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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 1, 2009

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


Snow, Grease, Oscars, Orson Awards, Q&A

It was wonderful to see snow again. I miss it when we have winters without snow.

That's because I learned to drive in a place that had snow every winter. So instead of panicking, I get to drive the nearly-empty streets and see nature making everything lovely, from weedy lawns to junkyards to commercial parking lots.

By the next day, of course, the beauty is pretty much gone.

Ice storms are also beautiful -- but since there is no amount of driving skill that can deal with glasslike roads, I stay home and admire the layers of ice from the safety of my yard. The car does not move.

We began this week with a storm that couldn't make up its mind -- the result was a layer of beautiful snow on top of a layer of ice. No driving for me, even in the car with all-wheel drive!

Alas, I wish I had decided on a no-walking policy, too! I made the foolish mistake of walking fifteen steps to carry a couple of bags to the garbage cans, and lo! I discovered that gravity is working just fine, but friction not so much.

I tore a hole in my pants and, not surprisingly, scraped my knee. But since I'm on blood thinners this was not as pleasant as you might think. And now I'm reliving that delightful sensation from childhood of a scab that seems to threaten to break open every time I bend my leg.

Odd, isn't it, how childhood can soften memories? My first experience of terror as a child -- I mean real terror, not just nightmares, which can be cuddled away by Mommy and Daddy -- was when, at age three, I tried the experiment of running downhill.

Not just any hill, mind you. We lived in San Mateo, California, at the time, and if you know the peninsular cities, they're all like San Francisco -- steep hills.

Our hill was so steep that you had to drive down from the street to get into our garage -- but when you went out the back door of the garage, you had to walk down a long stairway to reach the back yard!

So when my mom and sister took me for a walk that led down the hill, I broke free and took off running. It was so liberating! I was light as a feather, and way faster than usual!

That was the first three steps.

Then I wanted to stop. I was moving faster than my legs could keep up with. Did I think of detouring onto somebody's lawn in order to fall? Come on, I was three. No, I took my fall (or, rather, it took me) right on the sidewalk.

And this was in the pre-Neosporin-with-pain-reliever era. I lived in the land of Merthiolate or iodine or rubbing alcohol. There was little to choose between the three of them. Merthiolate was applied with a little glass wand, which meant it took forever to cover the whole surface with it. I recall that I screamed the entire time.

I also remember the heroic-sized scabs. It seemed to take years before I got my real knees back. It was one of the defining incidents of my childhood. From then on, I tried to avoid running as much as possible. Only a fully sedentary occupation would allow me to feel safe.

I also try to avoid living on hills. Which is almost as hard in Greensboro as in San Francisco. That's what "Piedmont" means, after all.

So ... we had ice under snow ... I took a fall ... this really is going somewhere, folks.

The snow meant that a lot of things were canceled on Monday -- including school. My fourteen-year-old was worried. And when school was canceled again on Tuesday, she was dismayed.

Not because she loves school that much (though she really is having a wonderful time this semester at Weaver), but because this year's school musical, Grease, is scheduled to open this Thursday and play through Saturday at 7:00 p.m. (with 2:00 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday), and so the snow caused the cancellation of two of the last three rehearsals!

In fact, I was scheduled to attend the Monday night rehearsal so I could write a knowledgeable review of the play prior to its opening. But because of the cancellation of school, there was no rehearsal I could attend prior to the deadline for this issue.

So all I can tell you is: The students and drama faculty at Weaver have been working hard on their production of Grease, a musical set in the 1950s (the movie starred Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, and Stockard Channing, if you remember). As of last Saturday they were not ready. By this Thursday -- today, if you picked up your Rhino fresh and hot out of the oven -- they have to be.

And so I bet they will be.

On Saturday, there are two performances -- with a spaghetti dinner sponsored by the Weaver drama boosters in between. For $20 you can either attend the 2:00 p.m. matinee and eat afterward, or eat first and attend the 7:00 p.m. performance.

