Slumdog Refresh

A Slumdog Millionaire issue has been gnawing away since I fell for it in Toronto nearly three months ago. I was wowed by this film — throttled. The injections of extreme verve and jolt-cola pizazz by director Danny Boyle are impossible to resist or dismiss. But I couldn’t believe in the world of the story, partly due to the fever-like sell going on all through it, and partly due to the undercarriage of the main character, Jamal (who’s mostly played by Dev Patel). And that’s a bit of a nag.

Talk to a Slumdog fan and they’ll probably tell you that the hyperness is part of the enjoyment — you don’t buy it but you love the intensity of the Bollywood-ish ride and particularly where it takes you at the conclusion. Slumdog is a show, but as much as it thrills and excites I feel that a truly formidable Best Picture contender needs to finally be unconcerned with the sell and confident enough to just “be.”

This isn’t to say that the presentation of Slumdog isn’t a kick-ass thing, or that the people who love it are somehow misguided in believing it has more Best Picture juice than any of the other hotties out there. LAFCA and NYFCC critics may or may not give it their Best Picture awards, but the Oscar rumble isn’t wrong. As things seem now, it will probably take the prize.

I’m still down with Slumdog for the most part. If it wins I won’t go into convulsions like I did when Chicago beat The Pianist. I love the life-force of it, the fusion of third-world squalor and the classic chops of Charles Dickens , the go-go swirl, the Boyle-ness of it. What other major director would have thought to make such a film in such a way?

It’s just that I couldn’t shake an awareness that every step of the way I was being subjected to a romantically simplistic blitzkreig — a steroid Dickens fable with a hero I very much liked and felt for but couldn’t finally accept.

How can anyone watch Slumdog and not be down with Jamal’s enormous dignity, strength of spirit and intelligence? And I understand (or think that I do) that Jamal’s life story is primarily a device that allows Boyle to dramatize the evolution of Mumbai chaos-culture over the past 15 or 20 years.

But I just can’t believe that a kid who’s been subjected to such relentless cruelty and brutality his entire life — slapped, beaten, exploited, betrayed, booted, whipped, shat upon and made to suffer like a homeless dog day after day, year after year — would end up with this much patience and resolve and focus. Treat an actual dog like this and he’ll be incapable of showing anything but his canine teeth.

Nor did I believe that the beautiful Freida Pinto‘s Latika wouldn’t be soiled and corrupted by her upbringing also, or that she’d stay emotionally loyal to and in love with Jamal through thick and thin. Things change, people grow up and move on, life is hard, get what you can whenever you can, and nobody will save you but yourself. I know, I know…surrender to it, believe in love.

But the cruelty in this film is relentless. Ugly behavior reigns through the first two acts. Except for the cop (Irfan Khan) who interrogates Jamal throughout the film, nearly every male character in Slumdog Millionaire is a cutthroat Fagin or Artful Dodger. Snarling, feral, pitiless.

And all through Slumdog I was muttering to myself how much I hate the Mumbai overload — the poverty, the crowding, the noise, the garbage landscapes, the public outhouses, the ugly high rises…the whole squalid cornucopia of it. I’ve never been especially interested in visiting urban India, but Slumdog settled things once and for all. If someone slips me a first-class Air India ticket from JFK to Mumbai, I’m trading it in for passage to Vietnam or China or Kampuchea or Katmandu.

I was amused by what HE reader arturobandini2 said yesterday: “Don’t look for Slumdog to take top critics’ honors. But if SAG strikes, I predict it’ll be the Academy’s Best Picture winner. Mainly as a fuck-you gesture to actors from the rest of Hollywood.” Spot-on, love it. SAG members will deserve a hearty eff-you if they go on strike.

Slumdog may also triumph, he feels, “because it has a feel-exuberant finish, which the other contenders don’t have. The Academy fogies cream their Depends over that kind of ending, especially in a recession. I don’t particularly like the movie, but I witnessed the fever spreading in the theater like turbo-bacteria. The momentum seems undeniable.”

My deep-down suspicion after seeing Slumdog in Toronto, one that I kept to myself, was that the Academy bluehairs might back away somewhat because of the total absence of local talent. This doesn’t seem to have kicked in at all, however, and that in itself is very cool. In this spirit a Slumdog win could be seen as kindred to the election of Barack Obama. Black president, brown movie.

  • p.Vice

    This film is an atrocity. From descriptions I had read I gathered there was supposed to be something meaningful in the juxtaposition of the game show and street life? But no, now I get it… it’s just the popularity of junk rearing its ugly head again. Slumdog is just two more manipulative hours of rags-to-riches gangster cliches, stock villains, and kids who can’t act their way out of an outhouse but are certainly wide-eyed and cute enough to sell tickets. Oh, and let’s not forget how it uses fanatical religious violence, prostitution, and poverty as simplistic plot devices in the service of yet another bullshit Hollywood fantasy story about winning millions of dollars and the heart of the prettiest girl on the planet who would never in a million years want anything to do with our charisma vacuum of a hero!

