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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 6, 2017

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


Schmackary's, Musicals, Fragmentary Movies

It was almost funny. Someone had told me that Schmackary's in Manhattan made the best cookies in America. The store also did wonderful-weird things like allowing people to go online and order a bunch of cookies to be sent to the cast of any show on Broadway. (Maybe they include off-Broadway shows, too. I didn't check.)

It sounded like great fun, but I wasn't going to send an order of cookies to anyone else before I sampled some myself. My wife and I plan to go to New York to see Dear Evan Hansen, which has been highly recommended by friends.

I take personal recommendations of shows seriously, because going to Broadway and spending the money to see a lousy show is a serious waste of time and money. I have found, ever since walking out of a couple of shows so offensively stupid that I felt it was dangerous to my mental health to remain, that Broadway reviewers are not to be trusted, period.

But when a good (and smart, and not stage-struck) friend tells me that Dear Evan Hansen is a terrific show, and his plot summary is encouraging, then yes, it's worth the trip to Manhattan to see the play.

But what if we had gone to see the musical Amelie because we loved the French movie by that name? I ordered the original cast album of Amelie and on our recent road trip we plunked it into our dashboard cd player and oh, what a sad, sad failure it was.

Don't misunderstand -- everybody had good Broadway voices. Unfortunately, the famous Broadway voice that provided the inspiration for most of them was Ethel Merman, who was famous for having a foghorn voice that (in the days before individual amplification) could be heard in every corner of the theater.

Not to mention that her voice could frighten horses in the street outside.

So could these voices. But I don't blame the actors for giving bombastic vocal performances. They were right in line with the music, which seemed to be inspired by the worst flaws in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

That means songs consisting of a lot of random mid-range notes forming no memorable melody, and then a sudden high note or two meant to make you think you're hearing opera.

And maybe it works, for audience members who've never heard good opera sung well.

Anyway, the cd of Amelie ended up in a garbage can in a fast food restaurant somewhere between Dayton and Peoria.

But we weren't the only ones to find the score of Amelie tedious, without a single decent song. The show has already closed on Broadway.

The miracle was that it somehow attracted enough backers and creative personnel to get staged on Broadway in the first place. Is it possible that people loved the French movie Amelie so much that they invested in the musical because a musical of Amelie sounded like a great idea?

Here's the thing: Making a great movie or book into "a musical" is no more a guarantee of a wonderful result than making a great musical or book into "a movie."

Look how many bad-to-mediocre musicals and movies have been made of Little Women. Great book, but completely unadaptable because it has a horrible structure: The book fails in the attempt to switch the male romantic lead in the last fifteen minutes, and so do all the adaptations.

Some stories can't be adapted, and some that might be are adapted badly. That's how it goes.

But the thought of ordering Schmackary's cookies for the cast of a show that stinketh a great stinking just doesn't seem right. It's true that the cast probably needs the cookies -- I'm betting the cast of Hamilton has cookies every doggone night, while the cast of Amelie might never have received a single schmackary.

Come to think of it, though, maybe there are New Yorkers who, taking pity on the cast of a bomb, sent them cookies out of charity. Rather like visiting someone injured in a freak accident, to show solidarity and suggest that maybe they should look more carefully to see if there's water in the pool before jumping off a hotel roof.

It's the same reason why I think we need a Lilac Heart Award ceremony for good actors who gave valiant performances in movies so badly written that just saying the lines with a straight face deserves some kind of prize.

However cool and highly recommended Schmackary's was, however, they have the most phenomenally bad website I've ever seen.

The first time I signed on to order cookies, I found that there were four vertical boxes, one of which was for ordering cookies to be shipped somewhere. I happen to live somewhere, so that seemed like the choice I wanted.

As I moved my cursor to that box, the box grew at the base, revealing a white rectangle into which I was supposed to type the date I wanted it delivered.

But when I moved my cursor down into that space, it disappeared. The box was still there, but the date-selection space was gone.

I thought, maybe I should just click on the main box and it will take me somewhere else to enter that information.

But no, clicking did nothing. I'd click, and then move the cursor to one side and the ship-it-somewhere box grew faint and the box I was now hovering over was highlighted. I couldn't insert a date in that one, either. Nothing worked. Failure.

When all your targets slip away like Lucy's football whenever Charlie Brown tries to kick it, it become frustrating, and I may have muttered some phrases even more discouraged than "Good grief."

Today I tried to order cookies for a second time, and, to my relief, the previous screens didn't even appear. It's as if they completely redesigned the site in the past week. Oh good! cried I with joy. Now they've solved the problems!

But no. The website had not been designed. It had been Designed. They'd have a menu that was all run together in a single line, with no spaces between the selections.

Then, in the part that listed things you could order, here were the choices: Cookies, Flights, Treats, Merch, and Policies. I already have enough policies in my life, so I decided not to order one of those. My puzzlement came from the selection called "Flights."

I could not find, anywhere on the site, an explanation of what they meant by a "Flight." When I chose that option, it showed me pictures of lots of cookies. So ... maybe a "Flight" is a whole bunch of cookies shipped to some remote location. You know, like airmail, only it's aircookies.

But that's only a guess, and I don't like spending money on a guess. A website designed by non-morons could easily have included a brief description of what the hubble you would get if you ordered a flight.

Still, the lack of information is not surprising, because those who Design websites rather than merely design them tend to have astonishing contempt for the idea of function. They think that good design is achieved when you really notice how Designed the website is.

I, on the other hand, employ a mere website designer, who doesn't think his job is done until users can easily find whatever the website has to offer. I get to pay him so much less than a Designer, and yet the website is so much likelier to perform the functions I need it to.

Now, when I clicked on "Cookies," and then, from their amazing array of different cookie types, chose the only one that looked edible to me ("Classically Classic," which is not the classic cookie because it has extra salt in it), my choices included being shown various "Flights" that contained that cookie.

I chose the "Flight" that consisted only of Classically Classic, for which the price of a single "Flight" would be $25.

But there was still no hint of what a "Flight" actually consists of. Or even, for that matter, of the size of the individual cookies. I could choose to have them shipped in a "gift tin" for an additional $15, and I could choose to buy multiple "Flights" at a time, but whether a "Flight" had three cookies or thirty I could not begin to guess.

Then, when I tried to "create an account," it kept rejecting passwords. I followed all their rules -- more than 8 characters, upper-and-lower-case letters, a number and a punctuation mark. It rejected all of them. So I guess I won't be creating an account with them, since following their rules is not enough.

I guess I should have bought a policy.

A week from today, I expect to find a box of perfect and delicious cookies that completely live up to my friends' recommendation.

Unless the recipes have been Designed.

*

For a day or so in my hotel room in Orem, Utah, I was able to flip back and forth between two of the HBO channels that were airing a Game of Thrones marathon, so that people could catch up on the series a week before season 7 begins.

I caught an episode here or there. Some I couldn't bear to watch because I remembered that they were so emotionally painful; others because they were kind of awful and spent most of their time showing us how many "perfect" bodies the movie community could enlist to play mostly-nude prostitutes in one of Littlefinger's brothels.

I caught Jon Snow's resurrection, Arya Stark's entry into her training as a nameless assassin, the reading of Ramsay Bolton's challenge ("Come and see"), and a lot of moving scenes, especially when you know where these scenes will lead.

I catalogued in my mind various actors I hoped to see again in other films -- Iwan Rheon (Ramsay Bolton), Elizabeth Webster (Walda Frey Bolton), Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen), Clive Russell (Brynden "Blackfish" Tully), Lino Facioli (Robin Arryn), Gethin Anthony (Renly Baratheon), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed), Faye Marsay (The Waif), Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy), Ellie Kendrick (Meera Reed), Dean-Charles Chapman (Tommen Baratheon), Owen Teale (Alliser Thorne), Richard Madden (Robb Stark), Kristian Nairn (Hodor), Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm), Daniel Portman (Podrick Payne), Rory McCann (The Hound), Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth), Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark), Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger), Conleth Hill (Lord Varys), John Bradley (Samwell Tarley), Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy), Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont), Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) ...

