(U.S.-U.K.) A Paramount release (in U.S.) of a DreamWorks Pictures presentation in association with Film4 of a Wingnut Films production. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Aimee Peyronnet. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Steven Spielberg, Ken Kamins, James Wilson. Co-producers, Philippa Boyens, Anne Bruning, Marc Ashton. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
Jack Salmon - Mark Wahlberg
Abigail Salmon - Rachel Weisz
Grandma Lynn - Susan Sarandon
George Harvey - Stanley Tucci
Len Fenerman - Michael Imperioli
Susie Salmon - Saoirse Ronan
Lindsey Salmon - Rose McIver
Buckley Salmon - Christian Ashdale
Ray Singh - Reece Ritchie
Peter Jackson's infatuation with fancy visual effects mortally wounds "The Lovely Bones." Alice Sebold's cheerily melancholy bestseller, centered upon a 14-year-old girl who narrates the story from heaven after having been brutally murdered, provides almost ready-made bigscreen material. But Jackson undermines solid work from a good cast with show-offy celestial evocations that severely disrupt the emotional connections with the characters. The book's rep, the names of Jackson and exec producer Steven Spielberg, and a mighty year-end push by Paramount/DreamWorks will likely put this over with the public to a substantial extent, but it still rates as a significant artistic disappointment.
There has been cautious optimism among longtime Jackson followers that this material might inspire him to create a worthy companion piece to his 1994 "Heavenly Creatures," which similarly involves teenagers and murder in an otherwise tranquil setting and remains far and away his best film. The potential was certainly there in the book, which reminds of Dennis Lehane's successfully filmed novels "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone" in its devastating emotional trauma, but offers the distinctive perspective of the most entirely plausible omniscient narrator in modern literature.
Unfortunately, the massive success Jackson has enjoyed in the intervening years with his CGI-heavy "The Lord of the Rings" saga (the source of which receives fleeting homage in a bookstore scene here) and "King Kong" has infected the way he approaches this far more intimate tale. Instead of having the late Susie Salmon occupy a little perch in an abstract heavenly gazebo from which she can peer down upon her family and anyone else -- all that is really necessary from a narrative point of view -- the director has indulged his whims to create constantly shifting backdrops depicting an afterlife evocative of "The Sound of Music" or "The Wizard of Oz" one moment, "The Little Prince" or "Teletubbies" the next.
It's a shame, because the first half-hour or so suggests that Jackson, had he taken a vow to keep it real and use not a single visual effect, still has it in him to relate a human story in a direct, vibrant manner. Aided immeasurably by the spirited teen actress Saoirse Ronan ("Atonement"), who plays Susie, the early scenes depicting the ordinary life of the Salmon family in a midsized Pennsylvania town possess a heightened quality charged by lively thesping and Andrew Lesnie's dynamic mobile camera (pic was shot with the Red digital camera system).
"We weren't those people, those unlucky people to whom bad things happen," Susie intones from above, as we watch her interact with attractive young parents Jack and Abigail (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz), sporty sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) and younger brother Buckley (Christian Ashdale), boozy glamorpuss grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) and handsome first crush Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), just before she announces she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.
Even before the deed is done, it's plainly stated that the perpetrator is neighborhood solitary guy George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a man marked as creepy by his utter ordinariness. While Tucci, adorned with stringy blondish-brown hair, moustache, large glasses and a raspy voice that tightens and elevates under pressure, is good enough to validate all the scenes involving this bland monster, Jackson shows his low-budget horror-film roots in the way he shoots the sinister scenes, with silhouetting white lights, heavy fog effects, wide-angle closeups and generic synth backgrounding from Brian Eno's otherwise effective score.
While the script by the "Rings" trio of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson at first inventively reshuffles elements to cinematic advantage, over time it serves more to dilute the impact of some story elements -- the father's obsessive determination to nail George no matter what, Lindsay's romance, the passage of years -- and eliminate others, including Ray's beautiful, long-suffering mother and the relationship between Abigail and local cop Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), whose efforts to solve Susie's murder are maddeningly frustrated.
