Thursday, January 22, 2009

One Chance Too Many Harvey

Last Chance Harvey by writer/director Joel Hopkins is a misconceived project that is elevated by two great performances by Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson but ultimately falls flat.  Harvey Shine (Hoffman) is a man at twilight's door, looking back on a failed existence when he meets Kate Walker (Thompson) on the eve of his daughter's London wedding and she inspires hope within him.  Unfortunately the movie doesn't give the actors enough to play with.  

The camera pulls away just when it should be moving closer, as things start to click between Harvey and Kate.  As romance blooms, we follow Kate and Harvey through several charming London locations without getting close enough to fully to invest in them.  They speak but we don't hear what they are saying.  Instead we hear a melancholy musical score by Dickon Hinchliffe that lends the film all the character of a standard movie of the week.  Music goes a long way towards setting the tone of a picture and it would have seemed a natural fit to write a jazz score, since we learn that Harvey -- a commercial jingle composer -- once dreamt of being a jazz pianist, but this is just one of several missing elements.  

Big moments happen, but the connections between them seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.  The wedding sequence is the centerpiece of the film and is designed to mark a turning point in Harvey's growth, but just as things heat up we are again directed away from the central conflict.   Harvey's troubles with his daughter are resolved in one gulping, melancholy speech that miraculously seems to solve everything between them.  That is, until Kate walks out on the party when she sees him having fun and he is forced to get her back.  The actors inhabit their roles with gravitas and they do their best to sell the ending of the film, but ultimately it hinges on a giant leap of faith and there just isn't enough meat on the bones here -- not that I should even know what that means as a lifelong vegetarian. 

It's a Slum-derful Life

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is a modern day fairy tale, constructed from fragments and memories of a broken life that is ultimately rebuilt in the most unlikely fashion.  The story follows Jamal, a Mumbai-born "slum dog" as he competes on the Indian "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."  Defying even his own expectations,  Jamal starts winning and the movie shows us how he came to know the answers through a series of flashbacks that are alternately humorous and harrowing.  

What makes it contemporary is the way it is filmed, using cameras that move with dazzling agility, capturing the colors and textures of Mumbai in broad strokes.  The movie has a manic energy, propelled by a Bollywood techno score and editing that constantly builds tension by pairing images of longing and success, heartbreak and redemption, danger and safety.  The movie could be the Indian version of It's A Wonderful Life, because of the way it shows us how every seemingly insignificant choice in life has the potential to change lives.  It also reminds us again and again how far emotional intelligence and street smarts can take us, regardless of our level of education.  The idea is best expressed in a sequence where the game show host feeds Jamal an answer to an upcoming question and Jamal is forced to choose whether to trust the host or his own instincts with 20 million rupees on the line.  

At the center of the film is a sweet love story that requires some suspension of disbelief from more jaded viewers.  I went and saw the movie a second time to see how it would hold up and found it impossible to resist.  Danny Boyle recruited almost an entire cast of unknown actors to lend the project authenticity and they are a key ingredient that accounts for the movie's infectious energy and growing popularity.  Still, there is something even more important that sets Slumdog Millionaire apart from other inspirational rags to riches stories and that is the use of dramatic irony.  Even as we see Jamal winning on the game show, we are made aware concurrently that he will be tortured and questioned by the police.  Every moment of euphoria and hope for the characters is met with setbacks and failure.  Consider how Jamal's clandestine meeting with Latika ends at the train station, or his reunion with his brother Salim, or the film's climax which manages to be both joyful and bittersweet.  Slumdog Millionaire is an urban fairy tale that makes us want to believe, as Jamal does, that destiny can pull us out of suffering and deliver us to a happier place.