The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

© 2008 Ray Wong


Loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button chronicles the life of Button, who was "born under unusual circumstances."

p1Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born with a rare disease that causes him to have the body of an octogenarian, complete with arthritis, cataracts, and other geriatric ailments. His father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), an owner of a button business, abandons him. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a worker at a charity old folks' home, adopts Benjamin as her own despite that their races. The doctor only gives Benjamin a short time to live anyway.

p2Little does she know that Benjamin ages backward. As he grows older, he appears younger. By age 7, he learns to walk. He also becomes friends with Daisy, who is about his age. As Benjamin becomes "younger" and stronger, he decides to have some adventures and he starts to work on a tugboat with Captain Mike (Jared Harris). Benjamin gets to experience life for the first time and falls in love with a married woman Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton).

p3When Benjamin returns to New Orleans years later, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) has grown up and gone to New York in pursuit of a career as a dancer. Fate brings the two back together. As Benjamin grows younger and Daisy gets older, their lives intersect in the middle when they have a few years in which they're both physically and mentally the same age. They fall madly in love. But they both know what is going to happen next, and Benjamin makes a decision that will change the rest of their lives.

p4Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading) plays one of his most subtle and gentle roles to date. For the first half of the film, he literally disappears in the role with the help of old-age makeup and special effects. Even as his true-age self, Pitt manages to give a nuanced, quiet and earthly performance that is quite unlike his more showy efforts in the past. He has played ugly before (e.g. Twelve Monkeys) but here he's taking it to another level by playing a young boy in an old man's body and an old guy in a young man's body, and he's done a great job.

p5Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) has the opposite challenge. She, too, has to play someone from the age of 20 to over 80. Her character comes off as a bit standoffish and cold, but she has some good moments with Pitt. She's always a brilliant actress, and she doesn't disappoint, especially as the older, dying Daisy who is drowning by her own memories. Her portrayal is heartbreaking.

p6The supporting cast is amazing. Taraji P. Henson (Hustle and Flow) is fantastic as Queenie, Benjamin's adoptive mother. She disappears in the role and gives one of the strongest and sympathetic performances in the film. Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading) is solid as the reserved woman who captures young (well, to her, he's old) Benjamin's heart. Jared Harris (Lady in the Water) is wonderfully wacky as Captain Mike, Benjamin's mentor and best friend. Jason Flemyng (Stardust) is effective as Benjamin's guilt-ridden father, and Julia Ormond (Surveillance) is excellent as Daisy's bewildered daughter.

p7Written by Eric Roth (The Good Shepherd) and Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha), the script is extensive, spanning over 80 years. The story unfolds and develops gradually in a languid, poetic pace. There is a fanciful nature to the story but the script itself is rather ordinary in a sense that it's not "plot-driven." In a way, it's very refreshing to see a story that spans 80 years and is completely about characters and their relationships. Narrated mostly by Benjamin, it's basically a diary or memoir, and it's episodic. There are no grand conflicts or surprising plot twists, but everything is anchored by an emotional core.

p8There is nothing earth-shattering about the story, or even the characters -- except Benjamin's curious conditions and the effects they have on him and everyone around him. Yet the writers have succeeded in giving us an engrossing biography of sort with great relationships and a philosophical take on mortality, love, and fate.

Director David Fincher (Zodiac) changes gear with Benjamin Button. Best known for this thrillers and grisly crime stories (Se7en, Fight Club), Fincher has given us a surprisingly gentle, slow-paced, and scrumptious feast of the heart. The special effects, especially ones involving Brad Pitt and the character of Benjamin Button, are truly exceptional. The makeup is phenomenal as well. In fact, the production is amazing, sort of a Forrest Gump meets Big Fish. However, Fincher grounds the fantastical elements and keeps the fancy storytelling to a minimum. Instead, he relies on the characters and their relationships to carry the entire film -- the special effects may be what draw people to the theater. But they will come out thinking of something else. At almost 3 hours, the film is long and slow, but it's so engaging and fascinating that I don't really mind. In fact, I can't keep my eyes off the screen.

Benjamin Button is a gorgeous movie with a great heart and true, pure emotions, a cinematic contemplation of mortality and life. It is a curious movie, and I for one am curious how well it will do with today's skeptical and cynical audiences.

Stars: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Eric Roth, Robin Swicord (based on short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking
Running Time: 169 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 9
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 9

Total – 8.3 out of 10

Seven Pounds

© 2008 Ray Wong


The title of Seven Pounds is as cryptic as the movie's trailers and logline: "Seven numbers. Seven strangers. One secret." But once you realize what the drama is about, you'd understand why the mystery.

photo1Ben Thomas (Will Smith) is an IRS agent and he has in his possession the names of seven strangers. They don't know Ben, and they don't know each other. The only commonality they have, it seems, is that they're all owing IRS taxes because of their medical expenses. Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), for example, is a blind customer service rep who is also a part-time pianist. Or Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), who has a congenial heart disease.

photo2Ben tracks them down and engages with them. For example, he calls Ezra and tries to make him angry, but Esra refuses to return the treatment. He pays an unannounced visit to Steward Goodman, who needs a bone marrow transplant and runs a nursing home. When he realizes Goodman abuses his patients, he tells him the deal is off. All Goodman knows is that his IRS extension is denied.

photo3While trying to find out more about Emily, Ben falls in love with her. He ends up spending more time with her, but he continues to put up a wall between her and himself. Meanwhile, he asks his best friend Dan (Barry Pepper) to follow some specific instructions, and he gives his house to an abused woman named Connie (Eplidia Carrillo). When Ben's brother finds out what's going on, he demands to know what Ben is planning to do.

photo4Will Smith (Hancock) fluctuates between blockbuster action films and dramas such as Pursuit of Happyness. The cryptic marketing of Seven Pounds makes it unclear to us whether it's a thriller or drama. Anyway, Smith is very good and likable as Ben, and he gives the role a quiet, calm, resolute nature that is crucial to the character and story. Smith has also lost a lot of weight for the role, adding to the gravity of the material. He has a great emotional range; one must marvel as how much he's improved as a dramatic actor in the past few years.

photo5Rosario Dawson (Eagle Eye) is effective as Ben's romantic interest. She comes off as a bit passive in the beginning but ends up holding her own alongside Will Smith. She also has very good chemistry with Smith and that makes that part of the plot work without being too sappy. Their interactions seem natural and nuanced enough create certain realism no matter how outrageous the plot begins to unveil.

photo6The supporting cast is generally up to task. Woody Harrelson (No Country for Old Men) plays against type in a small role as a demure, kind blind man. His performance is solid and touching. Michael Ealy (Miracle at St. Anna) is fine in another small role as Ben's bother. Barry Pepper (Flags of Our Fathers) is particularly moving as Ben's best friend.

photo7Written by TV scribe Grant Nieporte (8 Simple Rules), the story is an interesting concept and sentimental exercise that examines our values and mortality. Surely, once we understand what is going on, we begin to question Ben's actions and motives, depending on our own values. By the time we understand what the title means, like it or not, it's going to a hot topic for discussion. Nieporte unfolds the mystery nicely, giving us bits of information until we see the whole picture. 

photo8Still, it feels manipulative at times, especially toward the end. The plot and dialogue are contrived and the basic premise is rather outlandish. Also, I think Nieporte's made a mistake by "jumpstarting" the film with the prologue -- to me, that gives away too much. For audiences who pay attention, the mystery is lost on them because it's pretty obvious at the get-go. I think Nieporte would have made the mystery more riveting and the revelation more surprising if he had played the cards closer to his vest.

Director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) teams up with Will Smith again and he's very good with this kind of heartstring-tugging material. The problem is, this script is more manipulative and less naturalistic than that of Happyness. What comes out of this effort is an elaborate attempt at a tearjerker.

But guess what, they've succeeded because human emotions are easily manipulated. On the other hand, I kind of resent that. Not that I mind genuine emotions and shedding a tear or two (which I did), but I resent the fact that Nieporte and Muccino do that with such heavy-handedness, as if they were afraid the audience wouldn't get it. Yes, we get it. In fact, the whole movie, from the first frame to the last, is manufactured precisely to do just that. To me, one of the problems I find with the film is how it goes so shamelessly for the heart by somehow sacrificing the mind. That's not to say the story is idiotic, but it does stretch our suspension of disbelief. We could understand Ben's motive, his emotional state, or even his resolution or altruism. But I, for one, am not convinced by those around him. The seven-pound question I ask is: "If you knew someone who's going to do what Ben is, would you stop him?"

I would.

