03 February 2010

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009); The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

I don't really know why I'm pairing these two up other than that I wanted to get some thoughts down for both of them before they evaporated from my memory in the midst of essay writing and midterm studying.

Essentially, the worst movie I've seen so far this year, and a movie nobody has seen or understood that deserves some mention, if only because I want others to see it and tell me what the hell they make of it all.

First off, The Lovely Bones, a movie that, based primarily on the trailers and the pedigree, initially looked like it might have some promise. However, mediocre reviews upon its release led me to expect typical late-in-the-year prestige book adaptation averageness. Unfortunately, Peter Jackson is no stranger to surpassing my expectations. I had hoped the best for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong and both of these surprisingly emotional and involving big-budget spectacles delivered in spades. Similarly, going in with low expectations The Lovely Bones, Jackson blew away even my scepticism about this film and delivered a movie that just got more and more awful as it went along. This is a stellar example in wrong-headed adaptations and contrived, unceasingly manipulative filmmaking.

It follows the story of middle school-aged Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan from Atonement, probably the saving grace of the film though even her sweet and sincere performance becomes manhandled -- poor choice of words in a film about rape and murder, but anyways -- by Jackson and co. over the course of the film), just budding in life and struggling through school and first love. Walking home one day from school through a vacant field, she is approached by a neighbour (Stanley Tucci, admittedly intense) and invited to come see a new contraption he's built for the neighbourhood kids. She doesn't ever come out alive. (This isn't a spoiler, it occurs quite early on in the film.)

The rest of the film is a bit of a bifurcation. We watch the now ghostly Susie in a candy-coloured but sometimes frightening landscape called the "in-between" as she tries to find out clues about her murderer and say her last goodbyes to her family before moving on. She runs in with another dead young girl, named Holly (Nikki SooHoo). We also watch Susie's surprisingly distant parents, played by Mark Wahlberg, oddly unemotional for a father who's lost her daughter, and Rachel Weisz, surprisingly bland and absent for most of the film after her "mental breakdown." The story takes place in the '70s, fairly obviously spelt out with Jackson's production design which is a little bit too floridly nostalgic. Susan Sarandon, apparently thinking she is in a different film (perhaps a screwball comedy), storms in as Susie's grandmother, who comes to help her family cope and do the chores... but mainly to act as ludicrously over-the-top comic relief in her fur coats, loud mannerisms, and boozing ways. We also watch Tucci twist and squirm as the police show up, then sigh of relief after he thinks he's got away with it, and then craftily plan the murder of Susie's remaining sister, Lindsay (Rose McIver).

But isn't The Lovely Bones pretty, you might ask, with it's shimmery special effects hauled out to fill in the "in-between" in which Susie finds herself trapped? It might be pretty on a sort of glistening surface level, but at the same time the special effects seem overdone and are pretty thoroughly unnecessary, not to mention looking a little bit too much like the Shire with its golden fields and cottages/gazebos. Essentially, the problem with the special effects is the same problem I had with the rest of the movie; it's just overdone and ham-fisted in every way. If there's ever any doubt that we should feel scared or tearful, the musical score swells up and directs us in the proper emotional direction. If there's any doubt that Tucci's character is pure evil, his easy-to-spot perv mustache and nervous mannerisms clue us in to the fact. (To be fair, Tucci does prove a rather chilling presence in the film, albeit in a completely stereotypical way.)

Aside from being overdone, the storytelling makes plot points that -- I have faith, having not read it myself -- probably made a lot more organic sense in the book feel ridiculously contrived, or else deeply misguided. *potential spoilers ahead, tread carefully* I'm thinking of Wahlberg's character, out on a hunt at night in a cornfield for Tucci, who he finally realizes is the killer, running after him with a baseball bat randomly encountering a young couple out for a late-night romantic rendezvous. The boyfriend thinks he's after the girl and proceeds to beat him to a pulp while Tucci looks on and skulks away into the darkness. Of course, Tucci eventually getting killed with a falling icicle right at the end could have come across as poetic justice (or some kind of pathetic fallacy justice thing) but here just seems like an especially ridiculous capper to a ridiculous film. And don't forget the biggest howler of all: Upon almost finishing what she has to do, Susie has a sunlit meet-up in the "in-between" with all of Tucci's previous victims -- a wanna-be emotional moment that feels startlingly phony and manipulative, as if the director wants us to feel, Hooray! We were all murdered by the same guy! Let's celebrate!

All in all, there's little right about The Lovely Bones save for Tucci and Ronan, although Jackson tends to milk the latter's precious narration to the point that it becomes a bit annoying, and it takes more and more wrong steps as it goes along. Something this overwrought and overtly manipulative can't help but come across as crass and disturbing. This is especially disappointing, seeing as I was such a big fan of Jackson's last two movies. But this is just a big, noisy, glossy strike-out that essentially obliterates any subtlety or complex themes (of life and death, young love and old, scary frustration, revenge and acceptance) it could have more fruitfully developed. Let's hope it's Jackson's first and only strike in the baseball game of filmmaking. D+

Meanwhile, The Limits of Control is one of the strangest films I've seen all year, to the point that it was almost ungradable. One of those movies that is just one big mystery wrapped in a riddle stuffed into an enigma that you think you might have figured out by the end -- but really you might be about as far from the "truth" as possible -- The Limits of Control is nearly interminably rambling (but still, I think, on the engrossing side of the equation), indulgent, and probably quite incoherent. Luckily, it is also one of the most deliberate, carefully crafted, beautiful, and mesmerizing works of art to come out this year. I'd hesitate to call it empty or pointless, as so many other critics have been far too quick to do... Roger Ebert's particularly crushing and sarcastic half-a-star review that suggests it is pretty much the nadir of vacuousness can be found here. I don't particularly think so, but at the same time, I do have a few lingering doubts about it being a completely unified work of philosophy, art, and storytelling, much as I admire its ambition and exploration in those fields.

Isaac de Bankole is gripping as the Lone Man at the heart of this puzzle, giving a calm, measured, nearly wordless performance that is about the definition of cool. After a run-in with two Frenchmen at an airport, he travels to Spain, where he appears to be embroiled in a quest to encounter various colourful strangers, trading matchboxes full of diamonds to them in return for a different matchbox with a paper inside. Each time, after he reads the paper, he memorizes the instructions written on it and swallows it. At each meeting in each cafe, he orders not a double espresso, but, quite specifically, two espressos in separate cups. Each stranger tries to talk to him and draw some sort of emotion or response out of him, but he remains steadfastly unmoved. At the end of the day, he returns to a hotel room where a seemingly constantly nude woman (Paz de la Huerta) invites sex, but he never mixes sex with business, and so lies on the bed fully clothed while she spoons him naked. Is this the (self-)control to which the title refers?

Aside from de Bankole, the strangers he encounters are equally elusive and well played, by the likes of John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Gael Garcia Bernal. The rituals, repeated phrases (something about a man going to a cemetery to find what life truly is), and stylistic motifs lead me to believe this journey has something to do with art, science, and human endeavour attempting to overcome the tyrannical "reality principle," possibly embodied by Bill Murray in a devilishly enjoyable cameo. Certainly Swinton's trench coat-wearing femme fatale talks about cinema and dreams; is The Limits of Control a self-reflexive meditation on the power of cinema and its connection with the subconscious dream world? Youki Kudoh, the woman that the Lone Man meets on the train, talks about molecules and far-flung science. However, perhaps it is overall about identity: in this world with its laws of reality but also its abundance of art and speculations about the unknown, identity is necessarily flexible... *spoiler alert* perhaps just something you can stuff into a bag before heading off to some other destination, as the ending suggests, to me, at any rate.

The philosophical ruminations, the puzzling, ritualistic, almost dream-like structure coupled with the exquisitely beautiful staging -- Jarmusch in collaboration with always astonishing cinematographer Christopher Deakins delivers images here that are among the most sleek, haunting, and beautiful of the year -- is reminiscent of something like Waking Life. The music that percolates through the film also sets a likably eclectic, sensuous mood that helps wake you up to the movies experimentations. But with its even more languourous, Jarmuschian pace -- if Broken Flowers felt slow to you, wait til you see this -- and dry, minimalist style choices and acting, it's a bit less direct than that and far more jarring and impenetrable. Ultimately, it may not completely add up (Jarmusch might just be one for self-indulgent whims and tangents) to anything at all, but it's an interesting ride, and just clever and well crafted enough to make you want to try to put it all together. Tantalizing and maddening all at the same time. B+. Roughly.

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