Archive for February, 2009

Film: Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews on February 24, 2009 by baker

It’s time to clarify that the review of Milk I posted several weeks ago was a joke from start to finish, a sarcastic response (full of suggestions to that effect, I hope) to my belief that Van Sant might have made a nearly flawless film – and that Penn has never, ever, been more effortlessly natural.  I say this now because the sarcasm was lost on many, and because I want to make it abundantly clear that there is no sarcasm involved when I say that Slumdog Millionaire is a vigorously obnoxious movie, a grab bag of cliches and sparkly popness mechanically designed to wring all manner of thick, buoyant emotions from our unwitting selves.  There’s no resisting a film like this; there’s nothing, in fact, that actually touches us.  Instead, we’re bombarded with stimuli to the point where our conscious brains quit, resigned to the knowledge that they are irrelevant compared with the blunt force trauma of pop spectacle.

I admit I put off seeing this movie, for two reasons.  One, I was advised not to by a friend who grew up in Bombay, and who found Slumdog‘s flavor a touch unsavory; and two, because it became as popular as it did.  In the summer of 2000, I spent five weeks at work on an archaeological site in Greece with a curmudgeonly Midwestern archaeologist who insisted, when pressed, that if a film was popular, it wasn’t worth seeing.  His attitude seemed elitist at the time.  But over the years, his logic has begun to make at least theoretical sense.  If a film works for a broad audience of such divergent interests and backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures, languages and ideologies, what on earth does it know that so many other films don’t?  Have these films struck universal chords consistent among people as a species?  Is that even possible?

I guess a fella’s answer to that question would say a lot about his attitude as a whole, and I’m not deaf to the pessimistic overtones I’ll incur by saying that I don’t think it’s wholly possible, no.  I think what such entertainments latch onto are common escapist fantasies, where real violence never kills, cute kids embody innocence, song and dance is the greatest imaginable expression of joy, and social disorder affects no one in the face of a united cause.  Affirming these fantasies is no crime, but it hardly makes a film insightful, or even honest for that matter, especially when a film like Slumdog – like so many Western entertainments, and now, frequently, indigenous ones too – sashays so casually over content that should be treated with at least respectful complexity.

Opening Slumdog with the onscreen text that asks whether the following story is a function of luck, cheating, smarts, or fate is a fairly sinister way of coaxing us to think of dramatic license as moral dilemma – sinister because it prefers that we shut down our intellect first.  No amount of narrative preparation should preclude us from seeing that this movie consciously mixes a coming-of-age story with a rags-to-riches story and a crime thriller for no better reason than that they’re all recognizable genres with inevitable conclusions (one way or the other), and will thus keep us mindlessly on the edge of our seats until each preordained question is answered: will the guy get the girl?  will he win the money?  will the bad guys lose?  Furthermore, no amount of sexy canted Dannypants photography or rhythm-busting editing should distract us from the fact that, whichever way each of those posed questions goes, there is nothing to be gleaned from them except the resolution of posed questions.

So why do I care?  Maybe because I suspect Danny Boyle doesn’t really care, that he’s only in it for the fun of the whole thing.  There are directors who build movies on the peaks and call it drama; there are also those who, in defiance, build them on nothing but troughs and call it art.  But there’s a realm between both, the whole damn wave, where unique emotions happen and peculiar experiences incite mysteries, ones not to be solved.  It’s a broad place, and it demands patience and breathing room, two things Slumdog scornfully represses in favor of hopscotching from one dramatic high point to the next, in a high-wire act impressive for its consistency alone.  I suppose there’s something to be said for uniformity.  But it’s the kind that makes “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” popular, where there’s no space for anything but tension.  And it’s also the kind that draws such enormous audiences to “American Idol” or “Top Model”, where the tension lies in seeing who will fail and who will rise to meteoric success as a flagbearer of pop nonsense.

Boyle’s made an appreciable career out of nonsense, from the amusing darkness of Shallow Grave (1995) and Trainspotting (1996) to the silly visual pleasures of The Beach (2000) and the terrifying first half of 28 Days Later…(2002).  What he’s never shown was much interest in or aptitude for artistry or intellect, content to settle for slapdash kineticism over narrative logic or depth.  Slumdog is no different, cut together from incongruous shots of little particular rhythm, with an atrociously aggressive sound mix (I spent whole scenes with my hands over my ears to dull the physical pain) laden with a World Beat score cynically crafted to undermine any real taste of modern India in favor of a more familiar taste of Western influence on modern India.  Yes, one could argue that that is modern India.  Having never visited, I couldn’t say.  But in my travels I’ve found that the divergences from my own culture have been more interesting to me than the McDonald’s or the Coca-Cola.  And language confusion aside, I’ve never had trouble understanding the people as human beings – a problem Boyle conveniently sidesteps by casting the cutest postcard Indian children alive, lest a Western audience be turned off by unattractive Mumbai slum kids in a film about them.

It’s not even that any one of these problems on its own would kill the movie.  It’s that collectively, they reveal just how calculated and contrived Slumdog really is, a movie as formulaic as Titanic and as manipulative as The Cider House Rules.  It’s also willfully disdainful of the full capacities of cinema: to accomplish worthy insight into life through sound and image alone, by capturing behavior and, yes, even spectacle, that reveals complicated truth.  If Slumdog weren’t so peacockishly proud of its simplicity I might not care so much, but I suspect I’m doubly annoyed by its popularity as an apparent cultural icon of some sort.  The Oscars have never been a reliable barometer of cinematic artistry (Kramer vs Kramer over Apocalypse NowGladiator over Traffic?), and we all know this, but at some level they are an indicator of our year-to-year attitude toward the part movies play in our social mood.  It may be that the Academy burned away its quota of taste last year with No Country for Old Men, though we were clearly more willing, for some reason, to grapple with darkness last year.  No Country might not be much deeper a film than Slumdog, but it wasn’t afraid of disturbing our illusions of pervasive goodness by suggesting that sometimes good is just irrelevant compared with the blunt force trauma of evil.  I wish that wasn’t the case, but I also wish we weren’t so uncomfortable with that fact.


Posted in Uncategorized on February 19, 2009 by baker

Airfield Films is casting ‘Plastic”, a thirty-minute film about the aftermath of a mature relationship between a teacher and a pilot that haunts them both, literally and lyrically.  Andrew Baker directs, Matthew Griffin produces, and Rob Featherstone shoots.  Rehearsals will be started as soon as possible, and the film will be shot on 16mm over the course of several months, one or two days at a time, for roughy six days total.  Filming locations TBD, in New York City and environs.

Seeking EMILY, 30s, some mild nudity, simulated lovemaking; and ROB, 30s.  This film is heavily rooted in character voice and physicality.

Please submit an email with a headshot and resume, and one or two lines about yourself, to abaker79*at*  Auditions to be held in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn on SATURDAY, MARCH 7 by appointment.  If you are not available that day, please note this in your email.  Non-SAG, but some pay.

Film: Oliver Stone: W. (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on February 6, 2009 by baker

The most encouraging part of the aftermath of Barack Obama’s inauguration two weeks ago was the response from the rest of the world: the parties in Kenya, the good wishes from leaders across the globe.  I worked with two separate British production crews last week, both of whom seemed as relieved as any Americans I know to have not just a brilliant, charismatic black man in office, but a near-polar opposite of his predecessor, who sat stone-faced at the Capitol as Obama, standing a few feet away, tore down the former administration’s ideology, sharply criticizing both its excesses and its shortcomings as decidedly – if not in so many words – un-American.  In the two weeks since, a lot of us have been in a sort of slushy haze of happiness, as though we’ve finally discarded a bad relationship and started a new one that shows how much the last one hurt.

In that light, Oliver Stone’s W. is a curious thing.  I’m glad I saw it first when it came out in theaters, before the election, when McCain and Palin still stood a chance at the White House and resentment for George W. Bush still hung heavily around our collective neck.  Now, post-election, post-inauguration, W. feels at once like a better film and an unwelcome, redundant specter of the old relationship we abandoned.  With a new love in place, the old can’t serve us anymore, even in its instructive failure.  Or maybe we just don’t want it to.

It’s not without some irony that Oliver Stone makes this film.  He was once the most energetic of American filmmakers, splashing his guts across the screen with an artful wrecklessness approaching dementia, threatening to decog the gears with brute, impassioned force.  He wound up with pseudo-masterpieces like Born of the Fourth of July (1989), JKF (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), gorgeous, lustful films hampered only by Stone’s interpersonal ineptitude; he simply cannot build complex dynamics between characters with any tact or subtlety, and any scene that demands it clogs with syrup.  Stone is a man’s bleeding-heart man, filled with gutteral, inarticulate emotion that flows best with vinegar, with aggression.  The most visceral relationship in any of his films is between Mickey and Mallory, in part because Stone recruited two of the boldest young actors alive to play them, but also because when Mickey and Mallory are not making love with the extravagance of teenagers, they’re killing people – perhaps the least tactful act imaginable.

