Sunday, February 1, 2009

January 2009


THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008)
For the first half of this ambitious, gently heartbreaking epic, I was swept away by the world of this odd little man born with the physical characteristics of a senior citizen who progressively grows younger.

Dropped on the doorsteps of a young black matron of a New Orleans nursing home by his repulsed father, baby Benjamin---with the face of an elderly Brad Pitt and suffering all the ailments of old age----is raised among the dying and infirmed. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) accepts this freak of nature by giving him unconditional love and allowing him to “grow” to adulthood with the practical acceptance of a woman who has dedicated her life to helping the sick and disturbed.

This odd version of a coming-of-age story is at its best when Benjamin (now about 60 years old) goes to sea with a tugboat caption (the very entertaining Jared Harris) and forms a friendship with the hard-drinking man. Not only does Benjamin end up seeing the world, he manages to survive an incredible encounter with a Nazi submarine. The only misstep in this part of the movie is an overly long, somewhat pointless affair Benjamin has with a rich, bored married woman, played by Tilda Swinton.

But Benjamin is anxious to return to New Orleans and to Daisy, who has been his true love since he was an old man and she was a little girl. (Adding to the complexity of the film, Benjamin narrates his story as his journal is being read by Daisy’s daughter as the now elderly woman lies on her death bed while Hurricane Katrina approaches the city.)

It’s this relationship between Benjamin and Daisy, played as an adult by the ubiquitous Cate Blanchett, that turns a unique cinematic adventure into a pedestrian one. And it doesn’t help that once Benjamin’s character becomes “just” Brad Pitt, without any special effects or makeup, he turns out to be rather dull and lacking in any ambition.

In the final hour of this 2 hour and 47 minute picture, the story grows less and less compelling; it really misses the wide-eyed spirit of the young Benjamin. The movie disintegrates into a predictable Pitt-Blanchett romantic melodrama.

David Fincher, whose directing career has ranged from the grisly “Seven” (1995), the brutal “Fight Club” (1999)---both starring Pitt---and the more conventional murder mystery “Zodiac” (2007), seems an usual choice to helm this feel-good, humanistic tale, but he brings an edge to the first half that keeps the picture from going totally sentimental. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his Benjamin as he grows into a young man and the script by Eric Roth (not coincidentally, the screenwriter for the somewhat similar “Forrest Gump”) seems to run out of gas when it reaches that point.

While the film is loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald 1922 short story, it bears little resemblance to the original. The story focuses on how others react to Benjamin’s reverse aging and brings out the comic aspects of the situation.

Pitt’s performance is serviceable but hardly worthy of an Oscar nomination---he’s just not asked to be very expressive as Benjamin and rarely manages to communicate his character’s inner thoughts.

But Henson’s nomination is very deserving; her Queenie serves as the story’s unbending anchor of both Benjamin’s difficult life journey and the complex structure of the movie. Henson was also memorable in sexier roles as one of Terrence Howard’s prostitutes in “Hustler and Flow” (2005) and as Don Cheadle’s flamboyant girlfriend in “Talk to Me” (2007).

If this “Curious Case” could have maintained the wonderful atmosphere and the fascinating character development it establishes in its first half, it would have been among the finest movies of recent years. But while there is much to admire in the picture, it falls short of its ambitions, settling for familiar life lessons, occasionally life affirming, but too often tiresome and forgettable.


SEVENTH HEAVEN (1927)
and STREET ANGEL (1928)
No one was surprised when 21-year-old Janet Gaynor accepted the first Academy Award for best actress, at a banquet held at the (still standing) Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. That’s because the winners of the inaugural movie awards---the brainchild of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer---were announced, to little notice, three months earlier.

