Monday, December 29, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) - Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Directors: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan (co-director: India)
Writers: Simon Beaufoy (Screenplay) and Vikas Swarup (Novel)
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Anil Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla
Jamal Malik is one question away from
winning twenty million rupees.
How did he do it?

A.) He's lucky.
B.) He's a genius.
C.) He cheated.
D.) It is written.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) opens with this question presented to the audience. The film then takes us on a journey through Jamal's life so we may learn the true answer. Is it possible that a young man from the slums of India could get to the last question of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? when so many educated doctors and lawyers have failed before him?

I must admit that when I first heard about this film I was a bit skeptical. The plot just didn't really seem that exciting to me. A young man telling the story of his life in order to explain how he knew the answers on a game show? That just didn't seem like enough to carry a movie to me, especially when you take into account that I never did like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? anyway. The more I heard about it though, the more interested I became in seeing it. Everyone was singing its praises and Danny Boyle has not disappointed me before so that was enough to convince me to see it.

I am very glad that I did decide to go see it. I was completely blown away by the film. I absolutely fell in love with the characters and was amazed by the journey undertaken by them. Even the characters that were not likable were at least extremely interesting to watch. You get to see Jamal grow up with his brother Salim and their friend Latika through three major parts of their lives. In every part of this story, no matter the age of the characters, I was completely drawn into their lives. I felt happy for them when they were able to be happy and together. I felt sad when something tore them apart and I felt downright horrified at some of the things they had to go through. The actors at all three age levels were able to bring these characters to life in a wonderful way.

The story opens with Jamal being brutally interrogated after it is suspected that he is cheating on the game show. After he does not confess they sit him down with a tape of the show and have him explain how he knew the answers to each of the questions. What follows is a series of interconnected vignettes, each corresponding a question being asked of Jamal on the game show. I actually enjoyed this story telling technique a lot more then I thought I would. I thought it would end up being a somewhat forced plot device but it served the story extremely well and ended up being one of the most unique ways I've seen of telling a story.

One of the reasons this story telling technique works so well is because of the main theme of the film. Destiny plays a major part in this story, everything that happens to Jamal happens for a reason and it all leads up to this one point in his life. What is it that Jamal is destined to do? Well, I can't tell you that. You will just need see the movie to find out.

But, just because the movie is about destiny don't think for a moment that you know what will happen in the end. Destiny can be a funny thing and it leads Jamal through quite a bit of trouble in his life. Will Jamal win the money? Will he lose it all? Is it even that important? These questions will have you bundled up in a knot of tension for the last 30 minuets of the film wondering what is going to happen.

On top of the wonderful story and all the great actors that bring it to life the film has many other things going for it. The cinematography is completely stunning, even when we are seeing the ugly side of life the shots still manage to be beautiful. The sound track and musical score fit so perfectly with the film and really help to pull you into it. The only real complaint I have about the film has to do with editing. Towards the beginning of the film Danny Boyle really does some hyper editing that I just don't think works that well. I understand he was trying to portray how hectic and confusing some of the things going on really were but I think he overdid it just a bit at some points.

Overall, everything about this film is absolute top notch film making. Even a cynic like me that doesn't buy into any form of destiny was able to be completely engrossed by the film. Any thoughts about whether or not the chain of events that occur is plausible should be pushed aside and the film should just be enjoyed. When destiny rears its head implausible things will happen. As long as you love a good, character driven story then this film should completely pull you in just as it did me.

Rating: 9/10

**Personal Note: Seeing this movie was part of a dinner and movie night with Shaw-girl. However in a strange turn of events that I am sure involved some paradox being created through several universes colliding, I ended up doing the cooking. I broiled up a couple of nice steaks and some red patatoes we got from Trader Joe's and they turned out delicious. Check it out over at Adventures in Shaw.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hellboy (2004) - Guillermo del Toro

Hellboy (2004)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro (Screenplay), Peter Briggs (Story), Mike Mignola (Comic Book)
Starring: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, David Hyde Pierce (Voice)

Hellboy (2004), to me, has always been a film that is a great example of how your expectations can affect your feelings toward a film. I first saw this film in the theater when it was first released and I had absolutely no knowledge of the Hellboy comic. I was pretty much just expecting it to be a very less-than-average comic book movie. However I went to the film with a friend of mine who was a huge Hellboy comic fan and he was expecting a very awesome comic book adaptation.

