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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 12, 2005

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


The Phone Company, Sharkboy, CBS, and Traveling Pants

Remember the old phone company slogan: "We may be the only phone company in town, but we try not to act like it"?

I guess the slogan didn't go along with BellSouth when AT&T split up into all those Baby Bells.

Or maybe it's just that Greensboro really is a town that hates pedestrians.

I'm walking with my family along Pisgah Church Road -- the side of the road that even bothers to have a sidewalk -- only at the new construction a block east of Elm Street, a phone company truck is completely blocking the sidewalk.

Because there's a steep dropoff into the construction zone, there is nowhere for pedestrians to go but out into the street. Since this is a busy four-lane road, with no shoulder at all, pedestrians are forced to step out among the cars. And with that truck parked there, pedestrians can't be seen by drivers until the moment they take that fateful step.

That's fine for adults. But kids use that sidewalk a lot, especially during the summer. When they're going to school, they'd get a crossing guard. But when the phone company has to do construction, they take their chances with the cars.

The irony was that the spot where the guy was working was not more than fifteen feet from the wide driveway entrance to the construction zone. He could have parked there and, at the cost of carrying his equipment and extra few steps, pedestrians could have had the use of the sidewalk.

I probably wouldn't mention this, except that it seems to be the policy of the phone company not to care about pedestrians.

A phone company truck did some work with a telephone pole farther west on Pisgah Church a year or so ago. There was no sidewalk there, so the truck pulled up half onto the grass, and the driver set out cones around the truck. But he didn't set them out three or four feet away, he set them right up against the truck.

So pedestrians, who were already reduced to walking in the gutter (otherwise known as the "Greensboro Sidewalk"), had nowhere to go but outside of the cones in already bunched-up traffic on a curve, or into deep bug-covered weeds.

Then there was the time the phone company was doing work on buried lines on Elm just north of the little lake. They left a pile of dirt completely blocking the sidewalk for at least a week, with no cones or any other provisions for pedestrians to get safely around it.

The slogan for the phone company these days seems to be: "BellSouth: We don't care if your kids get hit by cars."

*

I took my time buying popcorn for my 11-year-old even though we were already late for The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D.

There were two reasons for my foot-dragging. First, the film was touted as being "by the director of Spy Kids." I didn't hate Spy Kids. But I wouldn't rush to get to the theater on time for any of the sequels.

The second reason for my foot-dragging was the presence of those two little symbols "3" and "D" in the title.

It's like the old rule about eating out: In any restaurant that moves, the food will be lousy.

Well, in any movie with "3D" in the title, the money, such as it is, will all be put into scenes that show off the 3D technology. And scenes that show off 3D don't show off little things like "story" and "acting."

Plus, you have to wear uncomfortable, headache-inducing little cardboard-framed 3D glasses. And because they filter color so as to create the 3D effects, all the rest of the color is washed out, so you essentially watch a black-and-white movie.

If I had investigated more closely, I would have had a third reason for hating the thought of going to this movie. And that's another longstanding movie rule: Any time one person's name appears in the credits in more than three places, the movie will be embarrassing.

This isn't an arbitrary rule. When one person gets a lot of credit, it means that his ego is way out of control. Directors often do lots of different jobs. But they usually have the good taste to take only the top credits and leave the other jobs uncredited.

Robert Rodriguez is credited as director, editor, executive producer, producer, composer, writer, cinematographer, and I swear I saw his name in about five other places in the credits.

It became a joke. I think he gave himself credit as "Mr. Rodriguez's Assistant" if he fanned himself during the filming.

Then, looking at his listing at IMDB.com, I realized he does this on every film he makes.

It made sense on El Mariachi, his first movie, which he made with forty-nine cents and an Etch-a-Sketch. He had to do everything.

But he has a budget now. So Mr. Rodriguez, here's a friendly suggestion: Let somebody else do some of these jobs, so you can spend your time on the things that only you can do.

Somebody else could have written way better music, for instance. The songs were just ... sad. Maybe if you'd allow someone else to have a tiny shred of influence on your films, you wouldn't make some of the mistakes you allowed to slip through.

