Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Getting Back on Track...Again

...aaaaannnnndd, we're back! Ok, so when I left off, things were getting a bit long, so I decided to relegate my take on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to this post. As it happens, I've now also seen Frost/Nixon so we'll just see how much of a blowhard I can be about Ben Button before deciding what to do about Tricky Dick and the Brit. By the by, I should add that as I sit here at my desk at work listening to my iPod through the Bose dock, I just...I just have to say that...WOW...I love Bose products. If you have the means, or just the opportunity (I'm not condoning theft, I'm just saying some things may be worth it...) I'd highly suggest acquiring one (hah - I sound like Ferris Bueller and that damned Ferrari), it's like having your iPod pumped through a top-rate home stereo ("It's like wiping your ass with silk...I love it!")...ugh...I think I just made a mess. But anyway, onward and upward or whatever, and be ye warned: thar be spoilers ahead mateys...

Two things right off the bat. Firstly, a shit ton (which I think weighs somewhere between a bunch and a fuckload) of hyperbole has been tossed about in regards to this film. From my point of view most, if not all of it is deserved. This really is a gorgeous, mesmerizing, intriguing film and should (whether it wins best picture or not) hold up well along with most of the great films from years past and to come. I'll elaborate more in a moment but first I want to get to my second thought, which is that a lot of comparisons have been drawn (good and bad) between this and Forrest Gump. To which I say...DUH!!! Right away it should be noted by anyone with half a brain (and an internet connection and/or DVD player) that both films were written by Eric Roth.

The story of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the production, not the tale itself) begins apparently just over a decade ago. It's March, 1994 and Forrest Gump has just taken home six Oscars - including best (adapted) screenplay. Peruse Roth's resume and you'll see (regardless of the quality of the finished film) he has a thing for character rich, sweeping drama's (adaptations mostly) with a touch of the occasional whimsy. Sometime after his Oscar win and before the mess that ended up being The Postman (though I actually find a lot to like about that film despite Kevin Costner), it seems he found an old short by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It told the tale of a man who was born old (though in Fitzgerald's story he had the mental faculties of an elderly man, not just the physique) and began aging backwards (both mentally and physically - in the film, Benjamin is born old in physique, but grows mentally like any normal child).

The screenplay ended up in the hands of some hack director who enjoyed making films about nice aliens and some adventurer type with a fedora, amongst other things. It was originally supposed to star one Thomas Mapother - he would later nearly commit career suicide by jumping up and down on talk show couches and ranting and raving about his alien cult. Thankfully, that film never got off the ground...and the screenplay sat on a shelf, and sat, and sat...and just for good sport sat some more. Finally, long time production associates of the aforementioned hack, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, placed it in the hands of David Fincher. And God bless them for doing so. Aside from The Game, which I just couldn't get into, despite it's merits, I've found a considerable amount of enjoyment from all of Fincher's films (Fight Club in particular is a top-10 staple) - I would add however that, to date, he's only made seven feature films (if you exclude his Roger Corman days, the documentary, and Avatar which is still in production, that's one more that James Cameron - and look at his fucking resume - it's like my wife always tells me "size isn't everything"...ahem, anyway...).

Fincher should be oh-so-pleased with himself on this one. For that matter, everyone else should be pleased with him as well. This is a landmark film in a year already ripe with landmark films. As I said in my last post, the Best Picture race at the Oscars this year should be excruciatingly tight. If I were to guess - and keep in mind I'm no authority on this whatsoever - I surmise that the final five should (not necessarily would) be: WALL-E, The Dark Knight, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and, oh hell, I don't know...we'll just go with Doubt or Slumdog Millionaire (based solely on all the critical raving they've also been getting - I haven't seen either, and I'm not getting my skirt blown up by the prospect of either one honestly). At any rate, Fincher's a director with style, and an eye for finding the most intriguing and unique ways to shoot his films. That said, this is his most "traditional" film to date. It's relatively devoid of tricky camera movements or shots that could only be attained through computer enhancement. But...having said that, it's all but a shoe-in for one of the three visual effects nominations and make-up nominations as well. Throughout the better part of the first third to first half of the film, it takes what Peter Jackson did with size differences for the Hobbits and dwarfs (obscured and odd camera angles, and green screen superimposing), and focuses all it's attention on a single character.

The film is told as pages from a journal, being read by the daughter (Julia Ormond) of an elderly woman in her New Orleans hospital death bed, hours before the arrival of Katrina. You ever notice Julia Ormond usually always plays a home wrecker? It was kind of refreshing to see her just be a normal - oh well. We learn that the elderly woman is named Daisy, she's dying (from what appears to be some form of cardio-pulmonary or respiratory failure - it's never explicitly said), and it's both comforting (and apparently her dying wish) that her daughter read this journal and take the journey with the writer. The story begins with Daisy recalling the tale of a clockmaker, a Monsieur Gateau ("Mr. Cake" as she puts it - played by Elias Koteas, one of my favorite character actors...you may remember him as Casey Jones in the Ninja Turtle films), who has been commissioned to build the clock for the new central train station. Mr. Cake is blind, but considered one of the finest clock makers in the world. As it begins, he's sending his only son off to fight the Germans (WWI not WWII), and shortly thereafter, welcomes him back home as he's laid to rest in the family cemetery. As a result, he finishes his clock with a lonely determination, and it's put in place at a ceremony (attended by none other than an aging Teddy Roosevelt no less) to celebrate the completion of the station. As it's starts, it begins to run backwards - we hear from Mr. Cake that he has done this intentionally, so that his boy, and all the boys lost in Europe, might someday come back to their mothers and fathers. It's a touching and poignant moment - and I'm not ashamed to say it left me a touch misty-eyed. It's also a foreshadowing of more or less everything that follows, if not overly-simplified.

Benjamin's tale begins on the last day of the war in 1918, his father, Thomas Button - owner of Button's Buttons, the largest button maker in the world - rushes home to his wife who is delivering their child. The devastation of both losing his beloved and the grotesque sight of the newborn stir a panic in him as he steals the child and seeks to drown it in the river. However, before her dying breath, Mrs. Button made him promise that it would always have a home - so, a nearby policeman and a change of heart convince him to leave the child on the steps of a nearby home. Coincidentally, this home is a home for seniors - a clever, if not a tiny bit convenient plot device that aids in Benjamin's ability to fit in later in the film. One of the caregivers, Miss Queen, and her would-be lover nearly kill themselves tripping over the bundle of wrinkled joy on the stairs, and she decides to take him in. Everyone expects him to die of natural causes soon enough anyway (which he obviously doesn't - wouldn't that be a short and pointless film if you ever saw one), so what harm does it do?

He lives, he grows, he adjusts. The first ten or twelve years of his life he spends in a wheelchair - confined there by the extreme calcium deficiency in his bones and arthritis in his joints. It's around the age of eleven or twelve (exact dates and their ages are rarely said out loud throughout the film, so a little light arithmetic is required often times through the film to deduce how old they are - Ben is 7 years older than Daisy) that he meets a fiery, adventurous red-head with impossibly blue eyes named Daisy (cut back to 2005 - daughter's starting to figure things out). She's the granddaughter of one of the ladies in the home, and so they strike a friendship - spending time together every few weeks when it's family visitation week. Eventually, thanks to the "healin' power of Jee-sussss" he learns to walk - well, hobble really, then after time honest walking. He meets Lieutenant Dan, er, sorry...wrong movie, Captain Mike - proud Irishman, and owner and operator of a tugboat. who introduces young Benjamin (now about 14 or so) to the pleasures of women and drink (an absolutely uproarious scene happens where Capt. Mike, thinking Ben must be about 90, is absolutely flabbergasted that he's "never been with a woman...NEVER?!"). That's actually a sort of running gag for a better part of the first half is that only a few people know and truly understand that Benjamin Button is a child - he looks older than God, but he's still just a child. Benjamin's faculties improve as time goes on, he eventually joins Capt. Mike as a merchant sailor, traveling the world, falling in love, doing what most young men with dreams but no direction do I suppose - and never forgetting, night after night, to say goodnight to Daisy (who often times finds herself wishing the same sentiment to him). The crew is in Russia on December 7th, 1941, and the boat is more or less drafted into the Navy. 

An attack by a U-Boat sometime around 1944 or so kills off most of the crew, including Capt. Mike, and it's here where Benjamin really learns two of the more prominent lessons from the film. Overall the film has three main points (or at least so I noticed) - firstly, cherish what's really important, because nothing lasts forever, no matter which way you're aging. Secondly, it's never too late to start over, no matter how old you are - you're only as old as you feel (appearances mean nothing) - and you're never too old to find out who you really are. The third, which Ben learns the hard way later on - when life gives you opportunities, take them. I neglected to mention that Benjamin's father has been keeping tabs on him for most of his life, even befriending him (under somewhat false pretenses), and it's this point that causes a big change in Ben's life when he returns home to New Orleans. The truth of things is told, and eventually, a reconcilement - followed shortly by the death of Thomas Button. Leaving everything to Ben provides him a means to do whatever he wants, but he takes his time. Daisy eventually comes back into his life - having now become a ballet dancer in New York. Signal's get crossed and the two eventually end up on the out's with each other for a time. After a tragedy, they eventually end up together for at least a decade (it's not made entirely clear how long they were together). Miss Queen eventually passes, and again, Benjamin is reminded how short life is - even though, at this point he's just starting to look like that impossibly good-looking fucker that all the ladies swoon over - goddamned pretty boy. 

