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Slumdog Millionaire

Alright, now that 2008 is over, I can say with certainty that Slumdog Millionaire was damn near the best thing I saw last year. I guess I’ll have to put it behind The Dark Knight, but it’s a close second. It reminded me of the classic City of God in its portrayal of impoverished youth running wild. I don’t want to reduce it to that superficial comparison though. It was a love story, a drama, and coming-of-age tale rolled together.

The movie begins against the backdrop of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Young Jamal is poised to win the top prize and has aroused the judges’ suspicion. He has to explain how he became so knowledgeable, since it’s very difficult to actually advance that far in the game (duh). What follows is a series of flashbacks to his youth, and the movie unfolds as he is asked each successive question and recounts the life experience that yielded the particular knowledge. He and his brother Salim are forced to fend for themselves after their mother is murdered in a raid on their small village, or whatever you call it. The film is set in Mumbai, but the boys live in a destitute little enclave teeming with other “slumdogs.” When their mother is killed the boys begin a life of begging, stealing, hustling, and surviving by the skin of their teeth. They come across another street urchin named Latika, and the three become fast friends. At various times throughout his life Jamal becomes separated from her, but she’s never far from his thoughts. When he and Salim escape the hands of a predator who exploits orphaned children by forcing them to beg in the streets, Jamal is heartbroken that Latika was unable to flee with them. Salim is dismissive, preferring not to compete for his brother’s attention and affection. The actors portraying Salim and Jamal were a revelation. They were adorable, and excellent actors to boot.

The movie was enthralling, masterfully written and executed – from the title to the cast and story. I enjoyed the filmmaking style, which really made you feel as if you were on Jamal and Salim’s journey with them. As a viewer, I was particularly invested in Jamal’s outcome. He and Salim’s paths diverged as Salim, more reckless and daring – falls in with a local kingpin, but it is his heroism and abandon that saves his brother’s life. I’ll leave it at that, an obvious ringing endorsement. This joint is like an instant classic, a real gem.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

There is mad buzz surrounding this film, with Brad Pitt (Babel) being nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor, and the movie getting serious Best Picture consideration. I have to agree with the other critics that this is all much ado about SOMETHING, because I thought that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was an absolutely enchanting film from start to finish. Bolstered by a high-concept story, the movie also features truly great special effects, as the titular character ages in reverse. If you’ve been under a rock and are unfamiliar with the unique premise, let me fill you in. Benjamin Button, as an infant, displays all the signs of a man at the twilight of his life. He is wrinkled, afflicted by cataracts and osteoporosis. Curious indeed. Benjamin’s mother died in childbirth, and his father is unequipped to deal with the aftermath of raising an obviously special child. He rips the baby from a midwife’s clutches and runs through the New Orleans streets, hurtling to and fro. He abandons the infant on a doorstep, and it is this home that will prove to be a wonderful haven for Benjamin the rest of his life. Discovered by Queenie, a domestic and innkeeper of sorts, Benjamin is embraced and loved as if she birthed him herself. He grows younger as he gets older, viewing the world through the eyes of a child while the world perceives him as an elderly man. I found this story to be simply fascinating and touching as Benjamin is impacted by the world around him. His physical deformity renders him much more emotionally attuned than a normal child, and he and Queenie, who is Black, share many tender moments. Taraji P. Henson (Hustle & Flow) as Queenie has easily surpassed anything she’s done up to this point, and I hope this role provides her with more opportunities. Pitt is reunited with Cate Blanchett (they were both in Babel), and they have very good chemistry as they portray two star-crossed lovers. The easiest thing for me to say is that the movie just made me feel good. It was heartwarming, funny, sweet, and simply fascinating. It may seem cool to age in reverse, but it’s actually tragic to watch your loved ones precede you in death, to grow younger while everyone else grows older – and for it to be assumed that you have knowledge and experience that you actually lack. Benjamin is forgiving and appreciates the beauty in life and in people, allowing his father to make amends for the cruelest betrayal by willingly developing a relationship with him. I can see this movie taking home a whole slew of accolades, including ones for the script, performances, make-up – you name it. It will all be well-deserved. Director David Fincher (Seven) has outdone himself, and the pairing of he and Pitt almost rivals the nice rapport Scorsese has developed with Leonardo DiCaprio, though obviously Fincher and Pitt are less prolific. If you can’t tell, I liked it LOL. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a must-see movie.

