Saturday, November 29, 2008


Review: Slumdog Millionaire
4.5 stars (out of 5)
R. Kurt Osenlund

At long last, the season of great movies is upon us, and Danny Boyle's unattractively titled but gorgeously entertaining “Slumdog Millionaire” may be its most pleasurable and wondrous gift. Reel-to-reel, end-to-end, this fresh spin on the rags-to-riches love story is furnished with sights and sounds to discover, behold, and cherish. Written by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), who transcendently adapts the Indian novel, “Q and A,” by Vikas Swarup, the film is about a skid-row teenager from Mumbai who winds up in the hot seat and wins big on the Hindi rendition of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” It's about much more, of course, and how that more is depicted makes “Slumdog” a spectacle not to be missed.

The underdog tale is bookended by an on-screen multiple choice question, one of many visual ingenuities that director Boyle uses to amp up “Slumdog”'s abundant energy and rollicking pace. It asks us how dirt-poor, uneducated Jamal Malik (coulda'-fooled-me newcomer Dev Patel) got to be one question away from scoring 20 million rupees on a prime time phenomenon that stumps doctors and scholars. Is it luck? Is it destiny? Is he a genius? Did he cheat? The latter is the belief of the show's bully of a host (Anil Kapoor, who makes Meredith Vieira look like Bambi), as well as Mumbai's draconian police force, which resorts to torturous tactics to get an explanation out of Jamal. The focused teen – whose job at the time of the live broadcast is a lowly tea server at a major communications company – gives one, but an admittance of guilt plays no part in it, and as he indulges the cops with his tempestuous autobiography, “Slumdog” takes glorious flight.

In flashbacks (which take up much of the two-hour running time), Jamal reveals the events of his impoverished life that serendipitously account for his knowledge of each answer. How best to describe this major nugget? Imagine if you splashed the technicolor dreamscapes of “The Wizard of Oz” across the brisk, gritty ghettos of “City of God” and kept the tone and luster of both worlds on an even keel. Sound impossible? Boyle pulls it off – splendidly. He takes us back to such terrible tragedies as the murder of Jamal's mother; such calamities as the fall of Jamal and his brother, Salim, into the hands of a child-exploiting local gang; and the starkly, inevitably different life paths of the two boys (Jamal and Salim are each played by three different actors of different ages).

Boyle keeps the rough realism on high (prepare to see kids blinded and plenty of people shot), but balances it with exuberant color, innovative technique, and a sense of buoyant hopefulness. What a magical moviemaker Boyle is, able to inject soaring fantasy and staggering beauty into what at first seem like such unlikely, Earth-bound places. He clinched a similar victory in 2004 with “Millions,” a fancifully-told story of two brothers from London who must deal with the real-world effects of their manna from heaven. The British director has an unprecedented way with children that wonderfully compliments his oft-youthful style and gives his brighter movies a mass appeal. Where he goes and what he does with the the younger Jamal and Salim will win your heart.

Credit also cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle's go-to camera artist (“Millions,” “28 Days Later”) who here uses oblique angles, shimmering sunlight, and rapid-fire on-location shooting to create brilliant sequences. The ways in which both the inner-city squalor and upper-crust decadence of Mumbai's culture are captured are amazing. After careening through the crime-ridden streets at low perspectives and blistering speeds, the camera pulls out to show a stunning patchwork of slum roofs. As the boys migrate across the the nation, there are scenes on trains and at the Taj Mahal that are filled with wonder. And when the narrative circles back around to Jamal's present-day interrogation, the feel of the film shifts from mystical and dreamlike to modern and ultra-cool. All of this is backed by an exotic, up-tempo soundtrack courtesy of composer A.R. Rahman and artists like M.I.A. The elements combine to make “Slumdog” a dynamic testament to survival and life-affirmation.

Pumping through Jamal's chronology and spilling into the present is an old-fashioned, undying love that faces hurdles from the first spark. Latika (played, like the boys, by multiple actors in the recollections and by the model-flawless Freido Pinto in the here-and-now) is Jamal's ultimate desire and his reason for going on the show (“I thought she'd be watching,” he sighs). She's also the desire of a lineage of gangsters, a threat that follows the star-crossed pair from past to present. The romance is meant to be the movie's glue, and it does hold all the pieces together, but it goes from sticky to dry in quieter moments due to slightly cliched dialogue and sub-par acting on the part of Pinto. Since these moments are so few amidst “Slumdog”'s hyperkinesis, we need them, and the failure to fully connect with them is a problem.

But it's a problem that surely won't eclipse the overall, grand experience of the film, which showers the audience with rewards. Even the subtitles and title cards flow forth like confetti, and crowds will want to stick around for the Bollywood-derived end credits. “Slumdog” is a unique and jubilant entertainment, and while it may not make you cry, it'll certainly make you laugh and may just make you cheer. final answer? A (minus).

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Review: Milk
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Oselund

When planning a post-election, pre-holiday release date for their Oscar front-runner, “Milk,” the execs over at Focus Features couldn't have anticipated just how relevant the film would become. With California's gay marriage-repealing Proposition 8 freshly enacted, a biopic about slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk – America's first openly gay politician who fought and defeated his state's gay teacher witch-hunt, Proposition 6, in 1978 – has an intensified socio-political oomph. “Milk” is a pillar of pride -- out and about, flashing its colors and asserting its voice. With the Obama-friendly theme of HOPE as its mantra, the movie has an authentic ability to change people's minds by chronicling how one man changed them over 30 years ago. And, as directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black, and performed by a brilliant cast led heroically by Sean Penn, it's the most rousingly inspirational and deeply moving film I've seen all year.

It recounts the last eight years of Milk's (Penn) life, from his 40th birthday as a New York nobody to his migration to San Fran's Castro District with lover Scott Smith (James Franco) to his assassination at 48 by fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). Van Sant packs that nearly decade-long span with the vivacious vibrancy of the '70s, and introduces us not only to his bevy of dexterous actors (which also includes Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Joseph Cross, and Alison Pill), but also to actual members of the society he's recreated. He harmoniously blends found footage of the dynamic gay haven with Harris Savides' oft-grainy cinematography, creating a historical docu-drama that hums with realism yet still has the rapture of a great novel. It's guided along by the tape-recorded recollections of Milk himself (as portrayed by Penn), a man who seems to have been prophetically aware of his brief opportunity to make a difference. He seizes his chance when, after opening a camera shop on Castro Street and instrumentally turning the neighborhood into a homosexual microcosm, an invasion of religious intolerance and police brutality threatens his community's way of life and prompts him to run for office.

With an accuracy that calls to mind the long-road campaign of our current president-elect, “Milk” depicts how a small, grassroots movement can spread into a national phenomenon on the basis of a singular belief (“We're fighting for our lives, here,” Milk says). Milk starts out standing on a box on a street corner with a megaphone, and ends up a state figurehead who makes headlines and receives phone calls from suicidal, salvation-seeking gay teens across the country. He “recruits” people off the street, relentlessly pursues support from skeptical political power players, and transforms The Castro into the Woodstock-like mecca of his cause. He faces down the opposition of radical conservatives like State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) and Southern Baptist singer-turned-anti-gay-spokeswoman Anita Bryant (who plays herself in archival news interviews) with an unyielding courage. And though he sees failures and is constantly aware of his challenges (the film is very attentive to Milk and co.'s fears and vulnerabilities), his eventual victories and inevitable ascension as the voice of an entire culture of oppressed people stems from a valiant refusal to back down. (“I'm not a candidate,” he insists. “The movement is the candidate.”)

Black's retelling of these events rolls out with great fervor and fluidity, and it's aided by acting of the highest order. Franco caps off a banner year – he stole the show in Judd Apatow's “Pineapple Express” – by rapidly maturing before our eyes and tapping into his heartthrob appeal with a just-right amount of restraint. Brolin, who seems to have all the right moves lately, adds another fascinating performance to his newly enviable resume', allowing White's volcanic center to boil to its desperate breaking point. Hirsch, who proved his chops last year in Penn's “Into the Wild,” is a flamboyant, streetwise delight as Milk's hustling point man. Even Luna, who plays a familiar, comic relief role as Milk's featherbrained interim lover, instills gravity in his superfluous character. And Penn, all doe-eyed and optimistic with an almost impervious ear-to-ear grin, conveys precisely why Milk was able to accomplish what he did in a time when films like “Brokeback Mountain” were still relegated to underground venues. He's impossibly charming and undaunted by the prejudice that sometimes literally closes in around him. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Penn is an actor who devotes every inch of himself to the character he's playing. In the end credits, there's a montage of the principal players and their real-life counterparts. With Penn and Milk, there's a resemblance, of course, but it's the personalities that look most similar. Penn tackles the role and finds Milk's soul.

And then there's Van Sant. One does not reach a professional peak like “Milk” without building blocks of groundbreaking work. A pioneer of the New Queer Cinema that roared onto the scene in the early '90s, the openly gay Van Sant is a child of the very world he's documenting here. I think it's safe to say that this is the film he's waited to make his whole life. Watching it, we can see the artistic evolution of an American auteur. Stylistically, there are pieces of “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For,” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Thematically, there are shades of “Idaho,” “Mala Noche,” and “Good Will Hunting.” Ultimately, what Van Sant has achieved is a career culmination by way of a modern masterpiece.

I very rarely applaud at the end of movies. It's a futile practice to clap at an inanimate screen. But, in spite of myself, after wiping away tears, I clapped for “Milk.”

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The makers of the haunting Holocaust tragedy, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” are marketing it as a family film. The TV commercials are awash with glowing blue skies, sweeping music, and a kid-friendly sense of adventure. The posters – which feature those same skies, a glowing horizon, and a barbed-wire fence that, in context, manages to look friendly – are emblazoned with the insignia of the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, typically a green light for concerned parents. Well, moms and dads, I'm here to tell you not to be fooled by this profit-seeking trickery. While “Pajamas” does make for daring and provocative grown-up entertainment, if you bring your kids to see it, expect the month that follows to be filled with tough questions and sleepless nights.

The movie, based on John Boyne's best-seller, begins in Berlin during World War II and tells of Bruno, the curious, 8-year-old son of a high-ranking Nazi officer. When his father is reassigned to be the commandant at a remote concentration camp, Bruno – along with his mother and older sister – gets uprooted from his charmed life of school friends and social gatherings and relocates to a dreary military compound. Lonely and bored, he begins exploring his new surroundings and discovers the existence of a “farm” about a mile away where people – including children – work and wear “pajamas.” Against his mother's warnings, the intrepid Bruno ventures out to the site and befriends a boy his age who's detained behind an electrified fence. As the pair's meetings continue, they begin to form a bond that eventually crosses barriers both literally and figuratively.

That, or some variation of it, is what will end up on the back of the film's DVD packaging, along with the sentimental tagline, “Lines may divide us, but hope will unite us.” Allow me to illuminate how things really go down. From the moment the family's move gets underway, “Pajamas” begins to descend – inexorably condensing until it finally implodes on itself. This is not a criticism but an observation; in fact, the style of the narrative is extremely effective in centralizing the drama. We leave the bustling, radiant city and the family's posh urban dwelling for a gray fortress in the woods where only a few characters remain and, from which, even more will depart by the end. The film gives us subtle visual and aural cues to the bigger picture, like chimney smoke and warmongering, but it never expands to illuminate the devastation of the camp next door or the war at large. All of the film's major events play out within that one-mile radius.

This allows director Mark Herman (“Little Voice”), who also wrote the script, to confine the tension to this family's dynamics, which are also on a downward spiral. Perhaps the most interesting things about this movie are its rather novel perspectives of the Holocaust. There's Bruno, of course, whose innocence and naivete' allow him to initially think that the things he's discovered are part of an elaborate game. There's also the mother, a Nazi's wife who's quite naive herself and experiences a severe personal decline once she learns the truth about her husband's work. The sister is a fervent supporter of the party and the father/husband is a soulless machine – two types we've seen many times before in films about this topic. But the points-of-view of Bruno and the mother feel new and eye-opening and the actors who play these characters do so with remarkable believability.

The performances that Herman draws from young Asa Butterfield (Bruno) and Vera Farmiga (who's only credited as “the mother”) are superb. Butterfield, who previously starred in “Son of Rambow” and whose wide, ocean-blue eyes render him as the male clone of Saorsie Ronan from “Atonement,” has eagerness and charisma to burn and never hits the stifling snag of forced child acting. Farmiga, a brilliant actress who's best known in the mainstream for her supporting role in “The Departed” but more known to film buffs for her harrowing work in “Down to the Bone,” is flat-out riveting. She conveys all of the nuances of her conflicted character with simple glances. (Watch how she reacts when she finds her daughter plastering her bedroom with Nazi propaganda: incapable of condoning or condemning what she sees, she says nothing, but her face gives us all we need.)

