Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the title character (Brad Pitt) is born not as a child, but as an 80-something man with all of the physical defects that the elderly often have: hair loss, arthritis, age spots. Physically he is an old man, but mentally he is infantile. As time progresses, Benjamin gets younger physically, but older mentally. He meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who is near his mental age at 11 years old, but they look like they are 60 years apart. This faux age gap does not bode well for their on-again-off-again relationship that only really takes flight when the couple reaches similar physical ages (in their forties).

As noted by /film, the bulk of the film plays out like Forrest Gump (cute comedic moments, flashbacks, major events in American history) and this is no surprise as both Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button are written by Eric Roth. Both films seem to use extraordinary circumstances to explain ordinary life. According to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, life is not about how long you live, who you love, or what you do. Life is about experiences. And Benjamin experiences life to the fullest; he travels the world, meets many fascinating characters, but always comes back to Daisy.

This film is presented as a series of flashbacks from Benjamin’s journal read by Daisy’s daughter as Daisy is lying on her deathbed in a hospital in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina is imminent, and while it sounds cheesy to add this into the plot, it actually contributes to what the film is trying to say. Benjamin is born as an old man, thus it becomes obvious that his ‘death’ will occur at a set time; his clock is ticking. Impending doom and the actions of the dying seem to be a common theme through the film. Storms are used to convey this theme on multiple occasions. At the beginning of the film, the hurricane is known to be heading directly for New Orleans. At this point, Daisy’s daughter is reading the first section of Benjamin’s journal; he is distraught and outcast from society. As Benjamin’s life takes a few turns for the better in the flashback, the hurricane appears to be turning away from the city. But as things start to go wrong, the hurricane turns back. This goes hand in hand with the more obvious theme: time. Clocks are the subjects of many a close up in this film and they often dominate shots just as the progression of time dominates the character’s lives.

Lighting is very important in this film. The first flashbacks are extremely dark as not very much is understood about Benjamin’s condition. The current setting, the hospital in New Orleans, however, is lit with harsh, white light illuminating everything. This goes to reinforce the adage “Hindsight is 20/20.” The light suggests that life is understood. As Benjamin’s life progresses, the flashbacks get progressively brighter in lighting, indicating that more is being understood.

All the symbolism and messages aside, this is a solid film. It was beautiful to look at, solidly acted, and it has an engaging story. However, life is not understood backwards as the films suggests. In fact, not much is understood at all. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button merely pokes at themes larger than its own scope and only leaves the viewer with an empty feeling.

Grade: B-

Man Shot for Talking During Benjamin Button

/Film reports that a man was shot for talking during a movie in south Philadelphia. Here's a quick synopsis of what happened:

A man was watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (I will post my review of the film soon) and after politely asking the family in front of him to be quiet during the screening, pulled out a .380 Kel-Tec and shot the father in the arm. Don't worry, he's fine. The police came soon and arrested the moviegoer for attempted murder (among other charges) and he wasn't allowed to finish the 159 minute film. I hope he at least got a refund! I do think that shooting a guy was a slight overreaction, and I'm glad that he is okay, but people need to realize that talking should not be allowed during a film.

During the screening of Benjamin Button that I attended, a girl answered her phone in the middle of the movie. She answered her fucking phone. She answered her fucking phone! She answered her fucking phone! Immediately I turned around and blasted her head off with my sawed-off. Ok. I don't have a gun, and being quite the pacifist, I would never harm another living thing. But I did give her a really nasty stare for about 30 seconds and she eventually ended the call. I am not sure if she took another call or was texting for the rest of the film as she was (thankfully) quite a few seats away from me.

But seriously, who ANSWERS THEIR PHONE DURING A MOVIE? I don't even understand why someone would text during a film that they paid $9 to attend. Even texting is extremely disruptive to other viewers. Let this be a warning to moviegoers everywhere. Don't talk, don't text, be respectful of the film and other viewers, and for goodness sake, don't answer your fucking phone.

Doubt (2008)

Doubt is a film about polar opposites. Right and wrong. Complexity and simplicity. Certainty and doubt. The two main characters, Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep), and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are character foils. It is directed by John Patrick Shanley, the playwright of the stage version of Doubt. It uses quick, short shots and relentless dialog to achieve a frantic uneasiness that remains present through the entire film.

Sister Beauvier is an uptight, traditional nun who is also the principal of a private Catholic school. Father Flynn is a jovial, progressive priest and is Beauvier’s superior. Sister Beauvier notices Flynn’s friendly relationship with one of the male students, and immediately assumes the worst. She attempts to get Flynn to confess to an ‘unhealthy relationship’ with only her certainty as evidence. Sister James (Amy Adams), however, has doubt.

Dutch angles are very prominent in this film. For those of you who don’t already know, Dutch angles are achieved by tilting the camera off to the side so that the shot is composed with the horizon at an angle to the bottom of the frame. They are used primarily to instill unease in the viewer. In Doubt, however, Dutch angles are used to convey uncertainty. In one scene, Sister James vocally expresses her doubts about a situation to Father Flynn. The characters are sitting on benches, not adjacent, but not opposite each other either. Every shot has Dutch angles and has only one of the characters in the frame at a time. This not only conveys uncertainty, but it amplifies the distance between James and Flynn. Once Father Flynn puts Sister James’ fears to rest, the camera cuts back to a level angle and all seems right with the world.

