Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Guest reviewer: Josh Valentine

Modern American film has seen a lull in classical style. A good modern film is hard-edged, like that of "No Country For Old Men" or "There Will Be Blood." They are politically appropriate and justly praised, yet one can't help but yearn for a reawakening of that classical style that seemed to have died in the 1990s (with few exceptions). Who would expect a director like David Fincher ("Seven", "Fight Club") to be the man to bring back that style? With his new film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Fincher brings back the hero's tale in the vein of "Forrest Gump," infuses his own style and serves the Academy just the audience-drawing film that they need for ratings. The film is far from perfection, but shows us – just like its main character – that going back in time isn't always the worst thing to do.

Benjamin Button is not your average person. Born at the age of 80, Benjamin inexplicably grows younger through his years. Portrayed both digitally and literally by Brad Pitt from birth to the teenage years, Benjamin is an unlikely hero. Growing up in a nursing home, he learns about death at a very young (or old?) age. However, raised by the gracious Queenie (played by "Hustle & Flow's" Taraji P. Henson) Benjamin finds that he is never without love. He is confused by death (often because Queenie is sure he's close to the grave at every moment) but he does understand love to the fullest. This is evident when he meets Daisy, as portrayed in the film by a number of actresses most notably Cate Blanchett (who is featured both in the story of B.B. and in the frame of the story as her daughter reads it to her).

Benjamin grows up and like his cinematic forefather Forrest Gump, he makes his own way through life through all sorts of discoveries. These discoveries come through in the form of the film's greatest resources: the supporting characters. Whether he's fighting the war on a tugboat with his mentor Captain Mike (Jared Harris) or connecting with the man who Benjamin learns is his father Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) or hearing from Mr. Daws (Ted Manson) about his bouts with lightning (which prove to be comedic highlights), Benjamin learns from others in a way he never expected. He's a somewhat unorthodox hero, but he's absolutely endearing due to his unabashedly fascinating life.

Benjamin is a man who is always searching for himself, but always finds Daisy. It's an awe-inspiring tale of determination and curiosity of the human spirit that is always a joy to find in the multiplex. Brad Pitt does well with characterization and with his script, although the character of Benjamin is hardly as fleshed out as it could have been. He may find himself with a nomination in January, although there seem to be a lot of contenders this year. Benjamin is highly conflicted person, often staying quiet and subdued and Pitt does that marvelously. One major setback to the film is the fact that I will never be as handsome as Brad Pitt.

While screenwriter Eric Roth writes a great story and Fincher shoots a beautiful work, the film is just too long. I don't blame you if you check your watch a couple of times during the film. Other problems audiences may have are the film's clichés such as the similarities to "Forrest Gump" or its dreamlike quality or some of the familiar characters. The film is a bit overblown and can be certainly too overwhelming at parts, but nitpicking will distract you from the real, subtle beauty the film has to offer.

Cate Blanchett is our greatest working actress, yet unfortunately doesn't shine as well in this as she has in her previous roles. It takes a while to get used to her especially when she's in her elderly phase make-up, and sounds a bit like Catherine O'Hara's parody of dramatic performance in "For Your Consideration." Eventually, she grows on you but for an actress with her talent it she is surprisingly always a bit too over-the-top. It's hard to see an actress of her caliber in such an inadequate performance. It's utterly exasperating.

Still, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is undeniably sad, yet tender at its best moments which happen often enough. The film has a miraculous ending, not in the sense of our hero's outcome, but in that wonderful feeling that sometimes occurs at the movies: the lump in the throat. Fincher's ending is exceptional, some of the best work on the screen this year. It's certainly a strong showing for actors, who show that there are still new places to take performance especially in the style of character acting. Whether you're aging backwards or forwards, you're guaranteed to like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Monday, December 29, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire"

by guest reviewer Josh Valentine

Is America ready for Bollywood? With filmmakers like Danny Boyle integrating Bollywood styles with his own terrific, seasoned style in his new film “Slumdog Millionaire,” cultural cinema desegregation is not the final answer in modern filmmaking – it is the beginning of something new. Without a doubt, Boyle’s new work is a masterpiece, proving he is one of our greatest directors of this generation.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young man under suspicion after a winning streak on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” In America that show has become somewhat irrelevant (is it even on anymore?) but for Jamal, the show means everything. Not for the money, but for his one and only love Latika (Frieda Pinto) who he feels he can win by appearing on her favorite program.

