The Beacon evaluates Oscar-nominated films

by Beacon Staff • January 30, 2008

Atonement

Charlie Wilson's War

The Diving Bell

Persepolis

There Will Be Blood,Atonement

DIR: Joe Wright

by Terri Ciccone

Adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan, Atonement is a film about desire, misunderstanding, passion and war. Along with its lush and detailed cinematography, and perceptive take on multiple perspectives, Atonement showcases impeccable acting, and a plot that unravels more and more perplexity with every minute. These elements prove Atonement worthy of its seven Academy Award nominations.

Set in 1935 in England, a young, wayward Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan) misunderstands a series of events between the estate's gardener, Robbie (James McAvoy) and her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). These events lead Briony to wrongly accuse the gardener of a crime, making the forbidden love of Robbie and Cecilia impossible. When the movie projects into the future, where Robbie is forced to fight in WWII, the efforts Cecilia makes to be with him again are heartbreaking, as well as the desperate attempts that Briony makes to right her wrong.

The film's emotional and historical content requires much from the actors. Ronan, 13, certainly fulfills these demands, in a performance that is peculiar and unnerving. Knightley and McAvoy convey a love reminiscent of a modern day Romeo and Juliet, but rather than being clicheacute; and cheesy, it is seductive, modern and passionate. Each character is believable due to convincing performances.

The cinematography in the film is a contributing factor for its award-winning caliber. To understand an entire concept in one camera shot is a remarkable task that Atonement nails. A single moment in which Robbie's eye twinkles when he sees Cecilia represents how deeply the two have fallen in love. The contrasting shots of Briony's brazen attitude and the soft glow of the countryside, along with an extended sequence depicting the futility of World War II, lavish the film with one breathtaking moment after the next.

Although the film ends with a shock, it concludes with the same hopeless love and desperation that drives the film forward. By the end of the film, it becomes apparent that Briony Tallis spends her life trying to find herself worthy of the film's title, only to find it in fiction.

Charlie Wilson's War

Dir: Mike Nichols

by Harry Vaughn

Charlie Wilson's War is a perfectly-paced political dramedy; it's half business, half party, and its brilliance lies in its ability to juggle both without opting to favor one over the other.

Director Mike Nichols tells the true story of a U.S. Senator from Texas who, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, inadvertently funded an extremist Islamic group that would later be recognized as the Taliban. However, Nichols, along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, chooses not to turn this hot-button historical tale into a somber, post-9/11 political tirade. Instead, Charlie Wilson's War plays out like a sexy and unapologetically stylish Hollywood film that's entertaining and informative.

For instance, while Wilson talks over the phone about Pakistani politics, a stunning Brit (The Devil Wears Prada's Emily Blunt) comes sauntering down his stairwell in nothing but an oversized t-shirt, smoking a cigarette and beckoning his name. This is one of countless scenes that blends sex and politics with snickering, self-conscious glee, as if the filmmakers are fully aware of their unsubtle attempts to get audience attention. And judging by the countless amount of TA within the film, it's safe to say that they succeed entirely.

It is arguable that the movie not only trivializes a major U.S. foreign policy decision, but that it also indulges in glitz and glamour at the expense of historical accuracy.

The film, however, is by no means shallow and if one looks past its showy all-star cast (Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts in lead roles) and Sorkin's sugar-coated dialogue, you'll realize that Charlie Wilson's War is, in fact, an alarming cautionary tale about U.S. involvement with the Middle East. It is merely contained in an easy-to-swallow shell of cinematic escapism.

This is, after all, a story about an American who, without thinking, accidentally set in motion the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But Nichols, much to his credit, chooses not to beat us over the head with the film's political implications and instead allows the story to unfold in a tone that's deceptively un-ironic. In doing so, he makes Charlie Wilson's War a consistently appealing and bittersweet lesson in American naiveteacute; rather than an all-too-clear left-leaning satire on the current War on Terror.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Dir: Julian Schnabel

by Nick McCarthy

Julian Schnabel has made a cinematic career of depicting struggling artists. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, however, marks the first time he's found a subject that suits his ostentatious style of filmmaking. Basquiat (1996) is risibly cheesy and overly explicit while Before Night Falls (2000) is infatuated with its central artist, Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, to the point where it exposes Schnabel's narrow-minded vision.

With The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, however, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood strike a balance between their enjoyment and judgment of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor-in-chief of Elle, in their adaptation of Bauby's eloquent memoir.

Debilitated by a sudden stroke at the age of 45, Bauby's left eye was the only part of his body left unparalyzed. Fortunately, his imagination was still fully functioning as well. Schnabel and Harwood immerse the viewer into Bauby's head and mind. The camera flickers from his left eye's erratic perspective while radiant flashbacks and dreams illuminate his personality-therefore making his condition and character understandable in experimental ways.