Meryl Streep gives one of the best performances of her seasoned career, and Philip Seymour Hoffman performs splendidly as well. While some might not love Amy Adams, I must admit she was cast perfectly. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this film a casterpiece--a casting masterpiece. Streep is terrifying, and Hoffman is definitely doubtable no matter if the viewer finds him guilty or not.

All of the acting, camerawork, and the extremely understated score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) come together beautifully to create this fantastic film. This is easily one of the best films of 2008 and this should be recognized come Oscar time.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Little Introduction

So my first post was a little harsh. Not only did I spew hate upon Scott Derrickson's The Day The Earth Stood Still, but I didn't even introduce myself. So, here goes.

Hi. I'm Mitch. I'm just your average film studies major in college. And in case you haven't guessed, I love movies. One of my least favorite questions is, "What kind of movies do you like, Mitch?" I like all kinds of movies. Except for movies that suck. while some people might try to tell you that suckiness is relative, I adamantly believe that some films are good and some are terrible. This is not debatable.

I do not enjoy arguing with people about films. I usually get so angry that I become much less eloquent than my normal, calm self. That's why I decided to start a blog. Now I can voice my (correct) opinion in a way that won't offend (many) people.

I hope you enjoyed this little introduction, and stay tuned for a movie review bonanza tomorrow as Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button hit theaters.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) / (1951)

The remake of the classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still fails to affect the viewer on the same level as the original. While it provides a small commentary on humanity unlike many high budget disaster/alien/etc movies, it shies away from the criticism of American culture and humanity in general that was an overriding presence in the 1951 film.

The 2008 version of the film is directed by Scott Derrickson and features Keanu Reeves (The Matrix), Jennifer Connelly (Requiem for a Dream), and Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness). The 1951 version is directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music) and stars Michael Rennie, Pratricia Neal and Billy Gray.

In both films, Klaatu, an alien from an undisclosed location in the universe, lands his spaceship on Earth. In the 1951 version, the flying saucer lands in the middle of the National Mall in Washington, DC. In the 2008 remake, a cloud-filled sphere instead lands in Central Park. He is shot without provocation and his robot, Gort proceeds to eliminate all weapons in the area.

Click to read spoilers
Klaatu’s mission in the 1951 film is to order the human race to cease production of nuclear weapons as the represent a threat to the safety of the rest of the universe. A race of robots similar to Gort is employed to neutralize any threat of violence and they have complete power to do so. This creates a sort of authoritarian society governed solely by automatons. None of this is mentioned in the 2008 version as Klaatu’s mission is to alert the humans to the havoc they are wreaking on Earth. In both films, the humans are threatened with complete destruction if they refuse to comply.

The two films hold two very different morals. The 1951 film calls for world peace and complete nuclear disarmament while in the 2008 version suggests that humans need to alter their way of living lest they destroy the rest of the planet. In 1951, Klaatu is shocked upon seeing Arlington Cemetery and wonders how so many people could be killed as a result of war. In 2008, he doesn’t bat an eyelash. For me, the whole point of the film was that Klaatu was a nonviolent example of how humans should live. Derrickson instead chose to make him colder, harsher, and more badass, perhaps increasing box office numbers.

There are very few elements that are found in both versions of the film. The main plot is present in both films, but some alterations are made for modern audiences. Simplicity is tossed aside for full explanation, cheapening the rest of the movie. The focus should not be on the ‘how’ but about the ‘why.’ For example, Derrickson’s film goes through great struggles to explain how Klaatu is human in form, but Wise’s version skips over this minor detail and focuses on why he landed on Earth and what can be done to save the human race.

Instead of attempting to be a catalyst for change, as the 1951 version did, the 2008 film simply seemed to be a delivery method for special effects. If major plot points have to be changed to show off big explosions and particle CGI, something is wrong. The 1951 film features a very small amount of special effects, but is rather driven by the dialogue and plot. The 2008 film seems to fall victim to the very dangers about which the 1951 film is warning. In America’s blinding lust for violence (and special effects), the integrity of the 1951 script is violated to morph Klaatu into a ‘more believable’ alien being that is capable of inflicting harm on the human race.

The 2008 film was not just cheap entertainment, it was a commercial. It featured numerous appalling advertisements. This film could be shown on TV without commercials and the sponsors (Vista, McDonalds, Honda, LG, etc.) would be perfectly pleased. The product placement was obvious; I was not the only person groaning in the theater when the logo for McDonalds appeared in a reflection on the windshield of the Honda Accord.

The 1951 version of the film was much more provocative. It took a few potshots at the uselessness of the United Nations and presented a pacifist way of life as an ultimatum. However, the 2008 film shies away from such criticism and takes the easy route with its ‘green’ message, a message that is in no way controversial. The sad thing is that society still needs the message carried by the 1951 film. Derrickson had the perfect opportunity to model world peace, but chose the option that would most likely make him the greatest amount of money. 1951 audiences were challenged to question the necessity of nuclear weapons, but 2008 audiences are simply challenged to break out $9, sit back, and shut their brains off.

1951: A
2008: C