The sort of groveling Oscar bait that would only dare be released in December (no other month would have it), David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is this year’s equivalent of Tim Burton’s Big Fish: a desperate lunge by a normally exciting genre-filmmaker to earn some year-end accolades by helming An Important Movie With Life-Affirming Values. Drastically altering a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, scripters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord move the setting from Baltimore to New Orleans, thereby allowing the modern-day framing sequences to occur in the midst of Katrina (a narrative decision that’s arguably tasteless but certainly clumsy). The bulk of the story deals with Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who’s born as an 80-year-old man but becomes gradually younger. Like his cinematic soulmate, the title character in Forrest Gump (a far more interesting film also written by Roth), Benjamin leads a rich and varied life, although his heart always belongs to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who, like Forrest’s Jenny, is a callow free spirit who doesn’t realize the depths of her fondness for Benjamin until it’s almost too late. Benjamin Button is primarily a passive character, and he’s played by Pitt in a passive manner. It’s not the actor’s finest hour (make that three hours; this is a looong movie), as he’s repeatedly upstaged by his own makeup as well as the CGI trickery that (in old-age mode) turns him into a diminutive figure. When Pitt is finally freed from the movie magic and allowed to look like himself, we expect him to raise his game, but it never happens, largely because he and Blanchett have absolutely no chemistry together. As for the movie’s themes, they’re basically a series of homilies about the beauty of life and how we shouldn’t waste a single precious moment of it. Point taken: I won’t spend another second reflecting on this motionless motion picture.
If looks could kill, The Spirit, an adaptation of Will Eisner’s seminal comic strip, would wipe out entire auditorium audiences after every showing. Its eye-popping visual template mirrors that of Sin City, with its graphic stylistics lending a crisp, cool look to its tale of a masked hero who has returned from the grave to fight the evildoers who threaten the city he loves. But in this case, eye candy is hardly enough to compensate for the rest of this 10-ton turkey that fails on every other conceivable level. Eisner’s comic legacy deserved far better than this wretched camp outing, a film in which every jokey, self-aware remark lands with the force of an atomic bomb laying waste to a sand castle. The plot finds The Spirit (dull-as-dirt Gabriel Macht) facing off against his perennial nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a madman who’s intent on acquiring a potion that will render him immortal. Jackson, whose performance might be the worst of the year (and remember, I’ve seen Mike Myers in The Love Guru), has already guaranteed that his name will live forever in the annals of grotesque overacting. His demeaning turn here is embarrassing, with writer-director Frank Miller accommodating him via some horrendous dialogue and situations -- Jackson even gets to dress up like a Nazi officer in one scene. Why, I couldn’t tell you. In their first battle, The Octopus smashes a toilet over The Spirit’s head, laughs maniacally, and declares, “Toilets are always funny!” This movie would know: It clearly deserves to be flushed down one.
If all high school history classes were as grandly entertaining as the historical flicks penned by Peter Morgan, no student would ever again be caught slumbering in his seat. Morgan, who previously wrote the excellent script for the Helen Mirren Oscar winner The Queen, here brings his own play to the screen, and together he and director Ron Howard open it up so that the end result feels much more vibrant than merely a constricted stage piece plunked down in front of a camera. Blessed by an exquisite cast, the two men keep the wheels turning, offering a propulsive look at the most widely loathed U.S. president until George W. Bush stumbled along and easily swiped that designation. Set after the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s subsequent resignation, the picture concerns itself with the attempts of Nixon (Frank Langella) to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of political irrelevance by holding a series of one-on-one television interviews with British TV host David Frost (Michael Sheen). Along with his right-hand man (Kevin Bacon) and his agent (Toby Jones as Swifty Lazar), Nixon believes that he can easily exert control over a show biz personality better known for his swinging lifestyle and his interviews with the likes of The Bee Gees. Nixon may have a point: Even though he has a crack team (Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) working for him, Frost initially has trouble keeping up with his mentally agile interviewee. The point of the interviews is to force Nixon to come clean to the American people about Watergate, but instead, it appears as if he will sweep the issue under the carpet and emerge as a champion of the people. Several actors have played Tricky Dick on celluloid (Anthony Hopkins and Dan Hedaya among them), but Langella bests them all with an riveting portrayal that goes beyond mimicry. He depicts the former president as a haunted man struggling to salvage his legacy, a scrappy fighter who refuses to yield even a square inch to his challengers. If many audience members don’t feel the slightest bit of pity for the Nixon that Langella brings to life, that certainly isn’t the fault of the actor, who does everything necessary to humanize the ex-prez -- it’s simply that too many Americans will always view Richard Milhous as monster rather than man.
