Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) adapts his Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play Doubt for the big screen keeping all the themes that made the original work such a hit on stage. Set in 1964 the film version opens up much of the talky proceedings and sets the action in a wind-swept Brooklyn Catholic school where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to shake up the status quo and introduce a little more free thinking. These actions cause instant friction with the stern Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who immediately butts heads with Flynn. Significant change already is taking place as the school has admitted its first black student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When mild-mannered Sister James (Amy Adams) suggests that perhaps Father Flynn is spending too much personal time with Donald it sets Sister Aloysius off on an ill-considered crusade to get rid of Flynn triggering a battle of morals will and yes doubt in the minds of both the characters and the audience. Rather than casting some of his Tony-winning actors from the play Shanley decided he wanted a blank slate bringing in a new interpretation to the material. Obvious choice for the taciturn Sister Aloysius is Meryl Streep who using a slight Brooklyn accent convincingly tears into the role that won acclaimed actress Cherry Jones a Tony. Streep plays it broadly and the onscreen fireworks between her and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Flynn are indeed spectacular. Acting just doesn’t get much better than this particularly for Hoffman who is amazing as the charismatic priest walking the thin line between personal conviction and guilt. Adams doesn’t really get the big scenes but portrays Sister James’ hopeful innocence and naiveté with just the right amount of sugar -- not too sweet not too dark. Top honors in the cast go to Viola Davis as Donald Miller’s mother. Taking what is essentially a 10 minute role Davis will tear your heart out as she desperately pleads with Streep to let Donald stay in school. John Patrick Shanley clearly has a personal stake in this material and returns to directing for the first time since his ill-fated Joe vs. the Volcano in the early ‘90s. He seems much more at home with this more intimate piece casting it smartly and using the weather --including the use of a haunting rustling wind -- as a key part of the background ambience. Doubt is exactly the kind of traditional Broadway adaptation Hollywood used to do so well particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Shanley smartly doesn’t try to muck it up with any flashy filmmaking tricks. He lets his quartet of superior actors do most of the work turning Doubt into one of the best stage adaptations in many many years.
The Hoover household is something of an insane asylum but nobody would ever knowingly hurt anyone except him- or herself. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a deluded optimist and motivational speaker who only motivates himself. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) unwittingly reinforces his behavior by placating him and hiding her frustration. Sheryl’s dad (Alan Arkin) an acid-tongued old-timer who’s hooked on heroin and brother (Steve Carell) a gay suicidal Proust scholar who is the epitome of the “crazy uncle” cliché are also aboard the crazy train. Richard and Sheryl’s son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is a Nietzsche follower who only communicates with his family by writing. Then there’s the daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) the family’s glue. All she wants is to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant so the Hoovers all load their baggage onto the family’s VW bus--which barely runs--and embark on a long bumpy ride to California.
If only there were a Best Ensemble Oscar Sunshine’s cast would…get snubbed for being too quirky but still. And by constantly upstaging one another the actors may have further hurt their chances. It is this no ego effect however that is central to the movie’s theme and success. While all the performances are nothing short of superb the three showstoppers are Collette Carell and Breslin. Aussie Collette continues her brilliantly understated career with this turn as a well-meaning Everymom who ultimately only wants to nurture her family. Carell perhaps the only one with a fighting chance at an Oscar nod shows us why he’s really a megastar: he can act with a complete about-face from his usual roles as evidence. (Lest we forget this is a guy who up until recently was a fake-news correspondent!) And Breslin (Signs) is simply an amazing young talent who provides all the wide-eyed caffeine the film needs and then some but does so with precious maturity. It’s as if she inspired the title. There’s a quirky behind-the-scenes story too: Sunshine’s directors--plural--are married to one another! Husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are widely known music-video directors but not the type who would make their big-screen transition with something like say Torque; thankfully they chose substance over style. If not for these very gifted directors Sunshine could’ve come unhinged where so many pedestrian “dysfunctional family” indies do: by turning the characters each with a laundry list of defining quirks into caricatures. But thanks in equal parts to the direction acting and flawless script (from first-timer Michael Arndt) there is so much truth to each character. Most notable though is the linear nature of the story; these directors clearly don’t need swooping twists to convey their themes and profundity and that is rare and remarkable. The climax with which it all culminates can only be described as unforgettable.