FINCHERFEST: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

30 09 2010

As part of a deal with Paramount and Warner Bros. to make “Zodiac,” David Fincher took on the $150 million production of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”  The result was his first nomination for Best Director and the most Oscar-nominated movie of the decade.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a masterpiece.

YES, I used the dreaded m-word.  Do I regret it?

Absolutely not.  I stand by assertion 100%, and I will argue my side until you see it.  Fincher’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story is the closet thing I think we will ever get to a 20th century epic.  It’s a sweeping story of love, time, and life, not to mention the single most beautiful movie I have ever seen.  Aside from the typical splendor of a period piece, Fincher’s film has the greatest visual effects I have ever seen.

When I first saw “Benjamin Button,” I was under the impression that the younger (as in newly-born) Benjamins would only be voiced by Brad Pitt, not acted by him.  Yet after doing some research, I found out that aside from the last five minutes of the movie, Benjamin Button’s face was always animated by Pitt.  It’s completely possible to not notice that it actually is him because the effects are so subtly incorporated, and doing such is such an incredible achievement in film history.

I’ll address two common criticisms of the movie, the first being its similarities to “Forrest Gump.”  These concerns might be valid had the two not shared the same writer, Eric Roth.  I see no problem with an author exploring similar issues, especially when he delves deeper into more profound revelations.  “Benjamin Button” gets to the heart of what it means to be alive in the grandest of fashions.

And then there are those who claim that the movie’s 166 minute runtime is absolutely unbearable.  To those poor, impatient souls, I say that our journey is Benjamin’s journey.  We don’t just watch time go by; we feel it with him.  Glancing through an inverted lens gives us a fascinating look at the passage of time and its effect on one man fated – or perhaps doomed – to live it that way.  Just because I say this is a masterpiece doesn’t mean that I think it is perfect.  I don’t think any film can be entirely perfect, but when a movie is truly great, it has many beautiful, fleeting moments of perfection.  Some claim that the movie drags, and I’ll agree that certain scenes could have used a little more time in the editing room.  However, the pacing is not slow.  It is deliberate, and only at this wistful speed can we truly appreciate Benjamin’s world.

Everything about this movie got so much attention, but I’d like to draw attention to one element that got completely and unjustly overlooked: Cate Blanchett’s performance.  She received absolutely no awards or nominations for her performance as Daisy Fuller, Benjamin’s love interest, which is a shame because this is by far her most emotionally compelling and sensitive performance ever.  What I found particularly remarkable about her in “Benjamin Button” was her ability to turn small moments into things that can stick with us.  When I think of her in this movie, I keep coming back to a small scene where Daisy looks plaintively at a young girl with all of her physicality intact and suddenly just finds herself overcome with despair.  It’s as much her story as it is Benjamin’s, and Blanchett wins our hearts just as quickly as Pitt does.

It’s a marvel that Fincher can transition so seamlessly from his violent thrillers and dramas to this romantic vision of the 1900s.  In my mind, it’s his best and most thoughtful work, displaying more of his top-notch precision than ever (albeit in a totally different form).  There are very few movies that have the power to stun us into silence, and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is one of them.  It has the power to make us feel light as a feather and make us fly in a gentle wind, full of emotion and with a new appreciation for life.

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FINCHERFEST: Zodiac

29 09 2010

After “Panic Room,” Fincher took a five year break from directing.  He returned to the big screen in 2007 with “Zodiac,” a narrative of the events surrounding the Zodiac Killer who haunted San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s.

There’s no such thing as a simple movie with David Fincher.  On the surface, “Zodiac” looks like a movie about the hunt for a serial killer.  But much like “Seven” is not a movie about a serial killer, neither is “Zodiac.”  It’s a multitude of things, and while it’s not left open for you to interpret like “Fight Club,” you can still make of it what you want.

The movie can really be thought of as two mini-movies (which may brutalize less patient moviegoers since the running time is 157 minutes).  The first half follows the police investigation of the murders of the Zodiac Killer and the games the murderer plays with his victims and the authorities chasing him down.  There’s plenty of cop drama for all of those who faun over movies like “The Town” and “The Departed,” but once the official police inquiry into the events stops, all those drooling will face the harsh reality that “Zodiac” is no longer a police movie.

