Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Three films: Milk, Slumdog, and 4 Christmases

I thought that "Four Christmases" might be good, mindless, romantic comedy for the holidays. It's not. It's alternately horrifyingly bad, boringly mediocre, and frustratingly funny. (Frustrating because those few moments made me think it could have possibly been a decent movie.) When the credits rolled and I saw that no fewer than four writers took credit for the script, I realized the problem was, once again, too many cooks in the kitchen. But if you're forced to see it, at least you can entertain yourself by trying to guess in which scenes Reese Witherspoon stood on a box to make herself less than a foot shorter than Vince Vaughn.

Luckily, I've seen two really good movies recently. "Milk" is excellent: strong acting by Sean Penn and Josh Brolin, a compelling story that surprises even if you know its basic elements, a timely political resonance, and a smart, visually interesting direction by Gus Van Sant. I also saw it on opening day in Chelsea, surrounded by gay men (mostly in pairs) and the emotion in the theater was palpable. If I couldn't see it in San Francisco, this was the next best thing.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is even better, a whirlwind of a comedy/romance/drama/fantasy as only Danny Boyle can deliver. (I had to just look him up, as I keep referring to him - when I recommend the film to friends and co-workers - as "the director of Trainspotting" even as I am convinced he's done something as recognizable since. But, apparently, he hasn't, at least not on the level of "Trainspotting." "The Beach"? Didn't that bomb? "Millions"? I liked it, but would have to no doubt explain its entire plot to dazed and blank responses. My favorite Danny Boyle film remains "Shallow Grave," with Ewan MacGregor before he was anyone, but has anyone seen that but me? At least anyone I know.)

"Slumdog" is visually dazzling, highly entertaining, and as funny as it is emotionally wrenching. It even has a gross-out scene to rival the toilet-diving scene in "Trainspotting," not to mention a Bollywood dance number over the closing credits that makes it difficult to sit still in your seat. The film itself is set in Mumbai, which admittedly feels a little different to watch than it probably did two weeks ago, and centers on an uneducated young man from the ghetto (the "slumdog" of the title) who answers too many questions correctly on India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and is forced to explain himself and his answers, which results in a flashback-driven retelling of his life story.

I've heard that "Slumdog" is positioned to be the indie darling of this year's Oscar season (see "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Sideways") but hopefully it won't get some of the backlash of those others, since it deserves a good audience.


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