The Cynical Optimist – 27/1/09

Here are some bite-sized reviews of films you should have already seen. I’ve been viewing so many films lately, and been so busy with other pursuits, that I’ve lost track of time to write reviews for my own enjoyment. As I said, you should already have ticket stubs to these examples of cinematic excellence, but if for some reason you haven’t seen one of the below films – What the hell are you waiting for!?

Slumdog Millionaire

This wonderful, soaring film by director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) tells the story of Jamal Malik, an impoverished Indian teen who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to be A Millionaire?”

With the whole nation watching, Jamal is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees, but when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could aslumdog know so much? Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slums, and how he knew the answers to the questions that were asked of him.

There isn’t a single thing about Slumdog Millionaire that isn’t perfect. The composition of shots, the colors, the brilliant soundtrack, the acting – everything comes together immaculately to create one of the best pieces of cinema offered in a long time. Boyle’s work here is a shoe-in for the Best Motion Picture Academy Award this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his little film picked up Best Director, Best Writer, a few other statues on its way out the door.

5 Stars

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

In director David Fincher’s latest film, life isn’t measured in minutes, but in moments. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, adapted from the 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is about a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are, for lack of a better word at the moment, awesome. And I don’t mean in the Ninja Turtles, Surfer Dude kind of way I mean. I mean it in the formidable, amazing, heart-stirring, wonderful kind of way. Fincher’s signature style, the lighting, the beautiful production design – everything in this masterpiece is tantalizing to the heart, the eyes and the mind.

This movie was so completely emotional and sentimental to me – a definitive film that I will never forget. There are moments of towering joy and ecstasy followed by profound sorrow. This is a film about losing the ones we love. I haven’t had such a breathtaking, touching experience at the movie theater in my life.

In the spirit of Tim Burton’s Big Fish and Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button weaves a wonderful modern-day fable that perfectly balances fantasy and the heartfelt human experience.

5 Stars

Valkyrie

Valkyrie, the latest film by director Bryan Singer, details the true-life conspiracy within the German army to assassinate Adolf Hitler, leading to a failed bombing attempt on July 20, 1944.

At the center of the plot was Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise as the moving force behind the attempted coup, which led to 700 arrests and 200 executions. Cruise is joined in this plot by an astounding supporting ensemble of actors including Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh and Terrence Stamp.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the man can act. Sure, he may spend his leisure time jumping on couches and getting in heated arguments with Matt Lauer, occasionally preaching to Brooke Shields about using anti-depressants – but I’ll be damned if the guy isn’t one of the brightest stars to ever come from Hollywood. After giving a genius performance in Tropic Thunder, Cruise has come back full-force with this epic World War II picture.

Not only is Valkyrie a savior for Cruise’s career, but director Bryan Singer’s as well. After making The Usual Suspects, as well as X-Men and X2: X-Men United, Singer practically fell off the map after making Superman Returns. I personally loved Superman Returns (and I hate Superman) but to the general public, it seemed as if he had pulled a Shyamalan and disappeared completely.

Luckily, Valkyrie proved to be the right decision – the right film to make to put him back on track. Everything about this film is worthy of note. There is richness, an authenticity that cannot be duplicated with this picture. The costumes, the production design, the sound and lightning – the gorgeous cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel – everything is crisp and appealing to the eye.

The film is also insanely absorbing and suspenseful. It’s an old school thriller with great moments of action and nail-biting tension. In an age when computer-generated visual effects dominate the film industry, it’s wonderful to see a film like Valkyrie in which the performances and the story take priority. And while the film does feature special effects, they are seamlessly integrated into the film to make it truly feel like 1944.

While Valkyrie won’t be getting any Oscars this season, it’s a film worthy of your time and money, especially if you are a big history buff.

4.5 Stars

Gran Torino

Disgruntled Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski sets out to reform his neighbor, a young Hmong teenager, who tried to steal Kowalski’s prized possession: his 1972 Ford Gran Torino.

Clint Eastwood is a legend, no doubt about it. The guy has given Hollywood a baker’s dozen of legendary, unforgettable performances. He’s directed Academy Award-winning motion pictures. He’s become a notable producer and composer. The guy has done it all, and yet, he refuses to quit.

I’ll be honest, in recent years I’ve grown to hold an unjustified detestation toward ol’ Blondie, or Harry Callahan, however you prefer to remember him as. I’ve got this feeling deep down inside of me that the guy only makes films in hopes that they will win Academy Awards. At the same time, it’s hard to deny his talent as a director. Mystic River. Million Dollar Baby. Letters From Iwo Jima.

That’s why, when I first heard of Gran Torino, I wasn’t really that interested. But then, after seeing the trailer and learning more about the project, I turned around and decided to give it a shot – and I am so glad I did. This was a great film, and Eastwood still knows how to light up the screen with a commendable performance.

It’s a gritty, hard-nosed film about life and death. Racism, violence, the horrors of war, the temptation of revenge and the redemption that comes to a man who has lived his life the long way for too long. While it isn’t quite Best Picture material, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clint Eastwood pulled out a Best Actor nomination.

Gran Torino is a must-see- it has found its way onto my Top Ten of 2008 posthumously. My only regret is that I didn’t see it sooner.

4 Stars

When I return for Pt. II, I’ll have reviews for Doubt, Revolutionary Road, Man On Wire and The Wrestler so stay tuned.