Archive for December, 2008

When the trailer was better than the movie

Number 4 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Years of effort went into bringing Douglas Adams’s classic work to the screen.  He had even taken a whack at a script himself before his unfortunate death.  Yet what ended up on the screen betrayed almost everything that made the book (and its sequels) such charms to read. 

The trailer, though, captures it beautifully.

Happy New Year!

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When the trailer was better than the movie

It’s an old cliché—the trailers are often better than the movies.  No one ever sets out to make a bad movie, however, and when a group of people sit down to decide how to market a film, they want to help this creation bolt out of the gate ahead of competition.  This is not an easy job.  Cutting a trailer is an art.  Some films lend themselves to marketing better than others, and some films just do not preview well. 

Trailers, though, have a special flare.  Nutcases like me that insist on showing up to the theater at least 30 minutes before show time consider the trailers a part of the movie-going experience.  So, for no other reason than to write it down, I wanted to count down five excellent trailers that led to disappointing experiences.  This is in no way meant to convey any kind of definitive list—just an excuse for me to have fun. 

cloverfieldNumber 5 – Cloverfield

America has yet to make a decent “Godzilla” movie, and Cloverfield looked like it just might deliver.  The trailer is a work of brilliant marketing—released six months early, with no title.  The internet went crazy with speculation, similar to the frenzy that surrounded The Blair Witch Project. 

However, when the credits rolled, I felt a little shafted.  Okay, really shafted.  All right, fine, I hated the movie.  Hated it.  I think John Nolte summed it best when he observed that he hadn’t ever heard so many utterances of “that sucked” walking out of a movie. 

Here’s the trailer.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

benjaminbuttonI have had a few moments when a film hit me in a way the filmmakers had not intended.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes a close, pondering, and artful look at mortality, and while the film urged me more and more to think about death, I kept drifting to thoughts of childhood—something Benjamin never really gets to experience. 

(beware spoilers)

In a hospital room in New Orleans, an elderly woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) endures her last moments on the eve of Hurricane Katrina’a fateful landfall, watched over by her daughter (Julia Ormond).  Daisy, weak from old age, asks her daughter to read from a small book tucked away in her belongings.  These are the memoirs of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), born under unusual circumstances on the night the First World War ended. 

Amid the raucous celebration in the streets of New Orleans, Benjamin’s mother dies in child birth, and his father, upon witnessing the unusual circumstances of his son’s birth, ditches the child on the steps of a hospice home in a fit of desperation.  Benjamin the baby looks old and wrinkled, crippled by arthritis and cataracts, and does not appear to have enough life in him to make more than a few days.  Queenie, the lady that runs the care center, takes him in and cares for him.  Overtime, the plot device we all know from the trailer makes itself known—Benjamin ages in reverse. 

At the home, Benjamin learns to read, feed himself, and eventually walk (during a Pentecostal healing service, no less).  Aided by Brad Pitt’s voiceover, we learn of Benjamin’s awareness that death resides close by the residents of the home, and the story’s central theme receives the beginning of a thoughtful, quiet development within the lives of the elderly. 

I’d be remiss to mention that young Benjamin (who looks like really old Benjamin) eventually meets the granddaughter of one of these residents—a spirited redhead named Daisy. 

Benjamin’s story unfolds against episodic tales that are supposed to show his growth as a human being, and perhaps enlighten us as to the quality of his character.  And while the film represents significant achievements in visual effects and directorial talent, the story lacks enough substance to avoid using its premise as a crutch. 

As anyone can guess, Benjamin and Daisy frequently pass in and out of each other’s lives, and the audience knows early on to expect these two to meet somewhere in the middle of their emotional journey when they reach the same approximate age.  Yet the movie avoids most of the more compelling implications of Benjamin’s unusual circumstances, the biggest being the question of what shape his relationship with Daisy will take once he reaches the appearance of a teen or adolescent. 

It’s a compelling question that never gets an answer.  Benjamin ages in reverse in appearance only—in soul and mind, he endures the very same stages of life you and I endure.  Once he regresses to the appearance of adolescence, he’s stricken with a form of Alzheimer’s—he has little memory of the life he led prior, and his behavior more closely resembles the senility of those residents with whom he had initially grown up. 

The film’s final acts offer some uncomfortable meditations on mortality, and perhaps resonate the strongest (more on that in a moment).  Getting there, however, you have to muddle through two hours of empty, unfulfilling narrative.  Setting the “present day” of the story on the eve of Hurricane Katrina carries little, if any, thematic weight.  The script offers whimsical, poetic moments that play beautifully, but never mature into full thematic tissue that connects the larger story. 

In the film’s opening moments, for example, we’re told of an old and blind clockmaker whose son had died in World War I.  He’s commissioned at the end of the war to build a grand clock for a new train station in New Orleans, and at its unveiling, we learn that he built the clock to run backward.  “I made it this way,” the clockmaker says, “so that perhaps, the boys who were lost in the war might stand and go home again…home to farm, to work, have children, to live long, full lives.” 

And that’s the last you hear from the old clockmaker.  His clock appears and receives attention here and there, but that’s about it.  And an episode rich in subtext ends, five minutes into the film, never to be revisited.  Shame, really—I kind of wanted to see that movie. 

By the time credits roll, we’re left with more of a figment of Benjamin than an actual character sketch.  He comes to rest as a flat, unbending hinge up which the rest of the cold narrative turns.  The gravest flaw emerges over Benjamin’s relationships to his two lady loves—an American representative’s wife (Tilda Swinton), and the lovely Daisy—and neither ever deals an honest hand to the audience.  John Nolte, who blogs at Dirty Harry’s Place, makes the best observation when he writes that, “This idea that adultery liberates and rejuvenates or is somehow acceptable and without consequences between two people who can’t be together has moved beyond offensive and straight into boring.”

