Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 7, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Museum, Dreamgirls, History Boys, Sunshine, Scotland, and Rhymes
The promos for Night at the Museum looked like a lot of fun. For about, say,
five minutes. Then the novelty of seeing all the cool stuff in the museum come
to life would wear off, and we'd be sitting there for another ninety minutes or
so, wishing we were home watching C-SPAN2.
Still ... there'd be those five minutes.
So off we went on Monday night to see this Ben Stiller comedy, and discovered
that it's entertaining for the whole duration. In fact, not just kids but
grownups laughed out loud. OK, I'll be specific: I laughed out loud, and more
The script, by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Herbie: Fully Loaded;
Taxi), has holes that you could drive a tyrannosaur through. For instance,
some of the damage -- like a smashed information desk in the middle of the
lobby -- seems to be magically restored by morning, while other damage -- like
a little fire-extinguisher foam on some neanderthals -- remains in full view.
But if your goal is to experience an evening of perfect logic, I suggest you play
chess against a computer and leave the movies to people with more, shall we
say, relaxed standards.
Even if the script doesn't care all that much about logic and reality, the actors
do. Ben Stiller's comic gifts include his utter sincerity in the midst of
absurdity, and that is the main reason this movie works. In the midst of
chaos, we have someone real to hold on to. He makes us care about something
Robin Williams takes his cue from Stiller and gives a restrained, charming
performance. Dick Van Dyke is in his Bert the Chimneysweep mode, even
when he does naughty things. Owen Wilson is absolutely wonderful as
Jedadiah the cowboy, and his pairing with Steve Coogan as the Roman officer
is inspired. If Ricky Gervais tries way too hard in his first scene, he quickly
settles down into his ordinary comic mode (repulsiveness so complete it makes
you want to change species).
And if you're as old as I am, there's a special delight in seeing Mickey Rooney
not only on the screen, but proving that he still has the comic gifts that made
him America's top box office star back in his youth.
So ... will this movie change the world? Hardly. Will you have fun watching it?
Unless you're a complete grump, yes.
Dreamgirls has a lot of stories attached to it by now. For one thing, it began
as a vehicle for Nell Carter, before her TV show Gimme a Break, so its roots as a
stage musical were in the 1970s. (There was even a version in which the
character Effie died in the first act!)
After the musical was a hit in the 1980s, it took twenty-five years for it to reach
the screen. Why? Because almost no musicals were being filmed, and the few
that were, like Evita and I'll Do Anything, didn't exactly inspire studios to want
to sink any more money into them. (I'll Do Anything was so bad, as a musical,
that all the songs were cut before the movie opened, though you could still see
all the buildups to the songs.)
With the success of Chicago, though, the floodgates were opened.
OK, not floodgates. Just one little sluice door that lets one musical trickle out
every year or so, along with three or four dance movies.
It's a good thing we waited so long, though, or we might not have had this
extraordinary cast. Beyoncé Knowles, playing the Diana-Ross-influenced
character Deena Jones, is the biggest singing star, but we also have first-rate
actors like Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, everybody's favorite dad Danny Glover,
and a surprisingly mature and schtick-free Eddie Murphy in powerful male
roles as well.
In fact, if they gave an Oscar for casting, this movie should get it. Anika Noni
Rose is a relative newcomer, and the part is not written to make her stand out,
but she does a deft job as the "third Supreme" -- er, pardon me, "Dreamette."
Keith Robinson, as Effie's brother, is heartbreakingly sweet. It was great to
see Jaleel White playing the booking agent at the Detroit Theatre -- no Urkel
visible, just a good actor. Esther Scott as Aunt Ethel had only a couple of
moments, but she made them work wonderfully. Not a bad performance in the
I've heard people complain that Beyoncé was "cold" and "distant" and her
performance "lacked depth." Apparently these critics don't understand that
she was playing a character who was a performer who seemed cold and distant
and lacking in depth (no offense to Diana Ross, of course).
If you do a good job of playing a character that is shallow, then your character
will seem shallow. You don't criticize an actor for getting it right!
In fact, Beyoncé did a fine job of letting us see the human being under the
Ultimately, though, this show came down to the fine performance turned in by
American Idol graduate (and, if I recall correctly, sixth- or seventh-place-finisher) Jennifer Hudson. Hudson always carried a little extra weight, which
was essential for a part that was conceived for Nell Carter and demands vocal
power and physical presence like Mahalia Jackson.
