Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Benjamin Button; The Devil Wears Prada

I am known among family and friends for having overly serious taste in films. Indeed, whenever someone is over and we decide to peruse my movie collection to find a good flick, it is found to be rife with titles that are heavy meditations on serious themes or subtitled.

However, I think that it is pretty clear from my previous posts that I truly love any film that is well made - be it comedy, mystery, suspense or thriller - and that one of my criteria for this is heavily weighted towards whether or not the director can suck me into the screen and make me forget the "real" world around me for a few hours in favour of the world being created onscreen.

Which, coincidentally, is why I am so adamant about seeing films in the theater: creating a world takes a large canvas.

Today's films are both examples of movies that made me forget my critical distance and just disappear into the lives of the characters for a few hours - and what diverse films they are!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) (Park Lane) Twelve academy awards nominations point to the fact that this year's Golden Globes may not live up to their legacy of being an accurate predictor of Oscar trends.

I loved Benjamin Button with virtually no reservations - well, I can find a fair number if pushed to it, but I prefer to just enjoy the warm glow that this film left me with.

Benjamin Button was born on the final day of WWI in a rather ass backwards fashion - he was an old man at birth, with his advancing years seeing him grow younger rather than older. This unique condition makes him an outsider in a world he should inhabit instinctively (that of other children) and an insider in a world that he is not equipped to understand (that of adults).

Abandoned by a father horrified by his condition and nurtured by a foster mother working as a servant in an old folks home, unflappable good nature allows Benjamin to navigate his curious situation with grace and poise in a story that spans continents and the arc of modern western history.

As he grows in age and approaches physical youth, a cast of characters ranging from an alcoholic sea captain/tattoo artist to the father he never knew play key roles in Benjamin's mental growth even as he gets physically younger. However, it should come as no surprise that it is the women in his life that define the arc of his strange life.

The first, the phenomenal Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth, the adulterous wife of a British diplomat in Soviet Russia, introduces him to love (as opposed to just sex) as the basis of a muted but strangely compelling relationship that for me was one of the most intriguing in the film. The austerity of this relationship is embodied in the cold and distant Russian setting, but its importance to Benjamin is all the more compelling against this backdrop.

The second, a "childhood" friend named Daisy, played in adulthood by the incomparable Cate Blanchett (well, OK, comparable to the likes of Meryl Streep maybe), is meant to be the passionate core of the movie - coincidentally also being the part of the film when Benjamin's chronological age and apparent age begin to meet in his 30s and 40s. The computer manipulation of his features switches tone dramatically at this point: after having presented the child Benjamin as Gollum and the 20s Benjamin as a dignified match for Elizabeth, he is now let loose on the audience as...well...Brad Pitt. Three girls behind me gasped in unison at his pinup glory.

But strangely the relationship with Daisy, which is supposed to be about unfettered exploration of passion as Benjamin finally becomes comfortable with who or what he is, lacked chemistry and came across as slightly flat. This did not compromise the movie for me, but left me with an impression similar to that of Slumdog Millionaire - the magic in both being weighted towards the beginning, in the fairy tale story of childhoods lived extraordinarily.

Indeed, Benjamin is not a complex character, and the eponymous film is far from complicated, steering clear as it does of the myriad social and moral issues that typified the times in which it is set. I would venture so far as to say that Benjamin Button borders on simplicity in the innocence of the character and the benign nature of the world he inhabits.

I hate to say it, but in this regard the film brings to mind Forest Gump, the screenplay for which was also penned by Eric Roth. Now it is tempting to sneer at Benjamin Button as a rerun - a sea captain as a best friend indeed! - but this is no Forest Gump, a fact that is perhaps best evidenced by the wise decision not to engage in the history that frames it. Benjamin was in WWII but played no pivotal role, he met no presidents and did not play ping pong in China - the film recognizes that it is a fairy tale and does not aspire to be anything more.

The bottom line for me is that I never looked at my watch, never thought about a snack, didn't consider the weather or have a thought about my job - I just enjoyed the world of Benjamin Button, and recommend it wholeheartedly.

I might add that one of the great virtues of this film is the computer graphics (CG). I am generally as wary of CG as the blockbuster cash fests that are generally hung on them, but recognize that amazing things can be accomplished - and amazing things are accomplished in Benjamin Button, which is perhaps only the second film that I have ever watched that relies heavily on CG but where the simulations have not been so poorly realized as to distract me. Much like in 2007's The Golden Compass, the CG is Benjamin Button is seamless and stunning - a true testament to what can be done when CG is treated like a paint brush to apply atmosphere rather than a frame to hang a limp story on. I sense technical Oscars going this way...

