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vein and tone, even mimicking some of the corniest devices of Gump: the famous digital feather twirling in the wind has been replaced by an unlikely reappearing hummingbird; Forrest’s mother’s aphorism “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” has its analog in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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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

 

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is ultimately a little disappointing, especially if one reflects too much on its plot and basic plausibility, but it has plenty to commend it. It is also far from the worst entry in the franchise (that would be Temple of Doom – blech! stay tuned for The Dork Report’s forthcoming teardown of that stinky turd), which admittedly isn’t saying much.

The basic concept (reportedly conceived by producer George Lucas and viewed askance at by director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford) is sound. The original trilogy was set in the 1930s, and as such the first and third films mostly concerned Indy battling the Ratzis. So, whom better for an older Indiana Jones to face off against in the 1950s than Commies and UFOs? In all seriousness, sounds like fun to me! Unfortunately, the end result is muddled with bits of business about El Dorado, and saddled with a disappointingly conservative tsk-tsk disapproval of the rascally Indy’s wayward ways with women. But perhaps the focus on marriage and the restoration of a broken nuclear family was also a conscious allusion to the conformist 1950s?

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullVee haff vays of making you talk

Cate Blanchett is far and away the best thing in it, but then again, she usually is. Impossibly sexy in a severe bob haircut and outrageous accent (the subject of Indy’s best gag: “Well, judging by the way you’re swallowing your wubbleyous, I’m guessing Russian”), Blanchett can take a line as boring as “Take the thing and put it in the car” (I’m paraphrasing) and steal the scene with it. However, this Dork Reporter is puzzled by the ubiquity of sudden A-lister Shia LeBeouf. He is not especially handsome, funny, charismatic, or even a skilled action performer. But Stephen Spielberg seems to have a man-crush on him, so here he is. Let’s hope saner heads prevail and don’t make him the star of future sequels. There can only be one Young Indiana Jones; River Phoenix, we miss you. It’s a treat to have Karen Allen back at last. Unfortunately, there’s no John Rhys-Davies or Sean Connery to be had, but in a pinch, Ray Winstone will do fine.

Of course modern action movies get compared to video games all the time (often derisively, mostly deservingly), but The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of the most overt offenders I’ve seen yet. Sequences like the one in which the gang must solve puzzles like racing down a spiral staircase as the steps retract and the ground falls away will no doubt translate more or less intact into the film’s official game.

The biggest classic Indy theme missing from Skull is that of religion. In the first film, Indy tracked down the honest-to-Moses Ark of the Convenant. The MacGuffin of the second film was a set of Hindu (well, a derogatorily fictionalized version thereof) sacred stones. The third installment went back to the franchise’s Judeo-Christian roots and had Indy pursue none other than The Holy Grail. Indy sometimes dismisses religious traditions as myth, but usually doesn’t have any trouble accepting that the 10 Commandment tablets and the Grail are anything less than actual objects. There are no mere metaphors for Indiana Jones!

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullYou never introduced me to your father!

In keeping with the religious overtones, all three parts of the original trilogy end in psychedelic freakouts: witness an empty Ark explode Nazi heads, sacred stones magically relieve a village’s famine, and a Grail cause an earthquake. So as much as I may have hated Skull’s mystifying, CG-drenched in which a bunch of alien corpses become one living being that does something glowy to Irina Spalko and launches his spaceship off into another dimension (all of which is like an unholy love child of the X-Files feature film Fight the Future and Spielberg’s own A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), it is actually in keeping with the endings of the original three films (even the “good one,” of course, Raiders). If you don’t believe me, go back and watch them again.

Must read: Rod Hilton’s hilarious, cutting The Abridged Script.


Official movie site: www.indianajones.com

I’m Not There

I'm Not There

 

This Dork Reporter always finds it interesting to ponder his preconceived notions of a movie once he has seen it. The marketing and buzz on I’m Not There mostly centered on two talking points: the quirky device of multiple actors all playing incarnations of Bob Dylan, and Cate Blanchett being just plain amazing as usual (what else is new?). The first point is what gave me pause: how much sense would this film make to someone who is not a Dylan fan and scholar?

