Sometimes the only thing better than watching a filmmaker live up to our expectations is watching him defy them. Consider the curious case of Danny Boyle.
Boyle, a filmmaker who burst upon the scene with the smacked-out tour de force Trainspotting and was last seen cavorting with brain-munching zombies in 28 Days Later, has scandalized us with shots of turd-strewn toilets and dead babies creepy-crawling across ceilings, Now, in what some might see as the ultimate outrage, the iconoclast has presented us with Millions - an utterly sincere and satisfying family movie that cheerfully gives it all up to that big PG-Rating in the sky.
Millions is a kinder, gentler Boyle for sure, but by no means is it completely defanged. Clever, quirky touches identify this throughout as the director's baby, beginning with a crisp, elegantly contoured script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, another refugee from the Cinema of Excess (24 Hour Party People and the totally snarky Butterfly Kiss). The performances, particularly from the actors under the age of 10, are engaging and unaffected, and the movie's pleasantly eccentric visuals are supplied by Anthony Dod Mantle, a cinematographer best known for the edgy lensing of Dogme films such as Celebration.
Millions is a fairy tale and proud of it, a sweet, heartfelt story of children navigating the adult world, and of the perils and pleasures of lost and found treasure. Our heroes are a pair of young brothers, 7-year-old Damian (Alexander Etel) and his slightly older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), two Liverpool lads in the process of adjusting to the triple whammy of a new school, new neighborhood and newly dead mum. Anthony's the more pragmatic of the pair, while young Damian's the dreamer, an ethereal child obsessed with all manner of religious martyrdom, and frequently found in friendly conversation with the numerous saints who appear to him in visions.
This being a fairy tale, albeit a distinctly modern one, it makes perfect sense when a Nike bag full of cash comes sailing through the sky one day and lands smack dab on a daydreaming Damian as he's hanging out in his homemade fort. The younger boy wants to turn the money in or give it to the poor, while Anthony, the budding capitalist, has visions of jet skis and cell phones, and therein lies the mostly affable conflict that fuels the rest of the movie. Just to complicate things, the money (a princely sum of nearly $400,000) is in crisp English pound notes, and the action takes place just a few days before the designated moment that Britain officially converts to the Euro, making all that old currency worthless.
Millions becomes increasingly frenzied, albeit charmingly so, as it shows us just how difficult it is for two more-or-less innocent kids to dispose of a whole lot of money in a very short period of time. Think of it as a sort of anti-heist flick, with Boyle finding both humor and emotional resonance in the boys' mostly bungled attempts to satisfy their materialist fantasies, even as they're unable to resist throwing pizza parties for the homeless or stuffing wads of cash through the mail slots of neighbors. And then, of course, there's the shifty-eyed creep with his own claim to the money, an ominous Big Bad Wolf who comes calling at the most inopportune times, turning the kids' dreams to nightmares and the movie, briefly, into a retooled Night of the Hunter.
Although Millions is set in a clean and sober universe miles from the hard drugs and flesh-eating viruses that infest much of Boyle's previous output, the director can't resist gussying up the proceedings with fancy moves. At various moments, Boyle speeds up the film, splits the screen into multiple images, glides his camera through walls, and causes time to flow backwards as effortlessly as it zips ahead. The soundtrack, a dreamy, Danny Elfman-esque lullaby-for-weirdos, has us half expecting a doe-eyed Edward Scissorhands to pop by at any moment asking to borrow a cup of sugar.
Despite the artsy flourishes, Millions never seems like it's condescending to its own simple, storybook logic, and the movie almost always connects on the most basic levels. It's all good fun and, by the final act, the mad rush to spend the money takes on a life of its own, as Boyle and Boyce throw in an emotional catharsis for the movie's wee-est player and a bona fide miracle or two. Best of all, in an ending free of irony but full of all the faith, hope and charity we deserve, Millions pulls off the neat trick of affirming that money can't buy happiness, even as it has a ball pretending that it can.
Still More Film Festivals!!!
The Tampa International Film Festival continues to hold court through April 9 over at Sunrise Cinemas, presenting some of the most intriguing foreign films you'll see this year. TIFF's tribute to Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang resumes on Wednesday, April 6, with the minimalist masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn (7 p.m.), followed by the Italian Holocaust drama The Hungarian Servant (8:30 p.m.).
Thursday, April 7, gets off to a rocky start with Leela (6 p.m.), a clichéd older woman-younger man romance from India, but quickly attains cruising altitude with Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (8 p.m.), then soars with Austrian auteur Michael Haenke's brilliantly disturbing The Seventh Continent (9:30 p.m.).
Friday, April 8, kicks off at noon with a free forum on film and technology at MOSI. The evening's line-up at Sunrise includes the Russian historical drama Rider Named Death (6:30 p.m.); the great Jean-Luc Godard's latest cerebral meditation, Notre Music (8:30 p.m.); and Happily Ever After (9:45 p.m.), a semi-engaging French romantic comedy/slice-of-life, mostly notable for the performance of Charlotte Gainsbourg.
The festival's final day, April 9, features one of its strongest programs. At 5:30 p.m. there's the unforgettable Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, a gonzo road trip through the deep South that explores that region's twin (and often intertwined) obsessions for Hellfire and salvation. Phantom of the Operator (7:30 p.m.) is a lyrical poem to technology, while the Hungarian film After the Day Before (9 p.m.) is a haunting murder mystery with unsettling, metaphysical dimensions. Great stuff, all.
All TIFF screenings are at Sunrise Cinemas in Old Hyde Park, Tampa. For information call TIFF at 813-253-3333, ext. 3425, or MOSI at 813-987-6000.