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Hot Summer Nights (2017)
Stylish but shallow
If given some other writer's screenplay and a directive to restrain himself, director Elijah Bynum could probably make an excellent film. It's true that he blatantly rips off other directors here (Martin Scorsese and P.T. Anderson, most notably), but in doing so it's undeniable that he has proficiency and panache with a camera and, more importantly, a fine ability to work with actors. I'm sure he'll earn an opportunity to direct a second picture soon; although this movie was a critical failure, I can see this being a big hit with the teenagers it's clearly intended for.
The flaws of Hot Summer Nights all derive from its erratic screenplay, which is derivative, juvenile, and incredibly hollow. Bynum has chosen to have the film be narrated by a mostly unseen fringe character--a 13-year-old with a preternatural omniscience concerning the town's gossip. This narration is obnoxious and unnecessary--the best stretch of the movie is the 50 minutes or so where the narration disappears completely--and all it yields are unfunny riffs on sex that belittle the movie's female lead; an air of legendary, larger-than-life status that doesn't quite match the actual movie we're presented; and some incredibly trite observations about class consciousness in a New England tourist town.
That last one is worth thinking about for a moment. The film is introduced as a conflict between haves and have-nots, with townies opposed to summerbirds in a vein similar to Breaking Away or The Outsiders. We're shown preppily dressed vacationers with "white clothes and white teeth," and we're meant to focus on the advantages these privileged people have over our main characters. But the division as presented in this film never rises above mere cliquishness. There's no real material difference that's ever explored in any meaningful way--which is to say, even the "townies" seem pretty well-off to me.
That's one thread that never goes anywhere, but if you start pulling at that thread then the whole thing starts to unravel and you realize you've just got a pile of old rags that was temporarily gussied up to look like something more impressive. Bynum knows how to blend impressive camerawork, solid performances, and a fun soundtrack into something entertaining, but he's put extremely little effort into developing his characters or crafting a meaningful story. That's a shame because Timothée Chalamet, Maika Monroe, Emory Cohen, and the rest of the cast are all very talented and compelling young actors. They nearly succeed in making it seem as though their characters have plausible motivations and consistent personalities, when ultimately what's really going on here is that Bynum just wanted to remake Goodfellas with teenagers.
What drives Daniel Middleton? What does his father's death really have to do with anything? Why does he make the reckless decisions that he does in spite of sound advice to the contrary? What exactly is he trying to prove? What other paths are there for him in life? What other desires, interests, fears, and influences does he have? If you start trying to understand Daniel's character, you see that there's absolutely nothing beneath the surface. Likewise with McKayla. Hunter is given a sliver of nuance, but the action climax--which steals directly from Boogie Nights and Goodfellas--renders all of that moot. This is a movie in which the last word will be given to a 13-year-old speaking wistfully about his sex fantasies. Stand By Me this ain't.
The grass was green in Auschwitz
I've been learning about the Holocaust for at least twenty years now. I've attended at least two talks that were given by survivors. I've read memoirs and short stories and graphic novels and history books, seen fictionalized films and documentaries, and been to at least two Holocaust museums, including the one in DC.
Yet it wasn't until watching this film that it truly dawned on me: the Holocaust took place in this exact world that we're living in now. It took place in a world where people wear Hawaiian shirts, where children walk alongside their bicycles, where people pay to get haircuts. It took place in a world with railroads and travel agencies and moving vans and typewriters. It took place in a world with farmers and bureaucrats and engineers and babies. A world where people complain about their jobs, where people are too tired or selfish or stupid or scared to care about anything other than themselves. The trees looked like trees then, the rivers flowed like rivers, and the grass was green in the summertime. All of this happened, not in some otherworldly, black-and-white, unfathomable realm, but in a world where children under four can ride a train for free, where not having a flush toilet in your house could be considered appallingly primitive, and where a living person exposed to exhaust fumes will suffocate and a body exposed to flame will turn to ash.
Lanzmann's interviews are intense. His personality, albeit quite calm and always polite, is stirringly insistent--he never hesitates to call a lie a lie, even as he encounters every possible variety of mistruth. There are those who try to rewrite the past--to claim ignorance, poor memory, a lack of any actionable authority, a rosier and more melodramatic view of a tragic fate that was simply unavoidable. What could we have done, they say. We didn't know, they say. We did everything we could, they say. Even if we had risked our necks, it was fated from up above. He never lets that pass. "No. I don't think that's true," he says, and their faces falter, all shrugs and awkward smiles and apologetic platitudes, because of course it's not true.
The Holocaust unfolded because everybody kept doing what they were supposed to be doing, too overwhelmed or uncaring to choose resistance. It was an unprecedented and horrifying event, yet it unfolded in the temperament, landscape, and conditions of this very normal world. Hopefully, Lanzmann's courage will encourage viewers to speak up whenever they have an opportunity to challenge wrongness.
Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)
A stunning use of the musical form
I won't spoil anything, but I just wanted to emphasize what a perfect ending this film has. If anything, this movie encapsulates in its purest form what a musical motif can do. Remove the soundtrack from the final scene and what would you have. But include it as the final and most intense instrumental reprise of a song we've already come to understand, and you have one of the greatest endings ever filmed.
This movie is wonderful. There's a very archetypal simplicity to the plot, such that a lesser filmmaker could have used the same story to create something quite forgettable and dull. Demy takes such a mundane story, however, and with a splash of candy color and expertly arranged music manages to craft a timeless, heartrending masterpiece.
