The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie poster

 

This Dork Reporter is slowly cooling on former favorite David Fincher. His underrated first feature Alien3 is highly compromised, but easily the next most thematically interesting entry in the Alien franchise (after, of course, Ridley Scott’s rich original). Se7en is one of the most gut-wrenchingly disturbing movies ever made, notable for having virtually no violence appear onscreen, despite its reputation. Fight Club is perhaps the movie of the nineties, an eccentric blast of countercultural fury. But almost everything that followed seemed a disappointment. The Game was wildly implausible without the pop and sizzle that carried the similarly over-the-top Fight Club. Panic Room was an empty exercise in style, seemingly conceived solely for Fincher to experiment with new digital techniques that would allow him to create impossibly continuous camera moves through the walls and floors of a city brownstone (and possibly also as another vehicle for star Jodie Foster’s persona as a single parent to be reckoned with). Zodiac was highly praised both as a tight procedural thriller and as a tour-de-force of still more bleeding-edge digital special effects (so good that most viewers wouldn’t suspect that many sequences were not traditionally shot in camera), but it did absolutely nothing for me. I’m wondering if I missed some key aspect of it that would open it up to me – and that perhaps I should reappraise it now that a director’s cut is available on DVD.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonYou’re only as old as you feel

The advance marketing for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button excited me at first, but I was apprehensive when I learned the screenplay (loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) was by Eric Roth, the writer of Forrest Gump. Indeed, it did turn out to be constructed in a similar vein and tone, even mimicking some of the corniest devices of Gump: the famous digital feather twirling in the wind has been replaced by an unlikely reappearing hummingbird; Forrest’s mother’s aphorism “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” has its analog in the less memorable “you never know what’s coming for you”; even Forrest Gump’s parade of cameos by famous or infamous Americans is here continued with an appearance by Teddy Roosevelt. Against my will, this cutesiness did succeed in drawing me in for most of its running time. I was engrossed for much of it, but its leisurely three-hour running time honestly strained my patience by about the two-hour mark.

Fincher and Roth relate the decades-long story via the framing device of Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) one true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, introducing her adult daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to her biological father through a dramatic reading of his diary, with gaps filled in from her own memory. A soon-to-be infamous hurricane brews outside the Louisiana hospital room, shortly to erase much of Benjamin and Daisy’s milieu. The multiple layers of storytelling result is no less than three speaking voices to narrate the tale in voiceover. One framing device too far?

Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonCate Blanchett is a beautiful woman, but it’s eerie to see her appear to be in her 20s

The central conceit of the story is a fantastically unfortunate disease that afflicts one Benjamin Button. His body is born aged and decrepit, and ages backwards while his mind matures normally. As he aptly puts it when still a boy, he was “born old.” Taking this story as anything other than a parable or fairy tale would be to miss the point, but the photorealistic special effects place the movie firmly in believable reality. So this viewer’s mind (when not distracted by the high-tech visuals) wandered into logistics. Some of the rules don’t seem to hold up: as a chronological adolescent, he manifests the typical sexual desires and self-centeredness. But his aged body strangely has the physical fitness and stamina/potency to act them out (we see him preening in front of a mirror, seemingly only aged from the neck up). Also, presumably, Benjamin can be assured to die when his body regresses to infancy. So, given his physical state at birth, is his death date pre-ordained? If he had been born with an infantilized body of a 20-year old, could he have been assured of only having two decades to live? Is he impervious to harm? Indeed, he somehow manages to survive being stepped on as a newborn, and later, is one of the few survivors of a German submarine attack on an outclassed tugboat during World War II.

Benjamin is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), an unfortunately stereotypical African American character, and spends his youth and old age (and vice versa!) at the nursing home she manages. There, he meets his one true love Daisy, the niece of one of the tenants. Benjamin’s curious condition prevents him from having any kind of normal friendship or relationship with her, so he leaves home to find his way in the world. He has his first serious relationship with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), an older woman who thinks she’s younger than him (later, we learn that meeting him helped her change her life). Eventually, Benjamin and Daisy do meet at roughly the same physical age and consummate their mutual love. When Daisy quite rightly asks Benjamin if he will still love her when she’s old and wrinkly, he jokingly turns it around and asks if she will still love him when he has acne. But what first amuses eventually comes back around to become one of the most painfully emotional sequences in the whole movie: Benjamin does after all regress into senility (or perhaps even Alzheimer’s, before it was identified), trapped in the body of a pimply teenager. As always, the point is that the bell curve of a human life can be seen as a mirror image of itself: here, the impetuousness, aggression, and mood swings of senility are equated with the tumult of adolescence. Likewise, extreme youth and old age both are characterized as the ultimate states of dependence and vulnerability.

Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonTilda Swinton as Benjamin’s first lover, an older woman whom he allows to believe is younger

The special effects that allow an aged version of Pitt’s face to be superimposed over another, diminutive actor are light years in advance of the still-creepy digital rotoscoping animation style used in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Beowulf (although the latter is an excellent film in spite of the ineffective effects). But no matter how eerily fluid and seamless the effects, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching something largely actualized by animators equipped with a giant computer server farm. These obviously cutting edge techniques are more comprehensible to me than whatever the makeup and/or CG wizards did to make 44-year-old Pitt and the 39 Blanchett appear to be in their smooth-skinned and limber-limbed 20s. Also, it must be said that an artificially aged Pitt in his hypothetical 50s and 60s is a dead ringer for Robert Redford.

There must be something in the bottled water filmmakers have been drinking recently, for I’ve noticed a decided trend towards movies about aging recently. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (read The Dork Report review) and Tamara Jenkin’s The Savages (read The Dork Report review) both look at the senility than often comes at the end of life, and how it may affect the lives of those still living, for better or for worse. But another pair of movies dealt with mortality and the fear of unfinished business through the lens of fantasy: Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (read The Dork Report review) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (read The Dork Report review). All of these movies tap into most people’s fear of aging: not only of losing physical health and thus independence, but also of the reliability of one’s own mind.


Official movie site: www.benjaminbutton.com

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A Clash of Faiths: Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies

Ridley Scott

Body of Lies movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s follow up to the gentle comedy of A Good Year (read The Dork Report review) and the crime drama American Gangster (partly modeled, I think, on Michael Mann’s epic Heat), returns to the politically-themed yet still action-oriented territory he first visited in Black Hawk Down. The key difference here is that, like Peter Weir’s The Kingdom and Pete Travis’ Vantage Point (read The Dork Report review), Body of Lies is set in a fantasyland safely divorced from the very, very real events that inspired Black Hawk Down. All of these films have the air of gritty realism, but still indulge in the wish fulfillment of a very cinematic war on terror.

Body of Lies can be seen as completing a kind of Middle East trilogy for Scott, after the aforementioned Black Hawk Down plus the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (read The Dork Report review). Screenwriter William Monahan wrote both Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies (adapted from the novel by David Ignatius). But of the three, Body of Lies is clearly the least serious.

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of LiesMesopotamia, and step on it!

No doubt movie studio executives have calculated down to the last cent that world audiences are still too sensitive to actual terrorist attacks like London and Madrid in order to buy tickets for dramatic recreations on the big screen. Instead, most mainstream terrorism-themed movies are basically entertainments that only have the feel of serious import, and none of the substance. Body of Lies invents analogous terrorist attacks such as a sleeper cell blowing up their London flat, and later, the bombing of a U.S. marine base in Turkey (I hope O’Neal – Demi Moore – from Scott’s G.I. Jane – read The Dork Report Review – wasn’t stationed there). Vantage Point is a little more creative in imagining a worst-case-scenario of a presidential assassination, but has no interest in the repercussions beyond a Rashomon-like recounting of the immediate aftermath.

