Somewhat timely meditations: "Slumdog Millionaire," "Milk" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
My wife and I are on our annual pre-Oscar movie-waching spree. I'm going to keep these nonspoilery, though spoiler absolutists may want to stay away.
"Slumdog Millionaire" -- B+
Director Danny Boyle throws us into the slums of Mumbai, where we follow three children -- two brothers and a girl they befriend along the way -- struggle to survive amid utter squalor. The film is split into three parts, with three sets of actors playing the kids when they're about 7 years old, adolescents and young adults.
Watching the first third of the movie, I was struck by how edifying it was to be exposed to this unfamiliar world, how poignant to watch children extract some joy from life in the midst of poverty that would ultimately grind them down. I also thought: Man, this place is a hellhole. What's up with India?
The middle of the film was also strong, though it started to drift into more familiar territory, as one of the brothers takes a page from the young Vito Corleone when it comes dealing with a problem involving the girl, Latika.
But I was disappointed by the third act of the film. The emotional strength of the movie derived from the fact that its three main characters were lost in a system that offered them virtually no hope of escaping. By the third act, however, all three of them have become, in their own way, prominent members of society. They haven't jumped castes or anything, but they've been fully extracted from the muck of the slums, a choice on Boyle's part that struck me as inauthentic. (I can't seem to explain precisely what I mean here without including potential spoilers.)
From that point on, Boyle abandons the grit and realism that anchored the first half of the film for predictable, shiny Hollywood (and Bollywood) fantasy. I've thought about what Boyle could have done differently, how he could have attained his glossy ending without placing his characters in such familiar places on the board (I was particularly disappointed by his choice for where the girl, Latika, ends up at the beginning of the third act), but I admit I haven't figured it out.
"Slumdog" has been met with near-universal acclaim. It's 94 percent fresh among Rotten Tomatoes' Top Critics. The only two dissenters are Anthony Lane, my favorite critic, who notes "the unembarrassed energy that Boyle devotes to his pursuit of the obvious" and observes that subtlety is "not the object here."
The other dissenter, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, who is not my favorite critic, gets it exactly wrong. He claims the last 30 minutes is "hands-down the best part of the film" and may or may not redeem "the sluggish 90 minutes that went before."
I would say that "Slumdog" is rewarding on the whole, but it's the first half of the movie that really distinguishes it. It's worth seeing just for the performances by the child actors, who are phenomenal.
"Milk" -- B+
Gus Van Sant is similar to Steven Soderbergh, in that both vacillate between making mainstream movies that pay the bills (in Soderbergh's case it's the "Ocean's 11" sequels) with auteurish projects that hew more closely to their personal visions.
After having spent the last five years or so mostly on small-scale, idiosynchratic films like "Elephant" and "Last Days," Van Sant returns to the main stage with "Milk," an enjoyable, no frills biopic about martyred gay rights advocate and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Sean Penn is quite good as "Milk," though I'm not sure the performance deserves an Academy Award. One random note on Penn: He's ripped in this thing, like he was simulataneously training for "Gladiator 2: Maximus Rules!" "Gladiator 2: Maximum Maximus" during filming, with his carotid artery threatening to explode and his biceps bulging out of his T-shirts. Having lived in San Francisco, I'm pretty familiar with Milk, who was kind of a lanky guy, and I certainly never pictured him at the gym doing bicep curls with 45-pound barbells.
Though Milk is a singular figure in the gay rights movement and a San Francisco icon, his life doesn't offer up the kind of drama that, say, Gandhi's did. So Van Sant was limited a bit by his material. A good film, but it certainly does not merit "Best Picture."
The SF Weekly published an article last year that was highly critical of the film's suggestion that Dan White, the political rival who murdered Milk and Mayor George Moscone, may have been a closeted homosexual. It's a long slog of an article, but worth a read for those who are interested.
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- C+
I think Woody Allen made this movie simply because he wanted to spend time hanging out with and staring at Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johannson. The Woodman is a well-established horndog, so it wouldn't surprise me.
This is Allen's third film with Johannson, who's become his latest muse. I've seen Johannson in four films now -- "Lost in Translation," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "The Prestige" are the others -- and I'm starting to wonder where her reputation as a good actress comes from. Her emotional range seems to run from flat and affectless to happy to mildly perturbed.
Johannson's character, Cristina, is supposed to have a nascent talent for photography, for instance. But I haven't run across many things that are less convincing than the sight of her walking around taking photos with her point-and-shoot camera, barely pausing to stand still let alone focus on and frame her subjects. The girl on my recreational soccer team many years ago who told me she wasn't in the right place in her life for dating delivered a thespian tour de force, by comparison.
Johannson's bloodless performance is not alone here. Rebecca Hall, as Vicky, gives some of the flattest line readings a film snob could ever hope to see. The always excellent Javier Bardem is good as the love interest, Juan Antonio, but Cruz is the one who stands out, perhaps because she had the only role with any sort of emotional substance.
The disappointing thing here is that you can see the potential for high comedy that just never materializes, particularly when Cruz first enters the film. When she's sitting outside at the table with Juan Antonio and Cristina, smoking a cigarette in her bathrobe, there's both a haughty disdain for Cristina and an amused light in her eyes that isn't adequately matched by the script.
Since Allen did not intend, based on the evidence, to get the audience emotionally invested in the characters and what happens to them, he ought to have infused the film and its characters, particularly Cruz, with more absurdity and, dare I say, zaniness. As it stands, this is a mildly diverting exploration of love and fidelity without any drama and only three or four laughs.
(Update: I forgot to mention one major pet peeve about this movie: Every time a character refers to having sex, he or she uses the phrase "make love." By the fourth or fifth time, it started to give me the creeps. Have you heard a single person use this phrase in real life, ever? Woody needs to update his lingo regarding sex, because it's trapped in the '70s.)