Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 4, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Big Hero, Bette Midler, Carrie Rodriguez
Big Hero 6 is a movie that was seriously mispromoted.
That's an absurd thing to complain about, I suppose, given that it is a hit and
nobody's going to lose money on it.
But the promos and teasers made it look like a farce about a puffy
marshmallow-like robot. I don't actually care about puffy robots, and it
seemed to be aimed at an audience under ten years old.
Instead, it's a very good story about a really smart kid, Hiro Hamada, who loses
his beloved older brother -- but acquires a delightful assembly of his brother's
friends, who study at a robotics lab where they all make really cool machines.
In the course of the movie, each of them uses his robots to provide the
equivalent of comic-book superhero powers -- but with definite limitations.
Meanwhile, the villain is using the nanobots created by Hiro before he ever
joined the team -- and for a long time those nanobots seem to be the most
powerful and dangerous robots of all.
As for the puffy giant robot, it was never designed for combat -- and its
peaceful intentions become the heart of the story.
What we have is a much more subtle, nuanced film than the average comic-book movie.
It's weird that the characters have Japanese-sounding names, since the
creators of the Marvel comic-book series are an American team, judging from
their names and pictures. But then, the story takes place in a city that's a
composite of San Francisco and Tokyo, so maybe their concept is multi-racial. For comic books, that's a huge step forward from tokenism.
The film has a few insider jokes -- the characters openly refer to this being
their "origin story" -- but this is definitely a series where you don't have to
already know the comic books in order to enjoy the film.
I'm not a fan of action-hero comics -- but I'm definitely in the audience for this
movie, which is designed to please a whole-family audience, not just the
kids that the marketing seems aimed at.
Late night cable-TV surfing brings me to movies I would never have been
drawn to attend in the theater. Usually I conclude that my bias against them
was entirely justified. But I often find that individual scenes or performances
transcend the aspects that kept me from paying ticket prices to see the film.
For instance, The Last Kiss, written by Paul Haggis from an Italian movie by
Gabriele Muccino, looks like a pretentious movie about immature men whose
lives are still controlled by their libido -- or their short attention span.
And that's exactly what the movie is. Only it expects us to care about these
clowns and regard their struggles as being somehow noble, heroic, or tragic.
They're not. How can we take seriously a guy whose girlfriend is pregnant with
his baby, and yet he deliberately woos an attractive young woman. His
"fidelity" consists of only kissing her, while declining her invitation to come up
to her room.
Which makes him a jerk to two women. But he's less of a jerk than some of
the other men in the movie, which is what being a "hero" consists of these
days. What makes him really pathetic is that his excuse for this deliberate,
calculated infidelity is that he was really really scared about having a baby.
Yeah. Fear, the great motivator of sex with strangers. Of course his girlfriend
should forgive him. After all, if she expected commitment and fidelity, she
could have insisted on marriage before getting pregnant.
The actors performing the roles are better than the pathetic characters they
portray, and there are some good lines and good scenes.
Someday maybe Zach Braff will get a movie role worthy of his Sad-Sack
comic and dramatic talents. And Casey Affleck, Michael Weston, and Eric
Christian Olsen (of NCIS Los Angeles) do better than the movie deserves.
The best scene in the movie, though, relies on Tom Wilkinson, a stellar
character actor, who gives Zach Braff's character a few hints on how,
undeserving and unreliable as he is, he might be able to win back the love of
his pregnant girlfriend.
There are scenes of pointless nudity and there's a lot of crude language; I really
do recommend this only for viewing with your finger on the fast-forward
Another film that seemed designed for old coots like me to skip it in the
theater was Riddick. For one thing, I hadn't seen The Chronicles of Riddick
back in 2004. For all I knew this was the same movie, because I'm old enough
that 2004 seems like only a few weeks ago.
What no one ever told me was that this Riddick business all grows out of the
terrific paranoid sci-fi thriller Pitch Black, which my kids made me see
even though I really hate scary movies.
