Reel Opinions


Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Uninvited

WRITER'S NOTE: The following review will dip very much into spoiler territory, so those of you who do not wish to know much about the plot or the surprises therein should most likely read this after seeing the film.

Right from the early moments of The Uninvited, something seemed a little off to me. The first sign is that its heroine, a teenager named Anna (Emily Browning), is in a mental hospital. Anyone who has ever watched a thriller where the main character has been institutionalized knows that the remainder of the movie will force us to ask if that character is crazy or not. Wether what he or she is experiencing is real or all in their head. Seeing this right at the beginning of the film made me know that I should not believe everything that I was about to see, as I was certain the movie was going to be trying to throw me off every chance it got.

I was right. The Uninvited wants so much to trick us, it seems almost like an obsession on the part of the screenwriters. But it doesn't do a very good job. Once you understand the movie's motives to throw you curves, it's all too easy to figure out what lies ahead. Anna is picked up by her widower father, Steven (David Strathaim), and brought home. We learn there was a fire roughly a year ago that claimed the life of Anna's mother, who was terminally ill. Anna doesn't remember the details of what happened that night (another red flag), but her doctor has assured her it's time for her to go on with her life and "finish what she started", as he puts it. Anna returns home to find that her dad is already in the process of moving on with his life. For the past couple months, he's been dating Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), the woman who was previously the live-in nurse when her mom was still alive, and has since been helping him cope. Anna eyes her suspiciously, however. Why shouldn't she? Almost every line of dialogue Rachael says is written in such a way to sound innocent, but to easily have sinister undertones. Her lingering and shadowy glances she constantly makes don't help either. And yet, it all seemed too obvious. Like the movie wanted desperately for me to believe that Rachael was up to no good. I just knew it wasn't what it looked like.

Anna's only source of comfort at home comes from her sister, Alex (Arielle Kebbel). She's not crazy about dad's new girlfriend either, and even has thoughts that Rachael may have caused the fire that killed their mother. Anna's been having some spooky visions when she sleeps that seem to back up this theory. She's haunted by the twisted corpse of her mother who screams "murderer", and she also keeps on seeing three creepy ghost children who seem to be trying to warn her about something concerning her future stepmom. The sisters do an internet search, and immediately find some information on an unsolved murder case that may have ties to Rachael. While I was being fed all this information, there was something lingering in the back of my mind the entire time. Why is it that Alex was never seen anywhere except with Anna? Why is it that none of the other family members were addressing the sister directly, or even acknowledging her when she was around? Why is it that Alex conveniently steps away right before someone approaches Anna? When Alex has been injured and Anna goes to talk to the police about it, why did the officer give her such a strange look when she said Alex's name?

The Uninvited wants us to be deceived, but doesn't cover its tracks very well. The movie is well made on a technical level, I guess. The performances are better than the norm, and the cinematography is strong, but so what? If we can figure out what surprises lie in store within the first 15 minutes of the film, there's little to look forward to. This is a movie that still thinks its being clever long after we've figured it out. It's like watching a magic act where the magician doesn't even try to cover up how he's pulling it off, but goes on pretending that he is. We're left to wait for the movie to catch up with us. When it does, it's terribly anti climactic. I didn't want to be right, but as the ending unfolded, it was revealed I had made most of the right assumptions. What I didn't see coming was the bad laugh the movie ends on, when we learn the name of a fellow inmate at the hospital Anna was staying at in the opening of the movie. When the name of this seemingly insignificant patient was revealed, a groan was heard in the audience. I wanted to join that individual.

It should be noted that The Uninvited is a remake of a 2004 film from Korea called A Tale of Two Sisters. It's not a very good one, at that. The original was a subtle and tragic story of loss, while the 2009 model is an all-too-obvious psycho thriller that is very unsatisfying. It's bombastic, and seems to have been made with a narrow-minded goal to have the audience smack their heads, dumbfounded over how clever the movie was and how it pulled one over on us. A movie should always be built around an idea, not a desperate attempt at a specific reaction from the audience. And if the idea for your movie is "let's take a smart and subtle film, strip it of its subtlety, and dumb it down", it's probably not a good idea to start with.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Taken

It's not surprising to see Luc Besson credited as the head writer for Taken. The movie shares a lot in common with another film franchise associated with Besson, The Transporter. Both are over the top, silly, non-stop action spectacles that seldom take the time to slow down or make sense. What makes the big difference here is who is at the head of the story. Taken features Liam Neeson in the lead role, who gives the film a certain humanity and grounding in reality amongst the silliness of it all. Let's just say it helps that he's a bit more sympathetic of an actor than Jason Statham, the surly star of the Transporter films.