Somebody could say, "Uh, Mr. Rodriguez, I most humbly suggest that creatures with gills don't drown if they stay under water too long." Then the audience wouldn't turn to each other at a key moment in the film and say, "Why would that kill Sharkboy, to be under water?"

But despite how long I took getting popcorn and water for the movie, it still wasn't over when I got inside the theater. In fact, it had just begun -- there are a lot of previews in the summertime -- and my daughter was able to summarize it all in about three sentences.

A kid named Max not only invented the comix characters Sharkboy and Lavagirl, he actually believes they're real. This causes him embarrassment at school (which is hard to believe -- not that he'd be teased, but that a kid this delusional would be in a regular school).

Not only that, but a kid named Linus steals his dream journal, where he writes down his dreams.

Then Sharkboy and Lavagirl turn up -- real, of course -- and whisk him away to a planet that is supposed to be a kids' heaven, but turns out to be a place where kids are forced to have fun until they drop from exhaustion. Somebody is wrecking everything that Max dreamed up for this place, and he's been brought to fix it. Only, being only an accidental god, he doesn't know how.

Let me assure you, the story doesn't make sense except in a moralistic made-for-tv way; basically, anything can happen and so the good guys' plans don't work, for arbitrary reasons, until it's time to end, whereupon they do work, again for arbitrary reasons.

In the end, the overall message of the film is: Be delusional, because sane people are obnoxious.

But it's actually got a lot of nice moments along the way. The kid actors are better than their material (it's usually the other way around), and David Arquette and Kristin Davies are actually tolerable as the parents (unusual in this kind of movie), whose storyline is somewhat relevant to the movie (again an unusual touch).

The effects are usually cool, though sometimes the computerized graphics don't mesh smoothly with the real actors. Once they get these things right, then all these films we're seeing now, where it's only "good enough for now" will seem hopelessly dated.

But that's OK. This is a disposable movie, but not an unbearable one. I watched the whole thing. I didn't fall asleep. And I'll take this movie over the latest bit of pretentious drivel from Rodriguez's good buddy Quentin Tarantino any day. At least Rodriguez knows he's making fun junk and doesn't think he's a genius.

Wait ... all those credits he takes ... maybe he does think he's a genius.

*

Joan of Arcadia was cancelled in yet another attempt by CBS to prove themselves to be the stupidest network ever.

They've done this sort of thing to themselves before. Back in the seventies, when they had the corner on "country comedies" -- Mayberry, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, et all. -- they wiped them all out even though they had good ratings.

Why? Because the demographics were all wrong.

This may be hard for some people to understand. I mean, people impressionable enough to think that because the laugh track on Green Acres was laughing, the show must be funny -- surely you can sell those people anything.

But no. Advertisers don't want country people or people over forty. What can you sell them? Serutan? Geritol? Cinderblocks to put your cars on in your front yard?

The crucial 18-to-younger-than-me age group is coveted by advertisers because they have enough money to make buying decisions, but they haven't yet been "branded" -- they still try new stuff.

And they're sort of right. I don't even look at bath and hand soaps that don't say Dial on them.

Except when somebody actually comes up with something better.

But that's the problem for advertisers. Their products aren't better. They're pretty much the same. But they still have to sell them. So they don't want to try to sell to me and people my age, even though we have way more money than most people under thirty, because we actually expect products to be better before we'll switch brands.

Young people, though, being inexperienced, are what is known in the advertising business as "suckers." (Remember P.T. Barnum, and what he said about how often suckers are born.)

You can sell them something on image alone. They'll buy things just because somebody told them they're cool instead of checking to see if they're actually worth anything.

So of course the advertisers want that audience.

The real question is: Why weren't those suckers watching Joan of Arcadia?

It's simple. The kids in the show were in high school. That meant that the normal audience for it was high school age or younger. Or, in other words, "poor people." Because kids that age just don't have much money unless their parents give it to them.

There was another audience that was also watching in large numbers: People my age.

That's because Joan of Arcadia, even though it was full of teenage angst, also had adult storylines and took the existence of God seriously and showed him as an active influence in people's lives.

