Saturday, February 21, 2009

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Note: I wrote this review nearly two months (12/30/08) after I viewed the film, and one day before the Oscars. It did not win Best Picture.

Grade: A-

You would not expect a film centered around one's mortality and the unforgiving gravitational pull of time to be a crowd-pleaser. Or maybe you would if you wrapped your wolf in sheep's clothing, which is what the geniuses behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have done. Saturate the market with posters of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's angelic visages (I swear to God, their faces looked like they actually glowed when I looked at them). Drum up a trailer that emphasizes the story's fantastical narrative as well as the broad gesticulations of its love story. Cue presses insatiable desire to oversell another collaboration between Pitt and director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club). Release the film on Christmas Day at the height of the holiday season when department stores and marketing departments sell you on synthetic cheer and hollow reasons to believe because 'tis the season. Watch as the public laps it up.

Maybe I'm just a cynic. But I'm also a part of the masses, and I have to say The Curious Case of Benjamin Button resonated in an emotional manner with me that I had not expected. Maybe I wasn't sold on the hyperbole, so I went into the film with lowered expectations. Maybe I adopted a cautionary, defensive stance, so I would not believe in the greatness of the film based solely on the media's hype machine. Whatever the reason, I was surprised to find myself drawn in to the film's expansive storyline and, by the end of the film, I found myself genuinely moved by the tale that had been told.

Many people know the basic skeletal structure of the story. A boy, Benjamin Button (Pitt), is born at the end of the first World War in New Orleans, but he's born with all of the qualities/infirmities of the old: arthritis, muscle deterioration, hard-of-hearing, etc. He looks and acts like a man in his eighties even though he's a new-born infant. The film traces his life story as he ages in reverse, while everyone around him ages in the traditional manner. One of those individuals is Daisy (Blanchett), whom Button meets when she's a young girl; she comes to visit her grandmother in the old folks home where Benjamin is being raised by Queenie (Tarij P. Henson), his adoptive mother (his real mother died during childbirth, and his father abandoned him out of disgust). Over the next several decades, they develop a love for one another as they drift in and out of each other's lives. For a brief while, they meet in the middle when their age and physical/emotional maturity coalesce to form the union that time has always denied them. However, their bodies continue to age in opposite directions until Daisy has grown physically old, while Benjamin's body has regressed into infancy.

The story, adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), shares similarities to Gump, especially in the story-telling structure, the decades-spanning timeline, the unrequited love for a woman, and the freak-hero protagonist used to emotionally manipulate the audience. That said, Button is a superior film, and I wish it were getting more consideration for best picture. I know it racked up thirteen Oscar nominations, but it seems unlikely to win anything other than maybe some technical awards. Maybe the backlash has now set in, and people feel like it's the Goliath amongst the Davids, ye the film itself works not only as a love story, but as a bleak and authentic portrait of deterioration due to time's single-minded relentlessness. The fact the film tells a fantastical tale does not take away from the singular realism that accompanies the emotions generated due to the film's content. And this content is held together by the eponymous man at the title of the film, played by Brad Pitt in a performance equally deserving of the accolades being showered upon Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke.

Pitt has always been a terrifically agile actor; you only need to watch True Romance, Seven, Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, and other films to witness his dexterity as a performer. He seeks out adventurous, creative directors (Fincher, Tarantino, the Coen Brothers) with proven track records, and his choices reflect a willingness to not be pigeonholed into any one kind of role. If I have any complaint to give with regard to his acting, it would be this minor critique: he constantly chooses roles that de-emphasize his natural good looks. Other than the Ocean films, I feel like he believes he needs to do work that does not play on his natural handsomeness because he does not want to appear to be coasting by on his matinee idol looks. Which is why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the perfect vehicle for Brad Pitt.

With the help of technology and prosthetics, Pitt plays Benjamin throughout the film's entire two hour and forty minute running time. This film lets Pitt indulge in his desire to disappear physically within a role, but it also puts his iconic facial features front and center, not for simplistic aesthetics's sake, but for a commentary on the fleetingness of one's looks. Pitt has long been admired and objectified for these looks (People's Sexiest Man of the Year . . . twice), and I think this role allowed him to focus on this impermanence. It places, front and center, the understanding that a life cannot be lived on vanity alone, that something more must be longed for, and in the case of Button/Pitt, this something manifests itself in the love of a woman and a family.

Some may ridicule certain shots/scenes such as Pitt looking like a J Crew model with his wind-blown golden boy hair, his aviator sunglasses, and his leather bomber jacket as he rides a motorcycle. But I didn't feel like it was self-adoration, only a natural progression of the film's themes. A scene like the one mentioned visually captures the perfection found in a moment, tempered by the reality that things must change, that time marches forward, that the body must fall apart and fail. But that doesn't mean we cannot enjoy what we have when we have it. You really feel in certain scenes (like when Benjamin sees his daughter born) that not only are we watching his character experience the joy of fatherhood, but we are allowed to see Pitt demonstrating his love for the same, actual experience. I remember two to three shots/scenes where I remember legitimately tearing up, and I appreciated the fact that I felt the emotion was earned because Pitt (and Blanchett) welcomes you into his world. At some point, Benjamin Button stops being a film about a man aging backwards and becomes a meta-movie about a movie star recognizing his mortality and accepting it, no matter the disappointment such a realization offers.

