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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 18, 2012

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


Trouble with the Curve, Rings from Audible

I'm not a big fan of baseball movies. Yes, I know -- there are some classics. Like The Natural, with its allegory of good and evil.

And you can't ignore Field of Dreams, mostly because of its absurd but often-quoted assertion, "If you build it they will come." (Ask any entrepreneur, and he'll tell you how easily you can go broke by believing in that one.)

Then there's Moneyball, which is really about the business end of baseball.

Here's the thing about every one of these movies. They absolutely depend on the audience walking into the theater already caring about baseball.

And I don't.

But I know lots of people who do, so I sort of pretend to be them. I pretend to care. I watch, thinking, Ah, if I actually cared, I can see how this would work.

The father-son thing in Field of Dreams. Very sweet. Except my father and I got along fine, and I have no memory of ever playing catch. He built stuff and he took pictures. He taught classes and graded papers and let me help and talked about educational theory with me. He didn't throw things or catch them.

So my memories of my childhood relationship with my dad have more to do with jigsaws, darkrooms, glue, sign-painting, test papers, and pretty much anything that needed building, fixing, putting-together, or taking-apart.

Where's the movie for me?

People like me have to make do with movies that deal with the "standard" childhood -- the one with baseball in it.

Maybe that's one reason I love Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Maybe Douglas Spaulding played pickup games of softball -- if he did, I blotted them out of my memory. Mostly he ran around the neighborhood with his friends, talking to old people, climbing fences, that sort of thing. Things I did.

They don't make movies about my childhood.

So here comes Trouble with the Curve, another movie about baseball. But I recognize that baseball has resonances with regular people. And I do know the rules; I did play, badly, as a kid.

This movie is "anti-Moneyball meets female-Field of Dreams." A troubled father-daughter relationship, with childhood baseball as the only healing connection. Plus an attempt to show how inadequate it is to choose a team by running the numbers.

Clint Eastwood plays Gus, an aging baseball scout who's going blind but can still magically hear whether a player can hit a well-thrown curveball. (Yeah, right.)

Amy Adams plays his grown-up daughter Mickey, who spent about six years of her childhood going everywhere with her dad while he scouted various players. But her dad abandoned her twice. Once, soon after her mom died, he sent her to live with an uncle for a year. Then came the baseball years. Following which he sent her off to boarding school and paid for her to go to law school.

So now she's up for a partnership, in competition with a cutthroat lawyer. Only Pete Klein (John Goodman), Gus's boss and a good friend, tells her that her dad is fighting to keep his job and would she please go look out for him.

Even though she's permanently (and childishly) mad at her father, she goes, trying to do her work on an important case while also attending the games with Dad. They're trying to decide whether or not their team should use a top draft pick to go for a minor-league hitting star, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill).

Look at the title, and you've got the maguffin: Gus can hear (and Mickey can see) that Bo has "trouble with the curve"; the numbers don't show the problem because in the minors, he isn't up against any first-rate pitchers.

Excuse me, but after more than a century of major-league baseball, hasn't anybody figured out yet that you don't know anything about a minor-league hitter until he's been put up against major-league pitching? This has to come as a surprise to everybody except one aging scout?

Never mind. Stories are always about the superguy who sees what nobody else can see. And sometimes in real life there really are people like that. But when you think about it, every baseball movie is about the guy who can do or see what nobody else can do or see. Cool. I'll buy it.

Along the way, Mickey meets Johnny (Justin Timberlake), an ex-pitcher whom her dad once recruited. But he got traded away to a team that let him blow out his arm and his career ended. Now he's trying to get up a career as a scout.

Add to this a superb supporting cast -- half the aging character actors in Hollywood do a great job in tiny but important roles. George Wyner, Bob Gunton, Robert Patrick; even Matthew Lillard, who survived Scooby Doo and is very good in this movie as the jerk who's trying to play moneyball.

And, partly because the cast is so very, very good, this by-the-numbers movie works. It's not a great movie, but it's enjoyable and we were never bored, never tempted to leave. For a baseball movie, that's actually pretty good.

But even as we watched it, we were aware of the problems. There were really two big ones.

First was the note-card script. It's what panicky scriptwriters do when they make the mistake of believing the crap they learned in film school. They lay out the whole movie on note cards. All the plot points. All the big reveals.

This is the scene where we find out why Mickey is so mad at her father. This is the scene where he refuses to tell her. Here's the scene where, for no particular reason, he finally decides to tell her. We need a complication, so she blows off his explanation and is still mad.

The writer spend months juggling those cards around. But when the order was decided on, he forgot to write a script. He just wrote the minimal speeches to cover the points on the card.

Even the love scene by the lake feels like just another note card. First Mickey resists, then she doesn't. What changed in between? Nothing. The note card says, Now she falls for him. So that's what happens in the scene.

