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Review: Slumdog Millionaire, Role Models and The Map Reader

By February 7, 2009September 12th, 20106 Comments

I don’t have much room this week and I want to spend most of it gush­ing over Slumdog Millionaire so let’s get started.

Role Models posterBack in 2003, when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival was still its own bump­tious stand-alone anarch­ic self, we opened the Festival with the sum­mer camp spoof Wet Hot American Summer and good­ness me, wasn’t that a time? Written and dir­ec­ted by David Wain, WHAS was a pitch-perfect trib­ute to teen com­ed­ies of the 80s and his new film Role Models attempts to ride the cur­rent wave of sexu­ally frank grown-up com­ed­ies but he doesn’t seem to really have the heart for it. The gross-out bits are uncom­fort­ably gross, the boobies seem like after­thoughts and the film really doesn’t hit its straps until it starts cheer­ing for the under­dog late in the day.

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play sales­man ped­dling energy drink to high school kids. After an unfor­tu­nate (sta­tion­ary) road rage incid­ent their jail time is con­ver­ted to com­munity ser­vice at Sturdy Wings – a ‘big broth­er’ out­fit match­ing mis­fit kids up with respons­ible male adults. This kind of mater­i­al has proved out­stand­ingly pop­u­lar recently when pro­duced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I can’t help think­ing that if he had got­ten his hands on Role Models it would have about 20% more jokes in 16% short­er run­ning time – he really is that much of a machine.

The Map Reader posterAs micro-budget New Zealand fea­tures go, The Map Reader isn’t that bad. Set around the pic­tur­esque Kaipara Harbour, the film fea­tures Kiwi act­or Rebecca Gibney (whose first film was anoth­er coming-of-age story, Among the Cinders in 1983, but she’s bet­ter known now as the star of Australian tv dra­mas like “Halifax f.p.”). Gibney plays the pos­sibly alco­hol­ic single moth­er of sens­it­ive teen­ager Michael (Jordan Selwyn) who has been mop­ing over maps and atlases since his pilot Dad left when he was a baby. Michael feels out of place in bogan Helensville and rela­tion­ships with a flirty blind girl (Bonnie Soper) and a troubled class­mate (Mikaila Hutchinson) force him to exper­i­ence the real world first hand rather than through his beloved maps.

Director Harold Brodie (Orphans & Angels) is hampered by some weak per­form­ances from the non-pros and a lack of a con­sidered visu­al style but he makes some inter­est­ing choices, none more suc­cess­ful than choos­ing a dis­tinct­ive soundtrack from blues­man Paul Ubana Jones.

Slumdog Millionaire posterTo Slumdog: I’ve been a fan of dir­ect­or Danny Boyle ever since his fea­ture debut with Shallow Grave in 1995 and Trainspotting broke the mold (still ref­er­enced twelve years later). I love that he was a theatre dir­ect­or and yet has the visu­al pan­ache of a music video maker. I love that none of his films resemble any of his oth­er films. I love that none of his films resemble any­body else’s films either for that mat­ter. I love that all of his films are flawed in some way but nev­er fall short when it comes to heart. And I love the fact that he fills the screen with energy and trusts that the audi­ence will take it all in.

Loosely based on a nov­el by Vikas Swarup, Slumdog Millionaire tells the rags to riches story of Jamal Malik, a good-hearted boy who works his way up from the slums of Bombay to a chance at wealth bey­ond his wild­est dreams thanks to the Indian ver­sion of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and the story of his life is struc­tured around the ever-increasing ten­sion in the game show itself.

So, we have a tra­di­tion­ally sat­is­fy­ing nar­rat­ive told with extraordin­ary visu­al rich­ness (a col­our palette lif­ted straight from a sari shop win­dow), bound­less energy in cam­era move­ment, rest­ive edit­ing and a thrill­ing (and noisy) soundtrack by Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman – we’ve waited a while for it, but Slumdog Millionaire feels like the first film of the 21st century.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 4 February, 2009.

Nature of con­flict: The Map Reader is an Arkles Entertainment pro­duc­tion and release. I do a little work for Arkles every now and then. 1st AD on The Map Reader is the great Jeremy Anderson, an old friend.

Notes on screen­ing con­di­tions: Role Models got the usu­al more than accept­able present­a­tion at Readings Courtenay Central; The Map Reader was screened on a water­marked DVD cour­tesy of the dis­trib­ut­or; and Slumdog Millionaire was simply awe­some at the Embassy.

