Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A to B Back and Forth Review: Slumdog Millionaire, Part I

I'm teaming up with longtime friend, Kozy of April 31st to review films. We're calling the segment "A to B" because I'm Andrew and he's Brad. And he lives in Amsterdam, and I live in Buenos Aires. We generally won't get the new releases when the States do, but hopefully we can either help you reminisce or head out to the video store. Our first review - Slumdog Millionaire.

Thu, Feb 19, 2009 at 12:57 PM

Hey Reed,

Last Thursday I caught Slumdog Millionaire at my local international movie theater chain – Pathe @ de Munt. As moviegoing experiences go, catching a flick here in central Amsterdam is fine, but it has its drawbacks. For starters there are a lot of Dutch people there – just kidding!! Really though, the things worth mentioning are 1) all subtitles are in Dutch, meaning that if an actor is not speaking in English I have no idea what they are saying and 2) going to the movies is quite inexpensive, so people tend to make it a social occasion, carrying on conversations and drinking heavily.

But before I can even begin discussing Slumdog Millionaire, I have to call a time-out to talk about one of the previews. Reed, I am not sure if you have seen the Marley & Me trailer yet, but if you haven't, it's a must, for one simple reason – Kathleen Turner Overdrive. For all of you guys out there with hot wives or girlfriends, let these words be your warning – very very bad things can happen to once beautiful women. About four months ago I caught Body Heat (1981) on TV. While not a great film, it certainly plays to its advantages, which are mostly a very very hot, scantily clad and sometimes nude Turner. She was unquestionably a babe back then. Even ratcheting the clock forward 20 years, while no longer a prize, she still looks acceptable in 1999's The Virgin Suicides. Fast-forward 10 more years and now we have a Kathleen Turner that looks like she is gunning for Anne Ramsey's role as Mama Fratelli in an upcoming Goonies sequel. Yes – it is that bad! "Come to mama Slothy, come on hmm?"
You gotta admit, Brad makes a compelling argument

Needless to say that got me in a good mood to watch Slumdog Millionaire. At this point this is unquestionably a very hyped movie. Earlier in the week I watched Danny Boyle and crew clean-up at the BAFTA awards, so I knew that I would have to temper my expectations. Hype often leads to disappointment and this was no exception. Walking home after the movie I knew that I liked the movie, but there was something about it that just did not resonate. Still, a week later, the only thing that I can really point to is that I could not relate to this story whatsoever; and I believe that that has nothing to do with geography or socio-economics. Rather, I think it has to do with age and the story.

I found the story to be unexceptional in every way - a classic tale of friendship, love, heartbreak and making good. Of course a great story is not needed to make a great movie. Especially when the real story is the country of India and the city of Bangalore. Boyle super-charges the movie with amazing action sequences around the city slums, set to pounding dance music. Unfortunately, I found some of the cinematography to be distracting, and the music overwhelming. Roger Ebert compares this movie's poverty to City of God, a movie I loved. Unfortunately, I just don't see the connection. I agree that City of God is as much about the city as it is about the characters – and that is what set it apart. But with Slumdog Millionaire, I got lost in the style and for me that style (and music) overshadowed the story the city was trying to tell me.

The issue of age is usually not a problem for me. I love high-school based movies, university based movies, etc ... but you know all of this Reed – simply put, I am a man who has seen Can't Hardly Wait no less than 10 times. But with this movie, while the story spans 15 years of the characters' lives, I rarely found myself identifying with them at any of the ages. I think they were simply to young for me to relate to at a peer level, and I am not old enough yet to identify with them from a parental viewpoint.

I'll halt my opening salvo there. What do think about all this?

Sat, Feb 21, 2009 at 12:17 AM


Interesting that you bring up Body Heat while: (a) It was 40 degrees here in Buenos Aires yesterday. For those that don't speak metric, that means 104. I sweated through my shirt and left salt stains all over it. I was a wet, stinky mess. It felt like India. (b) We're about to see another acting legend who was quite the hottie in that film, but has since seen it all fall apart, but I'll leave those comparisons for the next review. Yes, Kathleen Turner was almost impossibly sexy in Body Heat, but I'd say she hit the wall like no other when she played Chandler's dad in an episode of friends in 2001, and pulled it off a little too well. Unfortunately, "Marley y Yo" has come and gone. I'll have to wait to skip that one on video.

I was thinking about you when I saw the subtitles. I was able to follow the Spanish, but kept failing to notice when they shifted away from English, so I often missed a few lines. But it was effective for the story and added to the verisimilitude. The real power behind Slumdog Millionaire has nothing to do with the love story, which I will politely call hokey. Of course you can't identify with these kids. They have grown up in abject poverty. You have nothing in common with them. It certainly appears that they really filmed this story in the slums, and that gave the movie power and energy that we never get to see, especially in a hokey love story. We don't have poverty quite like that here in Argentina, but there is a level between India and, say, Chicago, that does exist. There are people who live in clusters of sheds made from sheet metal. Most of them work a job picking through garbage. They get their kids started in the family business early, and you know those kids never have a chance. They don't get an education, and will end up in the same place. Becoming a chaiwalah would be a great success for them, even if we don't have chaiwalahs here. And to me, that was where Slumdog Millionaire was affecting. Because they live here on the same planet we do, and Boyle did a good job of showing that existence.
I must disagree with you on the soundtrack. I thought it was amazing. It carried the movie, providing a consistent, energetic tone that pulled me into the story. Honestly, I think the music was my favorite aspect of the film. But in general, I came away with a similar feeling that you did. At its core, what is this movie? To sum up the story, it sounds brilliant. Two brothers who are born into hopelessness, and see nothing but poverty and tragedy, yet still manage to make it big. But the characters are painted with such broad strokes, it's hard to connect to either of them, as you say. And when fate is running the show, as we are expected to believe, it removes free will from the characters. All that said, the younger they were, the more engaged in the movie I was. Being chased through the slums by police with a boomin' system banging out beats will do that to you. The big problem with this is that as the movie went along, I became less engaged.

I couldn't help but think of Boyle's 2004 film, Millions, and how it similarly followed two kids who got into all kinds of mischief. But he clearly learned from the mistakes of that movie, avoiding making this one a kids' film. These children had a lot more life in them, and I can see why people are so enamored with the story.

But we haven't talked about the gameshow setting, and the technique they used to tell the story. I'll throw out these titles that I felt the movie borrowed from in various regards:
Citizen Kane
The Usual Suspects
City of God (yes, I see the connection)

We'll be back with Part II tomorrow.

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