Shrinking Film Critic Archive for December, 2006

Joe Barbera was more Jetson than Flintstone

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.

Beyonce & beyond: Ghetto-speak on the red carpet?

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?


And the Dreamguys, too …

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.

Beyonce can't have her cake & eat it too

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.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon