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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 4, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Knight and Day, Airbender, Watching Parade Watchers

Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are two megastars whose luster has begun to fade with time. Only a little -- they're still stars, and nobody's crying for what they get paid to make a movie.

But the promos for Knight and Day seemed to suggest a desperate kind of movie. Cruise plays Roy Miller, a spy who has been accused of going rogue, when in fact he was playing by the book and got framed. He is quite aware of the ongoing effort by those who framed him to get him killed by the CIA.

Cameron Diaz plays June Havens, who grew up taking apart cars and putting them back together again. She's on her way to her sister's wedding, and, because of her hurry and the heaviness of her carry-on bag, Miller picks her out at the airport to be his "mule" to carry a small item through security.

The promos made the rest of the movie seem like one long chase scene -- and it is, complete with the standard trope of bad guys who always seem to miss and good guys who never do. In fact they play with this movie cliche by having both Cruise and Diaz at various times simply walk around in the open, bullets pinging all around them, mostly without a scratch.

But it isn't annoying, it's funny. Not scream-with-laughter funny. Endearingly funny.

Because despite the adventure/spy/thriller trappings, this is a romantic comedy -- and a good one.

Take the wonderful comedy One Fine Day, and replace the efforts to juggle careers and children's schedules when a single father and single mother inadvertently swap cellphones with a constant effort by Cruise's character to keep Diaz's character from getting killed while staying alive himself, and you have pretty much the same movie. And it's a good one.

The promos made Cruise's character look half insane. But in the movie, you have a context: You know that he is frustrated with Diaz's utter failure to take any of his advice or heed any of his warnings. So what comes across as manic in the trailers turns into comic exasperation, like a parent talking to a teenager who has just wrecked the car. He's trying to be patient.

Meanwhile, she's trying to get some control over her own life as truly terrible things happen all around her and almost happen to her. Just because I call this a romantic comedy doesn't mean that the thriller aspects of the movie don't work. There are all kinds of spectacular gags and stunts.

But there's something rather remarkable about all the stunts: They are never what the movie is about. With The A-Team and Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man 2, the structure of the movie is to progress from gag to gag, framing each one as if to say, "See what we were able to bring off?"

But in Knight and Day, the stunts -- every bit as dazzling -- are never what the scene or story is about. Often they feel like an afterthought. They're background -- the characters and their dilemmas and their growing attraction to each other and their issues of trust are always what the movie is about.

In fact, many of the most spectacular stunts happen off camera. Instead of staying with Cruise as he fights the bad guys, the camera stays with Diaz as she thinks she has made her way to safety -- away from him. Only then she hears footsteps on the roof of the bus, or a motorcycle on the other side of the freeway soars into the air and someone lands on her car roof, and she knows it's him.

One of the running gags in the film is that when things are so dangerous that she's freaking out, he drugs her and then takes her where he needs to go. Not only does this keep us from wasting time on a meaningless excess of fights and chases, it also becomes one of the best signs of the way their relationship develops.

Because these characters are truly fresh -- I haven't seen them before, or at least not in a movie where things blow up. Cruise isn't phony-nonchalant like Bond -- he really has to concentrate to do his feats of derring-do. Yet he does remain charmingly considerate of Diaz, always thinking of her. If he happens to slip items into her purse or luggage from time to time, or say things that offend her because she doesn't understand that he's playing down her importance to bad guys who might think of taking her hostage, well, that's just part of the job.

My wife and I laughed out loud many times, and chuckled with enjoyment many times more. We enjoyed the film from beginning to end.

I'm so afraid that the promos did a bad job of conveying what this movie really is, and that many people who would love it are staying away. For instance, this is absolutely a women's film -- so if you're a woman who is put off by all the explosions and chases and killings, come anyway. It's no more shocking than, say, Charade, and has every bit as much romance.

Yet if you're a guy who is not at all interested in romance movies, go see it anyway -- the stunts and chases really work, and it's funny.

Nobody has sex. There are a couple of kisses, a single F-word, some other rough language at times of duress, and Diaz in a bikini is as close as they come to nudity. A few people die spectacularly but there's no lingering camera work that seems to love the gore, as in so many lesser movies.

And as for Cruise and Diaz, they have all the acting chops and all the charm they ever had. I'd like to see them paired again.

In short, this is a movie for actual grownups -- not "adults," which in movie parlance usually seems to mean "randy teenagers with no taste." If you want to treat yourself to a grownup spy-adventure-comedy-romance, this is the one to see.

*

I didn't see M. Night Shyamalan's feature version of the popular anime TV series The Last Airbender. Airbender is one of the few animes that, when my 16-year-old is watching an episode, I don't flee the room just to get away from the whiny chirpy voices. The story is quite compelling.

So I understood completely when she and a few friends went to a midnight showing on the morning of the feature film's release.

They were deeply disappointed. And not just because of petty annoyances. It's as if Shyamalan thought the original series was so contemptible that he had to "save" it -- by jettisoning huge sections of the original story and replacing them with hackneyed film school cliches.

There are two ways Hollywood makes movies based on books. One way is to treat the original material with great respect, making sure that even when they have to change things to fit the length requirements of film, they are true to the core story.

For examples of respectful film adaptation, think of how the Harry Potter series was treated, or Emma Thompson's brilliant scripts for Sense and Sensibility and Nanny McPhee.

Then there's the other approach, which is to keep the title and the bits that the writer and director happen to like, and then replace everything else with the worst sort of copycat filmmaking or film school idiocy or whatever "trend" the studio executives fancy this film needs to reflect.

That's when you get disasters like Spielberg's Hook, the utterly nonsensical story changes Peter Jackson made in his otherwise brilliant adaptation of Lord of the Rings, the shockingly dreadful Ella Enchanted, and ... The Last Airbender.

