Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a trifle; a slight and forgettable short story that can barely sustain its far-fetched premise over the course of twenty-odd pages. David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an epic; a lavishly produced love story that takes almost three hours and over $150 million dollars to tell its tale. Something is obviously wrong with this picture. There's not enough substance here to fill out a prestige movie of this scale and size, so screenwriter Eric Roth has dusted off his old Forrest Gump template; stretching, inflating and generally abusing Fitzgerald's poor, defenceless tale until it fits the mould. That the resulting film is overblown nonsense – replete with dumb homilies, tugs at the heartstrings and a significant hummingbird – is perhaps to be expected, but I was surprised at just how bad The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is nonetheless. After all, this is a David Fincher film, and having established himself as a filmmaker who loves traversing the darkest avenues of the human experience, one wonders what he's doing at the helm of this bewildering bucket of schmaltz.

The one thing Fincher brings to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that nobody else could is his extraordinary facility for visual effects. No other filmmaker is exploring the potential of digital cinema in the way Fincher is, and in his last film, the riveting policier Zodiac, the most marvellous thing about his CGI work was the way it melted invisibly into the picture, immersing us in the period and never calling attention to itself. The computer-generated trickery in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a lot easier to spot, but no less impressive for that, and a large proportion of Brad Pitt's performance in the title role is actually dependent on it. In Fitzgerald's story, Benjamin was born as a fully-grown old man (we are mercifully spared the details of his birth), complete with a long white beard and a full vocabulary, who gradually grew younger over the years until he became an infant. In this version, Benjamin starts out life at the right size but the wrong age – a newborn with the physical attributes of a geriatric – and his shocking wrinkled appearance prompts his father to abandon the child moments after his birth, leaving him to be found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the proprietor of an old people's home.

"You may be ugly as an old pot, but you still a child of God," Queenie insists as she raises Benjamin as her own, and as he gets older, his body starts to get younger, with Pitt's expertly made-up head being grafted onto the body of small actors to achieve the effect. It really is the most amazing thing, you can't see the joins, and the incredible work put in by everyone involved helps to make this bizarre premise feel real, but under the surface they can't illuminate Benjamin's heart and soul. What must it be like to live life this way, growing and maturing in one direction but physically aging in reverse? The Curious Case of Benjamin Button never gets to grips with this idea, and we spend the whole movie observing Benjamin, instead of getting inside him. In fact, Benjamin himself seems to be an observer in his own life at times; he's one of the most maddeningly passive protagonists to grace the screen in many years, and Pitt doesn't have a clue how to play him.

This must be a hell of a challenge for an actor – do you play Benjamin's emotional age or his physical age? Pitt never seems sure, and his performance frequently slips through the gaps. Life just happens to Benjamin, and he reacts to everything in the same fashion, gazing benignly out from the screen, and delivering various Gump-like pearls of wisdom in the same drawling monotone. Pitt can be a fantastic, alive actor – watch his slow-burning menace as Jesse James, or his hilarious scene-stealing turn in last year's Burn After Reading – and he has done great work with Fincher in the past, but Benjamin Button is a part that plays to his weakest points. Mind you, what actor could spin gold from the kind of dialogue Eric Roth writes? Here's a small selection of his gems, merely the tip of the iceberg: "I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is." "Your life is defined by its opportunities... even the ones you miss." "It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realise what's changed is you." "I'm always lookin' out my own eyes." – And Benjamin isn't alone in spouting these sugary musings; everyone he meets has some of their own to share ("We're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?").

This is, by any measure, rubbish, and it's horrifically structured, with the action being continually interrupted by the contemporary framing device, which finds Benjamin's lifelong love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) dying in a New Orleans hospital as her daughter reads from his diary and postcards. This a bad idea, partly because Blanchett is almost unintelligible under her thick makeup (Jared Harris is similarly incomprehensible in his small role), but also because it interrupts whatever flow the narrative occasionally manages to establish, and instead the film ends up resembling a thinly connected series of vignettes rather than a fully formed narrative. Of course, Fincher brings a sense of cinematic verve to some of these individual sequences, notably the stunning U-Boat attack on Benjamin's tugboat, and Claudio Miranda's cinematography is beautiful in every scene, but at times the director's discomfort with this material is almost tangible. This project needed a filmmaker more in tune with Roth's sensibilities, or at least someone who can do sentiment with more natural grace than Fincher (the rights were once with Steven Spielberg, who might have been ideal). When Fincher indulges in some of the picture's most whimsical aspects (like the Amélie-style montage that leads to an accident) it feels forced, and the most emotionally loaded moments in the film feel phony.