Hudson was up for it all. Her voice on Idol in 2004 was good, but young -- she
pushed beyond her ability more than once, making it hard to see her as the
winner. She's matured since then, and vocally she doesn't make a single
misstep. (Thus we learn once again that it ain't over till ... till ... no, that's just
too cheap a joke.)
It seems to me, looking at pictures of her before the movie, that she gained
weight for the role. She was also costumed -- deliberately -- in ways that were
not flattering to her. It takes guts to do that, and many an actor refuses,
insisting on glamor every time. Of course, she had no power in this situation,
being a newcomer to film -- it was dress the way they said or don't do the part.
But her performance proved, as it was meant to, that voice and onstage
presence trump mere costuming.
It took courage, also, for Beyoncé to play a role in which the whole show is
designed to insist that someone else -- this newcomer, Jennifer Hudson -- is
the better, more deserving singer! Yet it seemed that everyone in this show
supported everybody else. Liked everybody else. The ensemble feeling was
The story, one must remember, is from a musical comedy. Thus there's a lot of
dialogue that gets right to the point -- there isn't much time for subtlety when
you've only got a couple of seconds to tell the story between the songs.
Also, since the show is about people who perform, it can be jarring the first
time the characters sing something that is not a performance in front of an
audience. That's the curse of musical comedy, of course, and I think the film
handled that transition about as well as it could be done with this script.
It's also worth pointing out that while the score is adequate for a musical, there
are few of these songs that one could actually imagine being hits in the real
world (i.e., without the attachment to a story).
What matters, though, is that Dreamgirls is a wonderful evening in the movie
theater, and you come out liking everybody and wanting to buy the cd to hear
them sing again.
However, I did not come out wishing to buy a Supremes cd. Recording quality
back in the 1960s was very low (remember, recordings only had to sound good
on AM radio and 45 rpm record players back then) and the Supremes were not,
vocally speaking, very good. Every singer in this show can outsing any of the
But there's no arguing with success: The Supremes did what they did at the
time they did it; there were probably hundreds if not thousands of better
singers at that time, but the Supremes had the right combination of voice,
performance, song choice, arrangements, and promotion. The singers are most
of the story, but never all of it.
And that's part of why this movie is so entertaining. We get a feeling for what it
is that the promoter and producer actually do.
Because I'm in the Writers Guild, I get to vote in the Writers Guild Award
competition. That means I receive copies, not just of screeners, but of the
screenplays of nominated films.
Reading a script is not seeing the movie, of course -- the script is merely the
plan for a movie, not the film itself. But I couldn't resist the temptation of
reading the scripts of two movies that I have not yet seen, The History Boys and
Little Miss Sunshine.
In some ways, The History Boys, scripted by Alan Bennett, was exactly what I
expected from the movie promos. An eclectic bunch of British schoolboys are
prepping to try to get into Oxford or Cambridge, and so we get intrigues,
tension, and comedy leading up to the crucial exam.
We've seen it before, haven't we? And while Bennett is witty enough, there's
nothing in the actual prepare-for-the-test story that hasn't been done before,
and usually better.
What makes The History Boys stand out -- what got it made, in fact, in my
opinion -- is the sub-plot about sex between adults and schoolboys.
There's Posner, the young boy who is quite sure he's gay but because he looks
so young, can't get anybody to sleep with him. Even Hector, the gay history
teacher who feels up the boys he takes on the back of his motorcycle, won't let
Posner be the chosen boy. Thus we see that the screenwriter draws the line
That's supposed to make us forget, I suppose, that the more "mature" boy,
Dakin, is carrying on an affair with the headmaster's secretary, Fiona.
And of course we forgive the screenwriter for showing us, as the real climax of
the film, that the same boy, Dakin, offers sex to the other history teacher, Irwin
(who has shown scant sign of being gay) as a way of saying thanks for helping
them all (but one) get into Oxbridge.
Add to this the fact that the gay teacher, Hector, is shown as being a harmless
crank -- the boys don't love being felt up on the motorcycle, but they take
turns tolerating it, and still like the old codger -- and what do you have?
A film that is working very hard to normalize and create sympathy for
homosexual predators who have sex with underage boys.
