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Friday
Jan152010

The Lovely Bones

Before 2001, few people knew of the now famous Peter Jackson. Before landing the gig of a lifetime with The Lord of the Rings movies, he had dabbled mainly in comedy/horror films with Bad Taste, the Michael J. Fox starring The Frighteners, and one of my personal favorites Dead Alive (known as Braindead in other areas of the world). Since then, what with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the highly lauded 2005 King Kong remake, Jackson has proven himself to be a real talent in Hollywood. So imagine my disappointment after watching The Lovely Bones, a mediocre, pretentious effort from one of cinema's most prized directors. It's been quite a while since I've seen a movie with such an impressive resume that has failed to create any type of emotional resonance or meaning.

The film begins in 1973 and is about Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14 year old girl who gets murdered by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) one day on her walk back home from school. Susie ends up in a purgatory type of world, which her brother dubs "the in between" after seeing her in his room one night. You see, her family, particularly her father, can still sometimes see her or at least get a message that she is still around, like through a flickering candle for instance. In the in between world, she meets up with another girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who explains that she can pass over whenever she likes, but she must leave her old world behind her. She decides she isn't yet ready and watches her parents, as well as her killer, as they try to unravel the mystery back in the world of the living.

There's a lot going on in The Lovely Bones. There are themes of love, death, tragedy, murder, the afterlife, divine intervention, the break-up of a family, and more, but none of them ever seem to fully come together into a cohesive whole. They are explored, but only by themselves, never together. None of the themes ever run their courses into one giant metaphor on life or death. They're just there.

This is a movie that assumes there is an afterlife. It never truly questions what happens after you die, which comes as a disappointment. Quite simply, one minute you're here, the next you're not and you're on your final journey on your way to the afterlife. Susie talks of "my heaven," but as far as I could tell, this heaven had no god or supreme being to rule over it. The film never questions the implications of what would happen if you died and there was an afterlife, but nobody was there to rule it. I felt like it had plenty of opportunities to really get into why death is such a mystery, but it spends the majority of its time on Earth going through the motions of a routine murder mystery.

The Lovely Bones is an unstructured movie where years go by with little to no indication, which comes off as confusing because Susie does not age in the afterlife, but everything goes on as it would normally on Earth. Its plot turns come off as insignificant, as evidenced by a scene midway through where the Salmon mother, played by Rachel Weisz, leaves the family out of grief and doesn't return until late in the movie. There's even a montage that occurs after Susie's death that is played for laughs that feels like it should be placed in the next Austin Powers movie, not in the serious nature of this film.

Then you have the acting, which is uniformly unimpressive. Mark Wahlberg is poor, Rachel Weisz, a usually reliable actress, seems to be phoning it in and little Susie Salmon as played by Saoirse Ronan is adequate, but hardly compelling. The poor acting correlates with the sometimes laughable story because none of it feels authentic. There's a ridiculous love connection that sparks up between Susie and Ray, played by Reece Ritchie, that plays like a deleted scene from Twilight due to the long awkward stares and a piano tune that sounds ripped from NBC's "The More You Know" PSA's.

After my screening of The Lovely Bones, I inadvertently heard another critic comment that the film had the "style over substance" school of thought. That person couldn't be more right. This is all style and no substance. Jackson is a great director, but his approach to this film seems extravagant simply for the sake of it. It worked in King Kong and Lord of the Rings, but the difference is that this material doesn't always necessarily call for it, yet it's bumped up to 11. It becomes a major distraction.

Though not devoid of all positive qualities (Stanley Tucci is terrific and there's a truly heart pounding chase scene in the back half of the movie), The Lovely Bones nevertheless feels manufactured not out of love, but labor and its ending is anti-climactic and unfulfilling. Don't expect this one to win best picture kiddos.

