Monday, April 6, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire -- Round 2

[I am reposting my review for Slumdog Millionaire in honor of its recent DVD release. Many co-workers have asked me what I thought of the film, and since I didn't really draw attention to the fact that I wrote a negative review for the film, I thought I would repost it so those that missed it initially could read my unpopular thoughts on the film. You can read further thoughts of mine on the film's style and technique if you wish, just click here. I watched major parts of it again the other night and I still stand by my initial reactions to the films failings and how Boyle really messed this thing up; hence the repost of my original review -- I guess I just don't have anything new to add. It had the chance to be good, were it in the hands of a more skilled director. And the ending still is affective and well made, but the film as a whole remains a mess. Anyway, here is my original review from January.]

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is a mess. Hyper-kinetic filmmaking run amok; an overload to the senses that undercut any semblance of drama. It reminded me of garbage like Armageddon; however, the story is better than that awful Michael Bay action film, but the visuals are just as head still hurts from tilting to the side in order to make sense out of all the Dutch angles. Here is a film that could have been something, if it weren't for that pesky thing called direction getting in the way...

I don't want this to turn into a cliche rant where I rail against a film simply because of the Award's hype it's getting. No, the truth is I was quite looking forward this film when I first read about it. It's unfortunate that it took me so long to see it, because inevitably the hype factor does come in to play. But that's not the downfall of the film. Regardless if I had seen it on the festival circuit, opening night, or after Oscar night, the film is a huge, huge stylistic failure -- bringing down with it any hopes of good storytelling.

Boyle is a good enough director. I've never really had anything against his films -- in fact, most of them are so forgettable that it's hard to get myself riled-up over any of them (the exception being A Life Less Ordinary, that thing was garbage). I liked his apocalyptic zombie film 28 Days Later quite a bit, and I didn't mind The Beach all that much (always thought Trainspotting was way overrated, harmless, but overrated). I only mention these previous films because I'm about to be really hard on Boyle....he ruins an otherwise perfectly good idea with his over-directing. Hey Boyle, we get the fact you like close-ups and Dutch angles, now can you show me something I haven't seen from already from a Tony Scott film?

The films plot is universally known now: the story about 'slumdog' Jamal who is on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and answering his way up the Rupee board. We learn from flashback why it is he knows these questions, and we learn from the beginning of the film that it is destiny (honestly, the choices for the films set-up is kind of cute, but is there really any doubt that "it is written") that he is getting these questions asked to him. We also learn why it is that Jamal is on the game show to begin with, something that I didn't buy for a second.

Why didn't I buy Jamal's reasoning? Simple, he wasn't very believable. I didn't really care for Jamal one iota the first half of the film, and that can be attributed to the choices Boyle makes. The film opens with an awfully confusing assortment of scenes: we get an interrogation, a game show, torture, Dutch angles(!), and the soundtrack of "Millionaire" played throughout both the game show and the torture. I was lost this first twenty minutes, and I didn't really care all that much. Why should the viewers even care about the torture scene without its proper context?

That problem could have been rectified easily. Plain and simple: they shouldn't have made this an interpolated tale. There was no need for it. It's not even that the story was confusing (read any Indian author and you will come across interpolated tales spanning many generations) or that I dislike playful storytelling, but it has to be executed with control. The reason Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is such a masterful work is not just because of the amazing style found throughout his book, it's Rushdie's ability to control these difficult postmodern storytelling elements. Boyle is way out of his league in that regard. I felt so displaced, with every whooshing cut or wipe to Jamal's past I became more and more displaced and disinterested. Most of this displacement came because of Boyle's need to toss the camera around carelessly and have every moment ruined by incoherent montages. It's because of this that I felt nothing for Jamal or his need to end his quest happily ever after.

By using the flashback method the film loses any kind of dramatic momentum, falling flat many times during the flashbacks. There were scenes of mothers dying, loved ones being taken away, and a whole City of God-esque subplot that lost all of its drama because of the way the film was spliced together. Just when you're getting invested in something (or when Boyle finally decides to let the camera rest and sits on a medium shot for more than 10 seconds) you're pulled away from the moment and back to the uninteresting story of Jamal and his lost love Latika. How can I be expected to care about these two or understand why it is they care about each other when Boyle won't even spend more than 10 minutes on them. The love story just felt obligatory so that film could be passed off as fairy-tale.

And sweet Jesus those montages. These aren't just headache inducing, they're vomit inducing; however, not simply because they fail stylistically, but because they do nothing to progress the story -- it seems as if their entire existence in the film is to create confusion. I defy any viewer to honestly tell me that when Salim and Jamal are running away from the police, leading them through the labyrinthine slums, that you had any idea of what was taking place. I wanted Boyle to show me the slums, I wanted the film to take me to a part of India I've only read about in Salman Rushide novels, or show me slums like in City of God, instead what we get is MTV-style pacing and editing that only proves to me that Boyle had to cover up the fact that he didn't know what he was doing.

Despite the films orgy of Dutch angles and pop/Bollywood montages, the film kind of works in its final half-hour. Which makes the film all the more disappointing. At the end of the film I couldn't help but think of how much better it would have been if Boyle would have simply filmed it normally and convinced his screenwriter to tell the story in a linear fashion. Had we been shown Jamal's life story, then the game show and the investigation that follows, it would have made for a much more entertaining (and tolerable) film experience. Instead you get the stylings of a director who isn't too sure of himself so he tries to throw every trick in the book at you in order to tell you what to feel and when exactly to feel it.

I watch a lot of cooking shows, and one of the things that you always see the mentor chefs or the hosts of shows talk about is, how in the cooking world, less is more. When a chef has to deconstruct something on the plate or tries to get too fancy with the way something looks, then they inevitably sacrifice taste for looks. The best chefs talk about simple ingredients and staying true to the food. The same could be said about Slumdog Millionaire -- film is meant to be experienced with, and should have a certain amount of elan; however, like in the culinary world, if you spend too much time on the way something looks, then it will leave a bad taste in your mouth, and Boyle's film is nothing but style. It's not even that it's style over substance, it's the fact that Boyle's style drains the film of any emotion or dramatic oomph it contained. And there are some good moments in the film, and had Boyle and his crew been able to simplify things throughout the film, then it would have been a success, and maybe worthy of the ten (!) Oscars nominations it received.

There's a scene at the end that had me slapping my forehead. It's when Jamal is running to Latka, and he is remembering his past. It's a good montage, the only one that works in fact, but it left me slapping my head because I wondered why he didn't film the entire movie in a linear fashion, axing the superfluous montages, and let this one montage stand alone as the montage. That's the type of manipulation I go to the cinema for, and Boyle gets it right with this scene, but because of his so-many wrongs prior, the scene is there a reminder to how good the film could have been.

Jamal's story is so compartmentalized that I didn't really care for his journey until the film finally slowed down in its final moments (even then Boyle ruins a big dramatic moment concerning Jamal's brother Salim by wrongfully juxtaposing it with Jamal winning 20 million rupees; once again deflating any emotional impact had he just let the scene speak for itself), only then was I able to realize that the film did indeed have real moments of power and poignancy -- if only Boyle would have let me feel those moments for myself early on, instead of bludgeoning me over the head with his style, then this could have easily lived up to its title as the best picture of the year.


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