A Review of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Cate asks Brad, Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?

Cate asks Brad, “Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?”

Nothing Lasts Forever, 28 December 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

On a cold night on the eve of WWII in Russia, a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton) shares tea with a most peculiar tugboat man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). When she asks him where is he from, Benjamin replies, “New Orleans…Louisiana.” Swinton’s character replies, “I didn’t think there was any other.”

This moment comes about forty minutes into the film which has been established on the grounds of a woman (Julia Ormond) reading to her dying mother (Cate Blanchett) from the diary of Benjamin Button as Hurricane Katrina sweeps over New Orleans. The ghost of a New Orleans now lost haunts David Fincher’s lyrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages backwards. There’s no denying this film couldn’t have been made five years ago, not only because the technology wasn’t there to make the process of aging backwards look real, but it would’ve also been a completely different movie as screenwriter Eric Roth wouldn’t have been able to bookend the film with Blanchett on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina comes to literally wipe away her life. The story is hung on a gimmick, and the film told as a fable, but there’s grounding in the reality of life’s greater mysteries that speaks volumes about not just the death of a man or a woman, but the death of a city and the death of a way of life.

A big part of making the audience believe in the story falls on the film’s technical aspects: the make-up, the CGI, the period-piece details of the film’s set designs and costumes. If you look close enough, you can find things to nitpick, like the distracting disembodied voice of Cate Blanchett distorted onto a little girl, but for the most part Fincher constructs it all seamlessly. In terms of scope and sentiment, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems a complete departure for a director usually obsessed with darker more violent tales, but Fincher has always liked his plots to begin (think Seven or Panic Room) or end (think The Game or Fight Club) with a gimmick, and he’s always been a filmmaker obsessed with cutting-edge technology (think of the VIPER camera used to film Zodiac). Fincher does a superb job with his meticulous construction of these elements (complimented nicely by Alexandre Desplat’s subdued score), and he really wins the audience over with his flashbacks within flashbacks that are done in a charmingly stylized manner that remind us we’re watching a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed above any other pretense.

By shifting the central location of the story from the original setting of Baltimore to New Orleans, Roth opens the film up to a new layer of interpretation. Though the episodic tale of Pitt’s Benjamin growing younger while Blanchett’s Daisy grows older spans the globe from Manhattan to Russia to Paris, the characters’ hearts remain united in New Orleans. Roth, who also penned the thematically similar Forrest Gump peppers his screenplay with many momentous events from the 20th Century, but those moments ebb and flow through Benjamin’s life just as the other characters do showing us that life is made only of moments. None of them last forever.

The supporting players (including a gutsy performance from Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adoptive mother who runs a nursing home) are wonderful and allow Pitt and Blanchett to shine as the movie stars that they are. Sure, these two have probably given better performances elsewhere, but here they have been given roles for which they might be best remembered long after their star-power has dimmed.

In a year when the films with the most impact (like The Dark Knight) have been those that have tapped into the fears and mindset of the times we live in, it’s rather fitting that a movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes along at the end of the year. It should be one of those movies that hold audiences rapt in hushed silence, but it’s also the type of movie that usually receives instant backlash. I wonder how it will stand up over time. On the surface it attempts to tell a timeless tale, but in a bittersweet way proves the opposite. Movies stars like Pitt and Blanchett, movies like this, stories, fables, dreams, cities like New Orleans…none of these things are timeless. Timelessness is just a flight of the imagination…like the idea of a man aging backwards.

But what a wonderful flight it is.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Talking Patrons Push Philly Filmgoer’s Button

CAPTION:  Columbus Blvd, here’s your fifteen minutes!

So as I’m reading up on reviews of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in preparation for a Sunday outing to go see the film, I came across the most curious piece of local news in a long while.

Apparently an angry filmgoer shot a man in the arm during a showing of the film at the United Artists Theater at Riverview Plaza on Columbus Blvd. in Philadelphia.  The shooter had earlier asked the man to quiet his talking son, and the boisterous family continued to make noise despite the request.  After most other patrons fled, the shooter remained in the now silent theater watching the film until the police arrived.  I guess that means the movie is really good!

While yet another shooting in my beloved Philly is nothing to write home about, the most curious piece of this case is the reaction from the public. 

The outcry has been clear:  BE QUIET IN THE MOVIE THEATER!

The American public is fed up with people who won’t shut up at the movies.

Also, wake up parents!  Don’t take your kids to movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button where they will be bored to death and act out.  There were plenty of other options for this family at Christmastime, so show some common sense, folks.

Of course I don’t condone shooting people–unless they were the Hollywood producers responsible for The Day the Earth Stood Still–but can we really blame the guy?  Perhaps they showed a preview of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino in front of the film, and that gave the shooter the idea to be the ultimate bad-ass.

Meanwhile, I’ll be seeing the film in Jersey at a curious theater where people know how to be quiet, and no one will be carrying a gun.

Check out the local spin from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A Review of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”

Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Doubt

CAPTION:  Meryl Steep and Amy Adams have some bad habits to break in Doubt.

Perhaps We’re not Meant to Sleep so Well…, 21 December 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

It seemed rather fitting that I saw Doubt on the first day of winter, the sun making its shortest visit of the year, the advancing cold indicative of the looming incertitude of the characters in the film. This is the second film in a row after Frost/Nixon that has been adapted from an award-winning play. Unlike that film, Doubt is directed by the playwright, John Patrick Shanley. Wisely he employs the best in the bizz, cinematographer Roger Deakins, to translate his theatrics into film language. The crooked camera angles, the overt symbolism of storms approaching, windows blowing open, snow covering the ground, crows squawking, and lights blowing out, all smack the viewer in the face. There’s no denying what lies at the heart of Doubt.

Set in New York in 1964, the film tells the story of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep acting in her wheelhouse), the principal of Saint Nicholas’ School, who begins to suspect the new priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman, insidiously innocuous) is developing an inappropriate relationship with one of the altar boys, who also happens to be the school’s first African-American student. The naive Sister James (a perfectly cast Amy Adams) is at first pulled into Sister Aloysius’ plot to uncover the truth, but soon falls under the priest’s spell and is convinced of his innocence. But things aren’t so cut and dry, and soon both women are riddled with doubt after being so certain they were on the side of the just.

Some have claimed Streep’s performance verges on camp and that the film relies too much on Gothic overtones. However, anyone who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school knew a nun just like her (mine was Sister Laboure), and her portrayal of a domineering principal who still defers to a higher power is nothing short of brilliant. Also, the Gothic nature of the film falls right in line with the traditions of Catholicism as it subtly hints at other crimes and sins in its sly treatment of secondary characters and plotlines that stir the audience’s imaginations not unlike Henry James worked readers into a tizzy with The Turn of the Screw over one hundred years earlier. Yes, there are moments where the film plays like a psychological thriller, and that’s part of its brilliance, for in no other way can we come to accept the sins but in the guise of horror.

Like Notes on a Scandal the film uses a salacious topic as a vehicle for an acting showcase. The fireworks amongst the three leads are worth the price of admission alone. In its treatment of the Catholic child abuse scandal, the film accurately portrays how insular the Church was (and still is) from the rest of the world and how easy it was for the accusations to be never voiced properly, or if they were, swept under the rug. In its closing scene of Streep and Adams finding solace in each other’s doubts on a bench in the dead of winter, Shanley seems to beg the audience for a little bit of sympathy on behalf of the Church. However, it left me thinking of an earlier scene where Hoffman’s priest asked Streep’s nun, “Where is your compassion?” To which Streep replied, “Nowhere you can get at it.” Perhaps any sympathy should be showered on the victims…for I feel nothing for the Church.  Doubt will leave you chilled, and like the Sisters, perhaps we’re not meant to sleep so well as long as the crimes continue.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0918927/usercomments-18

A Review of Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”

CAPTION:  Kevin Bacon tells Frank Langella, “You are not a horse.”

Mr. Nixon, It’s Time for Your Close-up, 18 December 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Ron Howard’s competent film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play (who also scripted and co-produced here) dramatizes the famous Frost/Nixon interviews from 1977. At one point in the film, Kevin Bacon’s character explains to Frank Langella’s Nixon that a portion of the interview will focus on “Nixon the man”. To which Nixon retorted, “As opposed to what? Nixon the horse?” Of course what was on everyone’s mind at the time was Watergate and how American was never able to give Nixon the trial they so desperately wanted. Through the unlikely Frost interviews, the American people finally heard the truth behind the scandal–straight from the horse’s mouth.

Morgan’s source material translates smoothly onto film. Much as he did with The Queen, he mixes a behind the scenes look at the immediate time period leading up to the historical event and closes with an almost word-for-word dramatization of said event. Also, like The Queen, we have the excellent Michael Sheen on board, who after playing Tony Blair now takes on the mannerisms of the legendary British talk-show host and man-about-town David Frost. Director Ron Howard nicely interweaves archival news footage, faux-post interviews with the secondary players, and the dramatic reenactments of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews. Howard’s studied but pedestrian style of direction lends itself well to this type of docudrama as he allows the actual events to speak for themselves and the fine performances to shine on their own. Though it takes quite awhile to get where it’s going, the final interview where Frost takes Nixon head-on about the Watergate cover-up is a payoff well worth the wait.

