History hits the rewind button

Image of Nigel Andrews

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
Bolt 3D (Byron Howard, Chris Williams)
Who Killed Nancy? (Alan G. Parker)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the longest striptease in film history. Like strip-show spectators, who know what will be revealed but still sit there agog, audiences watching this tale of a man born old and growing “backwards” know he will end up as Brad Pitt the younger. But they will still go “More, more!” – or “Less, less!” – as the bits of old-age maquillage are flung aside, decade by decade, until the actor’s known features are there naked, gorgeous and golden.

Robin Swicord’s screenplay has been in circulation for 18 years, awaiting the digital age and the touch-ups of co-scenarist Eric Roth (Forrest Gump). Based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, the transformation-intensive plot needed optical wizardry, plus a tonne of makeup, to convert its wizened baby hero from second childhood to first. A clever idea is stretched, on screen, to encompass war, adventure, social upheaval and Cate Blanchett as the girl, ageing in the opposite, “normal” direction, who becomes Benjamin’s great love.

Well, there had to be that, didn’t there? Fitzgerald made his hero fall in love and marry, then suffer the universal attrition of dying romance. But Hollywood – eternal shrine to impossible yearning – must keep the flame lit. So the aged Blanchett, in crone makeup and voice, “remembers” the story in framing scenes. The romantic and social-historical flashbacks light up the film like fireworks, trails of sparkly storytelling skilfully rendered by director David Fincher (Zodiac). He suits style to age – I loved the mock shutter-flicker for the early 20th century – and fits the ever-younger Benjamin to the growing pulse, colour and brio of modernity.

Pitt gives the best performance by doing almost nothing. He observes, registers, responds; he flickers with silent thoughts. He is, as he should be, a tumbleweed of history. Blanchett, by contrast, does too much. Yawing, twanging and emoting in her younger scenes, she seems to have the needle stuck in her Katharine Hepburn mode from The Aviator.

Thanks to Pitt and Fincher, the film still has some beauty and power. If it never quite understands the source story – Fitzgerald is surely telling us about normal growing-up through the guise of a reverse ontogeny – it often catches the Fitzgerald mood of elegy and might-have-been: that subtle rapture of remembrance that can make us prize the lost past or future over the gift-wrapped immediacies of the present.

The clock of history must have gone into reverse this week. Woody Allen has made a good film. Vicky Cristina Barcelona has the springy charm of his salad days. For an hour we are happy enough that Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, two travel pals in Spain, blonde-and-promiscuous and brunette-and-betrothed respectively, jet off for a weekend’s reckless dalliance with Catalonian artist-hunk Javier Bardem. Then Allen decants a scene-stealing cuckoo into the nest. Penélope Cruz enters, Bardem’s murderous and suicidal ex-wife, and tries to toss out the hatchlings.

It is that kind of chick flick: except that same-sex kisses are soon exchanged rather than deeds of death in a plot that keeps surprising us. The Oscar-nominated Cruz is best in show. Bardem retrieves his ladykilling charms after checking them for No Country for Old Men. And while we know Johansson’s finesse with good scripts (Lost in Translation), the louche and lovely Hall would be a revelation were we not all geneticists today, who know that if you breed a Peter Hall with a Maria Ewing you get a pedigree trouper. The erotic roundelays are so witty – Marivaux with sex – that I am now afraid to see a future Allen film. It will either be bad, returning us to the natural order of things, or good like this, demanding a rethink of the universe.

Doubt has three actors competing for nutritious scraps like animals at feeding time. Scraps? More like whole sides of beef – or ham – as Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, recognising a prime ex-Broadway carcass when they see it, tear into John Patrick Shanley’s film of his award-winning stage play.

Sex, religion, mid-life crisis. What more could there be for an actor or audience as Father Hoffman brings the word of love, progress and freedom of thought to a 1960s Roman Catholic school in the Bronx? Since this is run by nuns, the Father slams up hard against Sister Streep, the school principal. A stickler for old values, Streep snaps her lean jaws at the pastor and at the boys she drags off for punishment. “The dragon is hungry,” Hoffman quips to Sister Amy Adams, the young novice who will become a shuttlecock between her superiors, bearing suspicions of Hoffman to Streep – that he is too attentive to a new black schoolboy – and misgivings about Streep to Hoffman.

The dialogue is vitamin-rich. “Where’s your compassion, Sister?” appeals Hoffman. “Nowhere you can reach it,” ripostes Streep. The actress shows so much culinary art in her line-readings that an Oscar nomination seems less appropriate than a Michelin star. Each look, each phrasing has so many different flavours – ironies, emotions, savours, spices – that even Hoffman, no mean Oscar veteran (Capote), seems backed, momentarily, into the kitchen corner. He comes back cooking on a high flame for their climactic scene. Meanwhile, Adams is the dessert chef, adding sweetness and delicacy when we need them.

Reared on computer games, animation audiences are demanding ever more multi-level plotlines. In a dog movie, as Disney’s Bolt 3D proves, you no longer just do “Mutt meets little girl, mutt loves little girl, mutt and girl scamper off into the sunset”. No, no. In a Pirandellian illusion/reality structure, the mutt Bolt must work as a cyber-powered action dog for a martinet movie company, then flees east from Hollywood, and from the child starlet who tends and acts with it, convinced it has those powers with which it has been strutting its screen stuff.

Will a crafty cat, picked up in an alley, and a funny itinerant hamster shore up the dog’s illusion or destroy it? The three animals are hurled round the landscape, on the journey to self-knowledge, as one slapstick set-piece follows another in superpowered digimation. Pixar’s John Lasseter, the new Disney animation tsar, ensures high visual standards. Every hair on Bolt has its own life. Every green eye-movement of the cat throws off its opalescent reflections. Meanwhile, to enrich the movie-world intertextuality, a trio of pigeons comes on like Godfather Mafiosi while another pair of pigeons is depicted as a budding screenwriting duo. “Don’t freak out,” says one to the other during a script pitch. “That was how you blew it with Nemo.”

Could Bolt 3D be better animated? No. Could it be funnier? A bit. Did it need the 3D? Not really. But 2009 is the year in which, we are told, we will all be donning the specs and parrying things that jump out from the screen.

Did Sid Vicious stab Nancy Spungen to death? There is never a dull day for a film critic. Back-pedalling through time with Brad Pitt, dazzled by star casts in Spain and the Bronx, salivated over by cyber-dogs, he is then asked to sit up and care about a 30-year-old pop-world killing. Who Killed Nancy? is Alan G. Parker’s documentary about the Sex Pistols bassist who may – or may not – have impaled the blonde hellion with whom he shared a bed and a drugs dependency. We get too little Sid here – not a smidgeon of his great rendering of “My way” – and too many partial “witnesses” who insist Sid couldn’t have done the crime.

Well, after all these years we can forgive Sid for not killing Nancy. He re-earns his spurs, posthumously, with the single funniest line of the week, culled from old interview footage. “We live from day to day,” he intones with blurry sonority, of himself and Nancy. “We’re existentialists, like Jean-Paul Sartery.”

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