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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.