Friday, January 9, 2009


THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (****) is sumptuous, old-fashioned, Hollywood movie-making at its finest. David Fincher, working with the most heart-felt material of his career, makes a startling leap forward as a storyteller with this magical-realism filled romantic fantasy which features any number of fantastic contributions: flawless and groundbreaking visual effects; great performances; breathtaking cinematography and production design; and a tragically romantic screenplay from big-gun screenwriter Eric Roth (THE INSIDER, FORREST GUMP, THE GOOD SHEPHERD). Destined for Oscar nominations, the film is the quirky story of Benjamin Button, a man born as an old man, who ages in reverse, thus complicating every facet of his life. Brad Pitt stars as the titular character, and continues, after his entrancing work in last year’s THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, to demonstrate his underrated acting abilities. He’s matched by the ever luminous Cate Blanchett as his eternal love interest. Watching the two of them drift together and then apart and then together again throughout the sprawling, nearly three hour narrative is the stuff of genuine heart-ache. The film, which has a Gump-esque trajectory in that one man observes and contemplates life while the world and everyone around him changes, never dips into the overly sentimental as Robert Zemeckis’ otherwise impressive film sometimes had a tendency of doing. The key here is Fincher; he keeps a slightly detached perspective from his characters and from the story so that your heartstrings aren’t assaulted with full-bore manipulation. Coming on the heels of last year’s detail-obsessed masterpiece ZODIAC, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is the furthest thing from what the phrase “A David Fincher film” has come to mean. Working with Roth’s eloquent writing style he’s able to create a love story that feels real, right, and true, even with a story device (that whole aging backwards thing) that could have felt purely like a gimmick. It’s a film where death hangs over the proceedings in an ominous way, and the way that Fincher combines dark themes with an ultimately uplifting message is a stroke of pure directorial finesse. Claudio Miranda’s silky, shadowy, and all-together rapturous digital cinematography combines beautifully with Alexandre Desplat’s melancholic original score and the opulent art direction, creating a rich atmosphere that only the finest cinematic technicians could have produced. The film, which really feels like the most expensive art-film ever conceived, is a joy to behold.
I had heard the hype for months, and it was all true. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (****) is the best vampire movie ever made. Well, it’s at least the best one that I’ve ever seen. Full disclosure: I am not a horror movie buff and I am by no means a vampire fan. You won’t catch me at a screening of TWILIGHT or looking forward to the gazillion horror releases that flood the multiplexes every year. I had been hearing that this Swedish import was the “vampire movie for people who don’t like vampire movies” and that statement couldn’t be any more spot on. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN tells the super-creepy tale of a lonely 12 year old boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who has been enduring constant torment at the hands of some school yard bullies. He meets a mysterious (and very pale) 12 year old girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson), who, as it turns out, is a vampire. You should know as little about this film as possible before getting a chance to see it (especially the blistering ending). What I loved about this film so much is that the vampire angle is downplayed and treated very realistically. The director, Tomas Alfredson, isn’t interested in the normal genre scare-tactics, and his approach to the material elevates the entire production. Along with his extremely gifted director of photography Hoyte Van Hoyteman, the two of them create a chilly, eerie climate of dread. The snowy landscape that the characters inhabit creates a chill in the air as you watch the film; bring a sweater or a coat with you. And then there’s that ending. Wow. I don’t remember a film with a better closing final minutes than this one all year. The great thing about this film is that if you were to strip away the vampire elements of the story, you’d be left with a touching and surprisingly emotional story of two lonely kids who are just looking for friendship and companionship. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is, of course, because Hollywood can’t leave any foreign film alone, set to be remade this year, with a release tentatively set for January 2010. I have no use for this. This film is perfect – why do you need to mess around with material that can’t be improved upon? All I have to say is that if Matt Reeves, the attached director of the remake and the guy who directed the excellent CLOVERFIELD earlier this year, changes the film’s brilliant ending, I will be calling for people’s heads. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is visceral, tense, exciting, and most of all, different. It’s also one of the best films of the year.

