Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 22, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Monster-in-Law, Song, Idol, Giant, bad breath, and Sith
Monster-in-Law has an amazing cast: Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, the ever-gorgeous Michael Vartan, the ever-sarcastic Wanda Sykes.
And they do the job. Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez outdo each other in being
both gorgeous -- and willing to look absolutely not-gorgeous in the service of
the film. Jennifer Lopez lets them make big-butt jokes about her, and then
does sight gags using her backside. Jane Fonda does not hide her wrinkles --
she is in her sixties now -- and is willing to appear brilliantly ridiculous.
And these folks can act. Every line delivery is flawless. Every emotion feels
Too bad about the script and the editing.
The script isn't awful, it's just awkward, in ways that hint of too much
meddling by people without a clue. The author, Anya Kochoff, has never had a
script produced before. This means that she was absolutely powerless and
they could do anything to her script.
The result is a mishmash of comic styles that don't fit well together at all.
Worse, the storyline doesn't even make sense half the time. And the character
that poor Wanda Sykes plays is absolutely all over the map. Sometimes she's
trying to keep Jane Fonda's character from drinking; sometimes she's
suggesting a drink. Sometimes she's harshly criticizing her for her meddling;
sometimes she's an active co-conspirator. Whatever some clown thought
would be "good for a laugh" -- and the actress is supposed to make it work.
And the editing -- what a lead ear for comic timing this editor has! Time after
time there was a passage of repartee that might have been funny, except the
editor stepped on it or, worse, left too long a gap. Scenes trailed on too long in
order to show a visual that did nothing; other scenes seemed absolutely
chopped to bits.
This is the director of Legally Blonde who made this film. But sometimes it
seemed that he had no clue what could have been done with the cast he was
working with. Giving him Fonda, Lopez, Vartan, and Sykes was a waste of
their talent. This is a director who only understands the obvious, juvenile joke.
Jane Fonda, we missed you during your Ted Turner years. You're one of the
great actresses -- yes, one of the great comic actresses -- and this is how you
come back to us?
The good news is: Fonda is working again. Now somebody remember that this
woman has two Oscars and earned them. Get her into something worthy of
her talents -- with a director who knows what to do with real actors.
Meanwhile, though, I won't tell you not to see the film -- it's funny in a lot of
places, and that makes it above average for a comedy. The only reason I'm
ranting about it is because it could have been so much better. We enjoyed it.
We laughed. Nothing blew up and nobody flew through the air, so it wasn't a
Star Wars film. And that's something to appreciate.
In Delta's ongoing effort to become solvent, they're doing more than just
understaffing the ticket counters. They also offer an alternative flying concept:
Song airline, the all semi-first-class airline.
When our Greensboro-to-Atlanta flight was canceled last week, our trip to LA
was accomplished by being routed through Kennedy Airport (always a thrill,
since it means walking about three miles between gates, after being crammed
into tiny buses). Then we were given emergency-door seating on a Song jet.
Emergency-door seating in this case meant tons of legroom - except for the fact
that everybody waiting for a chance at the john loitered in the "legroom" space
so you were constantly being stepped on or tripped over unless you tucked
your legs in tight. And the constant odor was always fresh and new. But
that's what happens on every airplane, to whoever happens to be sitting near
the jakes on a plane where everybody's been eating their bran.
What makes Song special is that all the seats are deeply padded, with
individual screens for watching movies, playing bad videogames, and seeing in-flight television -- from satellite, so they're not old episodes on tape, they're the
current broadcasts, including news.
But don't get too excited yet. What the seats definitely are not is first-class in
width. If you are large-hipped enough to feel crushed in ordinary economy
seats, these will not be an improvement.
The food is somewhere between first-class and the swill that is normally tossed
into the trough in economy class. That is, the quality is good, but the menu is
limited and you pay for it (bring cash).
We had the Greek salad and it was very good -- with the components grouped
so you could avoid the ones you don't love (I half my wife's feta cheese!).
It isn't really first class -- but it's way better than ordinary economy. I'd fly
Song again ... if it's going where I'm going, anyway.
Speaking of airlines, what's this with Delta discontinuing pillows on daytime
Didn't they realize that some of us needed those pillows, not for sleeping, but to
put on top of their hard little armrests so we didn't crack our bones whenever
we tried to lean on them?
Here's a product idea: Airline armrest pads that we can tuck into our carry-ons
and then slip over the armrests to make them bearable. If somebody makes
them, I'll buy two. And since I lose things easily, I'll probably buy two more
every year or so.
