Friday, November 21, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)


Slumdog Millionaire is nothing less than the most persuasive and potent renunciation of the supposed necessity of “realism” in movies that one could find in theatres today. An overwhelmingly celebrated picture, it is bombastic, visually spectacular and beautifully acted. Yet it is, despite its itinerant peregrination through just some of the worst slums of India, fundamentally a fairytale, an ode to poetry over prose, an ebulliently vibrant underdog (indeed, “Slumdog”) story that is so compulsively engrossing, one wishes a collection of five average movies contained its raw power. When critics decry cinematic manipulation, one wonders just what, exactly, they are complaining about. Cinema is an inherently manipulative art form, a sensorial undertaking above all else, a roundabout submission to the subconscious, which, with its endless torrent of streaming perceptions, is the longest running motion picture of the mind. Art as entertainment, as populist escapism, as simply sustenance, cannot be taken for granted anymore.

With that in mind, one leaves Slumdog Millionaire exhilarated, and unabashedly moved, but also hopeful. Director Danny Boyle has made a film with a narrative device of sublime efficacy, taking what has become the trendy non-linear narrative—today nearing the point of exhaustion from so many ill-advised usages—and revitalizing it. One hopes Boyle is able to leave a mark in other, even greater ways with this film. Realism is dandy and often important but dreams are soulfully comestible, and when given the unmistakable urgency of great filmmaking, singularly rewarding. That criticism of manipulation stems from the proverbial parts showing, an incompetent magician giving away the game of legerdemain so crucial to keep the buoyant illusion afloat. Boyle's command is so surefooted and unremitting, however, that one becomes willingly held hostage to it, relishing every moment of the experience.

Slumdog Millionaire follows the life of a poor Indian youth named Jamal Malik, whose inexplicable ability to answer an impressive string of questions on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (asked by the host, played by a terrifically smug and megalomaniacal Anil Kapoor) supplies the foundation for Boyle's glittery creation. How he knows the respective answers to the questions serves as Boyle's device to illustrate respective times and adventures in Jamal's life, beginning when he was a young child. What quickly becomes apparent is that Jamal has learned things through living, not necessarily learning—but of course living is learning, as the film posits. Dev Patel plays the “older” Jamal, answering the questions on the game show with great, hypnotic charisma. As the film opens, however, Patel's Jamal is being interrogated by a brutal but intelligent police inspector (Irfan Khan, who played a very similar role as a Pakistani Captain in last year's A Mighty Heart, stealing the show in each film, though here just one more great performance in an offering of many). Surely this “slumdog,” as he is disdainfully referred to by the inspector, is cheating.

Boyle makes his film defiantly difficult to categorize, bringing to the fore genres as diverse as mystery, thriller, drama, noir, comedy, romance, even action and finally musical—all under the umbrella of “biopic,” perhaps—with this divine trip into the story of Jamal. Hovering over the sprawl of Jamal's story is the game show, which provides for ample suspense and interest, though Boyle's focal point is correctly on the origins, triumphs and tragedies of Jamal that cumulatively led him to his moment of televized glory. There is a narrative surprise in the final reel as well, when the more linear narrative timeline of Jamal's endurance of awful torture and sleep-depriving interrogation, is given new meaning, and implications. Rarely has the non-linear stylistic been employed with such conviction and reason, and so remarkably well, as it does in this instance, blending thematic concerns with sheer exquisiteness.

Boyle's thematic interests remain, stronger—simultaneously subtler and more assertive. Jamal and his brother, Salim, at one point find themselves conscripted by Fagin-esque criminals who use children to accumulate money. Jamal and Salim's mother is violently taken from them. Jamal and Salim finally find themselves on a train, that refuge so poignantly yearned for in Trainspotting and Millions. Soon thereafter they go about making money by posing as tourist guides for wealthy Western visitors—displaying an entrepreneurial initiative not unlike that of others in Boyle pictures, most recently the two motherless brothers in Millions. And again there is an enormous pile of money to be had, the sum of which is too vast and great for the protagonist to fully comprehend. These flourishing interests are fascinating to behold in the context Boyle has placed them here, deriving as they do fanciful desires and possibilities against the stifling impenetrability of the despairing reality. Here, Jamal and Salim are children of extreme poverty, and for a little while the film, nestling in the balmy jungle, closely resembles some films by Satyajit Ray, perhaps most poetically Pather Panchali and the entire Apu Trilogy, which found the rivalries and spiritual confrontations of siblings to be at the heart of their intimate dramas.