    I know, I know… I guess I just should have surrendered instead of using my brain to see that the movie is yet another overhyped piece of shit made for apes. I guess because the film is set in a foreign land like India and even has a few subtitles just isn’t enough for me.

    On a side note, I’d be curious to hear what filmmakers with real social concerns like, say, the Dardennes think about it.

  • YND

    p.Vice — Are there any movies you love from your heart? I’m curious as to what they might be. Godard and Kubrick are 2 of my favorite filmmakers, so I understand approaching films from a primarily intellectual, head-first perspective. But I also find enormous amounts of joy in heart-first films like CITY LIGHTS, CASABLANCA or SLUMDOG.

    The latter isn’t trying to be social realism — I love the Dardennes, but this ain’t trying to be that. It’s trying to tell a grand story in the classic mode. (I got as much “Old Hollywood” from the film as I got “Dickens”.) You can judge it against as many oranges as you want… it’s still gonna be an apple. You didn’t like it — that’s cool. But that doesn’t make the film “an atrocity”. Yeesh. I’d be interested to hear about any films that may not be “important”, but you feel are great nonetheless.

  • lawnorder

    SLUMDOG will take Best Picture because it’s an amazing piece of cinema – and it touches the heart. Every film manipulates its audience – even the most pseudo-intellectual, austere, art house fare, simply by choosing to be stand-offish emotionally. Slumdog takes the audience along for an outlandish ride and we are with the characters 100 percent of the way. I was blown away by Boyle’s kinetic canvas and the amazing compositions, music, pacing… Only a cold-hearted cynic and an emotional zombie could ignore the genius in this film. Even conceiving of it in the first place must have seemed like such a long shot. No english speaking stars, quite a bit of the dialogue subtitled, set in India… And not only did Boyle and Co. get it financed and shot on location – they actually pull it off. All the naysayers who hated CRASH and never believed it would win Best Picture are going to be wrong this time around again. Audiences want to feel something, they want to be moved and Slumdog delivers enormously by the time the credits roll (and even through the credits!). Slumdog is why I go to the cinema.

  • http://www.filmjerk.com Edward Havens

    Sidebar for a moment… did you know that SAG members are being asked to strike over a contract they have yet to read? Several friends whom my wife and I had over for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday night are SAG members, and the strike was one of the major topics throughout dinner. The SAG hierarchy has yet to show the membership the details of the final offer from AMPTP. What they do know about the AMPTP offer is what they’ve read in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. How fucked up is that? SAG leadership is going to ask their members to strike over a contract the leadership isn’t allowing the members to examine for themselves. And while it was a small percentage of SAG membership in my home that evening, the consensus was clear amongst them: they are not going to authorize a strike until they have a chance to read for themselves what they are striking over.

    As for Slumdog, we are only seeing snapshots of Jamal and Latika’s lives, specifically pertaining to the questions asked on the game show and how Jamal might know the answers. Yeah, we see Salim being a total shit to Jamal throughout the story, so why would the teenage chaiwala want to find his brother once he found himself with access to everyone’s phone listings? Sure, to keep the plot moving along, but also because for many of us, family still matters. I have never had the greatest relationship with my brother, mainly because we are so far apart in age (I’m 11 years older), but I still try to keep a good relationship going with him because he is my brother. Family matters to some of us, so I am not going to fault Jamal for wanting to re-open those lines of communication.

    And I guess some people didn’t notice when Jamal does find Latika again for the third time, she has hooked up with the nasty local gangster. Yes, my friends, she was soiled and corrupted by her upbringing, and willing to deal with physical abuse so she would no longer have to live on the streets. I guess they missed the scene where Latika tries to get Jamal out of the gangster’s house by telling him his love for her (and vice versa) wasn’t enough for her at that moment. Yeah, she changed her mind and tried to meet Jamal at the train station a few movie moments later, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was looking out for number one there for a portion of her life by accepting the gangster as her savior.

    As for Jamal and his optimism (for lack of a better word) despite his shitty life… well, the woman with whom I share my life with had a pretty fucked up childhood, yet she still remains a positive life force. Okay, she may have never been homeless, but my wife did have to deal with a lot of shit that may have turned a weaker willed person in to a prostitute or a junkie or worse. Some people are able to persevere better than others.

    Slumdog is a great little movie, and one that has the Full Monty/Little Miss Sunshine/Juno “the little picture that could” slot in the Best Picture race locked up. The film might win Best Original Score at best, but nothing more.

