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'Slumdog' may be destined for Oscar glory

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Posted: Thursday, December 25, 2008 10:00 pm

Clarification: In last week's review of "Frost/Nixon," interviewer David Frost was described as an "Australian TV personality." Of course, I meant that he was a personality on Australian TV (with failed shows elsewhere prior to his Nixon interview), but neglected to clarify his British nationality. Thanks to Mike Wilson for bringing this to my attention.

"Slumdog Millionaire"

*** 1/2 (out of four)

2008, Danny Boyle, U.K., R

First viewing.

Hollywood politics have a way of changing over the course of a very short period of time, but at the time of this writing, it looks like Danny Boyle's crowd-pleasing movie about hardship, love, fate and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" is well on its way to a best picture win at the Oscars next year. While it may not be fully deserving of the extraordinary amount of praise it is receiving from both audiences and critics, Boyle's film is pretty hard not to like. Based on the novel "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup, the movie tells the story of Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel), a young man who grew up in the slums of India but now finds himself competing for 20 million rupees on that country's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". How did he get there, and why does he seem to have all the answers despite his complete lack of formal education? That's what the local authorities want to know, and they're willing to grill Jamal pretty hard to get their own answers. During the lengthy interrogation, Jamal explains in flashback the circumstances that afforded him such useful knowledge (for instance, he knows the author of an obscure poem due to his experiences with a Fagin-esque criminal who blinds orphans with acid in order to boost their value as street performers), and "Slumdog Millionaire" very quickly takes on the feel of an old-fashioned fairy tale, complete with a purveying sense of darkness and real danger - key elements of any truly successful fairy tale.

"Another Woman"

* 1/2

1988, Woody Allen, U.S., PG

First viewing.

I like Woody Allen. I like to watch Woody Allen movies. What I don't like to do is pop in a Woody Allen film only to find that I'm not watching a Woody Allen movie at all, but am instead being tempted to fast-forward through a dreadfully dull bit of Freudian psychoanalysis in which Allen tries to channel Ingmar Bergman and fails quite spectacularly. In Allen's riff on "Wild Strawberries," Gena Rowlands stars as 50-year-old philosophy professor who is inspired to confront her own inner demons after accidentally eavesdropping on the talk therapy of a mysterious pregnant woman (Mia Farrow), and I cannot imagine a more dispassionate lead performance. One could attempt to argue that such abjection fits the role, but that's reaching; Rowland's performance is so devoid of anything even remotely resembling pathos that it's difficult to imagine that such a blank-slate turn was intentional in any way - she's just that uninteresting. Her maddening dreariness harms the rest of the film, which is well structured but suffers far too much at the hands of an actress who refuses to convey even the tiniest bit of real emotion. Quite a party foul, considering that the movie is about, you know, feelings and stuff.

"Gates of Heaven"

**** (Masterwork Selection)

1978, Errol Morris, U.S., PG

First viewing.

I'm not quite sure how Errol Morris does it, or even exactly what it is that he "does." All I know is that, more than other documentary filmmaker, Morris is able to take any subject - literally any subject at all, from the simple, quirky denizens of "Vernon, Florida" to the terrifyingly sad figure at the heart of "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." - and make it seem like the most interesting and vital thing in the entire world. Take this film, an 85-minute ditty from 1978 that tackles the seemingly superfluous topic of pet cemeteries. Under Morris almost supernaturally observational eye, such a "throwaway" subject becomes a window into nothing less than the meaning of life. Now, Morris isn't egotistical enough to think that he can fully encapsulate such a theme over the course of just 85 minutes, but by letting his interview subjects do all of the talking, and simply capturing their strangely profound observations, Morris' invisible technique enables ordinary people - the "simple folk" owners of pet cemeteries, and the clients they serve - to make the most extraordinary observations. This is the kind of magic you can't plan; it just happens. And if you're ever wondering why Roger Ebert cites it as one of the 10 best films ever made, just watch the famous monologue delivered by a lonely old woman whose stray cats don't seem to come around as much anymore. Under the influence of another filmmaker, it could come across as cliché and cloying - a sick joke, perhaps - but Morris withholds judgment or even clear empathy, and simply lets his subject reveal hopes and fears in a vernacular that would make Faulkner proud.

"A History of Violence"

**** (Masterwork Selection)

2005, David Cronenberg, U.S., R

Repeat viewing.

I have respect for plot twists, and try to maintain their integrity whenever possible. But on rare occasions, the discussion of a film's "secrets" is absolutely imperative if one wishes to have any kind of meaningful dialogue about a work's greatness. David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" is such a film, and that greatness lies within the character of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small-town family man who finds himself bestowed with the title of local hero after he kills two hoodlums who try to rob his diner and murder any witnesses. Days later, amidst the national media coverage, dangerous men show up from Philadelphia, claiming that they recognize Tom. They say he isn't "Tom" at all, but Joey Cusack, a psychotic mobster who made a lot of enemies in Philly before disappearing 20 years earlier. Is Tom really Joey? (Spoiler alert, I guess.) Of course he is, and this portrait of a man making the transition from beast to human and back again would be completely meaningless if he were not. Cronenberg is operating from the framework of a traditional genre thriller, but he subverts the form by making Joey into a concept instead of a character. He's the ultimate killing machine - fast, ruthless and, as one character notes, very, very good at what he does. But can a civilized man coexist with his more primal impulses? The film functions as a thriller and delivers the action (it is among the most realistically, gruesomely violent action movies ever made), but also asks us to take a step back and consider our own reactions to the incredible acts of violence (physical, sexual, psychological) that take place on screen.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net

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