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Column Thu Dec 25 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Valkyrie, The Wrestler, The Reader, The Spirit, Bedtime Stories & Monks - The Transatlantic Feedback

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

If all goes as planned, I'll have my Best & Worst of 2008 piece for you in about a week. But here's a little preview: David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be at the top of my Best list. I could, quite literally, spend 4,000 words talking about this single film and ignore almost everything else that opened in theaters this holiday weekend (everything except The Wrestler; that one will be on my list too). Instead, I'll try to break it down to its essentials.

First and foremost, Benjamin Button will engage you emotionally, in the most pure and fulfilling way possible. If you cry at movies, you'll cry at this one. If you don't cry at movies, well, you'll probably cry at this one. At the very least, you'll be like me. I never cry at movies. But I do get this strange strain in the back of my throat that is probably my body hurting me just a little because I refuse to cry. I never feel like I'm holding back the tears, but that strange sensation is just a friendly reminder that if I responded to emotion like a human being, I'd be crying at that moment. I've seen Benjamin Button three times to date, and I've gotten that feeling every time.

I also love the fact that Benjamin Button celebrates the fine art of great storytelling but giving us not only an examination of a full life — birth to death — but also a life lived fully. In this age of biography films seeing a resurgence — Milk being the most recent example — even the finest of those films only gives us a fraction of a life, usually some turning point in a person's journey. But screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Ali, The Good Shepherd) takes the germ of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original short story and transforms it into something, well, transformative. It's a film that takes full advantage of its primarily New Orleans locales by adding healthy doses of surrealism, magic and, yes, even a touch of spirituality to tell one of the most complete and fulfilling films in recent memory.

So far, all I've really talked about is the film in broad strokes. But even when you examine Benjamin Button's finer details, you see just how near perfect this thing is. Not only do we get the complete story of the titular character, who is born an elderly infant and spends the rest of the 80-some years growing younger in body while older in mind, but we also get surprisingly complete examinations of all of the people Benjamin (played at most ages by Brad Pitt using some incredibly sophisticated and seamless special effects). Characters such as his adopted mother Queenie (the sparkling Taraji P. Henson) or Benjamin's biological father (Jason Flemyng), who we assume we will despise for abandoning his son on a stranger's doorstep after a failed attempt at drowning him. Jared Harris' Captain Mike borders on caricature, but even he grows on us as he reveals himself to be a frustrated artist. My favorite of Benjamin's journeys takes place in Russia, where he means the wife of a British spy. The unconquerable Tilda Swinton plays Elizabeth Abbott, with whom Benjamin has his first true love affair, despite having a lifetime crush on Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett, whose beauty never ceases to amaze me.)

The long unrequited love between Benjamin and Daisy is at the heart of this splendid work. In fact, the entire film is one long flashback from Daisy's deathbed. Her now grown daughter (Julia Ormond) is reading Benjamin's diary to her Daisy as the early winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina threaten outside her hospital room window. It's an odd framing device that has been a major sticking point for many critics, but it never bothered me even a little. In a way, it's Fincher's way of paying tribute to New Orleans and its people, but it also adds a sense of tension and immediacy to the proceedings.

I don't think I want to say too much more about Benjamin Button at this point. It's an experience best lived through with as little knowledge of what comes next as possible. I've really only told you about what happens in the lead character's early years, with so much more to come when he becomes younger and embarrassingly handsome. The lingering thoughts concerning the film's many themes that stay with me to this day are associated with death. The world would have to look different to a person getting younger, wouldn't it? I haven't been able to shake that overwhelming sense of loneliness that Benjamin must have felt his entire life, even during those times in his life when he is loved completely, when he is literally surrounded by those who love him. Everyone else would appear to be rushing toward death while he lost his aches and pain and grew more energetic by the day.

