Monday, December 29, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

"Is That Your Final Answer?"
"My karma ran over your dogma"

There's a backlash against "Slumdog Millionaire." There had to be. Showing up at the end of the year with such a positive critical reputation and so many glowing reviews, a few noses-out-of-joint had to be lifted in the air to pronounce that it couldn't be "that good."

But it is.

The irony is that these clowns' dismissal roughly parallels the story of director Danny Boyle's energetic film where it is assumed that a seemingly humble chai-wallah for a cell-service call center could not possibly know the answers to go (as the pompous host intones) "from rags to raja'" on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

When we first meet Jamal (Dev Patel), he is one question away from winning it all...and losing his life. Strung up like a piece of meat, he is being tortured by the local authorities*** to find out how he's cheating—he must be as so many others (of more worth) haven't done as well on the game-show as he has. Sounds like the "feel-good" movie of the year ala "Forrest Gump," or as Time Magazine blurbles: "A Poignant Hymn to Life." **

Obviously, it's more complex than either view.

The movie even begins with its own "Millionaire" question for how he manages to do it: A. He cheated; B. He's lucky; C. He's a genius; D. It is written.

Is that your final answer? Really? (feigned look of concern)

You'll do a lot better with the movie if you don't pick just one, or pigeon-hole it into being this type or that, for the answers have too many facets, too many colors and shadings, and offer up the extremes of life—the ebullient and the tragic. In the end, it's a little bit of all of them.

This movie would seem like an odd tangent for Danny Boyle if every step of his career weren't punctuated by abrupt changes of pace. Especially lately after splitting from his writing partner John Hodge. To go from the zombie epic "28 Days Later..." to the sublime kid's parable "Millions," then to the sci-fi allegory "Sunshine" to this are as stunning turn-arounds as the dervish-like camera moves he is constantly spinning in "Slumdog Millionaire." Boyle lived in India for five years, and so his camera-eye goes right to the colors and exoticism of Indian street-life.

In a dizzying chase sequence early in the film,
a five year old Jamal and his older brother Salim are running from the police through the back-alleys of a shanty-town on the outskirts of Bombay. Boyle (and his Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan) films a wide variety of shots in different styles and speeds, sometimes step-editing the shot, twirling the camera, changing perspective, while out of the corner of your eye you see odd little details of street life going on (at one point, he cuts away to a close shave at a barber's, while in the alley behind the shop the kids streak by. But one never loses perspective on the chase, despite the wildly disparate angles and frenetic pace—something sadly lacking from the Bond-movie chase masters in "Quantum of Solace"—and the result is exciting and masterful.

We follow the two boys as they become orphaned in a religious attack on their Muslim slum,
live lives of begging and thievery on the street and the garbage dumps with their "third musketeer," a street-girl named Latika, then get picked up by gangsters who organize rings of street-beggars, blinding the best ones because they'll bring in double. The boys escape, but Latika is left behind, and that becomes an obsession for Jamal who is determined to find her again, while Salim follows his instincts into the Mombai underworld.

Sound like fun?
Some critics seem to think so. Even without the beatings and torture that start the film. But "Slumdog Millionaire" follows its own karmic path to a pre-determined destiny in tune with the mixture of sweet and rancid of Indian life. And what these jaded writers don't get is the dharma of it all: when things are good, you better recognize it and enjoy it while it lasts.

Because it won't.

Doyle manages to capture the sense of India--an acid-trip without the acid (or so I've been told)--and communicate it on-screen—the colors, the desperation, the joys that crash through the crust of grinding poverty—to a delirious ending that would please
Ganesh. Stay through the closing credits.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is a Full-Price Ticket.

* Although it no longer dominates the American air-waves, I've seen it in Spain ("Who Wants to be a Mult-multi-Millionaire?" and Austria. No matter where you go in the world, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" plays just the same.

** Although did I ever tell you about the time my Mother and her sisters went to see Martin Scorsese's "Casino" because they thought it was a musical? Fuggedabaht Joe Pesci being bludgeoned to death, or the guy with his head crushed in a vice--there's a sex scene between Pesci and Sharon Stone! Eyeeeww!

*** The Inspector in charge of the interrogation is played by Irffan Khan—memorable in "The Namesake " and "The Darjeeling Limited ," but absolutely essential to the effect of "A Mighty Heart." His unstated power and ability to internalize conflicting emotions across his face makes him fascinating to watch.

1 comment:

Yojimbo_5 said...

Apologies to those who tried to read the review when it was first published early this morning.

Apparently a few paragraphs fell into the Blogger equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta, never to be seen again. Evidence of the missing graphs were the three asterisked comments that referred to nothing in the main text, orphaned and unexplained.

Anyway, it got better.

Geez, if it happens to a review of "Slumdog Millionaire" what'll happen to my review of "Doubt" tomorrow? Come to think of it, missing paragraphs is more suited to my review of "Frost/Nixon" (on Friday).