Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Slumdog: poverty porn or proud poetry

There is suddenly a lot of interest in what Indians, and those from Mumbai in particular, think of the winner of 8 Academy Awards Slumdog Millionaire.

TimesOnline has a roundup of reactions from India:
Slumdog Millionaire is neither poverty porn nor slum tourism…
(Nikhat Kazmi writing in The Times of India)

This isn't the 'real' India. This is India as seen through the eyes of a Westerner who's selling desi [local] squalor packaged as savvy slick entertainment... (Subhash K Jha writing for the Indo-Asian News Service)

One look at 'Slumdog Millionaire' and you know that its spirit and soul is flagrantly, proudly India: the Empire has been finally, overwhelmingly trounced. It's not about poverty pornography. (Shubhra Gupta in the Indian Express)

Slumdog Millionaire: the Indian press reaction
Two posts from Global Voices are enlightening on this divided opinion:
This film has sparked debates about how it shows life in India's slums, and the attraction it holds for foreigners.

Video: Slumdog Millionaire and the Indian Slums

Whether people like the movie or not, the fact is that Slumdog Millionaire has started a conversation in India about poverty, entrepreneurship and Indian films. Hopefully that conversation will yield results.

India: Reactions to Slumdog Millionaire
These posts look at a range of Indian bloggers and their thoughts on Slumdog Millionire. Please join the conversation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Oscars: it was not written for Mickey Rourke

The complete list of Oscar Winners 2009

There was bound to be one upset: Sean Penn was a worth recipient of Best Actor.

It just was not written for Mickey Rourke.

Slumdog Millionaire just showed what a well written story and a good team can do.

Rachel Getting Married: Uncomfortable in Connecticut

There’s nothing like a wedding to bring out the best and worst in families.

Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme, is set in upper middle class, comfortable Connecticut. Grinding poverty is not a factor in this family’s conflicts.

The drama centres on rehabilitation, not just of its central character, but of the whole family. Neuroses stalk the halls of the home that is the setting for the celebrations: sibling rivalry and jealousy, father/daughter, mother/daughter. More baggage than LA International Airport.

Kym is on leave from drug rehab to attend sister Rachel’s wedding to Sidney. Rachel is a high achiever par excellence, Ms Perfection. She is finishing her PhD in Psychology, arguably the worst possible background for dealing with a recovering sister. In fact all the family are guilty of over-analysis. All of them know the 12 steps of rehab by heart. Kym takes the one called “making amends’ to new territory in her speech to the pre-nuptial dinner. Echoes of many an embarrassing family moment on these public occasions for many in the audience.

Anne Hathaway as Kym is magnificent. Her striking appearance shifts between Liza Minnelli, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Keira Knightley and Audrey Tautou. Some company! She was too young for Twin Peaks but was made for it.

Kym keeps saying she’s not in crisis anymore. Tell that to the Mercedes Benz! The thirteenth step must be fit an airbag. She must have been a real delight when, 16 and stoned out of her mind, she drove off a bridge with fatal results. Connecticut is close to Chappaquiddick where Edward Kennedy had a similar accident to end his Presidential ambitions. Talking of US Presidents, the married couple are settling in Hawaii, a very topical place to have a mixed-race family. It’s a multi-racial event celebrating the best of 21st Century colour-blind America. In this film everyone comes to dinner.

The father Paul, (Bill Irwin) is an incredibly caring parent who is very protective of his brood. He is also a mediator, a role that comes naturally to someone who sees good in everyone. He is a hugger and toucher, forever reaching out to people in both the literal and physical senses. Kym feels suffocated by his over protective instincts.

Their estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger) mother is the only one who seems incapable of emotional contact or verbalising her feelings. Her only demonstrative response to the personal relations battlefield is a right hook.

Emma (Anisa George) is Rachel’s best friend and Kym’s rival for her affections. She is also Kym’s number one critic. When things are cooling down, Emma can open up a new fighting front.

Kieran (Mather Zickel), the best man and Kym’s romantic interest fits perfectly into this family culture. They meet at a group session for recovering addicts. He is another mediator in stark contrast to Emma.

