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Magnificent Seven, Style Wars, Genius Pass - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 6, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Magnificent Seven, Style Wars, Genius Pass

Fitbit, will you please notice when I'm asleep? Please? I rely on you to keep a record of my sleeping habits, but when you miss the first four hours, or the two-and-a-half hours in the second round, it's very disconcerting. Was I asleep? And, more to the point, Why am I wearing this wristband if it can't report faithfully what I do?

*

When you remake a famous and beloved movie, you have a responsibility to be respectful to the original film, and yet to find ways to make your new movie better, or at least as good, bringing new insights to the old story.

When John Sturges (with writer William Roberts) remade Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) as The Magnificent Seven in 1960, he didn't really have that responsibility, because very, very few people in the English-speaking world had seen The Seven Samurai.

The audience was not comparing Yul Brynner to Toshiro Mifune. It made no difference that the Mexican village in Magnificent Seven bore little resemblance to the Japanese village in Seven Samurai.

What mattered was that the heroic "bad guys" were mostly familiar American actors: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn.

By 1960, the great tradition of westerns -- "horse operas" -- had moved from film to television. To justify making a western movie, the story needed scale and scope -- or John Wayne. It had to be epic and legendary.

So we got the overwrought High Noon, with maddening repetitions of the theme song in a Western Noir; How the West Was Won, a Cinerama original that was more about the camera work than the too-many stories; Gunfight at the OK Corral, meant to be the definitive Wyatt Earp story; The Alamo, which had John Wayne.

The Magnificent Seven may well be the best of that era's western movies. Partly it was the roots in Kurosawa's epic vision that gave the story substance; mostly, though, it was the story of misfits who learn to work together in a cause nobler than greed or even their own survival.

Like The Dirty Dozen, another movie about bad guys becoming good guys in a worthy cause, we expect some heroic figures to die because in that era, honor still had meaning and it was considered noble to die protecting the helpless.

The Magnificent Seven was so successful that its stirring theme song, by the great Elmer Bernstein, had frequent radio play for a year. This movie entered into the American consciousness and, deliberately or not, its formula was copied in films and television shows ever afterward.

Why would this film need a remake? On film, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are as charismatic and powerful as ever; James Coburn and Charles Bronson, in part because of this movie, would soon move from bad-guy to heroic roles, the way Humphrey Bogart had done a generation before.

The Magnificent Seven, because it is about saving a village, requires a big cast. We have to care about the villagers in order to care whether the Seven succeed or not, so we need good, memorable performances by many actors in tiny roles. Each one of the Seven must be memorable, which means separate set-up scenes for all of them, showing us their interrupted life.

And most of the Seven need to be legitimate stars in their own right. No problem with Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner part -- in fact, in the 2016 The Magnificent Seven, Washington shows us that his steely glare is as transfixing as Clint Eastwood's ever was. And that's saying a lot.

Chris Pratt is a bankable megastar -- somehow they had to bring him into an ensemble cast without letting him steal the movie. Ethan Hawke is a recognized, intelligent actor -- but they had to lure him by spending precious screen time developing his nervous sharpshooter character.

Vincent D'Onofrio has a magnificent screen presence (surely I'm not the only one for whom the only really interesting performance and storyline in Full Metal Jacket is D'Onofrio's); he disappeared so thoroughly into his part that I thought for the first few minutes that it might be Brian Dennehy, though at nearly 80 there's no way he could have done what this role required.

At first the other three of the Seven were characterized by their ethnicity, rather like the distinction between dwarf, elf, and hobbit in Lord of the Rings. It helped us tell them apart until they emerged as interesting characters in their own right.

Byung-hun Lee is wonderful as the show-off oriental knife warrior who, by movie's end, has become the compassionate caretaker of Ethan Hawke's character. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo begins as the most dangerous of the outlaws, but he becomes a memorable, likeable character.

And Martin Sensmeier, playing the Comanche Red Harvest, says little but earns our respect and affection, especially because they other side also has an arrow-shooting Indian bad guy and our guy is much more athletic and cool.

I'm assuming that when people speak Comanche in this movie, they're really speaking Comanche. (At least it didn't sound like the fake Yanomamo "language" in Emerald Forest, which was just English with changed pronunciations.)

