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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 2, 2005

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


Aviator, Spanglish, Fockers, and Fat Albert

I shouldn't make my annual best-movies list until February.

I also shouldn't let mediocre reviews convince me in advance that a promising movie won't be as good as I had hoped.

So now I have to decide -- do I drop movies from my list in order to make room for the new ones?

Or do I have a top 25 with 28 movies, a top ten with twelve movies, and a top five with six movies?

Because Spanglish makes my top five. And The Aviator makes my top ten. And Meet the Fockers, for all its problems, makes my top 25.

I sure wish some of these movies had come out during those dead months when there was nothing at all worth watching. Some of them might even have done better business, considering that the competition was desperately bad.

But the movies they're pushing for awards mostly come out at the end of the year because apparently the Academy voters have the same brain condition as Drew Barrymore's character in 50 First Dates and can't remember a movie they saw longer than a week before.

The result is there are seasons when there's no reason to go to the movies at all, and then there's the Christmas holidays, when you don't have enough days to see everything that might be worth watching.

*

The Aviator was conceived as Oscar bait, and I'm sure there'll be nominations to hand around. The screenplay is -- unusually for a Scorsese film -- clear and engaging. We actually care about Howard Hughes (as played by Leonardo di Caprio), as we watch him struggle against the encroachment of insanity.

John Logan (The Last Samurai, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Star Trek: Nemesis, The Time Machine, Gladiator) is one of those writers that the studios bring in when they plan to spend a lot of money and are looking for a hit.

The writer and the director did an excellent job of giving us the illusion of experiencing the madness. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, where the delusional character was unaware of his own madness and therefore the film showed us his perceptions as if they were real, in The Aviator Hughes is quite aware that he's losing it, and it terrifies him.

So the writing and camera work dealing with his madness are powerful and effective. Masterful. Oscar-worthy.

The trouble with this movie is that Martin Scorsese is a deeply conflicted director. He likes to make expensive movies, which means that he has to work with bankable star actors and offer the kind of suspense and action that ordinary people enjoy watching.

At the same time, though, Scorsese has to keep his credibility as an intellectual director. He can't be perceived as "selling out."

Which means that if he reaches straight for our heartstrings to try to make us love a character and immerse ourselves in the story, and the movie is a big hit, he'll regard himself as a failure.

He has to insert the kind of artsy drivel that makes pretentious film students wet themselves.

So this movie does absurd, irritating things with color. Golf courses with blue grass; blue peas on a dinner plate. I'm sure there's some elaborate but empty "artistic" reason for this -- perhaps that's how color movies from the period appear today -- and since this is a movie about a movie-maker, symbolically we're ... yadda yadda yadda.

The fact is, that stuff is there to remind us we're watching an arty movie so nobody will think that Scorsese has turned Capra on us. He can't just let us care about the characters without interruption -- we have to be slapped around a little so we know he's really the star of the movie.

It's just his little way of jumping out in front of his actors and making sure we know who the filmmaker is. It's not a di Caprio film -- no, it's something much more annoying, it's a Scorsese film.

The worst arty touch is the deeply stupid "rosebud" of the movie: The opening scene where a young Howard Hughes is being bathed by his mother. She warns him about the dangers of being dirty as she washes him. The sexual overtones are obvious -- and, absent any evidence that such a scene ever took place, indefensible.

Also, Scorsese and Logan apparently haven't been keeping up on their science -- the scene is absolutely freudian, and utter nonsense. The kind of mental disorder Hughes suffered from could not have been caused at all by anything his mother may or may not have done.

So to bring it up again and again in the movie as an "explanation" of his madness is not only cheap (there's more than one way to sell out, Mr. Scorsese), it's also deeply ignorant.

Fortunately, The Aviator is well-enough written and acted and filmed during the storytelling parts that it transcends all the posing and voguing and stunting.

Especially to be commended are three actors who make more of the material than was there in the script. The moral root of the movie is Cate Blanchett's brilliant portrayal of Katharine Hepburn. She shows us how someone might have fallen in love with such a driven, self-obsessed man as Hughes; and she shows us why she would leave him.