This is the first year I've watched American Idol right from the beginning, and
it was interesting to see how the producers played up some contestants and
completely ignored others during the preliminary phase. Thus we knew
Constantine and Carrie and Scott and the ever-grating Mikalah, but had never
seen some of the others when they started audience-voted elimination rounds.
That may or may not have given an advantage, for one thing remains true: You
can't outguess the voters.
It was wonderful watching some of them grow. Scott Savol, for instance,
seemed affectless and unlikeable -- he had a rich, beautiful voice but when he
wasn't singing it was hard to like him. But from week to week, he got more
relaxed in his conversation and in his performance, and he began to explore
new looks until he was downright cool. As a Thick Person myself, I was
Bo Bice, too, has grown. Early on, he seemed to be trying too hard to prance
around the stage and prove what a rocker he was. Doing that during "Free
Bird" was just embarrassing -- it's a song that has to be sun out of stillness.
And his voice showed his fear -- he had a hummingbird tremolo that made his
voice weak and quivery.
But as the weeks went by, he became more confident onstage. His voice has
grown stronger as he was forced to sing music that stretched his range, until
he was capable of an a capella performance with a real vibrato and a rich tone.
At the beginning he was not good enough for the top six; at the end, he is
obviously the person who should win -- if we were basing this on quality alone.
There have been some gross mistakes, however. Nikko Smith and Nadia
Turner were delightful performers with real flair; I have no idea why they never
caught on. While it was difficult to understand why Anwar Robinson was so
overpraised -- comments like "yours is the best voice in the competition"
seemed to come every week.
It simply wasn't true. He was often off pitch, his voice had a grating quality
that was hard to listen to, and he always sounded like he was going through
The most inexplicable thing, however, was what happened to Constantine
Constantine is the best pure performer ever to hit the American Idol stage. It's
not just that he's an actor with experience in professional musical comedy. It's
that he's a very good actor. He was completely at ease on stage from the start.
He knew how to sing to the audience -- meaning the camera. There was wit in
his performance, a bit of self-mockery; but when he sang the song, every word
Perhaps everybody was so sure that everybody else was voting for him that
they voted for other people and he fell through the cracks.
But I don't think so. I think Simon and Randy deliberately sabotaged him,
week after week, until they succeeded and he was gone.
I don't think they liked the fact that he was not playing the show the same way
as everyone else. Constantine wasn't an amateur, a supplicant who needed to
be taught by the wise experts. He was already terrific, week after week. He
knew more than they did.
Whatever the motive, they tore into him, shredding him after excellent
performances, always tearing him down. One could almost imagine that they
were jealous or resentful, because their comments had nothing to do with what
he had actually done on the stage.
Then I realized: Simon and Randy are always at the recording end of the music
business. When they have a master performer they are intimidated.
Paula Abdul knew, however. Constantine Maroulis was the only genuine star
that stage had ever seen, and as a performer she recognized him as a master of
her craft. Instead of resenting it, she celebrated it.
The trouble is, she's so nice to everyone that her praise to Constantine merely
sounded like Paula, only over the top.
The spitefulness was made especially clear when Randy was quoted off-camera
criticizing Constantine for making bedroom eyes at the television audience.
What planet did he come from? Just because Randy doesn't know how to work
a camera doesn't mean it's wrong for a musical performer to do it!
The cruelest thing that Simon and Randy did to Constantine, though, was to
speak constantly of the teenage girls who were voting for him. While it
might have been true that many teenage girls fell for him, I'm not a teenage girl
and I was voting for him on quality alone. So were a lot of other people.
But when you say over and over that he's the candidate of the teenage girls,
two things happen. People who aren't teenage girls begin to think of him as
"someone else's candidate" -- they begin to think of him as uncool, as
pandering to a particular group.
The other thing that happens is that teenage girls stop voting for him. As soon
as you point out in a disparaging tone that teenage girls are all doing
something, teenage girls stop doing it.
It was vicious and, I think, deliberate. They didn't do that to any other
candidate in the history of the show -- identifying the demographic of a
contestant's voters. For instance, they might easily have said that Carrie is
getting all the votes from racists who don't want to see a black girl win again.
It's quite probably true, but completely irrelevant -- many others vote for her
as well. But it would taint her and be recognized immediately as grossly unfair
That's what they did to Constantine -- they essentially called his voters names,
disparaging them as a low-prestige group (in the eyes of most others). They
might as well have flat-out said, "Constantine, you're getting the silly,
immature, hormone-driven vote, but people with judgment aren't voting for you
Well, they got the result they wanted -- Constantine is not in the final two,
which is where he deserved to be. They succeeded in getting rid of him.
But here's the funny thing. Until that night, my wife and our 11-year-old and I
were fanatical about watching the show and voting for several candidates.
