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Monday, January 19, 2009

'Slumdog Millionaire' is Crap

Whenever a foreign film becomes the hot movie to see, it is wise to be skeptical. I wish I had been more so before deciding to go see "Slumdog Millionaire," Danny Boyle's big Indipop hit, and already the winner of a Golden Globe for Best Picture (drama).

It reminds me of that Italian movie "Life is Beautiful," which won multiple Oscars, including a best-actor statuette for Roberto Benigni. No, "Slumdog" is nothing like "Life is Beautiful" - except in the way it became an undeservedly huge hit in the United States, while many other, far better foreign films got ignored.

The joke about Benigni winning the award for best actor is that he doesn't act - he is a comedian who always plays the same fellow, like Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin, and he does it marvelously well.

Before his international success with "L is B," Benigni was a popular star in Italy; I saw several of his films in my time there in the early '90s, in which he always acted the same way. He also was in a wonderful Jim Jarmusch film quite a few years earlier called "Down by Law" - those of you who saw it may recall that he was the same in that one, too. I saw "L is B" in Europe, long before it came to the U.S., and then had to fend off several months' worth of friends' urgings to go see it after it came here. It was not worth seeing twice, and it annoyed me that they all thought it was such a great Italian film, when lots of others are better.

So, back to "Slumdog." It is not Best Picture material. It is not even the best film out of India that I've seen this year (that would be "The Pool," which deals with some of the same themes in infinitely more subtle ways).

"Slumdog" is a fairytale with paper-thin characters. It is excessively violent. It is grossly exploitative of its subject matter (severe poverty and child abuse in Mumbai). It has as its centerpiece a lowbrow, cheaply produced television show that I would never choose to watch.

"Slumdog" is not particularly well-filmed (though the music is very good) and the actors are merely adequate, which isn't saying much considering the script. Only the youngest version of Jamal (the Slumdog) and the oldest version of his brother, Salim, merit accolades for their performances (there are three actors of different ages for each, as well as three for the girl, Latika).

What's wrong with the script, you ask? OK, here I go - Spoiler Alert! - the Slumdog wins the 20 million rupees and he gets the girl. Love wins out over everything (a love based on who knows what, unless it's just her looks) and in countless ways the audience is asked to suspend disbelief.

And for what? So we can be made to endure horrific images of child abuse, social stratification, religious war, police torture, gangsters, liars, cheaters, etc. and then be expected to feel great about this one kid whose incredible luck leads him to win a stupid game show, and then take the whore as his own.

The film concludes by posing the preposterous notion that this all happened because "it is written." Then everybody has a big ol' Bollywood dance number on a train platform (it is worth noting that the two stars don't dance well, either).

And so I say, it is crap.


William Laviano said...

Ha, what I coincidence, I just got home from seeing this film. Although I agree with some of your criticism of SM, watch the Benigni-bashing my friend!

JimRichardWilson said...

Hmmm... Anyone remember "Pauline on the Beach?" The movie which remains in my memory as the epitome of boring worthless foreign film which was the favorite of so many. I was also underwhelmed by "Life is Beautiful."

"Down by Law" is one of my all time favorite films.

Peter Kagan said...

The review begins: "Whenever a foreign film becomes the hot movie to see, it is wise to be skeptical..."

More accurately, whenever one reads a film review it is wise to be skeptical. In this case the reviewer, David Brickman, has chosen to proclaim the work he's seen as being "crap" and in using that harsh invective he brings discredit not only to his own opinion but diminishes the craft of commenting on popular culture as a whole.

Just as inhabitants of glass houses should be careful about throwing stuff, pontificators should be particularly mindful to choose their words with care. Intended or not, the phrasing of the review's opening statement seems to imply that foreign films should be held to different level of scrutiny that domestically produced fare. Why should a well-received foreign film be the subject of more skepticism than one produced in the U.S.?

