Monday, January 26, 2009

Did I ever tell you I've been struck by lightning seven times?

F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a comic fantasy less concerned with the philosophical questions of its protagonist's condition - born an old man, his age reverses through his life until he passes away in his crib - than the opportunity it gives Fitzgerald to wryly observe how one's life is dictated by the expectations set forth. David Fincher's film of Benjamin Button, less a social satire than a remarkably intimate epic, is far from a faithful adaptation, and yet it comes closer than any other Fitzgerald adaptation to capturing the romantic quality - the bittersweet awareness that everything fades - at the heart of the author's work. A remarkably intimate epic, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the story of a life - and a century - telescoped into a collection of moments, with each moment's beauty proportionate to its impermanence.

Born at the end of WWI, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is a baby with the health and appearance of an elderly man. His mother died in childbirth, and his father swiftly abandons him on the steps of a nursing home, where he's found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a woman who works at the home and raises Benjamin as her own child. We follow Benjamin's life lived in reverse over the course of the 20th century; the screenplay is by Eric Roth, who also wrote Forrest Gump, and the film's formal resemblance to Gump have already been well-documented. But those whose criticism of the film begins and ends with these similarities are stuck on the words and missing the music - in Fincher's hands, what could have been unbearably treacly (and occasionally is - damn that hummingbird) becomes oddly moving. Like Mr. Gateau (Elias Koteas), the master clockmaker in Button's prologue, Fincher's technical precision and attention to detail deepen the meaning of his work's one extraordinary quality. His films are driven by a fascination with process, whether the subject is the logistics of an elaborate game for bored millionaires, the mechanics of a home invasion or an investigation that may never be solved. In Benjamin Button, Fincher uses his peculiar protagonist to examine life itself as a process - while Gump was preoccupied with inserting its character in historically significant events, Benjamin's essential passivity as a character, his detachment from time, results in time serving only as a backdrop for universal experiences, most importantly his romance with Daisy (Cate Blanchett). While the film's images have an impressive scope, it's ultimately an ode to the pleasures of friends, family, food, drink, travel, lovemaking and The Beatles (though not in that order); Benjamin Button makes profound statement about the meaning of life, nor does it aspire to. But as a meditation on the simple joys in life, it's a rich and rewarding large-scale entertainment.

Fincher's surprising understatement extends to Claudio Miranda's painterly cinematography, Alexandre Desplat's fantastic score (which would fit just as well in a David Lean movie), and the realization of Benjamin as a character. The makeup and visual effects teams do a masterful job of making Benjamin believable at every stage in his life. What impresses most, when most digital work is usually about spectacle, is the subtlety of their approach - after a while, I forgot about looking for the seams and accepted that I was looking at an old young man. The believability of the character is aided immensely by Pitt's performance, which has been somewhat underrated; usually, even talented actors are befuddled by the motion control process, but Pitt manages to project Benjamin's emotional age and experience through his CGI/latex visage. And when Benjamin reaches middle age and looks like Brad "Sexiest Man Alive" Pitt, it's like looking at this now-familiar face through new eyes - it's a perfect marriage of his character and the star baggage he brings to the role. This brief moment where he meets Daisy in the middle (and man, is Cate Blanchett on a roll) plays less like a Hollywoodized notion of fate than a poignant expression of what it is to choose to love someone in an impermanent lifetime.

The film also boasts a strong supporting cast - Henson avoids "Mammy" stereotypes by giving Queenie poise and dignity, Tilda Swinton is excellent in her bittersweet scenes as a woman enjoying a fleeting romance, and Jared Harris, as an drunken, salty sea captain (is there any other kind?), nearly steals the film. The contemporary framing narrative, with Daisy sharing Benjamin's story with her daughter (Julia Ormond), isn't quite as successful, mostly because of the awkward incorporation of Hurricane Katrina - in a movie otherwise unconcerned with social commentary, it feels overly literal. But I can forgive this, since it allows for a devastating final shot that ties the film's themes together in a single, iconic image. Fincher was bound to lose some of his target audience with Benjamin Button - while before he's made films for geeks prone towards an ironic outlook on life (myself included), here he's trying to speak to everyone. The result isn't the masterpiece it aspires to be (or that Zodiac is), but it's refreshing to see a director pushing himself beyond his familiar territory, especially when the results are so rewarding.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Top 10: 1988

7. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris)

Stay with me tonight. Let me borrow you.

Few directors working today have as fine an understanding of mood as Wong Kar-Wai. The stars of Wong's films are not just the above-the-title actors but also reflections of neon lights on a storefront window, or a snippet of a long-forgotten standard, or a stain from Maggie Cheung's impeccably applied lipstick - they're pure pop, sensual appreciations of human experience filtered through surface pleasures. Wong's 2046 promised to be an epic of mood moments - four years in the making and shrouded in secrecy, it arrived at Cannes in 2004 bearing the weight of expectations it wasn't made to fulfill. With a multilayered narrative that veers between past and future, fiction and metafiction, it's a grandiose experiment resting on a simple message of the need for human connection like an elephant dancing on the head of the pin. It's a perverse film, the biggest little movie ever made, but dammit if it isn't pretty to look at.

