Thursday, October 30, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

2008, UK/India, directed by Danny Boyle (and Loveleen Tandan)

It took me a while to come down from the adrenaline high of Slumdog Millionaire to construct some coherent thoughts: like Danny Boyle's earlier films Trainspotting and 28 Days Later the movie hits high gear fast - think of the opening scene in Trainspotting with Ewan McGregor running down a street and freeze-framing in front of a car - and sweeps the audience along somewhat breathlessly to the finale. Just as Trainspotting went beyond cinematic chutzpah to reveal something of the lives of the drug-addled in Edinburgh, Slumdog Millionaire aims to capture the spirit of Mumbai's streets, tracing the city's rapid development - as well as its official change of name from Bombay - since the early 1990s. 

In that, it covers some of the same ground as Mira Nair's 1988 film Salaam Bombay!, also focused on street children, but a much calmer depiction of the lows and occasional highs of life on the edges of Indian society (before the country's major economic changes). Boyle and his screenwriter Simon Beaufoy are, of course, from outside India, but their film doesn't simply come across as a collection of cliches assembled by outsiders: the vibrant images, for instance, are inspired by Bollywood cinema as well as by the splashes of colour in Indian rituals such as Diwali, and are thus grounded in an actual Indian reality. 

The film's set-up exemplifies the idea of a country on the move, straddling a traditional world and a new, globally-minded culture dominated by the young, with the hero, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, one of the few cast members not based in Indian) a teenager who is appearing on the Indian version of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The film is structured around the questions that Jamal is asked: each answer reveals something of his life, for we discover the circumstances where he acquired these fragments of knowledge. It's a little articifial at times - and the filmmakers chafe at their own restrictions, cutting some segments to the bone in order to get back to the main storyline. Still, for the most part it  works, constantly returning us to the nervous movie theatre where Jamal progresses through the game, all the while pitting his wits against both the computer and the host (Anil Kapoor, who hits just the right notes of insincerity as he tries to ensure that the show remains focused on him). 

Since the film opens with a rather brutal scene of police torture, the early sequences on the game show tend toward the light-hearted, as if to soften us up for even crueler realities later: a vignette centered around a rumored appearance by the Indian movie megastar Amitabh Bachchan is one of the funniest movie scenes I've seen in a long time (Amitabh was actually the first host of the real Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?). Later answers reveal a much darker side to Jamal's life, and while there's a sweet romance at the centre of the film, Boyle rarely soft-pedals reality, showing us brutal acts of violence, and the systematic destruction of childhood innocence; what makes Jamal remarkable is not that he remains innocent but rather that he retains an almost infinite capacity for hope, an idea that's both hopelessly old-fashioned and absolutely compelling to watch. That capacity drives him far more than does the promise of riches, an idea that the other characters can barely understand - and which even the filmmakers occasionally have difficulty following through on.

This is unashamedly rousing film entertainment, effectively casting a spell over the audience, and tapping into the best of popular Hollywood (and Bollywood, to which it pays particular tribute in the unexpected and utterly captivating closing credits sequence); while the visual style (a mix of lighting styles, camera angles, fast cuts and slow-motion effects that might make Tony Scott jealous) is clearly Boyle's, much of the credit for the tremendous performances from the younger cast members goes to his co-director/casting director Loveleen Tandan, no stranger to cross-cultural productions on the subcontinent.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Samoan Wedding

2006, New Zealand, directed by Chris Graham (original title: Sione's Wedding)

Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding - the comparison clearly occurred to the marketers who changed the original title - Samoan Wedding is also set amongst an immigrant population, in this case Auckland's Samoan community, a group so tightly knit that the film barely features a white New Zealander. While the film's focal point is a wedding, we spend our time not with the betrothed but rather with the groom's older brother and his three buddies, a quartet known only for their ability to create trouble.

Although united in their foolishness - as documented in a very amusing sequence early on, where old wedding videos chronicle their destructive antics - the four aren't cut from exactly the same cloth; they span the spectrum of employment and employability, from a shy mummy's boy (when he hasn't had a drink, that is) to a player who just can't settle down.

These characters are painted with a deliberately broad brush: the film never tries to conceal the fact that we're likely to recognize these types from other movies, nor that we can guess exactly what may happen to at least some of the bros (especially quiet Albert, played by co-writer Oscar Kightley). Instead, director Chris Graham concentrates on keeping the pace sharp - the film never flags, quickly moving from one set-piece to the next, and cross-cutting between the different characters as they resolve their dilemmas - and the lead actors milk every scene for all its comic potential.

There are multiple running jokes - the white boy who's convinced he's authentically ghetto, Stanley's exuberant cross-cultural dance moves ("I think I'm an Irishman trapped in the body of a Samoan") - and some fine physical comedy, and there's even a dash of insight into the community's attempts to integrate locally while preserving island traditions (there's one character who insists on being called Paul instead of Bolo, as if he's uncertain about his Samoan name). That more serious side is very much in the background, however - this is an upbeat portrayal of a minority community, featuring many actors of Samoan origin, rather than a film in the mould of the hard-hitting Once Were Warriors - but there's still a strong sense of the bonds that keep this neighbourhood together, and it's a gentle reminder that New Zealand has more than two sides to its ethnic story.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


1979, UK/US, directed by Lewis Gilbert

Moonraker is the only Bond movie I didn't see growing up, and since it's often cited as the nadir of the series -- though how you determine that when it can be awfully hard to tell tongue-in-cheek Bondery from inadvertent foolishness -- I wasn't exactly eager to make up the gap in my viewing. It was a reasonably pleasant surprise to discover that it really isn't that bad. Sure, the reappearance of Richard Kiel's character Jaws is mindless, while the film loses the plot entirely once it goes into orbit -- Bond and Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) make no attempt whatsoever to conceal themselves and yet it takes an age for anyone to cotton on -- but the first hour is solid Bond entertainment.

Especially, that is, for Bond himself: there's an even longer parade of women than is usually the case, so much so that it becomes hard to sort them out, and the unreconstructed nature of the character comes to seem all the more jarring as the world around him changes. On the plus side, Michel Lonsdale is very enjoyable as the slithery, urbane Hugo Drax, delivering even his silliest lines with low-key relish, and playing straight man to the indestructible Bond. Lewis Gilbert, back for his third Bond, films a remarkable number of scenes almost wordlessly, and many of the action scenes have virtually no dialogue at all. At times, this is really quite effective: there's an especially good sequence when James goes exploring Drax's mansion at night, with Gilbert panning the camera away from Bond towards the door to track an unexpected arrival. It's just a shame that as we leave the earth such simple craftsmanship seems to fall away too.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Starsky and Hutch

2004, US, directed by Todd Phillips

It says something about this version of the 1970s cop show - fondly remembered though it only ran, in the end, for four seasons - that I didn't remember I had actually seen the film before until around the halfway mark. I'm not sure if that's a reflection on my indiscriminate movie-watching or the way that the film feels like an extended trailer rather than a coherent story. Like many of the films featuring stars Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, Starsky and Hutch has the air of a sketch comedy: several sequences work extremely well, even when they are completely unconnected to the original TV material (a wacky disco scene, for instance, or a very funny segment that brings the show's latent homoeroticism to the fore), but other sections are terribly over-extended, poor ideas poorly executed. Wilson and Stiller are amiable enough, though they only rarely push themselves, and they are reliant on help from the support cast, especially the reliable Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg and his henchmen, who play their thin material for all its worth.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States