Slumdog Millionaire

slumdogmillOK, now we’re talking. After a long dry spell and a lot of good-not-great movies, I’ve seen a batch of films in the past few weeks that boost 2008’s quality level substantially. And my favorite of all these movies — indeed my favorite of the year so far — is Slumdog Millionaire.

A strange mix of Rocky, Quiz Show and City of God, Slumdog Millionaire is simultaneously like a thousand films before it and like nothing I’ve seen before. That freshness is due to director Danny Boyle’s visceral camerawork and editing as well as the film’s setting in the slums of India. I’ve seen plenty of rags-to-riches stories, and plenty of tales about love defeating the odds, but none that painted such a vivid portrait of hope amidst squalor.

(Minor spoilers follow)

The film has a clever structure, following young Jamal Malik’s improbable rise on India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by flashing back to the life lessons that prepared him for each answer. The show’s host and executive producer is suspicious of Jamal and sends him off for a Cheney-esque interrogation between tapings. I hope this is a flight of fancy by the filmmakers… I’d hate to think India has taken the game show to such extremes, or that Regis Philbin regularly sent contestants away to be tortured.

It’s funny how the over-the-top drama inherent in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? works as a supplement to the fairy tale melodrama of Jamal’s tale. His story is equally gripping when he’s robbing people on a moving train or deciding between answer B or D for a quarter million rupees. And the script makes excellent dramatic use of the three lifelines. The game show framing, which could easily turn into a gimmick, winds up one of the film’s strongest elements.

The acting is strong all around, with particular kudos to Dev Patel as Jamal (though he shares the role with two talented young actors) and Anil Kapoor as the show’s alternately benevolent and sinister host. According to IMDB, this is Patel’s first film role, while Kapoor has been in more than a hundred films over the last 25 years. What a fascinating pair to face off.

Finally, let me go on record saying every film should end with an extended dance routine performed by principal cast members.

Warning: Major spoilers contained in the comment section.

37 thoughts on “Slumdog Millionaire

  1. Amy says:

    Flight of fancy or not, the torture sequence seemed so absurd that it keeps the film from being my top favorite. Still, that’s a minor quibble in a film that is filled with such powerful moments that it elicits laughs, gasps and tears in equal measure. I adored Dev Patel; he is perfectly cast as Jamal.

    And, yes, the closing dance scene is so frakkin uplifting that it’s hard not to want every film to end that way. Just imagine – Frank Langella and Michael Sheen facing off with dance moves; Ron Howard blew it by failing to go in that direction.

  2. Clay says:

    I did some research and found many articles about rampant torture by the police in India, particularly of poor suspects. So I’m guessing that part wasn’t as absurd as it might seem to us. Scary thought.

  3. Amy says:

    I’m not sure that matters. If it comes across as unbelievable that a game show host would have a very public contestant kidnapped (potato sack over the head and all) and hauled away by the police to be tortured, the mere fact that such torture might be commonplace doesn’t make it good filmmaking. The framing device of the police interrogation would have been just as effective without all the cloak and dagger elements, and it would have been more plausible (regardless of whether it would have been more realistic).

    Still, I adore the film. I just wish Boyle had gone with the cop asking the hard questions in a conference room at the tv studio. Somehow would have seemed far more likely and just as dramatically interesting (after all, were you ever in fear for Jamal’s life? It was his brother who had the far more dangerous line of work)

  4. Dana says:

    I agree with Amy that some of the plot stretches, including the torture scenes at the beginning, the brother’s sudden need to keep the girlfriend he knows his brother loves, the notion that the host would seemingly condone torture, the idea that the star could return to the show the next night after the torture, particularly with the spotlight of all of India on him, etc….keep this from being my top movie.

    And you can research all you want, but the notion that “rampant torture” would include torturing this sudden celebrity is rather absurd—and, more inportantly, unnecessary to the plot. This story would have worked far better without the torture–it would have been far more consistent with the manner in which the police treated the kid in the remainder of the movie.

