Friday, February 27, 2009
2008 Film Roundup: The Top Five
Slumdog Millionaire: Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, gets on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He has to use a lifeline on a simple question, but uncannily gets the other questions right. He's suspected of cheating, so the police grab him and really work him over. During his interrogation, he explains how he knew each answer, and we flash back to those sections of his life. We see that Jamal and his older brother Salim grew up very poor, and were soon orphaned. They meet up with another orphan, Lakita, who Jamal grows devoted to and Salik doesn't much care for – initially. They progress through a series of adventures, including a harrowing escape from some supposed benefactors. Salim occasionally looks out for his younger brother (especially at a few crucial junctures), but he's got a mean streak and also torments him. All three orphans are played by three different actors apiece at different ages. Even though the orphans live in astounding squalor at times, they're very clever at surviving, and manage to eke out some small triumphs (a poor, hungry kid is still going to enjoy riding the train). Salim finds his way out by allying himself with the toughest criminal on the street, and the worst parts of his nature flourish. Jamal takes a different route – the unglamorous life of a chaiwalah (tea server) at an Indian call center. He's still desperately trying to find Lakita, who he hasn't seen in years – and the reunion may not be what he's expecting or she wants.
Even when he's portraying dire and disturbing subject matter, there's a joy to director Danny Boyle's filmmaking (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) that's irrepressible. The camera style here is run-and-gun, the soundtrack is driving and infectious, and Jamal is a scrawny, underdog hero who's nonetheless clever, gutsy, occasionally reckless and always determined. The film definitely has fairy tale elements, but I found these far more palatable because Jamal is put through the ringer, from torture by the police, to horrible poverty and misuse as a child, to degradation at his job and on the TV show, to betrayal and disappointment by those most dear to him. It's hard not to root for him and his stubborn faith that somehow, he might be able to have something better. Dev Patel was cast as Jamal in part because he wasn't a muscle-ripped leading man (apparently, many Indian actors work out obsessively so they can take their shirts off in musical numbers). Patel plays Jamal with naïveté but also a sarcastic wit, as a quiet scrapper who also has an endearing vulnerability. Salim as played by Madhur Mittal is mostly set on being a badass but does show some flashes of conscience and self-sacrifice. Lakita, played by Freida Pinto in her film debut, starts mostly as a fantasy object of Jamal's affections, but also points out to Jamal how unrealistic his expectations are. Pinto gives Lakita a mournful feel, but also sells her excitement and an openness in key moments. She's got a gorgeous smile that sells one of the signature, recurring shots. Slumdog Millionaire does have some disturbing scenes that may upset some viewers, but the torture scenes are brief, and the mistreatment of children is tastefully shot. You will care about these characters, and the overall mood is celebratory. I wouldn't show this one to young kids, but unless you're really wary of the darker scenes, check it out.
I've heard that some people didn't like the explosive "Jai Ho" ("Victory to You") Bollywood number that celebrates the end of the movie, but they seem to be far in the minority. It works really well, this is a film set in India, and the cast is all having so much damn fun! The biggest reservations I have about Slumdog are its fantastical, double happy ending (boy gets girl, gets very rich) and its suggestion that fate exists. But again, when you put the hero and heroine through the ringer first, I'm much more willing to accept or even cheer a happy ending. The strengths of the film far outstrip its flaws. I'm not ready to rank Slumdog with Satyajit Ray’s tragic and joyful Pather Panchali, but there are some connections. Slumdog is also a bit like City of God in its slum setting, its elliptical storytelling, and sheer energy. But it's definitely its own film. I've seen a few takes on it that strike me as particularly obtuse (it's 'poverty porn!') or as tired, contrarian scolding (anyone who calls "Jai Ho" a "limp dance number" is pretty laughable). If you don't like the film or it's not your thing, fine. (And if the film motivates certain detractors to spend more time at the soup kitchen to prove their poverty-fighting bona fides, great, but I doubt that'll happen.) Maybe the false rumors of child exploitation on the set got to these critics. I don't know. But I have seen more sincere and measured concerns and criticisms, so we'll address them.
