Shrinking Film Critic
While I interpreted Jerry Seinfeld’s joke-a-thon intro to the documentary awards as play for Oscar host next year, John Sinno saw it differently. And he has a point.
Sinno, whose “Iraq in Fragments” didn’t win, has sent an open letter to the Academy (and to the press) to protest Seinfeld’s disrespect of this traditionally undervalued category. Before you say boo-hoo (as I was initially inclined, since at least Seinfeld was a respite from all the trumped-up sobriety of the slick show), consider that nearly every other awards category was treated with awe and dignity. (Except maybe those child actors being forced to make badly scripted jokes about the “shorts” categories.)
My problem isn’t with Seinfeld introducing the nominated docs as “incredibly depressing” — because that was rather funny, and rather true. It’s that somehow everything else in the show has gotten so serious and pompous that Seinfeld’s ribbing stood out in the midst of a politically correct, essentially boring evening. The other awards were positioned as momentous events worthy of suspiciously glistening eyes.
Sinno goes on to protest that there wasn’t any mention of Iraq. Here I disagree. It’s tedious when celebrities use the Oscars as a podium to go all noble over world events. So, again, it wasn’t the lack of a mention of Iraq that was the problem, it was that this year’s Oscars were an informercial for the eventual doc winner, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Now, I’m all for fighting global warming (or “global warmings” as Will Ferrell pronounces it in one of his hilarious riffs on President Bush speaking to the nation; Google it and you’ll see). But between all the Gore-boosting of the evening and the trio of Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola waiting to welcome long-overdue Martin Scorsese into the Oscar fold, it looked like the fix was in. (Can you imagine how humiliating it would have been for Marty if someone else had trotted up to accept the directing Oscar from his three amigos?)
So I’m not necessarily in favor of making Sinno et al whole by enshrining documentaries as they do other categories. I’m for taking it all down a peg, or at least getting a grip. You know more ink has been spilled about Jennifer Hudson’s silver bolero jacket than about anything else Oscar night, and that the real power of the Oscar show is in its ratings, so stop trying to overcompensate. The only part of the evening that truly merits those glistening eyes is the so-called Parade of the Dead clip reel, the only time the audience understands the true value of things.
I mean, I’ve always loved Alan Arkin, but his performance in Little Miss Sunshine was pretty much what we’ve come to expect of him, his patented, deadpan codger. Whereas Murphy tried something wholly new in his career, and it was quite sensational, not only for being unexpected.
Meanwhile, Peter O’Toole’s badly lifted face seemed to fall, as if realizing this was his last chance at an Oscar. But for Forest Whitaker, this truly was a role of a lifetime, probably the greatest showcase of his talents any movie will offer him. I’m glad (and rather surprised) the Academy didn’t just go for the sentimental vote (as I think they did in Arkin’s case).
I especially enjoyed when Pilobolus formed itself into Ellen DeGeneres’ crimson velour tracksuit.
Other trenchant observations:
Helen Mirren is sexier at any age than any woman with a facelift.
Jack Nicholson is starting to look like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.
The actresses all seemed to have strangely symmetrical, erect nipples.
Big attempt to make the Oscars “relevant” to “today” by name-dropping YouTube, MySpace, other Internet buzzwords.
Stop giving child actors “cute” things to say.
Loved seeing Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow in a Japanese-hair-straightening-technique smackdown.
Jennifer Hudson, for all the time she had to prepare for this night (if not her whole life), gave a less than stirring speech.
Jerry Seinfeld used his time onstage to audition for next year’s host.
Celine Dion’s lips pursed up at the end of her song into something out of a horror movie, like an upward-migrated vagina dentata.
“That Celine Dion, she scares me, my balls just retracted into my body”
I went into my lunch with Hanna-Barbera expecting to hate them, but after a bottle of wine and Joe and Bill’s loud, unembarrassed rendition of The Flintstones theme song, I was won over.
That’s Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, the lifelong friends and animation partners who gave us Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, and too many more to mention. Barbera died yesterday at age 95. (Hanna died in 2002.)
They had taken me to lunch at a fancy Italian restaurant on Central Park South, back when they were spring chickens — 77 years old apiece — and launching their own home-video company. I expected to dislike them for the very reason they were so long-lasting and successful in the industry: they invented “limited animation,” a time- and money-saving way of making cost-effective animation for television by reducing the number (and quality) of animation cels per second of running time. The effect on the eye is of less lush, less fluid animation, although kids raised on it probably don’t see or know the difference.
Yes. But. The genius of Hanna-Barbera was in adapting the medium they had worked in for so long, but which was dying, to the medium of the future — television. It was their flexibility, foresight, and risk-taking that gave them staying power in an industry that was gradually phasing out Old School animation anyway. Legendary mogul Harry Cohn himself had canned the duo after walking out of a “pencil test” of their animation, bellowing: “Get rid of ‘em!”
“At the height of our careers, we were out in the cold. What were we going to do, work at a hamburger stand?” said Barbera, working up a lather worthy of a cartoon character, let alone someone born in Little Italy and raised in Flatbush. “We had kids in school. We went to every agency, every studio. TV had no money. The entire industry was out of work.”
That’s why these feisty guys turned out to be more Jetson than Flintstone, imagining and even creating a future where none existed, leaving behind the safety of Bedrock. And look at today’s TV animation — the deliberately sketchy, ragged-looking South Park and The Simpsons are the hip grandchildren of Hanna-Barbera’s prescience.
The two men were full of life in a way you can only wish for fellows who built their reputation on the Oscar-winning, feral chases of Tom and Jerry. “Flintstones, meet the Flintstones, they’re the modern Stone-Age family,” boomed Barbera, who wrote that ditty. Hanna, with a less outsized personality, nevertheless chimed in, trying to recall some of the stickier lyrics: “Through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet … no, no, that can’t be right …”
“I’ll never forget this humiliating evening,” Barbera joked, pretending to slump dejectedly in his chair.
Actually, I’m the one who’ll never forget it. I went in ready to chide these mavericks on “ruining” animation, only to come out, a bottle of wine and a song later, chastened to have met two guys were were, like another character we know, smarter than the average bear.
In response to a reader thread from my Dreamgirls postings, on whether Jennifer Hudson needs to tone down her ghetto-speak, and whether Beyonce for all her polish still has a diction problem:
Ghetto-speak is little different from any of personal idiosyncracies that stars quickly learn to disguise in public — at least if they value the dubious honor of “stardom,” that state of affairs where every cornflake they consume is analyzed, quantified, and photographed in the press. The erasing of ethnicity is not the problem, since some publicity makeovers actually play up ethnicity, or invent it. (What is Charo, anyway?) It has to do with streamlining what they’re selling, and with an on-the-job dress code. Women who work in department stores are required to wear pantyhose. Women who make movies for big studios are required to feed the public’s fantasies without crossing the line (Britney Spears’ lack of panties and Janet Jackson’s nipple are red-carpet behaviors that went askew).
All the way back to the beginning of the star system — Florence Lawrence was billed as “the first movie star” because she was the first actor to emerge with an actual, identifiable name from behind the mask of her corporate logo (the “Biograph Girl”) — stars and would-be stars have been groomed for whatever red-carpet persona was in vogue in their day. Think of the stars of yesteryear with their “mid-Atlantic” accents from some indeterminable country mid-way to London. Think of how they plucked Rita Hayworth’s hairline to raise it to less feral dimensions.
Today’s actors shape themselves, often with drastic results, which is why they need publicisits and handlers more than ever: Who knew Tom Cruise was such a flake until he fired his long-time publicist and started expressing his true self in public? Stars should NEVER express their true selves in public unless they’re extremely savvy, with — as Melanie Griffith said in “Working Girl” — “a head for business and a bod for sin!”
So, my take on Jennifer Hudson: She’s completely new to this business and has not yet worked out her red-carpet game plan. As for Beyonce: She’s done a great job so far with packaging, but it’s true, I noticed that she hasn’t found a “public voice” she’s entirely comfortable with.
Stars are judged for their off-camera lives, and that’s not entirely unfair, because that’s the cross that stars, but not necessarily actors, have to bear. And it’s what they’ve signed on for. It’s what the movie “Dreamgirls” is all about — not just wanting to sing, have an audience, make a living at it, but wanting to get to the top, and accepting the compromises that come along with that (quite different) goal. Being a star can (and usually does) mean stripping away much of the individuality that made someone so promising in the first place, toning down the highs, papering over the lows, leaving behind your friends. I imagine many of these stars wake up in the morning disoriented: who’s that in the mirror?
The posters on my last blog entry are right — why does the competition only have to be between the girls? The male roles in Dreamgirls offer just as much irony, with the reliable Jamie Foxx turning in what could be his first disappointing role (disappointment = expectations divided by results) in the thankless, underwritten role of the girl group’s Svengali, and EDDIE MURPHY, of all people, getting ready for his big Oscar nomination!
