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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 28, 2004

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


Neverland, Wool Cap, Noel, Build-a-Bear, and bad trivia games

There was only one new movie I was looking forward to seeing over Thanksgiving weekend: Finding Neverland, the Johnny Depp vehicle about J.M. Barrie, the man who created Peter Pan.

Depp is not a reliable actor -- that is, while you can count on him to give a brilliantly quirky performance in whatever role he chooses, you can't count on him choosing roles in movies that are actually watchable.

For every Pirates of the Caribbean there are ten Depp roles in dark, depressing, confusing, weird, or pretentious films that leave you wondering why you came to the theater ... or, in some cases, why you were born.

So I was looking forward to Finding Neverland because:

1. It was enthusiastically recommended to me by a producer in LA whose judgment I trust above anybody else's in the business, and not just because she has worked with me so long on getting my own movie made.

2. It's about J.M. Barrie, who created the iconic play Peter Pan, the story that imaginative soldiers in World War I took with them into battle as their life-inspiring myth, rather the way Lord of the Rings does now.

3. The best movie of last year was Peter Pan as written by Michael Goldenberg, and I wanted a new dose of that magic.

(By the way, Michael Goldenberg has just been signed to write the fifth Harry Potter movie. So even though Steven Kloves has done an extraordinarily good job of writing the first three Harry Potters, and the fourth will also be built round a script of his, the series is being passed on to good hands.)

So my wife calls to find out about showtimes and ticket availability and ... the movie wasn't in Greensboro after all.

Not a theater in Greensboro was showing it. The distributor had pulled it at the last minute.

What happened? My first thought was paranoid: Could Hollywood be punishing the red states for daring not to elect their darling?

But that's silly. For two reasons. Guilford County voted for Kerry. And Hollywood distributors don't give a rat's petoot for politics, all they care about is whether they can make money.

What really happened is probably this: The movie is doing way, way better than anybody at Miramax expected. Which means that in the cities where it had already opened, there was so much demand that the theaters wanted to add showings. Which means getting a second print of the film so they can put it in another theater.

And Miramax hadn't made enough prints. After all, this movie was only just beginning to go wide after a focused opening -- a common strategy for independent films. Making copies of a 32mm film is expensive. You don't make more than you think you'll need. So they were caught short.

Therefore, to keep momentum going in the markets where the film was already drawing huge crowds, they pulled the prints out of cities like Greensboro, where it hadn't opened yet.

Presumably, they're making prints like crazy right now so they can open here after all -- a week or two late.

And that's why I didn't go to the theater this week and see a new movie that I can review here.

*

I did, however, watch two new Christmas movies on TV that are worth talking about.

The Wool Cap was written by director Steven Schachter and star William H. Macy.

Schachter was the writer-director of Macy's previous TV-movie outing Door to Door, in which he played a man with cerebral palsy who became a successful door-to-door salesman. It was a perfect performance, and if some people thought it was sappy, too bad for them -- I watched it thinking of all the hopes and dreams I had for my son with cerebral palsy, and I think I cried from beginning to end.

So I fully expected Wool Cap to be a tearjerker, and it was, and what the heck else is a Christmastime movie supposed to be? Though, come to think of it, The Wool Cap isn't actually a Christmas movie. But it's a sentimental movie about personal redemption by trying to save someone else, and that makes it Christmasy enough for me.

Here's the kicker: It was based on a story by comic Jackie Gleason, of all people. Somebody knew about the Gleason story and determined to dust it off. Well, they put it in good hands.

William H. Macy plays Gigot, a mute who works as the superintendent of a decaying building. Pushy people take advantage of him because he can't argue with them, which is how he ends up tending a young girl while her mother goes off to have fun; which means, of course, that she never comes back.

Through his relationship with Arleen (played luminously by Cherise Boothe), Gigot is forced to turn for help to people he had shut out of his life for many years ... and make some long-overdue changes in the way he lives.

Along the way, we see an extraordinary performance from Catherine O'Hara (of SCTV, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind), playing the prostitute that Gigot turns to for something like love. Don Rickles also gives a gruff but endearing performance as Gigot's friend, while Ned Beatty is wonderful as Gigot's father.

There are small surprises in the story, but the main storyline is absolutely predictable. But I didn't care, because it's a story that deserves to be told many times and in many ways. I'm sure there'll be enough reruns on TNT for you to catch a showing of it.

*

Noel, Chazz Palminteri's first go as a director, is more problematical. First, its distribution as a theatrical film was botched when it was chosen to be the first attempt at distributing films on a 48-hour DVD, officially known as "Flexplay."

The plan was to put it into theaters, but at the same time sell the DVD, which starts counting your 48 hours from the time you first watch it. When the time is up, it becomes unviewable. A piece of plastic suitable for melting.

In other words, Flexplay isn't flexible at all. Watch it as much as you want for forty-eight hours, and then it's gone forever.

This is an obvious loser. Even if the price is right -- which for me would mean they would have to pay me to take a movie on that basis -- the fact is we want movies in the theater. And if they aren't in the theater, we want them on a DVD we can watch as often as we want forever.

I mean, even if it cost only ten cents, would you actually want to buy a book that crumbled into dust a few days after you bought it? (Come to think of it, a lot of paperbacks are made almost that cheaply.)

The people trying to promote this format would answer: Look, people rent movies all the time. This is just a rental that you don't have to return.

Yeah, right. That's the problem. A rental feels like it must be worth something because you have to return it. But if the company doesn't even want it back, then it must be absolutely worthless. A movie put out in a format like that must be junk. Psychologically, it's a total loser.

And don't kid yourselves. The studios know I'm right. That's why they chose to release Noel in this format, and not, say, Spiderman 3.

Because Noel has that low-budget TV-movie feel about it.

Not from the cast. We're talking Susan Sarandon here, in one of the warmest performances in her career. And Penelope Cruz, and Chazz Palminteri himself, and Alan Arkin, and Robin Williams in a non-Patch-Adams performance.... It's a good group. (And the newcomers are terrific, too: Paul Walker as Mike, an overly jealous policeman who is about to lose the love of his life because of his paranoid possessiveness; and Marcus Thomas as a guy who remembers a Christmas he spent in the hospital as the only truly happy Christmas of his childhood.)

The problem is the formula: Somebody is hostile to or sad about Christmas. After a while, the movie tells us what it was in their past that made them that way. But because they've been really nice to somebody, it all gets better.

As I said with my review of Wool Cap, the familiarity of the storyline isn't a horrible problem. But it does keep the film from feeling like a theatrical movie and more like a Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Which can be wonderful. But is it seven-bucks-a-chair worth of wonderful?

All that is moot. The theater chains didn't play along with the self-destructing-DVD plan. They generally refused to show the movie. It opened only in theaters in New York, LA, Miami, Chicago, and Atlanta. Yeah, the heartland of sentimentality.

Well, that's the other problem, and the biggest one. While at core this movie is every bit as sentimental as It's a Wonderful Life and One Magic Christmas, it pretends to be as sophisticated and urban as Love Actually. It's a modern Christmas story, see. So there are lots of references to gay people, there's a defrocked priest, there's a hoodlum who breaks people's hands, and it's hard to find anybody who is actually enthusiastic about Christmas.

It's the continuing message of the American intellectual elite: If there are any miracles, they sure won't come to anybody who actually believes in God. Only atheists are spiritual, you see, in this weird universe they inhabit all by themselves. Actual believers in religion are all unpleasant bigots.

Here's the surprise. The smug superiority of the intellectual elite isn't actually rammed down our throats. You can pretty much ignore it and start to care about the characters in all their weirdness and decency. The revelations, while predictable enough, still carry real emotional impact. The cinematography is excellent -- this movie looks grittily urban and yet is also warm. And the actors -- well, they do know how to make us believe.

So ... two weeks after the 12 November theatrical release of the film, it appeared on TNT for a couple of showings.

That may be it. It's a lovely little movie, but the weird marketing strategy is essentially killing it. It's playing nowhere long enough to build up any kind of word of mouth.