The awards, for films released between Aug. 1, 1927 and July 31, 1928 (that spit-year nonsense lasted through 1933) were given for a performer’s body of working during that time frame. Thus Gayner’s statuette was for three pictures, “Sunrise” (1927), “Seventh Heaven” and “Street Angel.” While F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” is one of the most acclaimed and well-known silents, the two other films were just recently made available on DVD. Both are foreign-set romances directed by Frank Borzage and co-starring Charles Farrell. And even more than “Sunrise,” these films cement Gaynor’s stature as one of the most unaffected, subtle and truthful screen performers of the era.

In “Seventh Heaven,” Gaynor plays the younger sister of a brutish, alcoholic woman of the streets who treats her like a slave. Diane’s life changes suddenly when a sewer worker (Farrell) rescues her from a beating by her sister on the streets of Paris. To keep her from being arrested as a vagrant, Farrell’s Chico poses as her husband and they set up housekeeping just long enough to satisfy city officials.

It doesn’t take long before the dreamy, romantic Chico really does fall in love with Diane. The film takes on more melodramatic trappings as it goes along, but Borzage’s flashy direction and Gaynor’s simple sincerity keep it interesting. Farrell isn’t much of an actor and his listless performance, especially as the story takes on a more spiritual tone, keeps the picture from soaring.

Gaynor gives what may be her best performance in “Street Angel,” Borzage’s follow-up to “Seventh Heaven.” In a poignant introduction, Gaynor’s Italian waif decides that the only way to earn money for food is to sell herself on the street. She’s helpless at attracting men, but soon draws the attention of the police and is forced to run away with the circus to avoid arrest. This opening segment is as inventively directed and perfectly acted as one of Charles Chaplin’s masterpieces.

While on the road, she meets an egotistical painter (Farrell), who joins her in the circus and soon they are inseparable. But, as happened so often in silent dramas, her past catches up with her and their love affair turns heartbreaking.

The combination of Borzage’s fluid direction (seen later in his best talkies, “History is Made at Night” and “The Mortal Storm”) and Gaynor’s easy naturalism and unaffected cuteness, make this one of the best silent romances that I’ve seen.

Gaynor had fewer successes with the coming of sound, but she flourished under the direction of William Wellman, first in “Small Town Girl” (1936) opposite Robert Taylor and James Stewart, and then in the landmark Hollywood drama “A Star Is Born” (1937) as rags-to-riches Esther Blodgett. Two years later, she married Hollywood costume designer Gilbert Adrian and retired from the screen. In the 1950s, she had a handful of TV roles and also appeared in the film “Bernardine” (1957). Her next, and last, credit is a 1981 guest appearance on “The Love Boat.”

The following year she badly hurt in a San Francisco car accident, which also injured her husband Paul Gregory and fellow actress Mary Martin. Gaynor never completely recovered and died in 1984.


THE WRESTLER (2008)
If he had been willing to play the game, Mickey Rourke might have become the finest actor of his generation. Instead, in his mid 30s, he fled Hollywood, determined to become a professional boxer and enjoy the fruits of his fame. Working occasionally in second-rate movies, he quickly gained a reputation as an actor no one wanted to work with.

In the past ten years, he has occasionally shown up in small roles in major films, memorably in Sean Penn’s “The Pledge” (2000), but a starting role in an awards-season release seemed out of reach for this once hot actor.

Which makes “The Wrestler” one of the more surprising comeback stories in years. Rourke, who with writer Robert Siegel and director Darren Aronofsky, helped tailor the role to align with his own rocky life, gives an emotionally raw and physically imposing performance as Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a pro wrestler ten years past his prime.

Living alone in a shabby trailer park somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, the Ram is reduced to low-paying gigs in high school gyms and sparsely attended autograph shows. It’s both sad and admirable that he still gives the remaining fans such an enthusiastic, raucous show.

It’s also pitiful that his closest relationship is with a 40ish exotic dancer (Marisa Tomei) he chats with at the local strip joint; he’s diluted himself into thinking that she sees him as more than another lap-dance customer. The Ram, trying to turn his busted life around, also makes a clumsy attempt to reconcile with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who he had abandoned when she was a child.

