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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 25, 2007

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


Enchanted, Charities, Steve Martin, Sure Fire, Lenny's Space

Who ever would have thought Disney would release a movie that parodied its own cash-cow fairy tales? But that's what they do in the delightful Enchanted.

Two kinds of movies get released at Christmastime. First, there are the politically-correct edgy-angry shocking-dirty chew-the-scenery Oscar-bait films that prove Hollywood's self-image is stuck in the adolescent 1960s.

Then there are the feel-good family films, which, because of Hollywood's assumptions that non-Oscar-bait movies are only watched by idiots, usually talk down to the audience.

Occasionally, anomalously, a good story-based film that only looks like one of the above sneaks through.

That's Enchanted. Writer Bill Kelly, who wrote the inspired social satire Blast from the Past (1999) and this year's quirky Premonition, managed to include pointed references to every Disney hit from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

But along with all the in-jokes, he also told a wonderful story, true to its own insane logic, about a fairy-tale princess who comes to the land where belief in a "happily ever after" is viewed as a relic of naivete -- in other words, New York.

Patrick Dempsey plays a widower trying to raise a daughter (Rachel Covey, a good child actress, which is rare), who gets caught up in trying to help Giselle, the fairy tale princess, figure out how to function in the Big Apple.

But it seems that maybe the help needs to flow the other way, since she brings her magic with her from Fairy Land. The finest moment in the movie is when she sings to bring forth the woodland creatures -- only in a Manhattan apartment, it ain't squirrels, bunnies, and songbirds that show up.

The fairy tale world Giselle came from may be brighter and lovelier and sweeter than ours -- but it also contains the open malice of the wicked witch. Not that New York City lacks its share of malicious witches -- they just can't transform into giant wyrms and slither up skyscrapers like King Kong.

Patrick Dempsey has always been an actor who could bring reality even to the most absurd stories. The revelation in this movie is Amy Adams, who plays Giselle with a mixture of goofiness and goodness that instantly puts her in the same league as Sandra Bullock and Ann Hathaway, the two actresses who have most recently owned this persona.

The rest of the cast are also excellent, and if the machinations of the wicked witch's sidekick (played by Timothy Spall -- Wormtail from Harry Potter) are sometimes tedious and labored, Spall makes up for it with spluttering enthusiasm.

All in all, it was a delightful evening at the movies. I wasn't being preached at, I was being entertained -- and some truth and beauty were to be had along the way. Sweetness and light: Dryden said that storytelling should have it, and he was right.

The sweetness of strong or delightful stories to lure us in and hold us; the light of truth to make our understanding clearer and encourage us to be better people. Hollywood disdains the idea, even mocks it; but aren't these the movies that we look forward to watching again and again?

*

We happened to see Enchanted at the new theater complex at the Four Seasons Mall. It's huge; it's got nice comfy seats and stadium seating; just what you expect in a theater complex these days.

What I can't understand is what insane person decided to name these theaters "The Grand Theatre," when the cinema complex at Friendly Center is also called "The Grande."

We put up with the same idiocy for years when the Carousel used to be "The Carousel Grande." You'd call for directory assistance, ask for the listing for "The Grande," and get "The Carousel Grande" every time.

Now we'll have that nonsense all over again for another few years until somebody gets off this George Foreman kick and realizes that you need to give separate things different names so people can tell them apart!

*

This paper comes out on Thursdays, so I want to remind you now while you still have time to plan for it that next Thursday, December 6th, will be the 54th annual performance of Handel's Messiah by the Greensboro Oratorio Society.

I've sung with these folks on several previous occasions, and I can tell you that Jay O. Lambeth is an excellent conductor, bringing together a performance that is thrilling to the singers and the audience alike. The Messiah feels wonderful to sing, and it's wonderful to hear it performed by living people who are in the same room with you. You just can't get that immediacy from a CD, no matter how excellent the performance.

The Oratorio Society has long prided itself on offering free admission, depending on the audience to donate according to their ability. This means that if you have limited means, you can still go hear a first-rate musical performance of one of the greatest pieces of music ever written -- for free.

But it also means that if you can afford to pay, you should give generously so that these performances can continue. Public money for the arts has been drying up in recent years, as local government responds to our desire for lower taxes.

But that means the responsibility falls on us to replace what the government used to fund with our own generous contributions. If you feel no qualms about paying for the movies, that means you could certainly afford to contribute ten bucks a person.

If you have enough means that you don't bat an eye at dining out at restaurants where you pay thirty or fifty dollars a person, surely you could come to The Messiah prepared to donate as much. Let that be your Christmas gift to the community, to help keep this grand musical tradition alive.

And just so you know where the money goes: The Oratorio members don't get paid, they pay dues for the privilege of performing for us! Our contributions pay for the use of the building, for a modicum of publicity, and for the soloists and instrumentalists -- who are not overpaid by any standard.

December 6th at 7:00 pm at the War Memorial Auditorium. It's money well spent. Come with your pockets as full as you can afford; you'll leave with your heart soaring.

*

A few weeks ago, I got a letter in the mail from the "Paralyzed Veterans of America," asking for money in exchange for a set of address labels or some such thing.

Paralyzed Veterans -- who could possibly say no to such a request?

I'll tell you who: my skeptical wife. While she appreciated my sentiment, she said, "First let's check on Charity Watch."

It's the website of the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP): http://www.charitywatch.org. They make it their business to look closely at all the charities that are out there asking us for money, and they make their ratings available to us.

The most useful information is their list of "top rated" charities -- the ones that get an A or B rating.

The danger, you see, is that many "charities" are actually in the business of money-raising, not charitable spending. That is, they spend only ten or twenty dollars out of every hundred they raise on the announced purpose of the charity.

The other eighty or ninety bucks go to the "costs of money-raising." In other words, they pay the (probably very high) salaries of the people who run the "charity." It functions as a high-tech begging scam.

There are charities, however, who keep their money-raising costs to a minimum. They do need to send out mailings or otherwise let people know they're there, or they couldn't raise money at all. But they keep costs as low as possible, so the maximum portion can be sent on to those you really mean to help.

So when my wife checked on the website, she discovered that "The Paralyzed Veterans of America" (PVA) has an F rating, because they give only between 34 and 64 percent of the funds they receive to the people they claim to be helping.

The two numbers represent what the PVA says they donate (the higher number) and what the AIP estimates they actually give. (You know, like the difference between the EPA mileage listed for your car and what you actually get.)

Fortunately, CharityWatch.org is not just a "bad news" website. They also list the A and B charities -- the ones where most of your money goes to the cause.

For instance, there are two A-plus charities helping disabled veterans: Fisher House Foundation and Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. We followed the path on the web and gave our donation to Fisher House at Fort Bragg -- a charity that provides services for family members coming to be with their injured soldier.

As for Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, they began as a charity that supplemented what the government paid to families of soldiers who gave their lives. But when the government raised those payments to a conscionable level, Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund redirected their efforts to build a state-of-the-art rehabilitation hospital for the most severely wounded veterans.

They completed that project and are now deciding on the next one -- we'll be watching, because these are good, trustworthy people who take seriously the responsibility of disbursing our donations.

We also checked on a lot of well known charities. No surprise that the Salvation Army has an A. And "Save the Children," that charity with all the TV spots -- they also have an A. But be warned "Feed the Children/Larry Jones Ministries" got an F.

Save the Children, good use of your money. Feed the Children, waste of your money.

It seems there's always a fake charity that tries to sound as much like a good one as possible, so they can skim off your generosity. The "Breast Cancer Research Foundation" gets an A; but the "American Breast Cancer Foundation" gets an F.

If you're a conservationist, don't get distracted by "Defenders of Wildlife," which gets a D; invest your donations in "Nature Conservancy" or "Rainforest Alliance," which each get an A-minus, or in "The Conservation Fund," which gets an A-plus.

You just can't memorize the whole list. You have to check on CharityWatch.org every time.

Don't assume, though, that organizations with Cs and Ds are necessarily fraudulent. On the contrary, the people involved may be quite sincere and probably wish that their expensive fund-raising campaigns got better results. In other words, they wish that for every ten bucks they spend on fund-raising, they could get a hundred in donations; but instead they get an average of fifteen bucks, and so the charity is only able to give five out of every fifteen dollars to the cause and they get a bad grade on CharityWatch.org.

For instance, United Cerebral Palsy on a national level only gets a D. But we know from personal experience that the Greensboro chapter has done wonderful things, and the high cost of fund-raising may be partly because the general public may not respond as well to cerebral palsy fund-raising as to, say, breast cancer or wounded veterans charities.

So don't use CharityWatch.org as your only guide. When you're choosing among several groups that do the same job, they can help you find the best; but if you are looking to donate to a specific cause, and you know that it's not a popular one, you'll have to live with the fact that the fund-raising costs may be higher than you or the charity itself may wish.

Generosity comes from the heart, but it doesn't mean you have to leave your head completely out of the decision!

*

Celebrity memoirs are often like being trapped at a dinner table with somebody who goes on and on about all the famous people they met, until you want to scream, "Is there a point to this or can we talk about something else?"

But every now and then you get a memoir by a celebrity who (a) is an excellent writer and (b) has something to say.

It's really no surprise that Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life is one of the best books I read this year.

The book is not long -- I read it in a single evening -- but it is brilliantly perceptive. Martin has analyzed his own life, both the things he learned directly about comedy and the personal puzzles and issues that underlay his interest in and talent for comedy.

So you can read the book as a detailed analysis of exactly how Martin created a new kind of comedy and stuck with it until it caught on with the public. It's a lesson in intelligent perseverance, and it applies to all the arts equally well.

I loved being reminded of all those routines that came out of nowhere and felt so random -- they all had roots in something, and Martin consciously decided to use them precisely because they were ironic or nonstandard joke-telling comedy. The book is funny, and also reminds you of how funny Martin was when he first emerged.

You can also read the book as an analysis of celebrity and how fame chews up the very people who achieve it. Martin recognizes the irony that you struggle and struggle for fame, and then when you get it, you instantly want to get rid of it.

The real problem, though, was that suddenly the four hours of material he spent years developing were consumed with astonishing rapidity once his audiences rose from 500 a night to 25,000. And then one night he realized that he had peaked -- he had found his audience, satisfied them, and they were about to move on to the Next Big Thing.

So he quit. He moved into other arts -- movies, in his case, and then, later, his little arty novels -- and left standup comedy for good.

But there's another saga being told along with the story of Steve Martin the Comic, and that's the story of his painful relationship with his father. This one has nothing to do with fame and everything to do with the frustration of unwilling sacrifice.

His father had dreams; Steve Martin fulfilled them; for some men, that's almost unforgivable.

Steve Martin's account of his family is unsparing -- on both sides. It's not about throwing blame. Martin simply recounts what happened and shows how it influenced his life, and their lives. There was (and is) pain and unredeemable loss; but without getting smarmy about it, Martin also shows a deep and abiding love.

He doesn't make a big deal about it, but I think the most significant thing in this book was his own decision, after years of mutual unconcern, to seek out his parents and sister and heal the wounds. For years, he visited his parents almost every weekend. When they died, it can truly be said that they were close.

That's the most important story told here. Martin devoted himself to his art and became one of its most successful and important practitioners. But he did not forget who he was; he remained, or perhaps became, a mensch. That is his achievement, and that is why this is far more than a clever or useful book -- it's a deeply good one.

*

I know, I know, few children think that getting a book for Christmas is a great gift.

But I always did, and if you know a kid for whom reading is like breathing, I have a couple of titles to recommend.

Jack Higgins, the author of an impressive list of adult thrillers (for instance, A Fine Night for Dying or The Bormann Testament), collaborated with Justin Richards to write a terrific young-adult thriller, Sure Fire.

Unlike the clownish Spy Kids movies, Higgins and Richards are careful to keep their teenage heroes -- fifteen-year-old twins Rich and Jade Chance -- within the realm of believability.

Their mother is killed in a car accident, and at the funeral they meet their father for the first time ever. But it wasn't John Chance's fault -- his wife left him without telling him she was pregnant, and he never knew these kids even existed.

But he takes his responsibility seriously. The only problem is that he's caught up in an international conspiracy that soon has bullets flying. When he is kidnapped and carried off to a (fictitious) country, the kids are sought as leverage to get him to reveal the whereabouts of an incredibly valuable sample he stole from the bad guys' lair.

The kids are resourceful without being incredible, brave without being insane. They do what they have to do in the circumstances, and construct a family in the process. In the best thriller tradition, the action never stops, and I can promise you that the girl or boy who gets this book for Christmas will, as soon as they start reading, disappear from all family activities until it is done. They will be angry if you try to get them to put it down.

The danger is that you might pick it up yourself and you'll get just as hooked.

Another winner of a book is the thoughtful, clever, funny, and heartbreaking Lenny's Space, by Kate Banks.

Lenny is a kid who seems to be borderline autistic. A degree of empathy and social awareness that most of us take for granted is simply out of his reach. So he speaks up in class, saying whatever is on his mind; his impulse control is almost nil. It makes him disruptive and distracting -- and yet he aces all his tests and his grades are perfect.

His dad left them when he was two years old; his mother, a hand model who always wears gloves to protect her prized assets, does her best to deal with his sometimes outrageous behavior. It's clear she loves him, but he also makes her tired.

The result is that this is an incredibly lonely kid, untouched and friendless. Until he gets two things: A school counselor who is actually helpful and patient, and a friend that he finds on the playground and to whom he gives his whole heart.

Kate Banks set herself the difficult task of telling a story from the point of view of a semi-dysfunctional character. We know only what he knows, we see only what he sees, and we are compelled to experience the events as he experiences them.

Of course we will filter all this through our own knowledge of what behavior is actually appropriate. This means, though, that adult readers will be far better at dealing with the irony than youthful readers who have not yet learned all the social rules that Lenny breaks.

Yet this also means that young readers may well empathize with him all the more, because, while Lenny makes more mistakes than most kids, most kids make some social mistakes, often with disastrous results.

It's a lovely story, delicately told. And if you guess what's going to happen -- as I repeatedly did with both Lenny's Space and Sure Fire -- it doesn't hurt a thing, because the inevitabilities have the ring of truth.


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