Monday, January 05, 2009

What I Did on my Christmas Vacation

I saw movies. Not the number of movies I used to see over Christmas. Pre-children, my husband and I could hit the theatres and spend all day in there, wandering from movie to movie, from morning until midnight. This year I saw four, which probably constitutes 70% of all movies I saw this year in the theatre. (Sigh.) I used to keep a little notebook where I’d write down all the movies I saw, the dates, and brief reviews, and I found it the other day and I was seeing three to four movies a week, more during the holidays. Ah... those lovely days... So here’s what I saw:

Starring John Travolta as the dog and Miley Cyrus as the husky-voiced Penny (as Kathy Griffin once said, why does Miley Cyrus sound like a three-pack-a-day smoker?), this movie was actually really hilarious. My brother had taken my daughter to it, and she loved it, as did he, and both of them wanted to see it again and take me with them. The film is about a dog who stars in a television show with his human, Penny, where he has superhuman powers and can save her. The catch is, he doesn’t know it’s NOT real, and the producers of the show don’t want Penny to let him know. So at the end of the day she has to leave him on the lot and go home without him, and it breaks her heart. When the network complains that the demographic of 18-35 year-olds aren’t watching because they don’t like happy endings (clearly Joss Whedon had NOTHING to do with the television series) they leave it on a cliffhanger, driving Bolt wild. He escapes and accidentally ends up on the other side of the continent, and spends the rest of the film trying to get back to Penny. The movie is really funny, but the stand-out is Rhino, the little hamster in the plastic ball. One of the best behind-the-scenes stories I read this year is about Mark Walton, the storyboard artist on the show who stood in and read Rhino’s lines for the storyboarding sessions until they could cast the real actor to play him. But Walton was SO hilarious they kept him on. His comic timing is impeccable and it’s what makes the character so funny. I bet this guy will have a long career of voicework ahead of him.

Slumdog Millionaire
A kid who grew up on the streets of Bombay/Mumbai (a.k.a. a “slumdog”) goes on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and gets all the way to the final question. As the movie opens, he’s about to get the clue for the final question, and on the screen the film asks us how he got there? Was he smart? Did he cheat? Or was it his destiny? The movie then goes back to the beginning of the game, and we see him move up question by question as we see the moment of his life that brought him to this, and how he may or may not have known the answer. It’s unique and brilliant (and will appeal to Lost fans for its free will vs. destiny idea). The casting is amazing as we see the main character growing up on the streets with his tougher older brother and the girl he falls in love with, the “three musketeers.” It makes a person want to visit India about as much as Trainspotting makes you want to visit Scotland (Danny Boyle probably isn’t a favourite director of travel agencies) but it’s a great, great film. I’ll admit, there were moments of the film where I was so depressed I thought there was no way the director would dig us out of the hole of despair, but he managed it. Beautiful film.

