Saturday, January 31, 2009

Frost / Nixon Reach Oscars After Going All Twelve Rounds

The title of the movie is Frost / Nixon with a slash...but it should be Frost v. Nixon - as in an HBO boxing special. For the boxing metaphor is the central organizing principle that Peter Morgan has set up in his play about TV Host David Frost's first public interview after Nixon's impeachment.

In this corner: David Frost, handsome, breezy international playboy, social butterfly, and lightweight TV-comedian turned Australian talk-show host, looking for a way back into the U.S. prime-time television limelight, and played with earnest enthusiasm by Michael Sheen.

In the other corner: Richard M. Nixon, aging right-wing paragon who's fallen from grace, former President, intellectual powerhouse, perversely anti-social paranoid and world's most notorious criminal. Played with intense nuance by Frank Langella.

Just as in the best boxing movies, both are consummate athletes in their field - in this case, the field of politics and media. And the match is set up as they typically are: the gutsy challenger (Frost) going for 12 grueling rounds against the past-his-prime champion (Nixon). Just as in the best boxing films, each man's weakness is the other's strength, and each can only triumph by learning how to overcome his weakness through his opponent's example. The question for Frost: can he learn the intellectual discipline necessary to corner Nixon on his own turf, and force an admission of culpability? For Nixon: can he ride Frost's good humor to muster the social grace necessary to revive his image in the eyes of the media and hence, America?

Both men have their coaching teams. (For Nixon, a former marine, Jack Brennan, played in caricature by Kevin Bacon. For Frost, his producer, John Birt, and the hired guns of Bob Zelnik - the news professional - and James Reston Jr - played by Sam Rockwell as kind of the "soul" of liberal America that NEEDS Nixon to be properly confronted).

Will Nixon be able to rehabilitate his reputation with this four-part interview (covering the four faces of Nixon: Viet Nam, foreign policy, Watergate, and "Nixon the man") and re-enter politics? Or will Frost deliver the knock-out blow that will reveal Nixon's guilty conscience to the world, thus providing the catharsis of culpability that the liberal public longs for (and the media riches and acclaim that Frost desperately needs)?

Needless to say, the story and the issues it raises - in terms of the criminal abuses of the Presidency, the need for political catharsis, and the power of the media to not only conceal and reveal, but also bestow both fame and notoriety - echo strongly with our current times. And as a film that explores the intersection of politics, history, and media through this conceit of the intellectual boxing match between these two men, the story succeeds masterfully at creating the kind of political fable that makes for excellent post-movie dinner conversation.

So let's talk about how the people behind Frost / Nixon have put together this confection. I agree completely with other reviewers who have compared this film's direction favorably to Doubt: by handing Frost / Nixon over to Ron Howard to direct (rather than attempting it himself, as John Shanley did with Doubt), Peter Morgan allows his story to escape Doubt's wordy claustrophobia. Visual symbols (such as a pair of Italian shoes, or the expression on Nixon's face) come to play as key a role in this film as the interview itself, and we're taken across the oceans and through Washington and LA as the film unfolds its story on the world stage. According to Entertainment Weekly's interview on the film, Howard "opened up" the feel of the movie by allowing his actors to free themselves of the gestures and habits they learned onstage. That freedom helps create performances that translate keenly on film, letting the actors interact broadly with the sets and making us feel the hothouse poppy Hollywood environment that Nixon has retreated to. Even so, the climactic scenes boil down to two men, facing each other in comfy chairs in a small, middle-class living room. But consider this the boxing ring, and you see how that set is just the arena for battle, supported by the wide-ranging backgrounds we see outside the ring.

Frank Langella as well deserves the praise (and the Oscar nomination) he's received, for the complexities of the Nixon he creates are the key to the film's message: this Nixon is a flawed but fascinating villain in the best Shakespearean tradition. When Nixon introduces his Hollywood agent, Swifty Lazar, to the reporters doing his bio (including Diane Sawyer), he does so as a personal joke about Lazar's fear of shaking hands. It doesn't matter so much that no one else in the room cares about Lazar's predilections: Nixon himself is perfectly amused. The scene reveals both Nixon's creepy fascination with people's personal idiosyncrasies and his social insensitivity (he has a file on everyone, a Watergate habit he can't seem to shake), as well as his keen insight into human nature (he's able to sum up Frost the instant he sets eyes on him). Never mind that Langella neither looks nor sounds much like Nixon; this is definitely the best portrayal of the man to date, capturing perfectly the quality of ambition, perversity, and intellect that made Nixon so considerable a figure to begin with. As some have said, it is a performance that perhaps captures the meaning of "Nixon" better than the man himself.

Sheen, for his part, does a serviceable job carrying the film as the entertaining David Frost, who gambles big and must face total ruin before summoning the nerve to truly act like a reporter. Not much else perhaps needs to be said of this side of the ring, since Frost's underdog story is perhaps the most expected one in the film, and Frost, though the protagonist, is not the ultimate subject of this biopic.

And so we come to the quibbles I have with this movie, which though I am giving five stars, is far from perfect. First, there's the treatment of Nixon. While I may not share Sam Rockwell's complete thirst for blood, I do find that the extent to which the movie makes us actually like Nixon makes me a bit uncomfortable. While I'm sure that the man could be charming, and understanding tricky Dick's nature is part of the dual edge of the sword here, I fear the film suffers a bit from its own greatest fear: that it will rehabilitate Nixon's reputation more than he deserves. Yes, I know this is a film that is not JUST about Nixon. Still, Frost's failure in completely nailing Nixon's culpability (and I'm not completely convinced he DOES nail it) needn't be the filmmakers.

And then there's that sports metaphor, which gets driven into your skull repeatedly. As an organizing principle of the story, I think it works. But even something that works can be overused. I think we tend into that territory, here.

And then, finally, there's simply the fact that however much we want this movie to be about something more - to be about our present day issues, or the nature of political corruption, or media ambition, mortality, and the rest of it - that it ultimately is about what it is. Which is to say, it's a smallish film, with limited ambitions - that is, if you consider the exploration of social graces and class resentment limited, which I kind of do - even though it largely achieves them.

But there is one scene in the movie that makes the film stand out. Just before the final interview, when everything is on the line, Nixon unexpectedly and ill-advisedly telephones Frost in the middle of the night. In that conversation, Nixon reveals both the commonality and the differences between the two men, in a speech that soars with insight and mastery of the film's themes. Without that scene - and the subsequent references to it - the film would have laid flat, a mere character study cum morality play, like Doubt. But that late-night encounter between the two men dives right into the heart of what this story is about, and ties it up neatly. It helps too that it's the middle of the night, the same time as the Watergate henchmen would have been breaking into the Democratic headquarters, the time when social mores and commonsense strategies can be thrown out the window, and truths can be gotten down to. The fact that Nixon can't remember it happening may lead us to wonder whether Nixon's ultimate flaw was his conscious ambition, or his unconscious demons - and whether the ruin of a country can really all be the fault of a single man.