    This, to me, is another example of you more readily forgiving a film’s problems because it is foreign. If this had been adopted as as American film, you would have had a problem with these plot points, and I don’t think you would feel consoled by researching articles about how police in say, LA, torture poor kids (which some might say does occur). I would be curious to know if Indian film critics found the torture incongruous.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I thought the film was wonderful in many respects, but not the best film of the year. And I suspect that, had this film not been foreign, it wouldn’t be your number one film either.

  5. Clay says:

    I don’t know if the torture was necessary, but it’s certainly no less plausible than any other element of the film, which is certainly a fairy tale above all else in both its lightest and darkest moments.

    It seems a bit silly to argue about plot stretches in a film where the protagonist is asked a series of questions that reflect exactly on his life’s experiences, in chronological order no less. It’s over-the-top in so many ways, which is one thing I find glorious about it.

    And yes, its foreignness is definitely a point in its favor. As I said in the review, its setting is what makes it fresh as compared to other films it resembles. I bet the scenes you found the most wonderful probably owed a whole lot to its exotic setting.

    I don’t imagine this will be my top film of the year once I’ve seen everything (and it’s neck-and-neck with Frost/Nixon right now) but it’s definitely the most exhilarating and alive film I’ve seen so far in 2008 which is why I’ve put it in the top spot.

  6. Amy says:

    And what great use of Fiona’s favorite artist of the moment, Ms. MIA’s “Paper Planes” – worth seeing for that glorious scene alone.

  7. Clay says:

    Absolutely. I loved the cut from the young actors to the next set as they fell from the train.

  8. Dana says:

    It’s not so much whether or not torture by police may be plausible in India. To me, the problem is that it didn’t make sense within the construct of the film. The police officers you came to know in the balance of the film did not seem like the type of people who would torture, let alone the severity of torture shown at the beginning. Also, the supposed reason for the the boy wouldn’t talk, but there is really nothing in the remainder of the film to support that notion. In fact, later in the film, he actually says to the cop something to the effect of “ask a question, I’ll give you an answer.” I don’t see where the torture made the film more “glorous.” I think it was excessive and unnecessary, and I think you would not have overlooked it but for the fact that the film is foreign.

    As I said before, the moments in the film that soared far outweighed its faults, but let’s not completely dismiss the faults when crowning this the top film over the year over films like Iron Man and Frost Nixon. I cannot think of faults as glaring in those films as are found in Slumdog.

  9. Clay says:

    As a wise woman once said, that’s why you have your list and I have mine.

    I think we forgive things in movies we love. Take Iron Man, for example… how absurd is it that Jeff Bridges incapacitates Stark but doesn’t kill him in typical eye-rolling villain fashion? And if his motive is to build a line of supersuits that he can sell, why does he decide to wear it himself and tear up the city? He has been established as a greedy opportunist who with no morals, but not a batshit insane supervillain until that final scene.

    Does that bother me in the least? No. Because I loved Iron Man.

  10. Dana says:

    Ah, but perhaps that is the reason Iron Man is now sitting at number 4? It is, of course, a conceit of EVERY superhero film (to the point of parody) that the villain does not avail himself of opportunities to kill the superhero. So, citing that as a flaw is a bit silly since it is essentially part and parcel of the genre. Specific to Iron Man, one could certainly argue that some reminisced feelings for Stark stopped that killing and one could further argue that, in the vein of absolute power corrupting absolutely, once Bridges dons the suit, he becomes a different person. Also, if he is going to make the suit a commercial success, does he not have to show that his suit can defeat Stark’s?

    And where are the flaws in the oh so American Frost/Nixon that keep it at number 2?

  11. Clay says:

    But you’re missing my point. I don’t arrange my list according to which film has the fewest plot holes. As I said above, Slumdog and Frost/Nixon are neck-and-neck but I’ve given the edge to Slumdog because of how vibrant and exhilarating it is as compared to the (necessarily) staged setup of Frost. Of course, Frost has an element of historical fascination and tragic pathos that Slumdog lacks, but in the end it all gets thrown into a blender and something has to wind up on top.

    Why did you like Charlie Wilson’s War better than No End in Sight? And No End in Sight better than Knocked Up? In the end, all you can do is decide what works for you better that something else, for whatever reason, and line ’em up.

  12. Dana says:

    Of course, but, again, I am simply pointing out what you are so reticent to concede….that a movie like Slumdog with greater plot flaws will rise above other movies with lesser flaws because you give the edge to a foreign film and more easily forgive its flaws than you do an American film. Just imagine where Frost/Ghandi would rank!:)

  13. Clay says:

    Well, first of all you’re assuming that I share your opinion of all these movies flaws, or lack thereof. Take The Dark Knight, which you found significantly flawed and I did not (though it’s certainly not perfect, and neither is any movie I saw this year). Why do you think I’ve given that movie a high spot on the list? It’s not foreign.

    And I’ve readily agreed that Slumdog‘s foreign setting is a huge part of why I think it’s a great film.

  14. Dana says:

    Glad you admit that the foreign setting was a factor in elevating Slumdog above others, including Dark Knight.

  15. Clay says:

    I admitted that in the original post!

  16. Amy says:

    You’ve always had a man crush on Christian Bale. Remember the posters you used to have hanging on your wall of Empire of the Sun? That explains the Batman love.

  17. Clay says:

    But that pales in comparison to my man crush on Frank Langella!

  18. Dana says:

    Yes, you admitted it–and I would concur that the view into a foreign world here adds greatly to the film…My point was, and remains, that you give undue weight to that foreign element, to the point of dismissing flaws in the film, such that you can place it on top of your 2008 list. I said, good day, sir!

  19. Clay says:

    Well, who are you to decide whether the weight given to any element of a film is ‘undue?’ I wouldn’t suggest that you give ‘undue’ weight to films with strong father-son themes. You happen to like those films, just as I happen to like films that take me to new places.

  20. Dana says:

    Well, perhaps “undue” is the wrong word–let’s just go with greater weight. And I (unlike you) readily admit to have a soft spot for fatherson films that might well influence a ranking of a film for me. So, will you admit the very “foreigness” element of a foreign film (and not just that it takes you to a different place) weighs more heavily when you rank films?

  21. Clay says:

    That brings us back to the whole debate of what “foreign” means. If you’re talking about it being in a foreign language, then no, that doesn’t give it greater weight. A boring film in subtitles is as bad if not worse than a boring film in English.

    Most of the foreign films I’ve enjoyed have appealed to me either because they were directed by somebody whose work I admire or because of that transporting factor. Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, Pedro Almodovar, Ang Lee… I love their work no matter what language it’s in (well, Almodovar hasn’t worked outside of Spanish, but the rest have).

  22. Dana says:

    My definition is that foreign means of, from and about another country. And my point is that you generally favor those films and are less critical of their shortcomings. I would also say this applies to a lesser extent to Independent films.

  23. Amy says:

    Perhaps those films (foreign, independent) are simply better than much of the junk produced by American studios concerned about their big budget and their bigger profit margin. It stands to reason that a studio making a film it hopes will appeal to everyone (in order to make the most money possible) will make a safer, less interesting film than its independent counterparts. My favorite film of the year is Rachel Getting Married; last year it was Once. It’s difficult to imagine either of these films made Dark Knight money. A good film is a good film is a good film. It doesn’t matter whether it’s foreign (Slumdog), independent (Once) or big budget studio (Iron Man).

  24. Clay says:

    You also have to consider that I see 50+ American films every year and maybe one or two foreign films, and those foreign films I see because I’m a fan of the director or they’ve received critical acclaim. All of us made a point to see Slumdog Millionaire, not because we like foreign films but because it’s getting great reviews and Oscar buzz.

    As for shortcomings, my perspective is that we’re all forgiving of shortcomings in the things we love. I don’t imagine you consider your favorite movies of the past decade to be perfect by any objective measure… they just speak to you on some important level.

