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Thursday, Mar 20, 2008


Is it fair to judge a comedy as a failure if it doesn’t make you laugh? That’s not really a rhetorical question. Indeed, it is meant to be more reflective than anything else. If an action spoof satisfies genre requirements without ever making you giggle, is it an outright failure, or something more complicated. It’s the issue that arises when discussing Drillbit Taylor, the newest offering from the Apatow et. al. inspired humor conglomerate. On the one hand, screenwriters Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown (based on a story by none other than John “Breakfast Club” Hughes) do a wonderful job of recreating the awkward freshman dorkdom of early adolescence. But as an intended riotous rib tickler, there is barely a belly laugh to be found.


For skinny, geeky Wade and chubby, curly haired Ryan, the first day of high school is supposed to begin their ascension into cool. Unfortunately, after sticking up for the wussed out, braces wearing idiot Emmit, they become the ongoing target of big time bully Filkins and his ferocious flunky Ronnie. Hoping to find some personal protection, the trio decides to hire a bodyguard. Into their life walks Drillbit Taylor, self-proclaimed Army Ranger and master of martial arts. For a fee, he will guard the boys and help them avoid any further humiliation. What they don’t know is that Taylor is a con man, a beach dwelling homeless bum who needs some quick cash for a planned exile to Canada. Wade, Ryan and Emmit are hoping for a miracle. They get a messed up proto-hobo instead.


Bereft of jokes while overloaded with keenly observed individual moments, Drillbit Taylor can best be described as an almost success. This also means it’s a figurative failure. Like Superbad without the potty mouth, or any number of Apatow-inspired efforts sans the sexual obsession, what could be a bright and breezy coming of age effort gets bogged down in an unnecessary desire to be clever and cutting. Unfortunately, by staying within the confines of a PG-13 rating while pushing the very envelopes of such a standard, Taylor gets equally confused. Instead, it accurately recreates how teens talk and act while failing to illicit a single snicker from the adaptation.


Part of the problem is the now familiar ‘skinny and fatty’ set up to the friendship. It’s becoming an archetypal Apatow trademark. Wade and Ryan are nothing more than surrogates for other symbols from the writer/director’s cinematic setup. One gets the characteristic nerd voice (in this case, a love of magic) while the other is a frat boy without the grain alcohol gimpiness. Nate Hartley and Troy Gentile are winning enough, but since each is doing little more than extending an already formulaic routine, they aren’t offered much room to explore. And things are even worse for Ring boy David Dorfman. His Emmit is a missed opportunity, a Broadway musical loving loser who gets more mugging time than Jerry Lewis during the Labor Day Telethon. But we sense there are other facets to his character than the endless flashing of his metalled mouth.


Yet the biggest letdown comes from Owen Wilson as our so-called adult hero. Smacking of later day Hughes - think Dutch, Uncle Buck, or any number of his substitute parental surrogates - Drillbit possesses a bumbling oaf quality that no longer seems endearing. In fact, it can grow grating at times. And just like almost every movie the Sixteen Candles man has been involved in since Home Alone, burglary is an important plot point. Thankfully, director Stephen Brill doesn’t turn the heist into a slapstick set piece. It happens organically, without any cartoon histrionics. That Wilson waltzes through most of the movie like the sour smell emitted from a pair of rank gym socks is one thing. But his motiveless maneuvering (he doesn’t raise a fist against the bullies because…they’re underage?) and lack of comic bravado deadens his impact.


Indeed, it’s up to the boys to carry this film, and for a while, they do. Brill doesn’t do much more than provide the kind of snapshot touchstone montages that recall Reader’s Digest condescended memories of high school life, and the times when he turns things down (Wade’s crush on an Asian gal named Brooke), the drama barely breathes. In fact, Drillbit Taylor manages to feel like two separate and wholly incompatible movies tossed together and forced to make nice. Instead, they constantly pick at each other like unsettled siblings in the backseat of a long cross country car trip. Eventually, it’s the audience that gets nauseous and needs a rest stop to pull over.


