Cajun Navy


A little bit more than a three hour tour.

(2019) Documentary (DiscoveryJon Bridgers, Carlton Boudreaux, Ben Husser, Allen Lenard, Kip Coltrin, Brayton Boudreaux, Laurie Bridgers, John Able, Chief Ashley Blackburn, Mitch Collier, Katherine Floyd, Lisa Boudreaux   Directed by James Newton

 

Often when we watch footage of hurricanes and floods on television, we feel sympathy for those affected but it’s quite a different thing when it happens in your own backyard. Being a Floridian, I’ve lived through several and have been fortunate enough to escape with little or no damage to my home, and none to myself or any family or friends.

Most people in New Orleans weren’t quite so lucky when Hurricane Katrina roared through in 2008. The local government was overwhelmed and they got little assistance from the feds. With people in immediate danger of their lives, a call went out for all boat owners to assist with the rescue of those trapped in or on their homes. Thus, the Cajun Navy was born.

So-named because many of those who responded were from Cajun Country – southern Louisiana – they have since remained a loose confederation of men mostly from Louisiana who answer the call when major storms cause flooding. Not only do they act as a kind of ad hoc rescue organization, they also serve to deliver supplies to areas cut off by flood waters and to assist local agencies and the National Guard, although their help isn’t always welcome.

The group doesn’t receive any significant funding and subsists on donations. The men involved are not compensated and have to take time away from their own lives, businesses, jobs and families to mount these rescue operations. It’s dangerous work; although there isn’t any record of any serious injury or death in the Cajun Navy, often the floodwaters are tricky and hard to navigate; some rescue operations also require them to put themselves into harm’s way.

This documentary, airing on the Discovery Channel tonight with available on their online streaming service Discovery Go thereafter (also available in app form on most mobile systems), follows members of the Navy as they head to Wilmington, NC in the wake of the massive 2018 Hurricane Florence. As one of the men notes, they aren’t needed to rescue people from country club estates’ it’s those who are poor, or suffering from mobility issues who are most at risk. Some don’t have the wherewithal to relocate even for a few nights; some lack the ability. There are always a few who simply don’t take the warnings seriously, or refuse to leave their homes even if they do.

These guys are all salt of the earth sorts, men who work the land, who work with their hands and who hunt and fish as a way of life. Sometimes we tend to think of Southern men as ignorant MAGA-hat wearing hicks who are racist and misogynist. While we don’t get into the political inclinations of these men (I’d be willing to bet there are some Trump voters among their numbers), they really do put the “good” back into good ol’ boys and they might change a few stereotypes along the way. Their creed is that they rescue anyone or anything that needs it, regardless of whether they have money, the color of their skins or who they voted for. They even help rescue livestock; a life, as one man puts it, is a life.

One of the more poignant and anger-inducing segments involves a rescue set at a nursing home where the administrator refused to let those in his charge leave even as the flood waters were rising. He told the Navy volunteers they didn’t have the authority; that meant nothing to them. People like that administrator are consigned to a special place in hell, putting money ahead of the lives of the elderly in their care. He’s lucky a family member didn’t show up later and beat him senseless.

Some of the footage here is nothing short of incredible. Most of it is suitable for all ages, although there is a segment in which Carlton Boudreaux, one of the original members of the Navy, is rescuing some livestock in rural North Carolina. An alpaca has ingested too much flood water and despite the best efforts of the ranch owner the animal who is clearly suffering has to be put down. Although the mercy killing takes place off-camera, that may be a little tough for the kids to watch.

It isn’t often that we see documentaries that show us this kind of sense of community. Navy founder Jon Bridgers points out that it’s easy to say “it’s just stuff; you can always replace it” until it’s your stuff. In an era where neighborhoods have disintegrated and people live in places surrounded by people they don’t take the time to know or interact with, it’s somehow comforting to know that there are people who take the word “neighbor” seriously and are willing to look out for those in need. The world needs more people like the Cajun Navy and they might just change your mind about the South.

REASONS TO SEE: This might change a few stereotypes about Southern men.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks any commentary from civic authorities who might have a different viewpoint about the Cajun Navy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and one difficult scene in which one of the men is forced to put an alpaca out of its suffering.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although estranged at the time of filming, Carlton and Lisa Boudreaux have since reconciled.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Miracle Molecule

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Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table


Ella Brennan, the grande dame of New Orleans cuisine.

