Telecast/Production Grade: C-
First thing’s first, congratulations to all of last night’s winners! To the Life of Pi team who worked in tandem to make the film, for a great many viewers, an astonishing sensory experience, taking home prizes in Cinematography, Visual Effects, Original Score, and Director. To Les Miserables, whose musical sensation largely inspired the “music in film” focus of the night’s telecast, winning in Makeup, Sound Mixing, and Supporting Actress categories. To Django Unchained, whose charisma attempted to inject a laid back feeling into the night, showcased by Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz’s respective wins for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor. To the fantastic sound teams on Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty, who put forth such outstanding work that the Academy wasn’t able to agree on which had greater sound editing.
To Lincoln, whose astute production design most benefited from the category title change, and to Daniel Day-Lewis for offering us one of the few honestly comedic moments of the evening. To Anna Karenina‘s costume designer Jacquelline Durran, whose colourful and lively work made for one of the night’s most deserving wins. To Jennifer Lawrence, who won for no bogus reasons, but simply because she’s a hilarious and effervescent screen presence and gave a truly deserving performance in Silver Linings Playbook. To Emmanuelle Riva, who celebrated her 86th birthday on the evening, and Lawrence was whip-smart enough to mention in her acceptance speech. Finally, to Ben Affleck, who overcame cynicism to take the top prize for Argo, and was ever so grateful for all his opportunities as he accepted the win.
It’s a shame, then, that the telecast presentation was such a painful debacle. Launched on the aforementioned “music in film” theme that holds little true relevance to what made 2012 such a strong year in film, the overabundance of musical presentations put the evening disastrously off-balance. That’s not to say they were all bad, but they took focus away from the priority, which was honoring the year in cinema. By focusing on music, they detracted from the more crucial aspects of film, such as production and post-production. This ignorance bled into category presentations, where they chose not to show the category specific work on the films (i.e. costume or production sketches), instead opting for plain images. Even worse was the crude abbreviation of acceptance speeches by the mean-spirited Jaws theme by John Williams, showing the producers literally didn’t care about the winners.
As hinted, not all the moments were disastrous. The In Memoriam segment particularly made tears run down my eyes, until it was also abbreviated for a Marvin Hamlisch tribute, again raising attention to producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan’s imposing preferences. Perhaps it wouldn’t seem so distracting if we had an affable comedic presence carrying us through proceedings, but Seth MacFarlane’s jokes weren’t simply dull and predictable, but an insistent barrage of self-indulgence. The 17 minute opening was entirely devoted to Seth MacFarlane worrying about his public image, opposite a gag-inducing William Shatner Star Trek sketch. I kept reminding myself 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was in the audience, but also respected auteur Michael Haneke. A cut-away to Joaquin Phoenix conveyed all the opinion needed upon the evening. This was the worst tasting carrot ever, and we don’t want it. On the bright side, how bad can a show involving Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum dancing really be?
Grade: A- | 1st Viewing
Now if you want to discuss true cinematic tribute, where better to look than the film which ushered legendary director Michael Powell’s career into a close? A movie about the making of film as much as the watching of it, we’re immediately invited into the dark room of Mark, an amateur director whose chosen documentary study happens to be the murder of pretty white women. That immediately forgoes the typical assumption of mystery surrounding the killer of a horror film, but we are intended to sympathize with Mark from the first moment. Sheltered from public interaction, not unlike us watching in a dim theater, Powell co-opts us into Mark’s murderous obsession by highlighting our addiction to onscreen terror, though not in such a tongue-in-cheek manner as Drew Godard’s The Cabin in the Woods.
A unique part of my own experience watching the film was the hot and humid auditorium I watched it in, affording all the more delirious focus on how the film itself creates an atmosphere of chemically-bathed confusion. The highly saturated colours and harsh, practically skin-baking lighting strains the eyes with an image that’s practically narcotic. Construction of terror by means of production is not only the film’s strong point, but also its focus. Powell’s critiquing both the industry that manufactures manipulative horror films such as this, as well as the audiences who find themselves drawn to see them. That challenging prospect may have put an unceremonious end to his career, but his bravado and vision continue to captivate anew to this day.
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
Steven Soderbergh might have benefited some to take a page out of Peeping Tom‘s playbook, and for some time through the beginning of Side Effects it looks as though he has. Focusing on Rooney Mara’s depressed young woman coping with her husband returning home from prison, Soderbergh uses all his tools to moor his characters in psychological isolation. Continuing his studied use of digital technology in glossing the screen over in a light mist, this story of pharmaceutical drugs being overindulged starts with a fascinating analysis of our materialistic culture. Idealizing products like clothes, makeup, and drugs are taken in excess in order to grasp at the ideal lifestyle shown in advertisements. As we reach the midsection, everything seems like smooth sailing to thrust these characters into turmoil.
At this intersection, however, the film stops being a subjective story of personal turmoil and self-realization, instead opting for something closer to an objective study like Contagion. We shift focus to Jude Law’s therapist character whose life becomes all the more consumed in his defense of Mara’s character. As he gets deeper into his investigation, we’re taken further away from the core emotional concept in favor of conspiracy-mystery plotting. By the end, not only do we care so much less about all the characters involved, but the first half of the film is basically discredited as a lie. The style still stands, as it does in nearly all of Soderbergh’s films. Catherine Zeta-Jones, too, offers her most delicious scene-chewing in ages. It’s a shame that Scott Z. Burns’ script veers away from any gratifying emotional ends, and it ends Soderbergh’s big screen career (for now anyway) on a regrettably superfluous note.