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It’s the year 1973, and Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) lives an idealistic teenage life with her average American family in a Pennsylvania suburb. The idealism is cut short when a seemingly harmless neighbour named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) hatches a plan to elaborately capture and murder Susie. Susie’s disappearance throws her family into disarray. Her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) is driven to madness trying to solve the murder, and his madness drives her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) away from home, leaving Susie’s younger brother and sister to raise themselves. Meanwhile Susie, unable to accept her death, traps herself in a fantasy land limbo, where she can continue to watch her loved ones from the ‘other side’.

Lovely Bones, The
Peter Jackson’s career shift is one of the most acute and successful in mainstream filmmaking. Bad Taste is expressively nerdy, Meet the Feebles followed grotesque suit, and Braindead ( Dead Alive) appeared to cement a style and pattern. Horror fans were mostly realistic enough to know we couldn’t possibly expect anything more extreme in terms of gags ‘n gore, but most of us assumed he was on a genre specific career trajectory. Then he went and made Heavenly Creatures, and gained the respect of the normal and respected establishment critics. How the hell did the master of unmatched excessive gore manage such unadulterated beauty? Heavenly Creatures garnered the attention of the studios, and Jackson’s next film was a pseudo return to horror/comedy form, but with a definitive conventional twist. Though clearly not a throw-away feature, The Frighteners appears as more of a technical stepping stone in terms of Jackson’s overall oeuvre, and cemented a new chapter in the filmmaker’s career. Perhaps the most defining choice Jackson made concerning his place in history was made when he decided not to follow the suit set by most director’s given their Hollywood shot, and stayed in his hometown.

Jackson dug his boot heels in the New Zealand soil, and developed an obsessive interest in digital effects, which sort of turned him down a Kiwi George Lucas trail. The director mustered an army that could keep him close to home, and went from there. This lead to that Lord of the Rings trilogy – a massive undertaking that should’ve failed on every level, but went on to become one of the most successful productions since Lucas’ own should’ve-been failure turned history maker. Lord of the Rings was clearly a group effort from the start (it would’ve taken decades for Jackson to make it on his own), and in the end created a virtual filmmaking kingdom on the far side of the globe. Jackson had his utopia, and more audience acceptance than almost any filmmaker since James Cameron. Clearly one can’t be ‘King of the World’ without it going to his head a little bit, even the most modest, portly little Kiwi. So the director’s real dream project, King Kong was released, and though the film made money, and garnered general critical praise, the post-release reaction was pretty lukewarm, and no one could deny that the production had gotten away from the once humble filmmaker. As if a sign that the old Peter Jackson were literally dead and gone, the man that directed King Kong was thin, didn’t wear glasses, and tended to wear shoes on set. This was truly the end of times.

Lovely Bones, The
Which brings us to the present and The Lovely Bones, Jackson’s much anticipated King Kong follow-up. Produced by possibly the most successful filmmaker of all time, Steven Spielberg, and based on Alice Sebold’s novel (one of those best sellers that everyone seems to agree is actually very well written) the film took a very long time to get made. Some assumed the adaptation was difficult, while others assumed the now emaciated filmmaker just desperately needed a break. Since this DVD features no extras, and gives no concrete answers, I’m going to guess the hardships were a mix of both issues. Having not read the book, and having missed the film in theatres (like the rest of the world, apparently, based on both general interest and Paramount’s diabolically bad release treatment), I was left here to figure out what Jackson saw in adapting this particular tome, and where it would stand in his portfolio. The answer is pretty clear, and it reads ‘A Return to Heavenly Creatures’. Thematically there’s a lot of Heavenly Creatures here, especially concerning The Lovely Bones sense of nostalgia, the pre-adult fantasy world (this time made more literal), and stylistically speaking, the period setting and narration. This marks the first time Jackson’s dealt in an era as pop-culture savvy as the ‘70s, and the pop certainly bleeds its way into his pallet, and occasionally his editing, but it’s impossible to ignore the contextual similarities. It’s too bad, then, that the director has achieved very little in comparison to any of his work here, and that The Lovely Bones is something of a lovely mess.

The frightening scenes are the film’s most successful in terms of technical direction, and Stanley Tucci’s performance, though certainly odd, is probably the film’s most unforgettable element. The sequence where Suzy is coaxed into her killer’s lair is incredibly nerve-wracking, and the follow-up ‘realization’ scene is genuinely haunting. The warm-fuzzy special effects celebrations, and melodramatic character stuff grows especially trying very quickly after Susie dies. The limbo world, likely the most similar element to Heavenly Creatures, and likely the sequences Jackson had the most fun with as a director, devolves into daft, 3D collages of random pretty stuff (the What Dreams May Come analogies are totally fair, unfortunately). The family drama she watches from beyond plods with clichés, produces a few unintentional laughs, and then drags into monotony. These scenes are emotionally stunted, and have very little narrative bearing on the film’s plot. To stop the film for ten minutes to re-introduce the wacky grandmother is absolute narrative suicide. All this fat, good looking though it may be, smothers a perfectly tense, though somewhat generic supernatural thriller within its folds. Anytime the material goes back into dark places the film comes back to life, and gasps for air like a drowning victim. This team’s brand of listless, episodic storytelling worked very well for something as jam packed with plot and characters as The Lord of the Rings, but this particular story is not served by so many tonal dips, and trips off the beaten path.

