A SLUMDOG WORTH A MILLION
Insofar as the thematically chameleonesque Danny Boyle can be pinned down from film to film, Slumdog Millionaire seems like the most potent expression of his own stylistic preoccupations since he virtually set them in celluloid stone with Trainspotting back in 1996. That is, there is lots of luscious, detailed camerawork (perhaps even more since Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have shot Slumdog in expressive, vibrantly grainy, purposefully mobile HD video) and frenetic, some might say impatient editing (including a preponderance of smash cuts and other techniques of visceral graphic continuity), all laid down on top of a propulsive soundtrack heavily laden with world music beats as the characters jump and dash and hurtle through their urban obstacle courses. Though borne of the same visually oriented British filmmaking sensibility that unleashed advert veterans Ridley and Tony Scott and Alan Parker upon the world, Boyle’s movies, even when they don’t work, seem to go down easier than those of his cohorts. He hasn’t either Ridley’s pretentious indifference or Tony’s apparent contempt for most of the characters he chooses to put on screen, nor is he crippled by the morally addled sensationalism that is the hallmark of the typical Alan Parker film. But Trainspotting often seemed to value effect and lip service to a humane worldview over that worldview itself, which is why the movie, though admirable in many ways, has always seemed slightly, weirdly aloof to me, snappy but built on a twitchy vitality that is the opposite of the benumbed opiate orientation of its characters. But in Slumdog Millionaire Boyle strains his cinematic gifts through a Bollywood filter and puts them to the service of a romantic fable wrapped around a vivid portrait of modern-day Mumbai (formerly Bombay) as a kingdom of corrugated roofs and overflowing, mobile humanity, the story of a life lived on the streets where crushing poverty and nouveau riche consumption coexist without commentary, as if a microcosm of the world could be seen in this one teeming, aching city.
The action swirls and bolts and otherwise centers around Jamal (Dev Patel), whose unbelievably successful performance on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? leads to torture at the hands of the local police, who are convinced that Jamal, a chai wala (one who serves tea) at an international telemarketing organization, couldn’t possibly have answered the questions on the show without somehow cheating. But Jamal insists that he simply knew the answers, and the movie is structured as a series of episodes, intercut with his appearance on the show, that illustrate, in the impossibly symmetrical dovetailing manner of a true fable, the painful methods by which Jamal becomes aware of the trivia that will make him, for a brief moment, the focus of a nation’s fantasies of wealth and escape. He and his brother, Salim, are orphaned during anti-Muslim riots and fall under the influence of thugs who maim children in order to ensure their successful careers as beggars whose afflictions will best appeal to the guilt of those on the street with money to give away. It is here that Jamal and Salim connect with Latika, with whom Jamal falls in love and devotes his life to saving from the horrors of the Mumbai underworld as they grow older.
Boyle’s empathy with his young cast (there are three set of actors playing Jamal, Salim and Latika at different stages of their lives) is a marvel to behold, crowned by the limber, natural beauty of the three who portray these Mumbai musketeers in young adulthood—Patel, all charming determination and wounded, anxious grace; Madhur Mittal as Salim, the epitome of ambivalence as he straddles the fence separating gangster amorality and fraternal duty; and Frieda Pinto, impossibly beautiful, ultimately violated, but never more a symbol of virtue than she is a human being, even as her voice calls to Jamal out of the dark and offers, for a moment, the possibility of redemption while an entire country watches and listens breathlessly. Working from Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (itself based on a novel by Vikas Swarup), the director deftly balances the requirements of disbelief in the film’s very structure—that convenient referencing of key events in Jamal’s life during the game show—with a hauntingly beautiful, but never romanticized picture of how a pulsating, overpopulated city like Mumbai works and breathes. Boyle’s overcaffeineated approach takes some getting used to, but it ends up in the service of the rare movie that uses its cacophonous, visually cluttered aesthetic as a vital extension of the experience of its characters, not just as a way of keeping its jaded audience from falling asleep. Far from lulling complacency, Slumdog Millionaire generates palpable highs through dedication to the generous telling of its narrative, and by the celebratory it’s-only-a-movie Bollywood dance number that will entice you to stay for the end credits and may just send you out of the theater, as it did me, aloft and sated on yet another in a series of unexpected pleasures.
IS THAT A GIANT SPIDER ON YOUR HEAD, OR ARE YOU JUST GLAD TO SEE ME?
The god-awful The Giant Spider Invasion, on the other hand, may send you searching for the off switch on your DVD remote, or in the best-case scenario, sprinting for the volumes of the collected criticism of Joe Bob Briggs on your shelves to find out more, so intoxicating is its homemade ineptitude. A bitter, worn-down farmer and his incongruously beautiful (and alcoholic) wife witness a meteor crash into their cow pasture—the leavings found in the crater look like little rocks with diamonds in them, but they’re really interstellar arachnid eggs that hatch into hairy pet shop specimens, which in turn sometimes (the biological scenario is never made clear) turn into giant Volkswagen-sized beasts that roam the horizon and threaten to chomp on veteran character actors like Barbara Hale, Steve Brodie and Alan Hale Jr. If you were a drive-in movie veteran in 1975, chances are you saw this one and plenty others like it—part of the post-Willard creature wave of the early ‘70s that included hits like Stanley (rattlesnakes), Night of the Lepus (giant bunny rabbits), the Bert I. Gordon double-header of The Food of the Gods (chickens, rats, et al.) and Empire of the Ants (um, giant ants). I was thrilled to come across The Giant Spider Invasion as part of TCM’s Friday night cult movies lineup—it’s no Food of the Gods, but as an example of a no-budget regional cheapie that did relatively phenomenal business during the summer of Jaws, it will slake your impulse hunger for the found comedy and cheap thrills only a genuine piece of crap can deliver while at the same time throwing a cold bucket of water on your nostalgia for drive-in pictures. (Turns out they weren’t all as keen as Death Race 2000, now, were they?) The Mystery Science Theater 3000 version is purportedly hilarious, but I recommend The Giant Spider Invasion uncut by someone else’s snark. It’s much more fun enjoying your own jokes while imagining yourself watching it in your hometown drive-in 33 years ago, when not every big monster movie had to be whiz-bang slick, and most of them, like The Giant Spider Invasion, weren’t even close.
BOLT OUT OF THE BLUE
Disney’s Bolt is a surprisingly enjoyable family picture, one rejiggered under the auspices of new Disney head of animation John Lasseter. The new movie is a beaut, low on self-conscious pop culture japes and high on Pixar-style storytelling virtues—it’s a meta-comedy about a Hollywood dog (John Travolta in fine form) who doesn’t know his entire life spent rescuing his favorite person, little Jenny (Miley Cyrus, who has a lovely, smokily expressive voice for cartoons), has actually been a choreographed fake—he’s the unwitting star of a wildly popular Lassie-with-superpowers TV show. After Bolt inadvertently escapes the set and ends up across the country in New York City (where he hooks up with a cynical alley cat voiced by Susie Essman), the movie turns into a road trip on which he struggles to reconnect with Jenny, even as he becomes increasingly confused and concerned that his powers, including a patented and devastating super-bark, no longer seem to be quite so effective. In addition to showing the revitalizing influence of Pixar on a Disney animation division previously beholden to rickety straight-to-video sequels, Bolt, in its 3D incarnation, bodes well for a surging trend in 3D computer-animated films in that (and again, this may be the Pixar influence) it is primarily a showcase for its smart script and the filmmaking talent behind the keyboards and computer towers and not just a flimsy excuse to throw things at the audience. The gorgeousness of Bolt’s visual design seems organic (if a computer-generated movie can be called organic), and the thrills are rooted in seeing the movie’s familiar action template (and its nods to The Incredible Journey) play out in what my old ViewMaster would have called StereoVision. The instances of things being flung at the audience are few—no bouncing paddle balls threatening to knock your 3D glasses off—and the vivid, bright landscapes and character renderings preclude the kind of muddy imagery that has marred 3D films from their inception up through previous attempts to revive the novelty with movies like Jaws 3D and Comin’ at Ya!. Instead, we get to luxuriate in a realistically rendered cartoon world and marvel when that world, as it does more often than not, seems unpredictably naturalistic, on top of being simply impressively detailed. And when you see Bolt in 3D you’ll likely see a preview from Dreamworks’ promising jumble of Mars Attacks! and Monsters, Inc. entitled Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as a tantalizing, and happily none-too-explicit, trailer for Pixar’s upcoming summer release, Up (also in 3D), which offers a mere suggestion of its premise—an old man’s house gets borne aloft (with him in it) by thousands of balloons—and leaves you craving much, much more.
