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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 28, 2006

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


Bench, X-Men, Celtic music, Idol Thoughts

For the first time in months, we had a Saturday with nothing planned. In our house, this means Movie Time. Upon perusing the paper, we found three movies we wanted to see: Benchwarmers, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Akeelah and the Bee.

Benchwarmers was our first pick, solely because we expected X-Men to be hopelessly crowded and our 12-year-old is a committed Napoleon Dynamite fan, so anything with Jon Heder in it gets a shot.

What a mistake.

It's a Happy Madison production, which means that the best thing about it was the trailer for the next Adam Sandler movie, Click, which looks pretty good -- though it appears to be Sandler's version of Jim Carrey's Bruce Almighty. (Wow! Power corrupts!)

The bad thing about a Happy Madison production is that as often as not, everyone involved with it is completely deficient in taste or humor above the watching-somebody-eat-a-booger-is-funny level.

The premise is that three friends -- played by Rob Schneider, David Spade, and Jon Heder -- get involved in baseball.

Believe it or not, this is a production so deformed in its conception that Rob Schneider plays the only likeable character -- the only one with talent at baseball or at life.

Even a dumb farce needs to have either some kind of story or else manic energy (a la The Three Stooges or The Marx Brothers). This one has neither.

Two things are so utterly unbelievable that it makes the movie unwatchable:

1. Nobody as wretchedly untalented at baseball as Spade's and Heder's characters actually enjoys "playing" the game. I speak from experience as well as observation. How long do you keep playing tennis when you can't get it over the net? How long do you keep playing chess when you're always mated in five? How long do you stay with Trivial Pursuit when you never get a single cheese before the other guy wins? Get real.

2. Why would these guys ever have been friends, and why do they remain friends today, when Schneider's character is actually possessed of social skills and intelligence, and the other two are utterly without both?

So then we come to manic energy, but forget it. This movie is glacial. One ponderous setup, one obvious but unfunny "gag," then start in on the next setup.

When the funniest events (in the filmmakers' minds) are a running gag of flatus being "beef stew" and a glimpse of David Spade's "brother," an agoraphobe who hides in a closet but has the same bad wig as Spade, you quickly learn that no matter whether the setup is fast or slow, the gag will never, never be worth it.

What a waste of talent. And the biggest waste: David Spade. Has there ever been an actor who more grossly misunderstood his own appeal?

Mr. Spade, what we like about your screen persona is when you're funny, smart, and heartless. Where did you ever get the idea that when you're a slob it's funny? That's Jon Lovitz or Rob Schneider. Not you. What we really want from you is to play characters who always think of the clever nasty thing to say that we wish we could think of but never do (at least not in time to really put somebody down who deserves it).

Yet Spade persists in taking roles where he's a pig and an idiot. There's no shortage of actors who can do that; and Spade isn't even good at it. He's too smart to be believable as dumb.

It's as if, in school, Spade got enough put-downs because of his brains that he's vaguely ashamed of being so bright. So he gravitates toward roles where his intelligence is safely disguised -- and where he gets to ridicule the dumb slobs who used to put him down.

Well, there are plenty of opportunities to watch David Spade waste his talent playing inappropriate roles in very bad movies. No reason to waste a dime seeing this one.

Benchwarmers began so badly that I feel absolutely confident in writing this review -- even though we barely lasted ten minutes in the theater.

Our twelve-year-old was willing to stay; my wife and I were not. When we wept, our daughter took compassion on us and allowed us to leave.

Because we had not watched thirty minutes of the feature, The Grande Theater manager allowed us to change feature. You might be able to sneak from one theater to another, but think of it this way: If you do that, then the money you paid will get credited and paid to the makers of the bad movie you walked out of, while if you inform management and take the time to get them to change the tickets, then your money will go to the makers of the better movie you watched instead.

Wherever your money flows, that's what there'll be more of.

*

So our money went to X-Men: The Last Stand.

What a difference!

Oh, yes, the premise is probably every bit as silly as the premise of the Benchwarmers. I mean, how could a genetic change in a human body bestow the power to start fires or freeze things or control metal objects or change the weather or change shape into any other person (including their clothes) or dissolve solid objects into their constituent molecules?

