A Single Man/The Lovely Bones

Rating – A Single Man ***1/2 The Lovely Bones ***

Here’s a fun-filled double-bill for you, two very different tales of death and grieving in retro US settings. Both films look beautiful and feature excellent performances… but there can only be one winner. So, “Letssssss get ready to rumbleeeeeee!”

Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man does indeed resemble a Calvin Klein commercial, as many critics have pointed out. Is that an issue? Not really. The only times I found it a distraction involve some unintentionally giggle-worthy model-like posing from the young male characters who take an interest in Collin Firth. Grieving after his gay lover was killed in a car crash, Firth is every bit as excellent as his Oscar nomination suggests. Sombre in tone with an excellent supporting cast, it would be wrong to declare this as anything but an accomplished drama. Ford uses an interesting technique throughout the film. As Firth’s suicidal protagonist encounters other characters throughout the course of his day, the colour palate becomes temporarily saturated. As he sinks back in to his private despair, the world once again becomes muted and grey. It’s a simple trick, effective as it is subtle.

In contrast, Peter Jackson’s use of CGI throughout his supernatural thriller is reckless and frustratingly ludicrous. I say this as a big fan of not just his previous work, but other parts of the film in question, The Lovely Bones. After her brutal murder, fourteen year old Susie Salmon inhabits a dreamy “in-between” world until her killer is caught and she can enter heaven. For some reason that involves walking through a day-glow cornfield, dancing with giant butterflies, and flying over ice ravines with a pointless Chinese sidekick in a dogsled drawn by pugs! It’s all sphincter-clenchingly misjudged and poorly executed. The visual effects are not only unnecessary but actually pretty shoddy. The exception to this is a scene inter cut with Mark Walberg’s grieving father as he smashes his homemade collection of bottled ships. In Susie’s world this is illustrated by full scale vessels encapsulated in impossibly vast glass bottles. They crash unrelentingly into the cliffs and the rocky beach where she is walking. Personally I thought this scene was impressive, a reminder of Jackson’s usual showmanship and skilled execution of Weta’s technological arsenal. However none of this overrides the sad truth that the whole notion of visualising this “in-between heaven” world is inherently shit and tacky. It eats up valuable screen time which should have been used to flesh out the thriller/criminal investigation aspects. Susie’s supernatural presence should have been tastefully confined to her voiceover and nothing else.

Much of the film is excellent though, the aforementioned CG monstrosities are just the cement shoes dragging it all down a peg (or two). Take the first act of the film, before any of the heaven bullshit comes in to the equation. It’s atmospheric, nuanced, and gripping. As an audience we already know the terrible fate awaiting Susie and as it drew near I became genuinely sad for her. Stanley Tucci is really brilliant in his role as the murderous paedophile, as is Saoirse Ronan as his tragic victim. The other acting across the board is strong and Jackson’s typically skilled camerawork is a joy. When I said this film looks beautiful, it was down to this, not the CG. The suspense scenes are genuinely gripping too. It seems only fair to point out all these great aspects to the film. Despite my scathing reaction to core elements of The Lovely Bones I still recommend it. For much of it’s baggy running time (typical PJ) this is strong filmmaking. Some muddled and underdeveloped subplots are all symptoms of the decision to put the afterlife on full view.

Now that they are filmmaking buddies it’s tempting to draw parallels between Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. If Lord of the Rings was his Indiana Jones in spirit and scale, The Lovely Bones is the thematic equivalent of Spielberg’s Always… what do you mean you don’t remember Always?

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~ by thewholebuffalo on February 22, 2010.

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