Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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Back in the middle of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? craze, there was an event at my hometown mall (aww, remember when malls were still a thing?) where they offered an eligibility test for the show – basically just a bunch of trivia questions.  My brother and I both took the test.  He passed, and I didn’t, but I did get to take home a commemorative coin with Regis Philbin’s face on it, so you can’t really call that losing, can you?  (For the record, my brother never got called to go on the show.)

The plot of Slumdog is bizarrely Dickensian:  a boy and his brother grow up on the mean streets of Mumbai, orphaned at a young age and then taken in by a devious Fagin (I learned that name from a previous Best Picture!) who runs a begging operation.  Hijinks ensue, eyeballs are gouged out, and eventually the boy ends up serving tea at a call center.  Then, in a step that’s not fully explained, he ends up on a game show, where he happens to get all the questions right and is tortured under suspicion of cheating.  A nice family film.  Did I mention the interrogation framing device, at least the third such structure I’ve seen in all the Best Picture films.

I do enjoy a good game show, so I’m torn between loving this movie and cringing at the absurd plot holes.  For example, as a game show aficionado, I’m well aware that the structure of a game show prevents the contestants from ever speaking to the host off-air, as happens at a fairly significant moment in this film.

And that raises another question:  how exactly did the uneducated Jamal Malik manage to make it to the Hot Seat on The Millionaire Show (as my mom used to call it)?  As you may recall, the show is structured so that a pool of potential contestants are given a quick-fire question that involves sorting things in order the fastest in order to make it in the Hot Seat – but we only see Jamal after he’s already started playing.  Even if the Indian version of the game didn’t require a pre-test, how is it that he happened to face exactly the right questions to win?  Tricky.

While we’re on the subject of questioning the improbably things that happen, let’s talk about brother Salim for a moment.  The boys start out as rivals, but in the relatively innocent sibling sense.  Later, as their lives get harder, Salim grows more ruthless, until they part ways.  Then, Salim completely flips again, in defiance of every decision he’s made up to that point.  Why the dramatic arc?  Why does Jamal dance joyfully mere hours after his brother [spoiler deleted]?

Okay, so as long as you don’t think particularly hard about it, it’s kind of a fun movie.  Best movie of the year?  Well, I don’t know.  On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie that isn’t exclusively peopled by white folks win something.  I haven’t seen many of those lately.

 

Theme:  India

First Time Watching?  No.

Final Verdict:  You probably expect a final answer joke here.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

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I didn’t exactly plan it this way, but it’s sort of fitting that I ended up watching this so close to Thanksgiving.  Some friends of mine hosted a few Friends-givings that involved a daylong stream of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy back-to-back-to-back.  Which is where I’ve mostly seen the movies, piecemeal and in a room full of chattering people, amid plates of turkey and stuffing.

As a kid, years before I even knew LOTR existed, I played this text-based roguelike game called Moria, whose object was to descend deep into a dungeon and eventually slay the most powerful monster, the Balrog.  I never won.  The closest I got was when I tried playing again several years back – I even got to the point in the game where the Balrog appeared (represented, like everything else in the game, by a single character, B).  But I was afraid to make it that far and die – roguelike means no save points.  So I let the game sit and never finished, apparently deciding that I was happier not accomplishing something than I would have been if I’d failed and died.

I would have been a terrible person to carry the One Ring into Mt. Doom.  Maybe I’d have made an okay Sam.  More likely, I could have been Gimli, or whichever one out of Merry and Pippin was the least helpful.

It’s hard to say anything too effusive or critical of this film.  I like it, sure:  the scale of it alone is amazing, and it’s hard to imagine anyone staging a historical war movie with such detail and expense.  I could have maybe done with a few less shots of horses running headlong into a line of pikes, which seems counterproductive, but hey, I guess this is why I’m not a medieval general.

On the other hand, I came to the story a little too late to really fall in love with it.  I was in college when I heard about the films, and I read the first part in preparation.  I’d grown up reading a lot of Tolkien’s artistic descendants without realizing it (Sword of Shannara, anyone?), so the concept was familiar.  Eventually, I’ll re-read the books, and check out the films (weirdly, I own copies of them, though they are borrowed/unintentionally stolen from someone).  But I’ll never love LOTR like Stephen Colbert loves it.

I think my favorite moment of the film is when Aragorn basically just says, “Oh, you’ve got Orcs?  Well, lemme go get some motherfuckin’ ghosts to fight for us!”

How do you judge a sequel as a standalone film?  I can see where Godfather Part II stands on its own merits – you don’t have to have seen the first one to appreciate the film (and believe me, it won’t help you understand it any better!).  But this is less a sequel and more the third part of one continuous story.  You sort of take it for granted that these individual characters have an arc – to the extent that any of them do, it’s something you’ve had to follow since part one.  It’s more folklore than characterization.  It’s a fun ride, but hard to place within the canon of Best Pictures.

On a completely different note, there is one thing that bothers me above all else in this story.  At the end, the Elves and Gandalf, and finally Frodo get on a boat that is setting sail for…somewhere.  Where the hell are they going?  Why is it when the Men finally come into power, they have to drive out all the cool people?

 

Theme:  sequel

First Time Watching?  First time in its entirely, in one sitting

Final Verdict:  Precious

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

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It makes more sense when you read it backwards.

The first time I ever learned about schizophrenia was in seventh grade English class.  We were doing a long-term research project and learning terms like “Works Cited” and filling up index cards with random quotes that we thought were somehow relevant to our topic.  I chose to write about the Great Wall of China, which sounded really cool but turned out to be a centuries-long mire of dynasties and politics.  Our teacher, however, demonstrated the research process with her paper on… wait for it… schizophrenia.

Of course, at the time, it seemed like such a scary thing, the very definition of Serious Mental Illness.  I didn’t know any actual people or families of people with schizophrenia (or if I did, they didn’t tell me), so the illness itself seemed unreal.  A figment of 1950s-style mental institutions.  I occasionally wondered why my teacher chose that specific topic as her sample project – now I suspect she had a personal connection to it herself.

I didn’t know a lot about John Nash, except that he contributed a lot to certain kinds of math that I don’t really understand, and he also happened to be schizophrenic.  (And, sadly, he died in a car crash fairly recently.)  By chance, I recently spoke with a couple of the schizophrenia experts in my department for a work project, and so got the chance to learn a bit more about the illness outside of index cards.  Thus, I knew just enough going into A Beautiful Mind to look carefully for any symptoms of his mental illness.

It’s curious the way psychosis is portrayed on film.  Because it’s both a visual and auditory medium, it seems easy in a way to replicate at least two of our senses.  And yet, when a hallucination is portrayed on film – like the ersatz humans John sees in the midst of his illness – it always seems to be done more for a surprise effect on the viewer than as a representation of what the hallucinator experiences.  Is that what it’s like to hallucinate, to interact with a person exactly as if it’s a physically present being?  I honestly don’t know.  I’ve never taken a hallucinogenic, and I don’t know how that would compare to the experience of someone with a psychotic disorder anyway.

The film condenses quite a lot of time (and conveniently overlooks quite a bit, as well).  What’s not spelled out is that Dr. Nash spent over a decade of his life hospitalized, after which he apparently decided to stop taking his medication because it interfered with his creativity.  And somehow, he seemed to do okay for himself in the latter part of his life, even regaining teaching positions and contributing to the field.  It’s the sort of story that raises the question:  what is the connect between mental illness and creativity?  Was the illness the catalyst for his unique abilities or an obstacle to him reaching his full potential?  (For an interesting review of the mental illness-creativity link, check this out.)

