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.

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… 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.