December 30, 2008

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

slumdogmillionaire1_large Slumdog Millionaire is the latest outing by director Danny Boyle, a man who never seems content to stick to one genre. His recent outings span science fiction (Sunshine), to fantasy/drama (Millions), to horror (28 Days Later). Well, I guess Slumdog Millionaire could exist in the same genre as Millions, but they both approach the material in vastly different directions. The earlier film follows a young boy who has conversations with saints as he tries to do the right thing with a large sum of money that has literally fallen into his lap. This new film involves millions in money, but is much more about fate, destiny, and love.

Going into Slumdog Millionaire I had heard all sorts of good things. I successfully avoided any real details aside from the obvious Who Wants to be a Millionaire? connection. So in I went, ready to see if the experience lived up to the hype that has been building around it. The lights went down, the screen flickered to life and then, in the blink of an eye, it was over. Two hours had passed in what seemed like a much shorter time, there was a cheerful smile plastered across my face and I felt better having seen what had just flashed before my eyes.

slumdogmillionaire2What I found most amazing about this movie is how conventional the plot is. There is nothing particularly special about the story nor about the incredibly linear fashion in which it plays out. In that sense it is not a great film. However, despite the standard romantic drama tropes danced out onto the screen in that linear fashion it is a great film. Why is it a great film? Well, there is a subjective question. There is no easy way to explain this. For one there is a great energy and explosiveness to the tale, it is in constant motion. There is the emotionally charged relationship of the central characters, and the beauty of fantasy as fate plays out on the screen.

Something that I have noticed over the years, and have seen discussed a few times is the increasing number of films that have super serious and/or depressing subject matter that get critical acclaim while the number of feel good movies are either relegated for family viewing or ignored by the critic community at large. It may be a bit over-generalizing, but it seems to be at least a little accurate. The movies that tend to get the critic community buzzing will tend to be thoughtful introspective films with plenty of tragedy that remain with you long after the credits end. Just take a look at films like Million Dollar Baby, Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Babel, Munich, Mystic River, heck, even The Dark Knight. There are not as many films that will leave you smiling. It is this that helps make Slumdog Millionaire stand out. It is a movie that will definitely draw you in, make you smile, and give you just a little bit of the fantastical romantic hope.

slumdogmillionairepic3The story is a simple one and it is pretty clearly laid out in the trailer. A young Indian named Jamel (Dev Patel) goes on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and gets farther than anyone ever has. It is a surprising feat considering he is an orphan from the slums of Mumbai and has no formal education. Just before going to the final question time runs out and they break for the night. Jamel is arrested on suspicion of cheating. He is taken to the police station and tortured under orders of the Police Inspector (Irfan Khan), but he doesn't break. What follows is a series of flashbacks cutting between the police questioning, the next question on the game show, and the appropriate time earlier in Jamel's life that gave him the knowledge/guidance needed to answer the question correctly.

That sets up the way the story is told, but there is much more to it. The flashbacks take us through Jamel's tumultuous life. He is born through hardship and grows up through hardship but never seems to be of hardship. We go on the adventures of his life with his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal). They hustle on trains for food, they hustle at the five star hotel we know as the Taj Mahal, they are forced to work for the Fagin-like Maman who forces kids to work the streets, even going so far as to blind them knowing that blind children can make more money. All told, it is not an easy life. But Jamel never lets it get him down, he just keeps moving forward.

Through it all, there is one thing that keeps Jamel going above all else, that is his love for Latika (Freida Pinto). They first meet as young children and throughout their young lives, they cross paths only to be torn away from each other again. Jamel believes it is his destiny to be with her, and all of his actions are dictated by his desire to find her and be with her.

slumdogmillionaire3It is a beautiful story told in a visually exciting manner and told by a cast of wonderful young actors. The story is exciting, involving, and I felt myself drawn in. I was completely invested in the outcome. I longed to see the two reunited and was heartbroken as life ripped them apart. Then there is the developments in his relationship with his brother, you can feel the love, but they are on decidedly different life paths.

As involving as the story is, as good as the acting is, there is something else that needs be mentioned, the setting. Obviously, it is set in Mumbai and that setting brings with it a distinctly exotic flavor not often seen on American screens. Yes, this is window dressing, but it does give a window into another culture, one that is growing and developing faster than anything seen here in the United States. The colors, the class interaction, the rampant poverty, it is all just fascinating to see how life moves on a different level. On top of that, the film is shot wonderfully by director Danny Boyle and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. There is a loose quality that helps amp up the energy used in concert with interesting angles that are subtle, yet add so much to the overall feel of the movie.

Simply put, this is a wonderful movie that injects a little bit of magic back into the cinema. This is not about reality (although there is a lot of it here), it is about fate and destiny and the way everything can align in just the right way. It is a visual and emotional journey that is built off a script by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Vikas Swarup (called Q & A). It is an experience not to be missed. Not to mention, it ends with a Bollywood stlye dance sequence!

Highly Recommended.


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