Week Four: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

2008

Directed by David Fincher

Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and Tilda Swinton

*********************

In an age where describing things in terms of reality television is a trite but useful means of explaining something, Benjamin Button is perhaps the Biggest Loser in the last several decades of the Academy Awards. With thirteen nominations across a broad range of areas, the film would walk out with but a handful of some well-deserved technical awards. Why? Because the Academy decided to spend the ceremony losing its shit over how special and multicultural the awards could be. This was honestly the last Awards ceremony I watched, and by mid-point I was so ready to punch a hole in the wall that I doubt I shall watch one again. I’ll get into this more later, because we have to talk about this film first.

So, an interesting question that comes up in my brain is why I skipped on these films in the first place. 2008 was a year where I was still in undergrad and not going out to films very often, reserving this for things that I really needed to see. Looking at the list of movies nominated for any awards at the 81st ceremony, the only one I recall seeing is The Dark Knight (which was fine, but was rightfully not nominated for a Best Picture). Why didn’t I see Benjamin Button? The answer, I remembered while watching, was that I found the premise to be fucking stupid. It’s not the fact that Pitt’s character’s condition was virtually impossible; movies are about the impossible. It was that the condition, and conceits it demands, are dumb. And they are dumb. The story that is told around Benjamin’s condition is not bad, but at the core is something I find to be a nonsense and it was there kicking me in my brain’s shins for the entire running time of the movie.

And holy shit, the running time of this movie. I went to rent it via Amazon this morning.

bb1

Alright, let’s get this over with…wait, what does say there?

bb2

Yeah, what does that say there, right next to where it says “Runtime”?

bb3

…Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

I can handle watching a movie in a theater. I can handle watching an episode of a television show, or even two, in the comfort of my own apartment. But there’s something about watching an entire movie from start to finish that feels like an enormous waste of time. I simply have to stop watching for a while to clean some dishes or write checks, anything more productive than watching a two hour film. The last three have been relatively short, with A Serious Man  hitting something like a perfect length for me. This one? Sheeyit. You are aware of this movie as it is happening, watching it go through phases of quality filmmaking, and some real crap. The irony of watching a person grow younger for three hours is you only feel that much older at its conclusion, underlined by when you look at a clock and realize that not a century, but only three hours have passed.

What’s weird is I don’t even know where I would trim this movie. It’s got a lot of story to tell. In classic “movie-within-movie” style, we watch a middle-aged woman spend time with a mother who looks like a pile of old rags stapled to medical machinery. She recounts, via a manuscript, the story of a remarkable man who turns out to be her father. Yeah, spoiled it. Her dad grew up in a roaring post-Great War New Orleans, and spent most of his life on spectacular adventures. He meets women who come and go, loses friends along the way to the inexorable march of time, is reunited with a father who abandoned him at birth, and then abandons his wife. His wife and infant daughter, even. It all makes sense when you’re watching it, it’s all very effecting, and the characters with whom Pitt interacts often make you smile and remind you of people who may have come and gone in your own life.

In other words, it is emotionally manipulative, cloying bullshit whose closest cousin is probably Forrest Gump. That’s an interesting comparison. I will be talking about that particular film in the coming weeks, but suffice to say it had a major impact on my History major-flavored life. Yes, this movie has saccharine moments that are just vague enough for myself, a twenty-something making his way in the world, to project myself into Benjamin Button’s shoes. “Oh, I know what that feels like!” says my brain as he’s shafted by a girl he traveled thousands of miles to see. “Wow, becoming a father is going to be terrifying,” my brain says as Pitt goes through pre-paternal nervous moments. Pitt turns in a good performance throughout. He’s a polite man who has accepted his condition and is  making a go of his life. You know, his wild and precious life. Get it, former PLU students? Geh.