I’m probably just exaggerating it in my own mind, but it seems like there are a lot of movies about mathematicians, a subject that I don’t think of as particularly cinematic.  I’ll come right out and say it:  it’s kind of boring to me.  I wouldn’t be against reading about math, because you can actually take your time to process what’s happening, but just watching Russell Crowe scribble characters on a window doesn’t thrill me.  In fairness, Russell Crowe doesn’t thrill me, either, and I almost managed to get through this entire post without mentioning that.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Schizophrenia

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  The game is flawed

No Country For Old Men (2007)

No country for younger women, either.

Some of my literary-minded friends are big fans of Cormac McCarthy, but I’ve never read his work.  After watching this movie, I’m not sure that I want to start.  I have trouble getting behind a film so abstruse.  It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, such as they are, so you’ve been warned now.

The film centers around three characters, who are indirectly tied to each other.  There’s Anton, the psychopathic killer off on a killing spree that is apparently (but not clearly, to me) connected to the random Mexican shootout-style execution in the desert.  That’s where the second character, Llewelyn (an unusually popular name for these Coen Brothers’ films), comes in.  He’s stumbled upon a truckload of heroin and a satchel of money, which sets Anton on his trail with often mystical precision.  Then, just for the hell of it, there’s a sheriff, Ed Tom, who seems to be investigating the string of murders, but doesn’t seem very good at the job considering he never comes close to catching the bad guy.

Maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I didn’t really get what was happening most of the time, beyond the immediate danger of someone escaping the obvious fate of a weird air-pumped bullet to the face.  Stuff happened, and then it stopped happening, and I was left wondering what the hell the point was.  Even one of the main characters randomly died off-camera, with absolutely no fanfare, such that I wasn’t even sure he was actually dead until the end credits roll.  Sure, I suppose I’m just a sucker for clear narrative arcs and relatable characters.  If I had to sum up my experience with this film, it would be:  “Um, what?”

Oh, and just in case my feelings are not yet clear, I’d like to complain about the affectation of the characters’ speech, specifically that of Ed Tom.  Okay, maybe there are in fact people who say “fixin’ to” do stuff and all that, but in this movie, to me, it just comes off as forced “country” talk, too affected for the characters to feel totally genuine.  It’s dialogue for people who aren’t country folk but want to pretend to be a macho Western sheriff for a while.  That’s fine, I guess, but that’s not me.

Many of my friends (probably even some of you reading this right now) are fans of the Coen Brothers.  I guess Fargo was okay, but I didn’t see the appeal of The Big Lebowski, and I’ve probably not seen any of the others.  What am I missing?

 

Theme:  Crime Spree

First Time Watching?  Yes, and last

Final Verdict:  Just a coin

 

 

 

Chicago (2002)

 

Well, this was a fun little flick to close out the month.  I’ve been living in a cave since 2002 (and probably earlier since this was originally on Broadway), so I didn’t actually know anything about this movie except that it was a musical.  Little did I realize it fell into one of my more favored genres, the dark comedy.  As an added bonus, the film features bad girls, glorifying them in the same way we’ve been admiring the moxie of our gangsters since the jazz age.  It’s like Orange is the New Black, or at least what I imagine it would be like, not having watched it myself.  There’s singing in OITNB, right?

It’s interesting, and rather fitting, to contrast this movie with the first one I watched this month, The Broadway Melody.  Both are female-focused musicals, with a sort of meta narrative about performance.  But where the first felt more like an attempt to replicate the exact on-stage theatrical performance, Chicago plays with both the musical genre and film itself to tell a story.  I especially loved the marionette scene, where dancers are choreographed as puppets, all of them controlled by the mastermind defense lawyer played by Richard Gere.  Just layers upon layers going on there.

I’ve never seen a musical on stage, I don’t think – certainly not a real Broadway show.  I guess technically, there was that one year Shakespeare on the Common did a mashup of Shakespeare with old Rat Pack songs.  Does that count?  I don’t even know.  But my point is, I realize that there are certain customs and tropes in musicals that I simply don’t get because I’m not familiar with the genre.  While that might bother me in some other cases, here it didn’t.  It felt accessible and engaging, even though virtually every moment of the film was a song.

In this particular case, it’s a little harder to run a Bechdel Test.  Does it count as a conversation if two women happen to be singing in the same song?  If they’re discussing ways to be cleared of a crime, does it matter that it was for a man’s murder if they don’t actually mention the man in dialogue?  Regardless, it’s an academic discussion, because there are enough moments between the many women in prison, discussing their respective crimes (of which all are perfectly innocent), to pass the test.  Why aren’t there more movies like this?  I might actually watch musicals in that case.

And so ends another theme month here at the ol’ Oscar blog.  As we hit the halfway point of the year, I’m pleased to report that I’ve officially watched exactly half of the movies on the Best Picture list.  Right on target.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep this up so long.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve felt a bit more strain about the whole process, like I’m always on the verge of having to watch another movie, post another blog, swing by the library for another pair of requested movies.  Warmer weather also makes me less eager to spend an afternoon in front of the TV.

There’s even a librarian who’s clearly a movie buff, taking note of all the classics I pick up, once or twice a week.  I tried to explain my project once, as I’ve tried to do with other casual acquaintances, but it’s hard to say why I’m doing it.  And if I’ve managed to keep up this habit, why not other more useful ones, like exercise or flossing?  I’d like to think I’m learning something about myself in the process.  But I guess I still have six months to figure out what it is.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?

Final Verdict:  There ain’t no justice in the world

Crash (2005)

At the risk of exposing my lack of attention or inability to follow non-linear storylines, I have something to confess:  I know there’s a “crash” in this movie, maybe even multiple crashes (including metaphorical ones, oooooh), but damned if I can figure out who all was involved and what happened to them.  Because, okay – there’s the crash in the beginning with the black guy who turns out to be a detective, and it’s apparently a big one, but it’s also noteworthy that it’s nighttime.  Later on, though, we see the wife of the movie producer in a (different?) crash, but it’s daytime.  What gives?  It’s not like they called this movie “Crashes.”

Although I tend to struggle with large casts of characters, in theory I like the idea of stories with multiple threads that overlap and interweave, and on the surface, Crash is entertaining for that.  I’ve read that this film is generally considered to be overrated and undeserving of its Oscar win, so I was expecting a hot mess.  I don’t really find it to be a hot mess so much as a bit heavy-handed and ultimately kind of unsatisfying.

Pretty much every character in Crash is either reprehensible with a brief moment of redemption or generally okay/sympathetic until they do something terrible.  At best, we’re left with the uncomfortable sense that everyone is just moments away from spewing blatantly offensive insults toward people of different races from us.  While there may be some truth to that, it would be nice to see a movie that addresses racism in its subtler methods.  It’s easy to look at a character like Matt Dillon’s (I didn’t pick up the names while viewing the movie, and I’m certainly not going back to look them up now) and say, “Wow, what a racist; I am definitely a way better person than he is.”  Far harder is to look at the more insidious ways we are terrible to each other.

My favorite character was the locksmith, the young Latino guy who was accused of being a gang member.  He’s one of the few who came out of the movie looking pretty decent, and the scenes with his daughter were the only ones that inspired a genuine emotion in me besides discomfort.

I was also reminded of a lesser-known TV show that I think pre-dated this movie but used a similar conceit.  It was called Boomtown, a police procedural that took place in LA and featured the unusual trick of showing each week’s crime from the perspective of various characters.  When it worked well, it was a really clever method of storytelling, revealing surprising things about the lives of the detectives, uniformed cops, journalists, district attorney, and EMTs involved in cases.  There were also far fewer racial slurs and assholes, so there’s that.  Maybe I’ll just go back and rewatch it on DVD.

