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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Epic Movie

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Seen Thursday evening December 11, 2008 at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. 1, part of the Variety Screening Series.  1.5 slithy toads.

Australia.  Seen Tuesday evening December 16, 2008 at Regal's UA Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14, Aud. 13.  2.5 slithy toads.

I'd say Benjamin Button was a disappointment except that I wasn't sure to expect very much from it.  With Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, others), this is an expensive big risk of the holiday season.  I doubt it's a worthwhile one, though you never know sometimes what award buzz might do, and the movie does at least have the good grace to have a better last half hour than first half hour, and is long enough you might leave with your fond recollections and have long since forgotten the less fond.  Brad Pitt plays a baby who is born as a small very old man, then grows in size as he grows "older," i.e., becomes younger even as he gets taller and bigger.  During the middle of his life he is Brad Pitt and has torrid Great Romance with Cate Blanchett, and then he grows up to become a small young man with Alzheimer's before ultimately dying.  His story is told via the lips of Julia Ormond, who doesn't yet know it (and takes far longer to guess than the audience probably will) that she's the daughter of the man whose diary she is reading to her mother (yes, Cate Blanchett in old person make-up that makes her look like one of the aliens from Close Encounters) who is the one and only Benjamin Button.

The screenplay is by Eric Roth, who hit the jackpot once upon a time with Forrest Gump.  That's a movie which to me was nice seeing once, especially at my beloved  Loews Astor Plaza, but which I don't think stands up much to the test of time.  For all the awards and the fuss and bother this isn't something that makes me watch when it's playing on TNT on a Sunday night.  I'm rather fonder of other movies Roth scripted like The Insider and The Good Shepherd, while Ali I remember mostly for inspiring me to get out an Analog to read during the brigher-lit scenes.  Fincher I've always found interesting, and I don't want to say that Benjamin Button isn't interesting, only that it isn't particularly good.

The essential problem for me is that there really isn't much to do with the Benjamin Button character between birth and the age of 40ish, coming or going, up or down.  So the movie introduces his family and sends him off to Paris and has him fighting the sea war during World War II, but I couldn't say I cared for any of it, and as the years slowly ticked by all I could think was "20 years down, and there are still 60 long years to go."  The great love story that finally emerges is a little better, though it's no Rose and Jack in Titanic, shall we say.  It ends tragically, and tragic ends to great romance are often worth a little emotional investment, but it ain't no Love Story, either.  There's a nifty running joke about lightning strikes, but there's also a framing device with a clock that runs backward which isn't sufficiently connected to the rest of the film to succeed as metaphor.  

The Q&A afterward was a "special" one with director Spike Jonze (Weezer "Sweater" video before going on to do movies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation that are overrated to the extreme) interviewing David Fincher.  But why was Jonze there?  He didn't ask hardly any questions of his own, hardly seemed to have prepped, did they offer him free popcorn to come to the theatre?  So I found out that they had a really long script, which they needed to cut.  And then a really big budget, which they needed to cut.  And then a whole lot of film, which they needed to cut.  And since the movie was set in New Orleans and they couldn't decide whether to have it before Katrina or after Katrina they settled on putting it during Katrina.  

Australia is an in-between effort by Australian director Baz Luhrmann that on balance worked for me.  Lurhmann's first film as director was the delightful Strictly Ballroom.  If you're married, or dating, or something like that, rent this movie, snuggle up with your better half, and you'll enjoy yourself immeasurably and have a much nicer relationship after the two hours are up.  Then see Muriel's Wedding (not directed by Luhrmann) and you'll have a crash course in the new wave of Australian cinema that crested on these shores in the early 1990s.  That was followed by an offbeat Romeo and Juliet, the very very very very bad Moulin Rouge, and now this.  I might have gone to 3 toads with this if it had just a whiff more Strictly Ballroom to it, and a little less Moulin Rouge.

Because the thing I didn't like about Moulin Rouge was its artificiality, which is the same thing I don't like in Wes Anderson movies or Napoleon Dynamite (can that opinion be distilled to earn someone a million dollars?), and this movie starts out drowning in it.  Little planes flying around the globe in ways that make the little planes in the Indiana Jones movies look real.  Overdone acting.  Nicole Kidman prancing into Australia like a bride singing in the middle of an open pit coal mine.  When she and Hugh Jackman ride off to their home, a cattle station in north Australia called Faraway Downs, it's the most stylized car ride I've seen on screen since Kermit and Fozzie Bear started their ride to Hollywood while singing "Moving Right Along" in The Muppet Movie.  If Big Bird had said hello to Hugh and Nicole, it would've fit right in.

But ever so slowly the movie settles into a kind of grand Hollywood artificiality of the kind that works, or works for me at least.  CGI-gorgeous starry skies during the nighttime scenes.  A cute kid, in this case a half-breed Aboriginal whom Nicole Kidman wants to keep safe from the government-sponsored program of taking the half-breeds to be re-educated to serve white people.  Cattle driving across the Austalian wilderness.  A Gone With the Wind moment between Hugh and Nicole to be followed by the Cold Mountain 15 minutes.  Japanese planes bombing Darwin Harbor.  I can't believe as I'm typing that I can actually fall for this sort of stuff, but I did.  I wouldn't say this is interesting; Benjamin Button is more "interesting."  But I think Australia is funner and better.

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