With David Fincher directing this film I would have expected it to show some kind of interest in the messier, more complex consequences of Benjamin's life. Wouldn't it have been interesting to see him as a child engaging with other children, rather than just Daisy, who adores him from their first moment together? What about Benjamin's sexual identity, when he presumably has the libido of a teenager in the body of a 70 year-old (we never follow him into the brothel for his loss of virginity, and when the younger Benjamin goes to bed with the older Daisy, the film tastefully fades away)? Why couldn't Benjamin have bumped into just a few antagonistic characters along his path, rather than an interminable parade of kind-hearted souls willing to dispense life lessons? The most galling misjudgement is the climax, when – after two hours of watching Brad Pitt de-age convincingly – Benjamin's trajectory suddenly reverses again, and he is played by child actors for the final twenty minutes, completely disrupting the continuity of the character. What does Benjamin make of these developments? We don't know, because he develops dementia at this point.

Surely the film's own internal logic demands Benjamin eventually grow into a man-sized baby played by Pitt in the final third? Wouldn't that have been a fascinatingly perverse way to end this weird drama? And as a treatise on the way the aging process ultimately reduces us all to a state of infancy, wouldn't it have been far more powerful than the confusing and senseless change of direction the filmmakers have opted for? Unfortunately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button never strays from the middle of the road. It has no interest in real human emotions, real ideas, politics, race or history (the egregious shoehorning of Hurricane Katrina into the film aside), and it only exists as a showcase for its own skin-deep achievements. At every step of Benjamin's journey, I counted another missed opportunity, and lamented the mismatch of a genuinely exciting director to third-rate material. I expect the film will win a handful of Oscars, and people will rightfully marvel over its technical qualities, but will anyone care about this stupendously empty movie in five years time? Or even one? I very much doubt it, because for all of the resources squandered on it, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is ultimately a film about nothing.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review - Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road is about many things – the stifling nature of suburban conformity, the way our real lives fail to match the lives we dream for ourselves – but above all, I think Sam Mendes' film is a cautionary tale on the dangers of the literary adaptation. This is as faithful a screen version of Richard Yates' 1961 novel as one could imagine; almost every scene plays out in the way readers would have visualised it when reading the book, and most of the dialogue has been lifted direct from the page and placed into the actors' mouths – but is it too faithful for its own good? Often, the best screen adaptations of novels are films that acknowledge the different requirements of two media and cut their cloth accordingly – look at the way The Sweet Hereafter or LA Confidential reshape plot details and characters to fit their script, while still staying true to the spirit of the book. A straighter approach only really works when the source material lacks the complexity that would make a verbatim adaptation difficult; as in the case of The Godfather, for example, when a pretty unsatisfying read is elevated by Coppola's classical filmmaking style, or No Country For Old Men, which is one of Cormac McCarthy's weakest works.

So where does that leave Revolutionary Road, an unimaginative adaptation of a great, complex and nuanced novel? Most of the time, it's an empty experience, following the book's blueprint to the letter without developing a personality of its own or attempting any kind of interpretation – the characters shout lines at each other with plenty of conviction, but the film is dead behind the eyes, and that's exactly where Yates' writing is at its most potent. So much of Revolutionary Road on the page takes place inside its characters' heads; the author delves deep into their inner selves, making us privy to their ideas, their desires, and their fears. This is something the novel form can do with much greater ease than cinema, and the challenges faced by screenwriter Justin Haythe are exposed before the title has even appeared on screen. Like the book, the film opens with a disastrous amateur production of The Petrified Forest in which April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) – who once had aspirations of being an actress – is the star. After the curtain has fallen, April dries her tears and puts on a brave face in the dressing room, when her husband Frank (Leonardo Di Caprio) enters and, after an anxious few moments, utters the line, "I guess it wasn't exactly a triumph or anything, was it?" In the novel, Yates builds up to that delivery with an analysis of Frank's thought process as he gropes for the right words, the perfect tone, hoping he can offer comfort to his wife while simultaneously blowing off the drama as nothing to fret about – but here we just get the line, and throughout Revolutionary Road that's all we get. The film only exists on the surface.

Of course, that surface is polished to a fine sheen. Sam Mendes always makes sure his films look good, but if you hire Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins to shoot your movie, as Mendes has in his four pictures to date, then you know you're going to get a handsome-looking film, and I don't think Mendes has any visual sense of his own to bring to the project. Every scene in the film is crafted to the point where there's not a hair out of place, but Mendes fails to do anything cinematically interesting with Revolutionary Road, and he frequently resorts to lazy clichés, such as Di Caprio getting lost in the mass of anonymously suited businessman as he goes to work. Never mind the stifling atmosphere of suburbia, the suffocating atmosphere of Sam Mendes' filmmaking style is the killer here, and I was relieved when Michael Shannon appeared as John Givings, the mentally unbalanced son of the Wheelers' neighbours, who is unafraid to share some uncomfortable truths with them. Shannon's performance feels less studied and more alive than any other in the picture, and for a few memorable sequences at least, he throws a welcome spanner into the director's over-fussy mise en scène.

