Friday, January 02, 2009

The Curious Special Effects of Benjamin Button

There's far less to this movie than meets the eye. What meets the eye is the special effects, which are remarkable. The rest of the movie ranges from inconsistent to incoherent.

It's very loosely based on a short story, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," by F. Scott Fitzgerald - an insignificant story by an insignificant writer with an overblown reputation. The movie uses the basic idea, a man born old and growing ever younger until he becomes a newborn and dies, and blows it up into an interminable and pointless 150 hours of nonsense. The title character is played by Brad Pitt, a curious choice for a serious role. The movie is heavy with symbols that don't symbolize anything, presumably so that a certain type of moviegoer will feel that he's seen something significant. For example, the opening scenes involve a clock that was deliberately made so that it runs backward. But that has no connection to the backward-living Benjamin Button. Absurdly, it remains the main clock in a busy urban train station. The story is set in New Orleans and ends during Hurricane Katrina, which is a gratuitous and irrelevant bit of business, used apparently so that we can see the flood waters engulfing the clock, now stored in a warehouse, and causing it to start running backward again - an event which also plays no part in the story but which looks, like, heavy, man.

The movie would have been improved if half of it had been edited out. For example, there's a loooong section in which Benjamin, serving in the crew of a tugboat, goes to the Soviet Union in the very early days of World War II. There he has an affair with the aristocratic wife of a British trade official. Benjamin tells us that the man is also a spy. He knows this, but the Soviet secret police apparently don't. Nor do the secret police notice that the Yank and the Brit are coupling in the hotel and roaming the streets at night. The two are all alone, both in the streets and the lobby and bar and kitchen of the crowded hotel at night. Russia is at war, but the onscreen Russians don't seem particularly upset. Other than letting us see the Englishwoman, decades later, fulfilling her girlhood dream of swimming the English Channel, this entire section serves no purpose beyond pulling us out of our already tenuous suspension of disbelief.

Inconsistencies abound. When Daisy, the Cate Blanchett character, is hit by a car and severely injured in Paris, Benjamin is told about it and rushes to her side. But he is able to tell us, the audience, all about the curious and unlikely sequence of events that led to the girl and the car being at the same point at the same time. How does he know? Why is that used to pad an already long movie? When Daisy is old and dying (during Katrina! thunder! lightning! heavy rain!) in a hospital, her daughter, reading Benjamin's diary and looking at her mother's press clippings from before the car accident, is astonished to learn that Daisy was once a famous ballerina. "You never told me you danced!" the daughter says. Yet there's a scene in which the daughter, aged 11, is in her mother's dance studio, where Daisy teaches girls to do what she can no longer do. It's not believable that she would not have pictures and newspaper articles on the studio walls from her days of ballerina fame. Of course the daughter would know about that aspect of her mother's life.

This is a script written in pieces by different people, from a checklist, without the writers communicating with each other, and with impressive special effects used to distract us from the inconsistencies and shallowness and pointlessness of the story.

Blanchett overacts embarrassingly, making one wonder if her remarkable performance in the first Elizabeth movie was a fluke. Pitt shows that he can indeed act, as long as the part is monotone and undemanding. The supporting cast would be good and convincing if they were appearing in a high-school play.

Rating: 2 blisters out of 10, for the special effects.


Jordan said...

You're a shitty review.

David said...

It was a shitty movie.

And you're a shitty commenter.

Anonymous said...

i thought the movie was great until read your review-
You are a tough audience and have some clever observations.
nut remember its a film made to entertain not a documentary based on reality The whole story is absurd but entertaining, different and original.
I enjoyed reading your
view of it

David said...

Thanks, Anonymous. That's a much friendlier response than Jordan's. :)

Anonymous said...

You misquoted the movie. The daughter does not say "You never told me you danced!" she says "You never talk about your dancing."
You can also see the interior walls of the dance studio and there are no pictures of her on the walls or in her office.

Overall, however, I do think you're being a bit harsh. This is obviously a piece of fiction in which you are meant to suspend your believe. The long sections of which you speak are meant for nothing other than character development which is the whole point of this film. If you are the kind of person who needs more action in your movies than you shouldn't have seen this movie and you shouldn't be writing a review on it.