By the time we get to the big showdown, the standoff between the unfathomably evil bully and our newly gonad-ed guys, there’s not much more to do than cheer on the fisticuffs. Drillbit Taylor even allows both kids and adults to get their own special brand of comeuppance. Since entertainment is subjective, and comedy specifically is the most personal of all genres for responses, it’s clear that this film cannot really be universally judged. It comes down to a person-by-person response, a case-by-case reaction to misfired jokes, unexplored cleverness, and a constantly competing sense that a simple, My Bodyguard like story would have worked much better. In the end, Drillbit Taylor is not an awful film. It simply fails to deliver in one obvious way while providing some unexpected insights. Not the greatest recommendation for an all out laughfest, huh?



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Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008


Don’t worry if you don’t “get” Tyler Perry. You’re probably not his intended audience, anyway. As a playwright, he strives to understand the urban experience, giving voice to those grossly underrepresented within the theatrical medium. As a filmmaker, however, he is more in touch with his pocket book than his ‘people’. Everything he does on camera tends to go upscale, moving his African American characters into near fanciful realms of luxury and lifestyle. Still, the stories are the same, interpersonal topics like marriage and fidelity, parenting and childhood, relatives and family strife filling his scenes. Toss in a healthy dose of the Good Book, and some soul salvation, and you’ve got the makings of one of the most unusual phenomenons ever.


Trying to uncover why Perry is so popular is not all that difficult. The standard issue response is that he caters to a demographic previously disregarded. And when one looks back at how Hollywood treated individuals of color as recently as 40 years ago, he’s clearly filling a massive niche. Others mention his drag act diva-ship via the madwoman matriarch character he created, Mabel “Madea” Simmons. She’s Redd Foxx without the ‘blue’ moods. Some site a skillful balance between the clichéd and the creative, a gift for using old school melodramatics to touch upon updated, contemporary nerves. And then there are those who simply respond to his God is Great pronouncements. If popular culture is anything, it’s afraid of religion. Perry embraces it fully, reflecting the beliefs and faith of the audience his efforts play to - and they love it.



With the latest big screen adaptation of one of his plays, Meet the Browns, set to open on 21 March, it may be time to dig deeper into the Perry mystique to try and ascertain his staying power. One things for certain - when he puts out cinematic versions of his previously road showed events, crowds clamor. Of the four films he’s been involved in - Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Daddy’s Little Girls, and Why Did I Get Married? , only one has had less than impressive box office returns. Oddly enough, Girls was also the only one without a theatrical foundation. The rest of his oeuvre has grossed in excess of $100 million, and Browns is likely to continue that trend - especially since this movie marks the return of that all important insane woman, Madea.


Much has been made of Perry, a tall African American male playing an outsized female stereotype, a character noted for her pot smoking, gun toting, pop culture referencing rigors. Perry has said that Madea represents every strong black woman he ever grew up around, the care giving center of a father-less, often frightening urban environment. The jocular personality is merely part of the entertainment paradigm. But there is actually more to Madea than this. As a comic foil, she is the entertainment heart of many of Perry’s plays. Even when she’s not a part of the production, the author finds a funny business substitute (usually in the persona of Leroy Brown) to do the humor heavy lifting.



On the other hand, Madea is also the no nonsense voice of reason, a guide through many of life’s more complicated and vexing issues. Certainly, some of her advice is outdated (beat your kids) and outrageous (the classic “hot grits on the stove” for a cheating man), but it plays directly into the audience’s collective memory. No one has done a better job of filtering the African American experience of the last 50 years into a viable production package than Perry. Even others who’ve tried to mimic his approach - David E. Talbert, for example - seems stuck in a purely post-modern position. But Tyler Perry is old school without being ancient, effectively mixing the contemporary with the classic to create his universe.


It’s something that plays directly into the spiritual element as well. Perry’s scripts are like toe tapping tent revivals, action intermittently interrupted so that good time Gospel shout outs can be introduced. It’s a very important part of their effectiveness, the pressure cooker conceit of all those pent up problems breaking free and into the hands of Christ. Perry hires wonderful vocalists, from David and Tamala Mann (better known as The Browns) to Cheryl Pepsi Riley and D’Atra Hicks, and they all know how to really sell a song. Yet it’s odd that these mainstay moments are stripped from the cinematic versions of his work. Even when he casts noted superstars from the music biz - Janet Jackson, Jill Scott - to play certain roles, music is barely mentioned.



That’s why many in the mainstream just don’t “get” Perry. They see his undemanding storylines, his exaggerated characters, his good vs. evil straightforwardness, and conclude that there is nothing of substance present. They even mock his lack of context. But it’s clear that audiences attending a Perry picture are already well versed in the foundation for the film. They don’t need to see every song, recognize every character, or experience every subplot. As long as there are familiar elements from his celebrated stagings, the ticket sales will soar and the turnstiles will spin. It’s not unlike making a cinematic version of a noted bestseller or beloved TV show - except Perry is much more entertaining.


Oddly enough, as of late, the author has been messing with the formula. While Madea’s Family Reunion used most of the play’s storyline, both Why Did I Get Married? and Meet the Browns have been substantially altered. There are many explanations for such a stance. Part of the rationale is that Perry wants to give moviegoers a different experience than those familiar with the plays. There are delightful DVD versions of these efforts, after all. At the same time, much of the man’s acclaim has come from familiarity. Though his TV sitcom, House of Payne, is a syndicated cable hit, Daddy’s Little Girls barely grossed $31 million - almost $20 million less than any other of the films. Changing the premise seems antithetical to those intentions.



On the other hand, he’s a name brand now, a noted Oprah approved member of the medium. He can do anything he wants and it literally brings out his devotees. Married was still a sizable hit, and another Madea outing (Goes to Jail) is in the works. Perry’s latest play The Marriage Counselor, is making its church and congregation run and his last effort, What’s Done in the Dark… has just landed on the digital format. It seems there’s no stopping this creative powerhouse - and the profits can attest to his staying power. Yet one has to wonder if Perry can ever resolve the hominess of his theatrical works with the archness of his film. Madea might be a powerful iconic image, but could she work outside an already established story? Would a wholly original Perry film be seen as a stretch, or as something to be avoided until word of mouth strengthens the sense of success?


These are the pitfalls Meet the Browns faces when it opens nationwide this weekend. Most critics will not see it in advance (Lionsgate takes a genre-oriented horror-haters position when it comes to many of its previews) and there will be those who instantly dismiss anything with Perry’s name attached no matter what the circumstances are. The few who see it will trot out the standard rejections, and race will get a minor airing along the way. Even that derogatory term ‘chitlin’ circuit’ will show up now and again. But the fact remains that Tyler Perry is a solid, seasoned entertainer with enough invention and drive to keep going for years. He’s patented. He’s bonafide. He’s sanctified. No one can take that away from him - not even his own sense of self. There will always be an underserved element of society looking for someone in sync with their views. For now, Tyler Perry is it, and that’s all that matters.     


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Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008


There has always been something accidental about Kurt Cobain’s legacy. His remains a myth forged out of an undeniable gift, cultural happenstance, and a “My Generation” style burnt out limelight. Had he not died by his own hand in 1994, the victim of so much fame and so much pain, he’d probably be a laid back Henry Rollins, regaling young emos with his cynical tales of antisocial grunge glory. But because he came and captured a moment, because he stood for something at the end of an era that had wallowed in superficial excess and carte blanche selfishness, he’s now considered a God. It’s a tag he’d never want to wear, though he gladly let you pay him for the privilege.


The internal yin and yang that drove this isolated Pacific Northwest child to the heights of rock stardom, and the depths of personal despair, are given a remarkable airing in AJ Schnack’s tone poem to one man’s talent, Kurt Cobain About a Son (released this past February on DVD by Shout! Factory). Consisting of conversations recorded with the late musician by author Michael Azerrad, we get that clichéd intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with his suddenly show biz past. Delving deep into areas that have now become iconography, while skimming over elements (drugs, his mental problems) that fail to serve his sense of place, we wind up with something akin to an unintentional elegy. On the one hand, it is clear that Cobain enjoyed most of his life. Yet there are so many fatalistic pronouncements and defeatist confessions that his suicide now seems like a forgone conclusion.


