Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire is this year’s movie that has seemingly come out of no where to become a critical darling. It has been nominated for practically every award in existence and has been on ample Top 10 lists. So why the hype? 

Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), Slumdog Millionaire is stunningly simple story about friendships, family and love.

Jamal Malik, a former street child from the slums of Mumbai, is a contestant on Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. With the odds stacked against him, Jamal has somehow makes it to the final question and now stands to win 20 million rupees. Naturally, Jamal is accused on cheating and is brought into police custody for an interrogation session that slowly weaves the web of Jamal’s past.

We learn about his childhood in the slums, his relationship with his brother, Salim, and his love for a local street girl, Latika. The events from his childhood provide enough clues for Jamal to know answers to the questions.

Jamal is played by Dev Patel, who is best known for his role on Skins, a British teen drama that I love. Slumdog Millionaire has provided Patel with the breakthrough role of a lifetime, earning him a Screen Actors Guild nomination.

There is a risk with Slumdog Millionaire. As a story about India set in Mumbai, Western audiences are likely to become entralled by the film. Especially after the Mumbai terror attacks last months, audiences will go in expecting this exotic tale about India. But Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian film.

The movie is a typical Hollywood melodrama aimed at hooking an audience in but it ends with a typical Bollywood dance number in order to remind us that this is a movie about India. In many ways, this could be the movie that finally gives Bollywood a mainstream Hollywood audience. But is this a bad thing? Not really, as long as audiences are able to recognize this.

At the end of the day, Slumdog Millionaire is an intense experience; it will literally have you at the edge of your seat. Simon Beaufoy’s script, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, Chris Dickens’s editing, and A. R. Rahman’s soundtrack all come together to tell this wonderfully romantic story and simple reminder about the power of the human spirit.

I think Todd McCarthy of Variety sums up the film best when he wrote about the film in September. “As drama and as a look at a country increasingly entering the world spotlight, Slumdog Millionaire is a vital piece of work by an outsider who’s clearly connected with the place.”

It is hard to resist and hard to forget the charm of Slumdog Millionaire.

Updated December 2, 2010

Review: The Darjeeling Limted (2007)

Director Wes Anderson’s body of work presents something of an enigma. Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenebaums (2001) are critical delights, with Tenebaums even earning Anderson an Academy Award nomination. Following the success of Rushmore and The Royal Tenebaums, his first feature film, Bottle Rocket (1996), has since become a cult classic. Yet, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) was poorly received by audiences and critics alike. (Richard Roeper called it “one of the most irritating, self-conscious and smug films of the year, working neither as a dark comedy nor a character study.”

Following many successes and one small disappointment (and people only seem to remember failures), Anderson’s next film needed to remind critics and audiences alike why he has been a celebrated auteur.

The Darjeeling Limited does just that. Once again Anderson uses his unique filmmaking style to tell an unconventional story about family, love, and life’s many oddities.

The Whitman brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), estranged since their fathers death the previous year, reunite for a six week train trip throughout India. Each brother has their own problems: Francis recently attempted to commit suicide, Peter is trapped by the image of their dead father, and Jack cannot forget a woman he last saw in Paris. Francis sees this trip as an opportunity for the brothers to reconnect with each other, their mother (played by Anjelica Huston) and themselves. Bill Murray, Kumar Pallana and Natalie Portman all make cameo appearances in the film.

Anderson’s distinctive style is frequently influenced by great filmmakers, artists, and writers; he incorporates the slightest elements from their works to help create his own unique brand of filmmaking. Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J.D. Salinger are just some of the artists Anderson has stated as his major influences.

The films of legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray inspired Anderson to choose India as the location for The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson sets important scenes (such as when Francis declares “We have yet to locate us!”, after the train gets off-course) in the same locations Ray used in The Golden Fortress (1974) and he uses Ray’s

original score to structure key scenes in The Darjeeling Limited.

The aesthetics expected from a Wes Anderson production: eccentric but flawed characters, dark humor, unusual costuming, exceptional music, and quirky stories, are ever present. Yet by setting the film in India, one of the most gorgeous and profound locations in the world, adds a new aesthetic element to a Wes Anderson production.

Through the brothers’ unusual journey and use of Indian culture to rediscover life, The Darjeeling Limited becomes a metaphor for a way to figuratively and literally leave your baggage behind. With this film Anderson broadens his usual interpretation of reality, making The Darjeeling Limited his most mature and interesting film to date.

While not a perfect film, The Darjeeling Limited indicates that Wes Anderson’s next production could be his best yet. And I’m looking forward to it.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
November 1, 2007

Updated October 20, 2010

Review: Bringing Up Baby (1939)

Leaping Leopards! That Wonderfully Absurd Comedy Known As Bringing Up Baby

“The point is I have a leopard. The question is, “What am I going to do with it?”

I’m not sure if it is before or after Katharine Hepburn asks this question that Bringing Up Baby reaches a point of complete absurdity. If anything, this line is an indication that Bringing Up Baby is unlike most classic Hollywood films.

Released in 1938, Bringing Up Baby stars Hepburn (in her only screwball comedy) as Susan Vance, a free-spirited, accident-prone socialite, and Cary Grant, as David Huxley, an absent-minded, clumsy paleontologist.