It’s not only Murphy’s most mature performance, he seems to be aging gracefully in a way that helps him leave the baggage of his comedy career at the door. As a James Brown-type performer, womanizer, and drug abuser, Murphy does the opposite of what he usually does in his movies. Instead of putting on makeup and costumes so he can be a host of different, one-note characters, he adds layers of character to just one — which is much more of a high-wire act.
Murphy’s best scene — and I hope they show that one in the clips at Oscar time — is where his character suffers a setback that sends him quickly, quietly reeling into despair. He does it all with his body and facial expressions, and it’s a powerful dramatic moment, sans the usual props.
On the face of it, there are only two roles worth having in Dreamgirls — the Pretty One and the Fat One. Beyonce made the obvious choice, and she suffers for it — because any moment Jennifer Hudson isn’t on the screen is a good opportunity to visit the concession stand. As a friend of mine said, “Miss Thing can’t be happy about this.”
Although Hudson — notoriously booted off “American Idol,” a mistake in hindsight even to Simon Cowell — has the role of the girl whose voice and body are too big to blend into the (mostly white) American Dream, the take-away from the movie is that Hudson is the Pretty One after all.
First of all, she’s pretty. And sexy. She’s the only character who has attitude — not necessarily the fault of some of the outstanding cast, because their characters are mostly ciphers.
Most of all, though, Hudson sells The Song. You know the song I’m talking about. It’s as fine a piece of singing AND acting as you’ll see this season, which is why the “American Idol” reject, not Beyonce, is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
The movie itself is an iffy contender, though highly entertaining. The script is hokey and sometimes downright bad, which is surprising coming from Bill Condon, who wrote the screenplay for “Chicago” and wrote and directed “Gods and Monsters.” Its strong suit is Hudson, of course, and those “soft” Oscar categories — costume, set design — all of which are presented in closing credits that actually look as if they were designed for an Oscar campaign, complete with sketches and renderings.
Jennifer Hudson sells The Song, and she sells the movie, too.
I felt a little geeky hissing that to the slack-jawed manager of the Park Plaza Cinema on Hilton Head Island. Not that it takes a degree in cinematography to understand that if a movie like The Black Dahlia doesn’t fit right on the screen, you do something to rectify it, generally something that takes place in the projection booth (although sometimes it’s as simple as readjusting the curtains on either side of the screen).
“Our screen isn’t big enough,” was the manager’s response when I stormed out of the cubicle known as a “theater” to report that The Black Dahlia wasn’t being shown in its correct aspect ratio.
The screen isn’t BIG ENOUGH? You can watch Lawrence of Arabia on an iPod these days. How about a little anamorphic-lens action?
A full third of the information of the movie was lost, trailing off either end of the screen into raggedy-edged, out-of-focus black wastelands. Only the middle of the opening credits could be read; too bad Jennifer Jason Leigh wasn’t in the movie so at least we’d get one full word to guess by.
What was worse, perhaps, than the theater manager not knowing or caring that this was either annoying or a sin, depending where you stand on the continuum of cinephilia, was that the audience sat there complacently as well, not even noticing that anything was wrong.
What is it that people see and absorb when they see a movie by a thoughtful director where a third of the information is missing? And why don’t they react when TV images are stretched inappropriately to fill the new cinema-wide plasma screens, making everyone look fat and unnatural?
I’m here in South Carolina doing a few book signings at the Hilton Head Health Institute, and Movie Nights are the only times the clientele get off the training wheel and into the “real” world, partly to see a movie, and partly to see if they can do that without buying popcorn. Another of the group came with me to see the DePalma movie, and the minute I sat down, I jumped up to complain about the projection, and when nothing could be done about it, I wandered into The Guardian — or An Officer and a Gentleman in the Coast Guard — figuring that if they cut off part of Ashton Kutcher doing the Richard Gere thing it wouldn’t matter so much. The woman who stayed behind watched The Black Dahlia, or maybe, in this case, The Gray Dahlia.
Afterward, I asked what she thought of it.
“It was okay,” she said, “but I didn’t really understand all of it.”
Because she didn’t really see all of it.
The Toronto Film Festival is on this week. Without me. Between that and the publication today of my new book, The Incredible Shrinking Critic, I’m reminded of all the film festivals I’ve covered over the years where it seemed impossible not to gain weight.
Poor thing, you say. All that free Champagne and fine French food; my heart bleeds for you.
