The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Year Released: 2008
Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: December 25, 2008

For all the commercials and teaser trailers Benjamin Button has, it almost lives up to the hype. Now, I’m a big fan of director David Fincher. He’s teamed again with Brad Pitt, who was in Se7en and truly underrated Fight Club. The effects are dazzling, the sets are superb, the actors are on target and the story is old, but the methods are new. So it was a fresh reminder that Hollywood can still pump out some good flicks once in a while.

The film is based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story by the same name. The story centers on the title character, born with the physical appearance and mannerisms of a seventy year old man, who ages in reverse. The story is meant as more of a humorous article (well, my interpretation) yet is able to touch on some key items: the main one being that the best years of one’s life is at the beginning and the last years are arduous and painful. Living them in reverse motion seems poetic, or at least in the mechanics of plot, it becomes intriguing and mysterious.

Hang on Ma, I’m getting the Hershey Squirts…

The movie is a different beast. Rather than take a comedic stance it’s firmly planted as a drama. Even the trailer tagline spells it out: “The wisdom of age, the innocence of youth”. Both however are unattainable by our Benjamin Button played by Brad Pitt. Set in New Orleans 2005, right before the devastation of hurricane Katrina, an dying woman, Daisy (a very old Cate Blanchett) sits with her comforting daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond). Daisy asks Caroline to read back to her a diary of one Benjamin Button, complete with pictures and postcards from all different times of American history. Before the story begins, there’s a necessary plot device, and we’ve found one in the backwards clock created by the blind Mr. Gateau at the end of WWI. Having lost his son, he hopes that he can turn back time in an effort to bring back all the fallen sons the war has taken from all of them.

Hey, it’s a nice little touch.

Remember when we were in Babel? Man, that was awesome.

Once Caroline starts reading, it’s all told from Buttons point of view. Button as you know is born an old man, taken in by the kindly Queenie and Tizzy (Taraji P. Henson Tizzy Mahershalalhashbaz Ali); both workers at an old folks home. Since Benjamin is already born an old man, he fits right in at the old folk’s home. This is where he becomes accustomed to death, and feels somewhat unfazed by its cruelty. As time goes on, his body becomes more and rejuvenated, while his mind is the only thing seemingly able to age forwards. He meets his first true love, Daisy (the aforementioned dying lady in the hospital). Its love at first sight, however they don’t ever hook up until their ages are almost in line. Thus, the line in the film ‘we’re almost the same age; we’re meeting in the middle’.

I’ll spare you the details of each adventure Button gets into, so let’s just say he’s been in war, travelled the world, got into Tilda Swinton’s goodies, and oh yeah…ran off to leave his kid with Daisy.

That last point made sense when you’re sitting in a darkened theatre because the choice is purely ‘thematic’. His reasons for leaving his daughter who they reveal to be Caroline, the girl reading the diary to her mother, is that he doesn’t want Daisy to be burdened with having to raise two children. Granted, but Button would have gotten some good mileage, at least 25 – 30 years of seeing his daughter grow up. Instead he runs off to India and other exotic places, sending post cards on every birthday. Now that I’m here writing it out, it seems pretty stupid. I’d like to think most parents would be happy to be there for their kids regardless.

Hey, that’s Hollywood for you.

Can I move this white piece to a black square?

The special effects are incredible; you really believe that Pitt is a gray haired, stooped old man, even a geezer in his 50’s and 60’s. What really amazed me was the amount of work done on the sets of New Orleans, the tiny little details that made every little bit believable. The transitions from decade to decade is subtle yet noticeable, even making Cate Blanchett go from young to old was pretty cool. My only doubt was with the story, penned by the same guy who wrote Forrest Gump. It’s pretty clear he took a lot of the same story structure and planted into Benjamin Button because there’s a central love plot, a recurring object (trading a feather for a humming bird) and replaces the whole mild-retardation thing with a backwards aging character. Regarding the events in the story, Button is merely there to observe, but doesn’t much participate. Trade that off for Forrest Gump who actually got to meet some presidents, play on the American ping pong team, and well, start a whole franchise from one scrimping boat. I can’t really say the same for Benjamin Button, who scowls when he’s old, rides a motor bike when he’s young and tramps around town when he’s younger. Heck, this might be an autobiography. In a nutshell, Button is Forrest Gump, with better cinematography and special effects, but minus all the US presidents.

