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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 7 February 2010 05:43 (A review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button falls into two distinct camps: a sense of love and admiration despite its flaws, or a complete and utter sense of hatred and contempt. I don’t understand the latter and fall, very much, into the former. I loved Benjamin Button from the opening shots of the Warner Brothers logo as buttons to the final glimpse of the clock stored away in some shed quickly filling with water. I was teary eyed and stumbled out confused about what I had seen, but knowing that I had seen something quite absorbing. Even, dare I say it, haunting and resonant. From the very beginning to the very end Benjamin Button is all about the ephemeral nature of life, love, time and death.

Benjamin himself might reside in the title, but he is not the main character of interest. Benjamin is doomed to forever be an outsider, a lone wanderer drifting through casually observing but never fully participating. Why do I say this? Because of his extremely odd condition – born an infant, but with all the physical problems of old age, he will age normally in his mental state but will return to an infant form with his mind having suffered the ravages of old age. He was born outside of time, in a sense. Or, at least, how we have come to understand the operation of time. This is his story, but it is refracted and shown to us from several different points of view.

And that is where the astoundingly gifted supporting players come into play. Tilda Swinton, Jared Hess, Taraji P. Henson and Julia Ormond are all fantastic across the board, despite limited screen time. This story mostly belongs to Benjamin and Daisy and where their lives intersect, diverge and run parallel to each others. While it may cover the entirety of Benjamin’s life, this is primarily a fairy tale, an epic fantasy about two people born to be together, but prevented from fully committing because of life’s natural chaos.

And what of that aging premise, which has caused so many to lash out against the movie? You either buy into it going along with the logic involved in the film or you don’t. Does no one have any more room left for a sense of whimsy? Yes, Benjamin Button is obsessed with death from the very start, but there is an enchantment to be had. At least, I felt like there was. (There is a vague reason given for his condition, something about a clock that runs in reverse, but that would require an intimate understanding of the Chaos theory and a leap of faith.)

I have spent a lot of time describing the plot devices and the emotions they gave me and have spoken very little about the stunning visuals. For shame! The movie is beautiful to behold. It’s as special effects heavy as any of the brain dead action movies that populate the summer, but there’s one key difference: this has a brain and something to say. The ideas are messy, complicated and it might not be as effectively communicated as they could have been. But when was the last time a big Hollywood production went this weird?

And those last shots of an aged Daisy bending down to kiss a toddler-sized Benjamin break my heart and bring a tear to my eye every time. That’s pure emotion without the cloy sentimentality of the overrated Forrest Gump, which this resembles in structure but not in tone. Fincher hits too dark and fights against sloppy emotionality quite often. It might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but I wanted Benjamin Button to pull an upset on the overrated Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards.

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Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:39 (A review of Charade (1963))

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, great, glamorous movie stars and fantastic actors, meet up for a genre-bending masterpiece of the emerging 60s spy/secret agent cinema. With equal parts suspense-thriller, fluffy romance and dark comedy, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are allowed to be sexy, dangerous and goofy in equal parts. But this isn’t just a showcase for two of cinema’s greatest icons, this is a tightly structured, exceptionally well-written film. Charade is one of the greatest movies of all-time.

Once I saw the swirling arrows and color bars that animate the opening credits courtesy of Saul Bass, and heard the Henry Mancini score, I knew I was going to be in for quite a treat. Immediately after that Hepburn’s elegant beauty, intelligence and considerable skills and style filled the screen. I was entranced. She looked glamorous even when stuffing her face. Then a gun enters the frame, it turns out that it’s filled with water, but it showed me that this would be a film of tonal shifts and playing with expectations. And so it is. Who is who and who they are allied with changes at a break neck pace. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re told something new and everything changes. Or does it? Can we really be all that sure? This is why Charade gets dubbed the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. But it has its own flavor. Lighter than North by Northwest, less male ego-centric and slut-sexuality than the Bond franchise, it plays like a screwball comedy. But a hint of malice and danger is thrown in for good measure.

Grant and Hepburn aren’t the only actors doing the heavy-lifting but making it look effortless. They’re joined by James Coburn, George Kennedy and Walter Matthau – each hitting the appropriate tone between kitsch and seriousness. And, naturally, each is after a MacGuffin. In this case, a large sum of money which has gone missing, Hepburn’s dead-husband was the last person to know its whereabouts. She is assumed to also know where it is, and so each positions himself to gain access to her and obtain the money, if she dies along the away, so be it. Except for Cary Grant…maybe. The night time rooftop fight scene between Grant and Kennedy is pretty shocking considering that this features Cary Grant. The man who’s very image is the concept of a handsome and charming movie star in real danger, or as close to it as this dark chocolate treat will get to it.