So audiences get films like this, where shadowy CIA operatives sneak around Iraq and Jordan, saving the world from Islamic fundamentalism. They have seemingly limitless resources but no government oversight, and anything is possible with a little computer hacking. Meanwhile, more serious and realistic movies are ignored, like In the Valley of Elah (read The Dork Report review) and the truly excellent but emotionally devastating United 93. In comparison, Scott’s Black Hawk Down was unafraid to recreate actual events still raw in the American public’s memory: the catastrophic marine incursion into Somalia in 1993. And even to limit the scope to Scott’s own oeuvre, Kingdom of Heaven is a much smarter consideration of the clash of faiths in the Middle East.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Golshifteh Farahani in Body of LiesLeo meets cute with an Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani)

Body of Lies is Russell Crowe’s fourth film with Scott, following Gladiator, A Good Year, and American Gangster. Here, he packs on some serious poundage to enter the same schlubby mode he debuted in Michael Mann’s The Insider, seasoned with a little of the crass bastard he played in A Good Year. Leonardo DiCaprio, on temporary loan from Martin Scorsese, sports a scrappy beard but still looks like a teenager. The pretty boy is constantly getting beaten up, cut, bruised, and losing fingers. But he meets cute with pretty Iranian nurse Aisah (Golshifteh Farahani), so that’s alright, then.


Official movie site: www.body-of-lies.com

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Ridley Scott’s A Good Year

Ridley Scott

A Good Year movie poster

 

Scott returns to France for the first time since his 1977 feature film debut The Duellists (read The Dork Report review) for the fluffy soufflé A Good Year. Maximillian Skinner (Russell Crowe) – hardly the most subtle of names – is a self-proclaimed asshole that inherits his uncle’s winemaking estate in Provence. His Uncle Henry (Albert Finney, who also appeared in The Duellists) raised him there, but evidently failed to impart the kinds of life lessons that would have moulded Skinner into a decent human being capable of savoring the joys of life. The ideal life as defined in the film is essentially everything that a life of leisure in Provence provides: namely, wine and women. But Skinner’s life in London is made up of much of the very same, so the solution to fixing Skinner’s poisoned soul is not to add something that is missing, but rather to subtract something: his assholeness. Skinner does sometimes manifest some self-awareness; one moment he seems to genuinely relish his life as the most venal of London stockbrokers, but the next he professes a love we’ve never before seen for his uncle and the simple life of Provence.

Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe in A Good YearRussell Crowe views his handiwork, writ large upon Marion Cotillard’s derrière

Skinner’s wavering character complements a number of confusing plot holes. A running mystery is the mysterious provenance of an exceptional “garage wine” (limited batches by tiny operations, sometimes literally in a garage). Didier (Francis Dulot), the longtime tender of the Skinner vinyard, admits to deliberately producing undrinkably vile wine under the vinyard’s banner, in an attempt to run down the value of the place and hopefully disinterest Skinner in selling it. But is he simultaneously directing his real talents into the making of the mysterious garage wine? The plot thread is dropped and we never learn for sure. The cool closing credits make the film seem more entertainingly screwball than it actually was, and there’s also an utterly bewildering coda involving Skinner’s snarky assistant Gemma (Archie Panjabi) meeting a rapper and his agent. Huh?

Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe in A Good YearRussell Crowe learns what’s important in life: hot French girls

I’m not sure if Crowe has the same sort of Cary Grant-like appeal for women that George Clooney has in spades, but there is plenty of eye candy for male viewers. The luscious Californian backpacker Christie (Abbie Cornish) appears on Skinner’s doorstep claiming to be his only blood relative, and thus a rival to his inheritance of the estate. French actress Marion Cotillard would later disguise herself very unflatteringly to play the frail, sickly Edith Piaf in the turgid biopic La Vie En Rose, but here she uncorks her full-on Gallic gorgeousness as Fanny (again, another of the movie’s unsubtle names – for she rather spectacularly lifts her skirt in an outdoors cafe, to the delight of the entire town and, admittedly, this Dork Reporter). One of the funniest recurring gags is the priapic Skinner’s helpless doubletakes to any of many displays of ripe breasts and bums. But unfortunately, one of the other recurring jokes is his repeated involuntary exposures to animal dung.

Abbie Cornish in A Good YearAbbie Cornish as the cousin Skinner wishes he didn’t have, for more reasons than one

A Good Year takes quite a long time to get going, but does seem to pick up some comedic energy once Skinner’s cold London heart defrosts while courting Fanny in the second act. Ridley Scott can always be counted for fine art direction and cinematography, but here he wields his talents bluntly. Even the color temperature is clichéd, lest any viewers miss the point; Provence is amber-hued, and London is steely electric blue. The right choice for Skinner is never in doubt; living on a winemaking estate in Provence with a beautiful French girl is a fantasy probably every human being on earth shares, asshole or not.


Official movie site: www.agoodyear.com

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Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott

Kingdom of Heaven movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s video introduction to the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended version of the film. The Director’s Cut represents his intentions, and is “the best version” of the film. The most significant restoration he singles out is a subplot involving Princess Sibylla’s son. This version is long, yes, but always engrossing and interesting. It’s incredible that this much material was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and dedication was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the editing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the theater, but it’s perfect for home viewing.

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenGallic Goddess Eva Green

Kingdom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were sharing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in relative stability. The wise King Baldwin IV and the cynical but basically decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely preserving the fragile stalemate. By and large, Muslim characters are presented as more sane and civilized than the Christians. Interestingly, Jews are mentioned but are absent from the proceedings – evidently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the relevant history, they had little political power at the time. Indeed, Christian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ramshackle European layover camp along the route to the Holy Land proclaims to prospective Crusaders that “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Christian army is about to be overrun by the Muslim army, one priest advises everyone to “Convert to Islam. Repent later.”

Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a widowed French blacksmith swept up in vast historical events. Bloom’s performance as the real-life historical figure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is certainly earnest and handsome, but without the sympathetic starpower of a true leading man. Balian is a largely passive man caught up in key moments of history by the arbitrary whims of birth and luck, not unlike Forrest Gump. A plot not driven by the actions of the protagonist could be seen as a sign of bad screenwriting, but I’m prepared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an interesting core concept together.

Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson in Kingdom of HeavenLiam Neeson teaches his young padawan Orlando Bloom the ways of the Force

Balian discovers he is the illegitimate son to the Knight of Jerusalem Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He inherits the mantle and is launched on a journey that makes him a knight, friend and counselor to the wise King Baldwin (Edward Norton), lover of his beautiful sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implausible is his sudden emergence as a master swordsman, military strategist, architect of fortresses, civil engineer of irrigation systems, and honorable lord who treats his subjects fairly. True, he is established early on as an “enginer” who despairs have having fought in meaningless conflicts and designed war machines for the slaughter of innocents. But it is absurd for this largely uneducated man to wield such knowledge and wisdom.

Moreover, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruction) leads to the slaughter of an entire army and to an evil man becoming king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a married princess, but he later hypocritically decides sleeping with her is no longer morally acceptable when her husband Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenThis review can’t have enough pictures of Eva Green

The villainous Guy is cartoonishly fey and sneering, and probably not coincidentally the most obviously French of all the characters (perhaps for the best, few other cast members attempt to affect French accents). It is suggested that he knows his son has leprosy, and callously banks on him dying and thus allowing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The filmmakers’ intentions may have been to draw an analog to Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Christian to purge the Holy Land of infidel Muslims.

Special mention must go to Edward Norton, excellent as King Baldwin IV, whose advanced leprosy left him a faceless man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a backhanded slight to Norton; he expertly conveys intelligence and wisdom through his voice and body language alone.

Edward Norton in Kingdom of HeavenEdward Norton as the original man in the iron mask

Interestingly for a Hollywood epic, Kingdom of Heaven actually features very few of the grand battles usually required for the genre. The tension-and-release structure of William Monahan’s screenplay is almost musical. After a long buildup, the first conflict is curtailed before it begins. King Baldwin cannily negotiates for peace by personally showing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) illness; also, his reputation as in intelligent man precedes him. The second battle happens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spectacular defense of Jerusalem against the Muslim army. Other directors might not have been able to resist wowing us with spectacular battles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s interests are admirably elsewhere: in the characters.

