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Posts Tagged ‘independent cinema’

Slumdog Millionaire: Rising From the Ashes

Posted by goldwriting on November 27, 2008

slumdog-millionaire You gotta get on that train, kid. Trust me. It was in a movie much older than this one.

Rating: 9 out of 10

The last two months of the year always bring out the heavy hitters from both the studio pipeline and the independent circuit. It can almost become a test in itself to keep perspective about what constitutes a good or possibly great film. The bar of quality can get subconsciously raised so high that everything starts to either blend together or pale in comparison to one overwhelmingly powerful piece of cinema. Yet no matter how hard the struggle may get, everyone wins in the end because the audience is presented with a plethora of great films to enjoy.

I’m sure you see where this is going in terms of how I feel about this next movie. If not, please go back and read the first part again. Slowly this time.

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal, a young boy growing up in the poverty stricken parts of the big cities in India. Through a twisting and winding series of events he finds himself as a contestant on their country’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. His fame and wonder grows as he answers question after question correctly until he is on the brink of completing game and winning the grand prize. As most good stories do, this film begins with a question; how does he know all the answers? Is he cheating? Or is it written?

Simon Beaufoy, the writer of the screenplay, got the story from a novel called Q&A by Vikas Swarup. It’s true I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how close the movie follows along or how much was creative license, but either way, the structure of the film is a beautiful example of intelligent and well-planned storytelling. Each question in the movie leads to another flashback, a new vignette into the history of where Jamal came from and the struggles he went through to get where he is. It allows the audience to get pieces of information that are only pertinent to the scene in front of it without having to wallow through sixteen years of a childhood. It also breaks the film up nicely and serves as a nice reminder when the footage you are watching is particularly harsh that he does make it through somehow, since we see him on the game show. The true power of the story is the celebration of love, destiny and the belief it is still possible, no matter what the costs. As mentioned previously, some of the footage, mostly in the first thirty minutes, can be very hard to sit through due to a few scenes of child abuse, alluded to and shown. The tolerance level gets pushed nearly too far, but at the last possible second the film turns the corner and those previous scenes now become the anchor to where it goes from there.

Danny Boyle, who directed this fine feature, is no stranger to telling love stories in the most chilling or tragic of circumstances (take a glance back at The Beach) or pushing cinema to new levels of uncomfortable (try some of the key scenes from Trainspotting or 28 Days Later). No matter if it’s love or death, Danny Boyle always comes to the plate with something visually interesting and compelling, never failing to leave a lingering impression which sparks conversation even weeks afterward. Beyond those intense scenes in the beginning, there are numerous moments throughout the film which stand out. I won’t go into them all here for the sake of saving surprises for the theater, but believe me, they are there. Another talent Boyle has is working with the actors, which should always be the main role of the director. The performances here from Dev Patel, who plays our lead Jamal; Freida Pinto, who plays the romantic interest Latika; and Irfan Khan, who plays the police inspector, are all incredible and worthy of mention. Dev is definitely the heart and soul and drives the film, but his skills are only exemplified by the support he receives in each and every scene by the other cast members. Dev has only one credit outside of this film, but I have no doubt it will be filling up nicely after this film makes the rounds. The same holds for Frida, who actually only has this single credit to her name, but with her presence, talent and striking beauty, she will be gracing the silver screen for years to come, if we’re lucky. Irfan was quite busy before this movie came along and that doesn’t look to be slowing down for him any time soon.

Now although everything up to this point has been glowing and full of praise, this film not perfect. I had one main issue coming out of the theater and it has to do with the character of Salim, Jamal’s older brother, played by Madhur Mittal. There is an obvious triangle in the film between Jamal, Salim and Latika, but even before that appears, Salim constantly jumps back and forth between an undying loyalty and love to his younger brother and in the next scene betraying him in the worst ways imaginable. Some might argue it is an issue of control and Salim’s constant battle to keep it over Jamal, but I’m not sure it is supported by the story. Whatever the case may be, the audience is never granted with any explanation of Salim’s motives and I feel it harms our ability to emotionally connect with his character. It is not a deal breaker by far in this film, but since everything else in the movie was done so well, this little fact stuck out for me.

Recommendation: This is a true must-see film. If you miss it in the theater or it doesn’t play anywhere near you, rent it the first chance you get. Strap yourself in and ride out the tougher stuff in the beginning of the film, you will not be sorry. Also, not to plug another film, but if you like great films with themes of undeterred love, check out Brick; it’s in my Top Ten Movies of All Time. Lastly, if you’re a fan at all of Danny Boyle, I would be remiss in forgetting to mention the under-appreciated and terribly under-marketed Sunshine, which was without a doubt one of the best Sci-Fi films of last year, if not the last five years.

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The Visitor: Finding the Beat of Your Heart

Posted by goldwriting on November 1, 2008

Can you teach me something by Journey?

