance that never blossoms. We don’t spend enough time with the parents and their battered marriage to feel much about that relationship, either.

Saoirse Ronan is one of those weirdly gifted young performers unable to make a false move. As Jackson proved with Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in “Heavenly Creatures,” he has the ability to draw exceptional work from young actresses, and he certainly does it again here.

But the film doesn’t work. It tries to be both a tawdry thriller and an exercise in style, and neither approach is worthy of what is, at the core of it all, a terribly sad story about a young life snuffed out.

The Book of Eli (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

If “The Road” was a post-apocalyptic scenario that couldn’t really live apart from its literary source (a novel by Cormac McCarthy), “The Book of Eli” has no such problems. For better or worse, this is a movie—an unbelievable one at times, but a movie.

Some awful holocaust, not detailed, happened to the world 30 years before the action begins. A lone wanderer named Eli, played by Denzel Washington, walks along a blasted highway in the lawless American Southwest.

His skills at defending himself from marauders are impressive. Almost supernatural: at times the film hints at the possibility that Eli possesses powers beyond the mere mortal.

Eli totes a leather-bound book with him. I guess this is a spoiler alert, although it’s not much of a secret, but the book is the King James version of the bible—evidently most were destroyed in the apocalypse. A power-hungry villain (Gary Oldman, doing his bad thing) wants to lay his hands on a bible, because he says he can subjugate the masses with it.

Eli has holier plans, we assume. He takes on the care of a young woman (Mila Kunis), who’s spent too much time in Oldman’s Thunderdome-like community.

Action ensues. Since little ammunition exists, Eli performs his slaughter with a large knife and a bow and arrow (an opening scene involving the arrow and some sort of feral forest cat is certainly an attention-grabber). The stuff about the bible is the gimmick that the movie needs to exist, but it’s serviceable. At least Gary Whitta’s screenplay sticks to the issue of survival more than any grandiose metaphysical goals. (When grandiose metaphysical goals rear their heads, the movie stumbles.)

“The Book of Eli” is directed by the Hughes Brothers, who got their start with “Menace II Society” but haven’t been heard from much since their subpar comic-book picture “From Hell.” They’ve staged the movie in a sepia tone throughout, bleaching this future world of every color but brown, brown, and more brown.

The action is staged well, particularly Eli’s initial takedown of a gang of traveling thugs under a freeway overpass. The Hughes Brothers actually allow you to see what’s happening, even if it’s in dramatic silhouette.

Denzel Washington’s performance is like the movie itself. He comes in, does his job in a grim fashion, and moves on like a professional. Because much of his face is hidden behind 1970s-sized sunglasses for large parts of the film, it’s saying something that his presence sticks.

This movie won’t leave much of a lasting impression, but somehow I appreciated the way it did its job without much fuss or wasted energy. In action movies, modesty and professionalism are virtues.

The Spy Next Door (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Jackie Chan is now in his mid-fifties—there’s no way to sidestep that fact when you’re talking about a new movie with the great martial-arts star. He’s still agile, he still beams like a floodlight, but the dude doesn’t get off the ground like he used to.

This deceleration might account for his embrace of family-friendly pictures such as “The Spy Next Door,” a very bland bowl of mush served up for a matinee audience. Even his character, a secret agent named Bob Ho, is facing retirement.

Bob lives undercover in a New Mexico suburb. Possibly this was chosen because it offers a contrast to Bob’s exciting espionage life—and sure enough, this planned community looks like the most boring place on earth.

Our hero has grown friendly with the divorcee (Amber Valetta) next door, but not with her three kids. They consider Bob hopelessly nerdy. Which he is.

From the first five minutes of this movie, we sense that Bob will have an opportunity to prove to the kids that he’s not just a sweater-vest-wearing numbers-cruncher. You know—because he’s a secret agent.

First, there’ll be some alleged hilarity as the divorcee is abruptly called out of town and Bob volunteers to babysit the kids. He’s got an especially rough time with the oldest (Madeline Carroll, from “Swing Vote”), an adolescent with a hefty chip on her shoulder.

