A blog about movies and filmmaking.

You never know what’s comin’

In drama on May 21, 2009 at 4:34 am

So, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. The movie written by the man behind FORREST GUMP and directed by the fella behind ZODIAC, starring one of his most oft-used acting partners, Brad Pitt. I have to say my interest in this movie waxed and waned a lot during the time leading up to it’s release, it in the theaters, it getting all kinds of accolades and naysayers and then that whole thing with the Oscars. So, it’s not been til now that I’ve finally gotten around to seeing it. The hype has died down, everyone’s concerned about the new, next best thing and I can settle down and watch this movie at home, alone and enjoy it for what it is. 

The story, as pretty much everyone knows by now, is about a person born old and ages backwards throughout his life. The experiences he has, the people he meets and leaves and of course the one true love. We’re introduced to Benjamin, soon after he’s born and left on the steps to an old-folks home in 1918. The two workers of the place, who have a romantic relationship are on the porch starting their courtship, when they literally stumble over the baby who looks like an old man. We see as he ages, getting bigger, and acting like a child in a senior’s body. When he’s about ten he is introduced to Daisy – played wonderfully by Cate Blanchett, who although we won’t actually see her face til later seems to still be providing the voice for the little girl – the grand-daughter of a patron to the retirement home. Soon, young Benjamin is old enough – and still looking even older – to start venturing off and having some experiences that someone who looked their age, probably wouldn’t be. Whether this is getting a job as a sailor on a tugboat, drinking with men all around the world  and of course partaking in his share of prostitutes. 

The casting in this movie is fantastic. There’s not a weak actor in sight and the worse performances seem to actually come from the still-limited, but fantastic nonetheless, special effects that age – or de-age – our performers. Brad Pitt, obviously taking up the majority of the movie turns in a really good performance. I always love watching him and especially once we get to the parts of the movie where it is him unmade up, we get the best of what he has to give us. I know the fuss has been that most, if not all the performance, we get from Benjamin’s face is actually Pitt, but a great deal of the CGI still doesn’t ring true. There’s still an artifice to it. There are moments of course, where you can forget that the person we’re seeing is the creation of some digital artist – and like in the movie BEOWULF from last year – the best the character looks is in stylized light. 

Cate Blanchett has some heavy lifting in the movie. Most of all, because the seeming bulk of her performance is in the contemporary breaks in the narrative that has her an old and dying woman. Throughout the movie, she goes from looking radiant and young to older and still beautiful. Her old age makeup from when she’s lying in the bed, also seemed fake looking to me – not because it was CGI, which I don’t believe it was – but because it still didn’t have the look of real sagging, loose skin. Not much to complain about, but it did stick out quite a bit. 

The key supporting roles are where the movie really shines. With the main ones being Julia Ormond as Blanchett’s daughter. Basically, the movie is her reading through an old journal – to her mother – during the on-coming Hurricane Katrina. There’s a lot of surprised discoveries throughout and some emotional moments and Ormond, is great – as she usually is. 

Taraji P. Henson, turning in a role as Queenie – the woman who finds and takes in old baby Benjamin – does a fantastic job in the role that an Oscar nomination, in a Supporting Role. It is true, that she essentially plays the cloying mother to Benjamin and only has a few moments of actual character, but she oozes goodness and just makes you care about her. 

The other person to mention is Tilda Swinton. Who plays a character who we meet early on in Benjamin’s travels, but makes a strong enough impression both on him and on the audience, that when she’s later referred to in the movie, it makes us happy to know she did well for herself. I have to mention that Swinton is a hot/cold personality for me. There are certain moments where she comes off as the cold-hearted, dried up bitch (like in BURN AFTER READING and MICHAEL CLAYTON) and others where she’s a glorious and beautiful woman (this might be strange but I’m going with CONSTANTINE as my example), and we mostly get the latter here. There are a few shots where she just looks stunningly gorgeous, and could easily make anyone fall in love with her. (But, then she started talking about rules, and I couldn’t help but think of the former examples.)

Now, to just go back a bit to talk about the creators behind the camera for this movie. First up, Eric Roth, with a career lined with amazing movies like MUNICH, THE INSIDER and SUSPECT; there are two movies that stick out like sore-thumbs. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and of course the mega-blockbuster directed by Robert Zemeckis, FORREST GUMP. Now, I don’t want to go into this movie calling it Forrest Gump-lite, but there are more than a few similarities. Having read neither of the source novels (or short story, as Ben. Button is), it’s just hard to imagine that both novels would turn out movies so similar in scope and in their “core message’s”.  The title for this blog post, is essentially this movie’s version of “You never know what you’re gonna get”. And this isn’t to say that it’s a bad thing. I love FORREST GUMP and I think that Benjamin Button does well in the formula that it has. 

Where the problem is, that I see, is that David Fincher probably wasn’t the best director for this project. I’ve loved all of his movies so far (having seen it first, out of the series, I enjoy ALIEN 3 a lot!) and am in no way saying he doesn’t succeed in this movie. But, I have to say that if I didn’t know who the director was, I don’t think that I’d be able to place it as a Fincher work. And this isn’t to say that an artist can’t broaden their wings – heck, look at the tugboat captain! – it’s just that this movie doesn’t fit with what it seems to be what really moves Fincher to make movies and that is moderately emotional fables. ZODIAC, which I think might be his best movie, is kind of out of the genre that you would consider a Fincher movie to be – despite it being about a serial-killer – but it has his stamp all over it. 

While he’s not as cold as a Kubrick or even Polanski, to an extent, Fincher’s movies tend to be a little detached and lacking in emotion towards it’s characters and that’s the touch that a movie like this needs. That’s the kind of touch that Zemeckis has had all through his career, and brought to Gump. And I think that that is part of why this movie, which very well could have done as well as FORREST GUMP, didn’t. 

All of this to say, that while not perfect – and a perfectly acceptable experiment on Fincher’s part to make something outside his normal oeuvre – this is a fantastic and beautiful movie. My favorite moments are the awe, and horror of silence turn into a hail of in-coming machine gun fire, in the dark, middle of the ocean; again, the shots of not just Swinton, but of Blanchett – these women shine in this movie; and my favorite bits were of a man who lives in the retirement home, and continues to tell Benjamin how he was struck by lightning seven times – and us getting to see it!. But, the greatest moment is probably in the scene where Benjamin is telling the audience the story of a woman who forgot her jacket, a cabbie who stopped for coffee and the difference that just a few minutes can make! 

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, while possibly not a cinema classic, is a fantastic movie and I would recommend it to anyone. It’s grandiose, and painted masterfully by a wonderful director, leading a stellar cast (a number of whom I didn’t mention) and in the end, pretty touching.

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