As expected, the story is nothing but a hook for which to hang a series of increasingly elaborate and implausible action sequences. Bryan Mills (Neeson) is a retired CIA operative. He used to keep America safe from terrorists and international criminals. Now that he's retired, he's mainly trying to patch up his relationship with his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), and estranged ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). Kim gets invited by a friend to vacation in Paris. Bryan is not happy about the idea of his only child being on her own far from home, but eventually agrees. Turns out he was right to worry, as mere moments after Kim and her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) step off the plane, they are both kidnapped by Albanian criminals with ties to drug and prostitution rings. What's a concerned dad with military training and knowledge of every fighting style known to man to do? Catch the next flight to Paris, try to get some answers as to where his daughter is, and kill anyone who gets in his way.

After about 20 minutes of set up, Taken pretty much turns into an extended action and chase sequence that seldom slows down, except for when Bryan asks the bad guys some questions in-between beating them within an inch of their lives. The film's director, Pierre Morel (a cinematographer making his English language directing debut), certainly knows how to stage an impressive, if not ludicrous, action sequence. The stunts are brutal, and the editing is fast-paced but not choppy. The big surprise here is Neeson himself. I've regarded him as a fine actor for a while, but have never seen him as much of an action star. He definitely throws himself into every fight sequence and chase scene, while squeezing what little humanity he can out of his character. Bryan is not a human tank. He's simply a caring father who just happens to be an expert at multiple martial arts, deadly weapons, and torture methods. It may be ridiculous, but Neeson is a strong enough of an actor that he is able to sell the material.

Everything else about the movie is a bit of a harder sell. It's not just the fact that Taken is completely superficial, all thrills and no substance entertainment. I can enjoy that to an extent. What I could not get into was how careless everything seemed. Bryan is able to come upon the information he needs so quickly, and stay ahead of his pursuers so easily (both the criminals and law officials who want to reign him in and send him back to America), that I never felt any real tension in the story. In order for a story like this to work, the hero needs some kind of moment where it feels like all hope is lost. Even during the sequence where he is strung up and being tortured, he is able to free himself in mere seconds, and clear the room of every living soul in less time than it takes most people to wake up in the morning. Would it be too much to ask that after gunning down and stabbing half a dozen faceless henchmen that he at least lean against a wall to catch his breath for a moment? There were a number of times I wished the movie would slow down and let me take in what I was seeing.

I know, Taken isn't that kind of movie. This is a in-one-ear, out-the-other kind of movie that offers some impressive stunts and surprisingly brutal violence (edited in such a way so the movie can be PG-13 instead of R), and then sends us back into the real world. There's always a place in my heart for mindless spectacle, but this is a little too much of a good thing. Were it not for Liam Neeson's natural charisma and energy, I'd probably have a hard time remembering anything about this movie, and my screening only got out four hours ago.

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The Reader

How do I describe my thoughts on a movie as mixed as The Reader? On one hand, the movie contains an absolutely brilliant and nuanced performance by Kate Winslet. After seeing her stirring performance in Revolutionary Road last weekend and now this, I'm sure Oscar voters had a hard time picking their favorite. They made the right choice, as she's even better here. (This only one week after I called her work in Revolutionary Road the best I had seen from her.) This wonderful performance is surrounded by a muddled movie that works in bits and pieces, but never quite connects on the emotional level that it should.

Is it because this is the fourth movie I've seen in about three months that dealt with the Holocaust? I know that Hollywood loves to tap into World War II stories during the "award season", but after The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Valkyrie, Defiance and now this, I'm feeling a little tapped out. To be fair, the movie is not set during the Holocaust like those other films. It's set about a decade later, and deals with the emotions that came afterward. The story opens in the late 1950s, and a teenage boy named Michael Berg (David Kross) is struggling to make it home from school as a serious illness overtakes him right there on the street. Winslet's character is the Good Samaritan who looks after him during his walk home. She's Hanna Schmitz, a no-nonsense woman in her mid thirties who lives alone. When Michael recovers, he returns to her place to thank her for her kindness. An attraction builds quickly between the two, and before long, they're making love. Another part of their relationship is that Michael reads to her from classic books. We sense early on that Hanna herself is illiterate. When they go to a restaurant during one of their dates, she glances nervously at the menu, almost in tears, then tells him to order for her. The private affair carries on during the course of the summer, until one day Hannah disappears without a trace or a word.

Michael moves on with his life, going to law school, and it's through here that Michael once again encounters Hannah. He attends a War Crimes trial with his class, where some female Nazi concentration camp guards are on trial for their actions. To his shock, Hannah is one of the women being sent before the court. He's forced to watch silently as she talks of her unspeakable past, and is given the majority of the blame, since the other women on trial turn against her and convince the court that she was the one mainly responsible. Michael is afraid to speak up, half out of fear, and half out of respect for her. He knows she couldn't have written the report that the court is using as its main piece of evidence against her, but she is ashamed to admit she cannot read, so she takes the full punishment. The trial continues to haunt Michael's memories well into adulthood, where he's now played by Ralph Fiennes.

