Image from Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES. Joke from this previous post.
Interesting that two antipodean fantasy filmmakers serve up such strikingly similar images. I think part of the reason may be that artificial landscapes have a tendency to creep towards symmetry in a way that real ones rarely do.
I confess to mixed feelings about this one. Conventional wisdom labelled it a misfire, and much of it certainly is. In Jackson’s oeuvre, it’s closest to HEAVENLY CREATURES, my favourite of his films, but the fantastical imagery doesn’t have the sinister, psychotic undercurrents of that picture, which means that, beautiful as it is, it leans a little towards kitsch. I define kitsch here as “a child’s idea of the sublime”. Which, it could be argued, is what Jackson is presenting: the teenage girl’s personal afterlife, painted as she might imagine it. But it feels like too much loveliness, not enough bone.
Glenn Kenny’s review here hits some of the criticisms I’d have made had he not done so first, and so well. But he does defend the film from comparisons with Vincent Ward’s WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. I can see the similarity, not just because it’s another Kiwi fantasist, but because I get a slightly icky feeling from both, but at least Jackson’s afterlife isn’t made of oil paint, and doesn’t contain an 80s pop video version of Hell. And the more surreal elements, like giant ships in bottles shattering against the shoreline, at least justify the use of CGI as something other than an attempt to improve on nature.
Both films do, however, feature gloriously lovely autumnal suburban scenes, shared also with Alex Proyas’s KNOWING. Now, I love ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS as much as the next Sirkian, but it seems to me that if you’re going to actually feature Heaven in your movie, or a sort of antechamber of Heaven (Jackson) or a Heaven Planet (Proyas), you might want to give the real world scenes a tad more grit, just to make an effective contrast. I’m saying this, and I hate grit, normally.
Jackson has always been devoted to creating his own worlds, something I kind of identify with. There’s no essential reason why BRAIN DEAD is set in the fifties, and there’s no reason why THE LOVELY BONES is set in the seventies — it’s an excuse to take a step away from reality and give everything a distinctive look, but here it seems to remove us a step too far from the everyday, especially since Jackson’s dealing with an era he’s barely old enough to remember, in a country he’s never lived in, reconstructed on the other side of the world.
There are a couple of great scenes — a suspense sequence where the heroine’s little sister searches the killer’s house is genuinely nerve-twisting… the discovery of a series of murder victims manages to combine the eerily beautiful with the creepy and tragic, in the only scene that really manages to hit more than one Big Emotion at a time. Here we see something that’s actually new to Jackson’s filmmaking: his early films gave full rein to his irreverent sense of humour, along with which no other mood can really coexist. HEAVENLY CREATURES deployed some of the same melodramatic flourishes the RINGS trilogy would exploit, allowing them to mix with the small-scale real-life story in a genuinely surprising way, but it’s still one emotion at a time. Then the RINGS films pulled the humour in completely, since irreverence was judged fatal to Tolkein. Jackson knew he needed some kind of humour, and his attempts to get it were among the epics’ less effective moments. The most complex moments came from Gollum, whose schizoid nature makes him the most rounded character in the books, and someone who does carry a certain tonal variety around in his very essence. The adventure of KONG embraces two principle modes, the snappy thirties manly stuff and the Naomi Watts ape stuff, which intersect freely and never seem to clash.
But the story of THE LOVELY BONES combines so many feelings and tones that the movie really needs more scenes like the above, or it risks disintegrating into a bag of extracts from different films. The worst of these films is the one that stars Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon, a gaudy Odd Couple comedy routine that comes crashing into the bereavement like a pitch invasion from Jackson’s BRAIN DEAD. Remember the scene in BLAZING SADDLES when a top hat & tails musical number is brought to a standstill by a saloon brawl overflowing from the next sound stage? It’s kind of like that.
But I did like Stanley Tucci, whose makeup eerily resembles that of Nic Cage in KICK ASS, a strange crepe mustache being the centrepiece. I recall reading that Oliver Reed, that noted perfectionist, always grew his own facial hair because fake beards don’t move with your face. Tucci’s facial fungus DOES move with his face, with the sensitivity and synchronization of a great dance partner, but it’s somehow all the more unconvincing for it. Weird. But Tucci’s is the most Jacksonian perf, capturing the fervid melodrama that lifts HEAVENLY CREATURES out of the true crime genre and into something more peculiar.
I found myself wondering if maybe it’s the character who’s wearing a wig and a false ‘tache, and wondered what kind of man would DO that, when he knows he’s going to be interviewed by the police? He’s the Groucho Marx of serial killers. Never mind why he excavates an insane crime grotto under a cornfield, kills his victim, collapses the cavern, but removes the body to his home, something which makes no criminological sense whatever (but would be more reasonable in a contemporary setting where he might be worried about DNA evidence) — that’s from the novel, as are a lot of the narrative infelicities — such madness is thrown into sharp perspective by the little piece of fuzzy felt clinging to Tucci’s upper lip, seeming to shriek “You’ll never catch me! I’m far too clever for you! Why, you can’t even detect my bogus Mr Potato Head moustache!”
Now THAT’S depravity for you.