Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: Gripping, intimate, and ultimately hopeful, 2008’s Best Picture deserves its recognition.
Review: Yesterday evening, I went to go see the critically acclaimed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which has enjoyed great success in the past few weeks. It’s made the rare move up the box office top ten, rather than degrading. I had wanted to see it awhile back, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.
I saw it the night it won the Oscar for Best Picture.
I have had a distaste for the Academy’s decisions in recent history, snubbing great movies that deserved at least a nod (like, say, ‘Gran Torino’ or ‘The Dark Knight’), but I do agree that, out of the nominees, ‘Slumdog’ deserves the prize. Granted, I only saw two out of the five hopefuls, but the only other Best Picture nominee that I wanted to see was ‘Frost/Nixon’. For myself then, its only competition was ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, which, ironically enough, is something of an antithesis of ‘Slumdog’. ‘Benjamin Button’ is about death. ‘Slumdog’ is about life.
Something else that struck me as particularly different was how conservative ‘Slumdog’ was, as contrasted with most modern cinema. ‘Slumdog’, since it was shot in India, had to play by their rules to get past the censors. Unlike Europe and the United States, India is a country that has not alienated its religious side. As such, something approximating the U.S.’s Hays Code still exists. The sexual aspects of the story, then, are told and shown in a way that does not titillate, but invites sympathy. There is about one-and-a-half kiss(es) shown on screen, and the way it is played makes this act seem all the more intimate. The conservative guidelines play right into the filmmakers’ hands.
Though the sexuality is, thankfully, subdued, the violence can still be disturbing. Yet it is never gratuitous. What makes the film earn its R rating is the tone, not the acts themselves. I’ve seen worse in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but that film has a lighter tone than ‘Slumdog’.
As I said, the film was shot on location in India. Entirely. The landscape is naturally exotic, and the cinematography dynamically captures this feel. We are immersed in the culture from the get go. When we are on the streets, running with the slum children, we feel the energy of the chase, but when we are in a plain hotel room, we feel the staleness and restlessness through the camera. I don’t think I can imagine a film about India again without thinking of the way this one was shot. While I’m a bit old school in my preference of a steady, unblinking camera, the fast editing worked perfectly here.
The cast, nearly entirely unknown locals, was incredible. I believed. The bad guys were convincingly menacing (one reminded me of Ledger’s Joker, in a good way), the good guys honestly innocent, and the in-betweens reasonably conflicted. It all played very nice.
This film won Best Score, as well. That’s one of the few points I’ve got to disagree with the Academy about this film… I don’t think it deserved it. The score is good, and works very well in the context of the film, but Thomas Newman’s score for ‘Wall-E’ was better. So was the collaboration for ‘The Dark Knight’, my personal favorite score from last year, but it wasn’t nominated. But I digress. What I will say about the sound editing is more favorable. It’s got to be the best sound editing I’ve ever heard, barely topping ‘Wall-E’, which still has better sound design, an important distinction to make.
I’ve given this film a lot of glowing praise, and I think it deserves it. I can’t say this was my favorite film of this past year. I can’t say that I have a favorite anymore, actually, but it is definitely up there among the best I’ve seen.
What makes me the happiest about this movie is its undying optimism. Some may accuse it of being unrealistic, but this is ironic to say in a culture that credits random chance with the creation of life. I’d say chance and the odds are given too much power. Some things, as ‘Slumdog’ says, are written. I believe God looks out for the everyday man. He gives grace to the humble, no matter who they are. ‘Slumdog’ doesn’t clearly choose a religious stance, but it does point in the direction of a positive force or intelligence in charge of the universe. It’s easy to say this is good for fairy tales, but if it isn’t true, what hope have we? If there is no God, how can a “slumdog”, a poor kid with nothing but a street education, become a millionaire? Or are we doomed to decay, to die without memory and without hope? I’d rather believe there is a chance for a happy ending.