Winslet's performance is not only the best thing about The Reader, but her character is also the most fascinating and challenging. Hanna Schmitz is a complex character, worthy of discussion and thought long after the movie is over. Is it odd that she seems to be more ashamed over the fact she can't read or write than the fact she caused the deaths of innocent people? Her years working at the camp was merely a job for her. She was an uneducated woman, and she needed the opportunity. Michael tries to understand her actions, even well into middle age, but he doesn't get any closure. The movie doesn't give us any, either. These are the moments when the film is at its best. When it's asking tough questions about moral responsibility, The Reader is engaging. Hannah's main crime is revolved around an incident involving a church fire that claimed the lives of hundreds of people who were under her watch that night. When asked why she didn't unlock the door and let the people out, she coldly replies "there would be chaos". It was her job to keep the people in order. Hearing the story of what happened that night also gives special poignancy to a scene earlier in the film when Hannah steps inside a church to hear a children's choir singing, and begins to tear up.

If the story had been about Hannah and told from her point of view, I have no doubt you would be reading about a very powerful and thought-provoking film. Unfortunately, this is Michael's story, and he just is not very interesting. Not as a teenager, where he seems lacking in personality, and especially not as an older adult, where Ralph Fiennes does what he can with the role, but suffers mainly because the movie doesn't give him enough material. He gets one good scene where he speaks with a survivor of the concentration camps, and is forced to ask himself if he is making excuses for Hannah because of his personal connection with her. The rest of the time, his scenes are clumsily inserted throughout the central story, and never seems to go anywhere. As the younger Michael, David Kross has strong chemistry with Winslet, a good thing since many of their scenes are intimate and sexual. But once again, the dry character does the performance no favors.

This causes an uneasy balance that the movie never recovers from. Sometimes The Reader is masterful and suspenseful, but most of the time, it's meandering and somewhat dull. Every time Kate Winslet is on the screen, the movie comes alive. I was grateful for these moments, but I wanted more. I wanted the story to captivate, and I wanted to become involved. The storytelling is too choppy to make us truly care. The film is based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink, and although I have never read the book, the script often sounds like screenwriter David Hare went through the book, picked out the major sequences, and cared little about lead-in between them. It's a "Greatest Hits" of moments. I was especially disappointed with the scenes that took place after the trial, which seem to kind of lose all sense of purpose, and just kind of drag themselves out for an extra 40 minutes or so until the movie is done.

I can give a half-hearted recommendation based solely on Kate Winslet's presence and everything she brings to the movie, but The Reader falls far short of its lofty goals. It's not quite the failed piece of Oscar Bait that Defiance was, but it's nowhere near as strong as the story deserves. I was left with a lot of intriguing thoughts about the female lead, and mostly indifference to everything else that had happened. Given the talent on display both on and off the camera, I was expecting a lot more.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Inkheart

If there was ever a movie that was built around the idea that "the pen is mightier than the sword", it's Inkheart. Based on a series of novels by Cornelia Funke, it follows the intriguing premise of the real world and the literature world colliding. Some may find it overly chaotic, and in a way it is. The plot is loopy, sometimes seems to be making up the rules as it goes along, and doesn't quite exploit the possibilities of its premise as much as it should. But I also can't deny that I enjoyed the performances, and the movie's sense of wonder kept me engaged.

It's been said that when the author was originally writing the stories, she had Brendan Fraser in mind as the lead hero, so it's probably fitting that he plays Mo Folchart here. As the film opens, Mo and his preteen daughter, Meggie (Eliza Bennett), have been traveling the world searching for a rare and out of print piece of fiction called Inkheart. They've been searching antique book stores the world over, though Meggie has never quite understood why her father is so obsessed with finding it. She gets her answer when they are confronted by a mysterious man named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) during their travels. Dustfinger just so happens to be a character in the book they're searching for. He's been trapped in our world for the past 10 years, and wants Mo to send him back into the book where he belongs. Mo, you see, is a "Silvertongue". He possesses the unique ability to draw characters from the books he reads out loud into our world. There's a drawback to this gift, however. Every time a character from the book enters our world, someone from our world has to enter the other world of the book.

That's how this all began. Years ago when Mo was reading Inkheart, he released some of the characters, but managed to lose his wife and Meggie's mother when she disappeared into the book. Dustfinger is not the only inhabitant of the book who is now living amongst us. The story's central villain, Capricorn (Andy Serkis), crossed over as well, and has no plans to return to his rightful world. He's been hunting down and destroying all the copies of the book to make sure he never has to return, while also bringing over villains from his own story and other books to create an army of underlings. Mo and Meggie are teamed up with Dustfinger, as well as Mo's stuffy and book-loving Aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren), in their search to restore order to both worlds. Their only hope is to track down the novel's author, Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), and convince him to hand over the original manuscript.

Although it doesn't exploit it nearly enough, Inkheart does have some fun with its idea of literary characters entering our world. (Toto the dog and the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz both play roles in the plot.) With a premise like this, it's disappointing that they couldn't fit more characters in. The film's budget certainly seems healthy enough. Most of the literary references are unfortunately reserved for throw away gags, though, such as the fact that Capricorn's main chamber are filled with items from books he's pulled over with the aid of another Silvertongue who works for him, including Cinderella's glass slipper, the Sword in the Stone, and Ebenezer Scrooge's tombstone. Even if the movie isn't nearly as smart as it could have been, there is some intelligence to be found. The special effects and set designs are strong, there are some dry and subtle one-liners thrown into the dialogue, and a lot of the actors (especially Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent, and Andy Serkis) seem to be enjoying themselves, and approach the material with the right attitude of straight-laced goofiness.

