Friday, January 30, 2009
The nominees for Best Picture are ...
Welcome to Little Worlds – which offers general articles about the world of cinema as well as my ongoing movie-goer’s journal that will provide commentary on the movies I see in theaters this year.
But first, a look at the Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 2008 …
At this time of year when some movie-goers view up on the films nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, I humbly offer my reviews of the 5 nominated films that I saw in theaters when they were first released.
And the nominees for Best Picture are …
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button examines the experiences of a man who lives his life in reverse. When a boy is born in 1918 as a wizened 84-year-old man, and abandoned on the doorstep of an old-folks home, he is adopted by one of the attendants, an African-American woman named Queenie, played with warmth and wit by Taraji P. Henson. He is called Benjamin – later Benjamin Button when his bitterly disappointed father confesses this abandonment. From childish old man to restless youth, Brad Pitt plays Benjamin touchingly as a curious observer of life’s vicissitudes.
Told through the eyes of Ben’s one true love, Daisy, who lies dying in hospital in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina batters at the windows, and by means of Benjamin’s diary, the film is a string of whimsical tales. Daisy starts with the tale of Mr. Gateau, a blind clockmaker whose son dies in World War I and who makes a huge train station clock that runs backward – wishing that the clock might reverse time and bring back all the war dead – as illustrated by the stunning vision of the classic charge-across-no-man’s-land scene shown in reverse slow-motion. Perhaps this curious clock is responsible for Benjamin’s curious condition.
In the richly evoked setting of old New Orleans, Benjamin grows up, or down – as the case may be – in the old folks home where he learns his first lessons of life from the residents approaching the ends of their lives. There’s an old codger who claims to have been struck by lightning multiple times. One resident is an opera singer; another resident teaches him how to play the piano. A visiting African pygmy with sharpened teeth tells him of his experiences in a monkey cage and life and death on a great primordial river.
In a fanciful sepia-toned world of love, loss, regret, making amends, war, and death, Benjamin Button lives life as an oddball Everyman in search of the meaning of life. “Born under unusual circumstances,” he sets out to come to terms with and make the best of the unusual circumstances of his reverse aging on top of the unusual circumstances that anyone encounters in life. He wonders why he has to be different. He wonders about destiny. Was he destined to be with Daisy, the little girl he instantly falls in love with when he is a shriveled, balding “old man” of twelve? Since he was born old-looking, and he can easily see what happens to the old folks in the home in which he lives, Benjamin expects to die “young,” thus he has a passionate curiosity about what lies beyond his veranda, and a firm determination to grasp at any experience – the job aboard the Chelsea, for example – and to savor every experience.
Benjamin sets out to stack up his own life’s experiences when uninhibited by wheelchair or crutches, and it is clear that his youthening will set him off from the other boarders in the rest home. He goes to sea with a tugboat crew. He sees his comrades cut to ribbons by tracer rounds arcing through the darkness from a German U-boat that is rammed by the tugboat. He sees a hummingbird in the middle of the sea. He first tastes vodka, caviar, and the special excitement of a relationship that involves sitting up late with Elizabeth Abbott, an eccentric Englishwoman portrayed wonderfully by Tilda Swinton. Together, they savor the tranquility of the hotel late at night when all the guests are asleep. This first love affair is seen in a series of sequences that poignantly suggest an effort to arrest time and savor every moment. In another fascinating sequence, he learns how serendipity works to bring about a fated tragedy when a Parisian taxi driver, moving through a series of fateful chances involving random delays and mishaps, hits Daisy and ends her dancing career.
CGI trickery convincingly depicts Benjamin’s backward life. As a decrepit old man in a wheelchair, later in crutches, we recognize Brad Pitt’s features in this ancient face. Though Benjamin as an infant is merely a CGI grotesquery; as Benjamin gets younger, we clearly discern his emerging character – an individual destined to observe all the joys and strangeness that life has to offer.
