When I was studying English Literature in university and reading story after story, I could not resist the temptation to see events in my own life as a narrative. You start to pick up on how one thing foreshadows another; how situations can seem to be symmetrical; how timing of events seem to happen for a reason; and how motifs and recurring themes seem to appear if you look for them. Life takes on new meaning when it’s a narrative. In both Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, both main characters recount the events of their lives through flashbacks and voiceovers. Seeing a person’s life laid out in a movie (even if I’m not a sudden millionaire or a man who ages in reverse) reminded me again of how even the smallest things in life can play an important part in a person’s story.
Slumdog Millionaire not only has a great (albeit cryptic if you don’t know the term) title, but its premise is an excellent hook as well: an orphan named Jamal Malik, who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, India, makes his way to be a contestant on India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? game show and gets all the answers right. As he hits the 10 million rupee mark, he’s taken for questioning by the police who believe that he has somehow cheated. As he tells his life story, it’s revealed how he came to legitimately know all the answers and why he’s on the show to begin with. While the premise is unique, it’s obviously a movie gimmick to frame the recounting of Jamal’s life story. Nevertheless, it is a story very well told. He endures everything from his carefree childhood amidst poverty; to his downright Dickensean orphanage experience; to making a life for himself as India prospers from economic upturn — all the while he suffers a cycle of lost-and-found with his childhood love, Latika. Not only does Jamal’s tale have the trappings of a classic fable, but it’s all told in an exciting and compelling way by Danny Boyle’s fresh cinematic style (he directed such favourite films as The Beach, Millions and Trainspotting).
Performances are great too, from the child actors to the grown-up versions, it was a wonder when the end credits rolled and we saw the three actors from various stages of the characters’ lives. It felt like we had really lived through the entire span with them. The added piece that tugs at the heart is the love story. Though I’m not romantic by nature, Jamal’s foolhardy devotion to finding Latika and being with her was touching and added a wonderful glow to the climax of the movie (you’ll never think of “Phone-a-Friend” the same way again). I missed this movie when I was wasting my time with disappointments such as Quantum of Solace and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but this sleeper hit deserves to be seen by everyone (5 out of 5)
On the other hand, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has already gotten rave reviews and people have been lining up to see it (at least at the theatres where I’ve been). It too is a life story built on a unique gimmick, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to have names like Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt on the marquee. That isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t deserve its audience, rather the movie is quite excellent, and warrants every bit of praise.
As Blanchett’s character lies dying in a New Orleans hospital, she asks her daughter to read from a journal written by Benjamin Button, the love of her life and a man who was born old and spent his life aging in-reverse. As Button’s own words tell his story, we get to see his life in flashbacks. I spent part of the movie wondering whether or not taking away the reverse-aging aspect really made any difference. My conclusion was that though it would still have been an interesting story of a man’s life, the bizarre situation really placed a focus on the theme of time and life and what they mean together.
Unlike Forrest Gump (a similar life story saga), Benjamin Button did not find himself coincidentally traveling through historical events as the world changed around him. This movie is pretty intimate and quiet. That’s especially good because of the special effects. Right from the start, the age-effects were quite well done. It’s not easy to convincingly depict Brad Pitt as a 5-year-old child who looks like an 80-year-old man. I was afraid he was going to look like a creepy bobble-head doll or something. Instead, each time you see him change age it’s a brief moment of surprise, but then the very personal story takes over and it’s not a big deal anymore. Of course it helped that both Pitt and Blanchett gave excellent performances at various age points from 18 to 80.
While director David Fincher is more known for his adrenaline-pumping movies like Fight Club, Panic Room, Se7en (or maybe for his past life as a director of music videos for Madonna, Paula Abdul and George Michael), Button didn’t have the same kind of high-energy pacing that Slumdog had. Instead it had a more “southern comfort”, warm, lyrical kind of feeling. I guess focusing on mortality and the passage of time, it was important for this movie to take a more languid approach. Ironically, at the end, I didn’t really feel that I’d been in my seat for three hours. (4.5 out of 5)