I do believe Fincher and Pitt missed out some opportunities to play up the black humor that can accompany any film concerning death. A friend mentioned he would have liked to have seen what Tim Burton could have done with this material, and I see what he means. Fincher downplays rather than ramps up the film's ghoulish comedy such as when old (but young) Benjamin loses his virginity in a brothel. And Benjamin, to be true to the story, should have come out the size of a full-grown man older man rather than an aged infant. But I appreciated Fincher's dedication to keeping the film rooted to the performances despite so many opportunities to let the episodic nature of the film bludgeon the emotions on display.

I'm not sure which film I wish to win for best picture: Slumdog Millionaire or Benjamin Button. But I do know I have a rich appreciation for Fincher and Pitt's third collaboration together. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button exists in the same league as their earlier collaborative works, only now the darkness exists below the surface, underneath the gleam, but inexorably pulling us along toward our murky futures like the waters of Katrina that submerge everything at film's coda.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Their Eyes were Watching . . . ."

Staring out at a roomful of eyes
Bored by unknown words
Minds questioning deeper things
Than parts of speech
Curious for more important matters
“What is the meaning of this?”
Questions of authentic thought
Driven by independent spirits not yet tamed
But are in the process of being broken
Like the stallion
They ran wild once
But that was before
A system designed to help
But unable to account for all the breeds
School is a rough place for boys and girls
They believe one thing
And are told another
They feel something worthwhile
And told it’s not important
Intellectual freedom does not come from the school system
It can’t be given a letter grade or assessed
What youthful energy dies in the heart
Which wild thoughts fade after a quick start
A breath shortened, a pace with lost step
Adult measures tapering off the past’s longing rep
And children dulled by inexorable science
Where once they had art

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Film Review: The Wrestler

If nothing else, The Wrestler made me want to grow my hair out, strap on some tight-ass black leather pants, and blast some serious eighties hair metal. When the title character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, declares, “Fuckin’ eighties man. Best shit ever,” I felt myself nodding in approval even though I barely remember the decade seeing as I was nine when it’s awesomeness came to a close. But all throughout high school, thanks to Jeff “The Body” Phillips, eighties music was the shit. Poison, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella, Def Leopard, LA Guns—we tried valiantly to revive the eighties during the late nineties on the suburban South Shore of Massachusetts, and we did a pretty decent job. We convinced our graduating class that our senior prom song should be “The Search is Over” by Survivor, and we performed as Poison along with two other friends during our school’s mock male beauty pageant. Jeff and I would cruise in his tomato red Honda CRX with the sunroof open, eighties music shredding it up. Now, thanks to The Wrestler, eighties music receives two hours of glorious revival.

That said, The Wrestler is a small picture about small people living in a small world who still cling to big dreams. Randy, played by Mickey Rourke in one of those performances fully deserving of its hyperbole, is a relic of the 80s, a professional wrestler who once wrestled in Madison Square Garden, but at the start of the film is relegated to a school’s gymnasium. Washed-up, beat-up, and bulked up with all sorts of roids, Randy is a pathetic creature who probably banged fine-ass bitches in his hey-day, but now needs to get off on the occasional curiosity fuck, like a woman who knows of him because her brother followed Randy’s career. Most of the film consists of director Darren Aronofsky following Randy around his depressed Jersey milieu, whether it’s the local strip joint, supermarket, trailer parks, or American legion halls where he still wrestles, clinging with every fiber in his body to the fading remnants of his past. This film is a far cry aesthetically from Aronofsky’s previous fever dream films, which were pitched at maximum volume, but Aronofsky achieves an admirable documentary verisimilitude that is well suited for this tale.

A lot of people have commented on how it’s impossible to separate the main character’s career trajectory with that of the actor playing the part, and it’s easy to see why. Rourke was a ridiculously prodigious acting talent who exploded in the eighties in films such as Body Heat, Diner, Angel Heart, Barfly. Dude was the shit. Then the nineties happened and he became a punchline. I believe it cannot be denied that Rourke’s own personal story influenced his take on this character, but I don’t want this review to turn into US Weekly. The performance speaks for itself, specifically the image of Rourke—his hearing aid, his reading glasses, his taped together vest and coat, his pitted, mashed-in face. This is a role that demands presence and Rourke has it. He doesn’t need Shakespearean dialogue to let us in on his pain, his regret, his desire to be loved. You sense it in his voice, but you bear witness to it in his actions, most vividly in the wrestling ring scenes. If Rourke equals Randy, then film equals professional wrestling: a scripted artifice that sustains a grasp on reality because of participatory individuals. No matter how fantastic or unbelievable a scenario may seem in either the film or the wrestling universe, the dependence on accepting these temporary illusions establishes an alternate reality (even if only for a couple of hours). And the characters who create these illusionary realities (film directors/actors/writers/wrestlers) are flesh and blood, so when they willingly expose themselves to us, the audience, a tacit collaboration results and fuses us together to create a symbiotic union between real and fake.