It's a short film. Don't miss it!
Boarding School (2018)
A surprisingly thoughtful, well-executed thrill movie
This film makes the most of a modest budget. I watched it well aware that it had received fairly horrible reviews from most film critics, expecting to turn it off after a few minutes. I was surprised to find a film with such an air of specificity to its details. There are actual layers to what goes on in this film, and actual depth to the character development and performances. Although the plot does indulge in the heightened excesses of its horror genre (at times it seemed to be keyed in at the level of a fairy tale, a point which is nodded to in the screenplay), the majority of this film maintains an admirable level of meaningful, lived-in realism, tackling everything from generational trauma to parental disappointment to bullying to gender identity and more in a nuanced and intriguing way.
I guess what I'm saying is that so many low budget horror movies are full of hackneyed tropes, pitiful jump scares, predictable twists, and dialogue that was clearly typed by a screenwriter onto a page and then read aloud by an actor. This movie, however, is refreshingly vibrant in addition to being highly entertaining. The camerawork is likewise skillful, and although I wouldn't say this movie is actually scary--not by a long shot--it is quite suspenseful.
Plus, I gotta give extra credit to any movie with the audacity to execute its action climax with its boy star wearing the costume that Luke Prael does here.
The Rider (2017)
A strong story in a flawed film
In The Rider, South Dakota's stirring pastures have been gorgeously lensed by Joshua James Richards, who also shot the overcast rural landscapes of Yorkshire in 2017's God's Own Country. The Rider is a beautiful film to look at, its authentic vision set against a minimalist score by Nathan Halpern. It helps that star Brady Jandreau, playing a version of himself (as are all the actors here, it seems), is handsome and subtly charismatic.
But the film sputters throughout its running time, especially in the first half. I have no doubt that what I've seen in The Rider is a very close and faithful account of reality--this is what these people wear, what they believe, how they talk, what they dream of, what misfortunes befall them, etc.--yet something about writer/director Chloé Zhao's style makes so much of this movie feel fake. For instance, there is a scene early in the film where Brady and three of his young friends drive out into the middle of the prairie to get drunk, play the guitar, take turns jumping over a bonfire, and hang out. All the details of this situation are, I'm sure, 100% accurate, yet the manner in which they take turns telling very detailed, narratively clear, expository stories about the worst times each of them was injured at a rodeo seems explicitly false. Is this how close friends talk to each other? Surely they've heard about these injuries before--in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they were all there to witness each one. Of course sometimes with friends we reminisce about the details of significant events that have happened to us, even if none of that is "news" to any of us, yet I couldn't help but feel that the way in which this scene unfolds in The Rider is simply because Zhao needed an easy way to guarantee that her viewers would understand the physical stakes of being a rodeo rider. And when it seems so blatant that the things I'm seeing on screen are only happening because there's a director right behind the camera--especially in a movie that strives for realism/naturalism like this one--it's hard for me to become fully invested.
That's one example, but there are frequent moments like that throughout the film. I wonder if Brady's story and Zhao's purposes would have been better served if she had simply made an over-the-shoulder documentary instead of striving for whatever narrative nonfiction thing this movie would be characterized as. It might've required a lot more footage, but I'm sure the payoff would have been more genuine.
In any case, what's here is certainly worth a look, and certain other memorable scenes--such as one in which Brady wrestles with a teenager who's just beginning to aspire to be a rodeo rider--don't possess the weakness I've just described. More importantly, the story's message is thought-provoking, meaningful, and nicely nuanced. Brady lives in a world where there are narrow expectations, opportunities, and pathways in life for the humans who inhabit it, and even fewer for the horses who live with them. What happens when a cruel twist of fate slams several of those already limited doors shut? How can dignity remain in a world that's been designed to close out those who are impaired? Where can sources of hope and support be found in a world that's not very amenable to change or difference? The Rider grapples with these questions in a resonant and authentic way, even if the movie isn't always as effective as it could've been.
Happy End (2017)
Haneke is always good, but this may be his worst
I viewed Haneke's entire filmography back when it was all available to stream on Netflix, and I believe he's the most important filmmaker alive today. Even his movies that are my least favorite (71 Fragments, Time of the Wolf) have scenes that are mesmerizing, moments of resonance that linger with you long after the credits have rolled. Because I can't say the same for Happy End, I worry that this film might be his most unremarkable.
Certainly, like all of Haneke's films, Happy End is beautifully shot, realistically acted, and has enough suspense, tension, and thought-provoking insight to keep the mind active. A scene late in the film between the patriarch (Jean-Louis Trintignant, doing a variation of his role in Amour) and his granddaughter (Fantine Harduin) is a standout; for a moment, it seems as though a heartfelt interrogation between a man at the end of his life and a woman at the beginning of hers might reveal some secret about the ultimate meaning of living, though of course it turns out that neither of them has any idea what it all means. This scene intrigued me, but it still left me disappointed.
Likewise with the climax, which, I think, attempts to pull off something similar to what he accomplished with Funny Games. Funny Games was ultimately a critique of the spectacle of violent entertainment, frequently asking the viewer to pause and ask, "Why the hell did I pay to see this? What enjoyment or edification was I expecting from seeing a family get tortured?" It seems to me that Happy End hints at something comparable at the dinner party towards the end, when the camera moves away from the suffering of these miserable, self-hating, filthy rich, and terribly boring people in order to briefly highlight the lives of refugees who are trying to escape to the economic opportunities of the UK. Here Haneke seems to ask, Why'd you pay to see the haute bourgeoisie simmer over their self-inflicted "problems" when there are real things at stake in the world? All the same, this jab is perhaps too subtle and ultimately stings of the "contempt for the viewer" that so many detractors have always accused Haneke of having but which I've never actually been able to detect. If that's the case, why make this expensive-looking movie at all? Why not make a different film--either one that more consciously highlights the refugee crisis, or one that more scathingly indicts the chamber drama genre?