Afterward, we'd DVR it and watch it, sure, but not in time to vote ... because
we didn't care. We'd watch to see how it went, but our hearts weren't in it any
It's not because we were fans only of Constantine -- we liked other contestants.
And it's not that we were pouting because our favorite got booted off. I kept
watching after Nadia and Nikko were tossed, and I was still a fan of Scott
The reason I didn't care anymore was because the judges had destroyed their
best performer. It was ugly, it was mean, and it corrupted the show.
By the time this column sees print, we'll know whether it was Carrie or Bo who
won the hearts of American Idol viewers. My guess is it will be Bo, and he'll
deserve it -- he's the performer who's grown the most, and he's enormously
likeable. But Carrie will also be a credible winner, if she wins -- and it would
be nice to see a country singer take it all home.
The thing is -- I don't care.
Because I know -- and so do a lot of other people -- that any final two that
didn't include Constantine was a fake. To me, at least, Bo and Carrie were
competing for second place in a rigged contest.
I picked up a copy of Giant magazine in the airport, because it looked like a
new entertainment magazine and it had some articles I wanted to read.
But it isn't an entertainment magazine. It's a men's magazine.
In a world where "men's magazines" either look like GQ (the wish book for
fashion wannabes), Playboy (with Maxim and that ilk as low-class semi-porn
imitators), or Men's Health (which is still excellent but has a narrow focus), it's
hard to grasp at first that Giant is a men's magazine that doesn't treat its
readers as hormone-driven cretins or desperate losers longing to be cool.
Or maybe I'm just grateful that there's a men's magazine that talks about
the things I actually care about.
The writing is lively; the topics are movies, games, television. And while there
are pictures of beautiful women, they have clothes on and they don't look like
you could date them if you flash a twenty.
I may even subscribe.
I've tried those nasty toothpaste strips that you're supposed to rub on your
teeth to freshen your breath. Not only do you look stupid and awkward trying
to use them, they don't work. They taste nasty and don't clean between your
You can always use candy, like Certs -- and if you're worried about tooth
decay, they have no-sugar varieties.
But they also stay in your mouth a long time, unless you crunch them -- not
recommended, because they're hard, and every now and then what crumbles
isn't the candy, it's the tooth.
Here's what you use instead: Listerine PocketPaks.
They're tiny -- the package is about the size of a postage stamp. You flip open
a lid and then use your finger to slide out what looks like a thin sheet of
You put it on your tongue, close your mouth, and ... zap. It dissolves almost at
once, and your mouth -- and the surrounding air space -- are filled with
Then it's gone. But your breath is greatly improved for some time thereafter.
And because it isn't candy or gum, it won't be in the way -- you won't be
talking around it or gnawing on it. This is, as far as I'm concerned, the
complete solution to the is-my-breath-ok problem.
The Star Wars saga seems to have been the dream of George Lucas's
childhood. In his mind's eye he saw great starfleets in battle, mighty armies
sweeping their enemies before them, ruthless politicians outmaneuvering each
other, and in the midst of all, the powerful Jedi knights, each one the match for
an army, wielding the power that lies hidden within the fabric of all life in the
Lucas saw one child, born in an obscure corner of the universe, but touched
with power and shaped by destiny. He did not know who fathered him, but he
was adopted by the Jedi and trained to be the mightiest of them all. Alas, he
turned to the dark side of the force and became the tool of pure evil; but a son
and daughter conceived when he was still within the circle of the Jedi would
grow up to defeat his master and liberate him from the darkness that had
swallowed up the goodness that was always innate within him.
It was an epic of breathtaking scope and George Lucas could not forget it. He
became a filmmaker; his first major film, American Graffiti, become the
touchstone of a generation and gave him the power to make whatever film he
He wanted to make his epic dream come to life on the screen, in all its majesty
and power -- and humor, and love, and heroism, and sacrifice ...
He labored over the special effects to make it all seem real, and he succeeded.
The dream of his childhood was there on the screen.
Too bad his inner child never learned how to write.
He did fine with American Graffiti -- those characters spoke with the voices of
his own teenage years. But Star Wars required heroic dialogue and Lucas
never acquired an ear for it. It's as if someone who once heard a few passages
of Shakespeare decided to write the sequel to Romeo and Juliet.
Worse and Worse
On the first Star Wars film he had help. He was not yet so powerful that no one
would criticize his work and help him get rid of the most embarrassing
clunkers. On the next two films, better writers helped him even more, so that,
at least in The Empire Strikes Back, his saga matched his vision aurally as well
Then he went sixteen years without making a movie before returning to write
the true beginning of his epic.