Meanwhile, in one heartbreakingly simple vignette, Jamal allows a little girl, withstanding a ceaseless sheet of rain falling from the sky, to join he and his brother in a securely roofed haven. What the screenplay initiates and the director follows through with is a love story as pure and uncomplicated as some of the more touching of silent cinema. Jamal and this girl, Latika, are simply destined to be with one another, a point Jamal reinforces with the kind of sweet but steadily applied determinism with which the film is so happily blessed. Boyle creates something ineffably wise by adopting such an incomplex and truthful love story. This is the love affair George Lucas should have easily fashioned between Anakin Skywalker and Padme with his Star Wars prequels—yet it was the pedantic Lucas who made his work of complete fantasy stilted and robotic in its didacticism. Boyle gets it right.

Here, as Boyle lets his camera fly through the jungle, through the sprawl, through the feces, jungle and sunbaked mud, through towns and across roads, he attains what Alfred Hitchcock described when speaking of his masterpiece Psycho, “the kind of picture where the camera takes over.” The kinetically charged cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is bedazzling, bridging the gulf between viewer and celluloid with an almost hazily hallucinatory hypnotism that is simply refulgent. Mantle's aiding Boyle in adapting Simon Beaufoy's magnificent screenplay is quintessential in forming the aesthetic tapestry of the picture. And it is that cinematographic brilliance that deliriously portrays the environs and localities that give the film such richly distinctive settings, whether they be a game show set, a gangster's palatial abode or the destitute slums teeming with people. In one scintillating sequence, the two very young brothers, Jamal and Salim, run from the authorities of their neighborhood, speedily scampering through the maze-like vicinity. Boyle's camera bounces as it follows, but then resorts to a bird's eye overhead shot. A second and a half later, the shot widens, going further back; and then it retracts again, capturing the entire slum area with profoundly widespread significance. This, Boyle gently but convincingly instructs, is a national tale, one embedded in the very fiber of the nation of India.

That national story is the one that finally animates Slumdog Millionaire, ensuring that the story of the Republic of India is told. The heightened sociocultural role the nation enjoys in the post-Non-Aligned Movement foreign policy it followed during the Cold War is examined with great curiosity and wonderment by Boyle. His joyful interpretation, which nevertheless allows for corruption, repression, endemic economic hopelessness, gangsterism, kidnapping, forced prostitution and a brotherly relationship that occasionally recalls Cain and Abel, recalls nothing less unpretentious than Rocky, with its Philly neighborhood boxer being offered the shot of a lifetime. Indeed, in the climactic sequence, as people all over India watch their television sets, fixated on a moment of awe-inspiring and unifying astonishment, Jamal's great love runs and runs. And like all great genuinely crowd-pleasing pictures, Slumdog Millionaire wins the audience over, lets the enchantment linger and makes the viewer believe in it, despite all reason.

34 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

You certainly captured the spirit and the essence of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which is a strong contender for film of the year for me (with DEAR ZACHARY and WALL-E) as the prime contenders at this point. It is indeed an "ode to poetry over prose," and its as "exhiliarating" as it is "moving and hopeful."
Your thorough presentation of the groundwork and this oddly compelling non-linear structure reveals as you say, many disperate elements to 'define' this film, to categorize it.
Likewise you rightly note that the answering of the questions on the show are a "device to illustrate respective times and events" that in actuality is the very fabric of this film.
Your warranted citing of the sociopolitical elements and the adage "living is learning" are impressively penned, and you are dead-on to bring in Satyajit Ray, who of course is Indian's all-time greatest filmaker and one of the true titans of world cinema. The sequences that veer deeply into the cultural terrains and gthe impoverishment certainly does recall PATHER PANCHALI.

By the way, what about that boy who who was covered with excrement? Was not that quite an image?

Your review evinced pure excitement and thorough enjoyment. I am delighted you have come away with your customary full appreciation and scholarly interpretation of a already classic feel-good movie. It's why we go to the movies for sure.

nick plowman said...

Nice dude! Another solid review for a film I am most certainly interested in seeing sooner than I will be able to, it sounds utterly kinetic and stunning. You too sure are lucky fellas!

K. Bowen said...

Another one that everybody loves that didn't speak to me. It's been that sort of year. Oh well.

Does it strike anyone else as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? Struck me that way.

