Thursday, January 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is an overwhelming tour de force, featuring more emotional ups and downs than most of 2008’s movies combined. It’s also better than most of 2008’s movies, and 2008 was hardly a weak year. I went into Slumdog Millionaire completely cold, having no knowledge of its cast, crew, or premise (something I rarely do), and was completely swept away on the wave of its narrative power. Combining the rawness of City of God (2002) with the exuberance of Bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire is a complete triumph.

Eighteen year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?.” When the show breaks for the night, the police arrest Jamal on suspicion of cheating; how could a nobody from the slums of Mumbai possibly know so much? As the Police Inspector (Irrfan Khan) interrogates Jamal, we see through flashbacks how the tragedies of his life equipped him with the knowledge necessary to succeed. We follow Jamal across his life-long journey of running from his enemies, struggling with his gangster brother, and searching for his lost love, Latika (Freida Pinto).

The film’s final half hour contains the highest highs, and the first half hour contains the lowest lows. Many scenes of Jamal’s life in the slums are hard to watch, but far too compelling to turn away from. Brace yourself for a rough beginning (scenes of children in peril are especially hard), but know that every moment has purpose. I recognize that real life for most people in Mumbai rarely becomes as tragic or as ecstatic as Jamal’s life, but this is hardly a documentary of life in India; it’s a dark fantasy about the power of love and hope. While the two movies have little else in common, The Shawshank Redemption has a similar mix of light and dark, where both parts are equally necessary to the overall experience.

The cast is comprised mostly of unknowns, and child actors carry the portions with the most emotional weight. The performances are so good, especially from the children, that it’s easy to lose the “Don’t worry, it’s just a movie” effect, making the whole experience all the more exhausting. The emotion comes not just from the events themselves, but in the characters’ understated reactions. The performances aren’t especially energetic or raw, so much as genuine. The characters’ eyes project the fatigued poker faces of people who have experienced far too much, far too soon.

Watching Jamal sit in the Millionaire “hot seat” answering questions, I wondered when the last time was that I so badly wanted a movie character to succeed. Along with everyone else in the theater (judging from the unanimous gasps and bated breath), I needed him to succeed. Danny Boyle’s film taps into that inspirational, essentially human vein; you know the one I mean. I have a feeling you’ll drive home from Slumdog Millionaire using the same lifeline I did: “Phone a Friend.”

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.

Slumdog Millionaire is a movie for adults. Don’t be misled by the overwhelmingly positive feedback about how inspirational it is - this film contains very raw, very upsetting depictions of life in the slums. Preteens should stay away, and everyone else should be prepared for a heavy, albeit powerful, experience.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


“What do you do when you’re not sure?” That’s one of the opening lines in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, and definitely serves as the story’s driving question. Of the film’s three principal characters, one embraces uncertainty, one fears it, and the third denies it. Where we as viewers should stand on the matter is left up to us, but I walked away from the theater with no doubt that I had seen several of the year’s best performances in one of its strongest films.

Doubt follows its Pulitzer Prize-winning stage-script closely, as the playwright also wrote and directed the film. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the new Pastor at Saint Nicholas Church and School, in New York City, 1964. Through humor and friendliness, he constantly attempts to offset Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), an incredibly strict and uniformly-feared nun. When the fairly young, innocent Sister James (Amy Adams) fears that Father Flynn may have entered into an inappropriate relationship with one of her male students, she tells Sister Aloysius, who demands that Father Flynn confess the truth. No matter how many times he proclaims his innocence, Sister Aloysius remains convinced of his guilt. “You haven’t the slightest proof of anything,” says Flynn, to which Aloysius responds, “But I have my certainty.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep give overwhelming performances. You needn’t worry if you go to see Doubt during a storm; Hoffman and Streep’s shared scenes have enough electricity to power the film projector in the event of an outage. Their dramatic energy culminates in their final scene together, where Sister Aloysius holds the cross at the end of her rosary like a weapon. “I will do what needs to be done, though I’m damned to hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.” Amy Adams brings a believable balance of innocence and awareness to Sister James, and Viola Davis makes an award-worthy cameo as Mrs. Miller, the mother of the child who may or may not be a victim.

Mrs. Miller and her son are African-American. The Civil Rights Act was just passed earlier in the year, and her son feels understandably out of place at Saint Nicholas School. When Sister Aloysius meets with Mrs. Miller to discuss the potential situation between Father Flynn and her son, Mrs. Miller explains that she wants her son to be looked out for, no matter what that entails. “My boy came to your school ‘cause they were going to kill him in the public school ... I’ll be standing with my son and those who are good with my son.” In a film of power-house performances, Viola Davis holds her own.

Doubt’s visual metaphors walk the line between being strong and being too obvious. Running motifs include light bulbs burning out, windows being left open, and stormy weather outside the church walls. I embraced the overt metaphors because so much else in the story remains open to interpretation. I’ve heard some viewers criticize the film’s lack of a message, but I found plenty of meaning; it just wasn’t handed over on a platter. Like jurors in a court case, we are shown all of the evidence and then encouraged to make up our own minds. “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” says Father Flynn. “When you are lost, you are not alone.” Your conclusions will be your own, and may not be the same as mine or anyone else’s; in a film entitled Doubt, that’s appropriate.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material.

There isn’t any objectionable content, but there’s nothing in the film that young kids would enjoy. Children under 13 would probably be confused or bored. Young adult viewers will enjoy it if they’re open to thought-provoking films, but you should be prepared for a discussion afterwards.