In fact, the performances throughout the film are strong, if a little bloodless. Mendes' background as a theatre director makes him well suited to the kind of close-quarters quarrelling that so much of Revolutionary Road consists of, and his two stars – reunited for the first time since the Titanic went down – turn in admirable displays. Di Caprio is at his best in a brief middle section, when the Wheelers make plans for a new life in Paris, and he walks into the office with a sparkle in his eye and a fresh swagger in his step. In the film's more demanding moments, he sometimes comes off as a little too callow to convince, while he managing to nail Frank's creeping insecurity at other times – it's a frustratingly inconsistent turn. Opposite him, Winslet is as good as you'd expect given the lack of depth her character has been afforded in this version; she brings as much feeling and imagination that she can muster to April, but the performance is unavoidably one-note. Together, they have a lot of energy but no fire, and their arguments (their many, many arguments) grow increasingly shrill as the film rushes through the book's events while letting the complexities Yates so carefully cultivated slip through the cracks.

That's the perennial risk one takes when adapting a great novel. So much of what makes Revolutionary Road such a vividly powerful read comes from the author's incisive, honest voice, and how do you bring that to the cinema? Revolutionary Road can't match the authority of Yates' prose and it is too timid to shake the formula up, to revamp the novel for the big screen, so we are left with a skeleton of a story, which logs every occurrence in the narrative but has no soul. Of course, my disappointment with this film stems from my love of the book, but even if I hadn't read it, I doubt I would have found much to care for in this staid little drama – I imagine I would have found it cold, histrionic, baffling and very, very tiresome. In a recent interview to promote the film, Leonardo Di Caprio made the following statement: "...I read the book many times but I received the script first then got hold of the novel afterwards. What it did was answer a lot of questions for me; Justin Haythe’s adaptation was fantastic but there’s only so much a screenplay can tell you." – and that, I think, sums up the problem at the heart of Revolutionary Road. Great literature can become great cinema, but it will only prosper when handled by filmmakers who understand the difference.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review - Milk

Whenever we watch a film about prejudice or injustice that is set in the past, we are somewhat comforted by their historical context. We can reassure ourselves that we live in a more enlightened age, that such ignorant beliefs are now expressed by a tiny, insignificant minority, but sometimes we need to be reminded that we're not as far removed from those days as we would like to think. While we celebrated momentous change in November, with the election of Barack Obama to the American Presidency, the state of California was taking the regressive step of voting to ban gay marriage, essentially decreeing that homosexuals are not deserving of the same civil rights as everyone else. The decision reminded us that the battle for complete equality has not yet been won, and it lent a sense of timeliness to Gus Van Sant's Milk, which is a film set thirty years ago that speaks to the way we live now.

Milk doesn't come across as an overtly political film, though. The first impression we get of the picture is how warm it is, how Van Sant is keen to explore the man more than the message, and helping the director achieve this goal is Sean Penn, who offers what is surely the most revelatory performance of his career in the title role. Penn has given great displays of acting before, of course, but when was the last time we saw him be this light-hearted or compassionate? He inhabits Milk to an astonishing degree, never overplaying the voice or the mannerisms, and expressing the man's innate decency, integrity and canny political nous. It's not a "transformative" performance in the sense that we usually understand it – he undergoes no enormous weight gain or prosthetic enhancement – but he's playing notes here that we haven't seen him play before, and it's simply amazing. Our first glimpse of Harvey Milk sees him in fatalistic, introspective mood – sitting in his kitchen, making a recording that he intended to be played in the event of his assassination, and which acts the film's narration – before jumping back almost a decade to find him in New York on his fortieth birthday.

On the subway, Milk picks up Scott Smith (James Franco), who is charmed as we are by the older man's self-deprecating wit and honesty. "I'm forty years old and I haven't done a thing," Milk complains, as the pair finish off his birthday cake in bed, but they then move to San Francisco together where Harvey Milk, finally, does something. From their base in a small camera shop, he gradually becomes a central figure for the local area – the de facto Mayor of Castro Street – and as he sees fellow homosexuals being beaten by police for simply walking arm in arm, he becomes an activist for gay rights. Van Sant opens Milk with archive footage of gay bars being raided, and society's prevalent homophobia is a constant presence in the film, personified by the conservative singer and anti-gay campaigner Anita Bryant (appearing in archive footage here) and Senator John Briggs (played by Denis O'Hare). These are the people with whom Harvey Milk battles as he grows in political prominence, becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, and giving his community a voice where it previously had none, but the most pivotal battle he fought – one that would ultimately cost him his life – was with fellow councillor Dan White.

