Monthly Archives: December 2008

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Modern American film has seen a lull in classical style. A good modern film is hard-edged, like that of “No Country For Old Men” or “There Will Be Blood.” They are politically appropriate and justly praised, yet one can’t help but yearn for a reawakening of that classical style that seemed to have died in the 1990s (with few exceptions). Who would expect a director like David Fincher (“Seven”, “Fight Club”) to be the man to bring back that style? With his new film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Fincher brings back the hero’s tale in the vein of “Forrest Gump,” infuses his own style and serves the Academy just the audience-drawing film that they need for ratings. The film is far from perfection, but shows us – just like its main character – that going back in time isn’t always the worst thing to do.

Benjamin Button is not your average person. Born at the age of 80, Benjamin inexplicably grows younger through his years. Portrayed both digitally and literally by Brad Pitt from birth to the teenage years, Benjamin is an unlikely hero. Growing up in a nursing home, he learns about death at a very young (or old?) age. However, raised by the gracious Queenie (played by “Hustle & Flow’s” Taraji P. Henson) Benjamin finds that he is never without love. He is confused by death (often because Queenie is sure he’s close to the grave at every moment) but he does understand love to the fullest. This is evident when he meets Daisy, as portrayed in the film by a number of actresses most notably Cate Blanchett (who is featured both in the story of B.B. and in the frame of the story as her daughter reads it to her).

Benjamin grows up and like his cinematic forefather Forrest Gump, he makes his own way through life through all sorts of discoveries. These discoveries come through in the form of the film’s greatest resources: the supporting characters. Whether he’s fighting the war on a tugboat with his mentor Captain Mike (Jared Harris) or connecting with the man who Benjamin learns is his father Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) or hearing from Mr. Daws (Ted Manson) about his bouts with lightning (which prove to be comedic highlights), Benjamin learns from others in a way he never expected. He’s a somewhat unorthodox hero, but he’s absolutely endearing due to his unabashedly fascinating life.

Benjamin is a man who is always searching for himself, but always finds Daisy. It’s an awe-inspiring tale of determination and curiosity of the human spirit that is always a joy to find in the multiplex. Brad Pitt does well with characterization and with his script, although the character of Benjamin is hardly as fleshed out as it could have been. He may find himself with a nomination in January, although there seem to be a lot of contenders this year. Benjamin is highly conflicted person, often staying quiet and subdued and Pitt does that marvelously. One major setback to the film is the fact that I will never be as handsome as Brad Pitt.

While screenwriter Eric Roth writes a great story and Fincher shoots a beautiful work, the film is just too long. Fincher directed last year’s excellent “Zodiac” and that film had the same detraction. I don’t blame you if you check your watch a couple of times during the film. Other problems audiences may have are the film’s clichés such as the similarities to “Forrest Gump” or its dreamlike quality or some of the familiar characters. The film is a bit overblown and can be certainly too overwhelming at parts, but nitpicking will distract you from the real, subtle beauty the film has to offer.

The film thrives upon its supporting characters. Jared Harris is sublime as Captain Mike, a man who lives on the sea yet never lets it break him. Harris gives the somewhat clichéd character a humorous buoyancy, and one can’t help but smile when he’s on screen. Taraji P. Henson is a name that is far from household status, but she does very well as Queenie, adding liveliness to the common mother role that is often just another stereotype. Jason Flemyng is even less of a household name – unless you’re fans of the work of Guy Ritchie (Flemyng was in both “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”). His performance as Benjamin’s father stays with you. He’s utterly heartbreaking and worth the price of admission. Another small role is filled by the recent Oscar-winning Tilda Swinton as Benjamin’s one-time lover, Elizabeth Abbot. Swinton is pure bliss in her role, achieving an odd profundity.

Cate Blanchett is our greatest working actress, yet unfortunately doesn’t shine as well in this as she has in her previous roles. It takes a while to get used to her especially when she’s in her elderly phase make-up, and sounds a bit like Catherine O’Hara’s parody of dramatic performance in “For Your Consideration.” Eventually, she grows on you but for an actress with her talent it she is surprisingly always a bit too over-the-top. It’s hard to see an actress of her caliber in such an inadequate performance. It’s utterly exasperating.

