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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 7, 2011

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


Trigun, Teacher Movies, Aliens on Vacation

When Homer told the story of the Iliad, he didn't begin at the beginning, and he didn't end at the end.

He didn't have to -- he knew his audience was familiar with the whole epic of the Trojan War. All Homer aimed at was telling one story within the larger history -- the personal confrontation between the great heroes Achilles and Hector.

Americans who sit down to watch a Japanese animated film ("anime") can feel, at first, as if they're in familiar territory. It's a sci-fi space epic, or a western -- or both, with an overlay of hard-boiled detective with a jazz-age sensibility, as with the great Cowboy Be-Bop series.

Yet as the story unfolds, it can feel as disorienting as the Iliad would if no one had told you the story of the Trojan War before you read it. You're dropped into the middle of somebody else's epic, and even though many motifs seem absolutely American, they're being used so differently that your head can swim.

If you hang on, though, realizing that your expectations from American genres are not going to apply here, you can get caught up in something wonderful -- and universal. Because Japanese anime filmmakers aim higher -- or perhaps dive deeper -- than all but a handful of American animators.

For instance, take the film Trigun: Badlands Rumble, which opens tonight (7 July) at the Carousel. At first glance, it's a western: A notorious bank robber, Gasback, has a bunch of bank employees tied up as he opens the vault.

But as he does, Gasback delivers an Andy Warhol-like disquisition on the art of bank robbery and its relation to society at large. Gasback isn't after the money, he's creating something to impress his audience of hostages.

His gang, however, is after the money, and they turn on him. As one of them is about to kill him, a coin is tossed into the midst of the situation, and suddenly, out of nowhere, we have a trench-coated character named Vash "the Stampede," a pacifist trickster who saves Gasback's life.

This is not your normal western, and Vash has no analog in American movies. He's Loki, the trickster of the Norse gods, a mythic figure who has been blamed for so many messes created by the criminals that Vash is out to thwart that there's a $300 million price on his head.

Vash can be annoying -- in fact, that's his job. Think of him as the Joker, only good -- a figure of legend. We're in the midst of an epic. Step outside the traditional western town, and there are spaceships and land crawlers that look like they escaped from a Mad Max movie, or maybe Waterworld in the desert.

Sit back and enjoy the chaos. Because we suddenly skip twenty years. Gasback, more dangerous than ever, is expected to come to town to wreak vengeance on his old gang members, who have become quite prosperous and respectable. One of them is mayor of the town, and he hires a legendary gunman, Wolfwood, as his bodyguard.

Bounty hunters also converge on the town, hoping to collect the huge reward offered for Gasback's arrest. Among them is an attractive, dangerous woman, who takes care of herself very well. Until she's outnumbered by ruffians, and then -- out of nowhere, as usual -- there's Vash, saving her life and honor without actually hurting anybody.

She's grateful, but Vash, in his typically inept fashion, keeps coming on to her in such an obvious way that she is repelled. And it gets worse when she realizes who he is. For she knows that Vash the Stampede saved the life of Gasback twenty years before -- and because of that, her mother died.

These aren't the stock figures of westerns or sci-fi films. This is a revenge story and the major figures are Heroes in the Herculean sense. Wolfwood and Vash know each other, and Gasback knows them both, because heroes have an eye to fame and reputation.

In a summer when so many movies are painful collections of cliche, it's refreshing to drop into somebody else's epic wearing the clothes of traditional American movies. However much the Japanese borrow from the West, they still make it their own, and the result, in the best anime films, is nothing short of wonderful.

Nothing is what it seems, and along with humor and lots of gunplay and deftly drawn combat we are immersed in a story of revenge and justice that earns a deeper place in your memory than you would ordinarily expect from an animated film.

No, it's not as emotional as Toy Story III or even How to Train Your Dragon -- any more than the Iliad or Odyssey are. Trigun aims for something different. Not sentiment, but the satisfaction that comes from Things Being Set Right. It's about the moment of revelation and understanding, of an out-of-order universe being repaired.

Anime isn't for everybody -- for one thing, the English dubs can range from brilliant (Cowboy Be-Bop, The Last Airbender) to appalling. For this reason, the purists generally watch anime in Japanese with subtitles, which is how I watched the screener of Trigun.

If you're already an anime fan, then this is a good one, and you are already planning to see it. Maybe twice. If you've never seen anime, then this is a good place to start. Think of it as a Mad Max movie, but starring a smart-alecky Will Smith or Johnny Depp, and you'll have a good idea of the mood.

*

Sometimes you just want to see a movie, and you take your chances. The other night, my wife and I were in the mood to follow up on a couple of semi-promising teacher movies whose promos looked entertaining.

There was Bad Teacher, whose main attraction is Cameron Diaz, whom we have adored since she first popped up in The Mask back in 1994. She has done some brilliant work (My Best Friend's Wedding, Being John Malkovich, The Sweetest Thing, In Her Shoes) and she has been the bright spot in trashy films I otherwise loathed (There's Something About Mary). In Knight and Day, she was the oh-so-believable straight man to Tom Cruise's hilarious superspy.

So what's not to love about Bad Teacher?

Sadly, everything. Has a great cast ever been more wasted on an utterly stupid, unfunny script than this one? Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Justin Timberlake, Phyllis Smith (The Office), Jillian Armenante (Judging Amy) -- with Cameron Diaz as ringleader, this movie should have been hilarious.

But there are few actors who can overcome a script as dumb as this one. See, what would have made Bad Teacher funny is if you could believe, even for a second, that a teacher might actually get away with acting like this.

Unfortunately, most members of the audience are familiar with high school, and so we know that it doesn't work like this.

But maybe we'd buy it as a farce, like Jack Black in The School of Rock -- except that we actually liked his character in that movie, and there is absolutely nothing to like in Cameron Diaz's character.

Her motives are so trivial, her actions so mean-spirited and selfish, that we don't even care enough to hope she gets caught. Every other character is just as empty and unbelievable, and most are as appalling.

Comedy isn't just a bunch of gags. We have to have somebody or something to care about. Yes, even in a Three Stooges movie -- and oh, if only Bad Teacher had been up to the level of the Three Stooges.

Oh, wait, I forgot -- audiences will pay money for this dog-doo movie because it's full of people saying crude, vulgar things. That's what's "in" this decade -- you can have a script that's seems to be written by an untalented seventh grader, and as long as it's so gross it makes you gag, it'll be a hit.

So let this movie suck money out of the pockets of people whose inner lives are so pathetically empty that watching this is actually better than staying home and cleaning the toilet while thinking your own thoughts.

We aren't that empty. We weren't offended, we were bored, and so we left.

But it was not a wasted movie night, because we actually began by watching the other "bad teacher" movie that opened this week, the Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts romantic comedy Larry Crowne.

Let's just start by admitting that Tom Hanks looks too old to be in this movie. Not chronologically -- he's five years younger than me, and 54 is about right for the character of Larry Crowne. He's supposed to be middle-aged.

The trouble is that Tom Hanks has apparently been getting "treatments," and so his face looks, not like a 54-year-old man, but like a 70-year-old man who is desperately being "treated" to look younger.

This makes me sad, because Hanks is one of the great actors, the equal of Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda -- but apparently he didn't have the grace or good sense to leave his face alone.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he just had incredibly bad makeup in this movie.

But here's the nice thing: The movie works anyway, and Tom Hanks is such a wonderful actor that he makes us love Larry Crowne.

The movie begins weirdly. It's as if the script thought it was going to be a fable, so the Target-like store where Crowne works is shown as a kind of idyllically happy insane asylum. The scene where Crowne is fired is straight out of 1984, and then the divorced, out-of-work Crowne goes to community college.

OK, there are believability issues here. One of the big ones is that Crowne supposedly spent twenty years as a cook in the Navy. After twenty years in the American military, you get a pension. It doesn't make you rich, but it doesn't leave you broke, either. Only this income stream is never even hinted at in the movie.

The fact is that once he moves out of his house, Larry Crowne will have enough to live on. Why not just say so?

And then Crowne goes to register at community college, and an admissions officer bulldozes him into signing up for a speech class in his first semester -- an 8:00 a.m. class taught by Julia Roberts. It seems like a completely inappropriate action, until we realize that the admissions guy is kind of smitten with Julia Roberts and so he makes sure enough students sign up for the class to carry.

I have now said every bad thing there is about the script -- it's a bit lost at the beginning, flailing around as it tries to decide what kind of comedy to be.

Once we get Tom Hanks into class, however, the movie makes up its mind and becomes a little bit wonderful. This is a Steve Martin movie, you see, only it doesn't have Steve Martin. It's whimsical, a tone so hard to bring off that no wonder the movie was a bit lost at first.

Whimsy requires that the actors never know they're funny or odd -- they take everything in stride as if the world really does work this way. And that's what Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts bring to this film.

They are helped by some outstanding supporting actors, most notably Bryan Cranston as Julia Roberts's appalling writer husband, George Takei as the arrogant economics professor, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the whimsical-young-thing who gets Larry Crowne into a scooter gang, and an absolutely dynamite performance by Wilmer Valderrama (Fez from That '70s Show).

Cedric the Entertainer also gets points for a restrained performance as the eccentric neighbor with a perpetual yard sale, and it must be said that co-writer Nia Vardalos does a delightful job as the voice of the GPS in Julia Roberts's car.

The community college is astonishingly overfunded (lecterns with the name of the course stenciled on them? Classrooms that have only one class taught in them?), the film captures the sense of community that can develop by chance among students far better than the TV series that pretends to do that job and utterly fails.

Of course the lonely teacher falls in love with this odd student. Of course they misunderstand each other for a while. It's a whimsical romantic comedy! But it's a good one.

This movie is clearly a Tom Hanks labor of love -- quite apart from his performance, he's also one of the two writers on the film, and he directed and co-produced it.

That puts this movie into the category of That Thing You Do, Hanks's wonderful rock-music comedy from 1996. In other words, it's never fall-in-the-aisles funny, but it's friendly and happy and kind -- it's a story full of people that you like to be with.

I can start watching That Thing You Do at any point and I'm immediately enjoying myself and falling in love with the characters all over again. Quiet as it is, it's a great movie. Really. Because it lasts.

Like That Thing You Do, Larry Crowne is an amiable comedy, which is far better (and harder to bring off) than the raunchy comedies that are wrecking the American movie experience in recent years.

Hanks has done some brilliant work in his career, unforgettable movies, a list of classics that any actor could envy. But it's illuminating to see what he does when the movie is completely his own, from the beginning of the process to the end.

He tells stories that are good. Even the negative characters are people who don't really mean to be bad, they're just lost and scared and angry. They're good people having a bad reaction to things that are hard to deal with.

So even though Hanks's face is not aging well, his heart is doing just fine. Hanks actually likes people. And we like him.

I once happened to be in the Santa Monica P.F. Chang's at the same time Hanks was having a family dinner there. With L.A. good manners, nobody interrupted their festivities or even stared at them.

But we noticed them the way we always notice other diners in a restaurant. We get an impression. We form an opinion. And the opinion I formed was: These are nice people who like each other and get along happily. Even if they do order the execrably bland lettuce wraps for the whole table.

Tom Hanks, when he has complete control, makes movies that represent America at its cheerful best.

We're in the midst of a nasty depression. This movie, not the raunchy comedies, is the antidote. I think that if Tom Hanks had his way, he'd be the new Frank Capra. Why not? Being the new Jimmy Stewart worked very well for Hanks, and Capra and Stewart just plain go together, don't they?

Mr. Hanks, I hope you make a lot of money with this comedy. I hope you sit down and keep writing movies, and directing them. Because even when the movies are a little messy, they're messy in the way Frank Capra movies are messy -- which only makes us love them more.

And about your face: We like your face. You're going to be a great-looking, lovable old man. Leave your face alone. Accept it. We're going to keep watching you act until you get tired of doing it. You don't have to try to make yourself fake-younger. Believe me. Really.

*

Summer vacations aren't what they used to be. I grew up with weeks and weeks of just hanging around the neighborhood, which in my childhood in pre-computer Santa Clara, California, consisted of orchards, dry creekbeds, paths, bridges, and neighborhood where it was safe for kids to ride their bikes everywhere.

There were sidewalks on both sides of every street, so roller skates made sense. The lawns were "barefoot grass" -- it almost hurt to wear shoes when that soft fescue was calling to you. And when you wanted to curl up with a book, there was plenty of time.

There were drawbacks. Dandelions had to be dug out of the lawn -- no chemicals were available to ordinary homeowners in 1959. Without air-conditioning (only the rich had those), you left doors open with the screendoor vaguely latched, and then set fans running all the time.

Flies. There were flies all the time. They laughed at screen doors.

But you know what? Summer vacation was still heaven.

Now it's all organized. A week at camp, a week at another camp. And schools have the offensive idea that they have a right -- nay, a duty -- to assign summer reading.

Even when it's my book they're requiring, I say: Stop it! Childhood is too precious to give teachers control of every minute of it. You don't own summer. Leave the kids alone for a minute, can't you?

But those idyllic days depended on having one parent home all the time. When the house is locked up, you have to put the kids somewhere. So summer vacation now consists, for many kids, of creative incarceration.

Into that scenario, let's insert the happy young adult novel Aliens on Vacation, by Clete Barrett Smith. A kid nicknamed Scrub is sent off to spend the summer with his hippie grandmother, in the middle of nowhere.

Grandmother runs the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast, which isn't just a cool name. It's a fact. And in the midst of having to work for Granny, Scrub gets caught up in trying to defend the inn -- and the guests -- from local authorities who are getting suspicious about the clientele.

It won't change your life. But it's worth curling up with on a summer afternoon. Whether you're a kid or not.


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