Best cast addition: Haley Bennett as the widow of the bravest man in town, who made the mistake of standing up to the bad guy. It's been said that Haley Bennett is a Jennifer Lawrence lookalike. I don't see it. I think she's a Haley Bennett lookalike, and that's cool. She's got five movies opening in 2016. Let's pay attention, because, like Jennifer Lawrence a few years ago, she's coming in with a splash and then she's going to stay in the pool for a good long while. That's the only resemblance.

Though I will point out something pretty funny in the costuming. In the first half of the movie, Haley Bennett's character, Emma, is the demure wife of a farmer. We see them first in church. But she wears the neckline of a 19th-century prostitute.

Yeah, revealing necklines were all the rage among the upper classes in Jane Austen's era, but this movie is in the Victorian era, and even in America, decent women didn't dress like that. We are never allowed to lose count of her breasts, or to ignore the Viking-axe cleavage always on display.

And don't give me any of that nonsense about "her eyes are up here." Welcome to the human race: breasts draw the eyes of men and women, and when the costume and the camera try to make sure they're as visible as possible, it's not our job to be virtuous and pretend not to notice. We were meant to notice.

Until she starts shooting guns at bad guys. Then, suddenly, without any time for a costume change, her bodice seems to ride up and suddenly: No cleavage. No breast count reminder. Now that she's one of the bad-guy-killin' dudes, her girliness is withdrawn, like an inappropriate question from a lawyer in an episode of Law and Order.

But that's movie-making.

The bad guy, a mining executive named Bogue who has friends in state government in Sacramento, is played by Peter Sarsgaard. Why is he almost always cast as a villain? Yeah, he has squinty eyes and a sarcastic smile, but so do Keifer Sutherland and, for that matter, Bruce Willis, and they play heroes. Luck of the draw, that's all.

But he can act and, more to the point, he can make the appropriate villain face at the appropriate time, which is all that this movie actually required of him, since we don't get to, like, understand his deprived childhood and how control issues dominate his life.

The climax consists of more hired gunmen than the U.S. Cavalry, riding into town, guns blazing, and then the good guys shoot them and every now and then one of the good guys is shot or killed. Some of them, like Chris Pratt, can be shot in ways that should lay them out in terminal shock for the remainder of the movie, but because their hearts are pure, or at least recently somewhat scrubbed, they can get up and soldier on, doing things like mounting horses and riding straight at a Gatling gun.

So, you know, your standard shoot-out movie kill-fest.

The other night I caught the last third of Commando (1985), a Schwarzenegger super-soldier pic where his daughter (a young Alyssa Milano) is kidnapped by thugs. Commando also has the frontal-assault ending, but it became laugh-out-loud funny, it was so dumb. Everything Schwarzenegger did was dumb -- how do you know your daughter wasn't in that building you blew up? -- and the villains could never, never, never hit anything with their weapons.

Here's a bit of praise for the climactic battle of The Magnificent Seven: It was not even close to being as bad as Commando. All the bad guys who died in Commando either fell off of something high or bounced up as if from a trampoline or catapult. The deaths in Magnificent Seven were rarely acrobatic.

Of course, they did have to do their weirdly anachronistic sci-fi moment by having the bad guys unveil a Gatling gun. Now, the thing about the Gatling gun is that it was the first stab at the machine gun. It did not throw a bigger shell than the rifles of the day. It was like a circle of pretty standard rifle barrels being rolled like a keg with a mechanism to load them and then fire them when each barrel rose to the top.

Like machine guns, the Gatling gun was a defensive weapon. It was as inaccurate as machine guns always are -- it's almost impossible to compensate for recoil when the recoils are so close on each other's heels. So the Gatling gun, like the machine gun, is most effective when a bunch of attackers are running toward you in a fairly tight mass. Then aim doesn't matter. As long as you keep the barrels level, the bullets are likely to hit somebody.

But since the attackers had the Gatling gun, what in the world was it supposed to do? Well, they equipped it with much bigger barrels -- like from anti-aircraft guns in World War II -- and they fired what seemed to be long-range armor-piercing shells, which tore through the wood of the town's buildings and killed anyone taking shelter inside.