The film’s cancer is the use of sound editing. At many times, it’s embarrassing. Fincher uses Blanchett’s voice as Elle Fanning plays the child era Daisy. We see this bright young cherub and then hear a grown woman’s voice. It’s awkward discontinuity at its worst and never leaves your memory through the whole film. Also perplexing is the film’s horrible make-up, which at many times is either too creepy or too over-the-top.

Still, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is undeniably sad, yet tender at its best moments which happen often enough. Alexandre Desplat’s score is a treasure and will have film music fans drooling for the wondrous soundtrack. The film has a miraculous ending, not in the sense of our hero’s outcome, but in that wonderful feeling that sometimes occurs at the movies: the lump in the throat. Fincher’s ending is exceptional, some of the best work on the screen this year. It’s certainly a strong showing for actors, who show that there are still new places to take performance especially in the style of character acting. Whether you’re aging backwards or forwards, you’re guaranteed to like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Grade: B+

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Filed under Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, David Fincher, Review, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Is America ready for Bollywood? With filmmakers like Danny Boyle integrating Bollywood styles with his own terrific, seasoned style in his new film “Slumdog Millionaire,” cultural cinema desegregation is not the final answer in modern filmmaking – it is the beginning of something new. Without a doubt, Boyle’s new work is a masterpiece, proving he is one of our greatest directors of this generation.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young man under suspicion after a winning streak on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” In America that show has become somewhat irrelevant (is it even on anymore?) but for Jamal, the show means everything. Not for the money, but for his one and only love Latika (Frieda Pinto) who he feels he can win by appearing on her favorite program.

We learn that Jamal has lived a very interesting life – one might consider a sometimes dangerous life. But for Jamal this life has taught him the answers he needs to become the man he is destined to become. Coincidentally, those answers are the strangely yet inventively the answers to the questions he is asked on the television program. First-time Boyle collaborator Simon Beaufoy (the Oscar nominated writer of “The Full Monty”) intertwines beautifully the story of Jamal’s fruitful life and the questions on the program to paint the intriguingly poignant story of his main character’s growth. It’s genuinely refreshing to see film narrative portrayed in such an original way, and Beaufoy’s script is simply one of the best this year.

While Beaufoy’s script has not gone unnoticed in critics’ circles, something that may be missed is the strong performance of Dev Patel as Jamal. His portrayal is strikingly profound and at the same time ultimately inspiring. Patel has a wondrous quality in his eyes when he shares scenes with Pinto’s Latika. We can see the yearning and true love of his character – an honest performance by a young man who has the potential for bigger and better things.

This is the second coming-of-age film to impress this year (the first was “The Wackness,” although that film did have a larger amount of detractors), although its crowd pleasing nature is no surprise. With some of the better films of this century under his belt such as “28 Days Later…,” “Millions” and last year’s sci-fi opus “Sunshine,” Boyle has proved himself the forerunner for best director of the past ten years. With “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle chose to find yet another film style to re-invent. It’s certainly a stronger film in terms of coming-of-age than “The Wackness” (although Jonathan Levine’s debut was an excellent showing of early nineties indie grit) and affirms that Boyle has the uncanny knack for outshining his colleagues.

Boyle is also brave in his efforts to bring Bollywood style to audiences as it’s become sort of a joke in America. Hopefully this film’s popularity will allow a bit more appreciation and curiosity for a “genre” that has never found a large following over here. The end of the film features a Bollywood-esque dance sequence that is altogether fun and invigorating, especially after Boyle’s signature happy ending (anyone who has seen a Boyle film knows he’s not one for ambiguity). This dance number is assuredly more welcome than the absurd sequence at the end of “Tropic Thunder” – and it doesn’t leave you embarrassed in the theater.

This will be Boyle’s second film to be honored by Oscar nominations (his drug film “Trainspotting” was nominated in 1997), most likely in the adapted screenplay and best picture categories, and one can only hope the Academy will enjoy the film as much as audiences. It’s a grand piece for Boyle, who again demonstrates his ability to take something that he loves (film) and illustrate it in new and exciting ways. One of the strongest films of the year, “Slumdog Millionaire” should be at the top of your must-see list.

