Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Unfortunately, I missed the advance screening of Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Millions) latest pet project when it screened at the Virginia Film Festival back in October. Three months later it got a limited release and I was able to catch it at our local avant garde theater wishing I'd had a chance to see it on a bigger screen. Here is the conundrum that breaks my heart. How does a movie this well put together, poignantly delivered and even socially relevant get released on as few theaters as possible to the tiniest audience bracket when a blatant Hollywood pocket liner like "What Happens in Vegas," "Four Christmases" and whatever bullshit Larry the Cable Guy comes up with will release to scathing reviews and still take #1 at the box office? End Rant...

Slumdog Millionaire is a veritable art museum of cinematography and editing. Of course, this comes as no surprise as this tends to be one of veteran director Danny Boyle's trademarks. Genre experimentation has also been his strong suit during the course of his career. Adding his signature visual aesthetic to such genre pieces like 1999's underdog rom-com A Life Less Ordinary, the zombie-esque apocalypse horror film 28 Days Later (which he is currently rumored to be revisiting for the franchises 3rd outing 28 Months Later) and sci-fi mood epic Sunshine. This time he takes on Bollywood and nails it with seeming ease and precision.

Again rooting for the underdog (or Slumdog in this case,) Millionaire follows the extraordinary life of Jamal Malik. Orphaned at an extremely young age, the course of his life is established through a set of flashbacks incited by the trivia questions on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," on which he has been accused of cheating. After all, who would expect a formerly homeless orphan to know the increasingly difficult answers on the widely popular gameshow. And since this is Mumbai we're talking about, the treatment of the perpetrator is less than pleasant at times, so be ready for that, at least. Luckily, for the films benefit, it doesn't fall into a predictable pattern (question, flashback, question, flashback, etc. etc.) It sets the stage this way and then finds it's own growth and narrative structure, all the while making sure to leave no question unanswered (so to speak.)

Hopefully, Slumdog Millionaire will be able to walk away with an award or two this season. An admirable feat considering there's not a single recognizable face in the film (all Indian cast, completely unknown within the US filmgoing community.) So whether you're able to see it in a theater this winter, or have to hold off until it's domestic DVD release, be sure that this film is on your "to see..." list as soon as possible, it's worth the time/wait/whatever might be holding you back.


There was a time when Guy Richie was on top of the world. He'd had a breakthrough success with his two bit petty thug crime comedy called Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the even more successful pseudo-follow up Snatch (you know, the one with Brad Pitt.) He even went as far as marrying Madonna. It was about this time that he and fellow producer Matthew Vaughn parted ways. Vaughn pursuing projects like Layer Cake (starring a pre-Bond Daniel Craig and the Neil Gaiman adaptation Stardust) and Richie going on to release Swept Away, starring his wife and Revolver, which was delayed for about 3 years and to this date, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who's actually seen it.

Returning to the well from which spawned his first two successes, RockNRolla, after much deliberation, is a particularly unfortunate spectacle. It seems Guy has come down with what I like to call "George Lucas Syndrome." A small amount of large scale success and the ego is inflated to elephantine proportions wherein a story editor or second or third draft are no longer necessary to efficiently tell a compelling story, resulting in sloppy narrative and self indulgent exposition. In short, I was BORED. That's right, bored. At a Guy Richie movie! In what kind of Bizarro universe does this happen? Though with an impending divorce, I may not be the only one to notice Richie is slipping.

First off is the pacing issue. Now, I'm all for building the mood and character in lieu of dispensing the action for the sake of the audience attention span, but the first hour of RockNRolla is convoluted at best and the exposition does little to move forward or even explain the plot. This would seem formulaic for a Guy Richie film, but his priors (Lock,Stock and Snatch) did it with a more endearing and entertaining quality that culminated in a 3rd act that revealed all loose ends to be lit fuses connected to the same stick of dynamite, which would promptly explode some time before the credits rolled. In RockNRolla, the seemingly unrelated characters and incidents remain unrelated and the plot threads never really mesh for the better part of an hour and a half and then they all get shoehorned into a finale showdown that seems forced and comes off uninteresting and kind of predictable. By the time anything really started to happen, I was more preoccupied with how hungry I was than what was happening onscreen. Either I should eat more often or I was a victim of bad storytelling.