Aliens or visitors from the future must have given them that "Gatling gun" and its absurdly lethal ammunition.

But all these errors and anachronisms are right in line with the whole Western tradition. Heck, we even have Denzel Washington shoot a gun out of somebody's hand! What was this, an episode of Bonanza? These are all tropes of the genre.

What matters is this: Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto delivered a very good script that only once had "Go! Go! Go!" in it, which shows admirable restraint. Then Antoine Fuqua directed it well, and the great cast acted the heck out of it, and the lighting and costuming and effects people broke their backs making it all work. And it did.

If you've seen the Yul Brynner Seven, this one is so different, and Denzel Washington is so good, that you never wish you were watching Yul instead of Denzel. And if you haven't seen the Yul Brynner Seven, what do you care about comparisons? If this were the only Magnificent Seven movie to exist, we'd think it was terrific.

The only people who hate it are the critics who have to show us how smart they are by constantly telling us that the old Japanese movie with subtitles is the pure thing, and the Yul Brynner/Steve McQueen version was still pure compared to this weak-kneed, lily-livered remake.

Ignore those critics.

Or, no, wait, that just makes them yell louder. Instead, nod wisely and say, "Oh, I'm sure you're right."

Then go see this year's remake of The Magnificent Seven and enjoy yourself.

The musical score, by James Horner and Simon Franglen, is wonderful, by the way. But they're blown out of the water when, at the end of the movie, we suddenly get a replay of Elmer Bernstein's main theme from the old movie.

Ah, man. Elmer Bernstein could create a whole movie in a fifteen-second theme.

*

I caught a couple of minutes of Steve Jobs on HBO Tuesday night, and I was finally able to stop watching the brilliant Aaron Sorkin script and the brilliant Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet and Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlbarg performances when Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) assassinates Steve Jobs (Fassbender) with a parting shot as he leaves a mostly-empty auditorium.

"It isn't binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time."

I have, for thirty-five years, used a version of the same line with my writing students and with fellow writers: "Genius excuses nothing."

First, let's start with this: Steve Jobs was not, even on his best day, a genius. He invented nothing. His creations had no style. The only reason people thought he was a genius and thought his stuff had style was because Steve Jobs told them so.

You know, like Donald Trump. Absolutely nothing in Trump's achievement-free life even hints that he's a genius or a winner or even marginally adequate at business. But Trump gets called a genius because Trump tells us so.

Steve Jobs was a self-promoter who thought he was creative. But he wasn't. He was always putting on a show, and his most loving and attentive audience was himself.

I knew this long before I watched the movie Steve Jobs, because I saw the lousy products Apple made. The Mac, which forced touch typists to keep lifting their fingers from the home keys to use the stupid mouse (touch typists hate mice). The ugly white cigarette box of the iPod, which was markedly inferior in every way, including style, to the Rio Riot I was using at the time.

But because Jobs was such an effective promoter, and the bleating media printed his self-praise as if some objective measure determined it was true, everybody had to buy the iPod and in six months, every competitor was out of business. So I had to surrender and use Apple designs, which are always rudely inconvenient for any real use -- they only start looking good when the new model of the same Apple product comes out and you think, Wow, dang, they really could make it worse.

Yeah, yeah. I know, Apple users. I've just said that the big rock in the Holy City is an idol. I should die. But it's true. Bill Gates's main function in the history of computers is making software so crappy and crashy that it made us think Apple's software was reliable and almost worth the inflated premium prices.

There ... is there anyone left I have not insulted in the whole computing world?

But I'm right. I watched the whole thing every step of the way. I called it at the time, and I was right every time, and it makes no difference because I'm not a genius.

If I were a genius, then I'd get the Genius Pass. This is almost like the Leftist Candidate Pass -- you know, when Democrats can diddle interns (Barney Frank, Bill Clinton) or commit felonies and leave Americans unsupported under enemy fire (other Clinton), and still get elected or reelected. In this case, it isn't the candidate that gets the pass, it's that Leftist voters have no honor and regard logic as "man-splaining," and therefore don't care that they elect psychopaths and incompetents as long as they have correct opinions.