The movie begins with inspired images of Washington State - cold, autumnal, as beautiful as it is bleak. It’s Twin Peaks without the surreal soap operatics. Without even one direct portrait of the man or his now classic flannel shirt persona, landscapes and city blocks paint the picture. Schnack purposefully avoids making Cobain’s own words a support for such documentary standards. There are no old yearbook photos, no John Mellancamp like trips down Polaroid memory lane. Instead, we see Aberdeen and Olympia as they are now, reflections of the changes that Nirvana and the entire early ‘90s music revolution had on the region. The bohemia Cobain references is illustrated by current musicians and artists, some working the very same venues and spaces that, more than a decade ago, literally defined an entire cultural shift. Indeed, About a Son is as much about one man and his family as one symbol and the medium he mastered.


For the most part, Cobain’s childhood memories are soaked in a sense of measured relevance. He professes his ‘punkdom’ repeatedly, reinforcing the archetype with tales of homelessness, parental disassociation, and chucking rocks at cops. The slacker aesthetic is also championed, as idleness and a hatred of work are paired with poverty and a desire to succeed. There is very little about music here. While there are namechecks to Queen (and News of the World) as well as fabled influences like The Vaselines and Butthole Surfers, Cobain is very closed about his own muse. We don’t even realize he is talking about Nirvana until he specifically mentions the recording of Bleach. There are riffs on catering corporate interest, and a plan to garner favor by including little prizes with each unsolicited demo tape, but the songwriting process is barely mentioned.



Of course, one has to put these conversations into context. Cobain would die almost a year from the last of these late night Q&As, and he was riding a wave of tabloid fervor over his tumultuous marriage to Courtney Love. One of the most revelatory moments of the entire film comes when said wife is mentioned. Though it’s clear that Cobain adored his spouse and child, he calls Love one of the most prophetic names in the annals of flame out rock stardom - Nancy Spungen. While it may be Freudian, it’s also the kind of fuel bound to fan a hundred angry messageboard screeds. The John and Yoko element of their coupling is a surface barely scratched, and when pressed about their partnership, Cobain gives an odd, detached answer. He’d already quit Courtney several times - just like his band.


The rest of Nirvana gets equally light airplay. Krist Novoselic comes across as the kind of agent provocateur Cobain was desperate to find. Grohl is the roommate who pressed the royalties issue later on. Others who fell in and out of the band are left out of the mix, and the entire tone of the material is businesslike and perfunctory. It’s odd to hear this man so centered on money. The parable talks of a wounded butterfly who tried to press art out of the MTV dervish of marketing and merchandising. But in About a Son, he’s frank about his financial focus. While offered under the guise of taking care of his then infant daughter Frances Bean, there’s clearly a cutthroat approach to the music industry in the man’s attitude. It’s something that goes hand in hand with all the frontloaded foreboding.


In fact, if Cobain were not already dead, one would picture him less than a step away from such a self-inflicted end. The notorious issues with his back and stomach are touched on, each one dissipating into a “wanting to kill myself” diagnosis. Heroin, when broached, also warrants a similar response. Clearly, Cobain was a man afflicted with demons, but he also appears in harmony with such horrors, chalking it up to his personality and his parenting. One of the things About a Son lacks (and it’s something the DVD avoids as well) is a clear explanation of such facets. Obviously on his guard most of the time, we have to infer a great many things from the man’s hints and circular conclusions. But that’s also the beauty of this mesmerizing document. It’s rare that we get to hear a famous face, in his own words, try and explain his celebrity.



It’s this very dissection that also helps this movie soar. Instead of relying on backseat psychologist or post-modern head shrinking, Azzerad and Schnack let the subject study himself. The lack of another presence, the use of day to day visuals to support the foundation, allows the many meanings in Cobain’s riffs to resonate. Our director does imply a few feelings (he admits as much on the scene specific audio commentary included on the disc) and when the images of the man finally appear at the end, the strategy seems more than sound. We are moved by the comparison between the frail, elfish human onscreen and the voice from Heaven we’ve heard for 90 minutes. It’s a juxtaposition that encapsulates everything that makes Cobain’s myth so unexpected. His songs may say it all (rights issues keep them out here, sadly), but there was much more on his mind than chorus and verse. About a Son proves that in sad, salutary spades.


 


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Monday, Mar 17, 2008


South Park has always been a show about contrasts. On the one hand, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have loved to wallow in the infantile juvenilia that make a series about foul mouthed grade schoolers so much fun. It’s a combination of toilet humor and gross out gratuity that these men have truly mastered. But there is also the savvy, satiric side to their work, a clear cut social commentary conceit that often cuts to the very funny bone of otherwise sensitive, hot button issues. It’s why, unlike Seth McFarlane and other Family Guy pretenders, Parker and Stone remains solid comic geniuses. Clear proof of this exists in the three-part trilogy from Season 11 entitled Imaginationland. Turned into a direct-to-DVD “movie” by Paramount to capitalize on Park‘s continued success, it stands as one of the best things this animated anarchy has ever accomplished.


When fussy Eric Cartman bets cynical Kyle Broflovski that leprechauns do exist, the stakes are rather severe. If Cartman loses, he owes his nemesis $10. If Kyle loses, he must suck Eric’s balls - literally. When a mission into the local woods turns up one of the Irish imps, it looks like the wager is won. But the leprechaun was supposed to warn far off Imaginationland of a terrorist attack, and when he fails to arrive, Al-Qaida starts kicking fictional character ass. Unfortunately, the mayor of the whimsical region has just brought Park boys Stan Marsh, Jimmy Volmer, and Leopold “Butters” Storch for a visit. As Cartman continues his efforts to get Kyle to “pay up”, everyone but Butters escapes. He is used by the terrorists as a tool to open up the gates of the evil side of Imaginationland. In the meantime, the government gets a Stargate style idea to infiltrate the pretend place and put a nuke directly in the Islamic extremist’s way.


For anyone who wonders why, after 12 seasons, South Park remains the best animated show on television, something like Imaginationland is all the proof any defender requires. Drop dead brilliant from beginning to end, and successfully applying the patented production approach of meshing the retarded with the regal, this hour long expanded episode stands as a shining moment for all involved. Parker and Stone have been flawless before, bringing their strangled, surreal sensibility to their big screen First Amendment romp Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and delivering definitive episodes (“Timmy 2000”, “It Hits the Fan”) throughout the course of their decade long run. But nothing can prepare you for the epic scope and sense of fun found here. Digging through a list of fictional characters that everyone recognizes (Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse) is one thing. To include religious icons and social symbols pushes everything one step closer to a full fledged masterpiece.


The premise is just as transcendent. The notion that terrorists have “infiltrated our imagination” and that, as a result of their actions, our “imaginations have run wild” resonates as so provocative and profound that it’s amazing no one has thought of it before. The added element of the evil entities provides a solid subtext, as it makes the viewer wonder, what’s worse - a suicide bomber or an unleashed Freddy Krueger. Al Gore gets another Manbearpig moment, and everyone’s favorite Satanic wildlife, the wicked Woodland Critters, show up to soil everything with their amoral attitude. Indeed, it is during these moments, the times when fuzzy little squirrels and cuddly little bunnies are suggesting abominable acts that Parker and Stone really shine.



The bawdy “B” story is equally redolent. Cartman’s obsession with his genitals may seem sick, but as the creators note on the almost full length audio commentary (the longest they’ve ever done, by their own admission), there is nothing sexual here. Instead, it’s all about power and humiliation. Even when our portly provocateur goes to great lengths to double entendre his way through a discussion of Kyle’s contractual obligation, he’s not out for jollies. Instead, it’s a moment of schoolyard triumph - undeniably severe, but like a Momma joke taken to a mouth to scrotum extreme. Parker and Stone want to shock. By doing so, they lay the perfect foundation for their more meaningful ideas.


And Imaginationland is chock full of them. From the government’s over the top reaction to the terrorist attack, to the conspiratorial plan that is supposed to save the day (even if underlings can’t stop giving away its secrets), we see a sensational slam on current US policy throughout. Everything in 2007/2008 is about reaction and armed response. Military lingo and rules of engagement dictate all of our diplomatic positions. When former Vice President Al Gore’s worst nightmare shows up, the baffled generals can only fall back on the atomic remedy. It’s a classic send-up, showing how out of touch with the rest of the world America really is. Even in a fictional domain, it can do little except pick a fight and bring in the big guns. Avoiding the heavy handed approach that most of their contemporaries take, Parker and Stone continue to be some of the best political satirists working today.


