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The Lovely Bones, The Book of Eli 

 

THE LOVELY BONES

***

We might as well begin with a disclosure: I haven't read Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. And from what I've been able to ascertain, folks who did go buy the book are furious that the film version doesn't go by the book, or at least not enough to stifle their cries of foul play. Normally, I wouldn't even bring this up, as the disconnect between literature and film has been with us almost as long as cinema itself.

But given the loyal fan base of Sebold's best-selling novel, it seemed as if some sort of consumer-alert sticker was warranted, if only to prevent unsuspecting and outraged patrons from ripping up aisle seats, burning down auditorium curtains and deliberately spilling buttered popcorn on theater floors. (Always glad to do my part!) On the other hand, moviegoers who haven't read the book and accept director Peter Jackson's picture on its own terms (which, ultimately, is how any artistic interpretation should be judged) will be greeted with a powerful viewing experience, a rueful, meditative piece that makes some missteps (particularly toward the end) but on balance treats the heavy topic with the proper degrees of respect and responsibility.

In a role far more demanding than her breakthrough part in Atonement, Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a young girl living in '70s suburbia with her loving family. One day after school, quiet neighbor George Harvey (a chilling Stanley Tucci) tricks her into his underground lair, where he then rapes and murders her. (Some have complained about Jackson's decision to not show the sexual assault and slaying. I for one applaud his choice; are these critics - voyeurs? - saying that the inherent implications aren't horrific enough on their own?) Now stranded in some sort of celestial limbo, Susie looks down as her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) searches for the killer while her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) tries to hold the family together.

Writing with his Lord of the Rings collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson finds a fanciful way to realize the otherworldly visions in Sebold's story without ever losing sight of the tragedy grounded at the center of the tale. Except for the disastrous comic interludes with Susie's Grandma Lynn (I had no idea Susan Sarandon could ever be this bad), the earthbound sequences are somber and often emotionally overwhelming, whether concentrating on Susie's regrets over all the things she'll never get to experience or following Jack as his all-consuming anguish repeatedly gets him into trouble.

Jackson loses his storytelling grip toward the end - a plot device stolen from Ghost doesn't quite come off -- but he never loses his compassion. The Lovely Bones may not exactly follow its literary antecedent, but I have to believe they share the same beating heart.

 

THE BOOK OF ELI

***

Talk about apocalypse now. If there's one positive thing to be said about the sudden glut of end-of-the-world tales, it's that the batting average in terms of quality has been on the winning side. Certainly, 2012 was a stinker, but The Road, Zombieland and now The Book of Eli have all been compelling watches, each for different reasons. In the case of The Book of Eli, the first film directed by The Hughes Brothers since 2001's criminally underrated Johnny-Depp-meets-Jack-the-Ripper movie From Hell, it's the potent religious slant that makes it intriguing. Thirty years after a war that wiped out most of the world's population, only one Bible remains in existence. The righteous Eli (Denzel Washington) owns it, planning to use it for good; the despicable Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants it, planning to use it to forward his own insidious agenda (no mention in Gary Whitta's script as to whether Carnegie is related to Pat Robertson). Admittedly, the spiritual stuff often takes a back seat to sequences of Eli slicing and dicing his way through hordes of sinners. But Washington provides the proper amount of gravitas to his role, and the surprise ending almost matches the denouement of The Sixth Sense as an audience grabber.

 

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