But by now he was a legend. Fans not only worshiped him, some actually
believed in the Force and listed "Jedi" as their religion. In Hollywood, a land
where the only signs of divinity are fame and money, he had so much of both
that there was no one left who could say to him, "George, please, get some help
on that scene, it's going to make people laugh in the theaters, and not the right
Instead, it was apparently all "Yes, Mr. Lucas" and "Wonderful, Mr. Lucas"
and the result was two of the most successful wretched films in history.
Now the saga is complete. The end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the
Sith introduces the three prime movers of the original three movies: Luke
Skywalker, Princess Leia, and the black-masked Darth Vader.
And here's the interesting thing. Even though the characterization is
nonexistent, the relationships are like a seven-year-old's impression of how
grownups act, the politics are clearly the product of a mind that has never
grasped history, and the science is at the "How can rivers flow north?" level,
the underlying saga still manages to touch a chord.
Don't misunderstand. I laughed along with the other people in the theater at
those horrible moments when the poor actors were forced to say some of the
most appalling lines ever spoken on the screen outside of an Ed Wood movie. I
could not possibly care about characters who were never for a moment
believable as human beings.
In fact, the dialogue in Sith kept reminding me of Singin' in the Rain, and the
awful melodramatic "talkie" that they're making as a film-within-the-film.
But the overall Star Wars saga, the epic that had so inspired Young Mr. Lucas,
does have grandeur in it that his own ineptness was unable to destroy. There
is power in the sheer ambition of it. Sitting in the flickering light of a dying
fire, listening to the old man tell us the tale he learned in his youth, we are
captivated despite the cracking of the old man's voice and the fact that
everything he says is a cliche. For we know, at some level, that the tale has
some truth in it.
That people rarely embrace evil for its own sake, but rather because they think
they can accomplish something good.
That once you cross certain moral lines, it becomes almost trivial to cross
That no matter how much you tell yourself you're doing it for someone you
love, ultimately ambition is always selfish, and "love" for the ambitious is self-deception.
That those who have the power always think they have the right to decide for
everyone, and the wisdom to know what ought to be done.
That technology does not change human nature.
That there is something inside us more powerful than machines or muscles,
something that by force of will and mind can change the world around us, if
only we learn the secret and master it.
What Do We Make of This Film?
The actors are heroic in every sense. The "characters" they play are larger than
life, striding like giants across the screen. It takes enormous presence and
power on the screen to bring that off, and these actors had it.
But the actors are heroic in another sense. To be handed a script with
dialogue like the lines Mr. Lucas wrote for them is one of the worst nightmares
(The worst nightmare is to arrive at a theatre and learn that you have to go on
stage right now and no one will tell you what the play is and you don't know
any of the lines. You're also in your underwear. If you're lucky.)
Yet these actors took those lines and made them into something. I think they
must have seen Episode I and realized that the lines really were as bad as they
thought, and their director had no clue. So if anyone was going to save them
from humiliation, it would have to be themselves.
As a result, they all worked hard to create line readings that took some of the
curse off of Mr. Lucas's leaden ear for heroic speech. And most of the time they
succeeded. At times it was almost possible to believe that humans might have
spoken that way. Maybe. Somewhere.
There ought to be an Oscar category for Best Acting with a Desperately Bad
Script. I'd give it straight off to Hayden Christensen, because, despite all, he
made the brooding Anakin Skywalker's a vigorous, compelling presence on the
screen. And we almost never laughed at his lines, which is quite an
achievement, considering that Mr. Lucas meant almost all of Annakin
Skywalker's lines to be in deadly earnest, which practically guarantees they'll
get a laugh.
But Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Ewan McGregor, and
Jimmy Smits are close runners up.
Ian McDiarmid, as the conniving politician Palpatine, had a special challenge.
His lines were so over the top that there was no way to deliver them naturally.
Besides, he almost certainly had the inept-but-earnest Mr. Lucas telling him,
"On this next take, Ian, let's have more." So instead of seeking even a trace of
naturalness, McDiarmid plunged right in and gave his idiotically evil speeches
with such fervor that I only thought of Snidely Whiplash, the melodrama
villain, two or three times.
Here's the strange thing. Even though that opening day audience largely
understood how bad the writing was -- and laughed out loud and even cheered
for the absolutely worst lines -- they still got a sense of fulfilment out of
watching everything come together.
I'm glad I saw it.
And, incredibly enough, I will almost certainly see it again. And buy the DVD.
So many of us will do that, in fact, that Mr. Lucas will no doubt think that we
think his movie was triumphantly good.
Well, that's one of the nice things about having supreme power over your own
kingdom, as Mr. Lucas has: You can so easily convince yourself that the people