Slumdog Millionaire Blu-ray ReviewApril 07, 2009
The buzz and publicity surrounding Slumdog Millionaire (2008) in the last six months has taken on a life of its own culminating in eight Academy Awards including top honors for picture, director, cinematography, music, screenplay and editing. I have been a fan of director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) following the ups and downs of his career since his debut with Shallow Grave (1994). However, I had little interest in his latest due to what seemed a lackluster story and passed on viewing until Fox's Blu-ray release.
The common synopsis is that Jamal Malik (Dev Patel as an 18 year old) is an uneducated "slumdog" raised in the impoverished slums of Bombay (Mumbai). He is on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" only one question away from winning it all when he is called into suspicion of how he could possibly know the answers. Boyle even mentions in the special features that when originally approached with the script, he had no interest in a movie about a game show no matter where it was set. The beauty of the way the movie plays out is that the game show is mostly a prop to tell Jamal's story over the previous eleven years.
From the initial scenes, there is no doubt that this is a Danny Boyle film with his distinctive style wedding intense visuals and music together through kinetic editing. The interrogation sequences and the chase through the slums are about as visceral as you could ask for. The movie sucker punches you from the get-go and takes off running with it being all you can do to keep up and finding yourself breathless at the finale.
As much as I will praise the film, it definitely took a second viewing to come together for me. The first time through I was impressed with the presentation but was hung up on the "story" about the game show. It really did not make sense how this ridiculous confluence of events (technically his existence from the years of 7 to 18) came together to allow Jamal to know every answer on the show and trying to absorb the movie in this fashion only hampers its intended effect.
The story is best described as a melodramatic fable involving true love played out in the guise of a fairy tale. It delves into the squalor that is the "slums" of Mumbai with ubiquitous mounds of trash and poverty where Jamal, along with his brother Salim (who has his own parallel and much sadder tale to tell), is orphaned due to religious violence at the age of seven leading him to make friends with young Latika who he quickly realizes as the love of his life. Soon separated, they are reunited first at the ages of 13 and eventually 18 where the story presently plays out. It is his love for Latika (Frieda Pinto as the 18 year old) that fuels Jamal's existence eventually landing him on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" to fulfill his destiny.
It is no surprise why this movie was difficult to market and trying to encapsulate it in a few lines as a story about a game show or a "rags to riches" tale does not do it justice. As stated, the narrative is not meant to be believable as much as effective, and when conveyed through the skill of Boyle's direction, Chris Dicken's editing, Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography and A.R. Rahman's music, you get a harrowing but ultimately uplifting tale that can in no way be divorced from the arresting visuals, fast paced composition and driving music. I have minor nitpicks and will not necessarily say Slumdog was the best film of 2008 (for my tastes I would pick the Dark Knight but that is not Academy Award fare for such honors), but considering many of the lesser deserving films to receive the award in the past, I am content with it being labeled as such.
Slumdog Millionaire comes to Blu-ray with an AVC 1080p encode preserving the theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. Shot using both 35mm and digital cameras, the quality of the image can change dramatically from scene to scene. In his commentary, the director assures us that even though the visuals may often look less than pristine and show obvious digital noise (somewhat similar to film grain though more obnoxious to my tastes), this was the intended effect. He was going for a gritty look that paired well with the lively editing and use of music.
The sequences shot on film are beautifully rendered with minimal grain, precise detail, deep blacks and vibrant colors though sometimes stylized choices on contrast will make whites run hot. The digital footage is hit and miss (again keeping in mind it was supposed to look this way) with some shots rivaling those in 35mm and others displaying rampant noise, a washed out palette with blacks that turn to faded gray and a slight digital harshness to the image. It you want to call this "gritty," be my guest as it definitely has a "raw" feel; I am just not sure this is my optimal choice on how to convey that feeling.
While films such as Michael Mann's Miami Vice took this style of digital shooting to such an extreme as to be distracting, here it blends in with the aesthetic that Boyle is striving for. The movie is generally so absorbing and fast paced that assuming this style of photography is at all objectionable to you, it will likely not be dwelled upon much. This is often a good looking and consistently colorful transfer that I have little doubt represents Boyle's vision for the film; the issue is how well you take to it.
I can honestly say I did not expect the window-rattling English-Hindi 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that gives all channels their due. Slumdog has its share of dialog that comes through cleanly though some of the accents may slightly obscure it. As easily as it deals with moments of quietness, this lossless track will suddenly fill the room with resounding presence and bass coming from all directions, not the least your subwoofer. Whether it is a train or helicopter roaring by with precise directionality or the driving rhythms of A.R. Rahman's award winning musical compositions that propel the narrative, this soundtrack stands toe to toe with the best of modern action films.