Valkyrie

Excuse my language, but this is not some shit that I would normally see. My love affair with Tom Cruise (The Last Samurai) ended after he went crazy about three years ago, so he’s not a good box office draw, at least not for me. But I was in the company of a handsome gentleman, and this was what he wanted to see – so I went with the flow.

Valkyrie is the story of a failed attempt to overthrow Hitler, and is factually-based. So, on a positive note, I can say that I actually learned something from the movie, and that’s a good thing. What wasn’t good was the overall vibe of the movie. Despite boasting an inherently exciting premise, something about Valkyrie felt lackluster and uninspiring. Cruise portrays Colonel von Stauffenberg, a rouge soldier in cahoots with other Nazis to oust Hitler for the greater good of Deutschland, and so as not to be remembered on the wrong side of history as an enabler of the most monstrous figure of the 20th century. Cool, I’m with that. Even sounds exciting, right? It should have been, but it wasn’t. Writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer are responsible for one of the all-time great movies (The Usual Suspects), but I think they struck out with this one. Cruise’s Stauffenberg seems stoic and resolute, but not especially heroic in that movie-star sort of way you’d expect. I felt my eyelids get heavy on more than one occasion and had to fight to keep them open at one point. I have a pretty good attention span too, so this is a reflection of the movie rather than any narcoleptic tendencies on my part. Valkyrie is as boring as it looks, so I suggest you skip it unless you’re some weird history buff. My handsome companion was also underwhelmed. Booo Valkyrie!! LOL

Seven Pounds

*Sigh* It’s happened again. I’ve been bamboozled into wasting my money on another sneaky tear-jerk movie. I don’t do sad, sappy movies, and Seven Pounds was a somber, heavy film that won’t see you crack a smile.

Starring Will Smith (Hancock) as a benevolent man on a mission, Seven Pounds tells the story of Ben Thomas, an IRS agent who decides to drastically change the lives of seven strangers with the ultimate sacrifice. For the first 30 minutes or so it’s pretty tough to figure out just what the hell the movie is about and what is going on. Eventually we learn that Ben lost his fiancé in a tragic accident that also claimed the lives of six other people. Hence, the significance of the number seven, which is repeated a few times throughout the movie. I don’t want to give away the plot, but suffice to say it was an intriguing, well-acted film that will make you look at your own life and whether or not you’re a good person, but it was too much of a downer for my taste though. When it was over my face was ashy from all the crying! No thanks. Will is nice to look at it, and Rosario Dawson turned in the best performance from her I’ve ever seen – but Seven Pounds is just not my type of movie. From talking to others, I’m not alone in my opinion. All in all, skip this one. Total buzzkill.

Cadillac Records

A bad movie trailer can do one of two things: 1) deter you from the film b/c it doesn’t look good; or 2) intrigue you enough to plunk down $10 bucks to check it out. Fortunately for me, the trailer and subsequent commercials for Cadillac Records did the latter. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a movie starring Beyonce. She wonderfully captures Etta James, one of several iconic recording artists signed to Chess (Cadillac) Records, but she doesn’t even make her appearance until at least an hour into the movie.

