Monday, November 24, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

4 out of 5 Stars
Ah India! A country so beautiful and at the same time decayed by religious and political strife. It would be hard to take a bad photo of Mumbai. Danny Boyle does not disappoint, on the contrary, he has created a film which so completely captures the beauty and chaos that is India -- the juxtaposition of the breath takingly peaceful, serene and romantic Taj Mahal surrounded by the slums of the lowest caste eagerly peddling their wares, and watching Indian 'Millionaire' on beat up television sets. Via the Indian train, the film captures both Bombay and it's surroundings as well as Agra and the Taj Mahal.

The gist of the story is so inherently Hindu that at times I wanted to cry out of plain adoration and respect for Jamal, the protagonist. As is the Hindu belief in karma, if you do good and true things, then good things will come your way. Danny Boyle took a script that could so easily have been turned into an average film and enhanced it so ingeniously by shooting entirely on location in Mumbai (even using some actual Bollywood sets -- not to mention the ingenious Bollywood dance sequence during the credits). The child actors he used are Mumbai natives, whose performances were heart breaking, honest, and completely accurate due to the fact that A) they have lived and experienced the material and B) they adore Bollywood. EVERYONE in India adores Bollywood.

Side note, when I was in India the Indian version of 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' (aka "Kaun Banega Crorepati?") is a show that appeals to the entire caste system -- I conversed about the show with taxi drivers, waiters, children in the streets, and business men. And Boyle captured this in the film -- television and technology in some ways as a tool bringing together a nation. It was clever how Amitabh Bachchan made an appearance in the Slums (in reality he is the host of Indian Millionaire, not to mention a legend of Bollywood film). When I was in Bombay, our Bollywood host took us to Mr. Bachchan's favorite restaurant guaranteeing that we would see him there and we did!)

I highly recommend seeing this film. It made me want to go back to India and spend more quality time with the children.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

5 out of 5 Stars.

No, this film is not pronounced 'Syn-OH-Do-Chey', or 'Sin-Eh-Doch'

Synecdoche - (Sih-NECK-doh-kee)
The word "synecdoche" is derived from the Greek συνεκδοχή, from the prepositions συν- + εκ- and the verb -δέχομαι (accept), meaning originally the acceptance of a part of the responsibility for something.
Synecdoche is closely related to metonymy (the figure of speech in which a term denoting one thing is used to refer to a related thing); indeed, synecdoche is considered a subclass of metonymy. It is more distantly related to other figures of speech, such as metaphor.

And yes, the beginning of the film is set in Schenectady, NY. Just in case you were wondering. Indeed, Sarah A. who moonlights as a film reviewer/book critic/writer of her own damn opinions on what she considers 'art' needs to state this obvious title meaning outright. Get it? Got it? Good. So moving on.

'Synecdoche, NY' is the title of the film which has so far received mixed reviews, some of which have called this not only Kaufman's worst but one of the years' worst films. These critics clearly did not understand not only the literary genius of the script (it's 'great novel' worthy) but also apparently lacked an understanding of the visual and character oriented meta theatrical arc of the film. If this review of mine sounds obnoxious or pretentious, that does not mean that you won't enjoy this film, scenes from the film, pieces of the film, or even at least a few minutes. Minutes that you may grudgingly regret spending at 'Sarah's recommendation', but I promise you, weeks later you won't have forgotten those minutes.

And then there are critics who agree with me -- who firmly believe that Charlie Kaufman has added to his already thought provoking screenplay repertoire ('Being John Malkcovich', 'Adaptation', 'Eternal Sunshine' et al.) and in many ways far surpassed his lyrical and existential potential.

Either way, how can you not want to see a film that has it's viewers consumed in a love/hate relationship? A film that leaves theater goers either in in tears due to an existential panic attack or alternately in an inherent relief due to accepting and possibly overcoming these philosophical issues about the state of life and human relationships and art and connecting to people?

For me, personally, I experienced both sentiments (and yes, this film deserves at least several more viewings). I was completely enraptured, depressed, moved, angered, amused, and nervous. Yes, all within a 2 hour running time. I can honestly say that 'Synecdoche, New York' is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen and is climbing the charts as being one of my favorite films (again, it will require many more viewings, not unlike my theatrical experience with Lynch's 'Mullholland Drive').

Every other life relates to those encounters in the same way, depending on local conditions. Life's a stage, and we bit players upon it. Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" is a film that boldly tries to illustrate this universal process by using a director immersed in a production of indefinite duration on a stage representing his mind. Is he mentally sound? Well, let's start with the name Kaufman chose for the 'protagonist' (another brilliant and effortless performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) -- 'Caden Cotard'. Sound familiar? Flashback to Psych class in college -- Cotard's Syndrome--a rare neuropsychiatric disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that he or she is dead or does not exist. Rarely, it can include delusions of immortality. It is named after Jules Cotard (1840–1889), a French neurologist who described the syndrome as having various degrees of severity, ranging from mild to severe. In a mild state, feelings of despair and self-loathing occur, however it is in the severe state that a person with Cotards actually starts to deny the very existence of the self.

Indeed, every written word, every spoken word, every image, every voice in this film has a deeper meaning. Bless you Charlie Kaufman for making a film that will encourage audience's to 'think' (good lord, have we forgotten how to do that?!?) If paying $11 for a movie means actually using your brain (and believe me, I have paid $11 to have some quite restful naps in films such as 'Dark knight', 'Pirates of the Caribbean', 'King Kong' and 'Napoleon Dynamite') is that not a good thing?

Many of my friends and coworkers were unmoved by the film and accused it of being confused, contradictory and unclear. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly grades it "D plus" and has what I agree is a reasonable reaction to this film: "An artist makes a movie that is so labyrinthine and obscure, such a road map of blind alleys, such a turgid challenge to sit through that it sends most people skulking out of the theater -- except, that is, for a cadre of eggheads who hail the work as a visionary achievement." I do agree that he is speaking for a majority. Yet, I am an 'egghead' and I imagine there are more like me out there. Let's not forget, myself and my wonderfully brilliant film critic of a mother (who, as an aside also happened to laugh out loud several times during 'Blades of Glory') were possibly the only two people who were moved by the simplicity and 'black box' theatricality of Lars Van Trier's 'Dogville'. 'Synecdoche has some parallels to Von Trier. But more so possesses major similarities to Harold Ramis' 'Groundhog Day' (which, by the way also happens to be one of my all time favorite films).

Synecdoche is a film about what goes on in our everyday lives, made visual by the inspired set design, rooms on top of rooms, all containing separate activities, with the protagonist trying to satisfy, or direct, or obey or evade, or learn from, or receive solace from, the people in all of the rooms.

There is honestly nothing I can adequately write to 'review' this film. It is incapable of being reviewed. You have to see it for yourself. And I hope you do. And when you do, you better e-mail me what you thought. I think this film is a masterpiece.

According to the Kaufman's footnotes --

"Comparable to great fiction? Yes, with the same complexity and slow penetrability. Not complex as a strategy or a shortcoming. Complex because it interweaves and cross-refers, and every moment of apparent perplexity leads back somewhere in the movie to its solution. Some great fiction, like Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury or The Golden Bowl, was hypertext when hypertext wasn't a name, but only a need. Henry James seems the steadiest of hands, but underneath, his opening chapters are straining to touch the closing ones, and the middle hides concealed loyalties. And when he writes "intercourse," you never quite know what he means. Very hypertextual.

Why is the house always on fire, but nobody seems to notice it? Don't unhappy homes always seem like that? Aren't people always trying to ignore it?

The voice-over. Maybe the only time I've heard coughing in a voice-over."

That matte painting. Right. It moves."