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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 21, 2003

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


Holes, Sandler, Rock, Hope, Jazz, and Great Movies

It was hilarious listening to Ebert and Roeper reviewing the movie version of Holes. It was clear that neither had read the book. But Ebert got it, and Roeper was (as usual) clueless.

Roeper complained because there were too many storylines going on -- and of course, he's right. What he doesn't understand (but Ebert did) is that this is part of the joke.

But there was Roeper, sounding like your traditional idiotic producer or studio exec, saying, "You need to cut out some of these plotlines."

That's as intelligent as saying, of African Queen, "Do we really need it to be set in Africa?"

Well, Roeper exists, and maybe there are a lot of people like him -- you know, the ones who need their movies to look like all the other movies they've seen.

But if you are like Ebert, and think it's a great idea to have a movie surprise you by not following the normal formulas of scriptwriting while still telling a great story, then Holes is for you.

Holes is promoted as a kids' movie, but don't be deceived. This is actually a grown-up movie that has a lot of kids in it. Young viewers will also enjoy it, as long as they're old enough to deal with some very real issues -- including some murders.

The cast is superb. Jon Voight gives a truly brilliant comic performance, and perpetual wacko Tim Blake Nelson has the best role of his career so far -- that I've seen, anyway. Dule Hill is luminous as the romantic hero Sam the Onion Man.

But the greatest joy of the film is this group of wonderful kids. As Stanley Yelnats, Shia LaBeouf -- a name that has to be real, because who would make it up? -- is a strong enough actor to carry the movie, and never has a false moment.

And Khleo Thomas as Zero captures your heart without ever being "cute."

Good as the movie is, however, it is so fast-moving that you never quite get the emotional impact that the book delivered. But that's all right -- the book still exists, and whether you read it first or read it second, it has its own pleasures to offer.

*

Anger Management is far better than I expected. There are twists and turns of plot that rescue it from being a mere excuse for Jack Nicholson to act crazy.

Marisa Tomei is a jewel in this movie. She got a lot of flack after winning the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, because her acting was so good that a lot of people didn't think she was acting at all. But here we see her with strength and likeability enough to place her right between Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan.

But good as she is, the movie belongs to Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. It's Nicholson who gets all the flashiest scenes -- after all, he's the insane anger management therapist -- but the heart of the movie, as in all the good Adam Sandler movies, is Adam Sandler himself.

As the completely repressed pathologically nice guy who is so screwed up he can't kiss his girlfriend with anybody watching, Sandler captures a sense of absolute helplessness without ever seeming weak. This is a hard thing to bring off. It's too easy to slip into Woody Allen's fussy cowardly nebbish, but Sandler never does.

In fact, in a weird way he kind of reminds me of Jimmy Stewart. The world can come crashing down around him, he's absolutely helpless to change anything about it, and yet he remains likeable and even admirable in his toughness.

Not many actors can hold their own with Jack Nicholson (though Nicholson is a generous performer). Ben Stiller gets credit for being the thinking-man's nebbish -- but puh-leeze. Stiller is never warm, not for a second. I never want Stiller to win. I always want Sandler to come out on top. And that, folks, is what separates the great comedians from the temporarily amusing.

Though it's worth pointing out that I never actually want Stiller to die, which is my response to Pauly Shore the moment he appears on screen.

But good as Sandler is, he couldn't save Little Nicky. You can't make a movie that's better than its script, and the script of Anger Management is inspired from beginning to end. The author, David Dorfman, has only one other credit, an Australian film called The Boss's Daughter. Which means that we have yet to see what else he has up his sleeve. But ... I'll be watching for more.

Did I mention? Yeah, the movie is good. Terrific comedy. Very funny. Laughed out loud, a lot. Liked the ending. Go see it.

*

Head of State has all the strengths and weaknesses of Chris Rock.

On the plus side, it's brave, outrageous, smart-alecky, and often very very funny.

