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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 6, 2005

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

Wedding, Racing, and Boxing at the movies

The Wedding Date, the Debra Messing/Dermot Mulroney romantic comedy in which a depressed single woman hires a gorgeous male escort to pretend to be her boyfriend at her sister's wedding, is getting reviews that range from poor all the way up to lukewarm.

What did you expect? These are the same critics who think Sideways is deep, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is funny, and who gave lavish praise to embarrassing confessions of Hollywood's inadequacies like American Beauty and Closer.

These are the same critics who worship a pretentious director like Martin Scorcese, who can't tell a story on film without constantly showing off what an intellectual, artistic director he is, even if -- no, especially if -- it interferes with the audience's ability to immerse themselves in the story.

So how could they possibly like a fairly low-budget sex-role-reversed Pretty Woman with a television star in the lead?

It's easy to diss a good movie. Just compare it to movies that aren't trying to do the same thing and call it a failure.

The Wedding Date isn't a laff riot -- but it's not trying to be.

It's not a realistic depiction of the interactions between prostitutes and their clients -- but it's not trying to be.

It's a story about a woman who is awakened to the amount of control she really has over her own happiness, set in the midst of the soap-opera chaos of the wedding of her utterly selfish sister.

And it's a pretty darn good movie. Yes, the director (Clare Kilner) sometimes focuses too lovingly on Messing's unusually large nose, and yes, the writer (Dana Fox) sometimes misses golden opportunities to develop snapshots into real scenes.

But my wife and I enjoyed every minute of the movie -- especially because the perpetually underrated Dermot Mulroney is perfect in his role, and the supporting cast is wonderful.

Especially Holland Taylor, who has been marvelous in everything I've ever seen her in, from Two-and-a-Half Men and The Practice all the way back to Romancing the Stone.

For a low-budget British comedy, The Wedding Date is amazingly good. It's funny enough, it's wise enough, and it's romantic enough to satisfy anybody but those critics who can't possibly like any movie that doesn't give them opportunities to seem smarter than everybody else.


Racing Stripes is a live-action talking-animal movie like Babe, only sillier and dumber. Which isn't always a bad thing, and in this case, I think it works.

A baby zebra is left behind by a traveling circus, and raised by a Kentucky man (Bruce Greenwood) who used to be a race-horse trainer. He stopped training racers when his wife was killed in a fall from a horse, but his daughter (Hayden Panettiere) still has riding -- and racing -- in her blood.

It's your standard phony-conflict tug-at-your-heartstrings plot, but the actors are engaging enough, and the film keeps you distracted enough, that you don't much mind the cliches.

You don't even mind -- much, anyway -- the utter implausibility of any zebra ever racing against any horse bigger than a Shetland pony. I don't care how much "heart" you've got: If you go one-on-one with Shaq, you better be tall.

What makes the movie entertaining all the way through is the clever use of the supporting cast of animated and semi-animated animals. Especially funny are the horseflies, voiced by David Spade and Snoop Dogg, the New Jersey mobster pelican voiced by Joe Pantoliano, and Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg voicing the wise leaders of the barnyard.

There are moments of gross-out comedy dealing with the flies that are, in a word, unforgettable. But they were also funny.

Will the outcome of the race surprise you? No. Will kids love it? Yes. Will adults be entertained from beginning to end? As long as you give the movie a chance, yes.

What more are you asking for? When it comes to kids' movies, the standard is so mind-numbingly low that Racing Stripes is a breath of fresh air. Remember that you could be watching the screechy, loathsome comedy of Spongebob Squarepants and be grateful.


Million Dollar Baby is being touted as Clint Eastwood's best performance ever, and it probably is -- though the film editor didn't have to select the take where snot bubbled out of his nose when he was crying.

It's also a fine performance by Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, with director Clint Eastwood doing a wonderful job of evoking a time and milieu as he draws memorable performances from every single actor in the film.

It's never boring and at times it's beautiful. It even made me care about and appreciate the finer points of boxing.

Given the script they had and the original boxing stories it was based on, it's hard to imagine them making a better movie than this one.

So by all means, see it. Since it's probably going to win the Oscar for everybody who touched it, you should know what all the hooplah is about. And I guarantee you that you'll admire it and even, at times, be moved.

But please don't lose track of how shallow and stupid and pretentiously bad the script and story are.

The core story is nothing but cliche. Wise old trainer refuses to work with the aspiring "kid" because she's a girl and because she's already, at 31, too old. But the kid persists and shows "heart" and so the old coot trains her and she wins a lot until she gets a title shot.

How many times have we seen this before? Come to think of it, it's the same core plotline as Racing Stripes, isn't it? Only instead of a zebra, it's Hilary Swank.

What makes this standard storyline "artistic" is that the old coot has cute little conversations with a priest as he struggles to find forgiveness, from God and from his daughter, to whom he writes every week, only to get his letters back, unopened.

And, of course, the girl boxer goes into the title match and gets ...

Wait. Maybe you haven't been watching the controversy about this film and you don't already know the ending. So if you want to be surprised (not that it's all that surprising -- by no means is it a twist that revises your understanding of what happened before) stop reading this review right now.

All right, you were warned.

The girl gets hit with a cheap shot and breaks her neck by landing on the edge of a fallen stool (which the old coot makes no effort to pull out of her way).

Since we already know she's a fighter who never gives up, naturally all she wants as she lies in bed as a quadriplegic is to die.

Wait a minute ... what movie are we watching?

Oh, no, it's not the hero-overcomes-all-obstacles movie. It's the tragic-death movie, with an overlay of bone-chillingly stupid moral reasoning about euthanasia.

There's nothing this fictional boxer faced that Christopher Reeve, for instance, didn't face. Only what made Reeve a hero was that he didn't give up.

Here the Swank character -- "Maggie" -- has the devoted attention of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Sure, she has a loathsome family, but she always had them even without the spinal injury.

Why are we expected to believe that this tough fighter wants only to die? Of course she feels despair and disappointment. But it is only selfish do-gooders who believe that a physically limited life is not worth living.

Was Reeve's post-injury life worth living?

For that matter, was my son Charlie's life worth living, given that he had as little control over his body as Maggie and he couldn't even talk?

My answer is yes, those lives were worth living.

The movie's answer is no. The movie's answer is that the crippled, the sick, and the old all secretly -- or openly -- want to die, and "good" people are "selfish" to keep them alive.

You want to know who's selfish? The character Maggie is selfish, demanding that to satisfy her momentary depression, a man who loves her should become a murderer.

Yeah, that's love.

Here's the truth of the equation. Murdering her was the selfish thing to do. The generous thing was what Frankie Dunn was already doing: Visiting her constantly and encouraging her to make the best of her life.

Her despair was what we generally call "wallowing in self-pity," and decent people try to help draw a victim like Maggie out of that mood and bring her hope.

Not murder her so they don't have to sacrifice so much time visiting and encouraging her.

There are plenty of other ways the movie is false. For one thing, Maggie's bedsores, leading to amputatable gangrene, suggest that she was getting criminally bad care in the "first rate" facility she was kept in.

For another, it was stupid and cruel of Frankie to disconnect her breathing tube first. Why make her undergo the panic of suffocation before injecting her with adrenaline?

Third, why didn't any of the flatlining monitors set off an alarm? The nurse might have gone for coffee, but whoever she told that she was going for coffee was still there.

But the movie is so intense and earnest about its phony moral dilemmas and its glorification of the murder of the helpless and despondent that you almost don't notice how evil the message of the movie is.

Don't take my word for it, though. Read Steve Drake's review of Million Dollar Baby: "Dangerous Times" at the Ragged Edge website (http://www.raggededgemagazine.com), a review of the movie from the point of view of someone who actually suffers from the kind of disability that makes do-gooders want to murder you for so they can feel good about themselves.

Then read his essay "From 'Mercy Killing' to 'Domestic Violence,'" to get an idea of the real danger that old, sick, and disabled people face in our murder-is-noble society.

Quite apart from the moral issues involved, I most point out as a writing teacher that suicide or "assisted" suicide is what bad or inexperienced writers resort to when they don't have an ending.

I tell my writing students that everybody has to write at least one noble-suicide story -- so write it now, to get it out of your system; then throw it away, because it's junk.

It's junk because everything that makes a character interesting enough to write about in the first place is denied by the decision to die. The suicide denies everything that went before, unless it's all a case study of depression, in which case it's the story of the pathology, not the person.

The sad thing is that the movie already set up the honest ending. Frankie had already trained Maggie to obey him without question. He could have said, Live. Try. Even if you can't see the point of it right now, trust me.

But this is a movie that is so cheap in its storytelling that it never lets us know what it was Frankie did that made his daughter so mad at him.

What an arty thing to do -- withholding that little piece of information.

Arty, but stupid. It asks us to view Eastwood as the victim of his daughter's unforgiving attitude. But if we knew what he had done, we might very well agree with the daughter. For instance, what if Eastwood used to beat her up? Or molested her? Why should she ever open a letter from him?

In such a case, his continuing to write to her, week after week, even though she had made it clear that she did not want to hear from him, would make him obsessive and evil.

In fiction, we only know what the storyteller tells us. To withhold such a key piece of information is cynical and manipulative. Talk about pandering!

But that's what Million Dollar Baby seems to be from beginning to end -- a cynical effort to manipulate the audience into thinking black is white and evil is good.

Or maybe not. Maybe the suicide/euthanasia was already in the short stories they adapted for the film. So the screenwriter -- and Eastwood, as director -- no doubt felt that to change that ending would be a Hollywood-false thing to do.

They should have thought again. Just because the original story-writer was mostly concerned with boxing, and chose a lazy ending, doesn't mean that it's "pandering" to go for an ending that showed Maggie living on with the same courage and determination that had already been established for her.

That ending was already prepared for. We could have ended at that diner, with Hilary Swank in a wheelchair, controlled by blowing through a tube. She would go from table to table, taking orders and then barking them to fry cook Clint Eastwood. It would have been bittersweet enough -- after all, she used to waitress back when she had the use of her body. And they'd still be together, father and surrogate daughter. It would have been a film about love and loyalty. And it would have been honest about the value of all lives.

There are genuine sad endings in life. Film can certainly deal with them. I'm not asking for fake happy endings.

But a phony, bad-writer ending like this one has far less integrity than the tough, live-to-the-end-of-life ending that nobody associated with this film had the guts to go for.

What's really sad about this movie is that a good storyteller like Eastwood used his talents to try to persuade us, against all reason and all evidence, that there's something noble about killing helpless people.

Why not see a movie about the nobility of letting children run out into traffic ... because they really really want to? Or a movie that ends with letting a drunk get behind the wheel of a car ... because he shouldn't suffer from limitations in his life?

Or a movie in which parents help their child acquire more cocaine, because it's so very important to him that he get high again?

Sometimes we do things to keep people alive against their will. That's what civilization is about. It's what love is about.

But it's certainly not what Million Dollar Baby is about.


Margaret Maron's new North Carolina mystery novel, High Country Fall, takes us into the Great Smokies during the fall leaf season. Deborah Knott is staying at a relative's "cabin" while she fills in for another judge.

She gets involved -- more because of her family and social connections than her judicial responsibilities -- in a murder case in which the victim is a doctor who has become the "protector" of the "charm" of the rustic mountain town -- which means that the people who've actually lived in the mountains all their lives had better take down their signs in order to "preserve" a faux charm that says more about the dreams of tourists than the facts of life in the Appalachian Mountains.

The novel is written with Maron's dependable charm and dead-on ear and eye for the local culture. With her Deborah Knott mysteries she has created an excellent guide to contemporary North Carolina.

I'm just waiting for her to come to Greensboro and write a novel about a free weekly paper that keeps committing the unforgivable crime of journalism in a city that prefers to let sleeping dogs lie (and lie and lie and lie).

My only quibble with this -- and most other mysteries these days -- is: Does everybody really have that many people who want them dead?


For me, the worst of the reality shows -- yes, even worse than Fear Factor -- is The Apprentice.

Of course, Donald Trump himself is reason enough not to watch. But he isn't on screen that much.

Instead, the show spends its time watching a group of young hotshots compete with each other to meet some impossible business challenge.

I say "impossible" because in the real world, you almost never have so little time to plan and carry out a serious endeavor. And if you do, it invariably means that your boss has blown it and you're being forced to make up for his incompetence and save his job.

Which brings us to the reason why The Apprentice is completely unwatchable for me: It's too real.

With Fear Factor or The Amazing Race or that wife-swapping show, the main lesson of the experience is: There is no limit to how much people will humiliate themselves for money and face-time on TV. (It's not really fame.)

But with The Apprentice, the lesson is: These are the ambitious posers who will be fast-tracked ahead of you by your boss, will waste your time by being unbelievably stupid in meetings, and will try to get ahead by stealing the credit for all your work.

In other words, you already know all these people.

Their only area of expertise is faking it.

They have only two possible careers: Con man or bureaucratic climber.

Trump himself is the former, on a grand scale.

By submitting themselves to this contest, the would-be apprentices prove themselves to be the latter.

Why watch The Apprentice when you can read What Makes Sammy Run?

More about Million Dollar Baby

by Scott Brick

I know almost nothing about boxing, so I didn't comment on the sports aspects of the film, though I was bothered by a few things. Who knew that my friend Scott Brick, actor, audiobook performer, and writer extraordinaire, was also a boxing fan? -- OSC

Scott Brick writes:

Speaking as a huge sports fan, I actually find sports films problematic. There's a fine line they walk between being true to the sport (like Rocky with boxing, or For Love of the Game with baseball) and becoming a parody (like Rocky II through V or Major League).

But depending on your mood at the time, either one is fine. I actually enjoy watching Major League during the baseball season more than I do For Love of the Game.

But what I hated so much about Million Dollar Baby was that their understanding of the sport was virtually nil. A serious film was making a mockery of the sport -- wrong choice. I wondered if Eastwood had ever seen a match in his life.

All of the fights were a caricature of what really happens in the ring. Walloping haymakers are very seldom thrown, and land even less often. Knockouts are rare, not the norm. And believe me, in women's boxing -- and I've seen dozens of matches -- I've only once seen a woman knocked down, let alone knocked out.

Yet Hilary Swank begins her career with twelve straight knockouts? Please.

And the dirty fighting that ultimately takes her down? I've only seen that happen once, and the fight immediately ended, right away, no messing around. The person who threw the late shot was disqualified, he lost his title, and the fight was over right then and there.

None of this business about a referee issuing a warming, saying he'll take a point off ... puh-leez! It's a dangerous sport, and the participants are protected. So right away I was taken out of the film, caring little for what happens to the characters.

And it only got worse when she fell on a stool that was sitting on its side. Trust me, stools aren't left in the corner during rounds, and when they're placed there between rounds, they're placed upright. I mean, every time. Always.

No explanation for why this one was placed thusly, except that it needed to be so to break her neck, to take us into the last chapter of the film. And I hate that kind of practice. I find it reeks of "Don't worry, they'll never notice." Eastwood's a better director than that, so I felt cheated.

Those were my initial objections, of course -- nit-picking to a certain degree -- but hey, if you have a movie intrinsically about a sport, then you should play by that sport's rules.

But the longer I thought about the film, the more it bothered me thematically. I shook my head, amazed that this movie got made in a post Christopher Reeve world. The more I think about this movie the less I like it.

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