Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Slumdog Millionaire

Oh, don't worry. There's a review of "it" very soon. In the meantime...

Written at the time of the film's release and it's winning Best Picture at the 2009 Oscars.

"Is That Your Final Answer?"
"My karma ran over your dogma"

There's a backlash against Slumdog Millionaire. There had to be. Showing up at the end of the year with such a positive critical reputation and so many glowing reviews, a few noses-out-of-joint had to be lifted in the air to pronounce that it couldn't be "that good."

But it is.

The irony is that these clowns' dismissal roughly parallels the story of director Danny Boyle's (and co-director Loveleen Tandan's) energetic film where it is assumed that a seemingly humble chai-wallah for a cell-service call center could not possibly know the answers to go (as the pompous host intones) "from rags to raja'" on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

When we first meet Jamal (Dev Patel), he is one question away from winning it all...and losing his life. Strung up like a piece of meat, he is being tortured by the local authorities*** to find out how he's cheating—he must be as so many others (of more worth) haven't done as well on the game-show as he has. Sounds like the "feel-good" movie of the year ala Forrest Gump, or as Time Magazine blurbles: "A Poignant Hymn to Life." **
Obviously, it's more complex than either view.

The movie even begins with its own "Millionaire" question for how he manages to do it: A. He cheated; B. He's lucky; C. He's a genius; D. It is written.

Is that your final answer? Really? (feigned look of concern)
You'll do a lot better with the movie if you don't pick just one, or pigeon-hole it into being this type or that, for the answers have too many facets, too many colors and shadings, and offer up the extremes of life—the ebullient and the tragic. In the end, it's a little bit of all of them.
This movie would seem like an odd tangent for Danny Boyle if every step of his career weren't punctuated by abrupt changes of pace. Especially lately after splitting from his writing partner John Hodge. To go from the zombie epic 28 Days Later... to the sublime kid's parable Millions, then to the sci-fi allegory Sunshine to this are as stunning turn-arounds as the dervish-like camera moves he is constantly spinning in Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle lived in India for five years, and so his camera-eye goes right to the colors and exoticism of Indian street-life.
In a dizzying chase sequence early in the film, a five year old Jamal and his older brother Salim are running from the police through the back-alleys of a shanty-town on the outskirts of Bombay. Boyle (and his Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan) films a wide variety of shots in different styles and speeds, sometimes step-editing the shot, twirling the camera, changing perspective, while out of the corner of your eye you see odd little details of street life going on (at one point, he cuts away to a close shave at a barber's, while in the alley behind the shop the kids streak by). But one never loses perspective on the chase, despite the wildly disparate angles and frenetic pace—something sadly lacking from the Bond-movie chase masters in Quantum of Solace****—and the result is exciting and masterful.
We follow the two boys as they become orphaned in a religious attack on their Muslim slum, live lives of begging and thievery on the street and the garbage dumps with their "third musketeer," a street-girl named Latika, then get picked up by gangsters who organize rings of street-beggars, blinding the best ones because they'll bring in double. The boys escape, but Latika is left behind, and that becomes an obsession for Jamal who is determined to find her again, while Salim follows his instincts into the Mombai underworld.
Sound like fun? Some critics seem to think so. Even without the beatings and torture that start the film. But Slumdog Millionaire follows its own karmic path to a pre-determined destiny in tune with the mixture of sweet and rancid of Indian life. And what these jaded writers don't get is the dharma of it all: when things are good, you better recognize it and enjoy it while it lasts.

Because it won't.

Doyle manages to capture the sense of India—an acid-trip without the acid (or so I've been told)—and communicate it on-screen—the colors, the desperation, the joys that crash through the crust of grinding poverty—to a delirious ending that would please Ganesh. Stay through the closing credits.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

* Although it no longer dominates the American air-waves, I've seen it in Spain ("Who Wants to be a Mult-multi-Millionaire?" and Austria. No matter where you go in the world, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" plays just the same.

** Although did I ever tell you about the time my Mother and her sisters went to see Martin Scorsese's Casino because they thought it was a musical? Fuggedabaht Joe Pesci being bludgeoned to death, or the guy with his head crushed in a vice--there's a sex scene between Pesci and Sharon Stone! Eyeeeww!

*** The Inspector in charge of the interrogation is played by Irffan Khan—memorable in The Namesake  and The Darjeeling Limited , but absolutely essential to the effect of A Mighty Heart. His unstated power and ability to internalize conflicting emotions across his face makes him fascinating to watch.

