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This is not a couple: (l-r) Firth and Moore in A Single Man.

Too Perfect

By Laura Leon

A Single Man

Directed by Tom Ford

Yes, that Tom Ford, the longtime creative director for Gucci and a revered fashion designer in his own right. Dipping his virgin toes into the murky pool of moviemaking, and choosing as his material the book that Edmund White described as “the first truly liberated gay novel in English,” is a huge step, but the resulting product, A Single Man, is a stylized, visually stunning feast owing as much to Look fashion spreads from the Camelot era as it does to any serious study of filmmaking. Ford does channel Pedro Almodovar, notably in a scene in which the title character, George (Colin Firth), has a conversation with a young hustler (Jon Kortajarena) posed against a backdrop of a billboard-sized ad for the movie Psycho. Janet Leigh’s bulging eyes, her mouth frozen in a silent scream, tinge an already sexually fraught proposition. While it may not be overly subtle, it’s a nice touch.

We first encounter George floating—or is he flailing?—in water the color of green marble. Then he’s a silent figure intruding upon a hoary landscape, in which a man and a dog lay dead in a pool of crimson blood. George bends over to tenderly kiss the dead man’s lips, whereupon we flash forward to now (well, 1962), and he’s waking in a cold sweat, a sense of panic enveloping him as he realizes that he must “get through the goddamn day.” An efficient and thorough toilette, a crisp breakfast, and then . . . nothing, as he contemplates the minute hand of the clock, in preparation of going to his job as a college literature instructor. George’s near inability to focus on the task at hand is contrasted with sunny flashbacks to his relationship with Jim (the guy in the snow), scenes that Ford presents as one-dimensionally idyllic. He contrasts such over-the-top joy with a brilliantly photographed scene in which George, driving past the neighbors in slow motion, notices the cracks beneath the surface of domestic contentment. The wife (Ginnifer Goodwin), smilingly cajoles her tribe of kids until, interrupted by a clearly disdainful and disapproving hubby in a gray flannel suit, her smiles melt into anguish.

That George is heartbroken, that he’s a gay man closeted in 1960s suburbia and academia, are the foundation of A Single Man, and from this foundation, Firth delivers a supremely nuanced performance. Long known for his dashing portrayal as Mr. Darcy, and more recently as the dreamy Brit of so many chick flicks, Firth here is grave and profoundly damaged. A scene in which Jim’s cousin surreptitiously calls George to let him know what has happened conveys more than Jim’s family’s sense of shame; Firth, just sitting in an armchair with a phone to his ear, lets his face measure his shock, horror, desperation and loss. It’s just a few minutes of screen time, and it’s one of the most devastating scenes I’ve seen this past year. Later in the movie, when George chats with a college student (Nicholas Hoult) who may or may not be coming on to him, he seems to almost lose some of the weight of loss that’s been bearing on him, and we get a slightly looser man.

Firth’s performance is one of too few gifts, however, as A Single Man hovers outside the realm of meaty storytelling, preferring instead to arrange its characters in pitch-perfect Jackie Kennedy dresses and gleaming modern interiors. Julianne Moore, playing George’s longtime friend and sometime lover Charlie, nails the style, and shares with George a sense of not belonging in a world dominated by “traditional” couples, but she’s more of a gimmick, a respected actress taking on a minor role to add prestige and box-office pizzazz.

And yet, nothing much happens. Clearly, George has serious business on his mind, but Ford is unable as director to focus on the character’s inner battle, his longing for lost love and his understandable need to close himself off, in more ways than one, from the rest of the world. Because of this, the ending, while true to the book, is, strangely, a complete anticlimax. Again, Ford is new to this game, and while he needs to learn a whole lot about pacing and integrating characters with their backgrounds, he wisely lets Firth do his own thing, and that alone makes this a must-see.

Sad, Sad, Sad

The Lovely Bones

Directed by Peter Jackson

The screen bursts into color as fantastic imagery flashes before us. A flock of birds lands on a bare tree, becoming leaves. Purple mountains rise; swirling brown leaves blot out the horizon; deep blue seas rage; and teenager Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) watches it all in stunned, beatific wonder.

Susie Salmon, the protagonist of this adaptation of Alice Sebold’s popular novel The Lovely Bones, is dead. But she’s not ready to leave Earth behind for the glories of Heaven, so she’s marooned in an “in-between” where all she can do is observe.

She’s dead from the opening scenes of the movie. We see her in flashback, with her loving parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) and brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale)—and her killer, neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, a makeup-encrusted grotesque).

Harvey lures Susie into a trap. Precisely because we know she isn’t going to get away, the tension and dread are unbearable—up to a point. Understandably, director Peter Jackson spares us the worst; unfortunately that decision mitigates the earlier effect, and the abject horror of Susie’s fate.

It’s no surprise that Jackson is dramatically rusty: He’s spent the last decade with orcs and monkeys. The central event of The Lovely Bones is the rape and murder of a teenage girl, which is, to say the least, a big cinematic problem. And he doesn’t solve it.

It doesn’t wreck the central conflict of the story, however, which is the unmaking and reassembling of Susie’s family, and Susie’s own path to understanding.

Jackson spares us the special effects on the former, and lets his actors take center stage. Wahlberg and Weisz are both touching, the former for the desperation with which he invests his character, the latter for her growing, and subtle, disaffection. Susan Sarandon shows up as grandma, a strong and comic life force with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Ronin’s Susie, however, is trapped in Jackson’s special-effects phantasmagoria, and the technological bells and whistles stand in nicely for her “spiritual problems.”

While a lot of the visual pyrotechnics seem arbitrary, they’re effective. And Jackson manages one devastating, virtuoso sequence in which Susie sees all of her murderer’s other victims. Mention, too, must be made of the music: Recycling Brian Eno music from the 1970s was a brilliant idea.

The Lovely Bones works as well as it does, though, because of Ronin’s performance. She makes a character that’s not flesh and blood anymore all too human.

—Shawn Stone

Biblical Distortions

The Book of Eli

Directed by the Hughes Brothers

January is the strangest time at the multiplex. In with the leftover holiday-season blockbusters and Oscar bait, there’s usually a glut of films that are too weak in star- and/or buzz-power to fly against the big December guns, and superstar vehicles aiming to do clean-up business during the weak season. The Book of Eli falls firmly into the latter camp: a name-above-the-title, post-apocalyptic actioner designed to cash in on a market that’s obviously lacking in post-apocalyptic actioners. Sarcasm? Indeed. But it’s anybody’s game until the next Will Smith film drops.

The Hughes Brothers’ first film since 2001’s From Hell is a strange film for a strange time. Denzel Washington stars as Eli, a lone traveler in a desolate world where ash falls like tickertape against a perpetually bright, gray sky. His mission is to “go west” and deliver the book he carries in his pack: the last known copy of the King James Bible, all others having been destroyed after the apocalypse “30 winters” ago. Along the way he comes upon a town cobbled together from what appears to be the remains of an Old West retail district, where a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) holds sway. Carnegie is in search of this lost bible because “it’s a weapon” he can use to control minds, to expand his empire. Carnegie finds that Eli bears what he is seeking, he sends forth the young Solara (Mila Kunis) to tempt the new visitor. But lo, Eli “don’t play,” and the girl follows him as he continues on his path. Kunis threatens to be the picture’s Achilles’ heel; she seems terribly miscast in her early scenes, but adjusts.

For all the muddled mess this film could have been, Eli is just a road movie with the occasional decapitation. Despite broad attempts at social commentary—there’s nothing remotely metaphorical about the main characters’ names—it’s quite conventional. You’ll pick up on a dozen familiar references, everything from The Road Warrior and Raiders of the Lost Ark to I Am Legend and 300 and Zombieland. The Bible stands in for any other Holy Grail-type treasure; Oldman is a stock evil genius type, however well-acted; cannibals and zombies are more or less interchangeable. You’ve seen it all before, and you’re aware of this from the very first frame.

But here’s the Hughes Brothers’ big coup: You may actually find yourself wanting to see Eli again. Because watching scenery gobblers like Washington and Oldman go nose-to-nose is the reason we go to the multiplex in the first place. Because the cameos from Tom Waits and Malcolm McDowell give the film a lift when it needs it most. Because, just when you think you’ve seen it all before, the brothers Hughes deliver some of the most stylish battle sequences you’ll ever see, including a one-shot standoff scene in which the camera moves in and out of a house several times before going straight up the barrel of a gatling gun. And because the film’s last-act reveal is on par with The Sixth Sense or The Prestige.

—John Brodeur

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