For some reason, I was spellbound to continue watching even after I had those curious thoughts. Moreover, I think it’s the ability to capture my imagination and hold it for more than 2 1/2 hours, and keep me well entertained. Even if it was a little predictable.

7.0 out of 10

Tropic Thunder

Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Brandon T, and Tom Cruise(!)
Production Company:
Studio: Dreamworks SKG

When Tropic Thunder was released, all the buzz was about Robert Downey Jr. playing a black man. Different groups were all in upheaval about the charade of a man willing to do something like this in the name of comedy. There was a lot of talk about racism and Hollywood’s easy acceptance in the name of a buck. If you watch the movie, you’ll actually find it’s done quite tastefully and it fits the character Downey Jr is portraying. And if you think Hollywood cares who they’re offending in the name of the almighty dollar, you’re dead wrong. Just take a look at ‘White Chicks’ a gross out comedy starring the Wayan brothers as two blonde heiresses. No one even batted an eyelid when that premise was announced. Even the title was honest in what the content was about, yet you didn’t hear about any petitioning groups against it.

The rabid fans of ‘Envy’ find their way onto the set…

I’m sure the double standards community online agrees with me.

It’s been a while since Ben Stiller was behind the camera, his last directoral movie, Zoolander was the satire of the world of male modeling. This time around, Stiller is a little more honest and has a lot less slapstick in Tropic Thunder. It’s a movie within a movie concept complete with fake trailers with the title characters playing to their strengths. If you give it a chance you’ll have a fun time keeping up with the insanity of movies and vices that each actor can have.

Start the engine, Katie Holmes found out where Tom got to at night!

The story follows a group of actors with engorged egos cast in the most expensive war movie ever made. Each actor is at the top of their game in the three major film genres: Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) the comedic actor with a spiraling drug problem, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the action juggernaut with one last chance to show he’s got some acting talent, and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) the five time oscar winner method actor who gets a little too involved in his roles. In the mix is a up and coming rap superstar Alpo Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and the unknown actor (Jay Baruchel) who actually reads the source material and script. The source material in question was written by double arm amputee Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) whose experience in Vietnam and horrific injuries are a result of a top secret mission, which now is being turned into a high-concept overblown Hollywood movie.

The director is fed up trying to get his all-star cast to gel together to get the project done, and at Four Leaf’s request, puts them into the jungle filming them guerrilla-movie style. As you’d expect, something happens and it’s no longer a movie, as the group finds themselves in real danger.

Downey Jr. is magnificent as the dude playing a dude, disguised as another dude.

If you’re going to spoof a major tent pole film, you might as well make it look the part: it’s shot and lit incredibly well. The in-jokes come mainly from the actor’s attachments to their paycheques and lifestyles than they are creating art. All the supporting cast seems to be in on the joke, Matthew McConaughey as Tugg Speedman’s agent is more concerned about getting his client TiVo instead of working on his acting skills. Keep you ears unplugged for an unmistakable voice in Tom Cruise, as Les Grosman, the overweight vulgar, obscenity spewing corporate executive looking to pad his wallet at the expense of any actor or film. This was supposed to be the hidden gem; Cruise is hilarious in his execution, his dance moves and appearance a stark contrast to his otherwise pretty-boy image. His appearance would have dominated the movie, except for:

Robert Downey Jr. Say what you will, his performance walks the line between good taste and comedic timing. He’s got pathos and creates empathy for his fictional character, african American staff Sargent Lincoln Osiris, played by Kirk Lazurus. There’s so many layers behind that performance it’s hard to peel back one after another and not be astounded by the amount of effort he put into those character(s), especially in a movie satire, let alone a comedy film meant to generate laughs instead of buzz. There’s so much conviction in what he’s doing, as his own character states “I only break character after the DVD commentary”. Downey Jr. still shines when he’s playing the Australian Oscar winner and it almost takes away from the films overall tone of irony and sarcasm.

