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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.