The subplot that pulls Bob back into the spy game involves a couple of nefarious Russians, whose “Bullwinkle Show” accents result in some of the film’s only amusing moments. At least Magnus Scheving and Katherine Boecher have a good time in their roles.

This one is directed by Brian Levant, who did the “Flintstones” movies and “Jingle All the Way.” No one can say he hasn’t found his niche.

Jackie Chan’s movies used to be publicized by saying that he absolutely did all his own stunts without trickery. By the looks of things, those days are in the past. And why not? Everybody has stunt doubles, and Jackie deserves a break at this point (no pun intended—he’s fractured a lot of bones over the years).

With his unwavering cheerfulness, Jackie Chan has the appeal of a movie star, even without the big moves. Now it’s up to Hollywood to find something more fitting for him than spattering oatmeal around the kitchen during a babysitting gig.

Wonderful World (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There can’t be a lot of stories about formerly popular singers of kiddie songs who have now fallen on hard times, so “Wonderful World” has the benefit of novelty.

It also has good intentions and a winsome cast, which helps its modest goals along. The former crooner of kid-oriented tunes is Ben Singer, played by Matthew Broderick. He’s completely slipped out of his former mode, and labors as a proofreader.

He logs time with his 11-year-old daughter, when he can wrest her away from a controlling mom (Ally Walker). And he plays chess with his roommate Ibou, an immigrant (Michael K. Williams) who sees the sunny side of life.

Ben does not see the sunny side. His view is pretty much filled with shade. He sees existence as being rigged by The Man, and anybody who thinks different is a sucker.

By the way, “The Man” actually appears in the flesh, played by Philip Baker Hall. His appearances are a little too random to qualify as the equivalent of Woody Allen’s Humphrey Bogart fantasies in “Play it Again, Sam.”

When Ibou’s medical emergency brings his sister Khadi (Sanaa Lathan) over to the U.S. from Senegal, Ben is presented with a rather formidable challenge to his ideas: Khadi is going to stay at the apartment.

Writer-director Josh Goldin, an experienced script doctor making his debut behind the camera, has here a tidy tale of a disenchanted man who badly needs enchantment. We can see this coming a mile away, especially because Khadi, as enacted by the excellent Sanaa Lathan, seems to be toting enchantment in abundance.

Granted, it’s probably a little too easy for Ben to be handed this get-out-of-jail-free card, although it is refreshing that a subplot about a lawsuit doesn’t go the way you think it might.

Mostly, I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere of the picture, and the two lead actors. Matthew Broderick starred years ago in a comedy written by Josh Goldin, “Out on a Limb,” and here he taps his depressive side.

Broderick seems drawn to these characters who suggest Ferris Bueller on the skids, and he’s believable in the roles. Bleary-eyed and unshaven, he’s not a man angry at the world; he’s just given up, except for booing from the grandstands.

I’m not sure the grand total of all this is a dynamic movie, and your tolerance of an indie film covering familiar territory will hinge on your affection for these performers. But by the time Ben Singer steps up for his final gesture, the movie and Matthew Broderick have earned a little goodwill.

And an appearance on Art Zone in Studio with Nancy Guppy tonight at 8 on the Seattle Channel; it’ll also be playable on their website. Schedule here.

Movie Diary 1/14/2010

The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010). It doesn’t sound too good in synopsis, and some of the ideas are pure hokum, but this is not bad. A lot of the action is even comprehensible, which is saying something in this middle-Transformers era we’re living in. (full review 1/15)

Wonderful World (Josh Goldin, 2009). Matthew Broderick as a Ferris Bueller gone to seed, moping around until his comatose roommate’s sister (Sanaa Lathan) comes from Africa. Much more normal than that sounds; if you like the two actors, this is also not bad.

A Town Called Panic (Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009). Weird, giddy stop-motion daftness, from Belgium’s version of the South Park guys. This is an awesome movie. (full review 1/22)

The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924). Totally sure-handed situation comedy, with especially deft expressions and gestures from the cast. Fine opening: a close-up of a hole in a sock, and Adolphe Menjou pausing for a long, long beat.