Peter Jackson, whose film versions of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy could be a textbook example of how to adapt a literary work for screen, could find his latest film, “The Lovely Bones” as the example on the next page of how not to. His sincerity and artistry are there, but unlike Tolkien’s triology, Alice Sebold’s book-club favorite is not essentially cinematic. What made the book successful with critics and the public was not the story but the language. Jackson’s efforts to translate the graceful, lucid prose into images loses all of the story’s delicacy and becomes cloying and dissonant. Instead of a poetic meditation on life and the human spirit it becomes more like “CSI” if one of the detectives was dead.
As in the book, we know right from the beginning that Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan of “Atonement” and “I Could Never Be Your Woman”) is dead and telling us her story in a tone of calm, slightly distant regret. She was 14, the oldest daughter in a happy, loving family. She had a crush on a boy named Ray (Reece Ritchie). She and her father made meticulously constructed boats in bottles. And then, one night, walking home from school , a neighbor invites her to see a cool clubhouse he dug beneath the cornfields, filled with candles and snacks and board games. And he kills her.
In the movie’s best scene we and Susie both think that she has escaped the killer (Stanley Tucci) as she bursts out of the underground room and races through the streets. But then we realize just before she does that it is only her spirit that survives. Susie has been murdered. She will watch the rest of her story from a personal heaven, an in-between place for a soul that is not ready to let go.
But the lyricism of the book translates on screen into under-imagined images that look like stock photos used for screen savers or the discreet artwork of a mid-range hotel. Leafy trees, aquamarine skies, fluttering fields, and of course spa music (from Brian Eno) and quavery voice-overs.
Ronen is breathtaking, and Susan Sarandon adds some life as the boozy grandmother who steps in when the parents are devastated by Susie’s loss. The script softens the brutality of the story and irons out some of the sub-plots. But it gives us too much information about the less interesting parts of the story and not enough about what we really care about. But we are never sure whether we are there to see justice done or to put Susie’s soul to rest and by the time Susie meets up with her murderer’s other victims and returns to fulfill one last human longing, it feels more like a campfire ghost story than a meditation on love, loss and the enduring human spirit.
Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is a documentary about a woman of incalculable courage and honor. Senesh, an idealist who hoped to help create a Jewish state in Israel, escaped from Hungary to what was then British-controlled Palestine. Instead of staying where she was safe, she joined a mission to rescue Jews in her home country, the only military rescue mission for Jews during the Holocaust. She parachuted behind enemy lines, was captured, tortured and ultimately executed by a Nazi firing squad. The documentary features those who knew her, including Israeli President Shimon Peres, who knew Senesh as a young pioneer in the 1940s, and two of her fellow parachutists, Reuven Dafni and Surika Braverman, along with renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
Senesh is a national heroine in Israel, where her story and her poetry is well-known. Many synagogues around the world sing a hymn with lyrics from one of her poems:
My God, My God, I pray that these things never end,
The sand and the sea,
The rustle of the waters,
Lightning of the Heavens,
The prayer of Man.
This is the last poem she wrote:
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Thanks to my friend Bob Elisberg for recommending this sublime video!
Derrick Borte, an artist-turned journalist turned producer/director of commercials, was watching a television news magazine one night when a segment about “stealth marketing” came on the air. We channel-surf during ads on television and use pop-up blockers to avoid ads online. So now some companies are going back to in-person selling, but with a twist — the customer does not know that the tourist showing off a new camera or the pretty girl asking for a particular brand of vodka in the bar are being paid to do so. And this gave him an idea for a script, and that became The Joneses, a provocative debut film about a marketing division disguised as a family — mother, father, and two teens — who move into a wealthy community to make everyone envy their consumer goods enough to buy them.
I spoke to Mr. Borte at the AFI Silver Theater just before a screening of the film and Q&A session with the audience.
Did you ever buy something because someone cool had one?
Absolutely! It started when I was about seven years old, my first pair of Puma Clyde tennis shoes. Somebody wore them to school and I wanted them. So I am definitely not immune to this phenomenon.
Your story is not far from what is really happening. I wrote an article about companies that use middle schooler slumber parties to sell products to girls.