(2016) Documentary (Iwerks & Co) Ella Brennan, Patricia Clarkson (narrator), Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail, Ti Martin, Daniel Boulud, Tim Zagat, Jeremiah Tower, Leah Chase, Frank Brigtsen, Dickie Brennan, Paul Prudhomme, Ralph Brennan, Drew Nieporent, John Pope, Alex Brennan-Martin, Gene Bourg, Lally Brennan, Julia Reed, Marcelle Bienvenu, Meg Bickford. Directed by Leslie Iwerks

In no other American city save for maybe San Francisco is a city’s culture so tied up in its cuisine as New Orleans. In the Big Easy there is one family who have dominated the city’s gastronomic landscape like no other.

The Brennan family has been a household name in Louisiana since the 1940s when Owen Brennan bought a struggling French Quarter restaurant called the Vieux Carré and made it a rousing success. In an era when the classic French restaurants like Antoine’s ruled the New Orleans roost Brennan – who was told that an Irish man had no business cooking authentic New Orleans cuisine – put his whole family to work in the restaurant. As it became more and more successful, it was clear a larger space was needed and they found it over on Royal Street. The move took place during lunch service with employees and diners carrying pots, pans, chairs and whatever else they could carry to the new digs. A jazz band followed them down the street; only in New Orleans, no?

The new space was renamed Brennan’s and it became famous for its signature creation – Bananas Foster, which happens to be Da Queen’s favorite dish of any sort. Ella showed a knack for running the business and was soon the restaurant’s manager and after Owen passed away, she was essentially the family business’ chief executive. But a schism developed; Owen’s widow Maude wanted more control over their namesake restaurant and Ella was forced out after having built the restaurant into a thriving business.

Undaunted, she bought a property in the Garden District called Commander’s Palace which had been a less popular drinking and dining establishment for decades after being an important eatery at the turn of the 20th century. She painted the property a bright blue to make it distinctive among the genteel mansions of the district and installed an executive chef by the name of Paul Prudhomme who would himself go on to be one of the true members of the New Orleans culinary pantheon.

Under Prudhomme’s kitchen leadership, Commander’s Palace grew to be one of the best restaurants not only in New Orleans but in the country. Prudhomme was taking Cajun cooking and elevating it, ushering an age where Cajun cooking was ascendant in American cuisine. After some years went by, Ella urged Prudhomme to open his own restaurant and he did: K-Paul’s, which remains a New Orleans institution to this day. Prudhomme also put out his own line of spices which helped make him a multi-millionaire.

Replacing Prudhomme as executive chef was a young man named Emeril Lagasse. His natural charisma made him a natural on-camera personality and he frequently appeared on local TV shows cooking various dishes from the Palace’s menu. Emeril took the focus off of Cajun dishes and while many of Prudhomme’s recipes are still on the menu, Emeril added his own stamp to the Palace. As with his predecessor, Ella urged Emeril to strike out on his own and as one of the Food Network’s earliest celebrity chefs, Emeril has since gone on to found a restaurant empire that rivals that of the Brennan family.

The documentary is certainly a love letter to Ella and her accomplishments which are considerable considering that she faced extra resistance because of her gender. Not only did Ella break through the glass ceiling, she shattered it and paved the way for many women to become successful restaurateurs. Ella is an absolute icon in New Orleans and her influence on New Orleans cuisine cannot be overstated. Commander’s Palace has been a fertile breeding ground for great chefs who have gone on to open incredible restaurants of their own.

The stories that are told about the Brennan family are classic and one gets a sense that the closeness of the family – the schism between Maude and the rest of the family notwithstanding – is one of the reasons that their restaurants are so successful; those who go there are made to feel like family. I can attest to that personally; we had travelled from Orlando to New Orleans to celebrate Da Queen’s birthday some years back and we went to a trendy eatery in the Quarter for the actual day. It was an utter disaster; the restaurant was badly designed with sound bouncing all over the place and it was so loud that we had to shout across a table for two to be heard. The food was good but overpriced and not one mention of my wife’s birthday was made until a manager chased after us as we left to shout out a very tardy and not well-received happy birthday.

