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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Thursday, March 5, 2009

POST-SLUMDOG SYNDROME, by Michael Betzold

Now that the Oscars are over, the Michigan Theater is finally going to show one of the most-talked-about Oscar-nominated films, Waltz with Bashir, and I-m eagerly planning on going to see it Friday. My enthusiasm is only slightly diminished by an encounter this week with an old friend and movie buff who lives in Los Angeles and says the film is a letdown after you get past your amazement at the animation technique, and by the unexpected Academy snub and award for best foreign film to an unheralded Japanese entry Departures. No doubt we-ll be seeing that at the Michigan soon as well.

Meanwhile, now that the spirited Slumdog Millionaire has kicked the ass of the soporific The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (both showing locally at Showcase Cinemas and Quality 16), millions will see what all the fuss is about, as Slumdog is re-released widely. The excitement over Danny Boyle-s film was so palpable that it made the overly stagy Oscar telecast actually come alive for a few moments. This is one film that earns its feel-good chops with a brutally frank depiction of growing up in Mumbai-s slums.

The winners themselves brought lots of fresh air to the awards ceremony, and it finally seems like Hollywood is shedding its provincialism and getting a whiff of the global village. Slumdog is not only class-conscious and race-conscious but worldly in a way that smashes the claustrophobia of Hollywood-s limited vision (car chases and formulaic sequels). Penelope Cruz-s acceptance speech also noted how art should and can unify the actual world--as opposed to Hollywood-s cramped notion of the world.

But the most exhilarating moments belonged to Milk, currently at Showcase. Not only did Sean Penn-s thrillingly human performance defeat the tawdry work of the overrated Mickey Rourke in the execrable The Wrestler-which should rightly be seen as a triumph of real manhood over fake machismo-his predictably highly political speech barred no holds. He slammed down the reactionary forces of homophobia to the canvas, making it clear their days are numbered.

Yet the most moving words came from Milk-s young screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who in one of the bravest speeches ever given at the Oscars, said in part:

-If Harvey had not been taken from us thirty years ago, I think he-d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours.-

That, plus several scenes from Milk that showed men kissing each other, should have made all the latter-day Dan Whites of the world quake. We-re all going to hell because of the movies.

The rest of the telecast was innovative in a retro sort of way, if you happen to be excited by the thin idea that the British box office for Mamma Mia! means musicals are making a comeback. As the first non-comedian to host the Oscars (unless you count Billy Crystal), Hugh Jackman proved he could sing and dance and leave the comic moments to the real pros like Steve Martin and Tina Fey. The complicated sets were wonderful if you ignored the fact that this was a telecast and viewers might have been interested in actually seeing the movie clips projected on the remote reaches of the backstage.

It was a nice touch to have five previous winners of the acting awards give their props to the current nominees, creating such bizarre moments as having Sophia Loren salute Meryl Streep and making it more obvious that Daniel Day-Lewis was MIA. And it was nice to see Kate Winslet get an Oscar even though it was for the wrong movie (she and Leo were fantastic in Revolutionary Road, but not even a brilliant effort could salvage the ridiculous character Winslet was asked to play in The Reader, a movie that asks us to accept the fantastic notion that shame over illiteracy somehow mitigates guilt over participation in the Holocaust).

I guess the moral is that, like a real slumdog, you sometimes have to wade through excrement to bask in the presence of genuine movie stars.

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