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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button plus reviews of Valkyrie, Bedtime Stories, and The Spirit

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; David Fincher

What a refreshingly “uncommercial” big-budget project! And what a surprisingly enjoyable movie. David Fincher, working at full intensity, gives us the epic adaptation of an obscure (and much-changed) F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who lives his life backwards. Born as an old, wizened man, he progresses through maturity then back to boyhood and infancy — leaving his lifelong sweetheart Daisy (Cate Blanchett), trapped in real time.

Meanwhile, as elderly, sick Daisy tells the story in a New Orleans hospital, Hurricane Katrina rages, reminding us what an unholy mess George W. and sidekick Dickie C. made of nearly everything. (The prez and vice-prez’s one Foxy argument for themselves these days seems to be that the country didn’t actually blow up while they were on duty. True, true…).

I liked Benjamin Button. It has a humanistic/historical sweep reminiscent of Forrest Gump (Eric Roth wrote both movies) and it has near-instant likeability, thanks to Pitt and Blanchett (the two commercial elements here). The cinematography (by Claudio Miranda) has a ghostly sensitivity; the production design by Donald Graham Burt effortlessly sweeps us back and forth. And the cast, especially the two leads and Tilda Swinton and Taraji P. Henson, successfully push any buttons they want..

There is a narrative flaw. In all Benjamin’s many decades of life, starting on Armistice Day, 1918 and progressing to nearly now, nobody seems to want to capitalize on this oddity by peddling the tale to the news media. Say what? Does that really make sense? (Why not add a character who wants to spill the beans, but decides not to or is stopped?) In any case though, this is the kind of wistful metaphor-laden fantasy that relies on our good will and our willingness not to ask too many questions. I can’t see a best picture Oscar coming out of it. But a good-hearted, well-crafted, daring picture is always welcome.


Valkyrie (Three Stars)
U. S.; Bryan Singer

As history, this mile-a-minute account of the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and his conspirators on July 20, 1944, may be somewhat deficient. Nor, despite an excellent cast and general fidelity to the facts, does it score very high marks as psychological/historical drama. But, as a high-gloss, high-powered, high tech (WW2 era) thriller, with real-life overtones, it’s often hell on wheels — and I enjoyed it more than director Singer‘s vaunted (and somewhat overrated) X-Men series.

It’s slick; it‘s fast. And Tom Cruise is not bad casting. He plays Stauffenberg garbed in Nazi regalia he makes look as spiffy as Armani, and with his chiseled chin slicing forward and one piercing dark eye covered by a patch worthy of Raoul Walsh, he’s at least as interesting as he was in his ferocious comic turn in Tropic Thunder. Here, he‘s an unambiguous hero thrust into a super-noir nightmare packed with fascists, bombs, revolt and conspirators.

The movie is a nightmare and Stauffenberg and his cohorts (including Kenneth Branagh as Major-General Henning von Tresckow, Terence Stamp as Ludwig Beck, Bill Nighy as General Olbricht, and Tom Wilkinson in the film’s best performance as the sly double turncoat General Fromm) are a group partly quixotic, somewhat crazy and, in Fromm‘s case, slimy. (The movie doesn‘t spend much time characterizing their motives; many were conservatives and even royalists.) Hitler himself comes on (played by David Bamber) as a cold, silent ghoul — reminding you a bit of Singer‘s Nazi horror movie Apt Pupil from Stephen King — when what’s really scary about Hitler was his flirtatiousness and temper tantrums.

As the plot unwinds, you’re a little staggered by the complexity of the scheme, which involved hoodwinking the Army Reserve into taking over after Hitler is killed, supposedly by a bomb set by the one-armed, three-fingered Stauffenberg. (You can check he real-life facts in the insider‘s book To The Bitter End, retitled Valkyrie here, by conspirator Hans Bernd Gisevius, played in the movie by …..) But the narrative hooks don’t really dig in until the assassination day commences. It might have been better to start it up immediately and cover the earlier stuff in flashbacks.

That said, Christopher McQuarrie‘s script (his first collaboration with Singer since their best movie, The Usual Suspects) is a model of obsessive forward motion and knife-edge clarity. There’s nothing boring about Valkyrie. It just doesn’t leave you with enough. And that’s when you feel history, and Stauffenberg, are being short-changed.


Bedtime Stories (Two Stars)
U.S.; Adam Shankman

Adam Sandler plays Skeeter Bronson, a put-upon but infallibly good-natured hotel handyman whose dad (Jonathan Pryce) once ran the place and who keeps telling bedtime stories to his niece and nephew, stories derived from movies, which later (sort of) come true, or suggest something true. Richard Griffiths blurps around as the new owner, who has grandiose plans, the usually reliable Guy Pearce makes an ass of himself trying to be a mean boyfriend/rival, Courteney Cox is Skeeter‘s sister and Keri Russell (Waitress) is his socially progressive heartthrob. Anyway, this is a truly bad idea for a movie and the fancy-schmancy production doesn’t help it.


The Spirit (One-and-a-Half Stars)
U. S.; Frank Miller

Who would have figured than an action movie based on the peerless Will Eisner’s brilliantly funny and atmospheric noir comic The Spirit, about a black-masked wise-cracking Bogartesque crime fighter (Gabriel Macht) — written and directed by crime comics genius Frank Miller, co director of the excellently pulpy gem Sin City — could wind up an almost terminally unengaging botch? Even with Samuel Jackson as the villain? Well, take a look. This is one of those cases where almost everyone involved should hang their head — except of course Will Eisner. What’s the explanation? Did Miller get so excited after he signed both Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson that he just lost all perspective? This is a spiritless Spirit and that’s a crime-ridden shame.

– Michael Wilmington
December 26, 2008

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon