Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 20, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Robots, Be Cool, Photos, Reruns, and Mario
What a disappointing couple of weeks at the movies.
I had high expectations for Robots. They had a great cast of voice actors,
terrific animation, and some of the sight gags in the promos looked
I thought that Be Cool showed promise as well -- partly because of John
Travolta's and Harvey Keitel's presence, and partly because, like its prequel Get
Shorty, it was based on a darkly comic Elmore Leonard novel.
They both should have been good. Not just adequate, but good. They
weren't. And I think I know why.
Robots was made by Blue Sky Studios, which created Ice Age (and the
sad-but-hilarious cartoons about the squirrel trying to get a single acorn). So
they know how to do funny animated features.
They also know how to make feature films that are built around the
videogame, as this one certainly is. Every time there's a chase scene, I can
imagine the sequence on a home screen as players wear out their controllers
racing through the obstacle course.
Still, there was a story: Smalltown robot is a budding genius who goes off
to the big city to offer his coolest invention to Bigweld, the hero inventor, who
turns out to be in seclusion while an evil bureaucrat has taken his place and
threatens to wipe out all but the shiniest, newest machines.
So why is it that we hardly laughed at all and didn't much care what
So what if the Robin Williams character was going to be made into scrap?
So what if the evil Madame Gasket and her slimy son Ratchet (Greg
Kinnear) were going to take over and deprive all the old broken-down robots of
spare parts they needed to stay off the scrap heap?
Why didn't we care?
Maybe it's because robots are machines and we can't identify with them.
But come on. We laughed almost constantly in Finding Nemo and cried
whenever we weren't laughing and that was about fish.
The fish in Nemo were way more fishlike than the robots in Robots were
robotlike. The robots were just people with interchangeable parts.
So maybe that was it: If the machines had been even remotely plausible
as machines, maybe we'd have cared more, or laughed more.
No way. It's a cartoon. Just how plausible do machines have to be in a
cartoon for us to think they're funny?
Set aside Robots for a moment, and let's look at Be Cool. This movie also
wanted to be funny. We could see "please laugh" written all over almost every
scene. But we didn't, not till the very end when a mailing tube is opened at a
pawn shop and something is taken out of it, and then it wasn't a laugh at
humor, it was a laugh of satisfaction about a trick successfully pulled off. A
The story should have worked -- it absolutely did work in the book.
Former shylock Chili Palmer (Travolta) has made a couple of hit movies in
Hollywood but he's sick of the business. When his record-producer "friend"
(James Woods) is murdered by some Ukrainian hit men, Chili decides to go into
the record business. He discovers a singer who is under contract to an idiotic
manager and, using strongarm tactics, takes over her career and makes her a
star. Meanwhile, he saves his friend's record company for the sake of his
widow (Uma Thurman) and basically saves everybody who deserves saving and
punishes everybody who deserves punishing.
It's a very dark, complicated, dangerous plot. It should have been
gripping -- while also making us laugh.
Why didn't it?
Partly it was because director F. Gary Gray, the director of The Italian
Job, got confused. He thought that because this was a "comic" movie, he
should go for laughs. What he forgot was that The Italian Job actually got
laughs -- a lot of them -- because it took the caper, and the danger, very
So a lot of the jokes fell flat because they were trying too hard, and
because the director did the screen equivalent of rim shots whenever he
thought he had pulled off a funny.
Another reason for disappointment was that Christina Milan, the young
actress they cast as Linda Moon, the singer Travolta manages, simply wasn't
up to the job. Yes, she sang well, in a just-like-everybody-on-American-Idol
way. But not for one second was she believable as a star-quality performer.
Never was that clearer than when they put her on the stage with Steven
Tyler of Aerosmith. Ugly as Tyler is -- and the years haven't made him prettier,
despite some very taut skin that suggests a futile facelift -- he truly is a star.
He played the audience in that theater -- even though they were paid extras --
while poor Milan just looked like she was doing her assigned choreography.
Still, the movie had Travolta and a surprisingly mature Thurman -- she
is aging beautifully and has become, of all things, a real actress. Whenever the
director turned the screen over to them, we caught a glimpse of what this
movie could have been. Because these two blew everybody else off the screen.
The movie they were in would have been terrific. Too bad nobody else was in
Here's why I think both Robots and Be Cool were so disappointing. (Not
bad, mind you. Just adequate when they should have been much better.)
The writers of both films relied far too heavily on gross or dirty or "in"
So we got the "hilarity" of Robert Pastorelli's hit-man character chewing
with his mouth open, and endless tedious jokes about how The Rock's
character was gay and untalented (though The Rock himself was a surprisingly
The in-jokes were fine as long as you wanted to keep shattering any
illusion of reality. So when Steven Tyler says that he doesn't have to appear in
movies, while of course he's appearing in a movie, or when Travolta talks about
how a movie can have one f-word and still not get an R, whereupon he utters
the movie's one f-word -- well, sure, ha ha and all that, but you can forget our
caring any more, because you've just reminded us we're watching a movie.