But when you go into a comic-book movie, you accept the premise or you might as well not go. And within the ridiculous "reality" of the X-Men franchise, the filmmakers have done a splendid job of making the characters into people we can care about.

It's such a fragile thing, especially when you have a whole troop to identify and distinguish. Remember how dreadful The League of Unfortunate Gentlemen was? (Oh, wait. They were supposed to be Extraordinary; it was only an accident that they were Unfortunate.) There was nothing there for us to care about.

The keys to characterization in X-Men are simple enough to describe, but devilishly hard to turn in the writing of a script. 1. Have your characters suffer nobly. 2. Give them attitude. 3. Thrust them into moral dilemmas that have no completely-good outcome.

This is Romantic characterization, so the characters are certainly not complicated. Each character has essentially one Trait that marks him -- his or her superpower. Then they either choose to follow the dark side (led by Ian McKellen's "Magneto") or join the good guys (led by Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier).

This movie revolves around Famke Janssen's character "Phoenix," who as Dr. Jean Grey died nobly in the second X-Men. Now she's back from the dead, with a little bit of Lost-style backstory inserted to explain why she's suddenly so very dangerous. (Kind of a red kryptonite situation, though of course we mustn't ever let DC Comics stuff spill into Marvel Comics territory.) With godlike powers, can she be stopped? Or will she get control of them and stop herself?

At the same time, a well-meaning researcher has found a cure for the mutation that created the X-Men's powers. But one man's "cure" is another man's "elimination." And indeed the government quickly weaponizes the cure in order to be able to neutralize the unstoppable powers of the mutants who oppose them.

Yet there are those (like Anna Paquin's character "Rogue") who don't love their powers and want the cure. For them, it's a blessed relief to leave the ranks of the mutants behind in order to live a life that has a hope of happiness.

It's a strangely truthful situation: In this world many people are trapped by their talents into a life that they don't enjoy. As our daughter said, when she declined a chance to enroll in a special math school, "Just because you're good at something doesn't mean you like doing it." One thinks of, say, Judy Garland; who is to say she might not have been happier, and lived longer, if she had been able to get off the speeding train of her talent?

How quickly we come to think of our talent as our self, so that if we didn't pursue it wherever it led us, we would be lost, not knowing who we were.

At the same time, of course, there are those who yearn for those "superpowers" that the possessor of them has wearied of.

So does it all come down to an aphorism about where the grass is greenest? And how many of us wish we had the dilemma of deciding whether we like having amazing talents? Or, at my age, wondering what might have happened if we had pursued an ability that might or might not have led somewhere very different?

In other words, X-Men: The Last Stand may be a comic book on film, but it feels important because we face analogous dilemmas in our own lives. You might say that this movie is full of wish-fulfilment -- we see people on the screen with powers we can only dream of. It's also comforting -- those powerful people are tormented by their powers, and we're better off, really, without them.

Yet under the dreams and the cuddles there are disturbing moral dilemmas, terrible actions that must be taken to prevent something even worse, great sacrifices that must be made, dreadful losses that must be lived with.

Let's not get too carried away, though. It's still a movie, an entertainment, and the people involved with it still have at least some of their attentionn on the cash register. For instance, it seems as you walk out of the theater that the filmmakers truly meant this to be the final film of the series (as they claim): They were downright wasteful with their characters, killing off an astonishing number of key players.

But at the end of the movie, does one character who supposedly has been stripped of his powers seem to be recovering them? And if you wait through the credits, you discover that there's at least one corpse that isn't quite so dead after all.

Then the next day, at church, I learned from a comics expert in our congregation that there's one character whose whole shtick is to keep resurrecting. And he reminded me that with another supposedly dead guy, we never actually saw his body or watched him die.

In other words, there are an awful lot of dead characters who are fully revivable, if the studio should decide that it would be insane to close a franchise that just set the record for a Memorial Day opening weekend. And it also leaves them an opening to have different actors play those roles.

It's still Hollywood.

