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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 27, 2018

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

Manifest, Magnum, Clock, Maisel, Bullock, Careers

This week we saw a couple of new TV shows that seemed like old series rising from the dead.

The promos for Manifest reminded us of nothing so much as Lost.

We loved Lost during the first season, because of all the crazy stuff that we knew was going to be explained.

But it wasn't. And so now that's the nasty aftertaste that forms part of my memory of Lost. A great series that fell to the ground unripe and rotted there.

That's what happens when you start a series that's all questions -- and you don't know the answers.

So here's the premise of Manifest. A planeful of passengers have a safe flight from Jamaica to a U.S. airport. There's a very bad incident of sudden, unforeseen turbulence that really shakes them up. But the plane is undamaged, and they reach their destination on time. At least according to every watch on board.

Once the pilot identifies their flight to the air traffic controllers, he is told to land at a different, smaller airport. The landing goes smoothly, but they are told to stop the plane on the tarmac. Fire engines and ambulances surround the stopped plane. A stairway is brought up to the door of the plane and the passengers debark.

Nobody gets it that the reason their mobile phones aren't working is that their payment plans long since ran out.

Because it has been more than five years since their plane took off.

Investigators are sure that the pilot is lying -- they have to have landed somewhere, because they didn't have enough fuel to fly around for a day, let alone half a decade.

But every single passenger corroborates the story. To them, they landed only a few hours after takeoff.

In the pilot episode, we get to know one family in particular. Our viewpoint character, Michaela Stone (Melissa Roxburgh), is a New York cop who apparently was under suspicion of committing some kind of felony, so her career -- and her freedom -- are in jeopardy.

Her brother, Ben Stone (Josh Dallas -- Prince Charming in Once Upon a Time), is married with two children, twins -- a boy, Cal (Jack Messina) and a girl, Olive (Jenna Kurmemaj). Ben and his wife, Grace (Athena Karkanis) are very much in love, but they are consumed with worry about Cal, whose cancer is untreatable by any known therapy.

As they wait at the gate for their flight, there's an announcement: The flight is overbooked, so you will be paid in airline credits for volunteering to take a later flight. Michaela, fed up with her mother's insistence that she should have said yes to the marriage proposal from Jared, a cop she knows on the job (J.R. Ramirez), gets up to volunteer to take the later flight.

Then Ben says to his wife, That money will help pay for the flight for a much hoped-for vacation, so he volunteers -- and Cal, eager to be with his dad, insists that he'll go too.

So now Grace is flying home with daughter Olive and her parents-in-law, Steve Stone (Malachy Cleary) and Karen Stone (Geraldine Leer). The family is divided.

That "later flight" simply disappears and is presumed destroyed, all passengers lost. While the passengers on that flight got a bit of a scare from that incident of turbulence, the people they left behind grieve for the death of their loved ones. And some of them are angry -- Why did you have to volunteer for the flight?

After all the interrogations, when the passengers are released from detention, we see the bewildered Ben, Cal, and Michaela meet their family. Ben's embrace from Grace feels strange, because she isn't all that happy. And when Cal sees his twin sister, Olive (Luna Blaise), now more than five years older than he is, he runs from her.

Then Michaela and Ben find out that while their father is there to meet them, their mother isn't -- because during those five years -- or five hourse -- they spent in the air, she got sick and died.

Life didn't hold still during those hours of their flight -- Jared married Michaela's best friend, Lourdes. Grace seems angry at Ben, and by the end of the first episode we learn she has other problems that complicate the homecoming.

All of these reunions and revelations are powerfully written and brilliantly performed. This is all completely believable human interaction.

And we aren't halfway through the episode.

Because this story is strange in ways that the promos didn't promise. Michaela is hearing a voice, a very insistent voice, telling her things like "slower, slower. Slow down!" Since she's riding a bus, this requires asking the driver to slow down, which raises his dander -- passengers of taxis can ask for a different speed, but not bus passengers.

