The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is a hard film to classify. Is it a fantasy? Is it a sweeping love story, or a visual effects spectacle, or meditation on life, death, love and time? To properly appreciate the film, you must accept it as all of these things, because it truly has alot to offer. Perhaps more than any other film this year.

The film is essentially a showcase for Brad Pitt, who is surprisingly subtle and quiet as the title character. He is what people will be talking about after the movie. Half for his great performance, the other half for the remarkable make-up and special effects employed to effectively ‘age’ backwards. I can safely say that the technology in this movie, and perhaps this movie in general, will change the way and standard that movies are made.

On the last day of the first World War, Benjamin Button is born a baby, but outwardly appears to be 85 years old. As he becomes older, he grows younger. But along the way he leaves for war, travels, sails, and falls in love with ballet dancer Daisy. But with her growing older and him growing younger, it can’t possibly last.

This just goes to show that to be a visual effects spectacle, you don’t have to have giant stunts and big explosions. That visual effects can be so integrated yet so invisible, most of the time you don’t even notice them. The sheer force of what you’ve just seen mostly hits you after the film, where you truly begin to realize just how elaborate and complex the special effects must have been.

Cate Blanchett is, no surprise, great as Daisy. It seems these days another day, another awesome Blanchett performance. As Kate Hepburn, a Russian agent, Queen Elizabeth, heck even Bob Dylan, Blanchett completely disappears into every role she tackles.

Although initially Daisy is a one-note character, over time (and through some awesome aging makeup) she becomes a complex, sympathetic character. Some particularly good, but tragic scenes towards the end are single-handedly carried by her. Especially the very end, which prompted many sniffles from the audience. I’ll just say it’s both predictable and hard-hitting at the same time.

The film has been compared to ‘Forrest Gump’, wrongfully so. Yes, they are written by the same guy, and follow a man’s life and the incredible things they see, but the comparisons end there. ‘Forrest Gump’ is more fun, but ‘Benjamin Button’ is flat out better. Period.

David Fincher, known for ‘Seven’ and ‘Fight Club’ takes the helm of ‘Benjamin Button’, and he couldn’t have done it better. The film doesn’t wander around, seeking to elicit emotions randomly, like it so easily could have. It’s rather funny. Fincher has been known for dark, violent fare, but if his future epics turn out to be like this, he will be the next David Lean.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great film on all levels. It’s surprisingly funny at times. The storytelling is expansive, the film is undermined by great performances. The visual effects deserve an Oscar. Maybe the movie does too. A

Valkyrie

Tom Cruise recently said in an interview, “Go kill Hitler this Christmas!”, in promotion for his film Valkyrie. The ironic part is that in this film Cruise tries, fails, and is executed for his attempt. It’s not really a spoiler in any way, for this is actually a true story. Regardless of Mr. Cruise’s false statement, Valkyrie is a fun, tense thriller that will keep you glued to your seat, ridiculous moments included.

Cruise is Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg, a German officer in 1944 who is becoming increasingly fed up with the Nazis’ planning and ideals. He begins to assemble a team to plot to kill Adolf Hitler himself. What results makes history.

The plot of the film is simple, the plan of the characters is not. The director of the film is Bryan Singer, who has mastered tension before, to the tune of 2 Oscars. (The Usual Suspects, anyone?) The fact that even though we know the end Singer still creates such tension deserves to be mentioned. The musical score is partly responsible, it’s elegant yet undeniably gritty.

The supporting cast is great. Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp. But the best supporting performance is by David Bamber. I’ve never heard of him before this. But in his 3 minutes as Adolf Hitler, he almost literally gives you chills. Cruise is pretty good in this. Nothing Oscar-worthy (or Tropic Thunder-worthy for that matter) but not distractingly or face-meltingly bad, as he has been called.

It isn’t all roses though. There are some moments that are undeniably corny. I won’t give most away, but one in particular where Cruise is forced to ‘Heil Hitler’ with his severed arm was just ridiculous. It was the only time during the movie where people actually laughed.

One major thing that bugs you is the abscence of any accents whatsoever. They all have the look of Germans, and type in German. And yet everyone has an American or British accent. Oddly enough, Cruise’s eyepatch doesn’t ever bug you though.

It has taken a lot of bad advance buzz, a hundred date swaps and one big budget to get Valkyrie to the screen. It was worth it. B+

Doubt

Perhaps the most compelling, and unlikely match of wits occurs in Doubt: Streep vs. Hoffman. Two of the best actors of our generation, in an emotional, exhausting duel of morals. One is right, the other is wrong. Finding which is which tests your patience, and there is sort of a “Thats it?” feeling at the end. However, it has four of the best performances of the year, three of those expected, one that one wouldn’t suspect.

