THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008). The Criterion Collection, the masterful group known for painstakingly crafting DVDs of important movies from around the globe, took some flak several years ago for releasing Michael Bay's Armageddon and The Rock on its label, clearly an example of the films' studio (or Bay himself) paying Criterion a handsome sum to lend some "artistic" weight to those silly flicks. It was a forgivable sin, as Criterion was still in its early years and probably needed the influx of extra dough to make ends meet. But what's the reasoning behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, except to cynically suggest that Paramount Pictures offered a similarly handsome amount? Admittedly, Button has its fans – especially among easily swayed Academy members who handed it 13 nominations and three technical awards – but its mixed critical reception hardly tags it as a modern classic, and besides, there are dozens of movies from the past few years – from Far from Heaven to The Station Agent, United 93 to There Will Be Blood – that obviously suit the company's catalogue better than this one. Except for one bravura sequence near the end of the picture – a beautifully staged scene of a life winding down – Button is curiously listless, with all of its passion apparently expended on its technical feats. Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this deals with Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who's born as an 80-year-old man but becomes gradually younger as time passes. Like his cinematic soulmate Forrest Gump, Benjamin leads a rich and varied life, although his heart always belongs to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who, like Forrest's Jenny, is a callow free spirit who doesn't realize the depths of her fondness for Benjamin until it's almost too late. Benjamin Button is primarily a passive character, and he's in turn played by Pitt in a passive manner. It's not the actor's finest work, as he's upstaged by his own makeup as well as the CGI trickery that (in old-age mode) turns him into a diminutive figure. Even when Pitt is finally freed from the movie magic and allowed to look like himself, it's to no avail, largely because he and Blanchett have no chemistry together. Director David Fincher has always proven to be an exciting genre filmmaker, and when faced with results such as this, I'll take the comparative cheap thrills of his Seven or Zodiac any day of the week.
Extras in the two-disc set include audio commentary by Fincher; nearly three hours of featurettes examining practically every aspect of the film's creation (fascinating tidbit: back in 1987, Martin Short was attached to star!) and including interviews with Pitt and Blanchett; and various stills galleries.
THE HIT (1984). This indie gem from England was a critical darling when it hit U.S. shores back in the spring of 1985, yet spotty distribution and audience unawareness helped prevent it from even cracking the $1 million mark at the box office. Yet it's the perfect picture for DVD viewing: A "crime and punishment" saga that's more interested in ideas than actions, it's a choice title for discerning viewers up for vigorous bouts of wordplay between its characters, to say nothing of plot developments that are as original as they are unexpected. After hiding out in a small Spanish village for a decade, mob-flunky-turned-informer Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) has been located by the two hit men sent to collect him and take him to Paris for execution. The tightlipped Braddock (John Hurt) is the senior member of the pair, while this marks the first major assignment for the excitable Myron (Tim Roth in his film debut). But the road trip becomes a test of mental endurance, as the killers have to contend not only with a prisoner who doesn't seem the least bit concerned about his imminent death but also with a Spanish woman (Laura del Sol) they're forced to pick up as a hostage. Stephen Frears (The Queen) directs with an eye for telling character details, while scripter Peter Prince contributes dialogue that's simply dripping with flavor. As an added "hipster" credit, Eric Clapton provides the opening theme music.
Extras in the new Criterion edition (now this is more like it, fellas!) include audio commentary by Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince and editor Mick Audsley; a 1988 interview with Stamp; and the theatrical trailer.
LAST CHANCE HARVEY (2008). Last Chance Harvey is the sort of insipid romantic comedy that, had it starred a pair of 20-somethings or 30-somethings, would have been instantly dismissed by one and all. But because it stars two seasoned performers, it was championed in some quarters as a sweet look at how older folks can actually – are you ready? – enjoy many of the same things as the young'uns. See them flirt! See them dance! See them fall in love! Truth be told, it's all a bit insulting – a patronizing sop to an underserved movie demographic that doubtless was largely responsible for turning the equally torturous The Bucket List into a box office hit. The 71-year-old Dustin Hoffman stars as Harvey Shine, while 49-year-old Emma Thompson plays Kate Walker. He's an American arriving in London for the marriage of his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban); cut from the same cloth as the salesmen from Glengarry Glen Ross, he's a self-absorbed loser who rubs practically everyone the wrong way. She's a Brit whose single status worries her busybody mom (Eileen Atkins) and lands her on blind dates with insensitive doofuses. Rather than "meet cute," the film has them "meet ugly" in an airport bar, and their testy banter easily marks this scene as the movie's best. Unfortunately, the rest is both forced and tired, complete with a music video-style montage, the missed date that threatens to derail the whole relationship, and even the added strain of a nonsensical subplot in which Kate's mum suspects her Polish neighbor of burying bodies in his backyard. While he's at it, maybe he can shovel a few scoops of dirt onto this film's prints as well.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Hoffman, Thompson and writer-director Joel Hopkins; a 16-minute making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
THE WRESTLER (2008). Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was quite the big deal in the wrestling world back in the 1980s. But now he's long past his glory days: Looking more like a sack of potatoes than a human being, he still manages to secure an occasional bout, but things are so tight that he has to work a second job at the local supermarket. Two decades of hard partying have wiped him out, and if he has any emotional reservoirs to tap, he wants to save them for the two women in his life: a sympathetic stripper (an excellent Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). On paper, The Wrestler sounds like nothing more than yet another inspirational sports saga – a Rocky reconfigured for the wrestling rather than boxing arena. But Robert Siegel's screenplay fleshes out the basic story lines in unique ways, and director Darren Aronofsky and Rourke add a rich palette to the proceedings, resulting in a movie that's frequently as colorful as it is meaningful. For despite the constant hype about Rourke's tremendous performance, it would be wrong to think that this is simply a one-man show. On the contrary, The Wrestler examines not just one individual's life but also the presence of the sort of hazy nostalgia that keeps our celebrities propped up long after their achievements have given out from under them. Beyond that, it also lines up nicely with my only other four-star pictures of 2008, collectively presenting a portrait of the uncertain, often unhappy America in which we presently reside. If Milk touches on America's prejudices and The Dark Knight examines America's fears, then The Wrestler explores America's regrets, offering a rueful look at society on the fringe. Rourke and Tomei both earned Oscar nominations, but the film was otherwise overlooked for friendlier Oscar bait like The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
DVD extras include a 43-minute behind-the-scenes piece and the music video for Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler."