Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) [7]

I have no real reason to like this film but ultimately, I do. It's a visually exceptional piece of work, proving that David Fincher is a fantastic technical director. The pristine cinematography and seamless, lifelike special effects give the film a visual flair that is impressive. I have found that while Fincher' films are stylistically accomplished, they still manage to come off sterile and a little cold. It works in something like Zodiac, where a stringent mathematical obsession is a main theme of the film. In TCCoBB, story definitely lags behind visuals. A lot of comparisons to Benjamin's story have been made to Forrest Gump and they're true. The screenplay deals a lot with the generalities of life and death, living and loving, without anything really exceptional or interesting to say about them. Benjamin Button(Brad Pitt) was born an old man, he ages backwardly, he meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), they drift apart and meet again over the years, time drags on, and they both die: that's about the entire story. There's nothing really meaningful to get out of Benjamin's experiences or his relationship with Daisy. He, Gumplike, weaves in and out of situations in life, and the viewer is expected to believe all of his highly implausible life experiences as uplifting and life-affirming. It's a way of extracting emotions at the benefit of any actual real character or story development.

The question is, if why can I see through the film's glaring holes, why do I still like it? A lot of this has to do with Fincher's visual mastery. There are so many finely crafted moments, from the little lightning vignettes down to the way New Orleans streets look, that make the world surrounding these characters so vibrant and believable despite what the characters make you believe. The other main attribute to the film are the performances. I may not like how they're drawn but the charisma in the performances of Pitt, Blanchett, and especially Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin's mother sucker me in. Pitt really achieves something more than I expected as he gives Benjamin a melancholy that permeates his flashy adventures. He is a much better actor than what I had given him credit for. I may not agree on the meaning of the story but the performance of those characters makes up for it. After all, I have many of the same issues with Forrest Gump, yet it still sucks me in and I enjoy watching it. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button works on me for the same inexplicable reasons.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) [5]

I really don't like horror movies. You've got to something extra ordinary to get me to really get over this. Let the Right One In almost does this in regards to atmosphere but ends up failing in the plot department. Alfredson blends genres here, a vampire film that could also be about pubescent outcasts with enough gore to give the people who frequent Dark Horizons a kick. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is a lonely 12 year old, bullied at school and a fractious home life in dismal early 80s Sweden. He meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), another social outcast with a good reason for her isolation, she's a vampire. The two actually a fairly good job in their performances and their relationship story is fairly well done. The problem here comes from the other genre playing against Oskar and Eli's relationship. The horror/vampire aspect of the story falls into a such a standard (or absurd depending how you look at it) plotline that it really kills the film for me. It's a shame because the film is much more an examination of how terrible being a kid can be. But for me, the gore and the vampire angle don't mean much. The film could have been just as good if Eli was a regular girl and not a vampire. Alfredson does a good job in the first half of the film injecting it with a dark moodiness that exploits the white, expressionless landscape Oskar inhabits. The second half of the film moves away from those visual strengths and more into a standard narrative that wrecks the atmospheric flourishes that made the film seem somewhat promising. Let the Right One In may a nice horror film but I am someone who wouldn't really care if that was the case.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008) [5]

Having just read Rick Perlstein's sprawling yet engrossing Nixonland, it's really hard to garner any sympathy for Richard Nixon. So, seeing a film that paints a conflicting, humanizing picture of Nixon is not going to work for me. Frost/Nixon more problems than just it's portrayal of Richard Nixon. It hamstrung by Ron Howard's pedestrian direction and a story that add no more insight than history has already told. The film attempts to dramatize the events that led to the David Frost/Richard Nixon to a point that almost makes them ridiculous. Frost is portrayed a lightweight celebrity that also has to somehow overcome all this adversity just to get the interviews. Then, in the only way he becomes serious about it is when Nixon yanks him around for entire first interview session. It's all meant to create drama and tension to the big payoff, when Frost gets some sort of mild apology out of Nixon for his role in Watergate. It all may have been interesting but the way its framed and the way Howard film it give it nothing more than the feel of the standard Hollywood prestige picture. This bleeds into the phone conversation sequence between the two men in between interviews. A lot of the emotion in the scene seems honest, as one of the key points of Perlstein's book was Nixon's constant inferiority/hatred towards those he deemed more fortunate or privileged than him. The problem with it filmically is that it is too much of a plot manipulation piece, a scene there just to give Frost an opportunity to find an opening in Nixon. As a examination of Nixon's character it fits but it's too stagy for a film. Aside from that scene, Frank Langella's performance is the only aspect that I could mildly recommend out of this film. And there hasn't been a more overrated director maybe in history than Ron Howard. If you want maudlin portrayals of history, he's your guy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008) [8]

Once again, Reichardt has created another insightful, minimalist neo-realist film full of subtle moments that tell a lot more than they show. Instead of the male bonding metapyshics of Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is on the surface a simpler tale of a woman and her dog. Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young woman on her way to a cannery job in Alaska on a shoestring budget, travelling only with her dog Lucy. While in Oregon, a series of events occur to her that push her to her breaking point: getting arrested for shoplifting, having her car break down, and losing her dog. Williams handles all this is in a supremely subtle yet affecting way. The increasing complications of her predicament seem to put her in a state of a near breakdown but Williams plays Wendy with a inward stoicism that won't allow her. It creates a performance that allows the viewer to empathize while never being emotionally manipulative. This is especially true of the ending, which is emotional but never pulls emotional strings the way a Hollywood film would have. It's the strength of Williams's performance as well as the film's simple yet effective scenes that make this a profound film.

Some reviews have brought up the sociopolicial commentary of the film and just who Wendy is. The only questionable point I have with the film is this. Much is never told of who exactly Wendy is and why she is going to Alaska. On the surface, it appears that Wendy is a drifter, attempting to scrape by on her way to a better job, sleeping in her car with her dog and getting every penny out of her meager funds. The film has an undercurrent of showing a different side of America, of people at the bottom end of the economic ladder. The film is full of moments with other characters barely scraping by, especially the moments with Wendy and the security guard (Walter Dalton), a guy doing a thankless job because it's all he can get. And yet there are points of Wendy's character that don't fit this paradigm. From her wardrobe to her meticulous planning to the phone conversation with her family back home, there's this idea within me that makes Wendy a dropout more than a drifter. More than being stuck on the bottom rung of the ladder, Wendy seems to have placed herself there by choice. I'm not sure if that's completely clear, but it creates this conflict of authenticity in her character. I guess the point would be does this hamstring the film? When all's said and done, not that much. Wendy and Lucy's strengths far outnumber one somewhat minor point of contention.

Friday, May 08, 2009

They Were What I Thought They Were

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) [3]/ The Reader (Stephen Daldrey, 2008) [4]

It's been a while since I've posted anything any reviews, mostly on the account of my trip to Las Vegas. My feelings on both of these are about the same: I had an inkling before viewing them that I wasn't going to care for them much and I was pretty much correct.

I don't get all the hype surrounding Slumdog Millionaire. I don't care for Boyle's directing style, so strike one. As for the story, it is a series of contrivances that are in complete service to the game show element of the plot. Jamal's backstory is there for no other reason to be able to use the story of a slum kid overcoming his past for success. The film has no real insight or critique of poverty in India. The film is shot and seen through a postcard, touristy prism of India. For me, there seems to be a disconnect from the portrayal of Jamal's impoverished upbringing and the fairy-tale nature of the story. The film has the disguise of a social drama but it never really wants to dwell on the bad stuff. And that the film falls back into its pre-destined, feel good ending, bread and butter for a mainstream American audience, completely turns me off.

The Reader isn't that much better as it takes its important issues and smooths the edges out for the audience. The problem here is that the film is about a lot of issues: the Holocaust, sexuality, German guilt, power are mentioned but never really examined that deeply. There is the issue of believability, not in the story, but in the characters, who never create any empathy with the audience. They're fairly wooden performances actually, even for stoic German characters. Daldry keeps the chronology moving on a consistent basis but in doing so, he ends up sweeping moments away that could have benefited from closer examination. The film would have worked much better as a deeper examination of German guilt. The film tries to be too many films for too many people to have an effective impact. That, and it really ended up being a boring film.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

A Few Words About Scrubs

As I've said before, I don't watch much t.v. but one of the shows I've never missed is Scrubs, which had its possible series finale last night. During its first season, I accidentally stumbled into the show and it has become my favorite program over its last eight seasons. The show was completely mistreated by NBC with changing days, time slots, or take off the schedule altogether. Thankfully, ABC stepped in for this season and with constant play in syndication or Comedy Central, it earned a respectful finale.

No matter how much I like the show, it's been obvious over the past two or three seasons that the show is struggling to stay consistent. First it fell into the standard sitcom traps of babies and marriage, one of the main reasons why I hate most sitcoms. Plots also got to ridiculous or fantastical (the season finale from season 7) or characters that really made no sense (Hooch) or ones that I simply hated (Lloyd the delivery guy). The first part of this season saw a return to past strengths, blending smarter jokes and the pathos of everyday reality in a hospital, what endeared me to the show in the first place. The past few episodes, aside of Neil Flynn's riffs as the Janitor (he has been unbelievable), it seemed the right time to end the show.

Last night's finale was what I've come to expect out of latter-day Scrubs: some good janitor moments and jokes but overall underwhelming as a whole (and a great song selection, "Book of Love", a Magnetic Fields cover by Peter Gabriel). The end treads into sentimental remembrances and bringing back old characters, traditional television finale territory. And yet the actors and creator Bill Lawrence don't make it feel schmaltzy even though it followed all the standard Scrubs cues. It was a finale that never really finalized that much. These characters will still be moving on in their lives. The show just happens to be stopping in a certain point in the timeline. There were no weddings, no twists, no more new babies, no feeling of clear resolution. Now some of this leaves the door open to the show coming back next year in a modified form, something ABC hasn't ruled out. But I think it's best to allow Scrubs to go out now, to keep it in my mind a show that was well worth my time.