Once Susie is installed in her heavenly quarters, for which Jackson digitally dedicates himself to continuously changing the wallpaper, the emotional link to the family is ruptured and never fully repaired. There are intermittently intense scenes: Lindsey proves herself a resourceful if somewhat reckless spy, and the ever-meticulous George almost blows his cover on occasion. The way Jackson only partially reveals the killer's face at times is effective but stands in stark contrast to the wobbly treatment of so much else.
As the story progresses -- in a way that points to resolution in one sense and a simple petering out in another -- it becomes clear that the actors are being deprived of any meaty, well-developed scenes to play; we learn more about them early on than toward the end, making this a film of slowly diminishing returns.
With reddish hair, brilliantly alive eyes and a seemingly irrepressible impulse for movement and activity, Ronan represents a heavenly creature indeed, a figure of surging, eager, anticipatory life cut off just as it is budding. Less quicksilver and more solidly built, McIver's Lindsey properly begins in her live-wire sister's shadow only to grow gradually into an impressive figure. Chain-smoking and depleting the liquor cabinet, Sarandon camps it up for a few welcome laughs, while Ritchie seems a likely candidate for teen idolhood.
Mainly, it's Wahlberg and Weisz who are shortchanged by the film's divided attention between earthly agony and astral accommodation. Both thesps are OK as far as things go, but that's not nearly far enough.When it sticks to the everyday neighborhood inhabited by its characters, "The Lovely Bones," which was shot on Pennsylvania locations and in New Zealand studios, finds a reasonable equilibrium between drama and production values. When it ventures beyond it, heaven turns into Hades. With: Carolyn Dando, Nikki Soohoo, Andrew James Allen, Jake Abel, AJ Michalka, Tom McCarthy, Stink Fisher.
Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, DV), Andrew Lesnie; editor, Jabez Olssen; music, Brian Eno; production designer, Naomi Shohan; art directors, Chris Shriver, Jules Cook; set designers, Philip Thomas, Darryl Longstaffe, Barry Read, Christina Crawford, Miriam Barrard; set decorators, George DeTitta Jr., Meg Everist; costume designer, Nancy Steiner; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Hammond Peek; supervising sound editors, Brent Burge, Chris Ward; sound designers, Dave Whitehead, Christopher Boyes; re-recording mixers, Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges; senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; visual effects supervisor, Christian Rivers; digital visual effects, Weta Digital; stunt coordinator, Peter Bucossi; assistant director, Carolynne Cunningham; second unit director, Richard Bluck; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot R. Boland, Avy Kaufman, Jina Jay, Liz Mullane. Reviewed at the Landmark, Los Angeles, Nov. 18, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 136 MIN.
Wendy Ide (Times of London)
In many ways Alice Sebold’s massively successful metaphysical coming-of-age drama was an unexpected choice of movie for Peter Jackson. After the vast undertaking of The Lord Of the Rings trilogy, followed by the exuberant, overgrown B-movie that was King Kong, this sentimental tale of a murdered teenager called Susie Salmon watching her grieving family from a personal afterlife seems intimate by comparison.
It seemed likely to be closer in tone to the claustrophobic femininity of 1994’s Heavenly Creatures than to the massive event movies for which he later became known. But Jackson’s predilection for richly textured layers of fantasy runs riot here and the approach is anything but understated. “Small-scale” no longer appears in Peter Jackson’s filmmaking lexicon.
The Lovely Bones, which was given its premiere last night at the Royal Film Performance in the presence of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, is a domestic tragedy that unfolds under a mushroom cloud of flamboyantly kitsch special effects. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) spends most of the film observing events from her personal purgatory, the “in-between”. It looks like a teen magazine photo story styled by Salvador Dali and directed by Tarsem Singh. This twinkly butterflies-and-rainbows aesthetic invites inevitable and unwelcome comparisons to Vincent Ward’s 1998 mawkish afterlife weepie What Dreams May Come and, worse still, Darren Aronofsky’s New Age clunker The Fountain. Far more interesting is the design of the real world. The small-town suburbia of the 1970s is imbued with a slightly oppressive otherness — it’s as much an “in-between” as the place that Susie now inhabits.
