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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008

We all want to escape - our sense of self, our worthless lives, those moments of unfulfilling social conformity. Yet few of us have to literally run for our salvation. Hope usually comes in a moment of clarity, a well learned life lesson, or the unexpected aid of a close friend or family. In essence, karma can occasionally step-in and re-right the order of things. If you have to sprint afterwards, it means that something about your cosmic disposition still isn’t settled. For most of his life, Indian street kid (or “slumdog”) Jamal Malik has been running - from persecution, from pain, and from the poverty that threatens to swallow him whole. Yet it’s within this setting that fascinating filmmaker Danny Boyle finds a ray of solid cinematic hope. He takes it and turns it into what is, unquestionably, one of 2008’s best efforts.


While appearing on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jamal is arrested by the police and charged with cheating. He is only one inquiry away from the jackpot. After a severe and rather brutal interrogation, the cops discover some interesting facts about the boy. Born in the slums of Mumbai, he recalls his life as an urchin while proving that he knows the answer to every question asked. We learn of his mother’s death at the hands of anti-Muslim protestors. We see his tenure as a part of an orphanage as organized crime begging scheme. We meet his hotheaded trickster brother Salim, and the girl he has loved ever since he first laid eyes on her, Lakita. After a stint as a faux tour guide at the Taj Mahal, and his current trade as a coffee boy in a cellphone call center, he appears streetwise, if not particularly educated. Still, Jamal does indeed know the answers. They’re just so happen to be the landmarks in his otherwise unexceptional life. 


There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.


But Slumdog Millionaire is different. It uses a clever plot contrivance (each answer on the game show inspires another flashback to a point in Jamal’s life) and within said individuals stories, Boyle gets to experiment with tone, approach, and creative syntax. The early scenes are the funniest, as they featuring incredibly endearing child actors illustrating the spunk and determination that drives many a dead-end Indian kid. While some of the humor can be scatological (little Jamal literally crawls through shit to see his favorite Bollywood hero), Boyle never flinches. This is especially true of the pivotal moment when our hero loses his mother. Shot and edited in a highly stylized, kinetic manner, we get caught up in the riots, and are resolved to the devastation that results.


Boyle then switches gears, giving us life from a little one’s perspective. The trip to the orphanage has a real Oliver Twist tone, especially when your substitute Fagan shows his incredibly cruel disposition. Later, after rescuing Latika from a brothel, the brothers hole up in an abandoned hotel, the implied luxury countermanding their previous dirt poor survival. At this moment, Slumdog Millionaire transforms from a travelogue (complete with compelling moments at the world famous Taj) into a personal story about dignity and self-reliance. Within the framework of a craven, criminal underworld, the boys are made to chose. Jamal becomes an office flunky. His brother, like so many before, lets the allure of easy money and quick trigger violence overwhelm him.


By breaking up the story into these two halves, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who loosely adapted the book Q&A by Vikas Swarup) gives us the whole post-colonial Indian experience in a nutshell. On the one end is the seething tide of humanity, an overpopulated mass unable to do much except exist and expire. Then there are the wealthy, the new millennial millionaires and business impresarios who literally rape their homeland, utilizing interchangeable slave-like labor to make their money. Within this set-up Jamal sees a way out. All he has to do is appear on the country’s favorite game show, rack up the cash, and he’ll have everything - including Latika.


The romance between the two destined lovers can be seen as Slumdog‘s sole weak link, an unexplained obsession that’s too old school Hollywood to be anything other than fantasy. But because Boyle gets such compelling work out of his mostly newcomer cast (including remarkable turns by leads Dev Patel and Freida Pinto) we forgive the narrative contrivances and simply believe. In fact, a lot of Slumdog Millionaire reminds us of why we love movies in the first place. It whisks us away to locations exotic and new. It introduces us to people and life experiences far beyond our own daily sphere of influence, and delivers both in a way that excites our senses, stirs our imagination, and satisfies our basic entertainment needs - and then some.


In a world which is rampantly turning multicultural, the innate pleasures of Slumdog Millionaire reflect this growing global concept of acceptance. It’s miles away from other movies set in India, it’s belief in all facets of the society - good, bad, rich, poor, corrupt, innocent, camp, cruel - helping to turn the mysterious modern country into a combination of Oz and some interplanetary rest stop. You have truly never seen backdrops like those featured in this miraculous film. And through them all, a young man runs - to catch up to his destiny, to find grace within his lowlife circumstances, to snag the elusive girl he always loved. Jamal may not become a millionaire, but in the process of leaving his past behind, he will become his own man. Thanks to Danny Boyle’s undeniable genius, it’s a trip well worth taking. 


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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008

It’s a very interesting question indeed: outside of a single turn as the voice of a cartoon elephant, is Jim Carrey still a viable box office draw? Better still, in a world filled with Apatow-inspired bromance slacker comedies, are his rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis on Jolt Cola antics still funny? His last two live action roles where nothing special (Fun with Dick and Jane, The Number 23) and he’s had a couple of high profile projects (Ripley’s Believe It or Not, with Tim Burton, for one) fall through. But now, the man once known for literally talking out his ass is back, hoping to garner a bit of that Liar, Liar cred that made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable buffoons. Unfortunately, Yes Man is so subtle in what it tries to accomplish that Carrey’s over the top shenanigans don’t satisfy. Instead, they stand out like an incredibly dated sore thumb.


Carl Allen is a painfully unhappy man. Miserable ever since his divorce and lost in a dead end job, his friends feel he’s headed toward an interpersonal crash. One day, he runs into an old buddy who appears exceedingly vibrant and alive. He’s just come back from a seminar run by self-help guru Terrence Bundley, and the advice he’s been given is simple - just say “Yes” to everything. No negatives. Just positives. Reluctantly embracing the philosophy at first, Carl soon learns that constantly agreeing has its drawbacks. It also has its benefits, as he starts seeing a free spirited rock chick poet named Allison. Soon, life is wonderful for the former loser. He gets promoted, he reconnects with his pals, and his relationship with Allison is going gangbusters. But you can only agree with everything for so long before it comes back to bite you, and Carl soon discover the pitfalls - mostly personal - of being so agreeable.


With a premise far more promising than anything offered up onscreen, and a star treading water where once he tore shit up, Yes Man is a comedy in theory only. Jokes are made, funny things are said, and yet director Peyton Reed (slumming once again since making the oddly enjoyable retro gem Down with Love) can’t get things to gel. Carrey isn’t really to blame. After all, he’s working with a script that gesticulates wildly from clever RomCom meet cutes to old ladies giving blow jobs. This is humor as hodgepodge, everything but the crapped in kitchen sink tossed together in hopes that something satiric, or silly, or slapstick will occur. For every quasi-inventive moment (the ultra naïve New Zealand co-worker Norman is a nice touch) and rock solid emotional sentiment (Zooey Deschanel’s quirk girl damsel in distress is wonderfully winning), we are treated to pages ripped off and out of our lead’s book of formerly guaranteed laugh getters.


Yet now, they don’t work. Carrey was once the king of embarrassing behavior, unafraid to push the limits of likeability and realism to make his character’s click. Look back at his work in such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Cable Guy, Me, Myself, and Irene, or Dumb and Dumber and you’ll see someone going ape to try to make a maniac mountain out of a minor motivational molehill. Even when he’s taken it down several notches and gone serious (The Truman Show, The Majestic), he’s rooted his performances in a stylized reality. Not anymore. Carrey wants to be an average schmoe, albeit one who can still riff on Red Bull and go a drunken one-on-one with a pumped up bar patron. But in the interim between project delays and flops, comedy has passed Carrey by. What worked a few years ago seems as passé as the late Chris Farley’s fat guy goofballing.


