Two reviews… somewhat belated… reviews of Avatar and Sherlock Holmes to come…

An Education

Author Nick Hornby adapts the memoir of Lynn Barber in An Education, the story of a teenage girl’s affair with an older man and her inevitable ‘education’ in the world of adult relationships. The girl, Jenny, is played by future star Carey Mulligan, who does a fine job of capturing a teen’s innocence — although the Oscar buzz may be premature. Her seducer is played by Peter Sarsgaard, and it is his character, David, that is the more fascinating. He is a bon vivant, an opportunist and a nimble fibber. He seems to be involved both with the integration of urban neighborhoods and low-grade art theft.

David’s partners in crime are another charming couple, played by Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper. They too offer both more and less than they seem. Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, as Jenny’s well-intentioned yet gullible parents, offer pretty much exactly what they seem.

Director Lone Scherfig does a good job of letting Hornby’s screenplay and the cast’s acting take center stage, but the entire filmmaking team can’t quite make the climax of the film, where the house of cards comes crashing down, as exciting as the buildup.

I saw the movie more than a month ago, and still haven’t been able to come up with much to say about it. I think perhaps what the story lacks is a big final confrontation between David and Jenny, even though it is based on a memoir and perhaps no such confrontation happened in real life. The stakes of their relationship is the effect on her schooling, which ultimately turns out to be reversible, and in any case that story, the story of getting back in the good graces of the British educational system, is far less interesting than Jenny’s experiences with David’s high-roller lifestyle. Hornby wisely truncates it in order to get expediently to the happy ending (short shrifting an excellent Olivia Williams, who plays Jenny’s teacher).

An Education is the sort of movie I’d like to see more of — smart, truthful with excellent writing and performances. Perhaps I went in with too-high expectations, but the movie failed to leave me feeling better or worse about humanity’s deceptions of others, and our own self-deceptions. Instead, it is more like a school lesson learned: the bell rings and it’s on to the next subject.

The Lovely Bones

When The Lord of the Rings trilogy was criticized for running long and having ‘too many endings,’ people rightly pointed out that Peter Jackson and his frequent writing collaborators, wife Fran Walsh and playwright Philippa Boyens, were only being faithful to the source material. When King Kong was called over-stuffed, the criticism didn’t take because it was an extravaganza, an event movie.

With The Lovely Bones, there is no longer a defense. The movie is just too long. What should’ve been a taut supernatural thriller becomes a tedious exercise in lack of self-control. The scary, suspenseful sequences are, of course, all done quite well. The emotional sequences, and the visualization of the fantastical land of the dead, ‘The Inbetween,’ are sadly overwrought.

The mawkish story comes from a novel by Alice Sebold which I have not read, but am assured by several readers is not done justice by the movie’s adaptation. It tells the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (the incredible Saoirse Ronan, who last wowed me in Atonement), who is murdered by her creepy next door neighbor on the cusp of her first kiss. (In the book she is apparently raped as well, although the movie doesn’t seem to hint at this.)

Susie is then stuck in a beautiful purgatory with a Vietnamese girl who calls herself Holly Golightly, and seems to be there just to provide cheap laughs with her thick accent. Susie’s family, meanwhile, has to deal with Susie’s death. Her father, played by Mark Wahlberg, becomes obsessed with solving the murder. Her chain-smoking, hard-drinking grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon, comes to live with them. Her brother and sister don’t have much to do, until the sister, at the end, inexplicably becomes an amateur sleuth. The mother, played by Rachel Weisz, is seemingly the family’s only obstacle to happiness, leaving them all in their lovely home to go become, I think, a migrant worker, before returning for unspecified reasons.

There are so many layers of preposterousness to the story, it is difficult to sort them all out. I’ll just leave my main criticism as this: Susie, ostensibly the protagonist, though dead, has nothing to do in The Inbetween. Of the many sequences of her there, only one works which is her watching helplessly as her father smashes his ship-in-a-bottle collection, visualized effectively as giant ships-in-bottles wrecking on a fantastical coast. We see that she is able to communicate from beyond the dead, even, at the end, inhabit another persons body in order to make love with her now much-older boy crush (!). But she spends most of the movie just experiencing digital visuals that relate poetically to the plot – but not dramatically.

The comeuppance of Stanley Tucci’s mannered serial killer character is unsatisfying and excessively gruesome and the climax for all his victims treacle and unearned. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty in this movie for genre fans to enjoy, but watching this movie just goes to show how far Peter Jackson has yet to go to become a mature filmmaker. It seems, to me, to be a step backwards from Kong, which in several moments achieved an electric unity between grand effects and great storytelling.

Audiences who haven’t seen Heavenly Creatures, the Jackson-directed movie which similarly features murder and fantasy worlds, would be well-advised to check that one out first.