So ... while Polar Express was given time (and marketing!) enough to let its audience build -- which, by the way it is doing, actually increasing its ticket sales in the third week of release! -- Noel was put out in the worst possible way: Not really on DVD, because it blows up in 48 hours; not really on tv, because it was shown only the one night, 28 November; and not really in theaters, because most theatrical chains didn't want to waste a theater on a movie that people could already get from Amazon or watch on TNT.

I guess you'll have to wait till next year, when somebody wises up and puts it out on a real DVD. Then it will be worth renting. Maybe even owning.

Or ... find someone who recorded it when it aired on the 28th of November.

*

Right now Greensboro doesn't have a Build-a-Bear store. But everyone else does. So whether you go to Winston, Charlotte, or Raleigh, it's worth stopping in.

I assumed that it would be a complete rip-off -- a crummy stuffed bear for an arm and a leg, and then a lot of really expensive accessories, designed to bleed money out of the pockets of indulgent parents.

Instead, the prices aren't extravagant. You can spend a few hundred bucks, but only if you want to. You can also get out for under twenty bucks.

You walk into the store and choose your animal. Our ten-year-old, for reasons past understanding, chose a pig. But it was her choice, right?

You take your empty little animal skin to a clerk who blows in the stuffing and then -- with a really sweet and cute ritual -- puts in the heart.

You name the animal and register the name.

You can -- but don't have to -- buy clothes and accessories. But even these are reasonably priced, by stuffed-animal and doll standards.

And it gets put into a cute traveling box as if it were a pet.

We fell in love with the little beast our ten-year-old chose; and we thought the whole experience was well designed.

The store was crowded, yet we were in and out in fifteen minutes.

*

I'm happy to give you fair warning about a couple of trivia games that look promising.

After all, the Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers Edition is made by the Trivial Pursuit people. Why shouldn't it be good?

Here's the thing. Like Jeopardy on TV, the reason Trivial Pursuit is so good is that the questions are so well written. They're designed to be guessable. They give you a lot of information, and the key piece of info that they're looking for isn't the hardest part.

Book Lovers Edition isn't like that at all. Nothing is guessable. You either know it or you don't.

And the game is absolutely biased toward recent elitist fiction. Their idea of "classics" are books by Joseph Heller. But there are lots and lots of questions about the kind of book that the New York Review of Books gushes over.

You know what I mean -- novels designed to thrill students in graduate creative writing programs.

Real classics were ignored. In the whole game we played, nothing about Jane Austen or Mark Twain or Charles Dickens or ... or anybody from the game of Authors.

There are some token bestsellers and mysteries, but the question-writers seemed to think their job was to be as obscure as possible.

And as absurd. For instance, one question to which "Joseph Heller" was the answer described him as a "comic novelist."

"Comic novelist" means P.G. Wodehouse.

But, having learned that the game regarded Heller that way, how could we hope to guess that later, a question about a "dark writer" would also refer to Joseph Heller? It's true that Catch-22 is a "black comedy," but that's the point: you need both the black and the comedy for either word to mean anything in reference to Heller.

It's just ... bad game design. We played a round, but then set it aside and happily played the regular Trivial Pursuit #6, which maintains the high quality -- and guessability -- of the original.

Another trivia game, Don't Quote Me, tries to solve the problem, not by writing guessable answers, but by letting you play a sort of name-that-tune game in which, if you can't guess who said the quotation right away, you can get hints that lower your score but increase your chances.

Not enough, alas. Because you can't guess the name of a person you've never heard of in your life, no matter how many clues you get.

Maybe the game would still have been fun if the quotations had been brilliant, but any edition of Bartlett's has a better, more entertaining selection.

Frankly, I don't care about offbeat comments by middle-rank ballplayers. Where were the scintillating quotes from Plato or Shakespeare or Pope or Samuel Johnson?

I don't usually write negative reviews, but these games looked attractive enough that you might be tempted to buy them as gifts. So I felt like I had an obligation to warn you: They will only be enjoyed by a very select group of players. So select that there may not be any. Certainly there weren't any at my house this past Thanksgiving weekend.


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