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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 13, 2005

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


Hitch, Tenors, Crooners, and Faerie Wars

Hitch was the hit of Valentine's Day. And it deserved to be.

More to the point, Will Smith deserved to be. We've waited a long time to see him in a romantic comedy, and fortunately, his first was a good one.

Smith's character, Hitch, is "the Date Doctor," a consultant who helps guys get past their own shyness or ineptitude to make a good impression on the women they aspire to love.

And Hitch is fussy. He won't take guys who are looking for conquests or one-night stands. It's love that he believes in. For everybody but himself.

Meanwhile, Sara (Eva Mendes, who has come a long way since Children of the Corn IV) is a top Chicago gossip columnist whose best friend is so hungry for love that she sets herself up to be treated miserably by the kind of men Hitch won't work with.

The promos make the movie look like a Will Ferrell dozer -- dating expert is a klutz on his own date. Ha ha. But the writer, Kevin Bisch, subsumes this in a traditional but still delightful story of believable misunderstandings, with overtones of Pride and Prejudice.

And at the key moment, when for the first time Hitch realizes just why Sara is suddenly treating him so badly, instead of needlessly prolonging the agony, Hitch simply tells the truth.

How long has it been since you've seen a comedy writer create a scene like that?

Some scenes go a bit too far or go on a bit too long. Hitch's scene at the door, where he reverts to his college awkwardness, is funny for a moment but goes on for a couple of long minutes after that. But hey, even when Will Smith is in a bad scene, he makes us like it.

I remember the day, almost ten years ago, when I was in a strategy meeting for my film project Homebody and I mentioned that I wanted a black actor in the lead. Everyone in the room (some of whom were African-American) assured me that no studio would fund a romantic comedy/thriller with a black lead. "That would make it a niche film. A black lead won't open a movie like this."

"What about Will Smith?" I said.

"He always has to be teamed with a white actor," I was told.

Well, being teamed with a white actor didn't save Wild Wild West. And he and the not-so-very-white Martin Lawrence did some real box office with the Bad Boys franchise.

And while Smith has a wonderful white guy playing his foil in Hitch -- Kevin James (of The King of Queens -- and previously a writer on Everybody Loves Raymond) -- this is Will Smith's movie.

Like James Stewart and Clark Gable, Smith is a little goofy-looking (it's the ears) but he can carry off suave, too. We want him to get the girl, always, because we know she'll be darn lucky to get him.

Now that he's had a $50 million opening weekend-plus-Valentine's Day, can we please just admit that Will Smith is a first-rank romantic star and see him in a lot more movies where nobody is shooting anybody and people fall into and out of love?

*

I told you about Sharyn McCrumb's magical new novel St. Dale several months ago. Well, the waiting period is over. Now you can read this delightful NASCAR-loving update of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for yourselves.

If you instantly recognize who "St. Dale" is, then you already want to read this book. And if you have no idea, then you need to read it just to find out where America is on the map.

Better news still: Ms. McCrumb is coming to Greensboro. She'll be at the main library on March 2nd at 7:00 pm. No other writer has captured the spirit of the common people of the South better than she has, and on top of that she's a wonderful speaker. I'll see you there.

*

Mario Frangoulis is the real thing -- a sensitive tenor who never pushes the emotions of a song beyond the ability of his voice to remain beautiful and true.

Unfortunately, nobody hears of him. Instead, we get endless iterations of Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban.

With Bocelli, there's a bit of the dancing dog syndrome. If he weren't blind, would anybody pay attention? Maybe. But his overwrought performances leave me cold, especially because he so often sings beyond his voice.

Josh Groban has a nice voice, and when he sings a song that's within his capacity, he interprets the music well. He's therefore a much better singer than Bocelli, who blasts away without regard to the sense of the music.

But it doesn't change the fact that Groban's is a voice of middling strength. Perhaps when he gets older, his voice will mature into something richer than what we're hearing now.

Why, then, do we hear Bocelli and Groban on almost every movie soundtrack album that needs a tenor?

Not that Groban does badly. His vibrato may be boyishly rapid -- almost a tremolo -- but when he sings "Remember Me" on the Troy soundtrack, he has nothing to apologize for.

Still, when you hear Frangoulis on his Sometimes I Dream album, you can instantly hear the difference between this glorious, rich, sweet, beautiful voice and the more-popular but less-talented Bocelli and Groban.

Frangoulis can do to me what few classical singers achieve: bringing tears to my eyes, not because of the words that he's singing, but because of the sweetness, the rightness of the way his voice soars through the melody. I think of Kiri Te Kanawa in her prime, singing "O Mio Babbino Caro" on the soundtrack of A Room with a View, a revelatory performance.

There's hope for Groban, and I'll go on listening to him with much pleasure.

But Frangoulis is already there.

As for Andrea Bocelli, if you really want a heroic tenor who can blast you out of your chair, then get a recording of Rolando Villazón -- for instance, his new Virgin Classics recording of Arias by Gounod and Massenet.

*

Faerie Wars by Herbie Brennan was published as a young adult novel -- a children's book.

That doesn't stop it from being an excellent fantasy novel for adults. Brennan is an imaginative writer (surprisingly rare in fantasy, where faux hobbits scamper among the harried ballerinas doing their pliés and potteresques). Brennan gives us a realm of magic quite unlike anything seen before, borrowing from neither Tolkien nor Rowling.

