November 26, 2008

REVIEW: Slumdog Millionaire (A+)

When Barack Obama was elected President three weeks ago, millions of people around the world experienced a vaguely familiar sensation, a fleeting flash of emotion that they savored for the simple reason that it just doesn't happen every day. They felt exhilaration.

Danny Boyle's life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire not only has the power to awaken your heart in the same way, but it has healthy doses of intelligence and style to boot. You can call it a modern-day fairy tale or a touching romantic comedy or a thrilling action-adventure or a tender coming-of-age drama. I'm calling it the best movie I've seen so far in 2008 - and it's not even close.

Boyle has a tendency to evoke these polarizing, effusive reactions to his films. People loved Trainspotting. They hated The Beach. They loved 28 Days Later and Millions, but just last year they hated Sunshine. And now, as the pattern continues, they love Slumdog Millionaire. Chart the critical response to his films over his career and you have what resembles an EKG reading.

In fact Boyle's films might very well be appropriate to use in cardiology research, because while watching them your heart has to pump twice as much blood to keep up with your sensory processes. In Slumdog Millionaire, your ears are put to work as you distinguish the different accents and languages from the bustling urban noises from the thumping soundtrack songs. Your skin perspires as your muscles reflexively contract and relax between adrenaline bursts. You might not taste anything, but it can sure feel like you're smelling something (one scene in particular will have you holding your nose). And your eyes? Your eyes just soak it all in, unsure of where reality ends and fantasy begins. Slumdog Millionaire is the most visually arresting movie of the year next to The Fall (their vibrancy is not their only shared trait), and it shows that Danny Boyle is an artist unafraid to paint the canvas of film with daring brushstrokes of color and light which, in the hands of the another director, would simply come off as pretentious.

But is there substance behind all of that style? Loads of it, actually. Based on a novel by Vikas Swarup and told in a series of colorful flashbacks, Slumdog Millionaire tells the life story of Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel, whose puppy-dog face reminded me of a young David Schwimmer), a mature 18 year-old from the slums of Mumbai who is one question away from winning unimaginable fortune on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". Convinced that no uneducated "slumdog" could advance to the last question of the game, the show's host arranges for a local police officer (Irfan Khan, The Namesake) to interrogate Jamal until he admits to cheating. We enter the story in between these torture sessions, which include electrocution and simulated drowning.

But Jamal isn't cheating, as we soon find out. Nor is he a genius, and nor is he just making lucky guesses. He is...well I won't say more, but it's fair to say that you'll enjoy the movie a lot more if you accept that the story really is a fairy tale, and as Jamal recounts his life story in relation to each of the questions he correctly answered on the way to the final question, we’re meant to be inspired, not surprised. His is a story of hope in the midst of despair, joy in the midst of pain, and love in the midst of impossible circumstances. During his young life, Jamal is betrayed, orphaned, kidnapped, held hostage, beaten, and, most painfully, separated from the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto). It was his heroic quest for Latika, and not the money, that brought Jamal to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in the first place.

The genius of Slumdog Millionaire is that it perfectly balances these two story threads – romance and adventure – with appropriate portions of comedy, drama, and real suspense. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) livened up his adaptation of Swarup’s novel by traveling to India and interviewing street children in the slums of Mumbai, where the film was eventually shot on location. As Beaufoy explained in a recent interview, "I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy." To say the least.

Framing street life in Mumbai as a joyous party is admittedly na├»ve, but anyone who doesn’t seen the pain, poverty and desperation illustrated throughout Slumdog Millionaire simply has their eyes closed, and they probably aren’t grasping the point of the story anyway. Boyle is not glossing over a terrible situation with syrupy romance, vivid colors, beautiful people, and underdog successes, he’s simply trying to get the attention of the people who believe, rather ethnocentrically, that places like Mumbai are devoid of those universal elements of culture. If you’ve gone home without that realization, wake up and get back to the theater.
Young Jamal Malik has a bright future ahead of him - and he knows it...

Once every few years, a movie comes along that redefines the way you look at cinema. It reminds you that films don't need to be deathly serious in order to be powerful and important, and they don't need to feature Oscar winners in order to showcase impressive acting (especially among the youngest members of the cast). More than anything, they reaffirm your faith in an art form that continues to evolve in ways that you couldn't imagine. Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies. Like Cidade de Deus before it, and Fight Club before it, Slumdog Millionaire gripped my entire being for two hours, transporting me to another place and another life without allowing for even a moment to breathe. As was the case on election night, I found myself on a natural high as the celebratory end credits rolled. It felt like I'd just won 20 million rupees.

