It's high praise indeed that Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" was the one movie I was most looking forward to this year, and even with these high expectations and me having to drive 90 minutes to see it, it almost didn't disappoint at all. I say almost, but I'm in much more of a glass way more than half full kind of mood, so lets start with the many great things about this flick first.
The two strongest things it has going for it are dynamic storytelling and a vibrant visual style that will leave several images burned on your brain for days after you see it.
Though the movie gets its title from our hero's quest to compete on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" to find the love of his life (corny, yes, but often magical too), that's really just a framing device for the real story of Jamal and Salim Malik, two slumdogs growing up without parents on the streets of Mumbai.
And it's in their early life, which would indeed be a depressing tale if weren't told with inventiveness and feature two young actors, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the young Salim and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the young Jamal, who are up to the task. Dickens comes in early and obviously as they fall into the hands of Maman (Ankur Vikal), a recruiter (and blinder) of children to be beggars who makes Fagan look almost like a saint.
The gangster angle comes into play later as the two boys paths start to converge, and it works extremely well as a tribute to the old flicks like "Public Enemy" and "Scarface" (the original, of course), movies I revere enough to have done my senior thesis at Catholic University on them (mostly as a very thinly veiled excuse to watch movies.) As Salim is drawn into a life of crime as a wannabe gangster, it also gives the movie one of its signature shots, of the two brothers sitting on a construction tower and looking out on a Mumbai that looks nothing like they knew as kids.
And it's in the imagery that accompanies this moving tale that Danny Boyle really shows his love for the city and its people. It brings me no pleasure at all to pile on Wes Anderson, but how he was able to film "Darjeeling Limited" in India and make it so devoid of life as Boyle's movie is packed with it just becomes a bigger mystery now. As the most direct example, watch any train scene from "Darjeeling" against the sequences in "Slumdog" in which Jamal and Salim live on the rails, and I think you'll see exactly what I mean (in particular look out for Jamal hanging by his ankles to swipe a piece of bread through a train compartment window.)
In spirit and actual imagery, it compares much more directly with Fernando Meirelles' "City of God," which I hold in extremely high esteem. A challenge: How many movies can you think of this year that show you something you've never seen before, and can therefore be hailed as something close to "unique"? I can think of only three in my early-morning haze, "Slumdog", "The Fall" and "The Dark Knight," a big reason why all three will almost surely find a home on my top 10 films of 2008. (And "Slumdog" even manages to pack in a joke early on that shares its inspiration, if not its delivery, with the crudest gag in Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" - not as nasty but equally as shocking.)
So, with all this to love about "Slumdog Millionaire," what's its biggest fault? Well, before I mention it, let me just say I've never cared much at all for game shows, apart from occasionally tuning in to see if I know the "Final Jeopardy" question.
I tell you that to tell you this: The game show angle in "Slumdog," which comes from the source novel "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup, just didn't work for me. The eldest Jamal, Dev Patel, plays the role of the beaten down but not out young man well and Anil Kapoor is the perfect counterpart as the oily game show host, but used as a device to tell Jamal's life story (I hope I'm not giving too much away here), it's just too cute and convenient by at least half. But I suppose all this is needed to tell the epic love story of Jamal and Latika (played as a woman by the truly radiant but unfortunately named Freida Pinto, who made me flash back to the most beautiful Indian woman I've ever seen on the big screen, Sarita Choudhury in Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala"), so I was willing to forgive this one shortcoming. With kudos already piling up from the mysterious National Board of Review and the DC film critics, "Slumdog Millionaire" is likely to claim the outsider slot in this year's Best Picture race, and it would be well deserved.
A final word before I go about the soundtrack, which just offers the most infectious kind of Indian techno pop by AR Rahman, with a little MIA thrown in for good measure. And MIA's "Paper Planes" sure fits in a whole lot better here than it did in the commercial for "Pineapple Express," even if that's what made it a hit. Enjoy this audio-only clip of Rahman's "Gangsta Blues," which will hopefully liven up even the most dreary of Monday mornings. Peace out.