February 28, 2009

The Midnight Meat Train (2008) @ Cult Reviews!

This time in Cult Reviews, my contribution is a review for Ryûhei Kitamura's 2008 debut in American cinema, which was an adaptation of the classic Clive Barker's short story, "The Midnight Meat Train". Starring Bradley Cooper and Vinnie Jones, "The Midnight Meat Train" is a very interesting horror film that features mystery, chilling suspense and a good dose of gruesome violence, all framed by Kitamura's stylish vision. Unfortunately, not everything is perfect on the film, and in fact it suffers from a serious problem that hurts what could had been one of the best movies of the decade. The details about it on my review featured on Cult Reviews.

This month Cult Reviews also features an interesting overview of Brett Leonard's comic book inspired horror film "Man-Thing", all in the trademark style of Cult Reviews' very own Perfesser Deviant. The Perfesser also writes about "Postal", film that some consider to be Uwe Boll's best movie (althought in all honesty, that doesn't say much) and a trip to the time of funky afros and disco music in "Blacula". In tone with the month's marketing device (and with the month's major mainstream release), reviewer Anna McKibben's takes the dust away from the original "My Bloody Valentine" (1981), reviewing the recently released uncut dvd. Finally, Vomitron reviews Jack Hill's 60s oddity: "Spider Baby" (1968), which is also the featured full length movie of the month (remember that Cult Reviews has public domain movies available to watch).

So, keep supporting Cult Reviews!


February 19, 2009

And the Oscar goes to...

Well, it's that time of the year again when the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects the winners of its major award, the famous golden statuette known as "Oscar". There are many important film awards across the globe, from recognitions given at Festivals to the awards given by professional film critics or by guilds, not to mention the awards by other National Academies (the Mexican Ariel and the BAFTA awards for example); however, despite being a group of awards based almost entirely on the American film industry, the Oscars still have that strange power to fascinate audiences, and even when it's been proved that their rules by no means proved an objective selection of the best, some still consider them the big prize of the year. Perhaps it's the show, perhaps is just Hollywood magic, but the Oscars still continue to fascinate us whether we admit it or not (and sometimes those who most adamantly scream that they don't care about them, wouldn't mind to have one over their chimney).

Anyways, on Febryary 22, 2009, we'll get to know the results of this year's Awards, and well, considering that at the end of last year I had only seen 16 films released on 2008, I decided to give a rest to my focus on the classics for a while and spend the first two months of 2009 getting updated on 2008 cinema. All with the purpose of having an opinion made for the awards season. As I expected, I agree with very few of the nominees of this year's Oscars, and I dare to say that compared with the awards of the previous two years, this time the selection is pretty uninteresting. Don't get me wrong, the 5 films that are competing for the Best Film award are good, but in my opinion, not really the best that the last year offered. So here at W-Cinema, we have now the obligatory post about the Oscar, with thoughts and ideas about some of the nominees, as well as the films I think should really be considered the best of 2008's American cinema.

Best Picture:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
The Reader.
Slumdog Millionaire.

As written above, I find the selection to be pretty typical safe choices, in the sense that while the 5 are good films, I doubt that they will stand the test of time as important, influential pieces of cinema. If anything, Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" and Gus Van Sant's "Milk" are in my opinion the two best films, and the only worthy contenders for the award. Of the two I would vote for "Slumdog Millionaire", because despite offering a reworking of Hollywood's classic romantic melodrama, it's done with such a fresh and distinctive style that in my opinion, makes it a tad more enjoyable than Van Sant's chronicle about Harvey Milk's life. Of the rest, I found Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" to be pretty interesting, but shallow, and David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to lack soul. Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" is certainly his best film, and would be my choice if it wasn't for Van Sant and Boyle's movies. Probably because of my belief in the auteur theory, I find kind of interesting to compare the best movie of a slightly-above-average director (Howard) with a slightly-above-average film by a talented one (Fincher). Forced to pick one amongst the 5, W-Cinema picks Boyle's "Slumdog Millinaire" for Best Picture.

Best Director:
Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire.
Stephen Daldry – The Reader.
David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Ron Howard – Frost/Nixon.
Gus Van Sant – Milk.

Then we have of course the Best Directing category, which has the same 5 nominees of the Best Picture award lined up again. As written above, I consider Howard's "Frost/Nixon" to be quite a remarkable achievement for his career, as not only he proves he is a competent craftsman (nothing new, I must admit he has always had good a technique), he finally makes a film where the story shines free of compromises, and for that alone I think he should get an award. On the basis that he is the only one that made something beyond his usual. Or well, I would say that if it wasn't for Boyle's directing of "Slumdog Millionaire", in which he mixed a terrific work of editing and cinematography to make a superb oddity of magic realism. Other than Boyle and Howard, I don't see anyone worthy enough of such award. Van Sant's directing is pretty much straight forward, although his work with the cast is superb (though the real star is the film's remarkable script). The opposite side is Fincher's work, which is a visual joy, but at times kind of emotionless and shallow (courtesy of its screenplay). Daldry in "The Reader" is good and effective, but nothing out of this world. So, as in Best Picture, "Slumdog Millionaire" is my pick again, and the prize goes to Danny Boyle.

