Benjamin Button: A Life Apart

Danny Boyle and David Fincher are both directors who have had their more successful moments when dealing with darker issues. Danny Boyle’s tales of murder, addiction and rampant viruses are among his most successful and effective films. David Fincher’s career  started with a sci-fi/horror effort as apart of one of the key franchises in the genre’s history; has made 2 brilliant but very different serial killer tales and given us one of the most-quoted generation-definers in years in the shape of Fight Club. Both of the had lacked serious Oscar contention until this year, both of them with films that aimed away from these darker shades and towards the more uplifting, inspiring end of the market.

So why did the British director and the Indian story take the spoils? All the ingredients were there for Benjamin Button; one megastar, one star, visual effects that sell the essence of the story, and a story that should appeal to any film-goer who wants something unusual and intriguing.

The answer is, ultimately, that it’s contrived. It’s a machine, an end in itself, too purpose-driven for something that would love to be whimsical and charming. If the goal was to intrigue, then we needed at lease some explanation of why the title character ages backwards – or at least a sub-plot where people try to find out, but ultimately come up with nothing. But no, it’s just left hanging. If the goal was to invoke wonder and awe and magic, then somebody had to express it, or trade in it. If it was meant to alternately horrify and make us fall for BB, then the make-up (for all it’s Oscar-winning technical brilliance) needs to show us a soul, not just a skin; to me, nothing ever really seemed to hurt or threaten anyone, until the very end at least If it’s meant to make self-referential jokes about history and the cultural icons whose era Brad Pitt’s central character (in his physical prime, with no make-up) lives through, then we need something with more integrity then a James Dean rip-off scene. If we’re meant to believe that Cate Blanchett’s character is really a dancer, then we need to believe that she does something other than dancing some of the time – I just don’t believe dancers go out dancing after the show or out of the theatre; all she is, at the end of it all, a cardboard cut-out. If it’s meant to be an inspiring, romantic love-story, then we need some chemistry.

You may say that Slumdog Millionaire treads the lines of some of those faults – but that’s a film driven by story and character and place. Benjamin Button is driven by desire to press buttons until we react with the tears that David Fincher says he shed on first reading the script. Problem is, button pressing may work for some, but it’s not going to change anyone the way Danny Boyle’s film has.

It’s by no means all bad, it just could have been so much more. The last few minutes, with the aging woman nursing him through his regression into physical childhood was beautiful, painful, sad, inevitable. We could have had more of that; if the rest of the film had measured up to it, we could have had a masterpiece on aging, our bodies and the search for a creator.

It’s a shame we didn’t get that. David Fincher is capable of genuine brilliance, whose first serial-killer film told us more about sin then many religious tracts; he’s a man capable of more insight than he probably knows. With Benjamin Button, he falls short; compared to the film that beat it, this is a life-time away.

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Oscar Winners 2009

Want to read my take on the big Oscar winner? Click here for my review of Slumdog Millionaire.

Also read about what I thought of the film that finally gave Kate Winslet an Oscar here in The Reader.

There’s also my thoughts on Penelope Cruz’s award winner in Vicky Cristina Barcelona here

Much more to come over the next few days, so watch this space.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Logs and Specks

There’s been a fair amount of talk in recent times about the cruelty of contemporary comedy – that there’s a sense of sneering and reveling at and in the misfortune and weaknesses of others. That may or may not be the case – but what it highlights is just how difficult it can be to write in any way about people without being high and mighty.

Woody Allen is a case in point – when he’s good, he achieves the rare height of satire and compassion at the same time. When he’s not so good….Well, if you seen any Woody Allen film recently (especially one set in the UK), then you’ll know it’s painful for all concerned.

So it’s great to see that his latest – Vicky Cristina Barcelona  – is far better for everybody, not least the viewer. That this is the case is no small achievement. It basically showcases the story of a set of thoroughly selfish and self-absorbed characters. Two American girls abroad in Barcelona for a summer, intertwining with a tortured artist and his dangerously unhinged wife. There are various permutations of sexual encounters (not forgetting a crucial bout of food poisoning), and everyone’s out for themselves in the long run.

So why does this work, and why do I end up actually enjoying spending time with these people? Many reasons – for a start there’s the obvious things, like the performances and the script. There’s not a weak link in the front-line performances, and the script is engagingly warm and witty. There’s the narration – which strikes just the right note of sardonic wit…..at times you can hear between the narrator’s lines ‘….and then they went and did this….can you believe such people exist??’ It’s not that narrator sits in judgement on them, it’s more that this is how people are – especially, Woody seems to be saying,  Americans abroad. They are all too believably cliched in their attitudes to Europeans and their life; one of them the whimsical romantic, the other having written a thesis on Catalan culture, seemingly without going there until it’s finished.

So this works, brilliantly. I’d rather have had Woody Allen as the narrator – he’d have suited it perfectly. That, though, may be the signal that he’s learnt the lessons of his previous disasters – it’s not so much about him trying to prove something, or break out or make a point. No – he’s just doing what he does best, showing us people in all their neuroses and foibles. In doing so, he tells us more about the humility he may finally be achieving, taking the log out of his own eye first. It means we’re totally absorbed by a group of selfish people doing very selfish things.

How absorbed? When I saw the trailer, I was surprised it finished by showing us a key plot point that was obviously meant to be a surprise. Well that’s it, I thought. They’ve spoilt the big moment. When it came in the cinema, it was a total shock – I’d completely forgotten. He’s back.

Revolutionary Road – Faded Dreams

An old story goes that if you throw a frog (I’ve never worked out why you would, but bear with me) into a pan of boiling water, then it will jump straight back out. By contrast, if you place said unfortunate in a pan of cold water that’s slowly heated up from below, it won’t notice, and it will slowly die. I have no idea if this is true, as I have both a shortage of frogs and shortage of inclination to test the theory. It’s meant to illustrate the way problems born of the environment we are in day by day can slowly creep up on us, and ultimately dominate us without us ever realising.

In this analogy, Revolutionary Road gives us Kate and Leo as Frank & April – their marriage is the frog, the comfort of suburban life is the slowly bubbling pan. The film has the same outsider’s penetrating eye for what’s really going on as did the same director’s American Beauty. This isn’t quite in the same league – thanks mainly to an unnecessary and poorly written ‘wise-fool’ character in the form of the son of their neighbours. He’s on day release from the local psychiatric hospital, ad predictably he’s the only one who really sees what’s going on. That aside, this is an all too telling and painfully real tale. Couples who settle into safety as soon as they have children, who dream of doing something different but who end up slowly suffocated by the expectations of everyone they know. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply depressing, but it’s more than that. This is, for some, the price of having children – using duty to them to paper over the cracks, to pretend this really is what they wanted. All the while that disappointment and disillusion has to go somewhere – and it goes on sly comments, witholding of affection and settling for calm co-existence at the price of doing the hard work that will lead to genuine break-through.

The film, then, takes this principle and spins it out to its logical (dramatised) conclusion.  It’s not perfect  – I’d like to have seen more on how this effects the children, who turn up so  rarely that I kept forgetting about them. It is, though, to be roundly praised for it’s bravery in taking on the suburban dream so dear to this film’s target audience. I’ve heard many people say the film looks depressing and predictable – that it’s a turn off. That may be – but maybe because it’s so real. It should be required viewing for couples planning their future.

The Wrestler: Mere Oblivion

“…one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…
…Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion…”

Shakespeare: As You Like It

Two lead performers and one director all in need of a hit, and they go make a film about the haunting, growing awareness that the last of Shakespeare’s ages of man is coming to us all. I’d almost forgotten about Micky Rourke; but here he is playing himself, an (in his character’s words) old beaten up piece of meat, a washed up wrestler living in trailer park, working in a store to make ends meet while he pedals himself round two-bit dives in front of fans who grew up in when his character, ‘The Ram’ was in his athletic prime; a wrestler who’s nemesis was known as ‘The Ayotollah’. How the world has changed since then – politics have shifted, his body isn’t what it was….but still he puts it out on display for the paying public.

The film follows him as his body breaks down and he reaches out to a woman he’s known for a long time in her professional capacity – Cassidy, a pole-dancing stripper played by Marisa Tomei, trying to make ends meet for her 9 year-old son. Their relationship is on, off, on and off as they test the boundaries between customer and performer. He also tries to reach out to his estranged daughter (the film’s only really false note – a cliche too far, when the tight focus on one central relationship would have worked better). He’s in denial of his aging, and it can only lead one way; Cassidy at least has a dream of a place to buy for her and her son, stored away as a photo on her phone. Only one of these two trapped adults is likely to escape, and it’s not the aging wrestler, seemingly addicted to self-destruction.

So this is a film about aging, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about longing to escape – I find it interesting that the film’s closing song is provided by Bruce Springsteen, because these characters longing to escape are exactly the ones about whom he’s been writing all his career. It’s also about abuse of the body – using it to make a living, putting it one the line for others (note the reference to Passion Of the Christ by Cassidy early on in the film); I can’t think of a better portrayal of the de-humanising effect of using your body as a means of income….although I would have liked to see more of a hint of the way this may similarly break Cassidy’s spirit, at least in some form. Did her son know? The hint is that he does, but we could have done with more on that, in place of the stuff about The Ram’s daughter. She may have be better at drawing the line between performer and person, but does that mean it doesn’t damage her, to use her body the way that she does?

In the next weeks Micky Rourke may well win Oscars and BAFTAs for this; as may (and this would be even more deserved) Marisa Tomei. Ultimately, though, this is just a very sad film. That’s a strength – it could so easily have been a good film that sells out at the end with a sense of triumph or at least the implication of escape. It’s to everyone’s credit that this doesn’t happen. His destiny is that of the addict who can’t give up. Hers may be the relationship that promises but would surely ultimately be toxic. They’re trapped by their age, by their frailties, by the gifts of their bodies that they use as commodities not expressions of themselves. They need a rescuer, a true friend. It is, quite literally as the ending implies, heart-breaking to them both that they will never find such a person.

Frost/Nixon – Could have been, should have been….

So I saw this film a few days ago, and have been meaning to blog on the subject for a while. Problem is, whenever I sit down to write something I can’t quite find a way to start, a line to take.

Everything is in place for something genuinely good. A gripping story, with surprising amount of suspense for a story that we all know the end of. Great performances, just the right side of impersonation (why hasn’t Michael Sheen received equal recognition with his co-star….they depend on one another). A story that has a significance and casts a long shadow over political history since.

But there’s the rub. That’s just the problem. It’s all taken for granted. It’s assumed in the direction and the script that we all know and understand exactly the scale and get the significance. Which if you are not my age (35) or younger, you do because you lived through it and you know it intuitively. But for someone like me, who knows it but doesn’t feel it, then you end up feeling impressed, maybe gripped but strangely empty.

The problem is the direction of Ron Howard, framing the story (adapted from a stage play) around a series of talking head interviews with the main players (the actors, not the actual people). The characters are too busy being, doing but not actually really developing. And what’s clearly supposed to be the moment of central significance (a late night phone call from Nixon to Frost before the last interview) is openly admitted to be fabricated.

It’s a good film; there is much to admire. I want to love it, for it to be special to me. It would do wonders for my cool liberal sensibilities. But I can’t.

The sad thing is, it just falls short.