Not insignificantly, there is a rather heartless tone that rings through this reviewer's assessment which says as much about the source as it does about the film. Lost on Mr. Brickman (whose own circumstances could not be more different than those of the film's protagonist, having been a fine student who attended elite schools on the East Coast), is the notion of how random the accumulation of knowledge can be. The joy the audience extracts from the idea that an orphan from the harsh streets of Mumbai could rise to national fame by virtue of his recollection of bits of information gleaned from the scraps of his rag-tag life is dismissed here as just dumb luck, requiring of the audience the "suspension of disbelief". Most films require some of that, and ironically, in this case it is this disbelief that supports the film's central theme. The main character, Jamal, endures a beating from cops convinced that his ability to answer the questions he does on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" must mean he is cheating. The bigotry of low expectations, a phrase made famous by a Bush speechwriter, is the engine that drives the film forward. Built into the caste system in India is the assumption that certain walls are impossible to scale, (it is written), yet this pauper manages to rise above that limitation, and most viewer's hearts rise with him...That "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is the venue for this triumph is important, although Mr. Brickman is blindly intolerant of it because it's "a lowbrow, cheaply produced television show that I would never choose to watch". Well, the unwashed masses of American audiences might be surprised to find that the "stupid game show" has an Indian counterpart, and that the distance between what they enjoy is not that different from what a population far way might find entertaining. This parity is in part accountable for the success of the story as we find ourselves much closer to these distant slum dwellers than we might otherwise without the commonality brought by this slice of popular culture. Considering the state of the world, and in particular Southern Asia, any empathy and equivalence a widely-released film can inform in the American population is a good thing.
To this end, the screenplay is a finely crated work by Simon Beaufoy, who uses an inventive and unpredictable timeline to set up suspense. The previously mentioned beating received by the protagonist Jamal leads to audience to conclude that he has already won the game, but we must wonder how can the cops get away with beating a national hero? What we don't realize until well into the film is that he has not won yet, there is one more night of the contest to go. From the police officer's desk, as if on trial, the story is told by Jamal through a series of flashbacks that introduce the characters as children, describe their origins, brutal treatment and motivations. This all sets up the final night of the show, and the victory celebrated by exuberant crowds dancing together in a train station.

In my humble opinion it's all wonderfully performed and directed. The "paper thin characters" that Mr. Brickman refers to actually defy simple compartmentalization. Contrary to what might be expected, Jamal's primary motivation is not winning the 20 million rupies, it is to be reunited (by his televised image) with the love of his life, a shimmering beauty who was lost long ago in a cruel system that relegated her to virtual slavery. Not a classically handsome leading man, Dev Patel plays the role with an open-mouthed innocence that makes him a charming suitor for the stunning Latika played by Frieda Pinot. David Brickman, (convincingly playing the role of disgruntled journalist), refers to her bitterly in his review as "the whore", a harshly judgmental sneer that smacks of near misogyny.
The popular game show motif is the venue for the reunion, and it's a very clever and dexterously handled conceit. A hugely entertaining performance is delivered by the best-known actor of the bunch, Anil Kapoor, who plays the game show host. His motivations are also less than transparent. The popularity that the show enjoys because of it's improbable champion is clearly great for his ratings. Teaming crowds are drawn to every screen in the country and into the street to see the spectacle, hosted by the slick character who might normally love the attention, but he now needs to share the limelight with a perceived inferior, and he begins to shift. He sets a trap that Jamal avoids, (it is written) revealing again the street smarts that are the defining foundation for the character's strength....

In this “fairy tale” Jamal and his counterparts simply pursue the genuine tenderness that has elluded them for their entire lives; certainly a story told before (it is written), but this time in a wholly original way.

The camerawork is compelling and energetic. Academy Award nominated cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle jettisons the audience through the teaming streets of Mumbai, following the action with meticulous care given to the geography and screen direction in each sequence. The night scenes are wonderfully lit, and the urgent metabolism of the city is captured, with it's crumbling textures and smoke-filled air, while held in stark contrast to the other glimmering centerpiece of the film, the set of the game show, the alternative universe.

Director Danny Boyle's work here is very impressive. Not only has he crafted the tale with sensitivity and boldness that has touched millions of viewers, but he did so with a cast of actors virtually unknown in the world outside of India. Just getting a movie like this made is a feat, if the fundraising and skepticism didn't finish him off, overcoming the the logistical challenges of telling the story on location in Mumbai was clearly an extraordinary accomplishment. As an example, the final dance sequence in the train station was filmed over the course of eight nights, with choreography involving thousands of extras dancing across six fully lit train platforms. Lighting had to be entirely reset each night, through a perilous tangle of the existing electrical lines for the train system which could not be powered down. The reviewer is underwhelmed by the dancing.