Best Actor
Richard Jenkins – The Visitor.
Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon.
Sean Penn – Milk.
Brad Pitt – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler.

In the Best Leading Actor we find one of the movies I think was tragically snubbed for the Best Picture category: "The Wrestler". In my opinion, Mickey Rourke's brutal performance as aged wrestler Randy the Ram is easily the best work amongst the 5 nominees. Well, perhaps "easily" is not the most appropriate word, as Frank Langella's work as President Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" is equally as deserving as Rourke's. But still, if only for the fact that "The Wrestler" was not recognized in the Best Picture, I pick Mckey Rourke for the Best Actor award. About the rest, I must admit not having seen "The Visitor" yet, so I can't have an opinion about it, but I do have things to say about Penn and Pitt. Sean Penn's performance as Harvey Milk is excellent, but I don't see it on the same level as Rourke's Wrestler or Langella's Nixon. I have no idea about why is Pitt on the list of nominees, as he has delivered better performances than his work as Benjamin Button.

Best Actress:
Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married.
Angelina Jolie – Changeling.
Melissa Leo – Frozen River.
Meryl Streep – Doubt.
Kate Winslet – The Reader.

Since at the time I write this I have not seen neither "Rachel Getting Married" nor "Frozen River", to have an established opinion in this category, specially since word of mouth says Anne Hathway is excellent in "Rachel Getting Married". However, the battle seems to be focused between Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet. While it's true that Streep is definitely the best American actress of the modern times, I find difficult to name her as the winner because personally, I found her performance to be a bit over the top. Granted, her character is an extreme personality, but still, something wasn't that convincing. Named the favorite, Kate Winslet certainly has had a terrific year, but of her two main works of the year, I would have preferred to see her nominated for "Revolutionary Road" than for "The Reader". In fact, I probably would had given her the award without too much hesitation. Finally, I must admit that Angelina Jolie's work in "Changeling" was a pleasant surprise, and probably her best work since "Girl, Interrupted". In conclusion, I won't name a favorite as neither Streep nor Winslet fully convince me and while Jolie is great (really great), she's not definitively superior to them.

Best Supporting Actor:
Josh Brolin – Milk.
Robert Downey, Jr. – Tropic Thunder.
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Doubt.
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight.
Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road.

Let me say it clearly: no, I don't find Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker as the year's best. In fact, a part of me wonders why was he nominated and not Aaron Eckhart. I mean, his work is remarkable, yes, but as a whole, "The Dark Knight" owes its power to its screenplay. Now that it was said, let's continue with Robert Downey Jr. whom I consider a genius, but despite that, I seriously wonder why was he nominated for "Tropic Thunder". Honestly. Personally, I would have nominated Brendan Gleeson for "In Bruges" (another tragically snubbed film), where he delivers what is simply one of his best performances ever. Anyways, between Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Brolin and Michael Shannon, I would pick Michael Shannon's work in "Revolutionary Road" (a film I'm beginning to see as the result of a faulty script saved by a competent director and two masterful performances: Shannon and Winslet). Brolin is the favorite of the crowds (or well, the favorite of those not invaded by nostalgia about Ledger), but Shannon's work is haunting, just haunting.

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams – Doubt.
Penélope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Viola Davis – Doubt.
Taraji P. Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler.

I think that Amy Adams has an incredibly bright future ahead, and her work in "Doubt" is just another proof of how talented she is. But still, I'm inclined to say that neither she nor her "Doubt" costar, Viola Davis, will get the award. At least I wouldn't give it to them, despite the fact that both deliver great performances in a film filled with super acting work. Taraji P. Henson, while being the best actress in all "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is another that wouldn't be my pick amongst the five. No, the choice for me is just between Penélope Cruz's psychotic Maria Elena and Marisa Tomei's strong (yet strangely sweet) Cassidy. While I described the two characters with only a couple of adjective, they are incredibly complex and the actresses who play them truly make a terrific job in their roles. Cruz has never been a favorite of mine, but she surprised me completely in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona". On the other hand, Marisa Tomei's subtle, natural performance in "The Wrestler" left me breathless. I can't choose, I will be happy with any of them winning. OK, I may give Cruz a slight preference at the moment.

Best Original Screenplay:
WALL·E - Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter.
Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh.
Frozen River - Courtney Hunt.
In Bruges - Martin McDonagh.
Milk - Dustin Lance Black.

Being unable to have an opinion regarding "Frozen River" and "Happy-Go-Lucky", I'll focus on the other three, which certainly are three of the best original screenplays of the past year. "WALL·E"'s simple, yet timeless story is probably the favorite, but personally, I think it loses a lot of steam by the end, where the film's message gets too obvious and the love story takes the backseat. A shame, cause the first two acts are pure perfection. I guess I'll be pretty disappointed if it actually wins (and probably it will). On the other hand, "Milk" and "In Bruges" are two masterpieces of writing, one being an extremely detailed portrait of a man's crusade and the other the best comedy of the year. Dustin Lance Black's "Milk" is quite an achievement not only in the level of detail it includes, but also on how intimate its representation of Milk's life is. It's certainly a winning screenplay, but as written above, "In Bruges" is in my opinion amongst the real best 5 films in English of the year, and a lot of that comes from the movie's brilliantly funny script. Seriously, if it doesn't win, it'll be an injustice.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Eric Roth and Robin Swicord.
Frost/Nixon - Peter Morgan.
The Reader - David Hare.
Slumdog Millionaire - Simon Beaufoy.
Doubt - John Patrick Shanley.

