It’s funny how Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, in all its languages and cultures, gets filmmakers’ juices flowing. In the climax of Patrice Leconte’s My Best Friend, the “phone a friend” lifeline provides the forum for a heart-tugging reconciliation, made even sweeter by the ensuing shower of money. Danny Boyle’s galvanic coming-of-age saga Slumdog Millionaire uses the Hindi version of the show as the film’s spine, its means of recounting a Muslim orphan’s harrowing life in thousand-, ten-thousand-, and finally million-rupee junctures. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy borrows the premise (but few specifics) from the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup: Jamal (Dev Patel) wins millions and is promptly arrested on the grounds that an ignorant “slumdog” who serves chai to better-paid workers must somehow have cheated. Via flashbacks, Jamal explains to a cop (Irrfan Khan) how he knew the correct answers—how each question, as if by fate, tied in with some major event in his tragic life. But can even the god of fate triumph over the evil embodied by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Boyle is a smashing director—literally. He smash-cuts from shot to shot, scene to scene, chase to chase. He leaps back and forth between Jamal in the game-show hot seat and Jamal in a different kind of hot seat, getting jolts of electricity from a fat interrogator: “Final answer?” Zap, slap, dunk. “Final answer.” He’s a sensationalist, and I don’t completely trust him. Slickness and brutality are too inextricable. But at what he does, he’s a wizard; he’s the best there is at a kind of hyperkinetic, every-shot-a-grabber filmmaking that many attempt and few bring off. Even with all the blurry-focus tricks and canted angles, the action is fluid, the momentum headlong. Slumdog Millionaire is his liveliest fusion of style and content since Trainspotting.
Like the hero of that movie, Jamal is always running for his life. When he’s little and his older brother Salim locks him in an outdoor latrine as his favorite Bollywood star arrives in their district, he tunnels through a pit of excrement and dashes—a mushy brown blob—for his hero’s autograph. He and his brother run from Hindis on an anti-Muslim rampage, then flee a despicable Fagin-like boss whose cruelty toward them is breathtaking. I get the feeling that when “Action!” is called on a Danny Boyle movie, the metronome is ticking, and the actors have to register emotion fast. But the child performers are enormously affecting; their eyes signal anguish while their bodies fly. As each flashback ends, there’s a corresponding game-show question posed by the condescending emcee (the splendidly smarmy Anil Kapoor). The man is the very devil, but Jamal has a goal that transcends filthy lucre: winning the love of Latika, a girl who escaped his village after her family was killed and whom he and his brother liberated from prostitution. Now, she’s kept by an abusive gangster.
In her mature incarnation, Latika is played by Freida Pinto and is impossibly model-gorgeous, and Slumdog Millionaire turns more floridly corny and movie-ish. But Boyle and his Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan have something up their sleeves: the allure of the Bollywood universe. Colors pop out, music swells, morally ambivalent characters atone, and bad guys get theirs. The movie even ends with a big production number, a song and dance featuring the grown-up leads along with the kids who played them in earlier scenes. The subtext is ingenious: The mocking god of the tacky-grandiose Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has been kicked offscreen by the romantic god of Bollywood. The whole thing is irresistibly preposterous.
The Disney animated blockbuster-to-be Bolt is a delightful family movie, and if I’d seen it as a kid I would have been deeply traumatized. Back then, kid flicks weren’t meta; they didn’t riff on the discontinuity between real life and the artificial universe of TV and movies. They were plain-old fairy tales, parables of self-reliance. Bolt opens with a little girl, Penny, choosing an adorable doggy at a pet shop. So far so standard. (If you don’t want to know the basic premise, stop here.) Then it jumps to the next, fantastical level: It’s five years later, Penny’s scientist father is in the clutches of a megalomaniac, and Bolt is equipped with superpowers to protect his daughter. Cue a rollicking chase and the pulverization of bad guys. Just as we’ve absorbed all this, we’re on to level three. We’ve been watching the filming of a TV show, except (and here’s the final level) Bolt has been kept in a state of ignorance. He does not know he’s not a super-dog and that Penny is never in peril. Yes, this is The Truman Show with talking animals.
Bolt finally settles into an old-fashioned tale of a hero and his sidekicks—here, an emaciated, mouthy female alley cat and an obese, celebrity-worshipping hamster in a clear-plastic exercise ball—on a cross-country journey, with a climax that would comfortably fit into Lassie. But the central question is up to the minute: Will Bolt find out he’s an ordinary (talking) dog and survive that knowledge and discover his essential dogginess? It’s a fascinating trend: state-of-the-art Hollywood fantasies pegged to the notion that state-of-the-art Hollywood fantasies are our chief impediment to being “real.”
I could cavil about the abundance of Hollywood in-jokes (pigeons who are hustling screenwriters) and the cat’s heavy-handed one-liners (“Listen, Cujo … ”). But as Bolt, John Travolta is inspired: His voice still cracks like an adolescent’s, and he has the perfect dopey innocence. Susie Essman gives the cat’s reflexive bitchiness some depth (she’s a hurtin’ hellion), and I have to admit that until I heard Miley Cyrus’s Penny, I underestimated the throaty expressiveness of her voice. Mark Walton (an actual cartoon-voice guy and not a marquee name!) makes the fat hamster (who might have been an irritant) sing. In theaters equipped to show the film in 3-D, your tickets come with glasses, through which the animals look even more huggable.
The gifted cinematographer Ellen Kuras spent decades tracking the Phrasavaths, a large Laotian family that fled the devastated country after the secret U.S. war, after the father was imprisoned for advising Americans on where to drop thousands of bombs. The Betrayal moves among time periods and countries, from the Laotian countryside to the alien dangerous tenements of Brooklyn. The damage to the family seems too deep to heal, yet the film is lyrical, expansive, unbearably beautiful, with a melting violin score by Howard Shore. The bitterness has an epic scale—bottomless, borderless, universal.
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan.
Fox Searchlight. R.
Directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams.
Walt Disney Pictures. PG.
Directed by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath.
Pandinlao Films. NR.