I love that David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac) is the director who finally got this story to the big screen, after so many others tried and failed. His entire career could be looked at as aggressive resistance to sentimentality, and he never allows himself to get lost in it with Benjamin Button. There is almost more heart and soul in this film than in any I've seen in a decade, but it never gets sappy or overwrought with swooning atmosphere. He's the perfect filmmaker to keep this story honest and on the right side of dark and uneasy. But in the end, he makes us love and respect all of these characters so much that we cry for them for unexpected reasons. The first time I got that strange feeling in my throat was when one character is reading postcards; you'll know the scene I mean when you see it.

One of my favorite moments in the entire 10 years-plus that I've been writing for Ain't It Cool News took place a couple weeks ago at the annual Butt Numb-a-Thon in Austin. Harry was kind enough to let me introduce this film, my favorite of 2008, to an audience largely made up of people that I've grown to know and love over the years, a few of whom had seen the film already. But something clicked that afternoon (it was the second film of BNAT), and by the end of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, nearly the entire theater of hardened geeks had been reduced to weepy piles of goo. It was the perfect film moment for me. A few days later, I got the chance to do the same thing in Chicago, with almost identical results (although fewer of the men admitted to tearing up). This is the kind of film you're proud to be overwhelmed by. I can't wait to watch it again.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with Benjamin Button star Taraji P. Henson.


Valkyrie


This is apparently the year we find out that not all Germans were bad when Adolf Hitler was in charge. Earlier this year, we had the ill-conceived The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; this week we have two films, The Reader with Kate Winslet and Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, which might be the most bold and well executed of the bunch. In some places in the country, a fourth film called Good (starring Viggo Mortensen), which also fits this mold, opens next week. Told in a largely straight-forward manner without too much flash or trumped-up drama, Valkyrie documents the final and nearly successful attempt on Hitler's life by his own officers.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation of the film was just how many co-conspirators there were in this plot, and Singer (working from a script co-written by his Usual Suspects scribe Chris McQuarrie along with Nathan Alexander) does a remarkably adept job laying out the scope and the pieces of this conspiracy so that it is understandable both as a plan and an ideal. I suppose his mission was to explain the difference between a good Nazi and a good German, and while I'm not sure most Americans will quite care about that distinction, it still warms the heart a little that so many men and women on Hitler's side of the war were trying to kill him. Singer's most astonishing achievement with Valkyrie is that he manages to build a great deal of tension with a story whose ending is already known. Still, there are about 20-30 minutes where he deliberately constructs his film to allow for the fantasy that the bomb that went off at Hitler's Wolf's Lair actually got the job done.

Far too much attention has been paid to accents in this film, and please allow me to put an end to it. Singer and his cast — made up of American, British and German actors — made the decision that every actor would speak with their own accent rather than have everybody adopt some sort of movie version of a German accent. Was this decision made to save Cruise from some embarrassment because his attempts at a German accent were atrocious? I have no idea. But it's a device that I think works. Rather than have Valkyrie become a battle of accents, Singer allows his actors to focus on, gee, acting. I'm still haunted by Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and his career-killing British accent. Anyone who goes to theatre a lot knows that this "no accent" decision is a pretty common choice on the stage, and if you continue to allow yourself to get hung up on this point, then I'm guessing you weren't a big Cruise fan before you ever heard of this project. Why don't you see the film and then judge whether the accent choices bother you.

As for Cruise, he does a workman's job of not trying to stand out among this extraordinary cast, which includes Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, Kenneth Brannagh, Carice von Houten, Thomas Kretschmann and Terrence Stamp. Cruise's Col. Claus von Stauffenberg is not meant to be an extraordinary man. He's a frustrated soldier who has been badly wounded at war (he lost an eye, one hand, and part of the other) who has seen too many needless deaths in campaign after hopeless campaign that he believes were more an extension of his leader's pride and ego than any real belief that these conflicts could be won. He sees that the end is near and would rather kill Hitler, take over the government, and negotiate with the Allies before any more deaths of good German people occur. Singer spends a great deal of time dealing not just with plotting, but with motive. It seems almost unnecessary to an extent to paint Von Stauffenberg as so overtly heroic — he's trying to kill Hitler; we're already on his side — but I understand he wants us to see this man as something more than power hungry (I can't say the same thing for all of his co-conspirators).