The conflict between Milk and White is the film's dramatic core. There are other strong performances and characterisations all over the picture – Franco as Milk's supportive boyfriend, Emile Hirsch as a feisty campaigner – but Josh Brolin provides Penn with his most effective foil. Dan White was the man who shot and killed both Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, but he is not demonised by the film, and instead I felt an odd sense of sympathy for him as his part in this tale played out. White appears as a man out of his depth, failing to come to terms with the changing face of his city, and Brolin magnificently suggests a steadily building sense of confusion and resentment which explodes in the final reel. "You're not like most homosexuals are you, Harvey," he says at one point; "Do you know a lot of homosexuals, Dan?" Milk slyly retorts, and that line gets right at the heart of White's dilemma. He has never encountered anyone like Harvey Milk, and he has no idea how to play him.

There will be accusations levelled against Milk, arguing that the film is too middle-of-the-road and conventional, a formulaic biopic, but I think the old-fashioned approach works in its favour. This is the most straightforward movie Van Sant has made in a decade, but it's also the most satisfying, with the story gaining a sense of momentum and increasing emotional force as it heads towards its tragic finale. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay strikes a wonderful balance between the personal and political, between lightness and pain, and while Van Sant does occasionally toss in an idiosyncratic directorial flourish (a scene reflected in a whistle, Gus? Really?), he's generally astute enough to know that this story will only benefit from a regular rendition. Who cares if a film is unambitious in its construction when it's as rousing and involving as this?

A few days before I saw Milk, I watched Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which acts as a perfect companion piece to Van Sant's picture, asthe two films focus on different aspects of their subject's life. Whereas Scott Smith barely merits a mention in the documentary, and Jack Lira (played in Milk by a highly-strung Diego Luna) is omitted completely, Epstein does give us more background on the Milk's political legacy, and he devotes a lot of time to Dan White's farcical trial, which prompted riots in the streets from Milk's infuriated supporters. Both films, however, close on the incredibly powerful image of a dark road filled with light, from a candlelight procession that saw 30,000 people march in honour of his memory. It's a stunning sight, and it brings home just what a remarkable impact this one man had – how many boundaries he broke for the gay community, how many perceptions he changed, and how many lives he touched. "You gotta give them hope," Harvey Milk said, and that's exactly what he did.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

January Round-Up

Role Models
Role Models is a Judd Apatow production in all but name. It follows the Apatow template to the letter, but this is one mainstream comedy that hasn't dropped off his production line. Role Models stars Sean William Scott (reprising Stifler) and Paul Rudd as a pair of energy drink salesmen who are arrested and forced to do community service after a depressed Rudd binges on their own product and wrecks the company jeep. They serve their time at the Sturdy Wings centre, acting as mentors for lonely youngsters, with Rudd being paired up with an ultra geeky teenager (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Scott trying to cope with a foul-mouthed ten year-old (Bobb'e J. Thompson, who's like Chris Rock's Mini-Me). The misadventures this foursome subsequently become embroiled in are mostly predictable but they're also consistently funny, and the film as a whole is a lot sharper and more sensitive to its characters' needs than you might expect, with each of them developing in a satisfying if unambitious way. Director David Wain keeps Role Models running in a smooth and tight fashion, while the ensemble cast (with a scene-stealing Jane Lynch) is excellent, and the KISS-inspired finale manages the dual feat of being hilarious and lending the film an emotionally resonant climax.

Frost/NixonThe biggest problem facing Frost/Nixon is the fact that its most dramatic scenes are already widely available on DVD, and everything building up to those sequences feels like filler. Ron Howard's screen version of Peter Morgan's stage play is a solid if unmemorable drama, which the director orchestrates in his usual workmanlike fashion and which only feels worthwhile during the interviews when Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) go head to head. Langella is great to watch, Nixon is a plum part and he brings considerable gravitas to it, while Sheen plays Frost with a puppyish eagerness to please, although it's doubtful that he was as politically naïve as he is depicted here. Howard overplays the boxing match metaphor, dividing the encounter into rounds with each participant receiving advice from their corner men (Kevin Bacon for Nixon, an enjoyable Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell for Frost), and the whole first hour is weighed down by some useless faux-documentary segments in which the actors reiterate how important everything we're seeing is. Frost/Nixon is fine as far as Ron Howard films go, it offers a slickly engaging, moderately enjoyable film experience, but there's little here that will linger in the memory afterwards.

