Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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Sometimes a film's premise can be so original and clever that the list of faults is overshadowed by a propulsive wave of storytelling toward a powerful, even if already predicted, conclusion. Slumdog Millionaire is just that film, the screen adaptation of an Indian novel (Q&A) directed by Indie film vet Danny Boyle. Boyle's most noted works, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, are intense, dark, and gritty films, but in Slumdog, Boyle translates his intensity behind the camera into a story of hope and determination. Slumdog is centered around Jamal Malik, played masterfully by Dev Patel, and is set on location in India. Jamal is a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and the film chronicles his life as he answers the questions up to the million dollar question. The hook is that his life experiences inexplicably prepare him to answer increasingly difficult questions despite his treacherous childhood and lack of education. The story is captivating and is one of the most original coming-of-age stories in quite some time, and the way the camera captures the Indian landscape, both desolate and majestic, is breathtaking. The cast is entirely unknown, but includes several great performances, particularly Patel's breakthrough. The story follows Jamal through three time periods, so each main character is portrayed by three different actors, and the child actors are incredible, performing unflinchingly in bizarre situations. Aside from Patel, the stunningly beautiful Freida Pinto stands out as the young-adult version of Jamal's childhood love interest Latika. Slumdog has a fair share of political and social commentary, and at times feels like a thriller, but is essentially a love story. Patel's performance as Jamal, in desperate search of love (Latika) and life (freedom), drives the film through both the good and bad scenes. The story is a breath of fresh air and the locations are original, but at times the film seems to drag. The two hour movie could have easily been 15-20 minutes shorter. Most of the situations seem plausible separately, but the order in which they occur, all to one individual, is beyond unlikely. The last ten minutes are so heartwarming that they overcome the fact that everyone knew exactly how they would happen for the previous ninety minutes. Slumdog is 75% english without subtitles and 25% subtitled. The subtitles are colored according to character, which is a simple but effective touch, but in a few select scenes the accents can make the spoken English difficult to understand. Despite the difficult circumstances Jamal encounters time and time again, the film maintains a strong theme of hope which burns bright in Patel's performance. A completely offbeat music video as the credits roll feels like a slap in the face after a thoughtful conclusion to an emotional film. However, the original framework within which the plot resides, the smart story, and the intimate feel of the direction and cinematography make Slumdog one of the most unique film experiences of the year.

Good for: foreign film fans, fans of romantic dramas

Bad for: the easily bored, those looking for a fluffy film

The Gallery
The Surfer: * * * *
The Writer * * * *

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Milk (2008)

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If Brokeback Mountain opened the door for same-sex relationships to be viewed from the same emotional perspective as heterosexual relationships, Milk, the true story of San Francisco activist and politician Harvey Milk, blasts the door down with a marching parade and bullhorn, bringing the gay rights movement front and center in a deeply human context. Whereas Brokeback showcased the personal affairs associated with a homosexual relationship in an intolerant society, Milk highlights the social struggle homosexuals have faced and the barriers they have both overcome and still face, and takes no prisoners in the process. Whether you know the story of Harvey Milk or whether you come to the film blindly with no idea what is about to happen (as I did), the levity of the actual events and the artistry behind the filmmaking will stun you. Gus Van Sant, who has made other controversial and powerful films such as Elephant, directs Milk with a fevered passion that captures the spirit of Harvey Milk and the sentiment of the movement. This works both to Van Sant's advantage and disadvantage, as Milk contains truly electric and heartwrenching scenes, but also at times seems to preach. Van Sant seems to be telling the audience how and when to feel at select moments in the film, when the sheer brilliance of the acting does more than enough to convey the emotional overtones. Despite the few flaws, Van Sant captures the atmosphere of the 70s and San Francisco with great sets and locations, a well-chosen soundtrack, and the use of real footage to give the film a sense of reality. His choice to not cast an actress to play antagonist Anita Baker, but rather to let her actual footage play her part is a genius move that exhibits her wickedness in a way no actress could express, and is deserving of high accolades alone. Van Sant also chose to use choice filmstock to give many scenes a "Wonder Years" type vibe, which is incredibly effective. His best decisions, however, were his choices in casting. There are few words that can be used to describe Sean Penn's performance in the title role; only perfect comes to mind. Absolutely no one could have played this part but Penn, and this is clear from the opening scene. He embodies Milk, and his performance is physical, emotional, spiritual, and shames most actors in the business. Penn's performance is a complete transformation, portraying Milk as a human; proud but flawed, ferocious yet charming, silly and clever, loving and funny. Up against a monumental challenge, the supporting cast complements Penn's performance nearly across the board. Emile Hirsch delivers a name-making performance as Cleve Jones, Penn's campaign volunteer and was clearly inspired by Penn's virtuosity. James Franco is strong as Scott Smith, Milk's love interest and friend, and shows that his acting chops are starting to develop. Diego Luna's portrayal of Jack Lira, Milk's other companion, is the only questionable turn in the otherwise solid cast. Luna's character is eccentric, but the performance comes across as over the top and even somewhat amateur next to Penn's Milk. The supporting cast as a whole complements Penn appropriately, but Josh Brolin, as Dan White, is the only other actor to hold his own and put himself on the same playing field as Penn. In what is without question the most important supporting role in the film, Brolin has proven once again he is a serious, big-time actor with incredible talent. Brolin's portrayal of a deeply troubled man is both moving and haunting, and a scene in which he approaches Milk while intoxicated stands out as one of the best from this year. Thirty years later, some may wonder why it took so long for Milk's story to be told to a mass audience. What matters, though, is that the story was told, and not just told, but proclaimed beautifully with precision and care. The passion and fire of Harvey Milk are personified by Van Sant and company in what is a proper tribute to a great man. Although the conclusion of the story comes as no surprise (even those who didn't know about Milk find out when Van Sant tells them minutes into the film), the despair of the final moments of Milk will weigh heavily on anyone with a heart. But what makes the film and the legacy of Harvey Milk vital is the hope they inspire.

Good for: everyone, film junkies, historians, civil rights activists, Penn fans

Bad for: the intolerant

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * * * *
The Writer * * * * *