We learn that Jamal has lived a very interesting life - one might consider a sometimes dangerous life. But for Jamal this life has taught him the answers he needs to become the man he is destined to become. Coincidentally, those answers are the strangely yet inventively the answers to the questions he is asked on the television program. First-time Boyle collaborator Simon Beaufoy (the Oscar nominated writer of “The Full Monty”) intertwines beautifully the story of Jamal’s fruitful life and the questions on the program to paint the intriguingly poignant story of his main character’s growth. It’s genuinely refreshing to see film narrative portrayed in such an original way, and Beaufoy’s script is simply one of the best this year.

While Beaufoy’s script has not gone unnoticed in critics’ circles, something that may be missed is the strong performance of Dev Patel as Jamal. His portrayal is strikingly profound and at the same time ultimately inspiring. Patel has a wondrous quality in his eyes when he shares scenes with Pinto’s Latika. We can see the yearning and true love of his character – an honest performance by a young man who has the potential for bigger and better things.
This is the second coming-of-age film to impress this year (the first was “The Wackness,” although that film did have a larger amount of detractors), although its crowd pleasing nature is no surprise. With some of the better films of this century under his belt such as “28 Days Later…,” “Millions” and last year’s sci-fi opus “Sunshine,” Boyle has proved himself the forerunner for best director of the past ten years. With “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle chose to find yet another film style to re-invent. It’s certainly a stronger film in terms of coming-of-age than “The Wackness” (although Jonathan Levine’s debut was an excellent showing of early nineties indie grit) and affirms that Boyle has the uncanny knack for outshining his colleagues.

This will be Boyle’s second film to be honored by Oscar nominations (his drug film “Trainspotting” was nominated in 1997), most likely in the adapted screenplay and best picture categories, and one can only hope the Academy will enjoy the film as much as audiences. It’s a grand piece for Boyle, who again demonstrates his ability to take something that he loves (film) and illustrate it in new and exciting ways. One of the strongest films of the year, “Slumdog Millionaire” should be at the top of your must-see list.


"Slumdog Millionaire" won Best Picture, Danny Boyle won Best Director, Simon Beaufoy won Best Adapted Screenplay, Anthony Dod Mantle won Best Cinematography, Chris Dickens won Best Editing

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


In the 1970's, a time when San Francisco cops routinely and viciously attacked men in gay bars, Harvey Milk united the gay community to make a stand for their rights. Amazingly, Harvey became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office where he led the fight to put a stop to a law to have openly gay teachers fired. A woman in a newsreel said, "How can you expect your own rights to be protected if you won't protect those of others?" In the light of the recent election, this message seems especially relevant - and sad. I understand that many Christian blacks coming out for Obama voted against partners' rights in same sex marriages. It just breaks my heart that one persecuted minority would deny the rights of another.

The movie, "MILK" begins with Harvey making a recording, "If you're listening to this, I've been assassinated." In the recording, he attempts to explain his life and motivations. The recordings also act as a structural device effortlessly interweaving the recorded narration with narrative scenes and news footage of the time.

The story opens with gay New Yorker Harvey Milk still in the closet and lamenting about turning 40 without having done anything with his life. He finds his cause when he moves to the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco and becomes the uniting force in the Gay Rights movement. He organizes a ban on neighborhood businesses that mistreat gays and is instrumental in making the Castro a Mecca for gay men. The cause eventually leads him to running for public office.
Harvey explains that he is not running for office - the cause is. The important thing isn't winning, it's building an awareness of gay rights and encouraging gays to come out. And he succeeds at losing two elections before being elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Harvey is portrayed (Oscar winner Sean Penn lives and breaths the role) as a passionate man both in his relationships and for his cause. He uses a disarming sense of humor to put skeptical straights at ease. He successfully plays the game of politics. The campaign does take a toll on his relationships. Yet Harvey persists in having relationships with needy men. He has a strong need to save those wounded by society and to never to be trapped alone in the closet again.

I brought my twelve-year-old son to show him that the important thing isn't just winning, it's fighting for something important. This movie certainly demonstrated that. Harvey Milk inspired Screenwriter Dustin Lance in his own life - so much that he fought to bring this honest portrayal to the screen.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal



 Sean Penn won Best Actor and Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay for "Milk."