Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

“Slumdog Millionaire” represents the future of movies in an ever-shrinking world. It’s in two languages, English and Hindi. It’s filmed in India, with Indian actors, but directed by an Englishman, Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting"). The music is a mix of traditional Indian sounds and hip-hop. None of the actors is famous in the West, but with Boyle directing, this can hardly be called low-budget Independent fare. It isn’t Hollywood, either, or Bollywood. “Slumdog Millionaire” is part of a new movement of multi-national, multi-lingual films that will eventually make the Academy Award category for “Foreign Films” obsolete. These movies may make Hollywood, Bollywood, and other centers of filmmaking power obsolete as well.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is only partly about a young man winning millions of rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The film is really about that boy’s life as an untouchable in the slums of Mumbai. His family and neighbors live a life of physical squalor that still has spots of dignity and community, but they are constant prey for criminals, police, and vicious religious pogroms. In this world, the only hope for advancement for a boy seems to be crime; for a girl – prostitution. Jamal Malik, his brother Salim, and their friend Latika come of age as orphans in this world, eventually becoming separated, as Salim and Latika get sucked into the criminal underworld. Jamal, meanwhile, makes an honorable, if undistinguished life for himself in the new India, with a job as a gofer for phone operators in a call center.

Jamal lucks into the opportunity to play on the “Millionaire” show, where a lifetime of being observant pays off with one correct answer after another. In India, where many still seem to believe that your caste says everything there is to know about you, Jamal’s success leads the police to assume he has cheated. They torture and question him about how he got the answers, and it is through his explanations that his heartbreaking life story is revealed.

Some movie critics seem determined to sneer at “Slumdog Millionaire,” while grudgingly conceding that it is a story well-told. They call it a fairy tale, and it IS a fairy tale, complete with a happy ending. I think that all of us who have seen it were aware that we were watching a fictional movie, but these reviewers seem to feel it is important to remind us that it is unrealistic that a boy from the slums could win a quiz show. I think they are the victims of their own liberal snobbery. They doubtless approve of a film that shows the deplorable conditions of a third-world slum, but they can’t enjoy a happy ending that does not involve the government re-distributing wealth to save the slumdogs.

“Slumdog Millionaire” shows a heartbreaking side of India, and it helps put some things about America in perspective. We in the U.S. widely believe that our country provides opportunity for everyone, and that we are less obsessed with class than many other countries. “Slumdog Millionaire” made me realize that we Americans are absolutely right about that. Modern naysayers love to run America down, and one way they do it is by pointing out that classism exists here more than we admit. That may be true, but in “Slumdog Millionaire,” the game-show host teases Jamal repeatedly about being a “chai wallah” (tea waiter) from the slums, to the audience’s delight. Can you imagine a waiter or janitor being teased that way on American TV? Say what you want about America, but here we at least give lip-service to the idea of equal-treatment, respect, and opportunity for all.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is an optimistic movie in a time when we need the encouragement. In these troubled economic times, there are some cynics who have no room for optimism. I think that most of us, however, will enjoy a beautifully told story about how doing the right thing can pay off. Personally, I wouldn’t care to live in a world where people don’t believe in that possibility.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Seventh Seal (1957) *****

There are certain movies that loom like Everest, foreboding and unattainable. “The Seventh Seal” is one of those. It’s in black & white; it’s by Ingmar Bergman; it’s in Swedish; it tackles huge issues like death and religion. All the things that make it one of the great films also tend to drive you to watch “Spiderman 3” instead. As a film buff, you know you are supposed to see “The Seventh Seal,” but it tends to sit there like a dreaded homework assignment, put off for another day.

My advice is to get over it and throw that bad boy in the DVD player. “The Seventh Seal” is an amazing movie, and once you get into it, it is not hard to watch. The first few minutes look like some bizarre, art-house schlock, but that is just because all the art-house schlock since 1957 has been trying to look like “The Seventh Seal.”

There are probably endless interpretations of this film, and mine is bound to be unsophisticated. I am holding off on delving into any of the scholarship surrounding this movie until I get my own thoughts down. The story surrounds Antonius Black, a knight (Max von Sydow) returning from 10 years in the Crusades with his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand). They return, soul-sick and disillusioned by meaningless conflict, to a Europe devastated by the Plague. One morning, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim Antonius. Faced with the end, Antonius stalls for time by challenging Death to a game of chess. The game takes place over several days of travel, during which Antonius tries desperately to regain his lost faith in the existence of God, while his squire tackles life with a pragmatic, agnostic wisdom. Along the way they befriend a number of people in various stages of joy or unhappiness, but none of them give Antonius the answers he craves.

“The Seventh Seal” is filmed in a stark black & white that displays landscapes harshly, but flatters many of the actors, particularly the lovely Bibi Andersson, who plays a member of an acting troupe. This is a serious film, but there is a lot of humor mixed in. My favorite character is the Squire, a very cool, confident dude. While Antonius agonizes over questions of God and Eternity, his Squire seems content in his atheism. Instead, he spends his energy enjoying life and committing acts of true chivalry. Here are a couple of his quotes that sum up his style quite well: “Our crusade was such madness that only a real idealist could have thought it up.” “Do you have any brandy? I've had nothing but water. It's made me as thirsty as a camel in the desert.” Antonius is a dryer, more earnest character who represents the part in all of us that burns with existential angst when he says, “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.”

I will resist the urge to go into a long-winded discussion of everything I think “The Seventh Seal” means. It would give away too much, and besides, this film deserves to be mulled over, in small pieces, over time. “The Seventh Seal” is not for everyone, but for those willing to invest in a more artsy kind of movie, this is one of the greats. By the time the credits roll on a movie like “Spiderman,” you will already have thought everything worth thinking about the movie, but I suspect I will be mulling over “The Seventh Seal” for years.

5 stars.