Monday, February 23, 2009

It's still the Oscars.

The new look Oscars debuted last night amidst tons of marketing hoopla (the one thing Hollywood never seems to tire of) and the one thing we can say confidently the morning after - they're still the Oscars. Love 'em or hate 'em, it's still the most hyped event on our annual calendar with the smallest payoff and the most asinine sense of self importance.
First things first, it's all that pre-Oscar television coverage that's become unbearable. We keep wondering how close we are until the scales tip from movie awards celebration to fashion design showcase. This year's addition of Tim Gunn doing red carpet interviews lapsed into deadly stupid questions and television directing incompetence. There are some pretty shallow personalities out there handling the microphone. Mr. Gunn had to stake out entirely new low ground to eclipse the usual idiocy. He succeeded far above and beyond.

OK, there was a show after that and if you made it past Hugh Jackman's surprisingly flat and limited vocal range, some acceptably humorous fluff and a couple of instances of non-existent comic timing, the Australian accent didn't entirely annoy. That said, the musical number in the Oscars is most definitely NOT back. If that was one of the goals of the redress, mark it pending. 

The reworking of formula and staging did have it's successes last night and the one we liked best could have even been expanded just a touch. We throughly enjoyed the introduction of five peers introduced in each of the acting categories to come out and personalize the introduction of each of the award nominees. It automatically had the effect of slowing the proceedings and allowing the awards to focus and linger on artistic achievement. The personal words, delivered by some of acting's finest to those that might join that elite rank were engagingly appropriate, seemingly genuine and often movingly emotional. The idea should become a tradition and be extended to the category of directors next year. 

We also like that the orchestra never welled up under the drawn out sentiments of an acceptance speech. We'll put up with a bit of boredom rather than be embarrassed for someone, who during one of their finest moments, gets told to shut up by a string section. It was also noted that rather than step on a speech that angled into personal causes or politics, those moments were allowed to run out, restoring an immediacy and a spontaneity that the Oscars have sorely lacked for far too many politically correct broadcasts.

The sets were attractive (for the most part), the pacing seemed even (for a three hour + broadcast) and the new ideas were at least interesting. Here's a couple of highlights...

Sean Penn's Best Actor acceptance speech was delivered with that self-deprecating casualness and honesty that makes the guy so... Sean Penn. Nicely done.

Heath Ledger goes out with the ultimate salute to one of the best performances given in any actor's career and in the finest superhero (villain) characterization ever put to film. Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers were the most cheated of recognition by the Academy this year.

Philippe Petit becomes the first recipient of an Oscar to balance the famous statuette on his chin. Perfect. And how cool is it to cross between the World Trade Center towers of NYC by tight rope in 1974 and show up on the stage of the Academy Awards in 2009 to be honored for his documentary Man on Wire?

Slumdog Millionaire goes gold statue 8 times. What a year for Danny Boyle. What a grand recognition of the fact that Hollywood doesn't have a strangle hold on great movies. And what a wonderful way to admit that the international box-office does matter, does have substance and will indeed be influencing moviemaking, as it should, from now on. The world is getting smaller and more like a neighborhood in spite of itself. Somebody find the thermostat and turn down the heat. Audiences - open yourselves up to foreign films and sub-titles. Trust us, you'll find yourself rewarded.

Lastly, we loved that the Oscars at least tried last night to tell a story. To hang an awards show on a narrative framework was inspired, though not entirely effective. The process of moviemaking, from script to screening the end credits, was a natural for organizing the award presentations and the departure from parading presenters with badly written banter and awkward podium skills, was more than welcome. Movies are a vehicle for storytelling so why not an awards show? Though much of what was new felt tentative, the impulse to change and freshen things up is spot on. The idea showed initiative and promise, and aren't we hoping for both in just about everything these days?

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