Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Major & Minor of the 87th Academy Awards

Welcome to the first edition of the Major & Minor. I'm trying this out as way to provide analysis to the many awards shows that are out there, while hopefully bringing something new to the table. I'll be looking at the highs and lows, best and worst, positives and negatives, or whatever you want to call it, of the 2015 Oscars, which is the biggest of all awards shows and not a bad place to start.

Major: Good Things Happen When Neil Patrick Harris Sings (and Jack Black & Anna Kendrick Cameo)

The opening show number written by Robert and Kristin-Anderson Lopez (Frozen's "Let It Go") provided the kind of pizazz and showbiz acumen most of us had hoped for when it was announced that Harris would be the host. His past stints doing the same duties for the Emmys and Tonys showed how apt he was and for four minutes, he lived up to the hype. Comedic timing and a solid voice should be all you need to do this thing successfully, right?

Major: #Cumberflask

Best "I'm A Big Star, But Don't Take Myself Too Seriously" moment since Meryl Streep stared down Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt.

Major: O to the N to the D to the Pearls Of Love

I'll leave the fashion analysis to the experts, but the eyes don't lie: stunning is stunning. Also, someone please include Lupita Nyong'o's smile in a romantic comedy.

Major/Minor: This Was More Of A Leading Role, But The Right Man Won

I'm a huge fan of  Whiplash and I'm happy to see J.K. Simmons get some recognition, but you can't convince me that he didn't have a leading role. There's no doubt that Miles Teller had the bigger transformational arc. He's the protagonist. I get that, but Simmons' is the force that pushes that movie. I understand studios submit actors and actresses in categories they have the best shot at winning (once upon a time, Harvey Weinsten tried to push off Kate Winslet as a supporting actress in The Reader), but it will always continue to rub me the wrong way. I could always just stop nitpicking and appreciate the fact he won an award for the role of the tyrannical Terence Fletcher, one of the scariest, most well-rounded, brimstone-spewing characters we've seen this decade. I'm not entirely sure that it's a given he would have lost if he had been submitted in Best Actor. Sure, the category was already loaded with major contenders like Keaton, Redmayne and Cumberbatch already, but neither one of them was as showy as Simmons' performance, which the Academy often leans towards. Let's say Best Actor ends up like this:

Steve Carell
Benedict Cumberbatch
Michael Keaton
Eddie Redmayne
J.K. Simmons

Keaton and Redmayne always had momentum from the beginning since they were undoubtedly lead characters in their films, but was J.K.'s performance not the most-buzzed about out of this group? How was his role any different than that of Denzel Washington in Training Day or Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, where there was a clear protagonist who was overshadowed by the antagonist?

Major: That Speech

We're all monsters for not calling our parents often enough.

Entertainment Weekly/Twitter

Minor: What's In The Boooox?

Perhaps if he had chosen a more game celebrity, this bit could have worked. There was no need for us to be invested in any of Neil's predictions at this point. Ridiculous? Inane? Sure, but that could have been two ingredients for a solid joke if played correctly. Unfortunately, the joke was on Octavia Spencer and anyone else who thought the concept was clever. Also, did anyone not see how offensive it would be to tell a full-figured woman that she wouldn't be allowed to have snacks? She deserved another Oscar for being such a good sport.

Minor: Not Quite My Tempo

There's the chance that viewing Begin Again would give me more of an appreciation for this song. Sadly, Adam Levine is not the vessel for which I can enjoy it cold. It was only two weeks ago that he and Gwen Stefani halted the momentum of the Grammys and last night proved that he's developed a knack for doing so. Like a lot of people, I dig some of Maroon 5's earlier stuff, so I'm secretly rooting for him to succeed. Sure, they've unleashed "Animals," "One More Night" and other subpar fare upon us over the past few years, but whenever Adam Levine appears on my TV, I usually go "Okay, this guy gave us 'Sunday Morning' and 'This Love.' He's bound to turn it around at some point." I actually got excited when I saw him in the trailer for Begin Again because I thought being associated with the director of Once was a good look for him. I don't like being disappointed by Adam Levine on my TV screen any more than you do. Trust me.
I do have to give the producers most of the blame for its placement in the show, but given what lay ahead, it was probably for the best to get this one out of the way.

Minor: I Don't Want To Be The One To Explain The Concept Of Moral Victories To Drax The Destroyer

It's all but set in stone by this point that Grand Budapest Hotel won't be walking away with Best Picture. The thing is that it's still loved by the Academy, as evidenced by all the nominations in spite of a March release. No Best Picture win? No biggie. Just shower it with as many technical awards as you can to steer clear of acknowledging pure popcorn flicks. We've seen this happen before in the past with Hugo, Inception and Gravity, and compared to the other BP nominees, TGBH stood above the rest in production values. I do take issue with a win for Best Makeup and Hairstyling over a movie where Dave Bautista and Zoë Saldana were covered from head-to-toe to resemble aliens in convincing fashion. Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier and their crew did a great job with Tilda Swinton, but aside from that, I don't see how it was better than what Guardians Of The Galaxy accomplished.

Major: I'm Happy For You Speech Timer And Imma Let You Finish, But...

Ida is a good film. I thought that Leviathan was better, but that's besides the point. In the entire 87 year history of the Oscars, has there ever been a non-performer who was so brazen with their allotted speech time? Paweł Pawlikowski was being played off by the orchestra. The music swelled into a crescendo, which as we all know is the big signal to wrap things up. But then he kept going. He entered the cheat code and orchestra be damned, he made sure his acceptance speech would not be confined to a meager thirty seconds, only to have the orchestra attempt to play him off a second time. I had no idea it was physically possible. I'm sure it was similar to how people felt when they found out the world was round.

Major: With A Capital Freakin' A

This is what I hope for in a musical performance at the Oscars. Don't simply just stick a singer on show with some mood lighting and hope for magic. Incorporate themes and notable identifiers from the movie, no matter how grim, or in the case of The Lego Movie, lighthearted they may be. There were so many elements placed throughout the performance from Will Arnett dressed as Batman to the rudimentary nature of the set to capture the make-believe aspect of Legos, that it was satisfactory for fans of the movie, and even if you were completely ignorant about what the song represented, you at least walked away with more knowledge about the film. This was up there with past memorable performances like Robin Williams singing "Blame Canada" or Three 6 Mafia bringing Memphis to Hollywood that also had similar music/film synergy.

Then this happened and it became legendary.

Well done.

Major: Remember What I Said About Incorporating More Of The Movie Into Performances? Well, There Are Exceptions

Sometimes all you need is a great singer and a minimal set to get the job done. In this case, the context spoke for itself. If Glen Campbell were up to it, he likely would have done the song himself, but due to his ongoing battle with Alzheimer's disease, Tim McGraw stepped up to the plate in a huge way. In Campbell's absence, the song, "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" held even more weight because it symbolized as a whole that we're likely never going to see Glen on a stage ever again. The movie that it came from was a documentary, so it would probably would have been in poor taste to have rhinestone cowboys and Wichita linemen parading about. I wholeheartedly approve of this performance in spite of that.

Minor: I Miss Ellen

I'm not going to place the blame squarely on NPH here. We've seen him be an entertaining host before in the past. The jokes here just aren't doing him any favors and he's not a master at improvised quips like seasoned comedians who've hosted before. If this had been 30 years ago, a lot of the puns would have gone over better. Harris fit a more traditional mode of Oscar host, but after Ellen DeGeneres' master class in social media last year, the game has changed. Pure showmanship may not be enough to be an engaging host any more and if you do have a song-and-dance funnyman like Harris, just let him loose. When Hugh Jackman hosted a few years back, the ceremony played to his strengths and went full out showbiz. Harris shouldn't be making jokes about Harvey Weinstein or David Oyelwo's British accent. He can deliver a good line, but what is there to do when the material's not there? I did admire how daring the Birdman parody was though, and the straitlaced delivery of the line "Acting is a noble profession" when he stood before the world in his underwear was good, but I laughed harder at Miles Teller's appearance on drums just for being more clever than anything the show has thrown at us so far.

Minor: The Presentation For Best Sound Mixing And Best Sound Editing Was A Missed Opportunity

So far, I've really enjoyed the graphic design of the category introductions. They've been very stylish, simple and subtly managed to get across the technical elements in the title cards. However, if this were my first time watching the Academy Awards, I would have no idea what the difference between mixing and editing was and I wouldn't have an example of how the movies received their nominations. There was an aversion to showing clips that worked for the majority of the show, but this was the one category that could have used more elucidation in its presentation.

Major: The Speeches Have Been On Fire This Year

There was no surprise here that Patricia Arquette got the win. She's been a perennial awards season favorite and her last scene alone in Boyhood cinched the deal. What I have been enjoying is how the winners haven't been afraid to show some passion beyond the usual gratitude that's come to be expected. There's nothing wrong with thanking your family, your agent, your director, etc. It just makes for better television when I'm left with something to remember. Arquette making a plea to do away with the gender wage gap to enthusiastic approval from Meryl Streep is something I'm going to remember the next morning.