So I have to say that despite its flaws, a movie that makes us consider that question - and consider it in such an entertaining and convincing way as this one does - in this day and age, is deserving of all the stars I have.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Edward Zwick's "Defiance": "Fiddler on the Roof" Meets "Lord of the Rings"

So maybe they should call this movie "Sharpshooter on the Roof" or "Lord of the Shpilkes." As Randy Gervais said to Kate Winslet on the Golden Globes: "do the Holocaust movie, you can't go wrong."

That is to say, this is yet another good Nazi / Holocaust movie in a year that seems to be full of them. I guess with a tragedy as immense as the Holocaust there are an innumerable number of stories to tell, because this subject just seems to keep on giving. However, as good as this movie is, I really think it could have been better.

First, I should confess that this movie holds a particular affection for me, since it's about Belorussian Jews (that's the westernmost area of Russia containing classic schtettle towns like Minsk and Pinsk) who take up arms against the invading Nazi's, forming perhaps the only known somewhat organized Jewish armed resistance movement: hiding out in the woods for over three years and rescuing 1200 Jews in the process. The heroes in this movie are the brothers Bielski, a quartet of brothers of varying ages and temperaments, who grow from being simple farmers and runabouts to leaders of an armed resistance.

My ancestry is precisely from Belorussian Jews, who are a bit more down-to-earth, adventurous, and handy with a gun than there more cerebral German counterparts (the brothers Bielski remind me an awful lot of my cousins, who have grown up to become 1) a navy captain, 2) a biker /writer / pilot and 3) a police SWAT team marksman.) In other words, these are Jews who may spout the old maxim "if you save a life, you're responsible for it," but they have great facility with weapons, and little hesitation about using them.

Daniel Craig (of James Bond fame...and Munich, interestingly enough) is cast as the elder Bielski, Tuvia (yep, same name as the Fiddler guy). Liev Schreiber is the second eldest, Zus, who has to live in his brother's shadow and develops some deep resentment. Here we have the classic cinematic chestnut of a single personality divided into two, with the cinematic arc being about how the two halves will come together. So while Tuvia starts off as a leader able to organize the panicked and traumatized refugees - but who's decisions may not be the most strategic - Zus is the man of action who learns quickly the tactics of warfare survival, but has difficulties getting the others to follow him. So the movie, in addition to being a study of how a group of Jews learn to drop their books and survive in the woods, is also a bromance between the brothers, and how they learn to become more like each other.

Unfortunately, both Craig and Schreiber seem to be miscast. Daniel is just wrong for the part: he's never struck me as ethnic, and he's way too forceful and world weary from the beginning to be a naive farm boy who must learn to grow into a leader. And though Schreiber is of course ethnically cast perfectly, he's really too old, as Craig is, for the role of the second brother. Both of these parts should have been played by younger men in their late twenties. But apparently, the stars must have been necessary for achieving the financing and studio backing to get the film made. Which is unfortunate, since both men overplay the parts and fail to wring the necessary subtly out of important moments (though, to be fair, they do well with the emotional scenes when a few strategic tears are required).

But the real important moments in this film often center around decisions to kill. For a Jew, such a decision is a weighty one...and the scenes set us up well to examine the moral questions about killing for revenge, or survival, or self defence. But while we're set up for these questions well in the screenplay, neither the actors nor the director seem to want to examine them: instead, what seems more pressing is to create a kind of Jewish action movie, replete with heroes, battles, and unlikely rescue. (There is one scene in the woods, involving a captured German soldier, that is directed with a provocative bent...but like the others, the provocation seems to move on without examining what one would expect to be its lasting effects.) All that quickly moving action is great, I suppose, for the Jews like me in the audience who want a hero to cheer. I guess for everyone else, though, it'll seem like just another formulaic war story.

Which is too bad. The question of Jews fighting back - and what that means both for Jews and for everyone else - is certainly a very relevant topic right now, given what's happening in Gaza. This movie starts to go there, but only part way. Much of the direction seems to want to inflect a kind of Yiddish kibitzing style (one can't help but think of Woody Allen's parodies of Greek chorus in some of the refugee debate scenes), which feels totally wrong conflated with other scenes of narrow escape that seem to be inspired from the trek to Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings. In between all that - and tying it all together - are breathtakingly beautiful scenes of the forest in which the Jews hide and make their home, and this forest becomes alive, a third major character in the movie, that both hides the Jews and tests them. As the seasons change we understand the extreme unlikeness of their survival and the discipline it requires; and when spring comes again, we feel well both the new opportunities and new dangers.

So when you put it all together, there are moments of beauty and moments of great dramatic weight and tension; moments of vicarious thrills and moments of ethnic introspection. What seems to be missing from the film, however, is a single, coherent vision of what it all means. The screenplay is great, the story a unique and interesting one, and the emotion fully felt. And the deep feeling for the background of the characters and the land is certainly exhibited in the scenery and wardrobe. But this movie ends up being simply good when it could have been great, when it could have decided that it didn't need to be a box-office action thriller, and could have simply told a simple and remarkable tale, with humanity and vision. Maybe, being close to the subject matter, I'm being a little too hard on it, for it's a good movie, that's for sure. I certainly got something out of it - I understood my cousins more.

Maybe the problem is that I just saw The Reader, and after that movie, it's not fair to compare another film that touches the same subject. Still - go see it. You'll enjoy it, but you'll see what I mean. I'm not sure this one is quite good enough to end up on this season's Oscar's list, with so much other excellent competition out there.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Iron Man: Celebrating Boys and Their Servo-Powered Toys

The high point in Iron Man comes when Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, testing out his racing-striped, servo-powered second-generation Iron Suit for the first time after turning his hand boosters from innocent propulsion mechanisms into a destructive weapon, takes flight like a jet and swoops into town to blow up a tank with casual insouciance. You see, a bunch of innocent villagers in some remote Afghan village are being massacred with his own company's weapons, and it's driving him bonkers. So bonkers, in fact, that his quest to give up making weapons in order to give mankind the wondrous, peaceful Iron Suit has to be momentarily abandoned so that he can turn the damned thing into a weapon and go wuppass on the bad guys who are terrorizing the innocent women and children of the village.

The movie goes out of its way to make the murder-to-pleasure ratio of this scene pretty high. The baddies are massacring villagers with gleeful remorselessness and Tony's suit hums, whirs, and shoots missiles like a chrome-plated, wi-fi enabled Lamborghini as he pummels them effortlessly and takes out hostage takers with surgical strikes. This is the wet dream of military techno-geeks: high impact killing of evildoers with zero collateral damage. And anyone who has second thoughts about the political fantasies of such cool killing has to be just a little bit discomfited by the enjoyment that this scene engenders.