If you looking for a movie that’s light on conscience pick up Tropic Thunder, the laughs are well earned and the filming is beautiful.

7 out of 10

Movie Review: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows
Distributed by: Apatow Productions

Like any good mockumentary, Walk Hard is right in the thick of things, slipping in jokes with the wit that can only be John C. Reilly’s. From the source material alone, I had thought this was a Will Ferrell vehicle, so thank God Reilly was cast. He’s just got that Oscar touch and refinement that Ferrell simply lacks, because, let’s face it: we’re all getting tired of his antics in movies as of late. Hey, I’m just giving my opinion.

Back to the review – Dewey Cox is the derivative of all and any musical analogies we’ve grown up with: it’s solidly based on the life and times of Johnny Cash, with roots in rock, jazz, new age and yes, even some motown and punk slipped in there; much like the 3 [men] Cox slept with during his illustrious career. The story arc sets off when Young Dewey Cox accidentally halves his older brother in a machete fight. As ridiculous as that sounds, it actually works as the cast and crew are more than willing to admit there is a fourth wall, but never actually touch it: they do come tediously close to going right over it, but have the sense to keep the reality of the movie well intact. After the brother incident, Dewey loses his sense of smell (a la Ray Charles); he’s befriended by his father, played by Raymond J. Barry who continually and eventually hums ‘killed the wrong boy’. It’s that sort of tough love that sends Dewey out on the road to pursue his dream of one day being a famous musician.

It’s during Dewey’s first time on stage at the tender age of fourteen (the film makers wisely decided to have John C. Reilly play this part) that we really discover Dewey’s talent. If you can pick it out (and it’s not hard), that’s actually Reilly singing – and he’s pretty good, it certainly gives his credit for his past Oscar win.

The situations the characters are placed in are right out real events (playing at a radio station to a strict manager), and there’s no juxtaposition in the dialogue: pretty much everyone cuts to the point – in a funny way: when the radio station manager delivers his ‘there’s no way you can convince me to keep recording, you have no talent, and I’m sure you’ll never amount to anything’ speech, and gives Dewey 15 seconds to try to come up with something, you just know the next mega hit is about to be recorded.

Cox winds through the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and a good part of the 80’s with reckless abandon, sleeping with random women [plus one band mate], experimenting with drugs, selling out with a variety disco television show, and well, you get the picture.

It’s a tongue in cheek experiment done right. It works because the comedy doesn’t rely at all on current events, and I think this is where most current spoof films fail: they’re a little too busy commenting on Brittany Spears and company. And really, who wants a movie that can be that easily dated with some soon to be obscure singer?

Watching Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story was a satisfying romp through musical history’s misguided eyes. Even if some of the things and times aren’t entirely familiar to you, it’s still funny. And for those music fanatics, it’s just that much more fun.

7 out of 10

Movie Review: Rambo

Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz,
Production Company: Rogue Marble

Remember that scene in UHF where Weird Al shot something like, 100 guys standing on the hill with his big M60? The 2008 Rambo kinda reminds me of that; namely because he has a great big .50 calibre machine gun he uses to mow down the enemy. Of course, UHF didn’t have bad guys being decapitated or limbs blown off from bullets; leave that to our boy Rambo.

As you know (hopefully you’ll know this) Rambo is the fourth instalment of the Rambo series. Basically it’s an exercise in maniless, masculinity and defined the 80’s action hero as the rough and tumble ex-military type. Unlike the first series however, there’s much more gratuitous violence and blood than the first three COMBINED. Stallone might not be as muscular and slim; these days he’s trying to stave off the grandpa fat and thankfully doesn’t take off his shirt, he’s bit larger and little chunkier but even more deadly as he hacks and shoots his way through Burmese soldiers.

