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REVIEW: And the nominees are … rated R

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for outstanding film achievements of 2008, four of the five Best Picture nominations went to R-rated movies. Hollywood forbid that funny and touching “WALL•E,” the most original, adroitly crafted film of the year — and G-rated — should be nominated for Best Picture. And “Marley & Me” (PG for thematic & suggestive content, language), a pro-marriage and pro-life PG comedy that celebrates the preciousness of life, simply isn’t dysfunctional enough for today’s Academy voters.

Here are the Academy’s nominees for the Best Picture and my impressions:

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking) is a fantasy/drama about a man who ages backwards. While there is some adult subject matter, including an adulterous affair and implied sex outside marriage, the film is infused with a message that each life has value. A religious philosophy is also found in the story, portrayed by a good-hearted woman who takes in the abandoned baby. She calls the baby “a child of God” and, in that realization, proceeds to spend her own life behaving more like a child of God herself.

Though CGI ingenuity plays an important role in the success of bringing the book to cinematic life, the filmmakers see to it that special effects contribute to the drama, rather than overshadow it. Despite the film’s length, almost no one at the screening left for concessions or bathroom breaks. They were hooked by something they seldom see — storytelling that balances epic adventure with deeply personal narrative.

“Frost/Nixon” (R for language) focuses entirely on President Richard Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal, not his accomplishments. It’s rated R for language and graphic depictions of the Vietnam War. Most disturbing, however, is that the film presents as fact things that have not been authenticated. For example, did the eccentric Nixon’s mental state really disintegrate as the interviews progressed? The film is classified as a drama, implying a fictional account, but my associate and friend Mary Draughon, who reviewed Frost/Nixon for this end-of-the-year overtaxed film reporter, believes most viewers will come away with a bad taste in their mouths for the real characters portrayed in this resurrection of a very dark historical event.

In “Milk” (R for language, sexual content and brief violence) director Gus Van Sant chronicles the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual man to gain political power in San Francisco. After serving on the city’s Board of Supervisors and making huge strides for the homosexual community, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by another board member, Dan White.

Milk is involved storytelling, accompanied by intense acting and a strong visceral impact, but it also is heavy-handed, produced with a fierce humanistic, political design. And while it is, as Harvey Milk states several times in the film, “here to recruit you,” ultimately the film serves to further divide.

“The Reader” (R for sexuality and nudity) is the story of a chance meeting that leads a 16-year-old boy into a sexual liaison with an older woman, played by Kate Winslet. But one day the boy shows up to further his coming-of-age lessons, only to find the woman gone. The film then follows this young man through his life, showing the effect the “affaire d’amour” had on him. He discovers the woman is on trial for Nazi war crimes and is torn between her despicable deeds and the adoration he feels for her.

Once you get past the first hour of this film, it becomes an astute character study. But that first hour is so explicit in its sexuality that it’s difficult to distinguish The Reader from pornography. There’s a great deal of nudity and graphic sexual activity, which I’m sure the filmmakers would argue for in order to point out the effect this relationship was having on the young man. And I’m sure most of my secular colleagues in criticism will assert that the sexual situations are done “tastefully” and “powerfully.” But I kept thinking, what if this was an older man enticing a fifteen-year-old girl? Wouldn’t viewers find that coupling exploitive, if not downright icky?

“Slumdog Millionaire” (R for violence, disturbing images and language) concerns an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, India, who is about to win a staggering 20 million rupees on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” The film opens with the lead character being tortured by a nefarious group who think he cheated on the show. Between beatings and electric shocks, he explains how he knew the answers. Alas, this potent morality tale is justly rated R.
Phil Boatwright reviews films for previewonline.org and is a regular columnist for Baptist Press. The entire list of films nominated for Academy Awards is available online at oscars.org. The awards ceremony, which will be hosted by Hugh Jackman, is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. (PT) Feb. 22 on ABC.

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  • Phil Boatwright