The thing is, I still hate scary movies, so I would never have chosen to see any
incarnation of Vin Diesel's super-criminal character. But channel-flipping
brought me there while waiting out a commercial on something else --
probably a rerun of Law & Order SVU -- and I caught a glimpse of Vin Diesel
dodging and fighting an underground serpent monster.
I lost interest so quickly I didn't even see whether it bit off Vin Diesel's head or
vice-versa -- either seemed likely -- and when I switched back later it seemed
like a completely different movie, about two different groups competing to see
who could catch Riddick first.
One group wanted to put his head in a box and collect a bounty; the other
wanted to interrogate him, and then they were perfectly happy to let the other
guys put his head in a box.
The dialogue was interesting and it was drifting toward being a pretty good sci-fi thriller, even as Riddick picked off the bad guy teams one by one. There was
chicanery about needing to put equipment back into the ships they arrived in,
and Riddick wanting one ship to make his getaway while everybody else used
He had killed enough guys that the survivors would all fit on one ship --
convenient, yes? -- but this did not dispose them to make a friendly deal with
him. Also, there was another deadline. Apparently on this planet, when it
rains the serpent monsters come out in force and they're very very hungry.
What they used to feed on when they couldn't get Bounty Hunter or Wanted
Criminal is an evolutionary mystery. At this point in the planet's history,
Bounty Hunter and Wanted Criminal were both in good supply.
Also, Riddick seems to have some kind of paranormal ability to kill people
while mostly tied up. Since the guy he killed was one we all wanted dead,
this was clearly an admirable skill.
I never cared and am not sure I really understood, but sections were
compulsively watchable and so I must declare that for a scary-movie hater like
me, this was a smarter-than-usual scary movie.
Also, the bad guys were picked off one-by-one way faster than horny teenagers
in a slasher flick, so -- not boring.
In fact, it made me think of First Blood -- the one Rambo movie that came
before the Rambo movies got silly.
For me writing about scary sci-fi, that's a rave review.
At least Riddick was from 2013, which makes it almost recent. Why am I about
to review a movie that came out in 2000?
Because Road Trip seems to have been the first screen appearance of DJ
Qualls, my favorite all-time actor doomed to play geek roles.
No, he wasn't the lead. He just stole the movie out from under everybody else.
If you don't know him by name, google him and you'll recognize his face
because since making Road Trip he's been on half the shows on television and
a bunch of movies.
He could have been nothing more than a whiny pencil-neck geek who gets
picked on by everybody, including the screenwriter. Instead, he made his
character into somebody with moral stature and heroic patience and he's the
one character we still like and care about at the end of this dismally stupid
The plot? Oh, yes, it has one. One of the characters is a college student who
was stupidly unfaithful to his long-distance girlfriend and stupidly made a
video of it, which then stupidly got mailed to said girlfriend. He and his
even stupider college friends now have to race across the country to get the
tape back before the girlfriend watches it.
A car blows up. They steal a bus from a school for the blind. There are more
girls who think college boys are worth having sex with. There's a character
named Barry Manilow. Fred Ward classes up the joint for a few minutes.
There's a scene in a sperm bank, which is always good for a laugh -- if you're
But I watched the second half of it because, to my everlasting shame, I had to
find out what happened when the girlfriend saw the tape. Because there was
no other possible ending. You can't have these guys chase all the way across
the country and succeed.
Let's just say that the movie ends with a whimper, not a bang. But did I
mention that DJ Qualls is wonderful? And there are some moments along the
way that are amusing.
Nothing in the movie is worth staying up an extra four seconds for -- let alone
an extra forty-five minutes. But to its credit, the whole movie is only 93
minutes long, so if you watch only half of it, it's no more painful than two
episodes of Modern Family back to back.
Not all channel-flipping involves feature films. Sometimes there are TV series
on obscure cable channels that aren't promoted anywhere but that channel, so
because you never watch that channel you have no idea that the program
exists ... till you flip to it on the way to something else.
That was how I found a comedy series on Tru TV called How to Be a Grown Up.
