Category archives: Movie Reviews

Not So Curious

by Family Research Council

December 29, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald is renowned for having written the most famous American novel, The Great Gatsby, which closes with one of literature’s best-known lines, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the boat becomes a man becomes a trope, the story of a human being who is born old and who lives his life in reverse, moving through old age, to maturity, to the prime of life, to adolescence, to childhood, and finally to infancy. Benjamin is literally borne back ceaselessly into what for everyone else would be the past. It’s an extraordinary concept, but does it make an extraordinary film?

For Fitzgerald, the futility of holding on to romance, to beauty, to life itself is implicit in every word and gesture. Moments of exquisite beauty fade instantly as they occur and their fatal aura only sharpens the impressions they leave upon the senses. Southern light lends itself to such uses and the decadent — that is, decaying - atmosphere of New Orleans in the 1920s and ‘30s is overripe for such a story (Fitzgerald’s original was published in 1921, and the film bears little relation to it other than the title). Cinematically, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button captures that evanescent beauty in almost every scene; it is a visually sensual movie that recreates its time in nearly every frame.

For all of that beauty, however, the film is an empty vessel, and Benjamin himself is the reason why. Were it not for the fantastic trajectory of his existence, it is altogether unclear why we should care about his life and not altogether clear that he cares about it either. His very being is the work of an artist’s imagination, but he himself seems to lack an imaginative core. He not only experiences life in reverse, he experiences it passively, whether it is piano lessons, his first sexual experience, his first job as a tugboat hand, the second world war, his first real love, fatherhood, and finally, as an infant, death itself.

The film’s recurring phrase, “You never know what is coming for you,” is apt in a manner the movie may not intend. Things happen to Benjamin, but he is not one to go out to meet them. He passes the lives of others in the night, heading the other way. There is occasional poignancy in this passageway, but it is seldom truly evocative. The performances by the leads, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, contribute to this quality. Blanchett’s porcelain features and royal bearing reinforce a coolness that contrasts starkly with the vibrancy of the film’s black characters, who alone seem real. Benjamin’s own coolness at the death of his adoptive mother, Queenie, played with power by Taraji Henson, seems merely odd. He behaves like a visitor at her funeral, not like a son.

The narrative flashback form used in the film has been done elsewhere, and better, most notably in another tall tale filled with picaresque Southern elegance, Tim Burton’s Big Fish. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s framing story, like that of Big Fish, features parent-child tension and death-bed revelations, but the stakes in Burton’s film seem far higher and relate integrally to the movie’s meaning. Peter Finch’s character in Big Fish makes his experiences larger-than-life and those experiences mystically grow to assume the size of his telling; Benjamin Button renders his larger-than-life experiences in a way that seems to diminish them, and he follows them into shrinking significance as the film flows on, like Heraclitus’s river.

Take Burton and its genuine romance, over Button and its curious ennui.

Review: The Tale of Despereaux

by Family Research Council

December 19, 2008

On Saturday this reviewer had the opportunity to be the only unaccompanied adult in a theater full of parents and tots to see the new Universal release The Tale of Despereaux. The movie is an adaptation of the book by Kate DiCamillo, which came highly recommended by my almost 15-year-old son, who had warm memories of it from his youth but who was, apparently, concerned about being seen in a theater filled with children small enough to have to peep at the screen over the back of the seats in front of them.  I had no such concern, which tells you something about me.  Having not read the book or seen any comments from Ms. DiCamillo before writing my own, I cannot do any comparisons of the experiences of reading and viewing this family fare.  First of all, the film is indeed family fare, having no scatological moments and being blissfully free of any references to bodily functions as substitutes for actual wit.

As regards wit, this animated film is strong on both a visual and verbal level, spinning its interest around the trope of a young mouse whose intention to be anything but mousy turns his fear-driven world upside down.  Young Despereaux Tilling, the swashbuckling rodent, is physically the most delicate creature in the movie, possessed of both absurdly outsized ears and a romantically outsized nature.  He is driven to take on a “quest” that, while executed within the confines of a single castle, has all the scope of Arthurian legend: a lost item of great value (prize soup, in this case), an abject King mourning the loss of his beloved queen, a beautiful princess (voiced by Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame) who waits sadly for the return of both sunlight and rain to her indifferent world, and plotters and villains by the score, including the malevolent and ravenous denizens of “Ratworld,” who despise (and relish, with relish) all things mouse-like.