Instead, the movie chronicles the rise and fall of the second most legendary, prolific record label of the 50s and 60s. I assume that Motown deserves the top spot. Nevertheless, Chess Records featured the likes of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, and was at the foreground of rock n roll. Founded by Polish immigrant Leonard Chess, the record label’s first prominently successful recording artist was Muddy Waters, masterfully portrayed in the film by Jeffrey Wright (most recently of Quantum of Solace). Len (Adrien Brody, Hollywoodland) and Muddy meet in Chicago, after Muddy migrates up from the sharecropping fields of Mississippi. Soon after arriving in the big city he encounters his future wife Geneva (Gabrielle Union), after setting up shop playing the guitar on a street corner beneath her small apartment. Geneva, like most women – is instantly enamored with Muddy’s soulful voice and guitar. Shortly thereafter he meets a young man named Walter, a skillful harmonica player who provides the perfect accompaniment to Muddy’s electric guitar. Muddy, Geneva, and “Little” Walter become a surrogate family, with Len serving as a benevolent godfather of sorts. He provides the backing and obtains radio airplay, while Muddy and Walter keep churning out the hits and sold-out performances. Eventually Len expands the Chess roster to include Howlin’ Wolf, Etta, and the legendary Chuck Berry.

Chess records was informally known as Cadillac Records because Len purchased all of his artists Cadillacs as reward for their chart-topping songs. He is portrayed as genuine and caring, but one wonders if there wasn’t a hint of exploitation as well. He didn’t let his artists see the books when they inquired about their royalties, even Chuck Berry. Regardless, there seemed to be a real friendship and partnership between he and Muddy, and he certainly tried to keep his artists on the straight and narrow, though a few of them fell on hard times. Little Walter in particular, had a problem with authority and had frequent brushes with the law and local Chicago hoodlums. His life tragically ended at the age of 37, and actor Columbus Short (This Christmas) did an excellent job of capturing his reckless talent. He was brash and cocky, and eventually the mouth that so skillfully played the harmonica also contributed to his demise, along with alcohol and heroin. Muddy’s biggest vice was a penchant for women NOT named Geneva, but he managed to avoid substance abuse, at least according to the movie. This leads me to the most troubled, layered role in the movie – Etta James. I’m beginning to think Beyonce might actually have some acting chops after all.

Unlike Deena in Dreamgirls, Etta James is not a pretty character. She is rough, salty, and coarse. Plagued by deeply-rooted feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, Etta seems to be surrounded by an impenetrable wall that belies her vulnerability until she opens her mouth and releases that soulful, beautiful voice. When Beyonce performs Etta’s songs “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” she is in rare form. It is truly something to behold. These moments when music and drama merge are the reasons why art is such a beautiful and powerful medium, the reason why it can take you to another place. She was Etta, stripped bare. Another moving scene featured Etta’s failed reunion with famed pool player Minnesota Fats, her alleged father. She explains to Len that her “mother was a whore,” and she has just been rejected by her father. She feels worthless, and it’s no wonder that she later turns to heroin to numb her pain.

I can’t say enough about this movie, which seems to have fared poorly at the box office on its opening weekend. That’s unfortunate, because it was a movie filled with flawless performances, from top to bottom. I don’t know if it’s poor marketing on behalf of the studio or what – but people are missing out. Don’t be one of them.

This article first appeared at Poptimal and can be found at http://poptimal.com/2008/12/cadillac-records/. It was reprinted with permission.

I.O.U.S.A.