Here's something that strikes me as weird. Nobody is credited for the writing. What happened? The script wrote itself?

Obviously not. So in all likelihood, the person or persons who would ordinarily have received credit for the script declined to take it. I can't help but wonder why. Did they think their concepts were destroyed somehow? (For instance, did they want to make all the corpses permanently dead, and somebody else forced the changes that leave the door open for more sequels?)

Or was somebody forced off the picture at some point, and the writer who would otherwise have got credit, refused out of solidarity to take credit either? It sounds like there's a drama here.

Of course, the diehard fans probably know the answers to all these questions. They always do. (Though I'll confess I hear all kinds of rumors about the Ender's Game movie that sound like they might be true, except that I happen to know the truth, and the internet rumors are just plain funny, they're so hopelessly wrong.)

*

When I bought the CD Celtic Twilight, Vol. 3: Lullabies, it was because I had so enjoyed the collection of Spanish language lullabies by contemporary performers, Latin Lullaby (I still listen to it often; wonderful, simple, sometimes strange songs by performers who take the music seriously).

But after buying the Celtic Lullabies album, I ripped it and then never actually listened to it. When putting together playlists for while I work or exercise, it never seemed to come up. Till now.

That's why I'm reviewing an album that was made ten years ago. And why I must say about it the same things I said about the Latin Lullaby album: The performers have taken these simple children's songs very seriously, and the result is musically fascinating and often beautiful and moving.

Some of the tunes I recognized: Maireid Sullivan's performance of "Connamara Cradle Song," for instance, brings new meaning to a familiar melody.

Bill Douglas's "Irish Lullaby" takes quite-ordinary words and turns them into a haunting choral number; and while Sauntrai, by Anuna, is more of a hymn, the chorus-and-solo performance is slow and dreamlike.

Linda Arnold's "Gartan Mother's Lullaby" is simply a beautiful performance. But my favorite is the gorgeous "John O'Dreams," performed by Arcady.

In listening to "A Nightingale's Lullaby," performed by Julie Last, I heard various licks that sounded like Beth Nielsen Chapman -- the way she drops the final note of a phrase to fade out in the pitchless bottom of her range. And I realized once again how much American country (but not cowboy) music owes to the Irish. I remember being surprised when I went to Ireland how very popular American country music was.

Then I heard Irish music and realized why: American country is part of the Celtic family, but with a contemporary beat and drive to it.

Still, the music that goes under the rubric "Celtic" in our genrified pop scene has a very different feel from country music. It feels older (even when it's brand new), and retains a kind of purity that can come as sweet relief. And it retains vocal licks that are a far cry from the over-decorated style that too many American Idol contestants think is the only way to sing.

I've ordered all the other Celtic Twilight albums now, and as I listen to more in this genre, I'll start finding Celtic artists that particularly appeal to me -- besides Enya and The Chieftains, whom everyone knows about.

*

Right, I know, you were dying to know what I thought of the American Idol season now that it's all over.

So here it is:

1. The two-hour final episode was the best variety show I've seen on television in thirty years.

It's as if they recognized that it wasn't just the contest we loved -- it was the music and the performers. Sure, we voted (it took us a combined five man-hours to get twelve votes for Taylor Hicks recorded) but we didn't actually care. If Katharine McPhee had won, we would have been almost as happy, because she was also a wonderful performer.

It was great to have some famous singers come perform, though it was also a little sad to hear the aging of great voices like Al Jarreau and Dionne Warwick. To have Bacharach himself onstage was a delight (though let's remember that Bacharach wrote only the music; the words we love from his greatest songs were by Hal David, a true lyrical genius).

What I loved most about the final episode of the 2006 season was the in-jokes. The horrible performers who were mocked -- I could have lived without that (I get too embarrassed for them, fearing that I should see myself in every unconsciously awful performer).

I loved the bits with Kellie Pickler and Wolfgang Puck -- she was a terrific sport, and for those who know, there's nothing all that thrilling about escargot that someone should feel ashamed of not liking it -- or even wanting to try it!

