Another Movie Guy?: "Slumdog Millionaire," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies that’s difficult to adequately describe. The premise is silly, and does not compel one to rush to the theater. But we must never forget that the “what” of a movie is not nearly important as its “how.” A movie can be made about the most tedious subject possible, but in the hands of a gifted filmmaker, it can still be worthwhile. With that in mind, this story of a game show contestant is superior entertainment, and a genuine crowd-pleaser.

Despite my earlier misgivings, I’ll do my best to summarize. On the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Jamal (Dev Patel) is in the hot seat. Every question is answered correctly . Convinced that he is cheating, the host (Anil Kapoor, a big Bolloywood star) has Jamal tortured overnight.  The interrogator (Irfan Khan) demands to know how a poor kid could possibly know all answers, so Jamal goes through question after question, explaining the circumstances under which he ascertained these particular nuggets of knowledge. We see Jamal’s story in flashback, where we learn how he struggled to survive, and how he fell in love.

What makes the movie work is its restless energy. Boyle borrows the kind of camerawork that made City of God such a success – something is always moving, and the screen seems bursting with life. Even in the background, there are compelling things to watch. Another integral element is the likability of the movie’s hero. Jamal reminds me of a Dickens character – the sort of young man who quietly accepts the tragedies that befall him, and never gives up. Through intelligence and sheer force of will, Jamal will quickly gain your sympathy. All the acting feels so natural that you’ll quickly get wrapped up in what happens. Slumdog Millionaire uses its reliable story to give a fascinating snapshot of India. It juxtaposes poor and rich, ancient and modern, beggars and tourists. What unites everyone, of course, is their love of game shows.

It easy to be skeptical of the movie because game show contestants often have the most selfish of motives. They want a fast buck, and savor the attention of being under the spotlight. Jamal is not like them. For one thing, he seems indifferent to the money. And even as millions of people have their eyes on him, he only cares about one particular set. His motives help make the movie so thrilling, and its payoff so satisfying. This is one of the best of the year.

Here are other unusual thrillers that star adolescent males:

Better Luck Tomorrow. Four bright, Asian high school students can get away with murder – that’s the basic premise behind Justin Lin’s breakthrough. These guys see their academic success as “passports to freedom,” and freedom for them entails organized crime. Theft, narcotics, and cheating-for-profit are their MO. Ben (Parry Shen), the movie’s hero, still has time for a shitty part-time job, and fawns over Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung). It goes without saying that Ben’s lifestyle gets the best of him. What makes the movie remarkable is how adeptly it mixes clichés from other genres – the characters are convincing both as nerdy students and as criminal masterminds. The writers never make a misstep, and every plot development, no matter how dark, feels perfectly believable. The performances are all great – Asian actors are often relegated to secondary roles, and this talented group probably relished the opportunity to finally shine. Roger Fan is the most memorable as Daric, the kind of brainy sociopath who knows how to manipulate others. Justin Lin showed incredible promise in this movie, and it’s a shame that he’s only directed crap since.

Diva. This 1981 French movie has a fantastic MacGuffin. Jules (Frederic Andrei) is a young bike messenger who careens through the streets of Paris, struggling to get his deliveries on time. Amidst all this, Jules stops when he hears a stunning soprano (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) sing a beautiful aria. The messenger pauses to tape the song, not realizing that the soprano has famously never been recorded. The tape is worth more than Jules’ life, so everyone from the mob to the soprano herself pursue him. What follows is an improbably strange thriller. One famous sequence is when the police pursue Jules, and he takes his moped onto the metro. The unlikely chase owes a debt to The French Connection, yet remains one of the best I’ve seen. Honestly, it’s been a few years since I’ve last watched Diva. It’s difficult for me remember the details, but this short write-up provided enough motivation for me to move the movie to the top of my Netflix queue.

Brick. Rian Johnson’s debut is a triumph of style over substance. Here is a labyrinthine noir that’s set in a California high school. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a loner who knows the score. He only holds a candle for his ex-girlfriend Emily, so when she turns up dead, Brendan takes it upon himself to find her killer. What follows is a series of double-crosses so dense that most viewers will require a second viewing to make sense of it all. Everyone speaks in Chandler-esque dialog (a favorite line is, “Still picking your teeth with freshmen?”). Needless to say, noir aficionados will recognize familiar archetypes like the muscle, the effete kingpin, and the femme fatale. High concept movies like this prevent the audience from relating to the characters. I was never emotionally invested in the movie, but I was surprised by its audacity. Unlike Better Luck Tomorrow, there is no suggestion that Brendan et. al. could ever possibly exist. Brick is nothing but a style exercise, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find one more entertaining.

That’s it for ths week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I come out and run for office.