This is a gritty, nearly hopeless story of lives just one step up from homelessness. And Rourke sheds all pretense of stardom: he looks terrible, his face is red and puffy covered by his foolish mop of long blonde hair and his body looks equally awful, taking on that cartoonish, buffed-up wrestler look. Too many drugs, muscle enhancing and others, and years of the beating (brutal even if choreographed) experienced in the ring, has left Rourke’s Ram a physical and mental wreck. This tough guy even wears a hearing aid.

Aronofsky, who previous films “Pi” (1998) and “Requiem for a Dream (2000) were ambitious failures, has fashioned a simple, but extremely rich character study of that type that flourished in the 1970s, but are rarities these days. He took a huge risk in giving the role to Rourke (Nicholas Cage was originally attached to the project) and it paid off as the 52-year-old delivers one of 2008’s best performances and, with the Oscar nomination in hand, could launch the second act of his career. (If he doesn’t drift off course again.)

Tomei, who earned a surprising, but deserving Oscar nod, nearly matches Rourke with her fearless, complex performance as Cassidy, a struggling single mother carving out a living as a stripper who knows she’s past her prime (though I have to say that the 44-year-old actress looks as sexy as ever).

She gives what may be the most realistic depiction of a stripper ever put on film; more than just an alluring fantasy for Ram, she’s a fully realized character whose story might easily have been the subject of her own movie. This once dismissed actress---after her shocking Oscar win for “My Cousin Vinny” (1992)---has emerged in recent years as a first-rate supporting performer, with impressive work in “In the Bedroom” (2001), “Factotum” (2005) and last year’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”


WAKING THE DEAD (2000)
After his performances as legendary runner Steve Prefontaine in “Without Limits” (1997) and as the heroin junkie in “Jesus’ Son” (1999), I expected Billy Crudup to emerge as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. He gave another good performance as the thoughtful rock star who befriends a young writer in “Almost Famous” (2000), but since then, including this disappointing picture, he seems to be just treading water.

The political romance starts out interesting enough with Crudup as Fielding Pierce, a politically ambitious lawyer who falls for Sarah, an equally politically passionate woman, played by Jennifer Connelly. While he believes the way to make an impact is by holding an elected office, she’s already given up on that route and is focusing on changing the system. Her confrontational attitude toward the big-money pols he has to court tests their relationship right from the start.

But just as the film seems to be shaping up as an examination of love vs. political convictions, Sarah is killed in what looks like a political assassination (she had been involved in a group working against the Chilean government). As the movie flashes back and forth between their romance when she was alive and a few years later when he’s running for office, it becomes less and less involving and eventually ridiculous. Fielding becomes obsessed with whether or not Sarah was really killed---he keeps hearing and seeing signs of her---until he practically has a nervous breakdown.

Even by the end of the film, I was unsure if she was dead or alive. But long before that, Fielding had become such a confused and unfocused character that I stopped caring about him.

Keith Gordon, an actor turned director, earned much praise for the realism in his first two pictures, “The Chocolate War” (1988) and “A Midnight Clear” (1992). He never comes close to that on “Waking the Dead.”

Crudup, who turned 40 last year, seems happier working on stage, where he’s earned a couple of Tony nominations in recent years. But if he’s going to turn his movie career around, he needs a major role in a big film. In the last 10 years he’s fallen behind similar screen types (but all a bit younger than him) such as Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix. I don’t think any of them are better actors than Crudup, but they’ve made the most of their talent and that’s what really counts in Hollywood.


THE READER (2008)
This minor addition to the ever-growing list of Holocaust-themed movies----2008 also saw “The Counterfeiters,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Defiance”----is worth seeing for the unforgettable performance by Kate Winslet as a one-time concentration camp guard.

At the center of the film is a summer-long secret affair between Michael, a shy German high school boy (David Kross), and Winslet’s reclusive thirtysomething Hanna. For reasons I’m not quite sure of, director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) shows their rendezvous in great detail, creating a voyeuristic tone to this part of the film. I’ll never object to scenes featuring Winslet sans clothes, but I think the extensive nudity, in this case, tends to objectify the characters. It’s hard to absorb the meaning of what a character is saying when the camera is pointed at their naked butt.

