Tuesday, December 23, 2008

REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I’m not really sure how I ever made it through Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Barry Lyndon, but boy was I glad I did. By the end, I found it without a doubt Kubrick’s most involving film, one of the few he did that I actually truly cared about the characters. But it wasn’t because I was told to. And even when I went back to it a second time I couldn’t figure out how Kubrick got me to care about this guy. But I remember watching the film for the first time, specifically the final duel, and there’s that moment when Lord Bullingdon says, “I have not received satisfaction,” and it all came to stark relief. Everything that had taken place prior to this moment came crashing down. Kubrick doesn’t linger on it long, he doesn’t indulge in it – Ryan O’Neil gives a slight shift in his face, but there are few moments in film that I’ve felt so acutely. And even though there were very few moments in the rest of the film that engaged me as actively as that moment did, that they all added up to this was staggering.

It takes a really refined touch to pull that off. I should say that I was able to revel much more in the specific moments of Barry Lyndon the second time around (due in no small part to the second viewing being on the big screen), but I do really, really wonder how Kubrick pulled me through that first viewing, in which I’m basically following a character who takes almost no active part in the shaping of his destiny (for Button detractors, this will start to sound familiar). Maybe it was the imagery – Barry Lyndon is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen, but I was watching it on a 19-inch TV. Maybe it was the narration, or the myriad of interesting supporting characters. Maybe it was just that elusive quality of the cinema.

And yes, this does bring me to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of a man born old and dying young, a film that is, as Barry Lyndon is, intermittently engaging and wonderful, and ultimately really, truly moving. But the difference is that Barry Lyndon is never outright bad – even though the first viewing is occasionally like slugging through molasses, there are no false moments in the film. It all works, every frame of it.

Benjamin Button isn’t a bad film, exactly. As I said, it’s ultimately incredibly rewarding, and is always visually stunning, a phrase some critics often use without consideration and as a way to slight the story, but I mean it. In fact, story is really, really good. Refined, well-wrought. Develops at a wonderful pace. The structure is solid, aside from the framing device that should have just been cut down to a five-minute scene at the end of the film. A few writerly indulgences (how did Benjamin know that a girl who works at a random chocolate shop broke up with her boyfriend? Beyond overindulgent, that scene just doesn’t make any sense), but I’ll let them slide. And the shots do a hell of a job expressing the story.

It’s just that the dialogue is way too much. Often ridiculous, but at the very least way, way overwritten, it undermines the visuals and the story, which are otherwise able to serve each other in perfect harmony. There are some inspired lines here or there – “They said I was gonna die soon but, maybe not” is pretty genius, even if it’s an absurd thing to say – but quite often the dialogue rings terribly false, is overly metaphoric, or worst of all, is simply redundant, especially the voiceover, which mostly just describes the onscreen action. It’s when the film just shuts its characters up that it hits those moments of awe, and I can’t imagine what kind of film we’d have on our hands if someone had torn the dialogue down to Marienbad levels (oh, to have a music-only track for this film on the DVD…).

You know, we’d probably have something like the teaser trailer that played before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. After seeing that I was sure we’d have a masterpiece on our hands, and I suppose if this film was truly the one the trailer sold, we would. Actually, and I mean this sincerely, if it really took this much money and development and whatever else to create something as perfect as that one-minute, forty-second short film (which is really what it is, because if you’re paying attention, it tells the entire story with far more grace than the 168-minute feature film), then it was worth it. Then again, I didn’t foot the bill.

I’ve been careful to say “the film” when referring to its strengths and weaknesses, though others may level the blame at director David Fincher. And maybe it is his fault, I don’t know. But it strikes me that screenwriter Eric Roth is at a point in his career when his script is more or less the final word. Obviously Roth wrote the words, so the words that we hear are largely his doing, but if Fincher at any point had the opportunity to start taking some of those words out, he really, really should have. But, again, it’s an expensive film with its eye on every Oscar available, so quite often the artistic whims get beaten out of the film.

This does make it all the more wonderful when Fincher’s allowed to let his craft explore the art. It’s important to keep in mind that the majority of the film – everything showing Benjamin’s life – is told as Benjamin remembers it at age 67. Plot threads are left hanging, some of the imagery is a little overindulgent. But as this is a memory, when we reach the montage of Benjamin and Daisy at sea, well…that’s the way such a trip would feel to me. The film might reach just beyond the point of realism, but what place has realism in the cinema? Better to find something a little more expressive. It’s in these respects, and many others, that I really have to hand it to Fincher. Whatever other mistakes he may have contributed to, the things that were definitely under his control are absolute masterstrokes. Fincher continues to demonstrate that he’s way ahead of many of his peers in terms of composition, and his integration of effects work both computer generated and practical continues to put him at the absolute forefront of contemporary cinema.

The film itself results a little unevenly, though, and there’s a clear pull between the art and the plot. If you subscribe exclusively to auteurism, then this film will undoubtedly appear to you a masterpiece. If you see cinema as largely a written medium, you’ll find the film a mess. As it is, the sum may be greater than the parts, a tough thing to achieve in any narrative art form, but the parts are too often severely lacking to be the sort of true masterpiece I know I was hoping for.

Scott can be reached at Snye@megazinemedia.com

Friday, December 5, 2008

Starting the Weekend Right

Today - I woke up, saw my girlfriend off, threw some bacon and french toast on the stove, listened to some Christmas music, and prepared to sit down and finally watch Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park and probably something else. I didn't have to leave the house 'til 3:30 or 4, and Park is only 85 minutes long. Some point into Harry Simeone Chrorale's "The Little Drummer Boy" (a beautiful song, and I'll stand by that), I felt a certain...calling. The Christmas spirit was calling, so I decided to start the day with the first hour-and-a-half of Fanny and Alexander. Television version, of course, which means...the Christmas party.

Just as I always hope to have a wedding like in The Deer Hunter (and to have nothing remotely similar to anything else in The Deer Hunter EVER happen to me), I want a Christmas party like the Ekdahl's. Warts and all.

I figured I'd check the mail first, so I walked down and what's at my feet - a package from Amazon not due 'til tomorrow, containing none other than the Godfather Trilogy - Coppola Restoration Blu-Ray. My only Black Friday indulgence, to my credit.

So I didn't get around to Van Sant's latest. What'll you do.

Of course, Fanny and Alexander is as wonderful as the first and, until today, last time I saw it eighteen months ago. It really is true, nobody's ever done it like Bergman, at least not as well.

But that Godfather Blu-Ray...oh my God. I'm still relatively new to Blu - saw No Country and Pirates 3 on it and parts of Wall-E, Speed Racer, Cuckoo's Nest, 2001...some others my roommate has around (it's his player, so he's loading up of course). But wow...I really just watched the first fifteen or twenty minutes from One (yeah, I watched The Sopranos...do something), part of the Sicily stuff. Can't wait to watch...well, the baptism, certainly, but even though I watched the film fairly recently on DVD, and I'm really a Part II man myself, I could watch the whole thing through again and it would feel fresh. I know it's an overused phrase, that feeling of seeing it again for the very first time, but I can't think of any other way to put it. The dialogue sounded familiar, the characters seemed the same, but the film itself...brand frickin' new.

I was afraid based on some screencaps I saw that most of the image was just brightened overall; that we might get some more definition, but lose that great "Prince of Darkness" stuff, but man, those scenes in the Don's office are pitch black, even darker than I remember it being on DVD (the only way I've seen it to date). The red on his flower is captivating.

And good Lord am I glad they kept that grain in.

And this is just the first twenty or so minutes. Man am I mad I have finals right now...

But suffice to say, even though I grew up in the age of home video and have never know any other way, I am in a state of constant amazement that I can watch masterpieces like Fanny and Alexander (the five-hour version, to boot!) and The Godfather any time I want. That really is pretty amazing. Good way to start the weekend, too.

Friday, November 14, 2008

40% Off Criterion DVDs!

