Sunday, January 4, 2009

3 movies, 6 days (plot spoilers ahead)

That’s right. I saw three movies in theaters over the past six days. Unusual. First came my solo viewing of A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël), about a cute and cuddly animated…wait, no, it was about a dysfunctional French family home for the holidays, starring Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch and Mathieu Amalric (currently the bad guy in Quantum of Solace) as one of her three children. It’s all very French, with some insanity, sibling banishment, cheating spouses, and one possibly terminal parent. I’m a fan of the director Arnaud Desplechin. He directed one of my favorite movies from the ‘90s, My Sex Life, Or How I got Into an Argument. Also with Amalric. (Very talky, and not quite what the title implies—not for everybody, including my wife.)

Here’s a trailer for A Christmas Tale.

New Year’s Day, Liz and I went to see Wall-E, still playing, incredibly, at a second run art house cinema in Arlington: The Capitol Theatre, the same theater where I saw Tale. We braved the frigid temps and relatively fresh snow to make the drive. The theater was crowded and also very cold. We kept our coats on. But we got decent seats up front (no stadium seating here) and had a great time. About a little robot left to clean up Earth 700 years in the future, after humans recolonize in space. Shits and giggles ensue when he ends up in space with the humans, bringing proof (in the shape of a little plant) that Earth can again sustain life. The animation was wonderful and the story was entertaining and kind of subversive. There was even a pop song over the credits (Peter Gabriel). You can see Wall-E on DVD by now, but we were glad to catch it in a theater.

Saturday I caught The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Long movie, at 2 hours 45 minutes, and it did drag in parts. Overall though a very entertaining and technically brilliant piece of movie making. Brad Pitt plays the titular character. Born an old man, Benjamin lives his life in reverse, dying as an infant in his lover’s arms (sorry -- I told you I’d spoil it for you!). The whole idea of living one’s life backwards is sort of explained in an early sequence where a clockmaker builds a new clock for a city’s train station. When the clock is unveiled and first cranked to life, its works run backward. As the clock maker explains, so that his son (just killed in WW I) and all the other soldiers can return home as they first left.

Mortality as a theme runs just under the surface of every scene. Benjamin, born the size of an infant, but with withered old-man skin, grows into a not-as-old looking man. Soon he’s getting around in a wheel chair, and then a crutch. You get the idea. When he’s about ten or so mentally he meets Daisy, the granddaughter of a woman staying at the retirement home where he is being raised. Mentally, they’re (kind of, sort of) the same age, but of course Daisy is a regular ten year old (played by one of those ubiquitous little Fanning people). Still she’s attracted to him. I mean, he’s old and short, but he’s really starting to look like Brad Pitt at this point. So, who can blame her?

Daisy is the love of Benjamin’s life. And for the next couple decades their lives occasionally cross, but they never really connect. She turns out to be a great dancer and Benjamin turns out to look more and more like Brad Pitt. He has adventures (on the high seas during WWII, stationed for months in Russia where he has an affair with a lonely wife) but always comes back to the retirement home in New Orleans where he was raised. It’s fascinating to see Benjamin get younger as he ages. There’s inherent drama in this set up. He’s always a fish out of water, he never quite fits in. Until he’s around forty (and looks JUST like Brad Pitt), he and Daisy finally get it together long enough to get it on. This is where the tension in the movie starts draining away. The surprise is over: we’ve seen Brad old, now he’s just going to get younger and eventually die. And when it finally happens, it’s pretty anti-climatic.

After I saw the movie I came home and read the F. Scott Fitzgerald story upon which the movie is based. Or rather, claims to be based. (Download a free PDF of the story.) Most of what’s in the story has been stripped away. The general conceit remains (aging backwards), but the rest was thankfully jettisoned. There is no great love for Benjamin in the story. Most people don’t look very kindly on him. He’s just a freak and doesn’t live a very happy life. He attempts to go to college at different times, but he’s either too old or too young. He eventually graduates, but it’s toward the end of his life. He marries, but as soon as his wife gets older and their ages cross paths, he starts to find her disgusting. Fitzgerald seemed to enjoy putting his characters is embarrassing and humiliating situations. This story is full of that kind of thing, where people stare and snicker at his differences, and he only seems happy for a short time. In the movie, the main character is always a little befuddled, but most people accept him and even find him interesting (aside from his father, who initially abandoned him). The matter of education is never mentioned, he just never goes, and maybe that’s why the character is such a blank slate, letting life sweep him along. Into WW II, travel across the world, and various relationships.

All these films touch upon mortality. In A Christmas Tale, the mother is diagnosed with a rare genetic condition and needs a bone marrow transplant. It seems that even with the transplant (all her kids and her grandson are tested as a match) she won’t live a whole lot longer anyway. The transplant will add another two or three years to her life. In Wall-E, video images of a spokesman from 700 years in the past flicker in grainy messages. Humanity has been replaced by robots who take care of a race of overfed, overweight, over pampered humans living in space. (It’s not a big a bummer as it sounds. Pop songs! Animation! Disney!)

With Benjamin, death seems to be more acute, more eventual. He was born, one could speculate, moments before, had his life not been built to run backwards, in the moments after he would die if he were normal. His eventual death as an infant haunts every relationship, every love, every sub-story within the film’s construct. It’s not a feel bad movie, but it sure ain’t this season’s feel good movie. Still, it outshines the story it’s based on. And it sure is a hoot to watch Brad Pitt look like an old man.


Cynthia Sherrick said...

I was watching two movie critics the other night. A man and a british woman -- both names have escaped me at the moment -- and the woman picked Wall-E as her top movie of the year. Can't remember what the man's top pick was but he did include Benjamin Button on his list of top 10.
Thanks for the reviews. :)

Liz's Mom said...

It is great to read such well-written, thoughtful and interesting reviews of three very different types of moves.

Dell Smith said...

I guess I'm catching up on the possible best picture noms.