It is 1964. Times are changing, and Sister Aloysius is watching it all, with contempt. The whole movie is set in a Bronx Catholic church/school, and it takes a while to realize just how confined the film really is. She is the principal of the school, feared amongst the children, parents, and even fellow nuns.

The church itself is changing. The charismatic Father Flynn is trying to bring more fun and friendliness to the church, which raises Sister Aloysius’ eyebrows. But when a young African-American boy is called to the rectory by Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius immediately suspects inappropriate contact and right or wrong, crusades against Father Flynn to have him removed. What results is more tense than most straightforward thrillers this year.

If there is a major weakness its the direction, though I’ll get to that later. Although it could have been a great cliche, Streep plays it as the more human, more conflicted nun. It goes without saying that Streep is probably the best actress alive right now, and it’s really interesting seeing her go from Mamma Mia to this. She is almost disturbingly bleak, unflinching in her quest to take out this priest. She only lets up at the very end, which is almost disturbing to see.

Philip Seymour Hoffman has been consistently excellent in everything he does. Capote, Charlie Wilson’s War, heck, even Mission Impossible 3. He acts quite well in this, and somehow pulls it off where you honestly believe it could be either way. He is charismatic, warm and occasionally funny, but almost sinister in an odd way. It truly does leave you guessing until the end.

The ending, many will argue, is unsatisfactory. On a storytelling level, it is. Emotionally? Heck, no. The ending is probably the most involving part of the film, as in the last 20 minutes.

The film is interestingly paced. At least 40 minutes of establishing shots and characters and circumstances then boom. The last hour is a firecracker filled with quick-paced arguments that truly show off all the acting talent this film has to offer.

Amy Adams, who you remember as the princess from ‘Enchanted’, plays a fellow nun in this film. She isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy, but by no means is she inferior to anyone else in this film, she has some great moments. The best performance in the film is likely the most brief: Viola Davis as the young boy’s mother. Her scene with Meryl Streep is like the film: Starts slow, then escalates, bit by bit, into sheer intensity.

Doubt will split people, on its quality and implications. I’m on the side that unabashedly loved it. A-

Yes Man

Jim Carrey does his normal hilarious, over-the-top schtick in a normal, over-the-top, occasionally hilarious comedy. In ’98, Carrey did a fairly good movie called ‘Liar Liar’. Basically an average Joe, mildly disappointed with his life, trying something outrageous that changes his life. That is almost the exact same story here. The fact that this remains really enjoyable is a testament to Carrey’s talent, I suppose.

Carrey plays a bank loan officer (how timely) named Carl, who after a tough break-up is sort of living in a shell with his job, two friends, and apartment. But his friends take notice, and sign him up for a seminar: “The Power of Yes”. Basically, he must say yes to anything and everything. It has its advantages: he finds a new love and gets promoted. But there is always a downside to freewheeling, and Carl will realize that the hard way.

Zooey Deschanel stars as Carl’s free-spirited gilfriend. Ever since Elf, she has become more and more charming by each film that goes by. Terence Stamp (that old guy from Superman II/Wall Street) plays the man who introduces Carrey to ‘Yes’. He mostly looks bored, although he has the best line in the whole movie, at the very end. The very end is actually the best part, although seeing Carrey play guitar and speak Korean is hysterical beyond most measure.

It goes without saying that the general story is kind of tired, and that the formula for the whole thing is really evident. But Jim Carrey plays practically the same character he has since ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The saving grace about that? That character is insanely likable. That sort of applies to the movie. You’ve seen it before, but you like it. B+

Frost/Nixon

Frank Langella gives his best performance, and admittedly puts Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal to shame in Frost/Nixon, the story of David Frost’s interviews with Richard Nixon that was one of the most watched television events in history. Although some parts are fabricated (believe me, you’ll realize which ones), this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the events that happened.

Michael Sheen, (great as Tony Blair in “The Queen”) plays David Frost as something of a careless playboy at the beginning, but then the movie suddenly jerks him as becoming a determined, righteous man towards the end. He probably was both at one point or another, but most definitely not over the course of 3 or so months. However, Sheen is excellent, and together the two lead performances are most definitely the best part of the movie.

The film’s plot is simple: Richard Nixon is disgraced by Watergate and his resignation. The American public is dissatisfied by Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and want a confession. Talk show host David Frost decides to try and take Nixon on for an interview. History is made.

