Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire / **** (R)

Jamal: Dev Patel
Youngest Jamal: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar
Middle Jamal: Tanay Chheda
Salim: Madhur Mittal
Youngest Salim: Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail
Middle Salim: Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala
Latika: Freida Pinto
Youngest Latika: Rubiana Ali
Middle Latika: Tanyi Ganesh Lonkar
Prem: Anil Kapoor
Police Inspector: Irrfan Khan

Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Danny Boyle. Co-directed by Loveleen Tandan. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for some violence, disturbing images and language).

People like many different kinds of movies. On any given week you can find a genre film to your liking. There are movies for people who like action, movies for people who like comedies. There are “chick flicks” and “gangster pics.” There are thrillers and social dramas. The best films don’t limit themselves to one particular genre but cross over into others to appeal to a broader audience. What makes Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” the best picture of the year is that it encompasses all these genres. It even dips into horror territory for a couple of scenes.

The story centers around the Indian version of the popular game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” A young man is on the verge of becoming only the second contestant in history to win the show’s top prize. He is one of the many underprivileged of India’s largest city, Mumbai. He came from the slums. He is an errand boy. How does an errand boy know all the answers to get him to the final round of a game that even the country’s smartest individuals have failed achieve? Did he cheat? Is he really that smart? Is the show fixed? Or is it simply this boy’s destiny?

In an inspired example of cinematic wizardry, Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “Millions”) tells the boy’s story through a series of flashbacks inspired by the very questions he is asked on the game show to get him to the final round. He answers the questions correctly because he has lived the answers. The answers tell of a hard life, a tale of two brothers, Jamal and Salim, who lose their mother at an early age due to religious hatred. They are left to fend for themselves on the streets of Mumbai.

While on the streets, the boys gain a third companion, a girl named Latika. The three form a bond that will bind them together, even when separated. They refer to themselves as The Three Musketeers from Alaxander Dumas’s novel, although they only know the names of Athos and Porthos. Their adventures eventually land them in the care—if you can call it that—of street hustlers, who use orphans as beggars.

I won’t tell anymore of Jamal’s storied tale of a slum kid’s rise to potential millionaire. The journey is so much of the pleasure of this movie. It would be wrong to spoil where it takes these kids. Their tale takes various forms. Sometimes it’s a romance; sometimes it’s a road picture (or rail picture in this case), but it is always entertaining, always compelling. There are moments of terror and moments of humor, never a moment when you look at your watch or wonder whether you turned off your iron.

The actors are as vibrant and immediate as the story their characters tell. Three different sets of actors portray the three lead characters at different periods in their childhood and everyone is perfectly cast and perfectly captures their counterparts’ personalities. It is hard to imagine that three different sets of actors could so solidly portray the same set of characters. I’m reminded of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries that has followed several people’s lives from the age of seven, catching up every seven years to see where each person is at that point in their lives. The people in these docs are already over 50, but there is no question that each person at 49 is the same person they were at 7. The three sets of actors used for these kids are like that. There is never any question that the little boy who plays Jamal at age 6 is the same character as the totally different actor that portrays him at 18.

I have not read Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q & A”, upon which Simon Beaufoy’s superb screenplay is based, but its story structure and philosophy is unshakeable. One scene in particular struck me as displaying the movie’s outlook and approach perfectly. The police inspector has just heard the story behind how Jamal knew the answer to the question “Which political figure is pictured on the U.S. $100 bill?” On the show Jamal answered correctly “Benjamin Franklin” even though as a slum kid he should never have learned who Franklin was or ever even seen a $100 bill. The inspector then asks Jamal who is pictured on the Indian 1000 rupee. “That was not the question I was asked,” Jamal states plainly. When the inspector informs him it is Ghandi, Jamal simply says, “I’ve heard of him.”

Perhaps it is impossible to know why that sequence struck me so without seeing “Slumdog Millionaire”; but this is a movie that is not simply the story that it tells, it is a spirit of storytelling that can only be captured in the film medium. For all the hardships the children in this movie live through, theirs is a story of hope, a story of love, a story of joy, a story of life. It is rare to find a movie that is so imbued with the life that it portrays. “Slumdog Millionaire” is a unique movie experience that bubbles up from the inside and springs forth to shower its audience with its treasures. This is the best movie in many a year.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oscar predictions '08

Best Picture

Will win: “Slumdog Millionaire”. Nothing can stop the momentum of one of the surest picture shoe-ins in history.

Should win: “Slumdog Millionaire”. Danny Boyle has put together a picture of raw emotional power and cinematic excellence. It good to see his efforts noticed, since past efforts, like “Millions”, are grossly underrated. Plus that many people can’t be wrong.

Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Will win: Mickey Rourke “The Wrestler”. He’s swept all the majors in this category with only a sentimental nod to Clint Eastwood from the National Board of Review hiccup in that record. Eastwood isn’t even nominated this time.

Should win: Mickey Rourke “The Wrestler”. Rourke bared his soul in this film. I’d call this is one of the greatest acting comeback performances ever.

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Will win: Kate Winslet “The Reader”. She deserves one by now considering she is the most nominated actress of her age and surely will give Meryl Streep a run for the most nominated actress ever before her career is over.

Should win: Melissa Leo “Frozen River”. The mere fact that she was recognized with a nomination is a shock and will serve as award enough for Academy members, but her performance as a financially desperate mother who turns to smuggling immigrants across the U.S./Canadian border is on the same level of Rourke’s remarkable work this year.

Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Will win: Heath Ledger “The Dark Knight”. As sure a thing as “Slumdog Millionaire” for Best Picture or “WALL-E” for Best Animated Feature. The Academy will honor both his remarkable work in this film and his tragically shortened career with this award.

Should win: Heath Ledger “The Dark Knight”. Although some people may be getting sick of the departed Ledger’s final act, his work in this role is nothing short of remarkable and may have remained his career high water mark even had he enjoyed a long healthy run. If only Robert Downey, Jr.’s work in “Tropic Thunder” had come in another year (well, he still wouldn’t have won because it’s a comedy).

Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Will win: Penelope Cruz “Vicky Christina Barcelona”. The Spaniard has gotten some of the best American reviews of her career with this role as a jealous ex-lover and has taken many of the major awards of the season. She’s well liked by the Hollywood establishment, and this is a good opportunity for them to award Woody Allen’s movie in the midst of a new creative renaissance for the long-time director.

But don’t count Taraji P. Henson out for her role in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. This category is really that film’s only shot at one of the majors even though it isn’t any more deserving than in the other categories. Look for “Button” to grab some technicals.

Should win: Viola Davis “Doubt”. In a single scene she out does all of this year’s nominees as a mother caught between protecting her son from a sexual predator and protecting him from racial injustice at the height of the civil rights movement.

Achievement in Direction

Will win: Danny Boyle “Slumdog Millionaire”. One of the many inevitable awards that will find its way to this sweeping juggernaut.

Should win: Danny Boyle “Slumdog Millionaire”. Danny Boyle has quietly been amassing an impressive filmography that skillfully argues film be taken seriously as a legitimate art form with its own masters of craft. Boyle is certainly among them.

Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Will win: Dustin Lance Black “Milk”. This is the category in which the Academy will honor Gus Van Sant’s fine work this year for this powerful biography of gay rights activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected into public office. The film’s nominations dominate the big eight categories with nods for Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Director along with this one. This is where it will win.

Should win: Any of them. Frankly this is one of those rare instances where every one of the category’s nominees is worthy of bringing the statue home. This was an amazing year for original screenplays and the Academy picked five of the best.

Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Will win: Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire”. This one will complete the “Slumdog” sweep of the major awards, but hardly marks the end of the sweep. Expect awards in Music (Original Score), and possibly Cinematography, Editing and Sound.

Should win: John Patrick Shanley, “Doubt”. This wonderful film gained most of its praise for the powerful performances by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis and yet still managed to get shut out for the major awards in the acting categories. But Shanley’s magnificent screenplay and direction has been overlooked even in the film’s praise. This is the work of a master storyteller. However, this category is almost as tight as the Original Screenplay nods thanks to the wonderful work by Peter Morgan for “Frost/Nixon” and Beaufoy’s “Slumdog” script.

Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Will win: Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman “Down to Earth” from “WALL-E”. This is the first Academy Award nomination for Gabriel, although he has been the vocalist on a couple of songs that have been nominated in the past. It’s the 10th nomination for Newman, who has yet to win. The academy has been running through the gamut of pop stars winning their nominations lately and Newman’s constant presence will allow the pair to bring home the gold this time.

Should win: Bruce Springsteen “The Wrestler”. Yeah. I know. He’s not even nominated. And that should go down as the biggest snub of the year for this Oscar installment. Yes, Springsteen ushered in the Academy’s new found love for popular music in movies with his win for “Streets of Philadelphia”, but the Boss has continued to improve upon himself as the years go by. His live performance of “The Wrestler” will be missed during the ceremony.