Years after the affair, while Michael is studying law at university, he’s shocked to see his ex-lover in the docket at a war-crimes trial his class is observing, where Hanna’s being charged for her actions as a prison guard. He had known nothing of her past nor what had happened to her since their affair ended.

Both in the classroom (Bruno Ganz plays the professor) and while watching the trial, Michael comes off as a weak, shallow character, ill suited to become a trial lawyer or the center of a movie. Even in the later scenes when he’s played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes, he’s indecisive, uninteresting and confused. I really had a hard time buying that Michael was so affected by this affair that finding out later that she was a war criminal forever marked his life. (But clearly it worked for enough people that it nabbed an Oscar nomination for best picture and best director.)

Nevertheless, the film provides the most complex, contradictory and challenging role of Winslet’s already impressive career. She’s able to mesh all aspects of Hanna into a very real, very flawed person, whether she’s revealing the stern, unrepentant guard who let innocent Jews die or the sensual lover of a curious teen discovering his sexuality. It’s a daring, difficult performance of a woman with a moral compass gone haywire.

This is Winslet’s sixth nomination, the most ever earned by the age of 33 in Oscar history, (none other than Bette Davis held the record before) but she’s never come away a winner. This should be her year.


REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (2008)
Clearly something went horribly wrong in adapting this acclaimed Richard Yates novel for the screen. Either that or the dialogue reads a heckuva lot better than it sounds coming out of actors’ mouths.

Frank and April Wheeler are a young couple living in the suburbs in the mid-50s who attempt to break out of the rut of everyday life. What starts out as an interesting story idea----April convinces Frank they should move to France to rediscover the adventurous spirit they had before marriage and children---quickly becomes monotonous, shrill and pretentious. Their disappointments are reduced to speeches that sound arch and rehearsed; no one sounds spontaneous.

And it’s not for a lack of acting talent. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, two of the cinema’s finest players who established their chemistry together in the blockbuster epic “Titanic” (1997), do their best to breathe life into these cardboard characters but Justin Haythe’s script and Sam Mendes’ direction leaves them in the cold.

Mendes (Winslet’s off-screen husband) can’t seem to escape his theatrical background; all his films have suffered from unnatural dialogue and flat performances. “American Beauty” (1999), his Oscar winning debut, overcame those flaws in part because of Alan Ball’s brilliant screenplay, but “The Road to Perdition” (2002) was great looking but empty and artificial and “Jarhead” managed to make Marines sounds like stage actors.

I also thought it was a mistake to set “Revolutionary Road” in the 1950s. Staying true to the book’s time frame turns a timeless dilemma into a period piece, which feels removed from our own lives. We don’t need a history lesson about the identity crisis of a previous generation when the same issues could be played out in a contemporary setting.

The two best scenes in the film both involve Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon, who plays the mentally troubled adult son of the Wheeler’s real estate agent. Because all the other characters are so reserved, his outbursts and inappropriate comments jumpstart the film (though it doesn’t last). But, in retrospect, he’s just a theatrical gimmick---no more real than any of the other characters. What could be more heavy-handed: the only person who can see the truth of the Wheelers’ lives is being treated at a mental institute.

As is befitting a misguided picture, the story ends unsatisfactory, avoiding the hard answers and making easy assumptions about unhappiness and its connection to where and how you live. I don’t know the Yates novel, so it’s hard to speculate on the meaning (and Mendes doesn’t help) but you could look at this film as a condemnation of petty, unappreciative women who ruin the lives of their more clear-thinking husbands. I can’t believe that’s what Yates or Mendes intended, but that just shows what a muddled film this is.


49 UP (2005)
If you haven’t seen one or more entries in this one of a kind series of documentaries, which started with “Seven Up” in 1964, you’ve missed something extraordinary.