The cast with impressive credentials does very little to impress here. They also have the trademark weirdo gang names. Gerard Butler (making yet another attempt to break into the mainstream without resorting to chick flicks) is a thug that might be gay. Tom Wilkinson has a thick accent and a bald head. Thandie Newton proves once again that she IS in fact British, and Jeremy Piven and Chris Bridges (aka Ludacris) play a couple of record producers with very little to do (apparently the tour was over and Entourage was between seasons.) Relative newcomer Toby Kebbell plays drug addled rocker Johnny Quid who also narrates the tale, for no other good reason than his thick accent, rippling abs on an emaciated skeleton and his pointless contribution to the 3rd act showdown.

I'd hate to think that Guy Richie's career was a fluke at best, but he's done nothing to prove otherwise in the last 8 years since Snatch hit the screen (though his former cohort Jason Statham has proven he can maintain muscletone and be smarmy in EVERYTHING.) With a new twist on the classic Sherlock Holmes on the way starring new fan favorite Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law we'll see if Guy Richie still has what it takes to be the cutting edge director he once was or if his ship has indeed sailed. However, the Ninja Sherlock Holmes he's been pitching sure doesn't bode well. At least RDJr's got another Iron Man in the works to soften the blow.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Quantum of Solace

2006 saw the rebirth of a classic franchise that had been molested repeatedly for close to ten years. The James Bond name became an eye-rolling Disney ride of a cartoon by the time it reached Pierce Brosnan's final chapter (and not a moment too soon, either.) Casino Royale came out the gates with not only a new face to the unmistakable name, but an entirely new feel. Gone were the gadgetry, hokey dialog and world-domination-bent mastermind super villains that have haunted Ian Fleming's slicker-than-thou spy. In it's place was a well put together adaptation of the original novel, updated to make sense in the 21st century and grounding our hero back to a more human playing field.

Since *spoiler warning* Casino ends on a relatively cliff-hangery moment, the sequel was more or less imminent (also taking into consideration the box office intake, it was damn near guaranteed.) Does Quantum of Solace live up to the standard re-set by Casino Royale? Yes and no. It really depends on what you're looking for. The casual aesthetic of Casino is absent in lieu of a more action oriented pace, as the central plot involves Bond carrying out a personal vendetta.

New 007 director Marc Forster (acclaimed director of Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction) gives the film a certain Bourne quality with some excessively kinetic action sequences (I'm still not sure if my confusion came from our unfortunate vicinity to the screen or just extremely shaky camerawork,) though what can be made out is some rather impressive and entertaining spy-violence. Basically picking up mere minutes where Casino left us ("Bond, James Bond..." Bad-ass...) Quantum carves the path of an agent on the verge of going rogue, torn between his loyalty to his country and his desire for a bloody revenge. And, of course, no 007 adventure is complete without the signature "Bond Girl," which even in this case moves away from type and instead of a strict love-interest/sidekick, Camille (played passably by the lovely Olga Kurylenko) acts as more of a skewed mirror image of Bond. Sometimes working together out of happenstance, though never actually working toward the same goal. Two opposing though similar means to an end, which is to say, there are technically two villains to dispatch (one with considerably more screen time than the other, for obvious reasons.) Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Frenchman, Mathieu Amalric) is Bond's central target, a third world exploiting businessman with the temperment of a rabid hyena. Jeffrey Wright returns as American CIA agent Felix Leiter and 007's side source and of course, Dame Judy Dench as the cold, yet matronly M.

While sometimes a little confusing and a bit hard to piece together at times, Quantum of Solace is an ample follow up to a series reboot of Casino's magnitude (which was somewhere in the Batman Begins radius, though Quantum doesn't come close to The Dark Knight's sequel appeal, it does it's best.) There are some well placed and tasteful tributes to Ghosts Bond's Past, you may know them when you see them. While it's already debunked that the next installment will not be a further continuation of the Casino/Quantum arc, it's not a huge concern. If Casino Royale reinvented the Bond-Wheel, Quantum puts those wheels on a car, places an angry man behind the wheel and drives it through your living room wall.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fringe - Season 1 Holiday Break Assessment

It's not surprising that the new J.J. Abrams series Fringe is doing as well as it is. With hits like Alias (first two seasons anyways) and LOST under his belt, this new age horror/sci-fi/mystery hybrid with the dynamic sensibilities of the X-Files of yesteryear has become the mainstay in my Fall season primetime TV watching routine; and not a moment too soon with the slipping integrity of former prodigal series Heroes.

While the similarities to X-Files are present (and sometimes just plain rampant) within each episode, Fringe manages to serve as more of an homage than a rip-off or clone. Replacing the aliens and unexplainable monsters is the seemingly untapped realm of "fringe science" (keep a record, how many times will I say Fringe in this whole thing? Four so far) or more appropriately "theoretical science," yet unproven phenomena such as ESP, cloning, teleportation, etc. There's the FBI, the interdepartmental division involved with the "out there" cases, and a company called Massive Dynamic which may or may not be involved in (wait for it...) a series of bizarre occurances being refered to as "the Pattern." In comparison to the inner workings of the island on LOST this sounds pretty simplistic, but with each new episode the mysteries seem to connect in the least likely of places creating a dark, mysterious and ominous atmosphere that's been missing from serialized drama over the last six or seven years.

Olivia Dunham, FBI (Aussie blonde newcomer Anna Torv) is called in on a case where a terrorist attack has just taken place on an incoming flight to Boston (no, not Oceanic flight 815, Glatterflug flight 627 to be exact but just for fun, Glatterflug is German for "Smooth Flight.") As it appears, all the passengers, including the terrorist, have seemingly melted. The big boss Agent Broyles (Lance Reddick, aka LOST's mystery man, Matthew Abadon) warns that this is part of something bigger and of course she doesn't believe him (but we all know that it's true.) However, in the midst of the case, Agent Dunham's boytoy/work partner, Agent John Scott is pretty much blown up and infected with the contagion from the Hamburg flight. This leads Dunham to her series cohorts Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble, Return of the King's evil madman Denethor) and his wanderlusting, arms dealing, swindler of an estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson, in a significant departure from Dawson's Creek's resident whatever-guy, Pacey.) Walter, having experienced a psychotic break in an undisclosed, work related accident alongside Massive Dynamic's founder Dr. William Bell, has spent the past 17 years in a mental institution. Dunham tracks down Peter and with his reluctant help, Walter is released to find a cure for Agent Scott's condition as he may have been familiar with the contagion. And this is just the first 20 minutes of a two hour pilot episode.

This week's episode, entitled "Safe" marks the last episode before the holiday break (not returning until late January, as most shows do in the winter months) leaving us with a pretty hefty cliffhanger. While some smaller questions were answered, like most of Abram's series, these just led to even larger, more prominent questions. Questions I don't think I can wait to be answered (but wait, I will.) I am also predicting some substantially cliffhanging season finales in the coming years.

Thanks to the nice timeslot, following House M.D, enough viewership warranted a full season order from cancellation mongers FOX and it continues to receive positive reviews from those who choose to write-up every week (ahem, Jeff Jensen... where's my Fringe TV Watch on EW already?) While it's proven to be a much more new-viewer friendly series for the most part, keeping the mythology heavy episodes fewer and farther between, I wouldn't be surprised if
the over-arcing storyline takes the lead should the show manage to stay on the air for more than two or three seasons.

Until its return I will likely be rewatching all 10 episodes, not to catch up per se, simply because the show is so damned fun to experience. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor.