Tag Archives: 2007

Way late review: Atonement

Having recently finished watching seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey, I’ve been spoiled by a well done serial drama (i.e. soap opera) set around World War I and centered on an aristocratic family and their servants. That’s not to say it’s the greatest but it’s tough to beat the first season. Atonement would seem to be more of the same, minus the serial aspect. Except Joe Wright’s film is unique in almost every way except the one that matters most – expert storytelling.

Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a young teenager in a wealthy English family. One day Briony sees her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), a servant’s son whose education was paid for by the man of the house, get into a strange entanglement. From Briony’s point of view it appears as though Robbie is forcing Cecilia to take off her dress and jump into the large fountain in the backyard. In reality, Cecilia decides to take off her dress, remaining in only her slip, and jump into the fountain in order to rescue a piece of a family heirloom that was broken off accidentally by Robbie and sat at the bottom of the fountain. Both Cecilia and Robbie feel foolish for what took place. Meanwhile Briony is certain her sister has been assaulted in some way. Later that day Robbie struggles to write an apology. He’s conflicted between feelings of guilt and lust. One letter expresses remorse for the earlier incident while another crudely puts to words Robbie’s desires for Cecilia. Grabbing the wrong letter and handing it to Briony was Robbie’s first mistake. The next being his encounter with Cecilia before dinner. Rather than being turned off by Robbie’s explicit note, Cecilia seems turned on and before we know it the two are unbuckling belts and popping off buttons. Briony walks in and cuts things short. The evening goes from awkward to vengeful as Briony finds a way to get back at Robbie, who she sees as a predator. Briony pins a violent crime on Robbie and the servant’s son finds himself in prison. Cecilia is heart broken. Briony is satisfied. Justice was served in her mind, even if it meant lying about the perpetrator.

Robbie eventually finds himself in France fighting in the war. He could serve in the war instead of in a prison cell. That should have been a clear message about how brutal the war was. Robbie roams the fields looking for a way back home as he and a couple other men lost their troop in the thick of battle. Along the way the men see the horrors of WWI. Cecilia becomes a nurse, as does Briony. Cecilia won’t speak to her younger sibling as she hopes to one day reunite with the man her sister put in prison with a false testimony.

The story is rather simple and, likely as a result, is told in a broken time shifted manner. Sometimes scenes are replayed from a different perspective or the year is fast forwarded or rewound abruptly. This broken narrative doesn’t resolve the bloat in the film. For every creative use of a typewriter mixed with a symphony serving as the soundtrack or interesting shots of everyday life, there are long shots and scenes that overstay their welcome; contributing little to character development or story progression. Beautifully shot and far more experimental than most period pieces (even the expertly shot Downton Abbey), the pacing is off and no amount of time shifting can cover that up.

As the title of the film more than hints at, the story revolves around atonement. Briony’s misguided and jealousy driven action to pin a crime on an innocent man leads to unintended consequences. Or did it? Didn’t Briony know she was dooming this servant’s son, whom her father must have loved as he paid for his schooling and her sister loved too, to a life in prison or worse? While Briony feels much remorse, she never repents. Almost as a way of self punishment, she becomes a nurse who has to do the dirtiest jobs and the toughest emotional assignments. And the way the film ends, I’m not sure if we’re supposed to admire Briony’s “gift” to Cecelia and Robbie or if we’re to shake our heads in disbelief of the arrogance. I know which side I fell on.

An interesting visual take on a period piece, Atonement achieves its heights when the actors are allowed to interact with one another and not contend with a desire to extend the story beyond its capabilities by employing time shifting and other similar narrative trickery. Based on the epic nature of the filmmaking and the title itself, Atonement feels like it wants to say something more than it does. An interesting film with a lot to admire but also reaches a bit too far in certain aspects as to render it less potent.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: I Am Legend

The most common complaint I recall reading or hearing about when I Am Legend came to theaters was that it did not stick to its source material, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name. It’s a good thing I don’t read much. ;)

Will Smith is Robert Neville, a scientist in the armed forces, who is the lone survivor in New York City as a virus has spread that turns humans in to blood thirsty vampire/zombie creatures (Darkseekers). The virus came about as a result of an astonishing cure for cancer. Neville seems immune to the virus and is frantically at work in his lab to find a cure.

