Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Take on Best Picture Nominees

Yes, I already wrote about this film a couple of months ago. But at that time, I had only read the book and had not seen the film. I have to credit director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton for doing an excellent job of not only bringing the setting of WWII era to life, but also bringing some very tricky meta-literature issues (the novel was in part about the writing of the novel) to the screen.
There is a particularly spectacular re-creation of the retreat at Dunkirk (or “strategic withdrawal,” which one character wryly states is the Generals’ preferred phrase at the time.) Charles Colson, in a Christianity Today article back in 2001, noted that when the British troops had their backs against the wall on the shores of France, a three word message was sent: “and if not”. Colson wrote:
“The British public instantly recognizes the message—a reference to the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing before King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. “Our God is able to save us … and if not, we will remain faithful to him anyway." The message galvanizes the British people. Thousands cross the English Channel in boats to rescue their army.”
I agree with Colson as he notes that our culture has lost much in losing our common Biblical literacy.
As I mentioned when I wrote about this film before, the central issue of both the book and movie is how one can receive atonement/redemption for one’s mistakes and sins. Both the book and the movie argue that there is no real hope for atonement or justice in the world, and the best we can hope for is solace in the arts. Fortunately, God offers true hope for atonement in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Both Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood can be seen as explorations of the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:26: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
The title character of Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney, works for a law company. He is a “fixer”, doing whatever is necessary to get the job done, with little consideration for ethical niceties. When he is asked to cover for another lawyer whose bipolar behavior threatens to embarrass his company, he finds out some unsavory secrets of the clients. Though entertaining, this is my least favorite of the nominated films. The climax of the film uses one of the oldest clich├ęs of TV cop shows. (Spoiler – Beware the monologing villain.)
Whereas the protagonist of Michael Clayton finds a kind of redemption, there is no such hope for Daniel Plainfield, the protagonist of There Will Be Blood. This film has some of the most beautiful and innovative sequences of any film this year. The first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are virtually silent as we see Plainfield discover oil and try to build his business. But for Plainfield, it isn’t enough that he succeed, “the competition” in him needs to see everyone else fail.
Daniel Day Lewis gives a larger than life performance as Plainfield, an unbeliever who is willing to confess Christ in a church in order to make a land deal. We also see a believer in the film deny Christ for financial gain. I was thinking after the film -- which is worse, someone who calls “Lord, Lord” yet doesn’t believe in Him or someone who denies Christ? Two sides of the same coin, both hopeless paths.
This is one of the most popular and widely written about of the nominated films. The story of an unwed pregnant teen (played by Ellen Page) who decides to give her child up for adoption has led to newspaper editorials about abortion, adoption and gender roles.
Some have found this film to be overly cute and quirky, but I thought it was funny and touching. I especially liked the presentation of Juno’s parents as loving, stable providers of love, support and encouragement. (I guess I appreciated the presentation of the parents especially because all the John Hughes teen comedies I watched in the 80’s had parents that were either clueless, self-obsessed or cruel. It bothered me, and I wasn’t even a parent then.) The father in the film gives a wonderful little speech about unconditional love that would be great premarital counseling (perhaps, however, without the vulgarity).
No Country for Old Men
This is my favorite film nominated but be warned that it is a very violent film. It tells the story of a man who finds a large stash of money at the scene of a crime. He decides to take the money, but finds himself being pursued by a very nasty killer. He is also tracked by a kindly sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones who is increasingly appalled and disturbed by the violence in the world
Brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (writers, directors and editors) did a wonderful job adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Anton Chiguph, the psychopathic killer in the film, often presents his potential victims with a chance through a flip of the coin. He abdicates his own responsibility and tries to blame fate. I came out of the film considering the age old paradox of free will and fate.
The film did leave out one thing from the novel that I greatly missed. In the novel, the sheriff ponders how people always say “I don’t deserve” about bad things. But when he thinks about the day when his future wife first smiled at him, he thinks of that as a grace he didn’t deserve. In a harsh world, the moments of violence and evil make headlines. But we need to remember the good as well, which doesn’t make the papers.

But before you watch any of these films, you might want to consider the following content issues:
Atonement is rated R and has vulgar language, sexual situations and violent/gory images.
Michael Clayton is rated R and has vulgar language and violence.
There Will Be Blood is rated R and has two quite violent scenes.
Juno is rated PG and has vulgar language and has sexual language and situations.
No Country for Old Men is rated R and has vulgar language and many violent scenes.

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