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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 11, 2002

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

Three Good Movies

What makes a movie "good"?

I keep hearing how great "Citizen Kane" is, but I find that even as it tries (feebly, dishonestly, and pretentiously) to skewer the ego-driven life of William Randolph Hearst, it becomes the thing it attacks: a project designed more to show off the brilliance of its creator than to offer any real gift to the viewer.

So now that we've settled the fact that I'm a philistine who thinks that he has a better idea of what's "good" than 99 percent of the film critics in the known universe, let me tell you what a good movie is:

1. It is an excellent example of the kind of movie it is trying to be.

2. Its influence on its intended audience might actually make the world a better place to live.

With that in mind, let me tell you about three very good movies -- which some of you will love, and some of you will hate.

My job, in these reviews, is to give you enough information for you to know whether any of these is a movie you would enjoy -- in other words, to help you determine whether you are in the proper audience for each film.

"Big Fat Liar" is, on the surface, a wildly over-the-top satire of Hollywood. But just under the surface (and sticking up in plain view from time to time) is a film about how important it is to have the trust of your parents, and how lying all the time defeats any possibility of earning it.

As the parent of (sometimes painfully) honest children, I really don't know what it's like not to be able to believe a thing that comes out of your child's mouth. But I know there are a lot of parents who are in that situation (and a lot of others who don't know they are in it).

I suspect that sometimes we train our young children to lie by punishing them when they are honest and letting things slide by when they lie to us but we're too tired or distracted to try to find out the truth. When they get older, lying is already a habit.

Amid the comedy of "Big Fat Liar" -- which is genuinely funny, with likeable characters -- there is quite a touching story of a kid desperate to win back the trust of his parents. And even though the movie exaggerates Hollywood to hilarious effect, it has a core of honesty: The lying villain of the piece never does repent and change.

He absolutely believes that if he just tells the right lies, his career can go on. And when bad things happen to him, it's never his own fault, it's always somebody else out to get him.

(The sad thing is that in the real Hollywood -- like the real corporate world -- lying snakes succeed to an astonishing degree. But that's another story ...)

"The Count of Monte Cristo" is directed by Kevin Reynolds, the guy who brought us "Waterworld" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." He and Costner were close friends, and Costner gave Reynolds his big break as a director.

Trouble is, the biggest problem Reynolds had was that he had Kevin Costner in all his movies, calling the shots and doing a really bad job.

This time Reynolds doesn't have Costner limping his way through a leading role that is hopelessly wrong for him.

Instead he has an extraordinarily good cast, a magnificent script by Jay Wolpert, and as thrilling a movie as you're likely to see this year.

Wisely, they spend enough time setting up the story -- Edmund Dantes' imprisonment on false charges, his years of captivity, his miraculous release -- that none of the unfolding tale of vengeance needs explanation. And all that set-up is so entertaining in itself that you never feel like you're waiting for the real movie to begin.

Instead of playing this swashbuckler tongue-in-cheek (one thinks of the most recent "Zorro" or "Wild Wild West"), the characters are kept believable so that you can actually care about them.

The actors are not stars, but I promise you, because of this film they will be.

This film will get little critical respect and none of the actors will be remembered at Oscar time next year -- but you and I will know that they have all given extraordinary performances in a film that people will love fifty years from now as much as they do today.

"Gosford Park" is a Robert Altman film, which means you have an ensemble of characters all following their own storyline, with the audience sometimes left in confusion about what's going on.

That can be wonderful -- as it was in "Nashville" and "The Player," two of my alltime favorite films.

It can also be an unwatchable mess -- as it was in "Pret-a-Porter."

"Gosford Park" is in the wonderful category. This murder mystery set in an English mansion between world wars seems at first to be a return to Agatha Christie territory. And by the end, though the mystery genre is stood on its head, the questions are all answered and you know that justice has not been ill served.

Along the way, however, what we really get is the best film depiction I've ever seen of the way the English upper class and the servant class intertwined and interbred. (Yes, better at this than "The Remains of the Day," which I love for the tragedy it is.)

I warn you, though: The English accents are formidable, not least because many of them are from British regions that are unfamiliar to American ears. And there is no effort by Altman to help us sort out the characters in advance.

So, since I recommend this movie highly for those who enjoy period English melodrama and/or brilliant acting in the service of brilliant storytelling, I will provide you with some key information for you to know going in.

At the center of the movie are three sisters, one married to the rich owner of the house (Kristin Scott Thomas), another married to an aging soldier, and the third married to a short fellow who is watching his career get destroyed by a whim of his wealthy brother-in-law. Maggie Smith plays a maiden aunt.

In addition, we have the daughter of the house, her late-arriving suitor and his friend, and another fellow who has apparently had an affair with her and is threatening to expose the fact if she doesn't get her rich father to cough up a job for him. This cad has also brought along his middle-class wife, who is the target of much derision by the rich women.

Finally, there is an actor-singer (a real English star of the period) who has brought along an American producer and his valet. All have gathered for a weekend of shooting.

Downstairs is a society of servants every bit as complicated and interconnected as the upstairs folk -- but the film sorts them out for the viewer very nicely without help from me.


Folk music isn't dead. In fact, it's better than ever, having grown up to be Bruce Cockburn. (His name is pronounced "Coe-burn.")

His greatest hits collection, "Anything Anytime Anywhere," is as good an introduction to him as you are likely to find. A Christian -- but not in any traditional way -- Cockburn writes music that would be fascinating and moving even without the words, and words that would be powerful and dangerous without the music.

I warn you that he doesn't pull punches. Some of the lyrics use pretty rough language and some people might be offended. Nor do I always agree with his messages.

What is undeniable is the genuine effort to combine truth and beauty in song after song, and I think he succeeds an astonishing percentage of the time.

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