The production, by all accounts, was not entirely easy, not least because the actor Ryan Gosling, who had gained 20lb and grown a beard for the role of Susie’s father Jack Salmon, quit the film over creative differences just days before the shoot started. Mark Wahlberg stepped in to replace him, turning in a couple of powerful scenes in a mostly workmanlike performance.
Rachel Weisz is effective as the mother hollowed out by her grief; but Susan Sarandon’s boozy, chain-smoking grandmother feels too much like a contrived piece of light relief to temporarily distract us from the violent death of a 14-year-old child.
It’s Ronan, ultimately, who gives the most affecting turn. Gangly, unformed, she’s like a flower cut before it has had a chance to bloom. She captures the uncertainty and intensity of thwarted teenage passions perfectly but, set against the artifice and the manipulative tendencies of the story, her admirable performance is rather swamped.
------------------------------------------------------From Time Out London
Let nobody say that Peter Jackson doesn’t like a challenge. After filming Tolkien’s three ‘The Lord of the Rings’ books and spending over $200 million on a new three-hour version of ‘King Kong’, the New Zealand director who started out making splatter horror in the late 1980s has turned to Alice Sebold’s hugely popular ‘The Lovely Bones’, the 1970s-set American novel narrated from beyond the grave by Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old who is raped and murdered by a neighbour in a field near her suburban home . From a vantage point somewhere between heaven and earth, Susie follows the reactions and behaviour of her parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz), her sister (Rose McIver) and her killer, Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci), as she struggles to gain the closure that will allow her to depart this earth completely.
Not that we see anyone raped or even murdered in this $100 million, 12A version of the story: Jackson softens the edges of both the initial tragedy and its fallout among Susie’s family. But that’s not the main fault of the film. The real let-down is its heavy reliance on overblown special-effects sequences to represent the celestial limbo where Susie resides immediately after death. Coming across like Salvador Dali was commissioned to represent Middle Earth for the New Zealand tourist board, these scenes dominate the film to such an extent that you begin to doubt that Jackson has much concern for the real family disaster at the film’s heart. Wahlberg, Weisz and McIver are all sidelined in favour of the magic of the animator’s hard drive. It doesn’t help that a gin-swigging Susan Sarandon is called on to play Susie’s louche grandmother for inappropriate comic effect just when you feel the film could do with a touch more tragic weight.
However, these are mere niggles compared to the film’s fatal flaw: perspective. Who’s telling us this story? The answer, of course, should be Susie Salmon, and at points, we hear some of the book’s first-person narration as voiceover, including the well-known opening – ‘My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973 – which graces the film’s opening and close . But there’s no consistency to Susie’s presence as the prism through which we see her story. Certainly the chocolate-box look of this American suburban world, which barely ever feels real, suggests that it’s a 14-year-old girl’s view of life. Yet there are whole sections of the movie when we forget Susie’s all-seeing eye and don’t know whether we’re in a family drama, a crime thriller or a horror. There are distracting hints of all three, without any of them taking hold and defining the tone of the film.
There are good points. Saoirse Ronan is a compelling presence as Susie Salmon, especially as she must have been acting alone and against a green screen for much of the shoot, and both her and the film are strong at capturing her burgeoning attraction to her schoolmate Ray (Reece Ritchie), a hint of adult sexuality cut short by tragedy. Stanley Tucci is creepy as Mr Harvey (even if he resembles a million movie paedophiles), and Jackson is at his best as a director when creating a sense of dread around Harvey whenever he’s anywhere near Susie or, later, her sister. Yet there’s no escaping the digital glare of Susie’s half-dead existence – a glare that threatens to blind us to anything remotely human in this drama.
Author: Dave Calhoun