Going into this movie, I knew who Harvey Milk was — the first openly gay elected official in the United States. I also knew he’d been assassinated. But beyond that, I didn’t know much about him, his story, or who had killed him. So I was able to enter this biopic without knowing a lot of the history, which can get in the way of biopics where you know a lot of the story already and think they’re telling it wrong. Sean Penn plays Milk, a charming man who ran for the office of supervisor of the Castro area in San Francisco several times before finally winning. The movie recreates the fun of the era, where Milk organized local businesses to open their doors to gay clientele, turning the ward into a hotspot for gay tourists (and shutting down the businesses that didn't comply because they were boycotted), but it also demonstrates the lows, where a man walking home with his longtime partner is beaten to death by a group of thugs and the police shrug it off and say the guy was accompanying his “john” at the time. Events like this lead to Harvey’s activism. Sean Penn is superb in the role — despite being one of the most recognizable actors today, I never once thought of it as Penn playing Milk while we were watching. He was Harvey. I came home and watched some video of Milk on YouTube, and Penn clearly studied every nuance of the man, because he had his mannerisms and distinct speech patterns down pat. The only actor who gives Penn a run for his money is Josh Brolin (who I swear appears in every single film made in the last two years). He becomes a key character in Milk’s story, but because he appears so late in the film he has to make an immediate impression on you, and he’s incredible. You can feel the man falling apart while desperately trying to hold it together in almost every scene, yet Brolin manages to do this without creating unwarranted sympathy for the man. His character, Dan White, was a disaster, and the tragic events that followed happened because of his inability to cope. I really enjoyed this film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This movie was directed by the man who did Se7en (he joked in EW that the serial killer doesn’t show up until an hour into Button) and it claims to be based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the idea it uses is a man aging in reverse and falling in love along the way. Otherwise, it’s nothing like the short story. It’s MUCH better. Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin, a baby that is born with arthritis, emphysema, and signs of severe aging (luckily he’s taken in by a woman who works in a nursing home, allowing him to blend in), and as the years pass his body becomes younger and younger until, 80+ years later, he’s in the body of an infant. But his mind, on the other hand, is aging forward, getting older and wiser as the years pass. We all live our lives knowing at some point we’re going to die, but we don’t know if we’ll live to 60 or 80 or 100. Benjamin, born looking 85, knows he has that much time to live (if he’s not hit by a car sooner). When he appears to be an old man, but is in fact a 7-year-old boy, he meets and falls for a young girl who looks 7 (and is mildly accused of being inappropriately interested in children by her grandmother). As he appears to get younger, she gets older, and they meet in the middle. But their love has a time limit on it — at some point she knows she’ll be arthritic and grey, and he will be young and nubile, and they know they have to live their lives in that small amount of time allotted to them where they appear to be similar ages. For many of the ages, they used CGI to get a realistic effect (young Benjamin who appears to be in his 70s is created by grafting the image of Pitt’s head onto another actor’s elderly body; elderly Benjamin who appears to be a 16-year-old Pitt is achieved by having Pitt stand VERY STILL as they clearly airbrush his face to turn him into Thelma and Louse-era Pitt). By the end of the film, where the end of Benjamin’s life is shown in a subtle and quiet way, I was sobbing uncontrollably, and the images of elderly Benjamin trapped in the body of a toddler and what they meant have haunted me ever since. Pitt is very good, and will undoubtedly be nominated for many awards, but he’s nowhere near as good as Blanchett, who narrates the film as an elderly woman, and who plays as many ages as Pitt does. But I think at some point we all just expect Blanchett to be perfect. I hope she gets recognized for the role. I will admit, the movie is extremely long, but I enjoyed watching the epic life unfold on the screen, and the ending made it all worth it. Well, that and the one elderly man at the nursing home who tells his stories of being hit by lightning throughout the movie. I laughed out loud every single time. So it’s not ALL depressing.

The good thing about not being able to see a lot of movies is it’s forced me to be very choosy and I’m watching very good movies. The one I still really want to see is The Wrestler. But I’ll probably see The Tale of Desperaux with my daughter before that happens.


joshua said...

Holly and I managed to make it out for 'Benjamin Button', which she absolutely LOVED and I enjoyed too, though not as emphatically so. I'm planning to take Jem for 'Bolt' some time in the next week or two, if we can. He already saw 'Despereaux' with my mother-in-law, and when I quizzed him about it afterward, my ordinarily astute little observer could offer no more story recap than that it had been about "a mouse and a girl." Sterling recommendation.

Ian said...

Love your reviews. I thoroughly enjoyed Bolt as well and I really admire that they let the animator do the voice of Rhino. They also were wise in bringing John Lasseter onto the production even though it wasn't a Pixar film. Apparently he made a lot of changes into the characters and narrative development.

I loved Milk. I felt empowered and inspired and thankful.

redeem147 said...

If you liked the cast of Slumdog, I could point you to more Irrfan Khan or Anil Kapoor movies :)

JJ said...

Nikki, I have to disagree about Button. It's a three-hour art film that doesn't get good until the two-and-a-half-hour point, and by then I was too exhausted from trying to slit my wrists on the plastic edges of my armrests to get caught up in it. For two and a half freakin' hours it's just a looong series of anecdotes that barely have anything to do with the central storyline.

And Tilda Swinton couldn't project warmth with a flamethrower!

ChrisTemple said...

JJ you are so WRONG Benjamin Button was a great movie. It should win best picture and Pitt should win best actor.

Nikki Stafford said...

