Sunday, July 28, 2013



The victory for the film SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was a nice surprise; here was a low budget film, heavily influenced by a foreign film gene most Americans had never heard of (Bollywood)with no Hollywood stars and set in a foreign country that was recused from a direct to DVD release to become a sleeper hit, echoing in many ways the underdog success of the film's hero.  While I prefer certain parts of the film more than others, I still think it ranks as a terrific movie, with a never dull story and good, naturalistic performances from the whole cast.

It's journey to the screen began when the novel Q AND A was published in 2005 by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup.  A year later screenwriter Simon Beaufoy began to adapt the novel and travelled to India to spend time in the slums and interview the children who lived there.  British film companies Celador Films and Film4 Productions showed the script to English director Danny Boyle, who was excited to work with Beaufoy, having enjoyed his 1997 film THE FULL MONTY. Casting directors were sent to the slums of Indian city Mumbai to find authentic street children to perform in the film, while English born TV actor Dev Patel and model Freida Pinto were hired to play the lead adult roles.  One of the casting directors, Loveleen Tanden, suggested that she translate some of the dialogue in the film into Hindi to add to its authenticity; Boyle agreed, and eventually had Tanden co direct the film with him.  The film was shot entirely on location in Mumbai and other parts of India.  When the film was completed, it eventually came into the possession of  the Warner Brothers studio, who had little faith in the film; after almost releasing it to DVD, the studio made a theatrical distribution deal with FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES.  Thanks to positive word of mouth and strong reviews the movie grew to be a sizable hit, making over $140,000,000 on a budget of only around $15,000,000.

Dev Patel & Freida Pinto

 Set in modern day Mumbai, the film's story is about young Jamal (Patel), a quiz show contestant who is accused of cheating and arrested and interrogated by a police Sergeant and inspector (Saurabh Shukla and Irrfan Khan),  to defend himself, he tells his life story; explaining that he and his brother grew orphan street urchins, and how, as if by fate, he knows the answers to all the questions he's being asked on the quiz show because they happen to be about actual experiences in his life.  Through the flashbacks, we hear how Jamal's brother Salim (Madhu Mattal) has become a gangster, while Latika (Pinto), the love of his life, has been forced into prostitution.  The sergeant belives Jamal and lets him go; he returns to the show, wins, and is reunited with Latika.
Danny Boyle's first became a well known director in 1996 with the highly entertaining cult hit TRAINSPOTTING, and he uses a similar cinematic style in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, one in which he contrasts stark, realistic shots with highly stylized ones that  highlight the emotional states of the characters. So there are many sudden unexpected  shifts in lighting, camera angles or film speed; giving both films an exciting feeling, and an often mesmerizing look.  Combine that with thumping, electronic soundtracks and you have a bracing, distinctly modern look for both films.
The film is well cast; with his broad features and constantly earnest expression Dev Patel is an actor that the audience automatically roots for as Jamal, and it's certainly believable that he would become a media sensation in India.  As for Pinto as his love interest Latika, her main job is look pretty and unattainable, both of which she does well.  I also really enjoy Anil Kapoor as the game show host  Prem Kumar, with his perfect on camera smarm hiding a much darker side.

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail & Ayush Mahesh Khedakar

But the film's real scene stealing stars are it's charming, funny and engaging child actors. Hiring real slum dwelling kids to basically play versions of themselves works wonderfully, as they are natural performers who impress us with their resilience, intelligence and resourcefulness as they try to survive in a tough, adult world that usually either ignores or exploits them.   I love the way we see little Jamal(Ayush Mahesh Khedakar)  become an inadvertent guide at the Taj Mahal, making up stories as he goes, and I even like the silly gross out scene in which he literally wades through an out house to get a movie star's  autograph.  I like the kids in this movie so much, that I think the film really loses something in the latter parts when they grow up and the story moves away from being a homage to the survivor instincts of children and becomes more of a standard "lovers in danger" story.

There has been some criticism of this film's attitude towards the slum kids, with some Indians feeling that it exaggerated the worst aspects of Indian's impoverished, while others have taken exception with the film's upbeat ending; it is, perhaps, a bit odd that a film that can feature a moment as harrowing as a small child being blinded could end with a classic happy "love conquers all" kind of ending(complete with a great, feel good dance number in a train station).  Speaking as someone who's never been to India, I have to say that the tone of the film doesn't bother me, because, despite the modern locations, this story is essentially a fairy tale, a fact that its many stylized moments makes clear.  Is it, say,  believable that Jamal could possibly track down Latika in a city as big as Mumbai?  Not at all, but in the context of the film, it works.  The movie's theme, stated more than once, is "it is written", implying that Jamal's rise from poor orphan to wealthy celebrity is fated, and, not unlike a character out of a  Charles Dickens novel, his happy ending, after much trial and tribulation,  is inevitable.  It can also be related to the idea of karma, with Jamal, who has strived to be a good person, being rewarded while his brother Salim, who is a criminal, and who has often mistreated Jamal, getting his just deserts by dying in a hail of bullets at the exact moment that Jamal wins on the game show (although there clearly is some redemption for Salim as well, because he dies freeing Latika).  So, while I can understand why some people in India may be bothered by the film's portrayal of their homeland as slum ridden and violent, I imagine most audiences will not take the story as some kind of serious document of modern day India and just enjoy it for what it is.