  • eoguy

    Slumdog is a fantastic movie, and a lot of you readers who are knocking it seem to miss that it is nodding to Bollywood cinema as much as Hollywood cinema. The film is rife with Bollywood conventions and nods that go over the head of people unfamiliar with the conventions.

    I think it’s fantastic that Slumdog is in the race for Best Pic. It’s an enthralling movie, and two months ago I was writing it off because I didn’t think that it was possible Americans would get behind a film with an entirely Indian cast. But I’m glad I’ve been proven wrong.

  • Chase Kahn

    I’m glad to see someone on here likes the film — I was beginning to think everyone was like p.Vice. Sure, the movie seems to have a Disney/Dickens sheen on top of the beautifully and energetically filmed slums of Mumbai, seemingly hindering authenticity — but I found it refreshing and irresistible.

    I found it hard not to come away from the movie slammed-down impressed by Boyle’s kinetic camera movements and the pure-bliss-energy that burst from the opening frame to the last.

  • qwiggles

    Ah, sweet friends who also weren’t sold by Slumdog, here come the two defenses that will dog us for the remainder of the award season:

    1) We don’t love movies from our hearts.
    2) We don’t realize that the film is nodding to Bollywood.

    Every backlash has a counter-backlash, and I feel certain that this will be the ground on which it’s fought.

    So let me respond:

    1) I’m pretty sure pVice loves movies ‘from his heart,’ or he wouldn’t be here. This is a baseless and a mean-spirited way of attacking someone’s character because they disliked something you’re championing. I’m expecting to get a lot of flack of this sort in the weeks to come. Other related insults to come my way: surely I can’t appreciate true love, I’m too cynical and cerebral to even watch such a movie, I’m heartless, etc. etc.

    2) For HE readers to have ‘missed’ the Bollywood nod would mean we didn’t even pay basic attention to what was onscreen. It’s not a nod, and it’s not subtle; entering into its last act especially, the film switches gears from a realist to a hyperreal/Bollywood aesthetic. It’s very clear. My question is, what does that switch accomplish?

    True story: when I saw Slumdog with my companion, I liked it more than she did. She’d pegged it as a C; I thought it was about a B+. Asked to justify my feelings, I said “Well you have to realize the Bollywood context from which it’s coming!” And she said, “I realize it; so?” And I had no real answer for her. I just went a little farther along with it than she did, I guess, and used the ‘But it has affinities with Bollywood!’ defense as a condescending (to her, to Bollywood) way of granting it a free pass for its undercooked love story, it’s unbelievable protagonist (Jeff’s read is spot-on) and what I felt was it’s overblown conclusion.

    If Jamal really doesn’t care about the money, neither the slumdogs rallying on his behalf nor the exuberant train dance sequence really make emotional sense. And if all the hoopla is solely because Latika has finally come back to him, then what does it say about the movie’s values that the only time she can come to him and not be pulled back in her cage is when the new man she is flocking to has $$$? But the movie does not invite us to ask this question, or think about its recurring motif linking women to exploitation and cash: it invites us to dance. This, I think, is where the defenders who argue it is this hyper-conscious film ABOUT exploitation and social transcendence rather than a straight narrative that runs on both, fail utterly to convince me.

    The fact for me is: you don’t approach a film either intellectually or heart-first. You engage it on its own terms, it does the emotional or the intellectual (not mutually exclusive) work, and you respond accordingly. But if an allegedly emotional film like Slumdog leaves your heart cold, you should be able to explain why — in cerebral terms? — without fear of being called a robot or worse, an academic.

  • huntermdaniels

    It’s not supposed to be “real” it’s a heightened reality of Bollywood style layered on top of Magical Realism logic. Are you really going to begrudge Gabriel Garcia Marquez for not being “real” enough?

  • K. Bowen

    They’re not exactly Bogey and Bacall, are they?

  • Chicago48

    I’m with Lawnandorder. But like Wells, I did feel that Latika would have been damaged goods and really sullen and mean after being abused all her life. It started off rough and ugly with those slum scenes of Mumbai and the cruelty towards Muslim, but it ended hopefully. What I got from Jamal was in his eyes. They were bare, expressionless, absent emotion, from all the years of abuse he had taken and seen. He only seemed to live when he thought about and wanted Latika.

  • K. Bowen

    The fantasy would sell better if the two actors weren’t crap and the two characters really seemed destined for each other. Instead, here, we’re left wondering why the H-E-double-hockey-sticks these two characters still care about each other after hanging out some when they were ten.

    An epic star-crossed romance works when the plot seems like a device artificially keeping two lovers apart. An epic star-crossed romance is failing when it seems like the plot is artificially keeping the two lovers together. This is the latter.