It’s also companies that give purses to an actress so she can be photographed with it. Or developers that have furnished model homes. They hire out-of-work actors to pretend that they were living on the houses and they sell better. It’s definitely an ever-evolving thing. As long as there are products, there will be money spent on trying to sell them.
The products in this movie are real, right?
For the most part. There is not yet a phone with the video feature we show in the film but we figured as we were shooting that by the time it came out, there might be. I wanted real products because fake products would take it into a cartoon world. I wanted a disarming naturalism. I wanted to feel like it could be happening in your neighborhood. But in certain places we couldn’t use real products because of what happens to them. Some companies saw this as celebrating consumerism and were glad to be included. Some saw it as an indictment. But many companies with high-end products were very happy to participate. It gives it great production value.
What surprised you about making your first feature film?
It wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be. I thought I would throw up in my trailer the first morning! But I had already spent so much time with the actors and prepping the crew that it was just another day at work. It was fun and exciting, but there weren’t any training wheels.
What did your preparation include?
It started with the producers. Kristi Zea is a legendary production designer, and Doug Mankoff. I was not very precious with the material. I wanted it to evolve and grow so I was open to listening to them. And the actors — we didn’t pay them a lot because it was not a big-budget film. They all wanted to be a part of this film and they were all generous in terms of coming to work with ideas. Before production people kept telling me, “You have to hold on tight to your vision because people will try to knock you off your game as a first-time director.” But I thought that was ridiculous. If you hold on to that vision you could hit that mark or fall short. But if you foster an environment of collaboration you can listen to other people’s ideas. You may not use all of them but be open to them and to allowing the process to help discover the characters and story. That’s the only way to get something that goes beyond your vision.
The top-liners are responsible but what a deep cast — I was so fortunate with Gary Cole and Glenn Headley, and Amber Heard. Sometimes they would have an idea that would spark another idea for us. Because I wrote it if I found something I liked better I could go with it, rewriting on the set or in a lot of late nights.
Why do people want to be cool and especially be cool by owning stuff or looking a particular way?
It can be a disease — affluenza — wanting to have what other people have because of the perceived effect it has on them. I don’t think anyone is immune to that. There’s no way to predict it; it just happens. I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, great book. I wish I knew the secret of what makes things cool!
What movies inspired you?
Everything from the spaghetti westerns to the John Hughes films, the Plant of the Apes films, the David Fincher, Tarantino, the Coen Brothers. I’ve always loved film but everything I’ve done has led to this point.
What does that include?
I started off in college at Old Dominion studying fine arts but paying my way doing graphic design, t-shits and things like that. I was probably the first person to learn to use PhotoShop. I graduated with a degree in fine arts and went to LA where I was represented by a gallery. But when the bottom dropped out of the art market, I went back to get a Masters in Media Studies at the New School. It seemed like a logical progression. I was a production assistant and then after I graduated got an offer to be an on-camera reporter for an NBC affiliate. It was great training in guerrilla film-making. I had no budget but I had six or seven hours to come up with a story for that night. When I started my production company I knew I wanted to do features, but I knew I would not get a chance unless I wrote my own script. I turned down much more money for the script for the chance to direct it myself.
Were there other influences on your concept for the movie?
I was fascinated with reality TV. A lot of it is stranger than any fiction. I can’t imagine a prime-time sitcom that would be as captivating and bizarre as “Jersey Shore.” And they become celebrities and have endorsement deals.
I thought this forced intimacy that happens when you throw strangers into a house would be great to combine with the stealth marketing. When you’re going to do something with stealth marketing you have to decide — are you going to go broad comedy, are you going to do a thriller? I thought that would be an interesting angle. It it was just the stealth marketing, where would you go after the first 15 minutes? So I wanted to explore the fake family dynamic. Hopefully, the personal stories are enough to carry people through.
A movie based on a novel called “The Zero.” We’re waiting for the first draft of the book adaptation and we hope to be going to work in the fall. I love doing features. In my everyday life I am so attention-deficit but on the set time slows down and I’m very calm. I love being on the set working.