The cast is really the key ingredient that winds up making the film semi-successful. Brendan Fraser is surprisingly low key here, a departure from his wise-cracking adventurer persona from the Mummy films that I was expecting. As his daughter, Eliza Bennett seems to be a bit too old to be 12, but she still manages to be a likable and strong young heroine. She actually winds up playing a larger role in the story than he does, especially when it's discovered she's inherited her father's abilities. Paul Bettany also surprised me, giving his character a somewhat somber and heartfelt tone. His character wants to return to the book and be reunited with his wife (played by his real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, in an uncredited cameo). In fact, the film's entire tone caught me off guard, as it's surprisingly serious and not the fun-filled family romp I imagined. While there is nothing here that offends, the movie does often delve into dark and scary territory, and the laughs are kept kind of light. Adults will probably enjoy this approach, but some small children may wish they were watching Hotel for Dogs.

Inkheart has the unfortunate timing to be released about a month after Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories, another family fantasy about reality and fiction merging. The movie's been completed for well over a year, and I have no idea what New Line is thinking releasing it now. The movie may not be anything great, but it is a smarter and more rewarding approach to the premise than Sandler's take. The movie has some good ideas, strong performances, and kept my attention. Sometimes, that's all I'm looking for during the bleak days of January.

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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

January has got to be one of the most schizophrenic months of the year for movies. On one hand, smaller films like Revolutionary Road and Slumdog Millionaire are finally freed from their limited engagements, and get wider releases. On the other, we also get forgettable generic stuff like Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. The movie serves as a prequel to 2003's Underworld, and it's sequel, 2006's Underworld: Evolution. It's funny. I remember watching those movies, but I remember very little about what happened within them. All I remember is that neither one of them filled me with a burning desire to learn how it all began.

The movie chronicles the beginnings of the war between the vampires and the Lycans, beasts that look like werewolves, but mainly behave like targets in an action video game as they spring up in front of the camera to be decapitated or stabbed by the vampires. The vampires keep some of the Lycans as slaves in their gloomy fortress. The lead Lycan in the story is Lucian (Michael Sheen). He's different from the others, because he can take the form of a human, and change into wolf form at will. He is still a slave, but is treated slightly better than his brothers by the cold ruler of the vampires, Viktor (Bill Nighy). We learn early on that Lucian is involved in a secret and forbidden love affair with Viktor's daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra). Sonja is a rebellious girl, who does not wish to live the life her father has planned for her. We never really learn how or why their love came to be, and we only learn of their affair when they both sneak off to have some hot vampire/Lycan sex one night. Those of you interested in what would happen if a vampire and a werewolf made love, you'll be disappointed. We just get a lot of panting, and some close ups of the actors' bare bodies.

These early moments seemed to be leaning to a sort of gothic Romeo and Juliet story, and it at least had my attention. I wouldn't have bothered getting my hopes up if I knew the movie had no intention of following this idea or their relationship. Lucian is tortured and locked up when he disobeys Viktor's orders and uses his Lycan powers to save Sonja. While in his cell, Lucian rallies his fellow Lycans to fight back and escape from the castle. Of course, Viktor eventually finds out about his daughter's affair, and puts her life in danger. This supposedly sparks an eternal war between the two races, but I found it hard to care about anything, because the movie doesn't care. Director Patrick Tatopoulos (a special effects artist who worked on the previous films) seems to view this as one big technical demo. The problem is it's not a very impressive one. The effects work for the Lycans is surprisingly chintzy, with the creatures looking about as convincing as the monsters you find in a low budget video game. The movie has an overly dark and murky look to it in the vain hope to cover up the half-hearted effects work. This makes the movie not only ugly to look at, but the blue-colored tint that's been added to a lot of scenes makes it look like someone poured toilet bowl cleaner all over the film.

The actors tackle this material with what can only be described as scene-chewing precision. After appearing in films like The Queen and Frost/Nixon, Michael Sheen cashes a paycheck here. To be fair, he is unrecognizable under all his mangy hair, and he was in the other Underworld movies. His part requires him to look wild eyed and scream half of his lines, which he does with gusto. As the head vampire, Bill Nighy plays his role as if he was doing some Bizarro World version of Shakespeare. Actually, a lot of his dialogue sounds like it was written by a 13-year-old trying to emulate Shakespeare's writing style. At least he actually gets to act like a vampire from time to time. The weird thing about Rise of the Lycans is that it keeps on telling us they're vampires, but aside from Nighy biting someone and drinking blood (or maybe it was wine) from a cup, they don't do anything that clue us in to that fact. Many are hidden behind suits of armor in the first place, except for the Vampire Council, who dress like medieval wannabe goths.

