Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 12, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Ocean's 12, Uninvited, Christmas movies, Scrunges
Quick! If you're reading this on Thursday, 16 December, you still have
time to get to the War Memorial Coliseum at 7:00 p.m. tonight for the
Greensboro Oratorio Society's production of Handel's Messiah.
Last Wednesday night we were dining at Café Pasta (on State Street),
where I was enjoying the best lasagna in town, when I noticed that the live
musicians were a little loud. But as I began to pay attention to the singer and
her accompanist, I realized -- this was no ordinary lounge act.
The keyboardist really understood cool jazz and was doing some
wonderful things with the accompaniment. But he never tried to upstage the
singer, whose voice was rich and quirky. I mean, she swung, but at the same
time she had some country licks, and above all, she sang the words -- she
brought meaning, not just virtuosity, to the performance.
On the way out, I bought the CDs they were selling. They call themselves
"Buff-n-T," an unfortunate name, since it suggests cuteness when these are
serious musicians who deserve to be heard by a wider audience than they're
likely to get in our fair metropolis.
It's true that singer Buffy O'Neil overuses that country "sob" just a little
-- but overdecorating the notes is a tendency among good singers who don't yet
have complete confidence in themselves. (Remember the beginning of Leann
Rimes's career, when she couldn't sing a phrase without yodeling?)
Once O'Neil realizes how compelling her voice is without decoration,
she'll save those techniques for when they'll really count. Meanwhile, though,
her voice and Turner Battle's insightful, original arrangements combine for
performances that are as good as the best of vocal jazz.
Of their CDs, Written consists of surprisingly good original songs. Just
By Chance is an eclectic group of standards, from Bacharach & David ("The
Look of Love") to Sting, Billy Joel and John Lennon to Jobim and Joni Mitchell.
And their CD Christmas Our Way is one of my favorite holiday albums now.
They make you feel like you've never heard these songs before, like you're
discovering them for the first time.
Buff-n-T are playing Café Pasta every Wednesday night before Christmas,
and then every other Wednesday in January. And I don't know of any other
way to get one of their CDs than to buy it from them. So if you can get there to
hear them, don't miss the chance. (Plus, the food is always excellent at Café
Pasta. You can't lose.)
Ocean's 12 -- when I heard they were even making it, I thought, What a
disaster that's going go be.
Well, it was better than Bridget Jones II -- we didn't walk out. Even
though the story was drivel and the ending was a big stupid cheat and along
the way they proved again and again that nobody cared about making a good
movie, we at least enjoyed watching some charming actors be charming.
That's all there is to it, folks.
The big weakness in the 2001 Ocean's 11 was that the caper was a
cheat. We never understood what the plan was in the first place, and when it
was over, they actually had to flash back and show us the entire thing again,
only this time letting us see what was really happening.
But at least we saw the scenes as experienced by outsiders who didn't
know what the hidden caper was.
In this movie, it's not even a cheat to tell you that the real caper is
already over by the time we see the events that seem to be the caper.
The thing is: In a movie, the audience only knows what you show them
or tell them. So there's nothing clever about "fooling" us by not showing us any
of the key events.
What would have been clever is letting us see the real events, only we
don't realize what we're seeing until the reveal. That way the revelation doesn't
just come out of nowhere. We feel as though we could have known what was
really happening. You want to see it again.
With this one, you wonder why you saw it in the first place.
On top of that, there's an extended sequence where the character Tess,
played by Julia Roberts, pretends to be the famous actress Julia Roberts, while
Bruce Willis, playing himself, pretends that he would not instantly notice the
obvious missteps and deceptions.
This was undoubtedly a lark and would have been perfect in a farce. But
Ocean's 12 pretends to be a suspense comedy, and requires us to care about
what's happening. Having Julia Roberts pretend to be Julia Roberts so
shatters any suspension of disbelief that from that moment on, the movie is
flushed, coasting on charm alone.
As my wife said afterward, Why didn't they just hold a big cast party,
with sketches and outtakes from the first movie? It doesn't seem fair that they
charged us money to watch them having fun, while shutting us out.
I did see a great movie this week, though. I finally got a copy of The
Uninvited, a 1944 ghost movie starring Ray Milland.
I loathe horror movies, whether they're teen slashers or Clive Barker
shockfests, or star murderous dolls or possessed children. I especially detest
anything to do with vampires, which I find both boring and stupid -- and
disturbing, when I realize that a huge segment of the public regards vampires
as somehow romantic and attractive.
But ghost stories which function as mysteries -- why is this ghost
haunting us? -- work very well for me. And The Uninvited is one of the best.
Based on a much-admired book by Dorothy Macardle, the story revolves
around a house that seems to have it in for Stella Meredith, a lovely 20-year-old (played by Gail Russell), whose mother died -- or was murdered -- there
when Stella was only three. The brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth
Hussey) who buy the house become involved in trying to find out why the
house is both deadly and welcoming to the girl.
It has a breezy pace and a light touch, but the suspense and the
supernatural are handled deftly.
An interesting footnote is that Cornelia Otis Skinner, who plays a
villainous nurse, is herself both the author and the main character of the book
and movie Our Hearts Were Young and Gay; and in the movie version, which
came out the same year as The Uninvited, the part of Cornelia Otis Skinner was
played by none other than Gail Russell, who plays her victim in the ghost
If you like lots of blood and shock in your horror films, avoid this one --
it actually has wit and good will, and doesn't leave the countryside strewn with
the corpses of teenagers who just wanted to party in dark rooms or the woods
I am sickened that any network would even consider the series that
Steve Bochco is trying to get on the air -- a drama about soldiers serving in the
current war in Iraq, and their families back home.
It's not a mere matter of bad taste, to sell commercials on an
entertainment series that profits from the deaths and hardships and sacrifices
and fears of soldiers and their families while the war is still going on.
It's a matter of human decency.
I'm uncomfortable about JAG's episodes that deal with the Iraq war,
especially since they couldn't keep their politics out of those episodes. It's
impossible to imagine that Bochco would even try to avoid politicizing such a
series. Talk about exploitation of those who risk -- or give -- their all for their
What next -- are they going to try to place ads in Arlington National
Cemetery? How about the "WalMart Tomb of the Unknown Soldier"?
Or maybe a nice Sony or Toyota ad beside the U.S.S. Arizona.
It's all a matter of taste, which Christmas stories and movies are your
favorites. I know people who swear that the 1983 A Christmas Story, based on
Jean Shepherd's novel, is the all-time best Christmas movie.
Now, I'm a fan of Shepherd's work -- I loved Wanda Hickey's Night of
Golden Memories, and Other Disasters. But to me, the humor in A Christmas
Story seemed ... manufactured. I didn't care about anybody. It bore no
relation to anything Christmas ever meant to me. To me, empty.
So if you loved A Christmas Story, good for you! I'm just not part of its
I did find Christmas Vacation entertaining, partly because I enjoyed
Chevy Chase's mild-mannered comic persona. And the first Santa
Clause movie I enjoyed well enough, though I can't see any reason to watch it a
The best Christmas comedy, for me, is Trapped in Paradise, the
Nicolas Cage movie from 1994 about crooks who come to a small town to rob
their bank just before Christmas and end up falling in love with the people and
It's the only movie I've ever seen in which Dana Carvey is sometimes
But the Christmas movies that mean the most are not the ones designed
to make you laugh, they're the sentimental comedies -- or dramas, when you
look at them closely enough.
A Miracle on 34th Street has been filmed several times. The first
production (1947), starring Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie
Wood will always be the "real" one to me.
The 1994 remake with Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle was
hopelessly overproduced, smothering the attempts of Elizabeth Perkins and
Dylan McDermott to make their characters believable.
But the one I wish I could see again was the very warm-hearted 1973 TV
movie staring Jane Alexander, David Hartman, and Roddy McDowall, with
Sebastian Cabot as Kris Kringle. Of course, I love Jane Alexander in almost
anything; the surprise was that David Hartman, not yet the host of Good
Morning America, was actually a warm and wonderful actor.
The movies that struck closest to my heart, though, are the darker ones.
It's a Wonderful Life came to me in my early twenties, at a time in my life
when I sorely needed it; it worked on every bit of self-pity in my heart and
forced me to reexamine it in a better perspective. Ever since then, that movie
is so intensely emotional to me I can hardly watch it.
I never thought another movie could match it for using Christmas as a
way to tap into the relationship between a person a the community
surrounding him. But Mary Steenburgen's almost shockingly dark One Magic
Christmas, with Harry Dean Stanton as an angel, may well be the one that
means the most to me.
Still, there's always room for more -- I think Polar Express is going to
join my very short list of movies that really mean Christmas to me.
In print, my list is even shorter. Of course I liked O. Henry's "Gift of the
Magi" when I first read it as a kid -- but its magic was only works on the first
More enduring is Henry Van Dyke's "The Story of the Other Wise
Man," a fanciful but moving account of the one magus who was distracted
from his trek to see the Christ child by other people's needs.
And the opening chapters of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a
truly wonderful Christmas story, giving the whole book an indelible connection
with the Christmas season, for me at least.
No, I'm not forgetting Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I'm frustrated,
though, that it has never been made into a movie that I really like -- mostly
because none of the filmmakers who've tackled the tale have seemed to
understand how dark the story is from beginning to end.
Scrunges -- the best kitchen and everything-else scouring pads ever
made. I was miserable because I couldn't find them anywhere. I had laid in a
supply, but unless I die surprisingly soon, I was going to run out before the
Then a friend found them for me (thanks, Hilary!). They're shown at a
website for Ocedar and Vileda -- the URL is www.ocedar.com. When you get
there, choose the Vileda side of the website. Then choose Products, then
Scouring Sponges, then then you'll find yourself facing a dazzling array of
Scrunges: Multi-use, Extra Large, Extra Large Bathroom, Easy Grip, Flexi
Scour, Household, Kitchen, and Cookware & Dishes.
The last one is the original blue-on-one-side, yellow-on-the-other
Scrunge; but they're all terrific products. But you can't order them from the
website. You have to phone them at 1-800-543-8105, and tell the operator you
wish to buy a "sponge product." Then you get an operator who can take an
Just in case Scrunges disappear again, I ordered a hundred. But they
last so long that I may have placed the last order I'll ever need.
In fact, the durability of Scrunges may be one of the reasons that 3M,
which originated it, dumped the product line: People don't need to buy them as
often as they do other kinds of scouring pads or sponges, because they don't
wear out so fast.
That's one of the reasons that markets are often dominated by second-rate products -- the good ones that last don't need to be replaced, so the
manufacturer doesn't get the cash flow to stay in business.