I'm not entirely happy with Roth and Swicord's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", I mean, it's a terrific story, but I just couldn't help but feeling that Roth was trying to make a deep point by using the most clichéd resources. Something similar happened to me with David Hare's adaptation of "The Reader", which left me the impression of having seen an important theme being treated on a shallow way by giving more importance to an illicit love story. Simon Beaufoy's "Slumdog Millionaire" is a great piece of work, but I think that the two best adaptations of a previously written material came from stage plays this year: "Doubt" and "Frost/Nixon". And of the two, I pick "Frost/Nixon" as the serious contender for the award. "Doubt" is remarkable, but what Morgan does with "Frost/Nixon" is to make more than just a filmed play (something that "Doubt" can't help but do a couple of times), but a wonderfully constructed story that seems to be done for film instead of a play. Outstanding work.

Best Animated Feature:
Bolt – Chris Williams and Byron Howard.
Kung Fu Panda – Mark Osborne and John Stevenson.
WALL·E – Andrew Stanton.

No contest. "WALL·E" will simply roll over both the dog and the panda. Easy as that.

Well, those are W-Cinema's thoughts and rants about this year's Academy Awards. Anyways, If I was the one in charge, now that I have been able to give the year a better review than what I did last December, I would nominate the following films for Best Picture:

Låt den rätte komma in (2008, Tomas Alfredson)
WALL·E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)
The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
In Bruges (2008, Martin McDonagh)

The prize of course, would go to that Swedish miracle that is "Låt den rätte komma in" ("Let the Right One In"), but OK, let's play by Academy Awards rules and pretend that it wins the Best Foreign Film category and that "WALL·E" is placed on the Best Animated feature. With that in mind, my nominees would be...

The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)
The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
In Bruges (2008, Martin McDonagh)
Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan)

To me, those are the top five. But hey, nobody cares about Oscars, right?

February 18, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

From "Cinderella" to Charles Dickens, rags-to-riches stories have always had a constant presence in mankind's storytelling, from oral tradition and legends, to literature and film. Whether they are taken from real life or entirely fictional, with a realistic premise or a complete fantastic one, this kind of stories tend to capture the imagination mainly because one can easily feel identified with the struggles the characters find, and because some of this stories can actually be inspiring. Of course, the other side of the coin is that this kind of stories also tend to be overtly melodramatic and sentimentalist to the extreme, exaggerating beyond the acceptable as many schmaltzy films from classic Hollywood can testify. Danny Boyle's film "Slumdog Millionaire" walks the fine line between the two extremes, in the story of a young man from the slums of Mumbai who manages to get to the final question in the Indian version of the popular game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". And surprisingly, it's actually a fresh take on the classic formula.

In "Slumdog Millionaire", Dev Patel plays Jamal Malik, an uneducated young man whom after growing up in the slums of Mumbai now works as a "chai-wallah", (a boy or young man who serves tea) at a call center. Against all odds, Jamal enters the popular game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and makes it to the final question, meaning that if Jamal answers correctly, he'll win 20 million rupees. However, being a former street child with no education at all makes Jamal an unlikely candidate to know the answers of the show, so before the taping of the last show, he is taken into police custody under, accused of being cheating. Interrogated by Sergeant Srinivas (Saurabh Shukla), Jamal denies the accusation and begins to explain how is it that he was able to answer correctly every question in the show thanks to the experiences of his short life. Telling his life story, Jamal recollects memories from his childhood with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the orphan girl Latika (Freida Pinto), whom is perhaps the most important person in his life.

Written by British scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy taking as basis the Boeke Prize-winning novel "Q and A" by Indian author Vikas Swarup, "Slumdog Millionaire"'s plot unfolds in a series of flashbacks where the life story of Jamal is told since his childhood days along his brother Salim and his friend Latika, recounting his difficult life in the slums, facing gangsters and other problems in their attempt to make a living. But even when the harsh life of Jamal does take a central part of the film, the real theme of the story is love, as it is the unbreakable love that Jamal has for Latika what drives him and gives him the strength to survive. Simon Beaufoy takes the classic premise of star-crossed lovers and gives it a fresh spin to wave a modern romantic melodrama rich in well developed characters that make the story quite a captivating experience. Because while "Slumdog Millionaire" offers an interesting view on the Indian slums, it is actually a timeless story that could take place in any slum in the world, so it's very easy to feel identified with Jamal and his quest.