As Benjamin reaches his twenties and approaches the end of his life, there is a shocking irony in the distinctive youthfulness of Brad Pitt’s face; we know that this bright-faced vitality signifies his death. He has enjoyed his days of heaven during the 1960s when he and Daisy – both in their forties – meet, consummate their love, and make the most of their days together. But after the birth of a daughter, when Benjamin’s aging difference outcasts him – or he outcasts himself – he embarks on a solitary journey around the world – seemingly to experience all that he can experience before it’s too late. We see this in montage accompanied by touching voiceover – in this case as an unsent postcard to his daughter: “There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before.” This is one of the film’s most touching moments – and the grainy cheap-camcorder look of some of the images – especially the image of Benjamin being woken up on a foreign street and being told to move on – is piercingly touching for its depiction of that bittersweet phase in our lives when we set out on our own to find ourselves and experience things like the very valuable, seasoning experience of roughing it alone.
Artful cinematography frames the dazzling, lucid moments of a life lived backward: a cup of tea in a hotel kitchen; the sunrise over Lake Pontchartrain; a cruise in a tugboat with the girl he loves; a NASA spacecraft blasting off into the clouds over a romantic sailboat. Tragically, as Benjamin nears death in infancy, he loses his memory of these wonderful moments but he senses he has lived his backward life to the fullest.
Though Benjamin has lived his life downward to infancy, there is still no escape from the inevitability of death. This visual irony makes his death all the more poignant. Benjamin has witnessed how life is hard enough for those of us who are basically normal or the same. But he has experienced firsthand how life is more of challenge for those of us born with a difference – a difference of intelligence or race or genetics. Benjamin’s life was different; he suffered the loss of parting from lover and daughter because of the way his life was reversed. He ends his life as an infant outcast. In his last instant alive, when his infant eyes look up into the eyes of the aging woman he loved, perhaps he acknowledges “what a long strange trip it’s been.”
Frost/Nixon, in typical Ron Howard style, does a workmanlike job of telling the story of how British talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) interviewed resigned president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and exacted admissions of guilt for what could never be proved. As in Apollo 13, Howard didactically but dramatically depicts an iconic episode in American history that reveals little new or shocking yet holds your attention throughout.
The performances are efficient and engaging. Sheen guides the film with a solid performance as David Frost. Langella throws you off with an inaccurate imitation of Nixon’s famous accent – yet in his posture and with the help of clever lighting, he begins to look exactly how we remember the defeated old crook. More passionate and invested is Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr., a writer who helps Frost research his material for the interview. The moment when he swears he won’t shake Nixon’s hand and then gives in out of awkward awe is a fine moment.
Howard does a good job of instilling the interviews with the pace and tension of a boxing match. The contenders go in for blows. They come off the ring feeling they have scored punches or suffered blows. Their coaches harangue them during breaks. Frost is down. It looks like a victory for Tricky Dick until Frost gets Nixon into a corner and elicits some outrageous attitudes about executive privilege.
The climactic confrontation is a thrilling moment. How could we not have been rooting for Frost all along? Langella, at his best, portrays the sinking of body and soul as he grants that he let the American people down.
Seeing this film an hour after seeing Gran Torino, I enjoyed its intelligence, its informative nature, its performances, and its thrilling pace. I also extremely enjoyed Rebecca Hall’s presence in the film. Hall plays Caroline Cushing, a woman Frost picks up on a flight to the States – though I have no idea what her function in the film is other than to be absolutely gorgeous and wear classy, revealing clothing. She’s charming to Nixon and supportive of Frost, but that’s about all she does. Nevertheless, I’m glad she wasn’t relegated to the trite role of neglected lover bitching that Frost is getting too involved in the interviews and not paying enough attention to her. I’m just glad she was there.
As for Nixon’s phone call to Frost the night before the final interview, I’m told that never happened. I don’t much care. It was dramatic and revealing though it seemed to get a bit too melodramatic and I found my mind wandering toward the end of it. On the other hand, that Nixon has no recollection of the call the next morning seemed hard to believe, and Frost’s conciliatory cover-up that they talked about cheeseburgers is, perhaps, a needless silly bit. Howard succumbs to other silly bits in the film, but the film is at its best when focused on its more serious conflict.
