Archive for January, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Monday, January 26th, 2009

slumdog

Movie review by Greg Carlson

From “The Village Voice” to “Variety,” reviews of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (co-directed with Loveleen Tandan) compare its inhabitants to the colorful street urchins and the cruel tormenters and exploiters of Charles Dickens. For anyone familiar with “Oliver Twist” or “David Copperfield,” the similarities are hard to ignore, and offer some idea of the film’s tone of triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Vikas Swarup, channels Dickens in other ways as well, spinning coincidences so preposterous that one becomes nearly dizzy at the thought of how everything is sewn together. Boyle is certainly a talented filmmaker, and has been especially interesting because his body of work resists the kind of stylistic calling cards that define, and often confine, some of his peers.

Jamal (Dev Patel), a chai wallah from the slums of Mumbai, moves from one hot seat to another when he is suspected of cheating on his way to a fortune as a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Underdog stories can be catnip, especially in tough times, and many of us have imagined what it might be like to attain fabulous wealth for being able to answer seemingly trivial questions. Relying on the painful memories of his patchwork childhood to provide the information he needs, Jamal navigates his way through the game to the astonishment of its cocky host – played by Anil Kapoor, whose growled refrain of “Who wants to be a mill-a-NAIRE?” is one of the movie’s curious pleasures. As Jamal climbs from one question to another, Boyle transports the viewer back to a corresponding anecdote from the character’s past.

While many have sung the praises of the film’s construction, calling it anything from ingenious to a metaphoric “river of life,” it is instead a liability for many viewers who will find themselves torn between an interest in filling in the blanks of Jamal’s past and the momentum of the much shorter scenes that take place on the set of the game show. Boyle uses three actors of different ages for each member of the trio of principal characters, and of those nine performers, some command more attention than others – always a risk when using this technique. Patel is certainly charming, and Freida Pinto is lovely as Latika, the young woman Jamal loves – even though they do not share much screen time.

Boyle practically taunts his audience with the range of events he chooses to show on camera. The film bounds wildly from a triumphant positivism that explains why the movie is constantly pasted with the dreaded “feel good” tag to the ghastly sight of a few nearly unspeakable horrors visited upon vulnerable orphans. Boyle does not flinch when staging scenes like an odious dunking in an excrement-filled latrine, which is played mostly for slapstick comedy, but some of the darker material will disturb sensitive viewers.

More stomach-churning is the depiction of a child being maimed, and it is certainly open to debate whether Boyle pushes too far to make his point. Perhaps the director would argue that the poverty of Mumbai demands a shockingly graphic treatment of the lives of its most destitute children, but so much of the film is calculating and manipulative in the direction of fantasy-come-true that the juxtaposition of the sweet and the heinous threatens to unravel the whole movie.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/26/09.

Notorious

Monday, January 19th, 2009

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An almost absurdly reductive outline that dramatizes the best-known highlights of the short life of Christopher Wallace (known better as the Notorious B.I.G.) while skipping over any real opportunity to explore the mind of one of hip hop’s greatest artists, “Notorious” will appeal to many viewers too young to have experienced the superb MC’s impact while he was alive. Essentially, the movie delivers exactly what most fans will want, even if it sidesteps the thornier dilemmas faced by a character as complex as Biggie. Much of the film tumbles by like a series of extended montages, and large sections of Wallace’s life become subplots with scenes so brief they appear unchanged from the soundbites and clips in the trailer.

Wallace’s mother Voletta and impresario Sean Combs, along with a pair of former managers, receive some type of producing credit, an instant indication that “Notorious” will not be as concerned with subtlety as it will with polishing the already sterling legend that routinely sees B.I.G.’s name at the top of many “greatest rapper of all time” lists. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with this – most biopics could be described as encomia – “Notorious” tackles only some of the largest conflicts faced by Wallace in his 24 years while completely ignoring others. The pair of 1996 arrests that included drug and weapons charges, for example, goes undocumented.

