Friday, February 5, 2010

Slumdog Millionaire

Year 2, Day 35 - 2/4/10 - Movie #400

BEFORE: Yeah, I've been saving this one, for personal reasons. I'm putting movie and stage musicals about fame on hold for tonight's examination of fame resulting from a TV game show. Watching last year's Oscar winner in the same week they announced this year's nominations...

THE PLOT: A Mumbai teen who grew up in the slums becomes a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"

AFTER: I usually HATE movies that aren't arranged in a purely linear fashion - as it's often a sign of a weak script - but there are exceptions, like "Memento", and movies about time travel. This is one of the rare cases where a fragmented narrative works, as each flashback enhances the action in the present. Actually, the movie bounces between three time periods - Jamal's back-story, the tense moments on the game-show set, and the police interrogation which follows, after Jamal is accused of cheating. So there are flashbacks within flashbacks, but the three narratives each move forward linearly, and unlike parallel lines, are destined to converge at the end of the film.

It's an incredible idea, to see clips of young boys growing up in the Mumbai slums (Jamal and his brother Salim are each played by three different actors, and they did a good job of casting believable look-alikes) and in the back-story, we see occurences which enable the teen Jamal to answer the game-show's multiple choice questions correctly. Of course it's an incredible coincidence that nearly all of the questions relate to his childhood trials - he knows which American figure is on the $100 bill, but wouldn't have known who's on India's 1000-rupee note, for example. But how does anybody know anything, or remember seemingly meaningless bits of trivial trivia?

This is another time where I find myself positioned squarely within a film's target audience. In grade school I learned that I had an affinity for standardized tests, and in high-school I managed to ace tests like the PSAT. I may not have been class valedictorian or the kid with the best grades, but I know for a fact I was one of the best damn test-takers that school has seen. Since then I've been an avid fan of Jeopardy! and the Millionaire show (which ABC managed to over-play a few years back) and I've passed the written test for each show 3 times. I've never made it past the 2nd-stage interview, which involves a face-to-face meeting with a coordinating producer, so either I'm not TV-pretty or I have no personality - anyway, I'll keep trying...winning big on a game show is definitely on my Bucket List.

Also, I play on a bi-weekly trivia team here in the Big Apple, and unlike Jamal, I can't always explain HOW I know what I know...which is OK, because things that can't be explained sometimes resemble magic. Bottom line, I'm used to answering quiz questions - we prefer "quiz" over "trivia", because the latter implies lack of importance, and really, all knowledge is important, and nothing is trivial.

What the movie gets EXACTLY right is the fact that a quiz show is a test of a contestant's long-term memory. Sure, you can put world capitals on flash cards or memorize the order of U.S. Vice-presidents the night before the test, but that's only putting things in your short-term memory. You have to care about a piece of information before your brain places it in long-term, accessible storage, and linking bits of information to important people and events in your life is an excellent way to do that. If that fails, you can usually use logic to eliminate one or two of the more unlikely answers, and also use what you know about the person who wrote the clue. And if all that fails, well, I've found that it helps to be a really good guesser.

If I have any complaints about this film, the backstory becomes a little repetitive, as Jamal is repeatedly losing track of Latika, his love interest, and always trying to track her down. Finding her again and again is increasingly unlikely, given the population of India. Also, one could say that the love story is a little forced and contrived - it just didn't compare to the tense moments in the police station or on the game-show set for me.

(At one point, Jamal makes the mistake of saying "I know the answer's not A" just before using a 50/50 lifeline - OF COURSE the computer's going to remove A as one of the choices - he just threw away a lifeline! Dude, that's as bad as saying what you think the answer is before you poll the audience - you can very easily skew the audience's opinion that way, making the lifeline effectively useless.)

But even if I remove a point for each of these offenses, the film still nets a very, very respectable score.

RATING: 8 out of 10 Final Answers

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