Overall the male characters get off lightly in this film. Their major conflict centres on the dishwasher with father and son-in-law jousting for Rachel’s affections.

The wedding has an Indian theme that complements the muso culture that flows through the film. The preparations and ceremonies are filled with a wide range of musicians and singers rehearsing and performing. Apparently most of them are friends of Demme or Jenny Lumet, the screenwriter who is a grand daughter of Lena Horne. Sidney even sings a Neil Young number during the wedding vows.

The jerkiness of the so-called hand-held cameras was a nuisance at times, detracting rather than adding to the intimacy. Sony Pictures have the wherewithal to do better with these techniques. The early scenes use a series of close ups that achieve this immediacy much more effectively.

The movie is possibly 15 minutes too long. It seems that every one of Demme’s circle had to perform more than once and give at least one speech. A bit more background on why this family became dysfunctional may have been a better use of time. The parental break-up and Kym’s addiction remain murky players in the drama.

Kym asks who they want her to be now. If you enjoy domestic drama, don’t miss the chance to make up your own mind about her possible futures. It’s not quite a happy ending but it ends on a note of hope. Jonathan Demme has created a rich experience with first class performances.

There is lots of detail for the movie buffs at the Sony Pictures official website that is one of the best.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oscars: the winners should be no surprise

If you accept the trends at Intrade, the following are all short-priced favourties for Academy Awards:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Actor in a Leading Role: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
Actress in a Leading Role: Kate Winslet (The Reader)
Actor in a Supporting Role: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Actress in a Supporting Role: Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Directing: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)

The Reader has just opened in Melbourne so haven't had a chance to see it yet. All the others seem worthy winners except Cruz. Would have liked Brad Pitt to have been nominated against Ledger for Burn After Reading for some real competition.

Other nominees that I fancy are, though haven't seen all the films:

Foreign Language Film: Waltz With Bashir
Documentary Feature: Man On Wire

The awards ceremony is on 22 February (23 February in Australia).

French phoenix: I’ve loved you for so long

Sick of empty action movies and adaptations of graphic novels. Here’s a film to test the tear ducts and challenge your ideas of normal life. Director Philippe Claudel’s I’ve loved you for so long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) wrestles both heart and head.

Kristin Scott Thomas, who spent her formative years in England, has lived for many years in France and it shows. She plays the lead role of Juliette Fontaine who comes to live with her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) and family after 15 years absence.

There are dual mysteries. For those who did not know her previously, it’s where she has been. A confession at a dinner party is regarded as a joke because it appears so out of character with this sensitive, sensible woman. For her family, the puzzle is what caused her to do what she did.

This is a sombre, desolate tale. It is as much about her complex relationships as it is the past: her sister, brother-in-law Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) and his father (Jean-Claude Arnaud), their adopted Vietnamese daughters, her demented mother, and her lover Michel (Laurent Grévill). Each presents unique challenges for Juliette who is both alienated and guilt ridden. When she comes to live with her Léa’s, she is completely estranged from them but sees no alternative. She sees herself as beyond redemption.

The cast all give strong performances especially Thomas and Zylberstein. It is slow paced but this suits the nature of this psychological drama. Much of film is bleak and melancholic, even with the positive directions emerging in Juliette’s life. She is not the only one in a severely damaged and depressed state. Juliette encounters tragedy in a friendship with someone whose role is to help her adjust to her new life. Ever so gradually she restores some sense of identity and normality through work, romance and independence. But there is pain in every step.

As the tragic tale unfolds, it is not difficult to guess what happened and what motivated her. More problematic is her family’s acceptance of both her rejection of any help at the time and her refusal to speak about it. It is hard to believe that the circumstances surrounding her actions could be kept secret.

2008 was a good year for French language films. Philippe Claudel’s was one of the best. I’ve loved you for so long does not fit the tag of ‘entertainment’ so commonly used to categorise cinema these days. Don’t go on a day you’re feeling fragile but do see it if you get the chance.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Class: Up close and personal

The Class (Entre Les Murs) was up close and personal for me. The scenes in Laurent Cantet’s French language film took me back to the thousands of hours I spent teaching migrant students in very multicultural secondary schools in Australia.

