I was asked recently what I believed in. I replied that I believed in believing --- not in any kind of structured religious way, but absolute faith in yourself and your choices, as well as an unbending belief in the inherent good of others.
It's been my observation that only two varieties of people operate in this simple yet deluded way: little kids and me. And that's the reason I fell thoroughly in love with Millions, the wondrous new film from shapeshifter Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hilary and Jackie, as well as a handful of Michael Winterbottom films), and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, whose spartan work on the Dogme 95 films was no preparation for the whimsy splashed across the screen. These three men have crafted a huge-hearted and smart tale about a young boy who, despite all evidence to the contrary, simply believes.
As played by the freckled, beatific Alex Etel in a smashing film debut, Damian Cunningham is contending with a new home, a dead mom, and a sad dad (James Nesbitt, Bloody Sunday), so he often retreats to his cardboard fort next to the railway (a shrewd little nod to Trainspotting). One day the corrugated bastion is obliterated by a gym bag that comes from out of nowhere and erupts like Jiffy-Pop, if Jiffy-Pop were stuffed with wads of cash instead of corn kernels.
Damian shows the loot to his brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), presumably looking for some guidance and also to confirm that he's not hallucinating. You see, the pious Damian is occasionally visited by helpful saints like Martin of Uganda and Claire of Assisi, each of whom he greets with their vital stats and inquires whether they know his mother, and all of whom have halos of Super Elastic Bubble Plastic.
"I just want to be good." Damian believes the money to be from God so he disperses the money in a variety of philanthropic ways (feeding tree-huggers at Pizza Hut, filling a Mormon mailbox), while Anthony buys nifty gadgets and looks into real estate. But England is about to switch to the Euro, making the money worthless if the two young boys don't find a way to exchange such a large sum without drawing attention to it. And the thief who stole the money originally has tracked it down to the trusting Damian.
Millions is enchanting without being sappy, moving without being depressing, and silly without being dumb. Don't be turned off by the term "family film" and don't think you need to be or have a child in order to fall under the spell of this movie. If only for a little while, just believe.
One of the soldiers interviewed in Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's riveting, important documentary Gunner Palace believes that unless you have family fighting in Iraq, the war is merely entertainment for you. Is he right?
Gunner Palace was once the lavish home of (un)fortunate son Uday Hussein and now houses about 400 American troops in the city of Adhamiya. The putting green and swimming pool probably make things a little more bearable for the soldiers that have become both cops and ambassadors, while they hope that the lone box on the side of the road isn't an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) and try to be as diplomatic as they can with Iraqis who may or may not come to violently resent their presence.
Tucker, who shot the film himself during time spent at Gunner Palace off and on from June 2003 through February 2004, helps us get to know the soldiers and puts a human face on the individuals who are trying to ensure that strangers half a world away can enjoy the same freedoms they do. They're funny, eloquent, dedicated, and truly talented, providing the film's soundtrack with some combat-inspired rap and urgent speed metal riffs. And these fighting men and women from the most diverse backgrounds have formed a makeshift family, something that should reassure people with loved ones in harm's way.
The legitimacy of the war in Iraq is not something that Gunner Palace concerns itself with. The film is told from the perspective of the men and women serving our country, and they don't have the luxury or time to contemplate questions like that. These soldiers are in Iraq to do a job. They're proud, frustrated, scared, optimistic, and ready to come home. But at the end, only the movie is over.
Frank Miller's Sin City is the kind of place where evil is relative. The renowned graphic novelist (who was also responsible for the 1980s Dark Knight renaissance of Batman) has fashioned a universe where no one is completely wholesome, though some of the thuggier types do have their own admirable and usually gory notions of honor. But in a place where the clergy has a taste for human flesh, that's to be expected.
And Robert Rodriguez's Sin City is exactly like the one imagined by Miller. Whether Miller envisioned his graphic novels The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard as storyboards for an eventual production is unclear. What is obvious is that the images on the pages are painstakingly re-created on the screen, with the stark, velvety black and white occasionally yielding to flashes of brilliant color, be it crimson blood, blue eyes, or that yellow goo emanating from that yellow bastard.
Each of the novels gets its own vignette, although all are slightly interwoven, with bits featuring Josh Harnett as an assassin bookending the film. The Hard Goodbye stars the always-welcome Mickey Rourke under a bunch of prosthetics as Marv, an unlucky galoot avenging the death of his angel. In The Big Fat Kill, Dwight (Clive Owen) helps a gaggle of harlots punk down bad cop Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro). Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba and Carnivale's Nick Stahl team up for That Yellow Bastard, about the bond between a decent cop and the girl he once rescued... and may need to again.
The juicy noir dialogue effortlessly tumbles from the mouths of this massive, stellar, yet enjoyably hammy cast, though the two most intriguing characters --- Elijah Wood as an owl-eyed cannibal and Devon Aoki as a lethal, doll-faced hooker --- spoke no words at all. But you probably won't be getting all misty-eyed over the plight of any of the inhabitants of this stylized world; it's not that kind of movie.
"Special guest director" Quentin Tarantino sticks his fingers in this pie as well, helming a surreal, clever driving scene between Jackie Boy and Dwight that's notable because one of them ain't doing so good. Apparently Tarantino paid Rodriguez the princely sum of $1 to compose the music for Kill Bill: Volume 2, and Rodriguez ponied up that same amount so QT wouldn't be completely without income during the five years he thinks it's okay to take between his own projects.
Sin City's title cards say that the film is "shot and cut" by Rodriguez, but both Miller and Rodriguez get directing credit... and at the expense of the latter's membership in the Directors Guild of America. Rodriguez told that venerable body where it could go when it wouldn't give its blessing to a co-directing credit. And that's the sort of loyalty you can only find in Sin City.
Millions (PG), Little Theatres; Sin City (R), Brockport Strand, Canandaigua Theatres, Cinemark Tinseltown, Geneseo Theatres, Pittsford Cinema, and Vintage Drive-In; Gunner Palace (PG-13), Little Theatres. All movies open Friday, April 1.