Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Slumdog, Bond and the finest wines available to humanity - Reviews #28

"If someone asks me a question, I answer it."
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)
- "The feelgood film of 2008" is really a harrowing portrait of slum life, a la Pixote (see #59) or City of God, with some Pather Panchali-style passages of euphoria, a timeless romance and an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire thrown into the mix. Dev Patel is Jamal, a call-centre tea boy who's just a question away from scooping 20 million rupees when he's accused of cheating by host and old-fashioned villain Anil Kapoor. Recounting his story to cop Irrfan Khan, we learn how Jamal's life - characterised by terrible hardship but fired by an unwavering love for childhood sweetheart Freida Pinto - gave him the answers to those nine testing posers. Though it could come across as improbable or contrived, the film's steadfast belief in fate and its unflinching conviction about the story it's telling mean it works superbly, with an engrossing, touching narrative where everything slots into place. My favourite scene is Jamal's autograph hunt - mixing pathos, childish excitement and the sight of a small boy coming out of the distance, entirely covered in slurry. The excellent writing and plotting are matched by Boyle's stylish direction, Anthony Dod Mantle's spectacular cinematography and some great performances, particularly from the kids and Madhur Mittal - playing the grown-up brother of Jamal's brother, Salim, apparently lost to gangsterism. Though eventually uplifting, Slumdog is categorically not the slice of escapism its canny marketers would have you believe. It is a fine movie, though, and one of the strongest Best Picture winners of recent decades. (4)


"You have the ask to wish for me your pleasure?"
I Met Him in Paris (Wesley Ruggles, 1937) is a pleasant little romantic comedy that keeps threatening to turn into a more interesting, adult film, but never really explains its central tenet: why sourpuss Melvyn Douglas must chaperone young lovers Claudette Colbert and Robert Young on their sojourn from Gay Paree to snowy Switzerland. In addition, the Paris setting isn't effectively utilised - presumably it was just a suitably exotic spot for Colbert to be romanced as well as a nice hook for the title - while the Swiss one brings largely slapstick peril. But the leads were consummate performers capable of lifting the most unpromising material and they make a good fist of it here. Lee Bowman is fun in support as Colbert's "trusting" suitor, in a David Niven-like turn. The snowbound scenes were shot at Sun Valley, Idaho, the setting for Fox's hit musical Sun Valley Serenade. The ending, with three men squabbling over the lead, was later borrowed for the Jean Arthur film The Lady Takes a Chance. (2.5)


The martians look very funny, I just wish the script was better.

"Ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak ak."
Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996) - Wow, this is a mixed bag: a movie based on a series of trading cards that satirises the piousness of '50s sci-fi movies, wastes - in both senses - an immensely promising cast and treats us to several teeth-grindingly pointless interludes spoofing films as irrelevant to its thesis as Apocalypse Now, Duel in the Sun and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Its overarching premise is unquestionably hilarious. Whereas The Day the Earth Stood Still told us that humans were the real savages - irrational warmongers who needed to be taught a lesson by their advanced galactic neighbours - here we're back on less preachy ground, with big-brained martian invaders who only pretend to come in peace so they can wipe out all of Congress in one go.

Usually spotty films are rescued by the incidental pleasures, but here it's the subplots that are often found wanting. Give Burton '30s star Sylvia Sidney and cult character actor Joe Don Baker and what does he do with them? Turns Baker into a stereotypical TV-loving trailer park hick, and Sidney into a one-joke sideshow. The joke? She's got dementia! Chortle. In her last film, Sidney has just a single funny line ("They blew up Congress, ahahahaha!"), though there is one absolutely lovely moment between the veteran former leading lady and screen grandson Lukas Haas that utilises the memory loss gag in a worthwhile way. The put-upon teenage misfit tells her that he is the kid she's just been chuntering on about. "I know, Thomas," she says. "Richie always was the best one." It's an unexpectedly affecting bit of Wes Anderson-esque sentiment amidst much offensive tedium - a contrast that just about sums up the film's maddeningly uneven tone.

