Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Lovely Bones - Reviewed by Michelle Welker Scott

My good friend and writer and fellow-movie-nut, Michelle Welker Scott, offers the following review:

It’s 1973, and Susie Salmon is fourteen years old. Susie is a typical teen. She loves her parents – though they sometimes aggravate her – has a crush on a boy in her high school, and has plans for her future which include becoming a wildlife photographer. But one afternoon, just a few days for Christmas, Susie is kidnapped on her way home from school and brutally murdered by a sexual predator. What follows is a tale of grief and grace as Susie’s family struggles to come to terms with the tragedy even as their dead daughter does everything she can to reach out to them.

The movie is based on
Alice Sebold‘s novel of the same name, but it lacks Sebold’s memorable characters and intricately interwoven plotlines. In fact, compared to the novel, the movie is something of a disappointment. But what the movie lacks in reinterpretation, it more than makes up for in visual spectacle.

Peter Jackson seems to love nothing more than to create scenes of otherworldly beauty. Just like in his previous works, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and an earlier film, “Heavenly Creatures”, Jackson’s camerawork is phenomenal. His use of light and shadow give depth to the scenes, and his juxtaposition of the In-Between (the realm between heaven and earth) and the everyday make it seem as if all we need to do is reach out our hand into order to make contact with the dead.

Jackson creates an afterlife which is both whimsical and lovely, ghostly and frightening. Like a Magritte painting, the world of the In-between is both familiar and fantastic. It pairs the breath-taking beauty of nature – lofty mountains, fields of wheat, solemn forests – with stylized symbols of the world of the living – ships in glass bottles, a gazebo, and brilliantly colored beach balls. This movie is a must see on the big screen if for no other reason than to witness the panoramic beauty of this supernatural realm.

But while Jackson enjoys a spectacle, this movie doesn’t dwell on the grisly details of Susie’s rape and murder. In fact, Jackson accomplishes something remarkable: he creates scenes of almost unbearable tension without reveling in salacious depictions of violence. But while this movie is tasteful, it is also very grim. This is not a piece of bubblegum. Some parts, such as when a newly deceased Susie enters the bathroom of her killer as he is washing the blood and mud from his body, are so ghastly and eerie that they would be at home in a horror flick.

Jackson’s eye candy is not the only thing that the movie has going for it. Although the characterization is sometimes weak, there are several outstanding performances by the actors.
Susan Sarandon excels in her role as the heavy-smoking, hard-drinking grandmother. Her performance is a breath of fresh air in what can, at times, be a ponderous film. And Stanley Tucci’s depiction as the predatory neighbor is chilling. In the end, however, it is Saoirse Ronan’s performance as the innocent fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon that makes the movie work as well as it does.

“The Lovely Bones” is both beautiful and awful, a thought-provoking drama and gripping movie of suspense. Although it doesn’t slavishly follow the novel on which it’s based, it does let the mood of the book shine through.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Don't bother!

I hate to say it, but this hodge-podge story, so poorly crafted, isn't worth your time or the money, and I rarely say that.

Though it's Heath Ledger's last work, his legacy is poorly served by this inept effort. Rather, to be remembered for his masterful role in the "Dark Night."

In an attempt to bring this work to the screen after Ledger's sad and untimely death, three fine actors are enlisted to portray various permutations of Ledger's roll - Tony, a sometimes good guy who's mostly a scoundrel deserving his comeuppance.

Colin Farrel, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law cannot rescue the film, nor can the special effects, which, in their own way, are rather dazzling, but effects are no substitute for a story.

The mystic wizard, Dr. Parnassus, is gamely portrayed by Christopher Plummer who manages to shine in this very dim effort.

The lovely young thing, which most every movie needs, is done well by Lily Cole who, in the end, finds happiness.

Decent efforts are made by: Verne Troyer as the hapless midget who manages the show and Andrew Garfield as the stage hand.

The show, by the way, the Imaginarium, has something to do with walking through a mirror of sorts while the good Dr. is in a trance. Apparently people find something of their own inner character, be it good or be it evil. Oh well ...

The theme kept reminding me of Tony Randall's 1964, "The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao" - now, there's a good film, and if you haven't seen it, rent it now from Netflix.

It does what "Dr. Parnassus" apparently attempted to do, but failed.

Sadly, "Parnassus" gets my lowest rating. This movie should have never made it out the can.

But you'll enjoy Tony Randall as Dr. Lao.

The Book of Eli

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and will likely see it again.

Denzel Washington is impressive as Eli, a man carrying a book, a book desired by many - indeed, not just a book, as Eli's nemesis puts it, "it's a weapon."

For some thirty years, in a post-apocalyptic world, with all the usual suspects: cannibals, lonely road-warriors, survivalists, and the power-hungry seeking to rebuild the world as they would have it (Gary Oldman as Carnegie) - I find it ironic that Oldman's name is Carnegie, a man who built much of our world through Pittsburgh steel, and, like Carnegie the industrialist, Oldman's character is a strange amalgam of good and evil, as he searches for the book, the one remaining book, to give authority to his dreams and to help him rebuild the world. Yet every book he finds, he burns; he's not interested in wisdom, but only power, and that's the poison in his blood.

The book carried by Eli is the last copy, all other copies have been burned in the post-nuclear world, for people thought it's message had brought about the war that ended the world!

Cinematography is impressive, along with special effects, capturing a burned-out world, dirty and desperate - food and drink all too rare, shelter and safety long gone. The acting is carefully done by everyone with subtle passions; no artificial tears here, but a genuine sorrow and hope playing with one another. I found myself engaging deeply with Eli, and the other characters as well. "The Book of Eli" achieves where "The Road" failed - as powerfully done as "The Road" is, I found myself looking at it, but never drawn into it. The other "end-of-the-world" film, "2012," while offering a very different scenario of the end, actually conveys a better, though lesser, emotional power. One does care about the outcome.

