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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 10, 2007

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


3quels, Tonys, Lions, Wind, and Surf

Apparently the law is that any movie that does really well will have at least two sequels.

It used to be that the second movie was often better than the first, and the third one sucked.

Certainly that rule was followed by Godfather and Superman.

Then again, there was the Indiana Jones series, in which it was the second one that sucked and the third one that was arguably better than the first.

Now, don't write in and SCREAM at me that Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were the greatest and none of their sequels measured up. The fact is that the first in a series has a huge advantage: We've never seen it before. Everything takes us by surprise.

That gets huge mileage, both on first seeing and in memory afterward. But simply looking at the storyline, the characterization, the performances, I really do believe that the second Star Wars and the third Indiana Jones were the best of each series.

(Fortunately for the third Star Wars movie, George Lucas made three prequels that were so appallingly bad that Return of the Jedi is, miraculously, in the top half.)

Already we've had a third sequel (threequel) this season that is arguably the best of the series: Spider-Man 3. (At least I felt that the first two suffered from silly-villain syndrome, whereas the third movie was more unified, with villains at the same level of character reality as the hero.)

Three more threequels have debuted since then: Shrek the Third (Shrek3), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Pirates3), and Ocean's Thirteen (Ocean3).

Of these, Shrek3 is the only utter failure. (Well, not at the box office. High expectations lead to high ticket sales, before word of mouth can spread.) Shrek3 is, quite frankly, a complete bore. They lost track of what made the first movie so endearing. They thought they could have any old thing happen, as long as it let them toss in some gags. I think I laughed twice. I napped more often.

Comedy is fragile -- very hard to bring off. Slapstick and parody movies can get away with being virtually plot free -- but that's not what the Shrek franchise consists of. At least not any more. The parody aspects of the first two have now worn quite thin. They needed a story that made some kind of sense, and at least one character whose motivations mattered. They had neither.

And that's a shame. When his wife tells him that she's pregnant, Shrek immediately ... gets depressed. Why? Because he can envision his house overrun with children who make messes.

But wait. He's an ogre. He lives in a bog, and he already stinks and has bad personal habits. Why would an ogre mind the mess? What was there about Shrek that made us think he would mind having children around? Nothing. So they were just working from the cliche that men don't want children -- which simply isn't true of all men, or even of most men.

What's more, when Shrek really does have children, they behave exactly as he imagined -- only he likes it. So what was all the fuss about?

That kind of story stupidity was consistent throughout the movie. Prince Charming is able to get the villains to unite behind him because he promises them revenge on their enemies. OK, they attack, they win -- but they continue to obey Charming and almost none of them go off exacting vengeance.

Nobody can keep the same motivation going for more than a minute at a time. Fiona leads the other fairy-tale heroines out through a secret passage -- and then they charge right back into the castle through the front door. Why?

Rapunzel betrays them all, but nothing about her suggested she was any different from the others. Furthermore, when did she have a chance to conspire with Charming? Nothing makes sense. And, believe it or not, sense has to be made, even in an animated comedy.

In his "Everything Scottish Store" sketches on Saturday Night Live, Mike Myers used the tagline, "If it's not Scottish, it's crrrrap." Well, Shrek is Scottish, and this movie is crrrrap anyway.

Pirates3 is much better than I expected. Because the second movie was so messy, I fully expected the third one to fail like the third Matrix movie, leaving the audience saying, "Is that all?"

Thus I encouraged my wife and daughter to go see it without me, while I was otherwise occupied. They came back and reported that it was actually pretty good, though confusing. Great, I said. Tell me the story, because I'm not going to see it.

They told me the story. It actually sounded pretty good. So when my wife was tied up with meetings one night, I took our daughter to see it. She actually wanted to see it again (a promising sign), and almost as soon as it started, I could see why.

Except for the fact that Tia Dalma, the creole-speaking black woman (played by Naomie Harris), was so authentic that her speech could hardly be understood, the movie managed to keep a half-dozen plotlines and conflicting character motivations alive until every single one of them was resolved.

In fact, this movie did a remarkable thing: It assumed that its audience was smart enough to follow a complex plot. And, perhaps because I had already had the plot explained to me, it made perfect sense. (Well, within the rules of this fantasy movie.)

