The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Youth, it is often said, is wasted on the young. On the evidence offered by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it is wasted on the old as well. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born old, a decrepit infant, seemingly days from the grave. Abandoned by his father at birth, the old child grows, in ways curiouser and curiouser, into a strapping young man. Sadly, for Benjamin, everyone around him is in lockstep with the normal march of time, growing older and decaying while he grows younger and more beautiful.

This odd film is very loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but in the hands of filmmaker David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth, it grows into a wistful contemplation of love and loss, birth and death, youth and old age, memory and identity, and fate.

Benjamin's unfortunate birth is followed by a fortunate twist of fate -- he is found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the kindly, patient caretaker of a nursing home. With no children of her own, Queenie raises Benjamin as her son, and he lives, and grows up (or down) in the company of senescent old folks who come for a time and then go quietly into that good night. The old man, born to die, is instead born to live among the dying (but aren't we all?). His only childhood friend is also his soulmate, a girl named Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett) whom he meets again in the middle of their lives, as she is growing beautifully old, and he is growing beautifully young. The story of Daisy and Benjamin is recounted in his diary, and is read by Daisy's daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) as the aged mother lays dying in a hospital. That the hospital is in New Orleans, and that Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on it, is an unnecessary distraction from the core story. Yes, time, like a hurricane, is inexorable and deadly, but that point is made with more subtlety throughout
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and without the blunt intrusion of the inevitable thoughts about what happened to all the poor souls trapped in hospitals when the levees broke.
But back to Benjamin. The story follows, for the most part, his backwards lifeline. There are adventures at sea with a tugboat crew. War, love affairs, caviar and vodka. As a result of his curious condition, Benjamin meets many people on the verge of death, and is the recipient of many pithy pearls of expirational (if not inspirational) wisdom. It's a long and colorful life, spanning most of the 20th century, and filled with loquacious Irish sea captains, prostitutes, pygmies, hummingbirds, long distance swimmers, and beautiful dancers.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is charmingly whimsical at times, and frequently warm, sweet, and unexpectedly funny. And remarkably, despite a premise that strains credulity, it is a plausible love story.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a showcase for digital effects -- how else to transform Brad Pitt from wrinkled young codger to youthful old man? The inner and outer lives of Benjamin Button are forever (and tragically) out of synch, and this cinematic feat is accomplished, in part, by exquisite digital effects that capture the boyish essence of Pitt within a decrepit little body. Later, Benjamin is transformed, once again, into the boyishly handsome Pitt of *Thelma and Louise* (1991), and the strikingly pretty man he is now. Pitt's approach to his role is somewhat passive (and only rarely reminiscent of his paint-dryingly dull character in *Meet Joe Black*), which makes Benjamin a little inert, and a bit of a cypher, adrift in his own life. The real fire and spark in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes from Blanchett, who is, pound for pound, every bit as beautiful as her co-star, but also a more lively and daring actor. Youth is not wasted on the young Daisy, a spitfire, an elegantly long-limbed dancer, a woman of intense and unapologetic appetites.

Fincher is best known for thrillers (
Fight Club, Zodiac, Seven), and movies about serial killers. He is an immensely talented and interesting filmmaker who cannot be accused of anything like sentimentality, although he is far from dispassionate. That intelligent and cool passion serves this movie very well, and restrains any potential mawkishness. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is moving and provocative without being weepy or maudlin. It looks, in a clear-eyed way, at the inextricable entwining of love and loss -- it is tender and romantic without being drippy and cloying. I suppose Fincher takes on the ultimate serial killer in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- that'd be death itself, in all its various guises and modus operandi, but especially in the quiet solitude in which most of us will meet our unmaker.


The Tale Of Despereaux (2008)

