Friday, January 30, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The real tragedy of Benjamin Button is not that a man ages backward and is therefore inexorably pulled away from everyone he loves.

The real tragedy is the running time.

The audience itself does a bit of aging over the thirty-four hours it takes director Fincher and writer Eric Roth to tell the story F. Scott Fitzgerald pulled off in twelve pages.

The running time isn't the problem, though. It's a symptom. The problem is a rambling, unfocused, episodic narrative that tries to encompass every aspect of life, and therefore encompasses none. Roth did the exact same thing with his famous "Forest Gump." He writes great scenes. Not great stories. Great stories are made on the backs of hard decisions. Great stories are about great material left out.

If I were editing "Button," I'd cut out almost everything that doesn't bear directly on the Blanchett/Pitt love story. That relationship -- and its tragic impossibility -- is the reason for making the film. Don't obscure it with tugboat captains and pygmy raconteurs.

The beautiful story hidden in this movie comes out at the end. The last twenty minutes of the film -- culminating with baby Pitt looking into Blanchett's eyes a final time before dying -- are genuinely affecting.

This is the downside of artists having total control over their material. Sometimes you need that idiot Harvard grad with total power over your movie to ask the irritating but invaluable question: "But how does it advance the plot?"

Good endings are so hard to pull off. They depend on sheer inspiration. How sad is it to see a bad movie like Button with such a good ending?

It's tragic.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Milk

I've always disliked bio-pics, and I think I've figured out why.

The greatest pleasure in drama is the shock you feel when expectation and reality diverge in a way that's completely unexpected, and yet inevitable.

But when you experience someone's life story from the very beginning, there's no real chance that character will ever say or do anything to surprise you. In bio-pics, there's never the unexpected, only the inevitable.

"Milk" is not your standard bio-pic.

It opens on the night of the main character's fortieth birthday. Our first impression of Sean Penn's Harvey Milk is a stereotype: a hedonistic gay man interested only in the frivolous aspects of life. That impression will change. Several times.

It seems almost impossible to resist turning your bio-pic subject into a saint, but screenwriter Dustin Lance Black -- an offensively young writer who's worked on HBO's "Big Love" -- pulls it off. Ultimately I think Penn's Milk cares more about himself, and his burgeoning political career, than anything else, including gay rights. That does not make him a bad person, nor does it make him an unsympathetic character. It makes him real -- and it makes his brief political career a story worth following.

A movie about a political activist could easily have been boring, so kudos to Black and director Van Sant for keeping the pace in constant motion. Especially early on, there are lots of short, fast-moving scenes that would be roadblocks in lesser hands.

This is my 2008 winner for best movie that should have been terrible.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans

Aristotle felt stories were best that kept a tight rein on the dramatic unities of place, time and action.

In other words, make your story about a single dominant event. Make it happen more or less in a single place. Make it happen in as short a timeframe as possible.

I can't believe I'm putting these things in the same sentence, but Underworld 3 sticks close to Aristotle's instructions.

Where the first two movies were sprawling affairs with dozens of locations, hundreds of characters and thousands of years of backstory, Underworld 3 keeps it tight. It's about a bad-ass vampire princess who falls in love with her father's loyal werewolf slave. Everything that follows relates directly to this event. Everything takes place in a single forest -- mostly, in a single vampire castle. And it takes place over the course of one or two weeks, tops. (The movie takes advantage of a technique way underused in movies: having the two lovers already deeply involved in a relationship -- in this case, a secretive one -- by the time the story begins.)

The result is what the first two Underworlds should have been. A forgettable but fun action romp in the world of vampires and werewolves.

At times the action sequences veer into kinetic chaos -- which I hate -- but mostly the action is well-staged and easy to follow.

Also there's an extended vampire/werewolf sex scene. Don't pretend that doesn't interest you.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Gran Torino

The Gran Torino of the title is a car Clint Eastwood's character owns, but it's really a symbol. The Torino represents an escape from the violence of the world.

And if you don't pick up on this right away, don't worry. The movie's going to bash that symbolism over your head a hundred times before it's through.

Symbols run amok in this movie. A cigarette lighter, a war medal, a set of tools. You'd need a notebook to keep track of them all, and that's appropriate. "Gran Torino" is the kind of somber, simplistic melodrama you're forced to watch in school.

The cliches work hard to keep pace with the symbols. There's the mysterious hacking cough which -- in movies -- is always an indication of terminal illness.

There's the good-thing-I-was-passing-by-when-another-character-is-in-mortal-danger. That happens three or four times.

Also, every character ends the movie exactly the way they began it. If you think you have a character totally figured out the first time you see them, you do. There's all kinds of "types" in this movie. There are no people.

Just to make absolutely sure it gets on my bad side, the movie breaks a couple of my inviolable movie rules.

Rule #1: No character dying on behalf of others will ever -- ever! -- fall to the ground with legs together and arms spread wide, a la Jesus on the cross.

Rule #2: After the main character dies, the movie will end. It certainly won't continue for scene after laborious scene, making viewers start to fear IT WILL NEVER END.

So who wrote this piece of crap?

A guy by the name of Nicholas Schenk. IMDB lists his other writing credits as: a TV series called "BoDogFight," a movie called "I Shot Myself," and a movie called "Factory Accident Sex (aka The Best of Doctor Sphincter.)"

Well then!

I guess that explains why this script was unbelievably bad.

So why did Eastwood choose to make it into a film? That one's easy. His character is smarter, tougher and more noble than any other character in the movie by about a million miles. And at the end he gets to make a heroic sacrifice that confirms he is smarter, tougher and more noble than you or I will ever be.

Movie stars. Bah!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Doubt

I always think Meryl Streep is over-rated. I talk her down whenever I get the chance. Then I see a Meryl Streep movie and I remember that, oh yeah, Meryl Streep really is the best actress on the planet.

The twist is this: a week later, I'm back to thinking Streep is mediocre. It's happened before. It'll happen again.

Leo DiCaprio has the same effect on me.

Anyway, Streep's amazing in "Doubt." So's Hoffman. But the real reason to see it -- and the real reason they're in it -- is John Patrick Shanley's fantastic script.

Hoffman plays a sympathetic priest. Streep plays an unsympathetic nun. But then Hoffman becomes less sympathetic -- maybe he's guilty of child abuse -- and Streep is suddenly more sympathetic. Then they revert -- there's no proof of guilt -- and Streep is back to being a baddie.

And that's just the first half hour.

The other fascinating thing about the script is what's left out. At one point, Streep's nun admits she committed a "mortal sin" in her past. We never find out what that sin is, but boy would I like to know, and boy am I happy I don't. Somehow I know if I found out what the sin was, I'd be disappointed. My imagination can come up with some awfully good sins without outside help.

Shanley also directed this. Ideally every script would be directed by its writer. The division of responsibility is a throwback to cinema's beginnings when each studio churned out hundreds of movies a year, which required an assembly-line style of production. It's not a logic thing. Directing requires no special skills -- certainly not the nauseating idea of a "visual talent" -- that cannot be acquired by the writer just as easily as anyone else.