The next night we had reservations for Commander’s Palace and when we arrived there were balloons and decorations. Throughout the evening Da Queen was made to feel like an actual queen and we ordered the prix fixe tasting menu. When my wife asked if she could substitute the Turtle soup for the one on the menu, she was told they would add the turtle soup and so they did, at no charge. She was given a chef’s hat at the conclusion of one of the most amazing meals we have ever had (second only to the one we had at L’Atalier du Joel Robuchon in Paris) and given a menu autographed by Toby McPhail, the current executive chef. We have been back since and we make a point of going every time we visit New Orleans. Something tells me that’s exactly what Miss Ella intended from the get-go.

One of the things I really like about this documentary is that Iwerks doesn’t just make it about Ella Brennan, although she would be forgiven if she had – Ella is an engaging personality who thinks nothing at 90 years young of dancing in the aisles of her restaurant during her famous jazz brunch. But Ella is tied in very much to New Orleans and the city is a presence throughout the film. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina also plays a role – Commander’s Palace was severely damaged by the storm and was closed for almost a year. The citizens of New Orleans are a particularly amazing bunch and the film acknowledges it not only through how they got through Katrina but how they celebrate life and Ella Brennan helps with that in a very significant way.

So perhaps yes, my judgment is impaired by the good memories I experienced at Commander’s Palace but I think I am being fair in saying that Ella Brennan’s story is inspiring and Iwerks, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, presents it in an entertaining way. Certainly viewers will be more likely to visit both Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace (the Brennan family owns something like 15 different restaurants as of this writing) and well they should; both are well-known for serving unforgettable meals that are in fact unforgettable experiences. This isn’t just an ad though; it is a story that represents the best of America, how someone can overcome odds and obstacles to create a business that is not only successful but iconic. Ella Brennan did that and it deserves to be celebrated – preferably with a great meal at her restaurant.

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful stories are told. Iwerks wisely makes New Orleans an integral part of the film. You can almost taste the gumbo.
REASONS TO STAY: This might not mean as much to anyone who hasn’t visited the Crescent City
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly acceptable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2013, the Brennan family re-acquired Brennan’s restaurant; Ella, who hadn’t set foot in it for forty years, returned and ordered Bananas Foster.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Cries From Syria

Gleason


Steve Gleason and son.

Steve Gleason and son.

(2016) Documentary (Open Road/Amazon) Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Ryan Gootee, Scott Fujita, Mike McKenzie, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Jesse Jackson, John Elway, Rivers Gleason, Kyle Gleason, Gail Gleason, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, Blair Casey, Stephen Kantrow, Paul Varisco Jr., Paul Varisco Sr., Vinnie Varisco, Kevin Dedmon, Jim Eutizzi. Directed by Clay Tweel

 

Steve Gleason was a football player. Although a star linebacker in high school and again at Washington State, he was considered undersized and the NFL essentially turned their back on him. Unwilling to give up, he went to the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp only to be let go. Then, he joined the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints and there was something about the way he played, the way he left it all out on the field on every single play that impressed the Saints coaching staff. They signed him up and he played in NOLA for seven years as a part of the special teams unit, which takes the field for kickoffs and punts.

As a Saint, he was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in team history. On September 25, 2006, the Saints took the field at the Louisiana Superdome for the first time in 21 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the stadium and the team. In the first quarter with their opponents the Atlanta Falcons punting, Gleason broke through and blocked the punt which was recovered in the end zone by teammate Curtis Deloatch for a touchdown. The play brought the stadium to its feet and the city to its knees in joy. It was a symbol that not only were the Saints back, so was the city of New Orleans. They would go on to have the best season in team history to that point.

Although Gleason retired the season before his team won the Super Bowl, the respect his teammates and the organization had for him was such that he was given a Super Bowl ring but that was shortly after the devastating news that he had been afflicted by Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease because it was this that felled the Yankees slugger. Six weeks after the diagnosis, his wife Michel discovered she was pregnant.

Knowing that by the time his child was cognitive it was extremely unlikely he would be able to communicate as ALS attacks the neurons that control the involuntary muscular system, affecting the ability to move, speak, eat and eventually, breathe. He decided to make a series of video blogs for his child, a son named Rivers who would be born in October 2011. He would try to give his son advice about life, death, the difference between right and wrong and the importance of never giving up – things important to him but also things any father would want to pass on to their son.

]Using this footage as a backbone, documentarian Clay Tweel (Make Believe and Finders Keepers) was given extraordinary access, documenting the ex-football player’s physical progression as he is ravaged by the disease, as well as the toll it takes on his family. Wife Michel is forced to be caregiver to Steve while also being a new mom; eventually the strain overwhelms her and they add a neighbor (and self-described “hero worshipper”) Ryan Gootee to do the heavy lifting. His indefatigable attitude mirrors that of Steve himself at times.