Singer wisely concentrates on showing us to how frustratingly close these people came to achieving their mission. Small, unexpected (and necessary) changes in the plan kept Hitler alive, and you can't help but play out how different the world would be if they had succeeded. One of the most fascinating aspects to Operation Valkyrie is how many passive conspirators were involved, people who were made aware that something was up and basically waited to see how the cards fell to decide whose side they were on. It was also more than a little shocking to see how completely the mission leaders actually did take over the government before it was discovered that Hitler was not dead, and how quickly their plan crumbled when it was revealed he had survived.

Valkyrie focuses on solid, clear storytelling without losing itself in its complicated, layered plot. The result is a unique kind of thriller propelled by great acting and clear direction. One almost sees a bit of that legendary German efficiency at work here. Give this one a shot; I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.


The Wrestler


Mickey Rourke is the goddamned king of the universe, both in and out of the ring. When I first saw his performance in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler back in October, I was witnessing an actor literally willing to lay waste to his own body just to get back his rightful place in the acting pantheon. And so he has. When I tell people about a new film starring Rourke, they often reply, "I'm not a big Mickey Rourke fan." To which I reply, "Well, that's because you haven't seen The Wrestler, you closed-minded prick." There is such an honestly to his work here that it's like watching an exposed raw nerve get hit repeatedly until it's numb from the pain. Some people drink, some do drugs, but Randy "The Ram" Robinson allows himself to get beaten and bloody on the wrestling mat.

The Ram was a god among men, as an opening credits montage shows us as it scans across dozens of newspaper and wrestling magazine clippings declaring Robinson wrestler of the year sometime in the mid-1980s. At first Aronofsky simply refuses to show us Robinson's face. His favorite place to reside throughout the film is behind the head and shoulders of The Ram, and that's where the film begins. We see the dreary life of a faded sports entertainer just as he sees it. We notice that the roots of his flowing blonde hair are showing, his tanning-bed tan is fading, and his scars are plentiful. When we finally do get to see The Ram, it's startling because Rourke's face has changed so very much. Whether it's from years of boxing or perhaps botched plastic surgery, the grippingly handsome man from Body Heat, Diner, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Angel Heart isn't there any more, at least not physically. What is left for both Rourke and Robinson is a face that wears its years, both the good ones and the awful ones. There has simply never been a more perfect connection between actor and material than The Wrestler in as long as I can remember. Rourke plays this man so convincingly because he's lived his life and known his highs and lows.

The few vestiges of hope that The Ram has in his life take the form of two women. One is a sweet, older, but still gorgeous stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who takes pity on the man and actually hangs out with Randy outside the club one time, but withdraws into her "I don't date customers" rule when she senses things are getting too serious between them. The other is Randy's estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), a college student who has managed just fine without her father around, but clearly the pain of missing him when she was younger still impacts her life deeply. Both women want very much to love this man, and for totally different reasons they find it near impossible to do so. Tomei's Madonna/whore performance is one of the best of her career; while she looks miraculous without clothes on, she does her best work in a bulky winter coat walking the chilly winter streets of New Jersey. I almost wish there was one more scene with Wood to let us know her brief encounter with her father didn't fuck her up beyond hope, but in the end, I guess that's the point. We don't know, so we assume the worse.

Aronofsky is working from a beautiful script from Robert D. Siegel, a former editor-in-chief at The Onion, who clearly did his research into the downright grueling and dehumanizing grind these old wrestlers go through on the autograph and memorabilia circuit. There is one scene at an American Legion hall where The Ram sits at a meet-and-greet event with other decrepit former wrestlers, and he looks around the room silently. Aronofsky isn't in a hurry to run through the various elements of Randy's life. He shows us with a documentarian's eye the day-to-day existence of this man who blazes through a pharmacy's worth of pain killers, performance enhancing drugs and who knows what else. It's both sad and fascinating in equal measures. Nothing about the film feels inauthentic, and that's what elevates this little film to a grand masterpiece.