Grade: A

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R.I.P. Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter has passed on – A brilliant writer – who penned the almost unfathomable adaptation of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” in the 7os. I’m not particularly familiar with his other work, but I saw the film recently and can’t help but recommend it to anyone who enjoys intelligent film. It re-invented the book adaptation to film and works on many levels. I highly encourage those who have dismissed it seeing it as just a romance film, it’s actually quite far from that.

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Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

When does maturity start? At the time a person becomes a twentysomething, are he or she really supposed to be a grown up? From Mike Leigh, the seasoned British director of “Secrets and Lies,” “Vera Drake” and “Topsy-Turvy,” the charming “Happy-Go-Lucky” aims to answer this question. The film – a deceptively simplistic slice-of-life dramedy – stars the fairly unknown Sally Hawkins (in a startlingly lovable performance) as the effervescent-to-a-fault Poppy, who also happens to be one of the most unique and unforgettable characters of the year.

Poppy hasn’t really concerned herself with growing out of her shell since adolescence. At 30, she still acts like a teenager (she even asks for the crust on her toast to be cut off). Her friends like her just fine, yet there is a level of distrust and pretension that Poppy never seems to pick up on. Living in a bit of a fantasy world she’s overly trusting, doesn’t think before she speaks and has a sense of humor that takes a while for those in the “real world” to understand. However, her optimism is unshakably wondrous and she seems to find beauty in everything. One of the best (and only) choices she’s made is her vocation as a primary school teacher. Whereas she cannot connect with her fellow 30-year-olds all the time, she can always find splendor in her children.

While Poppy lives her life in a confident state of happiness and fantasy, her natural instincts tend to curiously draw her to the real world. This comes in the unexpected form of her miserly, bigoted driver’s ed. instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Unable to process his unhappiness, she constantly tries to make him laugh yet her bizarre sense of humor and Scott’s stubborn pessimism drives him crazy (no pun intended).

Another jump into the real world comes in a scene where Poppy interacts with a distraught homeless man. The scene is unforgettable. She attempts to connect with a person who is utterly crazed, a person capable of unprovoked violence. We watch in fear this woman who feels she can be a savior and is almost brutally awakened to the real world. Poppy tries to bring true happiness to people like Scott and the homeless drunk, neither of whom can accept it, and she finds she is only playing with fire. She is a woman ill-equipped to deal with the real world – the one place that intrigues her more than anything else.

Two of the film’s greatest assets are Hawkins and Leigh’s superb creation of the character of Poppy. Leigh writes an incredible dialect for Polly, one that Hawkins delivers naturally with quick wit and beautiful realism. We see the flaws in Polly’s beauty and vice versa. Her personality begins as cute, but ends up somewhat tragic. One can’t help but feel what the other characters wonder about Poppy – why can’t she take anything seriously? On the other hand, she provides an endless supply of optimism that serves terrifically as a lesson to not grow up too fast and enjoy life as it comes and goes. The script is succinct and one-of-a-kind and allows the film’s audience to gladly make up their own mind about Poppy as both a person and a symbol.

Regrettably, “Happy-Go-Lucky” disappoints on a very problematic level in terms of Leigh’s impressive film career. His resume until now has featured a refined and mature catalogue of serious works that speak loudly. Considering his triumphant 1996 film “Secrets & Lies” in comparison to “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the earlier film is certainly the stronger piece. “Happy-Go-Lucky” is a very good film, but doesn’t feel like the work of a professional five-times-Oscar-nominated director like Leigh but rather something of a strong debut by a first-time auteur. Like Poppy, Leigh seems to have problems with maturity.

Nevertheless, if Oscar finds this little piece come February to be worthy enough for a much-deserved Best Actress nomination then all will be right in the cinematic world. Hawkins is a force of nature – one of the best performances by an actress this year (a year that has been very kind to actresses). Whether you’re a bitter pessimist, or a glowing optimist, “Happy-Go-Lucky” will leave you as carefree as the title suggests.

Grade: A-

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Originally published in Framingham State College’s The Gatepost

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R.I.P. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry

The voice of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the very first days of “Star Trek” all throughout every incarnation in the “Trek” canon had passed away. Majel Barrett, who was married to Gene Roddenberry – the creator of “Star Trek” – and has made a mark on the lives of Trekkies and Trekkers that will never be forgotten. She played all sorts of characters from Nurse Christine Chapel on the original series to Lwaxanna Troi on TNG, but she’ll always be remembered and seen as a “Trek” icon as the voice of the computer in every series. Rest in peace Majel.

