Monday, November 24, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's pseudo-Bollywood crowd-pleaser, is unabashedly treacly, with Boyle complementing the story of a boy from the slums who eventually wins both the grand prize in India's version of a famous game show franchise and the love of his life with his energetic aesthetics that indulge in quick cuts, bright colors, and depictions of chaotic beauty. Mumbai, the heart of India and one of the world's busiest urban centers, turns into an apt setting for this genuinely amiable fairy tale of boy and girl live happily ever after amidst a backdrop of poverty, religious persecution, corruption, and everything else that is wrong in this world of ours.

Boyle, who, like his fellow Brit filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (who I feel is a more consistent filmmaker), has jumped from one genre to another with relative ease, crafts a film that is plebeian in its sensibilities (I suspect this will be a hit in cinemas in India, drawing cheers and jeers from rowdy moviegoers, before finally getting slightly uncomfortable with the finale kiss (which is still taboo in Bollywood cinema)), but maintaining his trademark visual kinetics, with his camera gliding through narrow alleys, capturing colors and textures that enunciate the film's exotic value. In one sequence where a group of street urchins are chased by the police through the labyrinthine passageways of the slums, Boyle exemplifies his talent for hyper-kinetic editing, sufficiently complementing Mumbai's attractive chaos with his trademark artistry (of course, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza has accomplished a similar feat in the opening sequence of Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), done with only a fraction of Boyle's budget, but achieving greater results).

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is just a question away from claiming twenty million rupees from the local version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, when he is taken into custody by the police. Suspected for cheating his way through trivia questions professionals and intellectuals have a difficult time answering, Jamal, a Muslim boy who was born and raised in the slums of Mumbai and is now is working as a tea boy in a call center, is tortured and interrogated by the police because it is seemingly impossible for a man of his history and background to accomplish that much. His interrogator (Irfan Khan, who infuses what essentially is a token role with unusual intensity), whose initially tough exterior (and insistence on unconventional methods for forcing the truth out of his captives) melts to reveal a sensible and fair man, becomes the audience's barometer for the plausibility of Jamal's tales.

The interrogation serves as the narrative device for Jamal to relay, in several prolonged flashbacks, the several pertinent chapters of his life that consequently led him to the answers to the questions in the game show. As we see Jamal grow up, escape the slums, separate from his streetsmart brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), the attention slowly drifts from the more facile rewards and consequences of his game show exposure to expose the true heart of the film: Jamal's heartfelt reunion with the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto), eventually turning Slumdog Millionaire from a witty rags-to-riches tale into a delectable, if not purely escapist, treat where, if we are to believe the Beatles, all you need is love.

Yet there is something more to Slumdog Millionaire than its infatuation with destined encounters with cash and love. The climax, where the entire city stops to see if Jamal can answer the final question and eventually win the loot, summarizes the film's inherent charm. Mumbai turns into one parking lot, with its citizens, mostly the poor (the rich are busy watching sports, perhaps because the hope that the game show delivers is no longer a necessity for them), tuning in and supporting their hero. During that sequence, Boyle enlarges the situation, from being a mere personal quest for Jamal to find Latika (and vice versa) into a national (if not encompassing the rest of humanity) quest to prove that there is something more to life than poverty and suffering, that lots improve, and there are real fairy tale endings.

One begins to understand what these game shows mean to the third world, that these shows are not purely consumerist visages but harbingers of hope to those who should be hopeless. In the year of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace, nth sequels of popular film franchises that have made the conscious decision to be darker and more in line with the supposed grim state of our world, getting popular and critical approval, Slumdog Millionaire, is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

JCVD (2008)

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)

Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD opens with a high-powered action sequence. We see Jean Claude Van Damme dodging endless barrages of bullets, knocking out hordes of nameless villains, and getting past impossible explosions before ending up being ignored by his disinterested director (imported from Hong Kong, in obvious reference to John Woo, who Van Damme introduced to the American market but never paid back the favor by giving Van Damme a role in any of his Hollywood projects after Hard Target (1993)). As the opening sequence, where we witness in one spectacular shot the action star quickly metamorphosing from indestructible hero to just another man in the film set, depicts, El Mechri's goal is to remove Van Damme out of the myths of superhuman mettle (Van Damme has often been referred to "The Muscle from Brussels") his roles in films like Blood Sport (Newt Arnold, 1988), Universal Soldier (Roland Emmerich, 1992) and Double Team (Tsui Hark, 1997) have supplied him, and turn him into something more convincingly human: a victim of circumstance, aggravated by his fame and notoriety.

