Monday, December 29, 2008

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Director: David Fincher
Writers (WGA): Eric Roth (screenplay)
Release Date: 25 December 2008 (USA)

Brad Pitt - Benjamin Button
Cate Blanchett - Daisy
Julia Ormond - Caroline

Every year or two there seems to be a big-hyped movie that most people will praise for the large scope, great acting, and wonderdul plot and screen play, but is inevitably not quite worth the praise and accolades it receives. Such is the case with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Directed by David Fincher (Zodiac; Fight Club, Se7en) and starring Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button, Cate Blanchett as Daisy, and Julia Ormond as Caroline.

This is a film that wants to be bigger than the script calls for, and thus it fails to deliver on the promise of an epic. Loosely adapted from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film presents us with a the time-honored question of 'does age really matter'?

Ultimately I didn't really care. It was actually creepy to watch some of the 'touching' moments taking place between an old man and a young girl, or the sexual tension had between one man on his way backwards and a woman on her way towards menopause.

Was the acting up to par? Sure, and Pitt and Blanchett probably deserve any awards they will win. For me, there was just a major disconnect between what I was being shown and what I know to be true. This is a fantasy situation in a real world, but the rest of the real world did not interact with the fantasy part like they should. This aspect reminds me greatly of the reasons I was not able to enjoy a film from last year, Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which a troubled young man introduces his mannequin girlfriend to the town, only to find everyone completely accepting and accomodating.

Benjamin Button needed to lose 40+ minutes of fluff. At almost 3 hours the script simply didn't call for enough to happen. With that said, this movie could have made an excellnt 4 hour epic, had more exploration been spent on what this curious Benjamin Button encountered on a daily level, apart from his early years.

It also needed to either find some much better comic relief (a series of lightning strikes to an individual seemed to be the only real light-heartedness) or it needed to become much more serious, and in so doing explore the darker side of what it would mean for a human to experience life in reverse, the terrible consequences it would involve, and not try to tie up all the loose ends so neat and nice.

I appreciate the film as an attempt to be big, but I don't think the script was strong enough to support such ambitions. It will win awards, I have no doubt about that, but I will never see this movie again, and I, like Roger Ebert has said, venture to say that many others will not seek it out again. View it if you must, but try to catch the matinee.


EDIT: Hmm.. I forgot a key point before I posted. The story is told to us through the use of a horrendous method, one that was so much of a distraction to me that it became laughable, if it wasn't for the fact that I wanted to scream. Imagine the movie Titanic and the way it started and ended, and now take a similar approach to this film. The old, dying woman imparting knowledge on to a younger family member, except for one important item - the woman can barely speak! Ok. I'll stop there.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer (WGA): Charlie Kaufman

Philip Seymour Hoffman – Caden Cotard
Catherine Keener – Adele Lack
Michelle Williams – Claire Keen
Samantha Morton – Hazel
Jennifer Jason Leigh – Maria

I felt very fortunate to recently find myself with a free afternoon near an historic theater in Cambridge, MA that had a showing of Synecdoche, New York, directed by Charlie Kaufman, well known for his writing and production credits on films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, among others, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who needs no introduction as one of the great actors of our time. I had only heard of this “strange” film through word of mouth and decided to do something I rarely ever do: I read a full review by Roger Ebert before I saw the film.

Maybe this isn’t alarming to some, to get an opinion or two before viewing a film, but I have always felt that seeing a movie and forming my own thoughts an important aspect to discovering what is and is not considered great to me. I will admit that I skim plot summaries of movies and view trailers, etc, to make sure I am somewhat interested in a film, but almost never do I read a full review with opinions that may influence my decision to see or not to see.
Here is a link to the review by Roger Ebert if you are interested:

Now that I’ve admitted to hearing someone else’s opinion of this film, I’d like to say that I still don’t really know what to say.

On the one hand, you have a film that has a plot and is not too difficult to follow. However, as you are watching and sort of understanding what is happening, you realize that you don’t quite get what is happening, and slowly you realize that you have no idea what is truly happening, even though you may think you think you know what may or may not be happening.

Yes, I just wrote the above and I stand by it.

Did I like this movie? Yes, I did. Can I explain why? I’m not sure. I think I said I like it because it feels very much like a real life in torment, and I am drawn to films that really attack human emotion and those that try to show through film ideas and notions that are nearly impossible to portray. But again, with that said, I’m not sure what to say about this “strange” film.

As Ebert writes in his review:

This has not been a conventional review. There is no need to name the characters, name the actors, assign adjectives to their acting. Look at who is in this cast. You know what I think of them. This film must not have seemed strange to them. It's what they do all day, especially waiting around for the director to make up his mind.

This is pretty good stuff. I could try to explain the basic plot: Hoffman’s character has a crappy life and the movie takes us through his tormented mind as he lives life and uses his own career as a theatre director to attempt to make sense of his suffering , or to at least organize it into something manageable. However, I don’t know if that is the correct interpretation. I almost decided not to write anything and just let this film live in my mind as I viewed it, as a piece of art that I am not quite sure I enjoyed, but I know I did not dislike. I don’t mind “crazy” movies. They don’t bother me like they do some, as long as I am willing to take the time to try and dissect what I am seeing and hearing, it can’t all be bad.

With this film I did feel like I was being asked to do a bit too much dissecting about the ¾ mark of the run time, though, and that did make me somewhat angry. Having characters playing characters who are watching themselves in a play as characters of their real selves is ok, I suppose, but then to make timelines incomprehensible and characters coming and going without explanations, or at least logical explanations, got to be just a bit much.

Ultimately I was glad I saw this film as it renews my belief that if people continue to make projects such as this they will eventually get them right, and we will all benefit from that.

8 or 9/10 (I think?)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

2 Movie Reviews: Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Directors:Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan (co-director: India)

Writers:Simon Beaufoy (screenplay) and Vikas Swarup (novel)

Release Date: 5 December 2008 (Italy)


Dev Patel - Jamal Malik

Madhur Mittal - Salim Malik

Freida Pinto - Latika

Anil Kapoor – Prem Kumar

Jamal Malik sits back in his seat as the lights shine down upon him. The man across from him has asked a question, and now he is being watched by the man, by the studio audience, and by countless millions of people throughout India. If Jamal answers correctly he will be rich beyond fairy-tale lore, but if he is wrong he will be just another slumdog. Or will he?

Danny Boyle’s (Sunshine; Trainspotting) new film Slumdog Millionaire begins with suspense and never lets up. That the movie is a beautiful piece of art is unquestionable, and I will only venture to write that I found the scenery and rhythm of this film to be the best of the year, and so artistically breath-taking that words here cannot accurately describe what the eyes must see. The sweeping scenes of India and specifically the slums of Mumbai will leave a lasting impression on the viewer, especially if you have had little to no experience with such conditions.

With that said, this is a film that is a story within a story within a story, though all three are told fairly seamlessly and intertwined. The first story is that of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) and his opportunity to win millions on a game show. The second story is Jamal’s desperate attempts to reunite with his lost love, Latika (Freida Pinto). And the final story is that of Jamal and his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) as we watch them grow from small children to young adults, each taking a distinctly different path to get there.

The three stories unfold with the game show acting as the glue, and by which we come to learn (through multiple actors playing the Malik brothers and Latika as they grow older) how it is that Jamal could possibly go from being just another ‘slumdog’ to a multi-millionaire answering questions to which he should seemingly have no business knowing the answers.

Along this journey we are taken into the slums of India as children are forced and tortured into a Gypsy life-style. We also play witness to religious violence and the overtly stated caste system of India, in which children can live in the worst squalor next to men driving Mercedes and throwing cash away as if it is trash.

The screenplay, based on the book Q and A by Vikas Swarup, follows Jamal as he answers questions on a game show, and we are treated to flashback sequences of his life to see just how it is that a person from his background came to know answers to so many random questions. Throughout this process we are taken for a sibling roller coaster ride as Jamal and Salim take very different paths in their efforts to escape their birth conditions.

Though the love story is the driving force behind this film, and it is the central hinge for which all of Jamal’s experiences are hanging, I found the part of Latika to be the Weakest Link (pun intended) in an otherwise brilliant display of character development. Ultimately, I just didn’t believe or get or fully comprehend her love for Jamal in the way I understood his. There are also some very undeveloped roles of the goons and thugs of which I would have liked to see more, and just a few too many leaps of faith in the plot line. These are, however, to be taken as fairly minor points, and that still leaves me feeling that this film deserves a spot at or near the top of the best films of the year.