A ROLE MODEL FOR SMART, NASTY COMEDY
I’ve reserved a spot on my best performances of 2008 list for Paul Rudd in Role Models, a toxically funny Apatowian mixture of politically incorrect character humor, incredibly bad behavior and unsentimental life lessons that could have played maximum mean-spirited were it not for the sly virtues of its actors, Rudd’s being chief among them. The star and pal Sean William Scott (toning down the usual smarm to just the right level here) are assigned 150 hours of community service instead of jail time in the aftermath of a metal-crunching episode involving their dead-end jobs as energy drink salesmen, their company vehicle and an exasperated tow-truck driver. Rudd (featured earlier this year in hilarious support of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is one of the credited screenwriters here, along with director David Wain and co-scenarists Ken Marino and Timothy Dowling, and he plays the lines he’s helped give himself with a perfectly wry crinkle, the suggestion of a shrug that cannot be formulated to express the full-on disdain he actually feels, and the tossed-off cynicism that is his ultimately powerless response to the absurdities of everyday life. That cynicism gets a full airing when he and Scott end up doing time as big brothers under the auspices of swaggering ex-coke head social worker Jane Lynch (who finally gets a good, meaty role after a run of welcome cameos in lesser movies, like Alvin and the Chipmunks). Scott becomes chaperone to a foul-mouthed 10-year-old African American kid with a harsh wit and the kind of appetites enflamed by oncoming puberty, which makes the two of them a perfect pair. Less than perfect is Rudd’s matching with a young geek (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, better known as McLovin’) whose immersion in a medieval role-playing society offers plenty of opportunities for his mentor to openly suffer and, as it turns out, even more opportunities for Role Models to expand beyond the usual litany of crass set pieces into the kind of ribald character comedy that places it far closer to Superbad than most other comedies thriving in Apatow’s shadow. I’ve resisted the temptation to repeat jokes here out of allegiance to preserving the movie’s high laugh ratio, but also because much of what’s funny about Role Models is untranslatable, so much as it is derived from the glee that the actors bring to the table and the way Wain knows how to cut to perfect reactions and aside glances without pushing the jokes down our throats. Better just to recommend you see it soon, before some well-meaning soul tries to goad you into going by trying to outdo the spin Rudd puts on the mocking retorts that are this picture’s bread and butter and ends up deflating them into simple laff lines, ones that sound like they could come from any of a number of recent movies that are far less smart and satisfying and funny than this one.
QUANTUM OF BOND
Finally, there’s not a lot of be said about Quantum of Solace that can’t be summed up by the somewhat noncommittal phrase, “It’s not as bad as you’ve heard.” Actually, it’s pretty good, especially if you recognize it as a transitional movie, one that doesn’t exist on its own so much as provide the bridge between the spectacularly effective revision of the Bond franchise in Casino Royale (Can there be a moratorium on the phrase “reboot” to describe the retooling of age-old series like this and Star Trek?) and the new post-Bourne Bond to come. This 2008 vintage offers none of the series touchstones-- Bond gets drunk on shaken martinis with nary a quip, and even the pre-credits action sequence is left unpunctuated by the familiar silhouette firing at the audience. (It is significant, I think, that this familiar bit of business comes at the end.) I think Armond White is onto something when he speaks of Quantum as being an exercise in which Daniel Craig and company are engaged in the process of reinventing a pop myth, which, as Robert Altman and Elliot Gould could tell you, requires a whole lot more than just recasting your main character and updating the technology on and off the screen. It makes emotional sense that Bond should be as deadened as he is here—he’s transitioning from government robot to an agent with a fuller understanding of what it is his bosses, including the superbly poker-faced M (Judi Dench), must ask of him. And we as an audience are being asked to approach the gaining of that knowledge with a bit more patience than is usually asked of us, especially by a hugely expensive chapter in the most reliably entertaining and popular franchise in movie history.
Art-house director Marc Forster turns out to be a more interesting choice that expected here because he naturally works in rhythms that are a challenge to the action movie template, and he helps give the entire enterprise the feeling of something unusual, hints of feeling that may be too well hidden under the movie’s infatuation with extreme violence. But the shepherds of Bond, whether Forster is asked to return or whether another identifiable director comes on board for film #24, should look beyond the Bourne template if they are to truly give 007 new life. Many of the action sequences here, while ostensibly well-staged, are turned into cinematic hash by editing that has no identifiable variance, just metronomically fast smash-cuts that fail to enhance the action and instead distract from it. The car chase that opens the movie and a rooftop foot chase 20 minutes later (that pales in comparison to that parkour-inflected beaut that opened Casino Royale) both have considerably less impact than they could because the experience of watching them (and recalling them hours later) is like looking through prisms of glass at rapidly moving objects which you want to see much more clearly than you are able. (Would it be too much to hope that the next director-editor team takes a look at Ronin instead of whatever Paul Greengrass is up to?) All that said, the dialogue is sharp; the story, involving global manipulations at the hands of an environmentalist with the usual delusions of world domination (Mathieu Amalric), is borderline too complicated but ultimately coherent and compelling; Forster and screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade work in a nifty, nasty nod to Goldfinger; and there is still Daniel Craig, whose brute, working-class beauty and genuine acting skill bodes well for the immediate future of the Bond series even if the current episode comes off, especially in comparison to the last one, a mite flat. But those sackcloth-and-ashes claims that Quantum is one of the worst of all the Bond films seem to me the slightest bit overstated. Need I remind anyone of Moonraker, or A View to a Kill, or The World is Not Enough? Even the much derided opening credits song (caterwauling courtesy of Jack White and Alicia Keys) isn’t as bad as what Madonna did for Die Another Day. It is enough though, as the series looks to the future, to make one hope that someone looks back to Shirley Bassey and finds some inspiration there again soon.