I’m not entirely sure how a film in which a small boy gets permanently blinded by someone deliberately pouring hot liquid onto his eyeballs while he’s unconscious ends up being hyped (by critics and audiences alike) as the “feel-good” movie of the year, but that’s the strange case with Slumdog Millionaire, the latest from director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting). The modern-day sequences find lanky, likable Jamal (Dev Patel) working his way through the questions on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal is a struggling kid who’s coped with poverty all of his life -- a “slumdog” -- and it’s his unlikely ascension that has the entire nation rooting for him to win it all. But Jamal isn’t doing this for money; he’s doing it for love -- namely, for the beautiful Latika (Freida Pinto), who, as we see in the film’s ample flashbacks, grew up on the streets alongside Jamal and his hotheaded brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). Initially, the movie’s structure is ingenious in how it feeds on incidents from Jamal’s past to allow him to get the right answers on the TV game show, in effect suggesting that what’s most important in this life is what we learn firsthand. As for the sequences revolving around the characters’ rough childhoods, they’re refreshingly raw and uncompromising, a cross between Charles Dickens and City of God. It’s a shame, then, that Boyle and scripter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, and no surprise there) toss aside all innovation in order to bind the final half-hour into a straightjacket of rigid formula plotting. The boy-finds-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-tries-to-save-girl angle is flaccid enough, although it’s the arc involving bad bro Salim that’s especially groan-worthy. Still, three-quarters of a stellar movie is nothing to sneer at, meaning that those who take a chance on Slumdog Millionaire will get their money’s worth.
The purpose of theatrical trailers, as I (and the rest of the universe) understand it, is to showcase many of the film’s best scenes in an effort to get folks to crowd the box office during opening week and beyond. The trailer for Four Christmases fails this test, as it focuses almost exclusively on barf gags, pratfalls and other broad, physical comedy sure to draw the yahoo crowd but not necessarily anyone else. A more representative trailer, on the other hand, would have revealed a movie that’s actually worth seeing -- a smart, tart and even sexy (love that opening gag) confection whose observations about family dysfunction will make audience members squirm in their seats even as the laughs pour off the screen. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon headline as Brad and Kate, a deeply-in-love couple who always bypass their families at Christmastime in order to take overseas vacations. But complications force the pair to visit their relatives after all, and since both sets of parents (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek are his, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen are hers) are divorced, that means four familial gatherings in one day. It proves to be a grueling endurance test for both of them, as each is humiliated in turn by parents, siblings and other assorted in-laws.
Working from the first novel in Stephenie Meyer’s literary franchise. director Catherine Hardwicke and scripter Melissa Rosenberg have made Twilight a love story first and a vampire tale second. Kristen Stewart stars as Bella, who moves to the small town of Forks, Washington, to spend time with her police-chief father (Billie Burke). Before long, she finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Edward (Robert Pattinson), who, like all his siblings, sports a pasty-white complexion and avoids the company of the other high school kids. But he soon discovers that he is likewise drawn to Bella, and as their relationship grows, he eventually exposes his true nature to her. Twilight is occasionally overwrought, yet Hardwicke turns that into a blessing rather than a curse. The astute director, who previously helmed the raw and uncompromising Thirteen, understands her teen protagonists well, and rather than speak down to them (and, by extension, to the film’s youthful viewers), she allows their angst-filled behavior, their oversized emotionalism, to register as the most important thing in the world (because, to a teenager caught up in the moment, that’s exactly what it is). This ripeness in the movie’s form and content fuels the heated romance between Edward, who worries that he can’t control his bloodlust around his beloved, and Bella, who eventually declares that she wants him to lose control. The romantic sessions between Stewart and Pattinson have an aching sweetness to them, marred only by an obtrusively florid score (by the usually reliable Carter Burwell) that threatens to turn these sequences into Viagra for Teens commercials. The movie has fun dabbling in the clichés of the high school flick, although it saves most of its innovation for bending the rules of the vampire game: Twilight’s bloodsuckers can move about during the daytime (albeit only on cloudy, overcast days), and especially interesting is that this particular clique considers itself vegetarian because its members only eat animals, not humans.
Given the promise of the love story-cum-historical epic-cum-adventure yarn Australia, I unexpectedly felt an urge to hoof it to my car during the torturous opening scenes of this big-budget spectacle. Director Baz Luhrmann’s frenzied approach, which worked perfectly for the musical genre in Moulin Rouge! and for teen angst in Romeo & Juliet, is grotesquely out of place, while Nicole Kidman, as the prim and trim Englishwoman newly arrived to this savage land, manages (for the first 20 minutes, at least) to turn in the worst performance of her career. After this migraine-inducing opening, the movie settles down and begins to find its stride. Unfortunately, that stride is only occasionally graceful, resulting in a mishmash of a film marked by infuriating ups and downs. As Sarah Ashley, who journeys to Australia and ends up trying to protect her late husband’s cattle ranch from being taken over by rival businessman King Carney (a welcome Bryan Brown, little seen since his brief heyday during the 1980s), Kidman never fully immerses herself in the role -- too many actorly tics spoil the broth. As Drover, the hunky cattle driver who agrees to help Sarah in her quest to save the business, Hugh Jackman fares better, choosing to play most emotions close to the vest -- make that close to the bare chest -- and thereby emerging as an oasis of calm amidst so much rampant scenery-chewing.
