Thursday, January 29, 2009

The contender

[Yes, I'm on a pre-Oscar viewing-and-reviewing rampage, thanks to my fellow Hollywood hound John Tan, who burned me copies of almost all the nominated films (love you John!).]

The past few years, the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture have included at least one little-movie-that-could, usually an indie flick or critical darling that becomes the perceived dark horse, posing a potential threat to the bigger, more box-office friendly entries. Last year it was Juno; the year before, Little Miss Sunshine, and the year before that, Crash (which stole the Oscar from Brokeback Mountain, much to my consternation). This year's underdog is, aptly enough, Slumdog Millionaire, a Cinderella story of a boy named Jamal who grows up in the slums of Mumbai, then winds up a contestant on India's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" through a set of tragic/comic/romantic circumstances. As if by fate, each question asked on the game show is somehow related to a memory or experience from Jamal's colorful, chaotic, cruel life, and flashbacks are interspersed throughout the movie to piece together the events that shaped him.

I was prepared to be disappointed with Slumdog, given all the (what I thought was overblown) pre-Oscar hype surrounding it, not to mention its unexpected win for Best Motion Picture - Drama at the Golden Globes. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by how thoroughly charming and entertaining a film it is. From the remarkably talented cast of relative unknowns (all Indian), to the novel and engaging plot, to the impressively captivating cinematography, to the superb direction, I couldn't find fault with Slumdog, even with its improbable fairy tale premise. Ultimately, it's a feel-good movie, but it is also poignant, even heart-breaking at times, with none of the sentimentality or sanctimoniousness that tend to suffuse Hollywood dramas. There is also an unself-conscious quality about Slumdog, a refreshing honesty that makes all the emotions of joy, pain, anger and love all the more real, and buoys the movie throughout. Right down to the obligatory Bollywood-style dance number that accompanies the closing credits, I loved every facet of this cinematic gem.

Props to British director Danny Boyle (the mad genius behind Trainspotting) for his fine work adapting Indian author Vikas Swarup's story to film, and yet not imposing his Western orientation on what is very much an Indian movie at heart. Kudos too must go to co-director and casting director Loveleen Tandan, who I suspect was instrumental in bringing Slumdog Millionaire to life, if only because of the terrific cast she assembled. The child actors who play Jamal, his older brother Salim, and Jamal's childhood friend and long-lost sweetheart Atika give wonderfully natural, convincing performances, while the older actors who play the three main characters, particularly Dev Patel who plays Jamal, also acquit themselves well. Veteran Hindi actor Anil Kapoor deserves special mention for his expert turn as the slick game show host who tries to unnerve the young protagonist. In hindsight, Slumdog's cast did rightfully earn the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture... although I have yet to see Milk and Doubt, so perhaps I should reserve judgment until then.

In any case, I think Slumdog Millionaire has an excellent shot at snatching Best Picture honors from its "heavier" competition, and I wouldn't mind seeing such an upset this time. After all, it would only be a fitting result for this underdog of an underdog movie.


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