Enjoy :)

The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) (Home) When The Devil Wears Prada hit theaters I dismissed it out of hand - much the same way I dismiss many wedding movies or the Sex in the City Movie. It looked like so much marketing of fashion and make up and little else. What was Meryl Streep doing?

Well, as it turns out, she was playing a nuanced and demanding role that challenged her to rise to the height of her craft - Meryl's turn as Miranda Priestley, vicious bitch goddess managing editor of Runway, the fashion world's leading magazine, is a pleasure to behold, and literally left me in awe.

The story revolves around Andy Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway, a journalist of principal who just can't find a job until she lands a position as Miranda's assistant at what she considers an essentially pointless magazine dedicated to girly indulgence. What she doesn't count on, however, is getting drawn into the cutthroat world of a multi-billion dollar fashion industry that insiders take as seriously as she takes politics and social activism.

And - aside from the fantastic acting - this is where I identified with The Devil Wears Prada. As Andy entered the high pressure world of fashion publication, I identified at every step based on my almost eight years in the pressure-cooker corporate world of South Korea: working 12 hours days as a minimum, being judged as much for the brand of your suit and tie as for the quality of your work, being on business trips or stuck in the office instead of home for anniversaries or even birthdays, barely fitting in a healthy meal between meetings.

And getting off on it! Feeling a drug-like rush that only more work, a more expensive suit, or another whirlwind business trip could maintain.

And then suddenly stopping one day and realizing what you have lost, and choosing to try to get some of it back.

The thing with The Devil Wears Prada is that it was real life, just not a real life that everybody experiences or understands. In much the same way, I guess, many of the wedding movies that I dismiss out of hand could be great films that I just don't identify with - or don't give the chance to. For me The Devil was a sleeper hit in much the same way that Clueless was: I never imagined I could find any good in it, and in the end I loved every minute of it.

You may not, and that's totally OK.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire, Gran Torino, MILK, Valkyrie

I sit in the glow of my computer screen with a hot cup of tea, watching the snow fall outside in what is already Halifax's fourth large storm of this winter season, wondering again - like a mental record that has hit a skip - what the hell I am doing in this frigid climate.

Especially as my father - a heavyweight in terms of the family I came back to be closer to - has long since abandoned the frigid northern climes of Nova Scotia in favour of the beaches of sunny Florida. The snowbird has flown the coop, and I sit in a house that feels like an igloo on a vast northern steppe.

But wherever I am, movies are, of course, a constant - save for the lack of variety offered in our quaint port city on the sea. The last week has provided a fair amount of fodder, so here we go - and as I often claim, I will be brief.

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan, 2008) (The Oxford) Woah, pressure. I wish that I had written this review before the Golden Globe for best picture had been awarded to Boyle and Tandan, because then I could avoid the nagging question of whether or not it deserves that designation.

Cop out warning: my judgement is that I really enjoyed this film an immense amount. I think that I experienced this film the same way that a youth enjoys a story of magic and adventure: by surrendering to the story's world completely and immersing myself in the world on portrayed to the point where I smelt the smells, sweated in the heat, and felt the joy and pain of the heroes keenly.

The sounds and sights of India are so beautifully captured as our protagonist, Jamal, narrates the winding path of his journey from a precocious child in the sprawling slums of Bombay to the grand prize winner on the Bollywood version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The water steams, the rain churns the ground to mud, the crowds jostle and sweat, the food sizzles, the garbage coats the landscape and the shit stinks (as it does everywhere in the world, but usually you are more isolated from it than you often are in India).

I felt like I was back in India, riding the rails through verdant countryside, lining up at the Taj Mahal, shopping and eating in the warren of market alleys, summoning the chai wallah for a cuppa black tea laced with cardamom, cinnamon and clove, counting the smiles of Gandhi that grace each 100 Rupee note, and listening to the singsong of Indian English speakers waggling their heads in an endearing and/or infuriating hybrid of yes and no.

I can't really say what your experience of Slumdog will be if you cannot approach it as a documentary of your personal experience, but based on the Golden Globe and the Oscar buzz this film is tapping into something with wider and less-travelled audiences as well.

