Friday, December 26, 2008
To say "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is the year's best film is too high of a compliment (it is getting a few of those), but the film is surely one of the best of the year. With David Fincher's direction the film moves through one man's story with ease, grace and a much needed omnipresent feel.
The audience is allowed a once in a lifetime opportunity to read from Mr. Button's very own journal and life-story through the voice of a dying woman's daughter's voice. Katrina thumps outside the window, always on the edge of land and the destruction that the audience knows will follow.
It is Eric Roth's best idea in the script, outside of moving the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald from Baltimore to New Orleans. The introduction to the characters through a journal, and to see the dying lover of Benjamin at a ripe old age gives the audience a mistaken hope that youth will rule the film as it is a flashback. But the audience is left to see for themselves how this unbelievable story of a man who ages in reverse for their own eyes, having to wait for the youthful eyes of Brad Pitt, and the energetic movements of a younger man.
What Mr. Pitt brings to the role is a great smile, look, energy and emotional eyes (his eyes are placed on each body that Benjamin must suffer through). The problem with t he film is that Mr. Pitt is so well-known that waiting for the years to pass, Benjamin to age into a more youthful self, and to get to Mr. Pitt's own sculpture to grace the curious man feels like ages. It is hard for an audience to anticipate his arrival, and to understand the way the human mind progresses because the body is moving in a reverse direction, wouldn't the mind move this way as well? Not if is it a blank slate, so to see the mind evolve is very unique here. It is in fact the whole story.
The story of how we love, why we love, and how we all meet our death is the central message here, no matter how we get there.
I'll leave it to you, the audience to discover how Cate Blanchett and Mr. Pitt work on-screen, and how their love is established. But I will say this: it works, no matter how odd it really is.
The reason it all works is because of David Fincher's direction. His fly on the wall approach works here. Keeping the camera from showing the emotions of the actors Fincher allows the actors to create the mood. His CGI proles is something to marvel at as well (he was an effects man back in the past before getting his shot to direct). The movie is dark, it seems to take place at night more often than not (night-life is more interesting isn't it?) but this movie is one of Mr. Fincher's easier movies on the eyes. He stays in the shadows but lights them, and avoids frenetic cuts, or too gruesome of images.
One grievance against Mr. Roth and Mr. Fincher I do have is the Hummingbird. Forced symbolism is one of the things that movies should avoid. Let the audience discover things for themselves, don't feed it to them. The American public and moviegoers of the world should be treated as intellects, otherwise they get lazy.
So get out there this Holiday season and see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Slumdog Millionaire."
I am on my way to see "Slumdog" again and I hope my impressions can only be strengthened.
But for now I hope to still see "Doubt," "The Wrestler," and a few others that are opening.
Here is a trailer for "Ben Button"
Friday, December 12, 2008
Some films must be seen – they’re almost too unbelievable to disregard or to ignore. Some, like those of the “Showgirls” variety, are mere flashes in the poor taste pan. Poor, yes, but they’re the stuff of laughs, not of legend. Such films may air in perpetuity on cable, softened up for public consumption by network executives leery of their content, but tempted to show them, nonetheless. Other poor taste films cannot be softened. They straddle the line between camp and smut, and sometimes, these films don’t just shock. They push the barrier of what is acceptable on screen. They raise questions about censorship, and they represent a shift in the way an audience reacts to cinema.
“Female Trouble” is one such film. If Baltimore-based director John Waters had an opus, it’d probably be the 1972 film, “Pink Flamingos,” not this 1974 follow-up. In the realm of offensive, unwatchable films, you really can’t sink any lower than “Pink Flamingos.” The film stars drag actor Divine as the filthiest person in the world. The film picks up as two contenders (Mink Stole and David Lochary) vie for her throne. Waters assaults the screen with non-stop, gross-out shocks. “Pink Flamingos” features a mother (Edith Massey) with an unusual taste for eggs, a son (Danny Mills) with an unusual fetish for chickens, and concludes with one infamous scene with a dog.
The intent in “Female Trouble” is to repulse – not totally dissimilar to Waters’ intentions with “Pink Flamingos.” What seperates the two by more than years is that “Female Trouble” actually yields to a narrative. The film centers on the tale of Baltimore teen Dawn Davenport (Divine). All Dawn wants for Christmas is a pair of bright red cha-cha heels. She begs and pleads, nagging after her meek-natured parents incessantly. Finally, the fateful morning arrives. Dawn tears through the myriad Christmas presents meant for her, but alas, no cha-cha shoes are to be found. Livid, Dawn stomps all over the idyllic Christmas setting, tearing down the tree and decrying the terrible injustice done to her by her own parents.