I don't really begrudge people their opinion on this one. Just wasn't my thing. I think the fantasy element didn't appeal, and I felt like I would rather re-watch Millions. I also didn't buy the destiny romance, and didn't think Pinto and Patel did very well selling. For that type of thing to work, you need to feel a sort of everlasting chemistry. The script needs to feel like a device that's keeping them apart, not a device that's keeping them together.

Anyway, I'm rambling. But Irfan Kahn is a treasure. Mira Nair's The Namesake was one of my favorite films from last year, and he was terrific there, as well.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, so KB, this was the film you asked that question about ("Why doesn't he just find another girlfriend?"). Haha. I liked Millions a good deal but I think Slumdog Millionaire is the more enrapturing picture. I enjoyed the fanciful qualities of both films, however.

Nick, thanks very much! Yes, in these last few days I was able to catch several very worthwhile films, even if KB disagrees (actually, the final one was Let the Right One In later in the same evening as this one at another theatre in San Francisco, and I see KB liked it, looking at his grade).

Sam, thank you for the thorough appreciation of the film itself, and the very kind words about my review. Yes, that boy being covered in excrement was quite the image. I couldn't help but think back to Pather Pannchali, a film I must confess I've struggled with personally, but one whose importance is undeniable. Thank you again, it's a delightful film. It's the kind of film where it's difficult to know what to say to those it did not touch, like KB, except perhaps they should give it another chance. Part of the communal experience of moviegoing doubtless plays a role here; this was possibly the best moviegoing experience I've had this year, because you could just tell by the way people were sitting on the edge of their seats that they were almost all taken by it. (I won't get into mind-reading but all of the smiles outside the auditorium afterwards was most impressive to take in as well.) I saw this at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema in San Francisco, off Geary Street, and it's quite the place: with numerous auditoriums, they have escalators taking you upwards to those auditoriums, and televisions strategically placed that give you great information like at an airport (for instance, "Cinema 1 is showing Slumdog Millionaire and is in the stage of 'Cleaning' right now"--they had "Cleaning," "Previews," "Playing," and other little notes telling people information about each auditorium). And on the way in every employee could not stop talking about how wonderful Slumdog Millionaire was.

tim watts said...

This sounds awesome. Great review, man.

barney raper said...

i liked the boy covered in excrement getting beat up by police for cheating on the game show. you should see what alex trebek's goons will do to people.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Tim, and eww, Barney.

K. Bowen said...

"Thank you again, it's a delightful film. It's the kind of film where it's difficult to know what to say to those it did not touch, like KB, except perhaps they should give it another chance."

That's pretty much it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thought so.

Daniel Getahun said...

Well I finally finished mine, and here I am, celebrating it along with everyone else. You really killed it with your last paragraph - few movies make you want to stand up and cheer like this.

I also really like the idea of Slumdog as a "biopic". I didn't even think about it in that sense.

KB, I appreciate your honesty in not getting caught up in the madness. For what it's worth, I thought The Namesake was one of the best movies of last year as well.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the very kind words, Daniel. This is quite an exhilarating piece of cinema in my opinion, naturally.

Yes, I kept thinking of it as a meticulous "bio-pic" (sorry, Craig Kennedy, wherever you are!) and what a shattering change in the "formula" of such, hm?

I'll be sure to look at your review whenever I find a spare few minutes, Daniel, which should be sometime this Thanksgiving weekend. Gosh, I'm tired of being busy.

Pat said...

Alexander -

This review has me very excited - "Slumdog Millionaire" just opened here today, and I am anxious to see it. Thanks for another fine post.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Pat, I hope you enjoy it when you see it and report back here. :-)

Moses Hernandez said...

Alexander, now that you're back, I just wanted to take you up on this. I enjoyed this to a significant degree but I found certain parts of it troubling. Probably the worst thing is that there is almost no chemistry between the "lovers" and I think that cripples any love story.

But your review is truly awesome. It actually gives me the rush I wish the movie had. Though again it's a good movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks for the very kind words, Moses.

I understand what you are saying. However, I don't think it's a love story/relationship tale based on chemistry in the way a Bogart/Baccall picture would be, for instance; it's not about chemistry, but about "destiny," as the film persistently posits. The tale is "written," etceteras.

On that score (and others) I believe it was most successful. It's fundamentally a fairytale, and as such the chain of narrative events is simple and starkly mounted, with our hero falling in love with the girl and pursuing that image to the ends of the world.