The reason I had never watched Tru TV was because it used to be Court TV,
and then was reprogrammed (by Turner Broadcasting System, a division of
Time-Warner) as a channel devoted to reality shows and legal-based news
What sentient person wouldn't just flip past everything they put on?
But this year they have changed to include a bunch of comedy shows -- or, I
should say, shows that are meant to be comedies instead of accidentally being
One such venture is Friends of the People, a sketch-comedy show with an
average of one funny sketch per week -- almost always the first sketch, after
which everything is kind of lame.
At one good sketch a week, that puts their average ahead of Saturday Night
Live. But this is only their first season, so I'm sure they'll sink down into the
mire of constantly repeating characters that were funny exactly once.
To my surprise, however, Tru TV's How to Be a Grown Up is a pretty good
half-hour mockumentary, in which various comedians talk to the camera as if
they were being interviewed about various aspects of being grownups.
You know. Parenthood. School. Marriage. Divorce. Sex. The opposite sex.
The opposite of sex. And because no comedian's shtick lasts longer than a
few sentences, we don't get sick of any of them.
In fact, some of them are quite engaging. Almost smart. I especially like Erin
Foley and Kira Soltanovich. And while many of their comments are funny,
much of what they say is also true and even useful.
Though I must point out that Tru TV itself lists the show with a warning that it
contains advice "of a questionable nature."
Heck, that notice should have run with every episode of Oprah and Dr. Phil.
How to Be a Grown Up is like an hour-long Louis C.K. standup special, edited
down to 22 minutes by removing everything that needs bleeping.
Is it worth getting cable in order to watch this show? Oh, get real. But if you
already happen to have Tru TV on your cable lineup, it might be worth
recording it so you can fast-forward your way to wisdom and happiness, or
at least a bit of amusement.
Back in 1973, Bette Midler took us all by storm with her album The Divine
Miss M. She sang covers of a weird array of ancient hits -- "Boogie-woogie
Bugle Boy" in the 1970s? Really? -- but along with her overdone campy
numbers there were some straight-from-the-heart songs like "Do You Wanna
Dance?" and "Friends."
She came trailing clouds of glory from her days of singing in the Continental
Baths, and she also had roots on the stage. She doesn't so much sing her
songs as act them.
She's had some brilliant albums since then, none of them related to the pop
music other people were doing at the time. She is simply her charming self
-- souped up and turbocharged.
Singers age, though. Their voices show the ravages of time. I think of
Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett, who both proved they still knew how to
sell a song even after their ancient vibratos were almost wider than their vocal
Oddly enough, however, Bette Midler's latest album could almost have been
recorded by her 1973 self. It's the Girls is a tribute to the girl bands of the
1950s and 1960s, with covers of such standards as "Be My Baby," "One Fine
Day," "He's Sure the Boy I Love," and "You Can't Hurry Love."
Some of the songs are just plain fun -- rapidfire lyrics with wit and panache.
And then she'll blindside you with a sweet, thoughtful, powerful rendition as if
the words were torn directly from her heart.
In "Come and Get These Memories" Midler sings of how she can't get past
her memories of a long-gone lover. Come and get these memories and give
them to your new sweetheart, she says, since you've gone out of my life.
"Baby It's You" is so much better in Midler's interpretation than it was the first
time around, and "Teach Me Tonight" is sweet and funny at the same time.
With most of the songs, Midler is her own backup group, so she recreates the
girl-group sound using multiple tracks. "He's Sure the Boy I Love," however, is
a fast-moving duet with Darlene Love.
"Waterfalls" is a strange story song that I found myself liking in spite of the
dark subject matter. And the finale, "It's the Girl," is a perky advice song to
a young man. What makes you fall in love? It's not any of the traditional
elements of a romantic setting, dummy: It's the girl.
Maybe the reason Midler's voice still works is that it was never a tightly
controlled instrument. Her vibrato was always too wide. Her attitude toward
pitch has always been a bit cavalier. She has always sung notes that weren't
quite within her range. But she was having so much fun and sang with so
much heart that nobody minded.
We still don't.
If young listeners are put off because Midler feels old-fashioned, keep this in
mind: She always sounded ironically old-fashioned -- she knows she's out
of step with her times and she's fine with it. Because when she sings a song,
no matter how old it is, it's hers now. It's newer than it was when it was new.
So sure, her monster hits are from decades ago -- "Wind beneath My Wings,"
"From a Distance," "The Rose." But you can listen to any of her albums, first
to last, and have an out-of-body, out-of-era experience.
This isn't a nostalgia gift for old coots who lived through the '70s. This is for
anybody with a heart and a brain and a love of great music.
I wish Midler's agelessness extended to every singer who's getting older, but my
hopes were dashed as I listened to the new Bob Seger: Ride Out.
Bob Seger was born the same year as Bette Midler, and when his hits started
popping up in the 1970s, they practically defined the serious rock music of his
time. "Night Moves," "Turn the Page," "We've Got Tonight," "Against the Wind"
-- they were the soundtrack of our lives in those days.
But even the songs that didn't chart as high have stuck with me. "Mainstreet"
was my favorite from the Night Moves album, and "Rock and Roll Never
Forgets" was a great song, coming just at the time that disco music was about
to drive most rock and roll off the airwaves.
And of course we all loved it when Tom Cruise lip-synched Seger's "Old Time
Rock and Roll" in Risky Business. (It's the second-most-played jukebox single
of all time, behind Patsy Cline's "Crazy," or so says Wikipedia.)
Other tracks like "You'll Accomp'ny Me" and "Fire Lake" from Against the Wind
in 1980 became part of the culture, and it's worth remembering that Seger's
biggest hits were contemporaneous with Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" and
David Bowie's "Fame" -- and Seger helped keep rock music alive right through
the whole Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever disco craze.
Then he took a ten-year break to spend time with his family. I can't help but
admire a man who knows when to set the career aside in order to live his
Then I saw that Seger had a new album, Ride Out, and I had to buy it to see
what he was doing now.
No, his voice isn't gone. It's a little thicker, he doesn't have the range he used
to. But his age shows most in the songs themselves.
He's got a few symptoms of the disease that felled Carole King. As singer-songwriters get older, instead of writing clever words and good music, they
The only song on Seger's new album that really fits that description is "It's Your
World," but man, is it bad! It's sort of a catch-all save-the-environment song
that includes every idea he could find a mediocre rhyme for. Out of mercy
-- to Seger or myself -- I skipped ahead halfway through the track.
There are some pretty good songs -- though they're nothing like the hits from
the past. "The Devil's Right Hand" is a clever take on a boy growing up in love
with guns. Seger proves that he knows the blues with "Hey Gypsy," and the
duet "Adam and Eve" is a surprisingly traditional take on Genesis, though it
ends up with a chorus about running away with God on their trail.
The songs that come closest to the old driving rockers that made Seger's career
are "Detroit Made" and "Ride Out," but oddly enough, my favorite is "Gates of
Eden," which, according to Amazon, is the least-popular song on the
album. Not only that, but its lyrics are almost as on-the-nose as those in "It's
But to me, it has the spirit of Seger's finest work and I like it.
Seger is still himself, and Ride Out is a good album. But if this had been his
first, it wouldn't have taken our hearts the way Night Moves did. Unlike the
new Midler album, this is not a strong introduction to Seger. But it is a worthy
continuation for those who already have his music in our hearts.
Carrie Rodriguez has been my favorite singer for several years now.
Her lazy, alt-rock tone and her poisonously brilliant lyrics go along with music
that tears everything up. And through it all, she never loses the country twang
in her music.
It's so deeply country that it's weird to think of her as a hispanic or Mexican-American musician.
But when I went looking for her musical roots, to my surprise she began as a
classical violinist. That means Oberlin Conservatory, not country fiddle --
though she switched to country midway through her education and apparently
never looked back.
I loved every track on Seven Angels on a Bicycle and She Ain't Me from
2006 and 2008. And all the power and sex and anger and hope from those
albums are present in her newest one, Give Me All You Got.
If I hadn't already loved her music I would have fallen in love with "Devil in
Mind." And then I would have fallen again when she included an instrumental
version of "Devil in Mind" that is so musically brilliant I wanted to hear it again
But then I would have missed the next track, "Brooklyn," and that would have
been a serious mistake.
Carrie Rodriguez is so contemporary that she's almost the opposite of
Bette Midler -- except that she, too, sings with everything on the table and a
strong dose of irony. I know what this song is, she seems to be saying, and I
mean every word of it, but I mean a lot of other stuff too and you'll just have to
guess about that.
I had high hopes when I bought the album Map to the Treasure: Reimagining
Laura Nyro. I was aware of her music mostly through other singers' covers:
Barbra Streisand's take on "Stoney End" and "Time and Love," along with "And
When I Die" (Peter, Paul & Mary and Blood, Sweat & Tears), "Wedding Bell
Blues"(Fifth Dimension), and "Eli's Comin'" (Three Dog Night).
Her best-selling record as a singer, however, wasn't with a song she wrote -- it
was her recording of Carole King's and Gerry Goffin's "Up on the Roof."
I wasn't aware of Nyro as a singer; I only noticed her name as a songwriter on a
lot of albums I listened to. Then, many years later, I read a biography of David
Geffen that spent a lot of time on his years as her manager. Nyro was
portrayed as pathologically shy, uninterested in performing live, and such a
quirky composer that many of her songs were permanently inaccessible to the
general listener (i.e., me).
Yet she was also a true "musician's musician," with a wide range of singers
citing her as a major influence. Yes, I mean both Todd Rundgren and Elton
John -- who aren't often mentioned in the same sentence.
So when I saw the album Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro, with
performers like Shawn Colvin, Chris Botti, Renee Fleming, Rickie Lee Jones,
Alison Krauss, and Yo-Yo Ma, I had high hopes.
Dashed. Well, no, not really. It's just that the early cuts on the album all
focus on Nyro's weirder, less-accessible music, so that Renee Fleming's take on
New York Tendaberry sounds like an art song -- you know, the kind that vocal
students are forced to sing, where melody is rarely identifiable and the words
range from silly to incomprehensible.
Nyro was not obscure because she was too good for the popular taste; she
remained obscure because she didn't care whether anybody understood what
she was singing about.
The album is interesting in both the positive and pejorative senses of the word.
There are moments where childish, obvious rhymes make me cringe, and
where melodic lines are as random as if somebody recorded a cat walking back
and forth along the piano keys. Yet now and then there are also lovely
When you go back to Nyro's own albums, you can't say that this cover album is
doing anything false to her sensibilities -- quite the contrary.
But Nyro is a perfect example of what happens to an artist who has contempt
for the audience. Where there is no desire or need to communicate, the art
turns more and more inward. It doesn't get better. It gets more self-referential.
It curls up in a ball, crawls inside itself, and disappears.
I'm glad that Nyro communicated enough that there are some wonderful
musicians who wanted to create a tribute album.
But really ... unless you already love Nyro's music to the point where all is
forgiven, this is not the way to discover her. Even though Alison Krauss and
Shawn Colvin are communicators and their songs on this album are worth
hearing, both have done many better songs on their own.
If you're thinking of getting this album for someone as a gift, you better know
the recipient's taste in music very well -- and then listen to the whole album
before giving it to anybody.
As for Celtic Thunder's Holiday Symphony album, pass it by, folks. The
only cut on the album that reminds me of why I like Celtic Thunder is "Away
in a Manger," which is lovely and haunting. All the rest sounds like a pretty
good church singer trying to get a pop vibe going even though the
instrumentalists are playing the standard accompaniment.
And truly demanding songs like "O Holy Night" and "Comfort Ye" are simply
When you record a Christmas album, don't just sing them the way Mom or
Bing Crosby did. Make it your own kind of music, or don't bother.