Those of you who count yourselves as die-hard Darren (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) Aronofsky worshipers (I include myself in that club) will probably be a bit shocked by the style of the film. He is a fly on the wall in most scenes, the quiet non-judgmental observer who lets the events unfold as they may. It feels like he is in no way directing the action, just recording it. It's strange at first to realize how loose the director makes his film and actors feel. There's clearly a great deal of improvising going on, but it's all in the name of getting to best out of Rourke, who has never been more in his element. These two should just keep making movies together from this day forward; there's a clear trust between the two that makes your heart weep for the perfection of it all.

One of the final scenes of the movie is a speech Rourke gives at a big comeback match after his character has gone through some pretty life-altering health issues. Nothing that has happened in the film up to that point has led us to believe that The Ram would ever be capable of making a speech quite as eloquent. So the natural conclusion I came to was that the words and the sentiments are Rourke's, and he's addressing his audience directly. It is, perhaps, the single greatest film moment of 2008, and I knew even before I was told that the words Rourke is speaking were in no way scripted. I dare you to watch the scene and not simply lay all acting crowns down at this man's feet. Do not miss it.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my interview with The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky.


The Reader


At its core, The Reader is about a German woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet) attempting to live a less-than-ordinary life in the post-World War II time of rebuilding. The problem is that during the war she lived a life that made her a very visible figure in a place where her face and her duties will never be forgotten. Hanna was one of several prison guards tending to females interned at Auschwitz, and she was often called upon to select who lived and who died. These facts are never in question in this loaded drama that will test your capacity to care about someone who may or may not have carried out her orders with compassion or sadistic joy. One young man knows a secret about Hanna that would answer this question and set her fate one way or another.

From director Stephen Daldry (The Hours), screenwriter/celebrated playwright David hare (Plenty, The Vertical Hour), and based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink comes this sometimes emotionally clunky but ultimately powerfully realized tale that begins with a 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) meeting Hanna, a streetcar ticket taker, when he becomes ill on the street and she helps him home. After recovering from his long illness, Michael finds Hanna to thank her, and the two almost inexplicably begin a summer-long and very naked affair. The only "kink" Hanna introduces into their days together is she likes to hear David read to her from classic literature, such as Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey and even Lady Chatterley's Lover, which Hanna finds disgusting but insists that he keep reading. They almost always meet at her small apartment, and as tawdry as the whole business is, it also contains a real sweetness to it. Then Hanna vanishes suddenly, and Michael is left crushed.

Jumping ahead eight years, Michael is now a law student whose class is sitting in on the trials of possible Nazi war criminals. The case he is observing regards a handful of female prison guards, including Hanna, who the other guards attempt to portray as the leader of the group and the instigator of some truly awful acts. In a plot twist that is not nearly as implausible as it might seem, Michael realizes that a fact he has only come to realize about Hanna could prove that these other women are lying. Perhaps because he doesn't want to shame Hanna or maybe just because his broken heart still hasn't healed, he says nothing.

Without getting too much deeper into the plot, I'll add that Ralph Fiennes also appears in the film as the middle-aged Michael remembering the events and attempting to overcome his guilty feelings by helping a now-elderly Hanna still in prison. One of the film's most riveting performances comes from Lena Olin in a dual role as both an elderly woman who survived Auschwitz and remembers Hanna all too well, and her grown daughter whom Fiennes approaches for a favor years after the trial.

I hope I'm not making The Reader sounds more complicated than it is. It's actually an elegantly streamlined story of a man who never really got over his first love. That summer shaped and guided the rest of his life, for better or worse, and in the end he attempts to do right by his conscience and by the woman who taught him how to give himself over to a person completely. The film has its flaws, and perhaps answers some questions a little too definitively when they might have best been left fuzzy and unresolved. But the guiding light of The Reader is Winslet's guarded and somewhat cold performance as a woman who clearly needs love and affection in her life even if it opens her up to exposure to both emotion and physical injury. I'll admit, her stance as the dominant force in their love-making made images of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS dance through my mind (oh baby), but Winslet is incapable of putting in a bad performance even when the material doesn't quite match her level of perfection (in totally unrelated news, see my review of Revolutionary Road next week). Though I struggled with some aspects of The Reader, ultimately I found it an enlightened and profoundly strong work.