The Tale of Despereaux is not merely the story of a very cute mouse named Despereaux, but also a story of a rat named Roscuro, a princess named Pea, a scullery maid named Mig who looks a bit like a pig, and soup. The soup is quite special, and so is Despereaux.
He is quite small, and his ears are quite large, even by mouse standards. He is a rodent nonconformist in other, more important ways too: he does not cower in fear, and neither does he scurry. When he is supposed to be nibbling away at a pile of books, he instead reads them, feeding his mind instead of his tummy. Devouring stories of chivalrous knights further emboldens the already too bold young mouse. He gets unmouselike ideas. He endeavors to rescue a fair princess -- that would be Miss Pea, a very sad princess whose mother died, fairly recently, in an incident involving a rat and a bowl of soup.
Speaking to a human and reading books gets Despereaux banished from wee Mouseworld. Over a hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote: "Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time." The elders of Mouseworld would disagree with Mill's assessment of mousy men, but it's a fine message for youngsters to take away from
The Tale of Despereaux. The mouse who dares to be different lives a life of adventure, but more importantly, he makes the world a better place.
Moral courage is something Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) never lacks, although others around him find their courage, resolve, and goodness occasionally lapsing.
The Tale of Despereaux is based on Kate DiCamillo's Newberry Award-winning novel, and it's a complicated tale of simple virtues. Despereaux meets Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rodent who has had the subterranean homesick blues ever since he wound up in the bleak underworld Ratworld. Roscuro is a nonconformist rat in need of redemption, and he meets Mig (Tracey Ullman), a peasant girl in need of a little kindness. There's a soup chef too, and an enchanted pile of vegetables, and a lot of unsavory, fairly bloodthirsty rats, and a great deal happens, much of it requiring a great deal of courage. The story is at times like a stone soup, with a little of this and a little of that, while the soup subplot itself is a bit too reminiscent of Ratatouille, especially since it involves both a rat and a snooty chef.
The animation in
The Tale of Despereaux is quite lovely and lively, exhibiting great attention to detail -- from the mouse whiskers and wet noses, to the fine tapestries and delicately carved balustrades in Princess Pea's palace, to the shadowy, trash-strewn Ratworld. The Tale of Despereaux has an exquisite Renaissance glory and luminosity about it (and also a Boschian darkness). The characters often look like they've walked right out of the pages of a glossy book on Renaissance art (Princess Pea's late mother looks like a plump Botero, but her true ancestor is clearly Botticelli's Venus). The artwork shines even when the story turns dark and moody, which it often does. If The Tale of Despereaux has a Grimm Brothers grimness, it is also filled with exciting exploits and daring deeds and life lessons well worth learning. And like any fairy tale about a good, brave mouse, it is a tale that ends well.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

In the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, a pacifist extraterrestrial visitor scolds the people of Earth for their violent, warmongering ways. The rest of the universe, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) warns us, is concerned about our discovery of atomic weapons, and stands ready to "eliminate" Earth if necessary. He gets shot twice for his troubles.

It's not easy being Klaatu. One gets the feeling, from the new
The Day the Earth Stood Still, that getting the Earth assignment is a lousy gig for an alien overlord, the planetary exterminator's equivalent of getting the killer bee job. Those dumb, irrational Earthlings never learn, and the odds of being shot are better than even. Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) does get shot. He also gets chased by helicopters, injected, interrogated, arrested, yelled at by a kid, hectored by Kathy Bates (in her capacity as US Secretary of Defense), driven to New Jersey, and taken to McDonald's. No wonder he's so grumpy. We Earthlings, as usual, do not acquit ourselves well, although we promise to change in the face of impending doom. Klaatu knows that's not change he can believe in.

On the Earthling defense team, there's a cute kid named Jacob (Jaden Smith), and his widowed mom Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an astrobiologist who helps Klaatu and tries to convince him that Earth is worth saving. Actually, it's not the planet Klaatu is here to dispatch, just its most destructive species. You gotta admit, he has a point about humans. Especially after they shoot him. Not that he gives us much of an argument for his radical environmental thesis, but the astrobiologist doesn't give him much of a counterargument. Neither does Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), the scientist Helen takes Klaatu to see after he complains that his "take me to your leader" request was denied. Barnhardt has a Nobel Prize for "altruistic biology," which sounds like the honorary degree you'd give an extremely smart dolphin. Barnhardt doesn't really have much to say to Klaatu by way of saving the human race, and pretty much punts it back to Helen. Cleese was a member of Monty Python, and played the irritable, misanthropic Basil Fawlty in
Fawlty Towers. It's lucky Klaatu didn't see that because he shows no signs of possessing a sense of humor.

Reeves, he of the preternatural calm (
he could turn out to be an alien and no one would be surprised), shows little sign of any sort of emotional engagement with Klaatu's mission. Klaatu speaks very little (sometimes in Mandarin, always in a monotone). He looks bored, actually, as if this whole business is beneath him. He's like an intergalactic bureaucrat completing an assignment in the worst neighborhood in the Universe.

