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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 2, 2003

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


Brother Bear, Cruelty, Rio Cali, Word Thief

I had read enough negative reviews of Brother Bear that I went to it expecting to be disappointed. In fact, I brought along a Walkman and a couple of cassettes from a book on tape, just in case.

With such low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised that I was never tempted to put on the headphones and listen to the book.

No, it's not a great animated movie like The Lion King or Finding Nemo, but it's not a stinker, either. There were moments when I was touched, and many moments when I laughed out loud.

The story of a young hunter who is turned into a bear to learn how to love is not the politically correct tract that one might fear. The writers made the "hero" take ridiculously long before he started behaving decently to the bear cub who saved his life, and that part of the movie got a bit tedious ("so grow up already!" I was silently yelling at the screen). But the surrounding material was inventive and interesting -- especially the shaman.

Isn't it interesting, though, that we can have a very religious movie in which a set of supernatural beliefs and a moral code are taken very seriously -- as long as it isn't Christian.

If it's Christianity you're showing, then you get Disney's animated Hunchback of Notre Dame, which (true to Victor Hugo's original) was savage toward Christians.

Here's a thought: What about somebody treating traditional Christian beliefs with the same respect, open-mindedness, and fairness that we're all expected to show to other people's religions?

Brother Bear gets international distribution -- but Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ can't find a Hollywood studio willing to touch it.

Why?

Because Mel Gibson is actually filming what he believes -- and what he believes isn't identical to the accepted list of inoffensive beliefs Christians are allowed to have in public.

The reason the religion in Brother Bear can be filmed so tenderly and sweetly is that it's safely dead; it can be played with fictionally because it doesn't have a billion believers.

What's the "Christian" religion Hollywood can deal with? Joan of Arcadia. I know religious people who enjoy this movie, the way they enjoyed Touched by an Angel. The way people enjoyed Oh, God and Bruce Almighty. (And in every case, that includes me -- I like them, or at least kind of liked them, all.)

But those shows don't deal with the actual God of the Bible -- not of anybody's Bible.

The God in those shows has become an elf. A little bit prankster, a little bit Santa Claus.

This is what happens to religions that are in the process of being excluded from the culture. The original forceful belief system is stomped on, hard -- while it is publicly replaced by something cute and tame.

As cute and tame as fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream -- or the Native American religion in Brother Bear.

But that's my rant, and it has nothing to do with the experience you'll have watching Brother Bear. It's a pretty darn good kids' movie. You won't come out of it like I came out of Rugrats Go Wild!, wanting to sue the studio to get my hour back.

*

The friends who recommended that we go to see the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty because it was (and I quote) "the funniest movie we've seen this year" will be getting the DVD of the Streisand/Kristofferson A Star Is Born for Christmas because they deserve it.

No, I'm kidding, it wasn't that bad. In fact, there were moments where we actually laughed.

But, see, when I go to a romantic comedy, I want to care about the people. And this movie glides so lightly over the story, and the characters are so vile, that it's impossible to even wish they would get together.

It's a failure the way War of the Roses was a failure. You hear the cast, you hear the premise, it ought to be wonderful, and at moments it is, but when it comes down to it, at the end you don't like anybody and you wonder why you spent two hours watching them self-destruct.

The point in Intolerable Cruelty where my wife and I looked at each other and groaned was when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it becomes a murder plot.

The genius of the Coen brothers is they do things that nobody else would dare to do, like Charles Durning as an angel in the brilliant Hudsucker Proxy.

But the danger in watching a Coen brothers movie is they do things that nobody else would do because they are story-wreckers. Like expecting anybody to still care about these characters after one plots to kill the other over money.

However, not everybody insists on caring about the characters in a comedy. And I'm betting that my friends who loved this movie are reading this review, shaking their heads, saying to each other, "Why would we want to care about these characters? They were funny."

So I'm the weird one, I know it.

But they're still getting a movie they'll hate for Christmas.

Maybe not A Star Is Born. That would be overkill.

I know. Home Alone. Perfect.

*

For a couple of years now, I've been using the best MP3 player for runners: Panasonic's little E-Wear.

The trouble is, nothing lasts forever -- especially a piece of delicate electronics that gets sweated on regularly -- and they don't make that little teeny MP3 player any more.

So I've been keeping my eyes open for a replacement. And for months, it seemed like nobody understood that not everybody wants an MP3 player that is also a cellphone, personal digital assistant, voice recorder, and spare disk drive.

I mean, I don't want to have to run or lift weights while pushing my MP3 player on a hand truck.

So I was delighted to discover the new Rio Cali.

Now, I've been using the Rio Riot, a 20-gig player, for a year now -- right now it has all our Christmas music on it. You can't run with it (remember the hand truck), but it's reliable and has a great interface.

So it's no surprise that the much smaller Cali is also very well designed, comes with perfectly workable software, and -- not a trivial matter -- sounds great.

It pumps out more sound, using the same earphones, than the E-Wear did. And, like the E-Wear, it's expandable, so my SanDisk half-gig flash card has its own little slot in my new Rio Cali. And the battery lasts at least as long.

