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.

A Review of the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading”

The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading is one of those movies with a farcical and convoluted plot involving idiotic one-up-manship that is essentially an excuse for the filmmakers to poke fun and for their stars to have a great time doing silly bits. Here our zany Brothers return to one of their favorite themes: what happens when simpletons get in way over their heads with a cynical league of morons. Clooney, McDormand, Malcovich, Swinton, and especially Pitt, all whip out their best comedic timing and smarmy facial expressions in this tale of misguided blackmail and bumbling counter-intelligence. Unlike their last two comedic travesties (the barely there Intolerable Cruelty and the wacko Ladykillers), the Coens’ focus is sharper and crueler in this Reading and pointed directly at the government, society, themselves and their audience.

I’ve seen four out of the last five Coen Brothers’ films in crowded theaters where their faithful often laugh out of turn at some of the most unfunny of moments. Burn After Reading has plenty of those moments, as well as some truly funny ones, but one has to wonder why such a talented pair would shoot so low as to desire the elicitation of that “solo” laughter from the loons in the audience that constitute the filmmakers’ personal league of morons. When Clooney’s hardwood floor-loving womanizer unveils his “special project” to McDormand’s plastic-surgery obsessed internet speed dater, it’s a hilarious anti-climax to what had been a long build-up in previous scenes that had the whole crowd groaning and giggling. But isn’t Clooney’s rear-entry sexual-aid device a bit emblematic of how the Coens’ have been treating their audience lately? Later, when Malcovich’s alcoholic ex-CIA analyst literally takes a hatchet to another character, it again elicits uproars, but I couldn’t help but think the Coens’ were symbolically taking out their frustration on the faithful who have been befuddled by their recent offerings. We’re a cynical bunch, and so are the Coens, and whether they see themselves as the simpletons in over their heads and their audience as the league of morons, or vice versa, is never clear.

At least with this slow Burn we don’t have to deal with the pretentious philosophical ruminations of their literary bound and insanely overrated Oscar-winner, No Country for Old Men. While this might not recapture the pure joy of their original dark comedy, Raising Arizona, this star-studded and occasionally hilarious Burn After Reading is the Coen Brothers’ most entertaining film in years, even if we’re all a little more bruised from the wear.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0887883/usercomments-75

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Check out my archives for past Coen Brothers’ reviews:

No Country for Old Menhttps://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/a-review-of-the-coen-brothers-no-country-for-old-men/

O Brother, Where Art Thou? :  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0190590/usercomments-616

Fargohttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116282/usercomments-316

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Are you part of The Coen Brothers’ League of Morons?  Feel free to share your rankings of their films.  Here’s my rankings from best to worst:

Fargo 10/10

Blood Simple 10/10

Miller’s Crossing 9/10

Barton Fink 9/10

Raising Arizona 9/10

O Brother, Where Art Thou? 9/10

The Big Lebowski 8/10

Burn After Reading 7/10

The Man Who Wasn’t There 7/10

No Country for Old Men 6/10

The Hudsucker Proxy 5/10

Intolerable Cruelty 5/10

Ladykillers 5/10

A Review of Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton”

Stylish Legal Thriller Ends in Hung Jury, 16 October 2007
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

So there’s this giant corporation that creates some super-pesticide (or something) that gets into the ground water of some rural upper Midwestern farmers, and low and behold, leads to all kinds of hellish cancer (exactly what the in-house scientists warned of) that then–Surprise!– turns into a three billion dollar class action lawsuit. Six years into the seemingly endless proceedings, the lead attorney defending the evil corporation (Tom Wilkinson, channeling Peter Finch from “Network”) turns into a raving morally conflicted lunatic. In steps the firm’s “fixer” (George Clooney, somber and serious), the film’s title character, to make sense of things and perform damage control. Meanwhile, the corporation’s in-house counsel (Tilda Swinton, perfect as an unethical lawyer in way over her head) scrambles towards a fiscally feasible settlement before the truth is leaked.

Despite the convoluted legal mumbo-jumbo, “Michael Clayton” is entertaining enough, as much of it results in some well executed scenes of wire-tapping and murder. In his directorial debut, screenwriter Tony Gilroy successfully plays with some stylistic elements. Most of this occurs in the film’s editing as time-frames and POV’s are occasionally jumbled, and dialogue frequently overlaps onto scene transitions. It keeps the viewers on their heels even when what’s going is rather dry and boring. The early scenes with Swinton’s character are especially well done, as is the elliptical focus on a car bombing.

The performances are all top-notch, with the normally smug Clooney nailing the lead role with just the right amount of nonchalant star power. Unfortunately, the attempts at character development are superficial and stretch credibility. If Clayton is such a legal genius and so good at fixing problems, why does he have gambling issues and get sucked into bad business deals with his clichéd shifty brother? Clayton is also given an obnoxiously precocious son who plays into some of the film’s more literary motifs, an ailing father, and a noble cop brother (yes, another brother) who factors too conveniently into the film’s conclusion. None of these elements or unnecessary characters explain why Clayton is the way he is, or for that matter, who he really is.

“Michael Clayton” comes to a modestly satisfying conclusion, though the internal conflict of Clayton isn’t as compelling as Gilroy so valiantly wants it to be. Thanks to some stylish attempts to invigorate what is traditionally a low energy genre and some excellent performances, the film scores slightly higher than a top-line John Grisham adaptation, but still amounts to nothing extraordinary.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0465538/usercomments-62