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The Movie Reviews: Christmas Avalanche Edition

Our critic's take on 'Benjamin Button,' 'The Wrestler,' 'Valkyrie,' and 'Gran Torino.'

It is presumably an unintentional irony that it is more than two hours into The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that star Brad Pitt observes, “I was thinking how nothing lasts.” It is more ironic still that nearly another half-hour passes before co-star Cate Blanchett concurs: “Nothing lasts.”

Benjamin Button is stately, gorgeous, intermittently moving, and very, very long. Films that come within spitting distance of the three-hour mark generally maintain their forward momentum by means of some dramatic occurrence: a war, a dangerous journey, a struggle against oppression--or, in the case of Australia, all of the above. But Benjamin Button is a film of mood, not motion. At its best, it is evocative and affecting; at its worst, an exercise in sentimental portraiture--and the line between the two tendencies is not always a clear one.

Screenwriter Eric Roth borrows the central conceit of the film--of a man, Benjamin Button (Pitt), born with a wizened, elderly body that ages backward toward youth--from the eponymous short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the film owes a greater debt to Roth’s own Oscar-winning script for Forrest Gump, both in its broad arc--this, too, is the story of a unique boy growing into unique adulthood--and in its particular details: the Southern setting (New Orleans, transposed from the Baltimore of Fitzgerald’s original); the plucky, aphorism-spouting single mom; the coming-of-age discoveries of sex and love and mortality; the parade of quirky supporting figures; the brush with war; the childhood sweetheart (Blanchett’s “Daisy”) with whom romantic paths are repeatedly crossed; the historic touchstones placed noisily in the background (Gump had Vietnam and Elvis; Button gets WWII and the Beatles); the contemporary framing narrative (in this case, a slightly distasteful deathbed recounting as Hurricane Katrina bears down on the Big Easy--nothing lasts, indeed).

But if the stories are similar, the tellings are miles apart. Where Gump’s Robert Zemeckis aimed for a hokey, Fulghumesque fable, Benjamin Button director David Fincher (Zodiac) imbues his material, for better and worse, with a literary lushness. Snatches of insight are scattered throughout: the way a beautiful, sweet girl can become, for a time, a beautiful, intolerable young woman; the presumptive possessiveness of even the most decent men; the long shadow cast by an early sexual dalliance (in this case, with Tilda Swinton). Even as the film wanders patiently through the episodes that make up a life, it presents the central conceit matter-of-factly: Those familiar with Benjamin’s reverse-aging are surprised by it but not terribly fazed; no government scientists ever arrive to lock him in an underground lab for study.

While some in the supporting cast indulge in amiable caricature, Pitt and Blanchett deliver understated performances, devoid of showy effect, and persuasively embody characters who age (albeit in opposite directions) 60 years or more in the course of the film. From a technical standpoint, too, their transformations are a marvel of interlocking cinematic and cosmetic effects. And Claudio Miranda’s camera work offers not only the glow of legend but occasional flashes of genuine beauty--two kids conspiring by candlelight under a bedsheet-tent, an iridescent sunrise over Lake Pontchartrain.

Fincher displays the obsessive attention to detail for which he is famous, though I confess I never imagined that I would fault a movie by the director of Se7en and Fight Club for lacking bite. In its final act, the film at last unspools the tragedy that had remained tightly coiled throughout, as Benjamin leaves behind physical maturity, and with it any kind of normalcy, for a childhood of senescence and dementia. These latter scenes invert the film’s earlier hopefulness--that of an apparent old man with a full, fascinating life ahead of him--and develop a power so uncommon, and unanticipated, that they make the first two-and-a-half hours of the film seem almost a preamble, with an emphasis on “amble.” It’s a conclusion that redeems any slack that preceded it. Yet I can’t help but find myself wishing that, from the beginning, Fincher had pushed this Button a little more forcefully.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is not a film about sports but, appropriately, one about the shabbier precincts of show business, where performers sell not only an illusion, but to varying degrees their bodies and souls. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a star during the 1980s wrestling boom, but unlike his old sparring partners--his “nemesis,” the Ayatollah, now has a car dealership in Arizona--Randy is still at it, a nostalgia act relegated to the margins. Madison Square Garden-sized arenas have been replaced by high-school gyms, pay-per-view purses by a few folded bills passed along apologetically. Though still powerful, his physique is visibly worn. His long, peroxided locks look like a poorly rinsed mop; off-duty, he sports glasses and a hearing aid he touchingly tries to conceal.