The film is built on the steady virtues of its heroic characters (in addition to Despereaux, there is the morally conflicted rat, Roscuro, heir to a long line of fairy tale figures whose actions result in unintended harm to the established order and unjust banishment) and the destructive ambitions of a jealous servant girl, Miggity Sow, who, it can be charitably said, yearns for a princess-hood that lies beyond her natural endowment.  This superbly animated film includes some scenes of genuine menace (cat takes the hindmost) that younger children will remember in their dreams, genuine pathos (the servant girl is handed over as a baby to a mean life that wounds her heart and spurs her acts of cruelty), and genuine tenderness (a princess’s gentle kiss) that lingers in the mind.

The voices are supplied by a Hollywood and United Kingdom A-list of talent, and the music, while derivative of other orchestral work, is both professional and appropriate.  Sigourney Weaver provides a wry narration that contains much of the film’s humor, as do the sequences of Despereaux’s fretful parents, who worry that their tiny son’s lack of cravenness will undo the pact of timidity that has become their way of life (in this the movie has relevance to elements of our risk-avoidant culture that would ban such things as kickball in the schoolyard).  Finally, Despereaux is a reader, and he finds his inspiration in tales of courage and selflessness, written in glorious script with bold illustrations in the style of N.C Wyeth that echo in Despereaux’s mind’s eye.  A film that calls viewers back to the written word, and to what those words can do to evoke images, stir courage and instill virtue, is on the right path to a timeless message.

The Tale of Despereaux contains nothing offensive, is rated G, and has no specific religious content.  It opens Friday, December 19 nationwide.

Batman: The Dark Knight

by Family Research Council

July 21, 2008

At one level it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I regularly watch movies based on comic books. I’m 56 and my youngest is 14, so it’s at least a semi-voluntary endeavor. Nonetheless, I grew up with subscriptions to DC Comics, the “Justice League of America,” “Classics Illustrated,” and an obscure favorite called “Metal Men.” These readings did not replace literature for my siblings and me; they supplemented it, and, with “Classics” especially, helped to pique interest in the real (and even unabridged) thing. It’s hard even now to describe the imaginative windows opened by just a handful of N.C. Wyeth illustrations in the editions we craved as children.

Thus, an invitation to watch a full-fledged Batman movie with today’s technological accomplishment is no bow to my teenage son, it’s irresistible. The new feature, The Dark Knight, is engrossing and visually spectacular. Unlike the comic books, however, it also has psychological depth and is almost unremittingly dark. It is good v. evil, certainly, but it is a troubled good confronting, in the character of the calculating Joker played by the late Heath Ledger, an almost-explicable evil.

The intense scenes of the Joker wielding knives in the face of his victims are stomach-churning to watch (at least one hopes that audiences have not become used to scenes like this that, in Roman Polanski’s 1970’s film noir Chinatown, became an iconic image of sadistic criminality), but it is during these scenes that the character explicates his personal history. He is the tormented product, he seems to imply, of his father’s wanton cruelty to his mother, just as much as Batman, played by Christian Bale, is the product of his father’s heroic effort to save his mother. Role reversals abound in the movie, and the public’s need for heroes it can both treasure and revile supplies the broad dramatic tension, but good fathers clearly matter.

Among the twisted ethical dilemmas the Joker poses to Gotham City involves two ferry boats full of passengers who are challenged to a potentially mutually fatal decision. One boat is full of criminals, the other ordinary citizens, so it is not a “Sophie’s Choice” that is presented. The scene is played out to an extraordinary conclusion. In the murky moral swamp into which Gotham City has sunk, this depiction of “lifeboat ethics” leaves plenty of room for thought. The Dark Knight is overlong and the violence exceeds its prequel, Batman Begins, and there are instances of implied sexuality and some language.

Finally, the film redefines the Batcycle just as Batman Begins redefined the Batmobile. At least a few things in Gotham City have gotten definite upgrades. Now if only my mother hadn’t thrown out a half million dollars’ worth of comics . . .

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