Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Oscars for better, for worse

So there we have it for another year — the Oscars. The question is if there’s anything new to be said about them, and while the answer is probably “not really,” some comment is called for about the curiously all-over-the-map nature of this year’s selections and the general weirdness and — let’s face it — galloping ennui of Oscar and this year’s program.

As a show, it started badly and went downhill from there in terms of both entertainment and judgment. The whole idea of doing a “theme” show — in this case, a tribute to the movie musical — was a dubious idea that tied to…well, nothing really, especially since the only musical in sight this year was Les Misérables. While some “recent” musicals got in on the act — strangely only those with ties to the show’s producers — there wasn’t a flicker of, say, Moulin Rouge!, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Sweeney Todd, or Across the Universe. The bad ideas, however, neither began, nor ended there.

I’m generally ambivalent about Seth MacFarlane. My limited exposure to him, however, suggests that I could never find him nearly as funny as he finds himself. Last night only strengthened that notion. The idea seems to have been that he would make the show edgy and, yes, relevant. What they got instead was mostly unfunny snark — and some of it recycled at that. The gag that Argo was so top secret that even the Academy didn’t know who directed it by reference to its Best Director snub was funnier 11 years ago when Whoopi Goldberg called Moulin Rouge! “the picture that apparently directed itself.” Oh, well, I’ve seen worse hosts and almost anything is preferable to Billy Crystal’s Borscht Belt comedy for me.

It was a pretty good idea in one sense to have Shirley Bassey come on and sing “Goldfinger,” but it had the undesirable downside of making Adele’s “Skyfall” sound lame by comparison. Does anybody really think they first few notes of “Skyfall” will be instantly recognizable 50 years down the road? And then there was the James Bond tribute. It might have been fine if only someone hadn’t gotten all artsy on it and tried to make it look like one of the late Maurice Binder’s title sequences. The result of that little notion was that it often wasn’t even clear who or what we were looking at. Sometimes a little simplicity is a good thing. This would have been one of those times.

I’ve nothing against the idea of having La Streisand show up and sing “The Way We Were,” but the way it was positioned at the end of this year’s “In Memoriam” segment was unfortunate. The placement made it look like the most notable loss the movies suffered this year was the death of Marvin Hamlisch. I don’t think — I certainly hope it wasn’t — the idea, but the image of Hamlisch hovering in ethereal space above Babs certainly made it all about him.

Bringing in a televised Michelle Obama to share Best Picture duties with Jack Nicholson was a nice enough idea and it worked OK — even if by that point, you just wanted the damn thing to end. However, am I the only one wondering if some poor boob from Price-Waterhouse had been hanging around the White House all night cooling his heels guarding the envelope?

The awards themselves were at least interesting. For a brief time, I was even pleasantly surprised by it. Though he was certainly my choice, I never even briefly expected Christoph Waltz would win Best Supporting Actor. I also never thought Curfew would actually win Best Live Action Short Film (I’d have bet money on Henry). I wasn’t surprised by Paperman winning Best Animated Short Film, but I really didn’t care one way or the other. On the other hand, the fact that the very mediocre Brave won Best Animated Feature over Frankenweenie and ParaNorman was a ludicrous testimony to the power of the Pixar brand name.

I have issues with Life of Pi nabbing the Best Cinematography award simply because so much of what you’re looking at isn’t cinematography, but CGI. It’s exceptional CGI and it resulted in some breath-taking imagery, but I question that it’s cinematography in the sense that the other entries were. I’d have gone with Anna Karenina. Failing that, Django Unchained.

That Django Unchained won Best Original Screenplay was a surprise — especially for such a supposedly controversial movie. (I say “supposedly,” because I think the controversy is more media-fabricated than actual.) Yes, I’d rather have seen Moonrise Kingdom win, but I’m not unhappy about this. Any of the other choices — Amour, Flight, Zero Dark Thirty — would have annoyed me.

I wasn’t surprised by Argo getting Best Adapted Screenplay. There could certainly have been worse choices, but I would rather have seen it go to Silver Linings Playbook — a film that should have done better overall.

The biggest rip-off to me, though, was Lincoln winning Best Production Design over the marvel that is Anna Karenina. I’m not, however, surprised. It’s the Academy and they just had to do something stuffy. That they gave Anna Karenina Best Costume Design was probably radical enough.

