Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire Review

Overall Grade: B

The film that the critics and audiences alike are raving about this year is Slumdog Millionaire, and indeed it is a good film. Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog is a feel-good story about a boy from the slums of Mumbai triumphing over the odds and finding his life-long love.

It’s an interesting and involving story that’s made better by the director’s choices to film the story on location with a dynamic camera and a dynamic eye for color. The story is also helped by a clever decision to use the “who wants to be a millionaire” portion of the story to give us the platform to jump into the flashbacks of our main characters life. Each flashback is purposeful in that it gives us insight into how our main character was able to answer each question from his life experience.

I really enjoyed the early parts of the film and felt like I could really settle in with the film and walk out truly satisfied. However, as the film began to lengthen, it unfortunately begins to thin as well. While the excellent first half of the film begins to ask interesting questions about life, “Do we all have a destiny?”, “Will we be rewarded if we stick to the truth and goodness?”, “Should we persevere in the things we want?”; the second half of the film failed to investigate those questions with any depth. By the end of the film, while I enjoyed the story, I felt conflicted about several of the messages the film ended with. Was it destiny or was it sheer determination that led him to winning out in love?

The film seems to present both (which are inherently contradictory) without offering an explanation. At odds is also the overall tone of the film for me. It seems as though the film wants to be a gritty, this is how bad the poverty is, City of God kinda film; but its general idealism, romanticism, and belief that good people are destined for happiness (or at least our main character), is at odds with the reality of the situation in Mumbai.

Slumdog Millionaire is a good film, and is quite enjoyable as a great story well told. Unfortunately, I found any messages in the film to be superficial at best and contradictory at worst. Slumdog Miollionaire is a good film, just don’t think about it too much.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Milk Review

Overall Grade: C+

If you would like to read a typical review of the Milk then I humbly suggest that you search out reviews on Rottentomatoes.com, because the following review will not be in typical format. It will be a summation of how I viewed the film, and what I felt about it. I feel I should tell you upfront that I am coming from a straight perspective as well as a Christian perspective. I went into the film with an open mind and hoped for the best. What follows is purely my opinion. (that sounded kind of dragnet didn't it?)

Harvey Milk’s story is an intriguing one and is definitely worthy of its own biopic. Harvey was elected City Supervisor of San Francisco in the 1970s and became the first openly homosexual man to be elected to political office in America. Milk portrays Harvey’s life from age 40 to nearly 50, mostly covering his political involvement in San Francisco. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the life of Harvey Milk going in, but I do have a basic knowledge of the homosexual movement in America, so it was with little pre-knowledge that I watched Milk.

Granted that the film is a biopic about Harvey Milk, I felt the film really shortchanged and simplified the entire homosexual rights movement and the critics of that movement as well. For a film that quotes Harvey as saying something along the lines of, “I’m not a candidate; I’m part of a movement”. I felt the film did little to help me understand the true nature and goals of the movement. The issues argued in the film about the homosexual movement and the treatment of homosexuals (police brutality, personal safety, the ability not to be discriminated against in the workplace, and the ability to advocate and be represented) are treated pretty fairly and I was enlightened by much of it. I was unaware that police would round up homosexuals and ship them off to jail for the crime of “being a homosexual in a bar”. The movie does a great job of portraying Harvey Milk’s fight for fairness from the police, to be able to walk down the street at night and be safe from attackers. To be able to work in the schools without being fired for the simple fact of “being homosexual”. In these scenes Harvey is portrayed as a true fighter with great charisma and a sharp political mind.

In real life, I would say that Harvey Milk was admirable for his courage and boldness. He was admirable for being a strong advocate for those with no voice (something Christians should be called to do), something that is not only needed and necessary, but noble and righteousness. I think these are things that can and should be embraced about the film. However, by offering the audience these issues in isolation, I feel that the film over simplifies the homosexual movement and is therefore guilty of being in the least misleading, but at worst purposefully dishonest. There is an exchange between City Supervisor Dan White (who would later assassinate Milk) that I think is insightful here. Dan White asks Milk, “Can homosexuals procreate?”, and Milk’s response is a very witty, “No, but God knows we keep trying”. Humorous quips (remarkably similar to the way shows like the "Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show" skirt legit dissenting opinions) are typical of the film’s treatment of any criticism of homosexuality. I think it does a disservice to the film, but it ultimately does a disservice to the dialogue on homosexuality.

