Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

2008, US, directed by David Fincher

It's hard not to make the immediate comparison between The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, given that the two films share a writer and, at first glance, apparent thematic similarities; in a critical world that generally gives pride of place to the director-as-author, and which lauded David Fincher's previous film, Zodiac, it's interesting that the director comes across, in many a critical commentary, as a minor player on Benjamin Button. As my wife noted, though, the Forrest Gump comparison could easily be made with more or less any film that covers a significant span of the twentieth century (even a film made well before Robert Zemeckis's film, and in a very different context).

Where Forrest articulates little sense of why he does what he does, Benjamin's desire to go out into the world is a conscious choice, and he is aware of the ramifications of his own choices - he's no naif, and he acknowledges his own failings, at least in the torch-carrying department. He, too, is a participant in history, but the only president we see here is Theodore Roosevelt, long before Benjamin is born, in an opening anecdote about time and the inevitability, sometimes ugly, of change (that anecdote, like the later sequence explaining an accident, or the running jokes about a series of lightning strikes, recall Paul Thomas Anderson's playful narrative strategies, particularly in Magnolia).

The film is suffused with a remarkable sense of nostalgia, not just nostalgia for the lives the main characters might have led in different circumstances, but nostalgia for worlds gone by, for memories of youth, even for the objects that accompany a life: shots of framed pictures in a New Orleans home, for instance, with all the weight of personal history such images may bear. The inevitable tick-tock progression of life is set in yet sharper relief by Benjamin's unusual aging process, and those moments where he seems to overcome his unusual station in life, in the central romance but also, beguilingly, in an extended sequence in Murmansk with Tilda Swinton (how many films can there be that cast that city in such a glow?), are intensely sad even as they represent Benjamin's sweetest memories. Even the framing device, set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina and inevitably somewhat obvious, is still of a piece with the film's great theme of inevitable decline, of the impossibility of fighting against elemental forces; the modern sequences are filmed in radically different shades, abandoning the warm browns and yellows of the past for the harsh surfaces of a modern hospital (the old nursing home is long gone).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Freedom Writers

2007, US, directed by Richard LaGravenese

Freedom Writers returns to the picked-over territory of the teacher-in-the-'hood but adds a layer of authenticity that's missing from more cynical productions like the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Dangerous Minds by giving voice to the students at the heart of the film. Thus, the film, based on an actual series of events, occasionally follow those students home rather than focusing exclusively on their middle-class teacher (Hilary Swank), but it also, more importantly, allows us to hear them in their own words, quoting extensively from the journals that provide the film with its title.

As naive as the film is in terms of how it presents possible solutions to inner-city traumas, there's something oddly refreshing about how resolutely it wears its belief in human nature on its sleeve, and how it insists on the possibility of redemption and triumph. It's also notable, in a minor key, for being willing to admit that the average saint (whether teacher or liberator) might not be a picnic at home - Swank's character isn't so much a burden as completely oblivious to the impact of her own choices, something that's perhaps more insidious. The film might, though, have profited from a little more focus on that home life, which is telescoped into the occasional scene (the texture of domestic life was surprisingly rounded element of the subsequent LaGravenese/Swank collaboration P.S. I Love You).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Death Defying Acts

2008, UK/Australia, directed by Gillian Armstrong

Death Defying Acts is fatally unsure what kind of film it wants to be: Gillian Armstrong seems torn between her art-film instincts, which served her well in her early career, and the conventions of a major-budget production. The result is an unfortunate muddle, which screeches to a halt whenever the film switches into a more aesthetically self-conscious mode.

Armstrong also hamstrung by the fact that while the idea of Harry Houdini - her central character - is compelling, behind the mask he comes across as an unappealingly hypocritical man, possessed of an abiding, and overwrought, obsession with his mother. This is, of course, a conscious choice on Armstrong's part as she exposes the illusionist's hypocrisy - as a man not averse to a spot of cheating who then embarks on a crusade to expose what he views as psychic charlatans - but his disagreeable nature makes it very difficult for the audience to then follow the director into the story's more conventional romantic recesses. It's a shame, because there are several wonderfully atmospheric moments that capture the textures of another era - in no sense depicted as a more innocent time - and its pastimes and obsessions.


