Monday, February 23, 2009

Our Universal Language

The Oscars are over and I’m not sure what else there is to say about them. Frankly, I would have written this last night but when the show ended I was just so worn down by the whole thing that I didn’t have the energy. Very early on during my long evening in front of the TV I realized how much I didn’t care about certain things. I think there were five separate channels doing red carpet pre-shows, each seemingly containing an on-camera personality more idiotic than the previous one and none of it interested me in the least. Somebody named Randolph Duke commenting on fashion? I don’t know who that is, but I know that it’s not a real person. It’s a character in TRADING PLACES. Ralph Bellamy was more enjoyable to watch back then anyway. Hell, he’s probably more enjoyable to watch now. I also don’t care about harping on the camera cutting to Brad & Angelina when Jennifer comes out to present. Angelina’s made some bad movies but she’ll always be more interesting and seriously, I don’t care. But a day later gives me the perspective that the show was neither a hugely successful reinvention of the format nor did it make me want to run from the room screaming. Well, I wanted to run from the room a few times but not continually. It wasn’t the best or the worst. The heavens did not open up, the sky is not falling. If anything, it felt like what was really missing was a celebration of the movies. Sure, it was a celebration of Hollywood and all that represents, especially its celebrities, but that’s not the same thing. But the movies themselves seemed to be minimized whether they were the best of this year or, especially, the classics. Even the clips of actors winning in past award shows were more a celebration of the people who won, not what they were winning for. This lack of attention to those older films was made most clear during the interminable musical number staged by Baz Lurrmann and the insulting Montage of Death when the clips were mostly seen in a tiny screen at the back of the stage. The message was clear. These films are in the distance. These films are the past. These films no longer matter.

I went for a walk trying to think of what to say about Hugh Jackman and didn’t come up with very much. He was fine. He was charming. I can’t remember much of what he said. A great deal of his effort seemed to go towards an opening number that for me was so-so at best and a mid-show number involving some special guest appearances that for me exemplified the worst of what I had feared. When Jackman told the crowd that Baz Luhrmann was responsible at the end I got a strong whiff of “On the bass—Derek Smalls. He wrote this.” If “The musical is back!” then they needed something better than this to prove it. Jackman also seemed to be absent for long stretches which limited his effectiveness. What was he doing during these periods? He presumably wasn’t conferring with joke writers. Was he out back grabbing a smoke? Did he take off to grab a quick bite at Canter’s? That’s a bit of a drive but I think he could have made it.

The conceit of having past acting winners speak to the nominees was at least different but it still needs some tweaking. For one thing, they must have decided that including clips of these performances would have made the segments too unwieldy--I can understand that viewpoint but it would have given people the chance to get a glimpse of the performances by unknowns like Melissa Leo and Michael Shannon so they could get an idea of why they were there. It wasn’t a total wipeout—DeNiro talking to friend Sean Penn was a nice moment and when Shirley MacLaine, speaking what truly seemed to be her own words, offered praise to a visibly moved Anne Hathaway it became one of the most genuinely emotional moments of the night. It made me hope that Hathaway would win. In comparison, seeing Melissa Leo a moment later praised by Halle Berry (I almost wrote “praised by a second-rate Bond girl” but I won’t get that snarky) didn’t have quite the same power. There’s probably a good magazine article in the shell game of how they arrived at the five in each category. I think we can all think of people who may have been alive and willing that we would have liked to see. Maybe they were hopeful this would work and didn’t want to blow their wad the first time out. Still, how great would it have been to see Ernest Borgnine up there with DeNiro and Brody?

Steve Martin and Tina Fey were the funniest part of the night. Martin’s timing was particularly on target.

Ben Stiller (with Natalie Portman) was pretty funny as well. For that matter, so was the entire Judd Apatow film.

Am I mistaken or is the SLUMDOG cinematography win the first time it has happened with a movie mostly shot digitally? And isn’t it the first time such a film has won Best Picture? This seems significant. I don’t think anyone else cares.

Why did the vampire dude spend his entire time up on stage making goofy faces? Is that part of his shtick? What am I not getting?

The Tribute-to-Genre montages seemed unnecessary and not very well done. And what was really the point of it? The whole controversy surrounding the snub of THE DARK KNIGHT aside, isn’t the point of the Oscars that they acknowledge movies that actually have ambition? If you do this, aren’t we heading into IDIOCRACY land? As a result, the likes of SPACE CHIMPS and Brendan Fraser’s third MUMMY movie had more of a presence on the show than LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, W., CHE and probably others I could think of. On the other hand, there was something useful about these montages—for example, all it took was a 5 second clip from WANTED to remind me how much I hated that film.

Will Smith said “Boom Goes the Dynamite!” Now I get that. Thank you, Keith Olbermann.

Werner Herzog at the Oscars, appearing to have a good time? There are some things you never expect to see. For that matter, Sean Penn could be seen enjoying himself even before he won. Who are these people?

Did anyone else catch MAN ON WIRE Philippe Petit glancing upward when he was onstage? Was he wondering what he could possibly pull off in that theater?

Penelope Cruz. I love her.

Beyonce—Please go away.

I don’t care if Alan Arkin flubs a name, I still love him anyway. And it was particularly nice to see guys like Christopher Walken and Joel Grey up there as well.

Jerry Lewis seemed somewhat weak, possibly choosing to simply say “Thank you” and get offstage without letting anything muddy the waters. But unfortunately the film package used to precede his appearance seemed perfunctory. I know, he was being honored more for his humanitarian work but all we really got was “Jerry Lewis was a comedian and then he did telethons!” Couldn’t they have spent a few minutes to cover things like his partnership with Dean Martin, becoming a director, the invention of the video assist, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, Jerry-as-Auteur, with maybe some on-camera testimonials from people like Scorsese leading up to the MDA so we could offer a more complete look at the legend? But it certainly wasn’t an insult to him and it wasn’t as bad as certain other tributes in the past.

Sophia Loren looks good and all that, but was she casting a spell on Meryl Streep?

Kate Winslet is wonderful. Even if I still wish that she had won this award for something else.

Since Peter Gabriel declined to sing his song from WALL-E when they cut his time down to a minute, was anybody else hoping that they would bring in Ann Reinking as a replacement? (I hope somebody got that.)

I like Queen Latifah a lot but her presence onstage to sing over the Montage of Death felt unnecessary. Not to mention that keeping much of it on a screen at the rear of the stage which couldn’t always be seen well on television was a bad idea and, frankly, not a little insulting to the people that were supposedly being honored. I’m sure someone’s come up with a list of people who were snubbed but some of the names I’ve heard bandied about (Patrick McGoohan, Harvey Korman) may have been considered more famous in television. John Phillip Law was certainly someone who seemed to be missing. Still, I’ll give them points for including the likes of Vampira and actor Robert DoQui, two people I would never have expected to see here. But really, the format used for it was an embarrassing botch.

Did I miss something with the Foreign Language nominees? It didn’t seem like they actually read the titles. This was very puzzling.

I freely admit that I was rooting for Mickey Rourke. For that matter, I was rooting for WALL-E to win Original Screenplay. This isn’t a slam against MILK—actually, that was my favorite of the five nominated for Best Picture. It’s just the way the chips fell on this one and I can’t help but picture anyone who wasn’t pulling for Mickey Rourke as being the sort of person who tells kids that there’s no Santa Claus. That said, the two wins for MILK resulted in the most heartfelt acceptance speeches of the night. Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black each lived up to the responsibility of their respective moments and both men were extremely eloquent. Plus, Penn mentioned Rourke, which made it even more special.

Since the show wasn’t paying much attention to the actual history of movies, it was left to orchestra leader Michael Giacchino to provide some of it with his music choices. Among the selections heard were THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN as the lineup of Best Actors came out, his own awesome overture from CLOVERFIELD and, maybe most bizarrely, Jerry Goldsmith’s main title to ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, heard as the show was going to commercial after the romance montage. If he was trying to amuse himself and maybe a few other people, I guess it worked. The thing is, you can’t please everyone with the Oscars. Maybe there’s a way you could keep all the fashion and glamour and still somehow make it a real celebration of the movies and everything they represent—the universal language that Penelope Cruz spoke of—as well. Of course, it’s possible that I’m wrong and people who want to watch the Oscars really don’t care about that stuff which would be something else altogether. But I’m unconvinced. For now, I freely admit that I can’t get “Jai Ho” out of my head, which at least proves that I didn’t hate all the musical numbers of the night. So all that’s left to be said right now is we’ll just wait and see what happens next year.


Keith said...

Great review. Nothing I can really add to it. I was fairly happy with the top winners. I wished Mickey Rourke had won though. I do wish that the Jerry Lewis segment had been longer. I think they glossed over his career too quickly.

Anonymous said...

I like the feel of the old time Oscars, which seem like they convened at a Holiday Inn ballroom, with 40 tables, and one TV camera. It was less about putting on a multimillion dollar entertainment extravaganza with lame jokes and worse dance numbers, and more like a high school banquet, with celebrities. Maybe that just wouldn't work today.

Most of my disgust with the Oscars is purely the amount of hype that many, many bloggers - from amateurs to the folks at the L.A. Times - pay to this event nearly 365 days a year. Few writers question why we even need this show and what it's supposed to be about in the way your post did.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks guys, glad you liked it. I have to add that some names I've seen out there who were omitted from the In Memoriam section include Robert Prosky, Edie Adams, Anita Page, Irv Brecher, Donald Westlake, Sam Bottoms, Ann Savage, Beverly Garland and Arthur C. Clarke, who was only one of the key creative forces behind what is considered one of the best movies ever made. Not that something like that matters, I suppose. After all, they must have decided that he was just a writer.

Unknown said...

I thought that the Oscars was pretty good this year, overall. Not great but not awful either. I'm still hoping that they can convince Billy Crystal to come back and host again.

I too was rooting for Mickey Rourke to win, if only for the wild speech I'm sure he would have given. I did love the acceptance speech he gave at the Indie Spirit Awards the day before. I'm sure the network censors were freaking out when they saw that, hoping that he wouldn't win the Oscar.

Sean Penn looked genuinely surprised that he won and, as you pointed out, he gave Mickey a shout-out which was nice.

The funniest bit for me was the Judd Apatow short film bringing reuniting Seth Rogen and James Franco as their characters from PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Franco's expression when they showed a clip of MILK was priceless.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Now there are rumors out there that Billy Crystal is coming back. My guess is the rumor started at the desk of whoever wrote the piece about the rumor. I'd be surprised if he didn't come back sooner or later. But I just hope that next year they make it a little more about the movies.