Billy Gray

Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

Lifelines

In Uncategorized on November 21, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Danny Boyle has a flair for the apocalyptic. Trainspotting’s junkies famously dived into a scummy toilet for a hit. 28 Days Later conjured an eerie, strangely beautiful London depopulated by all but rats and zombies. And the scientists in Sunshine were on a mission to blow up the sun to save an ailing earth. Slumdog Millionaire, the director’s latest, has plenty of misery to go around, but it’s wrapped up in a tidy (albeit clever) romantic bow that makes its characters’ tribulations feel a bit contrived. Still, Slumdog Millionaire is an unabashed epic and a compelling one at that, so viewers can forgive its genre conventions.

Slumdog Millionaire has been described as Dickens transplanted to millennial Mumbai. Jamal is eighteen years old and about to hit the jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But he’s not after the money. Rather, he hopes that his performance wins over Natika, the girl of his dreams. Jamal’s life story (abject poverty and time spent in a seriously deranged “orphanage”) and his budding romance with Natika are related via flashbacks that explain how a lowly chaiwalla (tea server) knows answers that have stopped even the country’s upper-crust lawyers and doctors in their tracks.

Boyle’s movies alternately revere and subvert or modernize tired genre tropes. 28 Days Later was a zombie movie, but its zombies didn’t lumber; they hauled ass. Slumdog Millionaire alludes to Bollywood, India’s gargantuan and often garish movie industry, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle employs the same vibrant color palette. But Boyle doesn’t shy away from the country’s underbelly. (Indian censors are expected to have a field day.) Audiences pulled in by Fox Searchlight’s sunny advertising campaign—“A buoyant hymn to life!”—will be shocked by much of the film’s violence and despair.

The rags portion of this Horatio Alger tale is more compelling than the riches that Jamal and his malevolent brother Salim (a complex character well-played by Madhur Mittal) acquire. Their progress parallels Mumbai’s transformation into a modern, skyscraping metropolis where luxury glass towers replace filthy, destitute slums. (Jamal, in a funny bit, works at a call center.) Boyle takes an ambivalent view on the city’s evolution. Does it owe more to Jamal’s good-hearted pluck and fortunate destiny (“It is written”) or Salim’s criminal ruthlessness? In the end it is a composite of the two, but Boyle is more interested in the painful means that accompany such a metamorphosis than the end.

Slumdog Millionaire has many joyous moments and such likeable characters that the audience winds up rooting for them. But you can’t help but think that Boyle is a bit hesitant about a happy ending.

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I’ve Loved You So Long

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2008 at 11:34 pm


It’s been seven years and the French are still trying to live down Amélie. At least that’s what some of the country’s more successful recent imports suggest. I’ve Loved You So Long is the latest in a string of decidedly unsentimental Gallic films (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2 Days in Paris, Dans Paris, Tell No One) that serves as a corrective to the glossy, whimsical Parisian postcards American audiences consistently lap up.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays Juliette Fontaine, a middle-aged woman fresh out of prison. She struggles to readjust to civilian life with the help of her altruistic sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) in the sort of high-ceilinged, tastefully appointed home only the French can muster. The movie is no charm offensive—bear in mind Amélie came out in the autumn of the Freedom Fry—but its insightful performances and intimacy compensate for the absence of boulangeries and Eiffel Tower shots.

Writer and director Philippe Claudel moves things along at a pace just above glacial, but that restraint is necessary to appreciate the depths of Thomas’ portrayal. Juliette is first shown in close-up, weary and sans makeup. Lea’s attempts at even the most diminutive small talk are met with painful indifference. Juliette can’t be bothered to ingratiate herself with Lea’s husband Luc (a convincingly hesitant Serge Hazanavicius) or warm to the couple’s adorable daughters. But things gradually change: Juliette picks up a would-be Don Juan at a bar; she visits museums; enjoys swims with Lea and teaches her niece to play the piano. Claudel wisely avoids a lecture on the role prisons or a society play in rehabilitating its criminals. Juliette’s rebirth is inspired by culture, by an outward aesthetic that nonetheless penetrates.

Juliette’s change is a moving thing to watch, but it’s undermined by a bit of manipulation from Claudel. The audience knows from early on that Juliette was doing time for the murder of her young son. But she is so fragile. Her progress is elegant. Her intelligent sister loves and nurtures her. Because we root for Juliette, we wait for the twist we know is coming.

Some critics have said the reveal is a letdown, but I’ve Loved You So Long would not have benefited from a Shyamalian gotcha ending. It’s the structure that is a bit grating; the movie’s psychological depth would not have been compromised had the details of Juliette’s crime been known from the start. As it is, the dramatic ending seems histrionic compared to the subtlety that preceded it.

Still, witnessing Juliette’s thaw makes up for the off-key denouement. There’s a moment when she enters the quiet, darkened house and fears she is once again alone. The relief and gratitude on her face when she finds her surrogate family says it all: she’s come home.

F U Tube

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2008 at 5:05 pm

It didn’t take long for The New York Times to move beyond conventional election analysis into the murky waters of the trend piece. But here it is, leading the first Sunday Styles section of the post-November 4th world: Generation O. “More 18-29-year-olds went to the polls this year than in any election since 1972…These younger voters…may forever be known as Generation O,” posits Damian Cave. Never mind that percentage-wise the youth turnout was not quite as a robust as had been predicted (and only a smidgen higher, at 52%, than in 2004 when John Kerry galvanized the young imagination).

The Styles section has long prided itself on coining (or popularizing already antiquated) inane catchphrases—think metrosexual, drunkorexia, bromance, the man date. But its breathless coverage of this generational love affair ignores an ironic twist in the 2008 race: the internet, that great agent of the young, was just as important to John McCain’s stodgy campaign as it was to Obama’s slick machine. Only whereas the president elect harnessed the internet’s elusive power, McCain sat by as it led to his undoing.

Grassroots was to the Obama campaign what maverick was to the McCain/Palin candidacy. The first-term Illinois senator was not supposed to win. He was up against the indomitable Clinton establishment and its reservoir of experience and deep pockets. But Obama and his people were clued in to the power of the internet in a way that stubbornly eluded older politicians. There were fundraising websites. Facebook groups. Emails and text messages seemingly from the candidate himself (convincing no more a discerning political pupil than Scarlet Johansson of a personal correspondence).

Obama built an online community that realized the internet’s best potential. He created a savvy, coherent forum that met practical goals (spread the word; raise money, even incrementally) but also realized the loftier ambition of empowering (and flattering) his devotees. Hope and change are intangible. But the internet and its infinite tentacles made them seem within reach.

John McCain did not steer the internet his way and the result was the inverse of Obama’s: a burlesque of disgruntled supporters tragically out of synch with their candidate. An elderly woman at a town hall meeting told McCain she could not trust Obama. Her reason, after a moment’ hesitation: “he’s an Arab.” When McCain mentioned his opponent’s name in speeches he was routinely meet with jeers of “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” A sheriff introducing Sarah Palin at a rally made sure to address the Democratic nominee by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama. You can guess where he placed the emphasis. An Obama volunteer asked a crowd of Pennsylvania Republicans why his friend, under Palin’s policy, should have to pay for a rape kit. “She should pay double,” bellowed a man in the crowd.

McCain hardly enabled this pettiness. He quickly removed the microphone from the elderly lady and clarified that Obama was “a good man. A family man.” (He did not clarify that Obama is a Christian, a seemingly gratuitous revision in light of earlier campaign controversies.) He winced at the caterwauling. But the damage was done. The internet is often lauded for its immediacy, but rarely for its permanence. Witnesses posted clips of these unfortunate incidents on the web, bloggers had a field day and millions of people sent them to the inboxes of family and friends. A picture emerged of a listless candidate surrounded by a lynch mob.

The 2008 election was a modern one, but it exposed some dissonant, primitive truths about the internet. The web creates communities, but also encourages cliques. It enables universalism, but also preposterous niches. Facebook might unite you with a fellow stamp enthusiast, but the time spent ogling each other’s collections via online photo albums can potentially take you away from your family or that next door neighbor you’ve never met. And as McCain ruefully learned this year, the internet provides unparalleled access to information, but also occasional unwanted exposure to the noxious and loathsome (incessant penis enlargement spam being the proverbial, disconcertingly small tip of the iceberg). It wasn’t just the internet that did McCain in, but the subset of ignorant, bigoted McCain supporters that found their way on to the screen and at once appalled and appealed to the admittedly baser instincts of smug liberals and undecided voters alike. To borrow some internet lingo, the internet plagued the McCain campaign with a bad case of TMI.

Let The Right One In

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Sociologists take note: accidental exposure to Abba is no longer the greatest threat facing Sweden’s teenagers. For starters, there is the child murderer on the loose in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. The killer’s peculiar method of draining his victims’ blood serves an even higher evil: feeding his vampire daughter, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Don’t dismiss the thriller as schlock with subtitles. Let the Right One In is a tender, gracefully shot coming of age tale with a slasher veneer. Its genre elements subside as Eli befriends Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), an outcast neighbor whose struggle with the local bullies is so extreme as to make bloodsucker company a relief.