The multiple Jack Sparrows got a little old, but it was a way to give Johnny Depp more screen time (if you count each iteration's screen time separately) in an ensemble movie.

And the business with the crabs -- first moving the ship, then functioning as Calypso's multiple avatars -- was astonishingly original. I loved what the Pirate Lords' tokens turned out to be. I loved the sea battle in the maelstrom (though of course there was no way, by the laws of physics, that anybody's guns could ever have been brought to bear).

Above all, I loved the best wedding scene in the history of film.

It was rather brave of them to end as they did, with a noble romantic tragedy. I hope they have sense enough to realize that while they've set up a good sequel idea with the search for the fountain of youth, the Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley characters are done. Their story has been fulfilled, they should not come back, period.

The real surprise for me this weekend, though, was Ocean3. I didn't really like the first movie all that much -- Ocean's 11 was so clumsy in its handling of the caper plot that in order to tell us what actually happened they practically had to show us the movie a second time, only this time revealing the truth that they had needlessly withheld from us.

It's as if they didn't realize that you don't please the audience for a caper film by fooling them, you please the audience by letting them in on almost all of the story. That way they watch in delight as the plan works, but then panic as one thing seems to go wrong, which you then reveal was part of an even deeper plan.

In Ocean's Eleven, they basically didn't tell us anything important.

But Ocean's Eleven looked like great art compared to the smug mess that was Ocean's Twelve. The movie failed partly because the writers thought we would care about the Julia Roberts-George Clooney romance. Wrong. The only romance we cared about was the friendship among Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. Capers are about the team, not about a love story.

(And yes, I know, How to Steal a Million and $$ and To Catch a Thief had love stories -- but they worked because the lovers were adversaries, not allies.)

I therefore had almost no hope of Ocean's Thirteen being anything but dreck. (Or, perhaps, Shrek.)

So why did I go?

Well, I had already learned from Pirates3 that sometimes my low expectations are wrong. Plus the only other choice last Friday night was to stay home and watch something on DVD or go see another penguin movie, this time about surfing penguins. Like I care.

We toyed with the idea of seeing Waitress, till my wife looked up the storyline online and we got ill. All the world needs is another adultery movie about how bad husbands make it ok to sleep with other men.

I look at movies like Waitress now as part of a constant propaganda campaign by lascivious men to prepare married women to be seduced. "Your husband is boring, sleep with me, it'll be exciting." Only it won't be, it'll just be sex with a selfish man, which is what's wrong with your husband in the first place, isn't it? And in the end, you'll just be another faithless spouse, as if the world had any shortage of those. I loathe movies that glorify adultery. I'm sick of them. I'm sick of living in the world that "values" like that have created.

So we went to Ocean's Thirteen, and guess what? They did almost everything right. They didn't go into detail on anything. Just glided over the top. They told us enough of their plans to get us excited. They showed us things going wrong -- but then almost immediately let us see how this was really part of the plan.

Like Pirates3, Ocean3 assumed the audience was smart enough to follow the action. Unless I'm forgetting something, they didn't have to flash back to show us anything that "really happened." They hadn't lied to us at any point. It was a fun caper movie.

Not a great caper movie like To Catch a Thief or The Sting or How to Steal a Million. But it's a good one.

And, like a few other threequels, it was the best of its trio.

*

We watched the Tony Awards on Sunday night, mostly to see musical numbers from Broadway shows. In fact, what we wanted most to see was something from the revival of 110 in the Shade, which we had recently produced here in Greensboro.

We are happy to report that while the actors in the Broadway production are very talented, our version of the classic number "Raunchy" was funnier and our performers were better. If you didn't see our show, then you missed out; now you'll have to spend a hundred bucks to see it on Broadway, and it won't be as good.

It was almost unbelievable how stodgy, pretentious, and unlistenably dull the introductions were. They sounded as if they had all been written by humorless sophomores at Yale.

Except for Eddie Izzard, who offered the only relief from the dullness. But that seems to be his role in life.

Next year, they should get their scripts written by, I don't know, how about somebody who knows how to write entertaining stage dialogue. There has to be one of those available in New York.

I've been wishing to see Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, but since it's a three-part, nine-hour production, I doubt I'll be in New York long enough at any one time to see it all. Stoppard is probably the finest living playwright in the English language, so I'm not surprised that his play nearly swept the drama awards.

Frank Langella's acceptance speech (best actor for a completely unnecessary play repeating David Frost's Nixon interview; I watched the original) was warm and should serve as a model for graciousness.

But Julie White's effervescent and funny acceptance for best actress in a play (The Little Dog Laughed) was topped only by David Hyde Pierce's acceptance speech for best actor in a musical.

What surprised us was Spring Awakening, a musical we had never heard of, which seemed to be sweeping all the awards. But in the acceptance speeches, the winners from that show kept congratulating themselves on how "brave" they were, which told me the show was probably a completely safe but pretentious bit of political correctness.

During a commercial break, my wife looked it up online and discovered that it's based on a story from the turn of the last century in which German schoolkids discover sex (apparently for the first time in human history), which drives one to suicide, making this exactly the kind of melodrama that makes grownups shake their heads and politically correct adolescents give it awards.

The musical number, when it finally came, was unintentionally hilarious. The young actors (very talented all) were so very earnest, singing sophomoric lyrics that vaguely said bad things about (a) Christianity and (b) parents, presumably because both these groups promote sexual repression among teenagers.

Wow. How brave is that! Actually condemning Christianity and parents in 2007! No wonder this musical is saluted as "courageous." It takes real chutzpah to pretend that a theme this trite and politically correct is "new."

Here's what would be brave: Somebody coming up with a musical that points out that during eras of sexual repression, there are fewer single parent households, far less poverty, far less suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, and -- here's the shocker -- there is no known incidence of a sexually repressed teenager actually exploding from excess hormone build-up. (Unless you count suppurating acne.)

Don't you just love Broadway?

*

If you liked Planet Earth or the twenty-year-old series Life on Earth, you're ready for an amazing amateur nature video at http://yargb.blogspot.com/2007/06/and-you-thought-you-had-bad-day.html.

The quality of the filming is low -- home video equipment -- but the camera operator did a great job of keeping the camera on the important action. For those with tender hearts, let me assure you that it does not end as horribly as you might think.

In fact, when you see what the water buffalo herd does, it kind of makes you think of the United States' war on terror. Which means that undoubtedly, most people watching this video will decry the way the water buffaloes interfere with the poor starving lions and crocodiles.

*

I kept hearing about a new fantasy novel by first-time writer Patrick Rothfuss, called The Name of the Wind. I'm leery of starting new trilogies whose later books have not been written -- how long have we been waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish his? And who can even think of Robert Jordan's endless Wheel of Time?

But finally the pressure grew too great. I opened The Name of the Wind and started to read.

Folks, this is the real thing. Though it's considerably darker than the Harry Potter series, this is also a bildungsroman -- the story of the childhood, education, and training of a boy who grew up to be a legendary hero.

The structure is odd -- the story is narrated by the hero himself, who has apparently fallen on hard times and is now in disguise as an innkeeper in a country village. He still does heroic things (unbeknownst to others) but mostly he simply tends bar as his magical skills wane.

He is always accompanied by a disciple who happens to be a dangerous creature in his own right, and he tells the story to a scribe who is known for recording true stories. The frame story is so interesting that you don't mind when the narrative switches back and forth between the tale of Kvothe's growing-up years and the current events in the inn.

This book was so exciting that I couldn't resist skipping ahead to the end to make sure that the writer didn't end it stupidly. Yet the process of reading it was so pleasurable that even knowing how the book ended, I still went back and read every single word, so as not to miss a thing.

Not a word of the nearly-700-page book is wasted. Rothfuss does not pad. He's the great new fantasy writer we've been waiting for, and this is an astonishing book. I don't recommend it for pre-teens, mostly because it moves at an adult-fiction pace and has some truly disturbing events. But he does not describe gore (though the action is intense) and while there is some sexual tension, nothing is shown that would shock a teenager.

If you're a reader of fantasy or simply someone who appreciates a truly epic-scale work of fiction, don't go through this summer without having read it. At the very least it will keep you busy till the last Harry Potter comes out. But I warn you -- after The Name of the Wind, the Harry Potter novel might seem a little thin and -- dare I say it? -- childish. You have been warned.

*

In reading The Name of the Wind, I was struck by the poor quality of editing. No writer is perfect, and often a young or new writer will make mistakes that come from having read or heard the language without fully understanding it.

