An ATONEMENT Assessment and Award Season Annoyances

The Golden Globes ceremony was reduced to a press conference and the fate of the Academy Awards (the Oscars ya know?) is up in the air all because of the damn long ass writer’s strike. Why does this have to happen in a time overflowing with actual quality product to appraise? I mean in most other mediocre years we can blow this off but this time out there are a bunch of deserving films and crowds of actors just waiting around to be recognized then ridiculed (that’s where the writers come in) by their peers or whoever.

As for how good movies have been lately, I don’t recall reading the phrase – cue that voice-over announcer guy: “…is one of the best movies of the year” in as many reviews in previous years as much as I have for 2007. Like I said in an earlier post I’m holding out on making the Filmbabble Blog Top Ten Of 2007 list at least until I see THERE WILL BE BLOOD (which opens on the 18th) though it will be another month before PERSEPOLIS comes to my area so I know that I’ll still feel like I’m jumping the gun. Anyway for the moment I have more movies to catch up on including 2 that have that “one of the best movies of the year” tag hanging on them – first off:

ATONEMENT (Dir. Joe Wright, 2007)

In this production of the acclaimed bestselling novel by Ian McEwan set mostly in the 1930’s, we are taken from snooty British sitting rooms to the bloody battlefields of war torn France and then back to occupied London and the journey is gripping every frame of the way. But it is the power of the written word that fuels this film and fills the head of Briony Tallis (a coy Saoirse Ronan) a 13 year old member of a wealthy English family. From an overhead window in her family’s mansion she sees her older but not wiser sister Cecelia (Keira Knightly) with Robbie – the son of the housekeeper. Possible Spoilers! – What happens next is seen from 2 different perspectives – Briony’s and that of the would be lovers. Later that evening after a tense dinner and the turmoil caused by missing twin brothers again Briony sees, or mis-sees if that’s a word, something that changes her life forever. The unfolding and refolding of events here is so juicy that even if you’ve read the book you’ll want to discover yourself so I’ll discontinue my ambiguously tortured plot recap.

As the lovers in this romance novel by way of Masterpiece Theater foray McAvoy has the earnest can-do spirit that Robbie had in spades in the book while Knightly seems an empty but still elegant vessel for whatever stressful emotion comes her way. Briony is played by 3 different actresses over 60 years – the before mentioned Ronan at age 13, at age 18 – Romola Garai, and (credited as Older Briony) Vanessa Redgrave – all with the right dash of pathos. The fractured narrative, of which is so popular in modern film these days (Tarentino et al), is actually nicely faithful to the novel’s construction. Having just finished the McEwan novel right before going to the cinema I had the text fresh in my brain while viewing. I was at first annoyed how scores of inner dialogue often had to be condensed down to one spoken line but when it sank in I was amazed how much was true to the tone and intent of the 349 page tome. ATONEMENT is a surefire Award season favorite – if that season ever really gets going that is and yes, ahem, it’s one of the best movies of the year.

New on DVD:

AWAY FROM HER (Dir. Sarah Polly, 2007)

When I first heard what the story of this film was I thought it might be a candidate for the saddest premise ever. Julie Christie plays a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s whose loving husband of 44 years (Gordon Pinsent) has to deal with having her institutionalized and bearing witness to her falling in love with another man – a mute (except for some whimpering) fellow patient portrayed by Michael Murphy. See what I mean? Saddest. Premise. Ever. But that Comic Book Store Guy cheapness is uncalled for because, as someone says about Christie in the film, this has too much class for that. No false rhythms or maniputlations here, even the typical fractured storyline has a one piece of the puzzle at a time thing happening that doesn’t feel as it does often as a filmmaker showing off.

In the early scenes there is a romantic, not romanticizing, introduction to this old married couple’s current life and situation. On a walk through the snow near their cabin, while admiring some flowers Christie remarks “sometimes there’s something delicious about oblivion” as she admits she forgets the color yellow immediately after looking away. For her to be admitted to the Meadowlake Treatment Facility Christie and Pinsent, to his protest, have to be separated for 30 days while she settles in. After this period Pinsent returns to find his wife huddled beside the wheelchair-bound always unhappy-looking Murphy who they both know from the past. That this past is never fully explained but hinted at is one of the film’s many subtle charms. Simple lines of dialogue say so much while fleeting shots from the principle’s memories say much more so there is no need for elaborate exposition or full flashback scenes – we get all the backstory implications that we need.

Pinsent takes comfort by consoling with Murphy’s sardonic wife played by Olivia Dukakis who has been through the same tribulations but from a different angle of angst. Much of the motions these characters are going through can be painful to watch throughout “Away From Her” but the aching adds to the overwhelming beauty of the piece. Polley’s fluid pacing and choice of music (Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” sweetly serenades Pinsent and Christie as they slow dance the last night before her hospitalization) is note perfect. There are many quotations throughout as books are read out loud (Auden’s “Letters From Iceland”, Macloed’s “No Great Mischief”, and even bits from Alzheimer’s info guides) making this the first movie I’ve seen recently that has “Quotes and Excerpts” listed in the end credits in the same fashion as soundtrack selections. Through all of these well choosen details it’s the lead performances by Pinsent and Christie that make this a must see. Christie, acheiving grace through the clouded confusion of Alzheimer’s combined with Pinsent’s attempt to keep his dignity through his helpless desperation is heartbreaking again and again. Whatever this nearly flawless film’s fate award-wise it will be surely loved by people for ages – it’s a genuine “tearjerker” and I mean that in the least cynical sense of the word.

adparams.getadspec(‘c_billboard1’); And now a film also fairly new to DVD that I don’t think anybody said was “one of the best movies of the year”:

BUG (Dir. William Friedkin, 2007)

Oh, where to begin about such a movie as BUG. Okay I’ll try and break it down: it’s a William Friedkin film – he of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE EXORCIST, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. fame. It’s a paranoid thriller involving a drinking, pot smoking, pale-looking Oklahoma woman with eyes that look cried out (Ashley Judd). She has a ex-con ex-husband (a dependable clichéd role – usually wears a wife-beater of course) played by the Sinatra wannabe jazz crooning SunCom shilling Harry Connick Jr. who she thinks is calling her shabby ass motel room and just breathing on the line. A lipstick lesbian best friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) in a loose bar scene introduces her to an odd but well groomed (for a drifter that is) hitchhiker – a creepy yet still reasurring Michael Shannon. So far so low key but that’s how these types of set-ups work. After their tastefully artsy sex scene Shannon soon believes the room is infected by microscopic bugs that Judd struggles to see. He reveals after suffering bloody bites, egg inplantations, and odd freak-outs that he was the subject of military experiments and that the bugs…oh wait, that’s a spoiler.

Based on a stage play (it ran in London and Chicago in 2001 and Shannon played the same part) by Tracy Letts that I’m straining to visualize, except that BUG mostly takes place in the same location – Lane’s hotel apartment and is very talkie for a suspense flick. It’s filmed apparently out in the middle of nowhere (Louisiana actually) and from the few night time exterior shots taken from a plane we definitely get that out in the middle of nowhere feeling inside. As a conspiracy film buff I’m normally a sucker for a premise that involves unseen government agents, ranting protagonists who may or not be crazy, and are set in a world where as the NetFlix envelope said “No one – least of all the authorities – – can be trusted” but I couldn’t get onboard with BUG. Its tone as Judd and Shannon descend into hammy madness is transparrent and the intensity it tries for comes off predictible and pretty dismisable – especially the ending. This may be a project that Friedkin feels is one his most personally intense (or something like that – I’m not watching the DVD featurette again) but it’s really just another soon to be forgotten Ashley Judd thriller throw-away.

More later…

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