Then she shouts for him to slow down and he does slam on the brakes -- just in time to find out why he needed to slow down. How did Michaela know? She can't say, "I heard a voice," because, you know, it can get unpleasant when you are certified crazy while still trying to hold onto your job as a cop.

And that's not the last time that voice is heard.

Nor is Michaela the only one hearing voices.

At the end of the episode, in a very stirring scene, we learn, along with the passengers, that they are all going to be linked together for some time to come. They were preserved for a reason, but they're only going to find out what that reason is, bit by bit, as the series goes on.

But young Cal has returned to learn that his terminal disease is now treatable -- if he's admitted into a study using medicines developed by research done by another woman who was on the plane, Saanvi (Parveen Kaur). Saanvi is shocked when the director of the study refuses to admit Cal to the study for treatment because he was born so long before that he's outside the study's parameters. Saanvi, who saw him on the plane, is not going to let him die just because he skipped five years so his birthday was too long ago.

And there's the missing persons case that Jared is working on, leaving him little time to visit with Michaela. He moved on long ago, but still loves her; for her, however, his proposal was only a few days ago, and she came back having decided her mother was right, and she should say yes. Who knew that it would already be too late?

The soap opera elements of the stories are so well handled that this series promises to be memorable, even great. But the writers are going to have to walk a tightrope, because the first explanation that comes to anyone's mind is that God did this, and is now using all the passengers as his tools to change things for the better.

But ... God? Really? The first episode hit all the religion buttons, including a visit with a church rector and looking up the New Testament scripture that Grandma Stone always used to quote. Not everybody on that plane was Christian, however. And the voice they hear is always their own voice.

How religious is this show going to be? How mysterious will it remain? One thing is sure -- they aren't going to be able to get us to care about the stories of all 91 passengers and crew on the Manifest. It's the same problem Lost faced -- the audience can only care about or even get to know a limited subset of that whole passenger list.

But we do care. And I suspect -- I hope -- it's the best new network show of the season.

*

Then there's Magnum, P.I., a reboot of the old Tom Selleck comic adventure series set in Hawaii. I never particularly cared for the original 1980s Magnum, partly because it felt like it was trying too hard to pretend it wasn't supposed to be Burt Reynolds in the lead -- or that it wasn't simply The Rockford Files in Hawaii.

Still, who was going to play Thomas Magnum himself in this reboot?

I'll tell you who: Jay Hernandez. He's way more believable, in my opinion, than Selleck ever was, and our first episode showed him doing a Rambo-level rescue with the help of a team of military buddies who had shared a prison in the Middle East.

Those friends are clearly going to be important in multiple episodes. Especially because they're a little resentful of the fact that when their adventures are used by bestselling author Robin as the basis for some of his plots, Robin invariably makes Magnum the hero of the episode, with the other three guys as the Pips, just singin' backup.

It was supposedly a big deal to cast a hispanic actor in the title role, but really -- what decade is this? What matters is that Hernandez is terrific in the role, he's charismatic and funny when he needs to be, and he has great chemistry with Perdita Weeks, playing Higgins.

That's right, the fuddy-duddy major-domo of Robin's estate is now a very-much-non-fuddy-duddy woman with her own martial arts skills.

As for the Pips themselves (my term; the show never calls them that), Zachary Knighton as Rick and Stephen Hill as TC are both excellent. I'm glad we'll be seeing more of them.

Unless the writing falls apart -- and that happens with far too many shows -- I expect to be watching this cast for years to come.

If all else fails, the writers can turn to old Magnum episodes from the '80s, because come on, that series debuted 38 years ago. There are plenty of people these days who never watched the original series, and the writers can change enough stuff to keep all but the most diehard fans of the original run from catching on.

But judging from the first episode, writing isn't going to be a problem. This is an expensive series to film -- there was a sequence under water, lots of helicopter action, and it's not like Hawaii is a cheap place to film. But even between the flashy bits, the writing is solid.

