Saturday, October 29, 2011

Atonement • Cloverfield

U.S.A. • 2007 • directed by Joe Wright • 123 minutes • Universal Pictures

U.S.A. • 2008 • directed by Matt Reeves • 85 minutes • Paramount Pictures

joint review à la The New Yorker

Atonement, directed by Joe Wright and adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel, is a beautiful film. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey has filled the movie with popping, liquid moments like a shot following a young girl down an overgrown garden corridor, or the much ballyhooed four-minute take on a war-worn beach at Dunkirk. Given the revered source material and the fine visual sheen, the film should be an assured success. Yet I left Atonement with a sense of dissatisfaction I couldn’t place.

The story begins in 1935, in an English country house where no one upstairs seems to have anything to do but lounge about, most of all 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious hopeful playwright whose endless tappity-tapping at the typewriter inspires Dario Marianelli’s delightful score. Keira Knightley and James MacAvoy play Cecilia and Robbie, the stifled English equivalent of star-crossed lovers. Their sun-dappled reverie is broken by a series of misunderstandings that culminates in a lie told by Briony which separates Robbie from Cecilia and leaves him disgraced. The film, at least superficially, is the story of Briony’s quest for atonement. I think it also means to explore the power of language, the endless consequences of an action, and the way fiction can both heal and wound.

I am told Mr. McEwan’s novel manages this heady meditation gracefully, but Atonement the movie convinced me of neither its underlying meaning nor the plight of its characters. It asks for sympathy with Cecilia, Robbie, and Briony, while investing little in making them likeable; and it spends so much time gazing forlornly at their shenanigans that it loses what intellectual pith it might have drawn from its source. The result is a kind of middling sensuality, the impression of profundity carried along on the gossamer wings of style and a few flashy narrative strokes culled from McEwan.

This is not to say that movies based on books must choose between entertainment and meaning. Charlie Kaufman’s manically profound Adaptation was the decade’s best lesson in finding the heart of a written source; by throwing Susan Orlean’s original out the window and recasting her story with fictional characters as fragile and beautiful as the orchids which were the heart of her book, Kaufman excavated a story that was both sympathetic and as deep as any New Yorker piece.

What is wrong with Atonement is embodied in the sensational single take at Dunkirk: like we in the story, the camera floats through an impressive series of faces and conflicts, all of which imply meaning and emotion, but it doesn’t invest in any of them enough to create more than a hurried, hyper-stylized sketch of struggle and sorrow. The story as adapted, which is straightforwardly, is too sprawling. It has too many actresses playing Briony, it covers too much time in too few hours, and it pins its emotional impact on an event which I found forgivable and even commonplace. As I was floated like the show-offy camera through Briony’s distress at each stage of life, I had only fleeting feelings of discomfort, like passing a great tragedy in a swiftly moving car.

~ ~ ~

Strange though it may sound, the same preoccupation with structure wounds the monster flick Cloverfield, though with much more laughable results. If Mr. McGarvey’s astonishing take at Dunkirk was the real star of Atonement, Cloverfield’s centerpiece is the movie itself––an 85-minute gimmick that crosses The Blair Witch Project with Godzilla and has neither the ingenuity of the former nor...well, it’s about as bad as the latter.

Cloverfield is supposed to be the amateur camcorder footage of one hapless group of New Yorkers on the evening when ...something... strolls in and stomps the bejeezus out of the city. The footage is ostensibly taped by one of the main characters, the dimwitted Hud (T.J. Miller), while he and his group of friends clamber around the city trying to avoid being gobbled, trampled or blown up. The result has had people in theaters across the nation vomiting in their seats. I, for my part, only vomited intellectually.

Cloverfield aims for realism, but the story it has chosen to dress in documentary clothes is harder to believe in than the end of the writer’s strike. I don’t mean the giant lizard-octopus thing lumbering through Manhattan––that’s a movie mainstay by now. What I couldn’t believe was that as the entire population is fleeing the island and the Chrysler-building-sized creature is bearing down, Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), our de facto hero, decides he must trek back through the city to rescue Beth (Odette Yustman), not his bride-to-be, not his long-lost love, but a floozy he hooked up with a month ago. The best part? His friends go along with him!

The movie does many things well. The special effects, disguised as not special at all because of the herky-jerky footage, are terrifically convincing. At least a dozen shots must have been technical nightmares (cuts are few and far between), yet they come off effortlessly. But I cannot for the life of me understand why the filmmakers thought they had so little plot to work wtih that they had to inject the contrived mission to save Beth. Having to escape from a burning island with a giant iguana that drops little scuttling velociraptors seems like plenty of material to me.

There are so few moments in the movies when a character is a step ahead of the audience (I Am Legend mercifully had a few of those). Woe it was to me to think that producer J.J. Abrams, whose characters on Lost were just launching an encouraging streak of not behaving like nitwits at the end of the third season, could have given us something more than the usual monster-movie drivel. Instead Cloverfield is at best a mediocre scare flick; at worst it’s the depressing announcement not only that the statute on movies not showing Manhattan under attack post-9/11 has run out, but that the bar of taste on that sort of spectacle hasn’t been raised in the least.

originally published in the Whitman College Pioneer.

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