Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a movie that, through its wonderfully beautiful storytelling, left me more than slightly confused. It tells the story of a man (Brad Pitt) who was born as an 80 year old and physically aged backwards. He has the unfortunate task of watching all those around him who resemble him physically whither and die while he does just the opposite. And while it was clear that the overall theme was to show that there are certain things that can simply transcend time and to live life to the fullest, I couldn't help but be overcome with an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness.

The short story, originally written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was intended to be a comic farce. Instead, it was presented as a romantic fantasy, which was where the confusion started. As a 70-something old man, Button falls in love with a beautiful little girl, Daisy, who matches his age mentally. As time progress, Benjamin gets younger and Daisy gets older and, in doing so, their paths cross several times. It isn't until Daisy reaches adulthood (Cate Blanchett) that this love is acted upon. Being a hopeless romantic, I first viewed this as the high point of the entire movie. But during the lovemaking scene, I couldn't help but wonder if the two were thinking of each other as when they first met, as a young girl and an old man. The thought was a little unsettling, to say the least.

The longer
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button went on, the more I started to realize that while trying to create a sense of timeless romance, the film gave me nothing but sadness. Every relationship that Button has is fleeting and futile, due to his circumstances. All around him, his loved ones are passing away and he is forced to watch not only this, but also see himself as seemingly exempt from this process. And it is this that makes the romance between Button and Daisy extremely hard to believe.

This movie will undoubtedly get Oscar attention. The film itself is well made and the acting, along with Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, and Elias Koteas, is simply superb and it wouldn't be surprising if Brad Pitt walked away with the best actor. But it was the storytelling that helped make this film. The screenplay shares the same author with
Forrest Gump in Eric Roth and it is evident that he uses similar outlines. But even good storytelling couldn't mask the feeling of isolation that the movie left as it finished, making this a film that is incredibly easy to admire, but difficult to love. But maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


I cannot recall a movie that centered around one simple emotion and yet was able to address so many different controversial topics and do so with amazing success. Set in 1964, when there was much confusion and hesitation with the changing times, Doubt addresses, but never resolves, issues of race, authority, religion, and morality.

St. Nicolas is a Catholic school in the Bronx and is headed by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who is, from my Lutheran point of view, the typical Catholic nun. Strict, hard to please, and quick to discipline, nothing stands in her way. Until the appointment of the new priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, with his unorthodox approach to Catholicism, has found himself in an undeclared war with the strict Sister. However due to Catholic hierarchy, she finds herself powerless to do anything.

Father Flynn, with his cigarette smoking, long fingernails, and fondness for sugar, is set against the nuns, especially Sister Aloysius, who seems hell bent on removing any trace of the modern world from her school, including ballpoint pens, hair barrettes, and "Frosty the Snowman," claiming it is merely a song celebrating witchcraft. Similarity, the innocent Sister James (Amy Adams), who finds herself under the command of Aloysius, displays a knowledge of the outside world as it is observed through her bedroom window.

The central situation revolves around one particular student at the school, who happens to be the only African-American pupil in enrollment by the name of Donald Miller (Joseph Foster III). Father Flynn takes an apparent interest in the boy, which is assumed to be simply because of his isolated and unique situation. However, when Sister James notices that Flynn summons the boy to the rectory alone. This is deemed inappropriate and upon the mentioning of this event to the principal, Aloysius decides that now is the time to take action against this progressive cancer that has taken hold of her school.

However, despite the introduction of this sketchy situation, the movie isn't about the possible sexual abuse of a student. Rather, it is about the title word,
Doubt, in a world of certainty. Oblivious to the fact that she has no solid evidence to support her claim, Aloysius is certain that Flynn is guilty. So certain, in fact, that she ignores the alibi of the priest, as well as the changing of opinion of Sister James in believing that she was mistaken in her suspicions. Flynn, on the other hand, knows that a scandal will tarnish him for life and is just as determined to prove his innocence.

Thrown into the mix is Donald's mother (Viola Davis), who is confronted with the situation during a private meeting with Aloysius. However, her biggest fear is that her son will be expelled, not the other events that Aloysius is certain of. What is remarkable is that in this short 10-minute scene, Davis is able to stand toe to toe with one of the greatest actresses of this generation and it is this confrontation that generates terrifying power.

Doubt. Not only the title of the opening sermon in the film, as well as the title of the film itself, but it is also the basis of the entire movie. During the 1960's, doubt was entering the church, as well as the United States, especially after the assassination of President Kennedy. This doubt in the church is what fueled the confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius, between old and new, traditional and progressive, certainty and dubiousness. And when all is said and done, and the audience is still left doubting, there isn't a feeling of annoyance from being deprived of a concrete ending. Rather, one is left to sit in quiet contemplation, trying to remove all doubt for themselves.