Monday, December 29, 2008

Monday Movie Day Reviews

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Writer Eric Roth penned the screenplay for Forrest Gump, a film about the significance of one ordinary man's extraordinary life. The story of Benjamin Button is the fanciful-yet-contemplative counterpart to Gump's biography. It is a story that celebrates life, specifically meditating on the fleeting moments in life we can sometimes take for granted. Like Benjamin explains himself, he was born under "unusual circumstances." His body is that of a man in his eighties when he is born, deemed to die at any moment. Yet Benjamin lives on, growing progressively younger as he ages. Abandoned by his father at birth, he is taken into a New Orleans rest home and raised by a caretaker, Queenie. Early on--or later?--in his life, Benjamin encounters a lively young redhead named Daisy. Perhaps she suspects his youthful secret, or perhaps she's simply very trusting, but the two form a fast friendship that ultimately deepens into romance.

Visually, this might be one of the best films of the year. Certainly it's one of director David Fincher's finest films. From the makeup on Brad Pitt to the finely-tuned detail in every scene, the film is aesthetically remarkable. Each scene could be paused and viewed as a still painting, with golden hues and intricate shadows that enhance every little detail. I can see this film being studied in film classes scene-by-scene for every detailed shot. It's worth viewing on the big screen just to appreciate the cinematography.

One of the major themes through the film is that life's only constant is change. Every moment is fleeting, every phase in life is simply that--a phase. Benjamin's life is a series of events and encounters, many of which feel like anecdotes in a larger story. The other constant in Benjamin's life is his love for Daisy (much like Forrest Gump's love for Jenny). The tragedy is that their intertwining lives can only experience a fleeting moment of satisfaction when their physical ages finally meet in the middle of life. The film begs the question, what will Benjamin be like as a 70-year-old in a teenager's body? Can their love last beyond their physical and emotional maturity?

On a personal level, though I wanted to truly love this film, I found myself leaving the theater emotionally detached. I'm not sure why. Perhaps if I watched it again, my opinion would change. I've read other reviews where people were profoundly moved, inspiring a deep meditation on their own life. But I felt the film held much of the emotion at arm's length, not allowing the audience to become fully drawn into the story and character of Benjamin. Benjamin is a likable character, but he's not a character I fell in love with. There is a difference, and while it can be subtle and mysterious, it makes all the difference in the world. I know that I'm being vague; I simply can't describe why I didn't find myself emotionally connected to the film. I enjoyed it; I laughed out loud in the theater; I was charmed by the romance between Benjamin and Daisy, but there was still something missing for me. Overall, it's a wonderful film, and one of the best of the year.

American Teen (2008): Filmed in Warsaw, Indiana, this documentary follows a group of high school seniors during their final months at school. My wife has been to Warsaw--one of her best friends went to the high school in the film--and she recognized a number of the locations in the film. The film wonderfully captures the emotion, the awkwardness, the pain, and the hope of adolescence. There is the popular class president, the basketball star, the quirky artsy girl, and the uber-nerd. It's like a real-life Breakfast Club, with all the drama that comes from the high school years.

As someone who has chosen to give himself to helping and guiding teenagers, the film touched me more deeply than many other films I've seen this year. I could empathize with every character, felt their pain, the pressures they felt from parents and friends. It reminded me of how much teenagers need loving adults who are willing to listen and understand and love them unconditionally. So many of the parents in the film were detached or inadvertently adding undue stress to their child's life. And the teens were exceptionally cruel to one another, creating unneeded drama or breaking up with each other via text messaging. (Note: texting your breakup is a horrible idea).

Overall, the film is good--though I wondered how much influence the filmmakers had on the teens' behavior at times--and it reminded me of why I do what I do: teenagers are beautifully complex people with an incredible amount of passion and potential. If you're in youth ministry at all, you must see this film. I'd even recommend parents watch this with their teens and have a discussion afterwards.

Man on Wire (2008): Philippe Petit is a force of nature. His passion is infecting, his bizarre drive and commitment to his dreams extraordinary. Petit is a wire-walker; he balances and performs on a tight rope. His dream: to wire-walk between the World Trade Center towers. In 1974, he achieved the impossible.

Director James Marsh's documentary is as tight and inspiring as its subject matter. The film clips along at a tense pace, taking the audience along for the thrill ride that Petit and his team of friends must have experienced in pulling off their daring stunt. Marsh splices 1970s footage from Petit with extremely well-done black-and-white remakes of important scenes in Petit's adventure.

The film is both a story and a character study. Petit is one of the most fascinating characters I've ever seen on film--real or fictional. His commitment to his dream is admirable, his passion unparalleled. He wooed so many people to come alongside him and help him accomplish his dream; his team of friends are incredibly articulate and authentic people, and their stories are simply fascinating. I found myself sucked into Petit's world, engrossed by his story. The film is a celebration of human achievement, dreamers and creativity, and one of my favorite films this year.

Seven Pounds (2008): (Huge Spoiler Alert!!!) Promoted as a love story or some sort of Pay It Forward feel-good movie, this film defies explanation. I was initially intrigued because I like Will Smith and the trailers piqued my curiosity. But this isn't your typical Will Smith film. This film is downright creepy. While it's meant to be emotionally touching--many reviews speak about a teary-eyed ending--it's actually emotionally manipulative, making the viewer believe they just witnessed a beautiful story of redemption when all they've truly seen is a distortion of love. Real love requires selflessness, not selfishness; it is motivated by grace, not guilt; it is based on truth, not dishonesty. The character of Ben Thomas (Smith) is motivated entirely by the latter, not the former.

Smith manages to create the creepiest character he's ever played, with a sallow face and an unnerving stare throughout the film. His character literally stalks people throughout the story. Why is he doing this? That question can be answered after about 15 minutes of viewing, and it's not a satisfying one. If you'd like the absurd answer, highlight the area below to read the plot written in white:

After he causes a car accident that kills his fiancee and six others, Smith stalks people to decide which ones are worthy so he can kill himself by sitting in a tub with a box jellyfish (!) then donate his organs to said worthy people. He does this by stealing his brother's IRS agent identity and forcing his way into people's lives. He also has sex with one of his stalking victims/beneficiaries (Rosario Dawson) and talks about having children with her, only to leave her his heart (literally) instead. The End.

J. Robert Parks's thoughts on self-sacrifice in film (and why Seven Pounds is ridiculous) are an insightful look at how Ben Thomas doesn't embody the kind of sacrificial hero we're drawn to admire. If I had any emotional response to the film, it was feelings of disappointment that the filmmakers thought I would take this seriously.

Four Christmases (2008): Man, I watched a lot of movies this week! This is a fairly predictable Christmas romantic comedy, but Vince Vaughn makes me laugh. Also, babies puking is quite funny too (though I'm sure I'll be singing a different tune come July). The best part of my experience was watching this in a theater full of elderly people. One woman in front of us just laughed and laughed at a breast pump joke, which left me almost crying with laughter. The guy next to me fell asleep and snored for a few scenes. One woman in the front of the theater loudly asked questions, like "oh, they're back at her dad's house now?!" They reminded me of how fun and quirky people can be. This film is worth a rental if you find Vince Vaughn funny.

The Thing (1982): John Carpenter's remake of a 1950s sci-fi classic is worthy on its own. A team of scientists in Antarctica are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that takes on the form of whoever it infects. As the scientists are infected one-by-one, paranoia and tension build in the cramped science station. The film could have simply been a gore-fest horror film, but it also adds the psychological aspect of being trapped with fellow survivors who might actually be enemy aliens. It's a great film for asking "what would I do in this situation?" Seriously, if you found yourself trapped in Antarctica with a shape-shifting alien infecting all your friends, what would you do? (Get back to me when you have an answer, I'd love to hear it.)

The ambiguous title perfectly encapsulates the film; the thing is never fully explained, never completely revealed in the film, never given a why for its rampage. It simply is, and it wants blood. And blood it gets. The film is incredibly gory, with grotesque shape-shifted aliens exploding or getting lit on fire. It's definitely not for the faint-of-heart. I couldn't even find a decent screen shot from the film that wasn't gross. A superior film would be Ridley Scott's Alien, which takes a similar premise and replaces the overwhelming gore with character development and haunting cinematography. Overall, I'm glad I watched The Thing simply to say I've seen it, as it's better than most horror films I've seen. Is that a good motivation? I'm not entirely sure.


  1. I saw American Teen last night. It made me reflect on my high school experiences. I'll write a review later.

  2. Oh, you mean "Man on Fire" with Denzel Washington, not "Man on Wire." Man on Wire doesn't even make sense...

    On a side note, the word I had to spell out as "word verification" to post this was "tathetor." Good word