2008 will not go down in history as a year of great movies. In fact, it has been the worst overall year of this decade, in my opinion. Mediocrity has been the common theme throughout most of the year, be it from bloated "epics" like "Australia" to empty headed spectaculars like "Speed Racer" or lame message movies like M. Night Shyamalan's dreadful "The Happening".
Yes, there were a few bright spots, such as "The Dark Knight", "Wall-E", "Iron Man", "Gran Torino", and just recently "Frost/Nixon". But nothing that just blew me away like what happened over the past three years writing here when I've seen such exceptional films as "Juno", "Once", "The Departed", "Children of Men", or "Munich".
Nothing...until I walked into the theater and witnessed "Slumdog Millionaire".
This is a movie that has been getting a huge amount of hype lately. The type of hype that will often make me go into a movie with a lot of skepticism and a huge "Show Me" chip on my shoulder.
Within five minutes, that chip was knocked completely off. Within ten minutes, I was totally hooked. Who would have guessed that the most original movie of the year could at the same time be such a feel-good crowd pleaser? This movie is a little bit of everything; mystery, thriller, comedy, gangster movie...but mostly, it's a heart-tugging romance with Dickensian undertones. Director Danny Boyle, working with Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan, has marvelously blended together all of these different styles and visuals, creating the perfect pairing of Hollywood and Bollywood; quite an unexpected feat from the same man who gave us very different films in "Trainspotting" and "28 Days".
I went into the film knowing very little about the plot, other than what I had seen in previews...and I feel that I enjoyed the movie so much more because of that. Therefore, I will not go very much into the plot here. Other than to say that the movie focuses on an 18 year old street orphan named Jamal Malik as he vies for the top prize in India's version of the popular game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". How can an uneducated Tea Boy from the slums of Mumbai possibly know all of these answers? Is he cheating? Is he an Indian version of Good Will Hunting? The answers to these questions make up the story, as the scenes move back and forward in time.
Three generations of actors portray the three main characters as we follow them through life. We follow Jamal, his slightly older brother Salim, and the girl they befriend, and remain connected with for years to come, Latika. They are first shown as children, perhaps 8 - 10 years old, then in early adolescence, and finally as young adults. Their lives and their adventures become the foundation of Jamal's street education that ultimately leads him to his unexpected position as an underdog hero to millions of Indians transfixed on the television show.
Danny Boyle has always embraced being unconventional, a talent that makes this movie as special as it is. Starting out by having perhaps a third of the film in subtitles, as the youngest trio only speaks in Hindi. But even the subtitles are unconventional, as Boyle puts them in a sort of colorful "pop-up video" style, looking more like a comic book than the usual method of reading them at the bottom of the screen.
It is a perfect decision, given that the entire movie is one huge visual kaleidoscope. This is an exhilarating travelogue of a world very unfamiliar to most Americans, showing the stunning contrast in the cultures of a very old society that is now seeing an explosion in wealth and technology. At the same time, it is still a country rife with abject poverty, with crowded, decaying slums that are far worse than anything seen in the United States, as they have nothing that compares to the social safety-nets present in this country.
Boyle does not, however, melodramatically show the slums as dark and dangerous. Instead, he shines an unblinkingly bright light on them, for good and bad. Children run haphazardly through the mazes that make up the slum's streets, laughing as they dodge security personnel chasing them with sticks for playing on the taxiways at the Mumbai airports. The people are not shown in misery...just poverty. Therefore, they still do their laundry, eat their meals, teach their children, and in general, carry on with their lives. Boyle draws the viewer into this world, so much so that one can almost feel the stifling heat and smell the rancid odors (especially in one vividly filmed scene that shows just how far the 8 year old Jamal will go to get an autograph from his movie-star hero).
On the other hand, Boyle does not hesitate to show the dark side as well, for this is still a country beset with cultural and religious prejudices and hatred, as one scene shockingly shows. Due to this scene, and another where Jamal is being tortured in a police station, the film has received a rating of "R" (ridiculous, considering that mindless trash like "Max Payne" and "The Spirit" were much more violent, but still were rated PG-13).
There are many points where everything has a disconcerting "familiar-but-foreign" feel to it, with the best example being the scenes concerning the quiz show. The sets and the format are identical to the show that used to be such a hit in the U.S., but it is also so very different. The questions themselves made me feel like a total idiot, as I had no clue as to the answers to even the ones that were considered "easy". To add to that unbalanced feeling, the host is far different from what we know in America from watching Regis Philbin. On this show, host Prem Kumar, superbly played by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor, is much more of an antagonist. Prem is an amazing character; all charm and charisma, but just below that slick exterior is a much darker interior. Think of an Indian Richard Dawson from the Schwarzenegger film "Running Man" (without the televised killings), and you pretty much have Prem pegged.
The acting, across the board, astounded me. Even from the youngest children, you saw great characterizations of the idealistic Jamal, the cynical Salim, and Lakita, a girl who was always wistful and trusting, but yet always resigned to being disappointed and used in the end. As the young adults, Dev Patel as Jamal and Freida Pinto as Latika were outstanding. You can't help but fall for both of the star-crossed lovers. Patel projects an innocence and humanity that would make any mother want to just hug him, while Pinto is an absolute beauty who shows a sad vulnerability with just a spark of hope behind it that can break your heart. Complementing that was Madhur Mittal as the older Salim. He has the perfect balance of menace and compassion to make his character totally unpredictable, and therefore fascinating to watch. The talents of these three impressed me, especially considering how thin their acting resumes are. I think that all three shall be heard from for years to come.
But they would be nothing without a terrific script, and some of the best cinematography I have ever seen. Simon Beaufoy, the writer of "The Full Monty", adapted the script from the novel from Indian diplomat-turned-hobbyist writer Vikas Swarup, and it positively crackles with energy. That puts it in perfect harmony with Anthony Dod Mantle's dazzling visuals. The handheld camera shots through the slums of Mumbai, the brilliant colors of women washing laundry down at the river, the near sensory overload of the carnival like set of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"...all perfect examples of how best to use the camera to augment the script and the acting.
This movie was spellbinding to me from beginning to end. The characters get under your skin and into your heart right from the beginning, and don't let go as they age. The story is both original and familiar, told in such a way as to never have you just hoping for the next scene to arrive. And finally, the film is a remarkable learning experience, as Boyle and Tandan showed me a world that I am woefully ignorant about. Sure, I knew all about the Taj Mahal, and all about the exploding economy there, along with the extreme poverty and caste system...but it was more from an abstract viewpoint based on what I have read or seen on news reports.
Danny Boyle made it all real, putting a passion and vigor into the film that made it practically leap off the screen. In the end, as new as everything was to me, it was still an old fashioned love story that had all of the hooks and twists that are common to that genre. But thanks to the talents of everyone involved, it never felt contrived, and it never left me feeling manipulated. For this, Boyle certainly deserves the awards he has been receiving.
"Slumdog Millionaire" is the best movie of the year, and also rates in my Top 25 films of all time. I look forward to seeing it again, and will be purchasing the DVD as soon as it comes out on March 31.
My Rating: Bernie Kosar (4 Footballs)
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