That’s not to say that Yes Man completely fails, but there is a much better film to be found inside all the mugging and high concept contrivances. The notion of one man finding himself with the power of positive thinking and the newfound hope in the acceptance of life could be played for both humor and the handkerchiefs. Give us a strong enough protagonist, a philosophy that doesn’t feel ripped off from a dozen EST offshoots, and a relationship we can root for, and something like this would work and work well. But Reed can only manage one out of three, and even though it’s supposedly based on a book by Scot Danny Wallace, everything here feels false. Even when we buy into the budding kinship between Carrey and Deschanel, it’s because of the natural ease between the actors, not anything offered within the narrative.


Indeed, Yes Man takes a fast track into tedium the minute a spontaneous trip to Lincoln, Nebraska becomes a skewered spoof of the War on Terror. Allison misunderstands Carl’s motives, the Feds fall into familiar patterns of arrest first and ignore the answers to their questions later, and everything hinges on a hospital stay, a borrowed street bike, and that most hamfisted of ‘80s third act answers - the chase. That’s right, when all else fails, but your star in a butt-revealing hospital gown, get him on a physics defying vehicle of some sort, and watch as the editing and shot selection try to make things exciting and nail-biting. While we want to see a resolution to the last remaining plot threads, tying things up with some stuntwork seems unimaginative at best.


Perhaps Carrey is a concept whose time has truly past. Maybe he needs to go back to making family fare and the occasional oddball curveball choice (any calls from Tarantino you haven’t taken, Mr. Jim?). If films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or Role Models have proved anything, it’s that a successful comedy in 2008 has to rely on more than just pratfalls and forced outrageousness to win over audiences. For someone who has traded almost exclusively in the world of brazen cinematic clowning, Jim Carrey can no longer hang. Had Yes Man embraced this and gone for something sensible, we might have a clever and inventive effort. As it stands, we are treated to the same old material filtered through a wit worn out since before George W. Bush took power.  That’s a little too long to be adrift inside the laughfest landscape.


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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008

If there is one genre that’s in desperate need of a post-modern make-over, it’s the tearjerker. Comedy gets retrofitted every few years, while the action film scours the globe for as much Hong Kong parkour butt kicking uniqueness as possible. Even horror goes through its commercially mandated cycles (we’re back to slasher, FYI). But for those who like a good cry, the weeper stands steady, static and virtually unchanged. It’s always the same disease-of-the-month, only-the-good-die-young dynamic overhauled with a new set of A-list actors and the typical formula of maudlin manipulation and emotion tweaking. Seven Pounds wants to change all that. It wants to earn its pain in a nontraditional, uniquely ambitious manner. And if anyone can sell such an unusual take on this kind of material, it has to be the current reigning box office king, Will Smith, right? Well…


IRS agent Ben Thomas is apparently about to commit suicide. Before he does, however, he intends to change the lives of several people he is currently ‘auditing’. There’s a blind customer service rep with dreams with a good, honest soul. There’s a young leukemia patient who needs some rare bone marrow. An abused woman and her children require a new place to live, while a kidney given to a new hockey coach will give him one more chance on the ice. For Ben, the decision to help goes beyond want or need. It’s connected to a tragedy in his past, the death of his wife, and the total such a loss has taken on him physically and spiritually. But when he meets up with Emily Posa, a young print artist overwhelmed by a literally failing heart, Ben must reconsider his plan. Falling in love was never part of the scheme, and in doing so, he risks his ability to cope - and to care for those he promised to provide for. 


Told in an initially engaging, yet eventually aggravating piecemeal style, Seven Pounds is either a wonderful weeper or two-thirds of an actual mainstream film. It finds Will Smith in full inferred hero mode, avoiding the obvious champion histrionics of something like Hancock for a more subtle, if still substantive, I Am Messiah message. As long as he keeps the various seemingly dispirit parts in the air, filmmaker Gabrielle Muccino (of Smith’s last awards season bid for nomination consideration, The Pursuit of Happyness) manages to maintain the audiences attention. Like a puzzle slowly putting itself together, we take the small amounts of information given in each scene and process them within a wildly vague and frequently unfulfilling plotline. That Smith can sell it - well, at least some percentage of it - speaks for his continued commercial drawing power.


But Seven Pounds does overstay its welcome, working one too many scattershot flashback over material that already seems like an incomplete portrait of otherwise important particulars. We never learn many of the main motives for the character’s actions. Smith starts the film by cursing out a blind Woody Harrelson. Then he visits a nursing home physician who goes from tax cheat to elderly abuser in the course of a single patient Q&A. Before long, a concerned brother of Ben’s is making the kind of haunting, prophetic phone calls that only exist in the movies. If a real relative called you up and spoke in such dire, foreboding half-sentences, you’d immediately put he or she on your “Ignore” list. Along the way, obvious future plot elements (jellyfish, printing press, scars) bubble up to the surface before slowly sinking back into the impressionistic landscape.


Smith can be commended for being slightly nasty within his otherwise incredibly noble manner. He spends many a significant close-up on the verge of tears, his gaunt and grieving face revealing a level of truth that Seven Pounds frequently fails to reach otherwise. He is joined in his excellent (if erratic) performance patterns by the ravishing Rosario Dawson. Though dressed down significantly here, she still comes across as too dynamic to be barely alive. There is a real chemistry between the couple, and a last act romance that really works. But because Muccino and his movie have tried so hard to keep the connections at bay, there is an arm’s length like distance between us and the actors that makes the sentiment hard to sell. We believe they are in love - we just don’t feel it.


Indeed, a lot of Seven Pounds plays like something we view rather than experience. When Ben’s ruse is revealed, when his brother chews him out for the risks he’s been taking and the trouble he could be in, we fail to see the significance. Once again, the unusual storytelling style fails to provide the necessary backstory or context. Even more confusing are the various denouements we experience once Smith’s situation is (semi)explained. Why these people, we wonder. Can the poor Hispanic family really afford the multi-million dollar seaside homestead that Ben readily gives to them? If our hero is doing this because he sees the inherent “good” in people, why can’t he forgive himself? And again, if that guilt is so strong and all consuming, how can he abandon it for someone like Dawson?


For all its ambitions, however, Seven Pounds ultimately fails in the one arena where it should be a cinematic slam dunk - the production of tears. Instead, the finale melds into a kind of New Age answer to amateur hour, with characters we’ve seen before reconfigured into survivors and symbolic placeholders. We’re slightly more informed about what was going on than when we saw Smith ambling around LA in his beat-up old car, case file loaded with potential problems he was looking to magnanimously fix. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions. As an idea for a movie, the story of one man’s personal crusade to use his body and his ability as a means of making amends for past transgressions has a great deal of potential. It could even be deemed tragic. But by deconstructing the genre, Smith and Muccino mess it up ever so slightly. And unlike other film types, this version of the five handkerchief heart-tugger can’t take it. 


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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008

Love isn’t easy. Neither is life. Both bring us so much sorrow and pain that it’s weird how obsessive we are over each one. We covet them both, loathe the times when we are without them, and wonder why we are being picked by the All Powerful to have neither when others around us seem absolutely flush with same. In Charlie Kaufman’s latest Rubik’s Cube of a film, Synecdoche, New York, a theatrical director with oversized ambitions channels his ongoing issues with existence and emotion into a massive interactive happening that eventually hamstrings his entire being. As he moves through wives and mistresses, daughters and gender bending doubles, he slowly loses track of time, his muse, and eventually, his identity. Sounds like someone who’s spent every waking moment looking for both of those elusive ideals, right?


Indeed, Caden Cotard is an artist of large ambitions and even greater interpersonal problems. His wife, famed miniature painter Adele Lack, is leaving for Germany, and doesn’t want her husband along for the ride. His four year old daughter loves him, but finds his lack of attention frustrating. Caden also catches the eye of box office cashier Hazel, a fiery redhead who literally lays it on like a house on fire. When he wins a genius grant, our hapless hero decides to produce something “real” - a kind of performance piece in which actors portray character living actual, real time lives. He also includes himself and Hazel in the “play”, improvising dialogue and narrative to give the roles shape. Caden soon finds the production consuming his every waking moment. Even worse, his obsession with getting to the heart of human existence soon starts spiraling out of control.


