The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

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Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Mahershala Ali, Elias Koteas

Director: David Fincher

Summary: The story of a man who starts aging backwards with bizarre consequences

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Pitt), Supporting Actress (Henson), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Art Direction*, Cinematography, Makeup*, Costume Design, Film Editing, Visual Effects*

How do you turn a short story in a nearly 3 hour movie? By making it a “big/important” film about how we should view life, its opportunities taken and missed, aging and death, luck, fate and chance. The question is though: does it have anything particularly interesting to say about any of those themes? Eh…not really in my estimation, which is the big problem with this bloated, sort of empty film.

Benjamin Button deserved all of its technical nominations-the makeup and effects are extremely impressive even if they do fall into the uncanny valley on occasion, the film looks great from a production design and cinematography standpoint, and the score is very good. I also thought Pitt was consistently solid as the lead in a fairly challenging role. However, the first hour and forty minutes are kind of a slog, constantly beating us over the head with its themes but not really going all that deep or doing anything novel with them honestly, before our leads are finally reunited and they have some decent chemistry with each other. From then on, the film gets more engaging for that last hour. Still, this was a film that wanted to be far weightier than the final product was able to deliver (although I do like the observation that the beginning and ends of a person’s life can sometimes not be all that very different). Ultimately, it’s a pretty film with a quality lead performance but a script that needed to be more focused and either more insightful or going in a different direction altogether.

Rating: C

Frost/Nixon (2008)

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Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones

Director: Ron Howard

Summary: A dramatic retelling of the post-Watergate television interviews between British talk show host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Langella), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

Ron Howard is basically the textbook definition of a competent director and so he continues the streak here, with a solid but mostly unmemorable film. The strongest aspect is Langella and how he and the movie portrays Nixon as he truly was: a smart, slick man who was extremely insecure about himself and how other people viewed him. Beyond that, it does a good job of making the story feel dynamic and compelling enough to keep your interest (the body language used during the interview segments is consistently effective in telling the viewer the respective strength of the participants), but nothing else stands out all that much. I like Michael Sheen in general, but here he really only has his million-dollar smile (the same one he used frequently as Tony Blair in The Queen) and isn’t given all that much else interesting to do, which is a shame.

The other comment I would make is that I never like it when they create pivotal plot points out of thin air in a movie like this. Dramatic license is fine, but if the movie is purporting to tell a true story, outright making up plot points that are so important that the movie doesn’t work on a narrative level without them (as is the case here), is in bad form. The last thing I would say is that it’s sort of surreal watching this in 2017 as the film in some ways feels almost quaint now: sadly, we are at a point now where I cannot conceive of any kind of political scandal really moving the needle again like Watergate did because we are that jaded, that partisan and so far inside our political bubbles that genuine outrage from the entire public is now a bar too high to be met. The overall portrayal of Richard Nixon makes the film a worthwhile watch and the presentation is solid, but it’s nothing I would go out of my way to recommend.

Rating: C+

Milk (2008)

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Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O’Hare

Director: Gus Van Sant

Summary: The story of Harvey Milk, and his struggles as an American gay activist who fought for gay rights and became California’s first openly gay elected official

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Penn)*, Supporting Actor (Brolin), Original Screenplay*, Original Score, Costume Design, Film Editing

While there are a couple of hiccups here and there, I think this was about as good as a fictionalized account of the life of Harvey Milk was ever going to be. Sean Penn is outstanding as the gay rights pioneer (even if I still would have given the Oscar to Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler), and always embodies the humanity and spirit, the great aspects and the flaws, of the man he is portraying. For me, that humanity is where the film excels-it takes a much more personal and smaller approach to the subject than others might have and it’s much better for it, showing Milk as a fundamentally good person who decided to start fighting and helped start a long journey towards progress with the neighborhood he lived in. Along these same lines, it does a great job of focusing on how tightknit of a community the LGBT community was and had to be because each other were all they had and there’s a real spirit to the scenes where we see the group of activists together.

The way the film depicts Dan White is also interesting because of his motivations. He didn’t hate Milk because he was gay (although he certainly wasn’t a supporter of gay rights) which means Milk wasn’t really a martyr-he was murdered because of mental instability, resentment and a feeling of betrayal that had been building in White over the the past ten months. Humanizing one of the great villains in the history of the gay community in this way further grounds the film and keeps the story personal, making it not so much a grand narrative about the gay rights movement in general, but instead the story of a great activist who was killed senselessly and tragically. Milk is one of the better “based on a true story” movies of the last decade and is well worth watching.

Rating: B+

The Reader (2008)

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Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin

Director: Stephen Daldry

Summary: Nearly a decade after his affair with an older woman came to a mysterious end, a law student re-encounters his former lover as she defends herself in a post-WWII German war-crime trial

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Winslet)*, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography

Eh, this is a movie with a kernel of something good in the middle of a lot of mediocrity and fundamental issues. The Reader (mostly) does one thing well, which is playing with the idea of “the banality of evil”, that some of the most heinous acts in human history were committed by normal (non-psychopathic) people whose mindset was that they were “just doing their jobs”, no matter how hideous they might be, which makes it far more frightening. There’s also the fact that there was so much mutual culpability with the Holocaust as well-everybody knew about it, but they simply looked the other way. How does a country move forward after something like that, how do they reconcile with themselves? How does any country when faced with the ugliest parts of its history? It’s always easier to shift blame onto a few individuals and hold them up as symbols for everything bad than to truly come to terms with the real issues of human nature, and the movie explores that pretty well. While it’s no Judgment at Nuremberg (especially since it really makes out Winslet’s character to be a victim really which is one of many issues with the movie), it at least gives the viewer some food for thought. The other positive is the lead performance. The producers thought “we need a great actress in her late 30s-early 40s who has no issues whatsoever with being constantly nude. Who could we possibly get?…”; Winslet was of course their first choice and she finally won an Oscar for it. While this is not one of her best performances, I think she does really well portraying her character as an old woman in the later parts of the film.

The film has two other big issues for me, both on a writing level. First, it lacks any real emotional resonance and I had zero attachment to any of the characters or their relationships, which is a huge problem in a movie that’s centrally focused on the relationship between two of its characters. Second, the film shockingly glosses over and frankly downplays how disturbing the pedophilic relationship between the leads is. We get plenty of sex/post-sex scenes that are presented in the same kind of way you would expect from any steamy romance movie, something that does not sit well when the romantic partners are 15 and late 30s. Overall, I am really surprised this was nominated instead of vastly superior movies like WALL-E, The Wrestler or The Dark Knight, except that it was made by the Weinstein Company, so there’s your answer I guess.

Rating: C- (barely)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)*

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Starring: Dev Patel (his first feature film), Freida Pinto (her first feature film), Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (his first film), Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (his first film), Ankur Vikal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala (his first film), Rubina Ali (her first film), Tanay Chheda

Director: Danny Boyle

Summary: A Mumbai teen reflects on his upbringing in the slums when he is accused of cheating on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

Other Nominations: Director*, Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Original Song (“Jai Ho”)*, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing*, Cinematography*, Film Editing*

What makes the film something worth watching is how the score, cinematography and editing all blend together so well and give everything a wonderful energy throughout, even when the film goes to some very dark places. It’s an interesting mix of the harsh reality of abject poverty and what’s close to a storybook fantasy of fate and destiny, where everything feels consistent in style and tone and the framing device screenplay structure works well for the story. One thing that I think the film got right is how it depicted children: no matter who or where they are, kids are remarkably resilient; they don’t really wallow in how bad their circumstances are or their regrets, only teenagers and adults really do that. It was for that reason that I think the segments involving the characters as young children were probably the strongest.