It makes me want to give the filmmakers a good shaking and say: If you didn't want to film the story, why did you spend all that money and use up the one chance we had to see it on the screen?

I mean really, good as Lord of the Rings was, it wouldn't have cost a dime more to get rid of the utter nonsense that Peter Jackson added about Arwen being near death, and his decision to gut the film of Tolkien's real ending, the scouring of the shire, without which the movie has six endings but none of them are good.

Here's a clue, since so many filmmakers -- especially Shyamalan -- seem to need one: When a story works in book form -- I mean really works, so that readers remember it and reread it and force friends to read it -- then chances are you can trust the story to work as it is.

It doesn't need saving, it doesn't need replacement, it needs translation.

It would also be nice if these rewriters of other people's work would take a humility pill and start with this assumption: "I am making an adaptation of a story that was written by a better writer than I am, and which I could never have come up with myself."

Such an assumption would hold them to the original story, making changes only where absolutely required, and never messing with meaning -- the characters' motives and relationships, the rules of the world, and, above all, the ending.

That's why, after every script of my novel Ender's Game written by somebody else, I have wanted to sit down with everyone involved and ask them, quite sincerely, "Next time why don't we try to make a movie out of Ender's Game, instead of coming up with yet another film school exercise and pasting my book's title and characters' names into it?

"After all, the book has been doing fairly well for these twenty-five years, and it might be nice to suppose that I actually knew what I was doing when I made it, and perhaps the writer ought to have some idea of what a scene or sequence accomplishes before he throws it out and replaces it with an ignorant one."

In other words, can we please hire Emma Thompson or Michael Goldenberg or Steve Kloves -- or at least a writer who understands how noble an achievement it is to faithfully translate a story from one medium into another? These are writers who know how to make the sweeping changes that are sometimes required while remaining absolutely true to the accomplishments of the original version.

Not all of Shyamalan's changes in Last Airbender were wrong. For instance, as an Indian himself, he was entitled to correct the bad American pronunciations of character names in the original anime series with more correct ones.

But most of the changes were needless. They did not make the movie better. They made it worse. Shyamalan's changes are so haphazard and meaningless that you have to think: He didn't care at all about the original material.

If the result of his mangling of the story had been a movie that was good in its own right -- like the mangling of Stephen King's The Shining -- then of course we can live with the result.

But that is not the case with The Last Airbender. With all of Shyamalan's changes, he took a very good anime series and turned it into a forgettable third-rate feature.

We hear a lot about "poetic license," but in Shyamalan's case, his license ought to be revoked for the crimes of Writing Under the Influence of Film School, or Directing With Arrogance.

*

This Fourth of July I happened to be in Provo, Utah. Now, Utah is not your average American state: the biggest summer festival is not Independence Day, but rather Pioneer Day -- the 24th of July, commemorating the entry of Brigham Young's band of pioneers into Salt Lake Valley in 1847. There's a huge parade in Salt Lake City; it's the event of the season.

Fifty miles to the south, poor little Provo, the third-largest city in the state, had no hope of competing with Salt Lake City -- not when it's only a forty-five minute drive to see the Salt Lake wingding. So they decided that since Salt Lake wasn't doing all that much about Independence Day, Provo would specialize in that.

The result is that Provo is the Independence Day capital of Utah. There's a little irony in this, since Utah is the only U.S. Territory the U.S. government actually declared war on, invaded, and kept under military occupation for nearly forty years.

I mean, there was no love lost between most Utahns and the federal government, and while Mormons believe the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God, they have often been very skeptical about how well America's leaders have lived up to its principles.

But I guess Provo figures: Let bygones be bygones. Wave the flag and let the parade roll by.

For the past several years, space along the parade route has been so rare and precious that people have been camping out -- that's right, pitching tents on the grass between sidewalk and curb or even on the sidewalk itself -- for as many as three days before the parade. You can imagine the way this makes Provo look like a city of vagrants and homeless people for days in advance of the celebration.

On the other hand, because this is a Mormon town it is simply unthinkable that the parade could be held on the Sabbath just because the Fourth happens to fall on a Sunday. Yet postponing it to Monday (which is what they did) would mean that if the whole family went to church on Sunday as they're supposed to, all the good Mormons would lose their parade-watching spaces and only the heathens would have prime seating.

So the city banned camping on the street until 3 p.m. the night before the parade. (And on part of the parade route, no one is allowed to set up until five a.m. on the day of the parade.) When the legal hour arrived, those spaces filled up fast.

My wife and I happened to drive up and down University Avenue late on Sunday afternoon. Having gone to high school and college in Utah Valley, we knew the streets well (and we remember all the beautiful old houses that were torn down to make way for tacky gimcrack apartment buildings).

But the array of humanity displayed along both sides of the street, along with their temporary domiciles, their choice of activities to while away the hours, the meals and refreshments they provided themselves with -- it was like attending a museum of American, or at least Utah, culture.

There were the tents and pavilions that couldn't actually stand up (because it's both difficult and illegal to drive pegs into concrete), so someone always had to sit there holding the poles.

There were families playing board games, children playing dress-up or having their own mini-parades, hands and faces smeared with melting ice cream, mini-barbecues and fullsize grills, sleeping bags and bedrolls, and chaises longues bestrewn with people in swimsuits asleep with a book on their faces, as if they thought they had been wafted to the Outer Banks (they should be so lucky).

There were streetfront houses whose owners had set up chairs and awnings to provide shade and were either inviting a lot of friends or charging money to strangers -- we couldn't quite tell which.

And we realized that the real American parade went the other way. We should have been vying for seats on the parade floats, so we could go down the street and admire or be amused by the little mini-shows, ranging from six to sixty feet wide, that the spectators were putting on for the enjoyment of the paraders.


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