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05.25.09

curious


I'D LIKE TO KNOW THE PRECISE MOMENT when every movie was presumed to be a thriller, and the peculiar dynamics of the summer blockbuster or the Oscar-season drama were the only two models for a successful film. I'm not being facetious - the question became urgent for me as the credits rolled on a film that I was sure would be unremarkable, but turned out to be the one I've enjoyed more than anything I've seen in months, perhaps longer.

David Fincher is the man who made the best failed Aliens film, the dullest serial killer picture since From Hell, and the film whose signature line I've quoted or paraphrased more times than I probably should for a film I'll probably never watch. Panic Room and The Game alone are reasons to settle in front of his latest film, fully anticipating going from interested to indifferent in less than an hour, but few of the reviews made me expect much more than something beautiful but banal - a glorified cinematographer's clip reel, like too much that gets released these days.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins in a New Orleans hospital room, where Daisy (Cate Blanchett, under a thick layer of latex wrinkles and liver spots) is dying while the city braces for Hurricane Katrina to make landfall. She's tended to by her daughter (Julia Ormond,) who assumes the role of narrator when her mother asks her to read a diary written by a man, Benjamin Button, to whom she was once very close.

The mention of Katrina - it's not in F. Scott Fitzgerald's original story, naturally - made me brace myself for the customary fit of political attitudinizing, but it never happened, and the storm's imminence remained a framing device with a foot in both the historical and mythic realms, and thankfully never revealed its ugly face as a product of the Bush/Cheney weather machine, summoned to cull Democratic voters from the urban south.

Benjamin was, indeed, a curiosity - a rich man's son, born arthritic, shrivelled and geriatric, and abandoned on the back steps of an old age home where he was adopted by the kindly housekeeper (Taraji P. Henson) and the home's nonplussed residents. The sickly baby is expected to die, but thrives instead, aging backwards to the apparent indifference of the medical establishment.



I watched Benjamin Button on an Academy screener, and not the single-disc edition from Paramount or the deluxe 2-disc version from Criterion, so I had no access to any special features detailing the digital magic that put Brad Pitt's head on a variety of withered, crippled bodies, on his way to becoming Brad Pitt, which was in the end probably the most breathtaking special effect of them all. It would have been impossible to have made this film even five years ago, when digital effects were rudimentary by comparison, and though you're aware that the images are being manipulated rigorously, it doesn't get in the way of the story, since the conceit is wholly served by the effects.

I actually found it more jarring to see Cate Blanchett's skin smoothed to an impossible alabaster perfection in her earliest scenes as a young woman, especially since I met and photographed the actress when she was approximately the same age. The effects artists have been rather overzealous here, and the result is an otherworldly element too far in a story that, while full of them, succeeds best when you take them for granted.

Without any foregrounding knowledge of just how it was all done, I was able to enjoy the film as a story, and I found myself being swept up in it all in spite of my own reluctance. Other reviewers weren't so enamoured, apparently; Roger Ebert said that "it's so hard to care about this story," and Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times said "it leaves you colder than it should." The most belittling comment of all came from Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, who called it "Gump by way of Dorian Gray," and distilled the plot to a tale of "a Candide-like naif whose travels through the world bring him in contact with all manner of colorful characters, who collectively teach him the important lessons of life."

It's at times like this that I wonder if I've seen the same film. To be sure, Benjamin Button was written by Eric Roth, the screenwriter of Forrest Gump, but whereas the mawkish Gump truly seemed to hammer the title character's life lessons in place on some sort of thumping, metronomic schedule, I found that Pitt's Benjamin slid or stumbled through encounters whose moral purpose often seemed slight, and that whatever he carried away was due to slip away as age transformed him into a sulking, confused boy, a mystified toddler and then, finally, an inchoate infant. This seems to me far more profound than anything in Robert Zemeckis' overpraised and culturally omnipresent film.

Ebert sums up his problem with the film simply: "There is no lesson to be learned. No catharsis is possible." Call me a pessimist - you wouldn't be the first - but that seems a far more suitable way of presenting a film about a whole life than any ringing chorus of hard-won revelation. Not that life is without revelation, but it tends to come too late to be of any great use, and slips into our consciousness with an insinuating stealth.



Ebert also says that he "can't imagine many people wanting to see the movie twice." I tend not to agree with Ebert on much, and this is no exception - I adored the melancholy tone in every scene of Fincher's film, and especially loved the way the otherworldly quality of the past - the early scenes in pre-war New Orleans are full of a bustling strangeness - gives way, as Pitt and Blanchett age in either direction, to a more banal present; I couldn't help but note that the consommation of their lifelong love happens when they've both arrived at middle age, in the suburban, domestic social interregnum of the pre-Beatles '60s.

Fincher is an "interesting" director, by which I mean that he fails more than he succeeds, though his failures have the virtue of being ambitious, and while I wouldn't call Benjamin Button an unqualified success, it fails just enough to have earned its lunge at poignance, and its inherent solipsism undercuts its more epic scenes with what I would call a wholly satisfying perversity.

CONSERVATIVE CRITICS HAVE EMBRACED TAKEN with a fierceness that would probably surprise everyone who made it, including star Liam Neeson, who can't have lived so long in such close proximity to the Redgraves without sharing some of their politics, one presumes. It's nice that there's something to love after years of Stop Loss, Rendition and the like, but one can't help but wish it was something more interesting than a '70s vigilante pic with a few topical updates.



The set-up is brisk enough - Neeson is a former secret service operative who retired himself to try to spend more time with his teenage daughter, now living with her mother (Famke Janssen) and millionaire stepfather in the nitwit fleshpots of Beverly Hills, where children are apparently raised at great expense and free of common sense. When his ex-wife pressures him to allow their daughter to spend the summer in Paris with a friend, he's forced to deny his better judgment, which proves to have been prescient when the girls are barely off their plane before they get kidnapped by a bunch of Albanian white slavers.

Neeson doesn't waste much time on "I told you so," but switches into one man army mode to go all Bronson on the kidnappers, burrowing his way into the middle of their organization like a subway tunneling machine, and discovering the complicity of the French police as he follows his daughter's trail from construction site brothels to high-class slave markets. The real marvel is that a Frenchman, Luc Borel, directed this moving picture postcard to the perils of a decadent, prostrate Europe on its way to hell.



The villains are a study in the palette of modern-day sinister, from the swarthy ringleader of the kidnapping team that Neeson tortures with a low-tech rig involving two big nails and a light switch, to the knife-wielding henchman for some corpulent sheikh sporting more mascara than a goth bar. The most pitiless death is saved for the top man in the organization, a well-shaved senior executive type who thinks that pleading that it was "just business" will somehow soften the resolve of a gun-wielding ex-spook father whose daughter he bought wholesale, drugged and auctioned off.

Taken is in a bit of a hurry to get Neeson to his destination - a bit of a shame considering the trite final scene that Borel was so unhappily forced to set up at the start. It's no surprise then that the film charges past the scene where Neeson's character very palpably crosses a moral and ethical line by wounding the wife of a former colleague in the French police to get a lead on the slave ring's top man. There are a lot of loose ends like this scattered in the wake of Taken, and Borel's carelessness with them ultimately makes the film little better than an underpowered cosmetic upgrade of Death Wish.

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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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