The big surprise (that's really no surprise to anyone in the audience at this point) comes when Daisy's daughter discovers that Ben was her father. He leaves when she's a year old. His reasoning that for one, she'll never understand why her father is so young, two, that she needs a father - not a playmate, and three that it's not fair to Daisy to have to raise two children. He wanders the globe again, getting younger year by year. It's around 1980 or 1981 when he comes back into Daisy's life - now looking (thanks to some rather impressive digital smearing on the face) about 22-ish (though obviously he's 63 or so). Basically, Daisy's moved on, found a father for her daughter, made a life for herself - but he needs to see her one last time while he still has his wits about him. They enjoy one last night together, and he leaves again.  It is sometime later, presumably in the early 90's, when child services contacts Daisy to assist with a "problem". They found a teenage boy with no ID, only a journal with her name pasted all over it. It's odd to just about everyone that this adolescent boy is showing early signs of dementia. He's allowed to stay at the retirement home with Daisy, who is now a guest there following the death of her husband. He eventually regresses into a young boy, then a toddler - senility and dementia taking over his mind. Benjamin Button passes away in 2003 in what has to be one of the more startling and tragic deaths I've ever seen put to film, Daisy says goodnight to him one last time (by this point my face was a total waterfall - all I'll say is, if you have children...it'll mean a lot more to you and be so much harder to watch). We return to old Daisy, moments before Katrina begins utterly ripping apart New Orleans, who in her last breath whispers a goodnight to him again - and in a final scene, we're shown that definitively, this story is over. 

The film is such an emotional roller coaster. At times so cute and charming and quirky, at other times, tragic and heartfelt and tender. There's a particular sequence involving one of the retirees in the home and a bolt of lightning that just had everyone in the audience in stitches. I won't ruin it - but it's a highlight of the film, and serves, in a subtle way, to drive the finer points home. I liked that about the film...it didn't try to beat you over the head with its morality tale - it just unfolded, gradually, easily...and it breathed, and as an audience member, you're allowed to take it all in. Alexander Desplat's score was a great help in achieving all that. Up until this film, I was absolutely not a fan of the man's work. I had yet to hear a score of his that resonated with me whatsoever. That's changed with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. So much so that I'm considering re-evaluating his prior efforts to see if I just flat-out missed something. He wrote a motif, and I can't recall the exact instrumentation, but I know it was mostly percussion - it was a "theme", if you will, for the clock. Eventually, through various incarnations, it becomes the primary motif for the film. And it's absolutely brilliant because - like the rest of the film - it's subtle, never really beating you over the head, never forcing you to make a conscious association. 

My favorites in scores this year read like my favorite films: WALL-E, The Dark Knight, and Benjamin Button. But they're so close I'm really honestly struggling to make a decision on which is my true favorite. In the case of Benjamin Button, performance were fantastic across the board, as was the screenplay, the cinematography, the special effects, the production design...all of it A+ effort. So deciding which film is really your favorite - it's like moving into a new house, and you've got three masterpieces of art to hang on a focal wall - they all fit the room, and they're all equally impressive. So which one do you put up? They all have their merits, there are sweeping strokes that you love, and subtle touches that you adore. So which is it...which is the better? FUCK!!! It's going to drive you mad. Maybe in the end you just put the fuckers in constant, daily rotation just so you can think about other things, like what's for dinner?; what am I gonna do about lil' Joey's cleft pallet?; should I euthanize the cat?;should we invite MY mistress or my wife's mistress over for the hot threesome? You know...the little things!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Year-End Odds and Ends and Getting Back on Track

So anyway, 2008 has been interesting to say the least. My son finally started talking (thanks to a small, but necessary, surgical procedure). I came within a pubes-length of scoring an actual feature film. Said film, by the way, just to add insult to injury, has been selected as an official entry at Sundance this year - so, yeah...big kick to the nuts on that one. Christmas and my birthday were relatively good to me - got that Bose iPod dock I'd been wanting, and a couple of tasty John Williams Signature Scores. And, surprisingly enough, I saw several of the better films I've ever seen in my short 32 years - I honestly can't decide which film I liked better: WALL-E, or The Dark Knight. The former appeals more to my general sense of happiness and inner-child while the latter (as I've previously stated in other postings) is arguably one of the better cinematic endeavors ever put to film and ranks a close second on my all-time favorites behind Empire. I should note at this point that I place a sizable distinction between my "favorite movies" and the "best films I've ever seen". All this leads me to my main point. It was Brad's idea that maybe I should, seeing as how I see a lot of them (although I'm struggling to find anything remotely resembling a compliment in that), try my hand at a little amateur film reviewing.

