Thursday, May 14, 2009

Movie Review: "Slumdog Millionaire"

Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
Directed by Danny Boyle

Official Web site

Stories about the little guy triumphing against all odds has been a tried and true formula for successful movies, pretty much ever since the medium became popular. Just look back at Charlie Chaplin comedies to see just how far back popular underdog stories existed in the mainstream.

A number of films have met with Academy Award success following that same blueprint (“Rocky” immediately springs to mind). Now “Slumdog Millionaire” can easily be added to that list, having garnered eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Removed from all the Oscar hype, “Slumdog” can be seen as a movie that probably isn’t as good as all the awards that has earned. But, it still is a notable cinematic achievement worthy of praise.

While the advertising campaign prominently features children (portraying the main characters at younger ages), this is by no means a children’s movie. It’s R rated for a reason, folks.

At times it reflects an almost unflinching look at the impoverished conditions that seemingly so many in India live in. Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later”) gets his cameras right into the slums, presenting an unprecedented look into India, that no other major motion picture has been so successful in showing. A good amount of the cast, most notably many of the youngsters, were plucked right on location to be in the movie. They help bring an authenticity to the film that might not have been possible with professional child actors.

The millionaire portion of the film’s title comes from the appearance of Jamal (Dev Patel), an orphan who rises from the slums of Mumbai to be a very successful contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” As the film opens, his ascent to the pinnacle of the show is questioned by the show’s egotistical host (Anil Kapoor) and the security staff. They wonder how he could possibly know so much, having no formal education. Security personnel feel the need to try and torture information out of him to admit that he’s cheating.

What they don’t know, and what the film shows through frequent flashbacks, is that Jamal’s knowledge of the various answers was learned from the streets and his sometimes brutal life experiences.

The use of flashbacks is sometimes an overused technique in movies, but still seems to work here (just barely) in the Oscar-winning screenplay by Simon Beaufoy. It provides the film a chance to introduce its mostly young cast by laying down the foundation of their personalities without lingering for too long. The story is then able to jump around to different periods of Jamal’s childhood, along with his older brother, Salim and girl he befriends, Latika (who becomes a love interest for Jamal as they grow older). Still, the flashbacks do drain some of the suspense out of the present-day portion of the story.

Boyle’s taut direction, along with snappy editing and some exceptional cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, helps keep the story’s forward momentum going, even as it leads to its fairly predictable conclusion. One look at the title pretty much tells you the result of the game show, right? Still, the saying that “it’s not the destination, but the journey that counts,” applies well here. And the movie makes it clear just how arduous and far of a journey it’s been for Jamal to make to get to this point in his life. The same could probably be said for the film itself, as it had humble beginnings as the little picture that could – and eventually did.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.)

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