Now, it turns out that this film is actually a pretty decent comic book movie, not great but definitely good. Because I was expecting it to not be very good at all I ended up enjoying it quite a bit and was highly entertained. My friend however had such high expectations that the movie ended up very much disappointing him. Upon subsequent viewing my opinion has dropped ever so slightly. I am not sure if my friend has ever taken the time to revisit the film.

The script for the movie is kind of cheesy but for the most part works. There are definitely some very funny moments but there are also a lot of moments that are meant to be funny that end up falling flat. There is nothing about the script that really stands out to take it to that above average mark though.

For the most part the acting in the film is serviceable. It isn't what I would call great but it works well enough for the movie. Ron Perlman is, of course, very enjoyable to watch as Hellboy but then that is to be expected. He always seems to be having so much fun in these kinds of roles. Selma Blair is about as good as she usually is, she does a pretty decent job playing the object of Hellboy's unrequited affections. The rest of the supporting cast, John Hurt, Rupert Evan and Jeffrey Tambor are just kind of there.

What really takes this film to that above average level is the directing and cinematography. Del Toro really knows where to put a camera to get a beautiful shot. While this isn't necessarily filmed as well as some of his other movies, Pan's Labyrinth (2006) for example, it is still quite wonderful to look at it. Even if some of the monsters in the film have kind of a cheesy look to them they still seem to fit into the movie perfectly.

Overall the film is worth seeing and is rather enjoyable but it is far from perfect. After watching it a couple times I don't get as much enjoyment as I did the first time but I still find it to be a pretty entertaining flick. As long as you don't take it too seriously then you should be able to just sit back and enjoy it.

Rating: 6/10

Friday, December 26, 2008

Timecrimes (2007) - Nacho Vigalondo

Timecrimes (2007)
Los Cronocrímenes
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Writer: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Karra Elejalde, Candela Fernández, Bárbara Goenaga, Nacho Vigalondo

Timecrimes (2007) is one of those movies that you walk out of scratching your head and saying to yourself, "What the hell did I just watch?" But in a totally awesome and refreshing kind of way. The film does get a bit confusing sometimes but not for any of the normal reasons you would get confused in a time travel movie.

The most wonderful thing about this movie is that it takes a very simple approach to time travel. It doesn't exactly have multiple times lines going all over the place like Back to the Future (1985). That right there is how the movie gets confusing. Because we as an audience are so used to much more complex time travel stories our brains want to make this film so much more complicated then it actually is. When in reality the story is actually quite simple.

Instead of multiple time lines all going on at once and causing problems with the others, we are presented with one time line that just happens to loop back on itself a bit. Now you may ask, "is there really a different between these two things?" If that is your question then I suggest watching the movie and seeing just how simple the story really is and just how wonderfully that causes everything to come together.

Now, while the story is fairly simple there are still some pretty good twists in the movie. Is that a contradiction? Maybe so but this is that kind of movie. You may see some of the twists coming and you may not but the truth is that this is also one of those movies where the journey is much more important than anything else. The twists themselves are not what you should be concentrating on but how those twists are approached and resolved.

This movie also has that great indie feel to it that I love so much. There are no big set pieces or big special effects, except for maybe the time travel machine but it is actually a fairly simple set as well. As with most of the best science fiction out there, the sci-fi elements take a back seat to great story telling and great film making. The acting is very well done and the movie is very well shot but the greatest thing about this movie has be be how well it was planned out and edited together.

There are so many small details that, had they been missed, could have totally messed up the movie but because so much thought was put into these details the movie comes together wonderfully in the end. That is exactly what I love about indie film making, when you don't have money to throw around for great special effects then you have to be creative and talented and the film makers behind this movie were both of those things.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - George Seaton

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Director: George Seaton
Writer: George Seaton (Screenplay), Valentine Davies (Story)
Starring: Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood

Well, it is that time of year again. Time for me to drop some of the cynicism and review of movie that is actually sweet and touching and perhaps even leaves you with a feeling of hopefulness. No, I'm not speaking of Die Hard (1989). Although that is a Christmas movie, despite what some people may try to tell you. Believe it or not Miracle on 34th Street (1947) has always been my favorite Christmas movies.

From the opening sequence where Kris Kringle corrects a shop keeper setting up a Christmas display by telling him that he is putting the reindeer in the wrong place the movie has a wonderful, playful sense of humor about itself. Not all of the humor revolves around no one believing Kris is the real Santa Claus though. The script for the entire movie is very well written and quite humorous.

The film also presents a good message about the over commercialism of Christmas. If you been anywhere near a mall in the last month then you know that the commercialized Christmas is still the norm 60 years later. The film shows us that there is so much more to Christmas then presents and toys. It shows us that Christmas is about hope and about how taking a leap of faith is sometimes just what is needed.