Major: God Bless The Internet

Minor: I'm Still Upset "The Apology Song" From The Book Of Life Was Snubbed And This Isn't Making Me Feel Any Better About It

Before I begin, let me state that I loved Beyond The Lights. It was one of the best movies of 2014 and you need to check it out, however, the music is not one of the highlights. It was serviceable and I bought that what I was listening to could potentially come from any random pop star on the radio, but that was really the only purpose: for it be believable. While I was watching the movie, I could go along for the ride, but the music fan in me had little to no interest in those songs after I left the theater. The nominees for Best Original Song are decided upon by the music branch of the Academy, so I'd like to think that each song that cracked the shortlist had an equal chance. The scene in The Book Of Life where "The Apology Song" took place was such an emotionally resonant moment that I for sure thought it would be a lock for a nomination. I know that the box office for The Book Of Life wasn't astounding or anything, so I probably should have lowered my expectations.

Major: But Seriously, These Category Introduction Sequences Are Insane

The folks behind the title designs were Henry Hobson & Elastic, who should go down in Oscar lore for the work they've done. In previous years during the presentation for Best Production Design, props were neglected. I'm guilty of overlooking them as well because when I think of production design, I'm focused on the set itself. It was a refreshing move to use props from the nominated films, if only just for viewing them again and up close transported me back to that world I inhabited for a few hours when I sat in the theater.

Minor: Call Me Crazy, But I Wanted More From Best Visual Effects

The execution for the category sequences have been topnotch. They're some of the best I've ever seen, yet I felt that in some cases, they overlooked the informative aspect that is usually associated with such a widely broadcast event. The Oscars always attracts a lot of casual fans. They mainly watch for the acting categories and to see who's wearing what. Things like production design or sound mixing are of little concern and are usually an excuse to turn the channel or check their timeline. If one of the goals in getting people to watch the Academy Awards is to shine a light on the folks behind the scenes, it's up to the producers to be able to break things down as to what their function is and why you should care. The more that you engage people outside of the acting categories, there's more of a chance that you can get them invested and it won't matter as much if a certain year is lacking blockbusters or starpower among its nominees. This is how watercooler discussions are made. You provide the audience with some nuggets they didn't know before, and in turn, you hopefully have a more knowledgeable movie fan. I don't expect the technical categories to measure up in popularity with the more glamorous ones anytime soon, but I consider it a lost opportunity when you don't take the time to show what something is, why it's important and why it earned it. As a fan of the movies in Best Visual Effects, I thought it was smart to use still images of things that don't exist in our world to show the power of the VFX team on those respective projects. The close-ups were nice and the tiny objects floating in the forefront gave it a 3-D effect, but I fail to see how they would make anyone want to watch the movies in contention or what made one film's visual effects distinct from another's.

Major: We've Got Ourselves A Showdown For Best Cinematography

One of my favorite things about watching awards show in real time is that the prognosticating never stops for me. Best Picture is often won or lost depending on who takes what in some of the lower categories. In Best Cinematography, we had both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman vying for the award. At this point, TGBH had been winning most of the technical awards, but Cinematography presented the first opportunity to do battle with a viable Best Pic contender. Depending on who won between the two, I'd get a clearer idea of who would be crowned at the end of the night. Birdman got the job done and we all know how it ended up for them.

Minor: Craig, Stop Trying To Make Smash Happen

Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were the producers for this year's telecast, their third straight time doing so. The duo's resumé speaks for itself as they've been responsible for some key musical adaptations for both the big and small screen (Chicago, Hairspray, ABC's Annie and The Music Man). They also produced a little show called Smash, one that which Jennifer Hudson herself guested on. Want to guess where the song she sang came from? Even as someone who for better and worse watched every single episode of Smash and loved the music so much that I even put the soundtrack on one of my top ten lists, "I Can't Let Go" was not one of the more memorable songs from that series. I hadn't thought about it once in the two years that the show has been cancelled and I wouldn't have been able to tell you without a quick Google search that some of the lyrics were changed around to fit the In Memoriam segment. I'm happy that Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson got a chance to perform at the ceremony, but it didn't do her any favors by singing an average song that only a small selection of people care about in what was supposed to be one of the most important moments of the night. The selection of "I Can't Let Go" reeked of inflated self-importance over a show that although still has its fans, was eventually a hate-watch classic by the time it ended.

Major: More Gold For Whiplash

Sure, paring down twelve years of footage into a three-hour movie was a remarkable feat for Boyhood, yet the kineticism on display during the music scenes for Whiplash were expertly paced. I was more excited for this win than for Simmons.

