Last year the Oscars was, well, it was something. Coming off the Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosting debacle, we had undead marionette Billy Crystal emceeing the ceremony, doing his signature medley of all the Best Picture nominees as soon as the red carpet pre-show wrapped. That was about it for musical performances, other than the "In Memoriam" reel and some other crazy A. R. Rahman thing that no one really wanted.
That's because there were almost no Best Original Song nominees last year, and neither one was performed. Well, the category is back in full swing, and host Seth McFarlane — who has more jazz hands than a dance school in West Topeka — is sure to do some sort of bombastic production number. Oh, and there's going to be an ode to movie musicals too, featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Hudson, Anne Hathaway, and the rest of the We Won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress by Singing in a Musical Club.
Musicals numbers are back, so let's take this time to look at the best and worst (and a couple of so-good-they're-bad and so-bad-they're-good) from awards shows past.
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[Photo Credit: AP Photo]
Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose sing "Love You I Do," "Listen," and "Patience" from Dreamgirls
It's not often that you get this many vocal powerhouses on stage at one time, so when you do, it's best to make the most of it. This 2008 clip (sorry the quality is so crappy, but someone is trying to keep this off YouTube) will go down in Oscar History, even if J Hud was the only one to walk away with the trophy.
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Snow White and Robe Lowe sing some ungodly creation.
This is the Platonic ideal of an awful Oscar opening number. In 1989, Eileen Bowman played the animated heroine in an odyssey that included dancing stars, Merv Griffin, and a scandal-plauged Lowe singing strange tunes with the words all jumbled around. It's a travesty and you can't take your eyes away. For a full recounting of the whole incident, check out this amazing article.
Next: The King of Pop Gets Mousey
Michael Jackson sings "Ben" from Ben
Look past the cheesy '70s set and the awful glittery jump suit. Forget that this is a song about a man who is in love with his pet rat. When all that goes away, we're left with the pristine quality of Michael Jackson's voice before he messed it up with years of drugs and before he messed up his face with more plastic surgery than a Real Housewives of Everywhere reunion. This is one of those instances where talent gets past all of that, and we still love it.
Next: Oscar's Worst Swan Song
Bjork singing "I've Seen It All" from Dancer in the Dark
I have no problem with the swan dress. In fact, I kind of love that Bjork opted to wear something so different and daring that we still talk about it 12 years later. What I can't abide is her squawking around the stage and stamping her feet and singing this weirdly-cyclical, boring song. I know she can do so much better, and I'm sure most of the audience at home was as befuddled by the performance as they were the attire.
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Madonna singing "Sooner of Later" from Dick Tracy
Let's face it — it's best that Madonna never win an Oscar for acting. Really, we don't need to give her one more reason to make another movie. But as far as performing at the Oscars go, she is a champion. This is how you can captivate an audience while standing practically still in the middle of a stage. This is Madonna at the height of her fame and prowess in 1991, singing a beautiful Steven Sondheim song that won the Oscar later that night. To prove Madge is Oscar gold, check out her second performance of "You Must Love Me," from Evita. Not as good of a song, but still a top-notch performance.
Next: Why Actresses Shouldn't Sing
Gwyneth Paltrow singing "Coming Home" from Country Strong
Gwyneth Paltrow thinks that everything about her life is great, including her singing ability. She is often wrong.
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Celine Dion singing "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic
Yes, this is an iconic song. Yes, Celine Dion is a very proficent singer. Yes, in 1997 Ms. Dion was everything and her song won the Oscar. But why do I hate this so much? Why do so many people think that she sounds like a bleating goat standing there on stage with a trillion-dollar diamond (the same one from the movie) on her turtlenecked frame (you can take the girl out of Canada but...)? This is one of those numbers that you either love or hate. I fall in the latter camp.
Next: What the Heck?!
Pilobolus doing God knows what
This isn't exactly a musical number, but there's dancing, so I'm counting it. The members of this dance troupe figured out how to turn their bodies into iconic shapes from the year's movies. I still wonder just how they achieved this fate today. Amazing. Also amazing: Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars. Remember that?
