The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (#110 of 23)

New York Film Festival 2013: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

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New York Film Festival 2013: <em>The Secret Life of Walter Mitty</em> Review
New York Film Festival 2013: <em>The Secret Life of Walter Mitty</em> Review

There's a good reason why James Thurber's short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has endured since its publication in The New Yorker in 1939: In its evocation of an utterly ordinary man retreating into his own private fantasies as an escape from numbing reality, Thurber hit upon a concept as simple as it is profoundly universal. It's also an idea ripe for cinematic expansion, especially if you view cinema the way Ingmar Bergman once characterized the films of Andrei Tarkovsky: “When film is not a document, it is dream.”

For Ben Stiller, apparently, Thurber's classic story is grist not for a sympathetic exploration of the universal human desires to dream and live, but to craft what eventually amounts to a totem to his own vanity. How else to explain its increasingly exasperating collapse into scene after scene that extols Mitty's, and by extension Stiller's own, heroic goodness?

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Makeup

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Makeup
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Makeup

Last year, when The Iron Lady's Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland stole the makeup trophy from the team behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the win not only hinted at Meryl Streep's eventual semi-shock of a Best Actress victory, it affirmed that one needn't be the flashiest comer to claim this award. In the recent past, the Oscar here has gone to The Wolfman, Star Trek, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it's also been bestowed on Frida and La Vie en Rose, proving biopic metamorphosis can out-putty the extreme and the fanciful (the latter film beat out Norbit and Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End). Such is good news for Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, and Martin Samuel, the trio of nominees who swelled Anthony Hopkins to twice his form for Hitchcock. Opinions of Hopkins's transformation have been largely varied, with some hailing it as the suspense master's resurrection and others finding the whole thing rather gross, but what's certain is that the actor is all but gone beneath the makeup, which voters may see as a win-worthy feat.

Oscar Prospects: Life of Pi

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Oscar Prospects: Life of Pi
Oscar Prospects: Life of Pi

When it premiered on the opening night of the New York Film Festival, Ang Lee's Life of Pi left plenty of viewers talking Best Picture, each of them reeling from all that massive scope and Academy-friendly uplift. Lee sure seems to have a contender on his hands, as his latest is an adventure of titanic proportions—and that's not just a knowing wink at the old tell-me-your-story framing device, or the awesome, middle-of-nowhere sinking of a ship. Based on Yann Martel's runaway hit novel, which many deemed “un-filmable,” Life of Pi is indeed an eye-popping beauty, and what may be the key thing in its Oscar plus column is it's a prestige picture that puts the money up on the screen. Les Misérables is bound to be a spectacle, and Cloud Atlas surely doesn't skimp on the wow factor, but this race needs a horse that strives to push the medium forward, and no candidate better fits that bill than Life of Pi. While a win seems unlikely, it'll crack the top lineup, with other nods sprinkled throughout behind-the-scenes categories.

Oscar Prospects: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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Oscar Prospects: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Oscar Prospects: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Even the T-shirts are meticulously placed in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, like the one with the Nine Inch Nails logo that cutely nods to composer Trent Reznor, or the one that reads, “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck,” and was probably given precise holes and tears by David Fincher himself. Fincher has certainly grown to be quite peerless when it comes to presenting the oxymoronic aesthetic of polished grunge, and his latest marries that look with the themes of techie alienation, investigative obsession, and cold, impossible love that have run through recent works like The Social Network, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The craftsmanship of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as indicative of Fincher's formal gifts as anything he's created, and, so as not to disappoint the critics who've always chided his films for being chilly, he's even rigorously considered the story's climate, taking many opportunities to hurl snow at the screen for good, cheeky measure. All that unignorable, masterly exactitude is going to net a lot of enthusiasm for this film in the Academy's technical branches. Whether the enthusiasm will go much further than that is another story.

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Original Score

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Original Score
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Original Score

Colin Firth ain't the only one riding The King's Speech to an “overdue” Oscar win. Or, at least, he's not the most arguably overdue for the award from within The King's Speech's fold. After all, Firth, let it be reiterated, was nominated for his first (his first) Academy Award last year and predictably lost to an unawarded Hollywood institution who was on his fifth nomination. To hear people spin it this year, you'd think that one, solitary loss constituted an injustice on the scale of Meryl Streep's last three losses combined. In contrast, Alexandre Desplat has suffered three losses so far in this category in four years (for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Queen), and is frequently snubbed for arguably superior efforts (i.e. Birth, The Painted Veil, or even this year's The Ghost Writer).

