Film Blather — Atonement Style

13 12 2007

Now, here’s a film that I seem to be out of step with other people on.

ATONEMENT, the adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel (which I haven’t read, by the way; my wife has but I’m not a big McEwan fan) is a movie that alienated me on almost every level. With pushy music, “I’m so cool” cinematography, difficult to watch acting, and an overly dramatic script, I found little to like in ths film. But, obviously, I’m not in the majority on this one.

Check out this article from the Hollywood Reporter, as blurbed on Yahoo. “Atonement filmmakers victorious in battle” talks about one incredibly pretentious, overwrought shot that shows the devastation of the WWII retreat at Dunkirk. Here is a short excerpt from the piece.

The Dunkirk retreat at the beach during World War II is told through a continuous Steadicam shot that lasts five minutes and 20 seconds.

The ambitious shot, which follows lead character Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and two additional soldiers as the vastness of the situation is revealed — was filmed in only 90
minutes with four takes (the third was used as the fourth was abandoned when the light began shifting). Between cast, crew and extras, the shot involved nearly 1,500 people and was the most expensive sequence in the production.

Wow, how cool. They MUST be good filmmakers then, eh?

The problem is that it’s a shot that practically calls attention to what an amazing shot it is. And, while it is true that it is incredibly difficult to pull off a shot like that, I keep asking myself the same question that I asked myself when I first saw the BEOWOLF trailer. “Why?”

Why, pray tell, would you create a shot with a number of dead areas where we’re not sure who we’re looking at? Sure, the audience is bound to stare in awe at the total chaos involved in the war and its aftermath. Sure, we are being prepared for the main character’s cinema-heavy hallucinations which are to follow. And, sure we’re meant to feel how little everyone seems in the overall scheme of things here. But I kept on thinking, while glancing at my watch during the shot, that I could have gotten all of that with 1/3 of the screen time and a whole lot less of the pounding music. I got it Joe. I really really did.

One of the real benefits, I suppose, of this shot is that it’s a conversation starter (take a look at this entry, for example). It will get a ton of press simply because, like Fred The Talking Dog, it exists.

But look at the opening shot in THE PLAYER, or the one in TOUCH OF EVIL (both of which took care to put their shots at the beginning of the film, rather than dropping them in the middle when we’re not expecting them). There’s Antonioni’s shot at the end of THE PASSENGER. Then there’s the CGI-enhanced single shot car shootout in CHILDREN OF MEN. But there seems to be some good reason for these shots, and the camerawork reflects a deep seated story telling urge, with no artifice. On the other side of the fence, you can also take a look at Hitchcock’s ROPE as an example of long tracking shots that exist as an accomplished directorial trick. Somewhere in the middle is the Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS. I also seem to remember a great shot in I AM CUBA, though my memory is hazy about that.

Work of cinema or conversation starter? Which would you rather have?

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