If you’ve ever had much to do with adolescents, it is not hard to empathise with its main character François Marin (François Bégaudeau). He struggles to maintain order and purpose for his class of young teenagers whilst trying to create a flexible and humane classroom.

As indicated by the original French title, Between the Walls, this can be a very claustrophobic experience. His teaching space is tiny and sparse with none of the technological aides of 21st Century education. A visit to a fairly primitive computer lab is a refreshing if infrequent break from chalk, leaky ballpoint pens and exercise books. The walled, concrete playground is more like a prison exercise yard, a too-obvious visual metaphor.

We are slowly introduced to the individual students as each struggles to find their own identity in a sometimes hostile society and tough environment. The frustrations of both teachers and parents to make sense of it all and create opportunities for them is starkly portrayed.

The tension in the story builds as François’s egalitarian style leads to an explosive climax. His often-confronting dialogue with the students erupts into a confrontation where he wishes that he could drag his words back.

At the end we are left with both despair and hope, a combination that is only too familiar to many teachers.

It is a remarkable mixture of real life and fiction. Reality film in its true sense. The school community of Françoise Dolto Junior High in Paris' 20th arrondissement make up almost the entire cast: teachers, students and parents. François is a teacher himself who wrote the original story on which the film is based.

This movie is remarkable for several reasons, apart from its cast. Among these are:
  • It is based on Bégaudeau’s prize-winning semi-autobiographical book exploring the experiences of a teacher in inner Paris junior high school.

  • It is told without taking sides. The views of teachers who disagree with his approach get a fair airing.

  • The quality of the acting by amateurs is outstanding, especially the students.

  • The use of three hand-held Sony HD cameras in the classroom brings both authenticity and immediacy, without the audience feeling overly aware of their presence in such a confined space.

  • The use of improvisation to bring the script to life worked exceptionally well.

  • The narrative evolved from the original script in unexpected ways. According to François:
"One day, I asked Carl to be very aggressive toward his teacher, and he proposed a scene of unexpected violence. A few seconds later, I suggested another situation : he has come from another junior high school where he had been kicked out; here he wants to pass for a nice kid. Instantly, he created a quiet character, intimidated by François. The scene is actually in the film."
  • The genuine voices of the adolescents:
"Most films about adolescents show them as monosyllabic. For us, without a doubt, the dominant force of The Class is the loquacious and lively adolescent, rather than melancholic and inhibited."
These quotes and the photo above are from the Press Kit which can be downloaded from the official website.

The Class was the winner of the Palme D’Or at 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Changeling: clever serial clichés

Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling is a straightforward narrative.

As the original newspaper clips on the official website confirm, this is based on a true story, the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. If you’ve seen LA Confidential then you’re familiar with the Los Angeles Police Department’s corrupt reputation. It’s an earlier time (1928) but things weren’t much better then in the LAPD. In fact it seems that the authorities would do anything to improve their public image including persecuting innocent single mothers.

They pick on the wrong one this time. Angelina Jolie character, Christine Collins, is someone who “finishes things”. At times Angelina is just too glamorous for this role. You have to wonder why the boy’s father left in the first place. The ‘responsibility’ word leaves a lot unanswered. She is also too cold. You hope that she would might explode with more of the hysterical screaming that wins best actress academy awards. It’s in keeping with Clint Eastwood’s directorial style: control plus.

The re-creation of pre-Depression America is impressive. Sets and costumes are first class. The production has few anachronisms in either dialogue or technology.

The psychiatric hospital is straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, complete with a nurse administering shock treatment who could be Nurse Ratched’s sister.

John Malkovich walks trough his role as the crusading Rev. Gustav Briegleb. Perhaps it’s the curly hair, but his performance lacks the sharpness of his part in Burn After Reading. In keeping with traditional elements of melodram, his congregation cavalry save the heroine from the villains just in the nick of time.