Milk risks gay stereotypes – often succumbs to them – and openly embraces presentations of gay sexuality as it depicts Harvey Milk’s struggle to be the first openly gay man elected to public office and to lead the gay rights movement during the late 1970s. Despite the film’s lapses into stereotype and the made-for-television-inspiring-biopic formula, Milk succeeds mainly because Sean Penn’s performance is convincing throughout, rarely overplayed, and because director Gus Van Sant takes us back to San Francisco in the 1970s by means of location shots in San Francisco’s Castro District and archival footage.
With strong supporting performances by James Franco – the supporting player most effective at portraying a believable character who happens to be gay – and Josh Brolin as Harvey’s bitterly bigoted rival, the film follows the requisite ups and downs of the famous person’s career, dramatically depicts Milk’s death by assassination, and ends with an image we are bound to find emotional: the march by candlelight of 30,000 San Franciscans mourning the death of Milk and Moscone.
Though I found the whole film only moderately moving, I found it interesting. I recalled living in San Francisco the summer of 1978, and it refreshed my memory of episodes like Anita Bryant’s orange juice commercials, Bryant’s homophobic denunciations, and Milk’s campaign for a pooper-scooper law. In addition, I never tired of the film’s central strength: Sean Penn’s artful portrayal of a man who dedicated himself to winning for gays dignified equality and freedom of expression – human liberties that seem so obvious and yet are constantly jeopardized even today.
COMPLETE SPOILER ALERT for the following film:
The Reader starts in 1995 with a soft-boiled egg served on white china by lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) for his naked lover’s breakfast. It’s a very German breakfast and this is a very German story that examines German guilt for Nazi atrocities committed during World War II. Its central character – Hanna Schmitz – is played by Kate Winslet, very much an English actress. Nonetheless, Winslet does a masterful job of capturing the German-ness of her character and of portraying post-World War II attitudes toward the Holocaust. Hanna is an obsessive-compulsive clean-freak – a very appropriate German persona and a fitting one in a film that explores the theme of guilt.
When we first meet Hanna, it is 1958. She is returning home from her job as a fare collector on a tram, and she finds fifteen-year-old Michael (David Kross) getting sick in the entrance way to the building where she lives. Before she helps him, she takes a bucket of water and sloshes away the vomit. Then she scrubs his face and hugs him stiffly. The scrubbing seems so appropriate; the hug seems inexplicable. The boy is just sick; but Hanna seems to have a sort of built-in, robotic compassion that is elicited by outside circumstances.
When young Michael returns with a bouquet of flowers to thank Hanna for her compassion, she is ironing. When he dirties himself filling her coal buckets, she runs a bath for him. Later, as lovers, she scrubs his entire body with lots of soap and those little washcloth-gloves that are a ubiquitous prop in German bathrooms. Why so much washing? Does she feel guilt or is she just doing her job, responding to outside circumstances that command a response?
What else do we know about Hanna? She is a very efficient fare collector, and she is surprised when she receives a compliment and a promotion. She loves sex and, very efficiently, in a graphic depiction, she guides Michael toward the spot that pleases her. She also loves it when Michael reads to her, and she sets up a regimen by which he first must read to her – books ranging from The Odyssey to David Copperfield to The Metamorphosis – before they make love.
Then she disappears, Michael attends law school in Heidelberg in the 1960s, he and his class take a trip to observe a war-crimes trial, the six defendants – female S.S. guards accused of murder – are brought in, and there is Hanna. Michael is in turmoil when he learns that Hanna is accused of selecting concentration camp prisoners for extermination. Should he tell anyone he knows her? Should he reveal that she is illiterate, a fact which would cast doubt upon a piece of incriminating evidence? Does she know he’s there? It doesn’t seem so, but when Hanna receives her stiff sentence, she turns and looks up in the direction of the gallery where Michael has been sitting. Later, he plans to visit her in prisons and decides not to. Is he ashamed of Hanna? Does he wonder about her childish ignorance that made her follow orders without question during the war?