The Genius Pass is a little different. The GP means that because you can slam-dunk a lot of balls during a game, or pitch other teams into the ground, or paint ugly paintings that the critics declare are Brilliant, or record music that sells millions of copies and thereby acquires the patina of greatness, or speak lines written by someone else in a convincing way, or ... well, basically, if you can do these things and make eye contact or stare down the lens in a really likable, sincere way, then:

Then you can sleep with anybody, whether you're married or not; get caught stealing, either directly or through accounting tricks; take and distribute illegal drugs; and say any foolish or outrageous thing, and even if there's a brief firestorm, you're still OK. The public will still pay to see or hear or read your stuff.

You can lose that Genius Pass, though. If it's been a couple of years since your last hit or your last MVP award or if People's Choice has forgotten who you are, then all of a sudden you have to live by the same rules as everybody else, and pay your bills and pay your taxes and not drive drunk and not kill anybody with your car or gun, and as they lead you to jail or the auction where they sell everything you own, you look around and say, "What happened? I was doing this stuff all along and nobody minded."

An actress might say, "I shoplifted in Beverly Hills boutiques all the time, and they used to brag that I shoplifted from them. Now all of a sudden I'm in front of a judge. What happened?"

Here's what happened, kid. You haven't been nominated for an Oscar or Emmy in five years. You aren't a Genius anymore. Pass revoked.

What's funny is that the real geniuses, the people like, say, Steve Wozniak and Mohandas Gandhi and Anthony Hopkins, they understand what Steve Rogen said in Steve Jobs: "It isn't binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time."

In other words, they live by the rules of civilized behavior, or at least try to. They don't hop on the Genius Train and ride it to the end of the line. They stay in economy class with the rest of us and treat other people so well that we miss them when they're gone -- really miss them, the human being as well as the talented person.

Revoke all the Genius Passes. Kanye West can chant things that make people buy tracks. Cool. Still a jerk. Donald Trump can't read a whole chapter, even with pictures, but he can persuade people to vote for him because he says out loud all the mean things they only whisper. Good for him. Still a jerk.

I'm sick of all the self-promoters calling themselves brilliant who aren't. But when I find the people who really are brilliant but only want to talk about all the people they think are more talented than themselves -- well, those are the people who are promoting civilization.

Instead of being life-sucking parasites hanging from civilization's puckered, pock-marked, scab-covered skin.

*

Along with revoking the Genius Pass, let's stop with the digging-up of dead artists and whipping their dead bodies for not having outguessed the future puritanism of political correctness. Yeah, Roald Dahl was a racist. So was Rudyard Kipling. So were most people of the time. Dahl and Kipling wrote some good stuff. We can still enjoy the good stuff without saying the racism doesn't matter. It does matter. It mattered then.

But they don't deserve to be banned or beaten posthumously because they didn't happen to be among the few who stood alone and defended all the confusing, contradictory dogmas of modern puritanism.

I'm going to go further. Bill Cosby seems to have actually done either all or a lot of the vicious sexual predation he is accused of. If so, then he's a rapist and, unlike Hillary Clinton, should pay the penalty for his crimes.

But it doesn't make any of the comedy routines we grew up with any less funny or truthful or wise. Really. It doesn't. You don't want to invite him to meet your daughter, but if you pull out the Noah tracks, or listen to "To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With" or "Bill Cosby: Himself," and laugh your brains out, that's OK.

Just because we find out an artist or athlete whose performances and creations we enjoyed was a horrible human being doesn't mean that we didn't enjoy those performances or creations. O.J. Simpson is a murderer, but he still made 16 touchdowns for the Bills in 1975.

Brilliance excuses nothing. But badness doesn't erase brilliance, either. You're not an accomplice before or after the fact if you confess that Bill Cosby was one of the greatest standup comics ever, and you still listen to his tracks now and then. That's not giving him a Pass.

No, acquitting him in open court despite overwhelming evidence, that's the Genius Pass: O.J. got it, and Bill Cosby won't. There it is. I say, nobody should get a Genius Pass. But nobody's good works are erased by their bad deeds or incorrect thoughts, either.

*

The new television season continues apace. NCIS lost some of its key people. Michael Weatherly went on to star in the embarrassingly bad Bull, but after it's jerked from the lineup he'll come back in a much better show.

Both of the new NCIS cast members I've seen so far are strong actors playing interesting characters who belong on this team. Alex Quinn (Jennifer Esposito) comes into the series as if she was always there and what kind of idiots were we for not noticing her.

While Nick Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) comes back from years of undercover work in other countries, not at all sure he's ready to work on a team -- but team leader Gibbs (Mark Harmon) grabs him in a compelling storyline that makes him an instant favorite.

I didn't need the parrot in the season opener, but they had to give the old series regulars something amusing to do till the new kids settled in.

NCIS-LA has never been as well-written as the mother-ship, NCIS; the storylines and the characters suffer from a kind of hollowness, and NCIS-LA is the mostly-action kid brother tagging along after the grown-up show.

And yes, I can count the metaphors as well as you can. Were you confused about the meaning of what I was saying? Then "mixed metaphors" didn't hurt anybody, did they?

And speaking of silly editorial "issues," I hope you've seen The Onion story "4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence." {See http://www.theonion.com/article/4-copy-editors-killed-in-ongoing-ap-style-chicago--30806 }

For those who don't know or care -- which is everybody -- The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style are two competing standards of how words should be spelled and chosen and arranged on the page. I memorized the rules in The Chicago Manual when I was a copy editor and now they're like second nature. The differences with the AP Stylebook are all trivial and annoying, and so copy editors with different allegiances argue endlessly over matters so unimportant as to make the breakup of Brangelina look like real news.

There are yet other style guides, most notably The Modern Language Association Handbook, all of whose differences from the other style guides make everything more difficult to read and write. But then keep in mind that the MLA Handbook exists for no other reason than to make students who must write papers and dissertations dwell in hell for years.

Then, when they leave academia, they are confronted by the fact that in the real world, every single MLA rule they learned is wrong.

This may be a large part of the reason so many students go on to become professors; it's too terrifying to leave the womb of the MLA Handbook.

Oh, and remember: The Brits have their own rules, including a different set of spellings and specialized vocabulary. Do they still say aluminium instead of aluminum? Do they still use "thousand million" to mean "billion" and "billion" to mean what we call "trillion"?

They've had a thousand years to fiddle with English, making a royal mess of it. They can keep messing with it for another thousand, for all I care, as long as I don't have to follow their rules.

Here's the great secret in the Style Guide Gang Wars: None of the rules in any of these books is "true" or "right" or -- least of all -- "logical." Why is it "logical" for Brits to use single quotes where we use double, and vice versa? Why is it "logical" that when you're including a quotation inside a sentence that is not all quotation, periods and commas go outside the quotation marks, as:

Professor Theodore 'Odie' Thorpemorley gave us the final word when he said, 'No native speaker ever "learns" grammar, but rather discovers it when language rings true or false in his own unconscious mind'.

For an American copy editor, that period outside the quotation mark is an abomination, because periods and commas go inside all the quotation marks, without exception. Though colons, semi-colons, dashes, question marks, and exclamation points can go either inside or outside the quotation marks depending on whether the punctuation mark was part of the original quotation, or is an inflection used by the current writer or speaker who is quoting that quotation.

Do you see what I mean? I have been in half-hour conversations, some of them quite heated, about matters exactly this trivial -- including, in fact, these exact matters.

The only thing more boring to listen to is Second-Amendment purists laughing to each other about how "illogical" it is for anyone to disagree with them, though none of the arguments on either side ever involve any kind of logic in any way.

Whatever you spend a lot of time doing, talking, and/or thinking about will rise in importance in your own mind. That's why all of a sudden, the issue of transgender bathrooms became a reason to attack the livelihood of all the citizens of a particular state, instead of calmer heads saying, "What were transgender and cross-dressing people doing before? Did they hold it in? Were there a lot of bladder- and bowel-rupture cases crowding our emergency rooms? Do we need to forestall dangerous back-alley poopings?"

Or was it all worked out peacefully, silently, sometimes inconveniently, but without the intervention of clumsy laws that have to then be enforced by intrusive behavior by policewights?

When something trivial that is not an actual problem becomes a problem because you care so much and because you pretend to yourself that people are really suffering because our laws aren't "sensitive" enough (Clue: There is no such thing as a "sensitive law"), then it's time for someone -- like maybe yourself -- to ask you, "Could you care less?"

And if the honest answer, after some reflection, is, "Yes, in fact, I not only could care less, I actually do care less," then admit your less-caring status and just leave the thing alone. It's called tolerance, and sometimes tiny minorities can give it a try and apply tolerance to majority customs instead of making everybody else bend to their magisterial will.

The trouble is, everybody has a different list of things they could care less about. Having driven around a kid in a wheelchair for many years, seeing someone without handicapped tags park in a handicapped stall makes me start singing Bruce Cockburn's lyric: "If I had a rocket launcher ..."

To other people, the fact that those handicapped stalls are usually empty means the whole issue is trivial.

They're wrong, I'm right.

And thus I'm as much a part of the problem as anybody else.

Back to the style guide wars: The main reason that the arguments about style-guide rules are so trivial is that very, very few publications today show even the slightest sign of having been competently edited at all. I've had many opportunities to look at manuscripts "edited" by "professionals" at major publishing houses, only to find that most "corrections" are either from right to wrong, or from one wrong choice to another, usually worse one.

The state of editing in American publishing is incredibly low -- and getting lower, because Amazon is price-squeezing publishers so they don't have time to pay for multiple editorial passes on a manuscript.

Therefore it's up to the author to make sure that the final printed edition is free of errors. But this is an absurd requirement because most American authors were educated in American schools, so every rule they think they learned is wrong.

Here's one rule that will help every writer all the time. If you find yourself about to use "whom" or "whomever," don't. Just don't. Those words were dead when Noah Webster was composing his dictionary. They were only resurrected by foolish, ignorant pedants who wanted to torment students. Don't obey them. "Whom" and "whomever" are as dead as "thou," "thee," "thy," "thine," and "thyself."

And don't tell me the Quakers still use "thee," because the Quakers use it wrong all the time!

If you're sure that "whom" or "whomever" is right and you must use it, first of all, don't. Second, if you cannot stand not to use it, then take the time to learn the rule. It takes a few hours, and, as with math, you have to work out quite a few sample sentences using them before you can be sure you've understood the actual rules of objective case in English, especially inside clauses.

Then go ahead. And I guarantee you that most of the time, you'll still be wrong. Worse yet, if a professional editor "corrects" you from "who" to "whom," their correction will almost always be a hideous mistake, because precious and few are the editors who actually know the rule and apply it correctly in all cases.

*

I was talking about NCIS-LA when I allowed myself to be sidetracked. It's simple. The cast of NCIS-LA is so likable that we care about them even when the writing is noticeably second-rate. The far-fetched plots, the fantasy-land remote surveillance capabilities, the pointless chases (why is this suspect going to run? So we can have 45 seconds of "excitement," of course!).

We forgive them because of Chris O'Donnell, Daniela Ruah, Barrett Foa, LL Cool J, Eric Christian Olsen, Renée Felice Smith, and Miguel Ferrer (son of the brilliant José Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney, and very good in his own right; also making him some kind of cousin to George Clooney).

And I appreciate the fact that the computer geeks in NCIS-LA are not, in fact, weird. Barrett Foa and Renée Felice Smith are both very attractive people and are among the most interesting characters in the series.

Chris O'Donnell always gets top billing on NCIS-LA. Do you know why? Because when they started the series as a spin-off of NCIS, Chris O'Donnell was the biggest movie-actor star in the cast.

You know, the way Rob Lowe was in West Wing, even after Aaron Sorkin stopped writing anything for him to say or do. Your billing is part of the original contract, and if it ever changes, it's a huge deal. Actors will walk away from a popular series if their billing is ever reduced, or someone else placed higher up.

Which is why the real heart of the series, Linda Hunt as Hetty Lange, is not top-billed. Linda Hunt is one of the best actors ever on any screen. She becomes the soul of almost everything she's in -- she stole Silverado out from under Kevin Costner and Kevin Kline and a lot of other charismatic actors, and she's the one who walked away with an Oscar for The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). That's right, Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver weren't nominated, but Linda Hunt won -- and deserved to.

She is not a "dwarf" -- there's a medical definition and she doesn't fit it. She's merely a short person, three inches under five feet tall. Through most of the thousands of years in which modern humans have walked the Earth, she would have been regarded as unremarkable in height. It's not her fault basketball was invented, giving people an incentive to grow absurdly tall.

