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December 2008

A Box of Chocolates Is Like Life

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Merrick Morton/Paramount Pictures

Like Danny Boyle, David Fincher is a filmmaker whose stylish sensibility almost always leaves moviegoers cold. But also like Mr. Boyle, Mr. Fincher has this year stumbled upon a movie with a heart and excelled. Based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” would most likely have been a horrific, vomit-inducing train wreck in the hands of a Steven Spielberg or a Ron Howard. The aging-backward premise notwithstanding, the film is basically “Forrest Gump” meets “Legends of the Fall” meets “Meet Joe Black,” complete with Gumpian historical anecdotes (Teddy Roosevelt instead of JFK this time!) courtesy of “Gump” screenwriter Eric Roth. Thank goodness Mr. Fincher has the clinical precision of a music video director, and here counterbalances the otherwise go-for-broke sappiness of all the separations and deaths in the “Benjamin Button” screenplay.

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Once More With That Sinking Feeling

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Francois Duhamel/Dreamworks Pictures

On the 11th anniversary of “Titanic,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet have teamed up again. Yes, our hearts will go on. Their new collaboration, an adaptation of Richard Yates’s novel “Revolutionary Road,” is an appropriately karmic sequel of sorts to the 1997 James Cameron classic: Mr. DiCaprio is Frank, a king-of-the-world-esque cocky wunderkind typewriter salesman. Ms. Winslet’s character April is, um, quite a dish. This time they are married with two children, and discovering that 1950s suburbia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They seek solace in adultery of the near-far-wherever-you-aren’t variety. Things start looking up when they plan to sail across the Atlantic and escape to the brave new world that is Paris. But upon learning that April is pregnant with yet another child, Frank has second thoughts and opts for a big fat promotion at work instead – understandable really, given what happened on that last cruise. Although the couple never actually embarks this time, one of them sinks while the other one swims all the same.

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House of Fools

Adam Resurrected (2008)

Bleiberg Entertainment

In the long litany of Holocaust movies, there’s never been one remotely like “Adam Resurrected.” A surrealist black comedy set in an asylum for Holocaust survivors located in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert, the movie forgoes austere formalism for a loose-limbed madcap romp through damaged psychological terrain. Paul Schrader’s film – based on the controversial Yoram Kaniuk novel – unfolds as discordantly as one might expect.

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Interpreting 'The Reader'

Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company

Bringing “The Reader,” Bernhard Schlink’s volatile novel, to the big screen posed significant challenges to just about everyone involved. First obstacle was the material’s weighty, difficult theme. It explores one of the most generally unexplored questions emergent from the Holocaust, one which directly addresses complex notions of collective memory not often seen in highfalutin Hollywood productions. It seeks to evoke the precise nature of the Holocaust’s legacy as perceived by the German generations born after the fact, and forced to confront the inexorable knowledge that loved ones had promulgated such a monumental atrocity.

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'Yowamushi Santa' Is Coming to Town

Flight Master/Pony Canyon

Was it like this in the 1940s with Sinatra and all the screaming bobby-soxers? Or in the late 1960s when four mop-haired Liverpudlians laid waste to the American pop charts? This time it began across the Pacific with a novelty act and a guilty-pleasure song. But in the ensuing eight months, the J-pop boy band Shuchishin has repeatedly recaptured that lightening in its bottle. Maybe its marginal talent is comparable to the Spice Girls at best, but Shuchishin has miraculously churned out one classic after another in such a short time span that it unequivocally qualifies as one of the best pop vocal acts ever, maybe the very best.

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Open Letter to Will Smith

Photo illustration by Martin Tsai/Critic's Notebook

Dear Will,

First of all, I am a fan. Although I loathed the mindless jingoism of "Independence Day" and the idiocy of "Wild Wild West," I think that "Men in Black" and "Bad Boys" are two of the most entertaining summer blockbusters in recent memory. I also think you are generally underrated as an actor because I remember your fine performances in "Where the Day Takes You," "Six Degrees of Separation" and even "The Pursuit of Happyness," which - let's be real - was some overwrought, Oscar-pandering shit in many ways, but your performance was good nonetheless.

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Through an Hourglass Darkly

Timecrimes (2008)

Magnet Releasing

“Timecrimes” can in the strictest sense be considered a work of science fiction, as its story gets wrapped up in the complications and paradoxes of time travel. However, writer-director Nacho Vigalongo’s interests skew less towards working within the constraints of any particular genre and more towards playing with narrative form itself. This is a movie, like “Run Lola Run,” that’s primarily about the filmmaking process, particular the ability of the director and screenwriter to play god, confounding expectations and rewriting the rules within the universe they’ve created.

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You Say He Wrought a Revolution

Che (2008)

Daniel Daza/IFC Films

The complicated life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara — idealistic doctor, determined revolutionary, postmortem counter-cultural symbol — is fodder enough for dozens of movies, so it’s no surprise that Steven Soderbergh decided to make two. The magnum opus of a director increasingly drawn towards experimentalism, the nearly five-hour “Che” divides into “The Argentine” and “Guerilla,” with each focused on the defining periods of Che’s career as a revolutionary. Experiencing the “roadshow” version – in which the two films are combined in one sitting with a 15-minute intermission – can be taxing, but there’s no questioning the scope and depth of this achievement.

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Always Plenty of Brass to Go Around

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

Film culture is strong in Bristol. The largest city in the south west of England is home to Aardman Animation and several other long-established production houses, and was traditionally an engine of BBC production; John Boorman once headed the Corporation's mighty Documentary Unit from here. But these are uncertain times. The BBC is retreating to cheaper points of the compass, Aardman are cutting staff numbers, and on the fringes of the Encounters Short Film Festival, Chris Hopewell of Bristol music video producers Collision Films was downbeat about his trade as a traditional starting point for aspiring film makers: "Don't bother," he said. "Music video as a tool for film making has fallen by the wayside under the onslaught of YouTube." The Google Goliath was to be the subject of much debate as the festival progressed.

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'Slumdog' Has Its Day at British Independent Film Awards

Angelo Valentino/British Independent Film Awards

Danny Boyle found himself in an especially cold and wet part of London on the evening of Nov. 30 but his thoughts were clearly further afield. One would have expected him to be entirely jubilant, considering he had just picked up both the “Best British Film” and “Best Director” prizes at the British Independent Film Awards for “Slumdog Millionaire.” The film was shot on location in Mumbai which had made headlines the previous week for far more tragic reasons as real life scenes of terrorist violence were played out on its streets. Mr. Boyle was mindful that his film had gained a sense of topicality that no sane man would ever have wished for.

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