Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Grade: A

This review marks my 50th blog post here at Zandervision. What better way to celebrate than with a review of one of my favorite movies of the year, Slumdog Millionaire. I'm sure I would have seemed a lot cooler had I written this when I saw it, a month and a half ago, when only serious movie junkies knew what it was. But at this point, you know it's won critics awards and is a strong contender to win Oscar's Best Picture. Plus you've had plenty of friends like me breathlessly tell you how much you need to see it. As it is a movie best experienced, not discussed, they probably just said "amazing." I'll try to do a bit more.

I won't go too heavily into the plot, because part of the fun is seeing how it develops. I can say the movie is about Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old Mumbai orphan who wins big on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When this uneducated "chai wallah" (tea server) gets within one question of the big prize, the police assume he cheated. As he explains his success, each question provides a frame to the story of his life. The answers take us back to Jamal's childhood on the streets with his conniving brother Salim and childhood sweetheart Latika. Their adventures lead them to a Fagin-like orphan-collector, local gangsters, and finally the Millionaire show. In the process, the movie blends together Oliver Twist, City of God, Quiz Show, and Bollywood.

This type of old-fashioned, Dickensian, rags-to-riches love story is usually derided by critics as saccharine and overly sentimental. But every triumph is well-earned, and you never once feel bad about giving in so fully to the story. Partly that's because as much of a fairytale as the movie can be, it always has one leg dipped firmly in reality. The movie does not shy away from the troubles and tragedies of Mumbai street life, sometimes with violence (which somehow inexplicably got the movie an R rating). The movie also does everything it can to balance out 19th century influences with 21st century style. The editing often seems out of director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, choppy and jarring for effect. The music, by popular Indian composer A. R. Rahman with contributions by MIA, is also ultra-contemporary. MIA's "Paper Planes" even plays during an early montage.

The blending of genres, old and new, can be credited to director Danny Boyle. I've long been a fan of his work for his Kubrickian ability to master disparate genres. He's handled an addiction drama (Trainspotting), a horror movie (28 Days Later), a sci-fi movie (Sunshine), and a kids movie (Millions) with equal success. Here the genre's not so easy to classify. It's a bildungsroman, a love story, a fairytale, a gangster movie, a competition movie, a movie about kids, and so much more. Of Boyle's other films, it's probably most similar to Millions (which, if you're not familiar with it, is also very worthwhile). But here Boyle makes all the genres blend together in a way that really provides something for everyone.

I've focused so far more on the British side, given the director and screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy of The Full Monty). But an undeniable part of the movie's appeal is the glimpse of modern Mumbai it provides. The first third of the movie is in Hindi, as the youngest actors do not know English. During this section, the camera follows Jamal, Salim, and other children on a chase through the streets, with A. R. Rahman's drumbeat leading the way. This scene makes full use of the on-location shooting and brings a real sense of authenticity to the film to help balance out the more fanciful aspects. The casting also aids the authenticity, as all the actors are completely believable. The biggest standout though is Dev Patel as the oldest Jamal. He is low-key and unassuming. An unusual hero, but all the easier to root for.

The movie only really feels like Bollywood during the credits, as the film ends with a joyous Bollywood-style dance sequence. It's an appropriate summation of the happiness the movie inspires. It's easily the most emotionally invested I've felt in a movie since Wall-E. This one's not about obligatory Oscar catch-up or caving into a persistent friend. It's about having exactly the kind of enjoyable viewing experience we go to the movies to find.

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