Friday, March 16, 2018

90th Academy Awards: A Review Part II

Some people, it appears, never learn.

The 90th Academy Awards were the lowest-rated presentations in its history.  I proposed that there were three reasons for it: general obscurity of nominated films, the longstanding political nature of previous award shows, and the predictability of the winners.

On 'the Twitter', it didn't take long for someone to find my reasoning flawed. I was told that:

1.) The Shape of Water was the highest-grossing Best Picture winner of past five years.
2.) Dunkirk and Get Out were hardly 'obscure'.
3.) Three Billboards and Shape of Water were a toss-up.
4.) Donald Trump wasn't mentioned once.

The speaker was a member of 'The Resistance'.  I am neither a Resister or a Trumper, but I disagree with all these assertions.  I now make my case as to how this trifecta: obscurity of films, the political nature of the Oscars and other award show, and the predictability of the winners all played a role in declining public interest.
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The Shape of Water is still well below Get Out, Dunkirk and The Post in terms of box office, and its total box office take is one below A Dog's Purpose.  More people saw Power Rangers, Daddy's Home 2 and A Bad Mom's Christmas than they did The Shape of Water.  The fact that The Shape of Water made more money than Birdman, Spotlight or Moonlight is not something that confers great public interest in Fifty Fins of Grey.

This person is in a fantasy world if he thinks audiences were wondering if the more obscure Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was going to win out over The Shape of Water.  More people paid to see Baywatch than Three Billboards, so where the idea that this 'duel' was some sort of toss-up that people had vested interest in comes from is a complete mystery. 

I could also add that Three Billboards did not get a Best Director nomination, so the real toss-up was between The Shape of Water and Dunkirk, not between Grinding Nemo vs. Three Billboards.

True, Dunkirk and Get Out were hit films, but both came out early in the year: July and February respectively.  To me, that shows that the other films, all relatively new and nowhere near as massive as Dunkirk or Get Out, were not going to draw people to see which one won.

As Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel put it so succinctly in his opening monologue, only two Best Picture nominees made more than $100 million. In referencing one of the other Best Picture nominees, the same-sex romance between a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old man, "We don't make films like Call Me By Your Name for money.  We make them to upset Mike Pence".

I leave it to readers to decide if this was meant as a joke or a confession.

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In what can be seen as unintentional mixed messaging, Kumail Nanjiani in a montage celebrating 'diversity and inclusion' in film said the exact opposite of what Kimmel asserts.  "There are so many movies from different point of views that are making a ton of money.  Don't do it because it's better for society and representation, even though it is (emphasis mine).  Do it because you'll be rich".

Which is it: should Hollywood make movies to 'make tons of money' or to 'upset Mike Pence'?

If I'm allowed a little cynicism, I imagine that Nanjiani supports films 'from different point of views' so long as those different point of views agree with his own. In 2015, the Christian-themed film War Room was a hit, making more than among others Magic Mike XXX, Fantastic Four, The Hateful Eight, and Sicario: all of which had far higher budgets, greater publicity, and more screens.  War Room ended up taking in more money than that year's Best Picture winner Spotlight and many evangelical films end up being profitable or at least breaking even. 

Nanjiani may say profit should motive people to make films from 'different point of views', but his industry does not bear that out. There have been a slew of Iraq War-themed films: Green Zone, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Lions for Lambs

Each one flopped.

The biggest hit of 2014 was an Iraq War-related film, but its point of view was the complete opposite from all those other films and from I imagine is Nanjiani's own point of view on the subject. American Sniper was pilloried by the same people who call for diversity in films as some right-wing fantasia, even though it was more about Chris Kyle's journey through PTSD than a glorification of the Iraq War.

That same year 2014, the Christian-themed Heaven is For Real outperformed all the Best Picture nominees save American Sniper, with its total take slightly ahead of The Imitation Game.  Three Christian-themed films: the aforementioned HIFR, God's Not Dead and Son of God, all outperformed the other Best Picture nominees: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash, and those same faith-centered films came in far ahead of that year's Best Picture winner: Birdman

Will Nanjiani encourage more Christian-themed films?  They have shown they are profitable, there's a ready market for them, and they certainly are from a different point of view.  Will Nanjiani encourage others to write or produce faith-centered films even if they do not reflect his own faith or worldview?  Will Nanjiani ever make a movie about persecuted Christians in his native Pakistan?

I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say, 'No, No, and No'.

People like Nanjiani do not support diversity in film if they involve actual different points of view.  They support diversity in film only insofar as it relates to cast and crew.  His idea of diversity is not in diversity of thought, only diversity in image. 

Never mind that War Room had a primarily African-American cast where the characters were wealthy and not stereotypes, with Anglo characters barely visible. Never mind that God's Not Dead had an Asian character who had a subplot. These films came from an actual different point of view, but I don't expect people like Nanjiani to support and encourage these types of films as they at the very least do not share that point of view, at worst are hostile to it.

