- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2008

A casual filmgoer would be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the title “Slumdog Millionaire” on the box-office marquee despite the Oscar buzz surrounding it; the studio has done little to no marketing of the picture, unsure of how to sell an R-rated feature about poor Indian youths that prominently features a decade-old television show American audiences have burned out on. Not to mention the subtitles. Americans hate subtitles.

However, if you find yourself staring up at that marquee and it’s flashing “Sold Out” next to every screening of “Quantum of Solace,” director Danny Boyle wants you to know there’s something for American audiences to love in his film.

“It’s an underdog story,” he says, “and that classic story is embedded in America, the belief that you can have a dream and you follow it and you get there.” You can have it all: the money, the fame and the pretty girl.

“Slumdog Millionaire” focuses on Jamal Malik, a product of the Bombay slums who sits on the verge of winning the grand prize on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” It is, in a word, Dickensian. “And Dickens is the great storyteller, isn’t he?” Mr. Boyle asks, chuckling. “He could throw anything in the melting pot and somehow be able to make it work.” A properly Dickensian tale doesn’t quite work in the West any longer, but India is different.

“It’s like Victorian London,” Mr. Boyle says of Jamal’s home and the subcontinent’s largest city. “It is a burgeoning city, and creating vast, staggering wealth and riches, impossible amounts of money, and built on a massive population who are deeply poor but have something to spend, so they are still a part of the engine that keeps it going.”

Audiences shouldn’t worry about the foreign trappings: Though it’s relentlessly alien in setting and language, Mr. Boyle has gone to great lengths to make “Slumdog” an accessible work. “I hate subtitled films because of the subtitles, really,” he says. “You read the film; you don’t watch it. … I’ve always thought it was really boring.” To combat that problem, Mr. Boyle has crafted his subtitles in a creative way, freeing them from their traditional shackles at the bottom of the screen and placing them nearer the characters’ mouths.

As for the film’s R rating, that was simply a stroke of bad luck. “There’s nothing explicit in it at all, but [the ratings board] saw it, and the certification people said it’s an R” mainly because of the picture’s “intensity,” Mr. Boyle says. “With intensity, you can’t really change that without damaging the film. … If I was shooting an R, I’d have shot it differently.”

“It is really frustrating, yeah. Very frustrating.”

Mr. Boyle thinks that, given a chance, “Slumdog Millionaire” will win over audiences everywhere it plays, and he recounts an anecdote from an early preview screening in Britain.

“There were some guys down front who were really rowdy at the beginning, and I thought, ‘Oh [no], this is going to be terrible.’ And they were really annoying people; they were chucking things.

“And I suddenly thought after about 50 minutes, ‘What’s happened to those guys?’ They had shut up after about 10, 15 minutes. And I remember thinking then: ‘Oh, maybe this will work here.’”

- Sonny Bunch

EU film fest

The District has become home to an increasing number of film festivals over the past few years. Few are as exciting, though, as the American Film Institute European Union Film Showcase, in its 21st year.

This isn’t a hodgepodge of films from EU member nations, but rather the cream of the crop of European filmmaking. A full dozen films are official best-foreign-language Oscar submissions for their countries. Others are prizewinners from Cannes and Berlin. Some are box-office hits in their home countries but will only be seen in the United States during this event; others you can see first before they get their U.S. releases in December, January or beyond.

There are 34 films from 24 countries. France leads the charge with four films. “I’ve Loved You So Long” won two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and is getting Oscar buzz for star Kristin Scott Thomas, the English actress who speaks French here. It’s a moving portrait of a woman trying to make a new life for herself - while facing the past - when she reunites with her sister after a long stint in jail.

“A Christmas Tale” stars another beautiful actress older than 40, Catherine Deneuve, in another tale of a family reunited. It co-stars “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Quantum of Solace” star Mathieu Amalric, who’s also in two other films at the fest: “On War,” a quirky film that has been compared to the works of Charlie Kaufman, and “Actresses,” a comedy about actors and a director rehearsing Ivan Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country.”

Ireland also is well-represented, with three entries, including one of the highlights. “Eden” is a moving character study of a marriage and the two people struggling to stay in it. Based on a play by Eugene O’Brien, it follows Billy and Breda, who are approaching their 10th wedding anniversary with little anticipation. Billy is feeling his age, wondering if he can recapture his lost youth with an affair with a young woman, while Breda has completely lost her confidence along with her sex life. Those bare outlines might sound cliched, but director Declan Recks’ film never feels like anything other than a real look at real people. It’s a patient, slow-moving film, one that gets under the skin of its characters - and its audience.

The festival closes on Nov. 25 with “Eldorado,” Belgium’s entry to the Oscars, in which a man and his would-be burglar make a strange and darkly funny road trip.

There are plenty other notable films, including Italy’s Mafia expose “Gomorrah” and “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” a fictional look at Germany’s radical Red Army Faction. Check out www.afi.com/silver for a full schedule.

Brazilian Film Week

If you’ve been attending the EU Film Fest and are feeling a little Europed out, have no fear: A very different culture is offering a glimpse into its life this weekend. The second annual Brazilian Film Week, sponsored by the Embassy of Brazil, runs through Sunday. It’s smaller than its EU counterpart, but screenings in this festival are free.

Each feature film is shown along with a short film. You even get a chance to sample Brazilian food and drink during intermission, when you also can meet some of the directors and actors from the films. Screenings take place at the Greenberg Theater at 4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW. A full schedule can be found under “Events” at brasilemb.org.

- Kelly Jane Torrance

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