OK, so it was an enviable problem, how to make it past the patisserie located next to my hotel. Movie reviewing mentally engaging, but physically passive. Now, imagine sitting on one’s derriere most hours of the day in the middle of the Riviera with only rich sauces to revive you.
In past years covering Cannes, I’d stop in at the next-door patisserie as routinely as I did at the hotel lobby to check for messages, and when things got rough – deadlines, boring movies, foot-in-mouth disease at some cocktail party – I’d squirrel away éclairs in my room. Even when things went well I felt like I was in the trenches; “Incoming!” someone would yell before lobbing a fusillade of pastries.
The first time I managed to turn that around was at Cannes one year after I was fortified by a visit to the Hilton Head Health Institute, where Bob Wright, the director of Lifestyle Education, entrusted me with his trademark coping phrase for high-risk situations: Unwise, better, best.
I’ll say this for Bob: For all his wonderful qualities, he’s not much of a sloganeer. It’s unclear how many of the catchphrases used at HHHI are Bob’s invention or holdovers from the original program by founder Peter Miller. Some might even be cobbled together from the nutritional stylings of Dr. Phil, who advises in one of his books to “stop living like a lazy slug.” When the Dept. of Health and Human Services says Calories Count, it’s simple and elegant and has the whiff of a pun. Meanwhile, Bob continues to come up with phrases that don’t exactly trip off the tongue, like “If you fail to plan, you’re planning not to succeed.”
Nevertheless, “unwise, better, best” is a winner. In dangerous eating climes — like covering a film festival with its long days and endless platters of pass-around, deep-fried finger food – the goal is not to be perfect but to make choices along a spectrum of unwise, better, best. At Cannes, “better” meant one mini-éclair at the buffet, whereas “unwise” would have been a plateful. (The fact that Will Smith and the alarmingly skinny Angelina Jolie were one table over that year helped my resolve; I didn’t want Will saying, “You know, Angie, the Mediterranean is lovely this time of year, but what’s with that chick and the éclairs?”)
There’s no judgment attached to unwise, better, best. It’s about making a reasonable effort under difficult circumstances. Which ties into another HHHI precept, “degrees of on,” in which you are never “on” program or “off” program, merely attached to a different extent at all times. Ideally, you strive for the upper end, where “on” is a neon halo. But as long as you’re on to some degree, there’s a spread of what’s acceptable in terms of calories, behavior, and exercise adherence. Being connected to a healthy lifestyle to some degree at all times is more efficient in the long run than being “perfect” a fraction of the time . The problem with rigidity (aside from alienating friends) is that when you fail to meet lofty, arbitrary, self-imposed standards, the tendency is to give up entirely and go back to bed with the cellophane wrappers from Hostess cupcakes crinkling beneath you.
Another specific new goal of mine for covering film fesitvals without calorie creep was to go to the gym – again, just to keep a sense of connection to my usual routine so it wouldn’t pull apart later like the pastry layers of a millefeuille. My hotel, the evocatively named Modern Waikiki, was lucky to have a one-person elevator, let alone a fitness center. For that, I had to go across the street to the Majestic Hotel, which charged a majestic day rate of 25 euros. I went every other day for complete cardio and weight workouts, often alongside the Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt By the Sun), whose work I admire even though he yelled at me in bad French to close the windows of the gym. What, no fresh Mediterranean air? Wasn’t he accustomed to the frozen tundra or the steppes of his homeland?
Colleagues pitched in with suggestions for where to score quick salads. Indie film reporter Mary Glucksman was really helpful until she told me where to find free dark chocolate squares. This is not the kind of advice the Incredible Shrinking Critic needs. And anyway, Mary, they weren’t on the fourth floor of the Palais like you said.
At restaurants, I ordered grilled seabream (a local fish) instead of steak frites, salade Niçoise instead of Caesar. And French yogurt is to die for.
Every pharmacy in France has a scale. When you insert a half-euro coin, it spits out a receipt that gives your weight in kilograms, your height in centimeters, and the number of calories you really ought to be eating. I expected a hand (with a French manicure) to reach out from the machine and slap my face: Stop eating zee food!
Pascal at my hotel did the math for me, changing kilograms to pounds. After two weeks in the South of France, faced with every temptation from the overeater’s torture pantry, I hadn’t gained an ounce.
Hate is such a powerful emotion, don’t you think? That was one of the running lines in Gilda, thrown back and forth like acid in the face between Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, who died yesterday at age 90.
