Danny Boyle’s understated masterpiece, Slumdog Millionaire, has now garnered its fair share of accolades after sweeping last night’s Oscars.  This was a well-deserved pat on the back for one of the most influential and undervalued directors of recent years; creator of the fascinating Sunshine, the frightening and original 28 Days Later, and the classic and original Trainspotting.  Boyle’s genius is in his ability to imagine what has become ordinary in a new and original light, and his genius has finally been recognized by mainstream American cinema.

Take, for example, his film 28 Days Later.  At the time that this film went into production, films featuring zombies in pursuit of human prey had fallen out of favor.  Romero’s Dawn of the Dead series, while frightening and chilling in a way, depicted slow, stumbling and rather stupid zombies dragging their way after much quicker and smarter humans.  28 Days Later, which is arguably one of the most frightening zombie films ever created, re-imagined the zombie threat into something much more visceral.  One critic I read described the zombies in the film as “meat-seeking missiles” which is both descriptive and grotesque but echoes my point.

Sunshine was another case in point.  Science fiction films have become a mainstay of modern cinema, but such films are bloated with action and computer-generated special effects.  Enter Boyle.  Instead of CG, Boyle uses a projected image of the Sun to stunning effect, as in one scene a moon-sized Mercury slides across the violent surface of the star with all the crew in attendance.  The film is visually stunning, and recalls visuals from 2001 and Alien.  This excellent movie was made for a pittance in modern day cinema, $20 million, and it looks like a movie costing five times as much.

Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliant film.  It is both tragic and uplifting, beautiful and grotesque, filled with love and hate.  It is the inter-meshing of opposites in this film that give it its raw narrative power.  In the end, the audience is driven almost to the point of hysteria hoping that the young lead will win his heart’s desire.  And this is an independent film, made without notable CG effects, for a pittance. . . .

My sincere hope is that the movie industry will use Slumdog as a rallying cry to make necessary changes in the manner by which new films are made.  If such a fantastic film can be made for such a small amount of money and still be ridiculously profitable, perhaps more of the movie industry’s money should be directed toward simpler efforts.  We don’t need Die Hard 5; He’s Really Pissed Off Now, we need more independent films featuring actors we’ve never heard of, stories we’ve never seen, in places we are unfamiliar with.

Long live the indies!

Stephen Sommers, director of such “extraordinary” films as The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, is known for needing a superfluous amount of special effects in his endeavors.

Don’t take our word for it: Crew at Industrial Light & Magic have conceived the Stephen Sommers Scale based on his demand for high-end, CGI-heavy special effects.

Now special effects serve many purposes of which many people are unaware. A boot that falls off of a car after being kicked several times is a special effect. A newspaper flying in from off-screen to hit an actor in the face is a special effect. Chroma-keying a green screen from behind a scene in order to put in a false background is a special effect. Golem was a special effect.

But Stephen Sommers relies primarily on Computer Generated Images for the majority of his special effects. So much so that ILM devised this scale to rate how much work their computers will be put through depending on what the director needs.

Without further adieu, here is the scale that they defined:

Level 1 – What the shot needs (lowest)
Level 2 – What the computers can handle
Level 3 – Oh my God, the computers are about to crash
Level 4 – What Steven wants (highest)

Learn them, because we’ll be referring to them from now on. Hope you enjoyed the read.

AK

Get Smart or get outta here

Can Steve Carell do anything wrong? After watching Get Smart, the answer is a huge, resounding, unequivocal, unassailable “No”.

Peter Segal (50 First Dates, Anger Management) throws his hat into the ring as director and succeeds at putting together a slick evenly-toned effort, allowing the audience to laugh at and still feel for each of the characters. There’s even a moment for the BMI-challenged people in the audience to get an “in-your-face” trice to all the anorexic models out there.

Every actor puts forward a good effort as well. Anne Hathaway, as the pulse-pounder Agent 99, does her gender proud with a performance equaled only by her surreal (and inexplicable) beauty. Never have I seen her look so beautiful and yet think of her as a smarty-pants. At the same time, Dwayne Johnson stuns yet again as the suave and successful Agent 23. He seems to have more than what most action heroes do in the classic sense: Not only does he have the body of a Greek God but he’s smooth, smart and speaks English properly.

But the stalwart heart of this summer romp is the dead-pan, sardonic Carell. He’s believable as the smart Maxwell Smart should be and as bobbled in his bone-headed mistakes to boot. Oh, and the man can pull off action hero. Carell’s performance left me desperate for the sequel as soon as I got up to walk out of the theater.

This movie does have it’s downsides. First and foremost, the majority of the funniest sequences happen in the first 45 minutes. After that, it drags sluggishly towards the finish creating a movie that seems a bit longer than the 110 minute run-time. The other thing that seemed a little out of place is the blatant critiques of government. When you have a movie parodying intelligence agencies and doing a damn fine job of it, there’s no need for little lines that come right out and say what you’re already showing. There are quite a few of these lines throughout the movie and seem to take away from the interesting parody.

Nevertheless, for the few downsides this movie has it is still a very enjoyable film. There are plenty of laughs — whether slapstick, gross out or sarcasm — to go around, some fine acting on display, and some above-the-line brilliance in this flawed but enjoyable fair.

