Movie Reviews

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Curiously Beautiful

BY THE time you’ve finished reading this review you will be a couple of minutes older. But not if you were Benjamin Button. You would instead be younger. A curious concept, you may well think.

Based on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the story of a New Orleans man, played by Brad Pitt, who is born on the last day of the Great War with the body of an eighty-year-old but then ages backwards. Are you still with me? Good.

Because in turning the ageing process upside down this movie examines our mortality and purpose with a fresh pair of eyes. It is never too late to change direction, make a meaningful decision or resume a relationship.

Throw in some excellent acting from Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, a well-paced script and a cinematographer with a unique eye for detail and you can see why it’s already generating interest.

benjamin-button

With 13 Oscar and 11 Bafta nominations it would seem as though Button is on course for being one of cinema’s great movies. And I for one would agree, but in this case I think it may turn out that other contenders like Slumdog Millionaire or even the brilliant Frost/Nixon (to be reviewed in future editions) will walk away with the awards.

Button is beautiful, make no mistake, but it’s also quite dark and with the reverse aging premise, a little weird. Not relative to director David Fincher’s other movies which include Se7en, Fight Club, The Game and Zodiac – by comparison Button is Fincher’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

However, when lined up against the other best picture nominations and considering we’re in a time of great global woe I would be surprised if it picked up any of the major awards.

There have also been some rather unfair comparisons between Button and Forest Gump. In both cases the films revolve around lead characters from the American South who manage to experience most of history’s great  moments over their lives while also waiting patiently for the love of their life to return to them. It’s tenuous at best because when Button finishes the last thing you’ll feel like saying is ‘Life is like a box of chocolates.’

Whereas Gump seems to be a lesson in 20th century American history, Button is merely a man passing through those events. And while Gump has the folksy  outlook and accompanying sayings of a man with learning disabilities, Button’s childhood in an old people’s home has made him mature and given him some real wisdom regarding life. Gump has a kind of childlike optimism, but Button celebrates life because it is brief – no matter who you are, you will die.

Which is why I prefer Button. It’s altogether more grown-up and more realistic, despite its fantastical premise.
Plus the love story between Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button and Cate Blanchett’s Daisy is ultimately more profound and moving. The sacrifices they make in order to be together are reflected in the difficulties and differences of how they age.
And yet when their ages overlap in the middle, the sheer joy of that time leaps off the screen. You will probably never see another movie in which Brad Pitt looks this handsome. Since he’s mostly wrinkles and grey hair for the first half of the movie when he does finally emerge as a young man there were a couple of barely suppressed cries at the screening I attended.

If anything Button will win awards for its special effects. They’re so good you don’t notice them. As far as I was concerned I was watching a real docu-drama of a man who can age backwards (like those Channel Five shows examining ‘The boy with a tractor for a head’). I was thoroughly impressed.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will hopefully move you, as it did me, through the emotional scope of this one man’s life. It is a remarkable movie. Right in the beginning of the movie he is dropped off as a baby on the steps of an old age home. The lady who picks him up remarks, ‘The Lord has gone and done something here.’
I couldn’t agree more.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is on general release, certificate 12A

Quantum of Solace

No solace in revenge

‘REVENGE is sweet but not fattening’. Alfred Hitchcock may have said it but a certain Mr J Bond of MI6, London SE1, has made it his motivational motto.

The much-anticipated Quantum of Solace opens where its predecessor, the highly successful Casino Royale, left off. Having been betrayed, Daniel Craig’s blond Bond is chasing down the men behind the murder of his girlfriend, Vesper Lynd.

In doing so he uncovers a secret organisation, called Quantum, with global ambitions and shadowy members. Not even his boss, M (the very serious Dame Judi Dench), has heard of them. Of course, the more Bond finds out the closer he gets to killing those responsible for the pain and betrayal he feels.

quantum-of-solace

In Quantum of Solace there are no secret enemy bases on the moon, in a volcano or under the sink. The elusive Quantum operate in the here and now of realpolitk, seeking to control the earth’s most valuable resource (I’ll leave you to work it out). The script’s politics slam America for supporting despots who endorse their corporations while doing nothing for those leaders who actually make a difference to their people (Bolivia is one of the key countries in the movie).

Of course it makes no sense that there would be an Illuminati-style secret organisation trying to run the world when nefarious superpowers already do that quite well.

Along the way are some of the usual elements which make up the Bond myth. Sexy girls? Check. Outrageous car chases? Check. Eastern European villains? Czech (Okay, the last one’ not true. He’s actually French).

If you’ve not seen 2006’s Casino Royale then this new, more streamlined and dangerous Bond may come as a surprise. Gone are the goofy gadgets, cringe-worthy one-liners and over the top villains of yore.