That's why editors exist -- to keep writers from embarrassing themselves by revealing their ignorance.

So as far as I can see, there is simply no excuse for The Name of the Wind to include mistakes like "castrati" for the singular "castrato," or "make due" for "make do," or "discrete" for "discreet."

And to let the author use the word "laying" where "lying" is meant is reason enough to fire a copy editor, in my opinion. In the rush of writing, authors' fingers often type the wrong word; they are not attentive to the details of language, only to the details of the story.

But the editor is supposed to catch all those mistakes, and if not the editor, then the proofreaders.

These days, though, it's hard to find people coming out of college who have ever studied grammar deeply enough to understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, or nuances of language like "discreet" ("able to keep a secret") vs. "discrete" ("distinctly separated").

And why should a graduate of an English literature program, newly hired as a copy editor, know how the Italian language forms its plurals?

I'll tell you why: Because if there is one job on earth that demands that a person be deeply educated in language, it is the job of copy editor for a book publisher.

A newspaper column like this one is riddled with errors when I turn it in; there are careful editors who look it over and call my attention to mistakes. We try to correct them all, but some still creep in. That's how it is in the newspaper world -- deadlines are more important than accuracy.

But fiction is supposed to be different. It's supposed to be art. And, when I was young, the quality of editing was a lot better.

It is especially ironic because I have frequently had copy editors "correct" me when I was right -- apparently the only rules they actually learned were the silly mythical ones like not ending a sentence with a preposition and not splitting infinitives.

So my question remains: How can you get through junior high without knowing "lay" from "lie"? How can you get through high school without knowing "make do" from "make due"? How can you become a college graduate in English without knowing "discreet" from "discrete"? And how can you be hired as a professional copy editor without at least knowing you need to look up words you don't know, like castrati, so you can make sure the author has parsed them correctly?

And don't go poring over my books to find mistakes -- they're there. No book is perfect.

But at least I knew that the phrase was "poring over my books" instead of "pouring over my books" ...

*

OK, so it's Monday night, I'd already finished this column and sent it off, and then my family piled into the car and went to see that dumb surfing penguin movie. Surf's Up.

And guess what. It is, no joke, for real, the best comedy of the year so far.

I have not laughed so much at a movie comedy in a long, long time.

And here's the thing -- I also cared. In fact, I laughed because I cared. About a stupid animated penguin. And an animated chicken. And animated surfing, which, I promise you, I negative care about.

So the movie was going, like, thirty seconds, and I'm laughing. Why?

Because it feels so real. It's a mockumentary, and they've done it better than anybody. Every penguin is drawn with exactly the right nuances of expression to match some really, really good voice actors:

Shia LaBeouf as the hero, Cody Maverick, the young surf-crazed penguin who thinks he can make the big time.

Jeff Bridges as the legendary old surfer that Cody idolizes.

Zooey Deschanel as the laid-back lifeguard girl whose affection for Cody grows in believable stages.

Jon Heder as the chicken, who is genuinely hilarious as, basically, Jeff Spicoli, the Sean Penn character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

And Brian Posehn absolutely kills as Glen, Cody's skeptical big brother.

I found myself falling in love with the lighting, the camera work -- only there was no camera work, it all happened inside a computer. They do such a great job of parodying sports documentaries that you find yourself believing it -- especially when the cameraman inadvertently gets into the action.

And the water. They do waves absolutely right. Not for a second do you disbelieve the water.

But they also do jungle foliage and ice and -- heck, this is flat-out a well-made movie.

I know what you're thinking: Animated movies are for kids.

Well, that's not true. Lousy animated movies like Shrek the Third aren't for anybody.

And really great animated movies like Surf's Up are for everybody with a brain who's willing to give the movie even half a chance to do its thing.

I'm serious. It's a great date movie. It's a cool family movie. It's a fun movie to go to with your loser friends, thinking you're going to make fun of it, only it turns out you like it after all and go out of the theater quoting lines from it.

It deserves to make a bazillion dollars so that the writers, Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer, Joe Syracuse, and Chris Jenkins will have big careers and write more good movies. And so directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck will get great new assignments to turn out more animated films.

And when you go, stick around for the credits. Because not only is there a cute clincher scene at the end, you also get to hear Jeff Bridges sing a cool version of a deliberately dumb song.


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