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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 19, 2009

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


Idol in Concert, Half-Blood Prince, Dasani vs. Hint

We were already heading to Utah for the wedding of a niece when the American Idol producers added an extra concert performance in Salt Lake City. Since we are serious fans of the best performers in this year's show, it seemed an opportunity not to be missed. We changed our flight to one day earlier and bought the tickets and ...

Nearly missed it. We made the mistake of signing up for the last connection of the day on Monday, and when our plane was late getting in from Atlanta, there was no way to make it all the way that night.

Maybe we should have gone to Cincinnati anyway, and then we'd have had only one flight instead of two the next day. Instead, we took our bags and went back home, then tried again in the morning.

You've flown Delta. You know that even in perfect weather, flights are delayed going into Atlanta, and when there are storms, it's a pathetic joke. But on Tuesday morning, it was mechanical trouble, not weather delays, that canceled our first flight.

When we finally made it to Utah, it was with only a couple of hours to spare. We had time to eat at Hires Drive-In in Salt Lake City and then rush to the E Center in West Valley City in time for the show.

It was worth the hassle, believe me. We had been under the vague impression that the American Idol show would be like one of the shows in Branson or Myrtle Beach -- lots of choreographed group numbers and a few solos.

Instead, it was treated as a serious concert by individual stars. Each performer had his or her set, going in reverse order of finishing on the show. It turned out that in live performance, the impression we got from the TV show was absolutely correct. Any of the top six would have been a credible winner in any other year.

The difference was palpable. The moment that Anoop Desai -- who had, as my older daughter put it, dropped "his student body president look" -- took the stage, it was as if we were finally through with amateur hour and were getting the stars.

Matt Giraud, Allison Iraheta, Danny Gokey, Adam Lambert, and Kris Allen were not only excellent -- better, in fact, than they had been on TV, if that's possible -- but were markedly different from each other. In earlier years, it seemed as if all the singers tried to sing like each other. Or, rather, like the Righteous Brothers or Whitney Houston.

Year by year, with country and rock emerging as viable alternatives, the show has been broadening. Last year, though, David Cook took the show to new levels, never giving the same performance twice. This year, the top six performers took a page from his playbook and were not only different from each other, but also gave vastly different performances from song to song.

The result is a terrific show.

The only problem is that I'm an old coot. I like to sit down through concerts. But you can't, when the people in front of you insist on standing continuously. I also like to be able to hear the music. Again, you can't, when everything is amped up to ridiculous levels. Plugging your ears doesn't silence the music, it merely brings it down to tolerable levels, so you can actually understand the words and hear the nuances.

It wasn't always this way. I remember going to concerts by Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt, Crosby-Nash, and Dan Fogelberg, in which every note was crystal clear but you never had to plug your ears. You could also stay seated and see everything. It was great.

The fact is, today you have better seats when you watch these singers at home. The reason for going to the concert, then, is primarily so you can get the feeling of being in the same room with performers you admire. Watching the concert, you can see how they've grown on the road -- Anoop Desai in particular, who gives off a genuine star vibe instead of the awkward uncertainty he often showed on the tv show.

And even though Adam Lambert is such a flamboyant and brilliant performer that it's hard to imagine the much subtler Kris Allen making any kind of impression following him on the stage, the fact is that Kris Allen is, in his own way, every bit as much of a star.

As I said when the series was still on, it really didn't matter who of the top four ended up winning. Allison Iraheta in particular is still the most talented female singer ever to be on the show -- and I know that this includes Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, and Carrie Underwood. Nobody in the group, not even Adam Lambert, knows how to work a stage better than Iraheta.

We're glad we saw the concert. But we'll be even gladder when we get solo albums from all of the top six. Every one of them promises to be remarkable.

Now, if Adam Lambert persists in singing nothing but screaming rock and roll, I may lose interest quickly. I hope Matt Giraud sings a lot of covers of old standards, because he does them so wonderfully. My wife, whose maiden name was, in fact, Kris Allen, seems committed to lifelong fandom for that performer. I want to hear Danny Gokey doing country music, which is where I think he did his best work. And Allison Iraheta can sing anything, and I hope that on every album she does sing a wide variety of kinds of music. (I was so sad when Fantasia focused in on hip-hop, which doesn't use even a tenth of her vocal talents.)

*

If you care about the Harry Potter movies, you've probably already seen Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And if you haven't seen any of the movies or read any of the books, this movie is not the place to start.

The trouble is, where should you start? With the movies, as with the books, the first few installments are nowhere near as strong as the later ones. Chris Columbus directed the first two movies, and, next to George Lucas, this is the major director with the most perfect record of getting forgettable performances from his actors.

There is no shot so obvious and clunky that Columbus won't think himself very clever indeed for having thought of it.

So in the first two Harry Potter movies, the only thing making them work is that J.K. Rowling, the author of the books, had so much clout (because she had sold so many books) that everyone had to stick as closely to her story as possible.

The result was two very good filmed books, but not such good movies.

