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Travolta’s Face Grab, A ‘Glory’-ious Speech and Other Oscar Highs and Lows

In many ways, Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony was so forgettable, it hardly feels worth rehashing Hollywood’s big night.

It’s not exactly a shock that ratings for the 87th installment of the show dropped to a six-year low. Can you blame viewers for changing the channel during what was often a dull and disappointing evening?

Despite a surprisingly lackluster performance by host extraordinaire Neil Patrick Harris, an abundance of awkward puns and some creepy presenter shenanigans, there were a few moments of genuine delight, including heartfelt speeches and a refreshingly wacky rendition of the song from “The Lego Movie.”

Below, a recap of the low points and highlights of this year’s Oscars.

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The Low Points

The Host: I’m as big a fan of the ubiquitous Neil Patrick Harris as the next person. The classy, hilarious, self-deprecating former child actor is always a welcome sight, whether in “How I Met Your Mother,” the “Harold and Kumar” movies, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a Broadway musical or one of his countless stints as awards show emcee.

So Harris’ almost total failure in his first — and probably last — stint as Oscar host came as a crushing disappointment.

It wasn’t really his fault, though. The show was disjointed, badly written, poorly paced and woefully out of touch.

For whatever reason, the ceremony’s writers declined to capitalize on Harris’ strengths, resorting to a series of leaden puns and occasionally insensitive ad-libbed banter. Making fun of a winner’s dress after she just mentioned her son’s suicide probably isn’t the best choice, for instance.

The night’s longest running gag involved a dramatic magic trick that should have been right up Harris’ alley. But enlisting previous Oscar winner Octavia Harris to keep an eye on a locked box all night verged on insulting and, after a whole lot of build-up, the illusion’s finale was a huge letdown, merely a recap of the evening’s hashtag-worthy events.

Yes, there were occasionally funny bits. I liked the part where Harris walked through the audience in nothing but tighty whities, a la Michael Keaton’s “Birdman” character, encountering a drumming Miles Teller along the way, but I’m guessing a large portion of viewers didn’t get the joke since they hadn’t seen the films.

Overall, the evening felt strained and “uptight,” as several guests at an Oscar party I attended remarked. The Academy still has a long way to go to make Hollywood’s most celebrated awards show more relevant and entertaining to its biggest audience — everyone who doesn’t happen to be an industry insider.

As J.K. Simmons’ terrifying music instructor likes to shout in best picture nominee “Whiplash”: “NOT MY TEMPO!”

John Travolta and Other Awkward/Insensitive Moments: I already mentioned Harris’ callous mockery of the dress worn by a producer of a documentary about crisis hotlines, who also happened to be a bereaved mother.

Sadly, Sunday’s Oscars were full of other painfully awkward and insensitive gaffs.

There was Sean Penn’s joke about green cards before presenting one of the night’s biggest awards to “Birdman” director Gabriel Gonzalez Inarritu. There was Terrence Howard’s strange and overly emotional introduction of “The Imitation Game.” There was Harris’ mispronunciation of “12 Years a Slave” star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name.

However, the most jaw-dropping embarrassment occurred in the ill-advised union of “Frozen” star Idina Menzel and John Travolta, who shared the stage to present the award for best original song. As you may recall, Travolta became a Twitter legend after bungling Menzel’s name at last year’s Oscar ceremony, spawning legions of “Adele Dazeem” jokes.

The show’s producers no doubt thought it would be touching, or perhaps funny, to give Travolta the opportunity to extend an olive branch to Menzel, but their meeting quickly devolved into ickiness as Travolta grabbed his co-presenter’s chin in his hand while she vainly struggled to be free of his grasp.

That’s the stuff of ratings and social media fame, but it also left a yucky taste in our mouths.

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The Highlights

The Music: The ceremony opened with a lively, old-fashioned, Sondheim-esque musical number by seasoned showman Harris, the talented Anna Kendrick — dressed as Cinderella, a la “Into the Woods,” and an impish Jack Black.

Penned by “Frozen” songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, the piece celebrated the magic of “moving pictures,” poking fun at the Academy Awards and paying homage to classic and popular films.

The lyrics were playful and clever — “I love happy endings. Except for in ‘Gone Girl’ when that lady slit your throat,” Kendrick crooned to Harris — and even got a little edgy when Black crashed the party with a roll call of the industry’s flaws and a jab at modern moviegoers’ obsession with “screens in our jeans.” It was a nice twist on the traditional song-and-dance prologue we’ve come to expect from the show.

Building on that momentum, Tegan and Sara and comedy trio The Lonely Island hit the stage to perform best song nominee “Everything is Awesome” in a performance so surreal and fun, it immediately provided the event a much needed jolt of energy.