Joshua: When my daughter saw Bolt, she came home and said one of the characters died in it and she wanted to go see it again to see the person die. My brother's head jerked back with a "wha??" look, and he said that didn't happen. So she's taking her reviews one step further and turning it into the movie she'd rather see. :)

Ian: I didn't know that about Lasseter, but you're right: that's a stellar decision. I loved Milk, too. The end scene where the throngs of supporters were walking through the streets with the candles was breathtaking.

redeem: I've actually seen a few movies with Kapoor, and during Slumdog kept thinking, Where do I know that guy from?! By the way, I forgot to mention that during the end credits they break into a parody of Bollywood dance scenes, which I loved, and EW just declared it a stupid miss on the part of the director. I disagree.

JJ: I wouldn't classify Button as an art film: it had a linear plot, for one. I will give you that the movie is long, and during the long tugboat section of the movie, I longed for him to just get back to Daisy. But thinking it through now, the scenes with Swinton are so important because of what he learns about women and people who are just going through the motions and not really living, and he has an effect on her. I don't think Swinton was supposed to be a particularly warm character... I adore her, by the way. :)

chris: And Blanchett best actress! :)

JJ said...

hNikki, I suppose you might be right about Swinton's character, although it is an odd way to portray the Older, Experienced Woman Who Teaches the Main Character about Love(tm). I stand by what I said, though; Benjamin Button struck me as boring and meandering. The strong finish did not make up for this. As always, your mileage may vary.

Another thing: the story didn't make any creative use of Benjamin's life cycle except as a gimmick. It had no real impact on how he lived his life or the narrative's outcome. If it is a "tragedy" that he and Daisy only had so many years together, then everyone's life ends in tragedy.

redeem147 said...

Nikki, unless you've been watching Indian movies, I think you might mean Irrfan Khan. He's been in The Namesake, The Darjeeling Limited and Partition. He was the police officer, Kapoor was the gameshow host.

Jazzygirl said...

Thanks for the movie reviews! I don't get out much to see movies anymore (though I did get to see Marley and Me). This might make me MAKE time to see them!
So I'm not sure where else to post this but I just wanted to mention that I started watching my LOST S4 DVD's that I got for Christmas and well, it's just not the same re-watching them without your book!! Yes, I'm throwing a mild tantrum but I just kept thinking to myself..."What would Nikki point out here? How many things am I missing because I don't have her book?" :( Not that I didn't know this before, but it's ever more apparent how much deeper this show can be with the a tour guide like yourself showing the way.
BTW, in watching the first episode again...totally forgot that that was when they learned of Charlie's death. God, my heart just got ripped out all over again from the emotions that the actors showed. However, it's nice to be able to fill in some of the ??'s since we've now seen the whole season. Things that didn't make sense at the time now give new "ah ha" moments.

fb said...

i just saw benjamin button last weekend and i LOVED it. i heard some criticisms prior to seeing it that it was like a "21st century forrest gump", and whilst i do see a few similarities along the anecdotal just-plodding-along-experiencing-life variety, i think BB had a lot more depth and soul than FG.

i'm not sure about setting the story in the 2005 hurricane katrina era (i know brad pitt has a deep tie to new orleans and is doing a lot of post-katrina reconstruction work there, so maybe that's why?); i found it a bit distracting and possibly irrelevant. i also had a hard time watching daisy die in the hospital, with her daughter by her side, but i fully admit that's my own personal experience colouring my viewing.

it never even occurred to me until it happened onscreen that benjamin would lose the ability to walk, eat and toilet himself, in addition to losing his memory (almost like alzheimer's in reverse). it was devastating, and the last scene with him, as a baby in daisy's arms, just about killed me.

the only thing i didn't really buy was the last image of pitt-as-benjamin, when he was meant to be about 19. the airbrushing was SO obvious ... he looked like a ken doll. i thought the CGI would have been better than that. it just looked very jarring to me and not 'natural' at all. what i mean is, i totally bought pitt-as-85-year-old-benjamin, but i didn't buy him at all as the 19-year-old one.

wonderful film, and all nominations thoroughly deserved.

helfron said...

Check out the wonderful documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (you can see it at hulu unless there is that nefarious geographical limit; actually I do think those with Canadian computer addresses cannot watch it). It is a great documentary on Milk. PBS showed it in the 80s.