Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the Winner Is...

By the time I’ve finished posting this, “Slumdog Millionaire” will more than likely have been named Best Picture at the 2009 Oscars. It’s easy to see why the film has been given such accolades thus far. It possesses a tight, well-structured screenplay and is masterfully directed by Danny Boyle. “Slumdog” is paced well, keeps the audience involved with the three main characters and provides an emotional, if slightly predictable climax. I guess you’ve noticed my words aren’t drooling with admiration. I loved “Slumdog” but I have a tough time placing it above films such as “WALL-E” and “Gran Torino” as the best picture of the year. The fact that the latter two films were not even nominated for the category calls into question the politics of the academy and award shows in general.

“Slumdog Millionaire” represents the culmination of many themes represented in Danny Boyle’s work, beginning with 1994’s “Shallow Grave” and continued with the cult favorite “Trainspotting”, the apocalyptic horror film “28 Days Later” and 2004’s “Millions”, Boyle’s first foray into more mainstream filmmaking. Many characters in these films live on the edges of society and choose crime as a way of life as their existence has provided no other plausible outlet for success. In “Slumdog” Jamal and his brother Salim spend most of their youth as thieves and con artists, yet we never call into question their motives, as they were penniless orphans with no other logical means of surviving. Boyle covered similar ground in 1996’s “Trainspotting”, his images of welfare-stricken England slightly similar in tone to that of Mumbai. We tend not to criticize the questionable acts of Renton during the movie, as we believe he is doing what he can to make a living, even if it is stealing and selling drugs.

It is understood that the crappiest parts of England are preferable to the slums of Mumbai, India. However, Boyle has progressively been using impoverished archetypes to show how nice, likable people do things they shouldn’t due to destiny or fate. Coincidentally, Boyle uses a clip from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in “Millions”, where a young boy finds a sack of money that he believes fell from the sky. “Millions” is lighter in tone than “Slumdog Millionaire” but begins many themes that Boyle perfects in the latter film. In “Slumdog”, the sacrifices endured by several key characters are far greater than those in any of Boyle’s previous works, making their redemption more powerful and fully realized than in any of his other films.

Like Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, “Slumdog Millionaire” is the ultimate Danny Boyle movie. In addition to the script and themes, Boyle synthesizes his quick-flash action cinematography used in “28 Days Later”, the psychedelic imagery shown in “Trainspotting” and 2000’s “The Beach”. “Slumdog” is a work of a master craftsman at his peak, who may possibly have over two decades of filmmaking left in his tank. Boyle, 53, is far younger than Scorsese and Eastwood when they received this honor. Maybe this is the academy’s method of rectifying previous errors like the snubbing of Scorsese and Eastwood much of their careers. “The Departed” is a great film, but most film buffs prefer “Goodfellas” as the ultimate Scorsese gangster flick. “Unforgiven” may have given Clint his first statue, but “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is in many eyes, a far superior Western. With a lack of new blood in the Hollywood star system, it is possible many voters want to make a new celebrity any which way they can, be they actors or directors. Peter Jackson’s Oscar for 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” gave him superstar-director status and the right to pick any project he chooses, no matter how astronomical the budget. It remains to be seen how Boyle will handle his celebrity status if “Slumdog” takes “Best Director” and “Best Picture”. I hope he eventually makes his sequel to “Trainspotting”, which has hinted at from time to time. Who doesn’t want to see how “Spud” and “SickBoy” handle middle-age?

The two films I mentioned as Best Picture snubs, “WALL-E” and “Gran Torino”, may have been passed on for political reasons. “WALL-E”, by far the best reviewed film of 2008, is not only animated, but forgoes the “star-system” of voiceovers (unless you count John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy and an almost unrecognizable Sigourney Weaver). “Wall-E” made millions for Disney/Pixar but did not feed the Hollywood system, which loves to pat itself on the back. It’s understood that “Slumdog Millionaire” doesn’t either, but the end goal may be making a star out of the director who may then “feed the system” for the next twenty years or so. It may also be the academy is doing to Pixar what they did to Scorsese, Eastwood and many others: have them wait decades until they get the award as an almost-thank you as opposed to earning it for a truly deserving film.

While “WALL-E” is an almost shoo-in for Best Animated Feature, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” was snubbed entirely, mostly for political reasons. Seen by many as Eastwood’s return to the “Dirty Harry” mentality, “Torino” epitomizes the type of film many of the Hollywood elite do not want to reward. The Film Comment review of “Gran Torino” trashed the acting of the young, mostly Hmong performers in the film. Ironically, no such criticism was leveled at any of the cast of “Slumdog” as they were mostly film veterans while Eastwood chose to use mostly amateurs. However, the performances of the characters in “Slumdog” could be seen as almost too polished whereas the inexperience of the young actors in “Torino” emphasizes the shyness of outsiders trying to fit in. If “Slumdog Millionaire” is Oscar’s darling, “Gran Torino” is surely its pariah. It is a pity the academy chose not to recognize Eastwood, whose film is a culmination of many of his themes regarding justice, pain and redemption. These same themes, interestingly, are dealt with by Danny Boyle in “Slumdog Millionaire” but in a much more politically correct fashion. Hey, who said Hollywood wasn’t hypocritical?

When the Oscars are finished, it will not really matter which 2008 films win or lose, but which ones will go on to engrain themselves into the public movie consciousness. I watched a goodly chunk of TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar” and am always surprised at how few films I recognize. An award does not always guarantee immortality or a wide audience, just a line in a history book. Sometimes the sentimentality of the present overwhelms the concept of posterity for the future. If we look at the nominees from 25 years ago, only “The Big Chill” stands out as a film still watched by contemporary audiences. Conversely, the two best-known films from 1983, “Return of the Jedi” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” are aired regularly and are part of the average movie-lover’s collection. Time is the ultimate judge of a film’s durability and influence, not the political motivations of an elite few. If we use this standard, the 2009 award for “Film Most Likely to be Remembered” is: “WALL-E” with “The Dark Knight” in second place. Time as always, will determine the films remembered, the ones forgotten and the ones doomed to air at 2AM on bad TV stations (thank you, Razzies!).

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