You can catch that pilot episode on the CBS website, it seems, if you missed it during its premiere. Even if you didn't care about the original, give this one a try. Maybe you'll like it. I sure did.

*

The House with a Clock in Its Walls was the top movie last week kind of by default. The magical premise of the book seems to have been preserved in the movie, and with Jack Black starring as a somewhat second-rate warlock, Jonathan Barnavelt, and Cate Blanchett as his next-door neighbor, Florence Zimmerman, a witch whose spells have lately been going awry, the movie can't be bad, right?

Right. Not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. Not in a Toy Story way, not in a Princess Bride way, not in a John Hughes movie way, not really as a memorable movie, but ... better than adequate.

The movie is stolen just a little by Owen Vaccaro (Daddy's Home and Mother's Day) as Lewis Barnavelt, Jack Black's young nephew who is obsessed with a comic book superhero to the point of wearing the aviator's glasses that the character always wears. Lewis takes to the magic in his uncle's house swimmingly, and he tries to show off what he's learning as a magician.

Meanwhile, he has intense dreams of his dead mother, and when he finds out that the powerful book kept under lock and key is about necromancy -- specifically, raising the dead -- he decides to defy his uncle's rules and see if he can do the spells and raise his parents.

Only for some reason he does a practice round using exactly the wrong grave: the one belonging to Uncle Jonathan's nemesis, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan, in his most menacing role since he played the Captain on How I Met Your Mother).

How scary is this movie? I answer this as someone who, at age five, saw a couple of gags from one of the Topper sequels on television and promptly had nightmares and turned into an occasional bedwetter for the next seven years. Funny-scary movies are way more scary than funny to kids who really aren't ready.

And The House with a Clock in Its Walls earns its PG rating. Parents, don't let your own kids decide. Do your job and decide for them. Five year olds have no business seeing this, not just because of the scary bits, but because of the way young Lewis is manipulated using visions of his dead mother. It's just too strong. Personally, I wouldn't take anybody younger than ten to see it.

*

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an Amazon Prime Original, is now in its third season. I heard about it, but it sounded like yet another not-very-funny, not-very-interesting "comedy" about somebody trying to learn to do stand-up.

Stand-up is hard, and writing stand-up routines is harder. Sit-com writers usually embarrass themselves when they try to write a character who does stand-up, because they usually have no idea what will work and what won't.

So I didn't bother trying to stream it -- I really hate streaming stuff because they always demand a password I don't remember and then it's hard to find anything.

Well, my wife has no such dread of streaming, and when she saw promos for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel she popped onto the Amazon Prime app on TiVo and started watching. When she runs the remote control, all the streaming services behave themselves and we find everything immediately and it's smooth as silk.

For days she couldn't talk about anything else. And my wife doesn't get that excited about TV shows or movies. Ever. So I knew Mrs. Maisel must be something.

She is, and the show is, and now that I'm five episodes in, I'm delighted that I waited so long, because now I can binge-watch my way through two seasons and then catch up with season three.

Here's the premise. The title character is Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam "Midge" Maisel, a Jewish housewife with reasonably well-to-do parents, who happily tend her two children whenever she needs them to.

Midge is helping her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), fulfil his dream of doing stand-up comedy. She takes careful notes of everything, from comedy ideas she has to critiques of what worked and didn't work in each of his performances.

But Midge is disgusted when she realizes that Joel has started learning Bob Newhart routines and performing them as if they were his own. She thought he was making up his material, but no. He was stealing it -- and doing a lousy job of it.

By day Joel has a pretty well-paying job working as a vice-president in his uncle's company; at night, he's a medium lousy comic who keeps hoping to get better. And, of course, he pretty much ignores or dismisses any suggestion Midge makes.

So when he announces to Midge that he's leaving her -- for his secretary, she soon learns -- she gets drunk, shows up at the crappy little club where he has been flopping with his stolen routines, and grabs the microphone.