Frost/Nixon (2008)

Director: Ron Howard

Writers:Peter Morgan (screenplay)

Release Date: December 2008

Frank Langella – Richard Nixon

Michael Sheen – David Frost

Kevin Bacon - Jack Brennan

Even if you know close to nothing about political history it is safe to say you have probably heard of Watergate. It is also safe to say that you correlate Watergate with the 1970s and President Richard Nixon. In Ron Howard’s new masterpiece Frost/Nixon we are taken back to the Summer of 1977 to play witness to a series of interviews between TV personality David Frost and semi-exiled Ex-President Richard Nixon. What transpires over the course of the film is nothing short of brilliance in the way of character performance, equaled shot for shot by Michael Sheen as Frost, the successful foreign showman who is trying to climb back into the NY picture, and Frank Langella as Nixon, a proud, larger-than life figure battling his own demons while trying to clear his tarnished reputation.

I am not a political historian, but in doing some basic research on the film it is apparent that liberties were taken with some of the facts and sequences, but after all this is not billed a documentary and that should not deter you in any way from enjoying this as a fictionalized piece imbrued with mostly fact, or factual like scenarios.

The movie takes you through the tormented minds of two very different people over seemingly very different issues, but ultimately, what we find, is that these two are more alike than either could have ever imagined, and the culminating scenes of the film draw us in deeply to the minds of these two as they fight man to man in a verbal battle that will ultimately lead to a staggering conclusion.

The film itself sets up as a character piece early on, in which we come to learn of David Frost and how he went from the top of the world in terms of US stature to fighting his way through talk shows and entertainment venues in Australia. He badly wants to get back to the top in the capital of the world- New York City. After the resignation of Richard Nixon and subsequent Presidential pardon, there was no closure, no apology, no admission, and simply no acknowledgment by Ex-President Nixon. He simply moved to California and did not speak of such things.

Though Sheen gives an impressive performance and is as much the driving force of the film as anything, it is simply the work of Langella that reaches out and grabs you by the neck and says “Hey! This is what acting is all about!” His portrayal of the disgraced Ex-President, looking for redemption, seeking something he cannot quite grasp, is one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on the big screen. I was captivated by his movements and even more so his larger-than-life presence. With each cut to him exiting a vehicle, or psyching himself up with a quick jog to music, I found myself feeling both sympathy and pity for this man.

I will not give out more details though it is widely known how the interviews turned out. I am simply going to say that this is an absolute must see film and has quickly bolted to my top movie of 2008.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

A movie review: Appaloosa (2008)

Appaloosa (2008)

Director: Ed Harris
Writers (WGA): Robert Knott (screenplay) & Ed Harris (screenplay)

Release Date: 3 October 2008 (USA)
Tagline: Feelings get you killed.

Ed Harris - Virgil Cole
Viggo Mortensen - Everett Hitch
Jeremy Irons - Randall Bragg
Renée Zellweger - Allison French

Not too much happens in the Old Western Town of Appaloosa. Sure, people get shot and drunk and punched and pay for female companionship and break people out of jail and a whole lot more, but generally speaking, not a lot happens in Appaloosa.

That is not to say this film is boring. For my tastes, this movie verged on being great, but ultimately too much in the detail was left out for it to break beyond a simple good movie.

The town is being run over by Rancher Randall Bragg, played with a flair by Jeremy Irons and played quite well, however he seems to have taken too much of a liking to the outstanding performance of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and I could not get past it the entire movie.

Along to save the day are Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), two lawmen who, after being given the power to run things their way, do just that, and the town is slowly brought back to order.

The arrival of Mrs. Allison French (Renee Zellweger) adds some interesting character development to the two men watching over the town, particularly to Cole who quickly falls for her womanly charms like he has never done before. Zellweger’s character, though frankly played very annoyingly early on, actually redeems herself later on by becoming a much more complex role that adds multiple layers to the underlying story.

Throughout the movie there are the slow, sweeping scenes of a dead town and the long, drawn out silences that accompany men who do this type of work. Fair warning to all who do not enjoy slow-paced movies without a lot of bang, relying more on characters and substance, for this movie is not for you.

For my money, though, Harris and Mortensen more than make up for the price of admission, and by the end of the film I feel like both roles were developed nicely and left me with a feeling that the film was complete. To be sure, there were quite a few shaky edits and plot holes that left me feeling a bit bewildered, but overall I enjoyed the genre and the performances.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Movie review: Pride and Glory (2008)

Pride and Glory (2008)
Director:Gavin O'Connor
Writers (WGA): Joe Carnahan (screenplay) & Gavin O'Connor (screenplay)
Release Date:24 October 2008 (USA)
Tagline: The last thing you want to the truth.

