"Australia" *** 1/2 (165 minutes)

Thursday November 20, 2008

Off to another AFI Silver Theater members-only preview for one of this year's most highly anticipated Christmas season releases: Baz Luhrmann's glorious epic homage to Australia and the cinema. What you have here folks are enough motifs to please most any cinemaphile. I mean you got your western; you got your war film; you got your political statement on the ill treatment of the Aboriginals; you got your fantasy; you got your romance; you got your nod to a couple of Hollywood's most cherish masterpieces ("Wizard of Oz" & Gone With the Wind" to name but a few); you got your adventure; you got your luscious cinematography & score; you got your . . . well-you get the picture. In my opinion, Australian film directors and their films are among the best in history. Baz himself has produced 3 other critically acclaimed winners (1994's "Strictly Ballroom", 1996 "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet", & 2001's "Moulin Rouge"). Now comes this wonderful conglomeration that, despite it's length, will never bore and is likely to surprise on multiple levels. The story (Baz wrote the script with Stuart Beattie from Baz's idea) begins in 1939 and is narrated by Mullah (charismatic newcomer Brandon Walters) who has a pivotal role throughout as a prepubescent Aboriginal mixed breed. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) thinks her husband is unfaithful so she embarks to Australia to try and convince him to vacate his ranch and return with her to England. When she arrives, she discovers he's been murdered and that the evil land baron next door, King Carney (Bryan Brown) has been stealing her husband's cattle while also trying to obtain the ranch. To save the ranch, she needs to sell 1,500 cattle and proceeds to enlists the aid of rouge Aussie cowboy, Drover (played by People Mag's newly appointed Sexiest Man Alive Hugh Jackman) to drive the herd northward to the seaport of Darwin. Factor in ex-farmhand Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who joins forces with Carney after Ashley fires him when she learns that he has been aiding in the thefts. After the cattle drive, the western part of the tale turns into a war movie. The same Japanese planes that bombed Pearl Harbor are now on their way 4 weeks later to do the same to Darwin-which occurs just after the principals arrived. Overseeing the action is Mullah's grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil) whose presence is felt throughout. An interesting tidbit is that Drover was initially offered to Baz's bud Russell Crowe who rejected the offer in 2006 saying he doesn't do "charity work for major studios". The most expensive Australian movie ever made opens nationwide on 11/26.

"Slumdog Millionaire" ***1/2 (120 minutes)

Wednesday November 12, 2008

Danny Boyle has gone Bollywood! The talented English director who hit the ground running with 1995's critically acclaimed "Trainspotting" and more recently with "Millions", "Sunshine", & "28 Weeks Later", has directed this rousing crowd pleaser which embody many of the same ingredients coming out of the hugely successful Mumbai-based film industry in India. So, expect melodrama by the boatloads and, lively music throughout (although you have to wait until the closing credits to see the requisite dancing by the principals and hundreds of extras that will literally have you bouncing out of your seat with glee as you exit the theater). The film opens in Mumbai in 2006 where we see our 18 year old hero, Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel) in the "hot seat" who is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India's version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". (I loved the show's host played by Anil Kapoor, by the way. A smarmy version of Regis, who has his own agenda.) Suddenly, the show stops for the night and we see him being whisked away and tortured by the show's security force who believe he's cheated his way to being a possible national hero. You see, Jamal is a slumdog-a kid who has been an impoverished orphan forced to live on the streets of India with his older brother, Salim. How could he possibly know whose picture was on the American hundred dollar bill? A kid who has cheated, lied, and stole his way through life with nothing but street smarts as his only education. How in the world would he get this far in the contest WITHOUT cheating? Danny then proceeds to take us on a wild ride back and forth in time using ingenious editing, gorgeous cinematography, and pounding music that shows the security dudes and us how Jamal came to honestly know the answers-mainly by living them. Well . . . sort of. And it's that "sort of" that is the fun part of the journey as there is more at work here than mere knowledge. Boyle uses multiple actors (who look amazingly like the same character as they age) to play each of the 3 principal slumdogs, and alternates subtitles and English with ease (another Bollywood trait). Although I found the plot to be somewhat predictable and manipulable, overall, this one will have you mesmerized throughout. The winner of the audience award at this year's Toronto Film Festival, I wouldn't be surprised to see this one nominated as Best Picture come Oscar time!

"Let the Right One In" **** (104 minutes)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Back to Cinema Sundays at The Charles for, oh no!, another take on the vampire legend. Before you say, " no way-I know its been done before" I say how about this one: an intelligent coming-of-age vampire movie . . with heart! And if you say, "no way-this is not my cup of tea", I urge you to see this one with an open mind and if you do, you'll will be rewarded with one of the strongest films I've seen this year! This Swedish import knocked my socks off!! Beautifully shot (stark snowy Stockholm is stunning on the screen), beautifully acted, and beautifully written, this is the one to see in a season when, all of a sudden, we are being bombarded by the genre (HBO's new series, "True Blood", and the soon to be released Hollywood film, "Twilight"). Director Tomas Alfredson has crafted this beautiful love/horror story using a screenplay by Swedish horror writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel. Set in 1982, it tells the story of social outcast and picked-upon 12 year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) who one day happens upon his peculiar next door neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who happens to be "12-more or less". After she immediately tells Oskar that they can't be friends, circumstances brings them closer together. And we quickly learn that the adult living with Eli, is not her father but her companion who must find Eli's human nourishment on the streets of Stockholm. Although there are a couple of graphic scenes, they are artfully done with minimal shock value. (I mean, come on, you can't have a vampire film without SOME bloodletting.) But the characters are so richly drawn and the story so compelling that, to me, it all fit perfectly together for a totally satisfying filmic experience on so many levels. And the soundtrack by composer Johan Soderqvist ("Things We Lost in the Fire") is nothing short of wonderful-accompanying the action as perfectly as any film in recent memory. This masterpiece is garnishing well deserved critical acclaim (currently 48 out 50 critic approval tabulated on Rotten Tomatoes) and has already won numerous awards including "The Founders Award For Best Narrative Feature" at this years Tribeca Film Festival. Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") is already planning a domestic version (the good news is that he claims it is not a remake-that he is adapting the book from scratch and not merely copying this film). The title, by the way, comes from the title of a Morrissey song, but also has meaning in the narrative. The film opens at The Charles Theater in Baltimore on November 14th. Absolutely brilliant!