Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Adapted Screenplay

Atonement – Christopher Hampton
Away from Her – Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Ronald Harwood
No Country for Old Men – Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
There Will Be Blood – Paul Thomas Anderson

Will win: Yikes. This one’s a mess. We can eliminate Away from Her without second thought, but the rest are all legitimate contenders. The pitfall here is that a movie’s overall buzz doesn’t necessarily equate to its odds of winning in the screenplay categories. The Academy, believe it or not, actually seems to focus on a movie’s writing when appraising screenplays, rather than just conforming with the Best Picture favorite. This is noble – after all, each individual category is supposed to be evaluated independently, not in a relative context, although that’s rarely the case – but it also makes handicapping more difficult. And yes, I know I’m complaining.

Oscar voters take a lot of flak for not broadening their minds and rewarding more ambitious, unconventional fare, but they’re generally considerably more indulgent in the screenplay categories. Several recent winners – including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, and Sideways – weren’t classical Oscar candidates but were instead happily quirky and original. This is why Juno should win Best Original Screenplay with ease – few movies combine pithy dialogue with such a distinct, bouncy tone.

Interestingly, the only truly singular film of the Best Adapted Screenplay nominations is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Its fascinating exploration of physical disability and the spiritual journey undertaken to overcome that disability is highly unique, probably because it’s the only story in the history of the world in which a man writes a book solely by blinking his eye. The remaining contenders – while all better pictures – are more typical genre films; Atonement is a period love story, No Country for Old Men a crime thriller, There Will Be Blood a character study of mania.

But this doesn’t change the fact that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is foreign. Additionally, although distribution efforts have been strong overall, I’m not convinced that many voters have actually seen the movie. Given that it’s competing against three highly touted English-language films, in spite of its singularity, it just doesn’t have enough juice.

As for the remaining three candidates, I’m just going to cop out and look at the data. No Country for Old Men, for reasons I cannot fathom, has been cleaning up. I can understand not rewarding There Will Be Blood for its screenplay, since that movie is far more memorable for its sumptuous filmmaking than its actual story or writing, but the continued marginalization of Atonement depresses me. Then again, it also depresses me that Coco Crisp is being rumored to start the season in center field over Jacoby Ellsbury, and there’s nothing I can do about that either. The Coens take home their second screenplay Oscar, their first since Fargo in 1996.

Should win: I’ll be honest: The nomination of No Country for Old Men really bothers me. I think it’s an excellent movie, but from what I’ve heard it’s nearly a page-for-page reconstruction of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. I haven’t read the book – and after spending six months slogging through McCarthy’s brutally depressing The Road, it’s safe to say I never will – but the appeal of the movie lies in its precisely composed images and its perfectly designed visual scheme. People will remember No Country for Old Men for its ruthless formal technique, as well as its perpetual ability to generate suspense. It will not be remembered for its writing.

Neither will Away from Her, but only because it won’t be remembered at all. I don’t think it’s a bad movie – it’s an impressively mature love story about the bond between a married couple and whether or not it can be severed by the harsh realities of mental illness. But it’s ploddingly slow, and its perplexingly nonlinear structure is frustrating, not because it’s difficult to follow but because it seems so unnecessary. This may be because one of the time frames to which Away from Her consistently and infuriatingly returns – involving a stilted liaison between Gordon Pinsent and a hopeless Olympia Dukakis – is clearly of such lesser dramatic import to the film’s story that it feels utterly irrelevant. Additionally, for a movie that is so scrupulously careful to avoid cheap emotions and blunt intimations, the film’s ending feels disappointingly false. As a result, Away from Her, though generally well-made and thoughtful, ultimately exists as little more than a curiosity.

There Will Be Blood is most certainly a curiosity as well, if a fascinating one, but it is too lackadaisically plotted to merit consideration for a screenplay award. And The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, while generally captivating, is occasionally clunky in its integration of flashbacks, and it fails to properly delineate some minor characters.

And so, to the surprise of absolutely no one, I’m voting for Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Atonement. I’ve already gushed about this movie in considerable detail, so I won’t delve into everything again here. Quite simply, Hampton provides Joe Wright with an ideal template for the construction of a dramatic love story, a script rich in both drama and humor. I’ve heard that McEwan’s novel is aggressively complicated and was viewed by some to be incredibly difficult to adapt, but you’d never know it from watching Atonement.

Charlie Wilson’s War – Aaron Sorkin. People keep pointing to Juno as having the sharpest dialogue of any movie this year, but Sorkin gives the pregnant teenager a run for her money. Even better, he does it naturally. Charlie Wilson’s War features a lot of smart people saying a lot of smart things, but every conversation flows smoothly, with a relaxed, unforced charm.

Sorkin’s characterization of Wilson himself is an area of interest. My buddy Brian told me that his father actually knew the politician and that he was an absolute sleazeball. That’s a sentiment at stark odds with the man we see in this film, which vaguely acknowledges Wilson’s iniquity without really focusing on it. Urged on by Sorkin’s wry script, Tom Hanks plays the congressman as a rascally charmer, with an easy smile on his face and a glint in his eye. Wilson is the hero of our story, and Hanks represents him as such. He doesn’t disregard Wilson’s more unpleasant qualities as much as slide them to the background; we can see them, but we’re too busy being seduced by this man’s effortless charisma.