Eastwood is a skilled storyteller and this one is no exception. It’s part crime mystery, part suspense, part horror. Crooked cops almost miss serial killer. The film crosses all the t’s in pulling all these threads together. The result is a series of climaxes which drag out the running time to 141 minutes. When it was jumping to-and-from courtrooms towards the end, it seemed longer. The execution scene doesn't create the clichéd closure for our brave protagonist or the audience.

It's just cinema territory that's too familiar to reach great heights. Nevertheless, if you enjoy the genres, try to see it on the silver screen.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Doubt: the power of words

It is rare that a playwright also writes the screenplay and directs his own film adaptation. Pulitzer Prize Winner John Patrick Shanley has done just that with Doubt. The movie has received 5 Academy Award nominations including best adapted screenplay. Previous oscar winners, Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn, are nominees. Amy Adams as Sister James must be a real first chance as best supporting actress. Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller’s also puts in a powerful performance to warrant her nomination. Her son Donald (Joseph Foster) is the only black student at the school in those days before desegregation.

Following three years of primary schooling with Catholic nuns and nine years with the Jesuits, I finished secondary school in 1964, the year this drama is set. If Sister Aloysius Beauvier seems out of touch with Second Vatican Council reforms of the time, she was not alone. Recent events have illustrated that only too clearly. Pope Benedict XVI blundered into controversy when he lifted ex-communication from heretical clergy who resisted the changes. He was also obliged to meet with victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests during his visit to the U.S in 2008.

Doubt comes in many forms in this film. When Sister Aloysius Beauvier reveals here inner turmoil at the end, “I have doubts. I have such doubts”, she is not referring to her “certainty” about Father Brendan Flynn’s abuse of children. It’s the worst sin of all: religious despair. For Sister James it’s a loss of innocence, doubt in her fellow religious. Many in the audience will have their doubts about organised religion reinforced.

Both the film’s strengths and its weaknesses stem from its origin as a play. Most of the real action happens off-camera, reinforcing the mystery. The story is confined to the school and its immediate Bronx neighbourhood. The power is in the dialogue, with Sister Aloysius Beauvier as the focal point for most of the fiery exchanges.

Despite her depiction as “the dragon”, Streep’s Sister Aloysius is too soft compared with the ghosts who haunt my educational childhood memories. Hoffman’s nice guy has us wondering throughout the movie why he became a priest. Aloysius asks him the same question for more sinister reasons.

Two famous religious plays were also adapted by their playwrights for the screen. Both have themes similar to Doubt. Arthur Miller’s 1996 screenplay for The Crucible came more than 40 years after its first stage production. It is, of course, about witch hunts, the kind that Sister Aloysius could have led.

A Man for All Seasons, which was adapted in 1966 by Robert Bolt after first being staged in 1960, had an earlier radio version in 1954.

Each of these films, and Doubt, would probably have as powerful an impact in audio version. As Thomas More might have said, the power is in the words.

Everything and nothing is resolved in this story. If death is the wages of sin, then Father Flynn’s temporal fate is very ironic.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Benjamin Button's Travels in Time

Despite its 13 oscar nominations (or perhaps because of them) we did not expect The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be so enjoyable. It isn't overly sentimental and it isn't Forrest Gump in reverse. In fact only Benjamin's World War 2 adventures on a tugboat border on the preposterous plot of that popular epic.

Brad Pitt is very good. He holds his own in a very talented cast. However, he doesn't warrant the academy award for best actor ahead of Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn. He would have had more chance of a supporting actor oscar for Burn After Reading.

It is hard to suspend disbelief in the early parts of Benjamin's life. It seems a bit too much like Bilbo Baggins in old age. It's easier after he leaves home as a fully-grown, if wrinkly adult. Later we are in familiar Pitt territory until his youthful James Dean persona becomes too young for his motorbike.

Cate Blanchett as Daisy gives her usual competent performance but is less than convincing as a ballet dancer. Eric Roth's screenplay cleverly intersects their lives at critical moments for both characters.

The strongest of the female actors are Taraji P. Henson as Button's mother Queenie and Tilda Swinton as his wartime lover Elizabeth Abbott. Henson (and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler) is far more deserving of the supporting actress academy award than Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Elizabeth's long distance swimming is a nice twist. There is a touch of irony in their younger woman/older man romance which is echoed by Benjamin and Daisy's older woman/younger man encounter later in the film.