I’m happy Aronofsky, Rourke, Marissa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Woods keep the film rooted; they don’t overplay the story’s modest delights, and the actors don’t over-emote and cry out for Oscar attention (Unlike the actors in Doubt). Everything retains its simplicity, which is how it should be. The film ends on a perfect grace note—Randy/Rourke gives a speech thanking his fans for all of their support before he leaps down from the top ropes and vanishes from the frame, his disappearance the final magic trick that links the character/actor to his audience. Out of sight, never out of mind, Rourke and Aronofsky do justice to the irrefutable fact that everybody wants to have an audience, and everybody needs to be acknowledged for their being. Because even when we disappear, we’re never truly gone.

PS – Bruce Springsteen was robbed. His song, played over the closing credits, complements the film’s tale perfectly.

Film Review: Doubt

Doubt is a film that should have remained on the stage. It is not a terrible film, merely a competent one, and the move from stage to screen does nothing for the story. I remember seeing the play on Broadway three years ago, and Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne brought an immediacy to the story that manifested itself in writer John Patrick Shanley words, and the sparse stage setting created a starkness that did well to control the inherent melodrama. Unfortunately, the film adaptation does no such thing, and the histrionics are on full display when you have heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman going head to habit (too easy . . . still terrible). The setting and situations remain the same, but nearly every altercation erupts into a shouting match captured up close, whereas the theatrical experience allowed a distance that was necessary for the story’s ambiguity. The reaping of acting awards bestowed upon the film’s actors, including Amy Adams as an earnest, easily swayed nun and Viola Davis as the mother of the boy at the crux of the film’s title, are unsurprising. The academy loves this kind of emotional hijacking. Too bad none of them are deserving; Hoffman acquits himself well, but he’s done better, and Streep and Adams seem to be phoning in from some other atmosphere. Adams especially comes across as a petulant, gullible child who cannot arose an ounce of authentic thought, and she portrays the teacher as puppetry rather than an adult grappling with a morally complex issue. Shove a stick up her ass and she’ll speak. One of the many absurd nominations made by the Academy, but I digress.

Which is not to state that the film should not be viewed, only that I believe a filmed stage adaptation would have more than done justice. As a writer, Shanley created a powerful story focused on his title’s topic, a palpable one since the issue exists within the well being of every individual. I’m a firm believer that everyone suffers from doubt’s afflictions, no matter how determined a person may be to hold onto his/her beliefs nor how certain a person may be in voicing/expressing a belief system. Even the most fervent, religious-crazed zealot must have expressed doubt, internally or externally, at some point. It is inescapable, and it can creep into a life at any moment. Using the religious terrain of a 1960s Catholic school as his battleground, Shanley uses his topic to delve into child molestation, religious persecution, racial segregation/integration, and homosexuality, but he does so without wielding a Louisville Slugger to pound out his proclamations. Indeed, much of the story hinges on one’s own doubt; I’m not absolutely sure if Father Flynn sexually abused the school’s only African-American boy, Donald, although I tend to believe he did not. I’m also not sure what Sister Aloysius doubts at the end of the film: the lie she tells in order to have Father Flynn removed, her single-mindedness in attacking Father Flynn, or her own religious beliefs

The ambiguity is the film’s strong-point, but as a director, Shanley is all canted camera angles meant to visualize a world askew; all torrential downpours reflecting the shitstorm pouring forth inside; and all burned-out lightbulbs bursting to illustrate the moral black hole the characters find themselves sucked into, guided by their certainty. If anything, I would have liked to have seen what another director could have done with this film (Lars Von Trier comes to mind for some reason).

I guess I’m just underwhelmed by the whole film. It left no real impression as a movie; as a play, that’s another story. I hope Shanley goes back to the theater, and I wish the actors all the best. I’ll be happy to see them risk more than a film adaptation of a pedigreed play, where they know full well they’ll get their professional accolades. Hoffman, go back to your Synedoche, New York’s and your Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (a terrifically raw and under appreciated performance). Adams, I appreciated you trying to diversify your filmography so you won’t be pigeonholed as one of those “lovable, adorable leading ladies” who always seem to end up on women’s magazine covers, but go after something edgier. And Meryl Streep, please don’t appear in any more films for a while. I hate that your name steals Oscar nominations away from other, more deserving actresses such as Emily Mortimer in Transsibberian. Until then, pass on this film while it’s in theaters.