The real principled oppositions that people have to the homosexual movement aren’t rooted in just the political ballot or incarnate in the likes of Anita Baker, but in certain beliefs about objective morals within the world. There are real concerns held by sincere critics of the homosexual movement that are never talked about or given any quarter. Were Harvey Milk and the homosexual movement JUST fighting to be represented, to be given fair treatment from police and employers (as the film primarily potrays)? Milk and the homosexual movement were also fighting to be seen as morally equivalent to heterosexual relationships. There are millions of people, myself included, who believe strongly in the RIGHTS movement of homosexuals, but would disagree completely when it comes to the aims of the homosexual debate to ask people to view homosexuality as the full equivalent biologically and morally to heterosexuality. Also absent is any commentary on the promiscuity within the gay movement during that time.

What am I really saying? I don’t mind if the movie offers views and perspectives that are different than the ones that I hold, but I do expect a film to acknowledge that a movement is more complex and nuanced than Milk does. It is fully possible that someone could’ve marched down the street side by side with Milk in trying to defeat Proposition 6 or to protest Police unfairness, but still disagree with the homosexual lifestyle. The film, doesn’t make that distinction. It provides the viewer with an easy either/or and I think its misleading in doing so.

Thus, I found Milk to be a much “smaller” film than I expected. Even though the film runs over two hours and features a rather expansive cast, it really doesn’t decide to cast its net too wide when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. This modesty unfortunately extends to the characterizations of the supporting cast as well. Although we spend a decent amount of time with several people, their contributions to Harvey’s life (outside of being friends, workers, and lovers)remained a mystery to me. How did they influence Harvey or his thought process? There is a scene that takes place at a wealthy homosexuals house where James Franco (who plays Scott Smith, Milk’s partner), goes skinny dipping while Milk carries on a discussion. Why did he do this? Isn’t this considered rude, whether straight or gay? Just puzzling to me.

That being said, there are some things to like in the film. I mentioned before that Milk’s advocacy is admirable and inspiring and I think it should be celebrated. Penn’s performance of Harvey Milk is charismatic and likeable (a cross between his All the King’s Men role and I Am Sam role), and the rest of the supporting cast more than holds there own, even if they don’t do anything that interesting. Seen as a film with small ambitions and the willingness to showcase Harvey Milk’s service to those with no voice, I would recommend the film. However, given the film’s unwillingness to engage in thoughtful dialogue with the deeper criticisms of the homosexual movement (which I have no doubt Harvey Milk probably did), I would say it’s a disappointment and a missed opportunity. Throughout the entire viewing I couldn’t help but think that if you liked 2006’s Kinsey, then you’ll probably like Milk. In fact, both films choose to showcase a "You saved my life" sidestory as one of their closing subplots. While touching to hear, both are guilty of dramtic manipulation and only underscore the absence of any legitamte dialogue.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rachel Getting Married Review

Overall Grade: A-

Rachel Getting Married is a breath of fresh air in the 2008 film landscape. After watching so many disappointing or merely satisfying films, Rachel Getting Married (which shall now be refereed to as RGM) literally re-invigorated my interest and hope for the remaining films of 2008. RGM is an intimate and brutally honest film that works as a modern day Ordinary People.

Our lead in the film is oddly enough not named Rachel, but Kym. She is played excellently by Anne Hathaway and is the sister to our title character Rachel (who if you didn't guess it, is getting married). The film begins with Kym just getting out of rehab (for reasons best revealed by the movie) in order to attend Rachel’s wedding for the weekend. What follows is an entire weekend of wedding activities, including the wedding itself, and then the eventual goodbyes. What makes the film work so well for me is the way in which we (the viewer) are allowed to watch Kym interact with her family and friends. We are able to glean (as each conversation reveals more and more) past histories, and present conflicts. It’s a fascinating watch and one that reminded me of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park in its ability to naturally introduce an entire ensemble of fully realized characters.