And don’t get me wrong, Tweel absolutely refuses to paint the ex-Saint as a saint. There are times that he is literally howling in anguish at the betrayal of his body (even simple bodily functions become logistical nightmares). There are particularly heart-wrenching moments when Steve confronts his dad Mike, a genial guy but a rock-ribbed Christian whose beliefs are very much different than his son’s; in fact, Mike as a strict enough parent that his son had some resentments that percolate and bubble over while we watch (perhaps feeling a bit like voyeurs as we do) and one where he and his wife have a late night argument when she is clearly exhausted.

Gleason also is dedicated to his foundation, Team Gleason which not only helps fund ALS research but also provides the technology to ALS sufferers who can’t afford it to have more productive, fulfilling lives as well as providing “bucket list” items that patients are on a sort of deadline for; think of it as a Make-a-Wish Foundation for ALS patients making sure that they get what they need and what falls through the cracks of their insurance and government assistance. In fact, Gleason’s foundation spearheaded legislative efforts to help ALS patients get the technology they need covered under insurance and Medicare. It’s a worthy and noble cause but Gleason’s devotion to the foundation sometimes seems to supersede his dedication to his family, which disturbs Michel no end.

This is a movie that touches the human spirit and makes one proud of the species, something awfully difficult to do sometimes when all you see on the news are terrorist attacks, political hackery and mass shootings by disturbed loners with AR-15s. While I get that some critics will grouse about this being manipulative, holy crap if a story like Gleason’s can’t get to you emotionally, you really have to be something of a sociopath. Of course it’s manipulative. EVERY story is. That’s the nature of stories, particularly the true ones and this one is almost mythic in some ways when it comes to the courage and drive to live that Gleason displays and the support his family and community gives him. Personally, I thought Tweel gave a very balanced presentation of Gleason’s story, but if I’m to be manipulated, this is the way I want it to be done. At least it is emotion genuinely earned, as is the respect you’ll feel for the Gleason family and their supporters.

REASONS TO GO: There are few films that are this inspiring and uplifting. It never pulls its punches, showing Gleason’s vulnerabilities and at times, failings. Tweel keeps the talking head footage to a minimum. Cinema verité at it’s very finest.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film may end up being a bit too emotionally raw for some viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough foul language to net this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gleason played seven years in the NFL, he was never drafted – he signed on with the Saints as a free agent. However, he was drafted by the short-lived XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts as the 191st player picked in their one and only draft in 2001.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Florence Foster Jenkins

Informant (2012)


Is Brandon Darby considering his actions or playing the martyr?

Is Brandon Darby considering his actions or playing the martyr?

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Brandon Darby, Scott Crow, Michael T. Stewart, Andrew Breitbart. Directed by Jamie Meltzer 

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Our belief system is usually powered by a number of different factors ranging from out upbringing, to our personal life experiences to our education. It really boils down to the things that are important to us. If it is a desire to do good for others, that’s one thing. It might be a desire to provide for yourself and/or your family. However, sometimes it’s all about one person.

Brandon Darby is not a very well-liked man these days among the radical left and that’s something of an understatement. It wasn’t always that way. He had always been mistrustful of government, leaning towards anarchism as a philosophy of politics. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his feelings were intensified as he felt that government on a local and state level but particularly on a national level weren’t doing the job in bringing relief to people suffering from a natural disaster.

To that end he co-founded Common Ground Relief with his close friend Scott Crow in order to speed relief to people who needed it most. As a community organizer, he became a champion in the radical left, one who was seen to have the ability to get the job done.

But through it all, despite the public face that continued to espouse the politics he always had, Brandon Darby was disillusioned. And after meetings in Venezuela in which he became further disillusioned with the politics he’d always held and after allegedly being approached to help fund a Palestinian terrorist organization, he flip-flopped.

He continued to lead Common Ground but he became an informant for the FBI. While participating in protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, he became aware of a pair of eager young protestors who had plans to do far more than carry signs. They were assembling Molotov cocktails to lob at police cars, presumably with policemen in them. This, Darby felt, couldn’t stand and he turned the two young men in for which the radical right has labeled him a hero and a patriot.