**** Funny that I made this comment: Boyle up until the end of last year was the working director of what is currently called "Bond 25" until disagreement with the producing Broccoli kids lad the director and his script-writer John Hodge to leave the project. Quite a few screenwriters have revised the script and American Cary Joji Fukunaga began filming this week in Jamaica.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: Ryan's Daughter

The Set-Up: A scene of confusion, honesty and decency from David Lean's next-to-last film, his much-maligned, but fairly amazing Ryan's Daughter.  Not sure why this scene struck such a chord with me at the time I finally got around to watching it.  Pehaps it's the acting of Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard, who are both terrific in this movie.  Perhaps its the humility and the simple language that is used.

Perhaps it talked to me for it depicts a man in crisis who looked for answers without bothering to change his clothes.  Who went to nature (in this case the all-surrounding seashore) to find answers, perhaps his own oblivion, in the constancy of the shifting tide, and walked away choosing an uncertain, confusing life over a sure death.  And of a priest who has lost one of his flock and is just earthy enough to know the issues that plague the man.

But, it's also one of those prime examples of Lean film-making: his placement of figures in a landscape.  The players of Ryan's Daughter are immersed by a landscape that constantly shifts and moves, shaped by the sea that surrounds the town of Killary and a political climate that is also changing.  At the beginning of the scene, Father Hugh is searching the rocky shoreline for the town's missing teacher, not knowing if he'll find him alive or dead or at all.  And as his perspective shifts with the rocks line his path, he finds Shaughnessy hidden in the rocks, gazing out at sea.  A slow tracking shot reveals the human figure where previously all he saw was coastline.  Lean only moves closer when the men engage in conversation.

It's a scene of economy, poignancy, a bit o' humor and an exceeding amount of something in short supply at the movies these days: grace.

The Story: Rosie Ryan (Sarah Miles) has married a man she has much admired, the elder village teacher Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum).  Dissatisfied with her marriage, she begins an affair with a young major (Christopher Jones), and has left her marriage bed to meet him at dawn.  Shaughnessy sees them and in his pain, goes to the ocean's edge contemplating the horizon.  His absence soon becomes apparent to the village and crusty Father Hugh (Trevor Howard) goes out to find what he can of Charles Shaughnessy.


FATHER HUGH:  Uh...Hello, Charles.
SHAUGHNESSY: Hello, Father.
FATHER HUGH: I brought your clothes.
SHAUGHNESSY: Oh, thanks, Father.  I was wondering how I'd get home.
FATHER HUGH: ...And something to drink.
SHAUGHNESSY:  More thanks.
FATHER HUGH: You seem alright, man.
SHAUGHNESSY: More or less. I'll get dressed now.

FATHER HUGH: He'll be out catching a few flounders.
FATHER HUGH: So, what've you been doing down here, Charles?
SHAUGHNESSY: Oh...thinkin'
FATHER HUGH: About Rosy?
SHAUGHNESSY: About meself, mostly.

SHAUGHNESSY: Thanks for the clothes.
SHAUGHNESSY: You're a man in a million, Fr. Hugh.

Ryan's Daughter

Words by Robert Bolt

Pictures by Freddie Young and David Lean

Ryan's Daughter is available on DVD from M-G-M Home Video.

Thursday, April 25, 2019


Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971) When the late Carl Sagan was touring the country, mostly around college campuses, expounding on an upcoming unmanned Mars mission, he would do a little slide presentation about the limitations of exploring other planets by merely photographic means, using Earth as a test subject to demonstrate that merely pretty pictures would not give the full story and might actually be deceiving about conditions on said spheroid. The upshot of the thing was that any being looking at Earth from above would get the distinct impression that automobiles were the dominant species on the planet and humans merely their parasites.

Cute idea, but the point was made.