So...here we are. As it happens, this last weekend put a sizable dent in my "movies-you-need-to-get-the-fuck-out-and-see" list. I'm now half-way to my goal. There were four films I felt were absolute required viewing this holiday season...and as of today I can scratch two off: Valkyrie, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I took it upon myself to request an extended weekend from work this week, so with any luck, I'll get to Frost/Nixon on Monday. Gran Torino will (hopefully) shortly follow when it goes nation-wide on January 9th. So, on with my thoughts on things. Fair warning: while I'll try to abstain from delving into every little minutiae of a plot point, I will say that these will not be spoiler free - read at your own risk.

Friday I saw Valkyrie. I love a good thriller - the problem is...it's hard to get too wrapped up in one when you know the outcome (or for that matter when everyone has known the outcome for over 60 years). All that aside, Valkyrie is top-notch thriller - well executed, well acted, brilliantly shot and directed. But...I can't help but come back to my initial point. How much can one invest in a film like this when they know how it ends? A review I read on another website - though I don't recall which one - offered that it's a brilliant caper film that suffers mostly from the fact that there's no caper...or rather, that the "good-guys" don't pull it off. That says a lot really - I mean, how enjoyable would any of the Ocean's films been if the gang hadn't actually pulled off their big, elaborate heist at the end?!

Still there's a lot to admire and enjoy. If I had one gripe, it's that, much like the theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven, it feels incomplete somehow. Remember this was originally supposed to release in June - I would have thought they would have spent that extra time in the editing room pulling out all the stops, making what might have been one of the greatest Oscar-baiting World War II films since Schindler's List. In its current form however, it feels more like a truncated, summer flick. That's not necessarily a bad thing - but considering the people involved (in front of and behind the camera) I would have thought a little more character development would be on the menu. In a nutshell (help, help I'm in a nutshell - sorry), the supporting cast of this film is essentially half to two-thirds of the supporting casts from Pirates of the Caribbean and Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (which, in the end is the superior WWII film because of its character).

Let go of your hate - don't let your feelings on the public Tom Cruise dissuade you from seeing this. Like many of his films, his performance transcends his personal life. Let's face it, regardless of how much of a douche he's become in the real world, how many truly bad movies has he really made? In Valkyrie, he portrays real-life Nazi Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. This was a man who truly loved his country - and was truly hostile at the state that the leader of his country had brought it to. The film begins in North Africa where we get the briefest glimpse at just how much Hitler's ambition and megalomaniacal tendencies outreached his means. Colonel Stauffenberg has been consigned to head one of the last remaining Panzer divisions in the region - as we learn - for voicing his opinion of the state of Germany and his thoughts on Der Führer. In a brief and relatively thankless cameo, (the always awesome) Bernard Hill appears as Stauffenberg's superior, whom the Colonel convinces to allow them to unofficially "get the fuck out of Dodge" only to get blowed-up real good by an Allied air assault. It's this assault that cost Colonel Stauffenberg his right hand, two fingers from his left hand, some permanent nerve damage in various parts of the body, and his left eye. If I've never mentioned it before - I think eyes are icky...eyes, and open chest cavities (seeing a beating heart just makes me yecch). The very idea of someone popping a glass eye into an empty socket just gives me all kinds of heebie-jeebies - but anyway...

It's also this attack and the subsequent loss of various parts that seals the deal for the Colonel. What's left of him returns to the Fatherland, where he is quickly swept up by the German resistance, headed by Hamlet, General Zod, Slarty Bartfast, and Captain Jack's sidekick - Mr. Gibbs. As it happens, a touch of false advertising is afoot as Kenneth Branaugh's part is more a less a glorified cameo as well. This is one of the many things that makes me think there's a 3+ hour director's cut waiting for DVD and Blu-Ray. You just don't stick a guy like Branaugh in such a (seemingly) insignificant part like that. Again, the cast is absolutely superb with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard (in an amazingly well-done dramatic turn) and Black Book's Carice van Houten as Stauffenberg's wife (again - relegated to an almost thankless cameo...I think she had all of 10 lines in the entire film). I wouldn't be true to my nature if I didn't point out how totally, awesomely hot she is. If you haven't seen Black Book, then my question to you is...WHY?!?!?! Besides being a fantastic film, the cost of the rental is worth watching her on screen for two hours.

