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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 5, 2006

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


Oscars, Anti-Oscars, Aquamarine, Speakers, Snack Mix

You can imagine, as the Oscar nominees sit there waiting for their category to be read out, that they are going back and forth between two constant thoughts:

1. I'm going to win this.

2. Not a chance.

These thoughts are often accompanied by other, related ones:

1. When I don't win, I need to look very happy about the outcome, as if I thought it was about time that other dude got the Oscar, and why should I worry? I've got plenty of time for Oscars. It's not like this will be my only chance.

2. This is my only chance. Dear God, I'm sorry I haven't been praying much lately but starting right now I'll pray every day, and cut way back on some of my more expendable sins. Just let me win.

3. When I win, please please please don't let me forget to mention my spouse/co-star/agent/lawyer/mom/teacher/children. Let me appear cool and self-possessed, as if this sort of thing happened all the time; but still warm and grateful and mature and ...

4. I need to go to the bathroom.

When they get up there, some of them are completely flustered and mumble and stumble, while others give exactly the speech they planned -- only it's a stupid speech, and about halfway through they sort of realize it and wish they had prepared something else to say but now they're into it and they have to finish; while still others have a stupid speech but don't realize it and go off the stage thinking they have scored big time. ("I'm king of the world!" "You like me!")

When Crash won best picture, the producers looked genuinely shocked. There had been so much hype beforehand about how the "brave" Brokeback Mountain was a shoo-in that it seemed it had not occurred to them that they might win.

The best Oscar recipients, though, were Three 6 Mafia for their song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." While the song itself did nothing for me, I was grateful that they consented to clean up the lyrics for the Oscar broadcast; and when they came to the microphone, their acceptance was so enthusiastic and grateful and happy that you just had to like these guys. They were the least studied, the most genuine of the Oscar recipients.

Then again, maybe that's because they hadn't paid attention to Tom Hanks's little Oscar Acceptance video that was distributed to the nominees, urging them not to lose control of themselves (pace Gwyneth Paltrow's weepy speech when she won) and reminding them that their sixty seconds begin when their names are announced, so don't stop and kiss everybody on your way to the stage.

This year I didn't care about the outcome in any category, except negatively ("please not that one"); and not very negatively in any category because Meryl Streep wasn't nominated for anything.

Yet I still found the show quite entertaining. Jon Stewart is largely responsible for this. By long tradition, the emcee of the Oscar ceremonies brings along his or her team of writers and the show takes on the host's public style.

It happens that Jon Stewart's style (unlike, say, David Letterman's) is exactly suited for the Oscars. Dry wit, rarely mean-spirited, taking nothing very seriously yet never quite losing the dignity of the occasion.

The fake ads were inspired. The montages of clips were entertaining. Of course, the best film parody of the night was brought by a friend who took it off the web -- a juxtaposition of scenes from Brokeback Mountain and Back to the Future, to make a trailer for a film I wish I could see: Brokeback to the Future (http://chocolatecakecity.com/videos.html).

But the sequences on the Oscar show were of similar quality. I loved the opening, where they assembled an astonishing array of previous hosts to make fun of themselves (starting with Billy Crystal and Chris Rock in a sheepherder's tent). Best of all, things moved along quickly.

OK, too quickly a couple of times, as the second half of a two-person winning team was cut off without being able to say a word ... even though other winners had gone on much longer, and other teams had had a chance for every person to talk. We could have spared the extra minute.

We only narrowly missed some true excitement, since the award recipients all walked right past the unguarded edge of the orchestra pit, some of them actually stepping over the corner of dropoff. One conjured up images of famous actors with cello bows or trombone slides added to their anatomy. And Jack Nicholson actually seemed to be pushing Larry McMurtry over the edge.

Still, safety issues aside, the set was splendid compared to the poorly designed set for the SAG Awards show, which had steps of such uneven depth and unexpectedly low rise that it seemed most people stumbled.

In most Oscar shows, the patter of the presenters is excruciating. This time, not so much; and one of the sequences was absolutely brilliant. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep came out together to present Robert Altman's honorary Oscar. They turned the presentation into a parody of and tribute to Altman's style, talking over each other, ad-libbing (or seeming to ad-lib), gibing at each other a little -- it was a complete delight.

Now for the important matters: The gowns. The consensus in our house was that the best gown was Jennifer Aniston's, with Reese Witherspoon's as a close second.

My favorite dress was Hilary Swank's, because she looked like a molting snake that was interrupted halfway through slithering out of her old skin.

And we generally agreed that the worst dress was Salma Hayek's. It had a weird strap on the left shoulder that made it look as if her left breast had been misbehaving backstage and had to be strapped down before it was brought out in public.

Our favorite Oscar was when Reese Witherspoon won. Hers was a warm and generous performance. I'm glad the academy recognized how hard it is to do what she did -- It's nice when it's the performance rather than the role that wins the Oscar. So many acting Oscars are really given for powerful writing, as if the actor had made up the words or quirks of the character.

*

But we were not content with the Oscar nominees this year. Admittedly, it wasn't the best year in film, but there were some wonderful movies that were completely ignored by the Academy, primarily because they weren't "brave" or "edgy" or extravagantly arty; it's the kiss of death these days for a movie to affirm old-fashioned values like a marriage that triumphs over adversity (Cinderella Man) or simply to be entertaining -- heroic or romantic or funny.

So at our Oscar party, we passed out not only our usual ballot, where we predict the outcomes (our winners this year tied with ten right guesses each), but also a ballot containing a list of the top 200-grossing films of 2005 (courtesy of the Box Office Mojo website, which had the most usable listing).

People could bestow one, two, or three points on any film, leaving blank the ones they didn't see or didn't like.

Of course, nobody saw everything (though some people saw an astonishing percentage of the year's films!); but when we see promos and hype on the upcoming movies and make a decision about whether to attend, that's a kind of vote. If a film doesn't look interesting enough to you to be worth the time and money to see it in the theater -- or even to see it later on DVD -- then chances are pretty good that you wouldn't like it if you did see it.

Still, it biases our selection heavily toward box office hits. Most of the people in our group had seen at least seven of the top ten box office hits, and since these tended to be entertaining, they were likely to end up on the final ballot.

After all, these films were the box office leaders for a reason -- they pleased a lot of people. And our voters consisted entirely of people, so it was a good fit.

We ended up with several categories. March of the Penguins ruled the Best Documentary category -- but it also got enough votes to end up on the final ballot for Best Picture. We also had Best YA (Young Adult) Film and Best Animated Film.

Our final ballot in the YA category consisted of those that got ten or more nominating points:

Because of Winn-Dixie

Coach Carter

Dreamer: Based on a True Story

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Sky High

Zathura

The voting resulted in a tie for Best YA Film of 2005: Coach Carter and Dreamer. I was a little disappointed, because my favorite in this category was Sky High. But the winners were both very good films. It's a category that gets little respect, and yet is culturally far more influential than the arty films that get so much buzz in Hollywood.

In the Best Animated category, we had only three nominees:

Madagascar

Howl's Moving Castle

Robots

My youngest had been lobbying for Howl -- and properly so. The more-popular Madagascar and Robots had received more points in the nomination process -- but the voters assured me that they voted their taste when they named Howl's Moving Castle as the Best Animated Film.

In the Best Picture category, we couldn't stop with only five nominees -- there was a tie in fifth place. And the next two films were only one point behind, followed by a wide gap. So we ended up with eight nominated films:

Batman Begins

The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

King Kong

March of the Penguins

Pride and Prejudice

Serenity

Walk the Line

Frankly, I think our anti-Oscar nominee list includes films that are more likely to last -- more likely to still be finding viewers ten years from now -- than any on the actual Oscar list.

From the nominations, I expected Narnia to win in a landslide -- it got more votes than anything else on the list. But, as with the Animated Film category, it's one thing to say what you liked and quite another thing to say what was best.

Thus Narnia and King Kong ended up tying -- for second place.

And the winner of the Anti-Oscar for Best Picture of 2005 was: Serenity.

That's right. The 99th highest grossing film of 2005, with box office of only $25.5 million, got slightly more votes than the third and fifth highest-grossing films of the year, which tied for second in our voting.

But keep in mind that when you have five or more nominees, the likelihood of the winner being the choice of a majority is quite slight. And there were enough of us in the room who loved Serenity with a passion that it skewed the results.

Except ... wait a minute. Isn't it about voting for films you love?

No apologies then. At my house, Serenity won as Best Picture of 2005, with Narnia and King Kong right behind.

Our list of Best Picture nominees is, in my opinion, a terrific guide to the most entertaining movies of the year. The only ones I'd want to add are Cinderella Man, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Sky High, and Millions. With a nod to The Legend of Zorro, Zathura, and Red Eye.

And, a little riskier, because they won't appeal to everyone, the chick flicks In Her Shoes and Fever Pitch, the family flick Yours, Mine, and Ours, and the somewhat arty The Upside of Anger, all of which I not only enjoyed but also remembered fondly.

*

As for the worst movies of the year: Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith may be the top box office hit of the year, but that means nothing except that true believers show their faith in the face of the evidence. To say that Sith was the best of the three Star Wars prequels does not change the fact that it was a laughably bad movie for an incredibly high budget.

But the runners up are also memorably bad:

Aeon Flux, which turns out not to be based on a video game after all, is so badly written that I can be forgiven for assuming that it was.

The Family Stone, a hideous mess of a film about a repulsive, unbelievable family of monsters, whose writer actually seemed to think he was making significant moral points.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a vile, dark remake of a beloved classic, moving Tim Burton into the same category as Chris Columbus and David Lynch -- directors so dreadful that their films are to be avoided at all cost.

Keep in mind that there are many films this year that are much worse than these by some measures. But these films actually sucked me into the theater so that I experienced their badness personally.

Films that are obviously bad before you even go to the theater really aren't up for this "award." If you go to those, you get what you deserve.

*

I went to see Aquamarine because I have an eleven-year-old daughter. But I found myself enjoying it far more than I expected.

In a beach town, two young teenage girls, Claire (Emma Roberts) and Hailey (JoJo Levesque), have been best friends, but now Hailey's mom is moving to Australia and the girls are devastated at the idea of separation.

Add to this their mutual crush on the terminally good-looking lifeguard Raymond (Jake McDorman), and the bratty, selfish, sexy prima donna Cecilia (Arelle Kebbel) as a rival for Ramond's attention, and you have the standard mix of confusing emotions that drive the YA chick-flick genre. (See also Ice Princess, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, etc.)

Then we add ... a mermaid. Played by former child star Sara Paxton, the mermaid Aquamarine is being forced by her father, the king of the sea or emperor of the ocean or baron of the bay (whatever), to marry some stodgy dork, but he has consented that she can get out of the marriage if she can prove that love really exists.

That's right -- no love among the merfolk. Just a myth. Sigh.

In addition, she has to follow the usual idiotic rules: Can't get her legs wet or she develops a finny tail again on the spot; must be in water before sunset.

So the plot is driven by Aquamarine's need to get Raymond to fall in love with her in two days. But if the girls are able to help her bring this about, they'll get a wish -- which they plan to use to cancel Hailey's mom's move to Australia, so they can stay together.

The comedy is driven by the mermaid's selective naivete. She doesn't know how to deal with guys -- but she speaks all languages. Yeah, right.

The movie should have been dreadful. But it wasn't.

First, the writing is often clever and resourceful. The dialogue is surprisingly realistic (between the girls) and entertaining (where Aquamarine or Raymond are involved).

Where does Aquamarine spend the night, since she has to avoid the ocean lest Daddy catch her and force her home? A water tower. That was kind of cool -- and it also set up the nastiest trick by Cecilia and her totally deserved comeuppance.

The casting was also excellent. Sara Paxton is deeply cute as the mermaid -- but she brings it off with sheer charm, so that instead of being annoying, she wins us over.

And the girls -- both Emma Roberts and Jojo Levesque are well-known TV presences (and Roberts is also a recording star); but they aren't pretty by any rational measure. Instead, they come across as genuine girls in that awkward age just before nubility strikes.

Best of all, they're very good actresses, making the slight complexities of the characters feel emotionally real even as they also make the plot feel like it might really happen.

By the end, there were some touching moments surrounded by genuinely funny gags. Considering that the budget for this film was about thirty cents, the mermaid costume and effects even come across well. Is this a classic? Hardly. But it's a film with decent values, artistically and culturally, and I highly recommend it for its target audience and the parents who drive them there.

*

My first computer to have a hard disk was an Altos machine running MP/M. The drive held ten megabytes of data. I was thrilled -- it was room enough to hold several novels at once, and what else would I put on a computer?

Then CDs came along, holding 65 (later, 70) times as much data. Once we got the technology to write our own, you could back up a your whole hard drive on one CD-ROM.

Now you can buy laptops with tiny hard drives that hold more than 100 times as much data as a CD.

And with the onset of MP3s, which drastically compressed sound files without sacrificing quality (at least not that most of us can hear), computers became practical as music machines.

I carry about 700 CDs worth of music with me wherever I take my laptop. (That may seem exorbitant, but I only keep it down to that number by storing several hundred CDs worth of Christmas music on another drive.)

And my laptop has a pretty good set of tiny speakers built into it. Tiny, and tinny -- there's just no helping it.

What about portable speakers? Believe me, I've tried them all. The ones that don't require batteries are actually worse than the speakers built into my computer. The ones that do require batteries are markedly better -- still not good, mind you, but better.

The trouble is, the batteries run out. And the speakers take up space in my bag. About half the time, I figure it's not worth the weight, the bulk, and the hassle of batteries.

But there are places where I go often and stay for days at a time, and in those spots I can get some nice inexpensive speakers that run from the headphone port on my laptop. I don't want a huge movie-style surround-sound setup, but I do want something that makes the music immersive, so I can use it as a barrier to help me keep my focus on what I'm writing instead of ambient household noises.

And because it's in a fixed location, it can plug into the wall. No batteries. More amplification. More sound.

I think I've found the perfect inexpensive speakers -- perfect for me, anyway. For less than fifty bucks, Radio Shack sells a 26-watt Cyber Acoustics amplified speaker system that includes a small subwoofer and enough cords to set the speakers in good positions.

So now I can hide inside the singing of the Opera Babes or Mario Frangoulis, cycle through Bach and Beethoven, Satie and Debussy, or keep myself energized with Brazilian or jazz vocals. Or set a wistful mood with Mary Chapin Carpenter or Beth Nielsen Chapman or Lyle Lovett. It makes me happy. All for fifty bucks ... plus countless hours of ripping CDs ...

*

I have devoted a considerable portion of my life in pursuit of the perfect snack mix. I had it, for a while, till Pepperidge Farm discontinued their splendid mix.

Well, now I've found a worthy replacement. After making do with the various Chex mixes for several years, I now go to CVS Pharmacy and pick up their CVS Gold Emblem Snack Mix: Sweet and Salty. It combines the honey roasted sesame sticks that I often buy separately at Fresh Market with tiny bagel chips, cheese corn sticks, and tiny pretzels. Delicious piece by piece or by the handful.


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