In recent years, Disney plus Pixar has led to some terrific animated features, but Disney minus Pixar has led to yearnings to locate the nearest auditorium exit. Bolt is straight-up Disney, which would be worrisome if it wasn’t for the fact that Pixar guru John Lasseter has been handed the keys to the studio’s entire animation department. So while Bolt isn’t a Pixar production, it falls under the auspices of Lasseter (billed as executive producer), and that might be why this is better than such studio sourballs as Chicken Little and Treasure Planet. It mixes the speed of a Nickelodeon toon project with narrative elements from The Incredible Journey, as Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a canine who believes he really possesses the superpowers he employs on his hit TV series, gets separated from his owner/co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus) and ends up crossing the country in search of her. It’s entertaining while it lasts but dissipates from memory the moment it’s over, a condition predicated on the fact that neither the noble, stiff Bolt nor the typical toon preteen Penny are especially dynamic characters.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Anyone who thinks that the Madagascar franchise is all about the Benjamin (Stiller, that is) has seriously overrated the importance of marquee names to animated flicks. With rare exception (say, Eddie Murphy in the Shrek works), the most memorable cartoon characters have nothing to do with A-list casting and everything to do with matching the tone with the toon (I ask you, what superstar could have done better than relatively unknown Patton Oswalt as Ratatouille’s Remy?). So while the cast of Madagascar and its new sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, is headed by Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith, it’s really all about the penguins, baby. Certainly, Stiller (as Alex the lion), Schwimmer (Melman the giraffe), Pinkett Smith (Gloria the hippo) and especially Rock (Marty the zebra) do their part to make these movies two of the few tolerable non-Pixar/non-Miyazaki toon tales of recent times, but what truly blesses the pair is the presence of the flightless fowl. Led by Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath, co-director of both films), these penguins are among the least sentimental of all animated characters in the history of the film medium.
Quantum of Solace
Casino Royale, the 2006 revamp of the hallowed 007 film franchise, turned out to be the best Bond outing since Reagan’s first term in office, so expecting Quantum of Solace to surpass it was probably asking too much. Fortunately, it isn’t long before we’re again immersed in the Bond mystique. Half gentleman, half bruiser, Daniel Craig’s Bond is still learning the ropes of his new status as a field operative, and it’s up to his superior, M (again played by Judi Dench with the right mix of exasperation at the monster she helped create and barely concealed pride at the confident, competent male she’s released to the world), to try -- usually with little success -- to keep him in line. In a first for the 46-year-old series, Quantum of Solace isn’t loosely connected to past pictures but is instead a direct sequel to its predecessor: To watch it without having seen Casino Royale would be akin to viewing The Empire Strikes Back without having seen Star Wars. The villainous organization in the previous picture is still full speed ahead, and revenge for the death of a loved one remains foremost on the mind of our hero. M is worried that this will cloud Bond’s judgment, but 007 is nothing if not effective at multitasking. And does he have his hands full, whether tangling with the dastardly Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric), forming a partnership with the lovely Camille (Olga Kurylenko), or seeking help from coolly distant allies Felix Leiter and Mathis (returning co-stars Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini). Continually getting better as it charges along, Quantum of Solace turns out to be a successful second entry in the Craig/007 canon. If I rated with numbers instead of stars, it would merit -- dare I type it? -- a 007 out of 10.
Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Movies about the Holocaust seem to automatically earn R ratings, yet The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, perhaps because it’s based on a novel (by John Boyne) originally targeted to teen readers, escapes with a PG-13. That’s appropriate, since children who can handle (and learn from) the material should not be denied the opportunity to see it. The film is fairly original in that it’s told from the viewpoint of a young German lad who has a front-row seat to the horrors of the Nazi regime. Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield, just perfect) is saddened when his father, a Nazi officer (David Thewlis), moves the family from Berlin to a remote country estate. Once there, Bruno’s sister (Amber Beattie) is obsessed with Adolf Hitler, and his mother (Vera Farmiga) does little more than deflect his questions about the farm across the field, a mysterious place where all the prisoners wear pajamas and billowing smoke from the chimneys constantly blackens the sky. Bored, Bruno eventually defies his parents’ orders and checks out the farm, where he strikes up a friendship with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy on the other side of the barbed wire. Credibility takes a serious beating over the course of this picture, which is clearly intended as a fable about how hatred can destroy even the most innocent among us. Bruno’s naiveté provides the picture with its initial childlike charm, yet the movie is complicated enough to explore the conflicting emotions among the adult characters. (Bruno’s grandmother, for instance, has nothing but contempt for Hitler’s efforts). But even in its lighter moments, the picture never downplays the horror of the situation, and the devastating ending is potent enough to affect even those viewers who write it off as nothing more than a sensationalist stunt. cs