This time around Rambo, who hasn’t returned to the United States in 25 years, lives a solitary life in Thailand where he hunts poisonous snakes and blacksmiths random metal objects. For anyone still paying attention: Rambo is the fucking balls, the iron chef of he-man toughness. He hunts poisonous snakes. Seriously. Some missionaries show up hoping to help the war torn Burma, and since they’re armed with Bibles and medicine, and have a single white female (Julie Benz), Rambo is adverse to the idea at first then warms up. Probably to further along the story. The missionaries get to their destination, but shortly after arriving the village is massacred by the Burmese army and the surviving missionaries are taken hostage.

At this point it’s up to Richard Crena’s replacement (Ken Howard) to hire some annoying commandos and with Rambo’s help, get their people back and shoot the ever-loving-shit out of the Burmese. Let’s put it this way; he does both.

The character of Rambo has always been a part of my childhood; he was this untouchable killing machine that didn’t have mercy, was invisible to the enemy and feared by his own people. On top of that, he was resourceful, smart and suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome; and back in the 80’s that was cool. This time around, he’s a little slower and director Stallone’s solution was to up have him kill people in the most graphically violent way possible. To make up for the last 25 years, Rambo still uses his crossbow; albeit for fishing and gaming, but it was still pretty cool to see, and he didn’t have his giant multipurpose blade either: he traded it in for a custom made giant machete. And I think that’s the symbolism Stallone was trying to accomplish in this film to set it apart from the last three – he’s gotten older, wiser, and rather than using a sleek blade, the broad metal of the machete inflicts maximum damage with maximum noise. As opposed to trying to sneak up on people, and at 61 that’s probably harder to accomplish.

If you’re looking for blood and guts, look no further than Rambo, I’m sure there’s enough here to start its own franchise. Stallone can prove he can bring new life into old shoes with Rocky and he’s done pretty well with Rambo. Next up, either a sequel to Demolition Man, or a Tango and Cash remake with Stallone and Seann William Scott. Man, Tango and Cash was awesome.

7 out of 10

Movie Review: Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone
Year Released: 2007
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Casey Affleck, Ed Harris
Production Company: LivePlanet
Review done: 11:56 AM 5/20/2008

Gone Baby Gone proves that Ben Affleck is more effective behind the camera than in front of it. Considering this is perhaps his first movie directorial since his Indy roots, he does a fantastic job of putting the whole story together.

Really, Ben Affleck’s last good movie was changing lanes with the too-cool Samuel L. Jackson. Come to think of it, just seeing Jackson explode like a mushroom cloud laying mofo is worth the admission alone. And that was back in 2002! Well, back to the review…

Gone Baby Gone is the adaption of the novel (of the same name) by crime writer Dennis Lehane. It’s basically two missing persons detectives looking for a missing kid in suburban Boston – or, as the southies say ‘Bahstan’. Pretty straight forward formula right? Wrong! That’s where things get interesting.

Patrick Kenzie (played by the could-he-be-any-younger-looking) Casey Affleck is out to find a missing child, brought to his attention by the kid’s aunt and uncle. Said aunt and uncle are seemingly much more concerned about getting the kid back, as their actions speak much louder than the mother, played by Amy Ryan who does a stunning job of being the white-trash druggie mother, who – could have easily swindled her kid for a fix. Add the mother’s apathy, the aunt and uncle’s empathy, and the additionally empathy of Police Chief Jack Doyle (Excellent as always Morgan Freeman) and a quick, plot turning movie and it becomes great.

What was great about this flick, it kept everything on one track: no distracting side stories, no film wasted. Just when you think you’re being pulled in one direction, you realize its part of the bigger picture. And that’s why this is such a great flick. Plus, everyone seems to have a hidden agenda, except for our man, Casey Affleck. Who does a star performance as well, hell, he’s probably trumping his big brother who’s more content sitting behind the camera – and there’s no complaints from me. Given that lil’ Affleck has starred in a slew of Indy hits, big box office draws like the Ocean’s series, he’s primed for an Oscar nod soon.

Setting for Gone Baby Gone is near perfect: Big Affleck paints a picture of a Boston working-class neighbourhood full of neverdowells, up and coming kids, and street drugs: the kinds of imagery brought to the screen can only come from childhood memories, and we’re that much more thankful that he did that faithfully. Every little nook and cranny of Boston brought to us from street level, and every character a savoury one. Take for instance beat cops Remy Bressant and Nick Poole (Ed Harris and John Aston, respectively) – those guys just remind me of the type of suited cop that would rather lounge around all day in a coffee diner. Of course, that’s just me.

Deeper and deeper we get, and the more entangled we find ourselves in a world full of cops, drugs, red herrings and the search for justice. I’ll leave it at that. Just be warned, nothing is as it seems and there are always a few twists around the corner, the last one had me questioning my own judgment should the situation ever happen.

Thought provoking and fine – you should check it out.

7 out of 10

Movie Review: Déjà Vu

Déjà Vu
Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures

Déjà Vu: The feeling you’ve done something before. There’s a much wordier version of the definition, but for the purposes of my own dumbing-down, this will do fine. So, it feels familiar: Tony Scott teams up with Denzel Washington in another action flick. However, this movie deals with time travel, alternate realities and touches on fate. Pretty heavy fodder for adventure movie fare; In any case, it all works pretty well.

For you Action Jackson fanatics out there, you’ll have to wait until the third act when things like bullets start flying, it’s not super intense like old Scott movies, but it gets that fix in there. What’s really weighed pretty well is the balance of story, theory and physics. It’s all grounded in a very real reality that could be right now, if only you weren’t taking orders from a very fat Val Kilmer.

Déjà Vu starts with a literal bang, more like a boom actually; a New Orleans’ ferry is blown to bits: with all the passengers on board. The stakes really couldn’t be raised any higher. Washington is the ATF agent Doug Carlin, part of the explosives task force encompassed with the job of identifying the explosive and finding the culprit – albeit, the case becomes more and difficult with the lack of clues. In comes Agent Pryzwarra (Kilmer) with a fresh perspective; armed with a group of physicists, they’ve have successfully created a viewing tunnel (or rather, wormhole) four and a half days ago. It’s pretty cool technology, and the amount of additional filming must have been hell – the concept is that while you’re able to look four days in the past, you’re also able to view from any angle. Normally, this might present a problem to any normal filmmaker. Thankfully, Tony Scott has much experience in making use of beautiful camera angles, so it plays off beautifully and seamlessly. The case becomes personally for Carlin as he is smitten with Claire, a supposed victim of the ferry bombing, as he suspects she had expired a good hour before the bomb exploded. Using the very cool time leaping/folding technology, he focuses his time looking at Claire’s last days. As events unfold, he tries to send himself clues to the past, some of them with disastrous results: the message is there – don’t mess with the past! With hours remaining, and culprit in sight, Carlin decides to take matters into his own hands (what, you thought he was going to sit around?) and steps back into time itself. From there it’s a paradox within a paradox, within a tightly wound story.

The use of time and ability to watch events unfold in the past is a risky one, but it pays off. There’s a particular scene where the camera can go mobile attached to a Humvee – it’s a chase that happens in the present and the past. And yes, it’s both trippy and cool. Just trying to watch two screens at once in a completely black theatre will either make your head spin or give you attention deficit disorder.

In using the time line plot, everything else certainly helps serve it: the equipment, setting, even the characters. And that’s why I think this movie loses a few points. No one really matures to become a rounded character; everyone is basically static and helps along the story one piece at a time. Don’t get me wrong, when you see Adam Goldberg talk about the Wheeler Boundary, you get the feeling he’s given the speech to a bunch of MIT undergrads. They’re all very convincing, but they only help out this time folding technique. I even caught myself enjoying Val Kilmer’s performance for a change: could be because he’s taking a back seat to what could have easily been his own starring vehicle. Hey it could happen – if I told you back in 1990 that the star of Turner and Hooch would win an Oscar, you’d shoot me in the face.

Anyhow, Déjà Vu is gladly not the definition of the contents: you don’t get feeling you’re headed down the same path a hundred times before, rather you’re treated with some nice ooh’s and ahh’s that only Tony Scott can bring you. It’s just a good thing he got away from his over saturated color and blow out lighting done in Domino. Geez, that thing was a technicolor nightmare.

7 out of 10