    Compare it to even The Dark Knight, where there seems to be honest emotional connection between Bruce Wayne and his childhood sweetheart. IMO, it doesn’t stand up.

    When I wrote my review, I thought I was going to be completely alone in my distaste for this film. I’m pleased to not only see a backlash, but one in which we backlashers seem to agree on the weaknesses.

    That said, I don’t hate the film. I just don’t get why people have fallen for it.

  • K. Bowen

    I should walk the “crap” back a little and just say the actors, to my mind, were ineffective.

  • qwiggles

    I liked Patel quite a bit, for what it’s worth, but I’m in line with K. Bowen here. And I think the reason the actors are ineffective is that they have very little to play with.

    Pinto’s character is an afterthought. She barely registers as Jamal’s great love as a child (was I alone in thinking they were just friends?). She gets only one scene with him as a tween (in which she basically is thankful for his affection; star-crossed love as gratefulness?). Then, she has the dubious honour of re-entering the narrative as an exploited, almost but not quite virginal goddess — I actually think the movie DOES argue she is soiled, and redeemable only by the love of Jamal, which raises all sorts of icky questions about the film’s take on women — who gets to engage in banal dialogue on whether or not one can live on love and destiny. There is really no room for Pinto to a) be interesting or b) generate chemistry with Patel in either this brief scene or her three subsequent appearances, all of which involve her running to or from stations.

    As for Patel, Jeff nailed the limitations of this character: the rough treatment he would’ve had to endure to answer those trivia questions ought to have produced an interesting, perhaps angry young man, no? But the adult Jamal is pretty genial, pretty calm, astoundingly patient. Very Obama. But we aren’t voting Jamal for political office: we want to know a little about what he REALLY thinks about that attack on his mother, or his brother’s actions toward Latika. And, of no fault of Patel’s, the screenplay gives him no opportunity to play this. We only get the surface: the literal image of him thinking real hard and remembering traumatic events with furrowed brow on TV.

  • D.Z.

    “If someone slips me a first-class Air India ticket from JFK to Mumbai, I’m trading it in for passage to Vietnam or China or Kampuchea or Katmandu.”

    I’m not fond of terrorists myself, but I’m not exactly excited about irradiated kids, tainted milk, or piles of unburied human bones, either. I hear Katmandu’s ok, though.

  • Dignan

    qwiggles:

    Excellent points on a film I’ve seen twice now and still feel deeply conflicted about. I’d ultimately fall on the “liked it” side of the argument but I’m already starting to become annoyed by the groundswell of blind support for the film that often begins with statements like:

    “Are there any movies you love from your heart?”

    This is the sort of argument which rubber-stamps Awards Bait atrocities like Crash, Life is Beautiful and Chocolat. Just because a film manipulates you to tears doesn’t mean you deserve a cookie or that it’s any good. Would anyone here stand to be told “don’t you love any films with your brain?”

    The emotional argument, I suggest, stems from the film’s last 15 minutes which admittedly play really, really well. Even on a second viewing I was amazed at how my (for lack of a better expression) heart jumped into my throat when Latika picks up the phone. Hard not to leave the theater in a good mood which permeates the entire experience. But let’s not forget all the maiming, parental death, child prostitution, gangland hits, torture and inescapable squalor that proceeds it.

    My issues with the film had less to social/gender politics than with how repetitive the film is (I didn’t put a clock to it, but I’d say 20 minutes of screen time are dedicated to one or more characters running from one third-world shit hole to another) how reductive the film’s gameshow format is to a biography (so you’re telling me every answer with the exception of the final one, which is sort of a culmination of a lifetime question, is one he came across in chronological order from childhood to this moment?) and that the lead is sort of a passive cipher. The star of the film is Mumbai and Boyle’s direction which wallpapers over a lot of these issues. The film seems to have unearthed legions of closeted Bollywood “experts” who have miraculously kept quiet in their admiration until now. Seems convenient but whatever.

    I fully expect a nomination in the Full Monty/Juno/Little Miss Sunshine slot (all Fox Searchlight) but as the film’s unlikely to generate a single acting nomination I think it’ll have to settle for an undeserved screenplay Oscar.

  • huntermdaniels

    Screw you man, Life is Beautiful is a very, very well done movie.

  • charles

    I think Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan will win either in NY or LA or both-it got great reviews, they were both wonderful, and they could actually use the help from the critics to get their names considered for nominations. Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep don’t need any help to get Oscar attention, so why give it to them.

    So that’s my call…

  • http://www.filmjerk.com Edward Havens

    “Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep don’t need any help to get Oscar attention, so why give it to them.”

    Because awards should not be about who needs help but who is deserving.

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