Next: A True Crash and Burn
Kathleen Bird York singing "In the Deep" from Crash
2003 was a crappy year at the Oscars. Not only did Crash steal a statue from the far superior Brokeback Mountain, we also had to endure this abomination of an New Age song from the film that was nominated for Best Original Song. What do a burning car, slow-motion dancers, and enough dry ice to power every production of Phantom of the Opera in the entire universe have in common? I hate them all.
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Sheena Easton singing "For Your Eyes Only" from For Your Eyes Only
This year, one of the highlights of the show will be Adele getting up to sing "Skyfall" from the James Bond flick of the same name. She will wear a tasteful dress and belt for the rafters and everyone will applaud. It will look nothing like this other Bond number from 1981, which features 007 driving on stage and kicking the asses of a bunch of dancing ninjas while his car shoots a laser beams. And can we talk about Sheena's hair which is straight out of one of the worst Nagel paintings I've ever seen. This this is so incredibly awful. Isn't it amazing!? Even with the crappy video quality, you still can't look away. They just don't make camp like they used to. Sure Adele will be nice, but it's not going to be anything like this.
Next: How Not to Do an Opening Number
Hugh Jackman's Opening Number
I love Hugh Jackman. Of all the celebrities in Hollywood, I would like to see his huge ackman over anyone else's. However, his 2008 stint hosting was marred by this rather dreadful opening number. The joke was that the recession made him scale everything down, which is a cute gag but doesn't work for the whole eight minutes. Combine that with Anne Hathaway giving one of those falsely modest performances that make people hate her and, well, I couldn't even watch it all the way through. However, the joke about not seeing The Reader almost makes the whole thing worthwhile.
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Neil Patrick Harris' Opening Number
Sorry, Hugh, this is how you bring in the show. NPH, who isn't even really a movie star, is better at the awards show game than just about anyone else. He sings a quick song, does some great dance moves, gets us ready for the show with a big extravaganza and then hands it over to the hosts. Just simply distilled perfection. Leave it to a gay to know how to kick off a show. (I'm sure he's not the one who had the Best Actor nominees come out on stage for one full minute of thunderous applause that they did not need.)
Next: Drowning in a Sea of Awful
"Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" from The Little Mermaid
As soon as you heard that the dancers were choreographed by Paula Abdul, you knew this thing would be a mess. What's so awful about Samuel E. Wright's performance of these two nominated songs ("Under the Sea" won) is that he just stands in the middle of the blank stage for the first one, and for the second one it's like a sea anemone was stuffed with glitter and then exploded. There is an octopus chandelier, tap dancing scuba divers, and more midriffs than all of Britney Spears' early videos combined. The funny part is this looks like an even worse version of Disney's infamous Broadway version of the show, which was also a giant bomb.
Next: This One's a Real Beauty
"Belle" and "Be Our Guest" from Beauty & The Beast
Looks like Disney learned a lot two years after The Little Mermaid, because this two-song medley was much better. The first song is busy and costumey, sort of like the wonderful Broadway version of the show, but then it dissolves into Jerry Orbach (RIP) and some chorus girls doing a top-notch, grounded version of the crowd pleasing "Be Our Guest." Still this wasn't enough to beat the title track for the Oscar, which had a snoozer of a performance (Angela Landsbury can't do a kick line like she used to), but is probably a better song.
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Three 6 Mafia singing "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle and Flow
This isn't a bad song, and is, to its credit, the only hip-hop song to win an Oscar. It's just, well, the Academy ain't got no swag. Sure, this bootleg living room is supposed to be reminiscent of the movie, but it looks like a cast-off from an old season of Roseanne. Plus, Taraji P. Henson in a full-length gown while the rest of the guys wear street clothes makes the whole thing feel just... off. And they can't even say "bitches"! They had to change it to "witches," which is the silliest thing to happen since The Doors couldn't sing "Girl, we couldn't get much higher" on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Next: Once Upon a Time
Glen Hansard and Market Iglová singing "Falling Slowly" from Once
Plain and simple: how can you not love everything about this?
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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.