Tag Archives: drama

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: The Artist


Ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 Academy Awards best picture, The Artist. Spoiler alert. It won’t make my top 20 movies of 2011. I hesitated watching last year’s best picture for a while because the premise wasn’t all that appealing. I finally decided the time had come. I didn’t view it with drudgery nor with anticipation of seeing the best film of 2011. Enough time had passed since it was released that I felt like I was coming at it fresh. And without further ado, my review.

It's built on a gimmick.

George Valentin and Uggie

But not all gimmicks are created equal.

Movies based on gimmicks

It's full of fun and whimsy.

Bérénice Bejo holding herself

Except when it's not.

Jean Dujardin freaking out

The story is simple. Too simple for a 100 minute movie.

Dr. Seuss ABC, another simple story like The Artist

Kudos for trying something different.

Kudos to The Artist for trying something different.

Still a gimmick. (Like this review)

Wink. Wink. Even the actors know The Artist is built on a gimmick. A modern silent film.

 ★★★☆☆ 

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

Way late review: Footnote


When a son walks in his father’s footsteps it can be a point of pride or sadness for the father. Depending on whether the father is satisfied with his own life dictates his reaction to his son following in his footsteps. But what about the father who is proud of his accomplishments and has a son who not only follows in his footsteps but eclipses his accomplishments? And what happens to their relationship when all of a sudden the father receives an award the son covets? Enter Footnote.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) researches the Talmud. Scratch that. He picks through every version and copy he can get his hands in an obsessive compulsive manner in the name of scholarship. He dives into the minutia of ancient texts and rarely comes up for air. His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is a professor at the same university in Jerusalem but his studies are more popular, well received, and recognized. Eliezer is bitter of his son’s fame and respect by the community they’re both a part of. He even goes as far as to ridicule their academic community as a way to make himself feel better about never receiving the accolades he feels he’s earned. Uriel does his best to placate his dad by giving him credit at acceptance speeches and elsewhere. This only embitters Eliezer all the more. He doesn’t like being patronized.

A bitter father and son relationship does not sound like comedy gold yet the story is told with much wit. The music sets the tone early as a classical comedic soundtrack. Even the sour faces Eliezer makes are funny as everyone around him celebrates his son’s accomplishments. His disheveled look among the well dressed awards crowd is meant for laughs, as Eliezer is denied access back into the event while numerous other more finely dressed participants stroll through the door. Not even security is buying Elizer as anything but an old man who wants to cause trouble.

The one sided bitterness changes quickly once Eliezer gets a call telling him he’s being awarded the Israel Prize, the one prize alluding Eliezer for the past twenty years. He finally obtains it and in a moment the tables are turned. The son is back at the footstool of the father. The same father who would only begrudgingly acknowledge his son’s work, let alone achievements. If this was the entire story it would be an entertaining look at how the relationship evolves between these two men whose lives revolve around a religious text neither appears to have fully grasped. However, there is a major twist which causes awkward conversations and difficult decisions. Once this twist occurs, the film shifts suddenly from light comedic fodder to a darker introspective piece. It’s as if two films were smashed together, both very good but also very different.

Great performances and an intriguing story of a father-son relationship carry Footnote through a first half which provides many laughs and a second half which expresses the deep hurt a long and painful father and son journey inevitably delivers. An original film told in an originally, if not jarring manner. Refreshing.

 ★★★★☆ 

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

Way late review: We Bought a Zoo

I’ve seen about half a dozen Cameron Crowe films. One thing they all share in common is they tend to be easy watches. Even when I’m not in love with the film, there is something soothing about Crowe’s approach. We Bought a Zoo is a fairly harmless film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Perfect material for Crowe to throw his personally curated soundtrack at, assemble an all-star cast, and churn out a likable, if somewhat forgettable, film.