Haneke trains his incisive gaze on many interesting issues throughout Happy End--psychopathy, greed, social media, suicide, depression, euthanasia, immigration, class conflict, corporate liability--but what he ultimately stirs up is a lot more tired, a lot less insightful, and far more "meh" than anything he's ever produced before.
Seriously? What do people see in this?
There have been plenty of times when I've been annoyed by what was presumed to be the frontrunner at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. So often, the movie that wins Best Picture and sweeps the other categories is something that I consider overrated or cheesy or simply not as good as some of the other movies I enjoyed from that year. In all of those cases, I can at least put aside my frustration and disappointment and understand what it is about the movie that's connecting with other people, or I can appreciate why it was entertaining or moving to audiences even if it wasn't quite my thing. In all the years I've been paying attention to movies, not once has a movie like this come along--a critical darling, an awards frontrunner, a box office smash, and an IMDb user hit that I find to be thoroughly awful nearly to the point of offensiveness. My friends who have seen the movie feel similarly. I honestly cannot discern a single reason for why this movie is being lauded.
What's astounding about this fact is that I actually love most of the people in the cast. Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters--these actors are phenomenal in almost every other thing I've ever seen them in. In this movie, they do the best with what's been given them--and Harrelson and Landry Jones almost even come out on top--but the lines they've been given to read are so artificial and inhuman, the situations they've been put into are so false and baffling, that it's impossible to imagine that any of these characters are existing in any kind of stable reality.
And look, it's not like I need overly naturalistic realism in all my movies. In Bruges, also by McDonagh, took place in a bizarre, surrealistic kind of universe, but at least its weirdness seemed consistent and self-contained. It established a convincing over-the-top world and then allowed a clever story to unfold within it. I didn't enjoy Seven Psychopaths nearly as much--in fact, I found its meta story to be quite pretentious and not nearly as intelligent as it thought it was--but at least that movie, too, seemed to be playing by its own established rules. What are the rules of Ebbing, Missouri? Is it supposed to have any intersection with the America I live in? Or is it supposed to be absurdist through and through, simply an excuse for unbelievable violence and offensive punchlines?
Because it doesn't seem that way. It seems like McDonagh wants us to believe that this movie has a lot to say about what really matters in America. It so frequently mentions things like racism, police brutality, domestic abuse, and sexual assault that it seems like surely it must have something to say about these issues. But instead, it might as well just be posting hashtags across the bottom of the screen. It has as much to do with female empowerment and combating racism as a typical round of Cards Against Humanity.
In the early scenes of the movie, I found myself wondering if it was supposed to be set in the mid-nineties. The way characters tossed around words like re**ded and n****r seemed dated and backwards, yet the apparent self-consciousness with which they used these words made it seem like it was taking place in the present day. Bad writing, I thought, like when a period picture uses a word like "nerd" twenty years before it was even coined. But then I realized that this was supposed to be the present day. So why do the characters sound so bizarrely out of place and time? Is it because McDonagh thinks all people from middle America are backwards and ignorant? When Rockwell and McDormand argue about "n****r torturing" vs. "people of color torturing," what the hell is the punchline there? What's the satirical target? Who's the intended audience? Is it supposed to be intelligent elites who understand identity politics and enjoy laughing at the clumsiness of people who aren't quite up to speed? I just don't see why this scene exists or what it's supposed to evoke from me, especially when it seems ultimately irrelevant to the plot of the movie.
Is it really necessary for the movie to so casually evoke police brutality and torture? There's not really a single meaningful non-white character in the entire movie, and the trajectories of the plot and the character development don't really have anything to do with that. Is simply mentioning it sufficient to feel as though something is being done about it? One of the most well-directed scenes in the movie is when Rockwell sends an innocent, unarmed man to the hospital while in uniform in broad daylight on a crowded main street. But the immediate aftermath of this horrifying moment is that we follow this character and we're supposed to root for him and appreciate his decency even though he's done practically nothing to deserve such empathy. Look, I'm not opposed to anti-heroes or to trying to understand and forgive the prejudices of racists. My entire family is full of racists, many of whom I love. But this screenplay doesn't put any real work into doing anything meaningful whatsoever with this character. Rockwell's character is a cartoon--far more bumbling and stupid and unaware than the many actual racist people I've known in my life. His actions are likewise far more dangerous and reckless than the actions of anyone I've known in my life. And yet by the end of the movie he's essentially taken center stage as the protagonist and hero.
Is that the point of the movie? What message are we supposed to get from McDormand, who barks a bunch of curse words that I guess are supposed to be hilarious because they're coming from the mouth of a middle aged woman? When Dinklage's character humbly shames her for friendzoning him and not smiling enough--is that the moral of the story? Is her assault on two random, presumably innocent teenagers supposed to be rousing? Are we supposed to applaud her fascist vigilantism, a la Dirty Harry, or are we supposed to be critical of the violent cycle of revenge that she's initiating, or are we just supposed to shut off our critical faculties completely and enjoy the flashiness and the silliness and the midgets and explosions?
Ultimately, that seems to be McDonagh's point--to make a trashy bit of popcorn. And yet because he happens to drop a few resonant keywords like "people of color" and "patriarchy," audiences seem to be convinced that something really insightful is unfolding before them. The slightest pause of consideration produces a thousand nagging questions, however. For instance, why would McDormand's character be so willing to knee-punch teenagers, yet cower whenever a man comes to her admitting to be her daughter's murderer? Why would the town priest let her ramble on for two pages of insulting, nonsensical monologue? Wouldn't he interrupt her or just get up and leave? Even the part of the movie that evoked one of the only laughs from me doesn't actually make any sense. Sure it's funny that Sheriff Willoughby was the secret savior who paid for the second month of McDormand's unrealistically expensive billboards, but if he's really planning on killing himself and leaving behind a young wife and two young children, would he really be throwing away five thousand dollars like that? I'd be pretty furious if I were his wife.
I don't mind popcorn. I don't mind violence in movies. I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick Chapter 2 despite being opposed to gun violence. But John Wick Chapter 2 never preached to me about the most pertinent issues of contemporary American life using nothing but bluster and empty catch phrases, and as far as I know, no audience member thought that such bluster was topically relevant and deeply moving. So why do people think Three Billboards is anything other than curse words and cartoon violence?
Yet another bland biopic
Milk isn't a terrible movie--it's not even a bad movie--but it's nowhere near the level of gay masterpiece I hoped it would be. It's a conventional, unambiguous rallying cry with no real impact.
Gus Van Sant has done some very original, highly stylized, downright weird films in the past decade. My Own Private Idaho was Shakespeare's world populated by gay prostitutes, with still life sex scenes and split screens and over-the-top dialogue; Psycho was a more surreal (and more scandalous) shot-for-shot replay of the Hitchcock original; Elephant was a hyper-realistic photograph of teenage violence starring no-name high school actors; and so on. His most conventional film was Good Will Hunting, but that at least was moving and had momentum, as well as a terrific soundtrack. Milk is just plain standard. Each character--though based on real people--can be summed up in a simple sentence, such as Emile Hirsch's Cleve Jones, the tenacious queer who... well, I don't even need a full sentence. That's about it.
Sean Penn is convincing and sweet as the 40-year-old New York insurance man who realizes how boring his life is and decides to head west and make an impact. He seems to settle on a life of gay political activism simply because it's the most convenient; the attention, the theatrics, and the social bonding seem almost as important--if not more so--than the actual revolution.
Which is an interesting idea, but not one that the movie really allows you to dwell on. Milk, with its fast-paced biopic structure (here's one important event... then here's another one a year later... then a close friend dies... and then there's a small triumph... and then...) and its attention to political activism, wants to be a cry for equality, not a complex, ambiguous character study. Harvey is reduced to the role of hero, champion, martyr. You're not allowed to be skeptical of his background, his relationships, his motivation, his manipulative methods. You know he's the good guy because he's on the side of equality--the ends justify the means and all that--and so you have to root for him, and that's that.
But I don't enjoy that. I like rooting for villains. I like feeling sorry for the assholes. I like believing, even for just one turbulent moment, that what the psycho killer is saying makes perfect sense. And I can't stand a flawless hero. I can't stand being forced to side with someone.
And as for Harvey Milk as portrayed in this film--well, he just wasn't that inspirational. Look, I'm queer and I'm liberal and all of that. It's a subject that's very close to me. Plus, I'm a sucker for inspiration, and I cry several times a year in movie theaters. But his speeches and his rallies never made me feel anything other than mildly interested on an intellectual level. The bad direction is part of that--the cinematography choices were dreadful, with very little camera-work standing out as exceptional. With each march and protest, a still camera looks head-on at the faces of the few stars as they march forward. Why? If we're supposed to be immersed in the riot, to feel like we're a part of it, why would be facing the rioters? Why would we be so still? Why not throw the camera into the action, shakily following behind the other marchers? But there's none of that.
Maybe Van Sant was trying to prove that gay people are just as normal and boring as straight people, that their inspirational biopics can be just as color-by-numbers and boring as straight biopics. But who wants to see that? Harvey was loud--"My name is Harvey Milk, and I'm here to recruit you!"--Harvey was theatrical. The gay movement at that time loved to shout out loud. So why such a stifling story?
There's only one aspect of the film that's interesting, and that's the relationship between Harvey Milk and Dan White (Josh Brolin, in a fine performance), the straight-laced police officer and political rival. Their awkward dance is compelling--Dan "the man" tries to please and work with, however distantly, his minority colleague, while Harvey desires only to destroy the competitor who represents everything he detests and opposes. Dan keeps promises that Harvey breaks. Dan drunkenly stumbles in the shadows of his fading conservative beliefs--beliefs he doesn't even necessarily understand or trust anymore--while Harvey milks up the limelight. It's a sad and scary battle of wits, and one that paints a dark, political tinge on the otherwise spotless Harvey, but the theme is confined to a few short scenes and left largely unexplored.
As a movie focusing strictly on Dan vs. Harvey, this could have been a good film, but by expanding this into an eight-year-long historical examination of how great San Francisco is and how wonderful and downtrodden gay people always are, the movie strays into the realm of simple, sweeping statements. I'm disappointed by how much critical acclaim this film is getting; aside from Penn and Brolin it's rather lackluster.
Milk d: Gus Van Sant w: Dustin Lance Black (Sean Penn, Josh Brolin) 6/10
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
A gritty fantasy
Fairy tales have always been pretty bleak, I think because you need a grim landscape from which the goodness can emerge. Morality and virtue aren't that interesting if there's no evil to oppose them.
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is a Dickensian fable where a huge portion of predestined luck, an underdog commitment to always doing right, and an ability to suffer the system and make it work allows impoverished orphan Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel) to rise above his brutal, oppressive surroundings. More so than ever in Dickens, however, these surroundings are gritty, stark, and disturbing, with none of the comic caricature that surrounded the Scrooges and Fagins in his work.
Of course, Boyle's no stranger to horrific morality tales--recall the eye-gougings and blood splatterings in 28 Days Later or the blue baby in Trainspotting. Nor is he unfamiliar with warmhearted family films, as Millions proved. Slumdog Millionaire mixes both, opening with the film's skinny, teenaged protagonist hanging by his wrists, soaked in sweat, about to be electrocuted by two spittle-spewing interrogators.
Irfan Khan, as the head police inspector, is convinced that Jamal, an assistant at a call center whose primary job responsibility consists of serving out cups of chai, an orphan with no education, no fixed address, and no recorded background, has been cheating during the smash-hit game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (the Indian version). Jealousy is a strong motivator; how could a poor urchin who's done nothing with his brain all his life be so close to earning so much money when doctors and lawyers and educated, wealthy people have all failed short? How could an Indian boy who doesn't know that Gandhi's face is on the 100 rupee bank note know that Benjamin Franklin is on an American 100 dollar bill?
The bulk of the movie, of course, consists of flashbacks that reveal the twists of fate and important moments that have guided Jamal's tortuous, torturous life--rising literally from a cesspool, escaping with his brother and a pretty girl named Latika from a race riot that kills his mother, living in vast garbage heaps, panhandling on trains, perfecting con games, and falling prey to trustworthy, smooth-talking adults out to destroy their wards. India may be post-caste by the time of the film (in the late 90s through 2006), yet society seems bent on keeping the downcast down: Hindu racists storm Muslim slums, police target poor suspects, and an angel-faced savior toting ice cold Coca Cola recruits an army of ruthless eight-year-olds to serve as deformed panhandlers on tourist-busy boulevards. Some of the handicaps are easily faked; others he inflicts himself, since in this world "blind singers earn double." Money costs and you have to earn your pay, even arbitrarily. No boy singer gets money just for a beautiful voice; the eyes have to be taken first. Jamal can't just answer game show questions correctly. First his head must be violently ducked in a bucket of water.
So when one of the giveaway first questions ponders India's national motto--"Truth alone triumphs"--Jamal falters. Lies and cons have saved him more than honesty, and having seen what he's seen he knows the reality behind "Money alone triumphs." He uses a lifeline and asks the audience, which overwhelmingly knows the answer despite his ignorance. Jamal's success depends on luck and true life experience, not anything he's read. His success is also independently won; when a trustworthy source offers him an opportunity to actually cheat, he struggles with his options, having learned long ago that in his India there are no trustworthy strangers.
More interesting than the theme behind his rise on the show--that experience fosters a more worthwhile, meaningful, and memorable intelligence than a memorized education--is his reason for being on the show. Having never known the benefits of money yet having witnessed its destructive power in the life of his ladder-climbing gangster brother, Jamal doesn't particularly want the twenty million rupees he stands to win, probably doesn't even know what he'd do with it. What he desires is more human and more valuable--a chance to be seen by the love of his life, Latika, on the most-watched show in India. Fate has brought them together and torn them apart many times. Crime and money have cursed and fooled and abandoned both of them. With his shy face on the small screen long enough, he might just be able to reconnect with the only person he's always trusted, loved, and been able to depend on, the most beautiful girl he's ever seen, something her billionaire thug husband can acquire but never own, something unsullied by the filth and money surrounding everything.
Jamal escapes his interrogation when the inspector realizes, "You can't be a liar. You're too truthful." Latika escapes her sexual hostage situation when an important friend realizes that more is at stake than sex and money. And in the end a Dickensian happy ending is earned. It's not one that's incredibly deep--all in all, Jamal and Latika hardly know each other beyond their faces--but its purity shines amongst all the grit.
The final question is predictable to anyone paying attention to the details. What happens after the question is a touching surprise.
Boyle has earned another success with a fast-paced, pleasurable, and meaningful story. Dev Patel's acting is solid as the skinny, cute underdog, always prepared for the attack but never quite knowing how to prevent it, staring at a bright world at once swathed in color and grime, soaked in a sun that illuminated while it swelters and blisters. The music by M.I.A. also adds a nice touch, with her songs that are simultaneously fun and serious.
Slumdog Millionaire is a fable with messages and outcomes that are a little too good to be true and a little too sweet for the most cynical of us, but vivid, on-location shooting and top-notch direction add just the punch to make it rise above.
The Killer Shrews (1959)
Post-modern before post-modernity?