I know I haven't said anything about Rhona Mitra as the female lead, and that's only because there's little to say about her performance. Actually, now that I think about it, there's not much to say about the movie itself. If the other two movies worked with you, so will this. I found this just as forgettable as the other entries, and I'm sure it will enter the hazy part of my mind where my memories of the other two currently lie. That's not such a bad thing. It means the space in my mind it currently occupies will be filled by a better movie.

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Slumdog Millionaire

Whenever a small movie builds such a thunderous word of mouth, critical praise, and award nominations as it slowly widens its release across the U.S., I become worried by the time it reaches my local theater. Too many times, I have read about movies that are praised for greatness, and wait anxiously for it to expand wide enough for me to see it, all the while the glowing reviews getting more torturous to the point that I just stop reading them. By the time I finally get to see the movie, there have been many times where it just did not live up to the hype for me, or worse yet, I found the movie to be painfully mediocre and wonder what everyone was going on about.

Fortunately, this is not the case with Slumdog Millionaire. The movie opened in theaters back in November, and has reached a deafening amount of praise from audiences and critics who have fallen in love with this small little indie film. Just recently, it was given a heap of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. For once, it is justified. Director Danny Boyle is probably one of the most versatile directors working today, doing everything from crime stories (Trainspotting), horror (28 Days Later), and family dramas (Millions). This time, he brings us an absolutely crowd-pleasing story about a poverty-stricken young man (the "Slumdog" of the title) in India who becomes a national sensation on a game show. It's a lot deeper than that, obviously. This movie surprised me, not just with the story itself, but also how the story was told. It uses an interesting framing device as it cuts back and forth between the man on an Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and being interrogated by local officers, who are not afraid to use torture to get their answers. This immediately grabs our attention right from the start, and our interest only grows from there.

The young man is Jamal (Dev Patel), and as the film opens, he is only one question away from winning the grand prize of 20 million rupees. The show has run out of time, and he'll have to come back tomorrow. As he leaves the studio, though, he is immediately apprehended by some violent officers who have been tipped off by the show's smug host (Anil Kapoor), who suspects the young man is cheating somehow. As the head police inspector tells Jamal, doctors and lawyers have never gotten past the 6 million rupee question. How could this lowly street "Slumdog" know all the answers? The officers torture and interrogate him, but to no avail. Jamal keeps on insisting that he has done nothing wrong. As the movie cuts back and forth between the head inspector questioning Jamal, and flashbacks to the questions he was asked on the show, we come to realize how. All of the answers are tied into events of Jamal's life up to this point. As the answers are revealed, so is his story, which creates a fascinating storytelling style that is both involving and charming. Yes, we need to suspend some major disbelief that all of the answers would be tied to events in his life (and in chronological order too), but I was able to overcome this gap and enjoy the film.

Besides, the movie isn't really about the show. The flashbacks of Jamal's life make up the center of the film, and is what gives the story its heart. When Jamal was a boy, he saw his mother murdered by some violent extremists. Jamal, along with his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), made a living on the streets stealing and pulling scams, such as posing as tour guides at the Taj Mahal to get money from American tourists. Eventually, the brothers are joined by Latika (Freida Pinto), a young girl who becomes the "third Musketeer" of their group, and who also quickly steals Jamal's heart. Fate separates the two budding lovers, and the core of the flashback story involves the two brothers following very different paths in life. Jamal spends his life searching for Latika after they are separated. He finds her again at various stages of life, but they often find themselves hailing from different walks of life when they are reunited, and are always separated again. As for his brother Salim, he chose violence and the life of a gangster working under a crime lord. The way these three central characters are brought together in different stages of life, and how their stories intersect, makes for some compelling drama.

Slumdog Millionaire is a hard movie to describe, because it doesn't really fall under a single category. It's a drama, it's a thriller, its a crime story, it's a statement on social status and class in India, and it's also a wonderfully light-hearted romance. The movie is rated R, due to some early scenes of violence and torture, but this is a crowd pleasing movie that should work on just about anyone, and is gentle enough for teens to watch without the concern of parents. The movie initially grabs our attention with its unorthodox story telling and exotic location, but then it further holds our interest with it's sweet-natured love story. Jamal is an immediately likable young hero, and the performance by Dev Patel is a sympathetic and strong one. What amazed me is how close we feel to the characters by the time it's all over. The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel "Q & A" by Vikas Swarup) lets the characters build and develop throughout the flashbacks, so it makes sense to see the young children we see in the early flashbacks grow into the adults we eventually see them as. Likewise, the long-distance romance between Jamal and Latika does not suffer from convoluted storytelling that forces them to be apart, and flows naturally. We like these characters, and hope for a happy ending for them.