Writing - 10/10
Acting - 10/10
Production - 10/10
Emotional Impact - 10/10
Music - 5/5
Social Significance - 5/5

Total: 50/50= 100% = A+

Addendum: You didn't think I was going to pass up an opportunity to shamelessly boast about the featured song in this movie, did you? Indeed, for the second time this year, a song that I chose last January for the 2007 missing soundtrack was featured in a movie in 2008 (the first being Ryan Shaw's "We Got Love" in My Blueberry Nights), and that's not even counting the ones that have been used in commercials throughout the year. M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" can be heard almost in its entirety in Slumdog Millionaire, fortunately leaving a bigger mark than it did when it was hijacked for the Pineapple Express trailer (which ended up bringing M.I.A. from obscurity to popularity). Although the song wasn't used here in the end credits, as I proposed, it was about as close to perfect as you could get. So the question becomes:

Daniel Getahun is awesome at predicting random songs that would fit well in movies. How did he do it?:
a.) He cheated.
b.) He's lucky.
c.) He's a genius.
d.) It was written.


  1. Couldn't agree with you more. Since it hit screens two weeks back I've been trying to turn as many people I can on to this's the sort of film that MUST be seen!

  2. Thanks, Hatter. I know you were championing it out of Toronto but I had to skip most of what you said because I wanted to go in cold (and I went in ice cold, not having seen or heard or a trailer or even a still).

    I've been telling people the same in the last few days - I don't strongly urge people to see a lot of movies (they can make up their mind and my reviews aren't necessarily meant to be recommendations), but with few exceptions I'm confident that this is a universal crowd-pleaser.

    It's the kind of movie that you can use to justify to people why you're obsessed with film.

  3. Emotional Impact - 10 and music/social significance - 5???? Can you please explain how it impacted your emotions without these? My view - The social context and original score (authentic indian sounds) accentuated the visuals and story.

  4. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    And for reminding me that I need to better qualify my scoring for newcomers (I've just updated the post to show). Because I don't consider them as central to the core quality of a film as the other four elements, Music and Social Significance (the relevancy and applicability to my daily life) are only scored out of 5 points, not 10. Here, both categories scored 5/5 - or perfect. I'd make them out of 10 and present this movie with 60/50, or 120% A+++++ if it would make you feel better, but I don't think I would get it away with it.

    You're absolutely right - both the original score by A.R. Rahman and the pulsating soundtrack featuring M.I.A. are outstanding. And the social context - well I mention that in my second to last paragraph.

    Thanks again for visiting - glad that you liked this film as much as I did.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. I guess I was emotionally impacted by the 5*, given my absolute attachment to everything about the movie.

  6. I totally agree, I saw this on Saturday with a buddy of mine and when we left we were both in awe. Seriously one of the best movies I've seen in a while.

  7. I know what you mean, anon. The movie overpowers you and that can extend beyond the theater. I just got charged up seeing the trailer for the first time the other day (after I'd seen the movie).

    Hey David, thanks for commenting! I also thought it was one of the better movies I've seen in quite a while - not just this year but even going back a few.

    There are tons of movies yet to come out this year, but there are probably less than 10 that I think could threaten to take over the status of Slumdog as my favorite of the year. But I'm open to it, if it happens. Doesn't mean I have to like this any less.

  8. This film looks incredible. I'm so looking forward to it, especially after that lovely review.

  9. Wow Slumdog is a classic movie and it's Amazing experience. couldn't imagine the crowd was dancing in the cineplex for the end credits. Realy crazy guys. How hard to make a movie to please all kind of audience. This is surely going to be best picture of the year.

  10. A fabulous review for a fabulous film. And the rating is warranted as for me this is a strong contender for film of the year, with WALL-E, DEAR ZACHARY and THE VISITOR.

    Your compartmental breakdown is superbly rendered, and I can't take issue with any points you've made in this enthusiastic assemment.

    HAPPY THANKSGIVING to Dan and everyone at Getafilm!

  11. Glad everybody is high on this one as well, even though I've now seen some prominent critics unimpressed by it. It's a crowd-pleaser above anything else.

    I hope you get to see it soon, k.

    Stephen, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm as blown away by you that Boyle has made a movie for almost all ages and audiences. I can't even remember the last movie like it.

    Warm Thanksgiving greetings to your family as well, Sam. Thanks as always for the encouragement!

    I think I'd like to see it again in the theater, but it's all I can do to keep up with all of the other new releases as Oscar season ramps up.

  12. Thanks for being so effusive in your praise for the movie. Your review has further reinforced my strong desire to watch this movie. Even a few days back I was reading an article where the writer strongly praised the movie as well as the book it has been adapted from (it is faithful to the book without being a translation). Surely got to watch it as well as read the novel it is based on as soon as possible.

  13. Terrific review, Daniel. You certainly captured a great deal of the electricity this film joyously offers.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  14. I'm going to see it tomorrow!

  15. Hope you guys enjoy it, and thanks, Alexander. Hope your T-day was good. They've added Slumdog on a second screen here, I can only imagine because of popular demand. That's good news that more people will end up seeing it.

    Shubhajit, I haven't read the novel but from everything I've read (including that Hollywood Reporter article I link to here), it seems that the adaptation is being hailed as a success because it synthesizes a bunch of different storylines from the novel into one narrative stream. Whether it's a direct adaptation or a looser retelling, it's brilliant. Feel free to come back and share your thoughts after you see it - hopefully soon.

  16. This really does sound so great! Can't wait to see it, especially since everyone seems to adore it!

  17. Oh my, this is a remarkable film. I don't even know where to start.


  18. You'll be happy to know Slumdog made $ 4 sellouts (a record for The Edina) and easily on its way to a $40K weekend (another record).

    As for my own opinion of the film I liked it, but didn't love it. Though it was nice to see that Boyle is a big fan of City of God. ;)

  19. The book QnA was very intersting. I was quite positive that it would make a good Bollywood movie..But it has fared better in a Hollywood version. I hope SM gets some recognition at the OSCars. Everyone is going gaga over it.The movie seems to be quite a watch..lets see

  20. Great review D!!! I wasn't sure how to describe my feelings about the film, but you hit it right on!!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  21. Thanks, everybody. All reactions I've heard over the weekend were like k's, so I'm glad I didn't oversell this one.

    Speaking of which, Matt - that's unbelievable, and at EDINA, no less. Guess you had to put it in the biggest theater and Uptown was more appropriate for Milk, right?

    Hehe, I guess the fact that literally everyone referenced CoG in their reviews makes it pretty obvious, doesn't it? Ah well, I love both movies. I even liked City of Men.

    Thanks, B, for visiting and commenting. I have not read "Q & A" but like you, I'd be surprised if Oscar doesn't come knocking based on the insane enthusiasm shown for this movie. I've seen it on a few Oscar prediction lists, so we'll see what happens. I think it has the "underdog" entry locked up, at the very least.

  22. Saw a free screening a couple of weeks ago with my sister -- who spent 4 months in India last year (I was only there for 10 days!) -- and it was amazing! I think Boyle did a great job (visually) in capturing the essence of the slums in Mumbai.

    Anyhow, just wanted to drop you a sister started a blog for her travels in South America. Check it out...

    Hope all is well.


  23. Well well, Dan. I'd been waiting to read this until after I'd finished my own review. I mostly agree, though I don't think this hit my heart with near the verve that it hit yours (the movie that did that for me the most this year was Man on Wire).

    That said, I enjoyed it tremendously and think it's easily one of the year's 10 best. I just don't think it's THE best, but that's quibbling.

    And, just speaking for myself, I really enjoyed most> of The Beach (first 2/3 or so) and loved the first 2/3 of Sunshine. I'd still recommend either film, I just think that Boyle has a history (as someone else noted to me earlier) of stinking up third acts.

    No such case here, though. Even the end credits were fantastic...and I too can't wait to get the soundtrack (weird that it doesn't come out for a few days...).

  24. Loved this, loved the soundtrack...I really wish it weren't being pigeonholed as this year's JUNO/LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

    It's so much better than that.

  25. Dogman! Thanks for visiting. You and your globetrotting relatives...uggh. India here, South America there. Don't forget to come out to Minneapolis on a lay over one of these times. I'll be busy traveling in the local movie theater.

    Weird, Fletch - my reaction to Man on Wire was your reaction to this: Great, but not soul-reaching. At least we both really liked both.

    You've got a fellow moderate Boyle fan in me. I thought parts of both The Beach and Sunshine were masterful, but both fell apart - big-time - at different points. I still like to watch them again, especially if I didn't have to sit through the bad parts.

    I haven't checked out the soundtrack but it must be among the year's best so far. And the end credits were outstanding - just a bit better than Tropic Thunder's.

    Matthew, speak truth to power! I don't know who started the "This Year's Juno" campaign but it needs to stop immediately. I challenge anyone to find a similarity in quality, marketing, filmmaker experience, cast, type of movie, etc. Juno was no obscure indie opening in limited release, and it was also packed with marketable stars.

    Oh yeah, and it never deserved to be mentioned before, during, or after any Best Picture discussion in a once-in-a-decade movie year like last year.

  26. Okay, I'll just ignore that mean Juno bashing because I finally saw this freaking gem of a movie and completely agree with your rating - have yet to read your review yet.

    My word. This is why I watch movies.

  27. No "Juno" bashing here Nick, I just don't why people keep mentioning it along with "Slumdog." The two are nothing alike.

  28. lol, and no offense intended re: Juno, Nick. Thanks for revisiting this and I'm thrilled you enjoyed SM. I think I said your exact last words as I was sitting in my seat after the credits rolled.

  29. I guess when people compared them they just mean the whole being lifted from possible festival obscurity into the possibility of being up for major Oscar contention, and not the actual films themselves. So I guess that is fair. I seriously hope Slumdog cleans up at the Oscars this year. We'll see.

  30. I hope so, too, of course. There are only 4-5 Oscar contenders that I have left to see, but for the time being SM is still #1 with a bullet.

    I know LMS was a huge favorite out of Sundance, but I didn't think Juno got a lot of festival buzz in the early goings. Seemed like it was riding off of Cody's backstory and a brilliant marketing push by Fox Searchlight.


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