Linda Hunt can say the most absurd lines and make them sound gnomic and wise, or witty and snide. Without her, there would be no NCIS-LA.

So the season opener had an attempted breakup of Hetty's team by a bureaucrat in the Defense Department, and we wait (it took three hours) for Hetty to finally put him in his place.

Meanwhile, there was a lot of action and angst, with Marty Deeks (Olsen) agonizing over his love for Kensi Blye (Ruah), which he is afraid to express because of bad writing; this provides a lot of meaningless pacing when Kensi is injured in a really badly prepared special operation that should never have worked and only did work because the script said so.

Does this sound like I'm hostile to the show? I'm really not. I love these actors; I want them to keep saying dumb things and acting out dumb scripts forever, because they're so likable and earnest. If you already love the show, then keep watching it. If you don't, then I'm telling you, this is one of my favorite guilty-pleasure series.

*

I sometimes wondered if Kevin James could actually do comedic acting, as opposed to whatever he was doing in the Paul Blart: Mall Cop movies.

Kevin Can Wait, a new sitcom on CBS, has Kevin James playing Kevin Gable, a newly retired police officer who is trying to fulfil all his fantasies about what retirement is going to be.

Of course, nothing works properly and he learns a little bit from the first round of failures.

I expected your standard dumb-husband-and-father whose all-wise, all-knowing wife-and-mother finds the answers to all of life's problems in a hermetically sealed Mason jar on Funk & Wagnall's porch.

And yeah, there's a little bit of that. A little bit of aren't-men-funny-and-stupid.

But "a little bit" makes this way above average in its treatment of men.

How funny is it? I laughed sometimes. I believed many of the things that happened might well happen in the real world.

Basically, it was as funny, and as real, as early episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, before Ray Romano found his legs. And Kevin James is a way better actor than Roseanne Barr was in the first three years of her self-named sitcom.

Once, when I was interviewing potential showrunners for a teen sci-fi series for the WB, I talked to Scott Brazil (The Shield), who gave me a stern talking-to about casting. "The audience has to like the actors. Not the characters, the actors. Because no matter what you do, by the end of the first season, all the actors are playing themselves.

"They can't help it," he said. "Nobody can sustain a character that's different from themselves for very long. Who they really are bleeds through. So it's not enough to test them with the dialogue or in front of the camera. You have to like them. Because if they're stupid or mean or terrified, you will hate every minute of working with them.

"Your only relief comes from the fact that the audience will also hate watching them, so the series will be canceled and you'll be liberated.

"The worst thing is to work on a series with the star's name in the title. If you're a writer, you will be fired in the second season -- even if you created the show, even if you wrote every funny line that made the self-titled character such a huge hit.

"You will be fired because actors are all terrified, especially when their name is in the title, and so even though they know nothing about writing and don't have a clue why they are stars, they have a desperate need to be in control.

"Then, when they have control, they will still find ways to blame everybody else for everything wrong with the show. Including you, many years after they fired you."

It's a shame Scott Brazil died without my ever having a chance to work with him. He really knew his stuff -- and he's the one would-be showrunner who didn't say to me, within the first three sentences, "You know that if we ever disagree, you're fired." This does not make a good impression on the series creator. I bet nobody associated with E.R. ever said that to Michael Crichton.

But of course, my books don't sell like Crichton's.

Kevin James's name is in the title of Kevin Can Wait. He can either be a horrible person like Roseanne Barr, who left the corpses of many writers behind her whenever she took a walk, or a decent guy like Ray Romano is reputed to be. At least Romano kept his co-creator (Philip Rosenthal) with him through the whole run of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Which is a long way of saying: Let's see what kind of human being Kevin James is. If the series flops, it doesn't imply he was a jerk. But if it lasts a couple of seasons, yet writers keep quitting or getting fired left and right, then we can confirm that Kevin James is not as nice as he seems on camera.

I think he really is that nice. And I think he's way funnier doing relationship comedy than doing slapstick. So I hope this series keeps running for a long time.

I also hope it gets markedly funnier without resorting to slapstick.

http://www.hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2016-10-06.shtml


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