Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 7, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Polar Express, The Incredibles, Ray, and Stephen Sebastian
Robert Zemeckis has an amazing record of creating wonderful, moving
What Stephen Spielberg is given credit for, Zemeckis actually achieves:
creating movies that entertain us while tapping into deep truth.
Of course, Zemeckis doesn't succeed every time. Castaway, Forrest
Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Romancing the Stone, and Back to the Future
must be weighed in the balance with Death Becomes Her and the Back to the
I'm happy to tell you that Polar Express goes on the "wonderful" side of
Most of the great Christmas movies are rooted in darkness as a way of
teaching us the value and beauty of our lives. It's A Wonderful Life and One
Magic Christmas and even Miracle on 34th Street take us through sorrow, loss,
and unbelief in order to rediscover faith, hope, and charity.
Chris Van Allsburg's evocative picture book, in 29 pages, created the
foundation on which Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles, Jr. (Castaway,
Apollo 13) have created a marvelous magical world. The hero of the book is a
boy on the cusp of disbelief in some of the dreams of Christmas. He is woken
by a train that comes down his street to take him and other children to the
North Pole to meet Santa Claus.
By the time he returns, he -- and we -- have had a marvelous adventure.
The film doesn't stint on animated thrills. The train becomes a rollercoaster; it
skids across a frozen lake just ahead of the breakup of the ice; the boy and two
of his friends balance their way across a rail-thin bridge ... and other wonders.
But the sheer fun of it is only part of the magic here. Van Allsburg's
artwork has always had a quality of detailed dreaminess, and that visual
quality is extended into the movie. You never forget that the film is animated,
but because of the process used to create the faces, they are expressive. They
So it's fortunate that Zemeckis teamed with Tom Hanks -- suggesting at
one point that because of the process they were using, Hanks could play every
That would have been a bad idea; but the roles they do have Hanks play
were well chosen and he performs as we would expect from our most beloved
actor. He plays not only the hero boy and the conductor, but also the Hobo,
Santa Claus, and Scrooge.
Nona Gaye (the Matrix sequels) charms us as the girl who takes the
initiative and leads them through their adventures; and Peter Scolari, Hanks's
old partner from Bosom Buddies days, gives a heartbreakingly understated
performance as the lonely boy.
The very fact that Hanks and Zemeckis reached out to Scolari for this
part speaks well of the love and loyalty within the community that made this
film. Scolari's career was built around madcap boyish charm, but he's older
now, and parts for him have been few and far between. I hope that even
though it's not his face we see on the screen, Hollywood will realize that Scolari
can, in fact, act -- not just amuse us. I want to see the actor who played the
lonely boy emerge as a mature man in good movies in the future.
The animated look takes a bit of getting used to at first. Unlike the Pixar
look, this one is so close to reality that it is faintly disturbing. But we soon get
used to it and like it. Not only that, but the animators very nearly solved the
problem of walking -- probably the weakest aspect of even the best animation
And be warned that very young children might not like this movie. The
rollercoaster stuff is pretty scary, and because the animation feels so real,
there might be nightmares in some of this stuff for a sensitive four-year-old.
Also, the film is about the issue of what is and is not real in the Santa Claus
tradition, and kids who didn't have questions about it will certainly have them
after seeing this film -- even though it does come down on the side of belief.
But for most people -- whether you have children or not -- Polar Express
is everything that we could ask from a Christmas movie.
The Incredibles, the latest offering from Pixar, deserves the enormous
opening weekend it had. Unusually long for an animated feature, it does chew
up a lot of time setting up the premise. For the first half hour I was afraid that
it was going to be nothing but cute satirical takes on the superhero tradition.
But the cute satire and the charm of the vocal performers (Holly Hunter's
marvelous voice sounds like buttered toast and hot chocolate in front of a
roaring fire on a cold night) keep us interested while writer-director Brad Bird
sets up a first-rate superhero adventure that involves the whole Incredible
The kids are the surprising gems of this movie. Only Rug Rats has done
as well at keeping kids kidlike while involving them with perils and
superpowers. All the characters have an "arc" -- some kind of passage or
And the villain adds to the tradition of Stephen King's Misery in making
famous people want to pull out a gun when someone says, "I'm your number
one fan." (My favorite answer: "I actually prefer the company of fans who are
content to stay at number fifty or sixty.")
Pixar has a record of all wins, no losses, when it comes to creating
animated films so good that you don't need to have kids with you to enjoy
The only drawback is the sad little cartoon they put in front. Built
around mediocre doggerel, a mildly amusing story is transformed into an
irritatingly inappropriate politically-correct sermon. It's about a happy sheep
in the desert who, after being sheared, is embarrassed and mocked because of
But just in case their audience has been dead or sleeping since 1963, the
cartoonists had to make the point that "it's all right to be pink or any other
Wake up, clowns! The sheep wasn't ridiculous because he was pink, he
was ridiculous because he was naked! If there's any moral here, it should be
that we shouldn't make fun of people who have funny-looking bodies when we
see them naked (or dressed in current fashions, which amounts to the same
Look, Hollywood Moralists, I know you're very impressed with your own
virtue at having embraced the empty-headed religion of political correctness.
But your PC morals become just as oppressive and idiotic as Christian morals
when they are mindlessly repeated at inappropriate moments.
Imagine how scornful you would be if you kept seeing cartoons where the
climactic moment came when somebody said, "So you see, Jesus loves
everybody." You would roll your eyes and mutter, not because you disagreed
with the moral, but because only an idiot would think that this information
would come as a revelatory surprise to anybody.
Of course there is still racism in the world. But nobody is unaware of it,
and we are repelled by the condescension of Hollywood when filmmakers seem
to think we still need them to tell us to "be good."
Especially when you consider how much racism is still present in
Hollywood. Clean up your own house, bozos, before you preach to us.
Film biographies (biopix) are devilishly hard to do well, especially when
you're telling the life of a performer.
The first problem is that you have to have an actor try to represent the
performance of somebody that the audience has seen or heard. So the actor
has to be a superb mimic.
When the subject of the biopic is a singer, you have to decide whether to
have the actor do his/her own singing -- the way Sissy Spacek did so
wonderfully in Coal Miner's Daughter, which remains as the best of the biopix,
in my opinion.
Most of the time, though, singers are inimitable -- you have to use the
real performer's recorded voice, and have the actor lipsync. Some actors can
do it and look like they're singing. Some can't.
And what if the performer also plays an instrument? Nothing is more
obnoxious than watching an actor "play" the piano or guitar when his hands
are clearly not producing the sounds we're hearing.
The second problem is that biopix are only made about people who were
successful. (Ed Wood being the only exception; and hey, his movies got made,
which makes him more successful than me.) So the story is always the same:
The kid dreamed, and look, the dreams came true.
How do you make a story out of that? (Let's do a hit record. Cool, it was
a hit! Now let's do another!)
The third problem is representing the creative process on screen. For
instance, how do you show a writer or composer writing or composing and
make it dramatic? (Answer: You don't. It consists of somebody either
scribbling or typing, and that's boring to watch. It's boring to do.)
Nothing is more ludicrous than those moments in biopix about
songwriters or composers where the hero "thinks up" a complete song or
melody in a moment. Ha ha. I've done this stuff, and it never, never, never
happens that way. (Even when the composer says "It just came to me," it
doesn't mean that it just came -- it still had to be worked out, and it would still
be boring to watch on film.)
All of which brings us to Ray.
I grew up on Ray Charles, and loved his music just like the rest of
America did. He kept breaking the musical genre boundaries and performed
music that nobody expected to have a black guy (or anybody, sometimes) do.