Madness David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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Madness: David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
Madness: David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

The first edition of David Thomson's magnum opus A Biographical Dictionary of Film came out in 1975, and it was filled with a young man's strong opinions, flights of fancy, sensitive tributes to people like Howard Hawks, Max Ophüls, Jean Renoir, Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and surprisingly forceful condemnations of such citadels as John Ford and Frank Capra. In matters of taste, Thomson has been right about most of the important figures in the medium he has spent a lifetime chronicling, at least the ones he comes to praise. The book as it now stands in the just-released fifth edition is over one thousand pages; some profiles have come and gone with the years, while others stand mainly as they were in the original. There are a hundred or so new profiles in this version, and it cannot be said that Thomson has grown mellower with the years; he's deeply skeptical of the “American New Wave,” as he calls it, which includes, for him, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, James Gray, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater and (gulp) Kevin Smith.

New York Film Festival 2010: The Social Network

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>The Social Network</em>

David Fincher's films coil around an invisible center. His protagonists chase after something that they don't know and can't see, sometimes spending years in the hunt. In his first several features (following a successful career as a music video director), the center held, and the characters uncovered the thing that they were looking for. Ridley zaps the alien; Pitt and Freeman catch the killer; Michael Douglas solves the game; Norton sniffs the masculine high of his inner Tyler Durden; Jodie Foster and daughter finally break out of the room.

But then something happened inside Fincher's movies, something roving and difficult to place. Five years passed after 2002's Panic Room, and when Fincher's next film, Zodiac, came out in March 2007, many audiences didn't know what to do with it. Like Se7en, it was a serial-killer movie, and Fincher used many of his standard techniques, which Matt Zoller Seitz and Aaron Aradillas discuss in a fine video essay: wide lenses, deep focus, swooping crane shots, low-angle tracking shots, crosscutting between events in different locations, shock cuts that punch us toward unexpected spots. A visual whirlwind took us on a search for the killer, but unlike in Se7en, where he's uncovered, Zodiac spends nearly 25 years without finding him. In Se7en, the murderer walks into the police station and cries, “Detectives! I think you're looking for me”; in Zodiac, the chief suspect looks directly into the camera and says, “I'm not the Zodiac. And even if I were, I certainly wouldn't tell you.”

Oscar 2009 Winner Predictions: Picture

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Oscar 2009 Winner Predictions: Picture
Oscar 2009 Winner Predictions: Picture

Because it pushes that button. Because it makes them feel like sitting on trains. Because you know Sharon Stone texted Dev Patel: U R A Q T. Because it got them wondering why everyone got hustle on their mind. Because they like the sound of them knocking on the doors of their hummers. Because Bucky done gone. Because they shake their ass, making moves on a mover. Because Indian chicks, they get men laid. Because of gold and diamond gems and jades. Because of painted nails, sunsets on horizons. Because the price of living in a shanty town just seems very high. Because they're sick of all the shit that's keepin' them down. Because it got them to whistle, whistle, blow, blow.

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire

Should Win: Not The Reader or Frost/Nixon

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

Oscar 2009 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

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Oscar 2009 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
Oscar 2009 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

As the presence of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which was snubbed in the other sound category) would attest, Sound Mixing is the category that far more obviously favors best picture players. It's Sound Editing that usually tips toward the Masters and Commanders, the Lords of the Rings, the Kings Kongs as though the entire category were one big tie-in with Visual Effects and Makeup. So if Slumdog Millionaire is the frontrunner (or, given the remote possibility that we're wrong, a very, very strong contender) in Sound Editing, there's absolutely no reason to think that it won't take this in a walk. If that's not enough to convince you, remember that previous winners in this category include Chicago, Ray, and Dreamgirls. Oscar loves a showtune, and Slumdog's clodhopping but exuberant train station throwdown is the closest thing this category has to a showstopper.

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire

Should Win: WALL-E

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.