Monday 26 January 2009

Not quite Monday Night Film Club (Slumdog Millionaire and Seven Pounds)

The Cameo Monday Night Film Club has got off to a shaky start this year. In the first full week of January, the illness of one of our founders put a stop to proceedings; the following Saturday an excursion was made to see Che, but your correspondent was in London; then Monday 12th was knocked out due to a clashing meeting for our other founder.

Eventually, Tuesday 13th found an outing I was able to attend. The film in question would be Slumdog Millionaire which looks set to clear up just about every award created (including the Best Picture Oscar, which I firmly believe should go to The Dark Knight, and given my choices never win that was doomed to failure, not even securing a nomination).

I came out of the film feeling deeply ambivalent. There are some remarkable things about it: director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have shot a beautiful picture that affords stunning shots of India and powerful scenes of life around the margins. This is further reinforced by a superb soundtrack.

However, it is, to my mind, a rather depressing film for the most part. I'm not sure I'd have minded this so much, but I went in expecting something very different and was taken aback: the posters that presently seem to adorn every bus in Edinburgh call this the "feel good movie of the decade". Obviously using some new definition of the term with which I'm not familiar.

As the film opens Dev Patel, strong as the lead Jamal Malik, is being tortured by police who presume he has cheated his way to the last question (which poses another question - are these shows really aired live with an overnight break like that, I would be surprised; surely they are shot back to back and then parcelled up for broadcast). I bet Charles Ingram and Tecwen Whittock are glad they didn't try their act over there.

This is interwoven with flashbacks that tell the life story of Jamal, his brother and Latika, the girl he is in love with (each well played by several actors) as they work they way from the slums, through organised beggary and crime, deprivation and entrapment, to the millionaire studio. Along the way we learn how Jamal has, by sheer chance, managed to acquire the knowledge that got him so close to victory. There is a nice moment when the police captain complains that he must have cheated since he didn't know the Indian national motto, to which he asks if the captain knows who stole a superior's bike (which is common knowledge in the circles he inhabits).

There is no shortage violence and other disturbing images, which range from child abuse to Hindu zealots tearing through the slums murdering and beating their inhabitants for being different.

The film also wins credit for its frequent references to Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, my favourite novel, and I find Jamal's drive to find Latika, and his faith that he can do so, powerful.

The closing Bollywood dance sequence feels a little out of kilter. This is clearly not a Bollywood film, and pretending so briefly that it is only jars.

As someone who once wrote pub quizes, I also felt that the questions were not genuinely in ascending order of difficulty: would the penultimate question in cricket mad India really about a cricketing record. Then, the final question asks for the name of the third musketeer. Given even slum children appear to study the book, it would seem to stretch credibility somewhat. Is this really a harder question than whether Ben Franklin appears on the $100 bill (hard mainly for non-Americans, obviously) or who invented the revolver (Samuel Colt)?

Two weeks later, I'm really struggling to think what it was I didn't like about the film and I'm left with the conclusion that expectations can make an incredible difference.

Speaking of which, expectations were running pretty low for last week's offering. Finally back to Monday but, owing to one of our founders going Skiing, we opted to steer clear of the Cameo and sample some Hollywood trash (at more than three times the price, for significantly less comfortable seats). As we filed into the Lothian Road Odeon we wondered if we would be the only two attendees for Will Smith's apparent flop Seven Pounds. In the end we weren't, but there were probably more in the preceding week's film club party than there were in the total audience for this.

The film is being sold as a departure for Smith and as having a neat twist. It probably is the former, but it certainly does not possess the latter. I took much longer to see it coming than my companion, but only because my brain was in full sixth sense mode, expecting something really clever, that the glaringly obvious was obscured for some time. Expectations were low after a Metro review giving just one star. Having endured a truly awful performance only a few days ago, I find this rating unfair. That said, it is by no means a masterpiece.

It's very hard to discuss the film without giving things away, but since it isn't really much of a twist, I'm not going to mind (but if you haven't seen it, and want to steer clear of twists, look away now).

Will Smith plays a man who, in a past life, was a rich and successful aerospace engineer. We learn through flashbacks, and presumably deliberately confusingly cut current story, that he caused an accident and is trying to redress the balance by helping an equal number of needy people. He is now an IRS tax collector and is judging whether people who plead desperate circumstances, such as Rosario Dawson's heart transplant needing Emily Posa, deserve an extension.

However, it becomes clear that his real motive is much more than this, as he donates first a kidney and then his bone marrow to two deserving cases. Along the way he meets and falls in love with Dawson and it becomes clear he's going to kill himself to give her his heart (the method by which he will do so is also readily apparent and highly problematic, of which more anon). There is a baffling relationship with his best friend who seems to be do doing nothing to try and stop this.

The moral questions surrounding organ donation aren't really addressed, since no right persons would argue that any of these wonderful people deserve saving; things become more difficult with questions such as whether a recovering alcoholic should get a liver? The film offers no debate of such questions but does appear to imply that only the worthy should be saved.

Smith is certainly very different in this role, though whether that is a good thing is another question. He is wonderfully entertaining in comic roles, and in the few laughs the movie provides he is here too. Unfortunately, on the whole, he is less convincing.

The title might be guessed to refer to the weight of the organ Smith donates in the climax, but since human heart weighs less than one pound it seems more likely that it is reference to the "pound of flesh" from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, multiplied by the Smith's seven victims.

Possibly the thing that bugged me most, and certainly will have annoyed me more than most other viewers, is Smith's alleged engineering acumen. Sure, he went to the prestigious MIT, but the fact that he is an expert in astronautics would not normally be expected to confer the ability to fix an antique printing press, which nobody else can, without any prior experience. Worse, the early scene showing him in an aerospace office is fraught with problems. The model sitting on the conference table appears to be that of the X-38 (part of proposed shuttle replacement system). This was unpowered but behind him are diagrams of linear aerospike engines of the kind that destroyed the Venture Star shuttle replacement programme (Lockheed Martin erroneously assumed that these were lighter as well as more efficient, they were not and by the time the correction was made, there was no way to rebalance the vehicle such that it would be light enough to get into orbit - the project was cancelled with over $1bn wasted).

A much bigger flaw is Smith's suicide. His obsession with the box jelly fish (actually a group of different species which are highly poisonous) gives an early clue. From the moment he moves his pet into his hotel room, you know that's how he means to top himself. Now, I'm no transplant surgeon, but surely you cannot transplant the heart of someone who's just been stung by the most venomous creature in the world without killing the recipient (I've seen House). Nor, for that matter, their eyes, which wind up with Woody Harrelson.

It's perfectly watchable, if not especially rewarding, and I suspect even less so on repeated viewings. With luck the coming weeks will offer far greater fodder with the likes of Milk and Frost/Nixon

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