And the soundtrack does not hurt, having been a regular on my iPod since leaving the theater. M.I.A.'s Paper Planes figures heavily in the film and anchors a soundtrack that melds the techno beats of London's club scene with the lovelorn standards of Bollywood musicals. Stick around for the credits to see a tribute to the highly choreographed dance and song routines that are de rigeur in Bollywood fare.

The one thing that I will say to balance my rave opinion is that for me the magic of Slumdog is weighted to the first half and a little beyond. I found that as we approached the present and Malik grew up and his life became more tied to the modern urban landscape of Mumbai than to the colourful exoticism of his life in the slums and rural India, the magic dulled a little, and was not adequately compensated for in the love story at the center of a narrative that by this point is typified by cash, glitz and guns.

But go and see Slumdog Millionaire. Immerse yourself in the film and enjoy the ride - then hit a bookstore and pick up Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram to continue your travels in that world.

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008) (Park Lane) Clint Eastwood has a checkered history of film making, but of late - with the notable exception of the painfully bad Flags of Our Fathers - he has delivered a spate of fantastic films best embodied by (or perhaps limited to) Changeling and Million Dollar Baby.

I enjoyed Gran Torino, but remain somehow reluctant to recommend it wholesale. While it is a refreshingly non-PC look at racism in America, as typified by the relationship between Walt Kowalski, a flinty Korean war vet, and the Hmong refugees that settled en masse in the mid-western states in the early/mid-70s, the film retained an "after-school special" feeling that I just could not shake.

Eastwood inhabits his character completely, playing Walt as a cross between Dirty Harry (at one point, when facing down a gang member, you are almost on the edge of your seat waiting to hear him sneer "do I feel lucky, well do ya, punk?" and the Dark Knight (with the gravelly, throaty voice even serving as a point of comparison and/or annoyance).

The film making is heavy handed, and the symbolism overt, perhaps best evidenced by the opening shot at the funeral of Walt's wife, where he sits at one end of a church pew, separated by one space from his estranged children and grandchildren - the point obviously being that his wife served as his connection to his children, and that that connection is no longer there.

Things do not get any more subtle as they progress.

There are some laughs as the cultures collide, but overall the movie - which Eastwood claims will be his last performance as an actor - is not a high note to end on. Interesting, even enjoyable, but ultimately short of compelling.

MILK (Gus Van Sant, 2008) (Park Lane) Portland, Oregon's patron saint, Gus Van Sant is a powerhouse director who has served up films that resonate strongly for my generation: Good Will Hunting (nuff said), My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For come to mind.

I was highly anticipating the film MILK, not the least for Sean Penn's participation in the project, but also because it portrays a civil rights movement in its own respect - one that played out in my lifetime and changed the face of the society that I live in.

With the fundamental rights of an entire segment of society hanging in the balance, one would think that MILK would arouse the sympathy of audiences, enlisting moral outrage as - for lack of a better term - a device to help engage the audience's interest and emotions.

But that is my main problem with MILK. Sean Penn was good as Harvey Milk, as always, although I did feel initially that he was playing the character as too stereotypically gay, and Josh Brolin (who shone in Oliver Stone's W) was solid - but neither really engaged me or enlisted my sympathy. The film work was as solid as the acting, seamlessly melding archive footage and modern shooting, but overall felt flat and uninviting - very 1970s ;)

The bottom line is that when I watch a film about a struggle for rights or freedom or peace or justice, the beauty of the experience is in vicariously feeling the passion of those involved, walking a mile in their shoes and appreciating more fully the sacrifices made, the pain experienced and the thrill of victory or the ignominy of defeat.

This film seemed more like a documentary in the end than a tribute to a crusade - I have to recommend a pass on this one.

Valkyrie (Bryan Singer, 2008) (Bayer's Lake) Valkyrie is obviously in a different class than the three films we have looked at so far, being as it is essentially an Indiana Jones movie that takes itself more seriously.

Early in Valkyrie we are treated to an homage to Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, although I doubt that Singer would frame it in that context, with Hitler descending from the sky in a boxy Junkers trimotor flanked by malevolent looking Messerschmidt 109s. It is a scene conveying all-encompassing power, as airplanes were still far from common in the early years of the war, and Hitler was among the first politicians to fully exploit them for both mobility and to inspire awe.

