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.

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