Holiday Roundup Part Two

By Tony Sheppard

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher

Fincher ("Zodiac," "Fight Club," "Se7en") seems like an unusual choice to direct this quiet story of a baby who is born with the characteristics of a man in his eighties, and who then ages backwards, getting physically younger as times progresses. It's a neat concept for a story that considers the nature of human relationships when two people age in opposite directions. If the retrospective narration feels a lot like "Forrest Gump," it's because it's adapted by Gump screenwriter Eric Roth.

It's a film of epic proportions and tone. In spanning eight decades, it seems a likely candidate for an assortment of technical awards, including art direction, wardrobe, and makeup. The acting from stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton is very good – but the story itself seems a little flat, with more of the focus directed towards the concept than the people. Benjamin seems almost as much an observer of his own life as we do and there are other aspects of the movie that seem marginally off, including the logic of the aging process and present day scenes that do more to interrupt the story than complement it. In fairness, this is a film that is captivating many critics and audiences and I'm just not one of them. However, I enjoyed watching the core story progress and would still recommend it.

Directed by Bryan Singer

There will undoubtedly be debates about Tom Cruise's acting and the difficulties filming in Germany, where his Scientology membership makes him only marginally more popular than the Nazis depicted in the film, but the central strength and the appeal of "Valkyrie" lies in the story. Still relatively unknown outside of Germany, even after 60 years, it recounts with significant accuracy the undertaking of a core group of Germans to overthrow, assassinate, and replace Adolph Hitler at the height (or depth) of WWII.

It's a fascinating story, beyond its inherent appeal to history buffs, as it unveils the scope of the plot and the plans that were put into place, and which came very close to a success that would have changed the shape of Europe and world politics. The film skips over some details, such as additional assassination attempts, and doesn't give us much background regarding what must have been an incredibly difficult decision for many of the conspirators. Instead it picks up on the involvement of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) as he joins the already established plot, focusing primarily on the events of July 20th, 1944. But the evils of the Nazi regime are familiar enough to provide the missing context. The film works as both drama and history lesson, proceeding with an almost frenetic pace that captures attention enough to eclipse issues of mismatched accents and Cruisean affiliations. It's a story both worth telling and worth seeing.

The Reader
Directed by Stephen Daldry

Michael Berg (David Kross, and Ralph Fiennes in the later years) is a young student when he enters into a torrid and illicit love affair with an older woman (Kate Winslet) in post-war Germany. In addition to the other obviously shared activities, she enjoys hours spent relaxing as he reads to her from his assigned school reading list. Years later he discovers her dark past. The film becomes an interesting morality tale as he ponders his reaction.

Bernhard Schlink, who wrote the book, was interviewed recently on Charlie Rose, and he described how it was a common situation for people in Germany to have to deal with friends, relatives and acquaintances who had been involved in the war, albeit not always in the atrocities. But "The Reader" considers other topics that cause shame including, for example, the idea that it may be easier for some people to participate in or admit to participating in murder than to admit to being illiterate in modern society, and that it's not always simple to judge people after the fact. This is more award-worthy and thought provoking cinema from Daldry ("Billy Elliott," "The Hours").

The Spirit
Written and Directed by Frank Miller

Quite possibly the worst movie that I saw in 2008, "The Spirit" attempts a lot and achieves virtually nothing. The movie might have had some limited appeal for its stylistic visuals if we hadn't already seen them to better effect in Miller's earlier "Sin City." I somehow managed to dislike this one before the end of the opening credits. It went downhill from there, with the low point occurring somewhere in the vicinity of a campy sequence played for imaginary laughs in full Nazi regalia. If there are awards to be considered for "The Spirit," they will come at the Razzies and not at the Oscars, with Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in strong contention. "The Spirit" is a movie that takes one for the team by heroically swooping in at the end of the year and saving all other movies from being on the bottom of the quality pile. M. Night Shyamalan and Uwe Boll owe Miller a drink or three.

Note: All four films this week feature Nazis – even Benjamin Button runs into a few on his travels.

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