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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 20, 2002

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


Doing DC ... and Deeply Dumb Sci-Fi

Kristine and I were going celebrate our 25th anniversary by flying to New York between rehearsals for "Bye Bye Birdie." We had even picked out the plays we were going to see. But because we couldn't stay over a Saturday and hadn't been able to buy our tickets until just a few days beforehand, the price was going to be $4200.

Yeah, right.

So instead we drove to DC and stayed in one of our favorite hotels, the Hyatt at the Reston Town Centre. Except for the fact that they shut down their pool and fitness center at ten p.m., we enjoy everything about the hotel -- especially its location.

The Reston Town Centre is a very successful reinvention of the concept of "downtown."

High rise office buildings are clustered among parking towers, but instead of the stupid, self-destructive zoning of downtown Greensboro, where our "skyline" was created by wiping out most of the store frontage that made going downtown worthwhile, the Reston Town Centre devotes the ground floor of all these buildings to shops, restaurants, theaters.

With hundreds of apartments and condos within walking distance, along with traditional shopping centers and grocery stores, the result is a true downtown, a place where people live and work and shop, and where visitors from outside are able to park easily and then walk to dinner or a movie.

Besides my favorite Mexican restaurant on earth, the Rio Grande (the thinnest, lightest chips, the best salsa, great guacamole, tamales to die for), there are other favorites, like Paolo's (their soft breadsticks come with an olive tapenade to die for), Big Bowl (a good Chinese restaurant if you're too tired to drive to the nearest P.F. Chang), and several others.

Then, to get into DC, we skipped the driving and parking problems (normal traffic into DC is worse than rush hour in Greensboro, and parking is as bad as Manhattan). Instead, we took Route 7 from Reston to Falls Church, where we parked at the West Falls Church Metro station and took the subway into the city.

For about six bucks -- including the $2.25 parking fee -- we got a quick ride to a spot a block away from the Mall (the huge park that runs from the Capitol, past the White House, and on to the Lincoln Memorial).

And when, after walking about four miles, we were worn out and ready to return, we didn't have to go all the way back to some parking lot. We simply walked into the nearest Metro stop and rode back to West Falls Church.

In case you're planning a trip to DC this summer, we found that the FDR Memorial was well worth visiting. Interesting stonework and gorgeous rushing fountains make for a beautiful setting, and while there is no quotation from FDR that even approaches the eloquence and power of the inscriptions in the Lincoln Memorial, there are statues and statements that bring back the era when my parents were coming of age.

The Korean War Memorial, on the other hand, is vaguely disturbing. The concept was good -- statues of a squad of soldiers in ponchos walking up a hill, weapons at the ready -- but the execution is weird. The sculptures are almost cartoonlike in their ineptitude.

That's all right. If you want terrific sculpture, just go out to the end of Haines Point (a very long walk) and see "Awakening," a huge statue of a giant rising out of the earth. It might just be my favorite piece of public art in America.

(My favorites in the world are Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral and Park Guell in Barcelona, but they're a little harder to get to from Greensboro.)

*

How bad is Attack of the Clones?

Well, I have friends whose little kids actually liked the movie, and my eight-year-old didn't hate it, so it's not a total loss.

But the special effects are surprisingly blurry and ineffective, especially after having just seen "Spiderman." Apparently shooting a movie in high-definition digital video only works if you also project it onto the screen as HD video.

I have to give the actors credit -- there were moments when they actually made me overlook the excruciating badness of the dialogue and enjoy their performances.

But nothing could overcome the mind-numbing boredom of watching meeting after meeting, in which people sit around and discuss trivial and obscure points that we never understand or care about.

Even when something "emotional" happens, it's almost an afterthought. Suddenly, quite late in the movie, Anakin has a dream about his mother and then takes off to save her, only to arrive too late, whereupon he ... embraces the dark side of the force.

Ludicrously enough, Natalie Portman's character, after Anakin tells her the atrocities he committed, marries him anyway without even a hint of soul-searching on her part.

Both the science and the magic have no meaningful rules. Sometimes the technology can detect minute intrusions; sometimes whole spacecraft can enter a planet's atmosphere undetected.

Sometimes Jedis can jump from tall buildings without harm and sense the presence of worms in another room, but other times a big hulking warrior can sneak right up behind them.

And even though it's cool watching Yoda in a swordfight at the end, it's just infuriating that Anakin and Obiwan are so injured that they can't move and Yoda has to go to silly lengths to protect them -- until the moment the fight ends, whereupon they jump right up.

I don't know of a science fiction writer so bad that he or she couldn't have done a better job on coming up with a plausible story than this one. Science fiction doesn't have to be bad. That's George Lucas's own achievement.

Filmmakers really ought to be prevented from sticking closely to stories they thought up before they turned ten.

*

Speaking of failed movies, I finally got to see Ali. We were too busy to see it in theaters, but were surprised when it didn't seem to attract much of an audience.

Well, now we know why. Unlike "Attack of the Clones," Ali has some wonderful writing and great performances -- Will Smith especially gives a moving and nuanced performance, as does Jon Voight, though Voight is hampered by wearing makeup so thick it's practically a mask.

The boxing scenes are positively brilliant.

But the movie fails, and it fails for reasons that were completely unnecessary.

You see, the director (and perhaps the screenwriter) got confused and thought that the audience was coming to see how cool and hip and arty they were. Whereas in fact the audience was coming to see a movie about Muhammed Ali's life and career.

The result is that the first twenty minutes are confusing even if you are quite familiar with the events early in Ali's professional career. For a while there are four storylines going, none of which is clear, and two of which amount to exactly nothing.

The camera work is irritatingly pretentious in the opening sequences, and the soundtrack is so badly balanced that half the time you can't understand a thing that anyone is saying (though you don't miss a word of the "background" music).

It's a shame when artistic pretension keeps what should have been a great movie from reaching its natural audience. Still, I'm glad I rented it -- for the acting and the creation of Ali's life on the screen.

*

By the way, you're all invited to see our production of Bye Bye Birdie on 31 May and 1 June at seven p.m. at the LDS meetinghouse on Pinetop Road (off Westridge just south of Bryan Blvd.).

Those who have seen our previous productions know that we try to put on fast-moving, entertaining plays, and I think our cast of teenagers (and a few delightful old coots) puts on as entertaining an evening as you could hope for.

Especially considering that it's free of charge. (We mean it. No donations. Nada.)

Then again, you have to sit in metal folding chairs. But you have to make some sacrifices for art.


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