Life in the Slow Lane

December 24, 2008

Movie of ‘Benjamin Button,’ ‘The Spirit’

Filed under: Movies — pauljlane @ 1:31 pm

As promised in Night & Day, here are reviews of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Spirit” courtesy of Gannet News Service.


• “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is curious, indeed.
Not just his case, though it’s curious enough — a man is born old and ages backward — but the film as well. Director David Fincher is known for such edgy, dark movies as “Se7en” and “Fight Club.” Here he’s made a Forrest Gump for grown-ups, with Brad Pitt as his Tom Hanks, a simple, decent fellow who forges ahead in life despite obstacles in his path.
An unnecessary framing device opens the film; a woman (Julia Ormond) sits at her dying mother’s bedside in a New Orleans hospital, reading the diary of a former lover — Benjamin Button. Outside the window: Hurricane Katrina. No half-measures here.
Benjamin is born in New Orleans the day the first World War ends. But because he’s born old, Benjamin is an odd-looking creature. In a panic, his father, Thomas (Jason Flemyng) drops him off on the doorstep of an old folks’ home, where he is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works there.
The old-looking but young Benjamin finds easy company in the home’s residents. One day he meets the granddaughter of one, a girl named Daisy who will thread in and out of his life and is his one true love.
Benjamin goes to sea with a drunken captain (Jared Harris), and while in Russia — getting younger by the day — he embarks on an affair with a rich woman (Tilda Swinton), momentarily leaving Daisy (now played by Cate Blanchett) behind. But he returns to New Orleans eventually, and they meet again.
She’s now a dancer in New York, and her free spirit overwhelms Benjamin. Meanwhile, his father, who has been visiting him, dies and leaves Benjamin the button factory he owns. Benjamin heads to New York to seek out Daisy, a quest that will also take him to Paris.
Eventually they unite, in the middle of their lives, heading in opposite directions, each toward life’s inevitable conclusion. It’s startling to see Pitt become younger, even more impossibly handsome. Thanks to digital technology, he plays Benjamin throughout the film; it’s a credit to Fincher and Pitt that the gimmick doesn’t draw attention to itself.
But, while the end of the film is touching, Fincher’s not quite sure how to get there. A young man in an old man’s body is more easily imagined than the opposite. Pitt is good as Benjamin, but in reality the role is more about playing an emotionally stagnant man at different ages than anything else. Blanchett has the more rewarding, if traditional, role because Daisy is far less passive about life.
And while there are some astonishing set pieces, including the build-up to an accident that befalls Daisy, too much of Button feels like just that — sumptuous parts that don’t quite add up to a fully satisfying whole.
A curiosity, you might say.
Rated: PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. 2 1/2 stars out of four.


• “The Spirit”

How do you critique acting that’s willfully bad, a story that’s crazy on purpose, dialogue that sets out to be stilted and cliched?
You say “The Spirit” looks great but there’s not much else there.
Based on comic genius Will Eisner’s creation, “The Spirit” looks similar to “Sin City,” blending live action and comic effects in a dark-and-twisted way – like a comic book come to life. That’s no surprise, given that “Spirit” director (and famous comic creator) Frank Miller co-directed “Sin City” along with Robert Rodriguez.
He could have used Rodriguez here, too. While the acting in “Sin City” was campy and the story over the top, it worked in the context of the film. Too often “The Spirit” is just not very good. Perhaps Rodriguez could have helped rein things in or even pushed them farther in a way that made sense. Whatever the case, we’re left with Gabriel Macht trying to carry a superhero movie and proving not up to the task.
Macht plays Denny Colt. At least that used to be his name. A former policeman, now he’s known simply as the Spirit, a masked man who runs around Central City cleaning up the cops’ messes. For reasons that are eventually revealed, he can’t seem to be killed (despite some gruesome attempts).
Central City is being menaced by the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a psychopathic scientist whose not-quite-successful creation of dim-witted henchmen is the best thing about the movie (they’re all played by Louis Lombardi, long missed as Edgar on “24”. The Octopus is aided by Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), a grad student getting the most out of an unorthodox internship.
The Spirit, when he’s not fighting crime and bad guys, loves his doctor, Ellen (Sarah Paulson). It’s a handy relationship, because while he can’t be killed, he can be wounded and often is. But he’s also troubled by the return of his first love, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes); a childhood tragedy left her bitter and on the wrong side of the law. Everything is headed for a showdown of literally mythic proportions.
The violence is extreme but comical; much of it is shown in shadows, but you certainly get the idea. Jackson has a ball, chewing scenery at every possible opportunity (a bizarre scene that involves Nazi regalia and the possibility of evil dental work is either an inspired nod to “Marathon Man” or an obnoxious exercise in overacting – maybe both). Mendes has never been anyone’s idea of Katharine Hepburn, but even Johansson seems plastic here. Again, that’s by design. It doesn’t mean it’s effective.
Finally, though, the film rests at Macht’s feet. He goes on about his love of “my city,” his devotion to it, and who knows? Maybe some other actor could have made it more interesting. We’ll never know.
Instead, we’re left to enjoy the look of “The Spirit,” to laugh at Jackson and leave it at that.
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of stylized violence and action, some sexual content and brief nudity. 1 1/2 stars out of four.


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