As Ken Levine notes, "Hollywood loves SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE ...now... Of course a year ago that same Hollywood was ready to send it direct-to-video." It was an underdog production about an underdog. Slumdog is obviously something of a fairy tale, but outside of documentaries, it's pretty rare to see poverty, especially this abject, portrayed on screen. Slumdog also critiques class divisions and depicts bigotry, but in a way that's organic and not sermonizing. The cruelty here in no more an aesthetic trick than is the blinding in King Lear. Several reviewers have called Slumdog Dickensian, which isn't a bad comparison. (Oliver Twist doesn't celebrate workhouses and child abuse, either.) Some viewers will see Slumdog mostly as an entertaining film with some harrowing scenes and some substance. But I highly doubt anyone's seeing it and saying, "Hooray! I don't need to worry about poverty in India because the movie has a happy ending!" Just as with Dirty Pretty Things (slight spoiler), Slumdog is a celebration of the underclass and their victory – it's not saying that the underclass have suddenly disappeared or are no longer being exploited. It's sure as hell not excusing or celebrating that exploitation! Personally, I found the scenes of squalor were some of those that stuck with me the most, and I've heard plenty of people mention them and praise the film overall. I thought the blinding scene, tastefully shot, was one of the most horrific and evil things I've ever seen depicted on film. (In Moscow, the beggar children will feign injuries but aren't actually maimed.) There aren't many routes out of the slum, and Jamal could have chosen Salim's life of crime, but he didn't (shades of Tuco and his brother in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). But Jamal's prospects in his more honorable job are pretty lousy. One of the elements I like is that one of the police inspectors (Irrfan Khan), starts off abusing Jamal, but gradually comes to believe his story, telling him he's an idiot but no liar. And if Jamal can win over him, he can win over just about anybody.
(Here's Danny Boyle on Fresh Air, on The Treatment, with Rob Vaux, and playing DJ. Here's A.R. Rahman on Morning Becomes Eclectic discussing the music for the film. The New York Times solicited three reactions on the root of protests to the film in India. Kalpana Mohan has a great piece on why most Indian filmmakers would have had difficulty making Slumdog. Sudip Mazumda writes in Newsweek about his childhood in the slums, and how they're no fairy tale. On To the Point (43 min. in), Gunjan Bagla explains why the film is 'a great acknowledgement of Indian culture.' A.R. Rahman also explains why he identifies with Jamal and his tough life story, and tells critics of the film to take it as a challenge and make their own. Fran passes on more on the face of poverty. The Constant Gardener crew did a fair amount of benefit work for the towns where they filmed, the Slumdog crew has apparently done the same, and I hope that and greater attention continue.)
WALL-E: Endlessly inventive, creative and charming, WALL-E is Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire (albeit in a post-apocalyptic landscape). It's easy to take what Pixar does for granted because they make it look so effortless and the end result is so entertaining. Think about all that's packed into the film - WALL-E, a trash-compacting robot left behind on a horribly polluted future Earth keeps at his Sisyphean task, watches musicals, and hangs out with his cockroach pal – he gets a visitor, a sleek lady robot (Eve) packing serious heat, who captures his heart – he winds up on the strange new world of a spaceship carrying the descendants of Earth's human survivors – and all that's within the first hour. The first section of the movie is also told with very little dialogue, the two robots only say a handful of words throughout the entire movie, and our hero basically has a pair of binoculars for a face. It's really amazing how much WALL-E tells us with body language, sound effects, reactions, looped ads in the background, piles of trash, and music – we're introduced to a pretty novel and complex world very elegantly. Yeah, this is a great film for kids, but as with all the best Pixar films, it's also phenomenal filmmaking, period. (As I mentioned before, Ben Burtt's sound design is exceptional, especially when joined to Thomas Newman's soaring score.)
I tend to dislike schmaltzy musicals, but it's a great device for WALL-E. WALL-E may be a robot without a proper face, but we see him imitate Hello, Dolly, take Eve (comatose or not) out on the town, try to rescue her on the ship, and they engage in a thrilling dance in space to "La Vie En Rose." WALL-E certainly provides plenty of witty social satire (although the filmmakers didn't want to be too political), but it also winds up being a surprisingly touching love story. The filmmakers studied plenty of silent movies, especially the comedies, and the charm, fun and magic of some old classics really come alive here. Chances are you've already seen this one (and if you have kids, you'll be seeing many, many more times). If you haven't seen WALL-E yet, certainly do (and a big screen and good sound system can only help). I've met people who didn't absolutely love it, but no one who didn't like it. A varied film diet makes room for everything from gritty realism to gems like this from writer-director Andrew Stanton and the Pixar gang.
