Monday, January 5, 2009

loved the slumdog, not so much the millionaire

slumdog millionaire is the trendy indie flick of the moment, gobbling up rave reviews and opening its arms for the awards season. it's a great little film, but it only stands out because we eat such a steady diet of crap hollywood films.

the plot is that slumdog jamal winds up on india's version of who wants to be a millionaire and racks up the right answers. dark and suspicious forces corner him and say there's no way he could have known that without cheating. he sighs wearily and works through his harrowing life story in flashbacks, showing which bit of his broken existence taught him which answers.

it's a cute plot device and i loved the first half, when we follow young jamal through the slums of india. communal violence leaves nice jamal and his nasty brother salim on their own, scamming and being scammed on the backstreets. there are horrific scenes as the tender twosome get caught in the claws of street creatures, and some sharp laughs as they swindle western tourists. salim is well portrayed as a kid who learns fast that it's survival of the cruelest and so becomes a monster to escape the monsters.

pumping behind this is a fantastic soundtrack, mostly from MIA. it gives the movie a modern Anywhere, Third World, vibrancy, where it could easily have gone cod-indian with sitars and flutes and whatnot.

in the second half, though, things go all hollywood (or is it bollywood?). the raw realism yields to fluffy, happy-feeling destiny as a dopey-faced adult jamal butts heads with the millionaire host.

hollywood movies trundle along well-established paths, chugging up the hills of anticipation and plunging down the cliffs of danger. but we know we're on a ride - the hero will get the girl, bad guys will be punished, yada yada yada. you can see it as soon as you sit down. it's a paint-by-numbers cartoon - all you need to do is work out which template they're using. for the first half, slumdog sticks its middle finger up at those movies. the millionaire half is about as realistic as the tv show. it's pure escapism: for us, not the slumdogs it leaves behind.

slumdog is better than most movies that make it to mainstream western screens. the first half grabs us by the throat; the second half feeds us sweets and tells us all is well with the world. most kids born in the slums stay in the slums: if they're going to make it in life, it'll be in the shacks and streets. salim's ruthless craftiness would best jamal's soft-hearted romanticism every time, but slumdog uses a deus ex machine plot device to lift him out of reality and into an ordinary rom-com.

every year or so, hollywood lets in a non-hollywood movie (juno, little miss sunshine, etc etc). this year, it's slumdog. in places like halifax, that's what we're stuck with because there are no independent cinemas. anyone in a city with a decent arthouse knows there are endless amazing movies out there - slumdog is just one that got miraculously lifted up into the green lands of the mainstream this year.

check out movies from the danish director lars von trier, danish actor nikolaj lie kaas or the french actor romain duris for a start. movies like the idiots, reconstruction , open hearts and the beat that my heart skipped start off like slumdog, but have the guts to finish the story.

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