Monday, February 23, 2009

2008 Academy Awards

While way too much of last night’s Academy Awards show played out as a cloying love-fest for best picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” the producers made a valiant, and mostly successful, effort to breathe life into this creaky institution.

From the Broadway-show style staging and host Hugh Jackman’s toned-down “home-made” opening number to the truly inspired idea of having five former acting winners in each category offer heartfelt-sounding introductions spoken directly to this year’s nominees, the show found ways to entertain and produce emotional moments above and beyond giving out Oscars.

But the clear highlight for me, as one who was hopelessly rooting against “Slumdog” all night, came from an unlikely source: Ben Stiller presenting, along with Natalie Portman, the Oscar for cinematography. Sporting a bushy, ridiculous fake beard and dark glasses and fainting disinterest in the proceedings, Stiller (and the writers who came up with the idea) hilariously lampooned Joaquin Phoenix and his inexplicable recent appearance on David Letterman. I’m guessing Stiller won’t be attending any of Joaquin’s upcoming hip-hop performances.

On the downside, I was baffled by what seemed to be a preview of next year’s Tony Award show, with Jackman and Beyonce Knowles celebrating musicals with a medley of movie songs. And then, just a few minutes later, we were subjected to another musical extravaganza, this one combining the nominated songs from “Slumdog” along side the one from “Wall-E.” Huh? It made no sense to put these songs together, but seeing it explained why Peter Gabriel, the writer and singer of “Down to Earth” from “Wall-E,” walked off the show during rehearsals. I wonder if the producers would have tried to combine Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” if it had been nominated?

What was billed as the emotional highpoint---Heath Ledger’s family accepting his supporting actor Oscar---instead felt scripted and failed to rise to a tear-producing moment. Much more moving were Penelope Cruz’s from the heart acceptance speech and even Sean Penn’s calm and thoughtful speech focusing on the issue of gay marriage. Penn winning his second best actor Oscar, denying a chance to hear the unpredictable Mickey Rourke speak, might have been the biggest surprise in this very predictable show. Another upset came when the Japanese film “Departures” scooped up the foreign language Oscar over favorite “Waltz With Bashir”---at least, for the six people who care about that award.

I thought the clips reviewing the year in movies were an improvement over the usual pointless retread of best picture clips we’ve all seen a hundred times since the nominations were announced. They still managed to show the best picture trailers (oddly combined with similarly themed films from years past), but they weren’t as time consuming as in previous shows, clumped together right before Steven Spielberg gave out the final Oscar.

I also appreciated the reductions in the celebrity presenters; the grouping of awards under the various crafts kept the show moving along even when you didn’t care who won. Though the screenplay skit by Tina Fey and Steve Martin, both in full pseudo pretentiousness, almost prompted me to switch over to “Sports Center.”

As much as I look forward to a night of comedy fronted by Billy Crystal (and his sidekick Jack Nicholson), this approach was a nice change of pace. But I still can’t believe they handed out the Oscars without Jack in the front row!

As for my predictions, I failed miserably, managing to correctly guess just 16 of the 24 awards. My mistake was hoping against hope that “Slumdog” wouldn’t sweep and I’d avoid witnessing that inevitable gathering of the entire cast at the end of the show.

Unfortunately, that best picture win and the film’s other seven awards will be what the 2008 Academy Awards will be remembered for. To me, “Slumdog” just adds to the growing list of recent pitifully unworthy best pictures, including “Braveheart” (1995), “The English Patient” (1996), “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), and, worst of all, “Crash” (2005).


Anonymous said...

Well I think you are so right about the best picture.

Dana King said...

I missed the opening number, but have heard nothing but good things about it. Jackman was good--I had no idea Wolverine could sing and dance--and he's got a nice, low-key personality to hold such an event together, since the winners will provide plenty of schmaltz and emotion.

I might be the only person who liked the Best Picture montages, with the older, similar movies cut into the nominees' trailers. I thought the homage to those who died last year could have been better; the multiple screens made things hard to see, even on a big screen. The Newman clips they showed were well chosen, though, from an old Fast Eddie lining up a shot the young Fast Eddie takes, to Harry Gondorf's finger along his nose at the end.

Better than recent shows, but, no offense to Hugh Jackman, I think the Academy has spent the last twenty-plus years looking for someone to replace Johnny Carson. I appreciate him even more as time goes by.

Dana King said...

Saw Slumdog Millionaire over the weekend. I don't remember what was released around the same time, but I would have had a hard time voting for it as Best Picture of the Month. Cliche-ridden chick flick.

I will confess to liking Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind. Don't know if they were Best Picture material, but I thought they were both good.