Hitler disembarks, and makes his way into a meeting room, followed by a camera that is shy of his face until he sits down at the meeting table - with a dark, brooding and essentially evil presence that was the first thing that annoyed me about the film. Over the past decade we have seen several films earn widespread approbation for daring to portray Hitler as a human being, Menno Mayjes' Max comes to mind, as does Chistian Duguay's Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Valkyrie avoids any such complications by making it clear in this one shot that Hitler is pure evil - and I don't dispute that, but think that it is worth pointing out, as it is a clear example of how cut and dried Valkyrie portrays World War II and Nazi Germany. There are bad guys and there are good guys. Period. (George Bush would approve.)

But this brings me to my next point. If the bad guy is pure evil, what about the good guy, you know, Maverick. The first shot of Cruise painstakingly donning his uniform despite horrible wounds sustained in the North Africa campaign elicited a surprisingly violent reaction from me: what the hell is he doing in this film?

Now I am not a rabid Tom Cruise hater like so many, but I am pretty used to not taking his films seriously, which was an attitude that I quickly realized I was going to have to adopt for Valkyrie. Sit back and enjoy the multi-million dollar recreation of 1940s Germany Yuri. Marvel at the machinery, the uniforms, the high polish of the Rolls Royces and the click of the polished boots marching in unison. Because this is not an examination of history or a documentary about a group of high-ranking German officials, led by Claus von Stauffenberg, attempting to assassinate Hitler before the allies enter Berlin and indict all of Germany as complicit in the crimes of the Third Reich.

And as eye candy and even an adventure film, Valkyrie is compelling and enjoyable, but this brings me to another question: in raising von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators to the position of heroes in a dark night of the soul - much as Schindler's List did for Oskar Schindler - are we oversimplifying who they were and what they did during those years of fear, oppression and darkness?

I know it is tantamount to blasphemy to suggest that Hitler had a soul, but he did at some point, and turned his back on it perhaps more fully than any other figure I can name in the history of Western culture and politics. Thus, what of Schindler? What of Stauffenberg? I know that we need heroes, but please allow them to be flawed - something that, to its credit, Schindler's List was careful to do but Valkyrie never considers.

I grew up watching old good vs evil WWII films with my Dad, and Valkyrie - although Cruise is still hard to swallow in the role - fits in with this tradition: The Guns of Naverone and A Bridge Too Far. Rollicking good war film that don't ask any questions and don't provide any answers - its just that this one really wants to be taken seriously....

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Real Nowhere Man

A Life Less Ordinary
Nine years in Korea, one and a half years in Portland and a year traveling in Europe, India, Nepal, and Hong Kong. A life less than ordinary indeed, resplendent with the glamour of foreign lands, exotic languages and esoteric cultures and cuisines.

All the world as a stage, so to speak, and me one of the actors in a play that is surely an action adventure or a comedy, but that I insist on seeing as a tragedy. And you know, its all in the eye of the beholder ;)

I wandered through the rooms of my cavernous new home today, surveying the scene of my latest adventure, and I wondered about that carefully constructed image of the seasoned flaneur, traveling light and collecting naught but a few photographs and a handful of good stories. the easy breezy me...

And I had to laugh.

Many of the meditative faiths of the world speak of "letting go," escaping attachment in order to free oneself of craving and aversion, but also of tactile goods and even memories - and the mental baggage that they invariably carry with them

And here I was literally looking at my "baggage." For one who is so fancy free amid the wonders of the world and learning the lessons of the road, I sure have a LOT of crap. In fact, it is fair to say that I have learned nary a thing about letting go of attachments. In fact, I am carrying almost 1,000 pounds of attachments - an entire life that doesn't exist anymore except in memory

I am carrying around the photos of a life that I left behind along with the dishes that sat in my kitchen, the 1000s of photos that chronicle that life and hundreds of other artifacts that have no relevance to today, but belong to a yesterday that is already ancient history and should be allowed to moulder away in dusty corners.

I am carrying the lives I lived in Halifax and Kingston in the 90s, in Korea in the late 90s and early 00s, in Portland in 06 and in India in 07/08. Diplomas, clothing, postcards, photographs and more photographs, dishes and duvets, birthday gifts and tokens of affection, testaments to pain and joy that don't need to be memorialized but have been dragged across oceans and a continent.

And will now go on shelves in a musty basement.

And are attachments that may one day be given up...