High on the list of unsurprising occurences was Anne Hathaway’s Best Supporting Actress win for Les Miserables. I mean really this was Oscar bait at its finest — she starved herself for the role, had her hair cut off on camera, and played her big scene in one take. That’s a hard parlay to buck. And Oscar responded accordingly. All in all, I’d have gone with Sally Field for Lincoln — less for her big Oscary moments than some of the smaller ones.

I was mildly surprised by Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Actress win for Silver Linings Playbook, but pleasantly so. I really expected them to go for Emmanuelle Riva for Amour — mostly because of her age and the fact that it was her birthday. And, yes, I was vastly relieved they didn’t go for Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild — as much for her sake as because I didn’t think it was an Oscar-worthy performance. I can’t think of anything worse than a 9-year-old winning an Oscar. I mean, where do you go from there?

Also in the unsurprising column was Amour taking Best Forgein Language Film. I didn’t agree with it — based simply on the fact that I didn’t think it was as good as A Royal Affair. The other entries have yet to play here. But it never occurred to me that it wasn’t going to win this category.

No surprise in Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor for Lincoln. That was hardly in contention. I might have slightly preferred Bradley Cooper, but I cannot fault the choice. I can’t imagine too many could or would.

I do find it very curious that the Academy gave Ang Lee the Best Director award — and not because I think David O. Russell would have been the better choice (though I do). What’s interesting to me is this is Lee’s second Best Director win without a Best Picture attached to it. (“You’re one hell of a filmmaker, but the movies aren’t that good.”)It was widely assumed last time that the Academy was afraid to give Brokeback Mountain Best Picture — sending them scurrying to the safety of the mediocrity of Crash — but this year? Was it simply picking somebody because it was obvious the Academy had screwed up by not nominating Ben Affleck?

That brings us to the biggie — Best Picture. Argo was no surprise — especially after David O. Russell lost. I’m more or less indifferent on this one. There were four choices that would have pissed me off — Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty —  two I’d have shrugged off — Life of Pi, Lincoln — one I was really rooting for — Django Unchained — and two I was OK with — Silver Linings Playbook, Argo. I’d have been a little more OK with the former, but Argo is a solid, entertaining picture. That I tend to think that the Best Picture ought to be a little more than that is just my foolishness. 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

32 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: The Oscars for better, for worse

  1. Dionysis

    Just as has been the case for the last umpteen years, I skipped watching the Oscars. I was concerned that just maybe, however, I would miss something really worthwhile.

    It seems my concerns were without merit.

  2. Jeremy Dylan

    However, am I the only one wondering if some poor boob from Price-Waterhouse had been hanging around the White House all night cooling his heels guarding the envelope?

    I can think of worse ways to spend an evening than hanging around with Michelle Obama.

    Overall, I thought the show was a bit baggy and creaky this year, but I was very pleased that Waltz and Tarantino picked up their gongs.

    To me, the biggest mistake was putting the orchestra in a studio instead of in the theatre. The difference in acoustics made it impossible to get the vocals to sit right in the mix. I couldn’t hear what was being sung most of the time.

    Then when Adele came out with the band on stage behind her, it was suddenly crystal clear.

  3. kimboronni

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCESbQaOjNw

    Ken, did you know that Asheville’s own Grey Eagle is mentioned in the credits for Searching for Sugarman? Harvest Records and the Grey Eagle brought him to town with the filmmakers in tow, so I understand there is some footage in the special features!

  4. Xanadon't

    I’m no Seth MacFarlane fan, but from what I saw (interrupted snippets throughout, totaling to roughly half) I’d say the bigger disappointments had more to do with the production than the hosting. Probably a lot to do with the fact that no one has set the bar very high lately when it comes to hosting duties.

    I don’t really see how anyone can argue that they got any more or less than what they expected out of MacFarlane. Being front and center of this circus (and then the media circus afterward) doesn’t strike me as the easiest job, so I’m probably more forgiving than most. Still, it’s been a handful of years since somebody has hosted that I consider basically likeable, so it would be nice if that changes soon.

    Bringing in a televised Michelle Obama to share Best Picture duties with Jack Nicholson was a nice enough idea and it worked OK

    Would it have worked okay if Zero Dark Thirty pulled a shocking upset?