Randy is not, however, a bitter guy--not when he’s locked out of his trailer in Jersey for unpaid rent, not when neighborhood kids wake him from a night spent asleep in his van. He’s an avuncular figure to the up-and-coming twentysomethings with whom he wrestles, and they respect him in kind. Some of the film’s best scenes convey the backstage tenderness of growth-hormoned giants preparing to pulverize one another for a crowd’s amusement, the friendly negotiations between “faces” and “heels” over the crippling good-vs-evil pantomime about to ensue.

After a hardcore bout against a pasty sadist (the real-life “Necro-Butcher”), featuring barbed wire, broken glass, staple guns, and other implements of bloody defilement, Randy receives a wakeup call in the form of a beneficent heart attack, a firm signal that it’s time for him to do something else with his life. And for a while he does, reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); taking a day job at a grocery-store meat counter; making fitful romantic progress with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a local stripper with a soft spot for martyrs of the flesh. (She describes The Passion of the Christ in awe: “They beat the living fuck out of him for two whole hours and he just takes it.” Randy agrees: “Tough fucking guy.”) But The Wrestler is no simple redemption tale. Randy may be a fundamentally decent guy, but he is, as his daughter points out, a lifelong fuckup, and sometimes such nebulous flaws are the ones least amenable to repair.

Aronofsky’s direction is sharp but unassuming--a distant cry from his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain--and the script, by Robert Siegel (former editor of The Onion), displays unexpected insight. Note, for instance, the way Randy and Cassidy at first appear to share circumstances, but are gradually revealed to have opposite impulses: her, to escape from a demimonde of carnal exploitation; him, to escape into it.

The real reason to see the film, though, is Rourke, who gives the kind of performance many of us imagined he would have offered with regularity over the past two decades. Instead, he wandered: into Cinemax bait, into boxing, into a body, at once hulking and defeated, that no fan of his early ’80s work could ever have foreseen. In Sin City, Rourke used this newfound mass to convey the indomitability of a granite golem; here, he is again made flesh, his broad back merely providing a larger target for the injuries and indignities the world deigns to bestow. Most remarkable, though, is the degree to which Rourke, in a role that could have invited outsized characterization, instead offers modesty and understatement. This small performance, in a small film, is by far the biggest of his career.

Has a B-minus war thriller ever done more for a director’s reputation than Valkyrie will for Bryan Singer’s? The troubled Tom Cruise vehicle, about the real-life anti-Hitler plot conducted by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, was initially delayed from its planned release date last June to a new one in October. Then it was delayed again, to February of next year. Cruise’s longtime partner, Paula Wagner, was ousted as CEO of United Artists. Extras injured in a truck accident sued the studio. And, of course, there was the fact that Cruise was banking his dwindling cinematic capital on a role that had him playing a heroic, eyepatch-wearing Nazi. One Hollywood blog confidently proclaimed, “Valkyrie is dead.”

But then a funny thing happened: Not only did Valkyrie survive, it was moved back up to a Christmas release, with a hurdle of expectations so low that it could hardly help but clear it. The movie still fails by the standards of $100 million Hollywood star action vehicles, and by the standards of World War II Oscar-bait epics. (It didn’t even bother screening for early critics’ awards.) But by the standards of anticipated career-crushing trainwrecks, it’s pretty good. There are missteps to be sure, but most are minor: a goofy effect whereby the opening lines are presented in German that gradually evolves into English (thanks for clarifying what language they speak in Germany, guys!); a drum-heavy soundtrack by frequent Singer collaborator John Ottman that occasionally sounds as though it might break into the theme from “Hawaii Five-O” (I’m willing to entertain the possibility that this is in fact an asset); a Hitler (David Bamber) who looks a tad too much like one of those squashy puppets from the 1980s British show “Spitting Image.”