On release in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, only insofar as they were both historical epics. It’s a doubly unfair comparison in that Troy, a far inferior film, is set hundreds of years earlier and based on a work of literature. Kingdom of Heaven was interpreted as a direct commentary on US incursions in the Middle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breathtaking gaffes (in a presidency full of them) was to cast his war on terror as a “crusade.” If he ever screens Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he will gain a little perspective and be inspired to read up on the long, complicated three-way religious conflict in The Middle East.


Official movie site: www.kingdomofheavendvd.com

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Chrome Dome: Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane

Ridley Scott

G.I. Jane movie poster

 

Ridley Scott has made his share of testosterone-laden Hollywood flicks, ranging from his very first feature The Duellists (read The Dork Report review), through Black Rain (read The Dork Report review), and finally blowing the top off the scale with Gladiator. But unlike many of his contemporaries (Michael Mann and Michael Bay come to mind), a surprising number of feminist-themed films with strong female characters are scattered amongst his oeuvre: Alien, Thelma & Louise, and G.I. Jane.

Demi Moore in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneDemi Moore sports the chrome dome look that failed to take off in the 90s

For Alien’s protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be female was not just a bold choice for a horror / science fiction film, but an utterly appropriate one. Alien is loaded with symbolic fertility imagery and metaphorical childbirth. Ripley grapples with the themes of reproduction (and, arguably, abortion) anthropomorphized as a carnivorous monster with an erect penis for a head. Thelma & Louise had an explosive impact upon its release, and this Dork Reporter recalls seeing it on the cover of Time Magazine. A common theme in the press’ coverage of the controversial film was that such a story of female empowerment was in fact directed by… gasp… a man! To oversimplify, the film considered the relative morality of violence when perpetrated by an oppressed gender. Thelma & Louise packed pistols a decade later than Ripley aborted her alien baby with a phallic flamethrower.

Demi Moore and Viggo Mortensen in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneViggo Mortensen dresses down Demi Moore with his eyes

Thelma & Louise may have raised hackles and inspired countless op-ed pieces about gender equality, but I recall Scott’s G.I. Jane not being taken seriously at all upon release. Its premise was its worst feature, and indeed one might compare it to Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, except for the minor detail that it’s not funny. Craven politician Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) talks a rising female Navy lifer Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore) into competing against a bevy of men in the most grueling and gender-segregated type of military training ever devised: the Navy SEALs (in the real world, SEAL training is expressly limited to males, and no woman has yet been allowed to attempt it). DeHaven manipulates the resultant media circus to gain votes and save the military bases in her state from closure. O’Neill faces off against Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen), a closeted sensitive guy who repurposes a D.H. Lawrence poem to initiate his standard ritual of humiliation and dehumanization.

Demi Moore in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneHands up, who doesn’t want to watch Demi Moore do one-armed push ups?

Beyond the contrived premise, G.I. Jane was obviously a vanity star vehicle for an overreaching actor known more for her considerable beauty and fitness and than her acting chops. It didn’t last long, but Moore was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of 1997. Here, she shows off her muscular physique in scopophilic workout and shower sequences, and famously shaves her head live on film. It’s a weak form of feminism for O’Neill’s greatest triumph to be her triumphant exclamation “suck my dick.” She transforms herself into just one of the guys rather than proving herself as a human being of equal standing, be she male or female.

Now having seen G.I. Jane as part of The Dork Report’s Unseen Ridley Scott Film Festival, the best I can say is that it’s not as bad as I would have imagined. If Black Rain found Scott in Michael Mann territory, G.I. Jane places him squarely in Michael Bay country. SEAL training is shown in great detail, with all the fetishized military hardware and windblown American flags one would expect in a Bay hagiography. But most shocking to a viewer in 2008 is a sequence in which O’Neill is subjected to waterboarding. It cuts through the nauseating patriotism like electrodes to the genitals.


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