    On the other hand, the fact that the very mediocre Brave won Best Animated Feature over Frankenweenie and ParaNorman was a ludicrous testimony to the power of the Pixar brand name.

    I suspect part of the problem here was the fact that these films struck Academy Members as too “seasonal” or “holiday” themed– which I know is problematic– but I can’t help but think that that’s part of the reason that Rise of the Guardians missed a nomination altogether. And since the Academy is too dumb to see the larger themes written all over Frankenweenie, it became a two picture race between Brave and Wreck it Ralph. And let’s face it– if I don’t particularly care about Zangief and Sonic, why would they?

    Nice that the awards were spread around a bit, but within the context of the entire production, even the couple happy surprises felt kind of meh.

  5. Ken Hanke

    To me, the biggest mistake was putting the orchestra in a studio instead of in the theatre. The difference in acoustics made it impossible to get the vocals to sit right in the mix. I couldn’t hear what was being sung most of the time.

    Yeah, I thought that was really dumb.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Ken, did you know that Asheville’s own Grey Eagle is mentioned in the credits for Searching for Sugarman? Harvest Records and the Grey Eagle brought him to town with the filmmakers in tow, so I understand there is some footage in the special features!

    I knew everything except the part about the footage in the special features. I’d say that it was my pick to win, but it’s also the only nominated doc. I’ve seen.

  7. Jeremy Dylan

    I’m no Seth MacFarlane fan, but from what I saw (interrupted snippets throughout, totaling to roughly half) I’d say the bigger disappointments had more to do with the production than the hosting

    I thought he did pretty good. The sock-puppet version of FLIGHT aside, I could’ve done without the Shatner sketch, but otherwise I thought he was quite funny. Which most Oscar hosts are. Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Baldwin and Martin, etc. were all pretty funny. Not hilarious, not as funny as they are in their natural environments, but pretty funny.

    That’s the standard.

  8. Orbit DVD

    I’m glad I wasn’t part of a betting pool, because I thought it was all going to LINCOLN. It almost seems TOO judicious.

  9. Ken Hanke

    don’t really see how anyone can argue that they got any more or less than what they expected out of MacFarlane. Being front and center of this circus (and then the media circus afterward) doesn’t strike me as the easiest job, so I’m probably more forgiving than most. Still, it’s been a handful of years since somebody has hosted that I consider basically likeable, so it would be nice if that changes soon.

    I agree with that last, but I was willing to give MacFarlane a chance…and like I said, it mostly seemed like low-grade snark to me. And really, I thought that song about the losers at the end was unnecessarily kind of mean.

    Would it have worked okay if Zero Dark Thirty pulled a shocking upset?

    An interesting question — and one that makes you wonder if nobody really knows who the winner is beforehand.

    I suspect part of the problem here was the fact that these films struck Academy Members as too “seasonal” or “holiday” themed– which I know is problematic– but I can’t help but think that that’s part of the reason that Rise of the Guardians missed a nomination altogether. And since the Academy is too dumb to see the larger themes written all over Frankenweenie, it became a two picture race between Brave and Wreck it Ralph. And let’s face it– if I don’t particularly care about Zangief and Sonic, why would they?>

    The points are well taken, but I don’t know if ParaNorman is necessarily seasonal. I suspect a bigger problem is that both it and Frankenweenie aren’t just too weird for them.

    Nice that the awards were spread around a bit, but within the context of the entire production, even the couple happy surprises felt kind of meh.

    I think it’s the all-over-the-place nature that causes that “meh” feeling. But I was kinda “meh” going in based on all the stuff that was, as usual, overlooked.

  10. Jeremy Dylan

    I thought that song about the losers at the end was unnecessarily kind of mean.

    I think I blacked out about two lines into that. No commentary on the content, but the last thing they needed at hour nine was another song.

  11. Jeremy Dylan

    I always forget how funny Daniel Day Lewis is because of the way people talk about him as THE MOST IMPORTANT AND SERIOUS ACTOR ALIVE. He had one of the few memorable speeches of the evening.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I thought he did pretty good.

    Maybe it’s an age thing. I just don’t find him funny. Better than Billy Crystal isn’t saying much.

  13. Jeremy Dylan

    I can understand that.

    Did you find him offensive?

    I saw a lot of headlines this morning about how “shocking”, “vile” and “misogynistic” he was. I’m still a little baffled at which show they were watching.

