Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Merryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
It’s 1964. President Kennedy was just assassinated and the Civil Rights Act has been passed. The times-they-are-a-changin’. In a parish in the Bronx, the lone black student struggles to fit in with his classmates, but the kind and gentle priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes him under his wing. Before long, the school principal and head nun (Merryl Streep) suspects him of molesting the child and makes it her mission to expose him despite lacking proof. At times poignant and evocative, “Doubt” works as a cautionary tale against the dangers of excessive confidence.
The film benefits most from its stellar cast and sharp writing. There are two truly exceptional scenes: the initial confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, and the nearly pitch-perfect denouement (or lack thereof). In the former, the filmmaker serves up an exemplary introduction of what’s to come - a highly dramatic battle of the wills between two bitter antagonists. Philip Seymour Hoffman just barely squeaks out the better performance by showing his remarkable ability to convey contradictory emotions in a single facial expression. It’s hard to tell whether Father Flynn is simply overcome with indignation by Sister Aloysius’ off-base accusations, or if he’s betraying feelings of guilt and fear.
In contrast, Merryl Streep plays her role without a hint of nuance or subtlety. Her character is little more than a diabolical zealot fired up for a witch-hunt. Later on in the movie, there’s even a shot of her holding up a prop that looks an awful lot like a pitchfork. Streep still makes for a haunting (albeit two-dimensional) villain.
The brilliance of the first showdown, however, isn’t only in the acting. John Patrick Shanley, a playwright by trade, knows a thing or two about stagecraft. The scene begins rather calmly with Sister Aloysius assuming the subservient position prescribed to her by the Church’s strict hierarchy, but the tension quickly crescendoes, and the nun from hell goes for the kill. The ringing telephone that no one dares answer mid-interrogation adds a particularly nice touch.
The final few minutes are another show stopping piece of cinema, and end the film on a high note. Shanley resists the urge to conveniently wrap everything together, and the central question goes unanswered. Unfortunately, he allows little room for doubt. It’s quite clear Sister Aloysius is just a mean muckraking woman and Father Flynn did nothing wrong. Still, the unresolved ending lets the audience decide exactly what went down. It just might have been that much more effective had the director left the conclusion even more ambiguous.
These two portions of the film are the indisputable highlights. The other hour and a half has some memorable moments - including the priest’s opening sermon and Viola Davis’ (who plays the black student’s enduring mother) notable appearance - but it mostly pales in comparison.
Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” takes the spectator on a journey throughout the life of a man who ages backwards. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born a decrepit old codger whose mother dies in childbirth and whose father abandons him on the front steps of a retirement home (how ironic Mr. Screenwriter!). As time goes by, he realizes that he’s been dealt the fantastical fate of growing young.
If this sounds like an enchanting tale, it’s no thanks to the screenwriter. Eric Roth’s script is the bastard child of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s much more amusing short story. It takes skill to turn such an original and enthralling premise into such a dull movie, but Roth succeeds admirably. His most apparent mistake is the structuring of the plot as a series of flashbacks retold from the deathbed of the protagonist’s primary love interest, Daisy (Cate Blanchett). However, this recycled Hollywood formula is only the first in a long line of cliches and abuses of the source material.
The entire movie is imbued with false depth, starting with the irrelevant historical framework. “Benjamin Button” begins at the end of World War I, then goes on to include a segment on World War II, only to wind up on the day Hurricane Katina hit New Orleans. How these major events relate to anything is beyond me.
Meanwhile, the whole cast of quirky characters has some sort of extraordinary life-affirming experience, but instead of amplifying their roles, it reduces them to one-line definitions you could fit on an index card - the man who was struck by lightning seven times, the now free bushman who once lived in a monkey house at the zoo, the woman who swam across the English channel, and so on and so forth - which brings me to the film’s titular character. There’s nothing curious about Benjamin Button other than his strange condition. He’s born, he learns how to walk, he falls in love, he travels the world, he dies. In fact, the protagonist accomplishes very little for a movie that seems to be pushing the whole “carpe diem” message. His relationship with Daisy ultimately runs its course, and he spends his youth (the third and final chapter of his life) idling around on the inheritance his father left him. Am I supposed to feel inspired by the meaningless wanderings he pays for with Daddy’s money?
Of its whopping thirteen Academy Award nominations, “Benjamin Button” only even merits consideration for “best makeup” and “best visual effects.” From a technical standpoint, it’s pretty impressive. Still, there’s absolutely no reason to sit through its entire two hours and forty-five minutes other than for the sake of watching Brad Pitt progressively get more and more good-looking.
Perhaps what makes the film such a giant letdown is that it’s David Fincher’s follow-up to his terrific police procedural “Zodiac” (2007), not to mention that it stars some of the best working actors. Overall, it’s a scandalous waste of talent and good ideas, and possibly 2008’s biggest disappointment.
I took a walk today at lunch time and sat outside reading on a sunny park bench. I smell now the odors I associate with Spring: dead grass and decomposition, warm earth and pine needles. The bamboo grove that backs the bus stop is abuzz with a flock of chickadees. The days are growing noticeably longer now. I leave school at 6:30 and there is now still a little light. A small temple sits halfway up the mountain across the valley from the school and as I was walking down to the bus last week they were ringing the huge bell: long, deep tolls, the call for sunset prayers.
There is a series of French films with English subtitles at the art film theater in Busan for the next three weeks, so Yujin will be staying with me a lot more, which is nice. I will be attending them with her. I have been trying out some more public baths but I haven't found any that I like as much as the one near my house, which is clean, and nice, and large enough that you don't feel claustrophobic. There is a necessary attention to personal space in a place like that and when there is a crowd that becomes a bit of a problem. I made a new friend through my blog (Hi, Wendy!) and she and her friends are jimjilbang enthusiasts as well and told me of some I will definitely try soon. One has tubs of "doctor fish". I gather that the little fellers exfoliate your feet while they soak. Not exactly what I would call appetizing but it beats being a blue-fly in a hog shed I guess.
On Sunday it was a breezy 56 and we got up early and went to our favorite Sunday brunch spot, the G Terrace on Gwangan Beach. This cavernous place has outdoor seating and indoor balconies and on Sundays they put out a simple brunch with fruit and cereal and salad, make-it-yerself French bread pizza, scrambled and boiled eggs, toast and soup. (I like to use the pizza fixings to make an omelet). It is only W6000 for the lunch and it includes all the coffee and tea you want so it is a real bargain. For W4000 more you can get one of four entrees. We usually split one. Add in the front row view of the ocean and the bridge and it is hard to beat. The street side tables are very comfortable and the tables inside are fronted by couches with huge fluffy cushions. We like to take a book and hang out for a bit. The owner is nice to a fault, so if you go "take what you want and eat what you take."
Afterwords, we went for a walk on the beach and saw an amazing sight. A man was in the process of launching hundreds of kites on a single line. I have never seen anything like it. They stretched up into the sun. And he just kept pulling them out of the box. Long after we had stopped and gawked and went on I looked far back down the beach and he was still pulling them out. We stopped at a small amusement park and rode the "Viking (somethingorother)" which was far more terrifying that it looked. I screamed until the tears ran down my face and Yujin laughed so hard she begged me to stop it but I was only partly faking. She has come to the point where she will walk blocks out of her way to avoid passing a public bath with me because I want to try them all and this time she was trying to get me to look the other way but I smelled one (the steam rooms have huge bags of medicinal herbs in them and the ventilation has a rather distinctive odor). I really liked that bathhouse. It was packed but the co-ed nappy room (you sleep on heated stone floors with a block of cedar wood for a pillow and you would be surprised at how comfy it is) had a huge tub of hot clay balls about the size of marbles and we nestled down in there and stared out the huge windows at the sailboats on the ocean. Very nice.