    I suppose your argument is that I more readily love foreign (and now independent) films, and that’s probably true to an extent. I just don’t think it’s the fact of their foreignness that makes me love them, which is what you seem to be implying.

  25. Amy says:

    I do think the fact of a film’s – anything – adds to that film’s allure, when the film is good. Whether it’s the fact of its popcorn, action sequences, or its romantic chemistry between the lead actors, or its foreign locale. Anything that contributes to making the film the product that it is does contribute to my love of that film, and likely to yours, as well. I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing, something that one would have to “admit to” or confess.

    I am thrilled when a film (or book or tv show or play) has such a defining element.

  26. Clay says:

    Yes, I totally agree, the key words being “when the film is good.”

    I saw a Russian film called The Return a couple of years ago that received lavish critical praise and I hated it. In that case, it’s foreignness in no way overcame its shortcomings, and contributed nothing to my (lack of) appreciation for the film.

  27. Amy says:

    Though it may have been even more fun to mock the film for its very foreignness, as many an independent film can be made fun of for its low budget, stiltled dialogue and the like.

  28. Dana says:

    This only becomes a point of admission and confession because Clay has been so reticent to concede a bias. As we have discussed many times, I absolutely have biases that impact my rankings of films. A western. period piece or action film might be very good and critically praised, yet might find itself a notch or so lower on my rankings because of the genre. And, conversely, I might prop up a comedy by a few notches, and be more forgiving of its shortcomings–ditto a very good romantic comedy or historic (political) film.

    Certainly we can all probably agree that a bad film is a bad film and a good film is a good film. Our arguments, as is often the case:), are within the minutia–this began by my suggesting that Slumdog is sitting on top of Clay’s ranking (rather than somewhere else in the top 10) because of its foreign quality and that this foreign quality allows Clay to minimize some rather obvious plot flaws (or deny that they even exist at all). It is not a bad thing that Clay would give props to Slumdog because of its foreigness, it’s just strange that he is so relucaant to own up to the bias. Why not just say, “yes I can see where the torture was gratuitous and inconsistent with the police officers we cam to know in the balance of the film, but there was so much more that I loved in this film, that these problems did not bother me?” Indeed, Amy made an interesting observation (or maybe I did, but she agreed) that, since you tend to gravitate also to darker, grittier films, perhaps that torture scene was actaully a plus for you. Discuss….

  29. Clay says:

    Amy, wouldn’t that be racist? 🙂

    Dana, once again you are assuming that what you see as a shortcoming is by definition a shortcoming in the film. It’s silly to suggest I should admit that I’m overlooking or denying the existence of what you consider plot flaws. I’m not you!

    It never occurred to me that the torture scene was a plot flaw… I saw it as an attempt to very quickly establish the hard luck of this character. Here’s a kid who was orphaned at a very young age, spent his life begging until he was picked up by a man who intended to burn out his eyes, had the love of his life stolen away by his gangster brother, and even after an improbable run on a big-money game show he winds up being beaten and shocked for knowing too many answers! I thought it was an effective way to heighten the stakes in a movie that is heightened every step of the way by design.

  30. Dana says:

    That tone and impact could have been established without electrodes. Indeed, I could have accepted the officers slapping the guy around, beating him up a bit. In fact, not knowing how the film would evolve, I didn’t immediately have an issue with the opening. It was only after seeing the balance of the film unravel, including the humanity of the officers and the willingness of the kid to talk about his experiences in incredible detail, that the torture scene in the opening seemed entirely gratuitous.

  31. Amy says:

    I think part of the problem is the old “you say tomato, i say tomahto” conflict. Your plot flaw may be Clay’s evidence of gritty realism. Neither of you is wrong; you simply see the film differently. As i’ve said many times on this blog, I can’t begin to understand the lavish critical praise heaped upon the newest Batman film, and the fact that Clay and Kerrie (and Alex? I haven’t heard her rave as much) adored it just makes me all the more perplexed. Still, I don’t think they’re wrong, or wonder if I’m wrong I just chalk it up to us having different reactions to the film.