In contemporary England, a teenager named Henry wakes up one morning to find his parents even more tense than usual; gradually he learns that they're breaking up over an affair. But we also follow the adventures of Pyrgus, a boy who is running away from the police in a weirdly twisted version of England, where an ancient book of magic has given dangerous power to some repulsive people.

When the worlds intersect, and we find out who Pyrgus really is and what's at stake, everything comes together to our complete satisfaction. But along the way, the mad adventures provide thrills and humor in equal measure. I recommend it to kids over ten -- and adults who enjoy wonderful stories that aren't bogged down in mere reality.

*

Sean Astin's memoir of his time playing Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings movies, There and Back Again: An Actor's Tale, is co-credited to Joe Layden, but unlike most books by an actor and co-author, this one feels as though we were getting something straight out of the actor's head.

This isn't always flattering to Astin. One of the clearest impressions the book delivers is of his neediness. He felt like an outsider while making the movie, and he didn't really like that feeling; furthermore, he keeps reassuring himself that he did OK, which quickly comes to seem to the reader as though he protests too much.

Yet it is precisely because of the inadvertent self-revelations that this book is fascinating, and not entirely in a train-wreck sort of way. Astin means the book to be self-serving, but he's actually bad at serving himself. The result is painful honesty and a glimpse inside the tortured anxieties that most actors suffer from.

In fact, it is most often that anxiety that brought them to performing. That search for personal validation is what tears apart so many actors' personal lives -- and brings them into one of the most brutal trades, where fragile souls are battered. But there's always the hope of the most intense personal validation possible -- to adulation of millions.

Unfortunately, even when actors achieve that adulation, it doesn't feel anything like what they supposed. Unlike stage actors, film actors aren't present for most performances, and even when they are, the wash of adoration from the audience is not directed at the actor sitting with them in the audience, but rather at the character depicted on the screen.

And the process of filming is a torturous one for a fragile ego. All the "real" work is being done by other people, who labor for hours to set up the shot. Then the actors are brought in and trotted through their paces. When things go well, the best you get is usually just a "that'll do" or maybe a "good job" from the director.

And if you make mistakes, then you have the anxiety of dozens of people having to do it over just to make up for your error.

The wonder is that actors keep coming back for more.

And when an actor is able to construct a solid personal life, with longterm relationships of trust and love, that can seem like a miracle.

Astin's book gives us some understanding of why. Because despite (or partly because of) his neediness, we come to like and even admire the young man struggling to find himself in the midst of a destructive business.

*

Michael Bublé has become the most important new singer of jazz-tinged standards, but with his new album, It's Time, the jazz is more than a tinge. When the Beatles came up with "Can't Buy Me Love," it's a sure thing they never imagined Bublé's darenesque interpretation.

Whether you first came to know pop standards from Streisand, Muzak, Michael Feinstein, or Jane Monheit, Bublé's jazz interpretations on this album will give you a chance to hear them as something new. In a way, getting this kind of treatment is a kind of test for a song -- if it can be reinterpreted and still remain every bit as good as the original, then the song is real. It has staying power.

Of course "The More I See You" and "I've Got You under My Skin" hold up well -- they passed the test decades ago. But "Save the Last Dance for Me" and "How Sweet It Is" came out of girl-rock of the '60s and folk-rock of the '70s, and they also hold up (though "Save the Last Dance" is clearly the better song).

If you like Michael Bublé or that other quirky jazz-pop singer, Harry Connick, Jr., then check out Bobby Caldwell. Sticking closer to the original pure songs, Caldwell puts the words and music first. Still, his clean, warm voice makes the two albums I've heard so far, Time and Again and Come Rain or Come Shine, wonderful to listen to.

From his pictures on his albums, you'd expect Caldwell's voice to match his craggy-looking face. Instead, his voice is young-sounding. High and sweet. But never over-wrought or over-decorated, like those American Idol wannabes.

In fact, I wish that American Idol's judges could convince their singers to lighten up on the soulful Whitney-Houston riffs and runs and, every now and then, just let the song be. Of course, most of them decorate the notes because their voices just aren't enough.

Caldwell's voice is enough. He won't blow you away with surprises the way Bublé sometimes does; but he delivers the song every time.

Caldwell -- once the lead guitarist for Little Richard -- has been around a long time as a songwriter. His "What You Won't Do For Love" -- which was a hit for him back in 1978 -- has been covered by Dionne Warwick; Peter Cetera sang his "Next Time I Fall" and "Stay with Me." Chicago, Boz Skaggs, the Commodors, Roberta Flack, and Neil Diamond have recorded his songs.

Well, he's still around and ready to be rediscovered by a new generation.

Sometimes simplicity in singing can go too far. Daniel O'Donnell has been around long enough to have a two-disc Greatest Hits album. He manages to be Irish without being what is normally meant by "an Irish tenor." Too bad.

I can understand why many a listener might enjoy his very plain and straight performances, but he is so bland that even as I'm listening to him, I find myself wondering what he would sound like if he actually meant the words of the songs.

I would never have thought it possible to sing "Danny Boy" so utterly without sentiment that it might be a fish that he's singing to.


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