She drunkenly tells the audience why she's there in her nightgown, how Joel left her, and way more things than most people would care to hear (or see) -- but she's also screamingly funny. Funnier than Phyllis Diller ever was. Whoever's writing this show -- presumably show-creator Amy Sherman-Palladino -- can write very good, character-centered stand-up comedy.

Three other writers are credited, but Amy Sherman-Palladino is also one of the four directors so far -- she has directed more episodes and written more episodes than everybody else combined. He experience with Gilmore Girls shows through ... but this is better.

That's not all. The scripts require second-rate material from some of the comics we see, and really bad material from others, and they're all spot on.

The laughter of the audience is like a drug to her. And in the audience, a manager of the club -- Susie, played by Alex Borstein -- sees just how much potential Midge has in comedy. So she sets up as a manager solely to manage Midge.

If Rachel Brosnahan weren't so brilliant as Midge, Alex Borstein would absolutely steal this series from her and everybody else in it. The character of Susie is smart, foul-mouthed, rude, candid, and did I mention she's smart? The constant byplay between Midge and Susie is the heart of this series.

Look, if this series teaches us anything, it's that comic timing is everything. Joel does Bob Newhart bits that are dead before the sound waves come out of his mouth; but when we hear a recording of Newhart doing the same gags, they're really funny.

We also have an actor, Luke Kirby, playing the legendary Lenny Bruce. I assume they have him doing some of Bruce's actual material, and here's the thing -- he makes the routines funnier than I ever thought they were when I saw footage of Lenny Bruce himself doing them.

Bruce and Midge take turns bailing each other out of jail, because, in her drunken state, Midge uses so much bad language and so many angry but sexually suggestive gestures that the cops come in and bust up her act and cart her off to jail.

Midge is so naive that she thinks getting bailed out means it's over. No, sorry, Midge. She has to appear in court, and the same mouthy act that killed in the club doesn't fly well with the judge, so she goes back to jail for contempt until she can persuade the judge that she's really sorry for being just as obscene in his courtroom as she had been the night before on the stage.

Oh, and somewhere along here, somebody convinces her that yes, indeed, she did pull down the top of her nightgown to prove to the audience that her breasts were perky without any kind of undergarment. "Who wouldn't want to come home to that!" she demanded of the men in the audience.

We saw it, the cops saw it, but she didn't remember doing it.

So maybe this is the time for me to point out that F-words are thick on the ground, from Midge and plenty of others. Nobody's act is particularly clean. If you want a gentle, decorous show, this isn't it. Public decency isn't a high priority for these comics.

Which made it all the more surprising that my wife enjoyed the show so much. Is she getting as jaded by bad language and occasional nudity as I am? That's scary. I count on her to bring up our family average to the level of decency.

Zegen does a great job of playing Joel as the self-satisfied man of the 50s who assumes that he's head of his household, never recognizing or appreciating the powerhouse woman he's married to. Through the first five episodes, at least, he sails along in blissful ignorance that Midge is now succeeding at his dream of doing stand-up.

The whole cast is wonderful. Tony Shalhoub is brilliant as Midge's college-professor father, who thinks he rules in his own house, and as Midge's mother, Rose, Marin Hinkle is absolutely superb.

Joel's father, Moishe, is played by Kevin Pollack -- best thing I've seen him do -- and every other actor and actress plays their part perfectly. This is TV comedy that's better than most comic movies.

For instance, even though I usually like Adam Sandler, even when he's bad, I had a chance to compare Mrs. Maisel with the Judd Apatow comedy Funny People, starring Sandler. It's a pretty good comedy, with more meaning than Sandler gives us with movies he completely controls -- but at no moment are any of the supposed professional comics in Funny People as funny or as real as the people in Mrs. Maisel. It's just true.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is reason enough to subscribe to Amazon Prime.

*

Sandra Bullock has had an amazing career so far, but I'm beginning to realize that not every movie she says yes to is a hit. I thought I was aware of all the roles she'd played, but here I run into two movies I never heard of, playing on late-night TV.

Back in 2002, between Miss Congeniality and Two Weeks Notice, Sandra Bullock was in a movie called Murder by Numbers, which also had Ryan Gosling in it. A very young Gosling, still playing a teenager.

It's a thriller in which Bullock is a cop and Gosling plays a kid who conspires with a friend to commit a murder just so they can get away with it.

There are some exciting scenes. It's not a dumb movie. Why did it lose money? How come I never even heard of it?

And then, back in 2009, Bullock played the starring role in All About Steve.

Oh, wait. Steve is played by Bradley Cooper, who had only just made Hangover and still had yet to make The A-Team, Limitless, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper, Burnt, and Joy. Not to mention voicing a sentient raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

In other words, he didn't yet have the star power to open a movie, and yet his character's name is in the title, and Bullock's is not. How do you sell a movie when the star isn't in the title, and somebody else is?

At least this one didn't lose money, like Murder by Numbers did.

The story this time is about a scatterbrained young woman who is fired as the daily crossword-puzzle creator of a local paper, because in these days of failing daily papers, it's cheaper to just print a syndicated crossword.

Then Bullock's character, Mary Horowitz, takes off in pursuit of tv cameraman Steve. Along the way, she meets a whole slew of other people who are somehow charmed or saved or whatever by Mary Horowitz. Kind of like a remake of Pollyanna with a grown-up lead.

Sandra Bullock is good. Maybe great. She's starred in some very good movies. Without her, Speed would have been nothing but Die Hard on a bus. She makes a difference.

But not enough difference to turn flops into hits just by being in them.

The thing is, even though I hate the scatterbrained whimsical feel-good stereotype we got from Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Bullock does it pretty well in All About Steve.

But I found myself paying way too much attention to the minor characters. In particular, to DJ Qualls, who plays Howard.

You've seen DJ Qualls, though most people aren't aware of his name. Qualls is an actor from the Tennessee hills, who has a pencil-necked-geek appearance that has brought him a career as a character actor, working constantly in movies and television. If you saw a picture of him, you'd say, "Oh, him!"

This time, instead of just being a sight gag, he plays a real character, one that we care about. And Sandra Bullock is generous enough that when they're on screen together, she does nothing to diminish him or the part he plays.

Bullock is an ensemble actor. Even if she claims to be difficult to work with and various other actors kind of agree, they go ahead and work with her again, which suggests it isn't so bad.

Here's my point: Sandra Bullock became a household name, playing girl-next-door parts until she graduated to some that were more challenging. She's been in some monster hits -- The Blind Side, The Heat, Gravity, Ocean's 8, The Lake House, Two Weeks Notice, The Proposal.

She's not just a rom-com star -- though she does rom-com with the best of them.

Yet somehow she does a surprising number of movies that she really shouldn't have done.

So does everybody else. Because, as an actor, if you aren't working, you don't get paid. Even if you've made a lot of money in the past, between the government and your employees, it can bleed away pretty fast and you need a new fix of cash right away.

Or maybe she thought every one of these projects was going to be wonderful. Maybe she's that optimistic.

Here's the nice thing about a Hollywood acting career. Even if you make some mediocre movies along the way, people remember you and judge you by your best work.

And even when I was watching Bullock in completely forgettable movies -- ones that have long been overlooked -- it's still fun to watch her work. She's a pro, all the time. She never phones it in. She's there with you, alive in front of the camera.

*

So which actor has had the best career? I think I could make a case for Clint Eastwood. His underplaying style kind of makes him the Ernest Hemingway of actors. After playing in a lot of cult hits, he made some hugely popular mainstream hits and then one day stopped playing Dirty Harry.

Instead, he made movies he liked, all along the way, until finally people realized, not only is Clint Eastwood a subtle and nuanced actor, but also he can direct. He's one of the best.

I just rewatched Unforgiven (1992), which may be Clint Eastwood's masterpiece. It's so dark and sad, I could hardly bear to watch it. And yet I couldn't stop watching, because I cared so much.