    Clay seems to be arguing that it’s the quality of the film that draws him; if it’s foreign, fine. A bad foreign film would be just as unbearable for him; the foreign aspect of it would not redeem its general mediocrity. Dana seems convinced that Clay sees quality where there is the foreign. The fact that Clay seeks out only those foreign films which have already received praise and are considered good films likely makes the connection of foreign = good seem all the more typical.

    Dana, I’d like to know how many foreign films you’ve seen that you would characterize as mediocre or bad? I’d guess there would be very few, as we, too, only see foreign films we have reason to believe will be quite good. So… this argument becomes a big like Molly chasing her tail.

    As for Dana’s last point, I do think Clay probably responded to the grittier aspects of the film, though I doubt Slumdog would not be in his top few films of the year had it not contained scenes of graphic violence (kidding, Mom, kidding).

  32. Dana says:

    Well, again, for the Xth time—I am not arguing over a foreign film Clay found good that I found bad–I am arguing over the relative rankings amongst good films, where it seems to me time and time again Clay gives the nudge up to the foreign film over the also well received American film. If Frist/Nixon is neck and neck with Slumdog with Clay, but Slumdog gets the edge, I would argue (and I think Clay agrees in this case) that the foreign quality (taking him to another place) may be one of the factors giving it the edge. And, that’s not a bad thing. As I argued a few years ago, Y Tu Mama was a very good film–but was basically a road movie set in a foreign country–Clay picked that as his top film over Adaptation–the great American film of that year. If in baseball, a tie goes to the runner, my point is that, in Clay’s world, a tie goes to the foreign or independent film.

  33. Clay says:

    One of the officers continued to slap him around during the film. And the other officer went in with the assumption that this was a thieving slumdog who had illegally cheated a popular TV show and only came around as the fascinating story was told. I’m just guessing here, but I bet the class system in India is such that a man in the cop’s position would see this kid as little more than an animal. Perhaps the bigger stretch is that he’d come to sympathize with him at all.

    As for him being willing to talk, he did exactly what he said… he answered anything asked of him. While being beaten, he was asked only why he cheated. It wasn’t until they asked how a kid like him could get so far on the show that he truthfully responded, “I knew the answers.”

  34. Clay says:

    Dana, why do you prefer Iron Man to Frost/Nixon?

  35. Amy says:

    Funny you should ask him that, as I’ve been getting much grief from him for putting more serious fare (albeit not Frost/Nixon) above Iron Man on my list. I look foward to reading his answer.

  36. Dana says:

    Well, first, as I said, it isn’t that they slapped him around–it is the degree of torture shown that seemed inconsistent with the officers’ character.

    As for Iron Man—there are many reasons why I loved this film, Let’s start with the fact that, as I said previously, I generally am not a huge fan of action films. This film, however, was so much better than your average action film. Where Dark Knight contained one elongated action scene after another–Iron Man showed restraint (save for the last scene, whcih was arguably its weakest point). So, I give Iron Man props for eschewing stereotype in the action/superhero genre.

    Second, there is Robert Downey Jr–I have readily admitted my long standing infatuation with this man–and I will concede that this crush alone might send Iron Man to number 1 over the great but far less crushy Sheen and Langella.

    I thought Frost/Nixon was fabulous–but it didn’t surprise me or delight me in the way Iron Man did–and therein lies the difference as well.

  37. Amy says:

    I’ll buy that… surprise and delight. Those seem like fair ingredients to put a film at the top of anyone’s list. The dishwasher scene if Rachel – surprised and delighted me. As did the rehearsal dinner scene. And the entire wedding. And, perhaps, more than any other moment in the film, the scene where Rachel helps Kym get ready for the wedding.

    And, yes, Iron Man delighted me to no end. I credit not only the extraordinary Robert Downey, Jr. but also the very talented Jon Favreau, who proved to be the anti-Michael Bay with this film. Just as he demonstrated with Zathura, the man knows how to film action sequences that make you care about the characters rather than marvel at the special effects.

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