The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: This is the one that went right over my head personally. I know how successful it is, a lot of which is due to the clever and unusual subject matter (a baby, born as an old man, grows younger as everyone else grows older) combined with some outstanding special effects. And to those who have found great meaning and emotional resonance with this movie, my hat is off to you (it should be said that I’m also one of those people who can never see the hidden ship or other object in those pictures no matter how long I stare at them). There are some marvelous scenes with Tilda Swinton (the only scenes that worked for me). But the intermittent gimmick of Daisy’s daughter reading the tale of Benjamin while Hurricane Katrina approaches seems not only unnecessary, but suggests that the director (David Fincher) and writer (Eric Roth) had so little faith in the audience that the whole thing had to be explained to them (these sections could have been removed with no damage to the telling, but with thankful damage to the viewing time). There’s nothing wrong with any of the acting, which is probably to everyone’s credit, especially Brad Pitt’s, since the characters aren’t always that interesting. In the end, it’s a story that seems to succeed almost solely on its logline.
Frost/Nixon: Was David Frost really this much of a moron? Was he really this incompetent an interviewer? Did he really make a muck up of everything and then accidentally, without any real action on his part, just happen to be at the right place at the right time when Richard Nixon screwed up and said something he shouldn’t have? According to Frost/Nixon he is. David Frost, as written by Peter Morgan, is one of the most unsympathetic and unlikeable good guys in films in recent memory. One almost hopes he blows the interviews because it’s hard to want someone who could win Monty Python’s upper class twit of the year competition to succeed. Thank god for Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. Though he probably won’t do what George C. Scott did for Patton (make us only see his face whenever we think of the real historical figure), it’s probably not his fault because the real Tricky Dick is just too familiar from his many TV appearances (Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In anyone?). But it’s a magnificent performance. Langella has long been an underrated actor (thank god for Broadway, the sanctuary of many an underrated actor) and this lack of recognition is almost as big a crime as Watergate.
Milk: The most satisfying of all the best picture nominees, mainly due to the strong performances (it’s one of those movies in which every part, no matter how minor, is filled with the perfect actor who gives it all they’ve got) and clever directing (the scenes at city hall often have an odd Escher-like feeling to them that’s quite unsettling). The script itself by Dustin Lance Black is well done, but it falls into the category of a typical Warner Brothers biopic (a description of such 1930’s movies as The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola—they get the job done, are entertaining and have their moments, but not much else). Its main flaw is that, like …Benjamin Button, it’s narrated to make sure the audience gets it all. Sean Penn, who at times is unrecognizable, will probably do what George C. Scott did for Patton: make us only see the actor’s face when one thinks of the historical figure. Josh Brolin is one of those villains who feels more villainous the more sympathy is shown him. James Franco plays the long suffering love interest who leaves the hero when the suffering becomes too long (and the role is just as annoying when played by women who don’t want their husbands to become a singing star or break the sound barrier). But Diego Luna is a standout as an emotionally desperate man who can’t help his desperation. Kudos to the use of archival footage; the art direction; and the amazing costumes that make many of us cringe as we remember we actually used to dress like that.
The Reader: The least satisfying of the best picture nominees with the idea, unintentional one hopes, that the evils of Nazism were caused by the inability to read (U.S. public school systems, take note). The author, David Hare, never really gets the audience to understand why someone would rather be thought a murderous Nazi instead of an illiterate; how one develops that sort of moral insanity doesn’t seem to interest anybody in the film. And there’s a moral quandary that the central character (and the author) gets wrong. The hero knows that his ex-lover can’t read, but won’t reveal it because he knows she doesn’t want him to, even if it would mitigate her guilt. But by not revealing it, he actually allows other defendants, some far worse than the one played by Kate Winslet, to receive far lighter sentences than their actions deserve; again, the injustice of this never seems to enter anybody’s thoughts. The strongest aspect of this script is the strongest aspect often of any film with Winslet in it; Winslet herself. She is quickly becoming the new Meryl Streep (anyone want to make a wager on her next accent?) and her work in Revolutionary Road was just as amazing. The hero, Michael, is played by two actors, Ralph Feinnes and David Kross, and both give good performances. But there is one hysterical moment when the movie jumps from 1962 (with Kross as Michael) to 1972 (with Feinnes in the role) and all one can think is, “my god this guy has gotten old in just ten years”. Though a lot of people are harping on the profound and unsettling messages here, when all is said and done, the real theme of The Reader is never count out Harvey Weinstein when it comes to Oscar nominations.
Slumdog Millionaire: There’s nothing really that wrong with Slumdog… It’s very entertaining and it has a clever gimmick, the answers to the questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire also reveal the history of the central character’s life. At the same time, this is the part where I’m asked to leave the party because I’ve just pooped on everybody’s good times. I didn’t dislike it, I just didn’t find it to be the great movie everyone else loves. In spite of the gimmick, the plotting is conventional and formulaic and the various plot twists are obvious and easy to guess (the very basic plot, that of two people who were close as children ending up on different sides of the moral divide with a woman between them, dates back at least to Manhattan Melodrama in the 1930’s and can be seen as a subplot in The Departed). And the gimmick does get a little tiring, which would be fine, but there’s not much else to take up the slack except the predictable plot. There’s also something a tad offensive about the theme. The hero and heroine end up together because it’s their destiny and everyone ends up dancing in joy at this happy ending. But if destiny brought them together, then destiny is equally responsible for all the violence, corruption, and horrifying poverty in life shown here (one can’t have it both ways), a view of the world that hardly justifies the joyous ending. The acting is first rate, with Dev Patel almost unrecognizable from his character on Skins. The music is exciting and beautiful. But in the end, the film’s a downer disguised as a feel good movie. Much has been written about the whole thing being “poverty porn”, some of it unjustified (what is Oliver Twist, after all), but it must be said that in spite of all the destiny talk, many in the audience might get the idea that the real theme here is never go to India as a tourist, it’s just too horrifying a place to visit.