Remember when, some years ago, it was predicted that Hollywood would soon have the technological ability to raise the dead and film them anew -- Marilyn Monroe in a movie with Humphrey Bogart, with supporting parts for James Dean and the young Charlton Heston, that sort of thing. Can't say that kind of necrophilia ever appealed although it must have seemed thrilling to some. But who would have expected that the first obvious use of this technology would be so morose, so ghostly? Let me say first that, by and large, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a disappointment, especially to David Fincher fans -- the episodic memory structure never lets the story breathe or stretch, and it seems genuinely emotionally affecting only three times within its unearned close-to-three-hours: the opening anecdote about the clockmaker who loses a son in the war and takes a kind of metaphysical revenge, the weirdly poignant vision of an elderly woman nursing her senile dying partner as a newborn baby and a quick shot, on a television, of Tilda Swinton as an old woman. Age and death is the big theme, of course, but these three points make the rest of the endless dirge redundant.
Of course, the voice-over stabs at profundity are pure middle-brow Oscar bait (and with 13 nominations, I guess it worked). All those deep, deep thoughts like, "You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it." As if that American Express commercial-like image, above, of Brad Pitt playing chess on the banks of the Ganges didn't already clue you in. But I think there is some profundity further back in the film, and it's why it may win big at Oscar-time. If you take it as a loose rewrite of Forrest Gump (same writer: Eric Roth) around F Scott Fitzgerald's original idea, then what you're surprised by is the race issue. Or lack of an issue. Which makes it the ideal film for the Obama age. If black and white no longer makes a difference, here's that view projected backwards nearly a century: in this alternative fantasy Louisiana, race never mattered at all and the civil rights movement never even had to get started (this film's 1964 means the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, not Martin Luther King).
But that other, weirder thing: the ghostly Brad. As the star ages backwards, into his twenties, we see the young and slim, pretty and perfect-skinned Brad Pitt of Thelma and Louise; he comes out of shadows to surprise Cate Blanchett's Daisy and to surprise us, too. We're expected to gasp as we see once again this person we long thought dead -- his younger self -- stand before us. The twist is that technology was supposed to resurrect dead stars not live ones.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Friday, January 9, 2009
Mike Leigh's wildly over-praised Happy-Go-Lucky is a London film that is surely designed to be the exact opposite of an earlier London film, arguably still Leigh's best -- 1993's Naked. That one had David Thewlis as a kind of doomed prophet raging through a dark city in the last days of Thatcherism -- "A Gothic London of filthy backstreets, bedsits and smoking industrial ruins, populated by idiots and desperate men and women locked into meaningless work or scavenging after physical pleasure and some sense of contact, with violence around every corner," as The Impostume put it in an excellent post. Thewlis's Johnny is surly and sarcastic, an angry Northern mystic, alienated and occult-obsessed. Nearly 20 years later, the same kind of character appears watered down, still raging but now impotent and ridiculous, in Happy-Go-Lucky, a film as preoccupied with daytime as Naked was with night. This character is the driving instructor Scott, played by Eddie Marsan. He too rants about hidden cameras, state control, Satanic influences, the dimensions of the Lincoln Monument adding up to 666. But he's also a racist, a misogynist, a short man with a short fuse. And so the miserablist worldview of Johnny -- the one we took as being in some way connected to Leigh's own view, at least in its sense that "the world" can be oppressive and deceitful -- is revealed as the refuge of paranoids, bigots and other scoundrels. Instead, Leigh locates wisdom in Scott's opposite number -- a giggling, grinning primary school teacher named Poppy (Sally Hawkins). The name couldn't be better: she's poppy, and the film is too -- insultingly so. And so is its London, the post-Blair/Brown city -- the tramps you encounter in abandoned industrial sites now are harmless, babbling away to themselves autistically. It's a city drained of Naked's danger, its violent charge. There's an argument around that this is all an elaborate practical joke on Leigh's part -- and certainly Poppy seems as charmless and delusional as a Roberto Benigni or Ricky Gervais character -- but I don't think there's any strong evidence of this inside the film, unless you think the placement of Pulp's "Common People" early on offers a secret reading. I'd be more persuaded by the idea that Leigh was interested in the success that might follow from taking child-like optimism to its logical conclusion. "It's important to reject the growing fashion to be miserabilist, the growing fashion to be pessimistic and gloomy because the world is in a bad way," he has said. "Everywhere there are people on the ground getting on with it and being positive."
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
I finally caught the Israeli cause celebre Waltz with Bashir here in Christchurch on the last day of 2008. The Academy has been running this once a day in one of its tiny digital cinemas -- a screen and nine armchairs in a space half the size of my lounge. Outside, Christchurch was sweltering hot and deathly quiet; halfway across the world, a war was getting started. Perfect conditions. Ari Folman’s animated documentary – is that a first? – is a personal resolution of his small role in an atrocity committed during Israel’s war with Lebanon in 1982: hundreds or perhaps thousands of Palestinian refugees were murdered by Israel’s Phalangist Christian allies while – so the film tells us – Israeli soldiers stood on the sidelines and lit the scene for them with flares. This atrocity has been a blockage in Folman’s memory, which he slowly circles around as he interviews former soldiers and others, and its depiction comes at the end of a film which has worked up a level of pop-stylised animation -- the fantasies, dreams and hallucinations of young soldiers; the Ballard-like surrealism of an abandoned, bombed airport in Beirut – only to suddenly and audaciously give way to actual news footage of the event. We’re pulled out of animation’s communal dream-state into real suffering, real anguish. Before this, it had seemed that Folman was trying to get around our over-exposure to war-and-terror imagery, its over-familiarity post-Apocalypse Now and Black Hawk Down – at least two people compare their experiences of fighting to film and TV, and another to an acid trip – so this sudden switch of medium makes the aftermath of the massacre twice as shocking.