For thirty years, Eli has carried the book across the country, from east to west, because something has told him to do so. At times, he seems imbued with a supernatural ability for the sake of his mission, a mission he cannot clearly define, but only seek. Along the way, he hunts for his food and defends himself with a lighting-quick sword; don't tangle with him - you will not survive. And every day, he reads the book.

Stumbling into the town under Oldman's rule, Eli becomes a virtual prisoner. Having demonstrated his prowess, Oldman sets out to win Eli's allegiance. "I could use a man like this." At Oldman's beck and call, a mother (Jennifer Beals), blinded in the war, and her illiterate daughter (Mila Kunis), who is sent to Eli to seduce and entice him, but to no effect. In this moment of great kindness, a relationship is cemented.

Only after Eli leaves town, because Oldman cannot hold him, Oldman soon discovers Eli has the book, the one remaining copy, and sets out in Mad-Max-like pursuit, what with all the requisite blood and gore.

Eli is wounded badly, but the young girl, now on the run from Oldman, finds him, and they set out to finish the journey - to reach the West Coast, San Francisco, and there they find the community for which Eli has been searching for thirty years, a community that values the book, and all the great books of human wisdom and glory. There, Eli lives long enough to "give" the book to the new community seeking to rebuild the world, not with power, but with wisdom.

I'll not give the ending away here - you'll have to see it yourself.

But this I can say: it's the most religious non-religious movie I've ever seen, with a genuine surprise ending that plays upon the deepest currents of faith, hope and love.

Definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

White Ribbon

I was mesmerized by it.. a painful peek into rural German small-town society, family and church, on the eve of WW 1, July, 1913 - August 10, 1914, and the inordinate harshness toward children, with a mystery of something very dark in this small town's life.

Done in black and white, this is a technical achievement - great to see B&W again - and surely consistent with the film's dark themes.

Costuming and music are splendid, everything carefully done. The script captures the pain of children growing up in a time where the child is to be seen and not heard, where fear of sin leads the pastor to brutalize his children, and in the end, to ignore terrible possibilities.

Cleverly narrated by an old man (whom we never see, but only hear) who tells his part of the story when he was the young town teacher. We witness his falling in love and a very chaste courtship. Was it really that way? I suspect it was, though moderns can hardly believe they didn't fall into bed by the second date.

He tells his tale that we might understand. But understand what?

Erie, to say the least, as the story unfolds ... a reflection of every dysfunctional family - how secrets are hidden behind a wall of shame, often buttressed by a hyper-religious overlay.

The sad little boy in this picture, one of the pastor's children, says it well - the cross on the wall, the communion chalice, and the white ribbon, a symbol of purity. The father expresses deep disappoint in his son's depression which he determines is caused by self-abuse - you know, the stuff that'll make ya' blind. So a white ribbon is tied on his sleeve and he must wear it all the time. His hands are tied to the sides of the bed at night, lest he touch himself.

Something terrible is happening in this town. Is is the doctor? The pastor? His children? The peasant-farmer's son? Harshness and cruelty abound.

At 2 1/2 hours, with a slow pace and questions that remain unanswered, I felt the mystery and the sadness slide inside of me, like watching a slow-motion train wreck in a dream, yet just before the trains leaves the track and tips into the waiting swamp, the dream abruptly ends.

I think a second viewing might help me pick up some of the clues as to who did what (there was one signifiant scene, I think, that held a clue), though the intent is to leave the mystery intact. After all, there are things in life never solved, and this town's sadness may be one of them.

The young teacher was drafted into the army and left town, never to return.

While we never finally know (as least I didn't) who dunn it, we have a chance to see the elements that lead to tragedy.

Not an easy film to see, but clearly worth it.

Could one wait until Netflix? Yes.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Up In the Air

I wrote the following to a friend:

Here's a man who does what he has to do, but does it with both efficiency and some compassion - he's not heartless, in my judgment, but has to steel himself in order to keep functioning. What else should he do?

It's a commentary, for sure, on systemic powers ... and how dehumanizing it is. That Clooney goes to his sister's wedding, takes the photos with their cardboard cutout, and actually goes to Chicago reveals the heart. That she's married, and he's back on the road reveals just how hard it is for everyone to break out of the mold we've all created, or the mold that's been created for us.

The young lady (Anna Kendrick) is, in my view of things, so typical of the young today - full of themselves, as Mary Pipher says of her youthful self in her book, "The Shelter of Each Other" ... and it's Clooney, however, who can see just how shallow she is, and on the road, she comes up against the reality of what they have to do, and when she hears of the lady who jumped and killed herself, she quits - her moment of redemption.

Clooney, if you will, sacrifices himself to save her. Clooney is lost up in the air; she, perhaps, will find her footing, or even her soul.

And he's off to do what he does best - and he does with as much as is possible, without self-destructing. Someone has to do it. And when all is said and done, he gives a round-the-world trip to his sister and her husband. What he can't do for himself, he at least can do for others. Another Christ-theme - "Come down from that cross and save yourself."

Clooney isn't interested in saving himself, but in some remarkable way, he's save the young lady from herself ... and discovered, perhaps, that his life is up in the air.

Clooney's boss, of course, reflecting the worst in corporate culture. The real people in the film reveal the devastation of job loss.

The moral themes of this film are oozing out all over the place. If anyone is lost here, it's Alex, played masterfully by Vera Farmiga.

The ending is real ... Clooney's character is what he is ... is there no grace for him? I think there is ...

This is a terrific film ... I've now seen it three times, and I've laughed and been moved each time.
Don't wait for Netflix; see it now.