The problem lies in two factors. One, it has been built up for so long as the awards messiah, and it’s a letdown. Two, it’s far too pedestrian, too ‘been there, done that’. Nothing truly feels surprising. The film’s best moments are during the interviews, where the two actors truly shine.

The script, although mildly cliched, is actually pretty witty and occasionally funny. As said before, Langella and Sheen are both excellent. Langella makes Nixon quite human, not the monster portrayed in so many other movies. Although it’s inconsistent and disappointing, it’s good entertainment. Just don’t expect it to sweep the Oscars. B-

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is a film that is so good, so universal, so touching, so involving, that it demands awards, attention, tears. And your heart. It has something for everyone. Shoot-outs, laughter, romance, family drama, incredible tension, chase sequences. It’s all there. Essentially, it’s a crowd pleaser. An Oscar-worthy crowd pleaser at that.

It has an odd, non-linear structure that is so familiar with recent movies, but doesn’t feel forced here. It is set in Mumbai, and occasionally is quite odd, actually. An uplifting, beautiful scene is filmed in the Mumbai train station. The same place where terrorists opened fire only so many weeks ago. It doesn’t distract, just has an odd sort of aura.

The film opens with a young, 18-year old guy named Jamal being tortured. We then flash back. Only the previous night Jamal was a contestant on the Indian version of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’. (The irony? The top prize on the show, 20 million rupees, is roughly 400,000 US dollars) But Jamal was suspected of cheating, and was yanked off the show, one question away from 20 million rupees.

After the torture, Jamal reveals his life story, and how he knew the questions. We flash back to when he was 7, and it continually alternates between the show, the police questioning, and just how he knew the answers. Sounds like alot on the plate but believe me, it works and well. He reveals his brother’s descent into crime and how over all these years he has just yearned for one thing: his love, Latika.

The two halves are actually radically different in events and elements, although the plot and general mood remain consistent. The first has more humor and dry wit, although some violence is littered throughout. The second half is somewhat more somber, more violent, but ultimately more uplifting and rewarding.

The performances simply must be noted. Dev Patel as the elder Jamal, although rarely used, manipulates many emotions in about 30 minutes, and deserves a Supporting Actor nomination. The young 7 and 14 year olds playing the main characters over the course of time are all great. A couple of 7-year olds pretty much dominate the first hour, and it really, truly works.

But the true star of the film is its director, Danny Boyle. Previously noted for directing a drug-laced cult comedy and a zombie flick, it spawns one decade, four timelines, multiple set-pieces, and it doesn’t fall apart. That alone deserves recognition. But the fact that he elicited such fine performances, emboldened a great script and captured the true beauty of Mumbai, is pretty incredible.

So see Slumdog Millionaire. Tell your friends to see Slumdog Millionaire. I make a sworn statement, right now, that it will get Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Director. It’s simply that good. A

Rachel Getting Married

When a film ends and you don’t want to leave the theater, you know you’ve seen a great movie. ‘Rachel Getting Married’ provides such a feeling. Be it the sharp, poignant writing from Jenny Lumet, or the excellent direction from Jonathan Demme. Or the cinematography, shot so that you feel that you’re truly there. No, none of those. It is, plain and simple, the performances.

It all begins when Kym gets out of rehab. A recovering addict, in and out of rehab for 10 years. Almost minutes after, she is driven to her sister’s wedding, Rachel. Right off the bat, Kym and Rachel’s first scene together is pitch-perfect in writing and acting. You see the humor, love, and underlying tension. Kym’s return stirs up everyone, brings back bad memories, and most of all, aggravates her sister.

The best part of the film lies in its three key performances. Bill Irwin, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Anne Hathaway. Bill Irwin is charming, sarcastic, and likely the comic relief in the film. Rosemarie DeWitt is quietly, subtly, but wickedly good and funny as a woman whose sister is seriously pushing her over the edge, and who harbors a couple secrets of her own.

But the true revelation here is Anne Hathaway. Seeing her 8 or so years ago in The Princess Diaries, one wouldn’t think she’d pull this off. She has an Oscar nomination in the bag. Hathaway masterfully depicts the randomness, the mood swings, the rambling, the sheer craziness, that is her character.

The director here, Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, anyone?) has done an excellent job. The cinematography and editing doesn’t exactly ride on the whole shaky crazy camera work that seems to be the latest craze. But it somehow gets the right balance so when the lights come up you remember your world, your life, and sigh. Very few movies do that. A