The running joke here is that Oskar suffers more acute isolation than his undead companion. Eli, forever twelve, has practical, immediate concerns (fresh blood, heavy curtains, impatiently waiting to be invited into homes she visits) and is spared the pubescent speed bumps (divorced parents, idiot teachers, schoolyard thugs) that confront frail Oskar. The young vampiress meets Oskar as he fantasizes about the revenge he might have on his tormentors and coaxes the same violent defense mechanisms out of him that she yearns to suppress in herself. But both child actors imbue their characters with a sweet vulnerability and longing that elicit the kind of audience empathy rarely found in horror films. A potent scene in which Eli makes an unbidden entrance into a sullen Oskar’s home (and the searing aftermath) illuminates the emotional heft that the movie offers as an antidote to the usual featherweight character development in current horror cinema.

Let the Right One In’s vampire story might serve as adolescent parable, but the movie respects its genre roots. The lighting is austere, alternating pitch black fright scenes with stark white, snowy landscapes. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography eschews gruesome close-ups for elegant wide shots. And Johan Soderqvist’s score spares viewers the cheap musical jolts that so often cue horror fans to jump in their sets. Still, Alfredson and writer John Lindqvist (upon whose novel the movie is based) do not take their film too seriously and include gleefully dark comic moments (particularly a school ice-skating trip gone fantastically awry) to lighten the somber mood.

Things only fall apart in the final scene, a tacked on coda that spoils what would have been a subtle conclusion. Let the Right One In is a horror film with few scares, a black comedy with few outright laughs. What kept it ticking until its very end was the fragile bond between Eli and Oskar and the fortitude Oskar’s supernatural friend inspired in him. But the movie ends not with a triumph of humanity but of the supernatural. It is a lame concession to genre norms, at its hoariest going so far as to hint at a sequel.

Sulk Mania

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2008 at 11:34 pm

Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the hulking over-the-hill prizefighter in The Wrestler, is not the film’s only player looking for redemption. Star Mickey Rourke and director Darren Aronofsky also aim to revitalize their careers with the unassuming drama. Robinson’s floundering career in the ring has left his personal life a shambles; his estranged daughter Stephanie (Rachel Evan Wood) detests him and his only love interest is the reluctant stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, in another role with a single digit costume budget). After a heart attack and failed attempts at stability with both women, Randy enters the fray one last time. But Rourke’s and Aronofsky’s naturalistic performance and direction suggest that neither career will burn out anytime soon.

The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s first feature to deal with human destruction working from the outside in. Pi, Requiem for a Dream and the misguided The Fountain all examined the effects a ravaged mind could have on the body. But Randy’s punishment begins externally. It comes in the gruesome, hard-to-watch form of body slams, folding chairs and staple guns. Fans that had to turn away from Requiem’s close-ups of track marks and plunging hypodermic needles: you have been warned. Fittingly for a movie about the physical, The Wrestler is the least cerebral of Aronosfky’s films in tone and production values. Robert Siegel’s dialogue is restrained and straightforward, its more emotive moments tersely distilled to their cores. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography provides a bleached palette to match Randy’s weariness and the film’s forlorn Jersey Shore setting. And gone are the flashy editing techniques—split screens! Time jumping! Hyperkinetic montages!—that defined Aronofsky’s earlier efforts.

The Fountain, despite its intellectual and visual ambitions, flummoxed many critics and alienated all but Aronofsky’s most avid fans with its muddled time travel story arc. Ann Hornaday called it an “earnest, magnificent wreck” in The Washington Post. Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times was less kind, saying that enduring it was “a pretty decent case for euthanasia; here is what it’s like to long for a swift, merciful end.” With The Wrestler, Aronofsky and Rourke (no stranger to career frustration himself and, by the weathered looks of him, a man who could identify with the Ram’s pathological self-abuse) find success by scaling back their ambitions. Rourke withdraws further and further into himself over the course of the film. At its conclusion he is an empty shell, spurned by the two women who were his last hopes. “That’s the only place they love me. Out there,” he says of the ring—displayed here as more of a fraternity than a deathtrap—before his ill-advised final brawl. And so he flings himself back into the embrace of the community that had lost faith in him. Aronofsky and Rourke have done the same and famously forgiving Hollywood is sure to provide a warm welcome back.