Cast (Major)
Colin Farrell - Jimmy Egan
Edward Norton - Ray Tierney
Jon Voight - Francis Tierney, Sr.
Noah Emmerich - Francis Tierney, Jr.

Pride and Glory is a film that has been on my short list to see for some time now, but was seemingly relegated to limited screen time nationwide. Only two theaters within 50 miles of me have showings, and only 2 separate viewing times, late at night.

This generally means one of two things in the movie industry:

1. It is a new release with a lot of hype potential that will explode late in the year to a huge audience or,

2. It didn't work out so well and nobody is showing it anymore.

I'm not sure this particular movie falls under either category, oddly enough, so I'll create a third:

3. Wonderful gem, with little or no hype, that has been passed by and sent to die a slow death in dark movie houses with artificial popcorn and less than 80 seats per screen.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as just another in a long line of dirty cops getting what they deserve, but that would be a terrible injustice. Wedged within 120 minutes are some truly spectacular performances, including more than one Oscar-worthy role.

The scene is New York City and the Tierney family is mixed up in varying degrees with shady cop business. From the very beginning we get what is arguably Jon Voight's finest performance in long-term memory as Francis Tierney, Sr., long time NY police office. I have no other word to describe it than gritty, for he really captures the feel of what it must be to oversee a family of cops in NY, hardened by the job but clinging to the self-imposed necessity to protect the family name.

His sons Ray Tierney (Norton) and Francis Tierney, Jr. (Emmerich), and step-son Jimmy Egan (Farrell) are tough cops, each with his own demons to fight.The amazing aspect of this film is that at no point can I clearly say who the story is about, and that leaves an impression on me, even now, as I think back to what I saw, that seemingly feels correct.

A lot happens in 2 hours, and when you catch on to the director's vision it doesn't feel right to pick Ed Norton's character as the driving force, although it would seem like the way to go.This film is about ethics and morals and codes and bad cops and varying degrees of right and wrong, but it is also very much about family, in a twisted and seedy way.

Norton is fabulous in this role as the tormented son who made a tough decision years ago that still haunts him. It is ultimately he who pursues the clues that lead him to unthinkable crimes within the precinct and ultimately his own family.Farrell, likewise, puts on a seamless portrayal of a cop with a family trying to get by, and I quickly was able to forget previous roles he played and immerse myself in his character as the step-son with a lot of skeletons to hide.

The surprise role to me was that of Emmerich, playing the ambitious son who rose through the ranks, and now must face the consequences of his actions. Known well to me for two outstanding roles in Beautiful Girls (1996) and The Truman Show (1998), both as the best friend, if I had a vote in the Academy he would get a first ballot nod for Best-Supporting Actor, as his role really cements the family together and ties the story into one cohesive unit.

Intertwined with the family are incredible supporting spots by a myriad of cops and wives and girlfriends and drug dealers. You will also find one of the most disturbing scenes of potential torture one cop uses to get a suspect to give up evidence. It was as close as I have come to actually turning away from the screen.

One dirty cop, shortly before shooting himself in the head, explains that it all started for Pride and Glory, and then he is dead. That accurately describes the film's underlying theme, and though very dark and disturbing at times, it is a movie that is true to itself.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Update to top 20 movies; Still not perfect but I'm trying

The very first post in this blog was my top 100 movies of all time with some write ups. Obviously this will be an ongoing, evolving project throughout my life. With that said, I made a few changes to my top 20 so here they are, in case you're interested.

I think you should all see every movie on this list, since it will surly make you a better person.

1. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974)
2. Braveheart (1995)
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
4. The Usual Suspects (1995)
5. American Beauty (1999)
6. The Deer Hunter (1978)
7. Hoosiers (1986)
8. The Exorcist (1973)
9. No Country for Old Men (2007)
10. Unforgiven (1992)
11. Léon (aka The Professional) (1994)
12. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
13. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
14. Rocky (1976)
15. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
16. Heat (1995)
17. There Will Be Blood (2007)
18. Poltergeist (1982)
19. Vita è bella, La (aka Life Is Beautiful) (1997)
20. Apocalypse Now (1979)