CINEMA: Vampire Weekend

slumdog_millionaire_1.jpgSLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008, directed by Danny Boyle, 120 minutes, U.K.)
TWILIGHT (2008, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, 122 minutes, U.S.)
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008, directed by Tomas Alfredson, 114 minutes, Sweden)

BY DAN BUSKIRK, FILM CRITIC

If the economic meltdown is herding us all into poverty the latest film by flashy Brit showman Danny Boyle assures us the experience will be a life-affirming character builder.  In Slumdog Millionaire Dev Patel plays the title character Jamal, a slum-born orphan who sits in the hot seat a single question away from winning the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire“.  Convinced his impoverished contestant is cheating, the producer has the police interrogate Jamal (using methods perhaps best described as “Guantanamo-lite”).  Unable to crack him, the police begin ask him how he knew the answer to each of the quiz’s questions and within Jamal’s answers the story of his life is unraveled.

Director Boyle (along with Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan) gives us a visually vibrant picture of the sprawling shanty towns of Mumbai, where a young Jamal and his brother Salim escape a massacre to learn about life as savvy little street hustlers.  Along the way they find, lose and ultimately battle over the beautiful young Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), for whom Jamal pledges his undying love.

Boyle has a habit of punching up the jolts in his films, as if he was continually worried our attentions might wander.  This habit takes bit of a toll on the tone of his story here, placing children in harm’s way far too often for such a sweet-natured story.  Even if his leads, especially the moon-eyed lover Jamal, are a little too blank to make the most of their moment at center stage, Slumdog’s infectious underdog spirit renders most complaints moot.

There’s a reason that rags to riches stories have kept for attention for generations just as there is a reason “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” has been a blockbuster hit.  Boyle takes these well-tested elements and ends up with a crowd-pleaser made fresh with its glowing, garish colors and Third World bustle.  While it may not cut much deeper than the mock-Bollywood line dance that runs over the closing credits Slumdog undeniably delivers a modern brand of optimism for a new Depression-era audience.

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Curiosity got the best of me when I heard that Twilight, based of a series of supernatural novels twilight_poster1.jpgaimed at teen girls, was among the most awaited openings of the holiday season.  Looking to feel the full giddy force of youthful enthusiasm I attended the first show Thursday at midnight, anxious to understand why today’s teens were irresistibly drawn to the new girl in town Bella Swann and her troubled new boyfriend Edward Cullen, the young Prince of a peaceful family of vampires.  Director Catherine Hardwicke was brought in to mount this assumed franchise, with the hope that she could bring some of the insightful intimacy she brought to her juvenile delinquent drama ThirteenHardwicke reaches that naturalism sporadically but the hammy story and TV style special effects had the audience of young women laughing derisively as often as they were fawning.

It was no mystery what emotions this fantasy was massaging for young girls.   Edward and his family do not stalk humans, instead hunting live game in the surrounding hills.  Although things quickly get hot and heavy with the soul mates Bella and Edward, he’s forever stopping himself in mid-embrace.  “I’ve got to control myself” he says, pulling away.  While Edward’s undead hands may always be cold, the worshipful lad will always fight his impulses and leave you chaste.  He’s the perfect imaginary boyfriend for girls on the edge of scary adult sexuality.

Eighteen year-old actress Kristen Stewart is perfect as the resourceful Bella, coming off like a thoughtful and slightly jaded young Sigourney Weaver, lusting for Edward to finally bite her neck so they can spend an undead eternity forever.  The British actor Robert Pattinson can’t find the same balance as Edward; like a bloodless James Dean he skulks and mopes with an overstated fervor that drew steady laughs from hisoff-screen romantic targets in the audience, model looks or not.

As the young crowd was comforted to watch young love without sex, I was anxious watching a vampire film with no biting.  After endless courting and cursing of fates, Edward faces off with a trio of vagabond vampires in the finale straight out of an off-episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  At the end evil is vanquished, the sequel’s groundwork is laid and Bella is left feeling frustrated that her neck is so resistible.  Anyone looking for blood-sucking thrills will probably feel similarly unfulfilled by this anemic teen flick.

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let_the_right_one_in_poster_1.jpgYoung vampire love is given a much more graphic and less comforting showcase in the Swedish horror film Let The Right One In.  12 year-old Oskar is living a life of quiet desperation in his decrepit apartment building, bullied by classmates and ignored by his mother.  While killing time after dark at the playground he meets Eli, a twelve year old girl who never wears a coat and warily becomes his only friend.  Soon Oskar becomes aware of Eli’s murderous pastime and he is unequipped in his decision on whether to help her or to go for help himself.

Also based on a popular novel Let The Right One In, like Twilight, spends as much of its time showing regular coming-of-age situations as blood-sucking mayhem, although here with a much more stylish and controlled style.  It gathers plenty of shivery chills from the bleak Swedish winter atmosphere alone, and when the violence does arrive it is blunt, creepy and effective, refusing to hide from the perverse possibilities of vampire sexuality.  If genre fans can deal with the stretches of Nordic restraint this fable-like little story delivers on its promise to break the skin and be cleverly unnerving.

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