Schnabel, like Bauby, is a bit of a showboat and if Bauby had ever made a film, it's likely that it would be as sophisticated, sharp and stylized as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Unfortunately, there is some stale symbolism, such as the image of Bauby trapped on a small dock in the ocean, but these calculated choices are easy to overlook when considering the multilayered experience the cast and crew have achieved. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not quite the moving, inspirational voyage through the human soul that many claim it is, but a surreal, intimate and acerbic tackling of well-balanced tones.

It's difficult to fault its heavy-handed moments because of its fluid depiction of a man dealing with life's curveballs. Most significantly, however, is its organic sense of humor that captures its varied and vivacious mood. And, ultimately, c'est la vie.

Persepolis

Dir: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parannoud

by Nick McCarthy

Animation isn't only for Disney and Japanese anime. Politically-charged memoirs are seldom realized in the medium, which is an art form that leaves much room for subversion. Marjane Satrapi, however, understands the art form's full potential and mixes her struggles with religion, nationalism and identity into an expressionistic and humane adaptation of her eponymous, two-part graphic novel

.

Growing up in Tehran as an inquisitive, wide-eyed girl with progressive parents and a sage grandmother during the Islamic Revolution, Marjane was exposed to multiple changes in her pre-teens and she consistently questions her identity. The historical exposition works so well because curious little Marjane learns the lesson of Iran's past as it's being told to the audience. Plus, the history of the Shah of Iran is illuminated by Sajtrapi's creative illustrations.

Persepolis compassionately channels childhood curiosity and the disillusionment that comes with attaining answers to heavy questions. As Satrapi's animated alter-ego ages, the film moderately suffers along with its protagonist, as Satrapi seems more fascinated with her youth than her adult life. The content matches the form, however, and it works in Persepolis' favor-transforming the mood from adolescent joy to mirthless awareness. The depiction of Marjane's early years in Iran and Vienna is like a mature, top-notch Peanuts movie due to its youthful whimsy, but with a revolutionary spirit. Her later years, as imbued with the dour mood of the second half of the film, are marred by romantic foibles, pills and depression. Persepolis itself is no doubt an inspiring work of art therapy.

Satrapi cleverly takes advantage of the medium, often morphing characters to visually represent her nostalgic feelings toward a particular individual, whether they're positive or negative. After Marjane discovers her college boyfriend cheating on her, his appearance is transformed upon her reflection of him: he has pimples where he had clear skin, cowardice replaces chivalry and he slouches instead of walking with fine posture.

Her images may be austere and two-dimensional, but Sajtrapi's intelligence, lucid vision and flippant wit make the characters pop with layers. Satrapi finds multiple shades of grey within the black and white of her bittersweet life story.

There Will be Blood

Dir Paul Thomas Anderson

by Harry Vaughn

The first twenty minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood set the stage for a potentially earth-shattering portrait of American greed. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the film's tall and terrifying protagonist, digs alone in the California mountains, accompanied only by the discordant shrieks of Johnny Greenwood's score. He's in search of oil and it is clear that when he finds it, his discovery will unleash a geyser full of rage, spite, hatred and, by the film's end, lots and lots of blood.

And yet, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic about oil and religion, though rigorously executed and compulsively watchable, never becomes the challenging or revelatory film that it aspires to be. It certainly has the look of a masterpiece, but its heart and mind somehow seem separated from its visual craft.

Shot for shot, There Will Be Blood is a supreme technical achievement, with barrier-breaking cinematography that brings striking clarity and authenticity to the film's bleak and barren landscapes. Greenwood's score, especially, catapults each transition with dread-inducing momentum. In just under three hours, it becomes the movie's most threatening and omnipresent character.

Of course, it would be unfair to praise any aspect of the film without showering love and admiration on Daniel Day-Lewis' extraordinary performance as Plainview. He morphs a two-dimensional caricature into a living and breathing human being, endowing a striking sense of naturalism to what, on paper, looks to be nothing more than a John Huston stereotype. However, there is only so much that Day-Lewis can give to Plainview, and though he brings a ferocious and unpredictable sense of pathos to the role, his character remains an unmovable metaphor for greed.

Such is the problem with Anderson's film as a whole. Rather than mold and question its ideas and expand on its own story and central character, There Will Be Blood ends as a set-in-stone, three-hour statement on the corruptive power of money and religion in the United States. It presents us with contrived answers rather than with questions, and it dictates our thoughts rather than allowing us to form our own. It is an oppressive and terrifying piece of work; it's as dazzling in its visual panache as it is vacant in thematic and emotional growth.