It isn’t just the acting and the script that makes Charade so memorable, it’s the Mancini score. It was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award, and it helps set the tone(s) for the film. Charade has everything going for it. While Grant, Matthau and Hepburn have all passed away, they continue to radiate as brightly, buoyantly as they did when this film was new in 1963.

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The Good, The Bad & the Ugly

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:36 (A review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

Sergio Leone’s Italian spaghetti Western epic is one of the greatest pieces of purely visual storytelling. There’s very little dialogue, but there’s plenty of music and atmosphere to set the scene and provide the emotions. It’s like a great silent film that’s been filmed in color. This isn’t a John Wayne style Western in which we can easily tell who is good, who is bad and who is going to win in the end. Anyone could die at any minute, and there is no real hero to speak of. The Good, The Bad & the Ugly is a stark and tough piece of art.

Clint Eastwood plays the Man With No Name, probably dubbed as such because throughout this vague trilogy his name changes in each film. He is not a character so much as an archetype, which I think appears in some variation in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Eastwood, naturally, is the “good.” Lee Van Cleef is the “bad” of the title. And Eli Wallach, in full on comic relief-with-a-razor’s-edge mode, is the “ugly.”

The plot concerns the three men searching for a fortune in long-lost Civil War gold. But who cares about the plot when the film is so rich in brutal and stripped images. And at three hours long, the film veers wildly into unrelated subplots, such as the prologue. This is a film of ideas and images, not a narrative. There is nothing wrong with that when it retains a certain hard won artistic vitality and keeps your interest. Those vast desert vistas which seem to extend on and on forever aren’t pretty in any conventional sense of the word, but they are a certain kind of pleasing to the eye.

Leone paints with a cinematic brush that alternates between the widest of shots of panoramic beauty and the most claustrophobic of close-ups. There is broad humor and scenes of horrific and graphic violence and bloodshed. Much like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch from the same era, it repeatedly showcases throughout the film: that violence is not glamorous, it has consequences and it is a bloody affair. The western tropes and stereotypes are given a fresh, new, exciting life in The Good, The Bad & the Ugly.

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It Started in Naples

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:35 (A review of It Started in Naples)

It Started in Naples is not a great movie in either Clark Gable’s or Sophia Loren’s resume, but it is a breezy, flirty fun piece of fluffy entertainment. The barebones plot goes a little something like this: Gable comes to Naples to settle some business involving his dead brother’s son, who is being raised by his fiery, passionate, earthy aunt, Loren. They meet, and everything seems to be going perfectly well until they begin to argue about raising the boy and who is he better off living with. Gable doesn’t like that Loren is a nightclub singer/performer whose odd hours and anything-goes lifestyle offer little discipline and structure for the boy. Do I really need to explain what happens next? Or even how it ends? But the megawatt star power radiating from Clark Gable could elevate any old piece of dreck. And Sophia Loren’s two nightclub sequences show that she had wiggles, jiggles and curves in all of the right places. They also showed that she could be effortless funny, charming and sublime. You don’t watch something like It Started in Naples for the plot, this is pure movie star charisma. Sit back and enjoy it. I know that I did.

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The Odd Couple

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:35 (A review of The Odd Couple)

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are, in my opinion, one of the greatest comedic duos of all-time. Lemmon’s mania, neurosis and jitteriness is offset by the crusty, cranky and endearing Matthau in The Odd Couple. The Odd Couple offers up two great performances from two of my favorite funny men, who were not so secretly very versatile and could play practically anything. It never quite overcomes it’s stage origins, and it seems bound to recreating the conventions, sets and staging of its theatrical run. It’s not a bad adaptation by any means, but it never reaches the glorious heights of, say, A Streetcar Named Desire which moved past its stage origins to become a great film.

The story concerns two men going through a second bachelorhood. Matthau has been divorced for quite some time, and Lemmon is just starting the process. Lemmon’s character is not one who can deal with fluctuations in his personal life, or much of anything really. Fearing for his mental health and general well-being, his friends decide that the best possible course of action would be for him to move in with Matthau. Naturally, hilarity ensues. Like when the two British girls who live upstairs come down for drinks and swinging good time, in theory. Or when they go out to a diner and Lemmon insists on clearing his sinuses. Lemmon and Matthau give it their all, and they must be commended for their great performances.

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El Cid

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 30 January 2010 06:34 (A review of El Cid)

El Cid is probably the most unique of the Old Hollywood Epics. Or, should I say EPICS. They truly don’t make movies like this anymore, except for maybe The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Nothing comes as close to the sweeping and grandiose nature of these old films. But what makes El Cid so unique? It seems more intelligent, more concerned with the larger moral canvass on display. This is not a Biblical epic filled to the brim with walk-on star cameos and hilariously miscast leads. This is a true story turned into a myth, a grand feat of super heroics. This is the kind of movie that only Charlton Heston could star in.

And so he does. He plays the titular historic figure with his square jaw, masculine bravado and moral certitude, the same thing qualities that he brought to Ben-Hur and countless other epics. Yes, Heston was not the most introspective of actors, but he was asked to play superheroes, not real people. He was asked to play variations on supermen who could seemingly do anything, lead his people anywhere, defeat anyone. That quality is necessary for making these epics work. Besides Sophia Loren, he is the only real movie star to speak of in this epic. Which works to El Cid’s credit. And Sophia Loren portrays his wife, another character who is not a character so much as an archetype. To complain that she doesn’t delve into much depth is too miss the point. Two Women, Marriage Italian Style and Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow proved that she could act and delve deep for drama or comedy. She hasn’t been asked to do that her. She needs to look glamorous and portray the necessary points in her arch.

El Cid is not a perfect film though. There’s enough story to fill out the entire running time, but for some reason it loses steam and begins to feel very long during the second half. The first two hours flew by and kept my interest throughout. The court intrigue and escalating power struggle were consistently moving along at a brisk pace. Then I had to switch to the second disc and the momentum seemed to die off. Why? This is the section that makes good on the promises of war and political shakeups. I always knew where it was going, and this was my first time viewing the film, but that hadn’t bothered my previously. It was that the war is too brief, the sections with the peasants too long and the subplot with the royal children too invasive. I was always more interested in Heston and Loren. During the second half El Cid too often deviates away from the star power that kept me so enthralled during the first half. It is still worth a look and one of the better epics to come out of the era.

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Cool Hand Luke

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 27 January 2010 09:44 (A review of Cool Hand Luke (1967))

The harsh landscape of Cool Hand Luke works effectively to show us the psychological state of the characters. There is something almost Biblical, or, at the very least, Shakespearean, about Luke’s wanderings and sufferings, his willingness to damn it all and doom himself to martyrdom. From the very first scenes of his drunkenly destroying public property, for what purpose? even he can’t say, to the final scenes of his tormented and pleading cries to be left alone in the chuch, Cool Hand Luke is a great film that shows us someone who so totally inhabits the anti-hero persona that we, much like the characters, begin to idolize and martyr him before all is said and done.

Only Paul Newman could have ever played this role. Yes, he was a great movie star. But he was so effortless and wonderfully present as an actor. He was not a showboat Method actor like, say, Marlon Brando in some of his clumsier movies like Sayonara. He was an interior actor. By seeming to do very little on the outside, he was actually doing a lot on the inside. I can pinpoint in the film when Luke changes tracks from good-natured rabble rouser to Messiac anti-hero driven to his own destruction by his sense of purpose. What is this scene I speak of? The quiet and tender scene between Luke and his dying mother (Jo Van Fleet), in which Newman reveals to us a lot of his character’s angst, genteel nature and that smile of his. That winkle in his perfectly colored blue eyes. Luke wasn’t the only cool hand, Newman’s tremendous gifts make this movie great. Any other actor in the role and it wouldn’t have worked. I still don’t grasp how Newman won his Oscar for The Color of Money and not for this. Ration that one up to an apologia Oscar.

It’s not totally Newman’s one-man-show that makes the movie work. The performances of the inmates do their fair share. Especially George Kennedy as Dragline, the biggest, baddest man in the camp who’s vaguely-homosexual leanings for Luke helps to continue his myth, Dragline's gospel throughout the film. Jo Van Fleet has one scene, but her performance and that scene stick with you after the end. Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton also spring to my mind in small roles as inmates. Hopper being a simpleton and Stanton being another bruised and brooding inmate.

And yet, I haven’t described much in the way of plot. I feel like everyone knows the basic storyline for Cool Hand Luke. Luke drunkenly cuts off the tops of parking meters, gets sent to a prison work camp, meets the 50 other inmates and becomes their mythological hero. Luke constantly takes beatings from others – inmates and guards have their shot at him, so do the elements – but gets up each and every time. He is charming and damned with something hanging over his head. It is no wonder that they’ve placed their hopes and dreams upon him, that they have chosen him to idolize. Yet I always knew Luke was damned. No character this charming, handsome and possessed with a cause could possibly make it out of this world alive.

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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 27 January 2010 09:37 (A review of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)

I liked The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, but I never really loved it. I wanted to, but there was something keeping me from totally embracing the film. It wasn’t just the specter of Heath Ledger’s death creeping in around the edges, it went far deeper than that. Perhaps it was that there wasn’t enough story for the runtime. Terry Gilliam has always favored starting with the kitchen sink and then branching out which leaves his films which an all-over-the-place quality. It works in Brazil, but it doesn’t entirely work here. Sequences drag on and on, Jude Law’s foray into the psychedelic fever-dream world comes to mind instantly, and some are just perfect, Mr. Nick’s numerous meetings with Parnassus.

It is modern era London, I think…maybe, and Dr. Parnassus’ traveling sideshow, or whatever you want to call it, is stuck in a time warp for the modern times. Dr. Parnassus was once a monk who foolishly decided to make a bet with the devil in exchange for immortality. And so begins a life long exchange between the two of them. Parnassus is a few crayons short of a full box, an utter drunk and never seems to learn that there’s no way to beat the devil, dubbed Mr. Nick and deliciously played by Tom Waits, at his own schemes. Christopher Plummer is obviously having a grand time playing this boozy carnival relic. So did I watching him. In comes Tony, played by Ledger and first glimpsed swinging from a rope and believed to be dead. And so begin the problems with the film. Once Ledger enters, his haunted presence is never far from your mind, especially with a character introduction like that. Ledger gives it his all, as always, and I still respect him for ignoring the traditional route that an actor blessed with his charm, charisma and roguish good looks could have gone. His performances is a twitchy, mumbled, neurotic enjoyable thing.

The forays into the imaginarium are blissfully candy-colored and wondrously put together. Jude Law’s segment might go on a bit too long and feature too much that could have been cut (that chorus line of half dragged out policemen pops into my head immediately), but Johnny Depp’s fantasia segment is a thing of beauty to behold. I just wish that Ledger had lived long enough to finish this movie out. No amount of special effects with fix that Colin Farrell shouldn’t have been the actor for that segment, although he does a great job with the role. It’s not emotionally satisfying enough seeing someone else in the big reveal and retribution moments. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s definitely worth a trip through the imagination.

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Finding Nemo

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 27 January 2010 09:33 (A review of Finding Nemo (2003))

Finding Nemo is a work of sublime and perfect popular art. I could watch the movie on mute and feel every emotion just as strongly as I do with the dialogue and vocal performances in place. The animation is that detail oriented and precise. There is not a color wasted or a place where total commitment and artistic quality isn’t in place.

But unlike so many modern animated films, Finding Nemo does not confuse a dumbed down sense of pop culture ADHD for humor and heart. Instead, it builds up memorable characters, situations and pieces of dialogue and makes us care about them. I haven’t cared this much about animated marine life since I was two-years-old and watching The Little Mermaid for the first time.

By now the story should be known to everyone: Marlin, voiced to neurotic perfection by Albert Brooks, is an overprotective father to Nemo, a plucky and stubborn little fish. Nemo gets kidnapped by a dentist in hopes of becoming a future present for his niece, and Marlin goes on a heroic quest to save his son and return him to their beloved home. Along the way they meet all sorts of hilarious new friends, the most beloved and well-known being Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres so adorably that she managed to resurrect her career. I love Dory as much as everyone else, but I also have a fond spot for Crush, Squirt and the crab that does kung-fu to the seagulls. It is to the writers, artists and directors of the entire Pixar staff that in practically every movie there is a brief character that does something funny that stays with me long after I have seen it. And I always look forward to that brief few seconds of their screen time each time I view the film.

Animation is unfairly written off as children's entertainment, but Pixar knows that a great piece of entertainment should hit at multiple ages and audiences. I love nearly every one of their films (I can’t stand Cars, but I know people who do). And the brilliant thing about their filmography is that everybody can have a different favorite. Finding Nemo isn’t my absolute favorite, but it ranks very high. I always want to sit as close to the screen as possible on as large a screen as possible and immerse myself completely in the undersea world they have created. It is just that beautiful.

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The Incredibles

Posted : 8 years, 7 months ago on 27 January 2010 09:27 (A review of The Incredibles (2004))

The Incredibles looks like a Jack Kirby comic strip given three dimensional life and scope. It also comes equipped with a fantastic story, great characters and an emotional core with which we could respond and identify. The opening sequence, in which we see Mr. Incredible, Elasti-Girl and Frozone in their prime dashing about town and saving the denizens of whatever city it is that they live in, screams out its influence in 60s-era Marvel Comics, specifically Fantastic Four's goofy whimsy and action-packed familial ethos. And then it borrows a plot twist from Watchmen and creates something totally unique and original from it all. Pixar has, once more, gone beyond its influences to create something special.

Superheroes have been outlawed after Mr. Incredible stopped a man from committing suicide by jumping off of a building. He seeks damages and sues Mr. Incredible, which leads to a total governmental policy change: they’re outlawed and relocated. That’s the Watchmen influence. Now our superheroic family, Bob and Helen Parr plus their children, are living in the humdrum suburbs. It all looks a little bit like Burbank, but the suburbs look the same everywhere, no? And that focus on the family is what makes The Incredibles such a markedly different story from…say, Monster’s, Inc., this is Pixar at its most mature in tone. I know that kids loved it, but I know more adults that love this one the most. Halfway through seeing it in theaters I knew that this was going to be my favorite Pixar film, and so far it still is. (Although Monster’s, Inc. and the Toy Story trilogy are often close behind.)

Bob Parr, stuck at a job selling insurance in which he looks comically too large to be in that cubicle, welcomes a chance to be a superhero once again. In comes Mirage, a mysterious woman with a job proposition. And so begins the action/adventure portion of the story. But here’s the genius move by writer-director Brad Bird, he never drops the human element and the story always takes center stage over the visual pyrotechnics. I cared about Dash and Violet just as much as their parents. It’s also a genius move to give a depressed teenager the ability to disappear, something I bet we all wished for during those years, and the hyperactive, precocious little boy the ability to run really fast.

But let’s discuss those visual pyrotechnics. I described the film as being a moving Jack Kirby comic strip, and so it is, but there’s also the imprint of Fleischer’s Superman animated shorts on the film. Look at those Omnidroids and tell me you don’t see the resemblance to the Superman short “The Mechanical Monsters,” in which a mad man used his robotic workers to cause destruction and chaos.

And the sheer scope of the film is a thing of beauty. Not only do we see the suburbs and the city, but a tropical island fortress, take a journey under the sea, visit the ultra-modern mansion/studio of Edna Mode, to name but a few. The Bond franchise has nothing on this film.

Yet gorgeous animation is only half the battle in creating a believable character that we root for in a film like this. They need a voice to bring the personality and character to life, The Incredibles nails this aspect in every role, no matter how major or minor. Craig T. Nelson’s take on Mr. Incredible has the cocksure bravado necessary for the character at the beginning, then transitions into a more somber and wistful tone as he is forced into domesticity and giving up the heroics. Holly Hunter is all fire, sass, maternal love and warmth as Elasti-Girl. Samuel L. Jackson’s Frozone alternates between suave superhero and fraught married man, not to mention that the animators have clearly taken numerous facial tics from Jackson and transposed them into his character. Sarah Vowell and Spencer Fox complete the Incredibles as a family/superhero unit, portraying the chronically shy and self-conscious Violet and hyperkinetic and attention-seeking Dash. Elizabeth Peña’s sultry voice makes the character of Mirage, so mysterious and given too little development and screen time, a bigger bang. I walked away wanting to know more about Mirage thanks to Peña’s exactly vocal performance.

Yet it’s Brad Bird, the visionary behind the entire film, voicing Edna Mode, a scene-stealer character regardless, that walks away with the vast majority of memorable scenes and quotes. Bird gives her a cracked out energy, like Anna Wintour unleashing her megalomaniac id all over a Marvel Comics issue from the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby days. But don’t count out Jason Lee as the film’s villain Syndrome, a child who idolized Mr. Incredible but grew up jealous at the fact that he was merely adequate and normal instead of powered like his idol. His fantasy and plan to enact a new order in which he is the lone “incredible” by killing off various retired heroes and building a better killing machine that he controls feel straight from the mind of Alan Moore. And Lee’s twisted energy really sells the villain, creating a portrait of twisted ethics and the madness brought on by seeking to be something more than you are.

The Incredibles remains the greatest film version of the Fantastic Four in a roundabout way. And it's a towering achievement in Pixar’s catalog in terms of emotional and visual scope. If any film in their catalog seemed primed and open for a sequel, it would be this one. I still await it as Pixar churns out terrible cash-grabs (Cars 2), an emotionally devastating and resonant franchise closer (Toy Story 3) and a humorous but predictable prequel (Monster's University). Will we ever get Incredibles 2? At this point, it seems like it's best to just leave this one alone as a bright, shining, standard-bearer of the studio operating at its highest level.

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