Stars: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy, Barry Pepper, Elpidia Carillo, Robinne Lee, Tim Kelleher, Judyann Elder
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Writer: Grant Nieporte
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, some disturbing content and sensuality
Running Time: 118 Minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 7.1 out of 10


© 2008 Ray Wong


It took Hollywood exactly 30 years to bring Harvey Milk's story to the silver screen, and Gus Van Sant gives the pioneer in gay politics a dignified tribute.

photo1Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) is a forty-year-old insurance salesman when he meets his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). Realizing he hasn't "done a thing" in his life especially being an office drone, Milk decides to leave New York City and moves to San Francisco with Scott for a change. They settles in the Castro district and opens a camera store. As self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street," he encourages homosexuals to claim Castro as their home and helps drive gay-unfriendly businesses out.

photo2Milk becomes more active in the political scene as he takes on the discrimination (including police brutality) more seriously and passionately. His friends help him to seek public office. After a few unsuccessful bids, Scott can't take it anymore and breaks up with him. But Milk believes he really can make a difference in the political arena. With the help of Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and a former-hustler-turn-activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), Milk makes history and becomes the country's first elected openly gay public official.

photo3With that ascension comes death threats and national attention. Ever flamboyant and gregarious, Milk enjoys the spotlight. He tries to work with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) but refuses to play by White's rule. When Anita Bryant and Sate Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) take the fight to California with Proposition 6 (which aims at firing gay teachers and those who support them), Milk works endlessly to try to defeat it. His eventual victory and national spotlight further alienates Dan White, who resigns as supervisor and then tries to get his job back. When White fails to reclaim his job, his next move forever changes history and propels Milk into the realm of legend.

photo4Sean Penn (All the King's Men) is without a doubt one of the best actors of our generation. It's difficult enough to play a real-life, bigger-than-life person, but Penn succeeds in not only physically transforming himself both in terms of looks and mannerism, but also in embodying Milk's spirit and soul. Harvey Milk is so unlike other characters the actor has played before, and he does an outstanding job and utterly disappears into the role.

photo5The supporting cast is stellar and impressive, considering the average age of these actors is under 30. James Franco (Pineapple Express) is affecting as the loving but unambitious lover of Milk. He has the right mix of aloofness, passion and ambivalence to make the role work. Diego Luna (The Terminal) is also very good as Milk's troubled new lover, Jack. Alison Pill (Dan in Real Life) is a bit too soft as Milk's aggressive campaign manager, and Victor Garber (Eli Stone) is mostly in the background as Mayor George Moscone. Denis O'Hare (Quarantine) makes a nice impression as the villain.

photo6The standouts are Josh Brolin (W) as Dan White and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) as Cleve Jones. Fresh off his tour-de-force portrayal of G.W. Bush in W, Brolin delivers another knockout performance as someone very different -- the introverted, psychologically troubled man whose drastic action probably did more for the gay cause than Milk himself. And Hirsch truly is a young actor to watch -- his portrayal of the famed activist is nuanced and interesting, and he captures both Jones's naivete and political awakening extremely well.

photo7Written by Dustin Lance Black (Big Love), the script follows a conventional biopic formula, framed by a prophetic narration by Milk himself (a taped "confession" of sort in the event of his assassination). The story focuses on the last 8 years of Milk's life, from his "awakening" to right after his death. At times, it is very episodic and we don't get to see enough of Milk in his personal life. Much of the film focuses on his political life. Yet, his personality and relationships are well portrayed by the outstanding performances of Penn and his costars.

photo8Black's writing is powerful in that he keeps it simple. He also repeats certain key phrases and themes that define Milk's legacy. The only weakness is that by focusing mostly on Milk himself, we don't get to see too much the other side, particularly Dan White. We're left with a vague idea of what Dan White was all about and what led him down that path. Still, I think the characterization of Dan White is a bit sketchy, despite Brolin's effective performance.

Gus Van Sant's (Paranoid Park) direction is strong, crisp, and well-paced. The frame works beautifully. And Van Sant makes a great decision to just let the camera roll and his actors do their thing. The camerawork has a nice period feel to it, and Van Sant makes some interesting decisions to include historical footage, adding to the authenticity of the film. Perhaps it's just a coincident, but the events surrounding Proposition 6 in California eerily reflects what is going on with Proposition 8. It's amazing how much has changed in 30 years, and how much hasn't.

The ending and the coda of the film are particularly poignant, almost poetic. He reminds us that this is not a depressing story about a man's death and the injustice of the world, but about one man's passion and vision of a better world, his conviction and sacrifices, and the hope that he inspired. In that sense, Van Sant succeeds in fading into the background and just let the characters tell their stories.

Milk is not trendsetting or unconventional in any way. It's a solidly made, uplifting biopic about a controversial public figure who made a difference. With its wonderful acting, effective writing, and skillful direction, all the elements of the film simply work together like milk and honey.