6 Comments

  • Greg Martin says:

    I dis­agree with your review of “Role Models” which I thought was fun­ni­er (and more joke filled) then any Judd Apatow movie. I’m par­tic­u­larly con­fused by your asser­tion that if Judd Apatow had pro­duced Role Models it would have been “16% short­er run­ning time”. In fact Role Models is WAY short­er than ANY of the Judd Apatow com­ed­ies (and for my money way bet­ter paced):

    Superbad: 1 hr, 54 min
    Forgetting Sarah Marshall: 1 hr, 51 min
    40 Yr Old Virgin: 1 hr, 56 min
    Knocked Up: 2 hrs, 9 min
    Role Models: 1 hr, 35 min

  • dano says:

    I’m par­tic­u­larly con­fused by your asser­tion that if Judd Apatow had pro­duced Role Models it would have been “16% short­er run­ning time”. In fact Role Models is WAY short­er than ANY of the Judd Apatow com­ed­ies (and for my money way bet­ter paced):

    How short a movie ‘feels’ is way more import­ant than how short it actu­ally is. For me, Role Models felt flabby with long unfunny improv sec­tions (Jane Lynch’s bits being par­tic­u­larly repet­it­ive). Listening to screen­writers Wain and Marino on the Creative Screenwriting pod­cast con­firmed a lot of what I thought at the time – gags were left in for self-indulgence reas­ons, improv was used a lot to cov­er big gaps in the script and they had to re-shoot a quarter of it (includ­ing adding more top­less bits).

  • Re The Map Reader, I’m won­der­ing what you mean by “lack of con­sidered visu­al style” since many oth­er reviews com­ment on the beau­ti­ful visu­als. This 200K NZ film has been in com­pet­i­tion at many highly reput­able inter­na­tion­al film fest­ivals up against films cost­ing mil­lions, and it has more than held its own visu­ally. Also, to which “non-pro” act­ors are your referring?

  • dano says:

    Re The Map Reader, I’m won­der­ing what you mean by “lack of con­sidered visu­al style” since many oth­er reviews com­ment on the beau­ti­ful visu­als. This 200K NZ film has been in com­pet­i­tion at many highly reput­able inter­na­tion­al film fest­ivals up against films cost­ing mil­lions, and it has more than held its own visu­ally. Also, to which “non-pro” act­ors are your referring?

    Firstly, Harold, thanks for stop­ping by. (Harold is the dir­ect­or of The Map Reader, reviewed above) I thought your film was very well pho­to­graphed with qual­ity DI and some lovely col­ours – a qual­ity effort that cer­tainly does­n’t sig­nal a low budget. But pho­to­graphy alone is not a visu­al style. The rest of the ele­ments (com­pos­i­tion, fram­ing, move­ment, etc) I thought were hon­est but ordin­ary – good tele­vi­sion but not cinema. And I thought all the per­form­ances apart from the two leads were fussy – too much stuff going on.

  • Firstly, Harold, thanks for stop­ping by. (Harold is the dir­ect­or of The Map Reader, reviewed above) I thought your film was very well pho­to­graphed with qual­ity DI and some lovely col­ours – a qual­ity effort that cer­tainly does­n’t sig­nal a low budget. But pho­to­graphy alone is not a visu­al style. The rest of the ele­ments (com­pos­i­tion, fram­ing, move­ment, etc) I thought were hon­est but ordin­ary – good tele­vi­sion but not cinema. And I thought all the per­form­ances apart from the two leads were fussy – too much stuff going on.

    Regards com­pos­i­tion etc., it was a very con­scious choice to present the mater­i­al in a straight­for­ward way that accen­tu­ated the act­ors and their char­ac­ters with­in the story. We felt that if we had com­pos­i­tions that were too con­sciously framed, the audi­ence would be pay­ing atten­tion to these ele­ments, and not get­ting drawn into the film like we wanted. You may not agree with that approach, but I think it’s import­ant to note that it is just as “con­sidered” as oth­er approaches. That said, we would choose oth­er times in the film where these ele­ments were bolder, as in the final sequence with the kite. There, hope­fully, the con­trast of that film­ing style to the style seen pre­vi­ously would help tell the story in a dif­fer­ent way. Regards the act­ors, you are cer­tainly entitled to your opin­ion, but the “non-pro” tag threw me. Aside from the smal­lest of parts, those act­ors all have agents and are working.

  • dano says:

    Regards com­pos­i­tion etc., it was a very con­scious choice to present the mater­i­al in a straight­for­ward way that accen­tu­ated the act­ors and their char­ac­ters with­in the story. We felt that if we had com­pos­i­tions that were too con­sciously framed, the audi­ence would be pay­ing atten­tion to these ele­ments, and not get­ting drawn into the film like we wanted. You may not agree with that approach, but I think it’s import­ant to note that it is just as “con­sidered” as oth­er approaches. That said, we would choose oth­er times in the film where these ele­ments were bolder, as in the final sequence with the kite. There, hope­fully, the con­trast of that film­ing style to the style seen pre­vi­ously would help tell the story in a dif­fer­ent way. Regards the act­ors, you are cer­tainly entitled to your opin­ion, but the “non-pro” tag threw me. Aside from the smal­lest of parts, those act­ors all have agents and are working.

    Thanks for the cla­ri­fic­a­tion (of both points). With hind­sight, “non-pro” was unfor­tu­nate short­hand and I with­draw it.