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Slumdog Millionaire makes for a Big Night at the Denver Film Festival

Dev Pateal and Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire.
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Last year's so-called Big Night at the Denver Film Festival featured Juno, a small-scale comedy about a pregnant teen that inspired the blog "Juno Lives Up to the Hype at the Starz Denver Film Festival" before becoming a left-field box-office success and Academy Awards sweetheart. Director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the Big Night pick for the 2008 Denver Film Festival, which screened on Saturday, November 15, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, will be a tougher sell here in the states, if only because of its setting -- Mumbai, India -- and the occasional subtitling that comes along with it. But it does share something important with Juno -- quality that more than validates the buzz that preceded it to Denver.

New Denver Film Society executive director Burleigh "Bo" Smith, who only waved at the crowd at the fest's premier (an oddity noted in the blog "The Brothers Bloom Flowers to Open the Denver Film Festival") greeted attendees from the stage before delivering unexpectedly halting remarks about his recent move from Boston and his high regard for the festival, its patrons and its sponsors. He clearly has something to learn about slickness from Starz Entertainment Group CEO Bob Clasen, who followed him to the podium. Clasen effortlessly pimped Starz and its newfound interest in producing, rather than simply airing, Hollywood films; he focused in particular on the firm's latest offering, Last Chance Harvey, a Dustin Hoffman-Emma Thompson vehicle that, not coincidentally, will unspool as the fest's Last Night item on November 22. If he had been trying to pick up a date for the evening, two-thirds of the crowd would have gone home with him.

Then, after another viewing of the fest's lame Magic Cyclops promo, Slumdog Millionaire burst to life in an explosion of imagery that surprised from the beginning. The plot is bizarrely reminiscent of a memorable episode of the sitcom Cheers -- the one in which lovable loser Cliff Clavin finds himself on an episode of Jeopardy featuring categories so perfect for him that he can't possibly fail (although, of course, he finds a way in the end). The protagonist this time around is Jamal, played by Dev Patel, a child of the slums who does so well on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire that he's tortured and then interrogated by the police -- the main inquisitor is played by Irfan Khan, who's best known to American viewers as one of the stars of 2006's The Namesake -- in an attempt to find out how someone from his background could possibly have known the answers to questions tossed out by the show's preening host (Anil Kapoor).

This structural device, which causes much of the film to take place in flashback, sounds gimmicky in the extreme. But Boyle and his co-director, Loveleen Tandan, work wonders with it. The storyline is overtly Dickensian, with Jamal and his older brother, Salim (portrayed as an adult by Madhur Mittal), transitioning from a childhood spent begging and conning for survival's sake to an adulthood in which they choose very different paths -- although somehow a girl from their youth (Freida Pinto plays her as a grownup) manages to make her mark on both of their lives anyhow. Just as in Dickens, the coincidences and contrivances that make up the narrative seem too massive to succeed. Nevertheless, the classicism of the concept is freshened immeasurably by the locale, which Boyle captures in all its wild, teeming, often-horrible grandeur. The pacing, fueled by driving music from the likes of M.I.A., is electric and so surehanded that the film never flags -- and if the conclusion is predictable, it's also richly satisfying.

In his introduction, the Denver Film Society's Smith told the audience to stay through the final credits for a surprise, prompting most ticket-holders to think a member of the cast or crew would take a bow after the lights came up -- but none arrived. In retrospect, Smith had been clearly (and clumsily) alluding to the Bollywood-style production number that erupts as the credits roll, not a guest appearance. Still, no one in the packed opera house seemed disappointed. After all, they'd just cashed in with Slumdog Millionaire. A big night, indeed. -- Michael Roberts

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