With a vibrant, high-octane pace that never gives a minute to rest, director Danny Boyle brings to life Beaufoy's screenplay in a colorful, visually exciting way. With a remarkable work of editing by Chris Dickens and the stylish cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle crafts a fascinating movie that perfectly mixes the fantastical with the realistic in a sort of magical realism where the idealistic romance story is framed by the harsh reality of India's slums. Boyle gives an interesting (albeit definitely superficial) view on the lives of Mumbai's street children, showing a bit of the tragedies they face everyday and the few joys they must find to cope with them. While "Slumdog Millionaire" is not exactly a tribute to Bollywood, Boyle does capture, if not exactly the style, at least the highly energetic spirit of joy found in the so-called Masala films (mixes of genres, usually musicals). Also, it's interesting how with the aid of cast director Loveleen Tandan, Boyle decides to have a third of the film in Hindi language, which gives it a realistic touch.

The young cast of mostly newcomers is remarkably effective, with lead actor Dev Patel being the film's greatest surprise. Playing Jamal, Patel offers a very natural performance, albeit in all honesty, at first it's a bit difficult to see him as a former street child. But as the movie progresses the talent of the young actor gets fully appreciated. As his love interest, Latika, Indian model Freida Pinto is also a nice surprise, as she is not only beautiful, but also delivers a good performance as her troubled character. Madhur Mittal plays Jamal's brother Salim, and while good, I must say that his work is overshadowed by the boy who plays his character at a younger age, real street child Azharuddin Ismail, whom is by far the most talented of the younger cast. Ayush Khedekar and Rubiana Ali are the other kids, playing Jamal and Latika respectively, and both are also great in their performances, particularly Ayush, although is Ismail who steals every scene he is in. Anil Kapoor appears as the game show host, and his energetic, charming performance adds a lot of realism to his character.

Overall "Slumdog Millionaire" is a wonder of film that updates those classic feel-good themes of romantic melodrama (almost in that "Capraesque" style of film-making) without getting too schmaltzy about it, and keeping a special focus on the development of the film's "three musketeers". Personally, I found Boyle's decision of giving a realistic outlook to a fantastic story like this one a very interesting, albeit daring one; and while it may seem like an odd mix at first, it actually works. Granted, the whole realism of "Slumdog Millionaire" is still far from being an exact representation of Mumbai's life, after all, it's still an outsider's view on the subject. Also, it certainly can't help but being a bit patronizing about the whole thing, but I think that the approach taken while not entirely realistic, it's a very insightful one despite its flaws. It's safe to say that slums like those depicted in "Slumdog Milionaire" exist in every country, and that street children like Jamal and Latika live in them too. Unfortunately, not every slumdog can become a millionaire.

Fresh, energetic and most of all highly entertaining, "Slumdog Millionaire" seems like a return to Danny Boyle's roots on independent cinema, only on a much greater scale. As written above, "Slumdog Millionaire" is more a modern fable than a realistic view on the life of street children, but despite this, it would be good to believe that movies like this one may give the street children of the world a bit more of attention. It may had been a shallow view on poverty, but it's certainly reaching a great audience. Anyways, while it has been hailed as a masterpiece, "Slumdog Millionaire" may not be the great work of art that claim may lead one to believe, bu it's definitely a terrific film and easily amongst the best movies done in 2008.


February 16, 2009

The Reader (2008)

The Holocaust, the genocide of approximately six million Jews (and other groups) during World War II by Nazi Germany, was definitely one of the most horrible acts of the armed conflict, as the systematic extermination of civil population under the justification of racial superiority is the best example of the brutality of the actions of World War II. The magnitude and complexity of this crime against humanity can be proved just by looking at how has affected the posterior generations. Certainly, the Holocaust is an event that marked its survivors and their descendants, but also one that marked the descendants of those who inflicted it. When talking about the Holocaust, it's often easy to simplify it by stating that those in command weren't really sane, but one must not forget that not everyone there were psychos, and that's the complex thing about it: normal people were also part of it. Bernhard Schlink's novel "Der Vorleser" (known in English as "The Reader") explores this subject, and is the basis for a film of the same name by director Stephen Daldry.

In post-WWII Germany, Michael Berg (David Kross) is a teenager whom one rainy day feels sick as he heads home. Vomiting and unable to continue under the rain, Michael rests in the entryway of an apartment building, where he is helped home by Hanna (Kate Winslet), a single woman much older than him. Diagnosied with scarlet fever, Michael spends days at home, but when he recovers he decides to seeks out Hanna to thank her. Fascinated by Hanna, Michael begins a secretive affair with her, making constant visits to her apartment to make love and read her. Hanna loves being read to, and so in his visits Michael reads her literary classics such as "The Odyssey", and their bond grows stronger each day, with Michael falling irrevocably in love with Hanna, despite her mood is often abusive with him. However, by reasons unknown to Michael, Hanna mysteriously disappears one day, leaving the young Michael confused and heartbroken. Eight years later Michael is a law student observing the Nazi war crime trials, and he is shocked when he finds that Hanna is a defendant in the courtroom. Her past will be a great revelation to him.