Crash:  better than advertised.  Because it was advertised to be utter crap.  It’s also worth pointing out that, among a swath of unrealistic circumstances in the movie (all these people keeping bumping into each other in such a massive city!), the most improbable:  a black guy gets pulled over by the cops in a suspected stolen vehicle and gets out of it without being shot by police or even arrested.  I don’t even think that’s supposed to be funny.

 

Theme:  crossing paths

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Probably an unprintable racial slur

 

The Hurt Locker (2009)

 

From above a flat. and dry desert floor, a person in a green military uniform with heavy padding holds red wires attached to seven pill-shaped bomb canisters scattered around him. At the top of the poster are three critics' favorable opinions: "A near-perfect movie", "A full-tilt action picture", and "Ferociously suspenseful". Below the quotes is the title "THE HURT LOCKER" and the tagline, "You don't have to be a hero to do this job. But it helps."

Like most people, I was entirely unaware of Jeremy Renner’s existence for a long time, and then suddenly he was everywhere.  He was Hawkeye, then he was in that other action movie, and the fairy tale one, then he was Hawkeye again…  Basically my knowledge base of cinema comes from comic book movies.  Here’s apparently where it all started.

So, okay, Jeremy Renner.  By the time he comes on the scene in The Hurt Locker, we’ve already encountered the classic war movie tropes of “soldiers demonstrate how Real they are by talking about their dicks” and “soldiers chat about something innocuous just before somebody bites it.”  Maybe that’s the same thing.  Then in comes the guy who isn’t a team player.

I had trouble enjoying this movie because I hated Renner’s character so much.  He’s good in the role, and meant to be unlikeable – the maverick who’s so caught up in his own experience that he ignores the needs of his fellow soldiers.  But that’s the problem – he may be good at defusing bombs, but he’s a terrible commanding officer.  So many of his decisions seem based not even on seeking adventure, but of recklessly challenging death, like he’s on a suicide mission that he repeatedly fails.

And sure, I’ve definitely enjoyed a few unlikeable, self-destructive characters in my day.  Dr. House.  Starbuck.  Sherlock.  I try to avoid such people in real life because, I’ve come to find, if someone is an asshole, it really doesn’t matter how smart or talented they are.  Jerks can certainly be successful, but in real life, I think they’re more tolerated than admired.

If you’ve followed this blog from the beginning, you may recall that I first planned to do this Oscar-movie-watching exercise a couple years ago.  So I watched this film once before.  Though I recalled some of the tenser moments – the long wait in the desert for the snipers, the bizarre trip off-base that still doesn’t entirely make sense – I couldn’t remember how it actually ended.  And now I realize why:  because it kind of doesn’t.  It’s less a movie about change or even self-realization than it is a character study.  Renner starts out a particular way, which is further revealed to us in a series of vignettes, and he survives to do it all over again.  There’s a quote at the beginning of the picture that says “war is a drug.”  I guess that’s really what addiction is, put simply, doing something that’s not good for you because you can’t help yourself.

So we come to the end of the cruelest month, and the cruelest topic.  Next month, I’ll try to return to sappy musicals and slapstick comedies.  I’ll be taking a bit of a break next week, but I’m excited about my next theme month, scheduled for June!  Stay tuned.

 

Theme:  War

Which War:  Iraqi Freedom

First Time Watching?  No, I watched this once before

Final Verdict:  A once-in-a-lifetime experience

 

The Departed (2006)

Just recently, I heard “I’m Shippin’ Up to Boston” for the first time in ages.  It was one of those ubiquitous songs back when this movie came out, especially in Boston.  People crap their pants when they hear the name of their city in popular culture.  I don’t know why.  City names are pretty much interchangeable.  I’m shippin’ up to Juneau WHOA-OH-OA!

So, yeah.  In case you didn’t realize, this movie takes place in Boston.  Some of the characters seem a little uncertain about whether they’re from Boston or not, based on their curious relationship with the letter R.  I found the variability of accents rather interesting as a Boston transplant, because it was years before I actually began interacting with people with local accents on a regular basis, and this film makes it seem like every resident of Boston has to make an attempt at it.  In reality, there are so many people like me who came as students that it feels like a different place entirely from the gang-driven world of The Departed.  I mean, not that I’m complaining.