A sort-of-sequel to Wong's masterpiece In the Mood for Love, 2046's protagonist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) shares a name, profession and history with the character Leung played in the earlier film, but doesn't quite seem to be the same character (it took me a while to adjust, as I had an easier time relating to the first Chow Mo-wan). This time, Chow's a sci-fi writer and playboy recovering from a broken heart by bedding a number of women. Among the women that weave in and out of Chow's life are Su Li-Zhen (Gong Li), a professional gambler with the same name as Chow's lost love; Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a cabaret singer who lives in the room next to Chow's; and Wang Jing Wen (Faye Wong), the daughter of Chow's landlord. These and other women drift in out of the episodic narrative, along with various pop allusions and references to Wong's other films, each woman costumed and lit with such precision that they appear perfectly preserved. It becomes clear that the film is not about any one of these relationships (though the women, particularly Zhang, are all excellent), but Chow's narcissism and the way he "rewrites" each encounter in retrospect. The first time I saw the film was frustrating, as I wondered if Wong realized this about his protagonist; the final scenes reveal that, yes, this was the point all along. In retrospect, I admire Wong's patience in letting the character get where he's going, and his expectation that his audience will be capable of the same; it also helps that Leung, a master of internal acting, is a perfect leading man for Wong.

2046 can be painfully hermetic, particulary in the scenes from Chow's sci-fi novel that shares its title with the film. 2046 is a mysterious place that, in a distant future, many attempt to escape to because it never changes - there's no loneliness or loss. It's a fascinating concept that expands the themes of the '60s-set story, but it's also dramatically inert. The future we see in these scenes does not reflect a '60s concept of the future so much as one we'd expect in 2004 - the future scenes are antiseptic, beautifully shot but inaccessible, and in the film's second half they threaten to overwhelm the main story. It's possible that this is intentional, a visualization of what it's like to live inside one's own head; since I'm occasionally told I need to get out of my head, I can appreciate that. But without the rapturous moments that Wong's earlier films built to - Faye Wong cleaning Tony Leung's apartment to "Dreams" in Chungking Express, or the extended holy moment that concludes In the Mood for Love - the film works wonderfully as an intellectual exercise, but never really found its way into my heart like those films did. Again, this may be exactly how Wong wanted me to feel.

There's a great deal, however, for a film lover to enjoy in 2046 - each shot is a beauty, the film's world taking on a wonderfully tangible quality. I believe in the world Wong creates here, but I can't live in it. It remains to be seen what place 2046 will take in Wong's filmography - after the disappointing My Blueberry Nights demonstrated that even his middling work looks beautiful, I wonder whether he'll keep treading water or if, as Chow seems to be at the film's end, he's ready to move on to new worlds. But whether 2046 proves to be Wong's final destination or just a station on the way, there's no denying that it's a radiant place to stay for a while.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Family conquers all.

I got married at a fairly young age, so I'm often asked what it's like by people in my age range. It's hard to explain what it's like to be married, but easy to explain the experience of getting married - it's being at the center of a riot of emotions that isn't all about you. One minute a usually reserved friend is giving you a drunken proclamation of her love for you, the next is spent breaking up an argument between two relatives that is ostensibly about seating arrangements but actually stems from psychic wounds inflicted before you were born. One of the best things about Rachel Getting Married is the way it perfectly captures the emotional turbulence of a family coming together with understated wit and generosity. Shooting on video with the freer approach of his documentary and concert movies, director Jonathan Demme has made not only his best and most emotionally affecting film since Philadelphia, but also the best wedding video ever.

The titular bride's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering addict, arrives at her family home for the wedding festivities straight from her most recent stint in rehab. While the movie finds laughs in the tension between straight-laced psychology student Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her unpredictable sister, it never becomes the latest sitcom-y quirkfest. Nor does Jenny Lumet's script romanticize Kym's self-destructiveness, although Rachel correctly observes that Kym (like many addicts) would like to be seen as endearingly fucked-up. A highlight of the film is Kym's awkward rehearsal dinner toast, which veers between hilarious and painful as her well-intentioned attempt at reconciliation is derailed by the language and humor of twelve-step programs (Hathaway's bracingly honest performance reveals talent only hinted at in Brokeback Mountain). For Kym, making amends proves to be far more challenging than overcoming addiction, and as we learn about a tragedy in the family's past, Rachel Getting Married reveals itself as a precise portrait of a family finding reason to celebrate in the shadow of unthinkable loss.

Cinematographer Declan Quinn's camera is like a ghost in the room, quietly capturing the ongoing story of the Buchmans, realized by a pitch-perfect ensemble. Many reviews have singled out estranged mom Abby's (Debra Winger) late-film explosion, and it's great to have Winger back. But I found myself most moved by Bill Irwin as dad Paul - the actor's comedic skills help to create a character whose humor and generosity have kept him going. The best scene in the film, an impromptu dishwasher-loading contest between Paul and Rachel's quiet, sweet fiance Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe), is a hilarious bit of "youth vs. experience" one-upmanship suddenly punctuated, like a punch to the gut, by a reminder of the past that catches us off-guard the way these things do in life. Demme, whose most recent features were interesting but airless formal exercises, has rediscovered the loose-limbed energy of his early films - the emotional revelations arrive not according to formula but with the unpredictable rhythm of life.

This freewheeling approach is most evident during the extending wedding festivities. Demme gladly veers away from the plot to make room for Adebimpe (lead singer of one of my new favorite bands, TV on the Radio) to serenade DeWitt with Neil Young's "Unknown Legend," to meet Rachel and Sydney's extended family and friends, and for a mini-festival of musical performances. Some have complained that this section is self-indulgent, overlong and implausible, and I'll admit that when Robyn Hitchcock showed up it took me out of the movie for a moment (I guess David Byrne tending the grill would have been a bit too much). But I'll give Demme a pass on that, especially since the wedding is such a joyous celebration of life and family that it proves more satisfying than any conventional dramatic resolution. While the multicultural aspect of Sydney and Rachel's wedding has been singled out for praise and criticism for its sociological implications, I prefer to see it as Demme seems to - he's depicting this family's story as universal, the wounds of the past assuaged by the promise of a future where the world is one big family. Idealistic, to be sure, but I'm down with idealism.

Play the game (1/1/09)