Or you can skip the dinner and pay the regular prices for either performance.

This is a musical put on by the arts high school in Guilford County. From what I've seen of the work of these students and faculty already, I have high expectations. And since most of the cast will be playing high school students, and they are high school students, a degree of authenticity is guaranteed.

*

The Oscars were weeks ago, but it's worth saying that Hugh Jackman is one of the best hosts they've ever had.

It helped that he didn't think of himself as a comedian, and he didn't resort to weirdness or insults in order to be funny.

Instead, there were musical numbers reminiscent of the glorious satires of Billy Crystal's hosting turns. With one huge difference: Jackman is, in fact, a legitimate Broadway musical star. So he was actually very good.

Why did these musical numbers work so well, when in past year the live entertainment on stage was often embarrassingly bad?

It's a matter of scale. The failed numbers were huge, overblown extravaganzas. Now, such things work in old musicals from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s because of the Busby-Berkeley-devised camera techniques: Cameras above and from every angle, and "stages" that were really studio sets, so they were almost infinitely deep.

The Oscar night dances, however, were performed on a real stage, with no stopping. The camera work could not be thrilling.

And, let's not forget, the choreography sucked.

Jackman's show, by contrast, did not even try to be extravagant. Instead, they tried for a feeling of "skits among friends," and it completely worked. The audience was jammed right up against a smallish stage.

Jackman acted as if it were all being improvised. Such dancing as there was was done well; the singing was fine, but it was the words that counted most, and Jackman knew how to deliver them perfectly.

The result was that instead of high expectations utterly dashed (the usual), our expectations were modest and so were delightfully overfulfilled.

If only we hadn't had to listen to the normal array of smug or embarrassing acceptance speeches, and if only I had been interested enough in any of the nominated films to go see them, it would have been perfect.

*

Speaking of the nominated films, let me tell you my list of the best films of 2008. (First, though, I must say that Slumdog Millionaire, which won Best Picture, is the only nominated film I meant to see, and still haven't had a chance to. It might be very good -- but more about that later.)

Of the films I actually saw, here are my favorites:

1. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. This is Frances McDormand's best role yet, as an out-of-work ne'er-do-well maid who steals a job with a wealthy young woman (Amy Adams in her best role!) and changes her life ... while trying to find a moment to get a decent meal. (It has momentary nudity, but it is comic, not lewd.)

Comedy is so much harder than drama -- so delicate and easily destroyed -- and intelligent comedy is so rare you'd think someone would reward it. Well ... I'm rewarding it! This receives the Orson Award as best movie of the year.

2. Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr., came back from his life-collapse and turned a deeply implausible comic-book hero into someone strong and real. It helps that he had a smart script, along with actor-turned-director Jon Favreau at the helm.

When you consider how bad so many comic-book movies have been (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Catwoman, Fantastic Four), you'd think more studios would realize that what works is to take the film very, very seriously. The wit and humor should come from the characters, not from the situations and directing style. Favreau got that, and the result was a commercially successful and wonderfully made movie.

3. The Women. This is an updated remake of a George Cukor classic from 1939, and I think writer-director Diane English did a brilliant job of it. Not one male appears in the entire film, but so vibrant are the women that you never really notice the absence of men. Besides, the script is so centered around these women's relationships with men that they are present in imagination even if absent in fact.

The all-star cast gives us an embarrassment of riches, with Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Debi Mazar -- and every one of them doing superb work. If you missed this in the theaters, watch it on DVD -- because it's totally character-centered, it works just as well on the smaller screen. (If your TV is, in fact, smaller than a movie theater screen. These days you never know.)

4. Seven Pounds. Usually I don't like convoluted storytelling, or films in which key information is arbitrarily withheld from the audience so we're never sure what's going on till the end. But with this powerful Will Smith vehicle, the payoff is so moving, the ethical dilemma so important, that I completely forgave the frustrations at the start. More than that I cannot say -- anything I saw about the plot will either be false or give away too much.

