Slums to the Studio

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Mumbai Provides Backdrop for Rags-to-Riches Fairytale,'Slumdog Millionaire'

An offbeat but exciting addition to the holiday movie lineup, “Slumdog Millionaire” follows an impoverished Indian teen from the slums of Mumbai to the TV studio as he competes on a game show to impress his love. British director Danny Boyle has often been noted for his kinetic films such as “Trainspotting,” Shallow Grave,” “28 Days Later” and “Millions.” “Slumdog Millionaire” has a similar vibrant energy propelling it, aided by fast-paced editing, breathtaking cinematography and a lively soundtrack.

There have been a number of mixtures between Indian and Western cinema in recent years, such as “Monsoon Wedding” and “Bride and Prejudice,” for example. “Slumdog Millionaire” goes even further and creates a new fusion between East and West. Whereas Bollywood movies are generally shot on stage in a controlled environment, the Anglo-American producers of “Slumdog Millionaire” risked shooting on location in the uncontrolled streets of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), even its slums.

In a way, the result looks more authentic than Bollywood. The audience sees vivid examples of the stark poverty that still permeates India and Mumbai in particular. For example, the very poor live on the streets or in shanties, conducting their everyday activities such as washing and bodily functions wherever they can. At the same time, sizable middle and upper classes grow more and more prosperous following India’s booming economy, continuing the disparate centuries-old gap between rich and poor.

In the film, 7-year-old Jamal and his older brother Salim are orphaned when their mother is murdered by an anti-Muslim mob. On their own, they struggle to survive by their wits. They pick up a female friend, Latika, another orphan, and the trio gets entangled with the underworld that seeks to exploit them.

The story actually opens with 20-year-old Jamal (played by British actor Dev Patel) on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” where he’s miraculously managed to answer question after question to win millions of rupees. His real intention though is to woo Latika (Freida Pinto), an ardent fan of the show. But when filming breaks for the night, police arrest Jamal, suspecting the street kid of cheating. Subsequent flashbacks show his current life working as a chaiwalla tea deliverer to call-center workers — as well as his past life showing how he got to the present, and how he managed to answer the questions based on the different chapters of his life. What remains is the question of what Jamal will do now that his fortunes have turned, though the story doesn’t hide the fact that it’s meant to have a tidy ending.

So despite the squalor of Jamal’s upbringing, don’t expect this film to resemble the austere style of Indian director Satyajit Ray, inspired by Italian neorealism. Although the details of “Slumdog Millionaire” appear authentic, the package is very slick — vintage Danny Boyle. That’s all very entertaining, but the atmosphere isn’t quite the real India of Satyajit Ray, not that this rags-to-riches fairytale is ever meant to be.

Slumdog Millionaire (English and Hindi with subtitles; 121 min.) AFI Silver Theatre Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

French Family Dysfunction

Since it is the holiday season, it’s not hard to find a movie with the “home for the holidays” theme, even if it is an art house one with French dialogue. And “A Christmas Tale” is a splendid work by esteemed French director Arnaud Desplechin (“Kings and Queen,” “Esther Kahn,” “My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument”) that skillfully brings out the familial follies of the season.

Actually, on the surface, the plot does not seem that different from many Hollywood movies: Children, bringing home significant others, return to a dysfunctional family for Christmas. There are laughs. There are arguments. There’s definitely drama, including an old standby or two: a black sheep in the family, a terminal disease, etc.

In this French version, the matriarch is Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who learn that she has leukemia, which killed their second son Joseph. A bone marrow transplant is her only chance, but it could also kill her. Their son Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the black sheep, had been banished from the family five years ago by his sister Élizabeth (Anne Consigny of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). But he shows up unexpectedly for Christmas, with Jewish girlfriend Fauna (Emmanuelle Devos) in tow, after being invited by Élizabeth’s sensitive son Paul (Emile Berling). As might be expected, the sparks fly.

So what makes “A Christmas Tale” special? For one thing, the ensemble acting is spectacular. The French all-star cast includes Deneuve, Amalric and Devos, as well as Hippolyte Girardot, and Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve’s real-life daughter playing Junon’s daughter-in-law). Incidentally, all of the former except Mastroianni were in “Kings and Queen.”

Of course, an excellent ensemble performance is going to require a great script that’s well structured with juicy dialogue, which the film has. The assured editing helps to balance out all the chaos, and finally Desplechin’s direction is spot-on, bringing out emotions, performances and scenes that feel authentic.

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) (French with subtitles; 150 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

Guarded Love

In “I’ve Loved You So Long,” English actress Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” “Gosford Park,” “Random Hearts”) returns to American screens, this time speaking French. American audiences may not be accustomed to that save for her small supporting role in this summer’s release “Tell No One.” No worries though — her exquisite performance has impressed plenty of viewers, raising Oscar buzz for a Best Actress nod.

Writer-director Philippe Claudel, a veteran novelist, makes his directorial debut with this original screenplay. After serving 15 years for murdering her 6-year-old son, Juliette (Scott Thomas) is released from prison. Her estranged sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein of “Time Regained” and “Metroland”) comes to pick her up, offering her a place to stay in Léa’s family’s home. Léa’s husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is understandably uneasy, with two young adopted Vietnamese daughters in the house. Also in the house is Luc’s father Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who can’t speak after a stroke.

It takes time for Juliette and Léa to get to know each other and for Juliette to adjust to life outside prison. During the trial, she said nothing in her defense, and she doesn’t say much now. Placed in a job as a medical secretary, she’s criticized by her colleagues for being aloof.

Gradually, Juliette warms up to her new family and their friends, even exploring a love interest with Léa’s colleague Michel (Laurent Grévill). Because Juliette is the center of the movie, Scott Thomas is in almost every scene, a duty that she holds up well. She effectively displays how Juliette is cool and distant initially before thawing over time. Rather than an over-the-top portrayal, Scott Thomas’s acting works in a quiet, subtle manner, and this finely nuanced character study can be steadily appreciated by the patient viewer.

I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) (French with subtitles; 117 min.) AMC Loews Cineplex Shirlington The Avalon Theatre Cinema Arts Theatre

4 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.

Washington Jewish Film Festival The 19th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival returns Dec. 4 to 14, featuring 59 films (including shorts) from 10 countries playing in seven different venues. The opening night film will be the U.S. premiere of the Australian hit “Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger” with Toni Collette and Keisha Castle-Hughes. The closing night film will be the D.C. premiere of the award-winning French comedy “Let’s Dance.” Both screenings will be followed by parties at the Washington DCJCC. (800) 494-8497, www.wjff.org

National Gallery of Art On Dec. 7, Hungarian avant-garde artist Péter Forgács delivers a lecture explaining his work in film exploring the lives of ordinary Hungarians, followed by screenings on Dec. 7 and 13. Then from Dec. 19 to 28, “David Lean Restored” presents restored versions of lesser-known early work by the acclaimed British director (1908–91), celebrating his centennial. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film

Goethe-Institut Through Jan. 12, the series “Artists in Films” features biopics of famous artists. December’s selections have a musical slant: “Extracts From the Life of Beethoven” (Dec. 1), “Jagged Harmonies – Bach vs. Frederick II” (Dec. 8) and “Comedian Harmonists” (Dec. 15). (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm

Freer Gallery of Art “Roads to the Interior: Another Side of Japanese Cinema” continues through Dec. 14. Director Masahiro Kobayashi appears in person with his films “Bootleg Film,” “Bashing” and “Rebirth” (Dec. 12, 13 and 14). (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

 

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014