PICKS OF THE WEEK
Slumdog Millionaire (A-)
U.K./India; Danny Boyle, 2008, 20th Century Fox
Slumdog Millionaire is a dancing, crackling shockwave of a movie, an incandescent, visually explosive tale of poverty, wealthy, love and crime in contemporary India. It's a pulse-racer, a technically exhilarating movie that uses many of the modern devices and tricks of cinema, infuses them with a wild, rushing energy and -- without sacrificing social insight or dramatic depth -- ends up all but blowing you out of your seat.
The latest movie from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), Scotland's master of film pyrotechnics and wild side stories, it's set in Bombay (or Mumbai), and it revolves around three children -- two orphaned brothers, sensitive Jamal Malik and roughneck Salim, and their gorgeous little friend Latika -- all of whom we see at three different points in time (childhood to late teens) rising up from the muck and danger of the Mumbai slums to higher levels of the criminal underworld.
Slumdog Millionaire is a tale of innocence despoiled, society in ferment and romance persevering, and it's framed by an exciting oddball Indian version of the American TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in which the older Jamal works his way up to the grand prize of more than 20 million rupees. Guiding him on this mercenary quest is a suave, narcissistic, cynical host, Prem (Anil Kapoor), a sly showboater who teases and goads Jamal, and even seems jealous of his contestant's shy charisma.
When the film opens, we see Jamal in the clutches of a cool, brutal police inspector (Irrfan Khan), who's torturing Jamal, to try to find out if he's been cheating on the show, surreptitiously getting the answers they believe a mere slumdog of a street boy couldn't possibly know. Jamal obliges his tormentors by telling the cops his life story: how he and the rougher and more corrupt Salim struggled on the streets after their mother/s death, how he met (and fell in love with) Latika -- and how, incredibly, he kept going through experiences that taught him the answers to the very TV show questions that ultimately push him toward fame and fabulous wealth.
As written by modern movie bottom-dog fairytale specialist Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) -- who's adapting Vikas Swarup's novel, Q & A -- it's not a very likely story. But Boyle, just like Michael Curtiz in Casablanca, makes it go by so fast we barely notice. This is high-voltage filmmaking of a particularly compelling kind, and the many critics who've compared the story to Charles Dickens' London novels on rough youths have a point. Dickens is a great novelist, one of my favorites, but academic Henry James-lovers often dismiss his fantastically entertaining novels as merely melodramatic. But, as with gripping Dickens classics like Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Hard Times, there are gems of social truth embedded in Slumdog, surrounded by delicious layer on layer of fabulous comedy, touching romance and exciting crime or adventure.
The actors, including Kapoor, Khan and the nine young players who take the roles of Jamal, Salim and Latika, are all excellent, and Boyle -- just as he did in the sordid but exuberant hipsters-on-heroin story Trainspotting and the delightful kids' movie Millions -- never relaxes his narrative grip or slows the movie's headlong drive. Slumdog Millionaire is a classy mix of social realism and fantastic genre-twisting, with a style that blends Bollywood, Dickens, schlock TV and Pixote or City of God.
Boyle pulls off this incredible cinematic juggling act with tremendous flair and panache. I wouldn't call the movie a masterpiece, but maybe I'm short-changing it. Slumdog Millionaire -- which won a ton of Oscars -- is more entertaining and memorable, more of a kick, than many films that are.
France/Poland; Andrzej Wajda, 1983, Criterion
One of the great films about the French Revolution was also a film about Poland's Communist and later Solidarity labor revolts. Danton was made by the master Polish director Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds, Man of Marble), and stars the nonpareil French actor Gerard Depardieu as the roaring humanist revolutionary Georges Danton, and the superb Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak as the fanatic, ascetic-looking radical Maximilien Robespierre -- two colleagues and later rivals, who confront and ultimately destroy each other during the 1794 Reign of Terror.
The film, intended to be shot in both Paris (on real streets and outdoor locations) and in Poland (on sets), had to be transferred entirely to France when the Soviet Union intervened in Poland and installed Gen. Jaruzelski as dictator, Solidarity and leader Lech Walesa were suppressed, and Wajda, Poland's most prestigious filmmaker, was thrown into exile. But Wajda keeps a mix of French and Polish crew and actors -- including the prize-winning French film and theater director Patrice Chereau (Queen Margot) as Danton's idealistic journalist ally Camille Desmoulins, and the later Polish action movie superstar Boguslaw Linda as Robespierre's murderous cohort St. Just.