For much of the movie we spend time with Neville and his dog Sam as they navigate in a post-apocalyptic New York City. Wild animals are found roaming the streets. It’s never clear why lions and antelope are racing through the streets of New York city after a few years of a terrible virus wiping out man kind. Neville has his routines and we follow him as he hunts for food, looks for useful items from all the abandoned homes and makes notes of where he’s been. The first thirty minutes of the film are not unlike those in Cast Away where Tom Hanks is on the island all by himself. And, much like Hanks’ performance in Cast Away, Smith pulls off a tough task by being the lone presence on the screen for large amounts of time.

The suspense of I Am Legend is solid until we get too much of a long look at the Darkseekers. The computer animated human mutants feel like animations when the camera focuses for too long on any one of them. This is an example of where it would have likely been better to take J.J. Abrams’ approach to monsters and do your best to hide the details as much as possible. It not only adds to the suspense (at least in this case) but also covers up some shoddy animated creatures.

I don’t want to go into spoilers, but I will say that one surprising complaint I heard about this film is the overt religious overtones. There is no doubt, they are there and maybe caused me to think a bit deeper about some of the themes. At its core, I Am Legend is an action thriller film but overcomes some poor special effects and potentially baffling plot lines with a solid lead by Will Smith, a quieter than normal first act, and a story that asks viewers to think a bit more than the usual summer blockbuster flick.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Chop Shop

As much as I’d like to deny it, the reality is that there are kids living in this world who have to take take on adult responsibilities. They never get to be kids. Chop Shop is a story about one of those kids, Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a pre-teen who lives in Queens, N.Y. and hustles everyday to get by. Hustling in this case means picking up odd jobs, selling candy bars on the subway, working at a body shop, selling bootleg DVDs, and occasionally stealing.

We don’t learn much about Alejandro (who most call “Ale”) early on beyond the fact that he’s a street smart kid without any adult custodians, mentors or guidance. The only family Ale appears to have is a teenage sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who Ale serves as the caretaker for. He secures a tiny room above the car shop he works at for he and his sister. She gets a job working at a street food vendor, though the contrast between her work ethic and Ale’s are hard to miss. While Ale endlessly works with determination, Isamar is more reluctant. Ale appears so responsible that it’s easy to forget this is a homeless kid with little education and no one to care for him. The adults in Ale’s life aren’t portrayed as good or bad. Rather they are people who see a hard working kid they can pay a little money in order to make themselves more money. It would be easy for the story to portray these adults as villains and introduce another as a hero who saves Ale and Isamar from the life they’ve been forced into. Chop Shop is not that kind of movie. There are no adults stepping up and saving the day. Ale is left to fend for himself and his sister.

Chop Shop had an odd effect on me as I found myself seeing Ale as a young adult, not the child he was. It isn’t until about half way through the movie where I was shaken from this misconception. Ale was once again a child, forced to live in an adult world without a single adult to love and care for him. The cause for this change in my reaction is the closest you’ll come to a spoiler in a movie that doesn’t rely on a deep plot, so I’ll stop delving further.

The film as a whole has a documentary like feel to it. The camera never strays far from its subjects. The acting never feels like acting. Every moment feels real, which also makes it a challenge to watch at times. The harsh realities for young homeless kids does not make for a feel good movie. After watching Chop Shop, I wondered if it would have been done even better as a documentary. The almost cold and sterile approach to the filmmaking combined with difficult subject matter makes for a challenging watch. Overall it’s a well done film and the challenge to watch is most definitely rewarding.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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