Watching “Notorious” replicates the odd sensation of attending a costume party in which facsimiles of 1990s hip hop personalities try on the clothes and mannerisms of those who made them famous. Although the script has little time to develop them as full-fledged characters, the romantic partners in Wallace’s life, including first serious girlfriend Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), protégée Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and whirlwind spouse Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), all read as vibrant and persuasive in their hurt at being wronged by Biggie’s irresponsibility and lack of fidelity. Less convincing are the over-the-top portraits of Sean Combs and Tupac Shakur, played by Derek Luke and Anthony Mackie. Both actors have been outstanding in past movies, but in “Notorious” their work has the exaggerated quality associated with someone playing a game of charades.

At the film’s center, Jamal Woolard fashions a credible performance, although most of the time, his Biggie Smalls lacks edge in favor of too much innocence. Ultimately, what “Notorious” needs most is the presence of the genuine article. The screen B.I.G. tries to be too many things at once, so that when Faith Evans asks Biggie whether he is a bad guy trying to be good or a good guy trying to be bad, the audience wonders the same thing. “Notorious” never offers a satisfying answer to that question, as writers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker prefer to cram clichéd life lessons down the throats of audience members who deserve something less patronizing.

The feeling of doom that haunts “Notorious” from its first scene to its last speaks to the frustration and pain experienced by many hip hop fans. The contradictory intersection of entertainment and violence – that place where the fantasy of Hollywood crime films and mob boss monikers becomes confused with the impulse to do real harm to a media-constructed “rival” – is replicated at the beginning and end of “Notorious,” but that aspect of the narrative remains as murky and un(re)solved as Wallace’s 1997 murder.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/19/09.

The Reader

Monday, January 12th, 2009

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An occasionally stimulating, often perplexing treatment of the nature of guilt, redemption, and the responsibility taken (or not taken) for one’s actions, “The Reader” is the kind of film designed to entice award season kingmakers.  Two of the film’s producers – Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack – died prior to the movie’s release, and the fact that both men are Academy Award winners adds a measure of luster and sentimentality to the film’s pedigree.  Directed by Stephen Daldry from the novel by Bernhard Schlink, “The Reader” does not risk enough to distinguish it from some of last year’s other handsomely photographed period films.

Tinkering just a bit with the chronology but otherwise sticking close to the events described in Schlink’s text (available in an English translation by Carol Brown Janeway), Daldry’s film initially traces the sexual awakening of 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross), a schoolboy in post-World War II Germany who shares a brief but intense affair with a woman more than twice his age.  Kate Winslet, as Berg’s lover Hanna Schmitz, brings much more to the role than is offered by David Hare’s script, which never attempts, or dares, to peer inside the mind of a person intimately acquainted with the unthinkable power of decision-making over life and death.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Hanna was a concentration camp guard who served in the S.S., although Daldry plays the scene in which this information is revealed as one of the movie’s two essential surprises.  The challenge for someone attempting a critical assessment of the story is to account for Berg’s curious relationship with Hanna after he discovers her complicity in the horrors perpetrated under the reign of the Third Reich.  While a second examination of the title suggests more than one possible assignation, the movie’s point of view belongs decidedly to Berg, even though Hanna dominates his thoughts from the first frame to the last.

Following the publication of Schlink’s novel in 1995 (the translation debuted in 1997), some controversy was inspired by the sympathetic portrayal of Hanna.  Many of the arguments, however, missed the essence of the author’s questions related to the generations of Germans coming of age after the end of the Nazis: is everyone responsible?  Hanna often asks those who stand in judgment of her “What would you have done?” and the query can have a chilling effect.  Neither Schlink nor the filmmakers explicitly forgive Hanna for “merely” following orders, but there is no doubt that viewers are meant to sympathize with her.

While Berg is portrayed by both Kross and Ralph Fiennes to represent the character at different points in his life, Winslet attempts to handle the younger and older versions of Hanna.  The movie’s first major section, effectively and often erotically detailing the heavily heterosexual male fantasy of Berg’s carnal education, is the film’s strongest, as Kross and Winslet seem to spend as much time in the bed or bathtub as they do with their clothes on.  Winslet does not fare as well buried under old-age makeup, but the overall impact of her performance is on par with her strongest work to date.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/12/09.