And that's not naming any of the leading Starks, Snows, and Lannisters. Or the brilliant Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.

By the way, you can judge whether you're a true Game of Thrones fan based on whether you skipped that long paragraph of names-and-roles, or read it with your own evaluations of whether you like that actor or not. The insane fans were busy making their own lists of actors and roles I did not mention.

The thing is, I had already seen all the episodes, and yet, once I started watching one, I could hardly tear myself away.

Along those lines, in a recent letter, a friend of mine, Jim Bergsten, mentioned movies he could watch over and over. Quoth he, "While I enjoy films, I don't collect them, and seldom want to see one more than once. Occasionally, twice, but that's it.

"But there are movies that you randomly come across while channel surfing, and stick with, even if not from the beginning, every time. So appealing that you can't pull yourself away.

"They don't have to be good, or classic, or well done, or even good for you, they just have a certain mysterious appeal.

"Having had kids, I cannot be embarrassed by anything, so I'll give you examples that come to mind. What's the common thread? Silly. Fun. Humorous. Likeable characters. Won't attempt to justify further."

Here's Jim's list: Snatch, The Fifth Element, Demolition Man.

Then, his "Honorable mentions": Ghostbusters, Blues Brothers.

I know exactly what he means -- there are dozens on my list of movies that I can't stop watching when I happen upon them while channel surfing.

However, tastes being very different, not one of the movies on his list is also on mine. In fact, I bought tickets to only two of them in the theater, and one of those I walked out of. Every movie on his list, I switch away from as quickly as possible when I meet up with them.

Not because they're on his list. It's because I Hate Them.

So a movie that lures in one intelligent viewer every time repels another intelligent (I flatter myself) viewer with equal consistency.

There's no way I can make a complete list of my must-finish movies, but here are some in the first tier:

Love Actually

Parenthood

Crazy, Stupid, Love

About Time

Grand Canyon

L.A. Story

The Accountant

My Cousin Vinny

The Replacements

Invincible

Sense & Sensibility

Riddick

He's Just Not That Into You.

And that's just a partial list because a lot of them I only realize are on that list when I find myself at four a.m. having finished watching them despite my desperate weariness.

What is it about a movie that makes it so you can't get enough?

I mean, in recent weeks, because it's in its first TV run, I kept running into, and watching, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Or was that Bill and Ted Need Excellent Wedding Dates? Very confusing to a guy who can't even remember the names of real people.

Why that movie? It's a raunchy, stupid comedy that mostly wastes some really good talent. And yet every time I come across it, I mean to switch away, but I end up watching to the end. Yes, this means I have no self-control.

But I give myself credit for this: I didn't pay money to watch it in the theater. So ... a slight discount on my idiot-meter score?

Oh, and yes, I've actually watched Ted and Ted 2 in their entirety. But never a complete watching, only in fragments here and there. Please forgive me.

On the Fourth of July, HBO ran the Michael Bay/Ben Affleck Pearl Harbor.

When I look it up on IMDb, I find that my impression that everyone hated it when it came out is belied by the fact that it was nominated for 48 awards and won 15 of them. Somebody didn't hate it completely.

But a lot of people did hate it, and to see why, all you have to do is recite the soap opera portion of the plot: Two close friends, both bomber pilots, fall in love with the same nurse, Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). She gets pregnant by Daniel (Josh Hartnett), but really loves Rafe (Ben Affleck) more. Guess who dies? But wow, do Daniel and Rafe trade heroic life-saving actions right before the end.

I think if I ever watch the whole thing, I'll get very tired of the love stories, partly because, though all three in this triangle are fine actors, there is zero chemistry between Beckinsale and either lover.

There's pretty good chemistry between Affleck and Hartnett, though, especially as Hartnett is dying, because Ben Affleck gets to shed real tears and bawl openly.

That's exactly what established Brad Pitt as a "real actor" in Legends of the Fall, but since not that many people saw or respected Pearl Harbor, the crying scene didn't work the same magic for Ben Affleck.

Or maybe it did. It's been a long time since, in any discussion of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, I heard anyone refer to Damon as "the talented one." Affleck has at least managed to move up to a level where he's considered as good an actor, if not as strong at the box office, as Matt Damon.

For that matter, I no longer think of Matt Damon as existing mainly so that I'd have someone to wish had been cast in a role instead of Leonardo DiCaprio.

But by picking up the movie only in its last 45 minutes (of 183 -- more than three hours), all I saw was the final sorting out of who loves whom, and the story of Jimmy (Alec Baldwin) Doolittle's raid on Tokyo. So what I really experienced was a very fine short film about Doolittle's raid, with Jon Voight playing a very powerful Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Sometimes, some of the parts are better than the whole.

If anyone wants to treat the soap opera portion of Pearl Harbor with disdain, please remember that the soap opera portion of Titanic is far, far dumber (and it has DiCaprio).

You see, Titanic is one of those films that I have to watch if I flip to it -- but I only watch it from striking the iceberg until Kate Winslet is on the rescue ship. And I mute it whenever there's any significant dialogue, which mostly consists of people urging other people to do stuff. The sinking of the Titanic is one of the great accomplishments in cinematic history; the love story attached to it, one of the worst embarrassments.

By contrast, Pearl Harbor can't be as good at portraying the Japanese attack as Tora! Tora! Tora! was and is. But it's the best movie about the Doolittle raid. And Ben Affleck cries while Josh Hartnett dies quite effectively. I don't really feel like I have to apologize for watching that part of Pearl Harbor. Though, to be honest, that's exactly what I have been doing for many paragraphs now.

Nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie. Certainly there's nothing about Pearl Harbor that hints that anybody was slacking. When you have a script by Randall Wallace, the author of Braveheart, and you add in Michael Bay, the director of Bad Boys and an amazing number of music videos ...

Oh, wait. Back in 2001 nobody knew Michael Bay was going to go on to direct The Island and the Transformers movies and would make enough money to keep a studio afloat for two decades. In fact, they were taking a huge gamble on Michael Bay, and yet they trusted him enough to let him turn in a three-hour movie, something that James Cameron, with a much more distinguished track record at the time, was not allowed to do with The Abyss.

So Pearl Harbor wasn't a sure thing after all. It was a gamble on a promising director and an overlong script. And at the time, Ben Affleck's best performance had been in Reindeer Games (we will all politely ignore his and everyone else's association with Armageddon). So the cast was a gamble, too.

I guess when you pump so much money into a studio film, nobody gets credit for taking chances the way indie films, with relatively tiny budgets, always do.

*

This past ratings quarter should have been a complete windfall for CNN. Fox News lost Bill O'Reilly, which should have made their ratings plummet, since he was the dominant figure in cable news for more than a decade. And with Roger Ailes gone, who would guide Fox News through the recovery?

So CNN should have climbed back up to the cable news dominance it had for the first decades after Ted Turner created the form.

Instead, because of their naked attacks on President Trump and their obvious leftwing bias, along with several instances of outright lies and stories based on nothing, CNN is a distant third place and Fox remains in first.

Meanwhile, about halfway between them, MSNBC, the perpetual also-ran, is now the dominant leftwing slanted news source for liberals who need better comfort than CNN's ham-handed efforts have provided.

Yet the liberal news media still speak of Fox News as if it ran false stories all the time, as if Fox were the biased network. Yet every independent evaluator of news networks consistently rates Fox as the least biased, the most even-handed of all the networks, including ABC, NBC, and CBS.

Now, though, I wonder if CNN has reached bottom on that scale, making MSNBC look like actual news by contrast. That's the only thing that could have brought that about.

You know, this collapse in the cable news channels, which previously contributed to the collapse of the print newspaper business (though not as much as Craig's List), might have been a signal for print newspapers to recover.

All they would have had to do was become impartial instead of remaining as resolutely leftwing partisan as MSNBC.

But no. At times I think the only newspapers I can trust are The Wall Street Journal and The Rhino Times. And this is one of those times.


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