The trick in that movie was for Ford’s character to maintain what I call (when it pertains to my cats) the Big Tail. When cats know they’re confronting a challenge much bigger, stronger, and scarier than they are, they puff up the fur on their tail to look thick and menacing, as if to say — I’ve got connections in the Attorney General’s office, y’know! (I once caught Buzz making the Big Tail at the dishwasher when it chunked into the rinse cycle unexpectedly.)
Rita Hayworth, as you can imagine from seeing her striptease to Put the Blame on Mame, was the dishwasher to Glenn Ford in Gilda, and Ford gave the Big Tail throughout that strange, perfervid movie, playing a character so at war with himself over loyalty, lust, honor and humiliation you thought he’d explode even before the little bigamy subplot.
I can’t say Gilda was Ford’s best work, but it was certainly the most fun. An actor who could stand up to Rita Hayworth in her prime, and pretend to hate hate hate her … ah, but hate is such a powerful emotion, no?
Pluto was downgraded from planet to tiny ball of ice around the same time Tom Cruise slipped from star to … cosmic dust? As the universe gets reclassified, it’s possible that certain stars will no longer be the center around which all things revolve.
Tom (“You can’t fire me; I quit!”) Cruise has had one public-relations disaster after another, all of them avoidable if he had just understood that his power came from a slick veneer of unknowability. Cruise needed that aura of mystery because, as we can now see, every time he opens his mouth something distressing drops from it. Mel Gibson merely suffers from garden-variety paranoia and anti-Semitism, but Cruise’s brain blips are so weird they’re scaring the customers. (Has he chained Suri to the radiator? Is he really going to refuse to take that baby out to the park until someone pays him more for her photo than they did for Shiloh?)
According to Box Office Mojo, Cruise is Hollywood’s 5th-ranked star (Harrison Ford is No. 1) by total box-office take. A guy like that should be worth a lot of money to a studio, sure. But Carrie Fisher is No. 13. Why? Because she happened to snag a role in what went on to become a powerfully successful franchise. Doesn’t mean she can open a movie today (although I wish she could), and therefore reminds us that “star power” is not a stable, predictable, heavenly body.
Pluto was a planet — of this we were certain — and now it’s not. Tom Cruise was a guaranteed star, and now Paramount has reclassified him as nothing more than dark matter.
Another audio files from my interview with Spike Lee on his HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts:
Where were you when the levees broke?
Snakes on a Plane is silly fun, and delivers on the snakes — CGI creatures with monster-movie attributes. But the one (perhaps only) thing it does well is to recreate the look and feel of a tossed-off movie of the ’70s. Cheesy, pastel sets, bad hair, lame jokes, none of that streamlined, calculated appeal to the bottom line that characterizes movies today. I half expected to see Jan-Michael Vincent show up any moment as a flight attendant.
But what’s with Julianna Margulies? She looks as if all character has drained from her face. I hope she didn’t get “work” done.
New Line didn’t screen in advance for critics, although there was no reason not to. As long as you see this with a late-night, rip-roaring-drunk crowd, it’s quite acceptable — even though horribly directed by David R. Ellis, who misses every opportunity to exploit the personalities of the passengers on the snake-bedeviled plane. The kickboxing dude? The girl who’d do anything for her dog? Come on — let’s get some action going! Kick-boxing with the cobra, perhaps? Last licks on behalf of the lapdog?
Because they’re motivated by an overdose of pheromone spray, the snakes tend to attack the passengers’ sex organs whenever possible, which sent last night’s first paying audience into appropriate spasms of hooted ecstasy. Fangs for the mammaries, indeed.
I’ve spent the Morning After sending personalized greetings from Samuel L. Jackson to my friends, courtesty of the movie’s interactive website.
I interviewed Spike Lee about his powerful, important new HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, about Hurricane Katrina and its shameful aftermath. The doc debuts Monday and Tuesday nights on HBO (there’s a giant premiere tonight [Wednesday] in New Orleans), and my story appears this Sunday in the TV magazine of the New York Post. Meanwhile, here’s a foretaste, one of several audio snippets from that interview.
Despite amassing 500 hours of footage and 100 interviews, edited down to a four-part, four-hour tapestry of human misery and government incompetence (if not worse), Lee regrets not being able to locate the woman who had the balls to shame Condoleeza Rice as the Secretary of State was blithely trying on pricey shoes at Ferragamo while, as Lee puts it, “people were drowning.”
Listen to Spike’s one regret …
Lee was kind enough to agree to this interview, even though he and I have been, uh, on the outs for about 15 years. More on this and other simmering celebrity grudges in future posts.
Photo by Jami Bernard