“Female Trouble” then traces Dawn’s descent into madness. She runs away and catches a ride with a man, played by Divine out of drag. They have sex and soon after she gets pregnant. To make ends meet, she starts waitressing and stripping, before becoming a crook. A rivalry with a neighbor – an older woman (also Edith Massey) who struts around outside clad in a black leather bondage jumpsuit - brings tension. Dawn pushes it all aside during her frequent trips to the hair salon. There she meets her future husband (Michael Potter), who can’t help but encourage her rapidly aging daughter to join in a threesome with them. After a tragic attack leaves Dawn’s face mottled and deformed, she becomes convinced that crime is beauty, and embarks on a mad killing spree, during which no one in her life is safe.
“Female Trouble” feels a bit like an explanation. It explains, in loose terms, the mantra of Waters during the early 1970s. Divine was a muse for Waters during this period. Some critics, as well as some die-hard fans of Waters prior to his mainstream success with 1988’s “Hairspray,” have claimed that the director lost his edge after Divine passed away during the same year. In the final scene Divine, now fully adorned in the ghoulish make-up of “Pink Flamingos,” cries out to the audience and makes a speech about crime and art. In the end, she unleashes a hail of gunfire on the rapt audience, which has watched as she murdered her own daughter.
Waters’ early films seem to lack the goofy sense of humor that characterizes some of the better “schlock” films to come out of the same period. They seem more acid-laced and vitriolic than a camp film would usually warrant. Waters and his cast do seem angry – irrevocably, unconditionally enraged about something, but the focus of that contempt goes unnamed. “Female Trouble” was reportedly inspired by Charles “Tex” Watson, a member of the Manson Family, and complicit in the slayings of Sharon Tate and several others.
Ultimately, I can’t say that I enjoy “Female Trouble” much, or that I enjoy any John Waters film for that matter. Even with his more conventional films, like “Hairspray” or “Serial Mom,” Waters never comes across as an especially gifted filmmaker. His fame has persisted over the years not by his talent, but by his infamy. As a shock-smut director, he has yet to square off against any legitimate rivals, and perhaps there’s something to be said for that. In the confines of a normal narrative, Waters seems to drown, no matter how shallow that narrative may be. Waters’ early films are inexplicably offensive, and some would be content to banish him to obscurity. But his films represent a shift in the way violence was depicted on screen.
In “Female Trouble,” that shift is paraded, but less gruesomely than in “Pink Flamingos.” Nearly 35 years later, the film still hasn’t lost its edge. For that reason, I hesitantly recommend “Female Trouble.”
Here's the Article
Here is the Film's trailer in case you were wondering what the movie is about:
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Another one of those glitz and glamour showcases for the rich to shine. But in all fairness we watch the rich, pay for them to be rich, to entertain and then be rewarded for entertaining us. It is something for actors, writers, directors and everyone else involved in a moie to strive for: an awrd for their hard work.
With that let's toss out the nominations.
Best Motion Picture - Drama:
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama:
Leonardo DiCaprio, "Revolutionary Road"
Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"
Sean Penn, "Milk"
Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama:
Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"
Meryl Streep, "Doubt"
Kristen Scott Thomas, "I've Loved You So Long"
Kate Winslet, "Revolutionary Road"
Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy:
"Burn After Reading"
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy:
Javier Bardem "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Colin Farrell, "In Bruges"
James Franco, "Pineapple Express"
Brendan Gleeson, "In Bruges"
Dustin Hoffman, "Last Chance Harvey"
Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy:
Rebecca Hall, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Sally Hawkins, "Happy-Go-Lucky"
Frances McDormand, "Burn After Reading"
Meryl Streep, "Mamma Mia!"
Emma Thompson, "Last Chance Harvey"
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:
Tom Cruise, "Tropic Thunder"
Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"
Ralph Fiennes, "The Duchess"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"
Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:
Amy Adams, "Doubt"
Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"
Kate Winslet, "The Reader"
Best Animated Feature:
"Kung Fu Panda"
Best Foreign Language Film:
"The Baader Meinhof Complex" (Germany)
"Everlasting Moments" (Sweden/Denmark)
"I've Loved You So Long" (France)
"Waltz with Bashir" (Israel)
Best Director - Motion Picture:
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"
David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Sam Mendes, "Revolutionary Road"
Best Screenplay - Motion Picture:
Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire"
David Hare, "The Reader"
Peter Morgan, "Frost/Nixon"
Eric Roth, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
John Patrick Shanley, "Doubt"
Best Original Score - Motion Picture:
Alexandre Desplat, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Clint Eastwood, "Changeling"
James Newton Howard, "Defiance"
A.R. Rahman, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Hans Zimmer, "Frost/Nixon"
"Down to Earth" from "WALL-E"
"Gran Torino" from "Gran Torino"
"I Thought I Lost You" from "Bolt"
"Once in a Lifetime" from "Cadillac Records"
"The Wrestler" from "The Wrestler"
Sunday, December 7, 2008
The film breaks so many conventions of the common love story. Yes, all the cliches are there. But what Boyle does with them is what separates this film apart from others in recent years. He uses the conventions as a back-drop for the slums of India and the story of a man in search of love, while trying to survive the dangers of being a homeless boy walking the streets of the city of Mumbai.
