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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 4, 2014

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


Boyhood, Wizard Wars, Flipping

Two actors playing the same character in the same movie.

We saw it in My Left Foot and Forrest Gump. In fact, we've seen it hundreds of times over the years -- a movie in which a character (usually the hero) is shown as a child, and then as the adult who resulted from those childhood experiences.

Here's the thing that's almost always wrong: The child version of the hero is played by a child actor, the adult by a star. Sometimes they do a good job of picking a kid who looks like maybe he could grow up into the star. But not always.

The real problem is how embarrassingly often the child gives a better performance than the adult actor. Tom Hanks was quite good in Forrest Gump -- but Michael Conner Humphreys was far more effective as the child Forrest.

That doesn't mean that he was more talented than Hanks -- it might only mean that the events shown in the child-actor storylines were more seminal than those using the adult actor.

Humphreys didn't act again for seventeen years, when he popped up in a leading role in Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers.

By contrast, Hugh O'Conor -- the child actor who won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Oscar by winning our hearts over for the character Christy Brown -- has been acting almost continuously. But Ireland is a different film-making environment.

Often, with good makeup, you can cast an adult actor to play a character at various different ages. But just as nobody believed in Dustin Hoffman as a woman in Tootsie or Robin Williams as a woman in Mrs. Doubtfire, so also we rarely believe in the makeup- and prosthetic-aged actors whose characters span the decades.

But what nobody is dumb enough to try is to shrink the adult actor using the Hobbit-making shrink machines from Lord of the Rings so he can play the child, too.

Back when I was working on the early stages of the movie Ender's Game with producers who actually understood the character, I expressed the wish that we could cast the film with seven-year-olds, and then stretch filming across five years so that the same actors could be shown at the older ages.

We laughed, because it was such a fanciful notion. Oh, it would have been ideal, in some ways -- but there were so many reasons it was impossible.

The obvious reason is money. Films are generally financed with borrowed money, or with risk capital that could be invested elsewhere with quicker returns. It's bad enough that you have to wait a couple of years after shooting starts to even hope to get any return on investment.

But what if you stretched filming out over ten years? You'd be spending money now with no hope of return for at least thirteen years.

That's not the only problem, though. So many things can go wrong. Obviously, people get hit by cars -- look at how the opening of The Empire Strikes Back had to account for facial damage actor Mark Hamill suffered in an accident after Star Wars. People even die.

But when you're working with child actors, the risks are even greater. You cast a ten-year-old, and you have no idea whether he'll grow up to have any real ability as an actor. Most child actors don't, especially if you cast for childish attributes like cuteness (defined as huge eyes and a disproportionately large head).

That cute-kid look can be downright appalling on an adult.

The very fact that a child is an actor can have a huge distorting effect on who he grows up to be. Not that being an actor automatically makes you into an obnoxious, insecure, drug-addicted twit in your teens, but it does increase the odds enormously.

So here's the good news on the film Boyhood, by Richard Linklater: The two key child actors, title star Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater as his older sister, Samantha, both grow up to be intelligent, reasonably attractive young adults.

So the gamble the filmmakers made by casting them back in 2003 is paying off very well in 2014. Nobody is surprised that Patricia Arquette remains a complicated, interesting actor, and that Ethan Hawke has actually improved by leaps and bounds in that same timespan.

During those intervening years, Patricia Arquette filmed the entirety of the series Medium, in which she played a very different mother character.

The filmmakers were lucky -- nobody died, nobody got greedy and threatened to hold up production by being "too busy" to film a later segment of the film.

So Boyhood's experiment paid off very nicely. Yet there was still a huge problem that seems insurmountable.

We weren't just watching the kids grow up, you see. We were also watching the world change around them. When filming started, the dust was only starting to clear from 9/11, and when it ended, it was already obvious that Obama was a failed president.

But because each segment was filmed like a diary entry, with the writer (Richard Linklater) only aware of as much as was known about American history at the time, the segments are sometimes sadly dated.

Linklater is, of course, your stock politically zombie-ized Hollywood Leftist, so the main characters, who should have been like normal Americans instead of total conformists, had minds full of pure politically correct drivel.

Linklater makes no attempt to show characters who disagree with him in a fair light. On the contrary, though characters in Boyhood might be complicated in other ways, they are perfect in their compliance with stereotypes.

The only exception is that religious people are not made complete idiots ... but it's a close thing. And the characters we're supposed to know well and care about most deeply are pretty much without any religion, even if they go through the motions to please others.

But Linklater can't help it that he lives in a culture where he never has to think a new thought or try to understand a person who is different from himself. He's as blinded by his environment as any Southern segregationist in 1948.

And, fortunately, these cultural cliches are not the main themes. It's easy to look past the narrowness of Linklater's vision to see that in terms of the characters' development, he's really trying to explore a "normal" American boyhood.

Alas, though, that too eludes him, because he couldn't resist that standard narcissism of writers who think that "artistic souls" make interesting film characters.

Thus the boy Mason is made to grow up into an "artist" who is so focused on his love of photography (i.e., writing, but hidden behind a metaphor) that he can barely function in high school ... or in his family.

This was an entirely arbitrary decision -- Linklater could have written him as, say, a kid who grows up to be a dentist or a lawyer or a truck driver or a cop.

Maybe he was guided by aspects of Ellar Coltrane's real personality. Certainly he turned into a teenager with the hooded eyes and brooding aspect that gave him a natural James Dean coolness. It was easy for Linklater to adapt him to portray his own self-loving "artiste" fantasies.

It would have been a better movie if Linklater had retained the normality that marked the character Mason prior to his reaching his teens.

I read the remark of one critic that the character of Mason had no real problems beyond a relatively amicable divorce between his parents -- which had happened before the movie began.

This comment is, of course, idiotic. First, divorces aren't hard on kids solely because of post-divorce conflict between the parents. Most kids resent their parents' divorce even if it's completely amicable, because the kids' lives are torn apart no matter what. They are rendered effectively homeless, not quite belonging in either house.

And each of the mom's remarriages brings its own set of problems. For some reason, two guys with no visible flaws both turn out to drink too much, though at least the second stepfather is given a great moment when Mason declares, "You're not my father," to which the stepfather (Brad Hawkins), "No, I'm not your father. He's off somewhere doing whatever he's doing. I'm the guy who's here working at a job, paying the mortgage, helping your mother," or words to that effect.

But that marriage, too, ends in divorce, so as Mason heads off to college in some remote part of Texas, his mother is left alone. There's a great scene in which Mason realizes for the first time something of what his mother has given up to take care of her kids. That the independence Mason has insisted is his right was something she never got to enjoy because she fulfilled her responsibilities.

Indeed, responsibility is so obviously the theme of this movie that I wish the word had been repeated a little less. But Linklater at least has some idea of what growing up actually means. Mason has his fling at "freedom" but he also gets a job and pays his own way as soon as he can. And his "free" choices work out about as well as most of our choices do in real life -- a mixed bag.

What we can't possibly know is how many scenes were shot in the early years that ended up getting jettisoned because Linklater took the story in different directions in later years.

I daresay Boyhood owes more than is usual to the editing process; it may well be possible to assemble a completely different film from the pieces left unused in this version.

Boyhood is an interesting experiment, and there are many lovely moments in it. I only wish it had been written by a writer of real depth, instead of one who only thought he was being deep.

Not that Linklater isn't capable of making fine films -- I loved his Me and Orson Welles. But then, he also directed the 2005 remake of Bad News Bears and the deliberately shallow Jack Black vehicle School of Rock.

In fact, the remarkable thing is that he started filming Boyhood between directing those two features. But his ability to get funding for Boyhood -- and to get the first-rate cast of actors to commit to a ten-year drop-everything filming schedule no doubt depended on his having been writer/director of Slacker and Dazed and Confused back in the early 1990s.

In other words, he was known to be cool, which goes a lot farther in Hollywood than deep intelligence and compassionate understanding.

I can't help but compare Boyhood with the even-more-pretentious-but-also-deeper Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's production from 2011.

I know -- Tree of Life is almost unbearably slow-paced, while Boyhood generally moves right along. But Tree of Life finds far more evocative images and moments in a boy's life.

Everything unattractive about the characters of Mason and Samantha come from the writing. The actors playing them from childhood to adulthood are talented and intelligent, so that even when I despise what Mason says and does, I appreciate how the actor makes him say and do it.

In the same Hollywood where narcissistic clowns like Quentin Tarantino are treated like gods because of a few cheap stunts, I have to say that Linklater comes far closer to earning the label of "genius." Not close, mind you -- just closer than Tarantino.

Even though the only thing experimental and daring about Boyhood is the way filming stretched out across time, it's still a pretty good film. It's no shallower, and is way more believable, than Gravity, for instance.

And I hope Ellar Coltrane, now that he's an adult, will be given more roles. He's so good in Boyhood that many casting directors will think he wasn't acting, and will not give him a second thought if they're casting a part that requires different attributes.

As for Lorelei Linklater, though she might have been cast because she's the director's daughter, she turns out to be a natural actor who earns her way through every scene she's in.

I thought Boyhood was worth seeing, though probably it won't reward re-watching. The film was also worth the time and attention given it by the cast over a period of so many years. If only the writer had been capable of producing a better script that was worth all that expense and sacrifice.

*

Wizard Wars was one of those series titles I breezed past when channel-flipping. Whatever it was, I knew I wasn't going to be interested.

Well, I was wrong. Because it has nothing to do with fantasy wizards. Instead, it's a competition show between stage magicians.

There's a live audience, which the magicians need to entertain and, hopefully, deceive. There is also a panel of judges, consisting of Christen Gerhart, Jason Latimer, and Penn & Teller (with Penn doing all the talking on camera, as usual, but Teller contributing when the judges make decisions).

The show begins with a couple of teams of lesser-known magicians. They are given a group of random household objects and must incorporate them into a brief magic act, which is performed live in front of the audience.

The judges then choose which of the teams will compete against the "wizards," which amounts to a "home team" of magicians with some real standing in the magic community: Gregory Wilson, Shimshi, Justin Flom, and Angela Funovits.

Each of the wizards has his or her own specialty, and when they find out which team of competitors they'll be facing, they decide which two of the wizards will come up with an act to show them how it's done by the big boys.

Again, both teams must work with the same group of arbitrarily assigned props, and the judges take into consideration how well they incorporate the props into their act.

It's not just about the illusions, though if you can't bring those off, you're going to lose. It also matters whether the magicians can talk and act -- comedy counts for a lot, and good magicians must always be good actors.

I have a good friend who has been involved in magic at high levels for all the decades I've known him (though he is also a professor, writer, scholar, and stage director). He's a marvelous showman, and sets my standard for what makes a magic act good. If they aren't as good as Jerry Argetsinger -- with illusions and performance -- I have no reason to pay any attention to them.

All the contestants on the episode I watched came close enough to that standard to impress me, so there is no wasted time watching "losers" fumble their way through a bad act.

In fact, I saw some really wonderful illusions that I can't explain at all. And, best of all, everybody put on a good show.

Not only that, but the comments of the judges were very illuminating about the art of magic performing. No, they never explain a trick, but they do talk about the things the magicians do to convince, distract, and amuse the audience.

In the episode I watched, the wizards were warned by Penn: These contestants were so funny that your act is going to have to be brilliantly deceptive in order to outdo them.

Well, it was brilliantly deceptive ... but not quite enough. The judges decided that the funny trumped the illusions, and the contestants won. Whereupon the wizards were cut in half.

Well, no, not really. I'm sure prizes were involved, but what matters to me is that SyFy has a really good series in Wizard Wars. It's rather like improv magic; they have a little while to prepare, of course, but it's astonishing how deeply the contestants sometimes manage to involve the assigned props in their act.

And they have to adapt their patter to the new situations. So this is magic on-the-fly, and I'm impressed. New episodes appear on Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m.

*

Late-night channel flipping can bring a lot of experiences you'd never have, otherwise. For instance, I stumbled upon a reshowing of In Her Shoes, a 2005 chick flick starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, Mark Feuerstein, and Shirley MacLaine.

I really liked the movie when it first came out, yet I was surprised at how well it held up nine years later. Based on a novel by Jennifer Weiner, with a screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Pocahontas), it's one of the rare novels that contains a romantic love story without being controlled by it.

Even the savagely complicated sister relationship portrayed by Diaz and Collette is not the whole story. Instead, all the characters are immersed in the communities they live in -- family and friends, old and new. It's about both sisters growing up, and though the film seems to take Toni Collette's side, the most transformative story is that of Cameron Diaz, as she comes to value herself and the sister who has protected her all her life.

My re-watching made me more aware of how perfect Mark Feuerstein's performance is -- for once the romantic lead is a mensch who is nice-looking but not in a Chippendale's kind of way.

People often speak disparagingly of "chick lit" and "chick flicks," but that just shows their ignorance (and, quite possibly, sexism): In Her Shoes proves that the genre can produce excellent art.

But on the same night, I flipped my way into the second Hobbit movie: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Given how carelessly Peter Jackson did violence to essential elements of the story of The Lord of the Rings in his beautifully-made film adaptation, I was skeptical about how in the world he would turn The Hobbit into not one but three full-length feature films.