The production design is inspired, but the (admittedly very amusing) martians would have been better in stop-motion as originally planned. The Congress set-piece, including cautionary signs intended to prevent causing further offence to the visitors that read "no applause" and "no birds", is quite well-handled and the film has a nice subplot featuring Jim Brown and Pam Grier, but then there's all that rubbish with Jack Nicholson's casino promoter and his hippie wife (Annette Bening, who's given nothing to work with), and a dozen other diversions designed to eat up the running time, or satisfy Burton's penchant for self-indulgence. Mars Attacks! also has the distinction of being perhaps the first film I've seen that's avowedly in favour of nuclear war, even if the weapons are ultimately replaced by Slim Whitman. In the end it's not a bad film, just wildly inconsistent. (2.5)


Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) - I don't really get Bond. I always want these spy yarns to be like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and of course they never are - and never could be. So, having been duped time and again by promises of a back-to-basics approach (back to which basics - Dr. No?!), with earthy combat and psychological complexity (that was the sell for For Your Eyes Only and countless others), I decided to sit at home and count my gold, rather than spanking it on Daniel Craig's debut outing as 007. That says something about my judgement, as this belated viewing marks it out as the best Bond I've seen: intriguing and visceral, with the welcome stain of realism marking its more impressive moments.

A great, tough opening scene in monochrome sets the tone, with footage of Craig staking out an MI6 office intercut with snippets of a grisly kill in a public toilet. It's then offset by a largely idiotic credits sequence that looks like a spoof - and you wonder which of these two polar opposites is going to set the tone for the film. Actually, it's both, with bracing action sequences and fragments of fascinating characterisation spliced with superficial villainy and the usual tiresome fetishising of cars and planes. The first full action sequence is an absolute wow: gritty and exhilarating, as Bond pursues a bombmaker through the Ugandan bush (not a euphemism), past an industrial estate, up a crane and then into an embassy packed with gun-toting militia men. It ends with our hero completely losing the plot, prompting this pithy exchange with M (Judi Dench). Her: "You're supposed to display some kind of judgement." Him: "I did. I thought that one less bombmaker in the world was a good thing." Then we're into the story proper, with 007 being pitched against middle management criminal and blood-weeping card sharp Le Chiffre in a high-stakes poker game. Also along for the ride is treasury accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) - who's surely so-named so he can do jokes about riding her, which doesn't happen.

Happily, while the film is essentially about cards, it knows that card games don't work on screen, so brief clips of the contest are alternated with punchy action and suspense sequences, each with a twist in the telling. There's also some sensitive interplay between Craig and Green that recalls the series' (few) emotional highpoints, but is undermined by slack writing, since the relationship isn't really explained by the action we see, the character development happening in jumps. Despite that, and the fact he runs like Forrest Gump, I think Craig is the best Bond we've seen - without the objectionable smugness of most other 007s. That self-satisfaction is replaced by an ambiguity that make the character much more interesting, even if such complexity isn't ramped up quite enough. His is also the first (J)A(ME)S BO(ND) to get an electronic tag, a sign of just how naughty he is in this film. A deft, intelligent score by David Arnold adds to the feel of this worthwhile, welcome reinvention of Bond which - for all its flaws - is hopefully a sign of things to come. So how come everyone says Quantum of Solace is rubbish? (2.5)

Trivia note: The 1967 "comedy" loosely based on Ian Fleming's Casino Royale is one of the worst films of all time.

Linky goodness: For a write-up of Craig's finest moment, the 1996 mini-series Our Friends in the North, please go here.


"It's not the fall that matters, it's the landing."
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
was one of the movies that got me into movies - along with Star Wars, On the Waterfront (see #63) and Les quatre cents coups - but I hadn't seen it for a good 10 years until the weekend, when it emerged as the only film my girlfriend's family all wanted to watch. The film, often startlingly directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, traces the lives of three working class kids from a Parisian estate whose lives seem to be heading inexorably towards tragedy as they pose, bicker and pontificate across 24 hours in the big city. Vincent Cassel is the obvious standout in a showy part as a combustible would-be hood who vows to kill a cop if his friend dies following a hospitalising encounter with the law.

