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Floodgates Open 

A flurry of fine films from 2008 finally arrives on our shores

Previews

Film fortune finally smiles upon filmslumdog Humboldt County. Opening Friday, Jan. 23 is Slumdog Millionaire (see review below); Milk (see review); Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes with Kate Winslet reunited with Leonardo DiCaprio in suburban angst (Rated R. 119m. At the Broadway); The Wrestler, featuring comeback kid Mickey Rourke as a pro wrestler well past his prime and Marisa Tomei as a stripper who befriends him (Rated R. 115m. At the Broadway); and Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard with Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost sparring in the post-Watergate TV interviews (Rated R. 122m. At the Minor).

Also opening Friday are Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the third installment in the series about the age-old battle between the Vampires and the Lycans featuring Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitry and Kate Beckinsale (Rated R. 92m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek) and the fantasy film Ink Heart, about 12-year-old Meggie (Eliza Bennett) and her father (Brendan Fraser) who can bring book characters to life. But there's a grave danger in doing so. Rated PG. 106m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

The January "Based on the Book" film series at the Eureka Library concludes with Preston Sturges' 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, hosted by the Journal's Bob Doran. Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 6:30 p.m.

Reviews

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: One of the side benefits of spending the holidays in Portland and Denver is that I get to see films that have not yet opened here (and some that may never make it). I therefore have a rare opportunity to review some films before they open locally, such as the gloriously exuberant Slumdog Millionaire, a film that should appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting; 28 Days Later), along with Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), has created a narrative rags-to-riches fable that manages to be exhilarating while focusing on the poverty and shattered lives of those who eke out a living in the slums of Mumbai.

The story focuses on Jamal Malik (Dey Patel), a young man from the slums who has made it to the final question of a popular Indian game show (modeled on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) only to be arrested by the police and accused of cheating. Clearly, no one of his background could answer correctly otherwise.

As viewers should expect from Boyle, though, the narrative is not straightforward and we discover in a series of flashbacks during the interrogation that life experiences and chance happenings can be more pertinent than formal education. It is also a story of love and friendship, involving Jamal's relationship with his childhood love Latika (Freida Pinto's acting debut). Jamal's quest for Latika and his answer to the final question come together in a totally satisfying climax that also provides the film's final twist. If this film is not my top film of 2008, it's certainly in the top five. Don't miss it. Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language. 120m. At the Broadway.

MILK: Milk is a quietly effective and moving film that, thanks to some excellent acting and skillful direction, overcomes much of the obvious limitations of the biography film genre.

The opening scenes, using archival footage of police raids on gay bars and Diane Feinstein's November 27, 1978 announcement on the steps of the San Francisco City Hall that Supervisor Harvey Milk (played in the film by Sean Penn) and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) have been assassinated, both set the stage for Milk's political and personal life in San Francisco while also acknowledging his end point.

Director Gus Van Sant uses the device of Milk dictating his memoirs (to be played in the event of his untimely death) to flashback to the 40-year-old Castro neighborhood political activist Milk in 1970, where he meets his younger lover Scott Smith (James Franco). One hallmark of Van Sant's directing style is his seemingly detached view of the events unfolding on the screen, letting the story itself stimulate viewer emotions and reactions. That technique works particularly well here; Milk's story doesn't need any enforced sentimentality.

Penn is at his understated, intense best as Milk, and while the film focuses on his activism, some of the most moving moments occur with his personal life. Indeed, it seems difficult to separate the two. While all the performances are solid, special kudos should also go to Josh Brolin as assassin Supervisor Dan White. He nicely captures the conflicting pressures that White apparently faced, as well as White's nonplussed reaction to Milk's ironic sensibility and his anger over what he regarded as Milk's political betrayal.

Milk's famous speech opener was "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you." There should be no need to recruit anyone to see this excellent film. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. 128m. At the Minor.

DEFIANCE: Defiance is a well-meaning, relentlessly earnest film depicting the remarkable true story of the Bielski brothers, who, in 1941, following the murder of their parents by the occupying German forces, escape into the nearby woods of Eastern Poland (now Belarus, my research tells me) and lead a group of other Polish Jews in resisting the Nazis along with a group of Russian soldiers. Featuring Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski and Liev Schreiber as one of his brothers, Zus, the film is standard Hollywood fare, which is not to say it is not worth seeing. Alexa Davalos (The Feast of Love) as Tuvia's love interest is a standout. Rated R for violence and language. 137m. At the Broadway.

NOTORIOUS: Given my editor's preview comments about Notorius, I hope I still have a job after my own assessment of the film, which is a biopic of Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.). Unlike Milk, Notorious embraces the limitations of its genre -- sappy sentimentality and all.

Like Milk, the story is a flashback from a freeze of Biggie being shot in L.A. in 1997, but then it devolves into the usual hard life-to-huge success chronology so favored by music biographies. Even Biggie's hard times as a drug dealer are given a positive glow, and the film seems more hagiography then anything else.

The cast though is excellent, with Jamal Woolard as Biggie, Angela Bassett as his mother, Derek Luke as Sean Puffy Combs, Anthony Mackie as Tupac Shakur and Naturi Naughton as Lil' Kim. Biggie Smalls and the cast deserve a better script. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialog, nudity and for drug content. 100m. At The Movies.

BRIDE WARS: Since I've consistently dissed Brain Dead Guy Films (BDGF), it's only fair and balanced that I do the same for Brain Dead Gal Films (conveniently also BDGF). Bride Wars, with Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway as best friends/worst enemies, fits the bill. Girls are obsessed with marriage, as are tweens, teens and young women. Men are barely necessary accessories, unlike designer clothes. The smarter the woman, the stupider she acts and talks. A catfight in a wedding aisle is funny. Women don't really need men (what do men want anyway?). But then, I'd watch Hathaway read a speech by Bush. Rated PG for suggestive content, language and some rude behavior. 94m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

Continuing

BEDTIME STORIES. Stories told by hotel handyman to his young relatives mysteriously start to come true. Rated PG. 99m. At The Movies.

BOLT. Canine TV star depends on his delusions of grandeur to make unexpected journey cross-country. Rated PG. 96m. At The Movies.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Brad Pitt ages backward, Cate Blanchett ages forward, they enjoy blissful moments in the middle and confusion at either end. Rated PG-13. 166 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

GRAN TORINO. Veteran/racist/retired autoworker versus the local Asian gang-bangers. Rated R. 116m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, the Minor and Fortuna.

HOTEL FOR DOGS. Kids faced with "no pets" rule in their new foster home convert abandoned hotel into foster home for doggies. Rated PG. 100m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

MARLEY AND ME. Neurotic dog teaches family in the making about what really matters in life. Rated PG. 123m. At The Movies.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE. Revenge for coal mining accident leads to bloody Valentine's Day massacre leads to bro coming back from the dead for more revenge. Rated R. 91m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and in 3D at Fortuna.

PAUL BLART: MALL COP. Mall cop must man up to save the day when Santa's helpers at the mall stage a coup. Rated PG. 91m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

THE READER. Again with the Nazis. Sexy prewar affair between Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes gets a bit awkward when the Nuremberg trials roll around. Rated R. 123m. At Mill Creek.

TWILIGHT. Teen girl gets swept up in unorthodox romance with vampire. Rated PG-13. 122m. At The Movies.

THE UNBORN. Ancient Nazi curse gives rise to spooky spirit that haunts members of a certain family. Rated PG-13. 87 m. At The Movies.

VALKYRIE. Colonel uses Hitler's own emergency plan in attempt to overthrow Nazi government from the inside. Rated PG-13. 120m. At The Movies.

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