Cate Blanchett perhaps deserves the highest praise for her portrayal of essentially three roles.  At first impetuous and naïve, Daisy grows into a thoughtful, mature adult, and finally into a venerable old woman, fiercely dedicated to her love as he fades out of existence.  The final, touching moments of an old Daisy cradling an infant Benjamin rocked me to my very core. 

Before heading out to see the movie, I spent significant time watching my 19-month-old son play, running back and forth down the hall, laughing and screaming in full delight for no other reason than that he could.  An early moment of the film shows young Benjamin (then the appearance of a frail 75 or 80-years-old) peering down the steps of the old folks home to watch children play. It occurred to me, someplace down deep, that Benjamin’s unusual circumstances had never really allowed him the opportunity to be a kid.  There I saw and felt a real tragedy.  And it crushed me. 

I have no clue as to whether dir. David Fincher had ever intended to move his audience to such a place.  But it impressed upon me the vital, deep inherent value of childhood, and left me in tears knowing Benjamin never laughed as full and as rich as a toddler can at the joy of something as simple as running. 

Though a profound technical achievement, the film never reaches the depth such a premise could, and should, fulfill.  Film is a unique medium in its ability to engage an audience, and while I do appreciate the experience, getting there was a trip I do not want to retake, and the success of a myth lies in the enjoyment of its retelling.

Numinous Movements in Music

music-noteYou know the feeling when, over your morning coffee, you remember a song that holds some memory or significance, and lo and behold you hear it on the radio on your way to work? I like that feeling.

I do not attribute it to anything, really — I do not think it’s fate, or God’s way of trying to tell me something (though I would not put it past Him). But I have learned to anticipate it. If a line of a song pops in my head and won’t go away, I’ve learned that if I wait long enough, I’ll eventually hear it.  It just always seems to happen that way. 

This year, I kept thinking about this peculiar Christmas song I had heard once while my wife was trying on blouses at a JC Penney. It was an 80s punk tune set to Christmas, and while I do not ordinarily listen to early 80s punk rock, I found my foot tapping along with the beat, and every Christmas since, I would catch the last 30 seconds or so on the radio.

Except this year.

All I could remember was a fragment of the chorus — “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, something something something this year.” And I kept thinking I should jump onto Google and figure out what this song was, and perhaps, finally, hear the whole song from beginning to end. It occupied my mind so much I felt certain I would hear it on the radio. I never did. Nor did I ever bother to Google it.  And, this being Dec. 26, I surrendered and just figured I would have to wait and hear it again next year.

Until I saw cft’s comment on my post about irritating Christmas music regarding the song “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses.

The comment led me to this story, which immediately triggered the memory of that illusive punk rock Christmas song.  Turns out I was reading about the song’s creation–even had a tingle at the base of my neck telling me cft was leading me to the right song.  Googling the article even led me to a video of one intrepid homeowner who set his Christmas lights to blink-out to the song’s rhythm and blues. 

So thank you, cft.  You had a hand in the numinous this Christmas, and probably didn’t even know it. ;-)

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Warm holiday wishes to you all.  See you on the other side…

When holiday music starts to fray your nerves

This time of year, one of the local radio stations plays 24-hour Christmas tunes, and invariably, their lineup compels me to start banging my head against the wall.  I wonder things like…

–just how many people have recorded “Happy Christmas-War is Over.”

–why “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” sounds so much like the theme song to game show, and how “scary ghost stories” ever entered the lexicon of Christmas tradition.

–why Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” never receives the play it deserves.

Though this year has signaled a reprieve from previous years’ frustrations.  I have yet to hear anyone try to pass “Favorite Things” off as a Christmas carol.  Religious-themed carols seem to have received more play this year as well.  In the space of an hour, when you can hear two or three versions of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Winter Wonderland,” it’s nice to hear Josh Groban belt out “O Holy Night.”

However, I have heard “The Little Drummer Boy” enough times this year that I am forced to conclude that “the ox and lamb kept time” is the single worst lyric ever penned by a songwriter.  C’mon, man — the premise already reeks enough of fairytale cuteness, but that line turns an otherwise fine carol into a bad Disney cartoon.

Quick Takes – There Will Be Blood, Jumper and Marie Antoinette

There Will Be Blood (2007)–While I cannot summon the enthusiasm others have used to gush over this picture, I do not deny the brilliance at work.  Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a perfect portrayal of a man who gains the world and forfeits his soul.  Daniel Plainview is Citizen Kane.  On the surface, he’s a benevolent innovator whose ambition for oil can bring life to a dead community—oil means money, water for irrigation, and school for local children.  Anything and everything around him, however, exists as means to his ends.  He will play any role, surrender any part of his conscience, but not without consequence. 

In opposition to his ambition is the local preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano); just as corrupt, evil and dubious as Plainview.  It makes for moments of grand cinema watching these two charismatic manipulators dance around each other in a vile chess match that will lead them both to their doom. 

Jumper (2007) – A great premise, as written and imagined by a bunch of bored study hall misfits, with a cast as shallow as a puddle left behind in the kitchen sink.  Joins Cloverfield on the distinguished list of compelling concepts completely ruined in their execution.

Marie Antoinette (2006) —Different.  Though I doubt the French royalty in the 18th century spoke with such nuanced American accents, dir. Sophia Coppola turned what could have been a MTVified disaster into something interesting.  The second half zips by so fast that it loses the magic that shaped the first half so well.  Jason Schwartzman does a wonderfully understated job as Louis XVI, a more compelling performance than Kirsten Dunst’s turn as Antoinette.