Archive for February, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

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Maybe it’s me. Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe Slumdog Millionaire is a great film, and not a cloying, manipulative, well-made but unmoving melodrama. Could be, I’ve been wrong before. Danny Boyle’s latest film is a huge smash, with critics and audiences alike, and was nominated for several Academy Awards. So, why did it leave me feeling so cold?

This film looks great, the music is incredible and it’s definitely got energy and style to spare, but, to put it bluntly, I just didn’t care about the story. Maybe one aspect was I felt like the characters weren’t very interesting, besides the smarmy TV show game show host Prem Kumar (expertly played by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor). The main actors, Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, are charming and cute but never really develop their characters.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story about a young man who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, and winds up on the Indian equivalent of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” The gimmick of the movie is that every answer on the show pertains to some aspect of his life, so we get a slew of flashbacks that coincide with these questions. In the flashbacks, we see Jamal, the hero, his brother Salim and Latika, the girl that Jamal falls in love with, as they grow up, and go separate ways.

The love story angle feels especially tacked on, as does the subplot involving Salim as a criminal. It’s silly soap opera stuff that doesn’t really fit with the film. I feel like an old fuddy duddy complaining about a film that obviously has brought so much joy and has so much meaning to so many people, but I just didn’t like it. For me, this film has a clear case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.

Rachel Getting Married

Monday, February 16th, 2009

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It’s not surprising that the late, great Robert Altman is thanked in the credits to Jonathan Demme’s film, Rachel Getting Married. The style of the movie is, dare I say, Altman-esque. In Altman’s films, there’s a focus more on character than on story, it feels like a natural, organic process, rather than a film where the strands of the plot is connected like a dot to dot coloring book. Rachel Getting Married is like that. It’s a spontaneous, rich, supremely acted movie.

The film concerns a young woman named Kym (played by Anne Hathaway in an Oscar nominated role) returning home from rehab for her sister’s wedding. To call the family dysfunctional would be an understatement, but this isn’t a typical depiction of a family in turmoil. Watching this film is eerily close to watching home movies, meaning it captures the dynamic of a specific family so well that it seems real.

Jonathan Demme is a director hard to pin down, he has directed so many different kinds of movies, worked in so many kinds of genres, that it’s not like you can label him. Here he creates a remarkable film, a celebration of life, love and the joy of movies. I never know what to expect from this guy.

Anne Hathaway has been getting most of the accolades for this film, but make no mistake, this is an ensemble film. The whole cast is brilliant, with Rosmarie DeWitt as Rachel, Bill Irwin as their father, Anna Deveare Smith as his second wife, Debra Winger as the girls’ mother, Tunde Adebimpe as Rachel’s groom to be and Mather Zickel as the best man. The work of DeWitt and Irwin especially is heartbreakingly good, and both deserved Oscar nods. Two scenes that stand out, in my mind, are the scene where a good natured game of washing dishes progresses in unexpected ways, and a scene with Hathaway and Winger that shows the two women at their most vulnerable, and most powerful. Oh, and who can forget the wonderful moment where Adebimpe sings Neil Young.

Rachel Getting Married is a fresh, exciting film that feels unlike many movies this year. Look fast for cameos by Demme regulars Paul Lazar and Roger Corman.

The Wrestler

Monday, February 9th, 2009

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There are certain film performances where the actor and the role blend so perfectly that you simply cannot imagine anyone else in the role. Mickey Rourke’s devastating, brilliant performance as Randy the Ram, an over-the-hill, has-been pro wrestler is such a role. Mark my words, it will win him the Oscar (and if it doesn’t, the Oscars are now officially meaningless. Which I kind of figured by now, anyway).

Surely, Randy the Ram’s story has parallels with Rourke’s own. Both were superstars in the eighties, both lost their wealth and fame, both were given hard blows by life and both are aching, striving, yearning for a comeback. In fact, Rourke has stated that the film is so close to his own experience that he has yet to watch the entire film; it’s too real.

I have always found Rourke to be an astonishingly talented actor. As a younger actor in his heyday, he reminded me of the dark, moody method style of Brando or Clift. As he got older, the roles got wackier, looser, less predictable. Yes, the work also got “worse,” I guess, but part of Rourke’s appeal was always his unpredictability. Then came Sin City, which was supposed to be his comeback role, but it didn’t work out that way (which is a shame, because it’s a spellbinding performance).

The Wrestler is a spectacular film, rich, full of life. It’s got glimmers of hope and redemption, but it’s also realistic and grim. Darren Aronofsky, the gifted director, has crafted a masterpiece of sorts. I couldn’t look away from the screen for the film’s duration.

Of course, the reason most people will see the film is the on-screen resurrection of Rourke’s career, but attention must also be paid to the terrific script by Robert D. Siegel, the cinematography by Maryse Alberti and the supporting performances by Marisa Tomei as Cassidy, the stripper who has Randy’s heart, and Evan Rachel Wood, as Randy’s estranged daughter.

It’s a film full of humor, blood, tears and, at the center of it all, a good man, who is flawed and tired, but still is out there, trying. One of the best films of 2008.

Gran Torino

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

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Most films are like this: you either like it or you don’t. No surprise there, right? But, occasionally, there’s that movie where your reaction is either you love it or you hate it. Judging from various reviews, blogs and conversations, Gran Torino is a movie that has split audiences. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but those who hated the movie are dead wrong.

Gran Torino is about a hard drinking, recently widowed Korean War veteran with a chip on his shoulder about the size of North Dakota. A grizzled, grumbling old bigot named Walt Kowalski. He’s played by Clint Eastwood, that living legend, and it’s one of his great performances. This film is the story of how Kowalski takes baby steps to becoming a better man.

Kowalksi is the last white resident in a neighborhood in Detroit that is mostly Hmong immigrants, and the film concentrates on his relationship with the family next door, most notably with the wise beyond her years daughter Sue (Aheny Her) and her troubled teenage brother Thao (Bee Vang). Thao is a shy, introverted young man who is being courted to join a gang by his cousin.

The threat of the gang, and Kowalksi’s reaction to them, will of course draw comparison to another Eastwood character. An interpretation of Gran Torino as Old Man Dirty Harry misses the point entirely. This film is not a revenge film, it’s about Walt breaking through his unjustified hatred of just about everybody around him. It’s about acceptance.

A crucial character to the film is the baby-faced priest Father Janovich (played by Christopher Carley). Father Janovich wants very much for Walt to go to confession (Walt’s wife’s dying request), and Walt, of course, refuses. Father Janovich and Walt both see the dangers and struggles the neighborhood is facing, but both have different thoughts on how to combat them.

As I read the various ‘haters’ and their stance, many were bothered that a film had a sympathetic racist character. The point, I think, is that Walt uses the racist jargon, the slang, as a defense mechanism, a shield. It’s his way to distance himself from other people. Eastwood has created a powerful film about a bitter, racist old coot who learns to lighten up, and stand up for something. Gran Torino moved me like few films have this year. I loved it.