So think about it. This was a show that appealed to thoughtful adults and to children who would have to ask thoughtful adults for money.

Advertisers don't want to try to sell to thoughtful adults. To do that you have to have better products. And that's not within the control of ad agencies. For them, the product is a given. They hated trying to sell to the Joan of Arcadia audience.

That's why a show with decent ratings and a devoted audience could get cancelled, while a lot of shows with a much smaller audience stayed alive. Shows for suckers -- you know, "reality" programming (don't you know how much of those shows is scripted?) -- are much more rewarding financially.

It isn't numbers or quality that rules in television programming: It's money.

Duh. Welcome to America.

*

The one benefit of the cancellation of Joan of Arcadia is that Amber Tablyn, who played Joan, will be free to make more feature films.

Amber Tamblyn is remarkable for being willing to look like a regular person on screen. She got the permanently-irritated teenage girl look down pat, but there's more to her than that, and we got to see some of it -- a glimpse -- in the delightful new movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

There are things to complain about with this movie -- for instance, they never really make anything of the motif of the titular pants, which really are magic at the beginning, and then are dismissed as probably having nothing to do with anything at the end.

And because there are four storylines to follow, each of them gets only about as much time as a half-hour tv episode, which isn't a lot.

But what's right about the movie is very, very right.

The best thing is Amber Tamblyn herself. Even though her character starts out as little more than the ticked-off teenager we saw in Joan, as she develops a relationship with Bailey (Jenna Boyd), a younger girl who is rude, intrusive, and better than she is at interviewing people for her documentary, she changes until she becomes a different person -- and gets to show a wider range of her talents than we normally saw in Joan.

As for Jenna Boyd, who plays Bailey, she's quite wonderful. There are kid actors who do "perky" and kids who do "cute" and kids who can cry and kids who can scream, and that's it. When they get too old to play kids, they disappear from film.

Well, Jenna Boyd can do all those things. But there's more to her than that. I think she might turn out to be an actress. I think we might be watching her do great work in movies when she's thirty. Watch this space.

As for the other three members of the Traveling Pants group, every one of the actresses does a good job. In best Three-Coins-in-a-Fountain tradition, they are all looking for love in all the wrong places.

Carmen (America Ferrera), a stoutish half-Puerto-Rican, has naively put too much hope into the summer she'll spend with her father, who moved out long before; when she gets there, she founds out that he's about to marry into a white-bread family in the suburbs. He's not the father she had fantasized, and she feels rejected for the obvious reason that she is rejected.

Lena (Alexis Bledel) goes to Greece to spend the summer with her grandparents and manages to fall for a handsome Greek college student home for the season to help with his family's fishing business. He seems to have a lot of leisure time, but love can do that to you. Unfortunately, he's also the grandson of a family that Lena's grandparents are feuding with, and there's a lot of bitterness.

I'm disappointed that part of the storyline was about how prim and modest Lena learns to let her hair down -- and, by the way, also get partially undressed a lot in front of a guy who has the hots for her. For what it's worth, modesty isn't a character flaw that a young woman needs to overcome -- it's an asset that allows her to keep control of her own body and her own life in a way that flauntingly immodest girls never can. But it isn't done to extremes in this movie, so I gritted my teeth a little and bore it.

The most painful storyline is that of Bridget (Blake Lively), who goes to a soccer camp in Baja California and throws herself at a handsome young coach. It seems that her way of getting past the suicide of her mother and the coldness of her father is to seek the wrong kind of love the wrong kind of way.

There will be parents who are uncomfortable with the fact that she makes the big mistake that she makes. But this is perhaps the most truthful of the storylines, and it is handled delicately; that is, kids who don't already know how the world works won't have a clue what happened.

This is a movie that I would willingly see a second time. The performers are delightful, the Greek scenery is gorgeous, the writing is clever, and the story tries to say something truthful and good about people.

And I have it on good authority that Michael Rady, who plays the Greek boyfriend Kostos, is the best looking male human on film so far this year. Personally, I admired the Dragon's Lair champ Leonardo Nam, but that's just me.


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