The second half concerns itself with the peculiar obsession of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) with tracking down the Zodiac Killer through his own means.  Acting compulsively to catch him, Graysmith consults the two men most knowledgable on the subject, reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and police investigator Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).  Armed with their insights, he gets to the bottom of the case – even if we don’t have the satisfaction of certainty, as the case is still unsolved as of today.

But the overarching storyline that ties both of these aspects together is a journalistic view of the events.  Here’s how Fincher saw “Zodiac” as he made it:

“I looked at this as a newspaper movie. My model was ‘All the President’s Men.’ You piece the thing together with a bit of info here, a hunch there, and you make mistakes long the way, and maybe you end up with an supportable conclusion as to the when and where and how. … And maybe, with someone like Zodiac, even he couldn’t provide an answer, I don’t know.”

But it’s also not just about the people intimately involved with the investigation; it’s about how the fear of being killed gripped the San Francisco area.  Fincher himself was among those as a seven-year-old boy scared to go outside.  There are no strange storylines that show directly how the events impact the average San Franciscan, but it’s a very subtle undertone that could fly totally under the radar for those not paying attention.  It took me some reading to discover this angle, and the more I think about it, the more I see it.

As a movie that’s psychologically affecting, I don’t think “Zodiac” is entirely effective.  It’s not like I haven’t been scared by the prospect of a serial murderer in real life; the D.C. sniper took his toll when I was about 10 years old, and that frightened me.  However, Fincher crafts a movie quite different from his others here: a fact-based narrative that relies on true events to provide the terror.  The fact that it manages to sustain interest for two and a half hours is another testament to the director’s incredible versatility.





FINCHERFEST: Panic Room

28 09 2010

Fincher moved onto a more Hollywood-friendly thriller in 2002 after “Fight Club” was a pretty risky studio gamble that didn’t fully pay off in the short run.  “Panic Room” was a financial success and was fairly well-received by critics.

I think that “Panic Room” is fantastic and totally unfairly derided.

Most people tend to think of it as Fincher’s ugly stepchild (when you don’t count “Alien 3,” of course) and write it off because it lacks the style of a “Seven” or a “Fight Club.”  But for what it’s worth, “Panic Room” could have been a terrible movie in the hands of a lesser director.  With the help of a good editor, such direction could make the movie an hour and twenty minutes.

But the movie succeeds because Fincher resists the temptation to give into horror filmmaking clichés.  Sure, this isn’t a highly original concept, yet it works because he treats it with reverence and respect like he would for any other movie.  While the atmosphere of terror isn’t exactly profound, it is genuinely terrifying because the idea governing it is scary.  We all consider our home a haven, a place where no one can get at us.  Thinking that someone could violate that sense of tranquility is unsettling indeed.

Fincher takes his time sweet time with the movie, and the slow, deliberate pacing just makes the tension all the more taut.  His utilization of subtle scoring and lavish cinematography sets a really eerie aura in the New York City townhouse of Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her diabetic daughter (a classic 12-year-old Kristen Stewart caught in an awkward phase).  The plot doesn’t get much more complicated than a mother and daughter trapped inside their panic room when three robbers invade their home.

There’s a little bit of typical shenanigans with everything that can go wrong going south, but “Panic Room” still holds us in its grip because of the very real and palpable terror.  The closed-in claustrophobic sense is exactly what drew Fincher to the movie; according to him, “[he] wanted to make what Coppola called ‘a composed movie’.”  For those not willing to look deeper into the artistic darkness of “Seven,” this is Fincher’s pitch-perfect filmmaking at its most accessible.

And if nothing, the movie did manage to add a new phrase to the English jargon.  Because let’s be honest, who actually knew what a “panic room” was before 2002 and could pepper it into conversation?





FINCHERFEST: Fight Club

27 09 2010

Fincher followed up disappointment with “The Game” by directing “Fight Club” in 1999, which would prove to be an iconic movie and cultural phenomenon.  While it didn’t do much business in theaters, it became a cult hit on video.  In today’s installment of Fincherfest, I’ll attempt to peg what has made it such a smashing success with fans for over a decade.