But just as his Vinz effectively mirrors The Godfather's hotheaded Sonny - albeit with a buzzcut and a mouthiness borne of insecurity - so Hubert Koundé's reluctant rebel follows Michael Corleone's path from model son (of a sort) to law-flouting tough guy - a transition that's shortened from three hours to 10 seconds. And what a 10 seconds it is, as the film's themes dovetail into a hiply-shot but existentially terrifying portrait of a society breeding its own criminals. Co-scripter Saïd Taghmaoui, the nominal lead, rounds out our central trio as an inquisitive, cheery Maghrebin apparently untainted by his inauspicious surroundings or the impossible hand that life has dealt him - at least until the closing minutes. In fact, though La Haine is dominated in hindsight by where it ends up - and an interrogation sequence that's almost unwatchable - for much of its duration it's a fun ride, with an off-kilter sense of humour that gets its laughs through observation, repetition ("how did they get the car in here?"), surrealism (the cow) and a single, profane anecdote about the difficulties of having a poo whilst being exiled to Siberia.

There's a post-Tarantino pop culture conversation about American cartoons that seems forced and out of character for the film, but for the most part the script is bang on, acknowledging that while our (anti-)heroes may be heading for an explosive landing, their journey there is likely to be filled with tragicomic, satiric detail - only some of it apparent to the characters. Kassovitz's directorial ticks and masterful grasp of visual composition drag us through the story, with a sense of timing and an eye for a telling image that augment the compelling story. And the three stars are so perfect in their roles that every time I've seen them since, my first reaction has been to marvel at how they've dragged themselves up from the streets and - oh yeah, they're actors. Seen through the eyes of a young man (I'm now 25), rather than an impressionable teenager, La Haine appears every bit as brilliant, but even more tragic: its protagonists just damaged kids, their minds poisoned by a culture that glamorises the very path they should be avoiding. (4)


"We've gone on holiday - by mistake."
Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987) has one of the great scripts, with skies that are "beginning to bruise", a landlord "who was coming over all bald" and a pair of heroes who "are drifting into the arena of the unwell". Paul McGann is "I" (the script calls him Marwood), a mild-mannered actor who decamps to the country for the weekend with boozing, carousing flatmate Withnail (Richard E. Grant) - an eternally inebriated bullshit artist and wannabe thespian - and the unwelcome Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). There they battle against supposed starvation, fear grown of disorientation and alcohol, and the advances of predatory homosexual Monty, who has his eye on I.

The plotting is virtually non-existent, but the dialogue is sensational and Grant's theatrics as the gaunt, wild-eyed Withnail are the stuff of legend - culminating in a heartbreaking spot of Hamlet in the pouring rain. McGann, in his more restrained part, is also superb, while Griffiths oscillates between being affectingly vulnerable and hilariously irritating and weird with admirable regularity. Though there are moments of conventionality that jar with the brilliance frequently dripping from Robinson's pen - including some "fish out of water" stuff that could have come straight from The Egg & I - and Ralph Brown is a bit one-note (and a bit much) as a frazzled drug dealer, there isn't a half-minute that passes without some moment of borderline genius or a disarmingly hysterical joke. Though superficially dealing with excess and the foreign nation that is the English countryside, Withnail & I is really a film about self-destruction, self-delusion and friendship, as one young man heads for the big-time and another for the alcoholics' ward. As a comedy, it's virtually matchless - as a tale of lost dreams, heartbreaking. (4)

Trivia notes: Robinson boiled down three years' of experiences in a shared flat in London to a narrative spanning two weeks. Withnail is based on Vivian MacKerrell, a friend who talked about how he was the best at everything, "but never did anything" - in Robinson's words. Uncle Monty was famously inspired by the writer-director's experience of working for Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who supposedly pursued the boyish Robinson after casting him in Romeo and Juliet. The line: "Are you a sponge or a stone?", is apparently ripped from that encounter.


  1. UNTRUE MOVIE TRIVIA: Uncle Monty's stunt double was a young Daniel Craig. Fortunately, Uncle Monty didn't have to perform any stunts.