But that doesn’t mean Imaginationland lacks the requisite amount of animated awe. The battle scenes between the good and bad characters are excellent, especially when unexpected icons from the past (the Hawaiian Punch pitchman, He Man’s floating wizard buddy Orko) show up to tussle. Blood and cartoon body parts fly! This is the kind of experience one can revisit again and again, seeing something new in each and every viewing. Even better, the provided commentary traces the show’s origins, answers questions about its structure, and suggests that Parker and Stone are equally adept at producing great work both under intense deadlines and when they have plenty of time on their hands. Paramount even tosses in a couple of complementary episodes (“Manbearpig” and “Woodland Critter Christmas”) to make the presentation complete.



With Season 12 just underway, and the series signed up through 2011, here’s hoping our duo has more amazing installments like Imaginationland up their sleeves. As they’ve said in the past, they love to play with the show’s format, finding equal time to let their characters be kids while tackling the major issues of the day. As a pristine example of this mindset, the three part extravaganza stands as one of South Park‘s best. For something that no one thought would or could last this long, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are proving that, just like a certain yellow skinned family from Springfield, the boys of a certain backwater Colorado town could be around for a very, very long time.


 


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Sunday, Mar 16, 2008


It’s said that confession is good for the soul. Of course, this assumes one has a conscience worth redeeming. It’s clear that not everyone would benefit from such acknowledgments or affirmations. To do so would reveal their own inner weakness and sense of corrupt complicity. Such an individual is Briony Tallis. For almost 80 years, she has hid the secret of her atrocious actions, of a decent man wrongly accused, a heartsick girl horribly hurt, and a love unable to fully flower. She’s finally decided to write about it - her last novel. She calls it Atonement, for that’s what it’s meant to do. But even in the act of contrition, she can’t allow the truth to dampen the forced fanciful mood.


You see, back before Hitler invaded Europe, the Tallis clan lived a life of privilege. While son Leon hobnobbed with his school chums in London, daughters Cecilia and Briony spent the summer heat in the country. While Briony, the youngest, entertains herself with writing and secret passions, Cecilia appears directionless - that is, until those moments when servant’s son Robbie Turner shows up. He’s been favored by the family, sent to school on their good graces (and money) and welcomed in their home as a quasi-equal. He adores Cecilia. She’s just realizing her own emotional and physical attachment. A scandalous note, the arrival of a young chocolate merchant, and a night of horrific sexual misunderstandings lands Robbie in jail, Cecilia devastated, and Briony defiant. War only deepens the already substantial wounds.


Once you’ve gotten past the Hallmark greeting card pronouncements, the post-modern Merchant Ivory archness, and that all important ‘twist’ ending, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s famed tome - also called Atonement - is a very good film. It has a lot to say about perspective, the mind of the writer, the way life and art co-mingle and cloud each other, and how point of view plays with our interpretation of the facts. This is definitely a film that needs to be seen more than once. The initial viewing is required to get all the tricks and ambitions out of the way. Subsequent screenings then unlock the real value here - in performance, in period, and in predicament.

In the story of the Tallis family, McEwan (via Christopher Hampton’s masterful screenplay) gives us the standard British class struggle stained by accusations of rape and the rising tide of World War II. As usual within the genre, smallish events play out amidst one of the grandest of backdrops. There is an epic quality to Atonement, something director Wright strives for in his shot selection, compositions, and showboating cinematic flights of fancy. While a single continuous take of the beach at Dunkirk is meant, in the filmmaker’s words, to show the pointless loss in combat, it’s also there to argue for the situations unreality and the man’s lens skill. We would never get a chance to see such a panorama from our normal vantage point. Indeed, Wright appears obsessed with the big picture all throughout the film.


