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Atonement is a sweeping epic that actually works a lot better before it becomes sweeping or an epic. It’s a melodrama about love torn asunder by a false accusation, an offense that will reverberate through the lives of all involved for a long, long time.

It all begins at a country manor where Keira Knightley’s Cecilia lounges in the garden and James McAvoy’s Robbie is the Oxford-educated gardener’s son. The two are long-time friends who grew apart at university but come back together one fateful day. Cecilia’s sister Briony, a precocious girl of about 12 played by Saoirse Ronan, is a budding writer who stumbles across certain glimpses of Cecilia and Robbie’s lustful relationship: a dirty letter, a teasing incident in a fountain, a tryst in the library. Briony’s imagination runs wild and she begins to think Robbie is a sex-crazed maniac. Later, when something horrific does happen, Briony misidentifies the perpetrator and Robbie is arrested.

I go into detail here because this part of the film, roughly the first third, is very good. In a long, sweeping epic it’s when the story stays focused on a country manor that it really works. Most of it is fairly undramatic, but the film ratchets up the tension by showing us multiple scenes from different perspectives. What looks sinister from Briony’s perspective looks flirtatious from Cecilia’s. The time-shifts and piercing score complement this very compelling segment.

Alas, as the scope expands the film loses its punch. Read the rest of this entry »

The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford has a heck of a climax. You’ll never guess who kills who.

It’s a deliberately-paced, long, slow, film with little action. And I really liked it, perhaps even loved it. It’s not at all a traditional Western despite traditional Western subjects and characters, but much more a study of obsession and idolatry.

It’s late in the career of the James brothers, Frank and Jesse. The gang that rose to fame with them is long dispersed and they have been running with a loose gang of Missouri locals. One last big train heist will signal retirement for Frank and a downshift into a slower life for Jesse. Part of the gang are brothers Charley and Robert Ford. Charley is a full-fledged member of the gang while Bob is more of a support player, hanging back and watching with adoration.

Bob’s the kind of guy who has idolized Jesse James since he was a child. He has a box full of James memorabilia under his bed and can reel of a list of statistics of how he and his idol are alike. Bob’s Jesse James is a larger-than-life hero, the stuff of dime store novels and kids playing in the schoolyard. He’s somewhat dismayed to find the real Jesse doesn’t match the man he thinks he knows so well.

An invitation to Bob from Jesse to hang around at his home after the robbery plasters a smile on his face, even though he’s used for nothing but hard labor. His mind starts cranking, even imagining himself as a surrogate member of the family- until Jesse sends him on his way.

And so the hero image begins to fade. Subsequent interactions with Jesse further erode that image. He’s something of a bully and gets on Bob’s case for idolizing him so much. “Do you want to be like me,” Jesse asks him pointedly, “Or be me?” Over time Bob’s adoration fades, but the obsession does not. If he cannot be Jesse’s sidekick, he can at least be the man to bring him down. Read the rest of this entry »

February 2008
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