OK, so the Oscars are coming, and I've been making an effort to see some films that I think/have thought might be recognized.
First, there's Gran Torino. This latest (and perhaps last) work by Clint Eastwood (director and lead actor) features the man himself playing a veteran of the Korean war living as a widower in an urban neighborhood that has seen better days. When the movie starts, he's a complete grouch, disgusted with his grandchildren, and suspicious of the Asian family that has moved in next door. Coincidentally, this family is missing a father figure, and the younger brother, Thao, in the family is facing troubled times, including bullying by a gang including one of his cousins. To impress the gang, Thao tries to steal Clint's 1973 Gran Torino, and fails when Clint interrupts him.
Well, you know where this is going. When the gang comes back to harrass Thao, Clint comes out with a rifle (shotgun?) and tells them "Get off my lawn!" Not much more of the plot needs to be said, but it's worth saying that the manner in which Clint warms up to the Asians is convincing. Particularly endearing is Ahney Her as the older sister Sue. Also playing a major role in the film is Christopher Carley as the local priest who's been tasked by Clint's late wife to look after him.
(BTW, Clint's character is named Walter Kowalski, but who cares?)
There are some great dialogues in this film and Clint manages to pull off the gruff curmudgeon reasonably well, in spite of the fact that this character type has been beaten to death over the years. (Walter Matthau played aging curmudgeons starting at the age of 28. Not a joke!) This film succeeds in spite of the fact that it lays on the patriarchy angle a bit thickly. It is worth seeing for the banter alone.
Next up: Slumdog Millionaire! This latest flick from Danny Boyle tells the story of a young Indian man named Jamal Malik on the cusp of winning the top prize from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The movie starts with him being taken by the police, beaten and electrocuted so he'll admit to having cheated. He has, at that point, reached the final stages of the show, and nobody can believe that a slumdog like Jamal could know all of the answers.
Most of the film is told in flashback, as Jamal slowly explains how he knows the answers, and in doing so, tells the story of his life. For example, the first question asks the name of the actor who starred in a certain film in the 70s. Jamal tells the story of how he, as a very young boy, got Amitabh Bachchan's autograph in spite of being locked in a latrine by his older brother Salim. He escaped the latrine by jumping out the bottom into the pile of shit, and made his way through the crowd. Jealous Salim then sold the autographed picture while Jamal was taking a bath.
We see the life of Jamal and Salim go from there - we see their mother slain during an anti-Muslim riot, and how they are exploited by an orphanage in a truly Dickensian manner. Along the way, the two of them join forces with a girl named Latika, who becomes to focus of Jamal's adoration.
Slumdog Millionaire has a lot of the elements that make a film enjoyable. For starters, it shows what life in India is like, and that is not something American audiences know a lot about. It has the story of spunky orphans turning to petty crime, and then we see how petty crime becomes much more serious. It has a love triangle of sorts, and the strength of the family ties between Jamal and Salim are shown as they are tested time and time again.
What I felt sets Slumdog Millionaire apart from so many films is that it tells an interesting story. So many films either recycle used plots are just sit there, saying very little of interest. Every scence of Slumdog shows me a new side of life in India, or develops the characters in an interesting way. By the end of the film, as Jamal struggles with the final few questions, I found myself nearly shouting out the answers at him, even for a question about cricket where I know as little as Jamal does. My only concern as the film moved forward was concern about how Danny Boyle films often lose focus towards the end. Trainspotting, Sunshine, and 28 Days Later all thrived for the first hour + and then lost a bit of their direction towards the end.
My concerns were unfounded. Slumdog is a very enjoyable film and, given the weakness of the competition this year, it's the odds-on favorite for Best Picture.
My final review of the day is about the Kate Winslet vehicle The Reader. It's become a bit of a joke that Kate Winslet has no Oscar yet. In recent years we've seen Oscars go to Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, and Hillary Swank (twice!), none of whom is in Winslet's league as an actress. She joked about this for the Ricky Gervais show Extras, in which she played a nun fighting the Nazis.
One gets the suspicion that Winslet decided to push all the buttons with The Reader to go for the gold. Not only is she playing a former Nazi guard in a Holocaust story, she's also (minor spoiler) an illiterate hiding her lack of literacy! The film details an affair her character had during the late 50s, as a woman in her 30s with a local teenaged boy. Lots of sex ensues, but it didn't feel sexy so much as awkward and bizarre. The film really never addressed the bizarre nature of the affair directly (or adequately, IMO). And once it seems like it might be headed down that path, as the boy (played by David Kross) starts to flirt with girls his own age, and Hanna (Kate) starts getting jealous, the film up and cuts the affair off.
We fast forward nearly a decade. The boy, Michael, is now a law student, and his class attends the trial of several guards from Auschwitz. Included among the six women is, to his great suprise and astonishment, Kate! Um, Hanna. Without getting too much into the details, Michael knows that Hanna is being set up by the other guards to be more culpable than is fair, and she hides her (relative) innocence when her illiteracy would have given her a defense.
The film is somewhat maddening. The characters certainly are, as their motivations remain obscure. Winslet does a good job playing an inscrutable woman, but let's face it, "inscrutable" is pretty easy to do from an acting standpoint. I thought Kross did a very good job, and then later Ralph Fiennes shows up to play the adult Michael, by which point the film is starting to get very boring.
Somehow The Reader has gotten a Best Picture nomination. Suspicion is laid at the feet of the Weinstein brothers, who have managed to get nominations for all sorts of crap (remember Shakespeare in Love?) Winslet might even win this year. She's done better work: I'm a bigger fan of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and of Little Children. It's kind of sad that she's playing the Holocaust card and the illiteracy card here. I cannot recommend paying much money to see this film. Yes, Winslet is nude a lot, but anybody who calls this "soft-core porn" doesn't fathom porn at all. Y Tu Mama Tambien was soft-core porn. The Reader has a lot of sex, and yet it isn't terribly titillating.
Summary: of the three, Slumdog is the one to see. Gran Torino is also good, esp. for Eastwood fans. Winslet has done better.