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Month: January 2009

Slumdog Problems

Backlash time! Slumdog Millionaire was pretty fun and I can always lounge back and watch Danny Boyle get all flamboyant with his camera, but it wouldn’t find a place among my ten best films of the year. Also I’m going to say snide things about its relationship to City of God.

Problem one: I’m too sensitive to the conditions depicted with such skill. The Mumbai slums are atrociously awful, and the poverty level we’re seeing is horrifying. Boyle’s really good at showing this. The early scene with Jamal covered in shit, running around oblivious — you laugh and you’re repulsed at your laughter, because it’s funny but guys. That kid is covered in shit and he’s going to get an infection and die or be scarred for life. This is bad.

So he gets out, which is great. The ending, everything from the shot of him returning to the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire studio onwards, it’s magic. It feels great when he gets the girl. So. Yeah. And the millions of other people who grew up watching their parents die and running around covered in shit… get to feel good because one of their own escaped!

Man, 20 million rupees is a really inexpensive way to give people hope and make them satisfied with the world around them. It’s a sophisticated lottery, and before we get all excited about the skill involved, the message of the movie is that it’s not about skill. In fact, that would be problem two.

Problem two: “it is written.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. You go to a country well known, among other things, for a rigid caste system. The idea that destiny controls you has been used for generations to control the lower classes. You make a movie that opens and ends with the bald statement: “it is written.” Jamal wins not because he’s smart, but because he’s had the right life experiences to know the answers to the questions. He’s lucky, and the ultimate answer reinforces that message.

That’s about as uplifting as a ten day old curry. Don’t try and save that sucker in the microwave; it’s done.

See previous disclaimer. I’m being overly sensitive to this, partially because I’m in a glum mood anyway. This is, in fact, classic melodrama and can be appreciated on that basis. But man, it’s not Dickensian. More like Horatio Alger.

Oh, yeah, problem three. I may have used up my entire head of steam on the first two. Let’s see.

Problem three: I’ve already seen City of God. Fernando Meirelles does not have a copyright on hyperkinetic fast cut overexposed cinematography in the slums. It’s still got to be a reference point, and when Slumdog Millionaire goes with the kid holding the gun and it’s all will he shoot? He’s too young to be a killer! Yes, I have seen that scene before. The comparisons are, thus, inevitable.

Slumdog doesn’t bring anything new to the table except the message that it can all work out in the end, and given that I feel that’s a trite message in the destiny context, that wasn’t really enough. So it goes.

So that’s the three big problems; and all that aside, it wasn’t a bad movie. I disliked the message and it suffered by comparison to one of my favorite flicks of all time. Well, Forbidden Kingdom was no Once Upon a Time in China but that doesn’t mean it sucked. Slumdog Millionaire only suffers because it’s gotten too much hype in a relatively poor year for cinema.


I saw the Che roadshow down at the Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge this last weekend. Quite the experience.

It started with a nice glossy program book, which I’ll have to take a picture of, since I can’t find any out there on the Web. As the very serious posters on the wall explained, it’s an old school roadshow, which means no opening or closing credits: those were in the program book. We collectively shuffled in, found seats, watched the lights dim, and saw a map of Cuba come up on the screen. For the next minute or so, various regions of Cuba were highlighted and named: sort of 50s geography filmstrip. And then the movie proper began.

A couple of hours later, the movie ended: that’d be The Argentine, which is the first of Soderbergh’s two movies about Che. It covers Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. After a fifteen minute intermission, we returned to the theater for the second movie, Guerrilla, which is about Che’s last year in Bolivia. This time, the map was of South America. Another two hours later, and that movie ended — no credits — and everyone left.

I found the roadshow presentation satisfying; I wanted to see the movies back to back like that, to compare them with fresh memories. I think that IFC’s attempt to invoke the epics of days gone by (Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With The Wind) was a mistake, because Che is not those at all. It’s not epic. Clinical, perhaps.

… although the comparison with T. E. Lawrence is perhaps interesting, isn’t it? Soderbergh’s noted that he spent a lot of time watching The Battle of Algiers while making Che. Perhaps the Arab connection isn’t so far fetched.

Either way, though, Che is not epic in the classical manner. The overall story of the man’s life is epic. These two movies give us a view of the man through two smallish portholes. From them alone, we’d know that Che had medical training only because he used it and some of his Cuban compatriots mentioned it. We would not know that he fought in Guatemala before coming to Cuba. We wouldn’t learn anything about his background. We just see the man and his actions.

The story lies in the contrast between the movies. In the first, matters go well from the revolutionary point of view. Castro and Guevara win! In the second, the revolution fails and, of course, Che dies. Soderbergh isn’t interested in explaining why. Draw your own conclusions.

I think there’s an unintended irony here. One reason Che failed in Bolivia was his inability to engage with conditions on the ground. His passion for change fueled a very intellectual revolution; he was convinced that his foco insurgency theory would lead to victory. He didn’t adapt when it didn’t work. Soderbergh has never been accused of being insufficiently intellectual, so Guerrilla in particular is a somewhat austere look at a man failing due to a similar intellectual approach.

Or perhaps that’s inevitable; Che may seem so intellectualized because of the filters of the man portraying him.

I’ve been grappling with my reaction for a couple of days now; wondering if the story revealed by the negative space between two movies is enough? Am I just too conditioned by biopic after biopic to expect spoonfed morals and conclusions? Guerrilla begins with a sequence that could have been horrendously blatantly painful: Che is leaving his family in Cuba.

Those words themselves have a story in them. His wife, Aleida, first appeared in The Argentine, at which point she’s a young guerrilla fighter who falls into Che’s orbit. He mentions, at one point, that he hasn’t seen his wife and child in Mexico for a long time. The two of them have chemistry, clearly, although it’s never stated.

That’s all the movie tells us about how Che left his first wife Hilda for Aledia: he was silently attracted to Aledia while married to Hilda, and by the time he left for Bolivia he’d married her and had several children with her. There’s no commentary.

Back to the scene at hand. Che is in disguise as Raoul, which is how he’ll enter Bolivia. That’s how he spends his last night with his family; Aledia tells the children that since their father is away, Raoul will take his seat at the table, and we see him with his head in her lap after dinner. We see nothing else; we are told nothing else.

If this movie was about Jerry Lee Lewis, we’d have swelling music and dramatic point of view shots, but that’s not this. I know I missed that on an instinctive level, as it’s what I’ve grown to expect from a biopic. I don’t think clear emotional messages are bad. On the other hand, I still don’t know if I think this was… good?

Small word to describe the question, that. It’s a brilliantly made movie. Soderbergh filmed most of it on the Red One, and did most of his own camera work. It’s stunning. The traditional shots of The Argentine contrast perfectly with the handheld jitter of Guerrilla. Del Toro is great. So yes, it’s a good movie.

Is it a satisfying movie? I walked out feeling half-empty. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about it for days. I don’t know that I learned anything about Che from that four plus hours of cinema. For such an objective, non-judgmental movie, that feels strange — but maybe that’s part of the point. Any conclusions I come to are the result of my own analysis of the facts as presented.

Freelance Roleplaying Assignment

This is not a terribly difficult task; I’ve done it before. The motivation is to get writing again. I am 99% sure I can make a sale in two and a half years, so I’m content to make this one contingent on success. As opposed to fiction sales, which are dicier.

Film Festival

I like film festivals a lot. The minimum number of movies means I can’t finish this off by just hitting the Boston Film Festival once; I have to do the festival thing, read film listings, and participate.

I would count Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-A-Thon for the purposes of this, although it’s unlikely. More likely candidates: Fantasia, the Boston Independent Film Festival, maybe the Tribeca Film Festival if I get ambitious, or the Boston Fantastic Film Festival (which didn’t run this year).

The Savages

One hour and twenty-three minutes into The Savages, someone does something kind for no reason other than to be kind. No guilt is involved. It’s a simple act of kindness. It’s the first time that happens in the movie, and it’s close to the last time.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance here. The category was Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. His fellow nominees included John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

The trailer is not exactly an accurate depiction of the movie.

Hollywood marketing is weird.

All that said, it’s an interesting movie. The structure — it’s minimalistic and it’s not innovative or new. Alienation and the aging process suck; there’s only so much you can say about that. The right thing to do is to get actors of the caliber of Linney and Hoffman and put them in a more or less predictable script. That works, because it’s worth watching two hours of those two painfully not bonding over the mortality of their father.

It’s also worth watching Philip Bosco as the father, mind you. He doesn’t have a lot of physical mobility to work with, and in fact I think he’s in bed for most of his screen time. He still conveys the frustrated intelligence of a man who’s fading away and knows it. The sequence in which he and Linney fly from Arizona to Buffalo is intensely painful: nobody talks to him. He’s treated like furniture, by everyone, including his daughter, and it’s humilating; all the more so because he isn’t sure he’d remember if someone did tell him where he was going.

Until the final ten minutes or so, I was going to give Tamara Jenkins credit for not using the tragedy as an excuse to solve the problems of the siblings. Then the siblings break through both their emotional barriers and move on with their lives in appropriate fashions. Plus a dog’s life is saved, which is more schmaltz than I think the movie needs to support. So partial points for omitting all the heartwarming scenes where Linney and Hoffman cooperate to take care of Dad, because that never happens; big deductions for the nice bow that ties it all together at the end.

It’s still not any kind of a comedy, no matter what the Golden Globes say.

One Of the Six Fundamental Machines

Other than that the showrunner is a geek’s geek, who has credits in RPGs, comics, and of course television in the last year, how did I like the show?

… that was way too overworked a sentence for the sake of a couple of cheap jokes. I want to put semi-colons in it, but I can’t figure out where.

Anyway, how’s Leverage? Well, it’s not great television so far. Five episodes in, and I can’t say I have a strong emotional attachment to any of the characters. I say so far because I think the potential exists — Timothy Hutton’s a solid actor and there’s backstory to be developed there, and I’ve seen Gina Bellman dig out emotional grounding from a character who’s way more superficial than Sophie. So I think there’s potential. But it’s also the case that the characters are currently collections of quirks; in the introductory sequences, we saw what they could do rather than who they were.

Which is OK! I mean, there’s a hacker and a combat specialist and a cat burglar and an actor and a plotter, which is cool. It’s not great television, but it is great fun, and I gotta say everyone’s clearly relishing their characters. Plus the con jobs are marvelous. Rogers is doing a great job with the narrative conceits, and the mini-flashbacks to reveal how a con worked are perfect. You get a nice juicy heist every week. I also like the structure a lot: the first con always breaks down, and Nate always has to think on his feet to get out on top.

We’re also getting some subtle, which is one of the other reasons I said “so far” above. There was a nice bit in “The Bank Job,” the most recent episode, where the wrong two characters are forced to pretend to be FBI agents. They’re really bad at it. For the first five seconds, I was all “oh god that’s bad acting, this is terrible,” until I realized “wait, that’s awesome acting, it’s the characters who can’t pull that off.” So I appreciated that. There is somewhat of a roleplaying game sensibility to this sucker, as S. pointed out in reference to the characters, and which also shows itself in the zeal with which the characters get put into bad situations.

Disgression begins:

Christian Kane looked familiar for a while to me; the other night, I was watching old Angel episodes. Right! He’s Lindsey from Wolfram & Hart, the mostly evil lawyer. But it does not end there, because you know who else shows up as a Wolfram & Hart lawyer? Daniel Dae Kim, who is probably better known for playing a supreme badass on Lost. It’s almost as if actors wind up appearing on multiple shows during the course of their careers.

Leverage is on my Tivo and it’s likely to stay there. Recommended.

Donald Westlake, RIP

2009 is not exactly getting off to a good start with the news of Donald Westlake’s death.

He was a consummate professional. The guy knew how to write mysteries; his range went from the comic caper Dortmunder books to the hardboiled Parker novels. He was primarily a novelist, but he did a few screenplays too. The Grifters was probably too quiet a flick to get noticed a ton, but it’s one of my probably top twenty movies and the last scene still disturbs me like very few other cinematic moments.

Just a smart writer. The funny in his comic mysteries came from an understanding of darkness, I think. One of his later novels, The Ax, is about a laid off paper company exec and the lengths he goes to in order to get a job. It’s bleak and understated and oddly believable, particularly right now.

I’m really bummed out about this.