Clearly centering on the battle between the sexes and the always intriguing collateral damage from same, Charlie Kaufman’s latest example of screenplay extrapolation begins with an obscure definitional allusion (“synecdoche” is a Greek word for a concept that’s a distant cousin to the metaphor) and ends in some sort of self-referential apocalypse. It deals specifically with characters that just cannot connect while implied universal links via the always prescient concept of theater. As with many of Kaufman’s more confounding works - Human Nature, Being John Malkovich - there is a distinct feeling of being tossed into the middle of a performance without a playbill, a cast list, or a clue about the previous backstory or context. Indeed, the Oscar winning writer often creates works that feel insular and incomplete, as if a special key to understanding everything is missing or purposefully left out.


This doesn’t make his movie bad, however, just terribly confounding - and Synecdoche, New York is definitely mystifying. But not in a bad way. In fact, Kaufman is one of those rare strangled geniuses who can make the most absurd idea or approach seem sane. He’s like David Lynch if Mr. Blue Velvet dropped the dream logic and applied a more analytical angst to his projects. Even better, Kaufman is never dull. He may push the boundaries of our patience and understanding, but he does so in ways that are endlessly fascinating. As a first time director, he avoids obvious tricks or gimmickry. For all its frustrating surrealism and unexplained exposition, this is really just a quiet character study, an ensemble work in which everyone appears to be playing out their own unique and often contradictory set of motives.


There will be those who mistake Kaufman’s convex/concave creativity as unremittingly hedonistic. After all, is there really an audience for a film in which the title character fishes through his stool, cries during sex, and purposefully puts off the only woman who shows him any kind of affection or attention? He’s a nebbish that needs a swift kick in the ass, not some manner of shrink. As portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the bravest performances of his already illustrious career, Caden is karma bottled up and bloated. In many ways, Synecdoche, New York is like Woody Allen with all the linking verbs taken out. As it mines its incongruous insights, it stays closed off to even the most rudimentary internal investigation.


The rest of the cast also serves the movie well. Catherine Keener is making a new career out of Earth mother meanness, while Jennifer Jason Leigh is a revelation as a nationality shape shifting lesbian. Samantha Morton is amazing as Hazel, while her cinematic soulmate Emily Watson makes a clever, quirky in-joke of a doppelganger. Tom Noonan’s take on Hoffman as Caden is also interesting, since he seems to wean out the passion to produce a more dictatorial, dimensionless version of our hero, and Dianne Wiest steals every scene she’s in as an actress eager to take on any “part” in Caden’s life. Toward the end, when everyone is playing individuals of the opposite sex and sliding in and out of what passes for reality (Kaufman envisions a future filled with revolution, police states, and random airships), we sense that whatever’s happening here means something significant to the man behind the camera.


In fact, if one had to venture a guess as to what Synecdoche, New York really means, the notion of art abjectly reflecting an individual’s inner being seems central to what is happening in the plot. As he moves through his continuously irregular psyche, landing on random patterns and perspectives that illustrate his lack of success with other individuals, Caton contemplates how all of life is like Shakespeare’s proverbial stage. Of course, once you start believing in, and then starring in, your own personal production, the lines between fact and fiction become blurred, debased, and then erased all together. Somewhere, in a warehouse recreation of New York City, a cast of characters sits, waiting for its motivation. Apparently, in the pursuit of life and love, we find that purpose - or at the very least, a plot toward same. 


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Thursday, Dec 18, 2008

It’s all Hollywood’s fault. As far back as the earliest days of the cinematic artform, gangsters and mobsters have been romanticized into outsized figures of operatic grandeur. They are depicted as above the law slicks that take life by the throat and wring out every last ounce of power and influence. The culmination of this concept came in the post-modern movement of the ‘70s. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia as Greek tragedy, The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese’s high strung Manhattan goombah’s (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), La Cosa Nostra has become synonymous with flowered filmmaking.


Thankfully, actual Italians don’t see things in such a revisionist, rose-colored manner. Gomorrah, the great new film from Matteo Garrone, shows the notorious Neapolitan syndicate Camorra (the title is a take-off on their name) in all its toxic waste poisoning, apartment building territoriality, and ruthless gun battle ambivalence toward human life. Applying a City of God, neo-realistic style to his interlocking stories of youth caught up in the corruption of the area, the film mixes narratives to show us how deep the roots of evil actually go, and how futile it seems to try and eradicate this mob-rule menace from its firmly ensconced arenas.


We are first introduced to Toto, a young teen who delivers groceries to the people living in a standard, sprawling Naples apartment complex. On either side of the structure are various affiliated gangs, each controlling and patrolling their own terrain. The lure of fast money and fake machismo draws him into the grasp of one of the rackets. Elsewhere, cash mule Don Ciro makes his various deliveries among the units. Paying out hush money to people protected by the mob, he’s constantly harassed by those who want more, and those who want him out of the area for good. Within the more “legitimate” ends of the business, a mafia wheeler-dealer buys up property from farmers to use as landfills for illegal dumping, and a pair of hoodlum wannabes spends their days defying the local leadership and acting out their Scarface influenced fantasies.


For all its “you are there” authenticity and sense of raw edged realism, Gomorrah is really nothing more than a well made cautionary tale draped in the dreary everyday truths of life in a Naples ghetto. It’s a brilliantly told exploration of how the modern mafia works, from the standard street hustling of crack and cocaine to more aggressive approaches like international business and influence within the fashion industry. Along the way, director Garrone gives us the hauntingly familiar foundations for why so many so-called “good” people end up as part of an octopus-like criminal element. The most fascinating characters here are the wannabe Tony Montana and his ‘Hello Skinny’ sidekick. With their put-on cockiness, sense of illogical entitlement, and nonstop riffing about the glory of guns (“I gotta SHOOT!” our Pacino channeler yells during one memorable scene), they’d be the comic relief here - that is, if their shtick wasn’t so pitiful, and didn’t hit so close to home.


Elsewhere, we marvel at the salesman like somberness of Don Ciro, failed ‘family’ man who is relegated to handing out payoffs to keep the organization’s loose ends as tied up as possible. As he handles each situation, from hospitality to degrading abuse, he shuffles along, silently acknowledging his never-ending indebtedness to the mob. Other characters are less clearly defined. A friend of Toto’s “defects”, going over to the other side of the struggle. This makes his mother an instant target, though we really can’t figure out why she has to ‘pay’. There are also other random killings where the objective is literally unknown to us. Certainly, this underscores Gomorrah‘s planned randomness, but it makes for a draining, disconnected experience.


Still, Garrone deserves a lot of credit for not turning things into a Tarantino like look at organized crime and its often too cool cinematic components. No one here is worth emulating, either in word, thought, or deed. The citizenry is seen as simultaneously cowardly and confrontational, pushing as far as they can before turning back to the bad guys for protection and support. Interestingly enough, there is very little law enforcement present, clearly something Garrone uses to suggest a inferred lack of police effectiveness in stopping the crime sprees, and in the end, few of who we met are left standing, either literally or metaphysically. Indeed, Gommorah is a movie so unlike the typical Hollywood crime film that it shocks us with its antithetical approach.


Does this mean it’s the best film of its kind, ever? Actually, no. Dramatic license allows for aspects of character and conceit to be explored in a way that actually further contextualizes the underlying themes and ideas. Instead of getting a straightforward set of good guys and worse guys, we get complex considerations of life, reputation, dignity, revenge, family, friendship, and the ever clichéd honor among the crooked. Gommorah doesn’t go in for all that nonsense. Instead, it peels back the continental façade of its Naples backdrop and lets the hideous horrors inside show through - warts, wasted lives, and all. Tinsel Town can indeed be blamed for making such ‘made’ man movies compelling. Director Matteo Garrone shows us how truly disturbing and unrelenting such a story can be.


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