Sunday, 31 December 2017

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Dev Patel is the Chaiwala living the dream in Slumdog Millionaire

Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel (Jamal Malik), Freida Pinto (Latika), Madhur Mittal (Salim), Anil Kapoor (Prem Kumar), Irrfan Khan (Inspector), Ayush Mahesh Khedehar (Jamal [Child]), Tanay Chheda (Jamal [Teenager]), Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (Salim [Child]), Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala (Salim [Teenager]), Runbina Ali (Latika [Child]), Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar (Latika [Teenager]), Saurabh Shukla (Constable Srinivsas), Mahesh Manjrekar (Javred), Ankur Vikal (Maman)

Re-watching Slumdog Millionaire, it’s surprising to think that back in 2008 this film was so garlanded with awards (EIGHT Oscars!) and heralded so quickly as a classic. While it’s a well-made and at times rather sweet (with a hard-edge) fable, it’s also seems slightly less unique and genre-defying than first appeared. Never mind a list of the greatest Best Picture winners, I’m not even sure it’s the greatest Danny Boyle movie. But saying this, it’s still a fine movie – and one I arguably enjoyed more re-watching it almost ten years on then when I saw it in the cinema.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is an eighteen year-old Muslim, a chaiwala working in a Mumbai call centre. He enters the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, hosted by egotistical Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), and to the astonishment of everyone is one question away from the ultimate prize of 20 million rubles. Arrested by the police and questioned before his final show, he explains via flashbacks how his experiences allowed him to answer each question. His life-story is one of danger and conflict in the slums and criminal underworld of India, tied closely to his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and their childhood friend Latika (Frieda Pinto), whom Jamal has loved his whole life.

Part social-realist tale, romance, family drama and fairy-tale, Slumdog’s main triumph is probably its ability to juggle half a dozen tones and genres so successfully. This is most strikingly demonstrated by fact that so many came out of a film that opens with its lead character being waterboarded and tortured by policemen, saying it was a brilliant feel-good movie! In fact, Boyle’s film is far more complex, touching on themes ranging from child exploitation and prostitution to gangland politics to social corruption, via murder, betrayal and mutilation. How does this a film crammed with this sort of material make you feel rather positive at the end?

Boyle’s, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s, trick is to follow in the footsteps of that other great juggler of urban social comment and larger-than-life characters – Charles Dickens. Dickensian is perhaps the best word to describe Slumdog – it throws the viewer into the slums of Mumbai, glancing at this world with all the keen social commentary Dickens used to bring to Victorian London. As young children, Jamal and Salim are thrown in with a Fagin-like gang boss, while Latika develops an (admittedly much more gentle) Estelle-like connection with them both. Like David Copperfield, our hero moves from place to place (or frying pan to fire!), with an episodic charm, each event adding to the spectrum of his life. It works really well as it taps into a reassuringly familiar story structure that makes us feel narratively safe, no matter how much peril our heroes undergo.

What’s fascinating is placing this familiar material into (for us) a more exotic location. I suspect many American viewers watching were even less familiar with India as such a mixture of extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side so naturally (and again how Dickensian does that sound?). Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is astounding for its energetic immersion in the streets of Mumbai –it’s like an explosion of Boyle’s high-octane, camera-shaking style seen in so many of his other films. It not only makes the film feel fresh and vital, it also manages to present India as something very different for those only familiar with the country as a Taj Mahal postcard.

The most compelling parts of the film are those in the first half that throw us into the Mumbai of Jamal and Salim’s childhood. Helped immensely by six terrific performances from the child and teenager versions of our three leads, these sequences (just over the first half of the movie) immediately involve the viewer in the fates and feelings of these characters. Perhaps because the film is shot in such an immersive style, you feel as if you have experienced the dangers (and occasional joys) alongside them, and developed a close bond with them. 

Despite the romantic plot of the movie, the true story is the jagged relationship, with its loyalties and betrayals, between the innocent, gentle dreamer Jamal and the more ruthless, realist Salim. The film charts the lengths they will go to protect and help each other – or sometimes in Salim’s case not. Salim is a fascinating character – easily the deepest, most conflicted of the three – who even as a child has a moral flexibility, happy to gain the benefits of a ruthless criminal lifestyle, while still having enough conscience to know what he has done with his life is wrong.