Lovely Bones, The
Without ever having read it, I’m guessing that the major problem with adapting Alice Sebold’s novel to film in the first place is a super-saturated glut of ghost and crime fiction on film and TV markets. To set their film apart as a worthy of following up to a mostly impressive filmography Jackson, and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were clearly compelled to include too many of the novel’s essential ingredients. The last thing I suspect the team wanted to do was make a simple thriller, but these unique facets just don’t mesh on film, and the presence of any successful work just makes the fumbles all the more aggravating. At the risk of sounding like a total misogynist, I think the duelling adolescent boy and girl elements worked incredibly well for The Lord of the Rings, and Fran Walsh’s work on Braindead certainly added something sweet to what could’ve been a one note joke, but The Lovely Bones feels like a constant push and pull between masculine and feminine elements that don’t get along. I see images of Jackson is throwing spiders in Walsh and Boyens’ hair, then running away cackling like a child. The excesses of King Kong have perhaps taught us that Jackson shouldn’t be left entirely alone in the sandbox, especially not with a seemingly never ending budget, and stream of artists and technicians under his control.

Perhaps a return to a smaller and more feminine production like Heavenly Creatures was the right move in theory, and most of the behind the scenes story seems to support Fran Walsh sharing less of the load on that particular production, but The Lovely Bones rather scientifically proves Jackson should’ve either regressed back to his Meet the Feebles and Braindead days, or touched on something entirely different than anything else in his career (which would be pretty difficult, considering his career). If I had my way Jackson would’ve followed Sam Raimi’s lead. Spider-Man 3 and King Kong are comparable examples of genre filmmakers working with bloated productions, and Raimi followed his blockbuster mess with a return to his slap-stick horror roots, roots that clearly inspired a young Peter Jackson (though Raimi’s been around longer and made more films, the two careers are actually very comparable in terms of genre skipping, and growth). Drag Me To Hell may not have set the box office on fire, but it’s possibly the best cinematic return to roots in more than a decade, and has opened himself up to a mighty wide plate of post- Spider-Man possibilities. Where does this box office flop leave Jackson? With apparently no one happy buy Stanley Tucci, who did get a reasonably deserved Oscar nomination for his trouble.

Lovely Bones, The

Video


Not surprisingly The Lovely Bones is a very pretty movie, and I do wish I would’ve reacted to the press release quickly enough to get myself a Blu-ray copy for review. Given the limits of standard definition this is a relatively perfect disc, but my reviewer’s eyes have really adjusted to the abilities of high definition, in newer films especially. The basic real world pallet is very warm, and occasionally fuzzy, like a literal visual translation of nostalgia, and these scenes are relatively clean and free of compression issues. The wide shots aren’t perfect, but medium shots and close-ups are DVD perfect. The poppy colour elements are occasionally a bit noisy and bleedy, but are mostly satisfactory in terms of hue quality. It’s during the film’s most abstract and surreal limbo vistas that I began to really wish I was dealing with a 1080p transfer. These wide shots simply aren’t as rich in detail as I’m sure they were intended, and fuzzy compression artefacts blow-out the image. Black levels are very impressive, and edge-enhancement is only a rare issue during some of the most naturally lit deep focus shots.

Lovely Bones, The

Audio


The Lovely Bones fits nicely in Jackson’s opus in terms of expressive sound design. This film, like Heavenly Creatures, pushes the design well past the realms of realism, but only skirts the line of true excess. The real world scenes aren’t quite as over-the-top as the ghost world scenes, but certainly feature more impact and needle point representation of important elements. The ghost world is more expressively strange, and features more unrestrained ambient movement in the stereo and surround channels. Highlights include the scene where Susie realizes she’s been killed, which is awash with ambient rumble and scream, and the montage around the 1:15 mark, which mixes the sounds of sharpening blades, cracking wood, and flipping pictures. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is clearly compressed in terms of volume (I really had to crank the system), and the LFE is a little warbly. Musically The Lovely Bones is unlike anything Jackson’s ever done, except the callow vocal moments, which sound a lot like the worst bits of Howard Shore’s otherwise fantastic Lord of the Rings score. Brian Eno really surprises in adding ‘60s style guitar solos during some of the more exciting moments. The score is just as hit and miss as the film, but it’s certainly more interesting than the rest of the product.

Extras


The DVD I’m reviewing is the bare-bones release, so there are no extras to speak of.

Lovely Bones, The

Overall


I was prepared to not like The Lovely Bones, and generally think the bulk of the critics were a little too harsh, but there’s no mistaking that the film is not up to Peter Jackson’s standards. There is a reasonably successful little supernatural thriller somewhere in this soup of goofy digital collages, and redundant melodrama, and it’s a shame. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m reminded that King Kong was Jackson’s dream project. The lack of polish despite four years of production scares me into the possibility that the man is ‘done’ as a filmmaker. I suppose if we assume he continues producing films as interesting as District 9 for the next couple decades a disappearance from direction is acceptable, but it would be a huge loss if the man that brought great films as varying as Braindead, Heavenly Creatures and Lord of the Rings disappeared from the more hands-on duties. It would be even sadder if The Lovely Bones was his swan song.


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