The portrait of Van Damme we see in JCVD is vastly different from the characters, all of whom are exquisite representations of brash masculinity (indestructible cage fighters, no-nonsense hitmen, and virile ladies' men), he played in several of his B-movies and actioners. Here, he is aging (his face is riddled with lines and wrinkles), with a physique that could not have belonged to the same person who fought to the death in Blood Sport. Here, he struggles at diplomacy, turning his Brussels cab driver from adoring fan to nagging annoyance in a matter of minutes. Here, in the midst of a crisis that should logically be easy for the man named the Muscle from Brussels, he can only imagine, but cannot actually do, the spectacular stunt moves that would get him out of trouble.

The Van Damme we see in JCVD here is closer to the Van Damme that magazines and tabloids cover and more often than not, make fun of. Here, Van Damme is struggling with the impending loss of his daughter because of his uphill battle for her custody, while playing mind games with his agent whose incompetence lost Van Damme a direct-to-video B-movie project to Steven Segal (who agreed to cut his mullet for the starring role). JCVD partly succeeds as entertainment because of its tabloid sensibilities, dwelling on the mostly negative predisposition of a pathetic has-been. However, JCVD does more than expose the incapacities and failures of a fading superstar for sheer entertainment's sake. El Mechri succeeds in turning Van Damme from infamous icon to encumbered human being, worthy of our sympathies. Van Damme succeeds in exposing himself, not as a devious fraud and agent of moronic cinema, but as a victim of circumstance and his own ambitions.

JCVD may not turn prepubescent boys into Van Damme idolizers. It does, however, add a deeper dimension to a nearly forgotten pop icon, allowing him the opportunity to address the several issues that have been thrown to him (his womanizing, drug addiction, his worsening notoriety and declining fame) and in turn, transforming himself into a figure that is not dissimilar to the rest of us. His previous films may have given him the legacy of brute ability. JCVD cracks that legacy, and allows us an intimate peek to Van Damme's persona.

In the middle of the agonizing hostage drama which El Mechri composed as the narrative device to put his fictional version of Van Damme in, everything suddenly stops except for Van Damme. His chair ascends, and we see the film set's klieglights and other movie-making mechanisms behind him. The internal movie logic of JCVD takes a pause to allow its hero respite from the conventional untruths of cinema and media he has been accustomed to. Van Damme delivers his confessional, unscripted and intimate (the still camera centering on his face, no cues, no direction except for his own). He talks about his problems, his past as a scrawny teenager who dreams of making it big in Hollywood, his frustrations and disappointments. Finally, Van Damme, the Muscle of Brussels, the sonic-booming soldier in Street Fighter (Steven E. de Souza, 1994), and time-traveling sci-fi hero of Timecop (Peter Hyams, 1994), cries. This undoubtedly is Van Damme's greatest onscreen performance ever, and the fact that he isn't acting makes the sequence more astounding.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Changeling (2008)

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

Changeling is Clint Eastwood's middling account of the struggles of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mom who loses her son (Gattlin Griffith) and when the L. A. police reunited her with a different boy, protests and because of that, becomes hapless victim of the embattled police force's determination to salvage whatever integrity and reputation it has left under the inept and corrupt leadership of Chief Davis (Colm Feore). The film has the same somber and sober tone of Eastwood's post-Unforgiven (1999) Oscar baits (Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)), where the pessimistic core dressed in multi-million dollar gloss of the films is often mistaken as aesthetic sophistication and thematic depth, thus garnering much popular and critical acclaim for what basically is heavy-handed humdrum.

Undoubtedly, like most of Eastwood's more recent features, Changeling is visually wonderful. Cinematographer Tom Stern paints this unideal Los Angeles with muted hues that seemingly allude to the moral and political condition of that era: hazy, fading, paling. 1920's-Los Angeles is impressively recreated, from the rows of suburban homes that house the newly affluent middle class to the decrepit abandoned farm in the outskirts of the city that becomes the setting of the horrendous massacre which is the core of the narrative. Populating these structures and edifices are citizens and transients who are occupied by their respective little businesses involving family and employment. The atmosphere of moral and political disarray is conveniently hidden by the bright Californian sun, until an impetus for its timely revelation occurs.

The film primarily concerns itself with Christine's own little entanglements which quickly transformed into the gargantuan task, the aforementioned impetus, of defeating the seemingly indestructible authority, something which she was volunteered for not by her own choosing but by fate and the repercussions of living in a corrupted city. J. Michael Straczynski, in his screenplay, is adamantly straightforward in forwarding the virtues of his headstrong heroine, but in so doing, branches into a myriad of unwieldy subplots and introduces a bevy of mono-dimensional side characters, including Rev. Gustav Briegleb (played with predictably boring enthusiasm by John Malkovich), a Presbyterian minister whose consistently forceful verbal attacks against the police and mental manipulation of Christine feels obnoxiously monomaniacal, Captain J. J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), the bad cop whose quintessential grimaces leave nothing to the imagination, and Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), the serial killer whose attempts at moral and psychological vagueness is more unconvincing than unsettling.

Eastwood's usually guileless and elegant storytelling seems inappropriate for Straczynski's pulpy material. There is a suspect air of reverence, facilitated by Straczynski's over-respectful tribute to his obscure protagonist, Eastwood's consistently competent although unremarkable direction, and Jolie's uncharacteristically quiet but effective turn as the perpetually suffering Christine Collins, that permeates throughout the film. It is an air of reverence that is particularly suffocating and this film, from its introduction of depicting Christine as timid yet industrious single mother (we see Christine at her workplace, well-loved, responsible, and diligently skating around her workplace before returning home to tend to her son) to the emotional trials she patiently goes through, delivers in unrelenting doses.

Changeling is a masterpiece to stubborn Eastwood-followers, gullible feminists, and connoisseurs of high melodrama and manipulative weepers. I also suspect fans of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), and Manderlay (2005), all of which depict women suffering through very cruel twists of fate, would be comfortable seeing Jolie bullied by the police into accepting a stranger as his son, dragged into the loony bin, and stripped and washed like filthy cattle, among others. To present-day cynics, or even those of us who have admired the simplicity of Eastwood's storytelling, Changeling is a disappointment that borders on being torture.

It's A Free World (2007)

It's A Free World... (Ken Loach, 2007)

In Ken Loach's It's A Free World..., there are two generations of the working class that are separated not only by age but by their immense moral gap. Geoff (Colin Caughlin) is retired and spends his day taking care of his grandson. He lives comfortably with his wife, despite his acknowledgment of his limited financial capabilities, and goes about life with his head up high although his belt is tightened. He is representative of most of Loach's protagonists, those who maintain an adamantly dignified stance against the afflictions that plague the working class. Angie (surprisingly terrific newcomer Kierston Wareing), Geoff's daughter (and if we are to follow Geoff's logic, a severe disappointment) is in her early thirties, a single mother and has been switching jobs year after year and unable to find decent employment opportunities in a modern world of increasing wealth and diminishing integrities.

After being fired (presumably for violently reacting against the sexual advances of a male superior) from an employment agency that recruits immigrants for manual work in England, Angie returns to London and convinces Rose (Juliet Ellis), her flatmate, to start-up their own manpower agency in the backlot of a local pub. Angie's operations reflect her roots. Riding her motorcycle around town, recruiting overstaying aliens and convincing businessmen to provide work for her recruits, Angie's irresistable demeanor, consisting of a mix of unique confidence brewed from both desperation and years of economic and social struggle, would carry her entrepreneurial experiment to modest successes. She establishes rules at work (for example, she would not provide aliens without any papers employment), and in the process, protects whatever dignity and integrity from the probable repercussions of her chosen endeavor.

However, the capitalist world is not nearly as predictable as Angie thinks it is. Businesses fail. Employers become bankrupt and unable to pay wages. Commissions are unearned. Mobs of dissatisfied immigrants become unruly and her and her family's safety is compromised. Her rules are bent, first to favor an Iranian refugee who is desperate to find any job to feed his family, and later on, to finally complete her transformation from exploited to exploiter. No matter how Angie insists that there are borders to her profession, it is this uncomfortable meshing of her two roles (as a member of the exploited middle class and as the superior and empowered recruiter) in the bigger scheme of international economics and politics that forces her to choose which side she really belongs to: the abused, or the abuser.

To make matters worse, Angie's privilege is not her innate industry or other talents and skills, but the simple fact that the world also has arbitrary economic classes among nations, where Britain is hardly the working class as compared to its Eastern European neighbors whose citizens spend decades worth of their savings to gain entry to London, forced to be employed with meager wages and hardly any benefits, where promises of decent living and income is mutated into paranoia and nightmares of either being cramped into decrepit buses, factories, and inhumane working places or being chased out of the country by the immigrations police.

Loach's concern is hardly these impoverished illegal immigrants. Their stories have been told and retold by countless other filmmakers, almost always with the emotional efficiency of daytime soap. Loach pits his beloved middle class in the center of this contemporary world, where nations are interconnected by trade treaties, loosened borders, and easy communication. Although afflicted with the same working class problems (poverty, lack of professional recourse, and a youth that is being pushed to delinquency by lack of proper parenting), Angie's generation is provided with a pressing choice: of living the same lives as those who preceded them, or exploiting the more desperate and desolate members of the enlarged and supposedly freed world.