Herman doesn't nurture the relationship between the two boys as much as he does the ones in the family, resulting in a diminished sense of attachment to the film's bellwether plot line. But “Pajamas” isn't really interested in appealing to our hearts; it's dead-set on rattling our nerves. I surely won't spoil the ending but I will say that, once we realize where this story is headed, the horror mounts like a gathering storm. “Pajamas” is a brutally righteous morality tale that sticks with you. It's the kind of movie you tell your friends to check out but at their own risk. That it's manipulatively disguised as an affair for the whole gang is its greatest weakness and bit of a sick joke. I'd normally say it's a good idea to inspire worldliness in a child as early as possible, but the Holocaust is heady stuff even for an adult, and “Pajamas” goes way beyond a simple post-film discussion. I know what you're thinking: "But it's clearly given a cautionary PG-13 rating." Yeah, well so was the last “Harry Potter” installment. I wouldn't recommend “Pajamas” be seen by anyone under 16. I'd highly recommend it to everyone else – at their own risk.

Friday, November 7, 2008


Review: Rachel Getting Married
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In the introduction of his book, The Great Movies, film critic extraordinaire Roger Ebert writes, “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” Jonathan Demme's poignant domestic drama, “Rachel Getting Married,” is one of those great, truth-telling windows in which we can see our reflection. Life, with all its dirty smudges, is mirrored back to us as this alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking film bluntly examines the human condition. Its representative sample is an especially dysfunctional Connecticut family with equal cause for joy and sorrow. Hanging with this clan, we share those feelings and more; Demme's direction and Jenny Lumet's script deliver them in spontaneous cascades. By the end, we've absorbed so much life, love, and brutal honesty that we feel the need to hug someone just to share the load.

There is a Rachel in the family (played by Rosemarie DeWitt), and she certainly does get married, but the principal focus is put on Kym (Anne Hathaway), Rachel's drug addicted live-wire of a sister who leaves a nine-month stint in rehab to come home for Rachel's wedding. Kym's return opens old wounds and creates new ones. We get an immediate sense of how much trouble she's caused in the past from the way her family behaves around her; most of them treat her like a ticking bomb. Her lovingly loony father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is constantly putting food in her frail hands and won't let her borrow the car. Her calculating, nearly-as-estranged mother, Abby (a regal Debra Winger, veteran of another reflective, smudge-filled window, “Terms of Endearment”), dares not get too close, lest she confront her maternal failures. Rachel's best friend and maid of honor, Emma (Anisa George) makes it her mission to point out Kym's faults and keep her from adding the wedding to her list of things destroyed. (Through quiet allusions, we also gather that Kym's done something far worse than lie, cheat, and steal – though she's done all of those things, too.)

The only person who expresses a serious interest in understanding Kym is Rachel, a soon-to-be shrink who's watched her little sister come apart at the seams. For that reason, Kym's erratic behavior tries Rachel's patience most of all, and the sisters' relationship is continuously tested. There are scenes of revelation between the two women that are about as raw as they come, heatedly alive and objectively captured in hand-held, home-movie fashion. The rest of the story is shown through that same unbiased lens, right down to bride Rachel and groom Sidney's (Tunde Adebimpe) lyrical vow exchanges (the film refreshingly makes no matter of the fact that the marriage is interracial, and neither will I). We attend this tumultuous event as guests and take in the whole thing from top to tails. We sit through the unnervingly candid rehearsal dinner, the bright and buoyant reception, and the behind the scenes dirt in between, all of it unfurling with a naturalness that feels organically cultivated by everyone involved.

The movie's fiery core is Hathaway, who's so good as Kym, the role could mark the acting feat of her career (and she's only 26). Her performance is by turns infuriating, hilarious, mortifying, smart, and devastating. She makes a steadfast choice not to judge her character but to slip into her skin with an open mind and leave the evaluation to the audience. Nothing Hathaway has done before – the least of which being Garry Marshall's glittery “Princess Diaries” flicks – comes remotely close to the fearlessness on display here. From her squirrel-chewed haircut to her thumping gait, from instances of commanding allure to ones of tearful vulnerability, she builds Kym from the ground up with the courage to crush her at any moment.

Hot on Hathaway's heels is DeWitt, whose stunning star turn as Rachel should jump her from virtual unknown to in-demand Hollywood heavyweight. She goes above and beyond the task of playing Kym's only formidable opponent and comes very close to stealing the show. DeWitt's Rachel is a real, flesh-and-blood woman driven by both compassion and resentment, and the actress' contribution to this project is an integral part of its success. Another is Lumet's falsehood-free writing and all its impulsive mood swings. If one were to graph “Rachel Getting Married”'s emotional content, the end result would look like a kid's doodle of the Rocky Mountains. Like Hathaway's performance and like life, it's highly unpredictable and constantly redirecting its energy.

Every Thanksgiving for the past five years, I've watched 2003's unsung gem, “Pieces of April,” a movie with many parallels to this one. Shot in the same cinema verite' style, it depicts an extremely flawed black sheep and her quirky modern family as they reluctantly gather together for a celebration and hit big bumps along the way. With a similar veracity, it offers an impartial glimpse into someone else's life while allowing us to reflect on our own. I'm going to have to choose a holiday to devote to “Rachel Getting Married.” It's a celebration I want to revisit, a window I don't want to close.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Review: Changeling
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Screen goddess Angelina Jolie tones down her sultry image and dons a cloche hat for director Clint Eastwood in “Changeling,” a stylish, Depression-era mystery that follows a California single mother as she searches for her missing son and takes on the crooked LAPD. Fact-based, it's a story predominantly well-told by Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist who spent a year digging through archives of the actual case before shelling out his script. From concept to consummation, this period piece reeks of taste. Nevertheless, “Mystic River” or “Million Dollar Baby” it is not. “Changeling” lacks the emotional wallop of Eastwood's other recent films and, sadly, there seems to be only one person to blame for that: the director's leading lady.

Jolie is Christine Collins, a reasonably simple woman living in the Los Angeles suburbs in 1928. She works as the floor supervisor of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company and oversees her staff of switchboard operators while gliding around on roller skates. She applies cherry red lipstick on the daily to throw off her muted, bourgeois attire and carries herself as daintily as a doily. Her best – and, apparently, only – friend in the world is her eight-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whose height she measures on the kitchen wall and whose father is completely out of the picture.

When Walter vanishes, Christine naturally turns to the police for help but, instead, finds only added grief. After five months without results, the cops – desperate to rebuild their public standing in the face of a whistle-blowing preacher (John Malkovich) who broadcasts their underhanded practices over the radio – produce a child of similar description and declare that it's Walter, found at last. Christine insists there's been a mistake and her non-compliance prompts a sleazy captain (Jeffrey Donnovan) to have her committed to an insane asylum. Subsequently, the quest to find the real Walter coincides with an uphill battle for justice.

Had someone like Kate Winslet or Charlize Theron been cast as Christine, this film would likely be a tour de force. Taut and sharply paced, it's packed with opportunities for searing drama. With Jolie, those opportunities are turned to blunders. There's no denying this woman's priceless contributions to the world of motion pictures (her face alone could launch a thousand breathtaking scenes), but in her more actress-y roles, there's always a type of inescapable hollowness. From “Girl, Interrupted” to “A Mighty Heart” - both of which are more geared to her hard-edged strengths - to this, Jolie's fitful wails of distress tend to thud with an insincerity that's miles away when she's strutting her stuff in something like this past summer's “Wanted.” No matter how hard she tries to bring truth to turbulent moments (yes, I'm talking about the Oscar bait-y, “I want MY son back!” bits from the trailers), it's difficult to get past the notion that she's, well, trying too hard.

With its elements of Nazi-like, psych-ward mistreatment and woman vs. establishment freedom-fighting, “Changeling” conjures up memories of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and “Norma Rae,” two films that leave you wanting to stand up and cheer. Here, we never get that crowd-pleasing sensation because we can't establish enough of a human connection to the heroine to root for her. There's a clear-cut villain in this movie, played with a Peter Lorre-creepiness by Jason Butler Harner (“The Good Shepherd”), who gets what's coming to him by the end. At one particularly desperate point, I felt more of an emotional link to the bad guy than I ever did to Christine. Harner should be hailed for his talent but there's something wrong with that picture.

“Changeling” warrants a look simply because Eastwood is at the helm. A devout minimalist, the two-time Oscar-winning director embellishes nothing, favoring story and character over bells and whistles (the closest he comes to window dressing here is staging the action through a smoky filter). Even in his 2006 WWII epic, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the beating heart of the film's intimacy resonates much louder than its guns and bombs. Such a stripped-down style needs transcendent lead performances to be fully effective and Eastwood's newest title is his first in years in which that requirement is not fulfilled. He's incapable of making a bad film, and if you want to see a classy piece of work, by all means, get to the theater. But if you want to see Jolie doing what she does best, add “Wanted” to your NetFlix queue.