Tuesday, February 3, 2009

I've been slumming--and I loved it!

Back in early November, I went out to catch a movie with my good friend Eddie Fos. I had hoped to see Eagle Eye, I think, but we arrived just a few minutes too late. As we surveyed the list of alternative movie options, Eddie apparently asked me if I wanted to see Slumdog Millionnaire. I am sure that I was unfamiliar with the movie, and I must have flatly rejected it, though I am not entirely sure that I remember the question. Nevertheless, we ended up see a really, really crappy film about Zack and his female roomate making a low-budget porno. All through that tacky movie, I thought to myself, "What could I be doing with this time, rather than sitting here and enduring this?"

Well, consider tonight my moment of redemption--and, wow, what a moment it was! I had recently heard from someone that Slumdog Millionnaire was "a quality flick", and considering the source of the recommendation, I had to take notice. What's more, the movie racked up awards like one from the Directors Guild of America and acknowledgements like 10 Oscar nominations. And so, my curiosity was piqued, and at the first available opportunity, Mr. Fos and I went to see this movie.

Let me just say it right here: this movie is phenomenal! Rarely am I a man without words, but those are the only ones that I have...For the benefit of my blog readers, I had to go out an find the most comprehensive and balanced review of this movie that I could find. Indeed, the WSJ's words about the movie provide a far better critique than anything I could easily write...Just read the review, and then go and see the movie. Or, better than that, take my word for it, by going to first see the movie, and then come back to this review and see if you agree.

'Slumdog' Finds Rare Riches in Poor Boy's Tale

Dickens Weds Bollywood Under Boyle's Expert Hand


"Slumdog Millionaire" is the film world's first globalized masterpiece. This perfervid romantic fable is set in contemporary Mumbai, the former Bombay, but it draws freely, often rapturously, from Charles Dickens, Dumas père, Hollywood, Bollywood, the giddiness of Americanized TV, the cross-cultural craziness of outsourced call centers and the zoominess of Google Earth. It's mostly in English, partly in Hindi and was directed by a Brit, Danny Boyle, with the help of an Indian co-director, Loveleen Tandan. The young hero, Jamal Malik, is a dirt-poor orphan from the Mumbai slums. "Is this heaven?" Jamal asks after tumbling from a train and looking up to see the Taj Mahal. I had the same feeling after watching the first few astonishing scenes: Was this movie heaven? The answer turned out to be yes.

Yes because of what "Slumdog" does -- gives the movie medium a jolt of cyclonic power -- and yes because of what it is, a timeless story of unswerving love that's been married to a madly extravagant Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Simon Beaufoy's screenplay was inspired by "Q & A", a modest though ingenious first novel by an Indian diplomat named Vikas Swarup, and inspiration is the right word. Nothing else could explain the daring and sweep of Mr. Beaufoy's writing, which takes off from the book's premise, leaps from genre to genre with a parkour athlete's agility, and evokes the rags, riches, horror, hope and irrepressible energy of Third World life with a zest that honors "Oliver Twist." (A lovely coda heaps icing on the layered cake.)

The premise is simple. As a plucky quiz-show contestant -- a slumdog underdog -- Jamal keeps giving correct answers to obscure questions and winning more rupees. This raises the question of how he could know what he seems to know, since the 18-year-old has grown up in grinding poverty. For the show's producers, and the police, the answer is he must be cheating. That's the wrong answer, and the wrong question. The right question is whether poverty and knowledge are mutually exclusive, and the answer given by Jamal's example is no, they are not, provided the knowledge is based on experience. This quiet, passionate, whipsmart kid has lived almost every answer he gives; the questions he needs are provided by destiny.

Danny Boyle seems to have enjoyed an equally happy fate. Many of his previous films, from "Shallow Grave" through "Trainspotting" to the beguiling and under-appreciated "Millions," are infused with the sheer joy of filmmaking, and all aswirl with ecstatic techniques. (A now-infamous scene in "Trainspotting" is all aswirl with the same stuff that makes for a hideously funny sequence in "Slumdog.") Still, Boyle had been having his ups and downs -- "The Beach" was a classic downer -- and he'd done his most distinctive work on a relatively small scale.

Then destiny, in the form of smart producers, put him together with Simon Beaufoy's screenplay -- the writer's best-known script to that point had been "The Full Monty" -- and the result will make movie history. The scale of "Slumdog Millionaire" is close to cosmic. Jamal's fate transcends the slums; it transcends India. He really is an Oliver Twist for the 21st century, just as his beloved Latika is a multinational mingling of Juliet, Lara and the Vivien Leigh of "Waterloo Bridge." (Their shared fate plays out in the midst of such crowds as to suggest that every citizen of Mumbai found work as an extra.) Jamal and Latika are also two of three Third World musketeers who banded together for self-protection in childhood. The third is Salim, Jamal's brother and the source of a harrowing sibling rivalry.

The children in the film come from Mumbai's slums, and their performances would put Hollywood moppets to shame. Jamal is played as an adult by Dev Patel, a hugely appealing young star, not conventionally handsome, who has mastered the art of suggesting by withholding -- you can almost see Jamal's thoughts in process -- along with the risky business of putting his character heedlessly out there when love or danger demand it.

Freida Pinto, an Indian model in her first prominent feature role, is exquisite as Latika, an apparently tragic heroine whose destiny is brighter than she can know. Anil Kapoor, a star of Bollywood blockbusters, plays the quiz-show host, Prem, as a supremely smarmy snake. Irrfan Khan, so heartbreakingly fine as the father in "The Namesake," is a police inspector with a heavy hand but a quick, mercurial mind.

The cinematographer was Anthony Dod Mantle. He used film cameras, digital cameras, even the video function of a small, unobtrusive still camera, and his images come at you like light itself, in waves and pulsing clusters. The production was designed by Mark Digby, the sensational music was provided by A.R. Rahman, and the film was edited by Chris Dickens. I've never seen anything like "Slumdog Millionaire," and I welcomed the spectacle with open eyes. In these worsening times for feature films, timidity and mediocrity often vie for bottom honors at the multiplex. "Slumdog" breaks through to the top.

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