At any rate, over the course of the next hour, plans are set in motion, mistakes are made, a seemingly serendipitous hand of bad luck is dealt out, and the whole thing just goes to shit. The location for the bombing gets moved from the bunker at Hitler's Wolf's Lair (which, had the bomb gone off there, everyone inside would have been killed from either the force of the blast or the heat blast that would/should/could have made its way through the corridors, cooking and suffocating anything in its path) to the cottage (it was July - shit gets hot). Only one of the two planned charges went off. It's conjectured (in the film at least) that the briefcase the bomb was in was moved farther away from Hitler, shielding him from some of the effects of the blast. All communication to the Wolf's Lair was cut off after the blast as was planned, but none of the conspirators stuck around to see if the bomb did the job. And lastly...and likely most importantly - General Friedrich Olbricht (Nighy's character), one of the leaders of the conspiracy, under a state of total fear and panic, waited over three hours to send the orders to initiate Operation: Valkyrie. For those that don't know - Operation: Valkyrie was Hitler's contingency plan to secure Germany (or rather the Reich as a whole) in the event of his death. It called for the activation of all reserve troops within Germany to, within six hours of his demise, secure order and continue the fight. In a rather clever play against Hitler's ever building sense of dementia and paranoia, Colonel Stauffenberg was placed in a position within the government to "amend" the plan (cutting the response time down to three hours and placing the lions share of the reserve in Berlin) and, with brass cojones the size of bowling balls, actually got the crazy fucker to sign it!

So, in the end, it failed...Hitler lived, as did (surprisingly) most of the people in the room, having only suffered a few cuts and bruises (and a big boost to his already paranoid state), and the conspirators were either captured and executed, or offed themselves to evade capture. History has revealed that Hitler went so far as to have several of the families of the group rounded up and executed as well - though this isn't shown or referenced in the film. As a testament to just how much I did manage to get wrapped up in the film, I was vocally relieved to read the title card at the end stating that Colonel Stauffenberg's family survived the war (his wife passed in 2006). A lot has been made in the media about the actors not performing with German accents - to which I say, "So-the-fuck-WHAT?!?!" Honestly, who gives a shit. This isn't the first American film in history to take place in a foreign country and have the cast speak with their natural accents. Yeah, the characters are German...but the dialogue is in English, what's the fucking point of having everyone speak with a German accent. All it would do is serve to ham up the film and make half the performers in it look ridiculous because, despite their talents, they can't pull it off convincingly. Why do you think Costner spoke naturally in Robin Hood? It was because his British accent sucked ass - note the scenes where he's disguised as the blind beggar for conformation! Connery barely tried to pull off a Russian in Red October because in the end he knew he'd never get around that thick Scottish brogue. Cruise's Irish accent from Far and Away sounded like the fucking Lucky Charms leprechaun - obviously foreign accents aren't his thing! In the end I agree with Singer, let the actors speak naturally - anything else would be an even bigger distraction, and a disservice to the film. So anyway, all in all, a real treat of a film with a good sense that it potentially could be even better in the future with an expanded edit.

I couldn't live down the shame and pummeling from my loyal following (hah!) if I didn't at least mention John Ottman's contribution to the film. As usual, he served as both composer and editor - and, I don't know if this is a first for him or not, co-exec producer. Generally speaking, I've never had any complaints about Ottman's editing. He's concise, and has a great sense of dramatic timing. I'm generally just not a fan of his music. I enjoyed quite a bit from Superman Returns (although what he did with some of Johnny's material, to me anyway, is nearly unforgivable), X-2 had it's moments, but basically I've never thought much of him as a composer. I've never had much inclination to run right out and pick up one of his score CD's after I saw the film. While I haven't "run right out" and got the CD for Valkyrie, I will say that it's on my list. I was really quite impressed with it overall - subdued overall, but tense when it was necessary, bold when called for, grand when required. The choral piece he composed for the end of the film is quite nice (but I'll reserve final judgement on it until I've heard it away from the film and through my headphones). The suspenseful cues did reek of some of Johnny's work for Munich, but again, overall it was actually pretty damned good - I'd have to give it my full recommendation.

This is getting a touch long, so I'll leave you with "To Be Continued..." for my take on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button saying only that the race for Best Picture this year is going to be excruciatingly tight...