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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 25, 2007

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


Oscars, Terabithia, Music & Lyrics, High Profile, Gandhi

Ellen DeGeneres was, in my opinion, a wonderful Oscar host. Very low-key, sharp-witted, yet never mean. So in a year when I didn't care much about any of the nominated movies (except, of course, that the deceptive, anti-scientific religious documentary starring Al Gore as Savior was bound to win), it was nice to have her to make the evening entertaining.

Helen Mirren was a deserving winner for Best Actress; and Forrest Whitaker was certainly credible as Best Actor.

However, while his Oscar was certainly overdue, Whittaker's long wait for an award doesn't begin to compare with that of Peter O'Toole, the finest actor of his generation, who has never received an Oscar despite his amazing body of work.

It is unlikely that the Academy will ever have another chance with O'Toole, and it is a mark of short-sightedness that while his performances in Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Good-bye, Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year, and, most recently, Venus were all nominated, somehow they found a way to give the award to other actors every single time.

And they may even have been right, some of those times. Certainly Sidney Poitier was an Oscar-worthy actor, but it is almost laughable to realize that his fine performance (in the forgettable Lilies of the Field) won in 1963 over O'Toole's magnificent, unforgettable performance in Lawrence of Arabia.

But then, in the year when O'Toole's role in The Lion in Winter was overlooked, the Academy also passed over Alan Arkin in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Alan Bates in The Fixer, and Ron Moody in Oliver! The winner was Cliff Robertson in Charly. You tell me: which of these unforgettable performances didn't deserve to win?

There are some years when there's no way not to overlook a great performance. It's just bad luck that Peter O'Toole has happened to be overlooked eight times.

Meanwhile, in last Sunday's Oscars, it seems to me that they have at last figured out how to put on a good, fast-moving show. DeGeneres was funny but not intrusive. The dancers who created those amazing shadow pictures took very little time. The film montages were glorious (though of course the one about "America in film" showed a decided preference for films skeptical of America over films that loved our culture and history).

The only real timewasters were the impenetrably meaningless interludes in which some former MTV guy walked among the shelves of Oscars making inane comments. Toilets must have flushed all over America whenever he was on.

There were some great ads, though the Apple ad didn't really need to be repeated three times as far as I was concerned!

For me, though, the best thing about the Oscar show was that I got to see enough clips to know I definitely want to see The Queen and may actually break down and make yet another try at a Scorsese film.

I'll probably be as disappointed as usual, as he gets iconic performances from his actors and then proceeds to upstage them with directorial tricks that make him the star of all his films, to their detriment. But maybe, this time, he actually made a film that was about something other than his own talent.

*

There are many ways to wreck a movie. One of the stupidest, though, is to try to kill it with an incompetent marketing campaign.

The trailers for The Bridge to Terabithia showed a magical land. It looked like Narnia -- full of magical creatures. That's what they were selling -- Narnia with American school-age kids.

Everyone in my family had read the book and loved it. When we saw these trailers, our immediate thought was: Some bonehead has wrecked this story the way they destroyed Ella Enchanted. How could anyone take a book in which these kids pretend to visit a magical kingdom and make the stupid mistake of trying to make it real?

The book was centered in real life, in school and family, and it never lost track of the fact that the "magic" was completely imaginary, while the real world was full of genuine problems, which could only be dealt in ways that were completely within the reach of ordinary people.

So, just as Ella Enchanted was wrecked because profoundly stupid filmmakers decided to turn it into Shrek, only without being funny, so it seemed that Terabithia had been wrecked by being turned into Narnia.

And in both cases, the worst crime was that the original story would have made a great movie, only now we'll never know.

So we mourned for Terabithia and decided we probably wouldn't bother seeing it. The pain would be too great.

Then we read some reviews of The Bridge to Terabithia. They hated the movie. It didn't spend enough time in the magical world. It focused too much on some lame middle-school story. It contained material so disturbing that parents should think twice before bringing children to see it.

In other words, these reviewers hated the movie because it was nothing like the magical fantasy that the trailers promised.

Which meant, to us, that there was a chance they had actually filmed the right story.

So we went, and were swept away in a brilliant, beautiful retelling of one of the great stories of modern children's literature.

It was all there, powerfully acted by gifted performers, with a good script and a gentle directorial hand (Gabor Csupo, whose previous credits are mostly Rugrats and Thornberrys movies).

The movie is about love and death. Parents who think their children, at least those over age eight, can't deal with it are clearly out of touch with what children talk about and think about and even play about. Children don't understand the finality and immanence of death, but they do know what it is and they are afraid of it and yet drawn to it -- they know it's important, they want somebody to explain it to them.

The function of fiction is partly to let us rehearse for life. The Bridge to Terabithia gives a taste of grief to children who will have plenty of it in their lives.

One school of thought is that since it's coming anyway, why borrow trouble?

The other school of thought is: Since it's coming anyway, why not have a script for how to deal with it, or at least a key to help us understand our own feelings?

Guess which one I'm in.

Oh, yeah, that's right, I make my living writing dark, painful fiction that has been embraced by a lot of kids, even though I wrote it for adults. I guess I already made my choice long ago.

This is a movie that, like Speak, stands among the finest of films about kids in their early teens, dealing with real problems in the real world -- and it's not a coincidence that both of them are faithfully yet skillfully adapted from terrific books.

The kind of books that kids read without even having been assigned.

If only Hollywood could catch on to this principle on a regular basis. Instead of assuming that the moronic formulas taught in the film schools actually mean something, maybe the filmmaking establishment could get behind the idea that if you film a great story, even if it breaks some rules and defies expectations, chances are very good that the audience will get it.

Certainly the makers of Terabithia knew that -- but the studio that was marketing it didn't have a clue. The marketing team looked at it, no doubt in horror, and said to each other: A film about death! Oh good! There is no chance we can sell that.

But look -- it's got this great footage of magical events. Let's sell that. Like Narnia -- that movie was a hit, wasn't it?

And thus they came up with a marketing campaign that might well have killed this movie before it was born.

Fortunately, it didn't -- in fact, this movie is making good money. But I think it's in spite of, not because of, the stupid marketing.

Meanwhile, much of what makes this movie work is the brilliant casting. AnnaSophia Robb as Leslie Burke, who starred in Because of Winn-Dixie, was excellent; but the movie hangs completely on the acting ability of Josh Hutcherson, as Leslie's friend Jesse Aarons.

Hutcherson was very good in Zathura: A Space Adventure. But this is the movie in which he really has a chance to show what he can do.

I think that at age 14, he's the best child actor since Elijah Wood. And because, like Michael J. Fox (whom he resembles), he has the kind of face that will give him a career all through his teen years, he is likely to pull off the miracle of being a leading actor, without a break, into adulthood. (The only real question now is how tall he'll get.)

Watch this kid -- he isn't just a face, like Macauley Culkin, or an actor with one poignant emotion, like Haley Joel Osment seems to have been. He's the real thing, warm, believable, emotional, funny -- he's got it all. (Too bad he's already way too old to play Ender Wiggin.)

Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is excellent. Bailee Madison as Jesse's little sister is perhaps a bit too cute, but she's right for the part. Robert Patrick, who has carved out a wonderful career as a character actor, plays Jesse's stern but loving father, striking exactly the right balance.

Lauren Clinton has the thankless but pivotal role of the school bully, and she, too, handles the emotional range with finesse.

The adult actor who makes the biggest breakthrough, though, is the luminous Zooey Deschanel. In a career where she has been in many films, but almost always as a sidekick or pretty lightweight, here she plays the music teacher that Jesse falls in love with.

It's a role with the potential to be very, very silly, since she is called upon to get kids to sing very dated folk songs from the sixties; but she brings it off.

(Another way the film is dated is that a female teacher invites a young male student to go on a field trip with her, alone. Ah, the innocent 1970s!)

But Deschanel carries it off, making us believe the unbelievable and like her through it all. I'm heartened to know that she is playing Janis Joplin in Gospel According to Janis. That sounds like the kind of star-turn role that might bring her the great roles that so far have eluded her.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Yes, it is an emotional roller-coaster -- I know kids who have never cried in movies before, who cried at this one -- but it's a good ride.

(One warning, though. If you are a heaven-or-hell absolutist, who believes that the unbaptized are damned, this film has zero sympathy with your religion, and is highly likely to convince your children not to agree with your theology. Since I don't agree with that theology either, I'm fine with it -- but I thought you should be warned.)

*

The same night we saw Terabithia, we followed it with Music and Lyrics, a romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore.

Romantic comedy is the hardest genre to write, by far. The delicate balance of seriousness and comedy is so difficult to bring off that most attempts at it are at best only partially successful. Even the best of them have holes in them that the audience simply chooses to forgive.

Marc Lawrence, the "director/writer/producer" of Music and Lyrics, was the writer of the two Miss Congeniality movies, the first of which made serious money. He also wrote Life with Mikey and the remake of The Out-of-Towners. All of these are comedies, as were the episodes of Family Ties that he was responsible for. Not romantic comedies.

His only previous attempt at that was the disappointing attempt at free-spirit, madcap romantic comedy called Forces of Nature (which turned out to be just one of the many proofs we have that Ben Affleck should play only sidekicks and villains, since it is impossible to care about the wooden characters he always portrays).

Music and Lyrics begins awkwardly, with a completely contrived "meet cute" in which Drew Barrymore plays Sophie Fisher, a hypochondriac who, filling in for a friend, comes to water the plants in the apartment of has-been pop singer Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant). She gets jabbed in the finger by a cactus (ooh, funny) and flees, having incidentally demonstrated a knack for writing song lyrics on the fly.

The hypochondria is immediately dropped, since it existed only to get her out of the room for a while; in fact, nobody in this film rises to the level where we could actually call him or her a "character."

This is just as well. Barrymore is charming and likeable, but not a very good actress, and so all we really want is for her to be herself on the screen so we can enjoy her company.

Hugh Grant can act, but in this film it is not required of him -- he spends his entire effort at being convincing as a pop singer and, quite to my surprise, he does at least as good a job of it as the best of the American Idol contestants. Mostly, though, he has little to do but vie with Barrymore to see who can be most engaging and pleasant.

They are engaging and pleasant enough that the movie turns out to be enjoyable and, after the first half hour, funny enough to be worth the price of admission.

It is not one of the great romantic comedies. But it is one of the better "movies about songwriters." For once, we don't have the lyrics springing into final form the moment the composer and lyricist come together. We actually get to see how lyrics can change when they need to, and how many people -- even idiots -- can contribute to the process.

We also get a wonderful performance from a new actor, Haley Bennett in the role of Shakira-like pop idol Cora Corman. At first, her dead-faced portrayal was off-putting, but it quickly becomes clear that Bennett herself is a very good actor playing a completely self-obsessed but talented (and secretly scared but decent) kid.

It's not a career-making performance, like, say, Cameron Diaz's in The Mask, which rocketed her to stardom -- there simply wasn't a chance for Bennett to dazzle us that way; the role didn't allow it. But this is an actor to watch.

Should you go see Music and Lyrics? Why not? It's fun; it has smart moments; and it's way better than Forces of Nature, which suggests that Marc Lawrence is getting better all the time, and may yet have a great romantic comedy in him.

*

Robert B. Parker's newest novel, High Profile, stars Jesse Stone, the former LA cop who is chief of police in sleepy Paradise, Massachusetts. When Walton Weeks, a fantastically popular radio talkshow host, is murdered -- along with his latest mistress, who was carrying his child, Stone sets to work unraveling the mystery.

His work, however, is complicated by two factors. Sunny Randall -- who has been the star of her own mystery series -- is the first woman who has threatened to take Stone's mind off his ex-wife, Jenn. When Jenn runs to Stone with a story of a man who raped her and is now stalking her, Sunny steps in to be her bodyguard and solve the mystery of her stalker.

This complex love triangle focuses around Parker's near-religious faith in psychotherapy, and both Sunny and Stone are true believers. As a result, they are continuously analyzing their emotions with a precision that, to me at least, seems delusional. Yet they act upon their insights, believing their choices to be tragically unavoidable rather than self-destructive.

Any writer who presented faith in a religion as piously as Parker presents faith in psychotherapy would be banned from the fiction shelves and hidden away in the religion section of the bookstores.

But Parker is at least eloquent in his presentation of his religion, and the story is certainly a good one -- both as a mystery and as a tragicomedy of character.

Parker write extremely brief chapters -- lots of them -- and is so succinct that a full novel fits on a third as many cds as the average thriller and half as many as the average mystery. But the difference is not that the other books have twice or three times the story. It's that Parker is so sparing --showing no scene that is not important and writing no sentence that is not absolutely essential -- that he fits more story than most writers in a fraction of the space.

Much of the effect of his writing depends on the deadpan wit of his characters. Unfortunately, few audiobook readers are able to restrain themselves from overplaying such dry wit. Scott Sowers, who has an interesting, reedy voice, does a great job of reading this book -- but does fall into the trap of occasionally over-interpreting the wit. That's forgivable, though -- it's an audiobook well worth listening to.

I appreciate the fact that in an era when conservative characters are invariably vilified in fiction (and when, if an author doesn't vilify them, he is pilloried for it), it is refreshing that Parker shows the murder victim as being sharp-minded and even-handed. What? A conservative that isn't an idiot?

Oh, but it's OK -- he's not a Republican, he's libertarian in his philosophy. So we can breathe a little easier -- it's not Limbaugh, it's O'Reilly. So Parker's credentials as a respectable fiction writer are intact.

So there are annoying things about some of Parker's novels, including this one. But it doesn't matter. He's one of the best writers working today in any genre, and I look forward to reading anything and everything he writes.

*

American Idol is finally into the real competition -- but what a sad group of men they have this year! Or at least they were pathetic in their first outing. The women, at least, included some good solid performances.

It's nice to remember that Jennifer Hudson was definitely uneven in her performances on Idol -- when she left the show without winning, it was the right decision by the voters. But in the years since then, she has grown into a very strong performer (though she still has a tendency, as shown by her performance at the Oscars, of singing sharp).

Idol is about how these kids are doing at the moment, not what they might achieve later. There's always room to learn.

But there's no one emerging as a Chris Daughtry or a Kellie Pickler; maybe Chris Sligh is something of a Taylor Hicks. Or maybe not. It'll be fun to see.

But I always wonder -- is it possible that last year's show skimmed the last of the young raw talent in America? We'll see.

*

The other night I happened to catch Gandhi in mid-broadcast on HBO. I caught the next showing as well, and folks, it is still one of the great movies of all time -- and quite probably the best film biography ever. Ben Kingsley's performance is still flawless -- not an impersonation, but a portrayal.

If you have never seen Gandhi, give it its three hours and see what a hero actually is. Some of the placeholder characters don't hold up so well -- Martin Sheen's and Candace Bergen's characters are too thinly written, despite their fine performances -- but the core characters, including all the Indians -- are gorgeously written and acted.

And some of the British actors manage to make even thinly-written characters unforgettably powerful and real.

I'm so glad I live in the era of DVDs, so that I don't have to wait for old movies to show up on TV. At the same time, I doubt I would have scanned the shelves and said, "Let's watch Gandhi tonight": If I hadn't stumbled across it on HBO, I would not have given myself the chance to relive that great experience.

It's not enough to own a library of DVDs of great films. You have to watch them from time to time.


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