In contrast, the relationship between Latika and Jamal is far less complex. Frieda Pinto doesn’t actually appear until almost two thirds of the way into the movie – and she and Patel have only really one dialogue scene together to establish a romantic link. The romance between them is in fact the standard fairy-tale – two young friends as children who become unknowing sweethearts. The film relies on us being invested in their fates as children to want to be together, rather than building a link between two grown adults. This is the structure of a Prince Charming and a Princess in distress rather than grown-up storytelling – but it clearly works because it taps into our own fundamental first experiences of how stories work.

Dev Patel is a very sweet and highly engaging lead – and how could we not be immediately on the side of a pleasant, gentle young man whom we first see hanging from a ceiling with electrodes on his feet? Patel has a low-key decency about him that becomes more engaging the more you watch the film. Since most of his narrative function is to offer linking scenes to the far more dynamic and exciting flashbacks – and since the character of Jamal has very little real depth to him beyond “he’s a good guy” (again like a fairytale his innocence is untouched by events) – it’s quite a testament to his performance that you end up feeling as close to him as you do.

But it’s clear to me second time around the framing device of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire contest is the most disposable, and least interesting part of the movie. It does have the film’s most outright enjoyable adult performance, a swaggering, ego-filled turn from Amil Kapoor, but it’s still all much more predictable, obvious and functional than the adventures we see as our characters grow up. We know Jamal is going to keep getting things right (and thank goodness each question he answers, he learned the answers consecutively through his life! What a mess that might have been otherwise narratively!), so the fact that Boyle keeps what is essentially the same scene each time seeming interesting is quite something.

The gameshow however is the “quest” of this romantic fairy-tale. And fairy-tale is really what the film is: Jamal is there to try and find and save Latika. So in the end it doesn’t really matter that Latika hardly feels like a character, or that we’ve been given no real reason to think she and Jamal are in love other than the film telling us that they are, or that the plot of the film is really as flimsy as tissue paper. The film is a dream, a romantic fable. The genius of Boyle is to use a whole load of familiar, Dickenisan-style tropes to place this into a social-realist travelogue, a dynamite dance of flamboyant film-making techniques. So perhaps that is the point about Slumdog: on repeated viewings, like fairy-tales, its plot tricks and narrative sleight-of-hand become more obvious. But you get more of a respect for the confidence with which the trick is played.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

Daniel Radcliffe gets sorted in the first of the franchise Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy),  Zoe Wanamaker (Madame Hooch), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Warwick Davis (Filius Flitwick)

In 2001, I was in my first year at university. I went to the cinema to watch this new, much-hyped children’s-fantasy film. I’d never heard of this Harry Potter fella going into it – so must have been one of the few people watching who was coming to it completely fresh. I was swept up in the film’s story when I first saw it. But how does it stand up watching it again decades later?

Well it’s a long bloody film. I was actually amazed this is nearly two-and-a-half hours long. Strewth. I mean this is the slightest and most childlike of Rowling’s books. Did it really need such a bum-numbing run-time to bring it to the screen?  I guess it needed a lot of that time, because there is a heck of a lot of backstory and wizarding world to introduce very early on – and the film explains this in very careful, loving detail. 

But Columbus’ world building here is excellent. I think it’s easy to forget how much pressure must have been riding on this film. How many imaginations worldwide did this need to satisfy? Not only that, but this had to cater for, and build towards, a host of sequels, some of which hadn’t even been written yet (other than in Rowling’s brilliant mind). But the film succeeded in bringing this wizarding world enchantingly to life. There is a delight in every magical sequence, or trick, produced in the film – so many that poor Daniel Radcliffe must have swiftly exhausted his repertoire of “awe-inspired” faces. But the film’s loving reconstruction of the world of the book is perfect, and the fact that it not only didn’t alienate people, but that so much of it has become integral to the popularity of the books as well, says a lot.