Some topics are just over my head, and I feel no shame in admitting that fact. The nuances of economics often leave me befuddled, and I’m happy if I can just get a broad understanding of the issue. Having said that, I.O.U.S.A. was an informative, very important documentary that was actually relatively easy for me to understand. For those of you with no designs on the Wharton School of Business, I think you’ll be able to understand it as well. The film offers an in-depth examination of America’s crippling debt, highlighting the financial crisis as one of the most important issues of our lifetime, the handling of which will shape the futures of our children. Economics is not a sexy topic, so despite the film’s gravity it probably will not be viewed by the average person looking to enjoy an afternoon at the movies. The film begins with a brief overview of the history of our national debt. Our founding fathers placed an emphasis on eradicating debt and were successfully able to pay down our significant debt in the wake of the Revolutionary War. World Wars I and II increased our debt, but we again were able to pay it down significantly through the purchase of war bonds and other methods. The 1980’s bought inflation, and our national debt increased. Under the Clinton administration, the national debt decreased significantly and we actually had a surplus when he left office – no small feat by any stretch of the imagination. As a matter of fact, the surplus was the first we had in over 30 years. Ahh, but that was then and this is now. Our national debt is somewhere around 10 trillion dollars, an astronomical figure that will not change unless we make significant changes here at home. The film outlined the biggest drains on the U.S. economy, the largest of which is the money being eaten up by Social Security and Medicare. It also discussed our dependence on foreign nations, and it’s not simply those nations in the Middle East, as you might think. Apparently China practically owns the U.S. We heavily rely on the importation of their goods, while very few other nations are clamoring for any of our products. Even if we stopped spending money on the war in Iraq, fixed Social Security, and eliminated earmarks, we’d STILL be in the hole. I started to feel pretty depressed as I sat through this movie. I appreciate the severity of our current financial situation, but it would have been useful if the movie offered a more detailed look at what everyday folks like you and me can do to help the economy. After 78 minutes of informative but very bleak data, the movie spent the few remaining minutes offering a glimmer of hope. The only problem is that it wasn’t enough. You wanna know what we can do to help diminish the national debt? Save money. Don’t buy what you can’t afford. After sitting through a sophisticated financial tutorial, that’s the conclusion the film boils down to? I was a little disappointed. The movie also mentioned that leadership was important, which is very relevant considering that election day is upon us. I just would have liked a more sophisticated discussion of how we can fix the problem. Overall, I.O.U.S.A. was an important film, but the nature of the topic makes for a rather dry night at the movies. It was interesting, but painted a somber picture. I guess the truth hurts.

Quantum of Solace

So, yeah – I fancy myself more than just a casual 007 fan. I haven’t seen all of ‘em, but I’ve seen all of the ones with Sean Connery, and I know a little about the franchise. Daniel Craig, in spite of his blond hair and blue eyes, has grown on me, and I looked forward to the latest installment in one of the most venerable franchises in American cinematic history.

I’ll keep it brief and say that Quantum of Solace didn’t do much for the franchise. It was beautifully filmed, featuring exotic locales and accents to match, but I found the storyline to be dry and thin at various places. This was disappointing considering the script was partially written by acclaimed scribe Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby). This latest chapter finds our favorite MI-6 agent dealing with the loss of Vesper at the conclusion of Casino Royale. He promises M that he won’t seek revenge, but remains confused about the circumstances surrounding her death. He finds a kindred spirit in Camille, a young woman entangled in high-stakes espionage, seeking revenge for her family’s death. 007 plots are always somewhat nebulous, and Quantum of Solace is no exception. Vaguely it is revealed that a secret organization wishes to gain control of the water supply in the mid-east, and Bond is charged with uncovering the identity of those individuals involved in the transaction. What? Yeah, whatever. I can barely recite the plot to you. I appreciated little things throughout, such as the rugged, much less corny portrayal offered by Daniel Craig. Despite not looking the part of a more traditional Bond, Craig manages to convey an effortless sophistication even when bruised and battered. He has the right swag, and I appreciate his embodiment of the character. Judi Dench is always a pleasure, and the movie had a smart, sleek feel – it was just empty in spots. There was an homage to Goldfinger, when one of Bond’s female allies is drowned in oil, her sprawled and naked body covered in the black liquid just as Goldfinger’s victim was covered in gold over 20 years ago. This was pretty obvious, and it didn’t go unnoticed by all the Bond buffs out there, I’m sure. Nice touch.

While not a “must-see” by any stretch, Quantum of Solace makes for a passable day at the movies. If you’re a fan of the franchise you probably should see it off GP, though be forewarned that you will be underwhelmed with certain aspects of the movie.