5. Get Smart. This should have been a dumb movie. After all, it was based on a deeply dumb TV series, and it came out in an era when people think Will Ferrell is really really funny. But this movie was written smart, directed smart, and it starred the smartest comedian in American film: Steve Carell. Anne Hathaway held her own with him, which few actors can do (remember how Carell stole Bruce Almighty out from under Jim Carrey?).

6. Wall-E. This animated film from Pixar managed to turn a non-human into a lovable character (which has been tried with ants, cars, and, yes, robots, with abject failure). A well-realized sci-fi dystopia avoided preachiness, achieved humor, and made me care how the story turned out. Who knew it was possible?

More movies I recommend and would be happy to see again: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; City of Ember; The Dark Knight; Hancock; The Day the Earth Stood Still; The Secret Life of Bees.

Movies I thought I'd hate but didn't, or at least not completely: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Journey to the Center of the Earth; Jumper; Mamma Mia!; Eagle Eye; Quantum of Solace;

Movies I walked out of: Hamlet 2. If I could have changed species to avoid being in the same one as the characters in this film, I would have.

Movies too loathsome to spend money on in the first place: Frost/Nixon; Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo; The Love Guru; Milk; W.; Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Between political correctness, historical lies, artistic pretension, and absolutely unfunny comedy, I cringed even at the promos, and blessed my own life by not adding these films to my memory.

Movies with one great scene but it isn't worth watching the whole thing: 27 Dresses, the scene where the video is played.

Movies I wanted to see and still intend to: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Gran Torino; Slumdog Millionaire.

*

Speaking of Slumdog Millionaire, I just got through listening to the recording of Q&A, the novel that was "the inspiration for the film Slumdog Millionaire."

Author Vikas Swarup is an Indian diplomat, a profession that one does not think of as a training ground for writing novels about the common people. And while Q&A is quite a dark comedy -- and the main character seems to run into an awful lot of sexual perversion and predation -- it is also moving and funny and, occasionally, rather beautiful.

The story begins with Ram Mohammad Thomas being arrested for having cheated to win the Who Will Win a Billion? TV show. His episode hasn't aired yet, and the show's producers are trying to get the police to force him to confess so they don't have to pay the prize -- which, so early in the show's career, will likely bankrupt the production company.

Ram holds out as long as he can, but he knows that the torture he is undergoing will certainly lead to his confession. To his surprise, though, the torment is cut short by the arrival of his lawyer -- a forceful woman whom he has never met in his life.

Released from jail, he spends that night telling his lawyer how it happens that he was able to answer all twelve of the questions on the show. In effect, each question (which we see on a tape of the program) serves as the climax, the clincher, of an episode from Ram's life.

And what a life. While it's not quite as extravagant as Forrest Gump, it's definitely in that ballpark. Beginning with his being raised as an orphan by an Irish Catholic priest, so his English is fluent, Ram seems fated to run into situations where he is either victim of, hero in , or witness to extraordinary events.

Fate then brings all these incidents together in the single quiz show, where he has been uniquely prepared to answer most -- but not all -- of the questions.

Through it all, Ram emerges as a confused but decent person, who often does not know the consequences of his own choices, but just as often knows exactly what he is doing. He saves whom and what he can -- including his own country from a spy. And while he has few talents, the ones he has are sufficient to make a difference in the lives of others.

I can understand why the movie Slumdog was only "inspired by" this book -- as written, it is simply too dark to film for a general audience. I really don't want to see most of the incidents depicted here.

But for grownups to read (or hear), this story is remarkable and rewarding. Not least, I must say, when you hear it on CD, because narrator Kerry Shale is not just good with accents and voices, he is brilliant in the moments when he actually has to act.

I will look forward to reading Swarup's next book. I am glad I read this one.

*

By the way, in preparing my list of Orson-winning movies, I consulted FilmReleases.com, which had all the films of 2008 conveniently laid out in chronological order.

You can go there to look ahead, as well, since they list upcoming films and DVDs by release date. Meanwhile, here's the list I worked from.


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