Both David McKay and Bradley Crowder were convicted and jailed for their roles, but they and other leftists who were familiar with the situation tell a different tale. In their version, Darby encouraged and manipulated the men into building the devices. His motivation was to look good for the FBI and allow him to exit to the far right where he belonged.

Darby comes off as a self-centered lout who is all about Brandon Darby and nobody else. Whether this is Meltzer’s portrayal or simply Darby being Darby is up to interpretation. Meltzer livens things up with re-enactments of certain events in which Darby portrays himself. I found that the re-enactments were confusing at first but once you figured out that they were re-enactments and not archival footage (which there is also plenty of) it wasn’t hard to follow. However, I thought they weren’t necessary, or at least overused.

Still, this is a fascinating story, a leader of the far left doing a complete about face. These days Brandon Darby is one of the shining stars of the Tea Party, speaking at Tea Party functions about his heroic actions (feel free to put heroic in quotes) and writing a column for Andrew Breitbart’s website. He claims to have gotten death threats from more radical elements on the left; certainly he is despised by those who were once his friends, who show the vitriol that only the betrayed can produce.

Whether or not Darby was complicit or not in the case of McKay and Crowder is always going to be a point of contention – certainly Meltzer has his opinion and while he doesn’t explicitly say it, I think you can infer his thoughts. For my purposes, I don’t think anyone can make such a profound change in their political thinking so rapidly unless their thoughts always leaned in the new direction in the first place.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling story with compelling characters.

REASONS TO STAY: The re-enactments blur the line a bit and were occasionally confusing and unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a summer release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Contender

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Iron Man 3

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans


The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Eva Mendes and Nicolas Cage were having a contest to see who could look the coolest - Eva won.

(2009) Crime Drama (First Look) Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Vondie Curtis Hall, Shawn Hatosy, Xzibit, Denzel Whitaker, Brad Dourif, Shea Wigham, Katie Chonacas, Michael Shannon, Tom Bower. Directed by Werner Herzog

An out-of-control drug-addled policeman taking on crime in his own corrupt way, desensitized to violence and seemingly without any moral compass whatsoever. Sound familiar?

First of all, this movie has nothing to do with the classic Abel Ferrara film The Bad Lieutenant, which starred Harvey Keitel back in 1992. This movie shares only a producer with the original. There are some thematic similarities but that’s about it. The first film is amazing and powerful; this one is going to suffer by comparison – so I’m not going to compare the two, only to say that those coming in looking for a sequel, a remake or a reboot are going to be confused at best, angry at worst and disappointed for certain.

Lt. Terence McDonagh (Cage) is a decorated member of the New Orleans Police Department. He injured his back rescuing a prisoner from the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. Hooked on vicodin for the pain, he graduates to bigger and better drugs.

He is in love with Frankie (Mendes), a prostitute who is a fellow junkie. He is not above rousting a pair of clubgoers leaving a nightclub, stealing their drugs and raping the girl – while her boyfriend watches. His only worry is avoiding detection from his partner Steve Pruit (Kilmer) and the evidence locker supervisor Mundt (Shannon). The only law he seems intent on enforcing is the law of looking out for number one.

Then he is assigned the case of the execution of an entire family of immigrants and discovers the father was involved in drug dealing. We also discover that a vicious drug kingpin named Big Fate (Xzibit) is responsible. McDonagh, growing more and more paranoid, hooks up with Big Fate not only to bring himself a whole new supply of drugs but to get to the bottom of the killings. The further in he gets, the more dangerous the game he plays becomes to himself and those around him.

Director Werner Herzog knows a thing or two about obsession. The director of Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man is fascinated by characters that live on the edge of madness, and often die on that edge. He and Nicolas Cage are a match made in…maybe not heaven, but in purgatory at least.

Cage is an Oscar winning actor who has always specialized in characters out there on that edge. Of late he has done a lot of movies that are best forgotten; still, he is capable of busting out with some great performances. He is right there on the ragged edge here and at times he overacts shamelessly, which can be a turn-off.

Then again, this kind of role really does call for it. McDonagh hallucinates about iguanas and snarls after Big Fate and his crew shoot someone dead “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” Only Cage could pull off a line like that.

Kilmer is another actor who often takes on quirky roles and has of late been relegated to a lot of direct-to-home video disasters. It’s nice to see him in a movie that actually got a theatrical release; hopefully more casting directors will take notice of him, although I’m not sure his performance here will get that for him – the role is pretty bland.