Along the way, she makes her character so real that we aren't bothered by how little she looks like the beloved actress. Nor is her voice an impersonation, though she does the upper-class Northeastern accent very well.

And she shines during the movies most brilliant, difficult, and nuanced scene -- Hughes's visit to Hepburn's family, which manages to be monstrous to him without actually being malicious.

Along with Blanchett's Oscar-worthy performance (the only kind she ever gives) are powerful performances by Leonardo di Caprio, who manages by sheer intensity to overcome the fact that he is hopelessly miscast in the role (the role needed someone who radiated manliness, not boyishness), and John C. Reilly as the other anchor in Hughes's life -- the dedicated businessman who made Hughes's bold gambles possible in the first place.

Here's the great secret of Martin Scorsese -- so secret he obviously doesn't realize it himself: What makes him a great director is not his artiness or his clever ideas, which are, respectively, annoying and dumb. He's a great director because he gets magnificent performances from every actor he works with, and as long as his pretentiousness doesn't get between them and the audience, we all benefit from that gift.

And it is a rare gift in Hollywood. Most directors have no idea how to work with actors, so the actors have to fend for themselves. No wonder they line up for a chance to work with Scorsese. It's not his artsy reputation -- it's the fact that they know they're going to have a chance to give great performances.

With The Aviator, for once those great performances are in the service of a very good film.

*

The finest movie I saw this week, the real gem, the movie that has a heart and a mind, was the critically underrated Spanglish.

I suspect one reason that Spanglish hasn't been doing as well at the box office as one would ordinarily expect from an Adam Sandler vehicle is that a lot of potential audience members think it's about Mexicans in America and they expect it to be a politically correct lesson on how we all need to be nicer to each other and promote diversity and it just makes them tired to think of it.

So let me tell you right now: That is not even remotely what this film is about.

Well, yes, it is about a Mexican woman, raising her daughter alone in L.A., who gets hired as a maid by a rich Beverly Hills family. And a good deal of comedy early on comes from the language and culture barriers.

But there's no politically correct lesson here. If anything, this movie is fundamentally politically incorrect, skewering all those facile rules.

Spanglish is the story of a prosperous American family that is emotionally tormented by a mother (Téa Leoni) who is in complete control of her own life and everybody else's, while remaining utterly oblivious of what they actually want and need from her -- and of how her "well-intended" actions hurt them over and over and over again.

It's into this emotional turmoil that the Mexican maid, Flor Moreno (Paz Vega), is plunged. She sees a husband (Adam Sandler) who desperately tries to keep the peace and reassure their two children; she sees that their overweight daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele), is wounded again and again by a mother who sees nothing but the excess body fat.

Then, when the family rents a house in Malibu for the summer and Flor brings her own daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), to "live in," the real fireworks start. Because it is impossible for Téa Leoni's character to hold herself back from trying to take over and run Cristina's life.

Because there's money involved, Cristina loves it, is thrilled by it, because it's like getting plucked out of obscurity and put in the palace.

But to Flor, it's a disaster, because Cristina is being taught values that Flor despises.

In other words, this is a movie about parents and children, and only incidentally about husbands and wives and men and women; and the whole issue of Mexicans in America is so far down the list that it's a non-issue by the end of the film.

Spanglish was written and directed James L. Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Lou Grant, Taxi, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, I'll Do Anything, As Good As It Gets), who is far more of a genius filmmaker than Martin Scorsese will ever be.

But Brooks will never get the credit for it because he never intrudes in his own films. Instead, he is so artful you forget that a director is even involved. You care about, laugh at, cry for, and love his characters. Which, for my money, requires far greater talent than getting intellectuals to admire you for cheap tricks and stunts.

Not only that, but Brooks is also a great comic writer. He is every bit as funny as Neil Simon, but you never feel like you're hearing a "joke." As with Simon, Brooks's characters are never deformed for the sake of a laugh. But unlike Simon, Brooks is able to carry us deeply into the souls of good people who are suffering real pain.

Even Brooks's failures, like I'll Do Anything, are memorable and beautiful.

Brooks is the only filmmaker to equal or even surpass Frank Capra as a chronicler of the American soul. Brooks, like Capra, loves Americans even as he sees our flaws; like Capra, he can make us laugh and cry and yearn for these characters to be happy.

And he's better than Capra -- better than anybody -- at creating characters who are funny and real at the same time.

Of course, he didn't make this movie alone. Téa Leoni has finally got the chance to show what a brilliant actress she is. Paz Vega is a revelation -- an extraordinarily talented actress who also happens to be beautiful. The two daughters -- Shelbie Bruce and Sarah Steele -- give moving, believable performances. And Cloris Leachman, as Téa Leoni's alcoholic mother, may well have given the best performance of her wonderful career.

And oh, yes, there's another actor: Adam Sandler.

This is the movie Adam Sandler was waiting for, and James L. Brooks was the director he needed.

Then again, what actor hasn't done his best work with James L. Brooks?

I just rewatched Sandler's 50 First Dates, which shows that Sandler really is reaching for realistic roles in realistic comedies. But left to himself, in films where he's in control (like 50 First Dates), he gets scared. He resorts to the dumb sketch comedy exaggerations that he and his buddies from Saturday Night Live always fall back on.

But he wants to do more. Sandler wants, in fact, to play Frank Capra heroes. And after seeing his beautifully real, funny, passionate, and endearing performance in Spanglish, you'll see why I can imagine Sandler in remakes of all the great Capra movies.

He already did it with Mr. Deeds. But I could easily see him in It Happened One Night (more effective for the fact that he isn't as drop-dead handsome as Clark Gable) and It's a Wonderful Life and Arsenic and Old Lace and You Can't Take It With You.

This isn't just a funny comedy. This is a great movie.

And my only debate is whether Spanglish or Finding Neverland is the best movie of the year. I'll probably stay with Neverland, but it's close.

*

Meet the Fockers is funnier than its predecessor, Meet the Parents, and Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand are absolutely wonderful in their roles, proving that stunt casting sometimes works.

But I hardly need to tell you about this movie -- it's already made $162 million. So if you're in the likely audience for this kind of comedy, chances are you've already seen it. Maybe twice.

And if you're not someone who enjoys movies in the slapstick-humiliation, dirty-joke tradition of Something about Mary, you're right to continue to stay away.

Fockers doesn't break any new ground. It leaves a lot of its jokes dangling, because the writers are perfectly content to let a scene go nowhere as long as there's a laugh in there somewhere.

The stuff with the baby and sign language is the only spark of intelligence in the movie. But for me, that made it worth seeing.

And for a movie made by (and starring) liberals in the Bush-is-the-devil camp, what's surprising is how even-handed the movie is. Robert de Niro's character is actually likeable in his paranoia -- no less so than Streisand and Hoffman in their obliviousness to how they humiliate their son and intrude on everybody around them.

Of course, it's only the de Niro character who actually has to change, in the end; but then again, he's also the only character who learns anything. So politically, it's actually a wash.

But, as I said, if you haven't already seen it, don't go. You don't have to be easily offended to be offended by this film; and if the promos didn't look funny to you, the film won't be, either.

Still, it made me laugh and I enjoyed the performances and it certainly makes my list of the top ... er ... 28 films of 2004.

*

We also saw Fat Albert. No, our ten-year-old didn't drag us there. Why would she? She'd never heard of the Fat Albert cartoons and had no idea of Bill Cosby, either.

This is not -- and doesn't try to be -- a great movie or even a particularly good kids' comedy. But it's not a bad one, either.

The coming-out-of-the-television-set effect is perfectly done, and once you buy the premise of cartoon characters becoming people in the real world, while remaining aware of their identity as part of a cartoon tv show, you can enjoy the charming performances of Kenan Thompson as Albert, Kyla Pratt as the real-world girl Doris whose tears bring them there, and a troupe of other kids.

So the story's over, the cartoon characters have gone home, everybody's happy ... but there's still one more scene.

And only then do we realize that what seemed like a lame idea -- having Doris be the granddaughter of the real Albert on whom Bill Cosby based the character -- is actually the heart of the movie. In fact, it may be why it was made in the first place.

In any event, for those of us who grew up thinking of Bill Cosby as the greatest comedian on earth (which he was, for many years), to see that final scene is surprisingly moving.


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