It's almost pointless to criticize movies as financially successful as the Hobbit franchise, but ... wow, these scripts are gallingly bad as movies, besides being offensive to the achievements of J.R.R. Tolkien, the most inventive and influential writer of the 20th century.

I saw the first one (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) in the theater, but resolved not to waste time on the sequels. Everything that was weak in the story -- the endless arrival sequence of the dwarves, for instance -- was even weaker in the movie. More boring, to put it plainly.

This middle movie is even more tedious. Part of the way Jackson fills up his nearly-three-hour film is with really dull depictions of events that Tolkien merely referred to in Lord of the Rings, such as the expulsion of "the Necromancer" from his fortress in Mirkwood.

In the process, he uses characters that only exist in Lord of the Rings, sometimes completely contradicting that text in order to involve them in The Hobbit. Jackson makes it plain, over and over again, that neither he nor the other writers involved have any understanding of or respect for Tolkien's writing.

Even the orcs don't act like orcs, as Jackson strains to individuate them and elevate some of them into memorable villains.

But it is in the action sequences on the main storyline of Bilbo Baggins that Jackson tips his hand. He's not creating movies here, he's creating the videogame and allowing us to watch, at tedious length, someone else play it.

For instance, take the sequence where Bilbo and the dwarves escape from the elves of Mirkwood by floating down a river sealed inside barrels. I understood why the filmmakers opened up the barrels -- they needed us to see the barrel-riders.

The trouble is that half-barrels don't make good boats. The whole point of being sealed inside barrels was that no matter how the river tumbled them, the passenger would remain dry inside.

But a half-barrel is not stable; it would spin and tip constantly, quickly filling with water -- then it would capsize, leaving the passenger to cling to it for flotation.

Worse, there were orcs lining the river shooting arrows at them, and a couple of elves trying to protect them (while remaining miraculously uninjured themselves). This shows astonishing contempt for Tolkien's storyline -- in The Hobbit, they're escaping from the elves, not from the orcs.

They also have elves healing people with the herb athelas (kingsfoil) -- but Lord of the Rings makes it clear that athelas only has healing properties when used by the king. To elves and ordinary humans, it's just a weed.

Desolation of Smaug also shows contempt for the audience, because in true videogame fashion, the enemy endlessly spawns, and we watch essentially the same action over and over and over and over again: Orc is about to kill a dwarf or Bilbo or an elf; somebody saves him just in time. Lots of roiling water. Lots of leaping Legolas. Whee.

After watching the same thing over and over, I switched away and watched something else until the commercial break, then flipped back to see where Desolation of Smaug had gotten to in the meantime.

They were still on the river in barrels, being shot at by orcs.

Now, it's possible that the movie had also switched away for a while to show Gandalf doing some meaningless skulking, but the fact remains that I was away for a long time and nothing had changed.

The same with the sequence where the dragon confronts Bilbo and then the dwarves come to play dodge-fire with Smaug. It goes on forever. The dragon knocks down lots of stone structures. The dwarves dodge and hide, or try to distract Smaug by calling his attention away from whomever he was about to kill.

Over and over again. A computer could have generated the whole sequence, it's so predictable and dull.

Then they heat a bunch of gold coins. The molten metal flows through premade channels into the mold of a giant statue. How long do they think gold remains liquid? Then the statue collapses all over Smaug (though they could not have counted on this happening), which covers the dragon in gold.

But as soon as Smaug flies -- unburnt, I might add -- the gold seems to flake away. The whole sequence amounted to nothing.

In fact, Desolation of Smaug reminded me over and over of the elaborate, unfunny sequences of "accidents" in the Tom Hanks/Shelley Long flop The Money Pit (1986), where we watched elaborate setups that destroyed any semblance of believability -- and of comedy.

After a while, canned "excitement" like this becomes meaningless and even children begin to say, Enough already, let's get on with it!

The characters undergo so many arbitrary setbacks merely to stretch the story out that it becomes unintentionally funny. I think that in the future, the main reason for watching these Hobbit movies will be to ridicule the fakeness of every moment.

However, in one way the filmmakers achieved their purpose. Because this middle Hobbit installment was so bad as I flipped through it on cable, I may actually gather some likeminded friends and pay money to watch the third movie in the theater this fall, just so we can make fun of it as a group.

But "ironic" admission money counts as gross receipts, and since the only conceivable motivation for making movies that are so cynically bad is to suck money out of people's pockets, the filmmakers win.

Oh well. Highly profitable drivel like this finances a lot of other movies -- and, now and then, one of those might be good. It can happen.


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