Sometimes to really understand the necessity of a leap of faith you need to have the innocence of a child. Natalie Wood does a wonderful job at such a young age bringing this innocence to the film. The grown ups in the film can't believe that Kris is the real Santa because their view of the world is tainted by rules of society. Only someone that views the world as a child does can believe in Santa Claus.

The film also has a message about having an healthy fantasy life as a child. Children should be children while they are still young. They should play and have fun and it is a wonderful thing for them to believe in fairy tales and Santa Claus. After all, having a good imagination can lead to creativity and the world certainly could use more of that. That way we would get more wonderful movies like this and less of those bland Hollywood blockbusters and remakes.

Edmund Gwenn does a marvelous job playing Kris Kringle and bringing a good amount of humor to the role. He has such good chemistry with the rest of the actors in the film especially Natalie Wood. Not only does he make the rest of the characters in the movie believe in Santa Claus he is able to make me believe and that is what makes me love this movie so much. This film is part of my traditional Christmas viewing every year and it will continue to be for years and years to come.

I do have to say though that it is a travesty that on the latest release of the DVD the colorized version is the main feature while the original black and white version is demoted to the second disc as basically a special feature. Can't we all just sit back an enjoy a classic film in black and white? Colorized movies just never look right to me. The flesh tones just never look right and everything seems to get this almost pastel hue to it which just doesn't look natural. As Orson Welles may have said when Ted Turner wanted to colorize Citizen Kane (1941), "Keep [him] and his damned crayolas away from my movie!" Do yourself a favor, watch it in the original black and white version of the film.

Rating: 10/10

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rachel Getting Married (2008) - Jonathan Demme

Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Jenny Lumet
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, Bill Irwin

After watching Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (2008) I was walking out of the theater behind an older couple that seemed to have not enjoyed the movie. After a little eavesdropping on my part I was able to determine that they came into the movie knowing nothing about it. I am assuming they saw the poster and expected a nice romantic movie starring that sweet Anne Hathaway from The Princess Diaries (2001).

Sweet Anne Hathaway has grown up. Some may say she grew up when she made Havoc (2005) or Brokeback Mountain (2005), but all she did in those movies was show off her chest. In Rachel Getting Married she shows off something else entirely, the finest performance she has ever given. She managed to do something in this film that she has never done before, she made me absolutely dislike her. Her performance was powerful enough to make me want to reach into the movie screen and yell, "My God woman, can't you see how completely self centered you are being?" This is definitely one of the finest performances of the year and there is no justice if it is not an Oscar contender.

Directing a script by Jenny Lumet, daughter of director Sidney Lumet, Jonathan Demme manages to create very realistic family trying to put some harsh times behind them, or at least on the back burner long enough for Rachel to get married. Anne Hathaway plays Rachel's sister Kym, who is a recovering drug addict and is taking the weekend off from rehab to come to the wedding. However, before the wedding can take place Rachel, Kym and the rest of the family will have to try to come to grips with some things from their past and learn to come together as a family.

The characters in this film seem so real that at times it almost feels as if you are watching an actual wedding video. I know that doesn't sound exactly like a compliment, I mean when was the last time actually voluntarily sat down to watch some one's wedding video? Trust me though, this is a wedding you will want to see. It includes one of the most diverse families having one of the most unique weddings that could be possible.

The independent nature of the film also helps to give it that feeling that you could actually be watching a real family and not a scripted movie. By using an HD Digital camera instead of a 35mm camera, Jonathan Demme is able to capture that home made look that brings you closer to the story. He also gets a lot more free with his hand held work during the actual wedding scenes to get that look of an actual wedding video and it works very well. Don't take that to mean that the movie looks amateurish though. Demme is a director who knows what he is doing and his camera is always in the right place at the right time.

I tend to really like movies that involve stories on a smaller scale and revolve around interesting (but not necessarily likable) characters and that is exactly what this movie delivered. If that is the kind of movie that interests you then get out and see this one. Rachel Getting Married is quite possibly Jonathan Demme's best work since Silence of the Lambs (1991) and I hope he continues to give us more movies like this.

Rating: 9/10

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Doubt (2008) - John Patrick Shanley

Doubt (2008)
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Writer: John Patrick Shanley (Play and Screenplay)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

Why is it that every time I start writing my review for Doubt (2008) I can't seem to think of anything that isn't an awful pun of the title such as, "I have no doubt that Doubt will receive several Oscar nominations for its actors." I am sure at least half the reviews for this movie start out that way and I was hoping to avoid it. I guess when the title gives you such an obvious pun to use it can be very hard to resist.