And when the camera gave us a guided tour of every speck of Uma
Thurman's body in the first scene she's in -- well, yes, I appreciate her mostly
natural beauty and allure, but this film was only one postage-stamp's worth of
fabric away from an R rating. It became, in that moment, what it never should
have been: a "dirty movie."
It was intended as a joke: See, we're making a movie that follows the
rules but secretly breaks them all!
But the joke wasn't part of the story. It didn't grow out of the characters
or the situation. It grew out of the camera.
Just when it looked like we might start caring, they'd throw the film
away, again and again, in exchange for exactly the wrong kind of laugh.
The same thing happened with Robots. Now, with animated features, the
idea is to have lots of stuff that kids will love, while still having story elements
and jokes that only adults will get.
But that usually means having grown-up humor. Not the kind of humor
that college frat boys indulge in after climbing too far into a couple of kegs.
So many jokes were sexual in nature, and completely inappropriate for
children while being unfunny to actual grownups (why is it funny for robots to
cross-dress?) (For that matter, why do these robots have gender at all?), that
there were long stretches of the movie in which there was nothing amusing for
Even the kid jokes fell flat. Why is it funny that one female robot had a
big buttocks? It's a machine in a city where people swap body parts at will.
She also breaks wind with such foul odor that it melts a lightpost. Oh, I
jus' slap my thigh thinkin' about it. Yeah, kids often think farts are funny, but
it had nothing to do with anything, it was just a slow, dull spot in the movie.
It's not that the sexual or gross-out "humor" makes these two movies
offensive or evil -- it doesn't.
It just makes them stupid and dull.
Surely that was not their plan when they set out to make these films.
It's just that they thought they had the recipe.
With Robots, they knew they were doing really cool animations and they
had big name stars and "jokes."
With Be Cool, they had Elmore Leonard's book and they had big name
stars and "jokes."
What both movies forgot was to get a script and then tell a compelling
Even comedy needs to have a story that the audience can care about and
Are these movies awful? No, not at all. When they come out on DVD,
have them on in the background while you crochet or build a model airplane or
doze or read the paper.
Just make sure your twelve-year-old boy doesn't study that opening
scene with Ms. Thurman, or he'll get the idea that real women are supposed to
look like that, dooming him to a life of disappointment.
I grew up as a photographer's son, and learned to love the art of black
and white pictures. Dad's eye for shapes, for light and shadows, turning
inanimate objects into abstract art or still lifes, was contagious. So was his
admiration for Ansel Adams, for the black-and-white landscape, for the
snapshot that turns into a deep and compelling portrait.
I still feel a thrill when I see a new photographer capturing images that
break new ground, conceptually or visually.
Jill Fineberg's book of black and white portraits, entitled People I Sleep
With, is a wonderful mixture of whimsy, sincere love stories, and art
The idea was to take pictures of human beings in repose with the
animals they love. The array of animals is sometimes startling -- I do hope
that the scorpion that little girl was playing with had its sting removed -- and
so, at times, is the array of humans.
But Fineberg's sensitivity and skill as a photographer manage to make
the wit and strangeness work together with the abstract beauty to make the
whole into a kind of collective love story.
March is so depressing for committed TV watchers. After the February
sweeps, most series seem to settle for reruns.
Only Fox is smart enough to exploit those doldrums. Not only does
American Idol move into its final twelve precisely as March begins, but also they
committed to running 24 continuously, without a single rerun, throughout the
winter and spring.
So while the other networks are sitting on their hands, Fox is cleaning
Not that they forget the sweeps -- those months when local stations get
their official competitive ratings, determining what they can charge for
commercials for the next quarter.
After all, Fox's trainwreck portion of Idol hit right during February
sweeps, and the crucial last weeks of Idol will dominate May sweeps. That's
also about when 24 should be wrapping up.
That's what happens in a competitive business. Whenever "common
wisdom" makes everybody act alike, there's a golden opportunity for a real
competitor to come in and whup them.
Speaking of Idol, though, why did Mario Vasquez quit the show?
My speculation: Once he was actually in as one of the final twelve, he
would have been contractually bound to continue with them, touring with the
American Idol concert show and letting them produce (and therefore control) his
It was clear that he was the standout performer of this group, rather the
way Fantasia was last year. That was no guarantee he would have won, of
course. But somebody got to him and offered him a lot of money and a lot
more control over his recording career.
All he has to do is wait out the contract that he already signed.
Undoubtedly he has a noncompetition clause that keeps him from recording
anything during the run of the show, and perhaps for a little while afterward.
But then he's a free agent.
Rather like sitting out a season or going to play football in Canada in
order to get out of a contract with the team that drafted you.
Vasquez is doing what he believes is right for him, and he's following the
rules that he agreed to when he signed up for Idol. He was good for the show
in the early going, and the show was good for him, and he's going to do no
harm to the show now that he's left it.
And I, for one, am looking forward to buying his first album and
watching him in his first movie.