How can one “review” Charlie Kaufman’s head-scratchingly amazing directorial debut SYNECDOCHE, NY (****)? It’s like the film was designed to defy critique. Kaufman, who has stretched his (and our) cerebral cortex through films such as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ETERNAL SUNSHINE, and ADAPTATION (to name only three), gets a chance to direct his most ambitious screenplay to date. A film which has inspired a lot of love as well as a lot of hate, SYNECDOCHE, NY is the very definition of challenging and avant garde. It’s also some sort of diseased masterpiece that needs to be seen well more than once in order for everything to make sense and gel together. I’ve only seen it once (sadly) and while it was a few months ago, it’s still very fresh in my mind. Describing it is almost pointless but here goes. Caden Cotard (the always phenomenal Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the best performances of his already legendary career) is a theater director who decides to stage a massive play showcasing actors playing people that are connected to his life. A perfectionist, and something of an obsessive hypochondriac, Cotard begins to lose a grip on his play, and his life, which begins to spiral out of control, almost certainly due to the various romantic relationships that come to define his life. The film is, at its heart, and much like BENJAMIN BUTTON, about leaving your mark in this world before you die. Actually, SYNECDOCHE, NY is really all about death, and about how no matter how hard you try to escape or out run it, you’re put on this earth once and you have to make the most of it. The film’s glorious supporting cast includes Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Diane Weist, Catherine Keener, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. It’s a self-indulgent work, a film that will turn off as many as it delights, and is truly a one-of-a-kind movie experience. If you’re still fuzzy on the plot, well, I’m sorry; I don’t have any more answers at the present time. SYNECDOCHE, NY isn’t about providing easy answers for the viewer, and its main concern isn’t whether or not it’s being entertaining. Kaufman challenges everyone with this film – himself, his actors, his crew, and his audience. Just wait till you get a view of the NYC set that Cotard builds in an abandoned hangar that serves as the stage for his play. And as the play continues to evolve (over a decade), the story, the characters, and the themes all get richer and richer. This is bold, challenging, and brazen filmmaking. See it. Twice. I know I can’t wait to watch it over and over and over again.

THE READER (****) is a sobering piece of work. Patiently directed by Stephen Daldry (THE HOURS, BILLY ELLIOT) and sensitively written by David Hare (THE HOURS, PLENTY), the film takes a hard look at guilt and responsibility, while also folding in the story of an erotic affair and the devastating, life-long consequences that it creates. Kate Winslet is Hanna Schmitz, a bus ticket collector working in Berlin in the 50’s who ignites a passionate affair with a 15 year old boy named Michael, played at first by relative newcomer David Kross in his teen years, and then by Ralph Fiennes as an adult. They first meet when Michael comes down with scarlet fever; she nurses him back to health and deposits him back with his family. Months later, Michael returns to say thank you, and before you know it, the two of them are rolling around in the sack like long-lost lovers. Michael, the inexperienced boy that he is, falls in love with Hannah. She, meanwhile, is harboring more than one terrible secret from him: not only is she illiterate but she also worked for the SS during WWII as a concentration camp guard. Before and after their lovemaking sessions, Hannah insists that Michael read aloud to her from the classics. Then, one day, she mysteriously vanishes, leaving Michael totally devastated. We then jump about 10 years, with Michael in law school. His law school class attends the start of the Nazi War Crimes trials, and, wouldn’t you know it, but Hannah is being tried for her involvement with the Nazis. This opens up old wounds which have never healed for Michael. Based on a controversial and popular novel by German writer Bernhard Schlink, the plot of THE READER is certainly contrived, but in all the right ways. This is a film about guilt, both on the part of us as individuals, and on the part of society in general. There are no easy ways out in THE READER, and in its own quietly haunting way, the film burns a vivid portrait of young and old love, both newly discovered and freshly lost, that will easily put a tear in your eye at some point during the run time. I would not dare spoil the events of the last third of this delicately assembled film; I will concede that I had a lump in my throat by the finale. Winslet, as always, is fantastic, in a very unsympathetic role, which is tricky because she’s an actress that everyone loves, playing a very self-centered character. Kross, meanwhile, is tasked with much of the film’s heavy emotional lifting, and it’s a pleasure to report that he’s more than up to the task. Filming the movie’s numerous (and quite erotic) love scenes were probably nerve wracking for a Hollywood first timer like Kross, but he has an ease with Winslet that’s natural and sweet. THE READER is emotionally draining and demanding, and much like THE HOURS, it’s a film that I’m not sure if I will see much more than twice. That being said, it’s somberly powerful, and one of the better overall efforts of the year.

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