Friday, January 2, 2009

Film Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle’s latest film Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of a young Indian man’s rough and rich childhood growing up in the slums of Mumbai. This is told through a series of flashbacks brought about as he’s being tortured and interrogated under the accusation that he cheated on the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to be A Millionaire. In a clever and well written move Jamal Malik’s wholly coincidental knowledge of the obscure questions asked on the gameshow came directly from his real life. The result is a delicately woven mix of his cruel childhood intercut with his gameshow crisis. Slumdog offers a modern and fresh take on the classic rags to riches story.

The telling of two portions of Jamal’s life is what ultimately gives the film its best feature: a quick pace that keeps the audience's interest peaked. Slumdog is based on a novel, which yields writing that’s simply better than a script written solely for film. The mood of the film is also commendable especially because of the young age in which Jamal’s story begins. Children always have a humanizing effect and Slumdog doubtlessly sings to the soul because of it.

The slums of India offer a great landscape for film. Rich color schemes and the depiction of a completely foreign way of life, at least to American eyes, gives this film a fresh and visually pleasing look. However the stylistic choice of shaky camera work is a bit overbearing at points, and there are a few sloppy edits which are unacceptable in my book. Without nitpicking too much the constant use of static dutch angle shots to establish large spaces quickly becomes redundant and comes off as uninspired. My last complaint concerning the visuals is more so the poor editing choice of using slow motion shots in post production. This “fake” slow-mo looks choppy, sloppy, and is almost always a poor choice in my opinion.

But these problems aside the real beauty of the film is the story being told. And though the story itself is good, the manner in which it is told is what makes this film unique. Juxtaposing the realistic slum life in India with the surreal game show is quite a novel idea. The flashbacks slowly build the story of Jamal’s childhood life, bringing out a plot involving his childhood love Latika which becomes the driving point of the film.

But the character of Latika is rather flat, and the large gap between the cast's childhood and young adulthood omits a large portion of their lives. While I’m glad the film was only a solid two hours long, the missing link between these two portions of life could have been helpful considering that not all the childhood characters translate well into their adult selves. Jamal is rambunctious in his youth, a rich character built through a series of traumatic experiences. As a young adult he comes across as timid, even boring, and if it wasn’t explicitly spelled out, I would never have expected the young adult Jamal and his childhood version to be the same person.

And the love story which arises and brings the film to a close just didn’t do it for me. Its understandable that Jamal would remember and hold feelings for his childhood crush, but for this to come full circle delves into the realm of the unbelieveable, almost a cop-out of a way to bring the film to an end. But this portion of the film is only as contrived as everything else that happens. Considering that I really appreciated the technique of telling this wild story, I suppose its somewhat forgivable.

All in all, Slumdog is a good film. Its not great or magnificent or even Oscar worthy in my opinion, but definitely refreshing and for the most part well done. I’m a big fan of Boyle’s Trainspotting, but some of his recent films were nowhere close to as good. His last film Sunshine was deplorable, so I’m glad to see he’s taking a step toward redemption with Slumdog Millionaire. And on a final note, American audiences have quite a fascination with hip slum stories, ie. City of God, so the fact that this film has become a smash hit in the States is no surprise.

The Good: Excellent pace and forgive me for being redundant but a truly unique story. The childhood actors are great for children and the host of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire puts out a stellar performance.

The Bad: The transition between childhood and young adulthood underdeveloped, and the love story is missing something as well. A few poor stylistic choices but nothing horrible. And a flashback sequence at the end is cohesive with the nature of the film, but a bit cheesy.

The Ugly: The fancy subtitles were unnecessary and tacky. Along those same lines, music from M.I.A. is too hip for my likings.

The Unforgivable: The end credit sequence. I’d like to know who thought having colorful and flashy credits over the main characters dancing at a crowded train station was a good idea. The whole thing came out of nowhere and had nothing to do with what the rest of the film was going for. It looked more like the end of a High School Musical type film than an award winning Indie flick. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that it nearly ruined my impression of the film!

You Should See This Film If: An Indie flick about poor people in India!?! If you're American the answer is duh.


McKenzie said...

I thought the same thing. The end did not measure up/match the beginning. Although the picture it painted of India was spot on. Wonderful, but insane.

Anonymous said...

Are you aware that the ending was a reference to most Bollywood films? If you've ever seen a Bollywood film, it's mostly made of dance sequences like this. Search Lagaan on youtube.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, on point, meticulous review. The only thing I would add is what stephengreen said about Danny Boyle winking at Bollywood films, to me, it stood out as such. Just comical, that's all. said...

Also, regarding the transition or large gap between Jamal's childhood and adulthood... I'm not quite sure about that since the movie carefully recapped many significant stages of his life; the torture and intimidation he was subjected to, that alone was traumatizing enough to humble his naturally outgoing self (rambunctious child as you mentioned, or even his teenage yrs luring tourists at the Taj Majal) into a more subdued, submissive, even frightened version of himself, as opposed to timid and boring, as you mentioned...