On the newly released DVD version of the film (containing deleted scenes, minor Making-ofs, and a wonderful audio commentary), the director explains that there is a lot of such motion picture sleight of hand present. He admits that many of the story’s key narrative moments -  Briony’s confession to the police, her later trip to visit Cecilia - have enough pragmatic questions and logistical plot holes to trip up his tale. It’s not because of McEwan’s book. It’s just that audiences are so accustomed to such sordid situations in our proto-progressive life that we just don’t buy into things the way Brits of the late ‘30s do. Yet thanks to technique and other directorial skills, Wright believes he’s overcome such flaws.



For the most part, he’s correct. We don’t really mind that the factual situation cannot possibly place Robbie at the scene of the supposed crime. We also don’t question why the victim, teen Lola Quincey, would feel so easily shamed by what happens. She does come across as practically begging for such physical attention during the opening scenes. Robbie also is a rather inactive accused. He seems resigned to the fate of stable boy railroaded by the hoi polloi. There is bitterness later on, but it seems centered as much on his own inability to save himself more than actual anger at those who clearly wronged him.


And then there is Briony. Like the Bad Seed mixed with society mandated meanness, this horrible little villainess remains one of Atonement‘s strongest sticking points. When we first meet her, she appears spoiled and sullen. When Robbie gives her the fabled note, her manic instinct is to violate its privacy and read it. When she catches her sister in a physically passionate embrace, she turns even more dour and determined. Finally, when circumstances show up and offer her a chance to play judge and jury, she easily condemns, doing so without a lick of ethos, or remorse. It’s all friendly finger pointing and pleasantly destroyed lives. As she grows, none of this nastiness moderates. Instead, the older versions of Briony appear like victims, wondering why the rest of the world can’t forgive their otherwise unfathomable motives.


But she’s not the only one stumbling block in this otherwise efficient film. The last act denouement, the plot point moment of clarity that many completely involved in the story have been waiting for, arrives with a whimper, not a scream. With proper SPOILER ALERT warnings in place, we discover that Robbie died of an infection while waiting to leave Dunkirk, and Cecilia dies during the Blitz. It’s a depressing way to end their tale, something our narrator, Briony, admits. So she cleans things up, gives them the justice the audience believes they deserve and colors the tragedy with hints of daydream world accessorizing. During these scenes, Wright argues for the movie’s main perspective - that of a guilty party trying to pretty up their path toward damnation. But since we don’t like Briony to begin with, her attempt at redemption falls flat.


So do some of the director’s more ambitious accents. Water is a strong subtext in the film - from Cecilia’s fountain dive to save a cherished piece of porcelain to her last act fate in the London underground. It’s where Robbie believes Briony’s motives lie (he remembers a fake drowning that supposedly proves the young girl’s jealous crush) and the distance between himself and his love and salvation. Yet Wright is too obvious in his imagery. We get the point long before he’s finished making it. And then there are the oddball dream sequences and sections of camera manipulation. Robbie’s battlefield vision seems pointless, and a middle act trip into fantasy (he hallucinates his mother washing his feet) is just superfluous. While it might create tone or mood, it seems to drag us away from the main action.



Again, on a second viewing, one can clearly forgive these indulgences. Atonement becomes something different when given a second chance. Knowing what happens, we can watch how Wright sets it up, how he hints and prepares us for what’s to come without giving everything away. The acting also stands out more clearly, especially James McAvoy’s turn as Robbie and Keira Knightley’s work as Cecilia. The first time through, we are still getting a handle on these characters, trying to figure out their motivations and their position. Subsequent involvements provide the passion and the complexities that appeared to be missing. In some ways, such a statement sums up Atonement quite well. It’s a good movie given over to initial bouts of incompleteness.


Of course, Briony never does pay. Her confession is half hearted, her desire for a happy ending she could not personally provide a combination of selfishness and subterfuge. We never once get the impression that she cares about what she did to Robbie and Cecelia, and even in her weakened, enfeebled state, she comes across as defiant in her decision. It may seem like a brave move to champion such an irreproachable shrew, to give her the last word and the way it’s to be presented, but that’s how Atonement works. By finally confessing what she did, we are supposed to see Briony as human and humble. But unless you give this film a second (or third, or fourth…) go round, you may miss that message all together - if it’s there at all.


 


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