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On Movies: 'Lovely Bones' is a better thriller than 'Book of Eli'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2010 - "The Book of Eli," like last year's much better "The Road," is set in a war-devastated post-Apocalyptic America. The survivors of something called "the Flash" tend to be Road Warrior-style thugs given to rape and pillage. An exception is a man named Eli (Denzel Washington). Trudging slowly but with fierce determination westward across this blasted, violent landscape, Eli is carrying the last known copy of a book he believes can save what's left of the world. One guess as to what book Eli is carrying.

Eli is, of course, a peaceable man except when he is riled, but if need be he can dispatch half a dozen armed scumbags with a few flicks of a saber, or kill a brace of villains with a bow and arrow he seemingly snatches from the air. He has almost superhuman agility, and bullets don't seem to do him much harm.

Fine. A martial arts movie with a larger-than-life hero set in a sci-fi version of the old West, complete with a dirty old town controlled by a fiendish, effete boss (Gary Oldman).

The boss wants the book Eli is carrying because he believes he can twist its inspirational words to his own evil ends. OK. Even better. A martial arts movie with a larger-than-life hero, etc., that includes a satire of the ways in which evil men twist the words of scripture to further their greed or their thirst for power.

That's the first half of the movie. In the early going, the direction by the Hughes brothers ("Menace II Society") skillfully and without wasted time sets up a world where no one can be trusted.

Then Eli and the book are joined in their westward trek by a young woman (Mila Kunis) born after the Flash and the movie becomes, step by plodding step, increasingly distant from any sense of reality, even science-fiction reality. By the end, with its echoes of "Fahrenheit 451," what began as a tough, marginally believable action movie with a moral center has become a sappy and preachy melodrama that makes very little sense except in the world of "inspirational" cliches. Let me put it bluntly, if sadly. If hundreds of millions of copies of the book in question spread across the globe were not enough to stop an apocalyptic war, why is a single copy going to make any difference?

'The Lovely Bones'

Young Irish actress Saoirse (SEER-sha) Ronan gives an compelling performance in "The Lovely Bones" as an American girl who was murdered in a small town. Now a ghost looking down from a pastoral kind of limbo, she tells the story of her brief and mostly happy life and violent death, and watches as the man who killed her walks free, fearful that he will kill someone close to her, angry that he has not been caught.

I've not read Alice Sebold's bestselling novel of the same name, so I can't make a comparison between book and film, but as a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, the film is effective, with well-wrought Hitchcock-style elements of suspense. I recommend "The Lovely Bones," with a couple of caveats: Jackson gives us too little information about the horrific rape, murder and dismemberment of the little girl for us to fully grasp the compulsion that keeps her suspended between heaven and earth.

And, at times, Jackson, known for special effects in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, makes limbo seem so spectacular, with its montage of sea-splashed cliffs, bosomy fields of golden grain and wheeling white gulls lit by rainbows, that the visual elements distract from the serious nature of the narrative. In this case, less would have been more - the afterlife sequences in "The Lovely Bones" are over-produced and overly specific. Besides, if limbo is heavenly, who needs heaven?

Still, the main narrative is effectively presented; and Stanley Tucci, almost unrecognizable, is truly spooky as the killer.

'A Single Man'

In this skillful adaptation of a landmark 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, Colin Firth gives a superb, eloquently nuanced performance as George Falconer, a buttoned-up gay college professor in the early 1960s whose beloved longtime companion (Matthew Goode) dies in an automobile accident.

George is specifically not invited to the family funeral; and he broods about his loss, and about his life. Despite the comfort of a friendship of many years with a 49-year-old divorcee (Julianne Moore) and the distraction of flirtations, he decides to kill himself.

Fashion designer Tom Ford makes his directorial debut in a handsome movie that mostly avoids looking too much like a Gucci ad, and that focuses to great effect on the secret eye-to-eye communication of potential male lovers in the days just before gay liberation burst open closet doors. It hints of changes to come in the differences between middle-age Falconer and younger men, who are more open and matter-of-fact about their sexuality. A touching, beautifully acted, well-paced film with an ending that is worth arguing about.

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