Here are the lessons of the script:
1. Adults who molest teenage boys are really harmless, as long as the boys
aren't too young.
2. Kids really want to have sex with older people anyway -- look, they even
volunteer for it!
3. Kids who are too young to have sex with adults are resentful that they're
being left out of the fun.
4. People who get all upset and try to fire teachers who molest their students
are all repressive hypocrites and should be despised.
Alan Bennett is a talented, though not particularly brilliant, writer, and The
History Boys has funny moments and interestingly drawn characters, though
they stray very little from the cliches of the student-teacher-movie genre.
But since it functions as propaganda designed to normalize what is now almost
universally recognized as one of the few remaining tabus, I must register my
disgust. It is not very far from "sympathetic" movies like this to a time when,
without the slightest evidence, the politically correct start to insist that
opposing sex between adults and "consenting" underage partners is perfectly
harmless and only pedophobes would dare oppose it.
It hasn't been twenty years since almost everybody laughed at the very idea
that anyone would seriously propose the legalization of homosexual marriage;
look how quickly the received wisdom changed. So I hardly think it is alarmist
of me to suggest that the fact that this script has been nominated for an award,
when it is not extraordinarily well-written and the only feature to set it apart is
its advocacy of sex between adults and children, bodes ill for the future.
After all, who would want to appear intolerant by suggesting that even when it
is portrayed by charming actors, sex between adults and underage partners, is
But unless we wish to become a society that regards it as a virtue to condone
the sexual exploitation of the young and powerless, it behooves us to be
disgusted by a film that pretends that perfectly healthy teenagers are not
harmed by it, might even desire it (as if that were relevant), and that the adults
who exploit them are well-meaning, rather charming codgers.
This is precisely the viewpoint I have heard from "man-boy love" advocates.
That's the path this film invites us to explore. That's the script that Alan
Bennett chose to write. That's the script that the Writers Guild has already
honored with a nomination.
Little Miss Sunshine is also a low-budget, edgy film, with plenty of elements
designed to be mildly offensive. After all, you can't possibly have any credibility
as an independent filmmaker if you don't outrage the Stodgy Middle Class.
(Note to filmmakers: The Stodgy Middle Class is aging out of existence. You've
already won. What you call "edgy" is now pure establishment: Almost
everybody in the film industry approves of all your "edgy" elements, which
means you aren't shocking anybody who matters to your career. That's what
we call conservative and safe, not edgy.)
Thus I merely sigh and read on when we have a grandpa who uses the F-word
all the time (funny thirty years ago, to yawn at now), a suicidal college
professor uncle whose only likeable feature is that he's also gay (again, we're no
longer shocked by gay characters, we're now ready for writers to make them
interesting for other reasons), and -- here's a shocker -- a completely inept,
out-of-touch father who contributes nothing to the family income or the
family's happiness (gee, a loser father in an independent film; how brave and
edgy can you get?).
So the story is about how the family struggles to fulfil the youngest child's
dream of doing such a great job of dancing in the talent competition that she
wins the Little Miss Sunshine tiara, despite the complete incompetence,
blindness, and stupidity of the father. It involves a long road trip in a van that
has to be pushed every time it starts, plus jokes about porn magazines, and a
son who hates his family and has taken a vow of silence until he gets admitted
to the Air Force Academy.
Poor Toni Collette has to play the mom, who is the only normal person (normal
by politically correct independent film standards, that is, meaning she is
actually just as ineffective a parent as the father, but because she doesn't even
try, we like her better).
Then it all comes down to a climactic sequence at the beauty pageant, where
the people in charge of the pageant are horrible human beings.
I hate the whole idea of child beauty pageants. (I don't much like the idea of
beauty pageant, period. What a waste of time.) So my sympathies are entirely
with them for sending up the child-pageant industry.
But it's such a cheat to make the people running this pageant such obvious
jerks. Would child beauty pageants be good, then, if all the people running
them were nice? What does it prove, except that the writer knows how to stack
Of course, the movie is really about the father getting his comeuppance, and
this storyline is extremely well written. Writer Michael Arndt did not fall back
on cheap jokes, but instead gave us a character (played by Greg Kinnear) who
is interesting and learns something -- he may be an idiot, but he's a well-meaning one.
