Monday, February 27, 2012

There Goes Billy: A Hello, Mr. Anderson Academy Awards Recap

Wow, that was kinda boring.

At last year's Academy Awards ceremony, the producers attempted to try something new. Sagging in the ratings for years and attempting to appeal to a younger audience, The show hired rising talents Anne Hathaway and James Franco to co-host the biggest Hollywood show of them all and try and build a new base of movie fans who gave a rat's ass about who won Best Live Action Short Film (God of Love), Best Film Editing (The Social Network), and of course Best Picture (The King's Speech). It failed. Badly. The pair were maligned for being unfunny, derivative and having no chemistry with one another on the stage. A slew of similarly youthful presenters also failed to inspire confidence in Hollywood's current batch of emerging performers, and in the end it was all for naught. Ratings slipped again, especially among the younger demographics. Nobody cared. But Hollywood was willing to try again, this time signing action film favorite Brett Ratner to produce their ultimate celebration of validation. Well, that didn't last long. After Ratner embarrassed himself, the Academy and the industry in general by uttering an anti-gay slur during an interview, he and contracted host Eddie Murphy stepped down in November, leaving the show without direction or a face. Suddenly, appealing to young viewers didn't matter anymore, putting together a show at all did. So they went out and hired legendary producer Brian Grazier to be the show's director. For host? After a short deliberation, it was announced that Billy Crystal would host the Oscars for a ninth time, the second most times hosting behind Bob Hope.

It's questionable which one looks more artificial now,
That's right, Billy Crystal. A man who hasn't hosted the show since 2004. A man who hasn't headlined a major motion picture since 2002's Analyze That. A man who hasn't been culturally relevant since before the turn of the millennium. Sure, I enjoyed watching him host when I was younger, but I also admit that I was a kid and my tastes weren't quite developed at that stage in my life. The whole thing smacked of desperation (which it was), but perhaps Crystal could somehow take a show that hadn't really been all that entertaining in years past and reinvigorate it with an energy it hasn't seen since, well, 2004.

These were some of the people you may have been cheering for last night.
It didn't take long to dissuade me of this notion. At the show's opening, I was looking forward to an old stand-by, the video montage, in which Crystal would inject himself into the scenes of the major award nominees. While many hosts have done this over the years, only Crystal had managed to be consistently funny throughout his reign, combining the right mix of edge and wit to make it all work. That didn't come to pass last night. While Crystal had a few moments worth chuckling about - most of it a silly kiss between him and George Clooney on the set of The Descendants - far too much of the set was weak, and the producers obviously thought they didn't have much to work with. One reason to believe that was their blatant youth grab by planting Justin Bieber in the montage, just to sit there and soak up attention. Another was the dearth of Best Picture nominees featured in the montage, which included Midnight in Paris and the not-nominated Adventures of Tintin but steered clear of favorite The Artist and other nominees The Tree of Life and Hugo, an odd choice when there were nine films to work with. After slogging through that, most of Crystal's opening monologue and subsequent announcements were lumped around the recent "Occupy" movement and the disparity between rich and poor, shots which elicited a few chuckles from the financially-sound members of the audience but probably got far fewer from many homes around the country. His musical song and dance about the Best Picture nominees made you flash back to 2010, when Neil Patrick Harris performed a brilliant opening to the surprise of everyone who watched. Seeing Billy Crystal try to recapture that made me wonder what Harris was up to at that very moment.

I can feel my IQ dropping just remembering their presentation.
Fortunately Crystal, like most hosts, really doesn't do all that much throughout the course of the show. While his high moments were few and far between (his vocalizing the inside of Nick Nolte's mind was brilliant and perfectly delivered), his lows were never really as bad as say, James Franco in drag. What really irked me was that Crystal never really seemed secure in his presence on stage this time around. In other years, you could see that he is as natural hosting the Oscars as he was swimming in water. Not so in 2012, which only saw a few particularly good presenters (especially Emma Stone's first ever appearance) shine while presenting their awards. Though Crystal occasionally pushed the envelope in his presentations, the problem wasn't that he wasn't particularly funny, but that he couldn't or wouldn't keep up that level of energy. Overall, it created an Academy Awards that had a particularly dull feel, even in its lighter moments.

And Gandalf wins the Oscar for Best Hair. Seriously.
It doesn't help that there were no standout acceptance speeches or major surprises to break up the monotony that was the Oscars. The only f-bomb of the night dropped was not by Melissa Leo, but by one of the creators of Undefeated, winner of the Best Feature Documentary award. For the most part, acceptance speeches were short, precise, and emotional, though none transcended into true "Aww" moments, like last year's acceptance speech by Luke Matheny, who thanked his mother for providing craft services while filming Oscar-winning short film God of Love. The closest was probably Octavia Spencer's tearful speech after winning the Best Supporting Actress award for her work on The Help, though a close second was for Best Supporting Actor choice Christopher Plummer, who at 82 years of age became the oldest actor to become a first-time Academy Award winner. After some genuine humility, humor and class, Plummer thanked his wife, who he said deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for being with him all this time.

This image cannot properly convey the awesome that is Cirque du Soliel.
Some of the other presentations of the show varied in quality from excellent to drab, with the ultimate highlight easily being the one-time performance by celebrated theatrical troupe Cirque du Soliel. The famous company took the skies in a death-defying tribute to films past that only left one question: when a company is so well known for "blink and you'll miss it" spectacles, why as a director would you CUT TO THE AUDIENCE?? The blank expressions on the faces of celebrities was not nearly as interesting as the exceedingly complex choreography we just missed. Thank you Brian Grazier. Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding also sang a wonderful rendition of "What a Wonderful World" during another Oscars staple, the death montage. Stars such as Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor and Whitney Houston were celebrated and mourned in their loss, and as always the montage played no favorites, honoring actors, performers and even executives (like former Pixar CEO Steve Jobs) in even amounts. Meanwhile, having Chris Rock deliver the award for Best Animated Feature and the talented ladies of Bridesmaids present the awards in the Short Films categories brought out the first real funny moments of the night.

So is he a man... or a Muppet? Maybe he's a very manly Muppet.
However, the constant film montages of actors saying what inspired them to work in film was well-done but unnecessary. The theme of the night seemed to be film as inspiration, and just about everyone had something to say about what inspired them to work in film. Of course, since many of the interviewees were older, that meant a lot of golden age nostalgia and "the way things were" moments, making one wonder if any of them actually care about the FUTURE of cinema. And since the show is already over-long, these self-serving interviews pushed aside a few choice options, including live performances from the Best Original Song nominees. In the past these bits have been hit or miss and consume more minutes than a teenager with an iPhone, but with only two actual nominees, I would have loved to see a live rendition of Bret McKenzie's winning "Man or Muppet" onstage. Having Kermit and Miss Piggy introduce one of the acts is nice, just not as much as a full Muppet show onstage.

It just looks natural in his hands.
Finally, the awards. Huh. Where to begin? Hugo was arguably the biggest surprise of the night. Early on, it won five Oscars in Visual Effects, Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. This was significant because it was up against some truly effects-laden heavy hitters in those categories, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2. Winning all those trophies early on suddenly got me excited for Hugo, which I had just seen for the second time the day before with Todd. The tear-jerking Scorcese drama was a wonderful film, and if it managed to steal the Best Picture from the seemingly-inevitable clutches of The Artist, I would not have been disappointed. Sadly, this was not meant to be, as The Artist dominated the latter half of the night, winning major upsets in the Best Actor (I loved him, but Dujardin was still my FOURTH favorite male performance last year) and Best Director (I never would have expected Hazanavicius to take the statue from Scorcese) categories, and surprising nobody by finally winning Best Picture at night's end. In the end we were given the expected finale, and while I couldn't fault the Academy for electing it best of the year, I still wish they had given The Artist a little more competition. I had very little reason to believe any other film would take the top prize.

Finally, her world conquest is complete.
Other non-surprises included Meryl Streep winning her third Academy Award for Iron Lady (I loved Viola Davis in The Help too, folks, but any of you who thought she actually had a chance of winning were few and far between), Rango for Best Animated Film, and A Separation for Best Foreign Feature. For Streep, this was a much deserved award not only for her exceptional performance, but also a recognition of what Streep means to Hollywood and her fans. Frankly, if Meryl wasn't in the world, constantly giving us world-class performances, the world as a whole would be a far less glamorous place.

Without a doubt the happiest man of the night.
In the end, the 84'the Annual Academy Awards was a spectacularly dull affair, even compared to the dud one year prior. Appealing to young audiences didn't work. Nostalgia didn't work. While the show had a few "Wow" moments, perhaps next year's show might benefit from taking a "back to basics" approach, as a scaled-down, more modern presentation might be just the thing we need in a world that ineffably lives more in the present (and sometimes the future) than it does in the past, which is where Hollywood seems to prefer to reside more and more. And now I hesitate to check my Oscar picks, as there's no way I could have done better than last year's disappointing 11 for 24 performance

Category                      My Pick                              Winner                        Result
Picture                       The Artist                          The Artist                        Hit!
Director                     Martin Scorcese               Michel Hazanavicius          Miss!
Actor                        George Clooney                Jean Dujardin                    Miss!
Actress                      Meryl Streep                     Meryl Streep                     Hit!
Supporting Actor      Christopher Plummer         Christopher Plummer          Hit!
Supporting Actress   Octavia Spencer                 Octavia Spencer                Hit!
Original Screenplay    Midnight in Paris                Midnight in Paris               Hit!
Adapted Screenplay   Moneyball                         The Descendants              Miss!
Animated Film            Rango                                Rango                            Hit!
Foreign Lang. Film     A Separation                     A Separation                     Hit!
Documentary Feat.      Pina                                 Undefeated                       Miss!
Documentary Short    Incident in New Baghdad   Saving Face                      Miss!
Live Action Short       The Shore                         The Shore                        Hit!
Animated Short       Fantastic Flying Books...      Fantastic Flying Books...  Hit!
Sound Editing          Transformers 3                       Hugo                            Miss!
Sound Mixing           Transformers 3                      Hugo                            Miss!
Art Direction             Midnight in Paris                    Hugo                            Miss!
Cinematography        The Tree of Life                    Hugo                            Miss!
Makeup                    Iron Lady                            Iron Lady                        Hit!
Costume Design       Anonymous                          The Artist                      Miss!
Film Editing              Hugo                          Girl with the Dragon Tattoo      Miss!
Visual Effects            Transformers 3                    Hugo                             Miss!

I actually would have done okay if Hugo hadn't managed to steal those effects awards, but I'll take 10 out of 22 for 2011, especially because I have long been championing The Artist and Meryl Streep since the nominations were announced. How did you do out there? Any major upsets you're not happy with? Let me know, and we'll commiserate together, and hope that next year's show is a huge improvement on what we saw last night.

No comments: