Monday, December 29, 2008

The Curious Blog About BENJAMIN BUTTON. No DOUBT. And Israel Thoughts ...

Alright, it's back to the grind for a bit, back at work for a couple of days prior to the New Year. But rest assured, it will be a big week here on the blog - with some huge BEST OF 2008 specials coming up. Hope you guys have checked out my reviews over the last couple of days of movies like LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THE WRESTLER, and, of course, keeeeeep reading for the final word on two more buzz-worthy flicks, BENJAMIN BUTTON and DOUBT.

First though, I of course have to comment on the situation that is currently unfolding in Israel. I'd typically reserve comment until things have played out a bit more, but I am now forced to closely monitor the situation since I am going to Israel on my Birthright trip in a week! Oy, I guess everyone in the Middle East didn't get the memo that I am set to make my much-anticipated arrival in their region on January 6th. I think that warrants a little respect, you know?

Seriously though, I'm still excited for the trip and am not overly worried, though it is crazy how terrible the timing of this latest outbreak is. Couldn't Hamas and Israel have waited a couple more weeks to start killing each other? Ugh ...

And yeah, I'm sorry, but I can't help but condem both sides in this latest wave of violence. I in no way equate Israel to Hamas - Hamas is a terrorist organization, one which took it upon itself to break the cease-fire with Israel by viciously launching rockets at random Israeli homes. Not good. But what I will say is that I hold Israel to a higher standard, and more so than that, I simply don't quite see the practical reasoning behind bombing the $%#* out of the Arabs. Yes, retaliation is warranted, and yes, it sends a message of "don't #$#% with us." But isn't that pretty much exactly what Hamas wants? Hamas gets off on exactly two things: a.) ensuring that the Palestinian people hate Israel, and b.) swaying worldwide public opinion against Israel. It seems to me that Israel's latest retaliation just did exactly what Hamas wanted it to.

Now, in many ways it's a lose-lose situation for Israel. For decades, the Palestinians have made demands for land in exchange for peace. The only catch is, their leaders don't actually want peace, so it's all a moot point. Bill Clinton seemed to take the peace process about as far as it can go, only for Yassir Arafat to throw all of the work right back in his face. Would other leaders react differently to an Obama-led roadmap to peace? That's the big question mark. But with a lameduck Bush in office for another 25 days, crucial days and weeks are slipping away.

All I'm saying is, Israel's current war is as much about generating good PR as anything else. It can't keep pointing to America to justify its actions - the world soundly rejected American aggression during the Bush years, so the comparison doesn't hold much water. Israel has to go before the world with a clean slate and make its case - I have enough faith in the global community to think that, in the end, Israel's principles will win out on the world stage over those of terrorism and hatred. Israel just needs to have that same trust in its own moral compass.

- Okay, that's about all I have to say about that for now, so ... onto some movie reviews ...

DOUBT Review:

- Doubt is one of those fun-to-watch stage adaptations that lives and dies on the quality of its performances and the back-and-forth dialogue fed to its talented group of actors. On these attributes alone, Doubt is an extraordinarily top-notch film. The cast is comprised of pretty much the best in the business, and a number of scenes crackle with intensity and intrigue. There are also a lot of interesting questions posed to the audience in the film, and therein lies my one problem with the movie - it puts a lot on the table but never quite ties everything together in a satisfactory manner. They say that it's usually a good sign when a movie leaves you wanting more, but in this case I think it's not necessarilly to the movie's credit.

To sum up the plot of the film, it deals with a Catholic seminary in the 1960's that, like much of the country, is stuggling a bit with the culture wars of progressive values versus traditional old-time religion. There's a relatively new priest who runs the show - Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn - a jovial, well-liked guy who nonetheless rouses the suspicions of one of his most respected nuns and teachers. It seems that Father Flynn has taken a special interest in the school's only African-American student, and has become somewhat of a protector and guardian to him. Most simply see it as kind and altruistic behavior, but there are hints that there is something more going on, even if there's no proof. This is the central question at the heart of the film - the role of gossip and rumor-mongering, the basis on which one can make an accusation of wrongdoing, the challenge of following one's leap-of-faith beliefs versus waiting to support them with hard facts and evidence.

But let me go back for a minute and talk about the performances here. They are brilliant. I know it's cliche at this point to go on about Meryl Streep, but she's as good here as in anything I've seen her in. There just aren't many other actresses who commit to a role like she does and make sure that ever accented word, mannerism, and motion are in service to the part. As Sister Beauvier (no relation to Marge ...), Streep is one tough cookie, but what slowly becomes apparent is that there's deep conviction behind her stern exterior. It also helps that Streep has a more-than-worthy sparring partner in Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman gives one of those great, nuanced performances where you alternate between being sure that he's innocent and joining with Meryl Streep in comdemning him. Hoffman has that unique talent to escalate the intensity of a scene until you can cut the tension with a knife, and he does that here in a number of instances. Again, with Hoffman at this point, it's a given that he's going to be great whatever the role, but he really is absolutely on top of his game here as a guy who you want to like but can't quite get a read on. Is he hiding something or not? That uncertainty is part of the genius of the performance.

Two other performances really stand out as well. One being that of Amy Adams - playing the part of the naive and innocent nun Sister James, Adams' part is deceptively simple. But her character is an essential part of the film and the key go-between from Streep to Hoffman. In a way, Adams plays the entry-level character who the audience can msot relate to - caught between these two towering personalities in Streep and Hoffman, Adams is torn between who she believes and whom she sides with. The other breakout acting comes from Viola Davis as the mom of the child who may or may not be engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Father Flynn. Davis only has a few short minutes on film, but she delivers one of the movie's most jarring emotional twists, and does so in an absolutely riveting exchange with Meryl Streep. It's one of those short but memorable performances that is absolutely critical to the story.

With all of this praise, you might be wondering why I'm not absolutely raving about the movie as a whole. This is quality stuff, no doubt (pun intented) ... I don't know, I just felt like in the end it left me hanging. I realize that the entire point of the movie is to cast doubt, so to speak, on who's right and who's wrong, to keep what really happened between that priest and that boy ambiguous. But to me, that narrative decision just fell kind of flat. I get what the movie is going for, I just don't know if it works that well. Because the fact is, you can't just fire someone from their job based on innuendo and rumor - there HAS to be proof and/or a confession. To me, the movie sort of dances around this issue in the name of making Streep and Hoffman these opposing elemental forces. But there's never any real trial - their arguments never get into specifics and things never really get taken to their logical extremities. Each side just kind of argues their case, there are a few intense scenes, and then - bam! - end of movie. Because of that, it's a movie that I'll remember much more for individual scenes and performances than for any lasting ideas it put into my head. In the end, I'm not sure what this movie really had to say, except to pose a few interesting questions and then leave it at that - it never had the exclamation point it needed. And that's why this is a very good movie, but not quite a great one.

My Grade: B+


- Here is a movie that I really wanted to love, because, man, it had in it moments of true-blue, old-school Hollywood magic. But what kills me about Benjamin Button is that it's a movie that kind of presents itself as a film that wants to be this big, giant, epic, sprawling fantasy adventure. It certainly has a unique enough premise to support that, and its style and structure call to mind all kinds of imaginative stories - it's the classic "oddball boy goes out to see the world and become a man" set-up. And yet, for all it's promise, Benjamin Button turns out to be pretty much just a quirky love story, with extra doses of tug-at-the-heartstrings pathos for good measure. And that's all well and good. But man, it's a movie that you can't help but watch and think that it could have been something more, a true classic - because all of the ingredients are there - a stellar cast, grounbreaking f/x work, stylish direction ... but the movie struggles to be the kind of epic that it should. It settles. For that reason, Benjamin Button turns out to be, in fact, a really well done love epic romance of sorts. But those going in looking for huge adventure, eye-melting fantasy, and great insights into the human condition - well, look elsewhere. Do a marathon of The Shawshank Redemption, Big Fish, and Season 1 of Pushing Daisies, and you'll be just fine.

Again, all of the ingredients are there. Bradd Pitt, for one, is really great as the title character ... kind of. Pitt to me is always at his best playing quirky, odd, or just downright psychotic characters, and that's why in theory he's the perfect choice to play Benjamin Button, who as you probably know was born an old man and ages backwards towards infancy. So what happens is that Pitt is really awesome as old man Benjamin, but I found that the more he began to resemble regular old Bradd Pitt, the more bland his character became. Sure, he still had Benjamin's thick New Orleans drawl, but it felt like we were watching a devolution from Bradd Pitt he great character actor into Bradd Pitt the *movie star.* For a mainstream audience, that was probably a welcome shift, but I think it just kind of symbolized the movie's gradual slide from imagination-fueled epic into generic romance.

Oftentimes, the film just feels like a random series of events, a bunch of thrown-together scenes that don't always add up to a lot. And only a couple of parts of the movie really venture into imaginative territory, and even those that do at times feel like retreads of other similar films (such as Forrest Gump).

But give credit to director David Fincher - even if the script is sometimes uneventful, the tone of the movie feels spot-on. The whole film has an awesome look to it that veers from the stark, naturalistic look of the modern framing device, set during Hurricane Katrina, to the storybook feel of Benjamin's story, told in flashback via his diary. There is that great, slightly surrealistic / fairy-tale feel to everything that is augmented by some really cool f/x work. The aging and de-aging makeup and f/x on Pitt and his co-stars like Cate Blanchett are some of the best of their type yet seen at the movies. The results are whimsical yet realistic, and Ben, particularly when he's a young boy trapped in an old man's body, is often fascinating to watch.

To go back for a second, Cate Blanchett is almost as strong as Pitt here, and it's another case where it's hard to think of any other actress who could pull of her role. Blanchette already has that uncanny ageless look to her, so that combined with the subtle makeup work really makes you buy into her slow but steady journey towards middle age and beyond. There are a number of other very good performances here, though to be honest a lot of the peripheral characters are ultimately pretty one-note (the one exception being Tilda Swindon in a nice role as a stiff upper lip Englishwoman who takes a liking to Benjamin). I again look to the script and wish that there was a little bit more depth to some of these characters. And I also wish that the narrative had more of a real flow to it, more of a sense of urgency and that Benjamin was on a great and epic journey, and less a feeling that it was just meandering from scene to scene.

What the film does do really well thanks to Pitt, Blanchett, and the direction of Fincher is to evoke sentiment from the audience. It makes you buy into the central romance and itmakes those who are prone to crying at movies get misty-eyed over its various twists and turns and tragedies. I definitely got caught up in the whole thing and like a lot of others was eagerly wondering what would become of Benjamin and his star-crossed yet seemingly impossible romance with Daisy, his childhood love. But it wasn't until after the movie was over that I realized it left me feeling a bit empty. It never quite made an impact in the way that a Big Fish did - maybe it's just that this is the female version of that movie? Is it that Benjamin Button focuses so much on tragic, star-crossed romance that it does so to the detriment of its sense of fun and adventure? The simpler answer may just be that the movie has a lot of threads and they just don't add up to anything other than a by-the-numbers movie. We've got the elderly-person framing device a la Titanic or Big Fish, the weird kid who goes off to sail the seas and see the world a la Forrest Gump, and the fateful, seemingly impossible romance that was probably done with more aplomb in this summer's Wall-E.

Benjamin Button is a movie that is lovingly-crafted, superbly acted, and has a lot of wonder, humor, and romance to its credit. It just never feels as imaginative or original or epic as is should be, and in that respect it is, I think, a slight letdown, even if it does stand in its own right as an enjoyable, fun film.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, back with more soon! Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. I have to disagree with you here and say that I think Israel is handling this latest flare up quite well from both a military and a PR standpoint. First of all they made it well known a week before they went in just exactly what their conditions were (I have a copy of the Jerusalem Post from last week to prove it). Secondly, they have done their best to avoid civilian casualties by bombing strategic points, i.e. smuggling tunnels near the Philadelphi Corridor and rocket launchers, etc. They have also launched a YouTube channel where you can see the precision and accuracy with which they are bombing. And most importantly, they have support from the US, tacit support from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and only half-hearted denunciations from several European countries. Most interestingly they are now in a situation where moderate Arabs feel uncomfortable condemning the action too strongly because ti would put them on the same side as Hizbullah which just advocated perpetrating a coup d'etat in Egypt and other moderate regimes. Assuming the Israelis don't screw up a thus far well managed operation, an Egypt and US backed cease-fire could have Israel come out looking better than before.

    As for Birthright: Trust me, you have nothing to worry about. You won't be anywhere near Ashkelon or Sderot where the rockets are falling. Your mom asked me to give you advice on what to bring and here it is: Bring everything on the packing list. You might tell yourself you don't need it, but you will. Also bring Pepto Bismol in case your stomach doesn't agree with the Middle-Eastern cuisine right away. And don't drink tap water without boiling it first (to that end, bring a Nalgene).

    And have a great time. If you're anything like me, you won't want to come home afterwards.