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Posted: January 29, 2010

Dave on film: haunted by “The Lovely Bones”

And the Coen brothers do an unfunny take on Job

Dave Taylor

This week's films are both pretty dark subjects. One's all about murder, death, the afterlife and justice, and it's based on a best-selling novel by Alice Sebold and directed by the terrific director Peter Jackson who you might know for a little series called the Lord of the Rings.

The other is based on the Biblical story of Job, about a guy who endures a non-stop series of terrible events in his life while retaining his faith in God. Does the subject matter overwhelm these films, and are the subjects ultimately so well-explored that there's still space for more movies on these big topics? Read on.

Review: The Lovely Bones

When someone is murdered, their spirit lingers on, observing and trying to influence the course of justice, a ghost seeking revenge. But what of the ghost during this period, what's their experience and what if there is no peace, no justice, nothing but someone who refuses to accept that they have died?

That's the basic story behind The Lovely Bones, an ethereal and moving film by Peter Jackson based on the best-selling book by Alice Sebold and starring the lovely and haunting Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, the victim of the crime.

Set in the mid-1970's, it contrasts the deep love of a father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), against the naivity of the times, where when a child went missing no-one thought she was abducted because "people believed this sort of thing couldn't happen." Yet it does, and it's the creepy but unthreatening neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) who commits the crime.

Within a few minute of the film starting, we learn who the murderer is and how the crime transpired, thrusting us into the same journey, stuck in the "in between" that's not quite heaven. We fear that that George might get away with the crime and despair when everyone misses clues.

The Lovely Bones is narrated by Susie, as she shares her confusion about the afterlife and her frustration with things she's missed, having been murdered at the young age of fourteen. We flip back and forth between her in the afterlife and what's happening on Earth, where things get increasingly tense and desperate.

A modelmaker, we first meet murderer George Harvey from the vantage point of within the doll house. A very symbolic, Hitchcockian point of view that's repeated when detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) interviews him.

Jack (Wahlberg) is an accountant who also builds models, though his ships in a bottle are an attempt to capture dreams. Mom is Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and her mother, Grandma Lynn (a delightfully eccentric Susan Sarandon) is an alcoholic who, in her weird way, helps the family return to some semblance of normalcy after the murder, even as they leave Susie's bedroom untouched.

Susie meets Holly Go Lightly (Nikki SooHoo), who acts as a tourguide to the afterlife, a place that's "not really one place, but not really the other place either". She still experiences much of the afterlife solo, including one powerful scene where Jack despairs, destroying the ships in a bottle he's created as Susie sees full-size ships beached and destroyed, with massive sheets of glass around them, as she runs down the beach screaming "Dad? Dad!"

Much of the film is set in a beautiful, surreal afterlife, complete with dreamy visuals and saturated colors, seamlessly transitioning between seasons and environments, and even sporadically delving underwater.

For the years that transpire between when Susie is murdered and the crime is resolved, Jack dutifully puts a candle in the bedroom window, night after night. It begs the question: when do you give up hope, give up faith, and let the past drift away?

Ultimately, The Lovely Bones is a profound movie that carries a heavy karmic storyline but suffers from an unsatisfying ending. Too heavy for most filmgoers, it hasn't fared well in the theater: after such an intense experience few people would recommend it to their friends. Still, it's worth seeing if only to see how Peter Jackson created a vision of what has come and what may come.

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Review: A Serious Man

When does a dark satire about life transition into a marathon of bad luck and suffering by a hapless, spineless man? Though I'm sure that's not what the Coen Brothers intended when they created A Serious Man, that's the experience I had when I watched the film.

A Serious Man is about the trials and tribulations of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), and it's an ostensibly retelling of the story of Job from the Old Testament. Bad things happen, then worse things happen, then even worse things happen, all while Larry hangs on to his faith in Judaism. If you go back to the Bible and read the actual Book of Job, however, the story is about a bet between God and the Devil, where Job is the sucker who has more and more bad things happen, all as he retains his faith in the Lord. In the end, his family are killed, his servants are killed, all of his livestock dies, but somehow he still praises God and God ultimately rewards his unbending faith.

It's an interesting and thought-provoking story and would make for a good film (as it has done in the past), but that's not what happens in A Serious Man because Larry doesn't really have any sort of crisis of faith and the ending most assuredly doesn't have him seeing any sort of reward from God for his faith. Instead, we're left being rather amazed at what a spineless loser Larry is, unable to stand up for himself, unable to value himself in his family and without any self respect at all. This is comedy?

The ensemble cast of A Serious Man was terrific, and the langor and insular nature of the Jewish community within which the Gopnicks live was beautifully captured, to the point where you never think twice at an attorney suggesting Larry visit with the Rabbi before he proceed with any sort of legal action.

Having said that, though, I will also say that there's precious little depth to any of the characters in the film and generally their motivations and behaviors are inexplicable. A film populated by stereotypes gets rather tiring after a while, as you keep hoping for something interesting and surprising to happen and someone to react in a manner other than formulaic. As you would expect from a story based on the depressing Book of Job in the Bible, the film really consists of "and now what bad thing is going to happen?" turns every few minutes.

Larry shares a 70s tract home with his wife Judith (Sari Lennick), children Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus), and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is staying temporarily, but has clearly overstayed his welcome, particularly with Sarah, who has that mysterious teen need to occupy the bathroom for long periods of time. Judith is having an affair with the local widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and, adding to the mix, Larry's a professor at the local college and is up for tenure as the filmproceeds too.

It might be the case that I'm just not the right person for a dark comedy of this nature, but while the Coen Brothers are highly respected in Hollywood, I don't really understand why this film has received such critical approbation. It was even a nominee for Best Picture from the Denver Film Critics Society, of which I'm a member, though I didn't vote for it personally.

In the world of comedy, there are jokes where you laugh with the character or laugh at the situation, but there are also jokes because you're laughing at the character, and it's their pain, their problems, their misfortune that's somehow supposed to be entertaining. The most extreme form of this latter type of comedy is Jackass, a film that I think is idiotic and not even the slightest bit amusing.

I'll just end this by saying that if the idea of a film about a hapless, spineless man who has misfortune after misfortune piled onto him, without ever redeeming himself or getting a glimpse of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is your idea of a good premise for a comedy, however dark, then you might well enjoy A Serious Man.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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