Peter Jackson’s latest: ‘The Lovely Bones’

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It won’t surprise you that to New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson, heaven, or at least a lovely version of purgatory, looks an awful lot like the forests and valleys of New Zealand.
But in this kiwi afterlife, topiary balloons float by trees whose
golden leaves wash away as flocks of goldfinches, and lighthouses light
the way across dreamboat harbors with waters of shimmering glass.

That’s where Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) spends much of the new thriller “The Lovely Bones.” She plays Susie “Salmon, like the fish.” Straight off she lets us know that “I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

She’s stuck in purgatory, watching her family struggle and splinter over her death. Her father (Mark Wahlberg) obsesses over catching her killer, her mother flees his obsession even as Susie’s sister (Rose McIver) falls under the gaze of the neighbor who committed the murder.

Jackson’s mystical thriller is about closure, but
offers little of that. Though properly chilling when it’s supposed to
be, it’s a film whose effects, script and performances keep it at arm’s
length when it is supposed to be moving.

Before that fateful day, Susie was a happy teen living in a happy home (Rachel Weisz is mom). She swooned over school dreamboat Ray (Reece Ritchie), dreamed of her first kiss and practiced becoming “a wildlife photographer” with her cheap Kodak.

But “I wasn’t safe,” she narrates. “A man in my neighborhood was watching me.”

The dread we feel awaiting the crime — told in flashback — is heartbreaking. We meet the killer (Stanley Tucci, in a low-key, “normal” serial-killer turn). We see him prepare. We know what’s coming.

What we don’t see in advance is how the murder will
affect others, the ways Susie is felt by those who loved her — glimpses
straight out of “Ghost.” She can’t pass on messages, can’t point them
to the killer, can’t have her revenge.

“Bones” is Jackson’s “What Lies Beneath,” that
crossroads movie when a filmmaker who has marshaled an army to do other
projects steps back and tries to make something leaner, simpler. Like Robert Zemeckis before him, Jackson overwhelms the thoughtful, introspective nature of
the material with whistles and bells — heavenly effects that scream
“overkill.”

Zemeckis moved on to make gigantic, motion capture
enterprises such as “The Polar Express,” techno-films. Jackson may yet
end up returning to Middle Earth. If this movie tells him anything,
it’s that his skills are as sharp as ever, but that he and his
screenwriting team have lost the human sense of scale.

The Lovely Bones

2 1/2 stars

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci

Director: Peter Jackson

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Industry rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language

(c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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