Oscar Dud 2015

A big-winner favorite I didn’t like and a self-referential host who wasn’t funny were two of the reasons Oscar disappointed last night. As reported previously, my wife and I walked out of Birdman because we were having such a bad time. The absurdist magical-realism style never connected, and the characters, starting with Michael Keaton and climaxing with Edward Norton, were unpleasant company. The “one-take” cinematography, not any plot, was the story, and that came to feel like a gimmick. How much more did I enjoy seeing clips from the non-winners: The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper! Aside from his adroit opening number, Neil Patrick Harris was a distraction rather than an addition. Who cared about his “Oscar predictions” in a sealed envelope or his jokes about himself? No one tuned in to see you, Neil Patrick.

Then there were other annoyances. One is baked in in this world of social-media and preliminary award shows: all the winners were known in advance. We were told that J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette and Julianne Moore were certain winners, and indeed they were. There was some question that Eddie Redmayne would triumph over Keaton, but he was the favorite and it held. Same for Birdman over Boyhood. Without suspense, opening the envelope is not the big deal it used to be. One mistake in production can easily be fixed: each Best Picture nominee should be given its own introduction. Apparently, with eight nominees the producers felt it would take too much time. But how discordant it was to combine American Sniper with Grand Budapest Hotel – or with any of the other nominees. Ditto for Selma, which deserved a solo moment in the sun. The best pictures are the big draw – give them more space. As for what took up too much time, look no further than the full production numbers for each Best Song nominee. None of them was particularly good, or memorable (even the winner, Glory), and did we really need to see a bunch of Legos bouncing around on stage? Another misuse of time came when the orchestra tried to usher winners off-mike in the middle of their acceptance speeches, which were the one spontaneous event of the overscripted evening. Particularly embarrassing was the music that tried to drown out one winner’s acknowledgement of her son’s suicide.

Then there is the perennial problem of the minor awards. The evening starts with a bang, the award for Best Supporting Actor (or Actress). Then we are fed a slew of categories that have little meaning and produce winners we have never heard of and don’t especially care to hear from now. For some reason, the awards for Costume Design, Sound Editing, etc., almost all go to Best Picture nominees, even though it makes no sense that these few pictures, which are chosen for their superior story, acting and directing, would also be the best in all the technical fields. And then we have to listen to the unglamorous award recipients thank their families and other insiders. All we can hope for is that they don’t embarrass themselves – and that they get off stage quickly without musical cue. For some reason, the Oscar producers also feel it imperative to add an unrelated big production number. In the old days it used to be a dance. A couple years ago it was a tribute, for no good reason, to Chicago. This year, with the excuse of a 50th anniversary, we got a two-fold tribute to The Sound of Music. It wasn’t enough to see Julie Andrews singing in clips; we got to see the tattooed Lady Gaga singing the same songs in person.

In other words, there are many easy ways to cut 30-40 minutes from the always overlong show. Or to make room to devote more airtime to the Best Picture nominees and their stars, which are the reason we tune in in the first place.

Villa Touma – 6.8

Maybe because there are three sisters, the blurb described this film from Israel as Chekhovian. In fact, it was as much Dickens or O’Henry – or whoever it was who wrote Cinderella. The plot is simple: an unwanted niece comes to live with her three aunts, remnants of a Christian community in Ramallah who exist in an isolated time warp. As the niece struggles to adapt, we see her disruptive effect on the aunts’ lives. They have distinct personalities, and in case we miss the point, the mean aunt has bug eyes and a hook nose, while the good aunt is pretty. Other than the surprise ending, the plot is predictable, but I enjoyed the glimpse of another culture.

Timbuktu – 8

If, as I do, you want a foreign film to immerse you and teach you about an alien culture, then Timbuktu will satisfy you and more. There is a plot of sorts, but the film is more a series of vignettes, showing what life is like for the unfortunate residents of this city in Mali which has been taken over by a fundamentalist jihadist group. The overlords don’t speak the local language or observe local customs, applying their version of sharia’, which results in a woman lashed for her music, a couple stoned to death for adultery, a woman abducted for marriage and the main character executed for accidentally killing a neighbor. We get the feeling that everyone we see, however fleetingly, is a real person, even the jihadis. The landscape is beautifully photographed, and everyone moves at the same desert-slow pace. With music forbidden and dialogue minimal, we fall into a kind of trance as we experience life in Timbuktu.