Monday, December 29, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett,Taraji P. Henson
Director: David Fincher
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Running Time: 165 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Paramount Pictures

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Every movie made employs the use of some sort of gimmick. Some are smaller than others and they don’t always work but whether it is the cast, the special effects, or something else, every filmmaker uses some device that they hope will allow their movie to rise above their contemporaries. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the gimmick is the story. A baby is born with the appearance and all of the physical limitations of an old man who ages backwards through life. It’s really a fascinating premise that, beyond its initial intrigue, stirs a lot of questions. How would one operate under the construction of backwards aging? How would you let it shape your everyday life? On a deeper level, how would you deal with the inevitability of loss in your life that would be compounded by that very construction? It is in the films attempt to answer these questions that you will find its true appeal.

At first glance, this film seems like a fairly odd film choice for director David Fincher. The styles of his previous films were consistently dark and stylish, in story and design. So why would a director who made his name with films like Fight Club, Se7en, and Zodiac opt for a character driven fairy tale? For starters, he is one of probably a handful of directors with the ability to handle the special effects needed to properly translate the required images to the screen while being able to balance them against the story. If the main device of the movie is the setup, then right behind it would be how the effects were handled. Technologically, the film is a masterpiece. Throughout the film we see Benjamin (Brad Pitt) at every point in his life, from grave to cradle. Almost every scene features Pitt at various ages other than his own and you are left with no choice other than to believe it – it is just that seamless. In an early scene you see a child’s body with the 80 year old face of Brad Pitt and you believe it. It is obvious enough to notice but subtle enough for you not to care. It’s only after the film is over do you start to wonder how it was done. The greatest compliment I can give the film is never once are you taken out of the story because of the effects.

The movie’s main conviction is that love transcends all things related to time. While still having the appearance of an old man but only ten or so years old in actual age, he meets Daisy, a young girl whose grandmother lives in the nursing home where he has grown up. During her many visits the two form a bond and play as children. As he gets old enough, or young enough in this case, to leave the house and begin living his life on his own, the two cross paths at intermittent times in each of their lives, all while Daisy (Cate Blanchett) grows older and Benjamin continues growing younger. The emotional weight of the movie is created in the conflict of the opposing directions of their aging. With the foundation firmly in place, the payoff is that much richer when they are finally able to be together. While this is where most love stories would end, they are still forced to contend with the predestination of his condition and its certain consequences.

Aging, love, and loss are things that we all must deal with at some point in our lives and death is an inevitability we all face. Benjamin is no different – he only takes a different path to get there. Or as it is put into perspective for him at one point in his life, “Sugar, we all end up in diapers.” We, of the normally aging variety also have a definite end to our lives; we just don’t know when. A lot of people, like me, would say they prefer it that way, opting for the comfort of attempting to live each day like it is your last, or some other hackneyed brand of optimism. Like most pieces of advice from the bumper sticker pulpit, it is better in principle than execution. In reality all it does is allows us the excuse, the sin, of procrastination because anything we don’t accomplish today can just wait until tomorrow. Benjamin isn’t afforded that opportunity. His life has a finite end laid out; he is just given a bit more notice than the rest of us and the path he chooses with this knowledge in his possession is what makes the film so great.

Sprawling epic stories like this have the tendency to drag on in spots, but even at almost 3 hours, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button moves at the pace of a film half as light. Screenwriter Eric Roth took some liberties adapting the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original short story, but wisely chose to steer clear planting Benjamin in the moments of historical circumstance that he did with Forrest Gump (which he also wrote). Doing so would have diminished the significance of the struggles Benjamin faced throughout the film undoing what it had spent so much time trying to accomplish. In other words, it would have been a disaster. Instead, historical moments were sparingly used as to merely anchor the story and depict the passing of time.

One could surmise that the gimmick of Benjamin’s aging is what drives the movie, rendering it less effective. It is true that therein lies the framework of the story, but the movie rises above cliché not because of the gimmick but because of the choices he is forced to make because and in spite of his condition. We should all be so wise.

And there's the rub.

**** out of ****

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Starring: Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson, Terrance Stamp, Eddie Izzard
Director: Bryan Singer
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Running Time: 120 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: United Artists

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Fundamentally speaking, the appeal of Tom Cruise in the last few years doesn’t make any sense. Just as soon as he took Katie Holmes hostage and started parading her and her ‘too scared for escape’ look around the world, people seem to have become disinterested in anything he has to do professionally; or so they say. Sure he was great in Tropic Thunder, but I’m talking about the movies he has had to carry on his own. Everyone seems to talk a big game but with the exception of last year’s Lions for Lambs, you have to go all the way back to Magnolia, almost a decade ago, to find a film he starred in that didn’t gross at least $100M domestically. So much for disinterest. Maybe he just has mind control over all of us too.

Keep in mind; these aren’t secrets I am exposing for the first time, so why his pick for his latest project was a big budget WWII Hitler assassination movie is beyond comprehension. For a man so caught up on selling his image, it stands to reason that there would be better ways to spend his time. It ended up being much worse than it appeared on the surface. The release date moved so much nobody cared when it was really coming out and as soon as the trailers came out the backlash was already in full effect.

Now about that – if you decided upon viewing the trailer that you weren’t going to like the movie because of the American accents, then seeing the movie then complaining about the accents seems a bit counterproductive. Find something else to complain about; or at least, find something more. Yes, it is distracting. Yes, it would have been better had they at least tried, or not replaced them with a handful of soggy Brits. But again, all things we knew from the trailer months ago. So as for you, Mr. 800 lbs Gorilla, if you are going to stay in here you are going to have to sit there with your mouth shut – you’ve been addressed. Let’s move on.

