Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely BonesTHE LOVELY BONES

The Lovely Bones, director Peter Jackson's long-awaited take on Alice Sebold's beloved novel, is a stupefyingly bad movie, the kind of big-screen debacle that makes you wonder if its entire creative team wasn't suffering through some hideous, collective blockage of talent all throughout filming. You can feel it going wrong in the first minutes, when a car's quick swerve results in an unconvincing and inappropriately comedic loss of a hubcap, but the shock of Jackson's endeavor is that practically nothing in it goes right. Tonally, just about every scene here feels a little bit off, and the rest feel way, way off; it's almost as if Jackson, screenwriting collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and a (usually) wildly gifted cast purposely set out to make the absolute worst Lovely Bones adaptation possible.

Since I have friends who swear by the greatness of Sebold's work (which I haven't read), I'm prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt. But let me see if I have this right: It's 1973, and a 14-year-old with the unlikely name of Susie Salmon (played here by Saoirse Ronan) is brutally murdered by a local creep (Stanley Tucci) with a strangled croak of a voice and ill-considered comb-over. From her vantage point at heaven's gates - which resemble a watery wheat field as seen through a What Dreams May Come filter - Susie watches as her dad (Mark Wahlberg) obsesses over her death, her boozy, chain-smoking grandma (Susan Sarandon) wafts from room to room, and her mom (Rachel Weisz) ditches town to pick fruit alongside migrant workers in Santa Rosa. Susie also watches as a dedicated cop (Michael Imperioli) fails to notice Tucci's creepiness, even though he's all but signaling it with semaphore flags and a bullhorn. And when not weepy over the earthly goings-on, Susie actually has a great time in her other-worldly condition, dancing and sledding and giggling with new friends, and enjoying a tacky photo shoot out of the pages of a flower-child edition of Glamour magazine.

Surely Sebold's novel isn't as laughably awful as that description suggests. But with the exception of the preternaturally poised and accomplished Ronan, Jackson's movie is still laughably awful, a queasy and senseless blend of emotional manipulation, distractingly twee visuals (generally accompanied by cringe-inducing, Enya-esque wailing on the soundtrack), incoherent continuity (spring turns to winter over the course of a few hours), hopelessly phony dialogue, and shamefully overwrought acting. (Wahlberg and Tucci have given weaker screen performances than these, but only a couple, and the movie might mark new career lows for Weisz and Sarandon.) The Lovely Bones is a stultifyingly embarrassing experience, and in one scene - when granny "comically" upends the house by burning dinner and overloading the washing machine - you'd swear that Jackson just threw up his hands and walked away from the whole damned project. I wish I could've joined him.


Mila Kunis and Denzel Washington in The Book of EliTHE BOOK OF ELI

In the post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli, our sunglasses-sporting hero of the title (Denzel Washington) is first seen wandering through a gray and somber landscape, and comes upon what is, hand to my heart, the most ungodly-ugly cat I've ever seen in my life. It looks a bit like Austin Powers' Mr. Bigglesworth crossed with Gollum, yet before this hissing horror has the chance to take residence in our nightmares forever, Washington's Eli whips out a bow and arrow and delivers it a fatal shot through the heart. I liked the guy immediately. Granted, he lost some of his appeal when he cooked and ate the feline in the film's subsequent scene, but at least he had the decency to share a few morsels with a nearby mouse.

So begins The Book of Eli, a crass, largely ridiculous, and thoroughly entertaining neo-Western by directing brothers Allen and Albert Hughes. Combining a little of Mad Max, a little of Deadwood, and a whole lot of The Road - the recent film version for which this movie largely resembles - the Hughes' first feature since 2001's From Hell is one of those B-movies that you can't rationalize enjoying as much as you do; even its most derivative and distractingly stylized hooks are part of its charm. The nomadic Eli attempts to get the titular tome to the West Coast, a sneering heavy with bad skin (the gloriously hambone Gary Oldman) tries to steal it, and it's all as silly and satisfying as you could want, especially when Mila Kunis shows up as the feisty sidekick to Washington's dour loner. (The staggeringly pretty Kunis may be miscast here, but it's heartening to see that a world recovering from nuclear catastrophe is not necessarily a world devoid of hair conditioner and access to eyebrow-waxing.) The Hugheses pull off some wonderfully inventive action scenes - the best is a silhouetted, unbroken shot of Eli dispatching a half-dozen assailants with a knife, their limbs sailing from their torsos - and happily, they're genre helmers with a true feel for character; given plenty of breathing room, performers as diverse as Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson, and Michael Gambon make sizable impressions. (Tom Waits, bless his gravelly soul, plays an engineering whiz who'll happily loan out his services in exchange for ChapStick and some KFC wet naps.) Sure, it's dopey, and its climactic plot twist feels like a terrible cheat. But the film is a more-than-easy way to pass two hours during the January doldrums, and, it's almost a shock to discover, it isn't alone; taken with the 2010 releases Youth in Revolt and Daybreakers, The Book of Eli suggests that we may have to re-think that cliché about this month being a traditional dumping ground for Hollywood's worst. True, I haven't yet caught the Amy Adams romance Leap Year, but otherwise, so far, so fine.


Eva Mendes and Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New OrleansBAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS

In last summer's A Perfect Getaway, Timothy Olyphant's character explained his adoration of Nicolas Cage movies by delivering a pitch-perfect impersonation of their star: "I like how he gets all intense right at the end of a SENTENCE!!!" That guy would have loved Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, in which Cage plays a manically, even sociopathically, unhinged cop who attempts to solve the murder of five youths when not assaulting suspects, snorting coke with his prostitute girlfriend, and suffering/enjoying heroin-induced hallucinations. The shock of director Werner Herzog's schizoid thriller, though, is that those of us who have generally loathed Cage's recent movies - and the actor's irritatingly mannered portrayals in them - might love this one, too.

Its investigative plot could be charitably described as immaterial, but there wasn't a single scene here that I wanted to see end; sweaty with drug-addled desperation and hunched over like a constipated Quasimodo, Cage tears through the film with such physical and vocal invention, and such charismatic confidence, that even his cop's most heinous acts make you giggle in terror and awe. (If you can stomach them, that is: After Cage's cop cut off an elderly woman's oxygen supply and screamed the "C" word in her face, two patrons sitting near me angrily stormed out of the auditorium, and didn't return.) Cage is ferociously funny and horrifying in this gonzo reworking (of sorts) of director Abel Ferrara's far-less-fun Bad Lieutenant from 1992, yet the film provides pleasures that extend far beyond its leading man, including a stunningly strong supporting cast (Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Xzibit, Michael Shannon, Jennifer Coolidge, Fairuza Balk, Irma P. Hall, and a brilliantly funny Shea Whigham), and Herzog's considerable knack for startling, delusional imagery. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is for everyone who's ever yearned to see a movie featuring a recently departed soul - a literal soul - break-dancing, and point-of-view shots taken from the perspectives of imaginary iguanas. We know who we are.

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