Sunday, April 18, 2010

Video review: "The Lovely Bones"

I'm not sure I can think of a film from last year whose prospects rose and fell as far as "The Lovely Bones."

Before it was released, this adaptation of the hugely popular book by Alice Sebold was hyped as a sure-fire Best Picture nominee. When I saw it, I judged it a seriously flawed but still worthy film. Here's part of what I wrote:

"At two-and-a-quarter hours, "The Lovely Bones" is either too long or too short. The dynamics of the family feel like they should be at the center of the story, but the movie never quite coalesces around them."
The story is about Susie Salmon (the incredibly blue-eyed Saorise Ronen), an average 14-year-old girl from the suburbs who is brutally raped and murdered and watches from Heaven -- or at least some pseudo after-life -- as events continue to transpire on Earth.

I hadn't read the book then, though I've corrected that since. I can now see the immense challenges that faced director Peter Jackson and his longtime screenwriting partners, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, in adapting this novel for the screen.

It covers more than a decade after her death, which is problematic for a movie for numerous reasons, the most obvious being that the young actors playing Susie's siblings can't believably be aged that much. The alternative of casting different actors for the adult roles only tends to remind us we're watching a movie.

The route Jackson et al take is a good one -- focusing on the plight of Susie's killer, Mr. Harvey, a secretive neighbor who hides in plain sight. Played by Stanley Tucci in a performance that brought a much-deserved (and overdue) Oscar nomination, Mr. Harvey's voracious appetite for pain renders him one of cinema's all-time great villains.

But the net effect of this focus on the antagonist is to transform "The Lovely Bones" from a meditation on the afterlife into something of a supernatural whodunit, with the audience rooting for Mr. Harvey's arrest and/or punishment. Having now read the book, I can see that the filmmakers clearly structured it this way -- for example, moving the incident where Harvey buries the steel safe containing Susie's bones into a sinkhole from the middle of the story to the end, where it's pumped for suspense.

Although, one way the movie has depreciated in my view as a result of having read the book is the depiction of Susie's actual demise.

Though Sebold was not overtly graphic in her rendering, she at least made it clear that Susie was brutally raped. The movie skims over her death so quickly (and with PG-13-rated kid gloves) that this is completely lost on the viewer. It undermines the theme of victimhood and its effects, a thread that runs strongly through Sebold's novel.

Prior to its release, much consternation was directed at how Jackson would handle the scenes of the "In-Between," where Susie's soul exists in an ever-shifting landscape of dreams and shadowy perceptions. I still think he handled it well, as these CGI sequences enhance rather than subtract from the experience.

But in the end, "The Lovely Bones" was just an example of a book that's impossible to properly translate to film. Let me put it this way: I seriously doubt another set of filmmakers could have done a better job than Jackson, Boyens and Walsh.

I still recommend the movie -- as I said at the time, Tucci's performance is simply not to be missed. If nothing else, "Bones" serves as an example of how the noblest creative intentions cannot always bridge the gulf that exists between literature and film.

Extras are somewhat disappointing -- especially if you buy the DVD version, which contains ... absolutely nothing whatsoever.

The Blu-ray comes with a 15-part video diary featuring Jackson and Boyens, which follows the production through shooting and the post-production work on visual effects.

I realize the studios are really pushing Blu-ray these days as the format of destination for cinephiles. And I actually happen to agree with it. It's like laserdisc 20 years ago -- its technical advantages simply make it the way to go for people with a serious approach to movies.

But to completely rob of any kind of enhancement those who haven't yet upgraded to Blu-ray -- or can't afford to -- is short-sighted.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

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