Writers Taylor Hackford (who also directed) and James L. White did a
superb job of showing us exactly how Ray Charles's music fit within the
musical scene, and why he was so revolutionary, and how his music evolved
over time. This is very hard to do, and they do it so well that it doesn't look
Only once do they do the "think-up-a-song-on-the-spot" trick, and for
once it actually works. You could imagine a singer/pianist like Charles
thinking up at least the catchphrase of "Hit the Road, Jack" in the middle of an
argument. I suppose the song fit his life at that moment so well that the
writers couldn't resist going for the cheap (but fun) device.
Ray Charles's life does lend itself to more than your average boring
success story. For one thing, he was blind -- but wasn't born blind. He grew
up in desperate poverty. His life was shaped by deaths and losses. And then,
when success came to him, he had to struggle with racism, with people who
take advantage of or despise blind people, with the barriers set up between
genres of music, and with the shifting relationships among the people close to
The real surprise is that in this biopic, which was made with the
cooperation and consent of Ray Charles (before he died, obviously), the
filmmakers are brutally candid about his heroin addiction and constant
Fortunately, however, they don't succumb to the temptation to make this
an addiction film. They remember that it's not the tragically common and
identical story of addiction that makes Charles an interesting subject for
biography, but rather what he did in spite of it.
And the adulteries give us the chance to see wonderful performances
from the actresses portraying the women in his life. Sharon Warren as his
mother is simply amazing -- I want to watch her carry a movie all by herself.
She is fascinating to watch and if you close your eyes you realize she has an
astonishingly expressive speaking voice as well.
But I can't list all the great performances in this film because even
people with only a few moments of screen time are absolutely real. There isn't
a false performance in the film. And that, folks, is almost unheard of in biopix.
Having said all these good (and true) things about Ray, I still haven't told
you the single most important reason for you to go watch this movie. Twice.
Sissy Spacek won -- and deserved -- an Academy for playing Loretta
Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter.
There is no conceivable performance this year that could (or should) take
away the best-actor Oscar from Jamie Foxx.
And for a guy whose main claim to fame up to now has been comedy,
that is just not what anybody could have expected.
The mechanical things he does to perfection. He never looks like a guy
acting blind, he looks like a blind guy.
No, he looks like Ray Charles.
He walks like Ray Charles. But he never looks like a guy acting like a
Ray Charles. You just think he's Ray Charles.
And -- this is the killer, folks -- Jamie Foxx plays piano. He plays it
really, really well. When we see his hands, they're actually making the right
sounds. And if he is sometimes doubled by somebody else doing the hands, it
doesn't matter -- when we do see him play, it's real, so we believe it all.
If all Foxx had achieved was a spot-on imitation of Ray Charles, that
would have been adequate.
But Foxx left adequacy far behind in this movie. He not only gives us a
great variety of emotions, he also lets us feel the power, the seductiveness, the
indomitable will, the ambition. We believe that the guy we're seeing on the
screen could seduce women, dominate powerful men, and yet descend into
agonies of fear and suffering.
And here's why this will stand as one of the great film performances of all
He did all this without using his eyes.
That's like telling a singer to perform an aria without breath.
There are many actors whose performances I enjoy; some whose work I
truly love; but there are very few in my life that have left me in awe.
So Ray joins Coal Miner's Daughter as a biopic that is actually worthy of
the great performer whose life it depicts. And Jamie Foxx joins the pantheon of
film actors who have achieved magnificence on the screen.
Good news for people who enjoy local artists.
We've loved Stephen Sebastian's work for many years, since we first
discovered him at the Carolina Craftsman show more than a decade ago. We
have so much of his work that we have to rotate it in and out so there's room
for any other artists on our walls.
Over the years, we've watched him stretch and grow, never content to
make the same kind of painting over and over again. He records with an
unerring eye the people, places, and life that surround us here in North
He's also a really nice guy -- which I always appreciate, since I believe
that artists of all kinds do better work as artists when they are also careful to
live their lives with decency and kindness.
The Stephen Sebastian Gallery is opening at 8 Randolph Street in
Thomasville. The grand opening is this Saturday, and the gallery is open next
week, Tues-Fri from 10 to 6, and Sat from 9 to 3.
See you there.