The ReaderWhen the Oscar nominations were announced on January 22nd, few people were surprised to see Frost/Nixon gaining recognition; after all, such classy, middlebrow drama is just to the Academy's taste. However, the nomination of The Reader alongside Howard's film in the Best Picture and Best Director categories was far more startling, particularly as many had tipped The Dark Knight or WALL•E to break new ground for superhero/animated movies. Instead, the Academy went for the Holocaust drama, and a particularly risible one at that. Kate Winslet stars as the mysterious Hanna, who indulges in a summer of passion with 15 year-old Michael (David Kross), insisting that he read passages from various books to her before they make love. Michael seems perfectly happy with this setup, but Hanna abruptly disappears one day, only to re-emerge years later when Michael discovers she was an SS concentration camp guard (gasp!) and also illiterate (double gasp!). This revelation raises many questions – wouldn't a concentration camp guard constantly need to check names on a list, or file paperwork? – but Stephen Daldry has little time for such details as he explores Michael's moral dilemma in the most shallow, pedestrian manner imaginable. Winslet and Kross are both very good, and their tangible chemistry makes the opening half hour bearable (while Ralph Fiennes' glum moping makes the climactic third almost unbearable), but their performances can't hide the fact that this is crass, manipulative bullshit which really would be laughable if so many people weren't taking it seriously. It has no interest in the Holocaust as a concept or an event; it only uses it as a tool to win awards, and it is happy to be forgotten as soon as the trophies have been handed out. Throughout the film I couldn't help thinking of Winslet's appearance on Extras, when she said, "Make a Holocaust film, win an Oscar" – a joke which has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What would Stanley Kubrick have made of The Reader? One suspects the themes of morality, sexual obsession and our place in history would have been right up his street. Aside from his directorial debut Killer's Kiss, all of Kubrick's films were literary adaptations, and no other filmmaker ever matched his ability to bring the substance of a novel to the screen, while stamping his own unmistakable signature upon it. Kubrick died in March 1999, and in recognition of that fact, the British Film Institute is holding a two-month retrospective of his work, showing all of his features, with his witty and elegant 1975 masterwork Barry Lyndon being screened on a brand new print. Best of all, the NFT will be offering three not-to-be missed chances in March to see Kubrick's unique and magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey in a 70mm presentation. This is a great opportunity to get reacquainted with one of the true masters of cinema, and to see his films the way they were meant to be seen.

Better ThingsLet's come right back down to earth for the last two entries in this round-up. Better Things is the debut film from Duane Hopkins, and there's no doubt he's a filmmaker with talent to burn, but the brilliance of his approach only intermittently illuminates this bleak portrait of loveless lives. Based around the loosely connected experiences of a group of drug-taking youths, an agoraphobic teenager, and an unhappy elderly couple, the film observes its subjects in a series of beautifully composed tableaux, with Hopkins' background as an award-winning photographer evident in the frequently stunning images. He's a bold, adventurous director, and he produces some impressive cinematic coups here (pulling all ambient noise from an in-car conversation, cutting to a stunning landscape which is revealed to be a painting), but I often couldn't tell what he was trying to achieve with his distinctive camerawork or editing pattern, and ultimately I think his film lacks the thematic weight required to be as profound an experience as he wants it to be. The film's uneven performances and banal "realistic" dialogue also grates when held against its visual splendour, but this is still a hugely accomplished and vivid piece of filmmaking from an exciting young talent.

Hannah Takes the StairsEven more low-budget is Hannah Takes the Stairs, the latest film in the new independent cinema movement which has now earned the irritating sobriquet "Mumblecore". Heavily improvised, shot with handheld cameras, and free of any strict narrative, these films focus on the ups and downs of directionless twenty-somethings; and while I can see why people have responded positively to these films – there's something charming and intimate about their rough-and-ready approach – I'm not sure they're for me. Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs isn't a bad film, just an unremarkable and faintly tedious one which lacks any sympathetic or interesting characters, or any kind of visual style. It is diverting on occasion, though, and most of those diverting moments can be attributed to Greta Gerwig, who plays the eponymous character, and spends the film slipping in and out of relationships with three different men. She's comfortably the best actor in the film, possessing a great, open face which registers a variety of emotions, and in the film's sole memorable sequence she brings a genuine sense of feeling to a painful conversation with a friend. I'm looking forward to watching Gerwig in action again, but next time I hope it's in a better film than this, and it would be interesting to see what she can do with a proper script.