Rating: 9 out of 10

Taking the ordinary and introducing it to the out-of-the-ordinary. That’s what Thomas McCarthy said about his films and their underlying stories. Actually, he probably put it a little more eloquently, but you catch the drift. This is indeed the core of nearly all filmmaking and good storytelling. It brings out the eternal question; What happens when the normal world is shifted, knocked askew by any number of forces and how will the people of that world react? Will they run? Will they freeze? Most importantly of all, what would we do in their shoes? Now before you apply these new questions to such deep and powerful films like Beerfest and Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, let’s start out with something a bit clearer.

The Visitor tells the story of Walter Vale, an economy professor listlessly wandering through his days pretending to be busy so he can negate any chance for human contact since the loss of his wife. He reluctantly makes a trip to New York for a conference and finds a young couple illegally renting his apartment in the city. Being a decent person, he allows them to stay while they look for a new place, but in return he gets much more than new roommates, he finds the doorway to a life which has been passing him by.

Thomas McCarthy creates a wonderfully simple and beautifully timeless world for us so we can bear witness to one of the great abilities in human nature, love. You can break almost any story down into a love story, but The Visitor is one dealing with numerous types of love in one tale. There is the love of music, shown when Tarek, the young man living in William’s apartment, teaches William about the African drum. Through this new musical outlet, William grows not only as a drummer, but as a person as well, allowing himself to open up to the world walking by him and becoming a participant instead of an invisible observer. There is the love of a young couple, shown by Tarek and Zainab, his girlfriend. They are both living in the country under constant fear of deportation, ignorant retaliation and learning to do what they can to get by, but their love for each other keeps them together and puts smiles onto their faces in even the darkest of moments. There is also the love of a mother for her son, shown through the brave journey of Mouna, Tarek’s mother who travels to New York after five days of not being able to reach her son on his cell phone. Sure, that could sound a touch paranoid, but it was the reality this family was living in which made her so concerned. Lastly, just to top off the love-fest, this also tells the story of love coming again to those who have closed themselves off to the idea. No matter what the circumstances, no matter how long it has been, love can always breach those defenses and wake up the heart once more. All these different versions of love are delicately woven together and paired up with a powerful political sentiment around our broken immigration policies and treatment of illegals. Coming off heavy handed is dangerous when dealing with these themes, so subtlety is the name of the game here and McCarthy handles it with the same skill and honesty he showed us before in The Station Agent. As a writer/director his record is incredibly strong, so I recommend keeping an eye out for anything bearing his name.

As with most small stories like this one, much of the weight and success falls on the shoulders of the actors and their ability to deliver realistic, believable and truthful performances. Casting becomes a type of “make-or-break” decision for the project and Thomas McCarthy came well prepared to the table. He had Richard Jenkins in mind for Walter Vale from nearly the beginning and stuck with him even after Richard told him that he would love to play the character, but the movie would most likely never get made with him as the lead. Richard wasn’t saying this out of any type of martyr complex, but he has been a character actor for a great many years without a starring role and he knew his name would not carry much weight on the playbill, yet even with that fact staring him in the face, Thomas stuck to his guns and fought for Richard. After winning all necessary battles, Richard walked into the role with such amazing depth and sensitivity garnering him incredible buzz and murmurs of Academy nominations. If he doesn’t reach the heights of the golden statue this time, he shouldn’t be too heartbroken because I have no doubt a number of the independent awards and smaller organizations are going to give notice and heap praise. There were such small and nuanced details to every moment he portrayed, it was impossible not to feel for him during this journey. From platonic caring to romantic longing, Richard proved once and for all he is a lead actor and one to be learned from. Also involved from near the inception of the story was Hiam Abbass, who played Tarek’s mother, Mouna Khalil. She really fit perfectly with the style and grace of Jenkin’s performance, showing a quiet, reserved, yet insurmountable strength which propelled her character to do absolutely anything to be there for her son. As for the young couple, Haaz Sleiman played Tarek and Danai Jekesai Gurira played Zainab. Both were quite good and held up the incredible level of commitment and quality already being displayed in the film. Haaz boldly followed his ark of being hopeful and optimistic about life in America to barely contained rage over his mistreatment from ignorance and fear. Danai displayed the other side of being a foreigner in this country, the side where they try as best as they can to keep to themselves and not interfere or be noticed for fear of being deported. Her struggle displays one of the true tragedies of the story, where the yellow brick road leading many immigrants to our shores and streets ends on cracked pavement and broken promises.

Recommendation: The Visitor is an amazing film which really brings out the depth of feeling we yearn for from independent cinema. It has had a long and slow burn on the film circuit and at this time can already be found on DVD, so do yourself a favor and buy, rent or borrow this movie as soon as you get the chance. If you’re lucky, the story of Walter Vale might even inspire you to continue on your own journey, wherever it may lead.

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