In 1959, special effects artist Ray Kellogg (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The King and I) was given the resources to direct two back-to-back creature features: The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews. I haven't seen the former, but the latter is a horrifying adaptation of the classic 1957 World Book Encyclopedia entry on the fascinating red-toothed soricinae soricini, a mouse-sized, 100 gram, land-dwelling insectivore and nuteater with a quick gestation time, a high metabolism, poor eyesight, and the need to eat up to 80 per cent of its mass each day simply to survive (that's 80 grams!!!!). What better source of horror and suspense than the shrew, a creature already so abundant, loathsome, and fearful, a being so ingrained in our evolutionary psyche, our cultural mythology, our frightened collective subconsciousness? Okay, it's just a shrew. But what if it were giant--like, the size of a small dog! And what if there were, like, a couple dozen of them? Apparently that wasn't quite enough, so midway through the film they decide to make them poisonous, too. One scratch from their venomous, giant teeth merits instant death! Terrifying! Strom Thurmond--wait, Thorne Sherman (James Best)--wait, really? Thorne Sherman?--is the typical, B-movie leading man: pragmatic, condescending, white, male, racist, middle aged, emotionally vacant, not very handsome but not disfigured either. He and his first mate, who being black dies as soon as we can dismiss him as a fearful, dixieland jazz playing goofball, are delivering resources to the formidably named Dr. Marlowe Sturgis (Baruch Lumet, director Sidney Lumet's father), the exotically accented scientist who's like Dr. Moreau minus the genius, obsession, controversy, and god-complex. Instead of fleeing civilization to conduct blasphemous splicings of animals into men on a remote, tropical island, Dr. Sturgis has relocated to the island simply because it provides a good control environment for the isolation of shrew genes during his research on overpopulation. Almost as villainous, almost as fascinating.
Accompanying him is Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon McLendon), the fat-cheeked, bespectacled research assistant who speaks entirely in scientific-sounding gibberish and fittingly dies at the hand of his own mad science; Mario (Alfred DeSoto), a fat, skittish Mexican who dies because he's not white; Ann Craigis (Ingrid Goude), the doctor's flustered sex object, err, adult daughter, who accompanies her father because there needs to be someone on the island who doesn't have a penis; and Jerry (Ken Curtis), Ann's fiancée, a jealous alcoholic who shouts a lot and generally screws things up. He's there because Thorne needs someone to get in a fist fight with, and he can't very well give a black eye to a shrew or a scientist.
A hurricane has trapped them all on the island, and the voracious, dog-sized shrews, having inexplicably exhausted their food supply, have turned on the humans as prey. The research facility is made of rotting, chalk-thin adobe (easily gnawed through), and there apparently aren't enough weapons (like, say, a sturdy shovel) to fend off the dozen rodents. Verminous nuisance ensues, with numerous extreme closeups of squirrelly eyes and buckteeth chewing at knotholes in fence posts.
Thorne gets the job done, translating Dr. Baines's raw, inhuman data into a practical solution that involves tying steel drums into an armored tank with peepholes and in the process stealing Ann from her no-good lover. What's most interesting about The Killer Shrews is its self-referential mockery of the 1950s hero trope, the overgrown adolescent who is condescending to his companions, gains the powerless female without any romance or effort, never loses his cool except when it's time to throw punches at lesser humans, speaks in a hokey patter that sounds nothing like human speech, and in general seems more like a problem solving robot then someone you'd actually want to be saved by. When Thorne discovers the scrap of clothing that is the only remaining artifact of his jazz-playing companion, he apathetically dismisses it with neither fear or sadness: "They don't leave much do they?" His unnecessary foreign love interest criticizes him while mocking herself: "I've never met anyone like you. You seem disinterested in everything. Aren't you the least bit curious? Aren't you interested in the unusual things around here? The guns, the fence, the shuttered windows... my accent?" A delightful bit of post-modern irony in a delightfully bad film.
Variations on the theme of happiness
Vera Drake (Mike Leigh's last, highly acclaimed film, 2004) was about a doddering, naive granny who bustled around, eternally smiling, boiling water for tea while performing crude abortions in post-war England. The war had left a destructive wake and culture was in the shitter, but Vera bumbled from door to door, doing her small bit to help others, seemingly oblivious to the misery around her and her sometime role in causing it.
Happy-Go-Lucky is a twenty-first century take on the same character, with all the drab melancholia and blubbering replaced by bright costumes, improvisational comedy, and giddy laughter. Sally Hawkins is Poppy, a vivacious primary school teacher who wears vibrant blouses and high heeled boots. She maintains close relationships with coworkers, siblings, and old friends (such as roommate Zoe, played by promising newcomer Alexis Zegerman), and amiably chats up anyone who happens to make eye contact with her--something not always welcomed by the strangers she passes. The intrusive loquaciousness is grating at first, and one can easily identify with the stolid book store clerk who ignores her offhand jokes and small compliments until she asks if he's having a bad day and he blusteringly denies it. Why behave so miserably and coldly without any reason? When her bike is stolen early on, she doesn't mope or swear or fling her belongings violently against the sidewalk. She's peeved, yes, but she also smiles with doggonnit consolation, remarking, "I didn't even get to say goodbye." It's an acceptance of misfortune that's not self-blinding or obnoxious. She doesn't paint it up in wallpaper and pretend that it's some mysterious, positive turn of events; God isn't slamming a door and opening a window, in other words. Instead, it's just something that happens and she moves on cheerfully, refusing to let it bring her down. Why add insult to injury? Happy-Go-Lucky is a two-hour snapshot of various people dealing with daily miseries, an exploration of how various people navigate quotidian ups and downs. Variations on the Theme of Happiness, it could be called. With her school principal Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel) she attends a fitness workshop on flamenco dancing where the vibrant, Castilian instructor explains gypsy opposition to oppression through assertive movements, bold statements, and personal space. An overweight dancer in the background stamps, claps, and smiles; she seems positively empowered. Throughout the film, Poppy utilizes the tools at her disposal to make the best of shaky situations. She drinks but has no drinking problem. She longs for sexual companionship but doesn't mourn its absence. When she catches one of her students bullying another, she doesn't jump to punish the offender but instead takes steps to solve the underlying problems, seeing violence within its cycle instead of within a vacuum, recruiting a pleasant social worker to investigate.
Maybe it's all a little simple sometimes--sometimes kids, and people, are just bullies and jerks for extremely complicated reasons or no reason at all, and no amount of investigation into their background could perhaps change that--as in the case of Scott, the foul-teethed, earringed driving instructor that Poppy hires when her bike is stolen, figuring there's no better time to finally get a license. He's a complicated mess--racist, committed, principled, uptight, and paranoid--and when Poppy tries to pry out details of his childhood in order to better understand him--"Were you bullied, Scott?"--it all seems incredibly naive. The man spouts out declarations about demon mythology, mixes spittle with racist invective while fuming about multiculturalism, and cites the dimensions of the Washington Monument as proof of a global conspiracy. No revelations about abusive dads or schoolyard bullies could possibly defuse the thirty years of septic contaminants that have fueled his life and worldview.
But here's the point: Poppy is no expert of human behavior; she's only a champion of her own. When the situation with Scott reaches a violent breaking point, she moves swiftly and assertively to protect herself. Unlike Vera Drake, she isn't a blind lamb whistling her way to the slaughterhouse. With crisis averted she concerns herself less with revenge and punishment (calling the police certainly wouldn't solve anything, she explains) and more with increasing the peace. Merely by retaining her calm demeanor and happy outlook she has won.
Other characters and scenes flesh out other aspects of the happiness problem. A mammoth, tranquil chiropractor soothes away physical discomfort. A younger sister admittedly takes the easy path--suburbs, garden, house, husband, baby, retirement package--while jealously fearing that her wayward older sis might actually be happier. But much of the film is essentially aimless and irrelevant. Leigh's films don't utilize screenplays; his (always fantastic, often Oscar-nominated) actors improvise several versions of intended scenes and he splices together the best bits. So while the banter is always clever, spontaneous, and realistic, it isn't always focused or philosophically meaningful.
Happy-Go-Lucky is much lighter fare than Mike Leigh usually serves up, which is perhaps why it's more successful than the last few films. It offers a palatable and positive, light-handed message, that happiness can be a powerful agent, explosive, self-fueling, contagious, and of limitless supply, that it needn't be the weak, fragile substance we're so often willing to make it seem.
Before and After (1996)
What a lame movie. Still not sure why I sat through it, apart from the hope that it would get better.
First off, the acting is bad, very bad. Meryl Streep is above average and Alfred Molina is decent, but that's about it. I felt like whacking Liam Neeson several times throughout. I suppose he did the best with his character, but his character was too stupid and annoying to appreciate. Edward Furlong, who, in my opinion, is overrated, was also horrible in his typical role as a troubled teen (See: American History X, Terminator II, and Pet Sematary II, etc.). In every movie he's been in, he always looks like he's about to start crying, no matter what the scene may call for, and that got on my nerves tremendously. Okay, in American History X he was above average (still shadowed tremendously by the wonderful Edward Norton), but in this movie he's just... well... bad. And the girl who plays the daughter--Julia Weldon, whoever she is--was the worst of all.
The plot and screenplay also suffer. This could've been an interesting--if not entirely original--suspense film. I was expecting something similar to Primal Fear (1996), with interesting twists and plot developments. However, we get nothing in that department. Instead we get a simple, boring storyline that is somewhat predictable. The anticlimax is horribly disappointing.
Avoid this movie if you're looking for something suspenseful. This is basically just a simple drama. If you want a good movie about a convicted kid who may or may not be innocent, see Primal Fear with Richard Gere and Edward Norton.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Wow! Truly a modern classic! Each of the several storylines are intriguing and highly entertaining. My favorite is the one focusing on Bruce Willis as a boxer who disobeys when ordered to throw a fight for a million dollars. My least favorite is the one centering on Vincent (Travolta) and his "date" with Mia (Thurman), the boss's wife. In my opinion, it detracted from the crime-related tones in the other storylines, yet it was still wonderful. The acting from the all-star cast is perfect, all around. I only had one problem: Travolta. Several other reviewers state how wonderful he was in this outstanding role. Personally, I didn't think it was that remarkable. I've never really like Travolta and that may have been a factor. The real actor in this movie is Samuel L. Jackson, as a philosophical hitman--but then again, he's good in everything.
So the plotlines may not be too believable, but that's the point. This film explores things that rarely happen as a natural chain of events. The Bruce Willis story--which explores how coincidences can strongly affect our lives--is one example of this. The people they run in with at the gun shop is hilarious and memorable. Quentin Tarantino has certainly outdone himself in this brilliant, classic film. Everything about it--from the very detailed, complex characters to the entertaining storylines to the stunning direction and acting--is perfect. A must see for any fan of movies. 10/10
Erin Brockovich (2000)
I've never really been a fan of Julia Roberts before, but this movie shined a new light on her for me. Her role as Erin Brockovich, an abrasive, determined researcher for a legal firm, is wonderfully portrayed and it would be a shame if she is not nominated for an Oscar. Everything about her, as a middle-aged, twice-divorced mother of three who fears her life may be slowly going down the drain, is beautifully performed for the screen.