He must survive gangsters, his own brother, tourists, police and rioters. Jamal Malik makes it out alive. He makes it out with only minor scars, until his love Latika is introduced.
When Latika comes into the story, being introduced as the unknown "Third Musketeer," the movie moves from survival to love and what humans will go through to live life with another person.
The movie moves its narrative through the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Jamal grinds his way through the questions to the grand prize of 20 million Rupees. The scummy host cannot believe that a "slumdog" is answering the questions, and not cheating.
Jamal has a simple answer for his torturers: he lived all the questions and answers. That is the narrative. Simple. We jump back and forth from game show to life.
But what Boyle does with the narrative is genuine. He uses the camera as another story-teller, never using it as another fly on the way. The chase sequences are marvelous. Like in "28 Days Later" and other Boyle films, he uses shadows, close-ups, light and pitch-perfect music to score the chases making them more alive than a real chase.
What Boyle does to convey the heat and the cramped spaces of Mumbia and the slums of India i highlighting yellow and white through filters. Making the colors more permanent, giving the eyes something to focus on and feel.
The use of subtitles is one special thing that Boyle does in the film. He gives a new look into how we see a foreign film, and how we read subtitles. The few subtitles used are never placed off the screen, but rather they are in the picture, placed gently inside open space in each shot. This stylization doesn't allow the viewer to ever look away from the action. It is a small thing to rave about, but it does enhance the film's experience.
Go see "Slumdog Millionaire." December 12 at Amherst Cinema. And check out Ty Burr's Review. Here is a Q & A with the star Dev Patel. And another with Mr. Boyle himself.
Friday, December 5, 2008
The underbelly of cities has been told many times before. Whether it is in Polanski’s masterpiece “Chinatown,” or Danny Boyle’s adaptation of “Trainspotting,” the underworlds of society have been explored, opened to the public eye and seen in almost perfect lights. So what could “City of God” bring new to the table?
The movie is based on the novel by Paulo Lins. It is not a direct account of his life, but a fictionalization of his life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
The movie takes on the life decisions that must be made by a young boy in the impoverished area of the city. Join a gang, become a free-spirit, drug addict or run free and follow your dreams. Rocket’s (played by Alexandre Rodrigues) dream is to become a photographer. He wants to expose the world to his beautiful images, but also to what he ahs grown up seeing. He wants to tell stories with pictures. To do this he must play by the rules of where he lives.
As if growing up poor is not enough of a hampering for a young boy, then add on that his best friends, brother, and acquaintances all become involved in the gang life of the city to his trials and tribulations. He must fight off gang leaders who once were friends. He must survive the battles in the streets at night and during the day time. He must succeed in keeping his distance from the war that fights around him.
The film moves through time with great pace, remarkable characters—vile and beautiful. The editing by Daniel Rezende (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) is superb. Using modern technology to jump cut without it feeling forced but still needed. The movie’s frames have a sense of fulfillment, and purpose as each one seamlessly slides into the next.
To go with the editing is the cinematography by Cesar Charlone (“The Constant Gardner”) who uses the camera in remarkable ways. Framing each shot inside the city making it feel vast and expansive, as if it is the whole word, nothing is outside. But at the same time he creates a feeling like this world is closing in, breaking down the walls, and that soon it will crush the characters unless they break free. The cinematographer is one of those underappreciated positions on a film crew, but here Charlone’s contribution is felt. He along with Rezende create the fast paced world the movie moves in.
Direction for the film is nothing but superb. Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardner,” “Blindness”) creates an image, and indistinguishable characters. He moves the film in directions that seem impossible to pull off. Much f the film rings with gunshots, but they don’t feel out of place. He helps frame the characters in their places, and gives each character a heart, not matter how black it may have become. He doesn’t shy away from the violence, he grabs hold of it and lets it tell the true story. There is no aggrandizing here. No lies.
This is filmmaking at its best. The tracking shots, long takes, and emotional camera bring to mind P.T. Anderson and Kubrick, with some Scorsese thrown in there too. Meirelles keeps the pace of the film and by the end your body is emotionally drained, your heart is weeping, and your eyes are blinking, but still seeing flashes of gun shots across eyelids.
The language barrier is broken in the film. Portuguese with English subtitles, always a throw-off for many crowds. Who wants to read subtitles when the action is going on? Well that barrier is broken here. A true sign that “City of God” is a great foreign film. Whenever language feels natural, as if it were rolling from your native tongue rather than that of the characters is the goal for a successful film across borders.
Many Americans see the struggle that goes into reading subtitles, instead of seeking out the feeling that the native words have over the meaning of the written ones at the bottom of the screen. Lying is what dubbing does. It breaks the feel of a film, but if a films subtitles only wash away and become a part of the dialogue then you have something special. Meirelles, Braulio Mantovani (writer of the screenplay) and the actors create this feeling. It is an authentic feeling in an authentic movie.
“City of God” is not one to miss.
Monday, December 1, 2008
A professor in one of my Journalism classes ranted about the memoir last week, which is what prompted me to check it out. He could barely conceal his dislike for Ms. Maynard, whom he described as the kind of woman likely to pause in mid-sentence and ask, “Enough about me. What do you think about me?” After reading “At Home in the World,” that seemed like a fairly generous way of describing her.
“At Home” chronicles Maynard’s affair and subsequent break up with Salinger. She was 18 at the time, and he was 53. The relationship endured for ten months. Much of their time together was spent holed up in Salinger’s home in Cornish, New Hampshire.
Salinger’s living habits factor heavily into the memoir. Maynard details quirky things, like how he adhered to a strict diet of frozen lamb burgers and sunflower seeds. Smoked salmon was a treasured splurge for the duo. Ms. Maynard recounts one instance where she and Salinger, frustrated with having to take trips into the city to buy said prized salmon, resolved to smoke it themselves. She watched on as he struggled to dip salmon into their fireplace. It came out coated in a thick blanket of soot. Although gross, they ate it anyway.
These asides were the most interesting thing about the memoir, which I admittedly thumbed through. “At Home in the World” also tells of Ms. Maynard’s life post-Salinger - of her marriage, divorce, children, and eventual success with “To Die For,” a novel inspired by the real-life case of Pamela Smart.
But her memoir is really anchored on one big mystery. Why did she get dumped by J.D. Salinger? Was it because J.D - or Jerry, as she intimately refers to him as throughout her memoir - simply tired of her as she aged? Was it because she needled him too much for a baby, even though they never once had sex?
Ms. Maynard doesn’t have a clue. But it seems pretty obvious why he tossed her out. Her world-weary account of growing up in the 60s caught Salinger’s attention from afar. He professed to have found in her a kindred spirit, or landsman, as he says in a letter. But as he spent time with her, he seemed to notice a few things.
Namely, how eager she was for fame and accolades. She described the world in a frustrated (Caulfield-esque?) fashion, but it wasn’t genuine. Far from being weary, she seemed to hunger for all the things she had disparaged of in her article.
She also grew intrusive, actually giving out his private phone number to publishers. When her parents broke up, they started calling the house frequently, asking for his relationship advice. It got to be too much for the guy. He broke it off while they were vacationing together in Florida. And according to her memoir, Ms. Maynard spent much of the 70s moping around because of it.
She ultimately comes across as a woman scorned, but hardly avenged, in her memoir’s token climax. She confronts him a quarter century later, demanding explanations. Of course, this seems like something her publisher put her up to (your memoir needs a juicy ending!), and Salinger sees right through it.
“Are you writing a book?” he asks when she arrives at his doorstep. She skirts the question and demands he answer her own. Instead, he gives her a sound verbal lashing, the kind he probably should have given her years ago. He accuses her of squandering her career, of writing trash and gossip. He claims she always had an inflated sense her own abilities and that he knew she would never amount to much, anyway.
And then he calls her out for trying to exploit their relationship.
To her credit, “At Home in the World” could have been worse. Her accounts of Salinger having lots of movie nights and attending all his son’s sports games seem tame by tell-all standards. But was it in poor taste to break her silence after all these years? Certainly. Having a relationship with someone of such magnitude mandates a code of silence which Ms. Maynard breeched in writing her memoir.
But Salinger was asking for it. Revered literary figure has affair with teenager? It’s no surprise she wrote about it. The only surprise is that it took her 25 years to do it.