Mr. Brickman flatly asserts that "Slumdog Millionaire" is not only not "Best Picture material", but a film which the reviewer wishes his finely tuned skepticism had prevented him from seeing. The review's intention, one might therefore gather, is to protect us and guide us, to prevent hapless viewers from making the same mistake he made along with millions of others, and simply not see the film at all...
Bravely, his judgement stands in the face of much popular acclaim. As of today the members of Director's Guild of America, (which I belong to), has nominated the film to be among the year's best. The Writer's Guild nominated the screenplay to be among the years best. It received 11 Nominations at Britian's top awards, 10 Nominations for Academy awards ( including Best Picture, Best Director, Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography), not to mention the success already enjoyed at the Golden Globes. Granted, awards only mean so much, but when they come from so many people who have actually toiled on the sets of movies, or from people who have written screenplays, or producers who have gotten films made, I think their opinions ought to drive more horses than that of the frustrated blogger. Certainly they could all be dead wrong and David Brickman could be right, but I doubt it. As it stands now, the scope of the audience that his blog reaches is insignificant, but just in case someone reads this besides Mr. Brickman who has yet to see the film, I recommend that they see the movie and judge it by the way they feel when they leave the theater. I think it's well worth the price of admission.

In conclusion, Mr. Brickman's final statement is delivered with the arrogance and condescension appropriate to the king of culture banishing the film to the dungeon of scatological insignificance forever:

"And so I say, it is crap."

....And it was done...

As an intelligent person and visual artist in his own right, I'd think that David Brickman would be more sensitive than to use such cheap vocabulary in reference to work done by other artists. Even in the context of this blog, for future reference, he should be held to a higher standard in passing his judgement. Under any circumstances, "Slumdog Millionaire" is far from "crap", and, as evidenced by this review, Mr. Brickman would be well-advised to refine on his own output before pooh-poohing that of others.

david brickman said...


Peter Kagan (the person who posted the above comment) and I attended three years of high school and three years of college together in the 1970s. Our relationship has never been easy.


Anonymous said...

David ... why did you even bother reading that long post from some guy called Peter who posts at 4 in the morning? ... good review.

Anonymous said...

I could not sit through the entire movie. Subsequently I had an opportunity to see it again but I still was unable to get more than one-quarter of the way through without asking myself: "Why am I wasting my time on this?". I am pretty sure that if I could have sat through it I would agree with you but thanks for posting your review because it is one of the few (from my perspective) sensible ones from all that I did manage to sit through.

david brickman said...

Thanks for your support. Despite the Oscar blizzard, I think a lot of sensible people out there do acknowledge that "Slumdog" really is not Best Picture material - but Hollywood has its own ways, especially at Oscar time. I believe a big part of the disconnect when it comes to criticizing this movie is that people feel a lot of first-world guilt and are confusing the subject matter of the film with the art of filmmaking. In other words, they are defending the sacred cow of poverty in India from those who would criticise a mediocre film that purports to reveal and honor that condition (as if we didn't already know about it) while, in my opinion, actually exploiting it rather shamelessly.

Anonymous said...

I was watching it on DVD at my own will with my boyfriend. I have a huge attention span and don't have a problem with sitting down for hours on end.. but in this case I was literally waiting for the film to end, I mean, I COULDN'T WAIT! But I did.. it was very dissapointing, all this hype over such a boring film. It just dragged on and on and the ending consists of people dancing on a train platform? LOL.. fail. Why does there always have to be a love story in films?
Slumdog Millionaire is "CRAP", i'd rather sit on my ass and watch The Lion King.
However, before some fag tells me that YA BUT NO ITS NOT CRAP, YA.. CUZ ITSZ ARTSZ N STUFF. Ya? No shit, but it's not ENTERTAINMENT.


Anonymous said...

Disappointment right through - very easy to predict what was going to happen after 20 minutes and how a 4 and a half year old got on a TV quiz-show programme in the first place is so unconvincing.

Anonymous said...

Some might say that Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting' was great, but 'Slumdog' was poor. 'Trainspotting is an exact duplication of the film 'Quadrophenia' - made about 20 years before. Slumdog Millionaire is about as much fun as trying to read American English - full of errors and ridiculously monotonous

Neil said...

I loved Trainspotting and I actually enjoy Who wants to be a millionaire?

But this film was .... crap. Okay, no it wasn't crap. It was AVERAGE. I'm inclined to call it crap however simply because it apparently aggravates people like PK above!

I note that all rebukes of negative reviews of this film always involve the person insulting the reviewer. What is it with that? No dissenting opinions?

Is it the case that the reviewer is making people who like this nonsense (who most likely consider themselves 'well educated' in foreign cinema) calling them on it, calling Slumdog for what it is -- self-congratulatory feel-good pulp?

I see this film having a critical re-think in a few years, when the hype has died down and the egos can't be as easily bruised.

There are so, SO many better tales from India (or Indian culture) out there to view than this film.

Mixtapes said...

nice read up, but slumdog was a great movie and got a few awards.