Alex Moore said...

i haven't seen the movie yet, so i cannot comment. but i enjoyed the review...

and if i watch the movie and love it, it won't impact my thoughts of your review at all. after all, i don't base my opinions of movies on other people's thoughts. i just enjoy reading other people's thoughts :P

David said...

A very sensible attitude!

Anonymous said...

Simply not understanding why a shallow uncreative journalism student has written a review for a major motion picture. Obviously he missed the fact that this film is a fantasy -- and an imaginative and well directed one at that. The characters have depth, which is what footage is all about; that's how a story gets told. I strongly urge the reviewer to stick to watching 20/20 or cartoons, since that would be more his speed. Also recommended are a few extra credit courses at school and some genetic altering to acquire a much needed compassion chromosone.

David said...

A journalism student? This latest Anonymous is a remarkably bad reader.

Anonymous said...

Wow this blogger could do with a healthy dose of maturity.
Too bad blogger and maturity don't belong in the same sentence.

David said...

Don't be so, ashamed of who you are, Anonymous. Attach your name to your insults.

Anonymous said...

There's no need for names on the internet. I could call myself John Doe and you wouldn't know the difference. I would've figured that someone so "tech savvy" would already know that.

David said...

I'd forgotten how quickly buffoons like you become boring. Thanks for reminding me.

Janey Jones* said...

I just saw this film today and was googling to learn more about its special effects, which are remarkable BTW, and landed here.

In my opinion David, you make some very keen observations and valid comments about this movie's shortcomings, and I agree with you on most, though overall, I thought it served its purpose as an afternoon's distraction with relatively good acting and superb special effects. It is just entertainment, after all. And, there were some worthy messages in the narrative, not so much in the dialogue, however. I thought it was *a lot* like Forrest Gump.

Anyway, I wouldn't have not seen the movie had I seen your review first though, because I personally do think F. Scott F. was a great writer. But, as you mentioned, it is only a "loose" adaptation of the original work. Furthermore, I think those who are attacking you here for your opinons are jerks. It's perfectly natural to disagree with another's opinions, but it's quite another to launch insults as a result. Just ignore them - delete their ignorant responses.

Keep on keeping on....

David said...

Thanks, Janey. Friendly responses are so appreciated. :)

That's an interesting comparison to Forrest Gump, a movie I liked a lot. I hadn't thought of that, but you're right.

I enjoyed Button while I was watching it. It was later, thinking about it, that my opinion plummeted. The special effects are indeed astonishing and brilliant. On that level, I admire the movie greatly.

I suspect those special effects are a harbinger of things to come in movies, perhaps leading to a time, which has been predicted for a while, when almost everything we see is CGI, including the characters.

TGirsch said...

An observation, unrelated to the other comments here. It seems to me that one (or more) of the following is true:

1. You don't see many movies
2. You don't like many movies
3. You only feel compelled to write reviews of movies you don't like.
4. You have a much higher threshold for suspension of disbelief than most.

How'd I do? :)

For the record, I haven't seen this particular movie, nor do I care to.

David said...

Grr. Grumph. Curmudgeon. Curmudgeon.

You're 4 for 4!

I used to see every movie I possibly could, many decades ago, and I tended to like most of them, uncritically. Now I see few, and I tend to like only the mindless ones with no pretensions to seriousness - but only if they're well done mindless ones, like the first Die Hard movie, to refer to your discussion elsewhere. I particularly hate vapid pretentiousness, which is what I saw far too much of in Benjamin Butt. (And in the science fiction New Wave of the 1960s, which did so much to pervert that wonderful genre, but that's another matter.)

Now, I'm not saying that movies were good when I was young, and why can't they make good movies like that nowadays, and get off my lawn. I'm saying that the movies I loved when I was in college were mostly pretentious crap, and I'd hate them if I saw them now. Movies haven't changed, but I have. Matured, you might say.