Extravagance is Stone’s specialty, but since the mid-90s, there’s been another dimension to his films that has alternatively served him well and destroyed his expressionistic cache.  It’s a sort of cartoonish excess, the other side of a tenuous tonal line that, until Natural Born Killers, he never really crossed, although he was clearly aching to.  He treated his last great film, Nixon, with his usual restrained solemnity, but his next film, U-Turn (1997), displays a grostesque lampoonery – a black, black circus of slapdash behavior, disgusting in its excess.  His camera, never a stranger to vertigo, reels off the reels, and his storytelling collapses in a viscous overabundance of phlegm.  A phase of Stone’s development as a filmmaker is over, and despite abominably tone-deaf attempts like Alexander (2004) and World Trade Center (2006), he never returns to the austerity that used to work well for him.

But Any Given Sunday (1999), silliness aside, is full of enthusiasm, a certain mindless joy of filmmaking that seems somehow beneath Stone but will serve in grandeur’s absence.  His strongest traits are on full parade: dizzying camerawork, staccato sound editing, red-blooded characters steaming into battle.  All pretense of sobriety is gone.  Back in the late 70s and early 80s, when Stone was writing films like Midnight Express (1978) and Conan the Barbarian (1982), he was a cocain addict; he claims he gave it up during the writing of Scarface (1983), after which he disappeared for three years before emerging in 1986 with two films – Salvador and Platoon – of great sincerity and structural looseness.  I’m not sure it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that now, after once again casting aside the druggy glut that characterized his work in the 90s, he’s gotten back to something closer to himself: stylish films of well-meaning simplicity, hinting at greatness.

And more or less, that’s what he has made of W. With screenwriting credit carefully attributed to Stanley Weiser (who places probably too much emphasis on Bush’s daddy issues), Stone positions himself as the film’s sculptor of sound and image, not its author.  It’s an unusual credit sequence, akin to Elton John putting Bernie Taupin’s name before his own, and serves to distance Stone from W.‘s content.  He gets to paint Bush instead, to color him with a mixture of Josh Brolin’s characterization and visual aplomb – endlessly stuffing his face, skulking Nixon-like through rooms, kicking his feet up, all captured with a camera that embraces Brolin’s performance with an exaggerated warmth, a wool blanket a touch too heavy for the weather.  The effect is light comedy, just shy of affection.  Criticized in the past for humanizing Nixon, Stone seems content to view Bush as a self-caricature, a sincere man whose essential fecklessness shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  But his actions do have consequences, and Stone ultimately excoriates him as oblivious, his camera crawling close into Brolin’s eyes as they peer out at a world far too big and ambiguous for him.

Still, it’s hard not to see the parallels between Bush and Stone: men who live by their gut before their brains, gorging compulsively and expressing with relish – not to mention endowed with names of such perfectly earthy simplicity – and I think Stone, in spite of himself, feels a certain brotherly compassion for Bush.  The world has grown increasingly unforgiving of Bush, embittered over his staunch neglect of human rights and international cooperation, and Stone’s sad-clownish portrait smacks of an apology more than anything else.  Bush, he suggests, really was misunderstood, misunderestimated; he might has made a good leader if he weren’t so understandably fettered with the need to be appreciated.  I don’t know if this is the right instinct on Stone’s part.  In a sense it’s beside the point, because Stone gets to play with his camera for two hours at Bush’s expense, and the chuckles along the way are almost nostalgic for us.  There was a time when Bush’s incompetence provided so much fun, as well as a convenient target for our anger.  He was a great cosmic joke, but for all our incredulity that the joke existed and bore long-lasting ramifications that Obama will now have to undo before he can get around to governing, the irony was worth laughing over.  How else to live with it?

Now, in February 2009, it just feels old, and so does the film.  Nostalgically, this is no more Stone’s fault than it is Bush’s – or Obama’s, for that matter – but it does have something to do with Stone’s approach these days.  He’s lost the drive to plumb and invigorate.  His broad strokes blend together without edges, without snap, and I suspect he’s happy with that.  And although there are scenes reminiscent of Stone’s dextrous way with palace intrigue – the magnificent setpieces with Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, conjuring up the Axis of Evil and ogrishly strategizing the colonization of the Middle East – the problem is that the film lacks any broader perpective on Bush or his administration’s legacy, limiting the depth of its insights to Freudian impressions of Bush as a man.  The film itself drifts away on a breeze, pleasantly enough, but it reminds us of things we’re happy to put behind us.  The future is so much brighter, and carries so much awesome potential.