The sweetness of bringing those "three cowboys" back again really touched me. The generosity of the two guys who suffered through trying to get the real cowboy to sing had already won my heart. To have them come back with a number that was pretty darn good reminded us that there are a lot of talented people left behind in this contest simply because they weren't able to cope with the peculiar pressures of the demanding format.

And when the Clay Aiken wannabe was brought back and the real Clay Aiken came onstage to sing a duet with him -- it was obvious that the wannabe's surprise was genuine and we shared the thrill he felt, even those of us who don't think that much of Clay Aiken's ability.

2. I think this was by far the best group of contestants they ever assembled. In previous years there has always been somebody who was actually rather bad who made it into the final twelve; not this time. And when we got to the final four -- Elliott Yamin, Chris Daughtry, Taylor Hicks, and Katharine McPhee -- it was clear that any of these four would have been a credible winner of the contest. No wonder it was neck and neck!

Then, in the final episode, we got to see all of the top twelve and I have to admit, I was glad to see them. Every one of them. Mandisa, a gorgeous performer in voice and body; little Kevin Covais; the delightfully genuine Kellie Pickler; the sweetness and warmth of Lisa Tucker; and Bucky Covington in a performance so good that if he had only sung like that while he was in contention he might have been one of those last four!

Of course, it also reminded us of some weaknesses: Ace Young still doesn't have the depth and strength to make his performances real; and poor Melissa McGhee is simply a black hole of charisma, for reasons I can't understand -- maybe it's just that fear is never attractive to see. She's never comfortable on stage, and we feel it and are also uncomfortable.

The only contestant in the previous two years (the only seasons I watched before this one) who could have been in serious contention in this group -- as in making the top five -- was Fantasia.

I want very much to have solo albums from the best of these singers: Taylor and Katharine, of course, but also Elliott and Chris, Mandisa and Paris. Kellie Pickler really is a better country singer than last year's winner; while if Bucky could do a CD up to the quality of his singing during the finale, I'd want his album, too.

3. Why did Chris Daughtry lose? It certainly wasn't the quality of his performance: I think that with the possible exception of Paris Bennett, we've never had a performer in this show who was so professional, so polished.

And I think that's why he didn't finish in the top three -- because part of what we love in American Idol is the sense that these people are struggling and learning and growing before our eyes. That's what we loved about Elliott and Katharine, certainly, because they were, at the end, far better than they were at the beginning.

Taylor was unchanged -- but we loved the rough edges of his performances, the sense that rather than being polished he's having the time of his life playing at being a singer.

But Chris -- we never saw him sweat. He was, in a weird way, too good for the contest. He looked like a ringer -- a pro who had somehow got on the stage with the amateurs. We loved watching him -- but when it came to the crucial matter of voting, there was just a little less enthusiasm. A little less sense that he needed us (or anyone!) to put him over the top.

It won't hurt him a bit. We'll buy his albums. We'll come see him in the traveling show.

4. I'm fed up with the fighting among the judges and, even more, between Ryan and Simon. Yes, I know, it's part of the entertainment. But the running gag has simply grown old.

It's especially galling to hear Ryan rag on Simon because his criticism isn't "constructive." His is the only criticism that is!

Time after time, Randy's comments are so vague that you have no idea what he actually said. ("It was just awright for me, dawg." What do you do with that?)

Time after time Paula's euphemistic sidestepping leaves you without a clue how you could get better.

It's true that Simon indulges in egregious idiocies like telling us who a performer reminds him of. Invariably it says more about his own mind than about the performer. But that aside, it's not that Simon is "honest" that makes him the best of the critics -- many an idiot is "honest" with his worthless opinions.

It's that Simon is able to stay detached enough from the process that he can give something closer to an impartial opinion. He's not always right -- far from it. But he's always smart and usually clear, which is why he's the most constructive of the judges. You can actually learn something from what he says.

Keep in mind, though, that once the contestants have been chosen, the judges are more for entertainment than anything else. For instance, I could sit at that table and give very clear, specific, and constructive criticisms, sometimes note by note -- I know how to help performers get the best out of their talent.