Stars: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O'Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: Dustin Lance Black
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, nudity, brief violence
Running Time: 128 Minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 8.1 out of 10

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

© 2008   Ray Wong


Based on John Boyne's gripping novel, writer-director Mark Herman's adaptation of the Holocaust drama is a somber reflection on good, evil, and humanity through the eyes of a young boy.

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an imaginative 8-year-old son of the Nazi commander (David Thewlis) and his wife (Vera Farmiga). During the height of the WWII, he and his sister (Amber Beattie) move with their parents to the country outside of Berlin, after his father was promoted. Little does he know his father is now in charge of a concentration camp for the Jews.

p1Being a naive, innocent boy, Bruno doesn't understand what his father does -- to him, his father is a proud, dedicated soldier who is protecting their country, trying to make it the best place on Earth. His mother, however, knows better, and is promptly upset about what is going on around them. Bruno discovers a "farm" some distance from their new country house, and he meets a strange boy, also 8 years old, who wears pajamas all the time with a number on it. The boy's name is Schumel (Jack Scanlon) and they become fast friend.

p2Bruno doesn't understand why Schumel is hungry all the time, and why he is on the other side of a fence. In fact, Bruno doesn't understand a lot of things, such as why their Jewish servant, Pavel (David Hayman), stops being a doctor, or why Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend) is so mean to the people wearing pajamas. As he grows attached to his new friend and begins to question the world around him, he realizes there's some secret he can never tell anyone.

As the protagonist, Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow) has a big responsibility on his shoulders. Wide-eyed and innocent, Butterfield is nicely cast as the naive boy who makes friends with "the enemy." Butterfield is very natural. Jack Scanlon (The Peter Serafinowicz Show) is perfect as Schmuel, the Jewish boy Bruno befriends. His portrayal is hard to watch, and Scanlon delivers a sensible performance with equal mix of sweetness, innocence, and vulnerability.

p3David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix) is excellent as the Nazi soldier. It's easy to hate his character, itself an example of the atrocity of the Nazis, but Thewlis gives the role a dimension -- yes, he's a dedicated soldier and loyalist, but he's also a doting father and a loving husband. He reminds us that, despite all the horror and inhumane things he does, his character is still human. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) is also excellent as Bruno's mother. As a wife caught between her husband's duty and her conscience, Farmiga portrays the woman with a sense of vulnerability, warmth and helplessness. There are moments when her character's actions could have made a difference, but she is simply a victim of her time and situation, and Farmiga does it so well that it's heartbreaking.

Rounding out the cast is Amber Beattie (Walking to Nairobi) as Bruno's impressionable sister, who does a good job without being obnoxious. Rupert Friend (Pride & Prejudice) is surprisingly charming as the cold-hearted Lieutenant Kotler. Finally, David Hayman (Flood) is exceptionally sympathetic as Jewish prisoner Pavel.

p4Mark Herman (Hope Springs) has written a streamlined, simplistic drama with a strong focus from Bruno's point of view. Herman rarely goes off on a tangent or veers far the boy. The audience, armed with their knowledge of history and observation, can get a bit testy with Bruno's naiveté and lack of understanding, especially toward the ending (if only Bruno would simply confide in his sympathetic mother). I think that's the hardest part of adapting a story from a point of view of an young child. Herman succeeds in revealing what we know about the horror of the Holocaust without relying on too much exposition or over-dramatization. At the same time, the illogical and irrational nature of the point of view could challenge our own comfort levels.

At times, the story drags and we wonder where the plot is going. Granted, it's not a complicated story, and much of its heart lies in the friendship between the two boys, and the consequences. Still, sometimes the story and characters can be frustrating, because often than not, they're passive, including Bruno's parents. We Americans are used to dramas where the main characters do something to get out of trouble, or at least try to change the course or the outcome. Here, the storytelling is more true to the European style: there's certain inevitability in the plot movement and character development that don't always culminate to a satisfactory resolution. Don't get me wrong, there is a climax, but it's not something you might imagine.

p5Dramatically solid, thematically humanistic, and tonally sad and depressive, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas boasts some fine acting, a straight plot, and a heart-wrenching conclusion that may be too intense and disturbing for any boy or girl to fathom.

Stars: Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, Jack Scanlon, Rupert Friend, David Hayman
Director: Mark Herman
Writers: Mark Herman (based on John Boyne's novel)
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust
Running Time: 94 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 9
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 8 out of 10