ATONEMENT (2007). Last year's automatic Oscar entry mostly lived up to its lofty expectations, even if it didn't possess the sweeping emotion that provided other British period pieces like Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day with their enduring resonance. In this adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, Keira Knightley plays Cecilia, who finds herself attracted to the family servant's upwardly mobile son Robbie (James McAvoy). But Cecilia's younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also developed a crush on Robbie, and she grows jealous of the bond between the lovers. Eventually, Briony uses a family tragedy as a way to get back at Robbie, not comprehending the long-term implications of her actions. Knightley's role doesn't allow her to flourish as she did in Pride and Prejudice (her previous collaboration with Atonement director Joe Wright), which is fine, since this is Briony's story and McAvoy's film. As played by Ronan, Briony comes off as a bad seed writ large, with an IQ that, coupled with her naivety, makes her especially dangerous. It's a memorable performance, yet it's McAvoy who excels the most: We ache for Robbie throughout this tale, and the actor expertly conveys the feelings and frustrations of a man who dared to dream outside his station in life, only to watch as his desires go up in flames. It's a shame that the denouement doesn't completely provide us with the emotional catharsis we require. Providing a clever, bittersweet twist, it affects the head more than the heart, and reveals a certain measure of clinical execution on the part of Wright. It caps the film with a slow simmer, when nothing less than a full blaze will suffice. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this earned its sole Oscar for Best Original Score (by Dario Marianelli).
DVD extras include audio commentary by Wright, seven deleted scenes and a half-hour making-of featurette.
ENCHANTED (2007). It's a nice touch having Julie Andrews serve as narrator in Walt Disney's Enchanted. Andrews played the title nanny in the studio's Mary Poppins, which contains the famous phrase "practically perfect in every way." And I can't think of a better way to describe Amy Adams' performance as Giselle, the animated damsel who doesn't long to be a real girl but becomes one anyway. This begins in the style of the classic Disney toon flicks of yore, with the beautiful Giselle, at one with nature and its furry inhabitants, longing for "true love's kiss" from the lips of a handsome prince. She gets her wish when she meets Prince Edward, but his scheming stepmother, Queen Narissa, banishes Giselle to a faraway land which turns out to be our own New York City. Now flesh and blood, Giselle asks a stranger, a buttoned-up divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey), to help her survive in this bewildering city; meanwhile, others arrive in pursuit of Giselle, including Edward (James Marsden) and the evil Queen (Susan Sarandon). Entrusting such a rich premise to the writer of Sandra Bullock's limp thriller Premonition is a dubious tactic, and Bill Kelly doesn't come close to exploiting this subject for all it's worth. But that's not to say there aren't moments of genuine inspiration, such as when Giselle calls out to the creatures of NYC for help and instead of the expected rabbits, deer and chipmunks gets rats, roaches and flies. The film's strongest component is the terrific turn by Adams, who really seems like a Disney heroine come to life (as the preening prince, Marsden also displays fine comic chops). Her performance is every bit as enchanting as one dreams it would be.
DVD extras include three making-of featurettes, deleted scenes and a new short starring the chipmunk Pip.
THE ICE STORM (1997). Unjustly overlooked in director Ang Lee's robust career, this adaptation of Rick Moody's 1994 novel is a provocative drama focusing on two suburban families in New Canaan, Conn., in 1973. With its frequent shots of cracking ice cubes and beautifully brittle branches, Lee doesn't hide the fact that his film is, in more ways than one, a chilly experience. With its muted colors, somber tones and unfussy camerawork by Frederick Elmes, the movie perfectly reflects the frosty attitudes that have come to define the lives of its characters (played by, among others, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver), a malaise largely brought on by the changing times in which they live. It's the Watergate era, and in a scene that perhaps ranked as both the funniest and creepiest of its year, a teenage girl (Christina Ricci) wears a rubber Nixon mask as she and her boyfriend (Elijah Wood) engage in some heavy petting (brrr). With its piercing look at family dysfunction, the topic of home versus career, and the omnipresence of television in the American lifestyle (there always seems to be a set on somewhere in this movie), the issues addressed in The Ice Storm have as much relevance today as they did over three decades ago. Ultimately, this paradox may be the movie's greatest strength: Even while nailing a specific period in time, it's still able to transcend its setting and speak directly to modern folks who no longer find aesthetic pleasure in sideburns.