It's also true that I'm motivated to write nasty reviews of movies I don't like. A week earlier, we saw the new Jim Carrey movie, Yes Man, which is amusing, predictable, and shallow, with a tacked-on message of the sort you expect to see in a Hollywood comedy, but I enjoyed it. It was what I expected, no more, no less. I didn't feel like writing a review of it.

TGirsch said...

Yay, me! It seems like we can agree about a lot on the subject of movies. I don't see them very often, either, although I'm not very picky.

Now if you were to write a scathing review of Slumdog Millionaire, I'm afraid we'd have to come to blows. :)

David said...

I haven't seen that one and don't plan to (although I didn't plan to see Benjamin Butt, either).

In college, I went to movies that had the reputation of being important and significant terribly messagey. Nowadays, my movie philosophy is that life is grim enough and all I want at a movie is escapism. Well, not all. Characters and dialog are important. But explosions are even more important.

I intensely disliked Star Wars, though. It was too puerile. I want escapism and explosions for big boys, not little ones.

And babes. That's as important as the explosions.

TGirsch said...

Slumdog is mostly escapist, with the exception of a couple of very dark early scenes. If there's a moral to the story, it seems to be that living in India would suck HARD. :) But that didn't stop it from being quite engaging and wildly entertaining, even if it was wholly implausible and lacked explosions.

But now that I know the importance of babes, I can see why you didn't like Iron Man. :)

Anyway, I agree with your movies-as-escapism philosophy. If I want real life, I'll turn on The News Hour.

So can you think of any recent explosion-and-babe-laden check-your-brain-at-the-door movies that you liked?

David said...

Quantum of Solace. Not as good as the first Craig Bond film, but fun. I like the reinvention of Bond, and I'm glad they kept the babe factor up there.

By the way, a coworker just got back from spending a month in out India office, something she does regularly, and she says the depressing, dark, grittiness of Slumdog captures the reality well.

TGirsch said...

What fascinates me is that Slumdog is being extremely well received in India, presumably because it's a movie about Indian characters, set and filmed in India, but made by a non-Indian (in this case, British) filmmaker. But if you see the movie, you'll see that it mostly does not paint a flattering picture of India. Accruate, maybe, but decidedly unflattering.

Trey said...

I found some of your comments spot on. I walked out of the movie saying "what in the hell did that have to do with Hurricane katrina?" The business with the clock was the same way. Until I read your review I had forgotten that, during the explanation of the car accident, I was thinking "how did he know all of this?"

David said...

Thanks, Trey! I was feeling so lonely. :)

Anonymous said...

I thought the daughter said "you never showed me these"

agreed. your review was poorly written.

Anonymous said...

This article was DEAD ON! It's like you were reading my mind. I told my husband the most "dramatic" of Brad Pitt's acting was when he looked down as his father told him he thought he was a monster. Brad Pitt gets paid for pretty, point blank. (Did you see how hot he was on the bike? D A M N )
Otherwise, dull movie, I feel like I aged 80 years just sitting thru this flick!

David said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

My wife liked the movie somewhat and thought my review was overly harsh, although she did agree with some elements of it. However, she laughed a lot when I told her what you said about aging 80 years.

I think BB was designed to push certain fuzzy, weepy emotion buttons, and it seems to have done its job. People whose fuzzy, weepy emotion buttons got pushed get very defensive and hostile when the movie's emptiness is pointed out to them.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that people either really love this movie or completely hate it. I am in the hate it group. I tried so hard to sit through the whole thing, but left after 90 minutes. When I tell people that loved this movie that I hated it, I pretty much get one of two kinds of responses. Type one is something like, "oh but it was shot so beautifully and the special effects were amazing to look at." You know what else is beautiful and amazing to look at? The fire buring in my fireplace. But I have no plans on staring at that for almost three hours straight. I need more than pretty images to keep me interested in a movie. The other response comes from pseudo-intellectuals and is some variant of, "you just didn't understand the symbolism and the depth of the story." Sure that's it. I mean the backwards running clock, the hummingbird, the seven lightning strikes, etc, they were all so subtle and easy to miss. Please, enlighten me oh wise ones.

David said...

Wonderful comment, Anonymous. Thank you.

It's common in movies (and novels) for the writers/directors to include vagueness, ambiguity, and symbols that symbolize nothing. Many readers and viewers fool themselves by reading in meaning and significance that isn't really there. Lucrative careers have been built on this con game.

TGirsch said...

Apparently, the Academy doesn't share your view...

David said...

That happens so often!

David said...

I just saw this movie and stumbled upon your review and feel compelled to say a few things.

First: The daughter never says that she didn't know about her mother's career as a dancer. She says: "You never talk about it" Its not hard to understand why. It was painful for the mother. Just like a War veteran's son might know that his father went to war, and might see the medals hanging on the wall, but the father just doesn't talk about it.

Second:Most people commenting seem not to realize that the whole center of the movie is about death and how different people face it in different ways. Nearly everyone in the movie dies off eventually and it is no coincidence that Benjamin lived in a nursing home nearly all his life surrounded by death.

Third: The so called "pointless symbolisms" are not that pointless. The humingbird was like the Irish Captain. "Its heart beats 1200 times per minute and its wings flap 80 times per second" Just like the captain lived his life at 1000 rpms and never stopped. Right until the end he just marched straight to death never stopping.

Fourth: Did everyone miss when benjamin SAID that he stayed in paris to take care of Daisy when she had her accident? Daysi never knew it but he stuck around for a long time making sure she was "comfortable". It is perfectly reasonable to think that in the time he stayed there he asked around, possibly learned the name of the taxi driver that hit her. (not too difficult a task. the hospital or the police MUST have had the guys name)The taxi driver could have told Benjamin everything eh needed to know. And for those of you who are wondering.. Ok, and how did he know about the guy who was 5 minutes late for work because of his alarm clock? If you see a guy in a suit running out of his house in the morning, looking like he is in a hurry... it isnt too much of a strethc to think: He is late for work.

Open your eyes. See the depth of the movie. It's right there. All you need to do is realize it isn't spoonfed because there is a difference between "inconsistent" and "not blatantly obvious". You thought this movie was the first, I think it is the latter.

David said...

Unfortunately, David, it's common for readers of books and viewers of movies to invent significance that isn't there, if they've been assured beforehand that the book or movie is deep and meaningful.

That's why the incompetent but sly writer or director adds meaningless vagueness and symbols. He knows that the artistic work he isn't capable of doing himself will be done for him. You've just given us a fine example of that.

David said...

Reading your reply to my comment I have but one thing to say: "Eh?"

Seriously I read it and went... "What is this guy talking about?" First of all I was not assured anything about the movie before watching it because I went in to see the movie not knowing much about it. I had barely seen a trailer and had been told by a family member it was worth watching. It's not like I was filled with hype about it and "saw what I wanted to see".

On the other hand, I don't know about you, but I actually LIKE my movies to make me think a little bit and enjoy it when I am thinking about parts of the movie well after I am out of the theater. If I had wanted to watch a mindless movie to forget 10 minutes after it is finished I would have gone to see Jim Carrey's "Yes, Sir".

Lastly, just because you can't see something doesn't mean it isn't there. In my opinion Benjammin Button does have artistic and philosophical depth. It's a movie that makes you think. I went to see it with some friends and it is a rare thing that we actually talk about the movie after we see it, but we stayed talking about it for a long time after we came out of the theater.

The fact that you don't understand the movie or its symbolism doesn't make it bad or the symbolism "pointless". Just like you not understanding Quantum Physics doesn't make it all rubbish.

Oh and by the way: Did you know that symbolism is many times used to explain complicated concepts to people incapable of understanding it? For instance What is the significance of damn clock that goes backwards? The clockmaker had a desire to somehow bring back time and avoid the pain of losing his son in a terrible war that cost thousands of American lives. It appears again in the end engulfed in the flood caused by Hurricane Katrina and just like the clockmaker, many Americans wish that they could bring back time and avoid that horrible loss of human lives. So, what's the point of the damn clock? Like I said in my previous post, the movie was greatly about life and death and how different people deal death. The clock was a symbol of how many people just cant cope with death and want things to return to how they were. They want to turn back time because they just cant deal with such a terrible loss. Oh, and just to avoid a snide remark about me "filling the gaps" for the moviemaker, the clockmaker actually talks about this during the clock's inauguration.

David said...

Keep deluding yourself, kid. When I was young, I used to do the same thing with shallow, pretentious movies, but I grew out of it.

David said...

KID??? I'm 28 years old, "old timer". And here I thought we were having a friendly, meaningful discussion among civilized people. I didn't realize we were trying to insult each other in this blog. If this is how you treat people who disagree with you then I see no point in furthering this discussion any longer. You've shown your true colors.

David said...

At 65, I am an old timer, especially compared to you.

You posted condescending lectures and you thought those were meaningful discussions among civilized people?

I had assumed that you were a sensitive, intelligent, but naturally inexperienced 19 year old who might with time learn to see through the shallow pretentiousness of Benjie Butt. But since you're already 28, I suspect there's no hope for you.

David said...

Like I said, You've shown your true colors. I have at no point insulted you nor treated you in a demeaning way. I took your points of view, contrasted them with mine and disagreed with them with facts, reasons and examples in my first post. I only began being defensive in my second post due to YOUR condescending and dismissive response to my first one and at no point did I resort to insults.

I'm sorry that you cannot hold a civilized discussion without resorting to insulting people. As moderator of a blog you should really learn how to accept criticism and moderate different opinions instead of condemning and insulting those who think differently than you. Age doesn't necessarily bring wisdom, my friend and it reflects poorly on you when you use it as an excuse to belittle other people.

Robin said...

Oh, man. You're right on the money with this review. I felt like sentimentality was dripping from my hair when I left the theater. Too long, too sappy, TOO MUCH.

Veronica said...

While I would never attack you for your opinions (the whole first amendment and whatnot), I wholeheartedly disagree with you about the movie. The premise was the question of how would it change our perceptions if we aged backward? And I think it answered that question admirably. I also wholeheartedly disagree with what you said about the acting. Try watching it again and watch for the character arcs, especially that of Cate Blanchett's character. She moves from a petulant diva dancer into a mature, compassionate woman who is able to care for the man who was once her lover and the father of her child as he descends into obscurity.
A little piece of advice though: those who are attacking you personally for your opinions are trying to get a rise out of you. Just ignore them or delete the comments; answering them the way you are just makes you seem as immature as they are.

kw said...

You know, everyone around me was saying how great the movie was, and its multiple Oscar nominations had me thinking it'll be good.

But I watched it and as my friends raved, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Not wanting to spoil the fun, I kept my opinions to myself.

So thank you for echoing what I felt the movie was - a bloated collage of pretty images but signifying nothing.

Those who say the movie is about how life is perceived from the view of one growing younger in a world growing older must be seeing something I'm not. The pain, confusion, loneliness, and challenges were not every portrayed!

All we got was Benjamin Button being accepted and loved unconditionally from the moment he was born to the moment he died. In the short story, the original Button had to dye his hair constantly in order to mix around successfully. And the one time he could not find hair dye, he was rejected from college for being "too old". That is the kind of lonely personal struggle I expected to see.

Instead I got gratuitous shots of Brad Pitt on a motorcycle, never having to fight against discrimination, never spending moments alone crying and wondering why he has no friends, or why no one understands him.

Daisy just transitioned from brat to mother-figure effortlessly. Where were the moments of despair when she couldn't dance anymore? Where were the moments she got mad that instead of a life of luxury and fame, she had to clean dishes, mop the floor, and watch other young girls do what she can never do again?

Perhaps I am sentimental and tend toward the melodramatic, but if there had been just one scene where Button goes to the train station, sees that backward running clock, and draws some kind of comfort from it (after all, in a world that obeys time, the clock IS the only other thing that shares Button's peculiar properties), I would have been happy.

And finally, why would a little girl fall in love with a wrinkly old man? Bizarre...

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Anonymous said...

Today I learned some people don't like the movie,, i didn't read your review because your opinion means nothing to me as we would have nothing in common,, but good to know there are people like you in this world, I will be on lookout in the future.