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The most bizarre Golden Globe nominations ever!

I don’t think I was alone in varying amounts of confusion, terror, and glee with the Golden Globe nominations this morning. The big boys this year seem to be “Frost/Nixon,” “Doubt,” and my most anticipated Oscar bait film – which looks to be a rebirth of the modern “American” film in the vein of “Forrest Gump” – “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” I haven’t had a lot of time to see many of these films before these announcements (last year I’d seen almost half of the films already), but this school semester has been … stressful. I have a review of “Happy-Go-Lucky” that needs to go up (I just need to make a few adjustments) and after that I’ll be on my annual Oscar journey to see every single film nominated. As for the Golden Globes, I can only ask of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – what have you been smoking?

I was in the .0001% of filmgoers who did not appreciate the screen presence of Tom Cruise in this summer’s hilarious-yet-cliched “Tropic Thunder.” But my fellow critics seemed to find his annoying performance something of a genius portrayal. Whatever the case may be, this nod is way out of left field and I hope for all our sake that the Academy laughs this one off. On the other hand I am thrilled that Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for his role in the same film. He was the reason I bought the DVD today, and his inclusion in today’s nominations hopefully help his chances with Oscar.

Although I’m not voting for his win. For now, I am fully supporting a nomination for Heath Ledger’s Joker – he deserves it. Many people are calling this a pity vote. I don’t. Had Ledger not died I would have fully supported any kind of award consideration. He was a revelation. I have yet to see Josh Brolin’s performance in “Milk” (although I did see “W.” yet never wrote on it because I was too busy – it would’ve been nice to see his name on the Best Actor list), which has been plowing through the critics awards in the supporting category. For whatever reason, the HFPA decided that Tom Cruise’s hefty check would outweigh what looks like another model performance by Brolin and didn’t nominate him.

I have to say something. I used to hate James Franco. His “portrayal” of Harry Osborn in the “Spider-man” films was nothing short of garbage. His recent choices have undoubtedly changed my mind. I haven’t seen either of his roles in “Milk” (which he was not nominated for) and “Pineapple Express” (a total surprise nod) but I can’t wait to see both of them.

One question: where’s WALL-E? He only got a best animated nod/automatic win and a song nod, but that film is completely deserving of a best picture nomination against all the competition.

I have yet to see Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but it seems I’ll have to get the DVD as Penelope Cruz seems to be on her way to her first Oscar.

The biggest problem with these nominations is that it is quite hard to predict the five best picture Oscar noms. “Benjamin Button” is certainly a lock. Otherwise, “Doubt,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Milk,” “The Wrestler” and “The Dark Knight” are all serious contenders. Some of those films didn’t get big Globe-nom-love, but they are still hot in the critics awards and … well … this race is getting hot.

One other thing … in terms of television all I’ve been watching is “30 Rock” so I’ll just stick behind that in every category it’s nominated for.

Here’s the nominations:

BEST MOTION PICTURE, DRAMA

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
“Frost/Nixon”
“The Reader”
“Revolutionary Road”
“Slumdog Millionaire”

BEST MOTION PICTURE, MUSICAL OR COMEDY

“Burn After Reading”
“Happy-Go-Lucky”
“In Bruges”
“Mamma Mia!”
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

FOREIGN LANGUAGE PICTURE

“The Baader Meinhof Complex”
“Everlasting Moments”
“Gomorrah”
“I’ve Loved You So Long”
“Waltz With Bashir”

BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Stephen Daldry, “The Reader”
David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon”
Sam Mendes, “Revolutionary Road”

BEST DRAMATIC ACTOR

Leonardo DiCaprio, “Revolutionary Road”
Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
Sean Penn, “Milk”
Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

BEST DRAMATIC ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”
Angelina Jolie, “Changeling”
Meryl Streep, “Doubt”
Kristin Scott Thomas, “I’ve Loved You So Long”
Kate Winslet, “Revolutionary Road”

