Sunday, January 18, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire, Gran Torino, MILK, Valkyrie

I sit in the glow of my computer screen with a hot cup of tea, watching the snow fall outside in what is already Halifax's fourth large storm of this winter season, wondering again - like a mental record that has hit a skip - what the hell I am doing in this frigid climate.

Especially as my father - a heavyweight in terms of the family I came back to be closer to - has long since abandoned the frigid northern climes of Nova Scotia in favour of the beaches of sunny Florida. The snowbird has flown the coop, and I sit in a house that feels like an igloo on a vast northern steppe.

But wherever I am, movies are, of course, a constant - save for the lack of variety offered in our quaint port city on the sea. The last week has provided a fair amount of fodder, so here we go - and as I often claim, I will be brief.

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan, 2008) (The Oxford) Woah, pressure. I wish that I had written this review before the Golden Globe for best picture had been awarded to Boyle and Tandan, because then I could avoid the nagging question of whether or not it deserves that designation.

Cop out warning: my judgement is that I really enjoyed this film an immense amount. I think that I experienced this film the same way that a youth enjoys a story of magic and adventure: by surrendering to the story's world completely and immersing myself in the world on portrayed to the point where I smelt the smells, sweated in the heat, and felt the joy and pain of the heroes keenly.

The sounds and sights of India are so beautifully captured as our protagonist, Jamal, narrates the winding path of his journey from a precocious child in the sprawling slums of Bombay to the grand prize winner on the Bollywood version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The water steams, the rain churns the ground to mud, the crowds jostle and sweat, the food sizzles, the garbage coats the landscape and the shit stinks (as it does everywhere in the world, but usually you are more isolated from it than you often are in India).

I felt like I was back in India, riding the rails through verdant countryside, lining up at the Taj Mahal, shopping and eating in the warren of market alleys, summoning the chai wallah for a cuppa black tea laced with cardamom, cinnamon and clove, counting the smiles of Gandhi that grace each 100 Rupee note, and listening to the singsong of Indian English speakers waggling their heads in an endearing and/or infuriating hybrid of yes and no.

I can't really say what your experience of Slumdog will be if you cannot approach it as a documentary of your personal experience, but based on the Golden Globe and the Oscar buzz this film is tapping into something with wider and less-travelled audiences as well.

And the soundtrack does not hurt, having been a regular on my iPod since leaving the theater. M.I.A.'s Paper Planes figures heavily in the film and anchors a soundtrack that melds the techno beats of London's club scene with the lovelorn standards of Bollywood musicals. Stick around for the credits to see a tribute to the highly choreographed dance and song routines that are de rigeur in Bollywood fare.

The one thing that I will say to balance my rave opinion is that for me the magic of Slumdog is weighted to the first half and a little beyond. I found that as we approached the present and Malik grew up and his life became more tied to the modern urban landscape of Mumbai than to the colourful exoticism of his life in the slums and rural India, the magic dulled a little, and was not adequately compensated for in the love story at the center of a narrative that by this point is typified by cash, glitz and guns.

But go and see Slumdog Millionaire. Immerse yourself in the film and enjoy the ride - then hit a bookstore and pick up Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram to continue your travels in that world.

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008) (Park Lane) Clint Eastwood has a checkered history of film making, but of late - with the notable exception of the painfully bad Flags of Our Fathers - he has delivered a spate of fantastic films best embodied by (or perhaps limited to) Changeling and Million Dollar Baby.

I enjoyed Gran Torino, but remain somehow reluctant to recommend it wholesale. While it is a refreshingly non-PC look at racism in America, as typified by the relationship between Walt Kowalski, a flinty Korean war vet, and the Hmong refugees that settled en masse in the mid-western states in the early/mid-70s, the film retained an "after-school special" feeling that I just could not shake.

Eastwood inhabits his character completely, playing Walt as a cross between Dirty Harry (at one point, when facing down a gang member, you are almost on the edge of your seat waiting to hear him sneer "do I feel lucky, well do ya, punk?" and the Dark Knight (with the gravelly, throaty voice even serving as a point of comparison and/or annoyance).

The film making is heavy handed, and the symbolism overt, perhaps best evidenced by the opening shot at the funeral of Walt's wife, where he sits at one end of a church pew, separated by one space from his estranged children and grandchildren - the point obviously being that his wife served as his connection to his children, and that that connection is no longer there.

Things do not get any more subtle as they progress.

There are some laughs as the cultures collide, but overall the movie - which Eastwood claims will be his last performance as an actor - is not a high note to end on. Interesting, even enjoyable, but ultimately short of compelling.

MILK (Gus Van Sant, 2008) (Park Lane) Portland, Oregon's patron saint, Gus Van Sant is a powerhouse director who has served up films that resonate strongly for my generation: Good Will Hunting (nuff said), My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For come to mind.