Is it the right decision? Probably, at least for cinematic purposes. Charlie Wilson’s War may function as an educational movie, but it’s by no means a documentary, and I’m more than willing to trade off a few inaccuracies of character in exchange for a more enjoyable viewing experience. As constructed, Sorkin shrewdly exploits Wilson’s perceived wickedness to comic effect, especially with regard to the playful relationship he has with his entirely female staff (Charlie’s angels, of course). When he’s in need of assistance, he barks out “Jailbait!” and three gorgeous young women come strutting eagerly into the room. Then there are his instructions to a staffer on what to say when the press mentions the subject of rehab: “The Congress has never been to rehab. They don’t serve whiskey in rehab.” Now that’s funny.

And then there’s the bemused reaction of one of Wilson’s male constituents, as he comprehends the caliber of assistants with which the congressman has surrounded himself. Why do only beautiful women work here, he asks? One of Charlie’s angels replies with a credo that surely vindicates Wilson from any wrongdoing: “Congressman Wilson has an expression: ‘You can teach ‘em to type – you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.’” Now honestly, what kind of sleazebag could possibly have a saying like that?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – Michael Goldenberg. Introducing herself to Hogwarts’ students as their new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher and villain-in-chief, the simpering Dolores Umbridge (brought to life with sickening sweetness by Imelda Staunton) instructs the following: “Let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfect, and prune practices that ought to be prohibited.” It’s a nice line lifted nearly verbatim from the book, and it serves the dual purpose of establishing both Umbridge’s persona as a syrupy hag and the Ministry of Magic’s overarching intention of intervening in students’ education.

Yet I also think it functions as something of an instruction manual for how best to adapt one of J.K. Rowling’s novels to the screen, particularly this one. The longest of her seven books, Order of the Phoenix is crammed with subplots of varying levels of intrigue and relative necessity – including them all in a single movie would have resulted in a bloated, gargantuan mess. Goldenberg’s task to “preserve what must be preserved” essentially involves incorporating into his script all material that relates to the broader conflict with Voldemort. This includes Harry’s first tentative, then confident leadership of Dumbledore’s army; the growing affection in the relationship between Harry and Sirius Black; and the sudden, cold, seemingly inexplicable distance between Harry and Dumbledore himself.

Simultaneously, Goldenberg must “prune practices that ought to be prohibited” so as to streamline Order of the Phoenix and not let it sag under the weight of its own excess. To that end, he excises any topics that, though entertaining in their own right, are ancillary to the growing battle against Voldemort. Gone are all of the Quidditch scenes, the reemergence of Rita Skeeter, and most matters related to schoolwork. (Goldenberg also – disappointingly, dramatically, and somewhat clumsily – trims Harry’s complex romance with Cho Chang to little more than a brief fling; perhaps this relationship would have received more than a cursory treatment if Cho had played a larger role in the series’ final two books.)

It’s a monumental task, and Goldenberg does an impressive job of reduction, eliminating some events and compositing others. But he also creates new scenes not found in Rowling’s novel in order to further the development of Harry’s character. The most memorable of these is a quiet talk between Harry and Sirius, in which the boy wizard’s godfather delivers a gentle but earnest lecture about the nature of evil. “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” Sirius says, pilfering an unused line from Goblet of Fire. “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us.” It’s a touching, tender moment, and it’s further testament of Goldenberg’s commitment to probe Harry’s ever-present self-doubt and confusion.

Having already made the difficult, critical, and correct decision to portray Harry as isolated, almost forsaken, for the majority of the movie’s first act, a lesser movie might have characterized Harry’s initial acceptance of his friends as a complete transformation. Goldenberg does not linger unnecessarily on Harry’s hidden fears, but he also does not allow Harry to relinquish his doubt so easily. This mature approach intensifies the impact of that magnificent final scene in which Voldemort possesses Harry. That we been witness to our hero’s misgivings throughout the film makes his ultimate conquering of them all the more triumphant.

Stardust – Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn. Remember how I said that I kind of admire imagination? Well, during the climactic scene in Stardust, a young, burgeoning swashbuckler named Tristan Thorn is attempting to rescue his beloved Yvaine – who just happens to be an actual celestial star in the human form of Claire Danes – but is locked in a duel with the undead corpse of Septimus (formerly the seventh prince of the kingdom of Stormhold), whose movements are being controlled by Lamia – one of the three witches of, I don’t know, Shakespeare and played by a where-did-she-come-from? Michelle Pfeiffer – who is able to manipulate Septimus’ corpse by stage-managing a voodoo-doll like figure, all while the ghost of Septimus looks on in bewilderment, as if the whole thing has nothing to do with him and isn’t his fault.
So yeah. That worked for me.

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