28 November, 2011

Puppy Film Festival 1 & 2 : The Lovely Bones / Tideland

The Puppies are on their ninth day of life I'm more relaxed that they don't need constant supervision, but I won't be going out to the movies for at least six weeks. So now's the time to catch up on those films sitting on the PVR, LOVEFiLM DVD's sitting unwatched in their return envelopes next to the player, mocking the postal rental concept as only beneficial to people with too much time on their hands (not to mention the list of offerings that I could stream to my TV via my netbook). Ahem.

So I'm starting my Puppy Film Festival today with two films (life got in the way and bumped the end of the second to tomorrow). The Lovely Bones and Tideland. The Lovely Bones was much derided on its release with the tautological judgement that the novel was unfilmable. As a Peter Jackson fan, particularly of his non-Tolkien efforts, I've been intrigued to see how interesting a failure this might be. So I recorded it when broadcast, but was holding off on watching it until I could read the book. During the first 48 hours of serial puppy vigil (the two most fragile days of their lives) I spent time in the whelping room making my way through the book, which I enjoyed, but through the remove of nostalgia for the period and place it describes, suburban Philly area in the 1970's. It's moving take on the relationship between the living and the dead is no doubt the element that has made it a favorite for many, and an occupant of those Books You Should Read memes. For my part, I could see that it was touching, but until precisely 3/4 of the way through, I was untouched, and this has been a particularly hard year for many of my loved ones who've suffered close losses. Then the narrator described her dog in a way that made me burst into tears.

As the film began, I realised that I wasn't going to be able to objectively enjoy it, first through the nostalgia factor, when I was recently back in the States, a friend pointed out to me that the MacDade Mall had been used for the film. This was easy to believe, as it sits in an area where the economic disadvantage is so entrenched, that it hasn't substantially changed since the 1970's. Some location scout had an orgasm when they saw it. The last movie that I saw in its duplex cinema was Do The Right Thing. I instantly wondered which area high-school had been used, it was a building very much of the same era as Springfield Delco where I grew up.

Then, with the book fresh in my mind, my view was further hobbled by comparison. Even as the film progresses, I can pick out the differences, and while its easy to concede trimming for space, some of the choices work against the story. Removal of the obsessive suspicion that the father of the murdered girl feels for her killer, robs the story of the engine for his breakdown, his wife's alienation, and much that comes from it. In fact the book is very much about the relationships within the family, living and dead., and extended to friends and lovers, but the film unwisely focusses too much on the story of the murderer, whose banality in the book makes him an unexpectedly incidental character as things progress.

Upsides are to be had in the visual sense, particularly the evocation of Susie's In-Between afterlife much of which works, even some of the more artificial shots, all the more for their artifice, but sadly much of it looks more like New Zealand than the alternative suburban heaven described in the novel. Two major characters interested in miniatures, as Jackson himself has proved to be both literally and figuratively, lead to some of the best sequences, the dollhouse as the subject for both the investigator and the voyeur, and a tantrum destroying ships in bottles becomes a fleet cast onto rocks despite the looming gaze of the lighthouse. There's also a well handled litany of the victims. Whatever Jackson has achieved here, it goes for nought in service of a script which flattens the characters compressing them along with their narratives into cyphers.

Saoirse Ronan breathes some life in her dead teenager role, and Stanley Tucci is great despite the fact that his very canny character in the book has been rewritten as the stupidest serial killer ever (in the book he does not keep the remains for a year, and his notebook has a cryptic page referring to the cornfield structure which isn't discovered until after the page comes to light, NOT obvious news clippings and a photo of the victim that he had no way of getting and a lock of her hair and the design for a TShirt reading I Did It, OK bar the last one). The greatest crime is that Rachel Weisz is given nothing to do, her character's departure and return are given little motivation, where in the book its an arc of great depth that carries through infidelity and self actualization over years. Here they may as well put her on skates so they can wheel her off and wheel her on. A muddle on so many levels, built to disappoint both those who know the book and those who don't.