The Spirit


Look, no one feels worse about having to write this than I do. But I didn't get into this racket to make friends. So I'm just going to say it. I think Frank Miller actually believed that co-directing credit that he got for Sin City because now he's essentially taken the exact same look of that film (black and white with splashes of color) and applied it liberally to The Spirit, his adaptation of the Will Eisner hero who patrolled "the city" at night and stopped criminals of all shapes and sizes while spouting philosophical ideas about his role in the world and his self-assigned work as the city's protector. "I am her Spirit!" Give me a fucking break.

There's no denying that the film looks pretty great. As a purely technical achievement, I've got no real issues. But I'd rather watch this movie with the volume turned all the way down than suffer through even a minute of the film's inane, wildly over-written dialogue again. Miller has no shortage of interesting actors populating The Spirit. Gabriel Macht plays the crime fighter, who escaped the angel of death (personified by the lovely Jamie King, seen mostly in silhouette) years earlier and returned to life to stop evil. Being a former cop himself, he works hand in hand with the police, which immediately makes me distrust him. His arch enemy is The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who clearly told Miller, "Just let me do what I do. You don't have to direct me." Big mistake, Frank. This might be Jackson's single worst performance of all time.

Miller also allows some beautiful ladies to share the screen with these manly men. Sarah Paulson plays Ellen Dolan, a medical examiner who is often called in to work crimes that The Spirit is investigating. She also loves him, despite his womanizing ways. Scarlett Johannson is utterly wasted at The Octopus' assistant Silken Floss. Paz Vega is devastatingly sexy and almost impossible to understand with her Spanish accent speaking French lines. She plays an assassin named Plaster of Paris. Eva Mendes probably fares best among the female cast members as Sand Saref, a thief with whom The Spirit has a romantic past. Her character at least has some personality to go along with her curves.

The film thinks it is sexy, mysterious, clever, funny and cutting edge, and it fails at every one; and I blame Miller's script for all of the shortcomings. The dialogue isn't just bad; it hurts your ears and offends your sensibilities listening to it. You can dress up a piece of shit to look like a Fabergé Egg, but it's still a piece of shit. There are just far too many quality films in theaters right now to waste either your time or money going to this stale fucking thing or even reading another word about it. I'm done.


Bedtime Stories


I resent and reject Adam Sandler's latest "family film" for the same reason I resented and rejected Ben Stiller's A Night at the Museum, which came out at about this time last year. Both films mistake spectacle for comedy. You can't buy laughs. You can't throw money at a bit and make it funny, the same way you can't talk a person into loving you or use logic to stop someone from breaking up with you. (I have a lot of pain in my life, clearly.) My point is that having 50,000 gum balls hit Sandler isn't any funnier than having one hit him right between the eyes. Here's another fact, Mr. Sandler (I call you "mister" because you could buy and sell my ass several thousand times over): all of these comic actors who are making this man-child thing into a career are in their 20s or early 30s. You're 42. You playing with little kids who aren't your own is starting to get creepy.

Oh, oh. I have another thing. Russell Brand will never be funny in a PG-rated movie, period! And surrounding yourself with quality actors, doesn't make us think you're any kind of master thespian...unless you're playing your "SNL" character Master Thespian. I'm not exactly sure why Keri Russell, Lucy Lawless, Jonathan Pryce, or Guy Pearce (let me say that again: Guy Pearce is now in an Adam Sandler movie; you can stop searching folks, the corpse of Pearce's dignity is right here) are in Bedtime Stories, but I guess if you write a big enough check, just about anyone will show up.

And here's the kooky thing: I consider myself an Adam Sandler fan. I know most of his movies are dumb, and that his attempts a higher forms of drama are sometimes more embarrassing than his juvenile films, but I dig the guy...except when he tries so damn hard to be liked by adults and kids alike. He doesn't do it often. Click was the last time, but before that you'd have to go back to 1999's Big Daddy to truly spot the pandering. And there is no one looking forward to seeing him opposite Seth Rogen in Judd Apatow's Funny People next year. But he needs to stop making films his kids can see. Such motivations have killed the careers of many a funny man. Have we learned nothing from Eddie Murphy?