The aesthetics may take the spotlight, but the movie actually has a pretty interesting plot. I suppose it’s less a plot than history lesson, depicting the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Conceived by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) who had become disenfranchised with the way Nazi Germany was handling the war, Operation Valkyrie was a plan, of Hitler’s design, that would impliment an interim government in the event of his death. So all Stauffenberg had to do was select the people to run his shadow government, devise the plan to have Hitler killed, and initiate Operation Valkyrie to reinstate the image of his holy Germany. It’s not a bad setup, but even the movie knows it’s a little too tidy, where at one point someone is heard saying the line, “It’s a military operation – nothing goes according to plan.”

The good news is that it plays out like a cross-section of WWII history. The bad news is that it plays out exactly like a cross-section of WWII history. There are too many wheels in motion long before we even get sat down in the theatre. Think of it as joining our regularly scheduled World War already in progress. Director Bryan Singer attempts to hit the ground running showcasing his greatest strength – action, but as the movie barrells ahead there is a lot of groundwork that needs laid before any real action or tension can take place. It finally does in the second hour and when it gets going it ends up being a pretty serviceable war thriller.

It’s like mowing the yard when you were younger on the family’s beat up old mower. You know, the one you had to crank a half-dozen times to get it started. It worked fine once you got it started; it was just a pain in the ass getting there. Once you get passed all the preconceptions about the movie it’s really not that bad. Not great, but not terrible. That is, if you can get passed the accents.

And there’s the rub.

** ½ out of ****

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell
Director: Ron Howard
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Running Time: 122 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Universal Pictures

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In 1977, just a few years removed from the only resignation by a U.S. President in the history of our country, Richard Nixon agreed to be interviewed by a moderately successful British TV personality, David Frost. Over the course of 28 hours of interviews Nixon eventually apologized for the scandals of his administration. Not before or since has Nixon publicly addressed the issues surrounding Watergate.

Take a second to let that sink in. It’s only been 30 years since the interviews but the way we get our news today has changed so drastically that a news event like this would be impossible to achieve in today’s news environment. The advent of the internet and the 24-hour cable news channel has completely changed the way we get our news. But in 1977, when network anchors ruled the news on the Big Three, a foreign journalist against the odds scored what is still today considered the most important political interview ever.

Frost/Nixon was adapted from the 2007 Broadway play of same name that focused on the interviews and the preparation leading up to them. The outcome of the interviews is what made them as successful as they have become, but any time you have a movie based on actual events, the conclusion ends up being irrelevant. Since that element is removed as the dramatic driving force, the filmmakers had to rely on good old fashion storytelling and performances to push the film.

The meat of the story is obviously the interviews themselves, but equally as interesting is everything that happens that leads up to the climax. It wasn’t a simple matter of asking for and conducting an interview. The whole production was the brainchild of David Frost (Michael Sheen), conceived on a whim without full knowledge of what he was up against. It was a ratings stunt, nothing more. His offer is $500,000, besting the offer from CBS. He is talked into a larger price. As he begins to realize the process it became apparent that financially, he was in over his head. He was going to be in for everything he had and without investors and ad revenue, there was a chance the interviews would never take place and he would be bankrupt in the process. At the same time, the realization starts to set in that more than ratings, he has the opportunity to give Nixon (Frank Langella) “the trail he never had” since Gerald Ford gave him full pardon after he entered office. Nixon, convinced by his handlers that Frost was intellectually inferior, intended to use the interviews to get his name back into the political arena. Well, that and money. Even in retirement Nixon was shown to be driven by greed. So much so that, in an unprecedented move then and an unthinkable one today, Nixon agreed to appear on camera without pre-interview preparation or knowledge beforehand of the questions. All he knew were the general topics to be covered and in what time frame.

The interviews provided the drama of a couple of gladiators trading swings of the sword. Much the same way the best parts of The Silence of the Lambs were watching the interaction between Clarice and Dr. Lector, we get to see two competing ends of the spectrum try to outwit each other in a game of cat and mouse. While Frost attempted to swing for the fence with his opening question: “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?”, Nixon’s charismatic defense of anything that had any bite to it proved the approach ineffective. The confident smugness of Nixon, the way he baited Frost, almost playfully, like he wanted Frost to come after him, made you root against him. The way he attempted to convince Frost that the word “corrupt” didn’t mean what he thought it meant, so long as his heart and intentions were pure reminded us of another slippery President that tried to mince words and create his own definitions in the last fifteen years. All of it made you want Frost to bury him if he could, but when the moment came where he began to candidly discuss admissions regarding Watergate, I can’t say that you feel too sorry for him, but he isn’t completely demonized either. For that you can credit Langella’s soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance and the writing by Peter Morgan. And the fact that Ron Howard made on of the best movies he ever has.

For as good as the direction, writing, and performances are, I still maintain that the most fascinating part of the movie is the fact that for as recently as the events occurred, the same thing would never happen today. For one, there is less mystery with today’s politicians. Everybody knows about everything they want to know and if someone IS hiding something it takes about ten seconds for it to be all over the fifteen news channels and hundreds of websites. But, perhaps because of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews, there is no way you would ever be able to get an interviewee to agree to the terms Nixon agreed to: no advance knowledge of the questions, sole control over content, etc. No, those days, if they were ever here under normal circumstances, are long gone. Everybody is too interested in making themselves look as good as possible in the public eye to put themselves out there like that. And too many other people have too much to lose or gain to give that amount of control to one person. There’s a word for that, I can’t quite remem–

Oh yeah: politics.

And there’s the rub.

**** out of ****