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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 button.

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 the other.

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 movie.

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 under fourteen.

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 shows.

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 laughable.

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 range.

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 life.

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 start preaching.

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 Your World."

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 and 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 moments.

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 embarrassing.

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.


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