In the blink of an eye, or so it seemed, 'Slumdog Millionaire' escaped a DOA, straight-to-DVD fate to become first a critics' darling, then a national obsession. Cinderella herself couldn't have dreamed up a more unlikely fairy tale, capped by a Best Picture happy ending even her evil stepmother would have cheered. Not getting swept up in the 'Slumdog' juggernaut was pretty tough during awards season, and my expectations ran sky-high when I saw Danny Boyle's feel-good film in the theater last winter. While I enjoyed the movie, I must admit to feeling a little bewildered about all the fuss. I thought the premise was clever, the execution solid, the cast attractive, and I liked the international flavor tinged with Bollywood kitsch. All in all, it was a fulfilling cinematic experience. But Best Picture? Not so fast, Oscar.
Then again, with such a weak field of nominees, why not reward this uplifting, inspirational little-engine-that-could that guilelessly chugged its way into the world's heart? Crowning 'Slumdog' top dog was a popular choice, and the Academy's fawning made me all the more eager to see the film again on Blu-ray, this time with a more critical eye. Well, the disc has been viewed, and I'm happy to report 'Slumdog' hasn't lost its bark or its bite on home video. While Boyle's warm-hearted study of two orphaned brothers and the girl who comes between them is still far from perfect, it remains a cohesive, involving, and beautifully realized portrait of devotion, destiny, and the tenuous ties that bind.
Imagine for a moment appearing on a high-profile, big-money quiz show and all the random questions put to you somehow relate to your own personal experiences. That's the amazing situation in which Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) finds himself when he becomes a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Yet as he climbs the ladder of success and his potential paycheck balloons, the show's producers find it unfathomable that a poor, uneducated 18-year-old from the slums of Mumbai could possibly know the answers to such a diverse set of trivia questions. Fearing a potential scandal, they have Jamal arrested and subjected to a torturous interrogation to determine whether he's cheating.
The interview sparks flashbacks that take us inside Jamal's difficult youth. He and his older brother, Salim, grow up in unimaginable poverty, and their mother's tragic death during a Muslim uprising forces them to abandon school and live on the street, foraging for food and cash, and outwitting the adults who try to exploit them. Money and the desire to be a big shot motivate the tough, cynical Salim, and his hard-knocks existence leads him down a dangerous path, while Jamal somehow retains his faith and ideals. Jamal is no saint either, but he hopes to be a guardian angel to Latika, a young girl he and Salim rescued and befriended when they were kids. Yet like precious grains of sand, Latika keeps slipping through Jamal's fingers, and when she becomes involved with a ruthless gangster, he knows he must do something drastic to save her.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy ('The Full Monty,' 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day') packs many elements into his tightly constructed script – violence, betrayal, unrequited love, crime, abuse, intolerance, sacrifice – but the story's focus never becomes blurred, and the fascinating Indian culture provides such a vivid backdrop, it's impossible not to let the mystical world Boyle creates carry us away. With typical gusto, the director immerses us in Mumbai's unspeakable poverty, painting a brutal picture of a destitute people. He also liberally employs indigenous Hindi dialogue during the early sequences, which adds further authenticity. Although Boyle embraces India's grimy and deeply disturbing underbelly, he highlights the country's mystical beauty and seething, indomitable spirit with equal passion. From the Taj Mahal's splendor to Jamal emerging from a shithole drenched in dung, 'Slumdog' is a beautiful film, and Boyle takes great pains to properly salute his subject.
Realistic elements aside, 'Slumdog' is still a romanticized fable, and the warm and fuzzy feelings the movie evokes emanate from the Hollywood conventions in which it is steeped. The unknown cast makes it easy to invest ourselves in the gimmicky plot, and Boyle and Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan wring wonderfully natural performances from their stable of child actors. As the grown-up Jamal, Patel's wide-eyed, gangly appearance makes him an unlikely but totally engaging hero, and his confident portrayal holds the film together. Madhur Mittal projects the appropriate bad-boy swagger as the brooding Salim, while the drop-dead gorgeous Freida Pinto radiates both devastating glamour and irresistible vulnerability as the mature Latika.
'Slumdog,' of course, is not without flaws. The rules of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? are conveniently fudged for dramatic purposes (which will stick in the craw of the show's fans), pacing drags at times, and Jamal's anonymity at the film's end is difficult to swallow considering the nation's obsession with celebrity. But these are minor quibbles. Though this particular passage to India may not be as elegant and refined as David Lean's 1984 epic, Boyle's tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and faithfulness of the human heart gets under the country's skin like no commercial film before it.
Sometimes the world just needs a fairy tale, and the often stirring, wholly uplifting 'Slumdog Millionaire' satisfies that craving. It's the right film at the right time, and as such, deserves all the praise heaped upon it.
Danny Boyle employed a number of different camera types and film stocks when shooting 'Slumdog Millionaire,' making Fox's task of producing a cohesive transfer somewhat challenging. But this 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC effort for the most part accurately reflects his cinematic intentions, while providing an image that's always pleasing and often stunning. At their best, various shots flaunt all the breathtaking clarity, enhanced depth of field, and vibrant color that distinguish the finest HD transfers. Beads of sweat, downy facial hairs, and clothing textures are all superbly rendered, colors possess lovely saturation, and contrast is pushed, so we get several palpable moments of 3-D pop. (If you've never been to the Taj Mahal, you'll feel as if you have after watching this film.) But depending on Boyle's camera choices, many crisp scenes also contain shots that exhibit plenty of grain, and the effect can be a bit jarring. Everything, though, remains true to Boyle's vision, which walks a fine line between gritty realism and lush romanticism, and honors both approaches well.
Black levels are quite strong, and nocturnal scenes possess great amounts of detail. Whites, though, tend to run hot, and the high contrast forces a few instances of blooming. A smattering of video noise creeps in from time to time, and there's some break-up of fine details in long shots, but neither deficiency detracts from the overall quality of this transfer. Not a single nick or scratch mucks up the image, and no edge sharpening, DNR, or other digital tinkering alters the original look of this film. This is really a terrific presentation, one that thrusts us into the action and keeps us on a tether throughout. Whether you're one of the film's diehard devotees or preparing for your first viewing, this top-notch effort is sure to dazzle your senses.
I never thought I would put reference quality audio and 'Slumdog Millionaire' in the same sentence, but this incredibly immersive, in-your-face (or should I say in-your-ears?) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround track gives me no choice. Yes, the sound is that good. From the movie's opening moments, the sonic power of this active mix hits you like a sledgehammer, and it took me a few minutes of feverish volume tweaking before I found a comfortable level. There's no denying the track is loud, but its subtleties still shine through. The surrounds are almost constantly in use, providing vital ambiance that really hurls us into the teeming atmosphere of crowds, car horns, and street noise that defines the Mumbai slums. Dynamic range is superb, and effects are so distinct they often had me jumping as if I was watching a horror movie. Airplanes and helicopters flying overhead supply notable rumbles, and there's a faint undercurrent of bass throughout the film that lends the track marvelous depth.
Seamless pans heighten the realism, and dialogue is nicely integrated into the mix. Thick accents make some of the lines unintelligible, but on the whole, conversations are clear. A.R. Rahman's music score enjoys fine presence and fidelity as it makes full use of the expansive sound field, and the rousing Bollywood number that closes the film pumps out an enveloping stream of joyful tones.
This is a track that will really show off your audio equipment, and make this fine motion picture more immediate, involving, and exciting. Reference quality, indeed.
'Slumdog Millionaire' comes packed with a decent spate of supplements that both look at the making of this popular film and honor the people and culture of India.
A favorite of critics and audiences alike, 'Slumdog Millionaire' will now also thrill home theater enthusiasts with its impressive video transfer and reference quality audio. The reigning Best Picture winner injects viewers with a heady feel-good rush, thanks to its irresistible blend of romance, melodrama, and action. A solid sampling of supplements also highlights this top-quality Blu-ray disc, which earns an enthusiastic, across-the-board recommendation.
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