However, if there is something negative to say about the film, it’s that I can see why a lot of people from India did not like it: the films’ depiction of the country as a whole is for the most part, relentlessly negative. It’s always going to be controversial when an outsider (especially one from the colonial power who used to rule over that country) tries to represent someone else’s culture, but outside of our male and female lead, nearly every Indian person in the film is violent and/or an asshole and the film mostly shows India as a land of almost nothing besides extreme poverty or extreme opulence (the latter part being mostly true actually even if it’s starting to slowly change). While you could argue that this only makes sense given the story they were trying to tell, it also says something that THIS is the story that you decided to tell, and that THIS is the one that got made into a Hollywood film and got huge critical acclaim.

This is a movie that is great at what it is trying to be-a sort of uplifting fairytale story about a person with an indomitable spirit that cannot be crushed by his circumstances featuring a lot of energetic elements that work perfectly together…but with some elements at its core that really rub me the wrong way.

Rating: B-

2008 in Review

Other Notable Films from 2008

The Dark Knight

WALL-E

Gran Torino

Ip Man

Iron Man

The Wrestler

In Bruges

Rachel Getting Married

Waltz with Bashir

Twilight

Let the Right One In

Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

2008 Nominees in Review

Milk: B+

Slumdog Millionaire: B- (Won Best Picture)

Frost/Nixon: C+

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: C

The Reader: C-

2008 jumps out to me as one of the weakest fields in modern history, with no great films and a lot of mediocre to merely above average ones. What makes it so much worse is that there were some really obvious alternative choices that would have made for a much better field-The Wrestler, WALL-E and The Dark Knight (even if I think Batman Begins is equally good or better) are all far more inspired nominees than Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader; these above listed films (mainly WALL-E and The Dark Knight) are pretty much the reason why the field expanded the next year. However, that shouldn’t take away from Milk and Slumdog Millionaire (a fair choice for Best Picture given the nominees) being good movies that deserved their spots.

For 2009, the first year with 10 nominees since 1943: James Cameron breaks his own record for highest grossing film of all-time; the highest grossing sports-drama ever; its title is a reference to District 6, an area in Cape Town, South Africa that in 1966 was demolished to make room for a whites-only neighborhood; Rosamund Pike plays a ditz in this film, but in real life ironically did exactly what the main character did: study English at Oxford; Kathryn Bigelow became the first (and currently only) woman to win Best Director for this movie; Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing a Nazi “Jew-Hunter”, ironically enough has a Rabbi for a son; the first Best Picture nominee by an African-American director; a Coen brothers film that takes place in their hometown of St. Louis Park, Minnesota and during the period they were growing up; the first 3D animated film to be nominated for Best Picture; and George Clooney was nominated for playing a character named Ryan Bingham-the same year a real person named Ryan Bingham won an Oscar.

Atonement (2007)

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Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brenda Blethyn

Director: Joe Wright

Summary: A fledgling British writer irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister’s lover of a crime he did not commit

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Ronan), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score*, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design

Atonement has some really amazing aspects to it-mainly the cinematography which is some of the best I’ve seen in a nominee in a while, and the score which while slightly repetitive was still outstanding and Oscar worthy. The cast as a whole is good, with all three versions of Briony Tallis (Ronan, Garai & Redgrave) giving strong performances, especially Ronan who was just 12 years old at the time but perfectly plays that distinctive kind of frustration that comes with the being at the cusp of puberty. As far as the screenplay, it’s interesting how they played with both time (periodically having a scene, then rewinding it a bit and showing the same time from a different character’s perspective), and with reality; in general, I thought the movie was strongest during the first section at the mansion, as after that it kind of loses some of its focus up until the last 20 minutes or so. Still, a solid movie that’s fantastic to look at with a great score and some good performances.

