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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 entertaining.

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 happened?

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 gloating laugh.

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 seriously.

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 that one.

*

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" jokes.

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 good performer).

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 anyone.

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 story.

Even comedy needs to have a story that the audience can care about and believe in.

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 photography.

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 up.

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 first records.

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.


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