Tideland is the extended tale of a child and her childhood surviving the grimmest of circumstances; two junkie parents, then cast adrift in an isolated prairie becalmed house, Jeliza-Rose weaves a protective veil with her imagination, as a powerful shield for her spirit, as vivid as Ofelia's in Pan's Labyrinth.

I must admit that this is the second time I've seen Tideland, but really the first time I've watched it. The first time was during my strungout week from hell before I went to the States in September, I attended Improbable's Open Space Impro Forum, prepared, cooked bbq for 20 owners of our canine progeny and went on forest walk with same and pooches, volunteered at three festival events and attended three more, which included the small awards ceremony where I came runner up for the Festival's Best Film Critic of the Year, lurked behind a tree making triffid noises to scare filmgoers on their way to see a horror film, had to dash into Southampton between the bbq and a silent film screening to buy a book for a friend in the states that I wanted signed by the author (and perhaps made a prat of myself doing so), participated in a workshop to support the establishment of a New Forest Nature Improvement Area, rebuilt a PC and installed a Netbook for the first time and shopped and packed for the trip, not sleeping for 32+ hours before travel, and perhaps having less than 16 hours shut eye in total all week. While formatting a 2 terabyte hard drive was taking forever, I thought I'd watch Tideland so that I could send it back to LOVEFiLM and then suspend my account during my vacation.

Well, in a tired strung out state, I simply could not follow the train of thought of the little girl's internal conversation that makes up much of the film, I found it repetitive and a bit annoying particularly when new stranger-stranger characters appear to move the action forward, or, sideways would be more accurate. I dozed near the end. To watch Tideland and take in its dizzying rollercoaster, you have to have the same patience and attention span you would need to actively engage with and look after a young child. On my first attempt to view, I was unfit, and perhaps DVD protective services should have been alerted to my abuse.

On a proper viewing it is magnificent, a poetic mid-west gothic with sprinklings of Flannery O'Connor, To Kill A Mockingbird, Texas Chainsaw and Trainspotting. It's a film that's brave enough to show a child in constant mild to severe peril, but wise enough to know that her innocence will blithely carry her through.

It's certainly one of Gilliam's most confident films, and possibly his most complete. I often feel that there's an intentional untidyness in Gilliam. He bursts with so many ideas it seems churlish to insist that he carries them all through. Perhaps there's a few producers in his wake who simply wish he had fewer ideas, I appreciate his generosity of mind. Here he carries off everything he attempts and does just enough to see the story through. He wisely only visualizes some of Jeliza-Rose's imaginative turns, allowing the stark beauty of the prairie scenery and Jodelle Ferland's stunning performance (including the multiple personalities of her imaginary dollhead incarnated friends) to do the rest. The cast is rounded out by grotesques, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Tilly, Janet McTeer, and Brendan Fletcher, providing counterpoint to the relative sanity of Jeliza-Rose's protective delusions.

I do advise DVD viewers to skip the optional Gilliam intro (but by all means watch it after), it seems there only to steel the faint hearted, and, perhaps slightly patronizingly, invite the audience to remember the imagination and resilience of children. If you've read this I think you have all you need to dive straight in to the glorious Lewis Caroll inflected opening. It will make you wish that Gilliam had directed The Lovely Bones,..... and Watchmen, ... and Harry Potter I & II, .... and.....

Both of these films feature excellent scores, The Lovely Bones a rare cinematic excursion by Brian Eno, and Tideland by brothers Jeff and Mychael Danna who later collaborated again on Gilliam's Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In Gilliam and screencowriter Tony Grisoni commentary track they give extensive credit to the source novel by Mitch Cullin. I have no worries that they haven't done justice to it, Cullin has stated that he'd like to rewrite parts to include some of the new ideas introduced in the film. There's a book, I'll be tracking down at some point, hopefully won't need to wait until the next litter of puppies to read it.



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