We don’t learn too much about the Hanna who was an S.S. guard. I would have liked a flashback to show me exactly what went on back then. And I’m not clear about how Older Michael (Fiennes) feels when he agrees to help Hanna adjust to life upon her release from prison. As a German of the post-Third Reich generation, he must abhor Hanna’s complicity. He seems to have compassion for her, but it seems weak-willed.
Getting a jump on the whole recorded book industry, Michael records books on tape and sends them to Hanna. She learns to read. Michael has given her the best thing he could give her. So is the film suddenly about the nearly spiritual power of reading to liberate the soul – the kind of story that gets Oprah Winfrey all excited and inspires her to give away Kindles to all the audience members on her show? (If the novel The Reader wasn’t an Oprah book choice, I’ll eat my Kindle. Turns out – I don’t need to eat my Kindle.) I think that part of the story is supposed to be inspiring, but it just feels mechanical and I’m still left wondering about what reading means to Hanna.
Then we come to the sequence toward the end when Michael, upon Hanna’s request, delivers money to the Jewish survivor of the fire from which Hanna, and the other guards, failed to rescue prisoners. This part made me squirm for some reason. Michael flies to America to meet Ilana Mather (Lena Olin). She lives in New York City, of course. She lives in a lavish flat that is full of artwork that looks like it belongs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Is this stereotype? If I were Jewish, would I laugh? She won’t take the money. Of course, how could any money undo such horrid wrongs? Perhaps that was Hanna’s childish ignorance working again.
The Reader is a visually attractive, well-acted film about heady questions related to one of the most ghastly episodes in human history, yet the power of its themes is dispersed by its disjointed chronology, its shifting point of view: between young and old Michael who seem entirely different people, the unanswered questions we have about Hanna’s past, and the whole reading device which often lacks true passion and conviction.
How could Jamal Malik, a boy from the Mumbai slums – a slumdog, a chaiwallah or tea boy – know enough answers to win millions of rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”? This doubt, which gets him thrown in the slammer where he is tortured and interrogated, is a setback Jamal didn’t expect when he got himself on the show so that the girl he has been looking for can see him and he can be reunited with her.
Jamal won’t confess to cheating, but he can explain how he knew each answer. And that’s the delightful device that propels this rags-to-riches fantasy. As Jamal explains how he knew each answer, he tells the picaresque story of his sordidly base upbringing in the slums of Mumbai – how his mother, a Muslim, was killed by Hindu rioters and how Jamal and his brother, Salim, survived by begging, leeching off train passengers, leading bogus tours at the Taj Mahal, and by stealing and reselling shoes.
Jamal’s story is one of bare existence and narrow escapes, but it is also one of his eternal love for Latika (Freida Pinto), the orphan girl who shares some of Jamal’s adventures but ends up separated from him and held captive by a heartless crime lord. Latika knows Jamal loves her devotedly, but she sees no hope for them in the netherworld of Mumbai – a vast expanse of garbage, fouled water, and sleazy alleys. So Jamal goes on the Millionaire show (it’s never clear how he gets on it) so that Latika can locate him; Jamal has no idea where she is, but he knows she watches the show.
It doesn’t matter to Jamal if he wins. In fact, he doesn’t know the answer to the final question because his schooling ended before he could find out who the third Musketeer was. All that matters to him is Latika finding him – and the film’s most gripping moment comes during the final question when Jamal employs his final “life-line:” the phone call.
Danny Boyle – along with Indian director Loveleen Tandan – serves up a slick, rousing, sad yet triumphantly delightful film that contrasts the noisome garbage fields of Mumbai with the fanciful glitz of a show that tantalizes everyone with the possibility of wealth. Slumdog Millionaire follows the classic Hollywood screenplay formula: a character has a dream, faces formidable obstacles, but triumphs in some way in the end. And that’s exactly what happens. Jamal kisses Latika in the glow of the sun – and as the credits roll, Patel and Freida perform a triumphant dance number in the train station, thus ending Boyle’s vibrant, eclectic, feel-good fantasy.
(Find out which film the Academy will deem Best Picture when the 81st Academy Awards ceremony is telecast live on February 22. But before that happens, here’s your chance to make your pick for Best Picture of 2008 – whether or not it is one of the above nominees or another film released in 2008.)