“The Lego Movie” may have been snubbed in the best animated feature film category, but it stole the night with a Lego choir, Lego Oscar statuettes, an assortment of costumed dancers, a cape-wearing Andy Samberg, Will Arnett as Batman and cameos by Questlove and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh.

Unfortunately, the moment didn’t last. The rest of the night’s musical performances were a snooze with the exception of John Legend and Common’s rousing rendition of “Glory,” from the movie “Selma.” The winning song brought the Dolby Theatre to its feet and tears to the eyes of many, including Chris Pine, whose effusive reaction became Twitter fodder.

As for Lady Gaga’s impressive but random tribute to “The Sound of Music,” it was just another head-scratching moment in a ceremony that too often felt confused and cobbled together. Better to have used the time to give host Harris a chance to show his stuff.

The Speeches: In a telecast that lacked humor and energy, with predictable results in all but the minor categories, the winners’ speeches provided brief glimmers of passion, inspiration and controversy.

Accepting the best supporting actor award for “Whiplash,” J.K. Simmons sweetly commanded the viewing audience to call their parents. Best actress and actor winners Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne dedicated their statuettes to sufferers of Alzheimer’s and ALS, respectively.

Best director winner Inarritu petitioned for “dignity” and “respect” for immigrants. The adorably enthusiastic Graham Norton, who nabbed a trophy for his screenplay for “The Imitation Game,” recalled a youthful suicide attempt and admonished misfit kids to “stay weird.”

Best song winners Common and John Legend showed us how acceptance speeches should be done with a pair of graceful statements about civil rights.

“The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status,” Common said, referring to Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, immortalized by Martin Luther King Jr.

“The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the south side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.”

“Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” Legend added.

One of the night’s most talked-about speeches came courtesy of best supporting actress Patricia Arquette, who honored her “Boyhood” character, a struggling single mom, with a demand for equal pay for women. Her statement was met with both enthusiasm — Meryl Streep leaped to her feet to show her approval — and outrage.

Whether you agreed with Streep or not, you had to admit it was one of the night’s most memorable occasions.

 Photos: news.com.au, article.wn.com, robot6.comicbookresources.com.

 

 

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The Top Five Films of 2014 (And the Not-So-Top Ones)

After the mad dash of the holidays, we stumble into January determined to take stock of the year that was and sweep aside the old in preparation for the new.

2015 brings with it an exciting new batch of movies, but before we welcome such heady stuff as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” it’s time to look back on the best of 2014.

My Top 10 list falls a little short this year. I could only come up with five really exceptional films. But there are many other cinematic highlights to discuss, along with a bonus list — the 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014.

Happy New Year.

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The Top Five Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. “Birdman”: Like a wild, unpredictable improvisational jazz piece (an idea referenced in the film’s inventive musical score), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s show-biz satire exhilarates and astonishes. Seemingly shot in one seamless, kinetic take, the movie is unlike anything we’ve seen before. An excellent cast lays bare a humiliating array of ego trips and insecurities, most notably Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in performances that are self-deprecating and spell-binding. Fame has never been so fickle, so funny or so heartbreaking.

2. “Boyhood”: Watching 2014’s most languid and lovely drama is like thumbing through a decade’s worth of scrapbooks of one lad’s ordinary, extraordinary life. Writer-director Richard Linklater filmed the movie over a period of 12 years, resulting in a fictional time capsule of youth that never feels fabricated. As the boy in Linklater’s ‘hood, Ellar Coltrane is at once average and remarkable, bolstered by the poignant presence of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his flawed but well meaning parents. Whether you’re 15 or 50, this movie sparks reflections of formative moments in your own life.

3. “Guardians of the Galaxy”: The year’s most undeniably entertaining movie was shockingly absent from many critics’ Top 10 lists. Come on, guys! Don’t pretend you didn’t love this wacky space romp, which expertly culled its irresistibly fun ideas from such timeless classics as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” In introducing us to its strangest band of misfit superheroes yet, Marvel shamelessly pandered to ’80s nostalgia and got us all hooked on a feeling. Chris Pratt’s roguishly charming Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s butt-kicking Gamora, Dave Bautista’s hilariously literal Drax and the lovable duo of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are part of cinema history now, and rightly so.

4. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: I thought I was over Wes Anderson. The director’s rococo affectations were beginning to feel increasingly empty to me. But then came “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” detailing the quirkiest of adventures shared by concierge extraordinaire Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) and his trusty lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). Anderson’s fantastical fairy tale of international intrigue contains one surprising and delightful cameo after another, but it’s really a showcase for the improbable comedic talents of Fiennes, whose portrayal of the unflappable  Gustave is unexpectedly bittersweet. Anderson has always been a filmmaker to be reckoned with. This is undoubtedly his masterpiece.

5. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: There are movies you like, and then there are movies you fall for, truly, madly, deeply. In 2014, that film for me was writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s effortlessly cool, exquisitely romantic vampire drama. As sleek and sexy as midnight velvet and dripping with playful pop cultural, literary and musical references, “Lovers” depicts the reunion of insomniac soulmates who aren’t your average bloodsuckers. Tom Hiddleston plays angsty Adam as a brooding old-school rock ‘n’ roller from Detroit. Tilda Swinton’s Eve is his exotic, more adventurous paramour, who hangs out in Tangier with none other than Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). This film really has to be seen to be believed. I want to sink my teeth into it again and again.

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Honorable Mentions

“Gone Girl”: Gillian Flynn’s poisonous page turner is demented, disturbing and oh-so-much wicked fun in director David Fincher’s darkly funny big-screen treatment. You’ll never look at Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and the rest of the film’s fine cast quite the same way again.

“Nightcrawler”: Jake Gyllenhaal’s greasy, greedy, hypnotic turn as a ravenous coyote prowling L.A.’s seedy nightscapes in search of anything that bleeds is the highlight of writer-director Dan Gilroy’s pointed media satire.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”: Building on the firm foundation laid by 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” this sequel unites multiple generations of our favorite mutants — including Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven and a double dose of Magneto and Professor X — in a twisty brain-teaser that effectively erases the franchise’s loathed third installment and paves the way for exciting installments to come.

“Edge of Tomorrow”: “Groundhog Day” meets “Alien” in a surprisingly clever post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick, which nobody saw because they were tired of watching Tom Cruise in post-apocalyptic sci-fi flicks. Cruise is billed as the star but Emily Blunt steals the movie out from under him as a tough-as-nails warrior, nickname the Full Metal Bitch.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”: Marvel’s ever popular comic book movie franchise finally grew up with a thriller that boasts slick action and a satisfyingly adult script.

“Snowpiercer”: The year’s most original, intriguing and just plain weird sci-fi thriller depicts a violent, stylish, totally bizarro class war aboard a train designed to traverse an ice-bound post-apocalyptic globe. You probably loved it and hated it simultaneously.

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Memorable Performances

The ever charming Shailene Woodley wormed her way a little deeper into our hearts in “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Divergent.”

Angelina Jolie was deliciously nasty as the misunderstood anti-heroine of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” reboot, “Maleficent.”

Tom Hardy did nothing but sit behind the wheel of a car and talk on the phone but was somehow spellbinding in “Locke.”

No one portrays eccentric geniuses quite like Benedict Cumberbatch, who dazzled as a socially awkward code breaker in “The Imitation Game.”

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The 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. and 2. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” weren’t terrible but they were both seriously out of balance, proving the point that splitting book adaptations into too many parts may be financially savvy but cheats the audience out of a tightly crafted story.

3. “Magic in the Moonlight”: Woody Allen’s latest whimsical comedy features gorgeous French locales and yummy 1920s costumes but it’s an epic bore that teases us with the promise of supernatural intrigue, then delivers a lot of tedious talk instead.

4. “Begin Again”: Writer-director John Carney’s follow-up to the captivating “Once” is disappointing simply because there’s nothing genuine about it, from the forgettable music to the precious, pretentious performances of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley.

5. “Chef”: Many moviegoers were charmed by this sleeper comedy, but I failed to fall under its spell, mainly because I can only watch Jon Favreau drive around in a food truck for so long.

6. “Godzilla”: After last year’s underrated but totally awesome “Pacific Rim,” this monster mash-up promised super-sized thrills. The film’s scaly star was largely absent, however, making this Kaiju smash-fest a giant disappointment.

7. “Under the Skin”: Critics inexplicably went ga-ga for director Jonathan Glazer’s interminably dull indie drama, which consists of a morose, otherworldly Scarlett Johansson trolling the streets of Glasgow for unsuspecting perverts.

8. “The Lego Movie”: I’m not going to deny this animated flick featuring everyone’s favorite building blocks is fun, playful and clever to a point. Seriously, though, how old are we, America’s collective moviegoing audience? 12?

9. “Interstellar”: Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus is stunning in many ways and I was one of the critics who highly recommended it. Two months later, though, I have to admit this technically impressive but flawed film was easier to forget than I expected.

10. “The Interview”: Sony Pictures and the nation’s major movie chains never should have caved to the cyberterrorist threats that kept this North Korea-bashing comedy out of theaters. I just wish Seth Rogen and James Franco’s goofy riff on totalitarianism actually had something to say. Then it might be worth all the fuss.