All I really know about Dylan comes from the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, and even that paints a sketchy picture of the man. Dylan has been an enigma throughout his long history in the public eye, often speaking in riddles, and (at least in his early years) inventing a fictional backstory. The press and even his own paying audiences were often openly antagonistic, so it’s no wonder he was so famously combative and evasive. Prefiguring the modern-day chameleons David Bowie and Madonna, Dylan presented a series of personas: American roots folkie, political agitator, rock ‘n’ roller, born-again Christian, Hollywood actor, and so on. The question being: how much of this evolution was sincere growth and change, and how much was performance art? Who is “Bob Dylan”?

I'm Not ThereAn Oscar nomination’s a-gonna fall

Director and co-screenwriter Todd Haynes, having already deconstructed David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, tackles the many aspects of Dylan perhaps the only way possible: fracture his key facets into multiple characters. As with the Bowie analogue Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, none of the Dylan figures are actually named Dylan, but then again neither is Dylan himself, whose actual surname is Zimmerman. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, interpreting Dylan’s Christian period, and Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a pretty literal interpretation of Dylan’s years in the wilderness after his fame peaked for the first time. Adding an extra layer of postmodern complexity, the late Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, a film actor famous for playing one of the fictional Dylans in a biopic. And of course, Cate Blanchett is amazing. As Jude Quinn, a reluctant celebrity fending off the attacks of the press, she triumphs by avoiding mere impression. Sure, she’s wearing a fright wig and shades, but her expressions and body language capture Dylan’s paradoxically wordy elusiveness.

The result is part faux documentary, part fiction, but provides a truer overall picture of Dylan’s complicated character than a mere biopic ever could. Perhaps at some point after his death (may that be a long time from now), we will see a conventional musical biopic made of his life story (a la Bird, Ray, or Walk the Line), but I certainly hope critics and audiences will remember I’m Not There.

I'm Not ThereHey mr. guitar man

The DVD edition is the only I can think of that incorporates long on-screen text introductions (more than one, in fact). Does this reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmakers or distributors in the home viewers being able to comprehend the film, or is it more in the vein of the scholarly introductions that preface Penguin Classics volumes? Either way, it only reinforces the impression that you have to be a Dylan scholar to appreciate the film (which, incidentally, turned out to not be the case).

And finally, I detected a few references to director Richard Lester: Robbie Clark (Ledger) walks through the set of the 1968 film Petulia, during an early scene in which women in neck braces leave a freight elevator before a party to promote highway safety (attended by the likes of George C. Scott, Julie Christie, and the Grateful Dead, so it’s not at all unlikely Dylan could have been there too). But even better is the best Beatles tribute I’ve ever seen: the Fab Four breeze through as the epitome of carefree fun, literally speaking and moving in fast-motion. They tempt Jude Quinn’s (Blanchett) desire to escape, until they are chased away by A Hard Day’s Night’s screaming sycophants.


Official movie site: www.imnotthere-movie.com

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Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Elizabeth the Golden Age movie poster

 

I’ll have to gang up with the general critical consensus around Elizabeth: The Golden Age, best summed up as: Cate Blanchett is astounding, as usual (yawn – the Academy Award nomination was virtually assured before the cameras rolled), but the movie is a disappointing sequel to a powerful original.

Oh, and did I mention that Cate is great? Oh yeah, you don’t need me to say that.

Cate Blanchette in Elizabeth the Golden AgeCate is great; what else is new?

The cinematography is lovely but the editing a little choppy for a timeline that spans so much time. The staging is somewhat less than epic; even large CG set pieces like the Pirates of the Caribbean-style sea battle between the English and Spanish armadas seem under-staffed by background actors. A typical line of dialog, quoting from memory, is the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh killing two cliches with one stone with a humdinger like “We’re only human; we do what we can.”

Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabeth the Golden AgeSir Walter Raleigh sails away from the Kraken

Erm, that’s about it. I’ll try to think of something smarter to say about the next one.


Official movie site: www.elizabeththegoldenage.net

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