Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, post-screening thoughts....

This was a thick, heavy, sensory overload, so I'm holding any sort of definitive opinion until I've seen it at least one more time. But first impressions are the strongest, of course, and mine was definitely positive, and impressed. So that's saying something, I'd like to think. So here's me working out the kneejerk reactions, in type form. Enjoy, or not. Whatever.


David Fincher, one of my top three directors working today; Brad Pitt, one of my favorite actors in steady rotation. The past two times they've joined forces (Seven; Fight Club) were both mind-blowingly awesome, so understandably I had hopes for Benjamin Button about as high as Tommy Chong. For me to leave the screening feeling 100% satisfied, the film needed to be a love-spawn of Inside and There Will Be Blood, sprinkled with multiple layers of romance and optimism, though, being that this is an uplifter, not a downer. Which in and of itself is an event; Fincher has made nothing but dark, morally-corrupt, glass-is-half-dry flicks to date, so the notion of a Fincher love story is pretty compelling.

And that, essentially, is what we have here: a love tale, one where the man chases a woman's affections over years and miles, a la Forrest Gump and Jennnneee (Gump and Button were both scribed by the same dude, Eric Roth, actually). The man here, though, isn't a simpleton who swings a mean ping-pong-paddle...he's a dude who's grown up "unusual circumstances," born in year 1918, city New Orleans, as an elderly man in a baby's body and ages backwards, getting younger as everybody else escalates in calendar tallies. His birth mother dies during childbirth, and his father---horrified at the sight of a crying, wrinkly, monster-looking newborn---abandons the seed on the doorstep of an old-persons' nursing home. There, Benjamin is raised and given a roof, and it's also there where he meets Daisy (played in older phase by the always-graceful Cate Blanchett), the love of his life and the girl who'll dominate Benny Boy's heart and mind throughout his years as a tugboat worker and beyond. His quest to win her over is the heart and soul of the story.


The film, for all intensive purposes, is pretty astonishing, especially in a visual sense. Fincher and his camera/cinematography crew went in with some beautiful, absorb-as-much-as-possible-at-any-given-moment imagery. Particularly a sequence where the tugboat that Ben works on, named "Chelsea," has become a vessel for the American Navy during World War, and is bombarded by enemy forces one dark quiet night. Heavy gunfire and massive firepower sweeps through the boat, but the oncoming ammo sparkles with an extra glow that jumps off the screen, and the way Fincher shoots it, you're right there with the Chelsea's doomed passengers.

But as a whole, at least on this first viewing alone, I didn't head home feeling like I'd had my socks knocked clean off. Wasn't smacked around by emotional Godzilla-stomping impact like I'd hoped. Though, I'm suspecting this is because I was more taking everything in this time than allowing myself to succumb to the beneath-the-surface narrative-meat. The acting passes with flying colors---Pitt's restrained, subdued performance is just the right tone to give Benjamin a real observer's sense, which works best considering that we're seeing the double-sided coins of life, death, and basic mortality through his peepers. And Blanchett continues to be "old faithful," never less than spot-on, and even reaching unseen nothces of "sexy" here. At least to me.

These two really do have some great chemistry together. Undeniable.

The real star here is Fincher, though. As of now, he's my choice for Best Director come award season, and that's simply because I'm a biased stanboy. I love how, here and really also in his other works, he trusts his eye enough to remain steady shot after shot, flipping the fingery bird to quick cuts and frantic camera-movements and honing in as characters develop, and naturalistic actions commence. It's like, we're watching a painter patiently stroke a canvas (think my dude Bob Ross), and we're not worried about growing bored or disinterested because we know that he's efficient, and his end product will rock our shit.

Two great Fincher touches gave me the cheese-grin-syndrome more than others: 1) there's a nameless old resident of the nursing home, and Benjamin keeps bumping into him; rather than say "Hello," though, the geezer repeats himself each time: "Have I evet told that I was was truck by lightning seven times?" And each time, we're shown one of the seven Mother-Nature-issued-electrocutions, presented as an old silent film clip (sped up action, zero sounds to boot), giving the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em moments a Charlie Chaplin comedy feel, and 2) this extended "butterfly effect" setpiece in France, where Daisy is working as an acclaimed ballerina; after a show, she's hit by a cab in a back alley, a freak accident that crushes one of her legs and ends her career too-early. Fincher, visually, and Roth, narratively, approach this as a "wouldn't have happened if only this person would've done this one mundane thing a second sooner," showing the chain of otherwise-whatever events that led to the cab and Daisy arriving at the scene of the incident at the same exact millisecond.

I really have the hunch that a couple more intakes of Benjamin Button will only amplify my appreciation and praise. And its certainly a testament to the film that the seemingly-marathon-ish 2 hour, 45 minute runtime wasn't a factor; I've sat through flicks only 1 hour, 30 minutes that felt much longer than this.

Though it may appear to be so, Ben B isn't catching the holy ghost through a sweet two-step here.

For now, it's a must-see film that I'm definitely highly-respectful of, but more on a technical level than an emotionally-hitting one. I did hop on the train realizing one profound sentiment had blindsided my senses, thanks to your boy Ben B, and that's this: If given the choice, would you rather be born young and grow old normally, and be like Ben and be born old and grow younger? After seeing this, I know that it'd be best to keep things as we know them. Sure, being hatched as an elder seems nice---you get the ills and downsides of being high-in-age out the way early and when you'll feel them the least (arthritis, failing heart, poor hearing and sight, etc), and once you've survived the rough infant-to-toddler years, you're golden. But then, you won't be able to grow old with your loved ones, and you won't be able to raise your kids and watch them mature, because when they're like 18, you could damn well be 8. Think about it.

Can't forget, too....the makeup effects and digital wizardry on display here are fucking amazing. When Ben's an old man in a little kid's physique, it's still clearly Brad Pitt, same going for the character at nearly every age. I've read that they shot the scenes with "little people" (*cough* dwarf one, dwarf two, etc.) wearing green-scene-like masks, and then shots Pitt making several facial expressions, and somehow blended the two into one person. Crazy shit.

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