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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 1, 2004

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


Super Bowl ads, Mystic River, and Oklahoma!

Yeah, Carolina lost. But what a great Super Bowl!

I stopped watching the Super Bowl back in the years of blowout scores and Buffalo Bills futility. But it seems that this year, the two best teams in the NFL faced each other, and it looked as though whoever got the ball last was going to win. Even though the team I was rooting for lost, I had a great time -- even though the most hilariously caustic commentator of the evening had homework to do and left our house midway through the second half.

Now on to the thing we're all really watching for: The commercials!

AOL had a really funny series of ads about just how fast their supercharged online service is, though the homemade look -- right in line with the Choppers TV show -- gave it an unfortunate penumbra of cheapness.

The anti-smoking ad for "Shards O' Glass" was hilariously smart (but isn't that counterproductive when you're targeting smokers?), and we roared with laughter at the Pepsi ad showing why Jimi Hendrix chose to play guitar.

We loved the ad for the little car that is "bigger inside." The office-supply mafia ad from Staples was brilliant.

The wonderful ad about the donkey who aspired to be a Clydesdale would have been more fun if I wasn't filled with dread that now we'd hear that bray as often as we've had to listen to those @#$%^ frogs, the stupid gecko, the hideous quacking duck, or the vile ads where people just got a better rate on their insurance.

Pepsi won the audacity award for their ad featuring kids who (supposedly) had been busted for downloading music illegally -- made me want to join the revolution, though I still won't drink Pepsi.

The funniest ad -- with the kids getting their mouths washed out with soap because of what they say when they see a yellow convertible sports car folding itself up -- was also, sadly, not all that effective, since I couldn't remember what car company made the ad. Commercials really do need to pound home the name. (And of course I looked it up -- Chevy -- while researching this column. The point is that I shouldn't have had to look it up.)

The most wasted advertising dollars were those spent by Monster.com. If you didn't already know what Monster.com does, you'd get no clue from the commercials. And even if you did know, you still have no clue what the ads even mean. It's like taking a bad literature class. These guys were clearly trying so hard to be edgy that they completely missed the goal of advertising: to induce people to pay you money by telling them what you can do for them.

So even though I loved the beach-volleyball-in-the-snow ad, the fact that I can't immediately recall who created it suggests it wasn't all that effective.

I was irritated by the blatant sexual content of several ads -- don't they know families are watching this, not just their target audience of "men who are old enough to have money but still make decisions like randy teenagers"? The people selling erectile dysfunction aids were targeting the same audience, of course. Though the worst bad-taste moment was the promo for a CBS show that featured a woman's nude buttocks. Come on, there were kids in the room.

The Sierra Mist ad about the bagpiper cooling off over an air vent was funny but disturbing, as was the ad that showed a guy jumping off a building, even though it was obviously just a fantasy. The flatulent horse was about as low a laugh as you can get -- did I really need to see that?

I really hated the one where the ref gets loudly harassed after the game by the wife-from-hell -- do they really think that showing really repulsive people makes us want to buy whatever-the-heck they were selling?

As to the movies they were promoting: Troy -- I'll be there opening day; Van Helsing, maybe; Fifty First Dates, of course; and The Alamo -- yawn.

*

And what about that halftime show? Sitting there with my family and friends, I was just thinking, You know what we need right now? We need to see Janet Jackson's breast. And just when I thought that, there it was!

No, I didn't think that at all. In fact, I didn't even see it. Because there wasn't a single act on that half-time roster than I was remotely interested in seeing. So I was in the kitchen, serving ice cream, and missed it entirely. Lucky me!

Wouldn't it be nice if the people lining up the halftime show would recognize who it is that's actually watching? Sure, there are a lot of beer-drinking guys, but how many of them are fans of Janet Jackson's or Justin Timberlake's? Some, of course. But I would have watched halftime if it had had a good lineup of country singers with anthems, or even terrific marching bands with great drumlines (I know, we got fifteen seconds of that, but it wasn't enough).

The halftime show tries for big spectaculars -- but we're watching on television, aren't we? So instead of hundreds of writhing bodies doing obscene dances to repetitive, boring, adolescent music, just let us watch some great singers singing songs that mean something. Stuff that even the guys sitting around drinking beer will sing along with. If they want porn, they can go on the internet.

*

I finally got a chance to see Mystic River, and it is certainly a credible Oscar contender. It's also about as good an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's gut-wrenching novel as you could hope for.

I'm a little cynical about the actor nominations, though. Tim Robbins and Sean Penn get to play parts with lots of "Oscar moments," but I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that Sean Penn went way over the top. Compared to his restrained performance in Dead Man Walking, this one is kind of embarrassing. And while Tim Robbins is one of our finest actors, he plays his character in this film as being so obviously baffled that you can't believe that the other characters aren't making serious efforts to get him longterm, involuntary psychiatric help.

The nuanced, difficult performances in this film -- the ones that stay within the realm of reality while still giving us emotional power -- come from Kevin Bacon (as usual; is there a more overlooked excellent actor in the history of film?) and from the women.

Laura Linney plays Sean Penn's wife very deftly, so that in the morally appalling love scene near the end, we realize that there's more than one way to be a monster.

And Marcia Gay Harden, playing Tim Robbins's wife, the only tragic (rather than merely pitiable or appalling) character in the story, gives a performance of the kind that should get an Oscar. She rarely plays the lead, but whatever part she is given is always played with such honesty and understanding that I can't help but wonder why she doesn't get cast in some of the parts they keep letting Meryl Streep wreck. She really is what Meryl Streep only purports to be -- a brilliant character actress.