Which is to say, this is a movie that wants to have it both ways: that wants to make a big deal about being more righteous than the war mongers, while getting its ya yas enjoying the righteousness of high-impact killing machines.

But that may be the only thing wrong with this otherwise fine excercise in enjoying the full impact of your high-def, big-screen TV. Iron Man is in fact the first time that Marvel creator Stan Lee has taken over the filming of his Avenger series of action heroes (The Hulk, also out this past summer, was Lee's second such film). Lee plans to release more superhero films under the Marvel studios label: in fact, he's on a project to create the entire Avengers series (which is what the mysterious five minute appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is all about). If you aren't a comic book geek, what this basically means is that we will see more Marvel comic character movies (purportedly including an Ant Man movie starring comic Scotsman Simon Pegg, and culminating in a full Avengers movie led by Captain America). Iron Man is just the beginning of an entire popcorn series.

As such, it's a good start and demonstrates Lee's more intimate understanding of comic book narrative and emotional arch than many of those who have tinkered with Marvel characters before. Unlike other attempts at elevating comic book fare into some kind of filmic art (one thinks of Ang Lee's botched version of The Hulk - which more likely than not drove Lee over the edge to create his own film studio to do this stuff himself), Iron Man seeks to be nothing more than witty good comic-style fun, with straightforward direction and little stylistic pretension. What's important here is that we (the geekish public) understand Tony Stark's inner geek and get to feel why having a flying metal supersuit and the interest of Gwyneth Paltrow is so damn hot. And generally we do: thanks to A-list acting by Downey Jr and directing and dialogue that blessedly avoids the usual action clunkers to deliver some nice ironies (such as Stark getting blown up by his own missile, or a sad, dog-like animated arm that finally proves its usefulness). And since the final confrontation destroys the appropriate number of automobiles and buildings, we get the usual satisfying superhero denouement. Generally, in this formulaic comic movie, all goes according to plan.

And so I must confess, as a geek myself, the movie delivers a satisfying action experience, despite its repulsive simplistic politics and glorification of violence (and despite a bit less than unique villian to do battle with at the end). I suppose in a way Lee seems to be taking standing up for the necessity of violence - as if to say that it's an essential aspect of the comic narrative. Like his aversion to high-brow tinkering with his comic characters, this movie may be a bit of the backlash against the Bush-era/low-brow backlash. And though I'm not completely convinced that all this isn't just as damaging to young impressionable minds as any of the non-self-aware, non-ironic movie violence routinely found in lesser movies, I'll still be eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Avenger's new matinee series.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Burn After Reading: Politics Done Coen Brother's Style

Burn After Reading returns the Coen Brothers to their earlier, whimsical comedy stylings making fun of weirdo's, outsiders, and bumblers - movies like Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski - where characters with more ambitions than brains hatch cooky plans that get everyone fired, kidnapped, killed, or otherwise in some kind of trouble. The difference is that this time, the brothers Coen have set their bumblers in Washington D.C.: where comic bumbling has kind of become the credo of the past eight years of the Bush administration.

But lest you think this may be a trenchant sendup of Bush politics (a la Oliver Stone's "W"), bear in mind that the Coens have little interest in political points of view. Which in a way makes the Washington DC setting and the spy plot line oddly irrelevant to what the movie is really about - which is the idea of middle-age goofballs dealing with crushing disappointment and grasping for whatever small piece of salvation might happen to fall in their laps.

Burn After Reading introduces two sets of D.C. characters operating in different worlds of this highly transient city, whose paths disastrously intersect. The first are two Washington insider couples: washed-up CIA operative Osbourne Cox (John Malcovich) and his cold and distant wife (played by Tilda Swinton), who's having an affair with George Clooney's bumbling federal marshal, Harry Pfarrer, whose self-involved author wife is off in her own book-tour world. These four intersect with the dissatisfied managerial staff of a local gym (Hardbodies), played by the triangle of Fancis McDormand, Brad Pitt, and Richard Jenkins, when the gym managers find Osbourne Cox's diary - which they mistake for confidential CIA secrets - lying on the gym floor. Like Hi in Raising Arizona, Brad Pitt's character gets it in his head that this random find is really a cosmic gift that must be worth something to someone, and off we go.

By the end of the movie, everyone has run into everyone else in one way or another, and all the billiard balls end up falling into their appointed pockets.

Even so, there is unfortunately also a good deal of plotting laziness in this film. The two worlds never have an opportunity to comment on each other, and the fate of the characters seems more random than thematic, as if the brothers realized they had another movie to go make and had to quickly wrap up this one. That all makes the movie feel casually disjointed...closer to the random happenings of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? than the tightly scripted No Country for Old Men or Fargo. Certainly there is no mistaking a Coen brother's movie, which always muses on the ambitions of overambitious losers and the random intersections of destiny, and usually delivers a healthy dose of mirth, as this one does. And yet, there can be such differences in quality and effect from film to film. Where No Country is deadly serious and important, Burn After Reading seems to go out of it's way to become a film of frivolity that wants to do nothing more than make you smirk for an hour and a half, then quickly forget.

All of which is to say, this is not a serious movie: the potential fun of Bush bashing in the D.C. setting is sadly wasted (with the exception of the promising opening scene), and by the time we get to the end, we may not care that much any more whatever it is the Coens have decided to do with all these bozos.

And yet: Malkovich is marvelous as the put-upon and cast-out spy. Swinton makes a wonderful bitch. McDormand stands out as the not-too-bright but desperately seeking Mr. Right gym manager, Pitt is satisfyingly goofy, and Clooney gives his usual over-the-top weird Cohen performance. And all the supporting actors, spies, and operatives give hilarious scenes spouting hokum, corporate-speak, and hooha in typical Cohen brothers fashion. So while this movie doesn't add up to much, it's certainly a lot of fun getting there.

Yes, Burn After Reading isn't in the top-tier of the Coen's ouevre, a Fargo or No Country. And it doesn't quite have the off-the-wall inspiration of a Big Lebowski. But it definitely qualifies in the Coen's second tier of comedies, the kind that are great fun going but add up to little, a kind of Arizona or Irreconcilable Differences. Now, considering that the Coen's second tier work is better than a lot of people's best stuff, maybe you want to see it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Oscar Nomination Predictions for 2009

Okay, it's that time of year: time for my Oscar nomination predictions. I don't claim any special insight or knowledge - just testing my knack for predicting. Feel free to add your comments for anything you've think I've missed or zany picks you would have never included. Since my time is limited and Oscars are long, I'm just focusing on the major awards.

So far, the only major films I don't think I've seen are Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, and Revolutionary Road, which haven't been released in our area. I reserve the right to update this after I see them.

Peter Morgan - Frost / Nixon
Simon Beaufoy - Slumdog Millionaire
Eric Roth - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
David Hare - The Reader
John Patrick Shanley - Doubt

will win: Simon Beaufoy - Slumdog Millionaire
should win: David Hare - The Reader

Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Gus van Sant - Milk
Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry - The Reader

will win: Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
should win: Stephen Daldry - The Reader

Supporting Actress
Kate Winslet - The Reader
Francis McDormand - Burn After Reading
Taraja P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vickie Christina Barcelona

will win: Kate Winslet - The Reader
should win: Kate Winslet - The Reader

Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger - Batman: The Dark Knight
Philip Seymore Hoffman - Doubt
Robert Downey Jr. - Tropic Thunder
David Kross - The Reader
Emile Hirsch - Milk

will win: Heath Ledger - Batman
should win: Heath Ledger - Batman

Lead Actress
Angelina Jolie - The Changeling
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Kate Blanchette - The Curious Case of Banjamin Button

will win: Angelina Jolie - The Changeling
should win: Meryl Streep - Doubt

Lead Actor
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
Leonardo diCaprio - Revolutionary Road

will win: Clint Eastwood- Gran Torino
should win: Sean Penn - Milk

Best Film
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader

Frost / Nixon
Slumdog Millionaire

will win: Slumdog Millionaire
should win: The Reader

Eastwood's Gran Torino Makes Hard-Earned Virtue Out of Politically Incorrect Cantankerousness

As I write this, Gran Torino gets a 76% on RottenTomatoes while Changeling, Eastwood's earlier movie this year, only gets a 59%. Gran Torino also seems to be getting the critical award mentions and gossip (as well as getting the weekend boxoffice, probably from theatergoers eager to see Clint Eastwood's rumored last big screen acting performance), while Changeling is largely overlooked. This is reminiscent of a couple years ago, when Eastwood also had two movies out: Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, both of which were good but one of which was considered the more outstanding.

The reason I bring up Changeling in this review of Gran Torino, however, is because contrary to public opinion, I find it the more excellent movie. Not because Gran Torino is bad. It's a very good film, and Eastwood gives a great, gritty performance. Who knew back in the days of Dirty Harry that Eastwood would become not only one of our great acting talents, but one of our greatest film storytellers? This guy's talent is simply amazing. But while I find the Changeling to be truly revelatory filmmaking, Gran Torino tackles a similarly great story, but with some corners cut.

One of the things that distinguishes an Eastwood film is the way in which he tells a story that strongly engages our moral senses, with a straightforward narrative that engrosses us in how the choices that the characters make elucidate their moral universe. Eastwood is a master of this and Gran Torino delivers its moral theme with all engines firing.

But Eastwood does stack the deck in Gran Torino a bit more than usual. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a character who perhaps embodies the dictionary definition of "old codger." He has nary a pleasantry for anyone and his most endearing affection for his friends is to call them some disparaging racial slur. He also has a bit of the old Dirty Harry idea of what constitutes masculinity. His "dago / pollack" routine with his barber friend is meant to epitomize the height of male friendship, I suppose. Now imagine Walt as father/grandfather to a family of spoiled Yuppies, his wife newly deceased, a twenty-five-year-old priest attempting to minister to his soul, and an immigrant Hmong family living next door in his long-ago-racially diversified and decaying neighborhood, in which he refuses to move out - and throw in a multi-cultural assortment of gangs spoiling for trouble - and you have the picture of the kind of narrative dynamite that screenwriter Nick Schenk has planted all around the growling and cantankerous Walt.

Walt's story, then, is how he learns to face the deficiencies of his life, adopt a substitute family, and eventually, with help from the persistent if young priest, salvage his soul.

The journey Walt has to take would be more predictable if it weren't that Eastwood was so good in the role (he seems to be acting as if to say, "I was born to play this part, and I'm going out in style"), and if it weren't that Eastwood was also a masterful director able to elicit authentic performances from Bee Vang and Ahney Her, who play the neighboring Hmong kids who have the temerity to crack through Walt's artifice of cantankerousness and learn the life-lessons that this old man has been dying to teach to someone. The three actors bond through their various adversities to create the kind of family Walt has always yearned for.

And indeed, some of Walt's racial observations in Gran Torino are deeply insightful, especially in the sealed-in politically correct multicultural world we live in. Walt's diffusing of a particularly tense encounter between Sue Lor and her white boyfriend (a.k.a. "pussy," according to Walt) and a trio of black thugs is especially cutting. ("I don't think they want to be your bro," he tells the white guy after going crazy batshit on the black dudes.) But I feel, as I said, everything is stacked a bit too easily to make Walt the movie's only truth teller. His real-life family are but mere Yuppie cartoons, and even the gang members are barely more developed than the typical Dirty Harry villains. All this makes Walt's redemption more mythic than realistic, and though that may be the point, since we feel such realness and filmic care with the neighboring Hmong family, it's a shame that the other characters aren't given a bit more due. The movie wants us to understand that truly bonding with people is not something that's achieved through politically correct platitudes or the easy spoils of Yuppie privilege - rather, boding is hard-earned by telling and hearing the hard truth. Yes, but those Yuppies are especially dreadful, and they're not given any opportunity to redeem themselves. In one scene toward the end of the movie with Walt's granddaughter, she expresses an interest in Walt's vintage Gran Torino and we're meant to understand her reaction to what happens to it as selfishness, when in fact the story behind it is something that she couldn't possibly know. She's still a brat, yes, but but she isn't as cold as the movie wants us to believe her to be at that moment, and that felt like a cheat, to me.

It's a rare slip for Eastwood, who has become a master of tone and audience sympathy in his films. And this film certainly pushes the envelope of sympathy, with a character that rides on the edges of tolerance. But these criticisms are exceptions to this otherwise fine film, and that's no reason this movie shouldn't be on the short list of any Oscar watchers this season.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" Didn't. Happen.

Sometimes I feel like the only M. Night Shyamalan fan in the world. After his precocious first-timer success with The Sixth Sense, he’s followed up that fame and acclaim with a series of mysterious and idiosyncratic films that play to his signature taste of spirituality, dreams, and animism. And a lot of the viewing public, it seems to me, misunderstand or misinterpret his films. He’s one of the few directors who creates movies that are neither realistic or fantastical, but operate in a kind of twilight dream world of the in between: in between life and death (Sixth Sense), story and mythology (Unbreakable and Lady in the Water), dreams and waking life (Signs). People who see these movies as failures I think misread the films, or read only the “realistic” portion and fail to appreciate the brilliance of the in-between world: fail to see that Signs is a waking dream, for instance, or that Lady in the Water a bedtime story with the same childhood logic of dark and light. When I see those movies, I think Shyamalan is on to something – something he might need to perfect, perhaps, but that is still a refreshing genius that attempts to defy convention.

But where Shyamalan really does fail, as he does somewhat in The Village and most disappointingly in The Happening, I think it’s because he’s given in to the most self-indulgent impulses for which all his movies are routinely criticized: that his concepts are only half-baked, not fully realized, and the tight sense of suspense he assiduously creates becomes a self-parody of style without the substance to make it worthwhile.

Such is what seems to have happened in The Happening.

Shyamalan’s first mistake seems to have been either hiring the wrong casting director, or not explaining the concept of the movie well enough to his actors, for everyone in this film seems to be not only miscast, but completely off on their timing and delivery. Wahlberg especially gets to deliver some real clunkers – the kind of lines like “we need some hotdogs” that got actual unintended laughs in the theater. When an experienced director like Shyamalan can’t control the tone he wants in the movie – when the audience begins to think what they’re watching is humorous when the reaction Shyamalan wants at that moment is suspense – then you know something has gone disastrously wrong.

Like most of Shyamalan’s movies, I find the premise intriguing: a mysterious airborne malaise is spreading over the east coast, first causing people to become confused, then to lose their sense of self-preservation and seek out the nearest handy means to kill themselves. With a concept like this – and a reputation of not being a critic-friendly director – Shyamalan must have winced as he envisioned potential reviews like “audience feels the same way.” I wish I could say that such criticism wasn’t deserved. Yes, Shyamalan provides the typical Shyamalan touches to the scenes of suicide, making them appropriately odd and frightening. But all that mystery has nowhere to go.

What seems to be missing from this film is any larger metaphor for what’s going on. A perfectly intelligent (though completely implausible) explanation is finally given (again picking up on the popular “green” theme of the day)…and all that’s fine and dandy…but what is what’s happening supposed to signify?

In other Shyamalan movies it signifies something interior about the characters: a state of being that needs to be addressed and resolved. Shyamalan's theme obviously should have been this: suicide...even one mysteriously stimulated by unknown agents...signifies a collective societal despair. So Wahlberg, our hero, must have some real despair to overcome - and that should be reflected in the culture at large as well. But Wahlberg doesn't play the character that way (he's just goofily mentally absent and all wincing sincerity, like an android), and in the script, the only potential state of being we’re given here is the relationship between Wahlberg and his reluctant girlfriend, played by Zooey Deschanel. But that relationship is a mere stereotype, the dialogue between them cliché and strained, and any deeper meaning about relationships we’re supposed to take from this film is completely undermined by the stultifying interactions between the two lead characters, who have zero chemistry and act like they’re reading pesticide manuals as they run to escape the kooky death that’s infesting the brains of everyone around them. So even if despair was meant to be the resonating theme, the only people despairing in this film are in the audience.

In other words, the redemption here is unearned, a result of a cliché script, poor acting choices, and uninspired setups.

A movie likes this makes me fear that Shyamalan may be isolating himself from any constructive feedback in his writing/directing process. After so much criticism of works that indeed have some merit, he may not be able any more to sort out and listen to the useful criticism necessary to fully bake his work. In other words, his foolproof bullshit detector may have died. Because this movie certainly suffers from an oversupply of fertilizer.

Let’s hope he gets it fixed soon.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Tropic Thunder: Ben Stiller's Hollywood Hijinks Gets Some Help From His Friends

I confess: I'm not a big fan of Ben Stiller comedies. I thought Meet the Parents was amusing, at best, Night at the Museum a waste of time, and Zoolander totally unwatchable. So I pretty much ignored Tropic Thunder when it was released, particularly given the trailer's focus on the Stiller-type shtick.

That wasn't necessarily a mistake, but upon rental, I can see why this movie has created a small following, and Stiller gets a lot of help from co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (no, not Ethan Cohen) as well as co-star Robert Downey Jr., who turns out to be quite the comedic actor (he's actually on quite a roll, with recent great performances in Iron Man and Zodiac).

The opening is actually quite promising as we get three fake trailers introducing each of the characters cum actors. What makes the trailers even more hilarious are the studios assigned to each, which are nailed just right (Fox Searchlight makes the gay-themed medieval monk story, with Toby McGuire in a hilarious cameo). The movie goes on to become a Hollywood insider parody of the making of a Hollywood war movie, with three different types of Hollywood actors (Stiller, the action hero, Downey, the "serious" actor, and Jack Black, the scatalogically oriented comedian) cast in the major roles. I love Hollywood parodies...if they're you can see here how I right away was hopeful this one might be elevated above the usual Stiller fare. And the first few scenes introducing the set up are quite promising, as everything on set starts to go wrong quite quickly, and Stiller and crew certainly have the film cliches and stock set-hand character types down cold.

Stiller also lands quite a coup casting Tom Cruise as the over-the-top movie producer (allegedly based on Stiller's producer partner Stuart Cornfeld). The role of Cruise in a fat suit with hairy hands is certain inspired comic casting and something that Stiller had hoped to keep secret before the release of the film. It certainly makes a great running gag, though that gag - like most of Stiller's - gets a bit played out by the end of the movie.

The other running gag that's created media attention for the movie is Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, playing the role of a method actor so committed he's had a pigmentation operation and refuses to come out of character. His performance has earned generally positive reviews - basically, he pulls this off well, because the parody isn't so much of black affectation, but of the vanity of Hollywood casting white actors in black roles and the actors who take this stuff seriously. He's just a "dude playin' a dude who thinks he's another dude." It doesn't hurt that he also has Brandon Jackson as a useful foil. Jackson provides the necessary context and commentary to make sure that everyone gets the Downey joke.

Yet while the movie starts of well, it falls victim to the curse of the boring second act, as the actors are placed into the deep jungle and get mixed up with real live heroine farmers out to either kill them or inspire some genuine method acting. Here, Stiller takes a turn away from Hollywood parody and back into Stiller-ville, introducing such impossible and unfunny characters such as a ten-year-old drug kingpin and his gang of twenty, who make a fierce roar but seem to have the organizational capabilities of the keystone cops. Though I should note that he does transition into this part of the movie with quite a startling bang that will likely enter the halls of sick comedy fame.

And the continued machinations of Matthew McCanaughey as Stiller's loyal agent, Tom Cruise as the foul-mouthed producer, and a simpering sycophantic Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live back in sunny LA provide necessary relief from the wearying jungle trek.

By the time the movie ends, then, with the predictable reconciliations, I feel like once again, it's another Ben Stiller vehicle that was good for a few laughs but will be quickly returned to the store. They really seemed to have missed some of the more obvious satire - such as, for instance, an Apocalypse Now moment as the actors go a bit native that was crying out to be parodied (there was even a steer, for gods sake). I think that's where the move messed up: if there had been more Hollywood parody, and less Stiller hijinks, it would have been one hilarious film. But we only get about 1/3 Hollywood parody; 1/4 Downey blackface humor, 1/5 weird Tom Cruise, and the rest is Stiller's Catskill's shtick.

If you like that stuff, then you'll probably love this movie. If not...or if you have an aversion to Pythonesque body parts flying in all might want to give it a pass.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Hellboy Two: Genius Directing Wasted on a Terrible Movie

Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Another another disappointing summer movie available now on DVD. This one gets an extra star than most lackluster disappointments. But like Hancock, it's still only half a movie.

Like Hancock, this one has a promising opening that the movie fails to live up to. Unlike Hancock, we realize it's not going to live up to the opening about fifteen minutes into the movie, when we get into the off-the-shelf formulaic horror-schlock of the Tooth Fairies and the Hellboy's domestic doldrums (not to mention the pure poison of the usually enjoyable Jeffrey Tambor, who brings the movie to a dead stop every time he appears). From the beautiful puppetry opening to bad Lucy and Dezi in fifteen minutes.

Then back again. I'm not sure I can even describe what this movie is about. More demons are let loose from the underworld and Hellboy has to assemble yet again a team of freaks to fend them off. I have to profess that I loved the vaporous character of Johann Krauss, the latest addition to the U.S.'s secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, and probably the most wholly original movie superhero we've seen. Director Guillermo del Toro's imagination is nothing but imaginatively feverish, even if he has no real script to work off of. Every time we turn the corner, we think this movie might now be saved with the introduction of some new squirmy, bumpy, toothy, or chloroformy paranormal baddie. What's odd about this movie is that it's simultaneously amazingly great while also being completely boring. Del Toro keeps coming up with one amazing visual set piece concept after another: whether it's doing battle against a giant city-stomping flower (with a baby in one arm), the mystical connections between vengeful Prince and pure-hearted Princess, or the bittersweet battle with the oddly teddy-bearish Wink, the director of the amazing Pan's Labyrinth explores the intersection of mythology and heroism with an imaginative ambivalence that's both endearing and fascinating.

At the same time, the story is such a boring mix of pop culture hoo-haa, I kept checking my watch, wanting it to move on to the end already. I was never too much a fan of Ghost Busters or Blade (okay, so del Toro's ripping off himself, here), so ripping off from them is one step below bubble-gum. Ripping off from Blade Runner, Total Recall or Lord of the Rings is always entertaining but pretty much cliche at this point, so while I liked the imaginative characters populating the Troll's market, I couldn't help but think, "Bar Scene in Star Wars" - which, to tell you the truth, was when, no matter how much I had been blown away by the power of what had come before, even as a seven year old boy, I had my first insight that some movies might be more interested in selling toys then entertaining their audience. Not that del Toro is as mechanizing happy as Lucas: his puppets are ten-time as's just that his sci-fi is a bland mash of yesteryear's warmed-overs.

And then it's back to the Lucy and Dezi show: the marriage banter between Hellboy and Liz Sherman is but one step above the groaning unevolving clunkiness between Indie and Marion in Indiana Jones and only marginally more believable than the insane drivel between Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The Happening. Could all this fake movie couple banter just die, already? It's as if none of these screenwriters have actually been in a relationship but have read some interplanetary fax about what it's supposed to be like (argue a lot about ultimately insignificant things; express your true feelings to everyone but your partner) and have been told they have to put some of it in the movie or suffer the rack. Maybe the characters could just say something like, "please take five minutes to turn to your partner and insert your own meaningless couple's banter here," and we could just be done with it. At least it'd be more interesting. And if you were in the theater alone you'd get five minutes of personal silence, which would be far more rewarding.

So what do I think? I think if you turned this from a movie into a thirty-minute museum video installation piece, it would be pure genius: it would blow me away. The fairy-tale opening...maybe a little mirthful introduction of Johann Krauss...followed by the prince taking over the crown...followed by the battles of wink and the giant plant...followed by an abbreviated go at the Golden Army. A flow of forms and imaginings made of wood and vapor, plants and animals, metal and fire. If I could have seen that as an installation piece, I'd be raving about it for years. In those few scenes I've mentioned, del Toro fully realizes the fantasy world that's haunted him in movies like Mimic and Pan's Labyrinth, and extracted a yearning for the lost magic of that mythical world and its creatures. And there's a nice little theme here, a nice little story that's overshadowed by the schlockier Hellboy story: that the vengeance of the night-time fantasy world is intricately bound with its pure hearted salvation. That the forest offers both death and life, that in fact, this is the very breast of mother nature, which man strives to turn from - whose authority man strives to challenge - but which he must ultimately accept. When the life-and-death destructive battle with the plant ends with an explosion of ferns and flowers, it's rapturous: the bringer of death and harbinger of life is just what these fairy tales are about, yet rarely so beautifully enacted.

But since you have to slog through about fifty additional minutes of off-the-rack boredom to pick out that poppy, I have to say, if you're renting this one, put it on your big-screen, hi-def TV to enjoy the visuals. Meanwhile you can do your workout, go out and tuck the baby into bed, and let the dog out during the boring parts, and you won't be missing much.

Hancock: A Movie With Two Identities, One Which Isn't Bad, the Other Which Sucks

Now it's time for some DVD reviews, starting with Will Smith's Hancock, which I saw over the summer and is now out for rent.

In case you weren't aware at the time, Hancock was unveiled to some pretty poor reviews, most of which point out the same problem I had with it: the second half sucks. (although that didn't stop it from topping the box office for its opening weekend.)

But it's more than just a sucky third act (and missing second) that ruins this movie. What disappointed me most was that the first half, the story of how a down-and-out superhero meets the PR man who will rehability his piss-poor reputation with the public, was so original and interesting - for a summer movie. And so the second half not only completely betrayed the tone and interest of the first, it left all the issues raised by the first half (how publicity can transform the image of a superhero) unresolved in order to go off in a completely derivative (and pretty stupid) direction. So not only did the second half suck, it was so unrelated to what came before, you never find out how the first half of the story was supposed to end. The worst of all story-telling mistakes. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that was this disjointed between the first act and the end.

My first assumption was that Hancock suffered from Hollywood ReWrite Syndrome. A little research reveals this is pretty much true: the original script was much closer to the first half of the movie, all the way through. However, although the rewrites introduces the disappointing concept of a (SPOILER ALERT) second superhero, it also seems to have moved a lot of the movie location and spirit and introduced some of the more interesting elements of the PR man remaking the image of a misunderstood superhero.

Since I found the PR/Los Angeles angle from the first half the most interesting idea in the film, I can't blame its odd disjointedness totally on the rewrite. So what went wrong? A classic case of bad story telling, of giving up a good premise to substitute another that is not really quite so strong. A case of welding two different movies together that never should have been joined. Hey - I've made this mistake, too, when writing a screenplay. But usually, someone will call it for the crap it is, and force me back to the drawing board to kill off the weaker twin and raise the other. And didn't anyone notice that in both of these stories, the superhero of this film isn't given any kind of villain to fight?

