Monday, February 25, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the 85th Academy Awards Ceremony

Ladies and gentlemen, it has come to a close. The 85th Annual Academy Awards were announced tonight and there was plenty of cheers and jeers. For those that took my votes, you lucked out big time. True, my 9 out of 24 meant that it was my lowest predictions year on record, but that doesn't mean that there were some great surprises sprinkled throughout. True, my Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) appreciation wasn't enough to overcome the towering Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln), but on the bright side, I can go with the delusional logic that at least I predicted Argo for Best Picture. While this isn't a recap of the winners (which I assure you will come later in the week) or a highlights, it is an initial collective of thoughts on the ceremony. What went right, wrong, and how I feel things could have been different. 

For starters, I have made my feelings very public on what I think of Seth MacFarlane as an entertainer as well as host. Still, the part of me that believed him to be a showman who could pop on a top hat and tap out a broadway tune was the optimistic driving force. I have never been as critical as most when it came to Oscars host. I still am of the mindset that it is first and foremost an awards show. The ceremony is held to give out awards, not entertain people with flying acrobatics and shtick. If you happen to be entertained, that is a brilliant example of happenstance.

With that said, I have enjoyed the past hosts on a bizarre level. For the most part, I am in the moment with these ceremonies. I am just wanting to crank out awards that the parts that lag rarely feel that long. In fact, when Billy Crystal hosted, I thought he did an apt job because not only did he have to replace the mess that was the Brett Ratner/Eddie Murphy fiasco, but he had to deal with trying to appeal hip. This is coming from a man who released Parental Guidance a few months ago. I have always liked Crystal's hosting for his shtick. True, it was at times questionable, but he is very good at it, and he succeeded. Also, I believe the material is only as good as the nominees, and last year was a wasteland. 

With that said, I watched the Anne Hathaway/James Franco highlights on Youtube to prepare myself for juxtaposition. That was the last time that the Oscars attempted to seem "hip" as it were. I love both actors very much (and congratulations to Anne Hathaway on her Best Actress win for Les Miserables) and at the moment, I was on the kick to just see The Social Network clean the floors with The King's Speech. Nope. However, it is a very interesting juxtaposition between high energy desperation of Hathaway and the nihilistic Franco. Both seemed to not believe in their Bruce Vilanch-scribed jokes about being youngsters, and it showed. Admittedly, the clips do not hold up, but as an awards show, I was perfectly fine with it, save for The King's Speech winning top prize.

Cut to this year's ceremony. You get the creator of Family Guy to host. How is this going to go for a guy who made millions off of fart jokes? True, he mixed in show numbers and featured cameos by Frank Sinatra Jr., but he still is a crass man in the public's consciousness. It was exciting to see if it would be a train wreck or if at least he could pull together enough funny material to make an entertaining evening. As a stint previously on Saturday Night Live weeks before he was announced as host, he is charismatic enough at least to try.

And boy was it a successful gamble. Maybe it is because his brain is a lexicon of Hollywood history, but the variety that he brought to the show was amazing. True, he slipped in quite a few jokes about death, underage dating, and a few jabs, but whereas Ricky Gervais would seem insulting with them, he at least had the ability to come out of it in some ways humbled by either insulting himself, or making himself seem an equal to his target. At very least, he is a gracious host and one that packed the jokes, regardless on if they were highbrow or lowbrow. Luckily things never got too juvenile.

With this established, it would be a travesty if MacFarlane never hosted again. All that is necessary is the legitimately epic, unexpected opening. He claimed to take influence from Bob Hope, and it kind of shows in his delivery. What starts off as a traditional delivery progresses into weird territory. William Shatner as his Star Trek character Captain Kirk time travels to tell him that he is a bad host. The rest of the opening is him trying to get better reviews, which includes a number about naked actresses, singing Bye Bye Birdie, a brilliant sock puppet version of Flight, and another song. In a way, this is a groundbreaking opening segment on the sheer variety and meta commentary. It is so endearing and whether it was written by MacFarlane or his staff, it will go down as a personal favorite.

Sprinkling him throughout, he was a nice host. I also love that the show was essentially supposed to be about musicals. With performances by the cast of Les Miserables, Dreamgirls, and Chicago, there was never a shortage of performances. Even the two James Bond singers weren't as bad as I predicted. I also appreciated that while not all of the Best Original Song numbers were sung live, three out of five were, and done in exciting and fresh ways. There was plenty of spectacle and rarely did it every feel as egregious as some years.

 How can this be? Consider in the past when Cirque du Soleil or mimes interacted the Oscars in abstract performance art pieces. They were either filmed terribly or just dragged on for home audiences. They seemed more for the sake of spectacle than to actually celebrate movies. In fact, the 84th Annual Academy Awards suffered from too much self gratification by recognizing more films from the past than that year. Maybe it was because Billy Crystal skewered to an older audience, but it still wasn't that interesting.

What the viewers want is fresh and hip. Something up to the current registry. There wasn't any elaborate dance numbers this year. Instead, they were just songs, and I am proud to say that they were almost all successful, even if they varied in quality. It felt like the show understood that the music should be more integral to the night's happenings. Almost all of the performances were at some point in the past decade a nominee, and the others had some correlation to that year's themes, whether they be James Bond or Barbara Streisand's moving rendition of "The Way We Were" to Marvin Hamlisch. It may not be the hippest thing that the Oscars have done, but in the past few years, it feels like the most coherent to entertainment.

Anne Hathaway
The production was top notch, and I wouldn't be surprised if Seth MacFarlane hosts a few more times. He is charismatic and fun. True, I felt that his finale with Kristen Chenowith was a little dumb, but by that point, I was fine with calling him a great host. Possibly the best in the past five years. I still wish that Ted wasn't a nominee and I still hope that the Ted character never shows his face at the Oscars again. The orgy and Jewish jokes were all really bland and showed a side of MacFarlane that I actually hated. However, it was toned down and luckily didn't last too long.

With that said, I admired the show's lack of flair in presenters. Trying to rummage through the presenting group, there wasn't as many highlights or failures as last year. Even The Avengers gag, as dumb as it was, wasn't all that creative. It felt like almost all of the people involved just read cue cards and presented awards. It was a nice change of pace from forced routines, though it did damage the show in terms of overall highlights. Of course, it just made the moments with flair just that more memorable. 

Of course, for Oscar nerds like myself, the real highlight of the show should be Jack Nicholson. The simple fact that he was there is a revelation to me. It is a subtle thing, but for the past few years, he has not been in attendance and that has always bugged me. Nicholson has always been either the butt of the hosts' jokes, or has had a key role in sitting in the front row. Just being there made me excited that one of my favorite legendary actors still cared about the Oscars. Of course, this was all made more enticing when he presented the Best Picture category only to split the introduction with Michelle Obama. True, I respect her as a patriot should, but even I didn't quite understand that. I love the show's desire to be different, but of course, I just wanted Nicholson to have a moment in the sun after a few years of absence.

Ang Lee
Of the winners, I am most surprised/impressed by Ang Lee for Best Director. As an adamant fan of Life of Pi, I all but gave up hope that it would win against the juggernaut Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), who almost everyone predicted. Most of the other categories seemed predictable, but when they announced Lee's name, I was so excited. Sadly, he has now won Best Director twice, but has never won Best Picture. I almost felt like it should have tied with Argo just for Lee being such a good sport. His movie is amazing and I am proud that it is recognized for its artistic craft, as I feel that its technical levels put it as the future of cinema. I believe that Life of Pi showed us something fresh and new (just like the Oscars this year) and Lee is willing to take us into a vast, impressive new land of wonderment.

On a flip side, Life of Pi also holds one of the most awkward moments of the show. As expected, it won Best Visual Effects. However, since there were four recipients onstage, they went on for some while. Right at the end, when the music to leave (I was personally impressed by the choice to use Jaws' familiar theme used as the big exit choice) began popping up, the people who made this amazing movie decided to talk about the unfortunate events of their company Rhythm and Hues going bankrupt. While I am not surprised, as they previous did something similar for The Cove, when they even mentioned "promote," the music got louder and suddenly everything was shut down. I feel bad for the company's recent hard times and I still feel like they weren't in the wrong, as Argo's Best Picture stage time probably took up longer.

The cast and crew of Argo

Overall, this was a very impressive year and I am proud that the winners were vast and not one sided for majority of the cases. If I had to think of bad moments, they are few and far apart. True, as my record will show, I wasn't happy with too many of the choices, but it is so hard to stay mad at Daniel Day Lewis after joking about being in The Iron Lady, even if that was another example of the better performer getting robbed. 

I will be back later in the week to discuss highlights, compare my picks to the actual winners, and maybe actually touch on Argo's victory as well. At the moment, I feel like Argo pretty much had it from the moment it hit theaters. Not only did the movie have an Oscar statue in it, but it was a movie about how movies help people. Sounds like The Artist, but from a more true story angle and with way more humor than you'd expect. It is universally accepted as a good movie, and I feel like along with choosing Seth MacFarlane to host, it was a wise, long term decision. It may not be my personal favorite, as I feel that Zero Dark Thirty will be remain a classic of War on Terror cinema, but when history looks at it in 20 years, it will make sense, even if Ben Affleck's Best Director snub doesn't. 

How do you feel about this year's ceremonies? Was Seth MacFarlane a great host? What were some of your favorite moments? Who got snubbed besides Joaquin Phoenix and Jessica Chastain?

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