No, I don't work for Criterion and I benefit from this in no way. It's just awesome and something I thought should be shared. If you hit up the Criterion Collection online store, they're having a 40% off sale 'til November 25th. Some tremendous deals in there if you've been holding back on some purchases for awhile (L'eclisse and Scenes From a Marriage, here I come...). If you need some help, here are my personal Top 10 Criterion DVDs (bearing in mind that I've seen only a fraction of the total colleciton, never mind the ones I own and have devoured entirely...your mileage may vary).


This is an honorable mention because the DVD is out of print, and even if you got ahold of it (which is still relatively easy...Amazon sells it), it's almost entirely devoid of special features. But God damn do I love this movie. Look, I love Tarantino and the Coen Brothers and all those other masters of dialogue, but this is the coolest dialogue ever written. Period. Great atmosphere, too.


One of my twenty favorite films of all time, without a doubt. Never fails to hit me. It sucks that Kevin Smith will never be this great again, but what'll you do. Ben Affleck too for that matter (and I'm a big Ben Affleck fan; no joke). DVD has the usual great commentary by Smith and a whole gang of fools, plus some other stuff that isn't nearly as interesting.


I owe this film a tremendous debt. For a few months, I'd been a little depressed about what I was going to college for - to study film. I felt like it was a useless endeavor, and that whatever little film truly gives back to the community, film studies gives even less. And while the latter may still be true, this film reminded me of how much film has to give.
The DVD, meanwhile, has a commentary and a long interview with Ingmar Bergman in which you realize what a truly depressing man he was. Brilliant, though.


It sort of annoys me how much film students love Terry Gilliam and constantly talk about what a visionary he is and how awesome he is for fighting the studio system. They're not really wrong, I just get sick of hearing about it is all. Great film, though; great special features. Terry Gilliam's an endlessly engaging speaker.


My favorite Jean-Luc Godard film, and one of my favorite films period.
I have a little thing written up that I'll ship over here in the next few days about how a little three-minute-fifteen-second segment of this film is one of the most joyous things ever created. I know that seems like hyperbole, but this is a film that fosters that. I JUST bought this DVD, so I haven't even cracked open the extras, but the film is so absolutely stunning that this list wouldn't be complete without it. Also, it's pretty as hell.


Dude, I'll admit it - I frickin' love this movie. I do. Truly. Completely. I know, it's silly as hell. But I love it. Bruce Willis' speech at the end brings tears to my eyes. It does. If that makes me less a man, or less a cinephile, then that's your problem - this film is emotionally genuine in a way I almost never see, especially in big-budget summer filmmaking. It's cheesy, but it earns it.

Great DVD, too. One commentary with Bay, Bruckheimer, Willis, and Affleck on just how hard and amazing making a film like this is (Affleck gets it, though, and is quick to point out the many, many ways this film is absurd), the other with scientists who point out the many, many ways in which this film is scientifically inaccurate (and a surprising number of ways in which it accurately represents science). Also a lot of featurettes about the special effects - well worth checking out.


Even if this wasn't Gilliam's most enjoyable film, even if this wasn't Johnny Depp's second-best performance (closely behind Ed Wood), even if Criterion's transfer wasn't a feast for the eyes...it'd be worth it for the Hunter S. Thompson commentary and short film about him. Insane.


Wow. Wow. Wow. Watch the five-hour version. There's a reason this is considered Ingmar Bergman's supreme achievement. I don't quite think it's his best (Persona), and it's not my favorite (Wild Strawberries), but there's no doubt that purely in terms of craft and, again, achievement...this is it. One of the finest motion pictures made in any language. About as many special features as a Lord of the Rings extended edition.


You know, even considering masterworks of visual style like Pierrot Le Fou, Fanny and Alexander, L'Avventura, or the many, many others in Criterion's rich collection, this is still one of my favorite transfers of theirs. The summer they released this, I must have watched it five times. I still watch it at the end of school every year. Such a great film.

Buy it for the commentary, making-of, and the badass booklet that comes with it, loaded with essays and recollections. Linklater's one of the smartest American filmmakers, and never less than engaging.


This film has a very special place in my heart. I saw it when it was released when I was 15. It made me love movies. Really. Wasn't the first movie I saw or anything. But it wasn't until then that I realized how special movies truly are. I still watch the film every Christmas to remind myself of that. I love this movie, truly, madly, deeply.

The DVD was the first Criterion DVD I ever bought, and it's still pretty great. Commentary track, behind-the-scenes by the great Albert Maysles (who would do an ever better doc for The Life Aquatic, but even so), and all of the main cast doing five-or-so-minute bits about their characters.


Right now, this is my favorite film ever. There are moments when I think it's the greatest film ever made, and in many ways, it really is. I could go on and on, and at some point I'll post my full review of the DVD in which I talk about everything this film means to me, and especially what it meant to me when this came out just over a year ago, but...suffice to say, I wouldn't see life quite the same if it weren't for Terrence Malick.

The disc boasts my personal reference for video quality and a fantastic commentary by editor Billy Weber, production designer Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden, who all provide great insight into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, as well as into Malick himself.

What are you waiting for? Go out and buy some shit!

Scott can be reached at Snye@megazinemedia.com

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Purest Form of Cinematic Ecstasy

There is a sequence in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot Le Fou that is one of, if not THE, purest distillation of happiness and love and absolute delight I've seen in a film. It lasts a little over three minutes, consists of only three shots (each lasting about a minute each), and is absolute cinematic heaven. When I'm down, it cheers me up. When I'm up, it lifts me higher and expresses every bit of the joy I feel. It's in the film to illustrate how Ferdinand feels about Marianne, and I'm so glad it took as long as it did for me to see this film so I ended up reaching a point in my life where I know exactly how he feels at that moment.

The YouTube quality, of course, barely does justice to the eye-popping colors (even in the woods, the use of color is absolutely radiant if you watch this sequence in a proper setting) and the grace of the camera movement (and the camera doesn't really track a whole lot in this film, but when it does, it's bliss). This scene is what made me fall for this film. It's why it's one of my favorite films of all times (Facebook readers, my profile list needs updating), and though I'd seen Breathless, Band of Outsiders, and Masculin-Feminin before this, it's why Godard is one of my favorite directors. Whatever minor issues I have for his other films, it takes someone with true vision and ambition to create something this spiritually joyful, never mind to place it in a film with this sort of set up, never mind to have it all tie together and serve the story.

Even if you don't see what I see (and outside the context of the film, it's totally possible), try and see if you can't see something. Then fire back with your own scene (or even just a moment) from a movie that elicits this reaction in you.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Catch Up

Hey all. I'm going to keep this running as an easy way to check in with my blog at CHUD, since there isn't a direct, easy way to do so, short of following the message board and its incredibly easy-to-forget URL. So here are the posts so far:

CGI: Being for the Benefit of Moviemaking

The Incredible vs. The Imaginative: A Tale of Two Hulks

Managing Expectations in the Days of the Internet

Choice in The Dark Knight: The (Few) Things We Think and Do Not Say

Eagle Eye Review

Slumdog Millionaire Review

Strike Anywhere: A Cinematic Anecdote about Red River

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Portland Recognized as Cinematic Hub

"The movie will show first in Austin, Tex., where its writer-directors, the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, got their filmmaking careers in gear. Then Baghead will probably move on to Dallas, Houston or, maybe, Portland, Ore. — cities that, in the words of Tom Bernard, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, 'tend to connect with what’s new and different.'" - Mark Cieply, The New York Times (7/3/08)

Damn straight.

I've been waiting for the studios to catch onto what everyone who's been to Portland - including many filmmakers - already know. Portland is a city full of people itching for something a little more cutting edge; something outside the mainstream. Our music scene is already known across the country, but it's high time the film scene received some recognition. I'm not going to go on and on about our many fine rep theaters, the bar theater scene, or the fact that there are regularly more interesting, varied film programming in Portland than any other city I've been to.

But I will say this - The Puffy Chair, Mark and Jay Duplass' feature debut, went over very well in Portland. It played for several weeks at a Regal theater (an art house Regal theater to be sure, but nevertheless). At the time I saw it, I wrote that I was riveted by the film right up until the end, which I felt undermined essentially the entire journey. It was nevertheless a wholly engrossing film, which makes their follow-up effort a must-see.