Adapted to screen by David Hare (whom also penned Daldry's previous film "The Hours"), the story chronicles the relationship between Michael and Hanna from Michael's point of view, in a non-linear structure that moves back and forth between young Michael's experiences and the effects they had on him thirty years later (where Michael is played by Ralph Fiennes). As in Bernhard Schlink's book, their relationship represents that of younger Germany with its Nazi past, and the challenge of comprehending what was going on with their society back then when it participated in one of the greatest crimes against humanity. Naturally, the themes of guilt, shame and morality play a key role in the story, as Hanna's secret is proved to be instrumental in understanding her actions. Working both as a coming-of-age story of romance and as an intense courtroom drama, "The Reader" attempts to translate the interesting questions Schlink poses regarding our understanding of the Holocaust and its perpetrators, but David Hare's screenplay at times fail to tackle its subject in a deeper sense.

Taking advantage of the script's two different yet irrevocably connected structures, director Stephen Daldry constructs his movie as Michael's slow and tragic discovery of Hanna's real character. Focusing on Michael's innocence and sensibility, Daldry makes the first part of the film to focus on the romance angle, with the development of Michael and Hanna's complex relationship and then slowly, as time advances and their relationships gets troubled, the movie switches to its real theme: the courtroom drama surrounding not only the guilt of a group of Nazi guards, but also the guilt of a generation and the way the following one judges it and lives under the previous one's shadow. To achieve this, Stephen Daldry keeps the film flowing at a nice pace, always keeping the subtlety and elegance he develops thanks to the superb work of cinematography by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, whom give the film a terrific atmosphere, specially when it contrasts the rejuvenated Germany of the new generation with the stark, grim reality of those responsible for the Holocaust.

The acting in "The Reader" is certainly one of the highlights of the film, specially the work done by the couple of David Kross and Kate Winslet. Winslet has received much acclaim for her work in the film, and not without a reason, as her performance as the apparently simple, yet extraordinarily complex Hanna Schmitz is easily one of her best (if not the best) jobs to date. Portraying a very realistic character that's at the same vulnerable and strong, Winslet makes unforgettable what could had been a stereotypical role. However, the real surprise is David Kross' work as the young Michael Berg, as he is simply perfect as the naive, innocent teenager whom is about to discover love by the hands of Hanna, but also pain. Dependant and innocent, but also egotistical and mean, the character of Michael Berg is made real with impressive talent by the young Kross. As Michael's older self, grown colder and somewhat bitter due to his experiences, Ralph Fiennes is effective, but in all honesty, nothing really amazing, as the film rests entirely on Winslet and Kross' shoulders.

Like the novel where it originated, "The Reader" is a film that poses very interesting and challenging questions, as it deals with the subject of guilt regarding the Holocaust in a very direct and straight forward manner. Questioning about how can one judge the previous generation's sins is a difficult matter, specially when the sin in question is something as incomprehensible as the Holocaust, and the entire society of the time (perhaps not only the German one) has its fair share of guilt on the subject (wheter they admit it or not). Schlink's novel makes for an interesting meditation on this, but personally I find that Stephen Daldry's film fails at doing the same. As written above, the problem I see is that David Hare's screenplay is a bit too shallow on its take on the subject, and the subsequent revelations of Hanna's past seem to take the backseat in front of her risky relationship with young Michael. This makes for a terribly weak final act as filmmaker Daldry seems to prefer the premise of the boy traumatized by his ill-fated romance with an older woman.

Perhaps this may sound a bit harsher than intended, but that's because in my opinion, the film feels like a romance drama that attempts to go beyond the norm by posing challenging questions about a very interesting subject, only to end up preferring to remain a tragic romance drama after all. However, by no means take that statement as an equivalent to saying that "The Reader" is a bad film, because it's definitely not. Daldry's movie is a well crafted story of multiple layers crowned by two remarkable performances and an excellent work of cinematography. It's just disappointing that it's take on the subject wasn't as deep as it could had been. But perhaps that just me nitpicking.


February 06, 2009

Milk (2008)

On January 8, 1978, American politician Harvey Milk made history when he became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Tragically, Milk could only serve 11 months in office, being assassinated along Mayor George Moscone by recently resigned city supervisor Dan White, on November 27, 1978. But even when Milk's time at the office was brief, his legacy is enormous and his work as gay rights activist continues to this day as Milk has become one of the major icons of the gay rights movement in San Francisco. Naturally, Milk's life was the perfect material for making a biographical film, with two projects about Milk arising in the 90s: "The Mayor of Castro Street" by Oliver Stone, and "Milk" by Gus Van Sant. Both struggled in development hell through the decade, facing changes of cast, crew, and even strikes. In the end, Gus Van Sant's "Milk" survived, and with Sean Penn in the title role, was released the day before the 30th anniversary of the Moscone–Milk assassinations.

"Milk" chronicles the rise of Harvey Milk's political career from his arrival to San Francisco to his final days at the office. The movie begins with Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) living in New York dissatisfied with his life on the eve of his 40th birthday. After meeting young Scott Smith (James Franco), both men decide to move to San Francisco, California. In the Castro District of the city they open "Castro Camera", but they find more oppression in their new home town, resulting in frustration for Milk. However, this and other injustices prompted Milk to use his skills as a business man to organize The Castro's gay community and make a real gay rights movement, with his aim set in the position of city supervisor. In politics, Milk finds his true vocation, and makes of the gay rights movement his own personal mission; however, his devotion to the subject begins to take its toll in his relationship with Scott, who after working as Milk's campaign manager gets frustrated by Milk's obsession. Campaign after campaign, the "Mayor of Castro Street" will find many obstacles in his career.