Here's the thing -- even in a movie with so many stock features, the writing is
so good that it carries us through. It's really funny. It's also very much about
redemption of a family, and if, for comedy's sake, the family is absurdly
screwed-up at the beginning, the means by which they unscrewup themselves
is truthful and even moving.
So sure, do the things you have to do to earn your independent-film cred; at
heart, this is actually a sweet little sentimental comedy about how families
need each other to survive in this cruel cruel world. I like that about this
movie. And since the cast is so extraordinarily good, I'm going to watch it.
The movie about Idi Amin, Last King of Scotland, is powerful indeed, and
you'll be seeing Forrest Whitaker's name in contention for best-actor awards.
His performance is indeed remarkable, but it's worth pointing out that James
McAvoy (who played Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
actually has the stronger part and delivers a brilliant performance.
It's a case of the more famous actor who has long gone unawarded
overshadowing the actor who actually gives the stronger performance in the
Personally, I have a hard time with a film about a monster, anyway. Whether
it's a fake monster like Dracula or the Mummy or a real one like Idi Amin, I
have a hard time warming up to the idea of spending a couple of hours in his
And the script strains credulity from time to time. Not to mention the fact that
for a few awful moments at the very climax, it seems to think it's a remake of A
Man Called Horse -- though it's hard to imagine any atrocity that was out of
But as a piece of dramatic filmmaking, it certainly earns its climax. I suspect
that when the novelty of it wears off, it will remain, like so many well-intentioned films that try to comment on the real world so directly, more of an
artifact of our day than a film that tells some universal truth.
But sometimes an artificial film like this is worth making -- and seeing --
precisely because it speaks to our time.
Ironic, isn't it, that a film like this can garner so much positive attention, when
the military campaign in Iraq, fought to rid the world of a far more dangerous
dictator than Amin, is spoken of as if it were a crime -- by the very same
people, by and large, who admire this film.
It's as if when we have a monster slaughtering his own people, the ultra-left
jumps up and down and says, "Why didn't somebody do something!" but when
somebody actually does the only thing that stops monsters like this, the same
people jump up and down in fury because we westerners have no business
telling other countries how to govern themselves.
Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, by Chris
Roberts, is an entertaining look at the origins, both documented and
speculative, behind the most common nursery rhymes.
Wherever I already knew the origin, Roberts does a decent job of presenting the
facts. If sometimes Roberts is a bit too much in love with his own cleverness,
the fun and the facts are worth putting up with a fellow who's only a
Some of the more obscure rhymes he comes up with are delightfully appalling.
My favorite, which he quotes from Tom Thumb's Pretty Songbook (1744), is:
Piss a bed, piss a bed,
Your bum's so heavy,
That you can't get up.
Oh, how I wish I'd taught this one to my children!
In fact, I wish I'd taught any rhymes to my children. When my two oldest were
in their teens, I realized that, unlike my parents, my wife and I had made no
effort to teach them any rhymes at all. In fact, we had barely touched their
lives with verse or poetry of any kind.
And when I tried to remedy this situation with our then toddler-age youngest,
she would not have any of it. Somehow, despite how important poetry of
almost every kind has been in my life, I completely overlooked the need to
immerse my children in it. Unless you count playing Joni Mitchell incessantly
during their most formative years.
One of my children has found poetry for herself and writes it gorgeously, but I
still feel guilty for not having given them -- or even really tried to give them
-- such an important gift.
I suspect that in the back of my mind I thought the schools would do it. What
a foolish assumption -- the schools only give them formless "modern" poetry
and haikus, the latter because they're easy to teach, the former because that's
what the teachers were taught in college.
Nursery rhymes, precisely because of their singsong rhythms and rhymes, are
how children learn to find the music and the fun in poetry, long before they are
remotely interested in decoding deep hidden meanings. (Indeed, I have little
patience with that "sport" even now.)
So by ignoring my own responsibility to surround my children with rhythmic,
musical language, I'm afraid I have inadvertently become an accomplice after
the fact in the crimes of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the prime movers in the
murder of English-language poetry.
And yet ... people do hunger for rhythmic language. Anyone who doubts me on
that has only to look at Rap. Once verse was almost completely dead in public
life, it reinvented itself; and if most of Rap is awful, it's worth remembering that
most serious poetry is awful, too. Gems are rare in any art.