And I realized: Eastwood can direct, and Eastwood can act, but with Unforgiven he also had a real script.

The story was that he bought that script and sat on it for ten years, until he was old enough to play the leading role of Bill Munny. It was a good investment, and I hope the writer, David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke, Twelve Monkeys), didn't mind having his best script rest on a shelf in Clint Eastwood's office for ten years before it earned Peoples his one Oscar nomination.

Not every actor wants to direct, of course. Each movie takes at least a year out of your life, usually; as an in-demand actor, you can go from shoot to shoot and still get some time off to play with your kids.

But Clint Eastwood somehow became a Hollywood giant.

There's another actor who's gunning for the same kind of career. Ben Affleck has a lowkey acting style that might have been modeled on Clint Eastwood's, though he also did a few turns in rom-coms, like Forces of Nature with Sandra Bullock.

Though he had already directed a few movies -- Gone Baby Gone (2007), The Town (2010), I first started to respect him as an actor in roles like Neil in He's Just Not That Into You (2009), Gone Girl (2014), and his most brilliant role to date, Christian Wolff in The Accountant (2016).

And after Argo, which he acted in and directed and produced, he had to be taken seriously as a director as well as an actor. It was his breakthrough movie.

So now, what do we make of Live by Night (2016), which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in? Whenever one person does all those jobs, I'm leery of watching the outcome, because there's nobody there to block him from wretched excess.

Think how awful Barbra Streisand was as a director, turning every movie she led into a narcissistic exercise in Streisand-worship.

Affleck didn't do that. Instead, he made a thoughtful but somewhat slow-moving film that was, at times, quite moving.

But it cost $108 million to make, and grossed about a fifth of that. That's a big stinking flop, financially, and you can bet that after those numbers, Ben Affleck is not going to be trusted with a big budget any time soon.

Affleck wasn't flamboyantly reckless with that budget. It looks like it's all on the screen.

But the screenplay was his, and it was too big and too slow. Nobody seemed to have the power to say, Shorter, Mr. Affleck. Move through the story more quickly. Wake it up!

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting (1997), but they had a lot of help and guidance with the project, which ended up very far from what they started with -- and borrowed its climax from the much-better Ordinary People. ("It's not your fault!")

Affleck can direct. He can act. But he's still a journeyman writer, and it's worth remembering that Clint Eastwood, worked with other people's scripts. He approached them from outside and then got inside them, understanding them, making them work.

But when you write the script yourself and then direct it and star in it, it's hard to know what you've got. Hard to know whether the script is any good.

The story of Live by Night is powerful and moving.

But I had to watch it in four installments. I recorded it, and watched it till I lost interest. Then I came back, got hooked again. Then lost interest.

It was just too long. It wasn't movie-like. It moved too slowly.

Let's face it. Ben Affleck is also having a terrific career. And maybe he'll eventually write a great script. But we already know he can direct powerful films and deliver moving, memorable performances.

Clint Eastwood has had the best Hollywood career, in my opinion, and he's leaving behind a powerful body of work.

But you don't have to be best to be great, and so even after watching one of Affleck's biggest mistakes, I understand why he wanted to film that story, and even though there are a few things wrong with his script, there are a lot of things he got right. There were scenes that stay with me.

Everybody has their list of bad moves in their careers or their lives, but most of us don't display our mistakes on huge screens or plastered all over the tabloids. Most of us get to build our reputations almost entirely from the good bits. Big-name actors and directors don't have that luxury.

So Sandra Bullock has made some forgettable and forgotten movies, along with some great ones. Clint Eastwood did a couple of chimp movies, for heaven's sake, along with some classics. And Ben Affleck stars in a couple of movies that are in my top ten; he also directs very well.

Good careers. Fame that was earned by accomplishments, for all of them.

When they look back, they've got nothing in their careers to be ashamed of.

Every now and then it's fun to talk about the nuts and bolts of writing!
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 1
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 2
A Town Divided by Christmas

Available November 6, 2018

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Eight Master Classes

on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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