Note: Gabriel will also remain absent for the performance of his song, since the dunces at the Academy refused to let him perform the entire song. Isn’t that part of why they cut the nominees down to three? Another reason was to cut down on multiple songs from one film. You know, so there wouldn’t be three songs out of five from the latest Disney musical, yet now we have two songs out of three from “Slumdog Millionaire” in the tradition of Bollywood musicals. Yup, that’ll definitely boost those ratings. Good job, Academy!

Animated Feature Film of the Year

Will win: “WALL-E”. Pixar’s dominance of the category that probably wouldn’t have been created without their influence continues.

Should win: “WALL-E”. And it is well deserved.

Documentary Feature of the Year

Will win: “Man on Wire”. This doc about a man who walked a tight rope between the World Trade Center twin towers in 1974 has been the clear favorite with everybody this year.

Should win: “Man on Wire”. From what I hear, anyway.

I won’t bother to make any more predictions this year. It’s really always been those smaller categories that contain the real suspense. Even the ones I have a handle on, like editing and cinematography, can surprise pretty easily. And as always, the shorts are anyone’s guess and the keys to winning the Oscar pool. Good Luck.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop / ** (PG)

Paul Blart: Kevin James
Amy: Jayma Mays
Veck Sims: Keir O’Donnell
Maya Blart: Raini Rodriguez
Mom: Shirley Knight
Chief Brooks: Peter Gerety
Commander Kent: Bobby Cannavale
Sergeant Howard: Adam Ferrara

20th Century Fox Presents a film directed by Steve Carr. Written by Kevin James & Nick Bakay. Running time: 91 min. Rated PG (for some violence, mild crude and suggestive humor, and language).

I often hear people saying the state of movies has gone downhill, that movies aren’t as good as people remember them being from their childhood. The state of movies has certainly changed since my own childhood. Although the ‘80s saw the rise of greed on Wall Street, the rise of the Aids epidemic, the danger of our dependence on nuclear power, even the Cold War raged on throughout that decade; it was a more innocent time and the movies of the ‘80s reflected that. They were happier movies, where sinister plots were placed upon people who were idyllically good, and because of their goodness they prevailed. These plots were really quite silly and unlikely, but they were also fun and escapist. They worked better if you didn’t really think about them.

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop” could have fit in well amongst the movies of the ‘80s. It’s a light-hearted comedy about an overweight mall cop with aspirations of joining the New Jersey State Troopers. Kevin James (“The King of Queens”) plays the loveably pathetic Paul Blart. We meet Blart during a physical training test for the state troopers. He’s quite adept at the obstacle course despite his size but is undone by his hypoglycemia before he finishes the course.

Another failed test and Blart is back at work as a ten-year veteran mall security guard, although he informs one of the mall vendors, “in the industry we prefer ‘officer’.” Blart zooms around the mall and pretty much everywhere else on a Segway. Many of the movie’s good chuckles come from the use of this prop, including a sequence where Blart is chased by a neighborhood dog.

Blart is being urged by his mom (Shirley Knight, “Grandma’s Boy”) and daughter (Raini Rodriguez) to pursue a love interest. He finds that interest in the form of a vendor who sells hair extensions at a booth called Unbeweavable. Ha, ha. Ho, ho. Amy (Jayma Mays, “Epic Movie”) is a sexy little oddball that just might be able to see Blart as the cuddly lug he is. There is the obligatory misunderstanding between the potential couple when Blart accidentally gets drunk at an after work party. Blart doesn’t drink. This scene is quite inexplicable beyond the fact that without it the movie would run only a little over an hour.

Eventually the movie gets around to its plot, a heist of the mall’s credit card system by a bunch of talented criminals lead by Veck Sims (Keir O’Donnell, “Pathology”). How’s that for a villain’s name? These criminals have the mad skilz to put them in league with Hanz Gruber’s team in “Die Hard” or even put them up against Bond trying to take over the world, but here they’re knocking over a mall on Black Friday. Despite their seriousness, that shopping mall/’80s do-gooder mood of the movie allows the audience to realize there is no chance that Blart won’t be able to take them down in the end.

And yet, there is a feeling from the performances and the lackluster direction of Steve Carr (“Are We Done Yet?”) that suggests they don’t really believe in these everything-will-turn-out-alright values. None of the jokes have much punch to them. The only gags that work whole-heartedly are the physical comedy foul-ups of James. There is also a sense that the filmmakers didn’t really stray from the script much with improvisation. There seem to be a lot of missed opportunities for gags, most notably during the Rainforest CafĂ© sequence where James doesn’t capitalize on the obvious opportunities to spoof some known quantity films like “Rambo”, “Predator”, or “Apocalypse Now”.

This is a movie that tries to recapture the innocence of the eighties. It’s an accurate reproduction of the values of that time period in popular filmmaking. And it proves that in reflection movies may have actually improved since that time. The fact that it may not be as well made as some eighties comedies makes “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” much like its titular character. It doesn’t aspire to much, and it still falls slightly short of the mark.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Reader / *** (R)

Hanna Schmitz: Kate Winslet
Michael Berg: Ralph Fiennes
Young Michael Berg: David Kross
Professor Rohl: Bruno Ganz
Rose Mather/Ilana Mather: Lena Olin

The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare. Based on the book by Bernhard Schlink. Running time: 124 min. Rated R (for some scenes of sexuality and nudity).

This review contains spoilers!

I was 15 when I visited Dachau, the World War II concentration camp located on the outskirts of Munich, Germany. At that time, the Holocaust was just a story in a history book to me. I hadn’t, by that point in my life, experienced the horrific realization of those events through so many movies and books and stories. The empty bunks and courtyard were museum pieces to me, rather than an all too real piece of world history. It was easy to look at those not-so-long-ago events at a distance as an American teenager on a class tour of Europe. But there were two elements in that camp that struck me with a horror I instinctively repressed. The first was the ovens where 15,000 bodies were disposed of in the camp’s final few months. Second was the infamous sign the prisoners had to walk under each day of their confinement that read “Arbeit Macht Frei”—the perpetual lie of the SS’s promise to free good workers.

The Best Picture Oscar nominee “The Reader” tells a story which starts in the late 1950s. During the first half of the film there is no mention of the atrocities committed on Germany’s soil. There is some slight evidence of the world’s greatest war in the background. There seems to be construction going on everywhere in the small city of Neustadt, where the story’s hero spends his formative years. The reconstruction in Germany is still under way, both physically and psychologically.

We meet 16-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) as he comes home from school on a city tram. He is sick and is helped by a woman who says little but clearly is compelled to help the boy out of kindness. The woman is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet, “The Holiday”), and the two will soon share a summer love affair. She is a much older woman than the nubile boy. She seems to be pained by some inner scar of the past, but the two find a certain need filled by each other. Their bond is drawn initially by sex, but they find other comforts from each other. Hanna in particular is drawn in by Michael’s sure recitation of the classic literature he is studying in school. The reading is just as satisfying to Hanna as the sex is to Michael.

Eventually the affair comes to an end, as it must. However, Hanna’s sudden withdraw from Michael’s life is mysterious and unexplained until years later when their lives cross paths again under far different circumstances. Michael is now a law student and has landed himself in an elite class of students under the instruction of Professor Rolf (Bruno Ganz, “Downfall”). They attend a Nazi war crimes trial in which six female SS guards face charges of murder. Hanna is one of the women. The other guards finger her as the ringleader. Michael has information that would exonerate her of that responsibility, but how can he reconcile the fact that she is guilty of aiding in the murder of prisoners for the Nazi SS?

The movie is framed as a flashback of Michael’s in 1995, reflecting on the events that shaped him into the barrister and man he has become. Ralph Fiennes (“In Bruges”) plays the older Michael with solemnity and regret. One of his regrets is how closed off he is to those he loves, including his teenage daughter from a broken marriage. The flashback-framing device feels like a tired clichĂ© in these films about how a life is formed, but Fiennes helps to create a connection between the events of the past with those of his present.

Lena Olin (“Awake”), in a small dual role, also provides an emotional connection to the crimes committed by Hanna, juxtaposing the needs that Hanna fulfilled in Michael’s life as a young man. As a victim of the Holocaust during the trial and later playing the older version of that same victim’s daughter, Olin provides a small but direct reference to the crimes committed by Hanna long before her love affair with Michael.

For all the passion that Hanna and Michael feel for each other during their affair, there seems to be less gravity placed on the horrors of the Holocaust itself. We are never allowed to know what Hanna really feels about what she has done. Her attitude during the trial is that she was doing her job, but her passion for literature and the somber way she carries herself suggests that she is all too aware of what she has done. Perhaps, she feels she deserves to be punished. We never really know.

Director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare— who previously collaborated on the movie “The Hours”—seem to want to keep such issues complex. The characters don’t know the answers to the questions that trouble them. I don’t think this is wrong, however it keeps some of the emotions typically explored in a Holocaust subject at a distance. This is very much like my experiences in Dachau. I knew something terrible happened there, but I didn’t know how to feel about those empty barracks until I saw something I could understand. “The Reader” is more about the broad complexity of our human emotions than it is about understanding them.