Good acting can cover up a lot of this kind of writing. (In Titanic, for instance, that's all James Cameron bothered with -- all he cared about, apparently, was the effects. So the scenes are completely empty -- despite the fact that Cameron knows how to write a good scene.)

Since Trouble with the Curve has such a terrific cast, most of this hollowness is, in fact, smoothed over.

Except for the second big problem with the movie: Amy Adams.

Amy Adams is a terrific actress ... usually. She was great in Enchanted, delightful in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and ... she's kind of terrible in this movie.

Here's why: She completely misunderstood what her character was supposed to be and do in this movie.

Admittedly, she had little help from the script. But one thing was obvious: She was supposed to be a tough, ambitious lawyer and an angry daughter. Through the course of the movie, she's supposed to break herself against the rock of her father's cold distance, while warming and softening because of her growing relationship with the Justin Timberlake character.

That means that at the beginning, Adams had the challenge of making a hard-edged character likeable.

Only the director let her fall back on her standard bag of tricks. Instead of progressing from tough-as-nails to loving-and-loyal, she starts out pert and ends up perky.

That's not much of a progression.

The script continues to treat her as if she were playing the character as written. But instead, she's pert and sassy from the start. So there's nowhere to go.

This is such a terrible, obvious, destructive mistake that one wonders where the director was. Didn't they rehearse? Didn't he understand that she was wiping out any kind of development in the movie?

For all I know, pert-to-perky was his idea. You never know where the blame lies.

In Enchanted, her perkiness was sarcastic. In Miss Pettigrew, her perkiness was a kind of selfish insanity. I thought she was acting like that because it's what the script called for.

But this script called for some darkness, loneliness, hard edges, meanness. She said all the lines, but she was cute while saying them.

Contrast her with an actress who is often accused of being able to play only cute-and-sassy parts: Meg Ryan. Then think of Ryan in her signature roles -- Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. Plenty of pert. But also brooding, angry, hurt, suffering. Anyone who says this actress has no range doesn't understand acting.

But in Trouble with the Curve, Amy Adams appeared to be what Meg Ryan is wrongly accused of: a performer who can play only one tune on her instrument.

Admittedly, sometimes it totally works to be nothing but pert and perky. In this movie, that's all that Justin Timberlake needed to do, and he did it.

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet, fed up with phony method acting techniques, tells actors, "Just say the lines," because he, as the writer, as already put in the motivations. And he's right.

But he's forgetting the fact that actors bring attitude to the scenes, whether they mean to or not. And when an actor falls back on a bag-of-tricks, and it doesn't fit the part, it can undo most of what the writer was trying to do.

Let's keep in mind, however, that the director, Robert Lorenz, has had a solid career as an assistant director, second unit director, and producer. He's never been the guy working out the main storyline with the actors.

Plus, most film directors actually suck at directing actors. They direct the camera; they direct the script; but the actors are on their own.

So Amy Adams may have been flailing around without any kind of guidance, and so she did exactly what Clint Eastwood did -- rely on the stuff that has always worked before. It's just that for Eastwood, his bag of tricks was exactly right for the part. Hers was exactly wrong.

The result is that even though the film's sense of fulfilment absolutely depends on our hearts breaking for her and then rejoicing as she finally ends her loneliness and achieves happiness in a life and career that she is much better suited for, that emotional element is completely missing.

All we get are the note cards.

This sounds like I hated the movie, but I didn't. I enjoyed it as a pleasant evening's entertainment. Most people don't watch the same way I watch; you won't necessarily see the note-card writing or how wrong the pert-to-perky character arc was for Mickey.

But you also won't come out of the movie with an emotional transformation. But since that's what the writer was trying for, however ineptly, that means the movie fails. It strained and strained and delivered adequacy. And with a cast like this, it should have been more.

What's wrong with this movie isn't the baseball. In fact, I could have used a little more clarity in the baseball. I wish we could have heard the other aging scouts actually discuss the players intelligently -- or snipe at each other about past decisions. Instead, the writer skipped over the knowing-everything-about-baseball portion of his assignment. He substituted a boring baseball-trivia competition between Mickey and Johnny. Too bad.

I've spent a lot of time telling you what's wrong with a movie that is actually pretty good. Nobody's going to feel cheated out of the ticket price -- my wife and I felt fine about spending an evening at this movie.

But when a movie tries to be really good and turns out to be merely ok, I think it's worth spending a little time pointing out why. A lot of movies fail because of the intervention of ignorant studio executives. But this isn't one of them. It clearly had plenty of support. And this movie doesn't fail. It just doesn't become anything.

*

After my reviews of surrealist painters last week, several people pointed out that my links took them directly to offensive nude art.