There may be some people who are turned off by the film, because it relies on subtitles for half of its running time. Those people should not fear, as a majority of the dialogue is in English. And when it does use subtitles, it is in a much more colorful way than we are accustomed to seeing them done in films. It's one of the few times I find something hard to describe in words, you'll just have to see it for yourself. Besides, despite the exotic location, this is a universal story that anyone can relate to. This is what gives the movie its wide appeal. It's simple enough for anyone to get into, but it's deep and strong enough for just about anyone to get involved in Jamal's life, and the lives of those around him. The movie also has a wonderful and satirical sense of humor to itself, such as the scene where Jamal takes a temporary job at a call center, and tries to convince the customer on the other end that he is not a foreigner. It even ends with a grand Bollywood-style musical number during the end credits, which all but guarantees anyone who watches it will walk out of the theater in a good mood.

I've been seeing a lot of dramas lately where I didn't feel involved, or felt like I wasn't a part of the story. (Defiance and Notorious being two recent examples.) With Slumdog Millionaire, I was completely transported into the story that Boyle and his cast were trying to tell from beginning-to-end. This is a wonderful movie, one of 2008's best, and is worthy of all the attention it's been getting. I know you've been hearing the hype for a while now, but now that the movie is finally starting to get a wide release, it's time to treat yourself and finally see it.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road achieves a level of raw emotion that very few films do. It is uncompromising, powerful, sad, and spellbinding all at once. It forces us to watch a relationship between a husband and a wife, and the dreams they hold, slowly implode. We see the signs long before they do, but it is no less involving. The stars at the center of it all are Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, two actors whose careers have rightfully expanded since they were last teamed together in Titanic. This film holds some of the best work I've seen from them. Both of the performances, and the film itself, stay with you.

They play Frank and April Wheeler, respectively - Two people who met at a party, married young, and have spent most of their lives since chasing the 1950s vision of the American Dream, while ignoring their own personal desires. April had dreams of being an actress at one point, but her career never went anywhere, and she now mainly serves as the dutiful housewife, looking after their kids and entertaining the neighbors. Frank never really had any concrete dreams, and has resigned himself to working at a job he hates, the occasional romantic affair with a female co-worker (Zoe Kazan) being the only joy he gets out of life. The movie throws us headfirst into their problems, as we find ourselves in the middle of a particularly tense argument during a drive home in an early scene. The opening moments are shown out of sequence, with flashbacks filling us in on how they got to this point. As April reflects on the idealistic individuals they were in their 20s when they first met, she begins to realize it's not too late to live their dreams, and suggests they sell everything and move to Paris.

Frank is skeptical at first, but quickly realizes it's feasible. He's earned more than enough money at work, and April keeps on assuring him she could get a secretarial job that could keep their entire family living comfortably, since she's heard they pay more in Europe and the cost of living is cheaper. With her supplying the money, Frank can be free to discover himself and what he truly wants to do with his life. The excitement of leaving their "suburban prison" is enough to rekindle their love, and their relationship seems stronger than ever. Then Frank is offered a promotion at his current job. It means more money, yes, but it also means they have to stay put if he wants it. It doesn't help matters that Frank's friends are openly against the idea of him heading off to Paris and living off of his wife. Maybe he feels a bit threatened himself, and feels this promotion is a chance to hold onto what little authority he has in his life. There are other developments that come in the way of their dream, and little by little, we watch it die along with their rekindled relationship.

Based on the novel by Richard Yates, and working from a screenplay by Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road could be considered a return to the themes in Mendes' debut film, American Beauty, as both films deal with the dysfunctional truths that go on behind the perfectly maintained suburban lawns and gardens. That's about where the similarities between the two films end, though. Beauty was a darkly satiric look about a husband and father who realized life was too short for the existence he had decided to settle for. Watching Frank Wheeler, we get the sense that even though he complains about having to settle, he has a strange contentment with where he is in life. Paris offers a chance to discover himself, yes, but it also offers failure. What if he never found himself? Frank would argue that he'd rather be a face in a crowd with something to do at least, than someone who stood out, tried, and failed. As for April, Paris represents everything she's wanted, while the place where they currently live represents everything she thought she wanted. When the dream of Paris begins to wither, she retaliates peacefully at first, but we can see the signs of disgust in her husband and her life slowly starting to mount.

Despite it all, everyone sees the Wheelers as the perfect couple right up to their breaking point, especially their friends. The only one who sees them for who they really are is John (Michael Shannon, in a performance that rightfully received an Oscar nomination.), the adult son of a family friend (Kathy Bates). We learn that John has spent the past few years in a psychiatric hospital, and when he meets the Wheelers, he is able to cut through the usual niceties of friends, and see them for whom they really are. The character only appears in two scenes, but his are the most memorable, especially with how devastatingly honest he is at analyzing Frank and April. The movie seems to argue that because John has been shut off from society in the hospital and been shunned by the world, he seems to have achieved a kind of truthfulness that no one else around him possesses. Everyone around him lives to protect their image, or the image of contentment. He's gone through too many electroshock therapies to care what anyone thinks of him anymore. The character could have gone wrong in so many horrible ways if he was played too broadly, but Shannon finds the perfect mix of sarcastic humor, rage, and honesty. His scenes are the ones I'll watch again when the movie comes out on DVD.

Not that the lead stars don't have more than their share of moments. DiCaprio and Winslet deliver some of their most open and gut-wrenching performances here, which fits their characters who increasingly feel trapped by fate. DiCaprio's Frank is a little more docile and accepting of being trapped, while Winslet definitely gets to give the more passionate performance as a woman who thought she had it all, discovered she didn't, tries to get it all, and then discovers she never will. The actors are friends in real life, and it really gives them chemistry during their more quiet and intimate moments. There are also a lot of little technical details that add to the sense of mounting tension. The camera work is often tight and focused, giving the movie a very closed in feel. Also of note is the subtle, yet tense, music score by the always reliable Thomas Newman. The music underscores the scenes, instead of spelling out the emotion, and creates the right mood of unease that hints at things to come.

Revolutionary Road could have been a bit more focused in its plotting, and the way it handles the children of Frank and April (they're hardly ever around) is somewhat annoying. I would have loved to have seen the effect the crumbling relationship of their parents had on them. This is still an expertly mounted drama, and one that is not soon forgotten after it's done. The movie hits all of its emotional targets without resorting to manipulation. I've heard some people complain they didn't like the movie, because they found it too depressing and downbeat. I say a tragedy can still entertain. The only truly depressing movie is a bad one.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Notorious

The new music bio-picture, Notorious, about the short but legendary career of rapper Christopher "Biggie" Wallace (also known as the Notorious B.I.G.), was produced by his mother, Voletta Wallace, as well as his good friend and partner in the music industry, Sean Combs. Not only that, it features his real life son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, who portrays his father as a young boy in the early scenes. Right off the bat, it told me this movie was going to be more than just a little bit biased about the man. What it didn't tell me was how uninspired and generic it was going to be.

Think of all the exciting angles you could take in a movie about the life of him. You could go the traditional route, and cover his career, as well as what his music meant to the industry. You could do a movie about the rival East and West Coast war, and how it turned one of Chris' closest friends in the music business, Tupac Shakur (portrayed here by Anthony Mackie), against him. You could cover the investigation into his murder, which still remains unsolved today. The screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood (Biker Boyz) and Cheo Hodari Coker take most of these ideas, and covers them in a generic two hour "made for TV"-style format honoring the man, but never really digging deep into his life, his career, the numerous women who came and went, and just how he affected the industry despite only releasing one album in his lifetime. (His second album came out after he was killed at the age of 24.) The movie touches upon the war and the rivalry, but when it comes to his life and his death, it's the same old song and dance we've been listening to for years.

Notorious wants to tell us the story of Christopher's life, while at the same time being a love letter written in his memory by people who knew him best. Instead of dealing with his actual life, the movie gives us the usual bits and pieces we've come to expect. He starts out on the streets as a boy with a single mother (Angela Bassett), who tries her best to give her son a good life despite a deadbeat dad who walked out on her, and gangs on the street selling drugs. He quickly grows up, and is portrayed through most of the film by Jamal Woolard, who gives a fine performance. Chris eventually decides he needs money, gets wrapped up in gang activity, spends time in prison, and decides to go into music. All of this is covered so quickly, it's like the movie knows we've seen it all before, and isn't even interested in it. A friend of his hooks him up with Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke), and there's such a sense of "this is destiny" in the scene, it's kind of hard to take it seriously. Along the way, he strikes up relationships with various women including Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). They all share relationships of varying degree of intimacy, and two of them actually bear him children. The way the movie skims over his relationship with them, and how he just walks in and out of their lives seemingly at will gives us the wrong impression.

What are we to make of the fact that after he marries Faith Evans, he is shown cheating on her a few scenes later? Faith storms in on him, chews him out, and he apologizes. A little later, he suspects that she's having an affair with Tupac Shakur, so he bursts in on her in the middle of an interview she's giving, and violently shakes her, throwing her against a wall in front of the cameras. She walks out on him, but near the end of the movie, they're talking on the phone and everything seems fine, with no explanation. Christopher apparently burned a lot of bridges on his way to success, but it's obviously okay because as this movie tells us, right before he died, he managed to call every single person he hurt and have a heartfelt talk with them. We constantly feel like we're only getting bits and pieces, and the movie is picking and choosing moments from his life to show us. This style is evident early on, with how the movie sets up his mother as an important character early on, then she is almost dropped entirely from the film about the 40 minute mark until the very end.

Speaking of his mother, Angela Bassett's portrayal of Valerie Wallace is inconsistent, with a Jamaican accent that seems to come and go during the course of the film. She's intended to be portrayed as a long-suffering woman, who sticks by her son's side through it all, but her character is so shallow here she's hardly worth mentioning. Surprising, since the real life Valerie was deeply involved in the production of the film. Of particular note is how her battle with breast cancer is mentioned in one scene, and then the very next scene, Christopher tells a friend that his mom's recovering, and it's never mentioned again. If her cancer played such a minor part in his life, as this movie suggests, why bother bringing it up in the first place? This is just lazy screenwriting, and the directing by George Tillman, Jr (Soul Food), is of the "point and shoot" variety, never giving us anything truly interesting to look at. Given the fast editing and eye-catching tactics that music videos are known for, you'd think something would stand out visually.

When Notorious finally reaches the conclusion we all knew was coming, it's handled clumsily. We get his friends tearing up at a funeral, and then we see his mother riding in a limo to bury her son. She looks out the window, and sees Christopher's fans lining the street. The thing is, they apparently couldn't afford any extras, so they just show stock footage of news film covering the fans standing at the street side, so it's painfully obvious that Angela Bassett is waving and looking at nothing. The movie is a huge disappointment, especially given the potential for drama. The only thing that stuck out in my mind when it was done was the fact that the film's music score is credited to Danny Elfman (a very odd choice, as anyone familiar with Elfman's work would agree), and I hardly remembered there even being a background music score in the first place.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Defiance

Filmmaker Edward Zwick likes to tackle war stories about underdogs. In 1989, he brought us Glory, about black soldiers fighting in the Civil War. In 2003, he made The Last Samurai, about an American soldier embracing the ways of the Samurai and fighting alongside them. Now he brings us Defiance, which is the true story of Jews who refused to be captured, made their lives in the surrounding woods, and fended off the Nazis and anyone who would try to turn them in. The movie is not so much about war, as it is a story of survival, but it still deals with the familiar themes of persecution and fighting back that Zwick likes to employ in his films.

I have no doubt that a very involving film could be made of the story of the "Bielski Partisans", a group that started with three brothers and ultimately ended with 1,200 individual members. And yet, I felt a certain detachment from it. The movie is well made, has some good visuals, and the performances are strong. But the characters are treated with such a herd mentality, that we seldom get to get up close to the people. We get their hardships and their struggles to survive in the elements, but we don't get their personal stories. The movie is also curiously lacking in emotional power. There is one great moment late in the film, when a captured German soldier is brought into the camp and pleads for his life, only to have those around him beat him to death, screaming about the atrocities they've been put through. I wanted more moments like this. Moments where the characters actually seemed like people with lives and pasts, not just extras huddling and marching through the forest.

Maybe I'm getting burned out on Holocaust dramas, but I found the plight of the Bielski brothers uninvolving. The brothers include Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schrieber), and Asael (Jamie Bell). They flee from the Nazis when their village is attacked, and take refuge in the woods. They're not alone for long, as other survivors have also found their way into the woods, and they eventually band together. Tuvia takes command of the group, I guess, because he can give stirring speeches while sitting atop a white horse that sound like they've been tailor made to be used as a clip at the Oscars. He believes in living peacefully and surviving in the wilderness, but Zus has a bloodlust, and wants to use their resources to take revenge on the German army. This causes some friction within the camp, but for the most part, the group is able to organize, and starts taking in more Jewish survivors. There are some romantic subplots thrown in for Tuvia and Asael, Zus eventually leaves the group to join the Russian fighters, and we get a lot of ominous warnings about food rations, disease, and the harsh winter that may spell doom for those trying to survive.

Of all the characters in the film, Zus probably comes across as the most fleshed out and interesting. Part of this is because he's one of the few who breaks from the herd and speaks for himself, and part of it is due to Schrieber's fine performance. All of the acting on display is fine, but his stood out the most to me. As the leader of the group, Daniel Craig gets to say a lot of stirring speeches that sound too scripted and perfectly thought out. I would have liked if maybe he was just a little bit more uncertain, but he seems to have a perfectly scripted answer for everything. Defiance is not a bad movie, but it is the kind of movie that the phrase "Oscar Bait" was invented for. Every scene seems like it was shot specifically to be used as a clip at an Award show, and it constantly seems to be reminding us just how important it is. Even the music score by James Newton Howard seems to be reminding us, with how dramatic and sometimes bombastic it sounds. It also sounds like it desperately wants to be John Williams' memorable score to Schindler's List at times.

Maybe a documentary, rather than a fictional retelling, would have been the correct way to tell this story and the people involved. I never felt like I was watching history, I felt like I was watching a reenactment. I was never transported into the story, like a great historical movie can do. Those who join up to fight alongside the Bielskis pretty much just show up without so much as an introduction, and then stay in the background. There are a few standouts (the intellectual, the teacher), but very few in the group get to do more other than comment on depleting rations. When they are forced to fight during the film's battle sequences, I didn't feel any tension or feeling. It's hard to get involved when everyone who walks on the screen seems disposable. That's why I liked the previously mentioned scene with the German soldier so much. The characters finally get to come out of the background and tell us their story.

Defiance is a movie that knows what to give us, and what we expect of it, but never makes the extra effort that it should. We're left with some good performances, strong images, and a story that would have been stirring with a bit more development and heart put into it. I guess the movie was designed to make us want to learn more about the true story. All it made me do was begin counting the days until I would see the very same Holocaust film cliches used again.

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