This is the kind of movie that makes you feel like you’ve just gone for a swim in the sewer, only in a good way. It shows the corruption and seediness that is rampant around the drug trade. It’s a shame they had to unnecessarily throw the Bad Lieutenant association in – the movie I think would have benefitted from a better title (this one is really bad and may have actually kept moviegoers away). It at least has the distinction of being one of Cage’s better movies of the last decade, although I’m becoming more enamored of Herzog as a documentarian than as a filmmaker.

WHY RENT THIS: You get a great sense of a life spiraling out of control.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cage overacts shamelessly. The corruption is so pervasive that you feel like you need a shower after watching the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? Lots of bad language, even more drug use, a goodly amount of violence and just for good measure, let’s throw in a little sex on top.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicolas Cage is actually snorting baby powder during the cocaine scenes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.6M on a $25M production budget; this was a box office flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: A History of Violence

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Daisy dances her way through life.

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning. Directed by David Fincher

One of the constants of our lives is time. It follows a preset course in our perception; we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. There is a certain comfort in knowing how that progression will go. However, what if time wasn’t a constant for us all?

Benjamin Button (Pitt), like a modern-day Merlin, doesn’t age; he youthens. He was born an old man in turn of the century New Orleans; his father Thomas (Flemyng), overwhelmed by the death of his wife in childbirth and the double whammy of a peculiar child to boot, leaves him at a home for the aged, to be cared for by Queenie (Henson), a woman with a gigantic heart.

From there on we watch the events of the 20th century through Benjamin’s eyes; also his love affairs with the wife of a Russian diplomat (Swinton) and the love of his life, Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he had more or less grown up with in the home (she was a regular visitor to her grandmother). Daisy becomes a dancer who…well, that would be telling.

Fincher, one of the more innovative directors of our generation, has crafted a movie with astonishing special effects. Not every special effect has to be of aliens and spaceships, y’know. Here, the aging and de-aging of Pitt is mostly done as computer generated imagery, and quite frankly is done so seamlessly that you never believe for a second that it isn’t organic.

There are also some incredible performances here. Pitt does some of the best work of his career as Benjamin, displaying a child-like innocence that is coupled with deep sadness. Button knows his affliction will make him an outsider in life, and so that is what he becomes, someone separate from life, essentially observing but not taking part in so much.

Blanchett is one of the premiere actresses working today, and this is yet another outstanding performance for her resume (she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work, but she easily could have). I’m not sure if Blanchett ever took ballet as a child, but she moves with the lithe grace of a dancer.

Some critics, including a few that I respect very much, complained that the movie wasn’t true to itself and that it was essentially empty at its core. There is some evidence that the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired the script was written essentially as an exercise but I think that it does make for a fascinating what-if.

What we are dealing with here is the ultimate outsider, someone who violated the laws of nature and the consequences of that violation (even if it is involuntary) are devastating. Benjamin Button knows what his affliction costs him; he will not receive the things in life he desires most. That would make anyone a little bitter. Still, he gains a unique perspective not because of any intellectual difference but simply because of the way others treat him.

The framing sequences take place during Katrina and involve Daisy’s daughter (Ormond) reading to her dying mother from Benjamin’s journal and a backwards running clock created by an eccentric clockmaker (Koteas) in 19th century New Orleans.

There are some amusing bits, including one concerning a man who is struck by lightning multiple times, and some poignant scenes as well – such as Daisy caring for the now-infant Benjamin at the end of his life. Parallels to the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease are certainly at the forefront in my mind as I watch these sequences.

I will say this for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; it is like no other movie I’ve ever seen before and am unlikely to again. In that sense, this is worth seeing just because of its uniqueness; the character of Benjamin Button will stay with you long after the movie is over.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing special effects and powerful performances from Blanchett and Pitt (the best work of his career to date) make this a must-see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little gimmicky in places, with actual historic figures interacting with Benjamin a la Forrest Gump.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality here as well as a sprinkling of bad language. There are a couple of violent scenes that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the action in the Fitzgerald story took place in Baltimore, the locale for the movie was switched to New Orleans in order to take advantage of tax benefits offered by the Louisiana Film Commission in the wake of Katrina; also the Daisy character was named Hildegarde Moncrief in the original story; her name was switched in honor of The Great Gatsby.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While essentially a making-of featurette, the one on the Criterion collection version is so thorough and exhaustive it literally blows every other making-of featurette on every other DVD or Blu-Ray right out of the water. Entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, it divides the material into three trimesters and a birth and includes nearly three hours of material on nearly every aspect of the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.9M on a $150M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Deja Vu


Deja Vu

In the aftermath of a disaster, Denzel Washington works the evidence.