That thought bubbles up as you watch Trafic, the final film featuring writer-director Jacques Tati as the character M. Hulot—made a few years after his gargantuan masterpiece, Playtime. In Trafic, Hulot is a designer for a car company called Altra, which is in its final preparations to display their latest product, an elaborate camping car, at an auto show in Brussels. A display backdrop is being prepared and transportation for the prototype finalized for the event, with a lot riding on the intricate design to be displayed. In such a frenetic atmosphere everything that can go wrong does go wrong, despite the amount of planning and foresight applied to every detail.
For one thing, the pieces of the display must be loaded and the hatchback itself carefully hauled into the truck to make its way to Brussels. All well and good, but the long drive will have many speed-bumps along the way, like border-crossings, proper paperwork, traffic jams, and potential breakdowns en route. These can be as simple as a bad tire, running out of gas, or merely having an incompetent driver (Marcel Fravel). Hulot rides along in the truck observing as things fall apart and attempting to help as best he can.
Zipping along with them is the company's public relations person (Maria Kimberly), who presents a together facade, but is something of a mercurial harpy, who seems more concerned with her image than the company's. She, at times, seems the complete opposite of a public relations person.

Meanwhile the gargantuan auto-show goes on with Altra's big-wigs all set to present with nothing to show for it, a situation that isn't made any better through the many phone-calls updating them on the progress—or lack of it—in getting the prototype to market.

The car is a little miracle of design—as intricate as a James Bond vehicle, if he had a license to camp. There are so many hidden features that one needn't go to a sporting goods store for anything extra—just get in the car and go. It comes complete with pull-out tent, a built-in grill, as well as camping chairs and beds. It's such an amazing vehicle that one knows that, like a Tucker, it wouldn't sell, anyway...that is, if the thing could get to market.

Like so much of Tati's work, it is episodic with a major story-line to prop the thing up. And it might as well be a silent film as 90% of the gags are visual—10% being for the sound effects Tati inserts in post-production.

It is not his best work, but it is entertaining, and leaves one with the melancholy certainty that cars might, indeed, be the prominent inhabitant of the world, and that the parasites dealing with them show no signs of intelligent life.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) One must ask oneself can there be anything more done with "Pride and Prejudice"—the much-adapted jewel in the Jane Austen tiara? It turns out that, yes, verily, there can. Director Joe Wright, in his first full length motion picture (after some shorts and mini-series work), takes some of the stuffing out of the classic novel (aided and abetted by screenwriter Deborah Moggach with some additional material stuffed into it by Sense and Sensibilty scribe Emma Thompson) and makes it move in its own frenetic dance for the first 3/4 of it. The many dances and balls are choreographed and photographed to maximum effect, in ways that, at times, are sublimely comic—the way I prefer Austen to be treated—as well as the ways in which the 19th Century mating rituals and business marriages are carried out amongst classes and stations seem to intersect naturally with Wright's searching, shifting camera moves during the film's country dance sequences.
Then, in moments that Austen would call "high dudgeon"—and what I would call "money-shots"—Wright's camera stops and Nature takes over, culminating in two eerie scenes: one, a confrontation between Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and her object of obsession Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) staged in an unyielding Greco-Roman pogoda during a thunderstorm; and later during a bizarre shot where Elizabeth, locked in emotional and physical paralysis, spends an uncertain day in one spot as the sun and Nature move around her, a fascinating way to pull off her receiving Darcy's letter of regret without really receiving him.
Sometimes, Wright goes a bit too far blowing the dust off this classic—a spinning camera from Elizabeth's point of view on a swing seamlessly, and a little nauseatingly, shows the passing of time. And he can't resist a "money shot," a gorgeous, overly dramatic shot of Elizabeth on cliff-top at Stanage Edge, ensuring that her new perspective on things is in Panavision
But he's also aided immeasurably by extremely naturalistic performances (including those of Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as the Bennett parents) from an ensemble encouraged to stumble over each other's words to take the starch out of the formality, including outstanding turns from soon-to-be stars Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan, a performance by Dame Judi Dench in full "battleaxe" mode, and another of those extremely mercurial performances by Keira Knightley, whose Elizabeth Bennett goes from apple-cheeked gushing teenager to stormy-eyed character assassin in hardly a blink.
Of course, any "Pride and Prejudice" stands or falls on the chemistry between its Elizabeth and its Mr. Darcy, who is here played by Matthew Macfadyen, in what is always the toughest role—he has to play a standoffish prig but still be attractive enough to pull off the transition to ardent suitor, especially an accepted ardent suitor. And, here, Knightley's fierceness plays to the advantage of that relationship. You can believe that she's smitten by the man as much as she's infuriated by him, a fine example of the maxim (used by me a LOT) that Love and Hate are not opposites, but merely two sides of the same coin; the true opposite of love is indifference. Darcy may feign indifference, but it is pretense, given his position and family objections.

Maybe it should have been titled "Pride, Prejudice, and Pretense." That certainly works better than "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."