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Slumdog Millionaire (Best Picture, 2008)

Is it just me or is this a movie retelling of that book THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY?  Both use the premise of a trivia quiz of some sort and tell the story in multiple timelines.  The first timeline is the quiz or the game for which answers are needed, and the second is the experiences of the participants that show how said participants know the answers to questions that should be beyond their knowledge. In SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE there’s a third timeline in which the main character is subjected to “enhanced interrogation” by the police to explain how he knows the answers to questions that should have been beyond him.  Obviously the two stories differ in setting and main characters, but still.  I’m glad I figured this out… I’ve seen SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE before, and some level of familiarity kept tapping at the back of my mind.

I can’t say I adore this film.  It feels contrived and I’m not sure about the editing between timelines.  Personally, THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY does it better. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE jumps around in a very disjointed way.  It’s an interesting premise, though, and the actors for the main characters are compelling at both child and young adult ages.

I’m sure it has already prompted some discussion about Orientalism and the portrayal of Eastern cultures by the West, and I think it’s an important to bring up.  This is a film about the poorest of the poor in India, and while it’s grim and dark at times, the whole story has an odd dreamy quality to it that can come across as a level of romanticization.  I haven’t done much research into criticism of the film, by which I mean I’ve read the Wikipedia article, but even that raises some intriguing points.  Critics point out that the way Jamal gets onto the show is unrealistic, and the portrayal of the slums is questionable.  Others note that there have been many films like this created by Indian directors, yet it was a movie created by a Western director who won the awards and international acclaim. There was an Indian co-director, did you know that? I didn’t, till I saw the film credits. The person we all heard about and heard from was British director Danny Boyle.

More significantly, in my opinion, is the criticism after-the-fact.

The film used real slum children for extras and to play the main characters as children, and it came to the attention of people who care and the press that those actors were not sufficiently looked-after once the film was over.  The extent to which their living conditions have been improved is unclear, though it appears that some changes have been made.  Looking here is a good start if you’re interested in reading about the controversies.

The Hurt Locker (Best Picture, 2009)

I feel I should offer up a disclaimer first: I hardly know anything about the world depicted in THE HURT LOCKER.  I cannot speak to the authenticity of the depiction of soldiers, the conflict zones in the Middle East, or the work that bomb squads do.  Going by the mixed reviews I saw on the movie’s Wikipedia page, a lot of discussions on that topic have already taken place.

THE HURT LOCKER is based on the reports of a freelance journalist embedded in Iraq for two weeks in 2004.  It tracks the members of an American bomb squad in Iraq in 2004, and holds the distinction of being the first movie directed by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow) to win the Academy Award for Best Director.  THE HURT LOCKER was nominated for nine awards, tying that year with AVATAR (coincidentally directed by Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron).  Only one nomination was for acting, for lead actor Jeremy Renner, who lost to Jeff Bridges’ performance in CRAZY HEART.  However, I think THE HURT LOCKER was up against some fierce competition for its other nominations.  It lost for Original Score and Cinematography, but swept its other technical nominations.

Interesting (or at least it is to me), this is not the first movie in the Best Picture lineup to feature soldiers specializing in defusing bombs, though it is the first to make them the center of the story.  In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Juliette Binoche’s French-Canadian nurse Hana falls in love with the Sikh sapper Kip.  As a sapper, defusing bombs are only one part of his work, which also includes sweeping roads for mines, building bridges and helping with other defensive construction, and serving as one of the infantry.  Jeremy Renner’s character and his compatriots specialize in bomb disposal, but from what I have heard about this war from the news and what I see in this film, the nominal task may not be all one is called upon to do.

This is the first time I’ve watched THE HURT LOCKER, and to be honest, I don’t think it’s likely I’ll watch it again, given the choice.  That said, I was happy that it departed from the predictable in that ** spoiler alert ** Renner’s character doesn’t die. He doesn’t die in battle and he doesn’t commit suicide at home.  Instead, the film offers some insight into something that puzzles me about the US military today, especially those serving in the Middle East.  I understand being called up and given orders, but I’m perplexed by those who voluntarily sign up to do more than one tour of duty.  I know the reasons are complicated and differ from person to person, including sense of duty, love of country, love of mission, etc., but what THE HURT LOCKER suggests is one I’ve heard obliquely referred to in discussions of this war and others. In fact, I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary about World War II, and one of the veterans interviewed expresses just this (though without choosing to go back to military service).

After the experience of war, of being a solder and always on high-alert, fighting for your life, coming back home – though desirable – can be a letdown when actually achieved.  The WWII veteran I mentioned talked about the boredom and triviality of civilian life.  He’d walk around his hometown, watching the other residents hurry to and fro on tasks that seemed to him minor and, well, trivial.  He complained that to the civilians, all veterans were basically the same, whether they’d been in mortal peril on the frontline or spent the war wearing a uniform but sitting behind a typewriter.  THE HURT LOCKER begins with a quote to the effect that war is a drug, and it seems Renner’s character is an addict.  The cold-turkey effect of returning home has him jonesing for another hit.  So back he goes.

Next Up: The King’s Speech (Best Picture, 2010) and The Artist (Best Picture, 2011)