One day the mismatched pair meets on a golf course after she takes his golf ball and “borrows” his car. Later, they reunite at a dinner party in a scene filled with pratfalls and missing articles of clothing. Susan, having fallen in love with David, believes that he is a zoologist and uses her new pet leopard, Baby (a gift from Brazil) to lure him to her aunt’s estate in Connecticut. But David wants nothing to do with her.

Trouble occurs when George, the family dog, buries the intercostal clavicle needed to complete David’s brontosaurus skeleton, Baby escapes his cage and is roaming around Connecticut, and everyone else, including Susan’s aunt, a drunken Irish gardener, and a big-game hunter end up in jail.

Bringing Up Baby is a fantastic, wildly entertaining, fast-paced, and an absolutely ridiculous roller coaster ride. Each scene is more manic and crazed than the one before.

Culturally and historically Bringing Up Baby couldn’t be more intriguing or relevant.

When it was released in 1938, Baby was a box-office failure. It was so poorly received that director Howard Hawks was fired from his next picture. Katharine Hepburn, having spent most of the 30s labeled as “box-office poison”, was forced to buy out her RKO contract and return to Broadway.

Today Bringing Up Baby is recognized as the definitive screwball comedy; Hawks is considered by many to be one of Hollywood’s greatest directors; and Hepburn holds the most Oscar wins for Best Actress in history.

Baby is a highly sophisticated comedy, years ahead of its time. The script is filled with hilarious ad-libs and sexual innuendos that somehow slipped past the censors. It is also credited with being the first film to reference homosexuality during a funny and intellectual exchange. Cary Grant, while wearing a woman’s bathrobe, tells another character that he is wearing these clothes, “Because I just went gay all of the sudden.”

Bringing Up Baby’s intelligent humor still registers with audiences today. I have sat through countless recent comedies, particularly of the gross-out variety, but none of those films have received greater laughs than a screening of Bringing Up Baby.

I have personally witnessed its magical affect on numbers of people, ranging from five years old to over eighty. That is something only a truly special and worthwhile film can achieve.

Published: September 27, 2007
The Mount Holyoke News

Review: Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (2006)

2004, like any other year, witnessed a multitude of elections throughout the country. But none were nearly as intriguing or important as Jeff Smith’s, a Missouri academic, campaign for the House of Representatives seat being vacated by a 28-year veteran Dick Gephardt. Or at least, that is what Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? leads you to believe.

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? follows Jeff Smith’s Congressional campaign, that begins as a grassroots movement in St. Louis and grows into a full scale push towards Capital Hill.

Smith presents an impressive resume; he co-founded a group of charter schools in St. Louis and taught political science at Washington University in St. Louis. But he has one fault; he is an unknown academic with a only vision for change and his biggest competition is Russ Carnahan, a member of a Missouri political dynasty.

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is truly a great, funny and charming documentary that is at times frustrating. Smith’s surprising run towards Congress makes for great entertainment, By the movie’s end, you’ll find yourself rooting for Jeff Smith, an average American just trying to make some changes for the future.

And like its fictional counterpart released almost 70 years ago, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?,might even help restore your faith in American democracy.

Updated October 20, 2010

Review: Babel (2006)

Brad Pitt in Babel

As the third film in director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s “Death” trilogy, Babel is as powerful, riveting, and intriguing as Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Similar to its counterparts, Babel is a complex, multinarrative drama that centers around one moment that leads to a collision of four separate groups on three continents.

The film begins as two teenage boys (played by the local non-professional actors Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchini) are seen running through an isolated region of Morocco. From their father, they receive a Winchester rifle in order to protect the family’s goat herd from jackels. One day while tending the herd, the boys take practice shots at passing vehicles.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett portray an American couple, Richard and Susan Jones, whose marriage has reached a breaking point. While vacationing in Morocco, their lives are changed in one instant. Instead of fighting for their marriage, they must now fight to save their lives.

In parallel scenes, the Jones’ two children are being watched by their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) in San Diego. When the Jones’ cannot return home as planned, Amelia makes a crucial decision to take the children with her to her son’s wedding in Mexico. All is well until Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), Amelia’s nephew, panics when he is questioned at the border.

The last story is set in Japan. Chieko is the rebellious, deaf-mute daughter of a Japanese businessman and game hunter. Still reeling from her mother’s suicide, she demonstrates a sexually promiscuous nature. A police officer investigating her father, takes pity on the troubled teen.

These four very different but equally provactive stories, fit together as the foundation for Babel‘s intelligently crafted and beautifully formulated elements. Specific scenes such as Chieko, dancing at a night club and Santiago, driving through the night, demonstrate the highly creative and impactful filmmaking of director Iñárritu.

While Babel‘s ensemble cast is superb, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Gael García Bernal, and Brad Pitt are stand-outs as they deliver heartbreaking and captivating performances.

After receiving multiple awards at the Cannes Film Festival (Best Director and the François Chalais Award) Babel, is an early Oscar contender. For it’s powerful direction, stunning narrative, and exceptional performances, Babel is sure to collect plenty of nominations throughout the season.

As of this moment, Babel is one of best releases of the year, but who knows what could come along. Just remember Million Dollar Baby and Brokeback Mountain.

Updated October 12, 2010