Unlike the original movie, this one is unlikely to become a classic. The first one was unlikely to become a classic too, I suppose, but it did. The 21st century iteration will not because, for one thing, it
shockingly does not include the immortal line "Klaatu barada nikto." Written by David Scarpa, with dialogue that barely qualifies as such, and a pretty minimalist conception of its eco-theme, the movie wastes time explaining things nobody was wondering about, and tries to incorporate some timely finger-wagging about torture and counterproductive governmental bombastication and dunderheadedness, although to little effect. The Day the Earth Stood Still is directed by Scott Derrickson with an emphasis on action and special effects. There are a bunch of glowy orb things, and Klaatu has powers that enable him to move objects and manipulate energy. Gort, his giant enforcer-protector robot, is really rather awesome. Less inspiring are the far from subtle product placements dropped throughout the movie like a trail of breadcrumbs to lead you back out into the mall: when the aliens come to consider our apocalypse-worthiness, let's hope they don't see this movie.

Unlike their Cold War era forebears, the new Klaatu and Gort are not here about all the wars and violence, but because of all the Hummers and oil refineries and stuff, so there's no conflict between their mission and all the killing and destruction and havoc they cause. Which is handy, because it means a lot of stuff can get blown up and disintegrated and smashed and consumed by biometallic insect swarms in
The Day the Earth Stood Still, without Klaatu looking like an eco-warrior hypocrite. One might question his choice of a tuna sandwich for lunch, however. Maybe it was dolphin-safe tuna.


Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

"Happy" and "Mike Leigh movie" are not things that generally go together. The British director is better known for, well, for depressing and brutal films about depressing and brutal people living depressing and brutal lives. Happy just doesn't come into the Mike Leigh oeuvre all that much. So it ought to be little surprise that Happy-Go-Lucky features a heroine who is so darned happy-go-lucky, so chirpy and twittery and giggly and unserious that she managed to make me feel sorry for the crazy, ranting, misguided, hideous, appallingly xenophobic racist whose buttons she unwittingly pushed in her happy happy joy joy way. Isn't he right about her? I thought to myself. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Perhaps this movie is a secret psychological test. Your personality type can be deduced by how annoying you find Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the aforementioned optimist who *always* looks on the bright side, and to what degree you think her martinet of a driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), the aforementioned nutter and the epitome of road rage, might just be right about her.

Poppy, a thirtysomething London school teacher, swears she's really, genuinely, honest to goodness happy. And there's something to be said for happiness, and for
Happy-Go-Lucky, a movie in which very, very little happens except the sort of everyday stuff that makes up Poppy's generally uneventful but kind of ordinarily interesting life. What's extraordinary about Poppy's life is Poppy herself, her joie de vivre, her seeming obliviousness to what's bad, her cheeriness in the face of everything, her goodness. There's a sense in which her happiness appears to be unearned, that she is happy in spite of everything because she takes nothing seriously. But through a series of strange encounters with odd (and sometimes frightening) men, the film gradually, subtly reveals that's not the case -- Poppy does earn her happiness, and it is sometimes hard-earned, and she is happy despite everything, despite her deep empathy for everyone. One way to interpret Poppy is that her happiness is less like inner contentment than desperation. Happy-Go-Lucky offers an alternative interpretation: in the face of life's ups and down, trials and tribulations, there's more than one way to deal. If there's a downside to living, Poppy's strategy for dealing with it is to see the upside instead. But there is risk in that, and in her efforts to spread sunshine and smiles -- she's generally met with indifference, and occasionally with hostility, but she reaches out, reaches across the chasm of loneliness and unhappiness that separates people and tries to make contact. Turns out a lot of people don't want to turn their frowns upside-down.

Hawkins is terrific as the constantly nattering, smiling Poppy -- she reveals the ambiguity and awkwardness of Poppy, her annoying cloyingness, but also the genuine warmth and joy. Alexis Zegerman is indispensable as Zoe, Poppy's acerbic and more balanced flatmate; likewise Marsan, as the disturbingly funny, scarily apoplectic driving instructor -- he's the kind of repellent person you can't stop watching. There's great, unrelieved tension in the film that comes from waiting for something to happen -- waiting, really, for something bad to happen, for something to burst those bubbles that the ever effervescent Poppy produces. But that's not what
Happy-Go-Lucky is about. What is it about? Nothing really, and maybe everything. It's a movie that flows like a river, or more like a leaf floating on a river -- it bobs and drifts, gets tossed about a bit, gets stuck in eddies and twirls for a spell, breaks loose and floats some more, and so on. Watching the leaf from the shore is moderately interesting, but Happy-Go-Lucky invites you to consider the journey from the leaf's perspective too.