It's a brilliant cast, and as Wajda shows us the machinations and miscues -- and the outrageously rigged trial of Danton and Desmoulins by Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety -- the stark confrontation between Danton's warm-blooded liberalism and Robespierre's radical severity, creates a sense of immediacy, danger and tragedy that surpasses his Polish revolution films Man of Iron and Man of Marble. As you watch Danton, the sense of period theater recedes, and you feel that riot and terror may break out at any minute before your eyes.
The movie is a feast of full-blooded acting, a great ensemble drama and tragedy. The camera seems constantly in motion, the characters feverishly moving before it, yet also trapped in their cruel but exalting paths of destiny.
Danton is based on a Polish play, Stanislawa Przbyszewska's The Danton Affair, which, written by a Communist, took Robespierre's side. The film fervently supports Danton, while lamenting his narcissistic recklessness and folly. Probably only a filmmaker who ha experienced the battle between radicalism and liberalism firsthand, who really knew revolution, and understood the kind of men and women who make them, could have undertaken the tale of Danton and Robespierre and executed it so brilliantly. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Wajda's Danton, a making-of documentary; video interviews with Wajda, screenwriter jean-Claude Carriere and others; trailer; a booklet with an essay by Leonard Quart.)
Il Generale Della Rovere (A)
Italy; Roberto Rossellini, 1959, Criterion
Italian neo-realism, one of the most important cinematic movements of the 20th century, seemed on the downslide when two of its greatest praticioners joined forces to make the extraordinary movie Il Generale Della Rovere. Roberto Rossellini (Open City and Paisan) directed and co-wrote the gripping and profoundly moving tale of a near-mythic World War II Italian hero General Della Rovere and the small-time conman Giovanni Bertoni (called Emanuele Bardone in the film), who impersonates the general as a spy for the Nazis -- and actor-director Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine), who plays Bardone. Both men were never better.
Della Rovere was a revered partisan leader; Bardone was a charming scoundrel and gambling addict who earned a dubious living by acting as a go-between for Italians whose loved ones were missing or jailed, and his Nazi contacts -- an energetic swindler who overplayed his hand and fell into the clutches of the urbane Nazi commander Colonel Muller (Hans Messemer), a strange, seemingly civilized chap who professes revulsion at the tortures he employs and who forced Bardone into the deception, in order to root out another partisan leader in prison. Bardone at first goes along, playing his new role brilliantly. Then, like many another consummate actor, he begins to identify with his role. He wants to become Della Rovere, raise the spirits of his imprisoned comrades, and fight and resist like a hero. To Muller's astonishment, that's exactly what he tries to do.
For both Rossellini and De Sica, General Della Rovere marked a critical high point of their careers, as it also was for writer Sergio Amedei, who instigated the film, along with fellow scenarist and novelist/reporter Indro Montanelli (who knew the real-life Bertoni). General Della Rovere won the Golden Lion at Venice and conquered the critics. But, while De Sica remained proud of the film and his role, Rossellini tended to downplay it, soon moving off in an entirely different, less popular, more didactic direction with his TV historical dramas of the '60s and '70s.
Perhaps this division was inevitable. De Sica was a child of poverty who became an adored movie matinee idol and later director, with a profile known and loved by all Italy. Rossellini was a child of wealth, who liked to work in his bedroom and was a more reclusive figure, despite his scandalous affair with Ingrid Bergman. Because Della Rovere is too studio-bound to be really neo-realistic, and too classically well-constructed to connect immediately with his Ingrid Bergman films and with later Rossellinis like The Rise to Power of Louis XIV and The Age of the Medicis, it's been relatively ignored by critics. But it's one of my favorite Rossellinis -- and De Sica's Bardone is one of the greatest performances in any Italian or international film, a triumph of art and emotion.
The film is split in two. In the first part, the hustler Bardone, a silver-haired fox in elegant clothes and fine manners, moves through Genoa, peddling false oriental sapphires and mostly false hopes, conning his blond singer/girlfriend (Sandra Milo of Fellini's 8 ½), his clients and his German cohorts. But there's always a wary apprehension under his glib chatter, a look of near self-loathing flickering around the edges of his seductive charm. When he's caught, he's gracious. When he plays Della Rovere, he's consumed with admiration and compelled to play the role to the ultimate. We believe him too -- even though we know that he's a near-pathological liar.
De Sica is naked to the world in this performance, and never more so than when he shows Bardone's hopeless addiction to gambling and roulette -- a vice Bardone shared with Louis Jouvet's fallen baron in Jean Renoir's 1936 classic "The Lower Depths," and which De Sica shared too, in a compulsion that came close to ruining his life. When Bardone places the money he desperately needs on the roulette table in his last bet, he has a look of shameful, yet suavely contained excitement and desire that shatters you.
Rossellini should have treasured this film more. Thanks to his friend and colleague, and fellow great cinematic humanist, Vittorio, General Della Rovere wins its bet, plays its role perfectly, and strikes us to the heart. In Italian, German and English, with English subtitles. (Extras: Interviews with Isabella, Ingrid and Renzo Rossellini; visual essay on the film; trailer; booklet with James Monaco essay.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Marley and Me (B)
U.S.; David Frankel, 2009, 20th Century Fox
Marley and Me is a hit movie about a family and their bad-behaved but lovable dog. The pet's at first exasperated then devoted keepers include newspaper columnist John Grogan, his wife and family, played by Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and that soulful golden Lab. Yes, I cried at the end. Want to make something of it?
Seven Pounds (C+)
U.S.; Gabriele Muccino, 2008, 20th Century Fox
Will Smith somewhat redeems himself for Hancock with Seven Pounds, a classy, good-hearted if a little shticky tearjerker about a mysterious guy named Ben Thomas who claims he's from the IRS and has turned himself into a guardian angel -- for Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson and other unfortunates. Smith is much better at compassion than he was at the hip nastiness he tried for as the surly superhero in Hancock. I actually found many scenes here compelling and sometimes even touching -- which may prove that Gabriele Muccino (The Last Kiss, The Pursuit of Happyness) is as effective a director in English as he was in Italian. But overall, the movie doesn't jell, thanks maybe to the cutesily melodramatic, heart-groping script.
The Gospel According to Al Green (B)
U.S.; Robert Mugge, 1984, Acorn
The soul-singing superstar turned Pentecostal preacher moves the spirit and touches the heart in the fine documentary The Gospel According to Al Green by expert music nonfiction filmmaker Mugge. (Extras: audio interview with Green, extra performances and church service; trailer.)
An American in Paris (A)
U.S.; Vincente Minnelli, 1951, Warner Home Video, Blu-Ray
The zenith of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical was achieved by star Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, a six-Oscar winner, and his 1952 classic Singin' in the Rain -- and I'd hate to have to choose between them. In fact, I refuse to do it.
An American in Paris, however, does have a much better score -- an all-George Gershwin extravaganza, including the "Concerto in F" (played and conducted by acerbic pianist and one-time Gershwin crony Oscar Levant) and the magnificent "Impressions of Paris" title piece, as well as "Embraceable You," "By Strauss," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," "I Got Rhythm" and other lyrical gems by George and his brother, lyricist Ira. And it has, courtesy of writer Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot), a beguiling and bittersweet classic romantic comedy frame.
Kelly is Jerry Mulligan, an American World War II G.I. turned painter (his inspirations include Utrillo and Dufy), a nimble, impulsive, very brash guy who falls in love with the lovely and lovable protégé-fiancé of his French cabaret-singer chum (Georges Guetary, in a role offered to, and unwisely refused by, Maurice Chevalier). Daring fate, and the wrath of art patroness and prospective sugar mommy Nina Foch, Jerry woos her to the strains of George and Ira on a back-lot Paris that's almost as dreamy as the real thing.
This movie, which represents producer Arthur Freed's unit at its height, also has what is, in my opinion, the greatest single number in the history of movie musicals: "The American in Paris" ballet -- choreographed by Kelly, danced by Kelly, Caron and a huge light-footed company, and brilliantly shot by film noir master John Alton on sets that glowingly mimic the painterly styles of Van Gogh, Renoir, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. I've seen the ballet, in context and out, dozens of times, and it never fails to lift my heart, tap my toe, irradiate my spirit and just about knock me out.
In fact, An American in Paris is a movie I've always had a huge crush on. Leslie Caron's performance in this movie marks one of only five times that I fell instantly in love with a movie actress after watching her on screen. As for the great Gene Kelly, he was never better -- though he was just as good in Singin' in the Rain. Watching Paris, you should fall in love with this pair too -- and with the unforgettable, embraceable Paris of George and Ira Gershwin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Kelly, Caron, Levant, Lerner, Freed and Vincente Minnelli. (Extras: Commentary by Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene's widow, using interviews from Kelly. Minnelli, Caron, Freed, Lerner, Nina Foch and others; "making of" documentary; Kelly career profile; video and audio outtakes of missing musical numbers.)