The original, directed by Paul Almond, was made for British television without any thoughts of sequels. He spoke with 14 seven-year-olds, from various social classes, about their lives and hopes for their future. Michael Apted, an assistant on the project, who went on to direct “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980) and “Gorillas in the Midst” (1988) among many other films, picked up on the idea to re-interview this group every seven years. This seventh edition captures them at 49, most settled into satisfying lives after struggling through uncertainty in the past. No matter how unremarkable these people’s current lives are, when you see them captured at various stages of their lives (Apted uses clips from all the films), how they’ve changed and how their dreams have played out over 42 years, it is utterly fascinating.

Leading off “49 Up,” and maybe the most interesting of the subjects, is Tony, once a feisty seven-year-old who, after failing as a horse jockey, has made a very good living as a cabbie. Now he and his wife, also a cab driver, their children grown, are thinking of moving to the south of Spain to escape the takeover of the East End of London by immigrants. As Tony says, “I just want to be with my own people.”

The group runs the gamut: from Neil, a college dropout who clearly struggles with mental problems, has been homeless and now lives a solitary life, to a trio of East End girls, Lynn, Jackie and Sue, who seem less than thrilled to being part of the film and having their lives in public view. (A few of the original 14 have dropped out of the series.)

You didn’t have to be a sociologist to predict that the most successful subjects would be those who came from upper-class families and attended the better schools. Yet, the huge advantage becomes astonishingly clear when you hear three precocious, well-to-do seven-year-olds (John, Andrew and Charles) foretell their future with amazing accuracy.

In addition to cataloguing their jobs, marriages, divorces and offspring, Apted doesn’t ignore the effects of the film series has had on those who continue to agree to the interviews. How they are portrayed and their interaction with the now 67-year-old director has become an important aspect of their lives, even if they won’t admit it.

Apted calls the series “the drama of ordinary life,” but it’s also a stark reminder that where you’re born and educated continues to play a big role in the path life takes.


DOUBT (2008)
Great acting goes a long way in elevating average drama. John Patrick Shanley’s play portrays life at a Boston Catholic school in 1964 at a moment when many in the church were trying to adapt to a modernizing society. The theme plays out in both heated arguments and more subtle depictions of the cloistered life, as the head nun accuses the parish priest of acting improperly with an alter boy. While “Doubt” offers a complex examination of three approaches to faith, personified by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, it never evolves beyond what is essentially a good idea for a first act.

Streep plays Sister Aloysius, an inflexible disciplinarian whose idea of education and faith are stuck in another century. This is a woman who finds ballpoint pens offensively decadent. As Sister James (Adams) says at one point, Sister Aloysius runs the school “like a prison” and the students live in fear of her.

Sister James has a pure, unquestioning love of her students and the church and reluctantly is drawn into Sister Aloysius’ world of darkness and suspicion.

Father Flynn (Hoffman) represents the more modern, friendly, less authoritarian approach, which puts him at immediate odds with Sister Aloysius.

But despite the fine portraits of these characters (and their points of view) everything plays out exactly as you’d expect and by the end of the film the burden of being symbols more than real people takes it toll on the actor’s believability. Meanwhile, the metaphors pile up----wind and rain storms, a mouse-killing feline, burnt out light bulbs, pictures of dead Popes. Shanley, best known for his Oscar-winning script for “Moonstruck” (1987), probably made a mistake by not only adapting his own play but also directing. (His previous work behind the camera was 18 years ago on the forgettable Tom Hanks film “Joe and the Volcano.”) In “Doubt,” Shanley tries way too hard to make his points, spending too much time pushing the obvious.

I’m not sure what I’m suppose to make of a scene where he contrasts the priests dining on red meat, indulging in wine and telling jokes with the sisters sitting silently, joylessly eating bland food. Does anyone need to be told that, in 1964, women sat well behind men in all aspects of society?