This Bond is a product of our time. Like the recent Jason Bourne movies (starring Matt Damon), Craig’s Bond is a very visceral animal, frequently getting bruised, bloodied and beaten up. He’s not afraid of sweating.

And he’s also not afraid of killing. I know he has a licence to do it, but by gum he’s keen. Hell hath no fury like a James Bond scorned. He does not sleep, cannot sleep, because nothing, not even the relentless killing brings him any peace.

hose close to him try to point out the futility of revenge but even then he doesn’t listen. He has not forgiven Vesper for betraying him, he has not forgiven himself for not saving her. His raw anger and hunger for vengeance makes him into a killing machine.

And this is why Daniel Craig is so good at being this Bond. Yes, this is nothing more than a revenge tale. Yes, this is nowhere near as good as Casino Royale or The Bourne Ultimatum. But rather than end up with a superficial story where scores are settled Craig exposes the emptiness of desiring revenge.

While very few of us have ever killed we have all tried to get our own back in some way or another. Revenge is about punishing those you hate, it’s about getting control back or letting them know how it made you feel. It is destructive, self-destructive and very rarely righteous. Which is why God tells us to leave it up to him (Romans 12:19). He actually suggests we give our enemy food or drink. But then, you would argue, who would watch 90 minutes of Horlicks of Solace?

So Bond is hardly breaking new ground here but at least the audience is made to care. Vengeance is a common motive in film plots, especially action movies, but they rarely have the emotional motivation of Quantum of Solace. Recent releases such as Taken (with Liam Neeson) have been nothing more than 24-style vigilantism, lacking style or indeed substance.

In fact, after the high jinx of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace with its bleak and somber tone feels like the middle part of a trilogy. They’re probably busy planning the next Bond right now.

This Bond may lack the classic frills of its forebears but it can still slap on a snappy suit, pour a martini and raise a suggestive eyebrow.

Quantum of Solace is out on general release, certificate 12A

Prince Caspian

Growing up slowly

SOMEWHERE under all the stilted acting in Prince Caspian is an inspiring story about faith in the face of uncertainty and fear.

Such a message would be relevant at a time when governments are using ‘aggressive interrogation’ or proposing longer and longer periods for detaining suspects (is 42 really the answer?) as a means of finding solutions in difficult times.

But this is a family movie and it’s aimed firmly at kids as well as fans of C S Lewis’s Narnia stories.

What a pity then that proper child actors couldn’t have been employed. They went to such trouble to secure quality adults (whether it’s evil kings or sarcastic dwarves) that you can’t help but wonder whether nepotism is involved. It’s not a good sign when the trees (who come alive at the end) are less wooden than the four Pevensie kids and newcomer Prince Caspian (the handsome but blank Ben Barnes).

Prince Caspian and the children

It is he who summons the children back to Narnia. For them only a year has passed in England, whereas 1,300 have gone by in their former kingdom. The land is now ruled by the Telmarines who have managed to almost entirely wipe out the original creatures of Narnia. Not to mention that Aslan (the real lion king) hasn’t been seen in centuries.

Caspian is on the run because his Uncle Miraz wants to kill him and take the throne. And so it is that he meets up with the four children and an ensemble army of badgers, minotaurs, centaurs and dwarves. In the ‘What ho!’ spirit of 1940s public schooling they decide to take on Lord Miraz and drive him out of the kingdom. The cheeky rascals.

Let me first just say that this is definitely an improvement on 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As dire as the acting may be, it is improving (although we’re not out of the woods yet). The pacing is more exciting with the violence of the battles feeling a little more visceral. Just don’t expect to see any blood – no matter how many people die. This is still a Disney movie after all.

While there are attempts made to deliver a more mature and darker story this is mostly achieved by merely setting the scenes at night or in caves. When will directors learn that simply having less light doth not a darker story make?

Lewis’s books have always been short (when compared to other fantasy tomes) but beautifully written. Adults and children alike have enjoyed them. It seems a shame that none of the adult aspects are being translated onto the big screen. The books of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were interminably boring whereas the movies brought them to life. However, The Harry Potter books are certainly a lot more fun than their film counterparts. Tolkien’s tales were generally aimed more at grown-ups (who else could sustain the dense prose?) but Potter and Narnia have been aimed at a child audience – for which Prince Caspian is worth taking youngsters to go watch. It’s understandable that adult fans are left feeling a little let down.

There are elements of hope, however. If you were a fan of Reepicheep the swashbuckling mouse (perfectly voiced by Eddie Izzard) then you’ll be well pleased with his portrayal (sword in the eye, anyone?) The children are a little older, a little moodier and continue to make mistakes like they do in the book.

Faced with a Narnia lacking any ruler the movie exposes the bad decisions people make when they’re afraid. The children don’t trust each other or listen to advice. Their misplaced arrogance leads them into battles where they are badly defeated. Caspian is so desperate to win he’s almost seduced by the White Witch into making a deal with her. There is a sense of being abandoned by Aslan (voiced with great authority by Liam Neeson) and trying to do it their own way.

When High King Peter boasts of how he will defeat Lord Miraz, it’s left to his sister Lucy to remind him, ‘You forget who really defeated the White Witch.’
Lucy is in fact the only character who never loses faith in Aslan’s return. And so it is that in the midst of her sibling’s doubt she is always able to see him or meet him in her dreams.

However hard they try to defeat Lord Miraz it isn’t until they ask Aslan for help that anything changes. The message here is quite simple – if you do things by your own power you will only fail.

Like a bland starter (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) followed by a better if undercooked main course (Prince Caspian) there could be some hope for the desert (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

No matter what happens, the third film will at least have more of Reepicheep. And that’s a good thing.

Prince Caspian will be released nationwide in the UK on June 26

Speed Racer

Beware of the manga monkeys

EXCITING. That would be the best way to describe Speed Racer, the latest cinematic vision from the Wachowski brothers (the guys who directed The Matrix and who produced V for Vendetta). This is not a movie. This is an experience.

Based on the highly popular (in America and Japan) animated series of the 1960s and 70s, this is Speed Racer’s first outing onto the big screen. And yes, you do need a big screen for this film.

I was fearing a repeat of Pixar’s Cars – a dull and lifeless vehicle – but this is most definitely not the case.

Speed Racer is all about a young man called, well, Speed Racer. He’s charming, he’s good looking, he adores his family and he drives insanely fast for a living. Speed’s brother Rex died when Speed was a kid and he’s been racing in that shadow ever since.

Emile Hirsch, much like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, is a calm choice for the role of Speed. There is nothing too dynamic here. He is a solid centre point around which the directors drive forward their tale of the underdog and the evils of giant corporations. You could say he is a little too bland to the hero.

Speed drives for his family-owned racing company, run by his dad, Pops Racer (the always likeable John Goodman). His mother (played by Susan Sarandon) cooks them pancakes while they tinker in the garage. Speed spends his time racing in his Mach 5 – a shiny white street car which hurtles around the futuristic tracks at surreally high speeds.

Speed Racer

He is approached one day by E P Royalton, the chairman of a mega-corporation, to race for his team. The offer seems attractive but when Speed ultimately refuses his reasoning is brutally mocked for being naive and idiotic. Royalton informs Speed that every race since the dawn of time has been fixed by companies intent on generating profits from technological advances.

This sounds familiar to anyone even vaguely aware of how ruthlessly destructive modern corporations can be. And this is also the crux of the movie – small business versus large company, and doing the right thing even if it doesn’t necessarily change the world.

God’s warning on greed (1 Tim 6:10) is clearly demonstrated as Royalton talks about the overwhelming might of money. He turns on Speed and barks out, ‘This is my religion.’ It becomes clear that as result of Speed’s refusal, Royalton will ruin his family, as well as use any method, legal or not, to undermine Speed’s racing abilities. This is the challenge facing the hero, doing the right thing despite the trouble it may cause.

In this case he is helped by Racer X (Lost’s Matthew Fox), a mysterious masked figure who is helping to expose corruption in the world of racing. Speed realises that he will need help if things are ever going to change. The movie has a fantastic climax where the effects of cheating and greed are clearly dealt with.

The races are a thing of beauty. The vehicles fly through the air in a series of aerial moves the makers like to call ‘Car-Fu’. You can taste the speed.

The Wachowski brothers again continue some of the themes from their previous movies. Like Neo in The Matrix and V from V for Vendetta, Speed is yet another messiah figure who has come to transform his world and remove past injustice – though Speed Racer is nowhere near as serious as those two movies. One characters is, in fact, a monkey. And it’s this awkward mix of Saturday morning cartoon fun alongside the darker elements of corporate greed which ultimately prevent this movie from having a clearly defined audience in mind.

That said, the cartoon elements of the TV series have rather succesfully been converted onto the silver screen. The use of the latest high definition cameras as well as some very creative green-screen special effects have made for a bright and super-real world. Much like Sin City or even 300, the characters here seamlessly inhabit a fully realised graphic world.

There are moments of visual flair in Speed Racer the likes of which you’ve never seen before. Can you remember the thrill the first time you saw the races in Tron (one of the pioneers of mixing actors with special effects in the 1980s)? Take that feeling and amp it up slightly and you’ll start to understand why this is no ordinary race or kids’ movie.

One Response to “Movie Reviews”

  1. Hey there,

    I like your reviews. In spite of not having seen the movies you discuss. They are thorough and insightful and demonstrate your wide frame of artistic and cinemtic reference. And you do venture an opinion. Well done, son !

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