(Touchstone) Denzel Washington, Jim Caviezel, Val Kilmer, Bruce Greenwood, Matt Craven, Paula Patton, Adam Goldberg, Donna Scott, Elle Fanning, Elden Henson, Erika Alexander. Directed by Tony Scott

Have you ever gotten the feeling that you’ve seen a movie before, even as you’re watching it for the first time? It’s not necessarily something a filmmaker wants their audience to feel, but sometimes there’s no help for it.

It’s Fat Tuesday in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the Algiers ferry bound for the Crescent City is full of sailors and partygoers bound and determined to have a great time. Not too far into the voyage, a car on the ferry explodes, setting off a chain reaction and a second, more damaging explosion and the Ferry goes down to the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain. The catastrophe kills men, women and children in a city which is already reeling from a hurricane that has all but destroyed it.

ATF investigator Doug Carlin (Washington) is called to the scene to determine whether the explosion was a deliberate act. While the FBI, local police and other agencies are squabbling, Carlin – possessed of a cat-quick mind and the ability to instantly see the compelling evidence – quickly determines that the cause of the explosion was, in fact, a bomb, making it a deliberate act of terrorism.

Carlin’s style irritates some of his colleagues, although FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Kilmer) finds him amusing and impressive. Pryzwarra’s boss (Greenwood) agrees and when a burned body washes up onshore in an area that would put it in the water a full two hours before the Ferry disaster, the FBI and Carlin realize that the key to solving this mystery lies with finding out what happened to the beautiful woman (Patton) lying on the coroner’s table. To do this, Carlin is brought into a highly sensitive experiment that may allow a quick-thinking investigator like Carlin a second chance at seeing what really happened, but also change his life forever.

Scott and Washington are reunited for the first time since the two made Crimson Tide and the stylish Scott knows how to use his leading man ably, even though Denzel is getting a little bit long in the tooth for these kinds of roles. The premise of by observing the past being able to affect it is one not new to science fiction literature or movies (heck, “The Twilight Zone” basically made a living on just that kind of conundrum) and in all honesty, Déjà Vu doesn’t add anything new to the dance.

However, Tony Scott is an adept action director and he doesn’t disappoint here, with a chase scene that has the two cars in different time periods, with Washington unable to see the car he is chasing and being guided along by his team back at the appropriately grungy looking lab. The climactic scenes pitting Washington and his love interest against the bad guy (a very un-Christlike Jim Caviezel) are played with appropriate tension. A lot of directors could take lessons from Scott in that regard – it’s not as easy a skill as it seems.

Scott is blessed with a very talented cast, including the criminally under-used Matt Craven as Carlin’s partner – this is an actor who deserves meatier roles – and also reunites Washington with Greenwood, both of whom got their starts on the “St. Elsewhere” television show so many years ago.

To the bad is the one bugaboo that plagues these kinds of time-tripping sci-fi actioners – the tendency for the plot to get muddled and confusing. Scott trumps this by making his characters real and then casts interesting actors to play them – Goldberg is particularly nifty as a science geek, and Patton makes a gorgeous corpse, but also a mighty fine love interest. The resolution seems a bit forced, but then if you think about these things too hard you can get migraines.

I kind of regret missing this in the multiplex, although it looked just fine on our medium-sized bedroom TV screen. To be fair, this isn’t a movie that’s really out to break new ground. It just wants its audience to have a good time, and at that, it’s successful. If you’re looking for something to rent that satisfies your Jones for action, you could do worse than this.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice action sequences highlighted by some very big booms – gotta love things that blow up real good. The cast is top-notch. The climactic scenes ratchet up the tension.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot can be hard to follow. While tense, the resolution seems a bit forced and contrived.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and some sensuality but otherwise okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While the movie was in pre-production, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, forcing the producers to make a decision to shoot elsewhere, a move that director Tony Scott resisted. In the time that it took to reboot the production, New Orleans had recovered sufficiently to allow shooting there and pre-production resumed, allowing Deja Vu the distinction of being the first movie to film in New Orleans post-Katrina.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Surveillance Window feature allows the director commentary to be fleshed out with video sequences that may also be viewed separately.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Everybody’s Fine