The topic of a priest accused of sexual abuse is certainly timely, but “Doubt” doesn’t’ offer much insight on the issue, other than showing that the church has always looked the other way.

The film really amounts to a showcase for three very talented actors. Hoffman and Adams are particularly impressive, while Streep’s character is so over-the-top that it’s hard to buy her as anything more than a stand-in for all those repressed, mean-spirited nuns who created a generation of therapy-seeking Catholics.

The film’s highlight comes when Sister Aloysius calls in the suspected victim’s mother for a chat. Viola Davis, as the mother, gives an emotional but measured performance as a woman who lives in a completely different world than the sister. It’s only when the real world leaks into this cloistered story that it feels like something more than a heavy-handed lesson in tolerance.


BEST FILMS OF 2008
As I look over my list of the year’s ten best movies, I notice that most of them are about men with an obsession, who refuse to follow normal paths to see through their dreams or help others attain theirs. There’s more common ground than you’d think between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s crazed stage director Caden Cotard, Sean Penn’s gay activist Harvey Milk, Mickey Rourke’s down-and-out wrestler “The Ram,” Frank Langella’s disgraced Richard Nixon, Michael Sheen’s driven David Frost, Josh Brolin’s ambitious George W. Bush and Clint Eastwood’s unbending Walt Kowalski.

There are still some 2008 movies I hope to see between now and the Oscars, but, for now, here’s my Top 10. (My complete year-end list, including my picks for the best performances, directors, screenwriters and foreign films will be posted on my blog a few days before the Feb. 22 Oscar ceremony.)

1 Synecdoche, New York----Writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s wide-ranging comic look at the cluttered intersection of life and art and the inevitability of mortality. It’s the year’s only great film.
2 Milk----Both a compelling profile of a man determined to make a difference and the movement he helped ignite.
3 The Wrester----After all these years ridiculing professional wrestling, it took Mickey Rourke to make me feel the pain.
4 Frost/Nixon-----As much as I hated the man when he was president, Nixon has turned into one of the most fascinating movie characters of our time.
5 W.------Ditto. This is the best Oliver Stone film since, well, “Nixon.” Coincidence?
6 The Visitor----Finally a movie about immigrants that doesn’t pull its punches.
7 Vicky Cristina Barcelona----Woody shows that, if only occasionally, he still has it. This is his best comedy since “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994).
8 Frozen River----An unflinching look at the working poor and the bad decisions made out of desperation.
9 Gran Torino-----Imagine Dirty Harry as an old man living in Detroit and still looking to kick butt. And it’s funny, too.
10 In Bruges-----There’s more humor, truth and interesting characters in this little British film about a pair of hit men than in the entire output of Hollywood’s Christmas releases.

Just missing the top 10 were “Elegy,” the superb rumination on age and sexuality adapted from a Philip Roth novel; “Stop-Loss,” a hard look at returning Iraqi War vets; and “Tropic Thunder,” the hilarious satire of Hollywood actors, producers and agents and the terrible films they spend so much money and effort to make.


3 comments:

Dana King said...

Have you seen the video on Funny or Die comparing BENJAMIN BUTTON to FOREST GUMP? Excellent stuff.

I haven't seen THE WRESTLER, though it has potential. I've been a Mickey Rourke fan since DINER and ANGEL HEART, and I hope he can get things untracked again. Shame to see such a talent wasted.

You comments are in line with much of what I've read about REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. It's too bad; the book was great. The early part of the book seems to imply what you said the movie does, that Winslet's character is just a self-indulgent suburban wife, but that's not how it plays out at all.

You make an interesting comment about not resetting the period. Writers always complain about movies changing books; you catch the fact they are completely different storytelling media. Yates wrote REV ROAD in that period, but the points he's making would probably be better grasped by modern audiences if they took place today. The points are still valid, but leaving it in the Fifties makes it too easy for the audience to look at it as how things were then, forgetting they aren't really different now.

Anonymous said...

Great review!! Keep on going, Doug.

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