Australia (2008)

No theme is left unturned in Baz Luhrmann's epic movie Australia: love, war, racism, exploitation, colonialism, fathers and sons, mothers and sons, tradition, cultural assimilation, mysticism, magical realism. It's a cowboy movie, a war movie, a romance, a tragedy, a coming-of-age story, a tale of treachery and murder most foul. There are aristocratic English roses, dusty yet dashing Australian drovers, Aboriginal orphans, soldiers, priests, drunkards, thieves, and cows, lots and lots of cows. The Wizard of Oz is a recurring musical and thematic motif, but you'll see hints of Gone With the Wind and Bonanza too in this crazy pastiche of cinematic genres and styles. Crikey!

The story begins in pre-WWII Australia, and is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-white, half-Aborigine boy who is continually hiding from the authorities -- in the 19th and 20th centuries, Aborigine children were forcibly taken from their families for indoctrination, reeducation and assimilation into white culture (as the movie's opening scroll helpfully informs us). Meanwhile, aristocratic Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has come to the Outback to find her husband, an Englishman caught up in the romance of frontier cattle ranching. His murder sets in motion the rest of the story, which involves a monopolistic cattle baron named King Carney (Bryan Brown), his treacherous son-in-law Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), and a roving drover (a sort of Aussie cowboy) called, simply, the Drover (Hugh Jackman), whose rippling biceps and washboard abs give the rocky peaks and valleys of the Outback something to aspire to. The newly widowed Sarah takes notice of the local landscape too, and takes to the ranching way of life like a born frontierswoman. Apparating in the vicinity of all the action like a skinny deus ex machina is King George (David Gulpilil), Nullah's wizardly grandfather, who imparts some aboriginal mysticism on his magical protege grandson while he waits to take the boy on walkabout. Eventually, the war comes to northern Australia and, as they say, all hell breaks loose.

Australia is really about love, not war, and Lady Sarah must learn that, as Sting once sang, "if you love somebody, set them free." The ups and downs of the lady's love life are played for comic relief as much as they are for three-hankie melodrama, with Kidman more than game for looking foolish and getting her hair mussed. Her role is modeled on the Katherine Hepburn archetype of the capable, headstrong, independently-minded woman attracted to the equally capable, headstrong, independently-minded man. Like Sarah, Jackman's scruffy Drover cleans up pretty well, and transforms from a dusty John Wayne type into a dashing Clark Gable type with an assist from the transformative power of soap and a nice tux (his retro vogueing warrants a few laughs, too). He's an iconic loner, a wilderness man, a free-range horseman, but at heart he's a softie, because Luhrmann always insists that his dashing heroes be every bit as weepy as the women who compete with and complete them. The result is a movie that's funny, moving, and thoroughly engaging, an old fashioned movie with a gauzy glow and a modern, newfangled twist.

Luhrmann is the wizard of this Oz, pulling levers from behind the curtain, unseen but hardly invisible.
Australia, like Luhrmann's Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) employs the director's signature and unabashed "heightened artifice" and flair for the melodramatic to amplify emotion and get a point across without any pretense of subtlety, nor any allegiance to realism. The sets and costumes are deluxe, and draw attention to themselves, but in a way that anchors scenes using the cinematic signposts and tropes that direct both the gaze and the expectations of the audience. Australia is a movie in which a great deal happens, but not much is surprising because most of what happens is strongly predetermined by narrative and movie tradition. That's not necessarily a bad thing, in context -- most movies follow predetermined narrative paths, but don't embrace the fact, and go to great lengths to disguise it. Australia offers up a brief history of the land down under in a familiar package, following well-established trails blazed decades ago by Hollywood. Those trails -- the war movie, the western -- have been retraveled in revisionist vehicles of late. Luhrmann's an anti-revisionist who injects old movie genres with recombinant DNA in the form of new visual techniques and styles. But while he embraces artifice, Luhrmann does it in order to pump reality. Dorothy might have only dreamed in color, while she lived in a dreary black and white world, but Luhrmann's Oz is colored in a way that crystallizes the black and the white, renders them richer and deeper, and strips them clean of ambiguity. Australia may not be realistic, but in its florid, maximalist way, it is sincerely about reality.