Benjamin (Matt Damon) lost his wife about six months ago. He has a young daughter, Rosie, who reminds him of his wife and a teenage son, Dylan, who reminds Benjamin of himself. Dylan is angry and hurt over the loss of his mom. His behavior at school results in expulsion and puts the pressure on Benjamin to find a new school for his suddenly troubled teen to attend. House hunting time. The search for a new home leads Benjamin to a perfect house out in the Southern California country side. There is one catch. The sale of the home is contingent on the new owner taking care of the zoo that sits on the home’s property. That gotcha clause doesn’t deter Rosie from falling in love with the animals as they walk the grounds. Dad is an adventurer at heart, wants to make his daughter happy, and thinks his son may enjoy the change of pace. He buys a zoo and the challenges of funding and running the venture ensue along with the on-going struggle to come to grips with life after losing a wife and mother.

The plot may seem eye rolling, but no one can blame Crowe or anyone else involved for making up the core premise. We Bought a Zoo is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee. I have my doubts that Tom Petty, Neil Young and Bob Dylan tunes accompanied the real life story. I also doubt the zoo keeper was a gorgeous blonde with a raspy voice like Scarlett Johansson. The facts have all changed right from the start with the true story set in the UK while this one is in Southern California. None of this matters. What does matter is the characters are engaging enough and the story moves along at a steady pace as to forget the trite scenes of emotional tug-of-war the premise nearly demands. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.

We Bought a Zoo is one of those films I could probably pop in and pickup at any random point. There is nothing outstanding about it. The cast is enjoyable, the pacing is good, there are some humorous scenes and not too many cringe worthy ones. The music is hand picked from the past and sometimes a little too spot on. In other words, it’s a Cameron Crowe film. And that tends to mean I like it more than I thought I would.

 ★★★½☆ 

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

Way late review: The Notebook

Romantic tales of years ago are not ones that I actively seek out. I don’t have to, my wife fills that void. I have seen The Notebook twice now. I think I should have stopped at the first viewing. I recalled it being a harmless and mildly enjoyable romantic drama with a somewhat interesting twist. This time around I was nearly in tears…from boredom.

Duke (James Garner), an elderly man reads a romance novel in the form of a notebook to an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) in a nursing home. The story is about a country boy with a free spirit, Noah (Ryan Gosling) and the rich southern belle, Allie. Boy pursues girl out of his social rank. Girl rejects his advances. Boy doesn’t give up. Girl gives in. They fall madly in love. The girl’s parents disapprove and do their best to ensure the two don’t become anything more than a summer fling. Girl and boy eventually beat the odds and get back together – or do they? My description may seem to short change the emotion, the romance, the setting, the acting, the loving embraces and longing looks, but I only describe it in a way the director Nick Cassavetes portrays it on screen. It’s as if scenes are only there to lead to the rip your heart out and slam it back in final act.

Ryan Gosling is an actor I find maddeningly inconsistent. Here he is supposed to be a charming, ah-shucks southern guy with a sneaky charisma. The role isn’t right, as the melancholy loner seems to fit his onscreen persona much better, like Lars and The Real Girl and Drive. He does his best but the result is uneven at best.

For a film that seems like it can’t wait to get to the end it is dreadfully slow. I’m all for slowly paced films. I’m a big fan of Lost in Translation, a film no one would accuse of being briskly paced. Films that feel slow though? That is a problem and it is a problem The Notebook suffers from. There is little if any memorable dialogue. Romantic scenes feel forced and drawn out. Time passes in the narrative in odd ways. Noah goes to war after Allie leaves him for college in New York City. He loses a best friend on the battlefield and she gains a fiancee. Neither seem of great consequence. It’s as if both events are mere mile markers on the highway to the modern day with the elderly man and woman at the nursing home. Mind you, it’s a highway with a lot of toll booths that turn a speedy drive into a painfully slow trek.

Competently made but dull overall, The Notebook desires to be more than just another romantic drama by mixing past and present story lines with a bit of a curveball. In its exuberance to surprise in the end, the story moves from scene to scene in an almost obligatory manner, devoid of much character and memorable moments.

 ★★☆☆☆ 

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