I honestly thought I had included warnings about that -- I make it a point to do so. And there was a draft that included exactly that warning. But in deleting a section, I deleted the warning without realizing. My apologies. I'm not offended by nudity in art, unless it's pornographic; but for some people, nudity and pornography are indistinguishable. I really do try to give fair warning and I apologize for blowing it this time.

On the other hand, several people pointed out favorite surrealists that I hadn't heard of. One that I think you'll find interesting (and nobody's naked) is the surreal photography of Erik Johansson, a Swedish photographer who retouches photos with results reminiscent of M.C. Escher -- or a really bratty kid.

Remember, as you look at these photos, that they are photos. He did not actually bury a bicyclist in fresh asphalt, or break somebody's arms into fragments, or find a road with a 90-degree drop-off. This is art -- manipulating and transforming photographic images to form things that could never exist (or wouldn't be worth the effort to try to create) in the real world.

Take a look at Erik Johansson.

*

Audiobook versions of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have long been available on tape and CD, but now, at last, you can buy them and download them from Audible.com.

The moment I got the email from Audible, I bought and downloaded them. That was last week, and while exercising and running errands and doing yardwork, I've already listened to The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring, and I'm halfway through The Two Towers.

Rob Inglis's reading remains brilliant.

The worst and best thing about the audio version of these books is that you can't skip the songs, the way most of us do when reading the book on the page. Tolkien had a thing for folk-level songs, humorous and heroic, and his characters burst into songs so often you might think you were in a musical.

Rob Inglis was already doing readings from Tolkien's work during Tolkien's lifetime, and he got Tolkien's approval for the tunes he came up with for the songs. Often they have the feeling of stock folktunes -- which is exactly right. But for the songs sung by elves, orcs, and dwarves, something different was needed, so Inglis made up quite original tunes. Almost every song is spot on.

Best of all, by actually listening to the songs, we get to experience what Tolkien intended -- an ancient culture that loved music, but only had the music they performed for each other. In moments of grief and moments of pleasure, they channel their emotions into songs, and in this performance we realize just how good Tolkien's ballads, dirges, and dances are.

The only weirdness is that there are sections that suffer from wow and flutter. Obviously, these are not from the digital transmission -- I can't think how wow and flutter could possibly come from digital copying and playing.

Instead, I think they were working from very old masters. After all, Inglis's recording was first released in 1990. When they prepared to release it on downloadable digital audio, they may have gone back to old master tapes -- and that's where wow and flutter can come from.

Fortunately, it's not completely destructive. I have a digital version recording of a John Rutter Christmas album that is so corrupted that it's unlistenable. In this version of LOTR, it's noticeable, but such moments quickly pass and there's never a time when you can't understand what's happening.

Lord of the Rings is the finest work of literature in English in the 20th century. It vies with King Lear, Pride and Prejudice, and David Copperfield for the all-time English-language title. But, like all of the others, that doesn't mean it doesn't have its challenges and rough patches.

The Hobbit is definitely not the finest work of literature. No, it's not bad, but it's ultimately rather slight, and though it quickly abandons its coy talking-down stance in the opening, it is just one-darn-thing-after-another.

LOTR is infinitely more complex, working many layers deep all at once, though you can certainly read it on the surface (and, as Peter Jackson proved, you can completely misunderstand it while making a billion-dollar series of movies based on it).

But if you have long wanted to reread LOTR, or if you want to experience it in its entirety, as Tolkien intended, now's the time. The Audible.com download can be used on your MP3 player and you can hear the absolutely brilliant performance while you go through the ordinary activities of your life.

*

Of course, downloading from Audible meant that during the download, iTunes automatically loaded itself in order to make the books usable on the Nano that I use for listening. Naturally, that meant that my whole computer locked up and I could do nothing as iTunes seized all processing time for itself.

This is incredibly selfish and arrogant of the programmers at Apple. Almost all the other programs I own load nicely and politely within their own region of memory, allowing me to continue with my work. That's what multiprocessing is all about.

But no. iTunes doesn't care that I might be writing a column, or even playing a game. Like a big bully, it not only shuts everything else down, it insists on accessing the iTunes store online as its default startup activity, even though I almost never buy anything from iTunes. I only use it to service my Nanos.

Then, as each file in the books completes downloading and informs iTunes of its existence, iTunes steals my cursor, forcing me to use the mouse to bring it back into my word processor. This happens even though there is absolutely nothing iTunes needs the cursor for -- I don't even have to click in a box.

They seize the cursor because hey, whatever I'm doing is trivial: Apple is here, and so I need to drop everything and worship.

This is why, when I think how much I hate Microsoft, I have to remind myself that Apple is even more arrogant and insensitive -- and everything from Apple costs more.


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