*

Barbra Streisand's new album, accurately entitled The Movie Album, isn't her greatest, but it's not because she's lost her voice. She still has it -- she just happened to choose too many songs that aren't, well, memorable. It's enjoyable, but too many of the songs were written to go under the titles or the credits; too many of them are songs that never had to bring in an audience. It becomes ... background music.

The thing about Streisand is, no matter how much I disagree with her politics or detest her pretensions (she repeatedly comes unarmed into intellectual combat and doesn't even notice that she's been beaten), she still has the greatest pop singing voice ever.

Sorry, Whitney Houston. Too bad, Madonna. Loved you for a minute, Donna Summer.

Compared to Streisand, you were all just flashes in the pan.

Not that Streisand hasn't made mistakes. She tried to keep up with the times when pop music changed in the sixties and seventies. At first it worked for her. Some people complained about her Barbra Joan Streisand album, which included a cover of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" and "Where You Lead."

More people disliked Stoney End, with its Laura Nyro songs and attempts to pander to the "youth" with "Free the People."

And Butterfly, which ranged from Patsy Cline to Karen Carpenter, was, according to some things I've read, "the worst."

And I loved them all.

Heck, I even loved her Classical Barbra album. It was the first time I ever heard Faure; indeed, it was the first time I ever heard most of these composers.

But when she tried to become a disco queen, that was just sad. Her duets with Andy Gibb, her Superman album, I was embarrassed. It was like listening to Kiri Te Kanawa sing Broadway hits -- all the notes are there, but she just doesn't know how it's supposed to feel.

Besides, even when you get disco right, it's kind of pitiful. At least it is if your brain is getting any oxygen.

So when she came out with The Broadway Album back in -- what, '83? -- it was such a relief. She was doing what she does best -- singing the Great American Songbook with the Great American Voice.

She's still capable of embarrassments like Higher Ground -- as if we needed Barbra Streisand to "comfort" us after 9/11; hymns don't work well when sung smugly.

But on the albums of time-tested songs by great songwriters, nobody can match her. Not every song is perfect, but even her failures are a pleasure to hear. And her comic songs are a reminder that she was once a great comedienne.

If, like me, you get tired of waiting for good new albums from her, go back to the old ones. The two-volume The Essential Barbra Streisand is a good starting place, but it's also fun to go back to Color Me Barbra, The Second Barbra Streisand Album, The Third Album, and even the somewhat weird Simply Streisand (yes, she really did record "Stouthearted Men").

Look, if Arnold Schwarzenegger can be governor of California, Streisand's voice can come out of your stereo speakers.

I realize that there is no conceivable analogy between the two situations, but it makes sense to me.

*

Word games don't get played very often at my house.

That's because I win. Scrabble, Boggle, you name it, I win it.

After all, vocabulary is my profession. Practically an obsession. It would be like playing Name That Organ! with a surgeon or Where Does This Engine Part Go? with an auto mechanic.

It's not that the rest of the family refuses to play word games with me. It's that I feel so guilty piling up points that I get no pleasure out of it.

And don't tell me that I could let somebody else win sometimes. In our family, nobody lets anybody win. Nobody cheats, but nobody gives or asks for quarter.

So what I have to report to you today is something quite astonishing: a word game that really is fun no matter who wins. A no-guilt word game.

Word Thief declares on the box that it's "for all ages from 9 to 99." I can't vouch for the 99 part -- I've got 47 years to go (though I'm more than halfway there; that's a cheerful thought). But I can tell you that we have a nine-year-old in our house who asks to play this game even though Dad has always (so far) come in first and Mom has always come in second.

The thing is, the game is actually fun to play. The idea is that you get dealt a hand of letter cards and then make words out of them on the table in front of you. But you can also steal words from in front of other players and, combined with cards in your hand, make even bigger and better words.

So there's chance and strategy in a very good mix. There have been times in these games where the nine-year-old has made some truly spectacular moves and led in the scoring. If the game had ended right then, she would have won.

But it really isn't about winning. It's like golf. Each turn is a challenge, and you get satisfaction for acing a turn even if you don't win the overall game.

Now, we are an unusually verbal family. We can outtalk anybody, singles, doubles, or melee. So what works for us may not work for everybody.

But if you're looking for a gift for a family of talkers (or, heaven forbid, writers), this one's a winner.

*

I gave Patrick O'Brian's series of sea novels a chance about ten years ago, and found the characters unbelievably dull. But the promos for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World look so good, that I thought I'd start at the beginning this time.

And instead of trying to read at night, when I'm tired, I got the first book in the series -- Master and Commander -- on tape. And guess what? It was quite good.

It didn't make me forget the great Horatio Hornblower books, though the resemblances are great because their source material overlapped considerably.

So I got the book entitled The Far Side of the World ... and to my disappointment, it was just as I remembered from the first time around. A lot of tedious conversations that go on and on long after the point is made, running gags that aren't funny, more detail than the story needs unless the book is also a training manual for sailors, and a very strong sense that the writer assumes that if something comes to his mind, it will be fascinating to readers.

Now what I can't decide is: did the series get less readable as the volumes came out over the years? Or is this a book that is listenable when read by a great reader, but is not so readable when all you've got is the words on the page?


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