    The only thing I could think of as being considered misogynistic was the boobs song – and the entire joke behind that song was that it would be inappropriate and offensive to perform it at the Oscars.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Did you find him offensive?

    Only to the degree that puerile offends me.

    The only thing I could think of as being considered misogynistic was the boobs song – and the entire joke behind that song was that it would be inappropriate and offensive to perform it at the Oscars.

    Which, of course, is just a way of getting away with doing it. Does that really fool anyone?

    I am amused by seeing an article that raved about how he brought in a million more viewers than last year. Maybe so, but that’s about 3 million lower than the figure for 1970 when they had no host at all! (Actually, he’s also lower than Chris Rock, who usually gets shit for his stint.) What’s really sad is he drew a smaller audience than Bob Hope and Conrad Nagel in 1954. Do you realize how many fewer TVs there were in 1954?

  15. Xanadon't

    And really, I thought that song about the losers at the end was unnecessarily kind of mean.

    Just watched that for the first time, and yeah, that was one of the lamest and most condescending things they could’ve possibly cooked up.

    I saw a lot of headlines this morning about how “shocking”, “vile” and “misogynistic” he was. I’m still a little baffled at which show they were watching.

    There’s been no shortage of people embarrassing themselves by how much they’re getting worked up over what basically amounts to a bunch of stupid shit.

  16. Xanadon't

    What’s really sad is he drew a smaller audience than Bob Hope and Conrad Nagel in 1954.

    Well, I’d say he’s had some help in a sort of negative cumulative effect kind of way. The fall-out effect from Franco and Hathaway probably hasn’t run its course yet.

    Do you realize how many fewer TVs there were in 1954?

    Good point. But how many more channels are there now? Sure, most of them air a bunch of crap, but Walking Dead is still running, right.

  17. Big Al

    “I think it’s the all-over-the-place nature that causes that “meh” feeling…”

    Seems appropriate to me as I felt 2012 was a movie year that could best be described as “meh”. Only two films made me gush, and one waited until the tear was almost over. 2012 also had the highest number of dissappointments.

    “…he drew a smaller audience than Bob Hope and Conrad Nagel in 1954. Do you realize how many fewer TVs there were in 1954?”

    Those comedians were classy, as opposed to crass like today’s crop, but would America, which has become pretty crass itself, respond better to classier hosts and less snark? I would hope so, but then I am starting to get pretty cynical in my middle age.

  18. Jeremy Dylan

    There’s been no shortage of people embarrassing themselves by how much they’re getting worked up over what basically amounts to a bunch of stupid shit.

    It’s nothing compared to the shitstorm that’s kick off over one joke tweet from The Onion last night.

  19. Xanadon't

    It’s nothing compared to the shitstorm that’s kick off over one joke tweet from The Onion last night.

    While I wouldn’t particularly mind it if the U.S. reached a comfort level with the c-word approaching that enjoyed by your neck of the woods, I imagine you agree that this wasn’t a very healthy step.

  20. Jeremy Dylan

    While I wouldn’t particularly mind it if the U.S. reached a comfort level with the c-word approaching that enjoyed by your neck of the woods, I imagine you agree that this wasn’t a very healthy step.

    Do you mean did I agree that the quote was in poor taste? Not to me personally, but it’s one of those situations where Twitter was probably the wrong venue for it. It would’ve probably worked better in the context of a story in the Onion.

    I thought this was a pretty fair take on why the hysterical reaction to it was so overblown: http://mattkirshen.tumblr.com/post/44013195192/the-onion-the-outrage

  21. Xanadon't

    Actually, the most problematic part of the joke for me is the “,right?”. How to explain?…

    I happen to love the Onion and am fully familiar with their brand of humor (being able to pick up a free weekly copy any time I’m walking down the street or entering a restaurant is one of the things I miss about my hometown), but I don’t know a damn thing about Twitter. And I’m probably not as alone in that regard as it sometimes feels.

    So yeah, I think you’re right in saying that Twitter wasn’t the ideal venue for the joke. ANY amount of additional context besides just the Onion address (or whatever it’s called in Twitter-land) would’ve been helpful. For me personally, and maybe for others. That’s because I don’t have the basic knowledge of how Twitter works in general to immediately understand, A: who the joke’s intended audience is (specific, general, any and all “followers”?), or, B: whether the joke stood by itself or was a direct reply, or directly related to some other Tweet.

    That’s where the “,right?” comes in for me. Chop that off, and I instantly recognize the Onion at work: “Ah, this is a joke, haha.” But with it– combined with my Twitter ignorance– I momentarily wondered (yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it) if I just read an actual suggestion (and endorsement by perpetuation) that this (obviously insane) sentiment already exists out there somewhere. I know, absurd.

    Meh, humor is a tricky thing.

  22. Ken Hanke

    After wading through this to find out what other than THAT WORD you boys were on about. It didn’t offend me, but I didn’t think it was funny. It’s a classic example of how you could say something and inflection would get you through, but it becomes something else in print. The idea itself is as old as the hills — or at least as old as Bob Hope’s gag writers. It’s on a par with say, “That Mussolini — what a card!”

    Next year, I say rhey just even this misogynistic jazz out with a production number called “We Saw Your Dick.” Granted, the field is narrower — after Ewan McGregor and Sam Rockwell, you have to think about it — but it could be done.

  23. Ken Hanke

    Seems appropriate to me as I felt 2012 was a movie year that could best be described as “meh”. Only two films made me gush, and one waited until the tear was almost over. 2012 also had the highest number of dissappointments.

    I liked the year better than you did, but most of the best stuff wasn’t nominated or was nominated in “lesser” areas.

    Those comedians were classy, as opposed to crass like today’s crop, but would America, which has become pretty crass itself, respond better to classier hosts and less snark? I would hope so, but then I am starting to get pretty cynical in my middle age.

    Well, Conrad Nagel wasn’t a comedian and Hope could be pretty crass — and pretty lame, too. I’m not really championing the good old days, merely noting that MacFarlane didn’t draw such remarkable numbers. I suspect you’d find the 1954 broadcast pretty darn tedious. I won’t argue that there’s a lot of crassness out there, but thar’s not new either — and I suspect you and I would come up with different lists of crassness.

  24. Jeremy Dylan

    Next year, I say rhey just even this misogynistic jazz out with a production number called “We Saw Your Dick.”

    Nah, the year do that was last year, when the Fassmember was in the zeitgeist.

  25. Ken Hanke

    It hardly matters — most of the boobs were from films years and years old.

  26. Ken Hanke

    By the way, I just read that MacFarlane has said he won’t host the things again.

  27. DrSerizawa

    Probably would be best to change the Oscar statuette into one of someone making love to him/herself. There’s never been a bigger bunch of narcissists on the face of the earth. I’m glad it’s done for the year. And a generally poor year it was.

    The poor viewership numbers are beyond sad. The were only 150 million people in the USA in the 50’s. Many didn’t have television. And the worldwide viewership was an even ridiculously lower fraction of the total viewers today. Eastern Europe, the USSR, China…. all were excluded. Never mind that there was no satellite TV. you have billions of potential viewers today vs a few hundred million in the 50s. Even with the large number of channels this indicates that the public simply doesn’t care about this yearly largely irrelevant self-lovefest.

    Not to worry though. We get to see another orgy with the MTV movie awards soon. In fact there’s an award given out about every week if you like awards.

    http://www.hitfix.com/in-contention/the-2012-2013-film-awards-circuit

  28. Ken Hanke

    Well, the Oscars have always been self-congratulatory. It’s the nature of the thing and perfectly in keeping with Louis B. Mayer’s original idea that if they gave out these awards, it would keep the artists amused and in line. The whole idea that it’s more meaningful because it’s voted on by your peers is kind of silly and doomed to failure in any meaningful way. For starters “your peers” know too much and all have their own agendas. I have long thought that industry people vote within their comfort zone, which is to say that they won’t vote for movies or achievements that are outside what they perceive as their own reach.

  29. DrSerizawa

    Well, it certainly keeps the artists amused. “In line” though is maybe a bit more problematic. /sarcasm

    I wouldn’t do away with the Academies though. There’s too much unintentional material to mine from them. And it give me an excuse to get all self-righteous. Being married I don’t get that opportunity often.

  30. Ken Hanke

    Well, it certainly keeps the artists amused. “In line” though is maybe a bit more problematic. /sarcasm

    If nothing else, the idea that it would curb their desire for more money was a bust.

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