Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Grade: B+

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008)

Grade: B

Yes I cheat with my own grading system. Whatever. I do not feel right giving this a B based on my emotional reaction but a solid B+ feels a little too generous. I feel like it would be leaning toward a B+ more than a B but I am choosing the slash.

I'd like to see this again because I really feel like I need a second viewing to know what I think more definitely.

So I saw “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” on Christmas day and I do not really know my thoughts on it still. I know that I liked it very much. That I cried during about an hour of it altogether. I also know that this does not make it a masterpiece just because I was extremely moved by it. There are some concepts and images in the film that stay with you and disturb you and move you because they simplify life’s ideas through the concept. I think that is why I was so moved by it. It simplified life and death and amplified the meaning of what it is to live through its fantastical concept.

I was not blown away by the film though. It has stuck with me and since because of the uniqueness of the lack of conflict and antagonist, the concept and the performances. Brad Pitt is extremely impressive in this. He gives a performance of immense subtlety. You always believe what age he is. By the end you really feel like you know his character even though the script never really allows you to get inside of his head. I do not know if the digitalized parts of the performance will hurt him in the awards season. While it is him, technically I do not know how the Academy looks upon that sort of element. The CGI that is done with him is simultaneously amazing and distracting. What has been accomplished is quite remarkable, however we are simply not advanced enough in what can be accomplished through film for a feat like that to go by without the audience (or at least me) always understanding that I was watching CGI even during his younger scene. This does not mean though that it should not be a strong consideration for the Visual Effects award for the Oscar. Even though it is distracting, it is at the same time a visual feat.

Back to Brad Pitt’s performance; there is no yelling or crying or over the top scenes that he is to portray. This is all extremely subtle. He creates a character that is primarily observant, idealistic, innocent despite a few selfish (even though it is easy to understand where he is coming from) decisions. He spends much of the film really just watching others and experiencing life simply to experience it; to take every single opportunity presented to him. Again though, the script keeps him at arm’s length. Pitt’s performance brings depth to the character, but I do not believe the written words alone have done that. The entire cast is fantastic. Cate Blanchett is as usual fantastic here. There is a reason she is my favorite actress of all time (next to Louise Brooks). Her performance became stronger the more I think about it. Daisy is completely believable at every age. You really do believe every age that you see her at and can really see the evolution of a human being through her. Even though a lot of makeup and some digitalization I am sure was done to make her look younger, I felt like I was watching a 20 year old. I like that the script was not afraid to make Daisy unlikable. I never thought her unlikeable; I just saw her as an immature horny young woman who could not see anyone else’s feelings but her own. This may sound unlikable and it is annoying but it is also flawed in a very real way. Most of us men and women are like this at this age in some way. The screenwriter was simply not afraid to make her flawed in a way that might not be appealing to audiences. Blanchett’s scenes in the present or rather 2004 are incredibly effective as well. Taraji P. Henson may have been my favorite character in the movie. Yes she represents the African American stereotype of the wisdom filled black woman. However she really rises above this and her early scenes when she is young are stunning. This woman is stunning. I have been a fan of hers since I saw her in “Hustle and Flow” for which she really deserves a nomination. So I always love seeing her and her presence and radiance are a joy to watch. Jason Flemying is great as always. As is Tilda Swinton, Jarod Harris and Julia Ormond. I also thought Elle Fanning did a great job as young Daisy.

Some people have a problem with the framing device of using Katrina in New Orleans. I actually like it despite understanding the problems people had with it. I think it grounds the film in reality and makes it feel like something that actually happened as opposed to it being disconnected to the real world. It carried more resonance for me because of this.

My favorite part of the film is actually a part that I thought that I would be bored with. The scenes between Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt are my favorites. I wanted their relationship to keep going. While it has no real long term consequences in the story, none of it really does. It happens to be the story of a life and you go through things that are important at the time and important to you even if they do not mean anything substantial in terms of where you are now. This is sort like the movie. If a fictional character’s life wanted to be depicted on film using no real antagonist or conflict, you need a special hook to make the film have an element that makes it worth being a story to tell if you are going to tell it in this fashion. So this film uses its concept to make its hook. It works. Nevertheless the Tilda Swinton section of the story who plays Elizabeth Abbott grabbed me the most in terms of being interested in everything that was going on. I also was very intrigued with the scenes between Benjamin and his father.

While the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy interested me a lot specifically at the beginning and the end, I felt like when they actually got together, it became underwhelming. I mean there are fantastic moments and I cared deeply for them. It just felt like the story and the narration had built up these two to be the end all be all of a couple, an eventual representative of a great couple in film history and really they just felt like any other couple. Their relationship did not carry the substance for me that I feel the film meant for it to carry. I am not undermining how happy the characters actually were within the story with each other, that is obviously all very sincere and I believed it. It just felt…underwhelming. I cannot describe it. When they finally get together it feels like it just happens because the story deemed it so at that point. Their montage though when they move into their house was the most drawn to them as a couple at that period in their life.

My favorite moment in the film is when Benjamin leaves Daisy and she wakes up when he is putting the letter on the dresser for her. Oh Lord was I sobbing. Best moment in the film.
I should also mention the look of the film. It is gorgeous. But not in the way some other films are for me. There is a lot of artistry going on and it is remarkable to look at. The way Pitt and Blanchett are shot are the highlights. They are treated like a god and goddess at their best moments.

I guess a problem I had was that I felt that Fincher was struggling against the sentimentality of the script; they seemed at odds at times. Sometimes he would win and sometimes he would lose. I did not like the segment in which Benjamin narrates how so many things needed to happen for this one event to happen and if any of them did not happen exactly as it did then the event he is describing would not have happened. It takes like 6 minutes for this segment to be narrated to us and this is not a new concept. The problem is that it feels like scriptwriter Eric Roth felt that this was very clever and would point out something to the audience that we never truly realized. It came off as forced and contrived. The end with its epilogue about how everyone has their own special niche with everyone saying what theirs was was awful. I felt like I was watching a commercial for living life or something. Truly a misstep. These are small complaints but I just feel that the film showed a lot more potential with certain scenes and themes and moments and was trumped a bit by an overall sentimentality that could have been toned down a bit while still keeping its presence. Even though it sticks with you and makes you think, it still felt like it could have been more substantial if I think about what Fincher could have done with it. It could have felt less like it was coasting. The film felt like it just coasted its way through. I understand that this is the way that life is but I still felt like it could have been much more consistently dense instead of coasting through the way it did at times.

It is strange because of how moved I was throughout and the great moments in the film and overall the story is very moving however for all of this it still felt a bit empty in a weird way and I cannot decipher it. It did not feel as solid as I would have liked. But I do not know. Maybe it is supposed to float and coast and not feel solid. I cannot tell. My emotions were governed by a musical score and a story that seemed dead set on getting people to cry as much as they could. It worked for me. I wish I could form more solid opinions on the film. I cannot tell really what I think about it and if the hesitancies I get from it are a good thing or a bad thing. But yes it did move me very much, it serves its purpose. I cried during much of it. It is worth seeing because it is a different kind of film that does not function within the same narrative constrictions that most Hollywood films do even though it does in its own slightly different ways. It is a lovely fantasy with an intriguing concept that makes us see things differently and address life and death in a far too disturbingly simple way (this is a compliment). Its performances by Pitt in particular, but everyone really elevate the film as well as the effects and the cinematography and many moments and/or scenes. I felt every minute of this 2 hour and 45 minute film. This is not really a complaint; it should not be shorter, but I did feel the length. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is definitely worth seeing as it is unique in some ways and remarkable in others even though I cannot figure out why I am not blown away by it.

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