2008, US, directed by Timur Bekmambetov

One of those films that belongs only on the big screen, not so much for its aesthetic qualities but for the fact that the kinetic action, blown up well beyond life size, masks absurdities that are much more obvious when the explosions are reduced to televisual scale. The film was shot in Chicago at the same time as The Dark Knight, ironic since it owes something of a debt to Christopher Nolan's earlier Batman Begins, most obviously in the way in which both films anchor the hero's development of particular skills in a rigorous training process (perhaps this is also present in the original graphic novels). Despite the eye-catching action - which reminded me at times of the deliriously over-the-top antics in Shoot 'Em Up - what sticks with me most is the film's merciless depiction of the soul-deadening effects of the cubicle-infested office environment.

Ghost Town

2008, US, directed by David Koepp
No matter how good a filmmaker's intentions, it can be hard to escape genre conventions, though David Koepp tries mightily for most of his film's running time, preserving the improbably-named Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais, playing very much to Office-type) as a truly obnoxious human being as long as he possibly can before bowing to the inevitable. Still, before getting to that point he's occasionally able to mine something deeper, identifying a deep, and affecting, strain of loneliness, in Gervais's character; it emerges, for instance, in a striking shot of Pincus surrounded by darkness, framed almost like a Rembrandt painting. Koepp makes good use of his camera in the early going, too, particularly in a scene crammed into a tiny hospital office as Pincus's life spirals crazily out of control, though he can barely move a muscle; the verbal back and forth in the same sequence is beautifully timed, as though the words simply don't have the room to emerge in the cramped space.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Catch Me If You Can

2002, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

Catch Me If You Can plays as something of an anthology of Spielberg's strengths as a pop filmmaker, and particularly his skills in crafting a clean narrative where everything seems to tie, almost inevitably, together. On one level, it's old-fashioned storytelling, and yet what's notable is that Spielberg makes something really rather difficult - editing a collection of shots and scenes into a coherent whole that makes perfect sense - into something almost invisible; it's a gift that much less appreciated, I think, because he's doing it in a pop context.

The subject matter here lacks the self-conscious profundity of many latter-day Spielberg movies, and you can sense him having fun with a shaggy dog story that's the more delicious for being true. Sequences like that where his protagonist, Frank Abagnale (Leonardo diCaprio, perfectly cast), meets his future in-laws in the patrician South are beautifully intercut with the tumbling of Frank's world behind the scenes: there's the familiar Spielberg focus on objects, with the G-men's guns in the foreground, but also the clear action such that we always know who's doing what to whom even as the scene shifts back and forth.

Earlier, there's also a lovely shot where we see Frank sit in the gloomy foreground and his mother (Nathalie Baye) in the back, bathed in light from the kitchen window, as Frank desperately tries to maintain his illusions about his parents; it seems like such a simple dichotomy, the light-dark opposition, yet it functions perfectly to illustrate Frank's struggle in that specific moment, so that it's not a simple visual trick but rather an enhancement to the development of the character.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Price of Milk

2001, New Zealand, directed by Harry Sinclair

Harry Sinclair's second feature feels rather like a loosely connected set of sketches, so it wasn't a great surprise to discover that he started out as part of a musical/comedy duo (the other half being Don McGlashan) with TV and film experience (one of their short film collaborations, in which they play all of the roles, is available online).

As with almost all films with sketch origins - explicit or not - some segments work better than others: there's a running joke about New Zealand's hair-raising rural roads, and even more alarming driving styles, that's especially funny if you've ever had to deal with some of the corners in question, whereas the segments featuring a mystical Maori woman seem to rehash some standard stereotypes about the country's first residents (I may be missing something; Sinclair's father was one of New Zealand's most noted historians of an earlier generation, so perhaps his sense of these things is more acute than mine).

Visually, there are several clever, low-budget effects - a house that appears to be moving and levitating is especially amusing - and a number of striking shots, especially as Miranda Otto runs across North Island farm country trailing a red sari; Sinclair has a real sense of the uniqueness of New Zealand's landscape, and succeeds in capturing something of the isolation so elemental in Vincent Ward's early films, particularly Vigil.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States