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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.