Film Review: Underdog 'slumdog' a winner

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor are shown in a scene from 'Slumdog Millionaire.'

Photo by Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor are shown in a scene from "Slumdog Millionaire."

According to The Commercial Appeal's movie ratings system, four stars means: "Don't miss it."

So when I give "Slumdog Millionaire" four stars, I'm not saying it's flawless, or a masterpiece. I'm saying: Don't miss it.

If you're a movie fan, you'll want to see this flashy, beautifully designed -- for both the eyes and the ears -- film on a large screen, in the dark, with the collage-like soundtrack (Bollywood-influenced worldbeat and Clash-samping M.I.A. rap) throbbing and the images (Wong Kar-wai-style smeary slo-mo, Crayola-bright colors) pulsing.

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor are shown in a scene from 'Slumdog Millionaire.'

Photo by Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor are shown in a scene from "Slumdog Millionaire."

Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation ...

Rating: R for some violence, disturbing images and language

Length: 120 minutes

Released: December 5, 2008 Limited

Cast: Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Simon Beaufoy

More info and showtimes »

Even if you're not quite as moved as you think you ought to be by the almost fairytale "rags to rajah" saga of an impoverished underdog "slumdog" who achieves overnight fame (and a fortune in rupees) on India's version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,"

you'll still be awed by the film's visual and sonic density, which seems as much a mandate of the chaos endemic to teeming Mumbai as of the nonlinear storytelling strategy of British director Danny Boyle, aided by Loveleen Tandan, who is credited as "Co-Director (India)." In any case, this is the rare crowd-pleaser that earns its feel-good denouement as well as our respect.

Adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy from a novel by Vikas Swarup, "Slumdog Millionaire" opens in jail, where a young Muslim named Jamal (Dev Patel) is undergoing brutal interrogation by the Mumbai police, who don't believe this chaiwalla (tea server) from the slums could have achieved success on India's hottest game show without cheating.

As Jamal tries to explain himself, his epic/intimate story is told through flashbacks, beginning with his childhood in one of the largest and most notorious slums in what was then called Bombay.

The structure is ingenious, as different "Millionaire" questions inspire various memories in Jamal; the unlikelihood that every question our hero is asked on the game show actually would relate to his past lets us know that "Slumdog" will be more concerned with thrilling storytelling than with so-called realism. (References to "The Three Musketeers" reinforce this idea.)

Influenced by Charles Dickens' sagas of childhood exploitation and deprivation as well as by Indian pop romance and melodrama (the movie pays delightful homage to Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan), the film's early sequences are vibrant and entertaining, as gentle young Jamal (played as a little boy by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar), his older, bolder brother, Salim, and a neighbor girl named Latika attempt to live by their wits after Hindu extremists burn them out of their homes. (Overhead shots of the slum roofs are as colorful and stratling as an abstract expressionist canvas.)

The childhood episodes are alternately comic (the boys hang out at the Taj Mahal) and harrowing (the children are recruited by an evil Fagin figure). The movie loses some of its power, however, when the children become adults, and the focus shifts to the loyal Jamal's lifelong love for the now beautiful Latika (Freida Pinto), whose gangster lover employs Salim (Madhur Mittal) as an enforcer.

Boyle -- whose best-known films include "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later" -- shot most of the film on location (which is why he recruited the help of Indian cinema veteran Tandan). The frenzied and unpredictable conditions of the shoot help explain why the editing is quick and the pace fast: The crew had to work swiftly at each site, before a location became impossible to manage, a schedule that wasn't conducive to lengthy multiple takes. Sadly, filming in some of these locations now would be impossible: Among the targets of the recent Mumbai terror attacks was the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the train station where the movie's Bollywood-inspired end-credits dance number takes place, and where dozens of people were killed Nov. 26.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

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