While I'd be tempted to give the best picture award to Gus Van Sant's excellent MILK, which charts the rise of the modern gay rights movement and features a great performance by Sean Penn, or to Pixar's delightful WALL-E, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is so stylish and entertaining to watch that I won't argue with the Academy much.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013


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The Academy's pick for best picture of 2007 was  quite an unusual choice; NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a violent thriller with eccentric touches, hardly the kind of uplifting material that tends to win Oscars.  What's more, it directors were cult figures known for their often oddball films; after debuting in 1984 with the highly entertaining Hitchcockian  BLOOD SIMPLE, Joel and Ethan Coen had fashioned idiosyncratic careers that often involved updating and playing with classic film genres (like their 1990 gangster film pastiche MILLER'S CROSSING).  Working in independent films that were generally highly regarded by critics, it was inevitable that the two brothers would break through into the mainstream enough to get the notice of the Academy, as they finally did in 1996, when their crime comedy FARGO was nominated for seven Oscars and won two.  While I personally think that FARGO is a better film than NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the latter film is certainly exciting and well crafted, along with it featuring one of the most memorable villains in movie history.

Before it was a movie, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a book published by author Cormac Mc Carthy in 2005.  Shortly after its publication, producer Scott Rudin bought the rights to the book and suggested it as a project for the Coens. Although they had never adapted a novel before, the brothers admired the book (Joel later explained that he liked the fact that "Mc Carthy never followed through on formula expectations.") and agreed to write and direct it.  Their script kept very close to the source novel, with only a few minor points and some dialogue removed.  Gruff actor Tommy Lee Jones was cast perfectly as aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Javier Bardem, who was at first afraid of playing a violent character, was brought on to play psychotic hit man Anton Chigurh.  Finally, Josh Brolin, after lobbying hard for the role, was given the part of Lleweyln Moss.  Shot on locations like Sante Fe and Albuquerque,  the film was quickly completed on a budget of $25,000,000.  After a slow opening(it's opening weekend saw it grossing only around $1,000,000), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN would grown into a sizable hit, eventually making around $74,000,000.

Javier Bardem

Set in 1980, and located in West Texas, it tells the story of Llewelyn Moss(Brolin), a wielder who, while hunting deer, stumbles onto the aftermath of a drug deal gone terribly wrong.  He eventually steals a briefcase full of money.  This eventually leads to him being chased down by hit man Anton Chigurh (Bardem).  Meanwhile, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) attempts to chase down both men.  Chigurh and Moss play cat and mouse for a while, until Llewelyn is killed by a Mexican gang.

Despite the modern setting, this film is in many ways a western, with its sweeping shots of the plains and valleys of Texas and its horse riding law men.  (The Coens freely admitted to being influenced by famed western director Sam Peckinpah, and this film's theme of the aging lawman who longs for retirement is reminiscent of Peckinpah's RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY).  And like many westerns, it's story deals with serious, dark, brooding and desperate men who live outside the law, being pursued by a equally serious sheriff.  The film has long, heavy scenes without dialogue and the world of the film is one where sudden, brutal violence can break out at any moment (Anton shoots people without a moment's hesitation).
For the first hour and half, the plot follows a standard (if well done) action format, with Llewelyn staying just one step ahead of the relentless Anton; there's an electrifying shoot out between the two of them have that leaves both of them bloodied and that features Llewelyn piloting a truck that Anton is quickly blowing apart piece by piece.  But then the film takes an odd left turn: after building up to the standard violent face off between the hunter and the hunted, the story is resolved when Llewelyn is killed by a Mexican gang.   Killing your film's main character off in such a surprising way (he doesn't even die on screen!) is a daring move for the film (and the source novel) to take, and while I'm generally in favor of stories that challenge their audience by throwing out the standard formula, I find the last half hour of the film a bit lifeless without the usual kind of resolution.  Killing off the Brolin character in such a cavalier manner after building our sympathy for him hurts the film, and I think it would have been more effective to at least show Brolin being killed by the gang instead of just the aftermath.  Equally surprising is that the sheriff also fails to catch up to Anton, whose character has a much more unexpected  resolution: after Llewelyn's death, Anton hunts down his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald) and threatens to kill her, and then, in another unresolved moment, we see him leave her house without knowing whether or not has killed her.  Then he gets in a car accident and flees the scene, bloody but unbowed.  It's an unlikely way for a brutal killer to exit a film, wounded but free.  I suppose one can interpret this as showing his character as some kind of unkillable force of nature, one that can only be slowed down but never stopped, like death itself, but I personally would have preferred a more conventional finish for such a horrible person.  I should mention that I enjoyed the film more on repeat viewings when I knew about the unconventional ending and could just relax and enjoy the performances without worrying about the story.  I also realize that confounding audience expectations is the whole point of the last part of the film, and that it was that aspect of the novel that appealed to the Coens in the first place, since monkeying with standard genre conventions is often their forte', still I prefer the way that they played with those same kind of conventions in the film FARGO while still giving the audience a satisfying ending.  It's OK to tinker with formulas, but too much tinkering can leave an audience confused and unfulfilled.