There are a couple of outstanding performances by young actors Tom Guiry and Spencer Treat Clark. And the script by Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale, Blood Work) gave Clint Eastwood plenty to work with in directing this film.

But don't go to see Mystic River on a night when you want to have a good time. And if you're already depressed, please, do yourself a favor. Wait until you're feeling somewhat optimistic about life, so you can absorb this movie without despair.

*

It's been a year since Chicago got Hollywood all excited about musicals again.

For me, at least, the fun of seeing well-envisioned musical numbers has long since faded, and what is left is the tawdriness of the costumes, the emptiness of the story, the repulsiveness of the characters. I'm sure if I saw it now I'd be delighted all over again. But let's face it -- no matter how delightfully you stage it, a story about utterly heartless people is never going to brighten anyone's life.

There is room in the world of film for wonderful musical comedies, but if you follow the Chicago formula and try to be edgy, in the long run you might as well just watch reruns of Cop Rock.

The biggest problem with most recent musicals is that Rodgers and Hammerstein are both dead now, along with most of the songwriters whose melodies and lyrics were always surprising and memorable and expressive of character.

The music of Andrew Lloyd Webber is playing in all the elevators in hell.

And where a few great songwriters remain, they either create songs in service of shallow material -- one thinks of Stephen Sondheim -- or they forget everything they know about songwriting when they try to tell a story.

Of course, you can always go back and watch the great old musicals. That works well with some -- Oliver!, Fiddler on the Roof, Singin' in the Rain, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers hold up without apologies.

But apart from some good moments here and there, few of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals hold up well on film. Part of the problem is the over-reliance on sound stages and unrealistic, pastel costumes; part of the problem is the casting.

Most of the time the movie moguls decided against using real Broadway stars for the film version of the roles they created on stage. (Admittedly, when it came to Ethel Merman, this was an inspired decision.)

Gordon MacRae was a crooner, not a Broadway singer, and he had all the charisma of Leslie Howard. Shirley Jones was cute as a button, but she wasn't much of an actress, was she? Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner were the best casting any Rodgers & Hammerstein musical ever had.

And in The Sound of Music, the people who could act -- Christopher Plummer and Eleanor Parker -- look like they stumbled into the wrong movie, as Julie Andrews and Richard Haydn mug their way through another painful episode of "Adventures with Untalented and Unattractive Children."

In fact, from the movie versions, it's hard to tell why Rodgers & Hammerstein were considered so great.

I have the cure for this problem: Go get the DVD of the 1999 Royal National Theatre production of Oklahoma! -- the one starring Hugh Jackman.

Yeah, that's right. The guy who played Wolfman Jack (or whatever the character's name was) in X-Men and X2. He's actually one of the best performers ever to sing, dance, and act the part of Curly McLain in Oklahoma! -- and the rest of the cast is astonishingly good.

The chorus is so good that any one of them could play a lead. And the leads are so good that any one of them could be in the chorus. (Which makes sense with musical comedy, where the leads can usually sing and act, and the chorus can sing and dance, but the chorus can't act and the leads can't dance.)

Josefina Gabrielle, who plays Laurey, does not sparkle like Shirley Jones, but she sings as well, does a better job of acting -- and dances the ballet herself, so powerfully and with such good technique that I didn't even wish for Cyd Charisse.

Vicki Simon creates the first convincing Ado Annie I've ever seen, and Jimmy Johnston's version of Will Parker was almost perfect, if only he didn't lapse into an Australian accent under pressure. Peter Polycarpou managed to make Ali Hakim consistently funny and believable.

And there has never been a better Aunt Eller than Maureen Lipman. Instead of being a placeholder, she's the heart of the musical. I want to watch her in every play I see on Broadway, because it's hard to think of a mature woman's role she wouldn't improve by playing it.

But the revelation of this production of Oklahoma! is Shuler Hensley as Jud Fry. A giant of a man (he towers over the rest of the cast), Hensley found the delicate balance between the pain of a pitiable man who doesn't understand why no one loves him, and the cruelty and rage that make him so frightening. (He'll be on screen with Hugh Jackman again in this year's Van Helsing, which might even be good, given that it's written and directed by Stephen Sommers, who wrote and directed The Mummy and the 1994 live-action Jumgle Book.)

This production of Oklahoma! is not a movie. It's a screen presentation of the stage production in London, complete with a clapping audience -- though it was obvious that there really wasn't an audience there during most of the filming, and the audience responses we see are tepid compared to what the production would get from people actually watching the show.

Still, the cinematography is astonishingly good, and while you never forget you're watching a stage play, it never becomes visually boring.

The one drawback, of course, is that closeups aren't kind to stage actors. On stage, there's no problem with having twenty- and thirty-year-olds playing teenagers -- which is what the romantic and comic leads are supposed to be. But when the camera is five feet away, there is no way to pretend that these people are the ages they're supposed to be playing.

Then again, what nineteen-year-old could possibly sing, dance, and act as well as Josefina Gabrielle? And Hugh Jackman is so ridiculously good-looking when he's not in silly X-Men makeup that I wouldn't care if he was really seventy.

Even as a tv presentation of a stage production, this version of Oklahoma! is a far better guide to how musicals should be done on film than Chicago. Or maybe it's just proof that musical comedies about good people and interesting characters can work on film.

And when you hear those old Rodgers & Hammerstein songs being performed by people with the talent and skill to do them justice, you realize the difference between great Broadway songs and the second-raters who are getting most of the stage time these days.


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