Saturday, October 16, 2010

One Of The Best Films Of 2008, Slumdog Millionaire Is Still Difficult To Watch!

The Good: Great direction, Interesting characters, Great acting, Much of the plot, Use of soundtrack
The Bad: Plot predictability
The Basics: So close to perfect, I bumped it up, Slumdog Millionaire has moments of predictability, which do not rob the film of its (terrifying) enjoyability. Thoroughly engaging.

There are some years when cinema is just not great. 2008 was one of those years. That was not a great year for movies. But when I first saw Slumdog Millionaire, I knew I was seeing a truly great film, even if it was one I might not watch again for quite some time. I saw the movie when I was still mulling over my "Best Of 2008" list. It was a Top Ten list and I had been struggling for some time to come up with ten movies I actually liked in 2008. But the list got another spot filled - and a high one at that - with Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, it's that good.

Slumdog Millionaire was one of the top three films of the year, qualitatively. It is well-directed and disturbing and brutal in its reality (for the most part). It is mostly clever and it is an easy nine out of ten in my ten point pantheon. It is one of those films that is so good at what it does I had to take a moment before being able to stand after the movie was done. Far from being a family, feel-good movie, Slumdog Millionaire is a harsh, often brutal and realistic look at India and the fates of three people as they are woven over two decades.

Jamal Malik is in an Indian prison where he is being tortured by a detective and his muscle. The charge is simple enough; Jamal is accused of cheating on the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. So, interrogated, Jamal begins to tell the story of how he came up with each of the correct answers that have put him a single answer away from the top prize in the game's history. Jamal weaves a story that begins with chasing after a celebrity's autograph after literally getting covered in dung.

From there, Jamal's life becomes intertwined with his brother Salim and a girl they rescue from certain death, Latika. After witnessing the brutal religiously-motivated slaying of their mother, Salim and Jamal flee with Latika. They are taken in by a gangster who uses orphans to beg on the streets and Jamal makes choices that put him and Salim on the run. As the boys grow up and scam their way across India, Jamal longs for Latika and works to find her in one of the most populous nations on the planet. Salim, for his part, embraces the dark side and becomes the gangster that Jamal spends his life running from. And in the run, are the answers to the questions on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!

The low point of Slumdog Millionaire has to be the plot. It works, for the most part, but it is predictable enough that in the first half of the movie, I turned to the person I was seeing it with and told her exactly what the final question in the game would be. And I was right. This is - at times - shocking for the horror and brutal reality of the situations, but in the end, it is very predictable for certain key elements.

Notable among those elements is the narrative technique. Slumdog Millionaire has moments where it is problematic in that the narrator could not possibly have heard things that appear on screen. The film is told in much the same way as the masterful The Usual Suspects and in this case, there are moments of embellishment that those attentive to the fact that the story is being told from Jamal's point of view, there are things he could not have seen or heard. So, for example, when he and Salim run away at one point, there is a person who says something on screen long after they would have been out of earshot.

That said, Slumdog Millionaire is otherwise flawless. The plot is paced in a way that is engaging. The viewer becomes caught up in the furor of Jamal's success on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and we find ourselves rooting along with the viewers of the show, even though we know he has some success on the gameshow. Similarly, viewers become engaged in the execution of the plot such that we take an active role in looking for the answers. That type of energy is a rare thing in a movie; to be so engaging that the viewer is essentially proactively watching the film. It has been a long time since I watched something with such a sense of anticipation for what was coming next.

That is largely because of the characters. The characters in Slumdog Millionaire are thoroughly engaging. Jamal is a hapless hero and it is easy to root for him. He has been abused, underestimated and ridiculed to such an extent that the viewer wants him to triumph. As well, he is one of the few innately good characters in film that actually works. Jamal steels to stay alive, but he has a moral code. He becomes upset when his brother steals his autograph and sells it; he refuses to resort to the way of the gun and, in the end, he is motivated almost exclusively by blind love. Jamal is the archetypal hero in a lot of ways, and his rags to the chance of riches story is compelling.

Of course, Jamal's story is woven beautifully into Salim's tale. As Jamal ascends through hard (if illegal) work, Salim descends into vice through a frustration with the way things are. He discards his moral code and attempts to exert power over Jamal and Latika. He takes for sport and when he comes into possession of a gun, he sets down a road that separates him forever from Jamal. In fact, perhaps the greatest horror of the film is the moment Salim gets what Jamal has longed for all his life: Latika.