But it would be incredibly bad television. Because you can't say anything really useful in the thirty seconds or so that each judge is given. In the long run, the performers are on their own.

5. They need to stop coming up with these hideous new songs they force the two finalists to sing.

They invariably try to make it an anthem that is vaguely appropriate for their situation as contestants. I will go on, I will triumph over everything, you can't put me down, there's a bright future coming -- come gag with me.

Let them sing real songs by real songwriters, not this meaningless, empty drivel.

I know, there have been hit songs that were exactly of this type -- pace the execrable "The Greatest Love Of All" that Whitney Houston tortured us with for endless weeks on the radio. Or "You Light Up My Life," as empty a song as you could hope for.

But such songs become hits in part because they are radio songs. Radio songs generally have to fill their two minutes with sound that plays at a constant level. They don't have to go anywhere; they don't even have to end.

Songs for American Idol need to be performance songs. They have to build to a climax and/or a finish. They need to provide the performer with something to do or express.

Songs can be both, of course. But empty songs can never be good performance songs. That's why the performers often fooled themselves into singing bad songs: They loved them on the radio, but forgot that on AI, the songs has to be performed by a living person who has to have something to do, some kind of arc to bring to life for us.

In other words, you can sing a Bacharach/David song on stage and because it has something to say, you can do something with it, make it entertaining.

But you take a KC and the Sunshine Band song, and once you've heard the beat, what else is there to do except dance around singing the same empty drivel over and over again till the song mercifully ends? It's a performance nightmare.

Those new songs, though, are neither good radio songs nor good performance songs. They're just plain crappy. I'd rather hear them sing nursery songs -- they make more sense and have more meaning and melody.

6. Have you noticed that unlike other fad shows -- for instance, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? -- American Idol is not fading?

Do you know why? It's not that they've stumbled on some magic eternal formula. It's that every year, really good performers come forward. The genius of the show is in the fact that they really do nurture and support these kids and help them do their best.

7. It's cool to be on Idol. They're getting better guests all the time. But I hope they don't lose track of what the show is.

Barry Manilow's glory days are far behind him -- but I hope he keeps coming on the show every year, because his week is the best week for any of the kids who actually learn from him. This guy knows what he's doing.

At the same time, it's fascinating to see who is willing to spend a lot of time with the performers, for (I assume) very little money. The fact that so many people watch Idol -- but watch it in a judgmental, critical mood -- makes it one of the most valuable places you can appear, and one of the most dangerous.

The only guests worth having are not necessarily the great singers. They're the people who understand what they're doing -- and what other people do, as well. Barry Manilow is an experienced pro, a genius at arranging other people's songs as well as his own. But what a waste of our time it would have been to have, say, Elvis (I chose a dead guy so I didn't insult anybody they might actually bring onto the program), who knew how to sing his music but would certainly have been incapable of helping anybody else do better at singing their own.

8. Thank heaven for DVR and videotape, so that I never had to choose between Idol and competing shows on other networks. I could watch it all. You want to know what's the golden age of television?

Right now. The best of television is so good, from HBO and Masterpiece Theatre to Idol and Lost and Smallville and 24 and 2-1/2 Men and Prison Break, that it hardly matters that there's also some of the worst programming in history. Train wrecks like The Apprentice provide cruel delight for their audience -- may they have fun gawking at the moral injuries.

What matters is that there is so much choice, and so much money floating around, and so much maturity among programming executives, that now and then truly brilliant television is nurtured and coddled and allowed to endure long enough for great things to be accomplished.

Keep in mind that not every Elizabethan play was a work of genius. Not even every play by Shakespeare was equally brilliant. But the audience and the sponsorship existed in which genius could thrive and be recognized and repeated. That's all we can ask.

In a way, American Idol is like an allegory for all of television. Every show starts out eager and full of hope. Some of them are, unfortunately, ghastly in their badness -- they don't make it through a season, unless enough people are fascinated by their vileness that they get ratings for a while. But, like the final twelve on Idol, good shows tend to rise and endure the long contest.

Except that, unlike the contestants on Idol, the shows that don't come in first in the ratings can still thrive on the tube for years.


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