After winning eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, the Slumdog Millionaire backlash may now officially begin. But while Danny Boyle´s film isn´t the best movie of the year, as the Academy´s choices rarely are, it´s almost immune to harsh criticism: this is a stylized, energetic, crowd-pleasing picture that almost everyone can enjoy, and provides that rare rags-to-riches hero that everyone can root for. Despite some qualms about the authenticity of its portrayal of life in Indian slums, the India we see in Slumdog is certainly a different one than we´ve seen before in Hollywood or Bollywood.
At the start of the picture, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is being brutally interrogated at the hands of a police inspector (Irfan Khan). His crime? Jamal is a contestant on India´s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and the powers that be (including host Prem Kumar, played by Anil Kapoor) decide he´s gotten too far towards winning a grand prize of 20,000,000 rupees – this ‘slumdog´ (a phrase invented by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy) must be cheating. So in question-by-question flashbacks that cover how Jamal first learned the answers, we get an overview of his life; this narrative device is wholly original and nothing short of brilliant, giving a new spin to Hollywood´s oldest storytelling cliché.
The first half of the film, decidedly Dickensian in tone, covers how a young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) become orphans on the streets of Mumbai and learn to fend for themselves. They fall under the spell of a Fagin-like vulture who controls a group of child beggars before learning to make money for themselves as tour guides in the city´s tourist district. All the while, young Lakita (Rubiana Ali) drifts in and out of the picture, endearing herself to Jamal while Salim feels she´s coming in-between the two brothers. The scenes involving the kids are breathless and dazzling, and the best thing the film has to offer.
As the children grow up, Jamal gets a job serving tea to workers in a call center while Salim and Lakita, well, I won´t ruin the surprises Slumdog has in store. But after the wonderful first half of the film, I was slightly disappointed at the way the story worked itself out, as we see Mumbai grow into a bustling city and our beloved characters grow into rather black-and-white characterizations. Key events in the characters´ lives sometimes seem to have been given an unfortunately cursory glance. In any event, I was glad that the film came into its own in telling Jamal´s story, the final question of will he or won´t he win becoming largely irrelevant.
Minor complaint: the relative ease of the final 20,000,000 rupee question, which, going by the film´s logic, even a schoolboy should know. But Slumdog Millionaire operates more often on an emotional scale rather than a logical one, and while the question is too easy, it brings the film full-circle.
Be sure to stick through the credits to catch Oscar-winning song ‘Jai Ho´, which was originally written for another film, energetically performed by the young cast.
Director Boyle, famed for more cult fare like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, keeps everything moving at a breathless – sometimes too breathless – pace, and together with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle creates a vivid India like we´ve never seen before, beautiful and sinister at the same time.
Note: roughly one-third of the film is in Hindi (the flashback scenes), subtitled in Czech in Prague screens.
A rather uneventful costume melodrama, Saul Dibb´s The Duchess evokes a nice 17th Century feel but fails to evoke much on the dramatic scale, despite giving it the old college try. The film won an Oscar for Costume Design, and is admittedly terrific to look at – not just for the lavish costumes and sets, but also Gyula Pados´ lingering, occasionally beautiful cinematography. But campy melodrama, complete with occasional histrionics, and a horror-movie soundtrack blend uneasily with the refined, serious tone director Dibb drowns everything else in.
The Duchess takes a look, or rather, a glimpse, at the life of Georgiana Cavendish (played by Keira Knightley), who became Duchess of Devonshire when she married Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) in the late 18th Century. A noted beauty and socialite, the Duchess looks the other way at her husband´s infidelities, raising a daughter he sired out of wedlock and giving him three of their own. Her inability to give birth to a son causes some marital strife, which is magnified when the Duke begins an affair with Georgina´s friend Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), who continues to live with the two. And the Duchess retains feelings for her childhood friend and true love, future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).
And that´s, well, pretty much it for The Duchess, whose life seems rather tame compared to that of Anne Boleyn, her story told recently in the similar, more overwrought The Other Boleyn Girl. A screenplay credited to the director, Jeffrey Hatcher, and Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen mines each detail for melodrama, including a bizarre party scene where an apparently drunk Georgina catches her hair on fire (“Please extinguish the Duchess´ hair,” Fiennes brilliantly deadpans). But Dibb and his production crew seem to be going for a more refined Barry Lyndon-like flavor, which doesn´t mix all that well with the script.
Knightley looks fabulous throughout, her fashion changing from scene-to-scene, but seems unable to rise to the emotional task the director asks of her; in a key climatic scene, she inexplicably dons Marty Feldman-esque bug eyes. Fiennes, on the other hand, is terrific in a mannered, almost robotic portrayal of the Duke.
Take a moment to consider the cast of The Pink Panther 2, a sequel to the 2006 film that hoped to revive interest in the Pink Panther series, long-dormant after the death of star Peter Sellers, who defined the role of bumbling inspector Jacques Clouseau. After failed attempts to restart the franchise with David Niven and Roberto Begnini, the 2006 film turned to Steve Martin, and made some money, making this sequel inevitable. Here, Martin is joined by Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Yuki Matsuzaki, and Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai, with support from John Cleese and Lily Tomlin, and Jeremy Irons and French icon Johnny Hallyday as potential villains. What a good movie this cast could have made.
The Pink Panther 2, of course, is not that movie. And given a rather quick demise at the US box office, the series may well return to dormancy. Not that the film is entirely bad; it´s an improvement over the much-despised 2006 movie, with some talented players and clever dialogue, and while the slapstick almost never works it´s less prevalent than in the previous film. It´s also rather inoffensive, and while the first film may have desensitized me to this, I didn´t much mind what they were now doing to this once-brilliant series.
Plot: a mysterious thief who identifies himself as ‘Tornado´ has stolen the Magna Carta, the Shroud of Turin, and other priceless artifacts. A “dream-team” of international detectives is assembled, headed by Clouseau, which includes Kenji (Yuki Matsuzaki), Pepperidge (Alfred Molina), and Vicenzo (Andy Garcia). They´re aided by Clouseau´s partner Ponton (Jean Reno), and potential love interests Nicole (Emily Mortimer) and Sonia (Aishwarya Rai). France´s Pink Panther diamond is also snatched, and the dream team tracks Tornado to Italy and fence Avellaneda (Jeremy Irons). There´s a twist or two and things are wrapped up more neatly than one might expect. Only Hallyday is given nothing to do.
The film opens with some awful slapstick, John Cleese violently banging his head against a bathroom sink and Martin flying down Paris streets, and I braced for the worst. Thankfully, the rest of the film tones it down a bit, and the climatic set piece almost works. I found a few chuckles in Martin´s line deliveries (“And what is this key piece of evidence? Ah, a key!”), and it was nice to watch all these actors together on screen, especially Garcia, who has some fun interplay with Martin. But you´ll forgive me for wishing I was watching Andy Garcia and Steve Martin, instead of these thick-accented Italian and French stereotypes.
And: also opening this week is the Slovak documentary Babička (Granny; showtimes), from director Zuzana Piussi. The doc follows a 55-year-old grandmother who, fed up with men her own age, takes out a personal advert seeking men aged 17-30 and receives an overwhelming response. You can catch Babička with English subtitles at Kino Světozor from March 1st.