On the minus side, it tosses reality out the window just a few times too often to really work, in the end. Still, it's fun along the way.

Chris Rock is probably my favorite comedian working today, now that Dennis Miller has become almost as full of himself as Bill O'Reilly. I want him to succeed.

But what I can't ignore is the fact that he hasn't yet become a good actor. Like Roseanne Barr early in her TV show, Rock gets this frightened-deer-in-the-headlights look, and too many of his lines have a memorized or read-off-a-cue-card feel to them.

Which isn't awful -- Bob Hope had a great film career without ever giving a believable line reading. He was charming enough as a vaudevillian that we didn't care. If Chris Rock ever gets a script with the right kind of jokes, and can get his eyes to lose that slightly panicked look, he could do the same kind of film comedy.

Unfortunately, Head of State remains a bit schizoid. On the one hand, it throws reality out the window whenever it wants (politics really doesn't work this way -- it's actually much uglier), so it can never achieve the emotional impact of a Frank Capra film. On the other hand, it simply isn't funny enough to be a Bob Hope-style comedy -- it's too real for that.

Still, I had a fun time watching Head of State.

Sometime, though, I'd like to see a political satire in which, when the hero "gets real" and delivers his heartfelt recipe for saving America (which the general public then embraces, of course), the message were something a little bit smarter than pablum populism.

Never mind. Chris Rock is still a comedian to watch, and I think his films will get better and better.

*

Speaking of Bob Hope, I enjoyed Sunday Night's retrospective in honor of his hundredth birthday. It was a trip down memory lane, since he was present in my life from earliest childhood on. I laughed, I got nostalgic, I shed a tear or two.

In fact, the only drawback was the endless "happy birthday" wishes. It was obviously a shameless promotion of the NBC lineup, and most of the well-wishers simply didn't belong on a show about a truly great entertainer.

The worst was Martin Short. It was excruciating to watch him actually appear in his vile "Jiminy Glick" persona in order to do "tribute" to Hope. It's as if someone thought that, since Hope was so funny and smart and well-loved, they should have somebody show us the exact opposite.

Talk about a career in ruins. Short is so bad these days he actually makes me wish I could be watching Dana Carvey instead.

*

Shirley Eikhard's new album, Stay Open, is available in stores as of 22 April. This is one of the great jazz voices of our time, and one of our great songwriters.

She also plays every instrument on most of the tracks, and perhaps for that reason this album contains more instrumental tracks than usual even on jazz albums, where it's traditional to have at least one track with no vocal.

But the instrumentals are especially frustrating with Eikhard, because what we buy these albums for is that moving, smoky voice. Still, a great album from a great singer/songwriter.

*

What makes a great movie? You can watch it again and again, and still be moved or entertained.

Here's a random list of some relatively recent movies (i.e., released within the lifetime of my children) that, for me at least, meet that standard of greatness:

Castaway

My Cousin Vinny

Sense and Sensibility

Steel Magnolias

The Truth About Cats and Dogs

Working Girl

You've Got Mail

And, undoubtedly to my shame, Twister and Die Hard.

When any of these happen to show up on cable, I watch them to the end no matter what other plans I might have had.

On the other hand, there are movies that I enjoyed the first time I watched them, but I can't sit through again -- I have to switch away.

Independence Day, for instance. Titanic. Huge hits. Unwatchable now.

What's the difference? Partly the acting, partly the directing -- the ones I watch over and over have marvelous performances and are well-filmed.

But there are good actors in ID and Titanic.

The difference is invariably in the script. The great films have believable, likeable characters. The story never violates the truth of who these people are. You can listen to them talk to each other and they sound like people -- not only that, but people whose company you enjoy.

While in Independence Day and Titanic, nobody says a thing that any real person could ever say to anybody. The first time you see them, you don't notice that because the story and the eventness of it have swept you up. But alone in front of the TV, the badness of the writing is exposed, and watching it makes you want to go make a tuna sandwich or clip your nails.


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