Rating: B

Juno (2007)

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Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, Rainn Wilson

Director: Jason Reitman

Summary: Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, an offbeat teenager makes an unusual decision regarding her unborn child

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Page), Original Screenplay*

I came in with relatively low expectations due to its reputation as a “delightfully quirky” indie movie but came away liking it more than I expected to. The dialog is probably the first thing that jumps out at you because people talk in language no normal human would, and about ⅔ of the time it was fine and ⅓ of the time I hated it; however, it gets somewhat of a pass from me for two reasons: one, you really get the sense that the dialogue and all the weirdness in general really is how the writer, Diablo Cody, acts in real life and this has a personal touch that grounds it enough in reality, and two, Ellen Page was perfectly cast and somehow makes the dialogue work where with another actress it would have bombed. Really, in terms of tone and atmosphere, Juno feels like The Adventures of Pete and Pete, a show I love dearly, on steroids although Juno lacks the heart that show had. As for it “advocating” for teenage pregnancy (versus abortion)…eh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s really saying that this is the better path, just that it a legitimate one that exists…which is true, but it’s not one that should necessarily be encouraged. I didn’t try to read too much into the politics of the movie because I don’t think that was really the point of the movie.

Juno is oftentimes genuinely funny even if it lays on the quirkiness too thick sometimes and Ellen Page’s performance makes the movie work in the end. It’s pretty good.

Rating: B-

Michael Clayton (2007)

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Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Merritt Weaver, Austin Williams

Director: Tony Gilroy (His First Film)

Summary: A law firm brings in its fixer to remedy the situation after a lawyer has a breakdown while representing a chemical company that he knows is guilty in a class action suit

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Clooney), Supporting Actor (Wilkinson), Supporting Actress (Swinton)*, Original Screenplay, Original Score

While there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, Michael Clayton felt uncreative and predictable with the cast being the one real saving grace of the movie. In terms of everybody involved with this horrible company being  guess a bit from my personal experience here: my legal ethics professor in law school was a woman who defended R.J. Reynolds in the tobacco cancer class action cases for 20 years and came off as one of the happier and most well-adjusted professors there. To the layman, this might sound crazy, but there’s nothing contradictory about wholeheartedly but still ethically defending an unethical client; in other words, unlike most every character in the movie, it is quite possible to be in this kind of situation yet still be a perfectly decent person who isn’t having a total breakdown due to their conscience. The story felt both overly dramatic and by the numbers, the latter of which really hurt it being an effective thriller that felt like it had any real tension.

Although other aspects may be lacking, I have to admit the acting is very good. Clooney is consistently reliable as a leading man and conveys the world-weariness of his character well; Wilkinson’s always a welcome presence and here he goes all out playing an unhinged lawyer off his meds who can’t deal with what his life has amounted to; and Swinton (somewhat surprisingly in my estimation) won an Oscar for her performance where she’s great at teetering on the edge, just about to fall off due to her actions but can still present a composed face to others. Unfortunately, good performances aren’t enough to make this anything particularly memorable, as it doesn’t dig beyond the obvious or offer any new insight with its themes and there’s not really anything that keeps you on your toes with the story.

Rating: C

No Country For Old Men (2007)*

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Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

Summary: Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong near the Rio Grande

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Bardem)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Film Editing

I’m glad I watched this-I saw it in theaters when I was 19 and was unable to appreciate how great this movie is back then, probably because it starts off as more of a slow, atmospheric movie. No Country For Old Men does a remarkable job of expressing a theme, that of aging and how older people can sometimes feel like the world they live in no longer makes sense to them, even if in some ways things are the same as they always have been. This theme is expressed through both some of the direct dialogue involving Tommy Lee Jones, but also through the narrative-while the death of a main character, off-screen, with about 30 minutes left and the totally unsatisfying resolution to another character’s story may be confusing and nonsensical, that’s sort of the point: the universe is often a place that lacks logic, order or justice and often random chance rules.

Beyond just theming, this is a movie that has truly outstanding cinematography (not in a flashy way, but just that every frame is perfectly lit and composed) and is full of great dramatic tension. In terms of acting, Javier Bardem steals the show and gives off the kind of genuine menace and lack of feeling or soul that Charles Laughton had in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Oliver Reed had in Oliver! No Country For Old Men is one of the best movies of the decade with original themes and an original way of presenting them in a remarkably slick package.

Rating: A