BEST ACTOR, COMEDY OR MUSICAL

Javier Bardem, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”
James Franco, “Pineapple Express”
Brendan Gleeson, “In Bruges”
Dustin Hoffman, “Last Chance Harvey”

BEST ACTRESS, COMEDY OR MUSICAL

Rebecca Hall, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Frances McDormand, “Burn After Reading”
Meryl Streep, “Mamma Mia!”
Emma Thompson, “Last Chance Harvey”

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Tom Cruise, “Tropic Thunder”
Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”
Ralph Fiennes, “The Duchess”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”
Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, “Doubt”
Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Viola Davis, “Doubt”
Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
Kate Winslet, “The Reader”

ANIMATED FILM

“Bolt”
“Kung Fu Panda”
“Wall-E”

SCREENPLAY

Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire”
David Hare, “The Reader”
Peter Morgan, “Frost/Nixon”
Eric Roth, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
John Patrick Shanley, “Doubt”

ORIGINAL SCORE

Alexandre Desplat, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Clint Eastwood, “Changeling”
James Newton Howard, “Defiance”
Hans Zimmer, “Frost/Nixon”
A.R. Rahman, “Slumdog Millionaire”

SONG

“Down to Earth” (performed by Peter Gabriel, written by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman), “Wall-E”
“Gran Torino” (performed by Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens, lyrics by: Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens), “Gran Torino”
“I Thought I Lost You” (performed by Miley Cyrus and John Travolta, written by Miley Cyrus and Jeffrey Steele), “Bolt”
“Once in a Lifetime” (performed by Beyoncé, written by Beyoncé Knowles, Amanda Ghost, Scott McFarnon, Ian Dench, James Dring, Jody Street), “Cadillac Records”
“The Wrestler” (performed by Bruce Springsteen, written by Bruce Springsteen), “The Wrestler”

TELEVISION CATEGORIES

DRAMATIC TV SERIES

“Dexter”
“House M.D.”
“In Treatment”
“Mad Men”
“True Blood”

BEST ACTOR, TV DRAMA

Gabriel Byrne, “In Treatment”
Michael C. Hall, “Dexter”
Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”
Hugh Laurie, “House M.D.”
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, “The Tudors”

BEST ACTRESS, TV DRAMA

Sally Field, “Brothers & Sisters”
Mariska Hargitay, “Law & Order: SVU”
January Jones, “Mad Men”
Anna Paquin, “True Blood”
Kyra Sedgwick, “The Closer”

TV SERIES, MUSICAL OR COMEDY

“Californication”
“Entourage”
“The Office”
“30 Rock”
“Weeds”

BEST ACTOR, TV MUSICAL OR COMEDY

Alec Baldwin, “30 Rock”
Steve Carell, “The Office”
Kevin Connolly, “Entourage”
David Duchovny, “Californication”
Tony Shalhoub, “Monk”

BEST ACTRESS, TV MUSICAL OR COMEDY

Christina Applegate, “Samantha Who?”
America Ferrera, “Ugly Betty”
Tina Fey, “30 Rock”
Debra Messing, “The Starter Wife”
Mary-Louise Parker, “Weeds”

BEST MINISERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

“Cranford”
“Bernard & Doris”
“John Adams”
“A Raisin in the Sun”
“Recount”

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES OR A MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Judi Dench, “Cranford”
Laura Linney, “John Adams”
Catherine Keener, “An American Crime”
Shirley MacLaine, “Coco Chanel”
Susan Sarandon, “Bernard & Doris”

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MINISERIES OR A MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Ralph Fiennes, “Bernard and Doris”
Paul Giammatti, “John Adams”
Kevin Spacey, “Recount”
Kiefer Sutherland, “24: Redemption”
Tom Wilkinson, “Recount”

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, MINISERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Eileen Atkins, “Cranford”
Laura Dern, “Recount”
Melissa George, “In Treatment”
Rachel Griffiths, “Brothers & Sisters”
Dianne Wiest, “In Treatment”

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A SERIES, MINISERIES OR MOTION PICTURE MADE FOR TELEVISION

Neil Patrick Harris, “How I Met Your Mother”
Denis Leary, “Recount”
Jeremy Piven, “Entourage”
Blair Underwood, “In Treatment”
Tom Wilkinson, “John Adams”

CECIL B. DEMILLE LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Steven Spielberg

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