I was highly anticipating the film MILK, not the least for Sean Penn's participation in the project, but also because it portrays a civil rights movement in its own respect - one that played out in my lifetime and changed the face of the society that I live in.

With the fundamental rights of an entire segment of society hanging in the balance, one would think that MILK would arouse the sympathy of audiences, enlisting moral outrage as - for lack of a better term - a device to help engage the audience's interest and emotions.

But that is my main problem with MILK. Sean Penn was good as Harvey Milk, as always, although I did feel initially that he was playing the character as too stereotypically gay, and Josh Brolin (who shone in Oliver Stone's W) was solid - but neither really engaged me or enlisted my sympathy. The film work was as solid as the acting, seamlessly melding archive footage and modern shooting, but overall felt flat and uninviting - very 1970s ;)

The bottom line is that when I watch a film about a struggle for rights or freedom or peace or justice, the beauty of the experience is in vicariously feeling the passion of those involved, walking a mile in their shoes and appreciating more fully the sacrifices made, the pain experienced and the thrill of victory or the ignominy of defeat.

This film seemed more like a documentary in the end than a tribute to a crusade - I have to recommend a pass on this one.

Valkyrie (Bryan Singer, 2008) (Bayer's Lake) Valkyrie is obviously in a different class than the three films we have looked at so far, being as it is essentially an Indiana Jones movie that takes itself more seriously.

Early in Valkyrie we are treated to an homage to Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, although I doubt that Singer would frame it in that context, with Hitler descending from the sky in a boxy Junkers trimotor flanked by malevolent looking Messerschmidt 109s. It is a scene conveying all-encompassing power, as airplanes were still far from common in the early years of the war, and Hitler was among the first politicians to fully exploit them for both mobility and to inspire awe.

Hitler disembarks, and makes his way into a meeting room, followed by a camera that is shy of his face until he sits down at the meeting table - with a dark, brooding and essentially evil presence that was the first thing that annoyed me about the film. Over the past decade we have seen several films earn widespread approbation for daring to portray Hitler as a human being, Menno Mayjes' Max comes to mind, as does Chistian Duguay's Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Valkyrie avoids any such complications by making it clear in this one shot that Hitler is pure evil - and I don't dispute that, but think that it is worth pointing out, as it is a clear example of how cut and dried Valkyrie portrays World War II and Nazi Germany. There are bad guys and there are good guys. Period. (George Bush would approve.)

But this brings me to my next point. If the bad guy is pure evil, what about the good guy, you know, Maverick. The first shot of Cruise painstakingly donning his uniform despite horrible wounds sustained in the North Africa campaign elicited a surprisingly violent reaction from me: what the hell is he doing in this film?

Now I am not a rabid Tom Cruise hater like so many, but I am pretty used to not taking his films seriously, which was an attitude that I quickly realized I was going to have to adopt for Valkyrie. Sit back and enjoy the multi-million dollar recreation of 1940s Germany Yuri. Marvel at the machinery, the uniforms, the high polish of the Rolls Royces and the click of the polished boots marching in unison. Because this is not an examination of history or a documentary about a group of high-ranking German officials, led by Claus von Stauffenberg, attempting to assassinate Hitler before the allies enter Berlin and indict all of Germany as complicit in the crimes of the Third Reich.

And as eye candy and even an adventure film, Valkyrie is compelling and enjoyable, but this brings me to another question: in raising von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators to the position of heroes in a dark night of the soul - much as Schindler's List did for Oskar Schindler - are we oversimplifying who they were and what they did during those years of fear, oppression and darkness?

I know it is tantamount to blasphemy to suggest that Hitler had a soul, but he did at some point, and turned his back on it perhaps more fully than any other figure I can name in the history of Western culture and politics. Thus, what of Schindler? What of Stauffenberg? I know that we need heroes, but please allow them to be flawed - something that, to its credit, Schindler's List was careful to do but Valkyrie never considers.

I grew up watching old good vs evil WWII films with my Dad, and Valkyrie - although Cruise is still hard to swallow in the role - fits in with this tradition: The Guns of Naverone and A Bridge Too Far. Rollicking good war film that don't ask any questions and don't provide any answers - its just that this one really wants to be taken seriously....


creta kano said...

as a german enthusiast, i was not too fond of valkyrie. i felt that the film dragged on quite a bit. ah well.

Yuri... said...

I see that you are a Murakami enthusiast also :)

Your comment made me think that perhaps I placed Valkyrie in the wrong lineage - maybe it is less akin to the action and heroics of Navarone and more in the vein of Conspiracy or Der Untergang - or at least it is trying to be.

The problem that this gives rise to is that Cruise's film suffers greatly by comparison to these more ambitious projects.