Josh Brolin

Brolin and Jones both play their roles so naturally that they feel written for them; Brolin has an immediate likability and easily handles the many moments in which he has no dialogue.  Jones, meanwhile, uses his standard grumpy charm well, especially in the last few scenes of the film when he has to deliver some pretty long patches of dialogue.  But the most memorable character in the film is, of course, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh; I've already mentioned that his character seems like a force of nature, and that certainly seems to be the way Bardem chose to play with him.  With his dispassionate gaze, ugly hair cut and flat tone of voice, Anton often seems completely detached from the world around him (I love the way that he singlemindedly lurches through a pharmacy to steal medicine after blowing up a truck outside to distract the clerks).  But there are other moments when he seems to be enjoying himself; in the film's most memorable scene, he interrogates a store owner and then flips a coin and tells the man to call it, implying that his life hangs in the balance. ("What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?").  Clearly this cruel man, whom we've already seen strangle a cop with hand cuffs, enjoys playing god with another man's life for no reason.  Bardem won a best supporting actor award for his work here, and it's easy to see why; he's one of the most chilling movie villains ever, right up with there with Hannibal Lecter and Norman  Bates.


While I still have some reservations about this film's later moments, I still think it's a strong and well made thriller.  But I don't think it was the best film of that year, not when PT Anderson's wonderful THERE WILL BE BLOOD was released, along with two terrific animated films, Brad Bird's RATATOUILLE and Marjene Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS. Still, as a long time fan of the Coens, I can't argue with them getting some Oscar love...

Thursday, July 18, 2013


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The best picture award for THE DEPARTED was unusual for two reasons: the first is that is was a remake of a foreign film, only the second best picture winner to ever be so (the first was 1958's GIGI, which was originally done in France in 1948).  The second, more important reason, is that it was the first best picture winner for director Martin Scorsase, who also received an award for best director.   Despite having made critically acclaimed films for years, and being nominated a whopping six times before, he had never won a directing Oscar before.  Personally, I don't think this is his best film (I prefer 1991's GOODFELLAS), but's it's still a wildly entertaining movie, well acted, tense and exciting.  If its victory was just a make up call,  the Oscar voters certainly could have done worse.

Before there was THE DEPARTED there was INFERNAL AFFAIRS, a 2002 Hong Kong action film directed by Andrew Lau and Alan  Mak.  It was very successful in its homeland and was given a limited theatrical release in  the US.  Three years later the Hollywood Warner Brothers studio thought it had potential as an American remake, and screen writer William Monahan was hired to write the script, changing the Hong Kong setting of the original to his home town of Boston, and basing Irish American gangster Frank Costello on real life South Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.  When Martin Scorsase was brought on to direct the film, it seemed like a logical choice given his penchant for making violent films about organized crime (this would be his fifth film in that genre).  Interestingly, Scorsase did not even know that the film was a remake until after he signed on to it, and he wisely avoided watching the original until after he was done making it.  Scorsase quickly cast Leonardo DiCaprio who had previously worked with the director on 2002's GANGS OF NEW YORK and 2004's THE AVIATOR in the prominent role of undercover officer Billy Costigan.  For the part of that character's counterpart, undercover gangster Colin Sullivan, Matt Damon was cast.   Jack Nicholson reportedly turned down the role of mob boss Frank Costello at first , but he eventually was won over by Scorsase, Monohan and DiCaprio, mainly because he hadn't played a villain in a while.   Other talented veteran actors like Alec Baldwin, Mark Whalberg and Martin Sheen were added, and the film was set.  To save money, the film was shot mostly in New York City, but enough location work was done in Boston to make it seem authentic.  It's final budget was around $90,000,000, and it would go on to make around $130,000,000; it was (and still is) Scorsase's biggest money making film.