When it comes to diversity in Hollywood, diversity is very conformist.

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As for any lack of politics at this year's ceremony, the assertion that President Trump was not mentioned is wrong.  I quote, again from Kimmel's opening monologue, "None other than President Trump called Get Out the best first three-quarters of a movie this year".

Kimmel, who has decided to use his late-night talk show to weigh in on issues of the day, added more commentary masquerading as 'jokes', right from the beginning.  In an otherwise clever faux-newsreel opening, he makes the following 'jokes':

"And Chadwick Boseman, the King of Wakanda.  Imagine: a country with a black leader! Wouldn't that be swell!"
"Now it's time to go inside, where tonight's godless Hollywood elitists are on the edge of their seats".
"And Wow: the stunning Lupita Nyong'o! She was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya.  Let the tweet-storm from the President's toilet begin!"

In his monologue, after the Pence swipe, he was simultaneously encouraging short speeches and taking up time in those speeches to make political statements. This was part of his advise to winners, while still encouraging short speeches: "You have an opportunity and a platform to remind millions of people about important things like equal rights and equal treatment.  If you want to encourage others to join the amazing students of Parkland at their march on the 24th, do that".

The imagination boggles how to someone watching in Iowa would think a set designer's views on gun control would change hearts and minds, or how sound editors are so well-versed on the issue of immigration.

Eugenio Derbez, introducing Coco's Remember Me, added this bit of wisdom. "In the movie, this song pulls a 12-year-old Mexican boy from the land of the living across the border to the land of the dead, all for the love of his family.  Because you know in the afterworld, there are no walls". His awkward pause right after show he expected applause and not the silence he ended up with.

Nanjiani and Nyong'o, presenting Best Production Design, opened by mentioning they were immigrants: she from Kenya, he from Pakistan and Iowa "two places that nobody in Hollywood can find on a map".  Nyong'o stated, "And like everyone in this room, and everyone watching at home, we are Dreamers.  We grew up dreaming of one day, working in the movies.  Dreams are the foundation of Hollywood, and dreams are the foundation of America".  Nanjiani closes with, "And so, to all the Dreamers out there, we stand with you".

Again, my cynicism tells me they were not referring to a general sense of 'dreamers' but to those affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, people who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.  They've been given the lovely term of 'Dreamers', a sobriquet I hate because it makes it sound so endearing.  Who can be against 'Dreamers'?  It's a deliberately crafted term which I find highly manipulative, and I say this as someone who supports allowing those affected by DACA to become citizens and a son of an immigrant himself.

Perhaps my idea that they were virtue-signaling here comes from how they mentioned they were both immigrants right before mentioning they were also 'Dreamers'.  As far as it is known, neither Nyong'o or Nanjiani's parents brought them as children to the U.S. illegally.  However, legal immigration, illegal immigration...potato, potato.

This, along with the 'diversity montage', was virtue-signaling par excellence, where the viewing audience is asked to believe all those who appeared in the short film were shocked, SHOCKED, that all this sexual harassment, pay disparity and unequal employment opportunities was going on.  Not since Judgment at Nuremberg have I seen so many insist 'we didn't know'.

Common's entire performance of the nominated Stand Up For Something was a left-wing political speech in all but name.  From his opening rap where we "Tell the NRA they in God's way and to the people of Parkland we say 'Ase'" to having ten 'activists' behind him as he goes on about 'A knee we take for our souls' sake' and 'A President that children hate', which as far as I know were not the original lyrics to Stand Up For Something.  All those 'activists' behind him were of course for liberal causes.  No pro-lifers need apply or appear.

Common was quite open about the appropriateness of bringing his own politics to the Academy Awards, even if visually I would argue the song performance wasn't well-done, with those figures being both unknown to the viewing public and at times extremely hard to see.

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Here is my take on political speeches/statements at award presentations.  Unlike others who object about 'politicizing the Oscars', I believe actors, writer, directors, even set designers have every right to speak out at these events if they wish to do so.  Freedom of speech is a hallmark of American representative democracy.  If Common or Kimmel or Nanjiani or Emma Stone want to take up time at the Academy Awards to pontificate on anything their pretty heads desire, they have every right to do so.

They should also know that audiences have every right to tune them out and to simply not care what they think.  My issue is not with either what they say or the venue they say it in.  It's in this rather odd notion that people like Common or Kimmel or Nanjiani or Stone are imbued with some divine wisdom that they must impart on the rest of us, that they have metaphorically come down Moses-like from Mt. Sinai to deliver the Word of God that cannot be questioned or debated.

They appear to genuinely believe we all should somehow be in awe of them, and it is their place to 'enlighten' us through not just their art, but through their very being.  They also appear genuinely shocked to find they get pushback from others.  If you take a public position and use these venues to espouse them, you cannot be so dim as to not expect others who disagree with you to not respond.