Later films would get more daring and imaginative in bringing book to screen – with Rowling’s full support – but this first one probably did need to hew pretty close to the original book in order to hook and secure that fan-base. So while Kloves’ screenplay may feel at time like a mixture of transcription and rewording rather than a true work of adaptation, it meets the needs of this first film.

The design elements of the film were also spot on. Much of the wizarding world would be radically overhauled design-wise in The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the foundations are all here. John Williams’ score was also pretty much perfect from the start so winningly constructed and so perfectly matched with the mood of the book that it has also become an integral part of the Harry Potter world.

But, watching the film back, it’s clear still that this is one of the weakest films in the series. Part of this is of course is that it’s also the most simple and childish of the books – Rowling would immeasurably enrichen and deepen the series with each book – but when placed in context with the rest of the franchise efforts, this does seem like a brighter, more colourful, Roald Dahlish, traditional children’s film. Again, a lot of this is faithful replication of the book – but considering how children embraced the later more emotionally mature films, it would not have been a disaster to include more of that material here.

The other main issue with the film is quite simply that it is averagely directed and rather mundanely filmed. It’s a bit of a shock to be reminded that Oscar-winning photographer John Searle shot this film, as it’s ludicrously over-bright and conventionally framed. In fact, it lacks any real visual interest at all, looking more like a child’s picture book than any form of motion picture. There is hardly a shot or visual image in the film that sticks in my head – and I am literally writing this as the credits roll on the movie. As a piece of visual storytelling, it’s pretty mundane.

Similarly, Chris Columbus is a solid but uninspired film maker. He marshals events on camera with a reliably safe pair of hands, unspectacular and undemonstrative. But he doesn’t have any real dynamism as a film maker – perhaps that’s why the material never really feels like his own. When the series did have a film maker with vision in Alfonso Cuaron (in Prisoner of Azkaban), the difference in imagination and vision was immediately striking – so much so the two directors who followed Cuaron effectively trod in his footprints.

But Columbus may well have been what this franchise needed at this stage: a safe pair of hands, who could work with the studio and the producers and shepherd to the screen a series of films that would be running for over a decade. Much as other names bandied around to direct at the time would have been better film-makers, I can’t imagine them having the “safe pair of hands” quality that Columbus did, providing the solid foundation from which the series could later grow – let’s be honest could you imagine Terry Gilliam successfully kick-starting a huge-franchise series like this?

And let’s not forget either the casting gifts Columbus left the film-makers with here. Have three child stars ever been better chosen than Radcliffe, Grint and Watson? And indeed all the other young actors, all but one of whom stayed with the series to the end? The triumph of choosing not just the talent, but the level headedness, was quite something. And the three actors here are very good. 

Grint probably wasn’t better than he was here – his natural comic timing becoming an overused tool in later films, but here he’s charming, likeable and endearing. Watson is raw but a good mix of know-it-all and vulnerable feeling. Radcliffe gets a rough ride in a hugely challenging part – and yeah he’s not yet an actor here – but he does very well, considering how often he is called on to look amazed, and how many deep feelings of isolation, loneliness and confusion he is called upon to show during the film. Not one kid in a thousand could do what he does here. Columbus got magnificent work from the entire child cast – and that alone is enough to give him a pass.

The adult cast is of course pretty much perfect. Robbie Coltrane is a stand-out as a loveable Hagrid, immensely cuddily and endearingly sweet – perfect casting. Rickman was of course similarly inspired casting, Smith was perfect, Harris an unusual choice but one that worked. Ian Hart’s twitchy nervousness gets a bit wearing, but it’s not an easy part. Griffiths and Shaw embrace the cartoonish Roald-Dahl-bullying of the Dursleys. Pretty much every casting choice is spot on.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the least deep and rich of the Harry Potter films, but it had a hell of a difficult job to do. And what I have to remember is that I was one of the uninitiated who sat in the cinema to watch it and needed all that introduction. Any film that has to get Muggles like me up-to-speed while keeping the die-hard fans happy faces a very difficult task. I think you can say, for all the later films surpassed it, that Philosopher’s Stone managed that in spades.

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Tom Courtenay runs for himself in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Director: Tony Richardson
Cast: Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith), Michael Redgrave (Governor), Avis Bunnage (Mrs Smith), Alec McCowen (Brown), James Bolam (Mike), Joe Robinson (Roach), Dervis Ward (Detective), Topsy Jane (Audrey), Julia Foster (Gladys), James Fox (Gunthorpe), John Thaw (Bosworth)

In the 1960s British film made waves when it started to turn away from upper-class, costume-laden dramas, and accents started to be heard that weren’t cut-glass and RP. Few of these films ran (literally) further from this than The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

After the death of his father, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), a working-class young man, is drawn into a life of petty crime. Sent to borstal for his re-education, his skill at long-distance running catches the eye of the Governor (Michael Redgrave). The Governor hopes to use Colin to win the five-mile cross-country run in the joint sports challenge day he has arranged with the local private school. But will Colin play ball, or will he stick to his own principles of never playing “their” game?

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is in many ways a sort of British Rebel Without a Cause, but without the glamour. Instead, Colin is a council house lad, angry at the world (but not quite clear why) and brought low by the theft of £70. The film showcases Colin as a sort of anti-authority hero, a man who just simply doesn’t want those bastards telling him what to do. He’s not violent or dangerous, he’s more sullen, fed-up and laced with anger and contempt at a world that short-changed his father. 

He finds himself in the confines of borstal, an institution all about rules, regulations and changing people to match what society expects of them: everything Colin hates, and spends the film pushing against. Unlike the anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s other seminal kitchen sink drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Colin isn’t out for what he can get – while that film’s lead was more frustrated the system didn’t work enough for him, Colin wants no system at all. He wants freedom to make his own choices and define his own life – and his rebelling is all about that.

What’s intriguing about Silitoe’s story is Colin has a genuine gift for running. Richardson shoots the sequences of Colin running through the country (granted special permission to go unattended by the Governor) with a lyrical freedom. It’s as if, while running, Colin can put the world aside for a moment, to focus on his own independence. Silitoe gives Colin the means to move up in the world – but to do so he has to fall in with the desires of his “betters”. Therein lies the film’s conundrum.

It helps a great deal that Michael Redgrave is terrific as the Governor – the very picture of hypocritical and self-serving authoritarianism, interested in the boys only so far as they can serve his ends. The slightest misdemeanour and punishment is absolute – with the boy banished back to the bottom rung of the borstal, and ignored by the Governor. 

Richardson shoots the borstal as a confining series of small spaces, a real contrast to the broad, open spaces Colin runs through. The flashback scenes that showcase Colin’s life of petty crime are shot with an intense realism, on-location in Nottingham streets. These scenes are perhaps slightly less engaging and interesting than those at the borstal: their content is pretty similar to other kitchen-sink dramas, and they seem more predictable (for all their engaging direction and acting) than other parts of the film.

The real success of the film is largely due to Tom Courtenay, making his film debut. It would be easy to be annoyed by Colin, an inarticulate and chippy lad who hates the system without actually being engaged enough to understand why. But Courtenay brings the part a tenderness and surly vulnerability, and for all his childish rebellion, his barely expressed feelings of grief and anger at his father’s death strike a real chord. Given a sum of money in compensation, largely frittered away by his mother (Avis Bunnage also excellent) on her fancy man, Colin symbolically burns part of it, then spends the rest taking himself, a friend and two girls to Skegness. Colin’s relationship with Audrey is sweetly, and gently organically grown – and Courtenay brings a real vulnerability to a confession of his own virginity.

Courtenay makes Colin’s principles and issues understandable to us – and relatable – even though it’s tempting to encourage him to play along with the Governor, win the race and seize and opportunity to better himself from that. But what Courtenay makes clear, is that doing that would be a sacrifice Colin’s own sense of self – and that would be a defeat.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific kitchen-sink drama, built around an empathetic lead performance, that gives you plenty to think about. It’s shot with a poetic beauty by Richardson and photographer Walter Lassally. Finally, some credit must go to the casting director – not only Courtenay, but James Bolam and (uncredited) John Thaw and James Fox fill out the cast in prominent roles. Keep an eye on those guys: they might have futures ahead of them y’know.