(Here's Andrew Stanton on Fresh Air and on The Treatment. Here's the Design and Architecture interview with production designer Ralph Eggleston. I should also throw in this great NPR piece on Darth Vader and Ben Burtt's sound design for the character. )
Rachel Getting Married: Rachel Getting Married is not for all tastes, but Jonathan Demme's latest will have its deserved fans. Its greatest strengths are its willingness to linger on long scenes full of revelations and reverses, its layered depiction of one family's dynamics, and its realistic, documentary-like feel. Ann Hathaway gives her best performance to date as Kym, a troubled young woman let out of a psych ward to attend the marriage of her older sister Rachel. Kym is at times sympathetic and at others comes off as an insufferable brat. As we get to know her and the family history better, it becomes clear her personal demons are formidable, and her erratic behavior seems more forgivable – we hear a bit more, and really feel for her - but then we see still more and are left stunned. In all this, Rachel, who's been the 'good' daughter and is wonderfully played by Rosemarie DeWitt, is something of an audience surrogate, alternately conciliatory with and infuriated at her sister. Paul, the dad, beautifully played by Bill Irwin, is the peacekeeper and diplomat, but winds up being confronted as well as old issues resurface. (Anna Deavere Smith as stepmom Carol and the other cast members are uniformly excellent, too, and Jenny Lumet's script is very sharp.)
There are times the scene length seems excessive – are we really going to hear another rehearsal dinner toast, or watch so much of the wedding ceremony? But I think it works in the end. Rachel's marriage is in fact a huge event for this family (as a marriage is in many families), it adds to the you-are-there feel, and the normalcy off-sets the more explosive scenes. After we've heard a series of wedding toasts, Kym's self-conscious, rambling attempt sticks out all the more. A dishwasher-loading duel (you'll see) seems to be getting an awful lot of time, but highlights that slightly awkward but earnest desire to bond with the in-laws, and has a very effective, unexpected payoff. There's an extended confrontation between Rachel and Kym with Paul looking on that's fantastic precisely because Demme allows it to play out at length, with all its jabs and ripostes.
Our views on these characters and the family dynamics continue to shift. In some dysfunctional families, one person becomes the scapegoat even though the problems run deeper, but between Kym and Rachel, it's harder to gauge. How much of Kym's behavior is sincere effort versus self-absorption and selfishness? How much is Rachel deflecting, or is she at all? She seems to have it mostly together, and while she loves her family, also is happy to be getting out. It's the ambiguities and the swings that I found so intriguing. Debra Winger as Abby, the mother of Rachel and Kym, and Paul's ex-wife, changes our views further. She's really only in a few scenes, most of them late in the film, but her scenes with Kym become nothing short of revelatory, less for what's said but for what isn't. Still, I don't want to give the impression that Rachel Getting Married is completely dour, because it has some funny and charming moments, plenty of hopeful characters, and a ton of music (plus several musicians in the cast – groom Sidney, played by Tunde Adebimpe, is an actor but also in band TV on the Radio).
I found one of the last scenes, when Abby just will not follow up with Kym, to be remarkable. And Rachel picks up on the dynamic. It made me think back through the film, and what proceeded the events we've seen. Many marriages do not survive losing a child. Abby clearly never really talked through what happened with Kym on an honest, emotional level, and while she's apparently quite successful in the outside world, her preferred mode for personal issues appears to be denial. Imagine her married to Paul, a peacemaker, with Kym tormented and Rachel just trying to keep her own life together and not add to the mess. It's not a surprise they got a divorce. Kym asks after her mom multiple times earlier in the film. When you see how Abby handles Kym, it becomes clearer why Kym both can't forgive herself, and goes around jabbing at everyone around her (not that it's terribly productive). Abby was a presence even when she was absent – just as the brother was. Anyway, that's my take. And while I found the film engaging as I was watching it, it was the way it made me think back through it afterwards that I found the most interesting. It's not a casual viewing film, and I'm not going to pore over it relentlessly, but I do want to see it again for that reason.
(Here's Jonathan Demme and Jenny Lumet on Fresh Air, which includes her description of the real-life "psychotic, disturbing" 90 minute dishwasher duel between her father Sidney Lumet and Bob Fosse. Here's Jenny Lumet on The Treatment.)
The Class (Entre les Murs/Between the Walls): Director Laurent Cantet makes a film out of teacher François Bégaudeau's book of the same name, with François Bégaudeau, other teachers and students essentially playing versions of themselves. Winner of the Palme d'Or, the film is 128 minutes long but briskly paced. It follows François (as he's always called, except by the students) through a year of teaching French at a school with a diverse population on the outskirts of Paris. (The kids would be in junior high in the United States and range from 13-15.) François is a very good teacher, and the kids aren't horrible per se, but in addition to some racial issues in the classroom, François has to contend with the usual immaturity, lack of focus, testing of boundaries and great sensitivity to slights real and imagined. There are days when no one's done the homework, days when home life or the school yard come crashing in, and many days where the kids would rather not being studying the finer points of French grammar. It's a tough gig, and burnout's always a threat – a few of François' colleagues have pretty much given up on reaching their students, and at least one frustrated veteran is ready to quit. Throughout, François keeps up his energy and sense of humor, and does an admirable job of coaxing and challenging the kids to learn something about both the material and themselves. But he inevitably has his tough spots, too. François seems to be one of the strongest advocates for the kids at the school, so he's especially stung when his words at a student review are thrown back in his face out of context, and he snaps. Rather than apologizing and defusing things, he holds fast. This incident becomes tied up with one of his most inconsistent and disruptive students, who winds up facing a disciplinary hearing. The film raises the question of how the system serves such students, and offers a candid glimpse at the small joys and many challenges that come with teaching.
There are a few well-regarded documentaries featuring teaching I still need to see, but the greatest strength of The Class is its realism, and the "docudrama" label seems apt. I doubt any teachers or former teachers (or maybe just former students) will see it without some moment of recognition. (Viewers less interested in teaching, parenting or teenage life might not find it as interesting.) I've read that director Laurent Cantet had several HD cameras rolling simultaneously, and several of the scenes are improvised. Regardless, we-are-there. The Class is too honest to offer pat answers, but it does raise plenty of questions, and offers an authentic look at an important slice of life.
The Wrestler: Easily the best film to date from both lead actor Mickey Rourke and director Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler starts with an opening credit montage of programs and newspapers showing us how big Randy "The Ram" Robinson is – and then cuts to the present day, 20 years later. He's still entertaining the crowds, but it's in much smaller venues and for less cash. He can't even keep up with the rental fee on his trailer. It doesn't help that he spends so much on booze, strippers and an alarming amount of drugs, mostly serious pain medication. His hours working the stock room of a supermarket help, but not much, and he has to keep the weekends free for wrestling matches and poorly-attended signing sessions. He seems like a pretty nice guy, very supportive of his fellow wrestlers, and happy to play with the kids at the trailer park. But we infer from his very estranged daughter and his circumstances that he was a really crappy dad, and handled the money of his heyday very poorly. He's also pretty stuck in the past, down to playing an old video game from the 80s featuring himself. Externally, he's in great shape, even if in addition to the gym he has to hit the tanning booths, goes the salon to have his long hair colored, and shaves his armpits. But as the Indiana Jones line goes, it's not just the years, it's the mileage. He's aging, aching, and experiences a serious health scare after a big match that imperils his career. All that accentuates the emotional and spiritual hole inside. He's realistic enough, especially after seeing older and even more battered wrestlers, to consider retirement. But he seems to have little else. It looks like he has a connection with a local stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who's very good), but he's a customer. His daughter absolutely hates him. He manages to make progress with both of them, but has a knack for botching everything. He puts on a brave face, but he's got a lot of shame underneath, and it fuels his self-destructive streak. As his challenges mount, the allure of the ring, with its promise of restoring some of his pride and faded glory, becomes more appealing despite the high risk. Part of him is willing to pick up the pieces of his broken life, but another part urges him to go out swinging in a blaze of glory.