It's plot revolves around two young men,  Colin(Damon), who since childhood has forged a bond with mob boss Frank (Nicholson), and Billy(DiCaprio), a police academy graduate who's running from his family's crime connections.  Frank has Colin join the police force to give him information on their movements against his mob, while the police have Billy pretend to get thrown out of the police academy and work his way into Frank's organization to help build a case against him.  Both men prove to be good at their chosen roles, quickly rising in the ranks. For a while Colin gives Frank just enough information to keep him ahead of the police,  but when he is unable to stop a raid on a drug deal Frank is making, Colin shoots Frank himself and chooses to remain a cop.  Unfortunately for him, when he brings Billy in to relive him of his undercover operation, Billy figures out who he is, leading to an inevitable show down between the two fakers.

Jack Nicholson & Leonardo DiCaprio

In many ways, this is all classic Scorsase territory; not only is it another organized crime film, but it features his patented urban setting and  characters who are almost all intense, angry, foul mouthed men who are always one step away from acting out violently towards almost anyone around them (even the cops get in fist fights with each other).  It also has the classic Rolling Stones song "Gimmie Shelter"  on the soundtrack, which he had used twice before in other films.  But there are some differences: for one, the Boston setting is far from his usual mean streets of New York location, and, more importantly, the film's plot is much more tricky and complex than the plots his usual films are.  (Scorsase himself would joke that THE DEPARTED won because "This is the first film I've done with a plot.").  And for that we must give credit to Alan Mak and Felix Chong's excellent screen writing work on INFERNAL AFFAIRS, because it's there that the premise of parallel stories concerning an under cover cop and an under cover mobster, along with all the various complications that ensue, was first born, and Monahan's script often stays close to the original.  (Scorsase may not have seen the original, but a scene in which a police chief is thrown from a building looks very similar to the same moment from the earlier film). Still, while INFERNAL AFFAIRS is a good, well made film, THE DEPARTED, with it's bigger budget, better style and more memorable performances,  is a superior remake, with all the original ideas of the earlier film amped up to eleven as only a Hollywood film can.  The film maintains an excellent sense of tension throughout , as both Colin and Billy are constantly in jeopardy of being exposed, and I love the irony of both of them being so good at their secret identities that they are given the task of finding out who's leaking information when it's they themselves that are.  My favorite scene in the film comes when Colin directs a raid on a illegal deal Frank is making from the police station while also finding ways to tip off Frank about what's coming.  It's a marvelous game of cat and mouse with an amusing pay off (Frank flees the scene by boat) and we can't help admiring Colin's ingenuity, as he blows the bust  and diverts blame on to someone else, even if he is the bad guy in the story.

Given that Nicholson and Scorsase are two icons of 70's filmmaking, it's surprising that this was the first film they ever worked together on, and Nicholson responds by giving a classic, funny, over the top performance of a purely evil man as only he can.  The film opens with him rhapsodizing to the audience about  the history of Boston's organized crime and announcing "I don't want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me."  In the first scene we see him shaking down a coffee shop owner for protection money while leering at the owner's  teenage daughter, and then his acting  just gets bigger!  Scorsase allowed him to improvise, and he responds with crazy, wonderful moments like when he literally showers some prostitutes with handfuls of cocaine, or when he flashes Colin with a dildo in a porn theater.  When he appears in one scene wearing a shirt spattered in blood, it hardly seems surprising!  Even Frank's death scene is a manic bit of arm throwing and eye rolling;  Nicholson is so enthralling and amusing in the film that his somewhat premature death, although essential to the story, drains some of the life from the movie.  Fortunately, all of the other performers in the film are very good, if less dynamic.  I especially like Damon's performance, as he plays off his all American likability to hide his real identity.  Vera Farmiga is also a stand out as the only woman to wade into the testosterone pool of the movie, and she responds by strongly holding her own with Damon and DiCaprio, torn between the two men without knowing that the cop is really a criminal and the criminal is really a cop.  And I especially like the cold glare she gives to Damon when she finds out who he really is.

Lenardo DiCaprio & Vera Farmiga

If the film has a flaw, it's that it's visuals are not as striking as some as some of Scorsase's other films.  Oh, it's certainly not a bad looking film, but it lacks the stately, poetic tracking shots that can be found in his earlier films like 1990's GOODFELLAS and 1993's AGE OF INNOCENCE.  This is a bit of a surprise given that THE DEPARTED is shot by Micheal Ballhaus, the same cinematographer who worked on those earlier films.  Perhaps Scorsase felt that a plot intensive film like this should spend less time on distracting visuals, and if that 's the case, I really can't argue with that reasoning.  And honestly, saying a film isn't good looking enough isn't much of a criticism anyway.


While there were other fine films made in 2006, like LITTLE CHILDREN and PAN'S LABYRINTH, I certainly have no problem with Scorsase finally being awarded for this enthralling and thrilling film.