Minor: Please God, Don't Let It Be Drugs

Well, that was awkward. That might have been in the top 20 of most uncomfortable presentations ever in award show history. I would have rather Terrence Howard stumble over his words instead of grasping through thin air for them. I got emotional during Selma also, but I could still manage to form coherent thoughts afterwards. There was no composure and as it went on, it was clear that he wasn't at his A game. Howard is a two-time Oscar nominee and his oratory skills are miles ahead of mine, so I'll just blame this on something that was out of his control, like the teleprompter perhaps, until the entire story comes out.

Major: *sniffles*

"Glory" is one of the most overrated songs to come down the pike in sometime. The dramatic flourishes that appear throughout don't come across as sincere, in the sense that I feel Common and John Legend placed themselves into a box as to what a civil rights anthem should sound like and then tried their best to replicate it without calling upon some of the more creative juices that has kept their careers going. It all comes off as trying too hard and its automatic approval as adopted civil rights anthem rubs me the wrong way because the only way that it earned it was because of its association with a terrific movie. It's not a bad song, but I don't care to listen to it on my own. More so, I don't like being told this is an important song and I should applaud for it just because. Having said that, the performance was incredibly rousing. You know how much I love it when the nominated film makes its presence known on the stage and the integration was beautiful here with images from the film playing on the screen with a replica of the Edmund J. Pettis bridge in the background. This was Tony-worthy stuff here and it hit all the right notes. Just ask Chris Pine.

Minor: Ick

It might be safe to say John Travolta is out of touch. He had to deal with a full year of mockery for flubbing Idina Menzel's name at last year's ceremony. Earlier in the evening he shared this awkward moment with Scarlett Johnansson:

The man's body language meter is on the fritz. Menzel was obviously bothered by Travolta's incessant schmoozing and it derailed what could have been a lighthearted moment that allowed him to redeem himself. Instead, he earned himself another 51 weeks of a being a meme.

Major: Well, Who Else Was Going To Win?

I still prefer "Everything Is Awesome" and "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," but I wasn't bothered by this win. As a Chicagoan and fan of Common's, I'm thrilled that he can call himself an Oscar winner and John Legend's statement about African-Americans and the prison system is a conversation that needs to happen more often and publicly. Besides, this was the only award that Selma had a legit shot at winning and the backlash against the nominations this year would have grown larger if they had lost after that performance.

Major: The Sound of Gaga

Lady Gaga hit a rough patch after the lukewarm response to ARTPOP, so it's nice to see her getting so much positive attention after her duet with Tony Bennett at the Grammys a few weeks ago, and now this performance, where she capably sang a trio of songs from The Sound Of Music. If the 2013 live production that starred Carrie Underwood is any indication, Julie Andrews is still the standard bearer when it comes to those songs, so anyone who falls short will likely face the wrath of millions. In this case, I think Gaga benefited from lowered expectations. For one, I'm not sure if she's shown that type of vocal range on any of her pop albums, so being able to sing the title song with force was already enough to gain positive reviews. Vocally, she absolutely slayed it, however the rest of her body didn't connect with the songs. That dress, I imagine, would have made it difficult.

Someone with more experience in musical theater would have been able to inhabit the song so that it would have not only been pleasing to the ears, but to the eyes and the heart as well, especially with songs as dynamic as these. This might have been the rare moment where it would have been to her advantage to be Stefani Germanotta instead of Lady Gaga in order to be more relatable.

Major: If These Title Cards Hosted Next Year, I Would Not Be Upset

New Facebook cover photo.

Major: Graham Moore, Life Coach

On a night that had seen its fair share of memorable speeches, Graham Moore, screenwriter of The Imitation Game, gave the most inspirational one. Encouraging kids to '"stay weird" is some of the best advice you can give someone. I know that my own personal route to happiness wouldn't have been possible without accepting myself and all the strange little things that come packaged with me. It's always great whenever someone wins an award and then passes on encouragement to a captive audience. This shouldn't be an unusual occurrence, especially given all the hard work one must put in to achieve such a level of success.

Minor: What Does The Box Say

The predictions in the box actually had a few laughs in them, but for it to be such a huge focal point of the show, the payoff was minuscule. It just wasn't worth having to endure multiple awkward moments with Octavia Spencer or have Robert Duvall totally stonewall a joke. The contents of the box deserved better.

Major: Henry Hobson & Elastic, You The Real MVP

Major: Birdman Takes Home The Big Prize

I try not to get too caught up in the Best Picture winner each year, mainly because I know that it only represents a consensus opinion. The nominees themselves are sometimes not among my top tier of best movies in a certain year, but they usually figure somewhere in my list. Under The Skin was probably too challenging to be nominated and I can accept that.  but I'm okay with Birdman winning because it's an inventive film and it upholds the integrity of the award. Do I feel strongly that Boyhood was better? Sure, but the canon won't implode just because it lost to a film that was just as worthy.

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