05 February 2009

Rewinding 2008: Part VI

Reviews of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Fall, Hunger, and Presto.

As I work on whittling my best-of list for 2008 (set to be published in the near future), I'm pausing to consider releases from the year, both the good and the bad, that I haven't reviewed on Screen Savour.
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher, is a gorgeous technical achievement, and, running nearly three hours, is a hefty one at that. There are instances when three hours may be considered too risky to linger in a particular universe, especially when the source material is a flimsy trifle of a tale by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born old and ages in reverse; but that is not the case with this film. I wore my wristwatch intentionally for the screening, and found myself taking nary a glance at it during the film's entire length. The hero of this film is not its mysterious ager or the important people in his life: it is Fincher, who provided me with one of the strangest but engrossing experiences at the cinema this year. As we travel from the 1910s to the 2000s, I was overcome with an urgency to discover what was next, surrendering my mind to the director and allowing him to take it wherever he saw fit.

This vision is buoyed by an enormously talented film crew, the foremost of which is Claudio Miranda, whose spectacularly lit and supple digital cinematography is endlessly dynamic. You can't ignore, though, the scores of people who worked on visual effects, makeup, editing, costumes, and art direction; as far as the mere production departments are concerned, this is one amazing film. What is not so amazing, however, is the screenplay, written by Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth. Rarely have I so anticipated what visual experience lay around the next corner and been let down by the actual writing within the scene. Roth's lukewarm screenplay is full of wooden dialogue, problematic simplifications, an ineffective framing device, and clich├ęs, and ultimately gives us little insight into Benjamin the man (played in nearly all stages of life by a rather gelid Brad Pitt, a man who, year after year, only seems insusceptible to aging). Perhaps he is a character that can never be fully known, or perhaps he is left unknown purposefully for fear of sentimentality; in either case, the fantastical situation of the story should give the writer ample room to explore either facet without fear. The distant nature of the character stands in opposition to the engaging surroundings, and certainly compared to Cate Blanchett, who gets to inhabit an emotional core large enough for two with her character Daisy, Benjamin's life-long love. Roth's script forges ahead with the idea that a story this large can be unfolded in a single setting, as Daisy fades on her deathbed and her daughter, awaiting the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, reads aloud from Benjamin's diary (careful there, young lady – squeaky plot twists up ahead!). A film with such a frustrating script cannot be considered truly great, but I could never shake the feeling that its orbit brings it closer to something more than mere worthwhileness. The primary engine is the fulfillment of Fincher's vision, and considered even in that single respect, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is tragic, beautiful, and enthralling.

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One part absolute daydream, one part homage to birth of cinema and The Wizard of Oz, one part fairy tale, and one part something so surreal it is beyond description, The Fall is a splendid and strikingly beautiful film from the director known far and wide simply as Tarsem. The film is set in a hospital during the 1920s, where a Hollywood stuntman named Roy (Lee Pace) with a broken leg and a young immigrant girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) with a broken arm both are convalescing. The two become unlikely friends, largely through a wildly extravagant tale Roy spins for Alexandria about five heroes in a faraway land who are each seeking revenge against an evil governor. The sheer beauty of the tale, and Tarsem's film, is that we see it all through Alexandria's imagination. Faces from the hospital turn up as the faces of heroes and villains in her view of the tale, and she pushes Roy to develop the narrative in specific ways, the lines of reality and fantasy overlap and dance in moments, but become twisted and mired in others. (The bedridden Roy has a much darker psychology than we initially suspect, and the tale, in addition to wowing Alexandria, also exists for an ulterior motive.) Although neglected in many awards circles this year, there is much to admire about The Fall, particularly its dazzling cinematography and over-the-top costume design. There's also something spirited in the fact that Tarsem essentially made the film on his own over a four-year period in more than twenty countries, spending his own money to retain an artistic vision that, truth be told, might have become compromised if the financing structure had been different. The script, an adaptation of an 1981 Bulgarian film titled Yo Ho Ho, loses some of its verve toward its maudlin ending, but the heart and draw is shared equally by the lead actors, particularly the precocious Untaru. (Note: Many official listings of The Fall date it to 2006, which it first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It took almost two years for the film to reach U.S. distribution, and now it is currently on DVD. It's a joy to have it, and you'd be wise to experience it if you haven't.)

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If The Fall is 2008's cinematic equivalent of a daydream, then the year's cinematic equivalent of a nightmare is British artist Steve McQueen's Hunger, which chronicles the last days of I.R.A. volunteer Bobby Sands, who led prisoners in a 1981 hunger strike in protest of the British government. This is McQueen's first feature film (he made his name with video installations and went on to win the 1999 Turner Prize), but it comes across like it might have been made by a fifty-year veteran of cinema. It is physical and often almost unbearable to watch. Prisoners are beaten by officers and forcibly groomed and bathed during their no-wash protest. And then we have the visceral final act, as we watch Sands (Michael Fassbender) begin to wither away, his body becoming so malnourished and sensitive he can't even have a single sheet on top of him. McQueen and Irish playwright Enda Walsh wrote the screenplay; long stretches of the film go by without dialogue, relying on McQueen's artistic eye and his cinematographer to capture startling and sorrowful compositions. The one scene that is an exception is a 17-minute unbroken sequence where the camera sits still and captures a heated debate on morality between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) who visits him in prison. Fassbender and Cunningham are not the film's only actors, but after their virtuosic debate of their characters – thought to be one of the longest scenes in a mainstream film – it is difficult to feel you've seen the souls of anyone else. The film occasionally includes snippets of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discussing the prisoners, and as the hunger strike begins, there is a small bit of audio in which she says they have turned their violence onto themselves and are appealing for pity, our basest emotion. Hunger, I think, does not ask us for our pity, nor does it demand a political orientation (although the point-of-view is decidedly given largely to the I.R.A. volunteers, both sides commit acts against humanity in the film). It simply seeks a cinema-loving audience, and considering how good it is, it shouldn't have any trouble finding one.

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I am not old enough to remember the days of short animated films from Warner Bros. or Disney preceding live-action theatrical releases, although I like to think I am mature enough to appreciate what the experience must have been like. I think those short films, particularly the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, are some of the greatest examples of animation from the twentieth century, and not only because I was weaned on them during sugar-coated cereal and Saturday mornings. What I know today, however, is that a trip to the theater to see the latest Pixar release means enjoying a short animated film before the show. Not only has Pixar never misfired to-date on its feature films, but it is one of the last animation studios that makes reliably great short films. Presto, their 2008 releases that preceded Wall•E, might be their best short yet. It is a simple and slapsticky treat, about a magician in possession of a supernatural pair of hats that allows his arm to transcend time and space: when he reaches into one, his hand exits the other. This, we learn, is how he pulls a rabbit "out of his hat." But the rabbit is hungry, and until he gets a carrot he is determined to be uncooperative and complicate the magician's act by utilizing the metaphysical aspect of the magic hats. The genius of Pixar's short films is that they exist without any dialogue, and Presto is purely Keatonian in the way its emphasis on physical comedy creates an experience that, in five minutes, was more enjoyable to me than many full-length features this year. Certainly this cannot be an accident on the part of director-writer Doug Sweetland, who has been a reliable animator for Pixar since Toy Story; this short film is a lovely and hilarious homage to the old word-free cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s, those like Tom and Jerry and the Road Runner and Coyote, and had particular resonance for a silent comedy buff like me in its showing before Wall•E, which embraced the wonders of Chaplinesque humor and empathy in its first half-hour. Presto is Sweetland's first directed film for Pixar, but it is so magnificent that I hope the studio assigns him to a feature-film soon. If it's as good as this short film, then it'll be another jewel in Pixar's crown.

3 comments:

Tony Dayoub 05 February, 2009  

T.S.

Again, you couldn't be more on target with your sharp short takes. The only film I missed, Hunger is now one I feel obligated to see.

Sam Juliano,  05 February, 2009  

Well, I must say i am thrilled to be on precisely the same page with on every single review here, even the Pixar short. Perhaps you may have liked HUNGER a bit more than me, but it's a strong film.

And I nearly teared up when I read this:
"The primary engine is the fulfillment of Fincher's vision, and considered even in that single respect, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is tragic, beautiful, and enthralling."

BENJAMIN BUTTON, which made my own Top 10 list overcomes minor issues to become a film that has a haunting resonance many weeks after you see it. Fecund review.\

THE FALL is a beautiful film too, and I was hooked immediately after the second movement of Beethoven's booming Seventh Symphony begans over those stunning credits. psychologically provocative, it's a film with unforgettable images.

And you wind up with a wonderful consideration of the wordless short PRESTO, which is a wonderful lead-in to the year's best film (WALL-E)

Can't wait to see you Top Ten list!

Pat 07 February, 2009  

I'm finally going to see "Benjamin Button" tomorrow, so I'll be back after to read your review and see if we are in accord. I was totally in agreement with your review of "Doubt."

And, incidentally, I have named you for a Dardos Award. The details are over at my blog. Congratulations.

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