In that way, it's more expressionistic, and less "realistic," than Rocky--to take just one example--which gradually built its fairly gritty emotional relationships, including the central love story, through a graduate, if predictable, series of sequences. This fits with the entire visual schema, and unfolding arc, but I will admit I can see how it would not work for everyone. I am interested in seeing this again myself to see what my reaction to a second experience with this picture is.

Anonymous said...

Best. Opening Paragraph. Ever.

Awesome review. The best I've seen any where in a long time.

ben said...

Just saw this movie! What a movie. Danny Boyle is awesome. Your review is amazing. Like Daniel says you end it brilliantly and like Anon says you start it brilliantly. Also dug the 'sociopolitical' aspects you point to. Interesting that you saw this and wrote the review before the attacks in Mumbai. Wonder what you'd think seeing it again after that horror.

Allan Fish said...

I thought this was a very good film, and it did show -as Sam says-a return to the kinetic style that we love Danny Boyle for, but I must confess there may have too much of The Full Monty in this storyline. I thought the movie was solid, but not 5 stars solid, I think 4. Can't see how one could write a better review the film though.

tim watts said...

wow, this is everything you said it was.

Great movie. I went in trying to not set myself up for too high expectations but in a minute I was in the tank for it all the way.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow... Thank you very much for the highly friendly and kind remarks, Anonymous, Ben, Allan and Tim.

Allan: thanks for the very generous compliment. Quite the interesting point about there possibly being "too much of The Fully Monty" in the storyline.

Tim: I know what you mean. It's always such a wonderment, to find oneself completely under the spell of a film, so quickly in its running time. This one pulled me into "the tank for it," too. Like I've said in this thread before, I look forward to revisiting it.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, Slumdog opened here last week and I saw it on Friday night. Having looked up your post today I must say that this is a stellar review. You capture the essential kinetic energy of the movie. As I said in commenting on Sam's post at Witd, the movie is a dazzling cinematic experience, with the cinematography, the editing, and the sound production as integral as the inspired direction. You have also mounted a strong argument against claims of manipulation and unreality. I can understand anyone loving the movie unreservedly.

The observation you make in the following extract is brilliant and has given me a much fuller understanding of the sequence:

"In one scintillating sequence, the two very young brothers, Jamal and Salim, run from the authorities of their neighbourhood, speedily scampering through the maze-like vicinity. Boyle's camera bounces as it follows, but then resorts to a bird's eye overhead shot. A second and a half later, the shot widens, going further back; and then it retracts again, capturing the entire slum area with profoundly widespread significance. This, Boyle gently but convincingly instructs, is a national tale, one embedded in the very fiber of the nation of India."

I desperately want to love the movie unreservedly, but I have to be honest and say that as I watched the suffering and degradation of life in the slums, I began to feel enormously guilty as if I was not entitled to be thrilled by the phantasmagoria unfolding on the screen. You love the protagonists, but what about the countless other children who are dealt a losing hand?

And towards the end I started to feel more uneasy. The ‘quiz show that stopped the nation’ trope seemed imposed and corny, and the resolution too clichéd. The genuine pathos of the older brother Samil’s sacrifice is lost in the 'love conquers all' ending, and the 'MTV' coda at the end feels tacky.

Alexander Coleman said...

Tony, thank you so much for the thorough and entirely honest appraisal. Also, I sincerely thank you for the very kind remarks.

I understand what you are saying, however. Other people have had difficulty embracing the film's narrative, confronted as they are by the grave horrors and encompassing hopelessness that doubtless surrounds the protagonists.

Taken as strictly a sociocultural and sociopolitical examination, the film would have to be considered absurd and nonsensical. However, as a story based in fanciful fairytale archetypes, the film--for me--capably transcended the sad, oppressed roots from which the hero's journey emanates.

As in all matters, I emphatically respect your opinion, and in this instance, differing take. Thank you for being so kind as to highlight a certain part of the review and examining it through your own considerations.

And I must confess, I could have done without the thumping Bollywood MTV conclusion, though by the ending I was forgiving of such a theoretically outre choice with which to close the picture.

Joel E said...

I think I'm somewhere between you and KB on Slumdog, Alexander (great review by the way). I liked Boyle's storytelling better than KB (I think) but I thought the chemistry between the main characters was weak and the second half of the movie slowly lost steam for me as the characters grew older and their roles in the narrative became more cliche.

I can easily see how this would grab folks and there were some folks cheering in my theater during the inevitable climax, but it didn't really move me to the same degree.

I can't deny that Boyle is an incredibly talented director. In fact, I think his style and talent is beginning to find converts in Europe. Reprise and Son of Rambow are two of the best cinematic experiences I've had this year (albeit on the small screen) and both owe huge debts to Boyle's style.

As you imply, I also found it interesting that Boyle use's Jamal's narrative as a loose biopic of the last 20 years of India, detailing the Hindu/Islamic violence and rapid economic growth that have routinely been India's story since the 80's. The only thing he leaves out is India's continuing cold war with Pakistan (
which isn't really germane to the story anyway).

Anyway, I wish I liked this one as much as you and Sam, but I still thought it was a good movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Joel.

Yes, the continually icy relations between India and Pakistan were not at the forefront of the narrative, though they are indirectly hinted at in the Muslim-Hindu violence and turmoil.

Again, I think KB's point about the adult leads not sharing much in the way of chemistry is largely true. I do believe that if the film were more "realistic," as Moses suggested, it would have most certainly needed a far greater return on the investment of those two performers. As is, the foreordained quality of the narrative diminishes any significantly problematic issues for me but I can easily see where others would disagree.

One aspect I have not seen many write or talk about is the extension of Boyle's themes--and, like you mention here, his storytelling techniques and devices. Sad to report that I have still not seen Reprise. Grr.

Thanks again, Joel, you state your case with great lucidity. And I am happy to hear that some issues notwithstanding you found it to be a good movie.

Sam Juliano said...

Joel, beautifully-stated opinion there, I am hard-pressed to say anything when one expresses oneself as well as you did here. I guess this is just one of those instances where the material can affect people so differently. But i know you are not alone by making that claim of the chemistry lacking with the central characters.

Tony, as I said at WitD, your position is deeply-respected, and although i feel otherwise, I can respect teh conclusions you reached with your special quality-acumen.

Alexander Coleman said...

Indeed, discourse such as this is only to be encouraged! :)

Moses Hernandez said...

Yes. The discussion here is very interesting. Sam Juliano and Joel E and Tony D'Ambra among others must be thanked for helping to make this such an exciting place to discuss movies.

Like some others I was hoping for more chemistry between the leads but Alexander presents an altogether arresting case for why it actually wouldnt fit in the fairy tale Danny Boyle was going for. I'm interested in seeing this again like Alexander adn Im sure others.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Moses, you are most correct about this and other discussions here. It's an unquestionably rewarding aspect of blogging.

Alexander Coleman said...

And so I thank Tony, Sam, K. Bowen, Joel and everyone else who visits CCC, including you. :-)

ben said...

Beautiful film and beautiful review.

This is the best film website I've found. Your knowledge not just of cinema but seemingly everyythin is amazing to me. Are you really in your 20's?!?!

Alison Flynn said...

Nice review, Alexander. I finally saw this today, and although I did enjoy the movie I didn't have the enthusiastic response that you and so many others had.

In many ways the film is very well-crafted. Boyle really captured the flavor and feel and rhythm of Mumbai and I must agree with you that he used the non-linear timeline style so effectively; moreso than we've seen in a very long time. In fact, that's one of its strongest points. Also, the kids were terrific.

I didn't buy the love story at all. It was a superficial and weak aspect of the movie, and in a way that detracted from it. For me anyway. And I agree with the commenter above who said that there was no chemistry between the two.

Great job on the write-up though.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Alison. I certainly was rather enthusiastic about it, in terms of its successfully crowd-pleasing nature, especially. It's a case of a film that manipulates the audience from the start to the finish but it was so well crafted and formed, I did not mind the manipulation.

I agree that the acting, and especially of the two "young adults," is not its strong suit. I understand the point others have made, like you, about the lack of chemistry between the two. As I have written, though, it's one rare example of a love story not depending on its actors' chemistry to work (though I had grave problems with Cold Mountain and Troy among many other "recent" films for this flaw). That said, not everyone will agree.

Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the film despite your problems with it. I hope to see it again very soon, as its indomitable status as Best Picture frontrunner leaves it open for greater criticism and "backlash." I particularly want to see it again before I come up with my Top Ten. I'm finding that with so many other films, this one is very vulnerable to not making it. Though I still like much of the film, even two and a half months later. So it will be interesting to take another look.

steve kevorkian said...

salman rushdie dubs slumdog ridiculous

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for pointing that out, Dr. I just read that story myself.

Fittingly, I just saw this film again a couple of days ago. I still found it engrossing on a second viewing. It was fun to listen to people react to certain scenes all over again.