The psychological aspects of Button's experiences are far more engaging than his physical metamorphoses. I wonder what Jonathan Swift or Oscar Wilde would have made of all this. Our society's quest for eternal youth and the perfect body are the stuff of social satire. Burn After Reading is a good example. At times The Curious Case takes itself too seriously. It isn't funny enough given its subject matter.

The reading of Benjamin's diary as narration for the story is a tired device. However, the clever use of Hurricane Katrina as background to the unfolding episodes in Benjamin's life overcomes the shortcomings of this cinematic cliché.

Don't be put off by the inevitable preconceptions created by the film's publicity. It's worth seeing on the big screen.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Harvey Milk: fighting for their lives

Milk has been deservedly nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor. This conventional but gripping narrative covers the years of Harvey Milk's ground-breaking political coming out. Sean Penn gives a masterly performance as the first openly gay elected official in the U.S. as we follow Milk from his arrival in San Fransisco in 1972 till his assassination in 1978. He is supported by a very strong cast.

Milk became, in the character's words, "a gay with power". His murder was the price he paid for exercising that power. He won many battles not just his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was instrumental in defeating John Briggs' Proposition 6 referendum in 1978. Inspired by morals campaigner Anita Bryant and the religious right, it sought to ban gay and lesbian employment in state schools. Harvey gained the support of a diverse group including Ronald Reagan, then ex-governor of California, past President Gerald Ford and serving President Jimmy Carter. This was no mean feat given the recent passing by 52% of Proposition 8 banning same sex marriage in California.

Gus Van Sant has directed a fast moving story with an authentic atmosphere. The 70s are alive again for just a couple of hours. We could do with a lot more Harvey's. His catchcry, "you have to give them hope", could have been from the Obama campaign. Part biopic, part polemic: don't miss it.

Flick Crit: Frost/Nixon

I have clear memories of watching President Richard Nixon's resignation speech live in '74. Just as we had watched Nixon congratulating Neil Armstrong after his walk on the moon in '69. Tricky had a real sense of occasion as we also saw when he joined Mao Zedong on the Great Wall of China whilst secretly waging war in Cambodia. For the anti-Vietnam War generation, these interviews with David Frost were supposed to nail him. He owed an apology for Watergate, pure and simple.

Despite its straightforward narrative style Frost/Nixon is not simple. Neither adversary is presented one dimensionally. Nixon is not pure evil nor is Frost a completely naive political novice.

This film is supposed to be the story behind their on-camera clash. Like all historical dramas, it is problematic and fiction of course. With David Frost at the nadir of his media career, he needed a confession about Watergate from the disgraced President if he was to resurrect himself. Above all he had to make the interviews a winner as he had staked his own financial future on the project. Ironically, Nixon is portrayed as agreeing to the interviews more for money than from his obvious desire for some kind of public rehabilitation. On top of that his love of political combat is presented as a key motivation.

In the acting bout, Frank Langella's Nixon wins on points over Michael Sheen's Frost. Director Ron Howard achieves a fine balance between mimicry and characterisation. Masterly use of physical resemblance, voice and mannerism creates tiny moments when each actor is completely cloaked in his character. This is acting of the finest quality, not mere impersonation.

Richard Nixon was a giant and an enigma. His policy of détente with both the USSR and Mao's China was bold and unprecedented. His duplicitous role in widening the Indo-china conflict was abhorrent. His approach to his domestic enemies was both paranoid and criminal. It culminated in his forced resignation over the cover-up of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.

The film concludes with Nixon confiding to Frost that he wished he liked people, a strange weakness in a politician. He was a great hater. Disputes as to the accuracy of the screenplay are raging. However, the original interviews are an historical source that is only rivaled by the incriminating tapes from the Oval Office. Nixon gave a long-winded answer as to why he allowed the taping and didn't destroy them. The real reason was probably a three letter word: ego. Expletive deleted.

Frost/Nixon reminds us that there was more to this flawed man than his enemies often recognised. Visit the official website for more on this battle of egos.