Latika initially seems simply like the object of affection for Jamal and the barter chip Salim uses to buy power, respect and status within the den of thieves he drags her into. But instead, Latika is a tragic heroine. She sacrifices much to allow Jamal his freedom and the chance to preserve his innocence and that takes a strength that is not seen in her until late in the movie.

Universally well-acted, Slumdog Millionaire is a tour de force on the acting front from a slew of actors few (Americans, at least) have ever heard of. Child actors Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Chheda, and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala play the younger Salim and Jamals in such a way that provides a strong, continuous performance through the characters' different ages. In fact, the performances go well beyond simply casting children who look vaguely alike; the mannerisms are picked up flawlessly by each incarnation of the children.

But it is Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto and Dev Patel who rule Slumdog Millionaire. Mittal is brilliant as the oldest Salim, playing him with a stone-faced ruthlessness that is downright scary and utterly believable. Mittal has a way of fixing his eyes in what one assumes is the most convincing portrayal of murderous intensity just shy of actually being a trained killer. His performance kept my stomach in knots for an hour after I finished watching this film!

Freida Pinto is similarly believable as Latika. Pinto is beautiful in a very classical sense and her performance oscillates impressively between incredible strength and troubling despondency. She plays a handshy woman incredibly well near the end of the film and her role is almost as unsettling as Mittal's.

But it is Dev Patel who carries Slumdog Millionaire. Patel needs to engage the viewer right away and he does with a casual body language that screams of a life of movement, starvation and exhaustion. Patel carries himself with an ease and seriousness that is simultaneous and he manages to strike the perfect balance to make the viewer believe in Jamal, the struggles and history of the character.

Slumdog Millionaire is directed by Danny Boyle, whose only other work I have seen is 28 Days Later. He uses many of the same conceits; frenetic camera movements, momentarily overbearing soundtrack and wide shots of cities that incredibly transport the viewer to a very specific time and place. And just like 28 Days Later, there is a psychological horror aspect to Slumdog Millionaire that makes the movie very difficult to watch. Jamal begins the movie being brutalized and his life goes from one form of abuse to another, with twists and turns that are agonizing to watch.

On DVD, Slumdog Millionaire is packed with worthwhile deleted scenes that flesh out further the story of the main movie. As well, there is a featurette wherein Danny Boyle discusses the film and two engaging commentary tracks! This is a Best Picture DVD that might fit on one disc, but the bonuses reward those who buy it!

Ultimately, the film triumphs because we get a catharsis that (mostly) works and justifies the terror we have to go through to get there.

As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available by clicking here!

For other movies set outside the U.S., please check out my reviews of:
Memoirs Of A Geisha
Let The Right One In
Strawberry And Chocolate


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Hi !

    I saw that movie about a year ago with my sister and you're right this is a great movie.

    My sister couldn't watch it until the end, because as you wrote, there are some very difficult scenes to watch, fortunately not too many and it's great that you didn't described them thoroughly in case someone that hasn't seen the movie yet, reads your blog but you and I, know perfectly well what scenes we're writing about. ;)

    But my sister walked away long before the end of the movie because, in this movie, she only saw the horror and the misery of the living conditions of those poor young and innocent kids, and even the very romantic aspects of the movie wasn't enough to make her stay, it's a pity.

    I promised myself I'll force her to watch the last ten minutes one day at least because they are great : I love the final song and the amazing choreography.

    I already knew Dev Patel from the u.k. tv series Skins seasons one and two, and I'm proud to say, that once again he didn't disappointed me. I really wish to see him in more movies or tv series in the future.

    1. Actually, I pride myself on writing reviews that are (generally) spoiler-free so those who experience the work might actually enjoy the process of discovery for themselves. (One of the reasons I haven't posted a few of your comments had to do with how, in some of them, you spoil major plot points, like the fate of Captain Sisko!) I think a good review should give you enough information and opinion to influence you to decide whether or not you might want to spend your time and/or money on a work without making to feel like you've already experienced it.

      There are exceptions - like when a person's performance ruins a moment that I have to go into in depth or when there is preposterous plot or character twist that makes me sit up and say "really, are you kidding me?!"

      As for "Slumdog Millionaire," I recall enjoying the way it was put together, but not being overwhelmed by it (like I was with, for example, "The House Of Sand And Fog").

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!