There are a multitude of ways to interpret “Fight Club,” and for precisely that reason, it is a great movie.  It can mean so many things to so many people; everyone gets something different out of it.  Heck, you can even see it through a Fascist light!  I’ve only seen it once, so there is a certain level of depth of the movie that I haven’t reached.

However, I don’t intend to bore anyone by reciting the plot or saying that the acting, directing, and writing is great.  That’s been common knowledge for over a decade now, and me saying that doesn’t really add anything to the movie.  The proof is in the celluloid (and now DVD and whatever other formats are out there).

I watched the movie a year ago after some residual curiosity from “Benjamin Button” compelled me to check out David Fincher’s violent side.  But before that, I had heard nothing but amazing things from the legions of male fans my age.  Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.  Although it still ranks behind “Button” for me, this is my favorite of Fincher’s early explorations to the darker side of human nature.

Here’s what I think has made it such an endearing classic for the younger generation: we have been so diligently trained to suppress all our impulsive emotions that eventually we want to explode.  Sometimes, our lives are so sheltered and so desensitized that sometimes we have the deep desire to feel some kind of emotion, even if it must be pain.  To quote Lady Antebellum, “I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.”

“Fight Club” indulges that side of all teenage boys and budding men by going back to our primordial cavemen instincts.  We have to fight for what we want.  Kill or be killed.  The movie finds a sort of catharsis in violence, using it to express all the frustration men feel at the oppression of their natural tendencies.  So in a messed-up kind of way, the movie has served as a wake-up call to boys and men everywhere to reclaim their masculinity and reassert themselves.

There’s a perfect quote from Fincher himself that sums up the movie from my interpretation:

“We’re designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping. There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman [the narrator] is created.”





FINCHERFEST: The Game

26 09 2010

Fincher followed up the resounding success of “Se7en” with 1997’s “The Game,” a cerebral thriller that was received notably less well both financially and critically.

I made the slight complaint with “Se7en” that I had seen a similar premise done a little bit better.  With “The Game,” I have a similar grievance.  The movie was, in essence, the same as the 2008 paranoid thriller “Eagle Eye” with much lower stakes and much less intrigue.  Both involve people getting played by some system bigger than they can comprehend, and both follow the struggles of the people trying to escape the oppression of this omniscient system.

Michael Douglas headlines as banking mogul Nicholas Van Orton, a man who has chosen money over relationships.  He is estranged from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) and let his relationship with his most recent wife fall by the wayside.  The problems can all be traced back to his father’s suicide while he was a young boy, and the effects of the life-shattering decision continue to affect him decades later.

But things all change after a mysterious birthday gift turns into an all-encompassing game designed to challenge his priorities.  Reality begins to blur in this game, although not as intensely as it does in a movie like “Inception.”  Van Orton feels mildly disoriented and wonders whether every suspect thing in his life is happening because of the game.  Eventually, his anxieties lead him to demand answers from the organization that set up this game.

By no means am I saying that “The Game” isn’t good.  The premise keeps us interested the whole time, although the ending is wholly unsatisfying because it wraps up way too neatly.  Fincher’s attempt to recreate a very tense atmosphere of terror just isn’t quite as effective as it is in “Se7en,” and the paranoia is totally missing.  This thriller lacks any sort of thrill, making it little more than just a series of events with the hope of a bigger twist waiting at the end.





FINCHERFEST: Se7en

25 09 2010

A real review of David Fincher’s work should begin with “Se7en,” the first movie he takes full credit for.  It was a financial success in 1995 and has since become an adored movie by fans on video.  The movie currently sits at #26 on IMDb’s Top 250 movies as voted by users, and in today’s installment of Fincherfest, I will attempt to explain what has made it so endearing over the past 15 years.

I’m a big fan of “Seven,” but I hate to say that I don’t think it’s quite as good as some people think it is.  According to Lisa Schwarzbaum, overrated is a big critical no-no word; however, since this is more a look in retrospect than a review, I don’t feel quite as bad using it.

