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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 29, 2004

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


Oscars, Toll House, DeGeneres, and 50 First Dates

$117 million from Wednesday through Sunday.

That's what The Passion of the Christ earned at the box office, as American Christians (and interested others) flocked to the theaters in support of Mel Gibson's attempt to create a great work of art about the central event in Christian theohistory.

Now, Hollywood loves being politically correct, but they love making money more: $117 million in five days. Count on it -- they're going to be remaking The Robe, Quo Vadis, and Ben-Hur before the year is out. Anything with Jesus in it will look like good box office to the studio executives who snubbed Gibson.

(And a miserable little "poor-misunderstood-Judas" tv movie suddenly got pulled off the shelf and will get an airing next week -- though the execs who decided this seem to have missed the point that the big audience is for scripturally accurate, pro-Christian filmmaking.)

Because The Passion is more of a cultural event than a mere movie, my review appears in Civilization Watch this week.

*

I guess the Academy decided that this was the last chance to get on record as having noticed one of the great achievements in film history -- the excellent adaptation of the greatest work of fiction of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

So they not only awarded Return of the King every single award it deserved, they also gave it every other award it was up for, even the ones that clearly belonged to other movies.

I guess their hearts were in the right place. Too bad for Seabiscuit's editor and screenwriter.

As for the show, I thought it was great. Billy Crystal did the best job he's ever done at emceeing. Even Jack Black and Will Ferrell were funny, which marks a first. Maybe they should only work in musicals.

Naturally, the documentary feature winner had to give us a lamebrained political speech showing that he not only knows how to point a camera, he also can insert passion into yet another recitation of false but widely held beliefs about Vietnam.

I expected something similar from Tim Robbins. Though his performance as the survivor of childhood abuse in Mystic River was brilliantly understated, and an acting Oscar was long overdue, his politics are well-known. To my surprise, his final words were a classy plea for victims of child abuse to get therapy in order to help break the cycle.

It was Sean Penn who, with a little smirk, inserted a snide remark about how everybody knew there were no WMDs.

I was delighted to hear his remark. Apparently he knew there were no WMDs in Iraq before the invasion. Since everybody else thought there were WMDs, including the governments most firmly opposed to American intervention in Iraq, I think it's Sean Penn's patriotic duty to provide the U.S. government with his sources of military intelligence, since clearly his must be the best in the world.

After all, if he didn't know about the WMDs in advance, it would be the height of bad taste to take such personal pride in our failure to locate them. It seems clear which side he was rooting for during the combat, and which side he's on even now.

But then, in America today we have genuine equal opportunity: Any bonehead who knows how to recite the correct opinions counts as an intellectual.

At least Penn was smart enough to overact like crazy in Mystic River. He tried giving an honest performance in Dead Man Walking and he got no gold. I'll count his Oscar this time as the one he earned and didn't get before.

*

Nestle's is heavily promoting their new Toll House Candy Bar. They're stressing the fact that it isn't a cooky, it's a candy bar.

The trouble is, it's a cooky. It might be dipped in chocolate, but it's a cooky underneath. A good one, but really, really rich. I enjoyed the first bite -- but I couldn't finish it. It was just too much for me.

*

Best talk show: Ellen deGeneres's tv show, called, unsurprisingly, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. (In our area, it's on at ten a.m. on WXLV, 45 broadcast, channel 7 on Time-Warner cable; then on cable it's rebroadcast a week later on Oxygen at 11 p.m. You can also catch her monologue every day on the website http://ellen.warnerbros.com.)

I found her hard to watch her old sitcom, because her character was so excruciatingly embarrassing that I couldn't laugh.

But on a talk show, she reminds me of just how bad Dave, Jay, Conan, and what's-his-name on CBS after Letterman are. Ellen's monologue is actually funny, and feels like it comes from a real person, not a joke factory. Her interviews are human and witty and generous.

She can only be compared to one talk-show host, folks: Johnny Carson. She's different, but she's the only host that comes within shooting distance of Carson's ability as monologuist and conversationalist. We've had a long wait since Carson retired before we got a talk show whose host is actually good at the job.

*

I caught my first episode of American Idol the other night. I heard the other judges rave about a pretty good singer; then Simon, notorious for his nastiness, told the simple truth. The singer was talented, but there was nothing special about him. Simon wasn't cruel, he was merely accurate.

The next singer, though, a young black woman, just blew me away. I thought: How can Simon possibly find anything wrong with her? She doesn't sound like everybody else, she sounds like a fresh, wonderful new voice.

To my surprise, Simon told her, "I don't know why you're on this show. The other contestants, they need this as their only hope of being seen. But you would have a recording contract no matter what, because you're the real thing."

So I learned: Simon isn't cruel, Simon is a pro. He may not always be right, but he tells it straight.

Then I saw an episode of Star Search, the new challenge version with Arsenio as the oily host. What appalled me was that not only was there nobody on the panel of judges who had the candor and accuracy of Simon, there was nobody who even knew what they were hearing.

They all praised one young opera singer; Naomi Judd specifically praised her pitch. Yet she was almost half a tone flat on her sustained final note, and somewhat flat on all her high notes. She was cringingly bad.

Then, not ten minutes later, they dismissed a previous winner by criticizing his pitch -- even though there had been nothing wrong with it.

In short, Star Search has judges who don't know what they're hearing; American Idol has one judge who does. So if you have some compulsion to watch unready performers humiliate themselves in front of a national audience, the show to watch is obviously American Idol.

However, the American people did not wait for my pronouncement before reaching this conclusion all by themselves. Sometimes a reviewer can feel so superfluous.

*

50 First Dates is really two movies. One of them is a sweet romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore in her finest performance ever, as a young woman whose brain was damaged in an accident. She wakes up every morning with no memories of her life since the accident, so to her, it's always Sunday and her dad's birthday.

Her father and brother have reshaped their lives to keep her from finding out anything different, because if she does realize that she has lost all memory of her life since the accident, she is so devastated and depressed that her unhappiness leaves them in despair.

Enter Adam Sandler as a young man who, after devoting his life to quick, meaningless, commitment-free affairs, finds himself drawn to her, determined to be a part of her life even though he has to spend every day trying to get her to fall in love with him all over again.

This movie ends beautifully, the kind of feel-good ending that brings both a smile to your lips and tears to your eyes.

Unfortunately, this lovely film is intercut with a horrible Farrelly-Brothers-wannabe film in which cruel, tasteless jokes make you feel ashamed to be watching the movie. In this nasty piece of work, the brother of the brain-damaged girl has a lisp and takes steroids, about which apparently nothing funny can be said despite about twenty attempts; and the Adam Sandler character, so sweet to Drew Barrymore, is vicious and unlikeable as he taunts his assistant, a woman who has the misfortune of having rather masculine looks.

How did this horrible destruction of what could have been a great movie happen? Was it some studio executive, saying, "Punch up this script, it's not funny enough -- how about some bad taste humor, that's really working with the kids these days!"? Or was it Sandler himself, losing faith in the sweet story, who insisted on adding the drivel? Or was this mess what first-time screenwriter George Wing came up with all by himself?

There was almost a beautiful movie here. And if you have the patience to endure (or lack of empathy to enjoy) the cruel, harsh "humor" surrounding it, you see that beautiful movie. $88 million dollars' worth of Americans already have.


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