Cruise isn’t great, but he’s not terrible either--the removal of a couple of the smirkier lines featured in the early trailers helps--and the rest of the cast, which features Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson, among others, has a British solidity. (It would’ve helped, though, if there’d been a clearer consensus over English vs. faux German accents, and Cruise’s gee-whiz Americanism still rings badly off-key.) The fact that we know Hitler wasn’t assassinated in a coup undercuts the suspense somewhat, but Singer, who may be the best pulp solemnizer in the business, keeps the film buzzing along capably. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to recommend it, but the truth is that if you’re looking for a competent suspense film, you could do a lot worse.

What I wonder is not what effect Valkyrie might have on American cinema, but what effect it might have on the marketing of American cinema. Who’s to say? A few carefully engineered delays, a well-placed leak or two about reshoots or tension between the studio and the director, and pretty much any movie could find itself coasting down a path of reduced expectations ...

The question posed by the first three-quarters of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is this: After all his awards and accolades, the Best Pictures and Best Directors and Irv Thalberg bust, is Eastwood really self-effacing enough to direct and star in a throwback B-movie of the kind that made him famous in the 1970s? (The answer, unfortunately, is no. More on this in a moment.)

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Ford worker and Korean War vet in suburban Detroit who commemorates his past with two prized possessions: a 1972 Gran Torino and an M-1 rifle. Walt has just lost his wife, and with her any remaining connection to the outside world. He bickers bitterly with his yuppie children and slacker grandkids, and condescendingly dismisses the help of the baby-faced priest (Christopher Carley) his wife had asked to keep an eye on him. Mostly, though, he bitches about the Hmong families who have moved into his neighborhood--or, as he delicately refers to them, the “swamprats,” “chinks,” “jabbering gooks,” “slopes,” “eggrolls,” “zipperheads,” “click clack, ding dong, and Charlie Chan.”

When the good Hmong kids next door are targeted by a Hmong gang, however, Walt intervenes, and quickly finds himself celebrated in the community. Fitfully, he allows himself to be absorbed into his neighbors’ family, enjoying their food, finding chores for their son (Bee Vang), and protecting their daughter (Anhey Her) from a variety of urban predators. Though he retains his preference for racial slurs, he now utters them with (condescending) fondness.

It’s a tremendously hokey setup, with a resolutely by-the-numbers script by newcomer Nick Schenk. But for a while, it’s pretty enjoyable. Eastwood’s Walt is not quite a satire of his long line of taciturn avengers, but there are strong elements of parody in the performance. He slits his eyes like the Man with No Name and hisses ultimata through his teeth like Harry Callahan: “Ever noticed how you come across someone every now and then you shouldn’t have fucked with?” Uttered by a beloved star just two years shy of 80, such threats are equal parts fearsome and adorable. Indeed, Walt’s whole involvement with the Hmong begins with him literally yelling at some kids to get off his lawn.

Had Eastwood opted to continue in this vein, Gran Torino might have been one of the guilty pleasures of the year: an exploitation flick whose sappy heart and frequent recourse to violence balanced one another out. But as the film stretches on, it gradually becomes clear that Eastwood did not view this project as the corny entertainment it appears to be. No, this idle knockoff has Something to Say--and it’s something Eastwood has been saying on and off for more than thirty years.

Some of Eastwood’s deconstructions of his Man with a Gun archetype are widely appreciated (Unforgiven); others, less so (Magnum Force). But they’ve generally shared a certain degree of sophistication. (I wrote about this at some length here.) Not any more. With Gran Torino, Eastwood has taken what might have been the likable last gasp of his iconic persona and turned it into the dullest, most heavy-handed sermon of his career. The last 10 minutes of the movie--with its Christlike sacrifice, its happy Hmong kids saved by the White Hunter with the White Heart, and its bottomless reservoir of self-admiration--were among the worst I spent in a theater this year. And that’s before Eastwood, his character duly beatified, began croaking out the theme song that plays over the credits: “So tenderly your story ends, nothing more than what you see or what you’ve done or will become, standing strong, do you belong in your skin, just wondering ...” I never dreamed I could miss Dirty Harry so much.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.