Every Christmas, the finest directors and actors in Hollywood pool their resources to purchase you an expensive yuletide bummer. This year, they've outdone themselves.
The most relentlessly depressing year of movies in recent memory—a year whose summer blockbusters featured a superhero emotionally vivisected by a mad clown, and a robot with no friends—has culminated with five Christmas Day releases guaranteed to counteract whatever good feelings you might have accumulated while opening presents. None of these movies is very good. None of them is very bad. They're all serious, sweeping lumps of coal. God rest ye gloomy, gentlemen: We've braved the Oscar-grabbing misery in advance, and suggest that if you're going to the cinema Dec. 25, hide the razor blades first.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt grows younger until he dies.
David Fincher's signature directorial traits are meticulous control of imagery (Se7en) and a corrosive skepticism of human nature (Zodiac)—both of which he has thrown overboard at the first sight of Brad Pitt's handsome face. Benjamin Button, a 167-minute expansion of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, traces Pitt's metamorphosis from a prematurely wizened New Orleans gnome to a soulful stud rivaling his character in Thelma and Louise—it's a coming-of-age tale in which age isn't coming, it's going. The resonant premise has the potential to be the onscreen match for Martin Amis' novel Time's Arrow; in execution, it's a Cajun Amélie, a fantastical gumbo of eccentrics and serendipity. Benjamin mans a tugboat, munches caviar in Russia, pals around with a Sophic pygmy, and encounters a symbolic hummingbird. What the little bugger is supposed to symbolize, exactly, is an open question: the transience of life, probably, since the movie can't get its mind off mortality for more than 10 minutes at a time. Its meditations can be ingeniously staged (one unlucky man recounts being struck by lightning seven times, with each encounter displayed in a nickelodeon reel) and ably performed (Tilda Swinton is effortlessly beguiling as Ben's first lover) but sentimentality ultimately chokes the picture. It ultimately feels like an allegory for Fincher's own regression. PG-13. (AM) Lloyd Center, Pioneer Place, City Center, Roseway, St. Johns Twin Cinema-Pub, Cinema 99, Cedar Hills, Tigard, Lake Twin, Evergreen, Bridgeport, Movies on TV.
Philip Seymour Hoffman might have molested a schoolboy.
John Patrick Shanley's use of language in his Pulitzer-winning play Doubt: A Parable is precise and cutting, but I confess I spent the first half of his self-adapted cinematic rendering distracted by the delivery. As Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the alligator-in-a-wimple who runs a Catholic borough school, Meryl Streep killjoys with a new accent—a chary Bronx wheedle that sounds gradually more familiar, until it finally hit me: When did Livia Soprano become a nun? With Streep's channeling of the late Nancy Marchand at the forefront, Doubt's performances are uniformly painstaking: Philip Seymour Hoffman is at his most unctuous as the progressive priest who Aloysius deduces is sharing unholy communion with a student, while Amy Adams waffles timorously between the two parochial heavyweights. But the performances feel more mannered and cloistered the more Shanley tries to open up his own material with shutter-rattling thunderstorms, detonating light bulbs and slasher-flick camera tilts. (This is the weakest work ever handed in by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.) But maybe I'm just not all that impressed by the parable itself: Wouldn't all this existential fretting about the balance of belief and cynicism be solved if the Vatican stopped putting defenseless kids in the path of forced celibates? PG-13. (AM) Fox Tower, Cedar Hills.
Brits force America to relive Watergate.
In a case of death by overaccessorizing, Ron Howard's latest attempt to be taken seriously as an artful filmmaker transfers to the big screen Peter Morgan's 2006 play (adapted by the author) about British journalist David Frost's 1977 interview with Richard Nixon, a television event watched by one in five Americans. Much to Howard's good fortune, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their stage roles as Frost and Nixon, respectively. Both actors give tense performances as desperate men—one hoping to revive a flagging career and the other to exonerate himself in the eyes of the public—and the scenes of their conversations, as suspenseful as the best hostage or boxing movies, carry the film. Langella has refined Nixon's bearlike gait, guttural bark and obscene sneer, and Sheen believably chokes down his panic as he stares down an opponent much wilier than himself. In a just world, Morgan and Howard would have stopped there, but they stupidly intersperse the good stuff with faux-documentary present-day interviews with the supporting characters (including Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan and Sam Rockwell as James Reston Jr.), none of whom look a day older than they do in the film's "live" action. It's a silly and irritating conceit that periodically brings the flow of the film to an abrupt halt, but it's not nearly as much of a travesty as the filmmakers' waste of Rebecca Hall's talents in a throwaway part as Frost's endlessly supportive, backless dress-wearing girlfriend, Caroline Cushing. If you're going to toss a token woman into a testosterone-soaked drama, at least give the lady some lines. R. (BW) Fox Tower, Lloyd Center.
I was deflowered by a Nazi.
In 1958 Germany, teenage dork Michael (David Kross) recovers from scarlet fever just in time to fall terminally in love with sour-looking fraulein Hanna (Kate Winslet). In the auburn glow of her garret, he recites to her daily passages from Homer and Chekhov until she is sated by literature and takes his clothes off. So that's going well—though, judging from the expression on the face of grown-up Michael (Ralph Fiennes), the affair does not provide lasting satisfaction. (He might have suspected there was something unhealthy about Hanna from the efficient way she gave him sponge baths.) In an adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's bestselling war-guilt novel, Stephen Daldry interprets the German problem as an inadvisable fuck, and reduces the Holocaust to that hoariest of Oscar-bait formulas: "But I don't know how to read!" There's a fine third-act cameo from Lena Olin, and Winslet does her best to humanize a wholly unsympathetic character, but the tony gravitas begs to be punctured: I keep imagining how amazing the film would be if the ruined boy were played by Mr. Show's David Cross. R. (AM) Fox Tower.
Tom Cruise fails to kill Hitler.
For its first overwrought hour, Bryan Singer's recounting of a 1944 German Resistance plot to assassinate the Führer teeters on the cusp of self-parody. "Only God can judge us now," says Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), suggesting a far closer familiarity with the lyrics of Tupac than one would expect from a Nazi colonel. This declaration is typical of the movie's tone; if the Third Reich actually exchanged this many significant glances, it's a wonder they made it to Paris. But once the operation gets underway—it's a complex scheme, involving a synchronized bombing and military coup—Valkyrie earns its glowering bombast with some genuinely exciting scenes. A parade of tough-talking Britishers parades through the movie, with Bill Nighy making the biggest impact as an indecisive coward, and even when the plot brushes the ridiculous (the conspiracy hinges on a phone call that amounts to "Zis is Hitler"—"Is zis really Hitler?"—"Zis is Hitler, who are you?") the thespians play it to the hilt. For the film to really resonate, it would need characters we feel deeply about. But in that case, of course, it couldn't star Tom Cruise. So we'll have to settle for this. PG-13. (AM) Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, City Center, Cinema 99, Cedar Hills, Tigard, Evergreen, Bridgeport, Movies on TV.