An excellent cast and wonderful--if obscenity-laced--screenplay make up for a storyline which is not too entirely original (small lawyer firm vs. big business). A must-see for anyone looking for an entertaining, solid drama. 9/10
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
I wasn't too thrilled about the acting in this new take on the classic Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Most of the other reviewers here have stated that Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci were both spectacular, but in my opinion, almost any actor could have delivered a similar, if not better, performance. The plot, which is very different from the original story, was innovative, but the screenplay nearly ruins it by explaining the whole background in one speech towards the end instead of showing it to us.
However, this movie is not a complete loss. It is almost fully redeemed by stunning cinematography and set design, as well as top-of-the-line special effects. The whole movie, from its opening scene to its ending, carries an appropriate, gloomy atmosphere. Director Burton perfectly captures the essence of 1799, better than other historical movies have been able to do. Okay, so I wasn't scared at all by this movie--it takes more than gore to frighten me--but it was an entertaining two hours. 7/10
Jackie Brown (1997)
Tarantino Does it Again
In my opinion, Jackie Brown had more entertainment value than Reservoir Dogs and was more believable--if not better--than Pulp Fiction. Currently, I'm going through my Tarantino phase and have seen three of his movies (four if you count Natural Born Killers--a waste of film) in the past week. Jackie Brown, with its complex crime plot and detailed characters, is a must-see for anyone who is a fan of the genre.
What really holds this film together is the fabulous acting. Pam Grier was wonderfully cast as the middle-aged, lower class, clever stewardess, and Samuel L. Jackson, as a tough gun dealer, were both wonderful choices.
Overlong, maybe, but with the terrific acting, delightful screenplay, and solid direction, it manages to keep your attention throughout. 9/10
House on Haunted Hill (1999)
They should pay you a million dollars to sit through this movie
When five strangers are mysteriously invited to a party held at a haunted asylum, strange things start to unravel.... and everyone in the audience starts to fall asleep.
This movie is everything a movie should not be. It is a horror with no real scary parts in it. It has plenty of gore, and some good special effects, but aside from that, this movie has nothing in its favor. Maybe that's all you need to scare eight year olds and idiots, but for the average viewer, that just isn't going to cut it.
The characters are completely one-dimensional and have no motivation for anything they do. They are so undeveloped and stupid, you actually find yourself happy when they are killed. The plot, too, is undeveloped. What could be a great psychological horror falls short when the writer decided to tell nothing about what is happening and why. Why are the patients revolting? Why is the doctor commiting these horrible crimes?
Chris Kattan from Saturday Night Live makes an appearance, and this brought my hopes up thinking he would provide some sound comic relief, but instead he spends the whole movie ranting about how "the house is alive," something we have known since the first five minutes.
Avoid this movie at all costs, it has enough holes in it to drive a Mack truck through. I gave it two stars instead of one because of one somewhat exciting scene at the beginning.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
Very Good Adaptation
I thought this was a very good adaptation of the well known Dickens story. Patrick Stewart is very believable as Scrooge, and the rest of the cast is equally good. There are some nice special effects involving tornados and ghosts, and I thought they were pretty good for a TV Movie. While it doesn't exactly live up to TNT's guarantee that it is the best version ever of the story, it is definitely worth a look, like many of TNT's original films.
The Shining (1997)
An Excellent Film
This happens to be one of the best TV-Movies I have ever seen. The entire cast is perfect; there is some wonderful acting and great special effects. I especially enjoyed the scene with the topiary animals (creepy!). While it may not be as scary as the Kubrick version, which in my opinion was only scary because of the tremendous amounts of gore and violence, this story has a much better plot and it ACTUALLY HAS A STORY! There is only one problem I have with this film, when it originally aired my VCR was not working and I was unable to tape it. Recently I learned that because of a deal made between King and Kubrick, it will never be released for sale in the U.S.! I still find it impossible to believe that King would ever be stupid enough to agree with such a horrible deal. Anyway, if you ever do have a chance to see this, definitely check it out. It is a superb movie. 10 out of 10!
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
This Movie Can Never Be Seen Too Many Times (Some Spoilers, But Not Many)
I first rented this movie because I had heard it was good and because it was there. Through the first half hour, I thought it was entertaining at most, but after the scene where the one man is beaten and nobody cares, I was totally engulfed in this film. There is nothing wrong with this movie. Every action, every word spoken is absolutely perfect. After seeing it half a million times, I can quote it word for word. I still smile with utter joy in the end and get choked up during the scene with Brooks. Frank Darabont is one of the greatest directors I have ever seen, and it is a shame that he has only made a few movies. The music in this movie is also perfect. If you haven't seen this movie, which I am surprised to hear that many people have not, you should rent it immediately. Nevermind, don't just rent it.... buy it. You will not regret it. Ten out of ten! >
The Dark Half (1993)
Very Scary And Unique!!
This is one of the few horror movies in which I was truly frightened. Unlike most horror movies these days, this one was serious from beginning to end. I saw this movie before I read the book and knew very little about it. I was on the edge of my seat all night. Timothy Hutton is wonderful as the evil George Stark and the good Thad Beaumont. Amy Madigan was good as his confused wife, too. This movie is a wonderful adaptation of the Stephen King book. Very little is left out. If you haven't seen this movie, which many people have not, you should rent it. I give it a ten out of ten.