If I had any complaints, it is that the dynamic range is so broad it can be almost disconcerting when the surround experience kicks in with full force. I almost suspect this is intentional much in the way the digital photography is to further cement the energetic and realistic texture of the movie. The Hindi spoken parts are English "subtitled" in caption boxes that float across the screen adding to the sense of motion. The only other audio is French Dolby Digital 5.1 with extra subtitles in English (SDH), French and Spanish.
All the supplemental materials (including a short film exclusive to Blu-ray) are contained on the main 50GB Blu-ray disc with a second DVD housing digital copies of the movie that work with ITunes and Windows Media Player.
Audio Commentaries: Two commentaries are provided: one from director Danny Boyle and male lead Dev Patel and another from producer Christian Colson and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. The former is one of the better I have heard in recent memory and strikes a perfect balance between being entertaining and informative. Boyle and, to a lesser degree, Patel are very engaging and give interesting context to the making of the film. The only deficit is there are numerous points where they drop off, but there is more than enough value to easily recommend this track.
The latter commentary, leaning towards being more informative, is not nearly as captivating as Boyle/Patel's but does fill in many gaps in the production background. If I did not have the former track for comparison, I would probably find the producer/writer input more satisfactory. While not as easy a recommendation, fans who put in the effort will find much of worth here.
Deleted Scenes (33:51) – 12 scenes that are either deleted or extended covering periods throughout the movie. All are in standard def 4:3 aspect ratio and letterboxed with 5.1 Dolby digital audio (though there is little reason for surround on these). The video quality is not impressive but is passable.
All of the scenes are interesting lending background to the movie with extended versions of the chase through the slums and the opera scene and removed footage of an extra question on the show, interaction of Jamal and Prem Kumar (game show host) and the three children at younger ages. While these are definitely worth watching, I do not think any should have been included in the film as it would have thrown off the well balanced pacing.
Slumdog Dreams: Danny Boyle and the Making of Slumdog Millionaire (22:58) – This relatively short featurette contains interviews from Boyle, writer Simon Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson. This is very interesting content with no fluff that covers writing and adapting the script, lots about casting the leads at all three ages (7,13 and 18), the language barrier among the cast and crew, using digital cameras, day to day life in the "slum" and the chaos of filming on location in India. My only complaint is this should have been longer.
Manjha (41:03) – Exclusive to the Blu-ray is an Indian short film by first time director Rahi Anil Barve. This black and white piece plays as a counterpart to Slumdog making you realize that even with all the squalor and violence in the main film, it still ends on a feel-good note. Manjha shows a much darker view of orphans and life on the streets in India. It is not necessarily easy viewing but is worth the effort.
From Script to Screen: The Toilet Scene (5:25) – Boyle and Beaufoy explain why the "toilet scene" is pivotal to setting up the background between brothers Jamal and Salim. For those that have not watched the movie, this scene is cringe inducing to say the least. Thankfully we learn that the "poo" is actually made from peanut butter and chocolate.
Bombay Liquid Dance (3:00) – Video for the song by composer A.R. Rahman that mirrors the movie in style and editing. Presented letterboxed in 4:3 ratio with 2 channel sound.
Slumdog Cutdown (5:36, HD) – A five and a half minute montage of scenes from the film mixed with Rahman's popular song "Jai Ho."
Trailer (2:07, HD) – The domestic trailer for the film with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and an Mpeg-2 HD encode.
European Trailer (1:57) – The trailer for the European market in SD and 2 channel audio.
Slumdog Millionaire is a film that won over both audiences and critics alike and, while overshadowed by its hype, does a commendable job of living up to its many accolades. I would suggest not thinking too much about the internal logic of this improbable love story and possible repeat viewings to absorb the full effect of the presentation. Considering Boyle's work has covered so many genres (horror, sci-fi, comedy, mystery) with much success, maybe I need to learn to trust his decisions going forward no matter how peculiar the story first sounds.
Fox's Blu-ray delivers an often beautiful transfer that is faithful to the director's intentions no matter what qualms I may have with them and a lossless soundtrack that is as dynamic as you could ask for. The extras have some gems including Boyle's memorable commentary and the short film Manjha. I do wish the "making of" featurette was more expansive with much of the production information included in the producer/writer commentary translated into a full length documentary including more input from the main actors. Still, this Blu-ray is the premier way to experience this award-winning film on home video.
- Robert Searle
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Twentieth Century Fox
March 31, 2009
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio English & Hindi