There's a curse among Oscar winners, one that could easily be summed up with the old phrase, "you had to be there." This year, director Danny Boyle is hitting the awards circuit (well, maybe) with his true-story drama 127 Hours, but two years ago, he was the year's big winner with the crowd-pleasing romance Slumdog Millionaire. Even then, it was easy to find detractors of the film's powerful sentimentality, which is not only a tricky sell to jaded audiences, but also the kind of emotional note that can easily turn sour with age. I admit, even I resisted revisiting the film, despite my love for it when it was in theaters, because in some ways, I was concerned that the moment had passed.
Based on the book Q & A by Vikas Swarup, the film focuses on Jamal Malik (played, for the most part, by Dev Patel), a surprise success on India's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" who is brought in for police questioning (and harassment) after getting all but the final, yet-to-be-asked question right despite having no formal education. The film interweaves flashbacks to Jamal's rough-and-tumble childhood and his tumultuous relationship with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and more importantly, his eternal fight to find happiness with his dream girl Latika (Frieda Pinto) with his correct-answer streak on the game show and the interrogation with the local police chief (Irrfan Khan).
Boyle has always been a stylish, clever director, but none of his previous efforts, as dazzling as many of them are, suggest a film with quite the emotional saturation of Slumdog Millionaire. As a nod to the style of many Indian films, Boyle turns up the film's sincerity like one twists the tint knob on a television, letting Jamal's deeply felt, powerful affection for Latika bleed out of the lines and wash over each amped-up frame. Cold-hearted or reserved audiences may choke on how earnest the movie's tone is, but that same naivete prevents Slumdog from feeling like another dose of the irksome, manufactured sentimentality that turned audiences on Crash. Boyle also has an immensely talented cast on his side to deliver everything as endearingly and convincingly as possible, including both the the central cast, the younger set of child actors (Ayush Khedekar, Azharuddin Ismail, and Rubina Ali) who portray Jamal, Salim, and Latika, and Anil Kapoor as "Millionaire" India's toothy host.
The film's message of love is entwined with another potentially hard-to-swallow concept: that of fate, or more precisely, destiny. "It is written" is a phrase used throughout the film, and viewers may instinctively point to that kind of line as a cop-out that magically solves any and all problems. It's a reading that undersells the concept behind "written" as less than a form of divine intervention. Although I only have a second-hand understanding of the themes at play, the idea is not that the puzzle is already solved, but that Jamal's chance to put it together has arrived. Everything in Jamal's life has lead to his appearance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", and to know that he knows he is currently living into a perfect storm of fate and coincidence laid out just for him is a potent and compelling concept that lends weight to all of Patel's blind-sided expressions, and turns a story comprised of elements that could be called "depressing" into a tale of meaningful personal fulfillment. This is Jamal's moment to validate his life, his cosmic turn at bat, and he knows it.
As much now as it was then, Slumdog Millionaire hopes to push through people's jaded exteriors and pluck the deepest chords of emotional triumph. There are a few nitpicks, such as the fact that most of Jamal's answers are learned in the same order as the questions asked game show, but, they're either minor, serve a purpose, or both. Those who are not romantics at heart will probably resist and even lash out against the film as "treacle" or "sap", drowning in its own emotions. I resisted watching 127 Hours at first, because it features many of the same crew as Slumdog Millionaire, and I worried that Boyle's tone would carry over to Aron Ralston's story of survival. Now that I've seen both, I'm pleased to see that Slumdog Millionaire remains a singular marriage of tone and material, and that Slumdog holds up with both a bit of hindsight and the weight of a statue on its shoulders.
When I selected this DVD from the screener pool, I was sure it was a re-packaged edition designed to tie in with 127 Hours -- the same disc inside, yeah, but a new cover or slipcover, to try and trick people into buying it again. What I recieved was, in fact, a DVD with no changes. The copy was mysteriously missing the plastic wrap and security strip, but unless there was a sticker on the plastic, there are absolutely no differences whatsoever between the copy I have here and a copy that's been on shelves since 2009, except maybe the fact that this copy came in an ECO-BOX, and that there is no insert included.
The Video and Audio
Slumdog Millionaire is a smorgasboard of stylish cinematography that ranges from a colorful dance number to inky-black nighttime sequences in the pouring rain. This 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer deftly handles all of these issues without a problem in the world. While maybe a night time shot or two appeared brigther than it should, this disc not only accurately represents the movie as I saw it in theatres, but also manages to do so without mosquito noise, artifacts, or edge enhancement. An impressive SD-DVD transfer.
Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is impressive right out of the gate thanks to A.R. Rahman's lively score, which illustrates the bassy punch most of the movie is going to exhibit. A religious riot rages from all angles. Rain on metal container as heard fromt he inside has that distinct, hollow echo. Even the familiar, extra-dramatic notes of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" music feel vibrant and alive. This is a great track to compliment great video. Note that the film is mostly in English but is also in Hindi. These sections are accompanied by subtitles that have been visually integrated into the cinematography and appear as part of the film (as they did in theaters). Maybe this is more of a "video" note, but I was pleased to see that the subtitles are still perfectly readable when reduced in size (something I worried about in the theater). English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Since I agree with Thomas Spurlin's write-up of the extras that can be found right here, I won't be repeating the same sentiments. Trailers for Notorious, S. Darko, Bottle Shock, and The Other End of the Line play before the main menu. No full trailer for Slumdog Millionaire is included.
While this particular "edition" -- if there is one at all -- of Slumdog Millionaire is a little fuzzy, it is rewarding to revisit the movie a couple of years later, in comparison to Boyle's latest film. Unlike some "flavor of the week" Oscar winners, Slumdog Millionaire holds up as a tale of romantic perserverance, and viewers who missed the film during its initial run should not hesitate to catch up with this highly recommended DVD.
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