I don't know what sent this movie so off track. Hancock, as embodied by the too-cool-to-act Will Smith, is a bit too self-pitying to be believed. So maybe one of the test audiences said, "where did this Hancock person come from?" and off they went. But they could have settled that question with a single line; they didn't have to eviscerate the whole movie to do it.

It's such a shame, because if they had stuck with the premise of the first act all the way through, this could have been a really brilliant movie - a kind of live-action Wall-E for adults. And a different kind of villain - a real-life villain called "the PR machine" - would have been really quite fascinating.

The premise: is being a "superhero" really created exclusively through public relations? Or rather, how essential is the right PR to turning talent from being annoying to being cloying? Just when the story starts to turn: just when Hancock foils a bank robbery and does everything right just the PR guy says he should in order to win public approval - we drop the PR angle entirely. It's never heard from again. It's as if the main character (no, Will Smith is not the main character - he's the mirror) might as well be a gas station attendant or a potted plant.

But what if the movie continued to exploit the PR theme through to the end? What if Hancock becomes the superhero he longs to be, becomes not only accepted by the public but irrationally desired, because of the PR man's success? What if Hancock's successful public relations itself becomes a trap? What if he starts to mess up not because he's a yutz but because the public mistakes the PR Hancock for the real guy? Maybe they have him busy opening a shopping mall and missing the BIG PLOT TO CAUSE AN EARTHQUAKE or something that the old cranky Hancock would have easily seen. What if Ray's PR is so successful that Hancock's publicity is taken over by a larger company (BAD GUY ALERT) without such pure and trusting motives for him...or the public?

Yes, the story of a hero's rise and fall all due to the love of the public - and the manipulations of the "hero machine" - is all a bit cliche, but the story manages to avoid that through the first act. With the same imagination put to this story through its conclusion, we might have seen Hancock learn that good public relations involves more than just sticking to the's about having character. We'd have seen Hancock apply this character against the people who are trying to manipulate him for their personal gain. We'd see Hancock do his heroic altruistic shtick not because he's board or wants acceptance, but because he truly feels the pain of the people he saves (maybe, in the end, Hancock's enemy's are out to smear his good name: and he has to sacrifice his hard-won popularity in order to truly do what's right, and save the city).

The fact that he doesn't learn this - that the story's deux ex machina saves him not only from the logical conclusion of the first act but also his deserved character arch - gives us only one real bad guy to root against. And this one doesn't even appear in the movie.

"The Reader" Tells a Nearly Perfect Story

This is turning out to be a bonanza Oscar season. I wish there were more time for people to catch more of the excellent movies out there. One movie that particularly doesn't seem to be getting the distribution that it deserves is "The Reader." This nearly perfect little film produced by Anthony Minghella from a script by David Hare (based on the book by Bernhard Schlink) is an example of how the best cinema doesn't need special effects, elaborate setups, or gale-force acting from Tom Cruise. Sometimes a simple story, well told, makes for the best movie experience.

That isn't to say that this movie doesn't have a revelatory performance by Kate Winslet (who knew?) and if you're an Oscar follower, you need to see it to know why she'll be on the list for best Female Actor. David Kross as the young Michael Berg is also a real find and could well be on the supporting actor list. Ralph Fiennes is also in it, giving his usual fine performance, but it's really the interaction between Kross and Winslet that rivets you to your seat.

I'm not sure quite how to talk about this movie, since the less you know about it, the more you will enjoy it. And I want you to see it. I went in knowing basically nothing (PLEASE don't read the movie synopsis when you buy your tickets) and that was definitely the best way to see it. It isn't quite the cinema secret of "Crying Game," but if I reveal too much of the story it will diminish your enjoyment as the movie takes the unexpected turns it does.

So maybe I should warn people to stop reading here. Then again, if you've seen it, proceed on, and I will try not to reveal too much.

The movie opens in the post-war Germany of 1959 with a fifteen-year-old Michael Berg getting sick on his way home from school. He's helped by a beautiful and mysterious older woman - Winslet's Hannah Schmitz. After Michael recovers, he goes to thank the woman for her kindness...and one thing leads to another, and the two become lovers.

The rather R-rated lovemaking is sexy as well as honest; as a cinema voyeur you are reminded of the joy and physical discovery of first love in a most convincing way. Perhaps what heightens the tension is that these two people are, in a way, anonymous to each other, and that seems a key element, at least in the beginning, of Michael's interest. There is something in Michael that longs for the extraordinary, and an older woman like Hannah offers much more allure than his coeval female classmates. But who is Hannah? She is a ticket taker on the trolley, an odd bird, a woman subdued but passionate, and seems to have more than just one secret. In school, we overhear one of Michael's teachers analyzing literature: "character is revealed by the things people keep hidden." Those words are prophetic, indeed.

But literature is something Michael is good at, and Hannah soon asks him to read to her during their bouts of lovemaking. The reading and the sex becomes an intimately entwined ritual, and they seem to exist in that special bubble out of time where only young lovers do, even though Hannah isn't so young, and Michael knows little about her.

And it's our experience of the intimacy in this first third of the movie that is so important to the ethical and moral dilemmas the characters face later. The contrast, for Michael, between the physical pleasure with Hannah and what he learns later is key to understanding the momentous decision he later makes regarding her, and his further transformation as the film continues.

And there...I've probably said too much. There are perfect encounters later in the movie I'd love to talk about. For instance, the symbolism of a tin cup, that means so much more than mere money, says perfectly what this movie wants to say: that meaning comes from experience, and ethics comes from meaning. I love that idea.

The movie also wants to talk about Germany, and in a way, Michael's story can be read as a parable for the whole country: first falling in romantic love with its history, then being repulsed by it, choosing to punish it, discovering remorse, and finally coming to terms.

I found that interesting too. But perhaps more amazingly, I found myself understanding something I hadn't seen so well illustrated before: the banal humanity that exists behind even the greatest evils.

A movie that can do that is surely one deserving of recognition.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Hollywood Tearjerker Extraordinaire

The pitch for Benjamin Button must have gone like this: imagine the elderly Rose from Titanic remembering the romance of her life, only instead of a sinking ship, the story she tells is Forest Gump. In quasi-reverse.

For that's basically the setup for this Hollywood tear-jerker told in the best cinematic race-for-the-Oscar's fashion. Every year we're owed one of these big, special-effects, poignant Hollywood romances: if it's not Forest Gump in 1994 or Titanic in 1997, then it's The Aviator in 2004 or Atonement in 2007. They all have four basic things in common: big Hollywood names, sweeping historical recreations, heartbreaking romance, and attention-grabbing special effects at their core.

Not being a big fan of Hollywood's schmaltzy side and certainly only quasi-impressed with Forest Gump or Titanic, I must say that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of the best of the lot of this sort of thing. It will certainly be all over this year's Oscar list, being a shoe-in for well-deserved nominations for makeup, effects, and art direction, as well as doubtlessly laying claim to a few of the bigger noms such as possibly for movie, screenplay, direction, and acting. This is the kind of movie that Oscar loves - or used to love, at any rate - and this one doesn't disappoint.

Let's start off with that special effect. Gump had its groundbreaking rotoscoping into historical footage (soon to become commercially commonplace). Titanic had its sinking ship; Atonement its impossibly long take of the invasion at Normandy. Benjamin Button is most like Titanic in that its special effect, the amazing aging and youthing of actor Brad Pitt, itself becomes a kind of central character in the film, one that plays an essential role in the story. Each scene in which Benjamin appears you are riveted looking at him and trying to figure out how they did that. And also, in each scene, you know something the other characters may or may not: which is that Benjamin's appearance and his chronological age are at odds (except, of course, when they meet, in the middle), and so the poignancy of his interactions: his first job, his first drink, his first love - are heightened by Benjamin's curse of being so ripped out of time. The amazing pleasure of this movie is watching how the characters interact with an old man who's actually quite young...or vice versa (though there's less of the vice versa than I'd hoped), and Fincher does an excellent job of mining cinematic gold out of Benjamin's strange and oddly affecting interactions with the people who enter and leave his life.

Because Benjamin is aging backwards, he is born into something most of us would rather not think too much about: the end of life. So he begins his life befriending people who are soon to leave this world. Fincher's story then amplifies the sorrow of loss through the lens of a man whose backward trajectory through life intensifies and quickens that experience, and you'll be excused the several occasions when you find your self brushing away a tear. Fincher - the director of the horror thriller Seven and the testosteronic Fight Club, as well as the underappreciated serial-killer mystery Zodiac - is a director not known for sentimentality. And perhaps that's what makes him the right man to handle this material; for in another director's hands (I think, perhaps, Speilberg or Zemeckis) this stuff would easily become maudlin pap. Fincher however provides us with what I think has to be one of the most realistic portrayals of aging, dying and loss in movies. After all, the appearance (or disappearance) of wrinkles and the gaining and loss of physical ability is what this movie is about, and in Eric Roth's screenplay you have the feeling you're in the hands of someone who intimately understands the complex emotions at the loss of a parent or the breakup of a marriage. By keeping things matter-of-fact and not shying away from the needles, nurses, and infirmities that accompany the end of life, Fincher's story gains the power it has. And when our hero, Benjamin, inevitably dies - in a way that I'm sure most of you who haven't seen the film must wonder about and that fits plausibly into the story's unique logic - you can't help but marvel at how, by simply reversing it's order, this story effectively highlights the strange and terrifying experience that is human life.

So much for the special effect. Let's turn next to the history. Fincher does an excellent job evoking the time and place he wants: 1920's New Orleans, 1930's Russia, 1960's suburbia, or humorous flashbacks of a man struck repeatedly by lightening during his life in the 1800's, by repeating the techniques that worked so well for him in creating 1970's San Francisco in Zodiac: focusing on important research into the nostalgic details of a few key sets (the paper sleeve of an album, the furnishings of a hotel) and adjusting his lighting and camera work not with the sepia tones of our present-day photographs (except where that works to highlight the humor of the flashbacks) but with a bright-as-day photography of the well-researched art direction into the actual popular colors, fabrics, and fashions of the times. We have gotten used to the stacked movie set filmed in brown tones and know that that's "cue" for nostalgia. Fincher's work is different: we feel we're actually seeing what people alive in 1920's must have seen with their own eyes, not in our photographs, and he punctuates the progress of history with just the right selection of historical background music. This is key to the magic of Fincher's reverse story-line through life as he takes us up to the present day.

And speaking of present day, this again features what at first seems a very odd but ultimately interesting choice: the moment in 2005 when hurricane Katrina is about to slam into New Orleans. That is until you look back on the movie and realize that Fincher's film is a memorial in a very different way. It's a memorial to New Orleans itself, and the people and city lost in that hurricane. (Fincher makes great effect of the metaphors of wheels spinning in reverse - from clocks to carousels to the hurricane itself - to tie all this together). If nothing else, then, Benjamin Button is the most original and moving memorial to the untimely death of an American city that I've ever seen.

Then there's the third facet of these sorts of film: the stars. Some unscientific web voting has that Brad Pitt is s shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. Others feel he'll invariably be snubbed. I myself fall into the shoe-in category, for I think Pitt here gives the best performance of his career in a role that is multiply challenging to say the least. And don't be surprised if Taraja P. Henson as Benjamin's adopted mother receives a nom for supporting actress. Both actors do a great job acting their way across the range of years (though Pitt's is the more believable). And even though Cate Blanchett as the elderly Daisy has to carry the film through a mask of makeup, in her role as the younger Daisy I found her uncharacteristically disappointing. Daisy - Benjamin's great love - is a dancer, but Blanchett's cool demeanor and youthful folly seem strangely artificial, as if Blanchett didn't quite find the right pose for the strange reality of this backwards story. Which is so odd given how good she usually is.

But maybe it's not entirely her fault, and here I arrive at the last pillar of the Hollywood tear-jerker, the love story. This pillar of Button is the weakest of the four, as I find the romance between Benjamin and Daisy to be rather ordinary. It is precisely when the two characters meet in the middle - when they, for a brief moment in time, become an ordinary couple savoring the ordinary and all the more fleeting pleasure of life - that the film loses momentum and originality. Not that it isn't surrounded by originality, and not that we soon don't give way to the inevitable consequence of two people moving in opposite directions through time. But at the very center of Benjamin Button, when we should be finding what's miraculous about life, we find a kind of short montage of coupledom that might be mistaken for a Tide commercial. That may be overly harsh, for there are of course more profound problems hanging over their heads, and in a story of nostalgia, happiness does make for the least interesting memories. But this intersection in the characters' archs doesn't quite meet for me in a way that could bring more of everything in the film together...and so when they part again, it feels we have missed something, and we can't quite put our fingers on what. As Benjamin goes world-weary and wise into his young age, we get a kind of Brad Pitt Seven Years in Tibet retrospective rather than what we would have expected: an insight into that old wish to have the wisdom of age and beauty of youth. But those potential intriguing incidents are oddly quickly skipped over, and even though this film at three hours is already longer than it needs to be, those are the incidents I miss.

But Fincher's last moments of the film - his poignant tribute to the characters in Benjamin's life - is beautiful, heartrenching, and exactly right - so he makes up for it. What he's got here is a film that personally touches you, that salutes your life, as well as the life of a city. I went along with it, all in. For a Hollywood tear-jerker to touch me like that really is an achievement, so even though it has the innevitable touch of schmaltz - and even though its three hour playing time drags out a bit too much - this is the Oscar season movie that doubtlessly everyone will be talking about.