The film is shot by handheld camera (in what seems to be every shot) giving the viewer a literal feeling of watching our characters through home movies. One would seem to get the sense that the handheld camera would give us the position of the causal observer, something akin to being a cinematic voyeur. This isn’t actually what takes place. Rather than placing the camera in neutral positions to allow us to observe the events, the camera operates with omnipotence, diving the emotion or truth of each scene and supplying us with the appropriate shot. There is one scene in particular where Hathaway’s Kym is confronted in a hair salon. Her confronter is in almost complete close-up and speaks so brazenly honest and confident to her, that I squirmed along with Kym. Rather than an observer to this families conflicts and dilemmas, I felt completely engrossed and found myself questioning how I would act in their circumstances. What more could a viewer ask for?

I’m reminded of how the director Jonathan Demme in his film Silence of the Lambs wisely made use of straight on camera shots. Several of the scenes in Lambs consisted of us looking directly at Foster or Hopkins, while they looked nearly directly in the camera. It fit perfectly the idea of objectification that was so crucial to the central themes of Lambs. The camera is no less truthful here, and its matched in truthfullness by the screenplay, and the natural performances (Rosemarie Dewitt and Bill Irwin are great). It has been a long time since I felt a family drama feel so honest and truthful, and much of that comes from the well-roundedness of the characters. Kym (a troubled problem child all her life) presents her family with difficult decisions. It’s her big sister’s big wedding weekend, but can they really focus on Rachel when Kym is out of rehab and making scenes and building tension with family everywhere? How Kym’s entire family responds to her features such honesty, that it brought me to tears several times.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film, but there are a couple reservations. You should be warned that the film does tend to linger a bit in scenes and can be slightly melodramatic at points. I felt as though the last twenty-five minutes of the film could’ve been trimmed dramatically without much loss as well. While maybe RGM isn't the types of stories that I seek out, or typically pop into my DVD player for re-watches, RGM is a fantastic film, filled with great performances, and great rewards for those willing to engage with this family and the questions they deal with it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Synecdoche, New York Review

Overall Grade: C+

It’s hard to review a movie like Synecdoche because the film is (even after my very best efforts) nearly indecipherable. Just twenty minutes in and the film already begins to tip us off that there will be some time twisting and funny tricks going on, but what eventually happens in the film is not at all what I was expecting. The time twisting isn’t in the flavor of Tarantino, Nolan, or even something Gilliam would do, its time twisting that doesn’t serve any purpose storytelling or narrative wise, its primarily thematic and character driven.

In other words, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character says its only been days since his wife left him, when other characters say its been over a year. There are several instances where the movie plays with the ages, voices, and names of characters in order to achieve this same goal. One of the character’s houses are on fire during the duration of the film, something that is never made mention of by anyone at anytime. Is this because Hoffman was drugged like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or in a coma, or like in A Beautiful Mind to give us insight into how a disease works? Clearly not. So what exactly is it for?

This is probably the most frustrating aspect of the film for me. I don’t necessarily think that films should spell out completely what it is about, but at the same time, I don’t think that the film should feel so indecipherable and insular that it remains distant and hard to engage. Synecdoche definitely leans heavy on the undecipherable side. Clearly, there is a strong sense of nihilism that runs strong through this film. In fact, its this theme of nihilism that gives me my strongest Rosetta stone in trying to understand it. I feel like the movie is telling us that most of the things we experience in life (falling in love, falling out of love, grief, fear of death, selfishness, desire to love our kids, disappointment with others and life) is in reality vane and pointless. Synecdoche is not a film that endorses a nihilistic set of morals (although one could be extracted from it), but is more content to examine the meaningless of life and interpret it artistically. In this way, I think the movie has great merit.

However, your humble Part-Time Critic is more than willing to concede that there is probably much more merit to the film than I give it credit. In fact, there is probably mountains and mountains of meaning and purpose behind everything in the film. I, unfortunately, am not able to discern it.The fact that the movie doesn’t present a typical narrative and typical characters that presented me with a few likable features to them makes me hesitant to re-visit Synecdoche. It’s a disappointment for me because I am such a big Charlie Kaufman (he’s the writer of Synecdoche), with Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind being two of my favorite films.

I’ve read several reviews that call it a masterpiece and a new achievement in art. If that’s true (and it probably is), then it’s one of those odd abstract paintings that people read so much into, yet remain remote and messy to me. If any of what I have said sounds interesting to you, then I recommend a viewing. In fact, a good rule of thumb might be David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, if you liked that, then you’ll get a kick out of this!

Anyone else seen this film that can help this Part-Time Critic out? Your thoughts are most welcome!