While Ron Howard transforms Frost/Nixon into a living, breathing motion picture, writer-director John Patrick Shanley never quite makes it past the curtain call with Doubt. Adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning theatrical triumph, Shanley doesn’t possess Howard’s instincts in front of the camera, resulting in a movie that remains resolutely stage-bound. But that’s not necessarily a sign of defeat: No one could ever really argue that Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? managed to shuck the playhouse chains, either. Doubt is no Woolf, of course, but blessed with a quartet of strong performances, it’s weighty enough to earn its multiplex bookings. Set in 1964, the film examines a battle of wills between the holy rollers at St. Nicholas in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the (mostly) humorless head of the school, striking fear not only in the students but also in some of the more timid nuns like Sister James (Amy Adams). Sister Aloysius isn’t crazy about Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose desire for a more progressive and open-minded direction within the Catholic church flies in the face of her old-school ideology. So when Sister James airs her suspicions that Father Flynn is being a bit too chummy with one of the young boys under his wing, Sister Aloysius works on getting him ousted. But is Sister Aloysius truly convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt (for her part, Sister James wavers on the issue), or is she merely using the issue as a way to force out the theological thorn in her side? Pulitzer notwithstanding, Shanley’s play was disappointing in the manner in which it took the obvious way out. The movie can’t overcome that hurdle, though it can be argued that Shanley adds an extra layer of ambiguity to the proceedings.
The Reader, adapted from Bernhard Schlink’s bestseller by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare (the team behind the thoughtful adaptation of The Hours), arrives with all the obvious trappings of a year-end “prestige” picture. But since more time is spent exposing the milky white breasts of Kate Winslet than exposing the horrors of the Holocaust, viewers might be forgiven for thinking they stumbled into a big-budget remake of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Two movies about nasty Nazi frauleins dividing their time between riding shotgun over prisoners and having sex with supple lads? What are the odds? Winslet’s Hannah Schmitz is a streetcar conductor in post-WWII Germany who enters into a passionate affair with 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross). Just as Susan Sarandon’s Bull Durham character enjoyed the reading of poetry as a form of sexual foreplay, Hannah likes the literary word both before and after intercourse, urging Michael to read to her from the classics. In the blink of an eye, she drops out of his life, and it isn’t until a few years later, as he’s attending college, that she reappears — as a former Nazi guard on trial for atrocities during the war. The Reader is a thorny story, and its failing isn’t because it elects to answer key questions about its characters in shocking fashion, but because it waves off these revelations with all the impatience of a restaurant patron shooing away an overzealous waiter attempting to remove the soup bowl before it’s drained. At first glance, the movie’s shifts through time periods (Ralph Fiennes is suitably moody as the older, troubled Michael) allow the tale to keep us on our toes, but they eventually reveal themselves to be gimmicky to the point of distraction. The picture does head toward a major secret, but I wasn’t sure if the answer was supposed to provide insight or shift our sympathies or what. All it eventually does is reveal that, despite Winslet’s strong performance, Hannah isn’t really worthy of our attention — or this movie.
Ever the stalwart hero, Tom Cruise takes on the Nazis in Valkyrie, but it proves to be a losing effort for both the actor and the picture itself. Based on a true event that occurred in 1944, this handsome yet emotionally distant film centers on the efforts of a group of proud Germans to assassinate Adolf Hitler and wrest control away from the murderous tyrants (i.e. the SS) who served under him. Chief among these conspirators is Colonel Stauffenberg (Cruise), who, just like the progressives here in our own country this year, is willing to fight the fascists for change that he can believe in. Aided by a mix of officers, soldiers and politicians (among the familiar players are Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard and Terence Stamp), Stauffenberg initially seems to triumph in his mission impossible, only to ... well, we all know how history turned out. Only marginally involving, Valkyrie is defeated by a thin script that fails to flesh out a single character, instead employing them all as pawns in a chess match in which the deck is already heavily stacked. Worse, the plan as presented in Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s script doesn’t sound like an especially sound one, and Stauffenberg’s handling of his assignment makes him come across as a careless bungler. While the denseness of the good guys in no way ennobles the enemy, it does make them seem like the more worthy combatants. For better or worse, then, Valkyrie brings to mind that classic line from The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler” musical number: “Don’t be stupid; be a smarty. Come and join the Nazi party!”
Even given my status as a big dog lover, the notion of spending two hours watching puppies frolic during the course of Marley & Me seemed like a pretty one-note way to spend a matinee. Welcome, then, to one of the season’s most pleasant surprises, as this family film proves to be far more thematically rich than its simplistic trailer reveals. Major-league screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Get Shorty) and middle-league screenwriter Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) adapt John Grogan’s fact-based novel about his family’s pet, a Labrador retriever named Marley. Both journalists, John (Owen Wilson) and wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) agree that Marley is “the world’s worst dog,” given his penchant for always getting into trouble. But thankfully, the movie doesn’t devolve into a series of comic scenes revolving around leg humpings and yard droppings. Instead, as John and Jennifer add some children to the equation, it becomes a clear-eyed look at the difficulties in raising a family, all the more so when there’s a lumbering beast driving everyone mad. Ultimately, though, the film makes a point that every dog owner -- indeed, every pet owner -- long ago took as gospel: A family doesn’t begin and end with merely its two-legged members.