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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.