Jimmy Kimmel is a particularly interesting case.  For the longest time, he kept his views mostly off Jimmy Kimmel Live.  He decided to use his program recently to tell others what he thought on guns and health care.  That is his right and even privilege, and I for one am not going to stop him. However, when others, like a Ben Shapiro or Dave Rubin, who disagree with him on these and other issues offer to debate Kimmel, he refuses to engage them. 

Aye, there's the rub: Common, Kimmel, Nanjiani, Stone, et al. want us to hear their statements, but they won't hear anyone else's, let alone defend their own in an open forum where they can be questioned. Essentially, we the audience are not only suppose to agree with them, but thank them for their insights even if we didn't ask for or agree with them.

Kimmel may be right, he may be wrong on various political issues.  However, if he decides to use his program to promote his own ideology, which he has every right to, he cannot complain when others call him on it. I believe he should be prepared to defend them to his opponents' faces, not just within the safe confines of his studio where he controls who comes in, who speaks to him, and who has a cheering section to applaud him.

I'll close out this long section with this.  I do not believe the 90th Academy Awards were the lowest rated in history because these particular Oscars were political.  I think the 90th Academy Awards were the lowest in history because of a cumulative effect of past Academy Awards, and Emmys and Grammys and Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guilds and BAFTAs and People's Choice and MTV Video Music and MTV Movie and Teen Choice and Kids Choice Awards, among many others. 

The pontificating, the lecturing, the posturing has grown so stale, clichéd and predictable that even some liberals are tiring of it.  If Academy members insist on pushing viewers away by making their award presentations a de facto political rally, one where they all agree with each other, they hardly are in a position to complain when audiences, even sympathetic audiences, decide to go elsewhere.

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The predictability of a political awards show leads me to the mercifully last reason why I believe the 90th Academy Awards were the lowest in history.  In the past, the Oscars could have a surprise winner, an unexpected choice that even the most ardent Oscar-watcher did not expect.

There was when Art Carney shocked audiences when he was announced as Best Actor for Harry & Tonto over Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express or Dustin Hoffman in Lenny.  A mild surprise occurred when Jim Broadbent beat out Ian McKellen for Best Supporting Actor in 2002. Then there is the most infamous upset in recent memory: Marisa Tomei's stunning win for Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinnie, with unfounded and unfair rumors circulating that she had been erroneously named and the Academy was too embarrassed to correct that.

Last year's debacle, I think, has silenced that idea. 

This year, and again in years past, the thrill of a potential upset is gone.  Gary Oldman, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney had basically been announced as the four acting winners for months.  This year, they had won all the major awards that were Oscar precursors to where among more devoted followers of these things their wins were a mere formality.  When the casual viewer hears the same names announced over and over and once more winning the same type of award for the same film, it has a numbing effect, so much white noise that if everyone expects particular people to win, there is little to no interest to see.

If we start on January 7, when the Golden Globes were announced, it has been almost two to three months of a relentless loop; audiences see and hear the same people win the same categories again and again, usually against the same group of losers.  When there is a surprise nomination, even that isn't a sign of an impending upset, just a better campaign. 

One would have to be bonkers to think Leslie Manville's surprise Best Supporting Actress nomination was going to signal defeat for Allison Janney.  Nothing against Phantom Thread or I, Tonya: two excellent films that I think highly of. However, when more people paid to see such things as Geostorm, Kidnap, or Fist Fight than either I, Tonya or Phantom Thread, the idea of people actually caring whether Leslie Manville poses a serious threat to Allison Janney seems asinine.

I hope I have made my case that three factors contributed to the falling ratings/interest of this year's Academy Awards: obscurity of nominees, the political nature of this and past award presentations, and the predictability of the winners.
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Finally, some quick odds and ends.  If Kimmel and the producers were really interested in a shorter show, they would have cut the entire 'Crashing the A Wrinkle in Time preview screening' bit.  The only bit of humor in this bit is when Kimmel pulled an audience member, Mike Young, to introduce the next presenters and Young clearly had no idea who 'Tiffany Haddish' was, stumbling over her last name.

Offering the winner with the shortest acceptance speech a Jet Ski worth $17,999 was also dumb, especially given the swag bag the acting and directing nominees got this year.

Whoever told Gael Garcia Bernal that he could sing should be publicly horsewhipped. I'd revoke his U.S. residency after his atrocious, painful off-key rendition of Remember Me (which I still think is a lousy song that I cannot actually remember, preferring Un Poco Loco).  The song I favored, Mystery of Love, was also disastrous, but disastrous in that Sufjan Stevens was given little time to perform and his fellow performers like St. Vincent and Chris Thile were obscured.

Eiza Gonzalez paid a compliment to fellow Sound Editing and Sound Mixing presenter Ansel Elgort, saying to him, "You're just as brilliant as being a singer as an actor".  I guess that means Elgort is even worse than Bernal, because Elgort is a pretty lousy actor.

As I close out my thoughts on the 90th Academy Awards, I have this last piece of advise:

If you're going to virtue-signal, at least get the punctuation right...

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