The Lovely Bones receives 1.5/5

Monday
Jan112010

Daybreakers

There was a time when vampires used to be the epitome of cool. There was a time when Blade ruled the box office with its hard R rating, providing plenty of action and blood for fans. There was a time when vampires weren't reduced to frilly angst ridden teenagers entwined in a romantic love triangle with a self-pitying high school girl and shirtless werewolf. I remember those times. Oh, how I miss them. Vampires used to be scary, stalkers of the night out for the blood of unsuspecting humans. Now they sparkle when they walk in the sun. Thankfully, nay, blessedly, Daybreakers is here to set things straight. While it may be coming at an unfortunate time, in the wake of those silly Twilight movies, it's nevertheless a riotous good time.

The year is 2019. Due to a single bat with a strange virus, a plague of vampirism has spread across the world like a wildfire. Now, less than five percent of the population is human. Everybody else has turned into a demon of the night, but things still run as usual. They still go to work, drink coffee (with blood instead of cream) and drive and the television politics still rage on. The only difference is that they do it all at night and the political arguments are about the extermination of the human race. During the day, the world is one giant ghost town, which proves to be a perfect opportunity for the last remaining humans to venture outside in search of other humans. Edward (not to be confused with that pale skinned, love sick ninny), played by Ethan Hawke, a vampire himself, runs into a group of them one day on his way home from work. Although they threaten to kill him, he has no desire to feed on them and helps them instead. He's one of those human-hugging types. Hippie.

He does this despite a global shortage of blood. In fact, in another few weeks, the last remaining human harvests will dry up and the vampires will all go mad feeding on each other, which will increase the rate of their deterioration until they all finally die. However, those humans have found a cure for vampirism thanks to a former vampire called Elvis, played by Willem Dafoe, and they enlist Edward in their attempt to save not only themselves, but the whole world.

Not since 2000's Shadow of the Vampire, which also starred Willem Dafoe, have I seen such a unique vampire movie. Finally a film comes along that dares to switch up the tried and true formula. It takes the basic concept of vampires feeding on humans and flips it around. What if there were no humans left to feed on? The premise is intriguing and an interesting commentary on our dwindling resources with our growing population. Who knew a bloody horror flick could be so smart?

But then again, it's not like I had my brain tuned to "think" when I sat down to watch Daybreakers. All I really wanted was a slickly done vampire movie with humor and gore and that's what I got. After watching Twilight and New Moon, where the only pain inflicted on anyone was purely on an emotional level, it was nice to see some pain transcend to the physical realm. This thing gets red with some excellent moments I didn't see coming, including a hilarious vampire combustion that had me cackling with glee.

What I came out of Daybreakers surprised about, however, was that the film was actually made well. A horror movie not screened for critics being released in the theatrical dump month of January? There's no way it could be good, right? Wrong. The Spierig brothers, the directors, whose only other feature length film was the 2003 straight-to-DVD horror/comedy Undead (which was pretty damn awesome if you ask me), showcase some skill here. Whereas Undead was fun, but amateur, Daybreakers promises better things to come in the duo's future. It's slyly directed and the little attention to details makes for a pleasurable experience.

Even more impressive is that they wrote the picture as well, toning down their jocular tone from Undead to make a more mature horror/drama. With the sole exception of Willem Dafoe's character, who spouts some really dumb one-liners that feel out of place in an otherwise rock solid picture, the writing is spectacular. It doesn't explain everything, but it doesn't need to. It's not about how it happens. It's merely about what happens and why. Though I fear putting these two films side by side may confuse the levels of their quality, this film is like The Road in that it's more of a warning than anything else. It intends not to show the causes of certain situations, but rather create an allegory revolving around them that can be related to real life.

Now, Daybreakers is no Oscar contender like The Road, but not every movie has to be some amazing display of filmmaking to be entertaining. Despite combining quality acting with a clever script and skillful direction, this is really nothing more than a fun romp at the movies. Given the quality of films usually released in this month, what more could you ask for?

Daybreakers receives 4/5

Friday
Jan082010

Crazy Heart

There are few actors working today who can captivate an audience like Jeff Briges can. No matter whether he's playing a quirky Army soldier (The Men Who Stare at Goats), an evil weapons manufacturer (Iron Man), a carefree bowling enthusiast (The Big Lebowski), or voicing a long thought dead surfer penguin (Surf's Up), he can come across in a big way, hitting a multitude of emotions and endearing himself to the viewers. He is a top notch talent and always hits a home run in his roles, even in movies that are fairly terrible (How to Lose Friends & Alienate People). This time, he tackles a film that is already worthy of consideration for an end of the year "best of" list and finds himself in a role guaranteed to include a few "Best Actor" nominations, including the already announced Golden Globes nod. Yes my friends, Crazy Heart is a special movie.

Though I love all genres of film, I'm a person who finds himself stubbornly staving off any type of music other than good old rock n' roll. Put some country music on around me and my ears start to bleed, so imagine my skepticism when it came to this film about a washed up country music performer. What Crazy Heart proves, even to this jaded head banger, is that music can be beautiful regardless of what genre it's in. I was tapping my toes to the music and reveling in the discovery of how each song came to be, all of which came from the singer's own life experiences. Jeff Bridges plays the singer in question who for years has gone by the moniker of Bad Blake and as he tells a seductive journalist named Jean, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, nobody will know his true name until the day he dies, where it will be written on his tombstone. She remarks, "That's a long time to wait," and he replies with what can essentially be paraphrased as, "Maybe not."

His response comes with a few caveats. Despite the humorous nature of it, we later find out that Bad is in trouble. He is in danger of having a stroke due to an unhealthy lifestyle, which includes excessive smoking and drinking. He used to be the biggest star around, but now he is a nobody and his former band mate, Tommy, played by Colin Farrell, has gone off on his own and wrangled his own fans. Naturally, Bad is depressed and bitter, finding himself playing small shows in worn down bars and bowling alleys just to make a buck.

After the aforementioned interview, Bad begins to fall in love with Jean and this is where the story really starts to take off. Bad has been miserable since his falling out an unspecified number of years ago and we assume it's all for legitimate reasons. Who wouldn't be miserable playing in small bars after your former band mate left you? Well, later we find out that Tommy didn't leave in hate and still respects Bad tremendously. He remarks to him how he'll never forget that it was him who gave him his start. Throughout the movie, Bad is heard spewing verbal hatred at Tommy and we simply take it as his way to deal with Tommy's crippling betrayal, but it simply isn't the case. He has no real reason to be mad at Tommy. He is merely confusing his jealousy for anger. After he reluctantly opens for him at a big gig, we finally discover this and realize there's something more brewing underneath Bad's seemingly hardened veneer.

The reason he takes the gig in the first place is because of Jean, not because she urges him to, but because he starts to find happiness in her and starts to dismiss those feelings of hate. However, when everything finally seems to be turning around for the better and he finds himself getting his love for Jean returned to him, he ruins it with bad decision making. His alcoholism controls him and although he is asked by Jean to not drink in front of her young son, he stops inside of a bar one day while out with the little tyke and loses him due to his drunkenness.

To continue on discussing this terrific story would be taking the pleasure of seeing it unfolding yourself away. However, it's the underlying message that really hits home and makes this movie something more than the sum of its parts. It shows a man emotionally and physically crippled from a number of problems, some external and some self inflicted, but finds hope in his cloud of depression. It says that it's never too late to turn your life around. No matter your age, your nasty habits or the turmoil you're going through, you can change yourself and become someone better, somebody who looks at life through a fresh perspective.

Much more is revealed about Bad in this nearly two hour movie, but my adulation for Crazy Heart has already kept me rambling for far too long. Bad is a multi-layered person, simple on the surface, but hiding secrets within him and he summarizes his entire character arc with one lyrical line from one of his country songs where he sings, "I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else."

Although there isn't much going on behind the camera, largely due to first-time director Scott Cooper, and the story is overly familiar—it's basically The Wrestler with more heart (as my friend Kevin "BDK" McCarthy put it)—it's done with such splendor and dedication that one can't help but be impressed with the finished product. It's a shame Crazy Heart wasn't released in DC a couple of weeks back so I could rightfully place it on my 2009 best of the year list. Oh well. I guess 2010 will have to do.

Crazy Heart receives 5/5

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