Of course the most fascinating aspect of the film is Frank Langella’s portrayal of a shamed and swollen Richard Nixon. He plays him as a fallen man desperate for an act of contrition but still in too deep with his old trickery and slick ways. His performance, and the way it connects with the audience, is wonderfully layered. On one level, we have an aged actor thought to be well past his prime firing back on all cylinders in a renaissance role that will likely lead to a showering of award nominations. The way the film reduces his performance to that one lingering close-up after being steamrolled by Frost on the last day of the interview leaves a lasting impression. But it also works on another level as it is meant to represent the reduction of Nixon’s political life to that one lingering close-up on the television monitor when he realized it’s all over for him. The audience members who remember watching the interviews and can picture the actual close-up they saw on their TV screens are now allowed to share a communion with the audience members who weren’t even born yet and now only have a memory of Langella’s face on the silver screen. In that sense, Langella truly became Nixon, and his performance will not soon be forgotten.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0870111/usercomments-34

A Review of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

CAPTION:  Keanu Reeves wonders if he stares at this sphere long enough, will this movie disappear?

The Day the Audience Shrugged Their Shoulders, 14 December 2008

1/10

Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a stunningly inept remake of the 1950’s classic of the same name. It’s one of those big-budget films so unfathomably dull and inane, you wonder how it ever got made. Whereas the original warned of the dangers of nuclear armament, this modern update boldly chides us for being mean to each other and not taking care of the environment. Gee, Hollywood, thanks for the swell insight! This Christmas season Hollywood teaches us that people can sometimes suck, but only that special kind of film can suck totally.

Although the entire production is horrible from top to bottom, the inert direction of Scott Derrickson and the randomly asinine script from David Scarpa bear most of the blame. The screenplay clearly went through arbitrary rewrites, perhaps after being focus-grouped to death, and shows not a single breath of imagination. Around every turn, it wastes opportunities and insults the intelligence of the audience and gives us not one authentic character or moment to connect to. Even when it thinks it’s being cool (like the lame reveal that those alien spheres are actually “arks” trying to save animal life before the world is annihilated) the script fails miserably. One sphere that is shown on the back of a pick-up truck being attacked by flame-throwers in some foreign desert town inexplicably contains squid, because, well, the shadows of squid inside a giant sphere look kinda neat, that’s why! At least the script teaches us one thing. Apparently all you need to do in order to survive an apocalyptic robotic alien insect attack that devours everything in sight is to hide under a bridge in Central Park!

The saddest part of the film is how the director wastes his talented cast. The always wooden Keanu Reeves was perfectly chosen to play the alien Klaatu, but even he seems to be disbelieving the words that are coming out of his mouth. Poor Jennifer Connelly, an immensely emotive and alluring actress, appears to be in physical pain or constipated for most the film, obviously stunned she agreed to star in this junk. Kathy Bates and John Cleese apparently showed up only for their paychecks and sleepwalk through their lines, and at one pivotal moment where Bates’ Secretary of State attempts to show regret for some bad decisions made, she actually appears to fall asleep in her chair. And then there’s poor little Jaden Smith, who appears bored to tears throughout the film and is given no direction from Derrickson except when he is asked to cry on cue in the supposed emotional climax of the picture that left me feeling sorry for all involved.

However, if anyone should be hung for this travesty, it’s the producers, who must’ve run out of money at some point and filled the gap in funds with some nauseating product placement. How else do we explain Klaatu’s trip to McDonald’s for an important meeting with another of his kind?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is easily the worst film of the year. At least The Happening had its accidentally humorous moments. This clunker offers no such relief. Even the special effects are done in a lazy and unimaginative manner. It’s so awful, I was stunned into stillness while the rest of the audience seemed to shrug their shoulders.

Originally Posted on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0970416/usercomments-170

A Review of “Slumdog Millionaire”

CAPTION:  How long will it be before Dev Patel and Freida Pinto bust out a Bollywood-style dance number?

Not Even Bizarrely Plausible, 8 December 2008
5/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

A young call center worker from Mumbai with a rough-and-tumble past named Jamal (a likable Dev Patel) becomes a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in the hopes that his true love (the beautiful Freida Pinto) will see him on TV and come back to him for good. Much of Slumdog Millionaire is done in flashbacks as the audience learns the personal story behind each of the questions. For some strange reason the filmmakers want us to think a person like Jamal wouldn’t normally know the answers to these random trivia questions, but he does because of his unique life story, see? Well, it’s a mildly interesting central conceit that quickly falls apart. At one point, a policeman questioning Jamal remarks that his story is “bizarrely plausible.” I wish I could say I felt the same. Continue reading