I'm sorry, I haven't spent a second talking about the plot of this film. It's about a guy (Sandler) who has to take care of his niece and nephew while their school teacher mother (Courteney Cox) goes on a job interview out of state. Sandler is actually supposed to be running the hotel where he is the chief maintenance guy, but the clueless, easily led manager (Richard Griffiths) has turned over the day-to-day management of the hotel to the cartoonish Guy Pearce and his evil hench-lady (Lawless). At night, Sandler makes up stories to listen to before they go to bed. Although the stories are set during different times and places in history, they all have plots strikingly similar to the power-struggle situation at the hotel. The kids tend to finish the story for Sandler before they doze off, and the next day, the stories seem to come true. Russell plays a co-worker of Cox's who looks after the kids during the day at a school that is on the verge of getting torn down. Will Sandler stop the school from destruction? Will he wrestle control of the hotel from the evil doers? Does anybody care? I'm about to cut and paste the concluding statement from my previous review. Forgive me for plagiarizing myself: "There are just far too many quality films in theaters right now to waste either your time or money going to this stale fucking thing or even reading another word about it. I'm done."


Monks — The Transatlantic Feedback


I'll admit to being completely and utterly unfamiliar with the music of the Monks. I'm even happier to say that is no longer the case. This short-lived, mid-1960s creation consisted of five former American GIs who met while stationed in Germany and made their way through that nation's club circuit in the wake of the Beatles' rise to fame. They started out as an aggressive cover band, but thanks to some inventive German engineering (courtesy of a couple of advertising execs who became the band's managers), they become the pre-cursor to '70s punk, '80s industrial and '90s industrial and techno music. Did I mentioned they featured an electric banjo player who acted as part of the rhythm section rather than strumming and plunking out folksy diddies? These crazy bastards even cut their hair like monks and wore all black (per the "rules" mapped out by their management).

Their songs featured anti-war protests and crazed, stalker-like love songs which proclaimed both love and hate for the woman in question. Their pounding beats and commitment to playing a style of music unlike any other that existed at the time made them destined to fail and be forgotten by time. The documentary does a wonderful job explaining and sampling their work thanks to interviews with all five members (one member died since filming was completed). The film's emotional high point is a 1999 reunion concert in New York City, a few years after the band members, none of whom was still making music, realized there was a cult following surrounding their music (one of their songs was featured on The Big Lebowski soundtrack) and some of their records, released only in Germany, were selling among collectors for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. It's clear that filmmakers Dietmar Post and Lucía Palacios are fans first, directors second. The care and time they clearly took to research and put this film together is evident, and any time I can learn about a music and a sound that's completely new to me, I'm all the more interested. What a wild and wonderful journey this film takes us on about these five unlikely rock influencers. The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

jimmypearl / December 26, 2008 4:46 AM

mickey was an is GREAT ACTER
nuff said!!

mike nourse / December 31, 2008 7:13 AM

Re: Benjamin Button...For me this movie is essentially a Forrest Gump meets Titanic ripoff, and an aging Brad Pitt's oscar effort (he's 45 now!). If that sounds good to you, you'll love it. I didn't connect with the characters and thought the running time was way too long. The only thing I enjoyed was leaving wanting to read an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.

coffee / January 2, 2009 10:32 AM

Benjamin Button was very Fincher-esque... almost as good as his other stuff if not for some nagging plot holes

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Architecture Mon Apr 14 2014

"Mecca Flat Blues": Where Modernism Began in Chicago

By Nancy Bishop

Explore one of the most important buildings in the city at a new Chicago Cultural Center exhibition.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Apr 11 2014

Draft Day, Oculus, Rio 2, Cuban Fury, Joe, Dom Hemingway & Cheap Thrills

By Steve Prokopy

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