And there really can never be enough Steve Carell.

(***) Jessicas out of four. This movie was quite the hilarious summer movie that makes you leave with a smile on your face, whether you wanted to or not.

Iron Man: Take 2

Elf was a decently funny movie. Swingers was a cult classic. Zathura was even entertaining, albeit more so for the younger audience.

No doubt, Jon Favreau has done some quality work behind the camera. Who knew he was saving his best until now? I didn’t. But I do know this: Iron Man freakin’ rocked my face off.

As my brother recently articulated, Iron Man is the story of the enigmatically suave tech geek Tony Stark and his change from carefree weapons manufacturer to rocket propelled super-hero. The movie is rife with quick, witty humor and intensely paced action. Without a doubt, Robert Downey, Jr. deserves much of the credit for bringing a charm to Stark that might have otherwise been missing.

The really great thing about this movie, though, is the direction by the aforementioned Favreau. He brilliantly balances character development, action, humor and special effects to create something that is more than just a super-hero movie. Not surprisingly, this balance leads to a level of believability that lets the audience relate to the hero on screen, even if he is in a giant titanium suit.

Overall, I was really impressed with this movie. I found myself thoroughly engrossed throughout the entire event and finally saw a movie I wasn’t ashamed to have paid for on opening weekend.

(***) Jessicas out of four. See it, love it.

AK

I have to admit that I enjoyed this movie far more than I had expected. After the flood of superhero films over the past few years I thought I was tired of the genre, but found Jon Favreau’s direction and Robert Downey Jr.’s take on the lead character to be refreshing.

Iron Man is another comic-book-to-movie franchise following in the footsteps of Raimi’s Spiderman, Nolan’s Batman Begins, and the more recent X-Men and Superman movies. It provides a bit of interesting political commentary as well, which seems all the more salient when viewed in light of the current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iron Man is the story of an arrogant and self-centered arms developer, Tony Stark, (Robert Downey Jr.) who spends much of his time womanizing, repairing hot rods and developing new and more destructive weapons.

After a flawless and dramatic demonstration of Stark’s new and highly destructive “Jericho” missile system to troops in Afghanistan, his convoy is attacked and he is taken prisoner by a group of Afghani rebels. During the attack, his chest is perforated with pieces of metallic shrapnel from one of the weapons that Stark Industries had created. The pieces of shrapnel, the audience is told, are working their way toward his heart. As a result, a large electromagnet is placed into the center of his chest to prevent migration of this shrapnel. This magnet is connected to a large car battery for power.

Stark decides to develop a new form of portable nuclear reactor as a power source for his electromagnet. This results in an invention that is the technological key to the entire movie; a small glowing disc that produces vast amounts of power.

The invention allows Stark to continue to live, but also allows him to build a small, lithe suit out of “gold and titanium.” This eliminates the car battery, but also allows him to have enough power to fly faster than a fighter jet and lift a car without having to carry a school bus full of deep cycle batteries to do so (a good thing, too, since school buses are not very aerodynamic).

But I am getting ahead of myself. While in the Afghani dungeon building his “Jericho” missile, he secretly builds an iron suit armed with two flamethrowers which he utilizes to make his escape.

Stark returns to the United States a changed man, regretting the trauma and loss of life that his military inventions have wrought. He attempts to turn around his company to manufacture non-military goods, but is rebuffed by Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his father’s second-in-command and head of the board of directors for Stark Industries.

Stark returns to his opulent modern home to recuperate, but decides instead to build another suit to enable him to help destroy the terrible weapons that his company had created.

And Iron Man is born. . . .

Downey’s Stark is almost believable as a techno-nerd, albeit one with pretty decent luck with women (a relatively rare trait amongst normal nerd mortals). He absent-mindedly talks techie jargon to himself while making adjustments to his titanium exoskeleton and flight control system, lending a veneer of believability to his mechanical genius.

Downey is also funny in both a slapstick and witty fashion. His character has a sardonic sense of humor which is used very effectively throughout the film. There is also a large amount of physical humor as well, particularly during a scene where Stark is testing the suit’s propulsion system and inadvertently flips himself up against a concrete ceiling. Although he lacks much of the boy-next-door charm of Peter Parker, he makes up for it with a quick wit and easy smile.

Stark is assisted by the ever-enduring and ever-faithful Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Pepper is modest and supportive, providing a counterpoint to Stark’s womanizing flirtatiousness. As a fixture in all movies of this genre, she plays his romantic interest, a fact which Stark even jokes about at one point. Although the relationship is never consummated with an upside-down kiss in the rain, it is hinted that the two of them secretly love one another.

The film is peppered with a huge quantity of very good visual effects. Jon Favreau, who both directs the film and stars as one of Stark’s bodyguards, shows remarkable restraint by using special effects that are necessary and add to the plot, rather than simply thrown in because they are “cool.” The effects that are utilized appear very well done, as befits the continued maturation of Lucas’ powerhouse, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).

There is little to criticize in this film. It is fun, interesting and an enjoyable evening at the movies. I give it three (***) Jessicas out of a possible four.

EK