The best moment of this move is just such a scene, when Pitt is going through his first adult date with Cate Blanchett’s character Daisy, who is arguably the real star of the film. It’s a fancy dinner scene of stitched together shots, all while Blanchett talks about strange, new things, wears an amazing dress, and basically renders Button’s brain into a broken and quivering pile of mush. “Hey, I feel that a lot now! I’m going on first dates pretty regularly at this point in my life, and they sure are exciting!” thinks my idiot brain, while the rest of me is furious about being manipulated. But it’s good at that manipulation when it wants to be. The other strength of this movie is Tilda Swinton playing the wife of an English spy in 1930s Soviet Russia (remember, Button goes on adventures). Her character is an absolute joy to watch, a fun character whose role could perhaps be criticized for being a “manic pixie dream girl” part, except that it is tied up with a reprise that is ultimately the best scene of the film for me.

But then there’s just a lot of attempts at touching scenes, cloying nonsense, vague platitudes, and an extended cause-effect narration involving a car accident (“If the truck in front of the cab had moved earlier, because of the girl who broke up with her boyfriend last night and didn’t wrap the present, and the cabbie needed coffee, and the passenger had forgot her jacket, and BLAH BLAH BLAH”) that made me want to end the world right then and there. Also, the opening seconds of the film (title roles) are done to the sound of an orchestra warming up, like the goddamn PS3 boot noise. Want to remind me of how precious and pretensions you are? Put an orchestra warming up at the beginning of something you’ve done that is not, in fact, an orchestral concert.

IS IT ANY GOOD? It’s okay. I’d give it four of five stars, but I’m not going to necessarily get in a fight over this movie. Being a long film with a lot of story to get through is fine, if you can manage to not feel long. This movie feels like a marathon session of clingy, feel-good vignettes at times. However, ignoring the story and characters, the special effects and makeup really are amazing. The amount of work done to make Pitt and Blanchett transform in opposite chronological directions must have been staggering. Near the end Pitt looks like he did twenty years ago, on the ads for Seven Years in Tibet. Meanwhile, Blanchett is shown at the end of a life where she began as, put bluntly, a frickin’ amazing redhead. The costuming and periodization are also rock solid throughout. As an effects achievement, the movie’s worth a look. Just be sure to have a bedpan nearby.

SHOULD IT HAVE WON? No, and you know what else shouldn’t have won? Slumdog MillionaireI had my pick of the litter this week as I had seen none of the films nominated for Best Picture out of the 2008 crop. But Jesus H. Christ, that show! Did you see that show? It was a collection of liberal people who got together to congratulate themselves about how a movie about a gay man was going to win awards, a movie about India (including an honest-to-goodness Indian musician!) were going to win awards, and to act like the Academy gave a shit about the death of Heath “A Knight’s Tale” Ledger. The only upshot was when Penn got up to receive his award for Best Actor and acknowledged Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler. In spite of having original music by Bruce Springsteen, I’d take The Wrestler over any film that came out in 2008.

Next week, 2007 happens! I was finishing high school, my brother was working at a theater, and America’s favorite character actor freaked the shit out about milkshakes. There Will Be Blood is next, and I am stoked out of my little brain to watch this one. YES!

Other thoughts

  • The more I watch an entire film every week, the more I am convinced I just have latent attention deficit disorder or something like it. Am I really alone in feeling anxious to go and do other things in the middle of a film? It’s an unpleasant experience, and happens even during ones I like a lot.
  • Did you know that video games are pretty goddamn awesome? Well, by golly, they are. I don’t have time for as many Japanese role-playing games as I did in high school, but a few years ago I discovered the Let’s Play Archive. Lots of people have gone through and played these massive games, taking screen shots and narrating them in informative, and frequently hilarious form. I especially enjoy reading the ones about deeply flawed games, and it is with that in mind that I link you to Epee Em’s Pokemon Vietnamese Crystal LP. I leave you with description of just what the hell “Pokemon Vietnamese Crystal” is:

ShenLong posted: Pokemon Vietnamese Crystal is a Vietnamese-to English translated version of Crystal that was sold as a bootleg in markets accross Vietnam in early 2001. Based on all of the place names and the names of the characters, it is most likely that this is a translation of the Chinese version of Crystal(which itself is an unofficial translation of the Japanese version, for China doesn’t have official Pokemon games, just Pokemon paraphernalia and media). So, in essence, this game has undergone three language conversions. What you get is a shoggoth of mistranslation.

It only gets better from here.

About jeffrud

Rock star historian/historic rock star.

Posted on 26 Jan 2013, in Almost Oscars and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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