A gaudy, gorgeous rush of colour, sound and motion, Slumdog Millionaire, the latest from the British shape-shifter Danny Boyle, doesn’t travel through the lower depths; it giddily bounces from one horror to the next.
Jamal (the British actor Dev Patel in his feature film debut), who earns a living as a chaiwallah serving fragrant tea to call-centre workers in Mumbai and who, after a series of alternating exhilarating and unnerving adventures, has landed in the hot seat on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Yet, while the story opens with Jamal on the verge of grabbing the big prize, Simon Beaufoy’s cleverly kinked screenplay, adapted from a novel by Vikas Swarup, embraces a fluid view of time and space, effortlessly shuttling between the young contestant’s past and his present, his childhood spaces and grown-up times.
Who’ll it be? (clockwise from top left) The Oscar statuette; Winslet and Kross in The Reader; and Pitt in Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The young actors (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubina Ali) are very appealing and sympathetic, and the images are invariably pleasing even when they shouldn’t be—it’s unsettling to watch these young characters and, by extension, the young non-professionals playing them, enact such a pantomime. Here, narrative doesn’t begin and end: It flows and eddies—just like life.
Also nominated for: Best cinematography, direction, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, adapted screenplay and three nominations for music written for motion pictures (one for original score and two for original song).
India release: Currently showing
Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black, is certainly a serious and important movie grounded in historical events but it manages to evade many of the traps and compromises of the period biopic with a grace and tenacity worthy of its title character.
That would be Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), a neighbourhood activist elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and murdered, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber), by a former supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin) the next year. Milk, among the first openly gay elected officials in the country, had a profound impact on national politics, and his rich afterlife in American culture has affirmed his status as pioneer and martyr. Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before. Milk is the best live-action mainstream American movie I have seen this year.
Also nominated for: Best actor in a leading role, actor in a supporting role, costume design, directing, film editing, music written for motion pictures (original score) and original screenplay.
India release: Currently showing
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which occupies around 25 pages in the collected works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a charming fantasy about a man who ages in reverse, descending through the years from newborn senescence to terminal infancy.
Cate Blanchett is Daisy, a dancer and all-around free spirit who ages gracefully, before our eyes, into a stately modern matron and then into a wasted, breathless old woman. Brad Pitt, for the most part, plays Benjamin, who is born, looking like a man in his 70s, into a prominent New Orleans family in 1918.
While the film’s plot progresses in a straight line through the decades of Button’s life, the backward vector of that biography turns this Curious Case into a genuine mystery.
Also nominated for : Best actor in a leading role, actress in a supporting role, art direction, cinematography, costume design, direction, film editing, make-up, music written for motion pictures (original score), sound mixing, visual effects and adapted screenplay.
India release: 27 February
The Reader is a scrupulously tasteful film directed by Stephen Daldry about an erotic affair that turns to love. It is also, more obliquely, about the Holocaust and the generation of Germans who came of age after that catastrophe. This, at any rate, is what the film would have us believe it’s about, though mostly it involves Hanna (Kate Winslet), her taut belly and limbs gleaming under the caressing light, deflowering a very surprised-looking teenage boy, Michael (David Kross), who grows up to become a depressed-looking Ralph Fiennes.
In time the lovers separate, and the story skips to the 1960s, with Michael wearing sideburns and attending law school. One day, a professor takes him and a few other students to a court where some women are being tried for Nazi war crimes, which is how Hanna re-enters Michael’s life. During the proceedings he comes to realize her secret, her shame, which has nothing to do with her being a Nazi prison guard: She’s illiterate. She goes to prison and years pass. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: It’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.
Also nominated for: Best actress in a leading role, cinematography, direction, and adapted screenplay.
India release: Last week of February or the first week of March
The big-screen edition of Peter Morgan’s theatrical smackdown Frost/Nixon is directed by Ron Howard and adapted by Morgan. The film revisits the televised May 1977 face-off between the toothy British personality David Frost and the disgraced former president Richard M. Nixon three years after he left office, trimming their nearly 30-hour armchair-to-armchair spar into a tidy 122-minute narrative of loss and redemption that, at least from this ringside seat, would be better titled Nixon/Frost.
Anchored by its first-rate leads, who originated the roles on the London stage—Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost—the movie is a talkathon embellished with camera movements. Stories of lost crowns lend themselves to drama, but not necessarily audience-pleasing entertainment, which may explain why Frost/Nixon registers as such a soothing, agreeably amusing experience, more palliative than purgative.
Also nominated for: Best actor in a leading role, direction, film editing and adapted screenplay.
India release: 27 March
Review excerpts compiled from different articles.
©2009/The New York Times
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