Thursday, February 26, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (Review)

Slumdog Millionaire (best picture winner, rating 82 out of 100) is a pretty good movie--well woth seeing. On my 100 percentile rating system, where moviews rated 60 are above average and generally worth seeing, 82 is a solid rating. However, you would be right in concluding that it is not a "best picture" rating, In the "Golden Age" of Hollywood, the movie would not rank in the top 10 for the year--often not in the top 20. Thus, the movie has significant flaws, which I will get around to at the end of this review. You should remember, however, that I am rating the movie as a solidly good movie, despite its flaws, and you should not let my description of the flaws deter you from seeing a movie well woth seeing.

If you have not heard, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a Muslim (at least by heritage) slum kid in India who ends up on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire", going for the million dollars. He mainly does this not for the money, but to regain contact with the girl with whom he has been obsessed since childhood (the "love story" of the movie, which is really a "love story" mainly from his side).

The story is told in flashbacks through a "gimmick" (which my older daughter's boyfriend accurately called "contrived" rather than convincing) by which the flashbacks explain how this slum young man knows the answers to questions to which he seemingly should not know the answers ("Who is on a $100 bill"--the "Benjamins" in American slang). These "flashbacks" are also occurring as the young man explains to the Indian police, while being tortured, how he came to know the answers. Yes, he is arrested because no one believes he is not cheating somehow.

This is not a new story. It is basically the Biblical "Book of Job", as most of the movie describes the abuse that the hero has suffered in his life, including the torture while under arrest--while he is becoming a hero on Indian television. The boys mother is killed early in his life by an Indian mob evidently after Muslims. He has to live on the streets ruled by thugs and gangs who do things like blind children to be more effective beggars. Thus, the flashbacks of the early years are mainly falshbacks of the hero's abuse in the Indian slums. Dickens did it better (Oliver Twist). But Dickens is a standard too high for almost any book or movie.

The reason this movie moves audiences (as it did my two brothers with whom I saw the movie, who perhaps liked it better than I did) is not the "love story". It is not the acting. How could it be, when the male lead, as an adult, is on screen so little. The children playing the main characters during childhood are on screen as much as the adults. The female lead (the hero's obsession) is hardly ever on screen. How could she even be considered, for example, as "best actreess" when she does not have the screen time of even a "supporting actress". All she does, anyway, is look beautiful (and she is).

The young male lead actor has a limited range of expressions. I would go so far to say that he has almost no expression through most of the film, as he stoically bears up under abuse, and stoically answers questions on the game show. Seill, his performance grows on you. You like him, even if he is on screen a limited time. John Wayne did not much change expression, but was a very effective actor. Meryl Streep type facial expressions are perhaps not the best guage of an actor's performance.

That is the strength of this movie. It is, at its core, the story of an individual slum kid overcoming impossible odds to get the girl of his dreams (whether she deserves it or not). He has faith in this dream, rather than in God (like Job), but the principle is the same. This timeless story is told in visually arresting form, and the child actors are perhaps better actors than the adult leads. So it is a movie with a log going for it You should like it, although I think most will not be wildly enthusiastic about it.

I liked the movie, but not that much. WARNING: The rest of this review is going to trash the movie, with spoilers. If you really liked the movie (I can see where you might, as at least one of my brother did, and it did get "Best Picture"), or have not seen the movie, you might want to stop reading here. These criticisms are not meant to wipe away my endorsement of the movie as worth seeing, but meant to explain the major flaws in the movie that caused me to consider it unworthy of being "Best Picture". Here goes:

1. The movie absolutely trashes India. Does it do so unfairly? I would say "yes", although I am not that familiar with India. I am sure that there is violence against Muslims in India (with there being that constant tension between India and Pakistan). However, we know that Islam is probably the most intolerant religion in the world today, as practiced in the world today. India may have some legitimate grievances against Muslims. No, I am not saying that such grievances justify wanton killing and abuse--only that Muslims have shown themselves capable of as bad, or worse. More importantly, do Indian plice routinely torture people merely accused of fraud--in this case a person who is already a hero to a lot of people? Nope. I regard this as unbelievable. If true, it merely illustrates how off base leftists are to label this country (the U.S.A.) as "evil" for engaging in "waterborading". somehow, I think "waterboarding" is preferable to the electric shocks (to the genitals?) administered to a person merely accused of fraud. In short, I think the really terrible picture of India given in this movie is overdone. The movie even tries to take advantage (this movie tries to "push button", and is the main overall thing I dislike about it) of the antagonism toward these Indian "call centers. The hero ends up working for one of the "call centers", and we see him trying to deceive people (in Egnland, I think) by saying that they are talking to a local person, instead of to a person in India. Gratuitous and manipulative. As an aside, one of my nieces walked out of the movie because of the "violence". I don't regard that as a problem, except for the overly sensitive, because the extreme violence (blinding, extreme beatings, etc.) occurs off screen. We see the set up, and the results, but the movie does not glorify the actual violence in horror movie style. I do think the movie really portrays India as a violent place, run by thugs and gangs, like Mexico actually is now. I suspect this is an unfair picture of India.

2. The "love story" is not that great. The woman with whom the hero is obsessed is notthing more than a victim. Sure, she looks beautiful. But that is all the hero can possibly see in her. She does nothing to help herself, and almost voluntarily passes from gang thug to gang leader as nothing more than a gangster's moll. Riff-Raff, the 1930's movie with Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy (rating 85), has a much better love story (a story with some similarities to the Book of Job, but with a woman who is not merely a victim). While You were Sleeping, with Sandra Bullock (rating 97), is a much superior love story (and should easily have won "Best Picture" in this year's field). And a movie like The African Queen (rating 100) is so far superior to this movie that this movie is not even in the same league. However, I am coparing apples and orages. This movie is not meant to be really a mutual love story. The girl makes little effort to make the "love story" come true. This movie is meant to be the story of a child, and young man, overcoming all odds to make his dream come true. It is that part of the movie, which is what the movie is really about, that is effective.

3. I saw the musical score of this movie complitmented as an effective blend of rock and traditional Indian music. I found the score obtrusive, and remiiscent of an MTV rock video. In fact, as with most modern movies, this movie is more MTV visual style, with MTV type music, than it is substance. Old fashioned storytelling is dying. Luckily, the story at the core of this movie is so universal (the story of overcoming all odds to realize a dream) that it is not completely overwhelmed by the "style", including the obtrusive score.

4. The movie pushes buttons. This is my basic criticism, and really explains the criticisms in the first three items. The violence against Muslims is a politically correct button. The "traditional" music is a button, including the traditional dance after the credits, in a movie that really has nothing to do with "traditional" music. The older "brother" (I am not sure whether he is an actual brother or merely a "soul" brother) makes arbitrary decisions. He turns against the hero, and his love, for no apparent reason. Then, at the end, he turns against the gang leader he had joined for no apparent reason--the gang leader to which he had evidently turned over the girl. If you think these things are adequately "foreshadowed" in the movie, I think you are wrong. The host of the game show inexplicably turns against the hero. I know it is supposed to be jealousy, and/or a desire not to have the hero win the money, but the show is making the host famous because of the hero. To me, this is another contrivance, and not convincing. The movie is very contrived, and pushes too many buttons. Yes, fiction has to be "contrived", and push buttons. But the idea is to not let the manipulatioin show. To me, the manipulation in Slumdog Millionaire is too obvious, and too cynical. The "Book of Job" stuff is overdone, and overall the movie is too contrived by more than half.

As stated, the above explains why I do not regard this as a great movie. It is merely a good movie--which, by today's standards, is not "merely", but a rare thing. The problem is that the success of this movie will encourage the same bad elements to be used in much worse moviews. The bad elements of this movie are already endemic in Hollywood movies, which are little more than MTV vidios--all "style" and no substance. We are, after all, in the Age of Obama.

P.S. Fully half of this movie is in a foreign language (not even sure which language), with English subtitles. The subtitles are well done, but this mad the movie frustrating for me. My eyesight is not good enough to pick up subtitles quickly enough. If they stayed on the screen, I could read them But I can't pick them up at the speed that subtitles have to be flashed on the screen. I have tried to make allowances for this in my review above, but you might want to take this into account in considering the review. It does affect my enjoyment of the film. It is unfortunate for me that so many films these days use subtitles, even if the film is supposedly in English. However, that is just life. I don't believe in acting like a victim, and whining over these things. There is no reason mor a film maker to make his movie for me. Yes, I have trouble with rapid fire quick cuts and fancy visuals as well, although my borthers assure me that they, with perfect eyesight, have trouble following these as well. The only reason I mention this is not for any kind of sympathy, but because it may be relevant in evaluating my reaction to this movie.

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