John Patrick Shanley, who also wrote the original play and adapted the screenplay, directs four of the finest performances of the year in this film. The four main actors in the film work with a well written script and deliver their lines perfectly throughout the entire film. The actors have wonderful chemistry with each other and completely make their performances some of the most believable seen this year.

The scenes between Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn and Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius deliver some of the most intense moments that could be possible in a scene that is purely a performance based dialog scene. The two characters never sway from their own convictions for even a moment and the actors portray that intensity marvelously. Amy Adams, who I had never really paid much attention to in the past, also delivers a wonderful performance as Sister James. She does a wonderful job portraying a young nun that is still a bit naive about the way the world works.

The surprise performance comes from Viola Davis though. She really comes out of nowhere to deliver one of the finest performances of the film. In fact if a Supporting Actress race came down to her and Amy Adams for this movie, I would have to give the award to Viola Davis. Even though she has a minimal amount of screen time she is really able to make the audience not just understand what she is feeling but feel it along with her. Watching her try to decide what is the best thing to do for her son is probably one of the most gut wrenching moments in the film.

The movie also does seem to have something to say about the importance of both faith and doubt and how blindly following either of these can lead to trouble. Are faith and doubt truly opposites or are they more closely related then we like to believe? This message is prevalent through out the film and it does leave you with something to ponder and dicuss after leaving the theater but in the end this message takes a back seat to the the excellent performances. I'm sure in the end there will be more talk about the actors in the film then about any message that may be present.

Even though John Patrick Shanley brings fine performances from these actors to the screen his direction is fairly generic for most of the film and leaves a lot to be desired. In some ways this generic direction isn't completely a bad thing because it lets the actors shine through without the directing getting in the way. The only problem though is that on the few occasions where he does try to use bold camera work it is distracting when compared to the direction of the rest of the film. I tried to find some kind of connection between the few shots where he uses the canted camera angles but I could not. They seem to be thrown in just for the hell of it a few places in the film.

The performances alone make the movie worth seeing in the theater if you get the chance but seeing it on DVD at home probably would not diminish much. In the end I did really enjoy the film but I doubt it will make it into my top 10 of the year. Yes, I know, I couldn't resist one last pun.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cinematical Seven: The Best Sci-Fi Remakes - A Response

Cinematical recently posted an article written by Eugene Novikov entitled The Best Sci-Fi Remakes. Now, I don't know Eugene but after reading his article I have decided that I need to try a couple shots of whatever it is he is drinking these days. Honestly, off the top of my head I can only think of two sci-fi remakes that I would even say are worth seeing; The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986). One of those movies did make the list and the other is at least mentioned in the article. I am sure there might be some more good sci-fi remakes out there, I just haven't gotten around to seeing them yet.

For starters, here is the list (in case you didn't click the link above and check it out):
  1. War of the Worlds (2005)
  2. The Fly (1986)
  3. Vanilla Sky (2001)
  4. Solaris (2002)
  5. Planet of the Apes (2001)
  6. 12 Monkeys (1995)
  7. Village of the Damned (2995)

I guess I should jump right in with what I see to be the worst offender on the list. Anyone who knows me already knows what that is though and quite honestly it shouldn't be hard to tell if you look at the theme of this blog. How the remake of Planet of the Apes manages to make it onto a list of top anything other than "Top 10 movies that will make you want to put a gun barrel in your mouth" is beyond me.

I have heard people defend Tim Burton's atrocity that is Planet of the Apes on a few occasions. Usually this consists of saying that the special effects are good and that the make up effects are way better than the original. These are things that I will not argue with. However, Eugene, I decided to pick on you because you are the first person I have ever seen try to defend this movie in any semi intelligent way. You defend the movie as having an ending that "is cryptic in a good way, hewing closer to the Pierre Boulle novel from which both films are ostensibly adapted."

Say what? I'll give you that the ending is cryptic. It is cryptic as all hell. That is in no way a good thing though. We are talking about an ending that made so little sense that when the DVD first came out it included a little card that actually explained how the ending could possibly happen the way it did. Now don't ask me how I know it came with this card because I will not admit to ever having owned this DVD.

A movie ending that is "cryptic is a good way" gives your brain something to chew on for awhile and if you think about it enough you might actually learn something about what the movie was trying to say. Also, when a cryptic ending is done well it usually becomes much less cryptic once you have given it some thought. Neither of these things occur with the ending of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. It was nothing more than a poor attempt to throw in an unnecessary twist ending because they felt the need to compete with the original movie. The twist ending adds nothing of value to the film. All it does is make people leave the theater scratching their heads and wondering if they can get a refund.

You also state that the ending of the remake is closer to the ending of the book. In many ways this is true, however that doesn't make it good. I have read Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes and I will say that it is one of the few instances where the movie (the original 1968 movies of course) is better than the book. While Boulle's novel was a fairly straight forward story with a twist ending, the original movie used the story to put questions about religion, racism and equality on display. Boulle's novel was good but the original movie was able to take the good story and use it as a backdrop to make a great, entertaining movie that also had something to say. The remake just uses Boulle's story as a back drop for nice make-up effects, big explosions and Mark Walberg running around trying to outsmart apes. Honestly I don't see his character in this movie outsmarting a normal ape much less an intelligent one but I a getting off track here.

As for the rest of the list, I will just make a few minor comments. War of the Worlds at number one? I certainly hope this list wasn't in order because there is no way that is the best movie on this list. I haven't seen Vanilla Sky or Solaris so I can not comment. The originals and remakes of both are on my list of movies to see. Twelve Monkeys is certainly an awesome movie, I just think it is a bit of a stretch to call it a remake. It took the general idea of the short film La Jetee and greatly expanded on it and created something completely different. I will let you have that one though because I guess in the strictest sense of the word it would be a remake. Lastly, I haven't seen Village of the Damned but leaving The Thing off of this list is a complete travesty.

By the way Eugene, if you happen to run across this blog please don't be too offended. My rant was meant as nothing more then good fun. I went through and read some of your other articles on Cinematical before I posted this and I actually liked quite a few of them. I also liked the song The Wrestler and I thank you for recommending it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Let the Right One In (2008) - Tomas Alfredson

Let the Right One In (2008)
Låt den rätte komma in
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: John Ajvide Lindqvist (Novel and Screenplay)
Starring: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar

I've never been a huge fan of vampire movies. My personal favorites were always Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931). I usually find most modern takes on vampires to be pretty bland with no real atmosphere or tension. However, this weekend I decided to go see what looked like it would be an original and interesting take on vampire movies. No, I didn't see the one you are thinking of. There were no mobs of 12 year-old girls pushing their way into this movie. The only 12 year-olds in sight were the two main characters of the new Swedish vampire movie, Let the Right One In.

The story follows Oskar, a lonely boy who is bullied by his fellow classmates and doesn't really do much to stand up for himself. Things begin to change however when he meets Eli, a young girl that moves into the apartment next to his. Something isn't quite right about Eli though, she seems to only come out at night, she does not dress in warm clothes yet she is not at all affected by the cold or snow. At first Eli says she can not be friends with Oskar but does not give a reason. Slowly the two characters become friends and both characters being to change. Of course things begin to go wrong when strange murders begin happening around town without any real explanation and it doesn't take long for Oskar to figure out what Eli really is.

For the most part this film is about the relationship between Oskar and Eli. The director leaves the extent of this relationship open for interpretation and doing a quick search on the internet you will certainly find a lot of debate on the subject. For the most part though the relationship is very innocent and borders on what is best described as puppy love. Most of the controversy that surrounds the relationship actually centers on something that I didn't even notice until after I finished the movie and began to read about it. I won't spoil it for anyone but I suggest avoiding message boards about the movie until after you have seen it. Of course in the end the details are not really important, what is important is that Oskar and Eli give each other strength.

What makes this relationship great is that the main characters come across as very real and very likable. The relationship moves forward in a plausible way with each character reacting to the other in ways that seem very natural. The actors portraying the characters do a wonderful job of bringing this innocence to life. Also in spite of the fact that the characters are likable this movie does not make one of the biggest mistakes that many modern vampire movies make. Being a vampire is never romanticized in this movie. If at any point in the film you begin to think that they might be going down that road something quickly comes along to show you that being a vampire isn't a great life to lead.

On top of just telling a wonderful story and having wonderful characters the movie just simply looks very beautiful. The snowy scenery is captured extremely well and really adds to the overall atmosphere of the film. The scenes that take place at night are especially gorgeous though. The white snow stretching across the landscape coupled with the stark black sky just heightens the sense of emptiness that is felt by the characters before they have met each other.

The film is a very well made coming-of-age story mixed with a (sometimes extremely vicious) horror film that will definitely leave you with a lot to think about. The film seems to also have a pretty dark sense of humor about itself. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will probably see it again once it hits DVD and I also plan to read the book as I have been told that it leaves quite a few things far less ambiguous.

Rating: 8/10