Cassidy compares what Randy does to The Passion of the Christ, and it's an apt comparison. Even though wrestling is fake, it's stage combat that delivers plenty of pain and bruises to the wrestlers. The most gruesome section is Randy's match with a wrestler who goes by Necro Butcher on the real life wrestling circuit and uses staple guns and barbed wire. It's brutal to watch, as is the aftermath as Randy is patched up. The whole spectacle is very sadomasochistic, but Randy believes in giving the fans their money's worth, and he lives for the crowds. Cassidy and Randy connect in part because they're both putting on performances, selling their flesh to customers who are increasingly uninterested. The difference is that Randy prefers his stage life, and that may be why he has trouble making the real-life-versus-persona distinction that Cassidy (Pam in real life) sees much more clearly, and guards ferociously. Rourke is superb here, and Tomei gives a nuanced performance (thankfully, it's not just a Hollywood stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold role). I was less sold on Rachel Evan Wood as Stephanie, the daughter. If there's a flaw to The Wrestler, it's that while some of Randy's woes are just life hitting him, and others are self-inflicted, some of his setbacks feel forced by the demands of the script. He forgets something important, and late in the film, he says he has trouble remembering things, but we didn't see that before the incident. The consequences of his interactions, particularly with the women in his life, seem out of proportion with the circumstances. Regardless, this is a very good film. The Wrestler reminded me of Raging Bull, in the physical abuse the character takes, in his self-destructive streak, but also the joy of being in the ring, whether it's accompanied by Mascagni's soaring music (in Raging Bull) or Bruce Springsteen's humble, haunting end credit song here. The Wrestler provides a sober look at the downtrodden, but also poetry of the wretched.
Maybe I'll feel differently after a second viewing, but I wasn't completely sold on Randy's rejection by his daughter Stephanie, nor the less certain rejection by Pam/Cassidy. In Stephanie's case, I found it hard to believe that when she meant so much to Randy that he would forget to show up. It just wasn't set up enough earlier. (Lost on the cutting room floor? They did at least set up his lack of a cell phone.) And having known some very sullen teens in my time, I felt the violence of her reactions seemed a bit unrealistic and forced. There's a difference between saying you never want to see someone ever again and meaning it in that moment, and really meaning it. (That's basically demonstrated in his blowout with Cassidy at the strip club and its follow-up.) I can fully buy that Randy would take Stephanie's words to heart, so maybe it's just that I didn't fully buy Wood's performance and what felt like a script contrivance to get us to that point. (Nowhere as bad as Lars von Trier in that department, though.) Meanwhile, Randy's last interchange with Pam/Cassidy was a little odd. No "just this one last time"? I bought that Pam couldn't stand to watch him get pounded and possibly die. I found it harder to believe that she'd expect Randy to refuse to go out at the last minute, given basic professionalism and how important the match is for him. And Randy seems pretty blasé about potentially passing up what's probably the best offer he'll get. No bargaining? No recognition? It gave the scene a whiff of delusion versus the "this is who I am" feel I thought it was going for. The last shot is great, and Aronofsky leaves things a bit open-ended. Does Randy die right there? Does he die later at the hospital? Does it matter, if he keeps going with wrestling? Stephanie probably wouldn't visit him in the hospital, but Pam very well might. Still, it's a very good movie.
I disliked the ads constantly running for The Wrestler out here on TV, because it was a solid bet they were misrepresenting the film, and they were: giving away the emotional climax of a key scene, making the film seem more touchy-feely than it is, heavily hitting Springsteen's involvement, and awkwardly splicing his song to boot. It's a great song, especially in context at the end of the film, but I was getting sick of hearing, "Ya evah seen a one-legged dowggg..." followed by that bad, "And you see meeeee," let's-pretend-this-is-an-upbeat-flick splice. But I hope the ads at least got the film more viewers.
(Here's Darren Aronofsky on Fresh Air and on The Treatment. Here's Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke with Rob Vaux. Here's a 2005 Fresh Air interview with Bruce Springsteen on his early influences.)