I’m going to spoil this movie here, but everybody dies by the end.  Everybody.  It’s like the end of Hamlet, where you kind of wonder who the hell is going to run Denmark now, but you’re never going to find out because it’s all over.  To be fair, the title of the movie kind of gives it away.  Apparently nobody is dearly departed, but they’re dead nonetheless.

Most of this movie was really enjoyable.  It was full of tension and humor, with the sort of skillful dramatic irony to keep it interesting, and a few extra secrets kept until the end.  But it’s the final half-hour or so that frustrated me.  Unlike in Shakespeare’s tragedies, I couldn’t really see the point to it all once everyone kicked it. As a result, nothing was left ambiguous or open-ended.  Maybe you can feel satisfied that whoever you hated got his comeuppance, but that’s tempered by the realization that nobody came out a victor, either.  Except maybe the shrink.  She slept with not one, but two, of her patients and probably didn’t even lose her license or anything.

Leo finally got his Oscar.  Whitey Bulger finally got caught and sent to jail.  They’ve stopped playing the Dropkick Murphys song constantly.  All is well in Boston.

 

Theme:  undercover

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Hot psychiatrist pick-up line:  “Have I seen you…professionally?”

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

So, I swear that when I planned to watch this the day after Rocky, I didn’t realize it was another boxing movie. Sure, I probably knew the basic premise at some point, but as I navigated from the Best Picture list to Netflix, I didn’t know what I was in for.

Actually, all I knew about Million Dollar Baby was from a random joke on The Office (which I didn’t get at the time, but turned out to be kind of a major spoiler). Even that hanging in the back of mind didn’t prevent me from loving this film.

As I’ve mentioned, I have a soft spot for boxing. I have an even softer spot for stories about misfits or loners who find each other. At its core, this was a love story. We never needed to learn the meaning of mo chuisle to know that it was a term of endearment. It’s fitting somehow that it’s expressed in a means both open to all and couched in secrecy, like an inside joke to which only Frankie knows the punchline.

Yes, there were some problematic moments. I really wish Maggie’s welfare-cheat family had a little more complexity to them, and that the issue of poverty (theirs and Maggie’s) was more than just a caricature. But I suppose it served the greater story, that of building a relationship between Frankie and Maggie. It’s a film that warrants re-watching, not because to catch the things you might have missed the first time around, but to appreciate moments of poignancy.

I enjoyed contrasting this film with Rocky, to see what a difference twenty years could make in a best picture. Both felt realistic, but also of their time. Boxing is kind of a man’s world, where the women can participate only if they prove themselves to be as masculine as the male heroes. Rocky had a feeling of allegory to it, like David facing Goliath or the Tortoise and the Hare. Million Dollar Baby had a sense of the fantastic to it, with its dramatic voiceover and the fairy-tale story of Maggie’s meteoric rise to stardom. One story of an unexpected rise, the other of a fall. It’s almost as if Million Dollar Baby is a sequel of sorts, not that Rocky really needed another one.

One of my favorite episodes of Battlestar Galactica featured boxing: “Unfinished Business.” It’s sort of a strange episode, half of it flashback, where not much of anything happens. The characters are in a sort of holding pattern, trying to come to terms with what they’ve just survived – the Cylon occupation on New Caprica. Naturally, they resolve their frustrations by beating the shit out of each other. And somehow, by the end of the episode, things have shifted a bit. They’ve regained some of their trust.

Boxing is a sport of trust. Trust in trainers and the people in your corner; trust in your own endurance and power. Rocky showed us the latter, trusting in your ability to carry on against the odds. Million Dollar Baby shows us the strength that can be found between a fighter and her trainer. Trust is love.

Theme:  Boxing

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  It was darling.