Add to that the problem that Rowling was still learning how to write, and the first book was more a celebration of her clever and funny ideas about juxtaposing a magical world with our current reality, and you have a thinness and lightness of story that don't really feel strong enough to hang a long series on.

It wasn't until the third book that Rowling hit her stride as a storyteller, facing the dark implications of her story. No longer does she rely on gags and puns to draw the reader's interest. Now awful things are done even by people we thought we admired, and good things are done -- however grudgingly -- by people that we thought were quite bad.

Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that Chris Columbus either left or was dropped as director of the series. Alfonso Cuarón gave us our first glimpse of a much wilder Hogwarts with Prisoner of Azkaban. It no longer felt quite so much like a New England prep school; now it was the thin hand of civilization gripping the edge of the cliff, ready at any time to drop over the edge into a land of monsters.

Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire distilled a decent story out of Rowling's thickest and most self-indulgent volume. Rowling by this time had so much power that no editor could tell her to do anything; from the looks of this volume, they couldn't even give her rudimentary advice, such as, "Why not leave out things that are completely uninteresting and keep the story moving forward?"

Fortunately, the script writers had to chop the story down to what could be told in a couple (or two and a half) hours. It is telling that only rarely do we feel as if something important has been left out of the films.

By the time we get to the films directed by David Yates -- Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince -- the films have left the books behind. While Rowling's story had grown deeper and richer with every volume, her writing had grown lazier and more self-indulgent. With the films, the exigencies of both the budget and the realities of theatrical showings left no room for self-indulgence.

Notice that I point out the directors as if they made all the difference. That's not really so. All but one of the screenplays was written by Steve Kloves -- who also wrote The Fabulous Baker Boys, Flesh and Bone, and Wonder Boys. (The one script he didn't write, Order of the Phoenix, was written by Michael Goldenberg, who also wrote the brilliant live-action Peter Pan.)

In other words, from the very start this series had writers who knew how to create deep, rich, textured characters. And if you look at the movies you'll see that the scripts were always better -- sharper, quicker, more exciting and moving, with better-drawn relationships -- than the books. It was only Chris Columbus's ineptitude that disguised this at the start.

It is a weird contradiction that while Half-Blood Prince is very likely the best of the movies so far, it is a terrible place to start. That's because by this point in a series -- the sixth film of a single continuous story -- the writer and director have jettisoned the idea of making the film completely self-contained. You are expected to walk into the theater already knowing who everybody is. All the relationships are rich with history that is not contained or recapitulated during this story.

So, yes, you have to start at the beginning. Don't think that the first two films are bad -- they aren't. They're merely adequate, light-hearted, shallow. But in a world where Sacha Baron Cohen can make millions with a cruel, dishonest piece of trash like Borat, Chris Columbus's two Harry Potter movies are, relatively speaking, noble works of art.

Just be prepared, with the third film, for the series to take a sudden turn for the better. And by the end of the fourth, you'll begin to understand why people like me tell you that it really is worth your while to experience the entire series.

The only point of comparison is Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Without denying his magnificent filmmaking achievement, I still have to point out that in almost every case where he changed significant plot points from the book, leaving some out and adding new ones, he cheapened and worsened the resulting story.

Part of this is that Jackson's writing team was not as good as the two writers who have worked on the Harry Potter films. Lord of the Rings reeks of film-school bushwa in its silliest and most damaging changes.

But most of the difference is simply that Tolkien did not need cutting. He was already quite spare. Scene for scene, there is no waste. Rowling, on the other hand, is not (and has never claimed to be) a writer of Tolkien's talent, skill, or insight. Her novels could be cut, and indeed needed to be, and so better writers working with more uneven books were able to improve on Rowling, where Jackson's team could only damage Tolkien.

The result is that in a way, the Harry Potter series becomes, after the first two films, a film achievement that was more difficult and more remarkable than Jackson's undoubted achievement with Lord of the Rings.

On to the actors. Casting the kids who play the leads in these movies was a guessing game. No one knows what children will grow up to be. Who knew that Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) would end up so short compared to Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley)? And, given Chris Columbus's position as director of the first film, it is fair to ask: What if we had ended up with actors with exactly the talent of McCauley Culkin?

Fortunately, we did not. Rupert Grint is not a great actor, but he gives a solid performance now as a young adult. Daniel Radcliffe turns out to be a very good actor. And Emma Watson, as Hermione Granger, has grown into the strongest performer of the lot.

With one exception. Tom Felton, who plays the thankless part of the bully, Draco Malfoy, was cast before anyone knew how vital and difficult a role his would be by the time the sixth film rolled around. In many ways this is his movie -- his choices provide most of the suspense. And he has to play them in virtual solitude.

It is hard to be sure, because he says so little in this film (yet conveys so much!), but he may turn out to be the best actor to come out of the child casting in the Harry Potter films. (And I include in this Robert Pattinson, who graduated from playing Cedric Diggory, who dies tragically in Goblet, to giving a surprisingly effective performance in the difficult role of Edward Cullen in Twilight.)

Evanna Lynch (as Luna Lovegood) and Bonnie Wright (as Ginny Weasley) are also very talented and effective in their roles, but the most powerful and disturbing performance is given by a young actor with the impossible name of Hero Fiennes-Tiffin. A nephew of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Voldemort, he plays young Tom Riddle at the point in his life when Dumbledore first discovers him and his powerful magical talent. With only a few minutes of screen time, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin makes an indelible impression; this kid has genuine charisma.

Just a word about Michael Gambon, who stepped in to play the pivotal, plot-driving role of Albus Dumbledore after Richard Harris died after the second film. Gambon, as an actor, simply does not have the scene-stealing charm of a Richard Harris. But he is a better actor, because he submerges himself in the role and remains within the reality of the scene, instead of popping out of it with a virtual wink through the camera at the audience, as Harris always did.

It is also worth noting that the character of Dumbledore changes between books two and three. For the first two books, he is a jokey figure straight out of T.H. White's Merlin in Once and Future King. He fits in with the puns and gags, and rather makes fun of the proceedings.

But in the later books -- coinciding with the Michael Gambon films -- Dumbledore has become someone else. He has become, in fact, himself -- the powerful, uncertain, troubled, brave hero of the deepening story. That is the part that Gambon was given, and in my opinion, though he is less fun than Harris, he does a better job.

Half-Blood Prince has broken a few box-office records, and even in adjusted dollars, the film ranks very high in the history of the movie box office. It is obvious that the public has embraced this series, because the numbers are actually increasing from one installment to the next. Even when two years have passed between films, the audience is ready to drop everything and see it on the first day or the first week. And then many of them see it again.

Critics can have their opinions, and welcome to them. The opinions that matter are the unspoken ones. Not the people coming out of the theater saying "Loved it" or "Hated it," but the behavior that cannot be denied: The money coming out of the pockets and flowing into the theaters.

By that measure, of course, Transformers must be a great movie! But my point is that the ticket receipts of Half-Blood Prince are for the sixth film in a series. Anybody who thinks the Transformers franchise has the legs to be making more money and drawing in more viewers on its sixth outing than any of its predecessors is, I humbly suggest, bonkers.

*

From the packaging, you'd think that Dasani's new "Essence" line of flavored waters was trying to do what Hint Water does so brilliantly: provide water that can be guzzled like regular water, contains no sweeteners or preservatives, but has a deliciously subtle flavor.

Wrong, of course. Because Dasani is made by Coca-Cola, the same people who made the blunder of New Coke a few years ago. See any of that around lately? I didn't think so.

The problem is that they use taste tests. Taste tests are always wrong. And here's why: The people know they're judging between two (or, sometimes, more) products. They partake of it critically. Their judgment is nothing like what it will be in the real world.

In the world of taste testing, sweeter always wins, and when the sweetness is not an issue, then intensity always wins. Why? Because they make the flavor more noticeable.

But in the real world, when you drink a beverage, you don't want the flavor to scream at you, and you don't want it to be as sweet as children's cough medicine. It's the slight bitterness of original Coca-Cola that makes it fail taste tests and yet win the day-after-day contest of sales.

Likewise, if you took most people and gave them unlabeled bottles of Dasani Essence and Hint Water, with something like the "same" flavors going head to head, you'd probably find the Dasani Essence flavors winning.

But after three swallows I was already sick of the Dasani Essence bottle I sampled. Whereas I can and do drink Hint Water day after day, sometimes several bottles a day, and never get tired of it.

That's because Hint Water really is subtle. The flavor is almost not there. So when you drink a lot of it, the flavor builds up and becomes a real pleasure.

Whereas drinking a lot of Dasani Essence results in overkill. It cloys. I literally could not bring myself to finish the first bottle. The last inch or so went down the drain.

Hint Water doesn't have the whole Coca-Cola bottling system behind it, so while you can get a fair selection of their flavors right now at both Earth Fare and Fresh Market in Greensboro, there are many areas where you can't find it at all.

So you may want to try ordering Hint Water at their site. The only drawback is that you have to commit to a case of 24 sixteen-ounce bottles. That's fine for me -- I already know I'll go through a couple of cases in a few weeks (especially of pear and cucumber, my two current favorites).

But they have some new flavors that are available only in California or online, and I want to try them. I wish they had a sampler option.

Is Hint Water worth the cost of shipping? You have to decide that for yourself. For me, though, going from Hint back to standard bottled waters leaves me feeling vaguely deprived and disappointed. They are so perfect that regular bottled water, even favorites of mine like Fiji and Panna, tastes bland by contrast.

Oh, and when you go to the Dasani website, they obnoxiously play loud music on your computer, without providing any easily-findable option of silencing it. I happened to be listening to Randy Travis at the moment their music started playing on top of it. You can be sure they did not go together. I had to turn Travis off and listen to their nondescript stuff in order to keep my sanity. Needless to say, I left their site as quickly as I could.


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