Christmas Day floods theaters with costly gifts—but Benjamin Button is the one to open first 

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON Judging from its early critical reception, this delicate, intricate romantic fantasy was the last movie anyone expected or wanted from Fight Club/Zodiac director David Fincher. But in a year of emotionally parched, numbing studio releases, it's unusually lovely and captivating—a Fitzgerald-derived web of folklore (adapted by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord) spun around a man who ages backward, growing younger from the Roaring Twenties onward while everything and everyone else weathers. As in Andrew Sean Greer's similar (and even more devastating) novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, the premise is an ingenious inversion of the processes of life, with youth itself recast as a kind of senescence: As Benjamin's aging lover says, shrugging off his fears of advancing infancy, we all end up in diapers anyway. As the hero, Brad Pitt, augmented by different actors at different stages and some seamless digital trickery, affects a courtly drawl and an old man's gradually easing stoop: The result is the first lead role to make the most of his formidable skills as a character actor, whether he's engaging in wizened child's play with toy soldiers or addressing the 7-year-old love of his life (played as an adult by an equally shape-shifting Cate Blanchett). Incontestably a superb technician, Fincher and cinematographer Claudio Miranda re-create the warp of old nitrate (most amusingly for a human lightning rod's string of mishaps), a storybook New Orleans and a spacious grandeur out of widescreen 1950s dramas. But the movie's visually dazzling form never trumps feeling: its many tall tales and anecdotes always seem fully inhabited, thanks to players who make indelible impressions in a short time—Taraji P. Henson as a doting surrogate mom, Jared Harris as a wonderful rascally seafarer, Elias Koteas as a grief-stricken clockmaker whose few moments on screen haunt the entire film. (If nothing else, the movie's a triumph for Fincher's longtime casting director, Nashville native and part-time resident Laray Mayfield.) The movie turns time into taffy—not just the chronology of flashbacks (which loop backward and forward) but the slide-rule calibrations that keep the stars edging closer to their real-life looks, which gives their beauty an additional pang of transience. Everything fades, but something tells me Benjamin Button will last. —Jim Ridley (Opens Thursday)

VALKYRIE Its intentions are noble: to make a hero of out the forgotten man, Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), who tried to kill Hitler in 1944 in order to seize control of Germany and broker a truce with the Allies. But Valkyrie has no interest in truly memorializing him; this isn't really Oscar fare, even though its based-on-a-true-story baggage, period clothing, location setting and reputable A-list cast (Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp) suggest as much. What to do with a movie that's impossible to spoil (you do know the ending, right?) and winds up with the hero assassinated by a coward? (Didn't work out well for that Jesse James movie last year, either—I mean, the ending was right in the title.) The supporting performances are top-notch, but Cruise is all we see here—Ethan Hunt in an eye patch. Even when saying goodbye to his wife and kids for a final time, his Stauffenberg never seems like a man for whom anything's at stake, except maybe missed dinner reservations. Valkyrie feels like another installment in the never-ending franchise—not just the action-movie one, but the Tom Cruise one. —Robert Wilonsky (Opens Thursday)

MARLEY & ME Satisfying only to pet-porn junkies whose tear ducts can't even withstand a 365 Ferrets a Year calendar, the movie version of John Grogan's best-selling memoir lacks a crucial ingredient: any sense of what made its hero, a warm and fuzzy Terminator of a Labrador retriever, different from every other table-smashing, necklace-swallowing dogzilla on earth. Played in this canine I'm Not There by a succession of impostors at various stages of life, Marley never develops a personality beyond generic mutt-goes-nuts antics—and without that crucial spark of soul, all director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) delivers is a Beethoven movie with less shedding. Instead, the career changes, family crises and midlife moping of human leads Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston relegate Marley to a lifestyle accessory in his own biopic. (That's OK, buddy—a pet skunk gets more attention than Wilson and Aniston's three kids do here.) Apart from Aniston's sick anticipation of a sonogram reading (a moment that belongs in another, better movie) and a depiction of postpartum stress close enough for Advil, Marley & Me proves how lifeless Lady and the Tramp would have been if told from the p.o.v. of "Jim Dear" and "Darling." Even so, by the time Marley goes off-leash to that great dog beach in the sky, you can bet there won't be a dry rug in the house. —Jim Ridley (Opens Thursday)

BEDTIME STORIES While no one was expecting the live-wire daring of Punch-Drunk Love or even You Don't Mess With the Zohan, the Adam Sandler who shows up in Bedtime Stories is that most unnecessary of movie-star guises: the benign family-comedy guy. Playing his usual underdog role, Sandler is Skeeter, a lowly Los Angeles handyman recruited by his sister (Courteney Cox) to babysit her two children (Jonathan Morgan Heit and Laura Ann Kesling) while she's out of town. In the hopes of bonding with the youngsters, he entertains them with made-up bedtime stories, but once events in the stories start happening in real life, he realizes that the kids' narrative input has some sort of magical effect. Directed by Adam Shankman (The Pacifier) in his traditional bright-shiny-silly way, Bedtime Stories is too typical of what passes for live-action family filmmaking these days, throwing together saccharine sentiments, mindless comedic action, and scenes of unusually affluent family life in the hopes of crafting a gleaming entertainment that's always in motion and won't offend anyone. (On that note, is Guy Pearce's evil hotel manager supposed to be gay or just, y'know, exceptionally prissy?) Because Bedtime Stories has Sandler in it, a little loopiness still creeps in around the edges—the best bit has to do with a character's odd cell phone ring—but the twitchy anxiety that once powered his persona has given way to a doughy anonymity. Parental advisory: There is a Rob Schneider cameo. —Tim Grierson (Opens Thursday)

THE SPIRIT With the fanboys anxiously eyeing Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation, Frank Miller's version of The Spirit sneaks into theaters almost unnoticed on Christmas Day. Good thing, too. Miller, comics icon turned director, has rendered comics-industry revolutionary Will Eisner's crime fighter Denny Colt a grim shade of dull—all talk, no action, save for a few slapstick mash-ups of old Warner Bros. cartoons and Miller's own Sin City, which have the effect of turning Eisner's Technicolor comic into a gray glob of hardboiled mush. Colt (Gabriel Macht, ehh), dead and deadpan, is a killed cop resurrected courtesy of the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson turned up to 11), a baddie who now wants the good guy dead, I tell ya, dead. Complicating matters are the femme fatales stopping by between Maxim shoots: Eva Mendes as the lost love, Jaime King as the angel of death and Scarlett Johansson as the Octopus' extra tentacle. Miller gets away with his revisionist redo because, at this late date, The Spirit's been spirited away to the history books. Besides, the movie's so full of nods to comics and their creators (from DC Comics founder Harry Donenfeld to artist Steve Ditko) that the fanboys will find room in their heart to forgive the desecration. Nobody else will care at all. —Robert Wilonsky (Opens Thursday)

DOUBT With its bristling topicality, ritzy cast and Roger Deakins' gracefully bleak cinematography, John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his 2005 play about an old-school Catholic nun who goes after a priest she suspects of sexual abuse is prime Oscar bait. In Shanley's entertainingly callow hands, provocation passes for complexity, ushered in periodically by waves of premonitory winter weather that coat a Bronx parochial school in the early 1960s. There, a timid young sister (Amy Adams), unnerved by what looks like unusually close contact between the school's well-liked priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and its first black pupil, reports her misgivings to the principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Before you can say "independent inquiry," off goes the bonneted termagant to grind the machinery of blind justice. Though Shanley throws in some clues to enlarge our perceptions of nun and priest, Doubt is only marginally about moral uncertainty, which in any case he confuses with a preposterous moral relativism. It's more about the sins of a nosy old biddy pulling out the stops when going through the official channels of a male-dominated Catholic Church would get her nowhere. Knowing what we know now, I was left wishing there had been more vigilant old bats around like Sister Aloysius to shield Catholic children from the predators within. —Ella Taylor (Opens Thursday)

FROST/NIXON Has any president other than Lincoln inspired more movies, TV mini-series and operas? Dutifully directed by Ron Howard from screenwriter Peter Morgan's enjoyably glib play, Frost/Nixon is the latest installment of the Nixoniad, appropriately set in a media hall of mirrors. The subject is not Watergate but its aftermath—the series of four televised interviews with the disgraced 37th president that British chat star David Frost orchestrated and syndicated in the spring of 1977, a little less than three years after Nixon's resignation. A docudramatist whose screen credits include The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, Morgan conceives the Frost-Nixon interviews as a prizefight between two comeback-hungry veterans, ever-cheerful Frost (Michael Sheen, wide-eyed and so coiffed as to be a distraction) and sonorous, gloomy Nixon (Frank Langella). In opening up the play, however, the movie unavoidably dissipates its power. Having Nixon's actual lair, the so-called Casa Pacifica, as a location is considerably less compelling than the stripped-down onstage set. Still, Frost/Nixon's main attraction is neither its topicality nor its historical value but Langella's re-creation of his Tony-winning performance. Langella doesn't shake his jowls or attempt Nixon's sickly smile. Ice-cold and physically imposing, the actor is a naturally menacing presence; his stooped, shambling, eye-rolling Nixon is like a prehistoric beast at bay. In his 1970 speech on Cambodia, Nixon had warned that America would become "a pitiful helpless giant." Langella's performance is the lament of a man who became what he beheld. —J. Hoberman (Opens Thursday)

(Even more articles and interviews related to the holiday movie season can be found online at nashvillescene.com.)

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