Fincher does an excellent job directing a very cerebral world of horror, and as his first real directorial effort, it’s quite impressive.  Yet overall, I wasn’t quite as affected by it as I felt I should have been.  When it comes to serial killer movies, I much prefer “The Silence of the Lambs” and “No Country for Old Men.”

Yet I acknowledge that “Seven” has a very different kind of horror.  We aren’t meant to be freaked out by the murderer John Doe (Kevin Spacey).  We never see him committing any crimes, nor does he ever give us any indication that he might flip and kill another person.  He’s just like anyone you could round up off the streets, and that makes him all the more frightening.  John Doe is like Heath Ledger’s The Joker without a makeup and without any sense of humor.  The tacit implication is that all of us have the capability to be John Doe, something quite scary to suggest and not the kind of message you want to walk away from a movie having learned.  We never see the results of the killings, inspiring the audience to imagine the murder for themselves.  Anyone who can do so has the inherent ability to be Doe.

Such a killer is the last person Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman, pre-God) wants to deal with in his waning hours on the job.  He and his replacement, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), are drawn into the world of John Doe, who commits murders related to the Seven Deadly Sins.  Catching him requires intellect, and they delve into the classic work of Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and others to figure out his modus operandi.  The dialectic struggle between Somerset about to apathetically walk off the job and Mills eagerly awaiting his future is a fascinating backdrop to the rest of the brutal themes of the movie.

Apparently back in the ’90s, New Line Cinema advertised “Se7en” as a movie that you shouldn’t watch in the dark because that atmosphere would scare anyone to death.  I did just that, and I found the darkness to be nothing more than a fitting complement to the universe Fincher crafts.  It’s always muggy and rainy in the unidentified city where the murders take place, and the world view the movie espouses is bleaker than the weather.  According to Somerset, the world is worth fighting for, but it’s hardly a fine place.

The more you think about it, the more you realize Fincher’s challenge to our assumptions of what is good and what is evil.  The villain is defined … or is it?  Such an idea is a little unsettling to audiences, but that hasn’t kept it from being very well received.  Perhaps its forte isn’t in being a serial killer movie; the strength is in the social critique of the godlessness of society.





FINCHERFEST: Alien 3

24 09 2010

Kicking off Fincherfest here at “Marshall and the Movies” is the director’s first feature film, “Alien 3.”  Released six years after James Cameron’s “Aliens” and thirteen after Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” it certainly had high expectations.  After being mired in development hell, Fox managed to get the ball rolling and brought in Fincher fairly late in the game.  The result was the beginning of the decay of the franchise.

I debated whether or not to include “Alien 3” in my purveying of David Fincher’s collective work.  After all, he did disown the movie publicly thanks to Fox’s ceaseless creative interference.  Fincher had nothing to do with the editing of the movie, which in itself took a year.  According to IMDb, he was denied permission to shoot a scene with Sigourney Weaver in prison by the movie’s producers, so he stole her and shot it anyways.  Even as of 2004, Fincher still wasn’t willing to make peace with the experience when Fox asked him to do a commentary for the DVD release of the movie.

After watching the movie, I get a sense of why he doesn’t want to be associated with it.  “Alien 3” is a mixture of the action-adventure feel of “Aliens” with the horror atmosphere of “Alien.”  The result is a jumbled mash-pot of little character, simply gliding on the success of its predecessors.  It brings nothing new to the table, and watching this rip-off only makes you wonder why you aren’t watching one of the vastly superior installments that preceded it.

Sigourney Weaver’s ultra-feminist heroine Ripley just can’t catch a break here as she has to fight off the nefarious aliens for the third time (I hope she dreams well in cryo).  Instead of having the crew of the Nostromo or the Marines, she has a crew of celibate space monks led by Charles S. Dutton who feel violated by the presence of woman in their ranks.  Nevertheless, once an alien is found on board, they unite to trap it in the steaming hot pool of lead on board their ship.

The movie suffers from intense familiarity and oversimplification, even though the latter made Scott’s take on the franchise a classic.  “Alien 3” was rewritten many times; one draft reported to be far superior to the one that was produced didn’t even have Ripley in it.  But since she did make it, we can safely conclude that the movie was made simply to make more money off the franchise – and that’s all the more reason to avoid it.