Charlie Don't Surf

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

On 'Atonement' and 'There Will Be Blood'

To Brandon Griggs and Joan Kennan, January 8, 2008

I've seen "Atonement" and was ready to like it, but I guess it left me a little disappointed. I'm sure it's very faithful to the book but that may actually be a problem. This book leaves a director with a great deal of ground to cover, so the movie has to leap from chapter to chapter. As Hyla said, we don't really get much sense for why these two people had such an epic love for each other -- they just do at the outset, and we're asked to accept it. A great deal of time must be devoted (properly) to the opening incidents at the country house, and then it becomes a sweeping war picture, with a Cold Mountain-style massive scene at the Dunkirk evacuation, which I agree is done well. (Macavoy is excellent throughout I thought, effortless and real.) Then it pretty much becomes the younger sister's story, just as it was her story in the beginning, and frankly it is more interesting than the romance. And fortunately the actresses who play the young and older Briony are excellent, the best parts of the movie, I thought.

But then you get hoodwinked with the Vanessa Redgrave stuff and instead of being an actual romantic war epic, it becomes a writerly meta-meditation on the uses of fiction, the uses of the novel, the role of art in people's lives and in the lives of the people who make art -- so we step away from the story itself until the story becomes an artifact that we are examining. In the movies, we mostly just want the straightforward romance or the straightforward war story, not a turn in which the story becomes a device for us to think about how stories are manipulated by writers to make them feel better about their own lives. I found the Redgrave jump to present-day just odd, and it is difficult to then re-immerse in a false story -- it becomes cerebral, not immediate. And of course, it's because the film is faithful to the novel, and that's great -- it's great that Joe Wright wanted to be faithful to what is, by all accounts, an excellent and clever book. But the fact that "Atonement" was an excellent book doesn't necessarily mean that it would be a great film, or even that it could have been a great film, since it is a meta-literary piece that could be best suited for readers. I think it is a mistake to think that movies, a medium that's more sensory than cerebral, can achieve the same brainy effects that a Chinese-puzzle novel can.

Keira Knightley was better in "Pride & Prejudice" and doesn't really have much to do in this film; she is overtaken by her sister's more interesting story, and at this point in her career I think her acting chops are limited anyway. But there were things I liked in the movie -- James MacAvoy, Saoirse Ronan as the young Briony, and generally the way they handled the early scenes at the country house. Wright sets up Briony (and us) for a stunning image -- her sister splayed against the library wall, the shock of sex to a young person's eyes -- that was well done, and the scene played to the visual strengths of film as a medium that can capture the force of a moment like that. But film can't really handle the rest of what Wright asked it to do later on, so in all I thought the movie didn't really work.

About the others you mentioned --

"No Country For Old Men" -- great chase movie. It's not much more than a chase, with some funny character bits and suspense and violence, but it doesn't try to be much more so an unqualified win for the Coens (and yet another chapter in their obsession with vengeful hayseeds).

"Juno" -- saw it with Hyla and her parents -- very funny, great performance by Ellen Page, who should win something or other, at the very least some more work.

"There Will Be Blood" -- saw it at the fabulous Arclight Theatre in LA last week. Like "Atonement," I think this another epic project that is worth seeing but in the end, fundamentally does not work. The story is so obsessively focused on the Daniel Plainview character for 2 1/2 hours, to the exclusion of anyone else, it almost becomes claustrophobic. As Hyla said, "There's no one to root for in the entire movie." I mean, have one or two other worthwhile characters, maybe. With an actor as strong as Daniel Day-Lewis, it's maybe not a bad gambit to focus exclusively on his guy for the movie, and I take Anderson's point that America and (American capitalism and industry generally) was shaped by driven men like this, so their mania and obsessiveness is worth looking at. But his back-and-forth feud with Paul Dano's fire-and-brimstone boy preacher ultimately seems petty -- a lifelong struggle between two nut jobs; why is this important again? Even Dano drops out of the film for hours at a time. Throughout the movie it sounded like Day-Lewis was trying to approximate the speech inflections of somebody I knew, but I couldn't figure it out, until the end I realized who it was: John Huston. Watch him in "Chinatown" or something else and tell me if you agree; the slow, lilting roll of Huston's sentences is unmistakable. The movie does have some awesome scenes and set pieces, especially in the beginning when Plainview begins to find oil -- Anderson captures the darkness and sudden violence of the business, and the sparse dialogue keeps you off guard as he mixes it with silence and eerie background music from the Radiohead guy. Those scenes seemed very experimental, good stuff.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- I've heard it's incredible from everyone who's seen it.

"I'm Not There" -- haven't seen it and I've heard it can be tough going, unless you have a cheat sheet to distinguish between all the Dylan versions and what parts of his career they represent. But I've liked all of Todd Haynes' movies.

"The Kite Runner" -- haven't seen it and was not allowed to see it since Hyla started to cry even at the trailer for it before "Juno." Sheez.

"Margot at the Wedding" -- Haven't seen it but especially after "Squid and the Whale," I'll see anything Noah Baumbach does...


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