With a script by Dustin Lance Black, "Milk" focuses mainly on the years of Harvey Milk's brief but fruitful political career, chronicling the opposition he found as well as his several successes. Extremely well researched (Black met several of Milk's former aides, such as Cleve Jones), the film remains very faithful to the events in Harvey Milk's life, making the film an extremely detailed biopic about the gay rights activist. It could be said that, in a way, it's also a very typical one, as it follows the rise of Milk's career and covers the milestones in his career. However, what sets "Milk" apart from similar biopics, is that writer Dustin Lance Black manages to make of "Milk" more than a biography of Harvey Milk, as it is also a biography of the movement he started, and of the changes that were taking place in the United States at the time. But the most interesting thing about Black's screenplay, is that it truly achieves what all biographical films try but very few achieve: to become more than a history lesson and really getting the feeling of actually meeting Harvey Milk.

But still, as good as Dustin Lance Black's screenplay for "Milk" is, it would not had been the same if director Gus Van Sant had taken a different route for the film instead of his humanist view on Milk's times. As the story details every step in Milk's life, Van Sant focuses on his humanity, his passions and his obsessions, keeping a constant focus on how the gay rights movement became the purpose of his life, and how it affected those around him. Together with cinematographer Harris Savides, Van Sant creates a very intimate look on the movement from its core, following Milk and his entourage through their triumphs and tragedies with a very realistic touch. Charley Beal's art direction is also worth of praise, as the reconstruction of the atmosphere of 70s San Francisco (specially The Castro) is brilliant. Van Sant's directing of actors is remarkable, and his focus on the people result in a very vivid, natural and realistic representation of Harvey Milk's days, to the point that the camera almost feels like a real witness of those changing times.

Nevertheless, the real star of "Milk" is precisely the man who plays Harvey Milk himself, Sean Penn, who truly embodies Milk's charming persona going beyond mannerisms and imitation to actually transmit the essence of who the American politician was. Penn's portrait of idealist Harvey Milk feels very sincere, very realistic, going beyond the representation of a historical figure by making him a very human character. Granted, Penn had the heavily detailed research by Bland and Van Sant to work with, but still his effort is commendable in how he embodies what's known about Harvey Milk. But Penn's is not the only great performance of the film, as Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, makes a terrific job in the role of the man who would become Milk's most dangerous adversary. Like Penn, Brolin's benefited by a script that portrays White not as a cartoon monster (which would had been the easy way out), but as a well defined realistic character, as complex and interesting as Harvey Milk himself. Brolin makes the best of it and delivers his best job to date.

The rest of the cast is very effective as well, with Emile Hirsch delivering quite a energetic performance as Milk's protegé Cleve Jones, and James Franco delivering a subtle, melancholic turn as Milk's lover Scott Smith. Diego Luna appears as another of Milk's lovers, the troubled Jack Lira, but Luna's performance is a tad hammy, making of Lira's personal troubles too much of a caricature. Still, the acting is the film's greatest strength, and what really makes the difference between "Milk" and other biopics. Because in my opinion, while Black's screenplay is certainly a remarkable work of research and writing, Van Sant seems to take an easy route and follow it to the letter, making a very by-the-numbers film out of it. I guess Van Sant chose to take a more traditional approach in an effort to keep objective, because that's another thing the film achieves: objectivity. While of course, it's a film done with a very defined political agenda, it remains true to the real events and does its best to remain neutral (it's humanistic portrayal of Dan White being the best example of this).

"Milk" is one of Gus Van Sant's most accessible films, and it's really helpful to understand a bit more no only about the figure of Harvey Milk, but also about the gay rights movement of the 70s. With its excellent screenplay and the powerful performances of Penn and Brolin, it's definitely a remarkably done biographical film (definitely one of the best biopics of the decade). However, it's nothing like Van Sant's more daring and experimental films ("Gerry", "Elephant" or "Paranoid Park" for example), as it basically plays safe and follows the basic conventions of traditional biopics. Nevertheless, the greatest merit of the film is how it manages to create a believable, objective and honest portrait of Harvey Milk and his message of hope.


February 04, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

One of the most complex and controversial figures in the history of the United States is without a doubt Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States (from 1969 to 1974) and the only president to ever resign the office. Facing impeachment due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Nixon decided to resign on August 9, 1974; however, he never faced indictment due to the full pardon granted to him by President Gerald Ford the following month, leaving the nation in a state of discomfort. However, by 1977 Nixon began to plan a comeback, and so he decided to accept an invitation for a series of sit-down interviews with British commentator David Frost. Since Frost's career was also in trouble and he was looking for a comeback too, Nixon's team thought the interviews would be an easy way to restore the politician's image. But the interviews would prove to be a greater challenge than expected, as they became essentially, the trial Nixon never had. Ron Howard's film "Frost/Nixon" deals with the events surrounding the interviews.

Based on Peter Morgan's play of the same name, "Frost/Nixon" opens in 1974 with Richard Nixon's (Frank Langella) resignation speech in what would be his last day at the office. Meanwhile in Australia, David Frost (Michael Sheen) finishes an episode of his talk show "Frost Over Australia" and watches the last moments of Nixon in the White House. Thinking about the amount of people who watched President Nixon's resignation on live TV, Frost decides to attempt to secure a TV interview with him. To achieve this purpose, Frost recruits his producer and friend John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) to help him produce the series, although Frost finds troubles to secure financing for the program. With serious financial issues, Frost manages to finance the interviews, and prepares himself with the aid of investigators Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Frost's team will face difficult conflicts, as Reston doubts about Frost's intentions and wants to have Nixon admitting his guilt. But Frost's fiercest adversary will be the ex-President himself.

Adapted to the screen by writer Peter Morgan himself, "Frost/Nixon" takes the Nixon interviews as a showdown, a duel between two opponents determined to beat the other in order to survive. As if if was the case of a boxing match, we witness the preparation the two adversaries endure, as well as their doubts, their fears, their strategies, in a dramatization of the events that preceded the Nixon interviews. This view of the interviews as a duel makes the story very interesting, because since the outcome of the interviews is not exactly a secret, the interest is instead placed on the actual confrontation. In a way, what matters is not the result of the interview, but how both interviewer and interviewee fight for the control of the talk. Naturally, while the movie has David Frost as "main character" (as the problems he faced to make the interviews are a major subplot), it is Nixon whom becomes the most interesting one, and while not exactly a historically accurate story, there is still a great deal of exploration of this complex historical figure.

Tension is a key factor in the course of the interviews, and director Ron Howard manages to handle it consistently well through the film, keeping things subtle and restrained and avoiding the overtly melodramatic kind of scenes his movies tend to have. Howard keeps things flowing at a smooth pace, although the inclusion of dramatized interviews with the supporting characters (where the offer their point of view on the story) tends to break the nice pace the film has. Probably a result of its origins as a stage play, "Frost/Nixon" has a view on human drama that's more intimate and more personal, but that given the personality and cold blood of its main characters is also less prone to digress on superficial emotionality (although the inclusion of Rebecca Hall's character almost takes that route). At first sight, it may not be the kind of work one would expect from Ron Howard, but he makes a terrific job in bringing the intellectual duel between Frost and Nixon to life without mellowing things or taking the easy way out.

And considering that the film deals about the showdown between two characters, the quality of the performances by the actors in those roles becomes instrumental for the film's success. Fortunately, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (whom also starred in the stage play version) deliver the goods and make of "Frost/Nixon" one terrific showcase of their talents. As David Frost, Michael Sheen is charming and effective, taking the role of the nice talk-show host who must rise to the challenge of interviewing Richard Nixon. Overall Sheen delivers a very good performance, but at times he is definitely overshadowed by his costar, Frank Langella, whom makes a powerful portrait of Nixon in which his voice and mannerisms speak louder than any work make-up. And that last thing is something that I personally liked a lot about Sheen and Langella in "Frost/Nixon" (and the movie in general): they do not attempt to be historically accurate, or a perfect impersonation of their characters, but to reflect the importance of the interview for both parties and what they represented.

The rest of the cast is overall effective as well, although naturally the film is entirely focused on Frost and Nixon. Still, Sam Rockwell's turn as journalist James Reston R. is worth of praise, although the same can't be said of Rebeca Hall, whose performance is kind of poor. To be fair, her character is pretty much pointless in the film and seems like an attempt to add a definitely out of place element of romantic interest. This is one of the script's greatest faults, as the movie had no need for such an intermission, and it even feels like a cheap attempt to make the film more accessible to the mainstream audiences (as if the makers weren't sure whether the film is appealing or not). Also, I must say that I found Ron Howard's use of "dramatized interviews" a tiring resource, specially because even when it's interesting to have the point of view of those around Frost and Nixon, the way they are spliced into the film is not only distracting, but damaging to the film's vertiginous pace, and the high tension raised by the conflict's details.

Personally, I'm not really a fan of Ron Howard's boy of work, as in my personal opinion, his movies, while well made and of good quality, tend to follow classic formulas without really attempting anything bold or refreshing. In "Frost/Nixon" Howard attempts something unusual of him: a subtle low-key film, more intellectual than visceral where the conflict is of greater importance than the resolution. And to my surprise, he succeeds in doing it. Showcasing a terrific job by Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon" allows to have a humanized idea of a man whose larger-than-life persona has become a character that embodies all that is wrong about politics. While not exactly a perfect film, by following faithfully Morgan's play, director Ron Howard succeeds in making a serious film about ex-President Richard Nixon and what's probably his best job to date.


February 01, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

American author Mark Twain once said that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end, wondering about how would it be to be able of spending the last years of life as a small child. Inspired by this remark, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story about a man whose life follows that interestingly reversed pattern: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". Included in Fitzgerald's collection of short stories titled "Tales of the Jazz Age" (1922), it has become one of his most popular short stories in spite of having been written just for Fitzgerald's own amusement. More than 80 years later, scriptwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord take Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" as source to once again explore the idea of a man whom is born as an old man, in a movie of the same title directed by David Fincher with actor Brad Pitt in the lead role. But while Fitzgerald's story focuses on the troubles of a man with such condition, its cinema counterpart attempts to go beyond the life of Benjamin Button.

The film begins in the year 2006 in New Orleans, with old lady Daisy Williams (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed awaiting to die as hurricane Katrina is about to hit land. Her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) is by her side, trying to make her last moments as comfortable as possible. Daisy asks Caroline to read her an old book she has with her, the memoirs of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). As Caroline begins to read, she discovers that this man's life was not normal, as Benjamin Button was born as an old man the day World War I ended. Thinking his son is a monster and blaming him for his wife's death, Benjamin's father (Jason Flemyng) abandons the baby in a retirement home, where he is adopted by one of the servants, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Living in the retirement home, Benjamin feels at home between the old people and begins to make friends, but he also discovers the most extraordinary thing about it: he is actually growing younger. Meeting a girl named Daisy Williams will be the most important event in the curious life of Benjamin Button.

Adapted to the screen by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (with a screenplay written by Roth), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" explores the extraordinary events in the life of its title character, but takes a special focus on his relationship with Daisy Williams. Love and its complications become the film's major theme, as the movie follows the two ill-fated lovers whose relationship is affected by Benjamin's strange condition. Naturally, given the extremely atypical circumstances of Benjamin Button's growth to maturity, the film also explores the subject of life, aging and maturing, with Benjamin Button's curious experience offering the chance to make some meditations on the way we live our lives, as his physical appearance allows him to experience things with a different perspective. But still, Roth prefers to take a more emotional angle and keeps the focus on the love story between Benjamin and Daisy, and so the majority of the film is dedicated to their problematic relationship. In a way, this may make for a more accessible film, but also feels a lot like "playing safe".

In other words, the screenplay is not exactly one of the film's most interesting aspects, but on the contrary, David Fincher's directing is certainly worth the praise it has received. A careful and dedicated craftsman, Fincher makes a wonderful job in bringing the tale of Benjamin Button to life. The highlight of the film is definitely the remarkable work of cinematography done by Claudio Miranda, whom using digital photography creates scenes of great beauty and impact that give the film a wonderful atmosphere, mix of vintage postcard and dreamlike vision that fits nicely with the fantastical nature of the story. As has become usual in him, Fincher's overall vision for the film proves to be mesmerizing and full of interesting details and creative use of cinematic language in several scenes; although it's too bad that he had not been able to polish more the screenplay he had, as Roth's narrative is kind of typical (and comparisons to his previous "Forrest Gump" are unfortunately inevitable), and doesn't leave much room for experimentation.

Overall the cast is very good and deliver an effective work in their performances. In the title role, Brad Pitt (a frequent face in Fincher's films) is able to prove his talent once more, and makes one of the best performances of his career. Pitt may not exactly be a wonderful actor, but he is certainly a very talented one who can be amazing with a good director (such as Fincher), and when he is good, like this time, he is terrific. As Benjamin's great love, Daisy, Cate Blanchett is excellent, having a very interesting character as a woman with a free spirit who'll have to learn to deal with Benjamin's condition through their lives. The supporting cast is filled with great performances as well, such as Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin's adoptive mother, Jared Harris or Tilda Swinton (although her role's potential is sadly wasted, despite being one of the most interesting characters in the film). Also worth of praise are the actors who portrait Benjamin in other stages of his life (under heavy digital and prosthetic make-up), such as Peter Donald Badalamenti II and Tom Everett.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is without a doubt a great film that's brilliantly done and delivers good entertainment in a nice epic story with interesting reflections about life and aging. However, it's by no means as good as it could had been, because despite the huge efforts of both cast and crew (seriously, Fincher's movie is technically a flawless film) of making a masterpiece, something important is wrong, and in my personal opinion, that's the script. Well, perhaps "wrong" is not the appropriate word, but I feel that Roth's screenplay was a bit too shallow in its meditations about life, remaining too often in a "comfort zone", afraid of going too far. Even if one does not compare it to Fitzgerald's story (which is a cynic satire), it still feels incomplete, as if Roth had missed the point by focusing in the love story. And even the love story lacks some emotion at times, and often the characters are more interesting separated than as a couple (Daisy's career as a dancer or Benjamin's trips around the world). Not exactly a good sign for a love story.

But still, one can't deny that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a beautifully done movie, with an interesting concept and probably the best cinematography ever done in digital photography. I just wish the screenplay had been polished a bit more, because I did feel that Roth's story could had gone too far if it had not decided to remain accessible. Considering that both have their protagonist living in a normal world, neither the film nor the short story that inspired are exactly what Mark Twain had in mind with his famous remark; however, both are interesting reflections on life and death, and despite their differences, both are definitely a couple of very interesting and quirky stories.