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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 30, 2002

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


Two Towers, Two Weeks, Maid, and Donnie Darko

It's so maddening, the way they group so many of the year's best movies into a couple of weeks at the end of the year.

But if they don't do it that way, many of the best films would be forgotten at Oscar time.

It only takes a few months to forget what year it was that we saw a particular movie. After all, we're likely to have seen any given movie in the same kind of place -- a big dark room -- and it won't necessarily be associated with any season.

Quick -- can you name three movies that came out in 2002, but before June?

Are you sure none of those came out in 2001?

And while we're testing ourselves, can you name the four nominees for best picture last year that didn't win?

Of course, no one can ever remember the winners, let alone the nominees, of the screenwriting awards ... unless they happen to have been a couple of actors who were given the writing prize because nobody knew that actors could spell.

We're at the end of the year, and the studios are trotting out their best. Lucky us!

*

The Two Towers isn't in serious contention for awards -- and shouldn't be. It's a very good film, but as the middle of a trilogy, it neither begins nor ends. I loved it, though, and appreciated most of the changes.

A couple of changes, though, were unfortunate -- film-school idiocies that showed either a fundamental lack of trust in the underlying material or an inability to realize that sometimes more is way, way less.

For instance, what's that nonsense about Aragorn getting knocked off a cliff? It added nothing whatsoever -- not even additional tension, since we were already quite tense enough, thanks.

And especially irritating was the completely pointless exercise of having Faramir take Frodo back to Osgiliath. It completely changed the moral character of Faramir -- it was important to the story that he is not tempted the way his brother Boromir was -- and hurt the fundamental plausibility of the story, since putting the ring that close to a Nazgul, in Osgiliath, would have made Sauron especially alert to the western approach to his kingdom.

If it had somehow made the movie better, it might have been forgivable. But it's only there because of the moronic ideas about how to "increase the tension" that are taught to beginning writers in film schools.

It's like the movie The Rock, in which it isn't enough that Nicholas Cage's character has to save San Francisco -- they also have to send his girlfriend there so it's "personal." Never mind that it absolutely wrecked believability. Never mind that it is more noble and heroic to risk your life to save strangers than to save your girlfriend.

Besides, you don't mess with a classic like Lord of the Rings just to fit some film school formula. Changes were needed, indeed -- but these two merely took up time to no good effect.

Quibbling aside, however, the vision of this film and the performances of the actors are powerful, and the trilogy will surely go down as one of the great achievements of film -- and of translation of literature to the screen.

Especially brilliant is the performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum. Don't be deceived by the fact that Gollum looks like computer animation. Serkis actually acted the part -- including most of the stunts -- and the computer merely transformed his physical appearance the way makeup does.

Gollum is easily the most fascinating character in the story, and Serkis was up to the challenge. This is not a computer-created performance with a voiceover.

This is the real thing, and if he is passed over at Oscar time it will merely show the ignorance of the Academy, because it is impossible for any other performance by a supporting actor to be better than this one.

*

The two big romantic comedies this Christmas teamed Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks Notice and Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes in Maid in Manhattan.

Lopez and Fiennes are not noted for comedy, and judging from the promos, Two Weeks Notice looked like the better bet.

The story of an idealistic (but parent-ridden) young lawyer who becomes a kind of gopher for a rich playboy until she's fed up with kowtowing to him is certainly well performed by Grant and Bullock.

Both of them are gifted comedians and they work extraordinarily well together. The dialogue is witty enough and they make it better by the way they say it. I enjoyed the film, despite the fact that writer-director Marc Lawrence basically blew it.

When you realize that Marc Lawrence also wrote the annoying Forces of Nature and the silly-but-fun Miss Congeniality, both of which depended on the acting and dialogue, not the story, for whatever charms they had, it's no surprise that genuine character and story are barely a consideration in this film.

Maybe it's enough to be funny. But the great comedies also reach for some kind of truth and transformation. What we never get in Two Weeks -- which we should have gotten -- is genuine transformation in either character.

And at the end, when they get together (come on, you can't actually think the ending was going to be a surprise!), it is impossible to believe that the Hugh Grant character is actually going to be faithful to this woman for more than, say, two weeks.

What we never saw between them was, for lack of a better word, love.

So I recommend the movie as an evening's entertainment.

But Maid in Manhattan is the true romantic-comedy gem of the season, and believe me, I never expected that to be the case.

Ralph Fiennes has never won a place in my heart, in part because of his role in the pretentious, wretchedly melodramatic, and morally despicable The English Patient. He's a good actor who keeps getting cast in unlikeable parts and forced to say overwritten dialogue.

Sort of like Leslie Howard, another British actor who kept getting thankless roles.

And as for Jennifer Lopez, I've thought she was pretty good in a film or two -- but comedy? I had visions of Whitney Houston's destruction of The Preacher's Wife and fully expected Maid in Manhattan to be the kind of empty, self-indulgent star vehicle that Barbra Streisand is noted for foisting on the public in recent years.

To my delight, Maid in Manhattan is the opposite. Behind the comic Cinderella situation (powerful unmarried politician mistakes hotel maid for rich guest), it's a truthful, moving story of the creation of a family out of three lonely people.

Three, not two. Because this movie is driven as much by the maid's son, played by Tyler Garcia Posey. This kid is extraordinary -- likeable, believable, natural, with impeccable comic timing that wasn't just created in the editing room.

In fact, the whole story depends on the believability of the relationship between mother and son, and folks, whatever else you might think of Jennifer Lopez, she is able to play, not a "star," but a genuine person with a charming-but-real relationship with a child. The mother-and-son chemistry between Lopez and Posey is more important to the success of this film than the chemistry between the two romantic leads.

It also helps that the writer, Kevin Wade, is the same man who created Working Girl -- the best movie Melanie Griffith ever made. He knows how to let story arise out of character, and while there may not be as much laughter in this film as there is in Two Weeks Notice, there is a thousand times more truth and depth.

The result is that people will still be watching Maid in Manhattan when Two Weeks Notice is an "oh, yeah, that movie" entry on Bullock's and Grant's filmographies.

As for all the hype surrounding Jennifer Lopez -- get over it. Yes, she's a big star who gets written about way too much, and her personal life is sadly ... er, flexible -- but when it comes to what she does in front of the cameras, she's got the chops as an actor.

And, while there's not a visible ounce of fat on her body, Lopez nevertheless is shaped like a real woman, not a boyish mannequin, and the costumer has proven that you don't have to be an anorexic waif to look absolutely gorgeous and classy on the screen.

Another thing I appreciate about Maid is that there is no knee-jerk political correctness. For one thing, Ralph Fiennes's character is explicitly a Republican, albeit one that a moderate Democrat like me could vote for; and unlike such smarmy, self-satisfied politician-centered films as An American President and The Contender, the film isn't hateful toward any political group.

It's about the people, not the politics -- though the politics are important, especially because we experience it primarily through the eyes of the young boy, who is as obsessed with politics as I was at that age. (And if anyone thinks that the kid is unbelievable, I assure you personally that there really are kids like that.)

Ralph Fiennes's performance is real and true, and if he doesn't have Hugh Grant's sunny charm and comic licks, he has a brooding passion that actually works better for the romantic half of "romantic comedy." His upper-class eastern American accent is impeccable -- only Bob Hoskins and Gary Oldman have done a better job of going from Brit to Yank on film.

Speaking of Bob Hoskins, his performance as a hotel butler is wonderful. Indeed, this comedy is blessed with one of the best supporting casts of any film this year. Natasha Richardson is thrillingly oblivious to her own snobbery as the rich woman whose identity the maid temporarily assumes; Stanley Tucci gives one of the best comic performances of his career as Ralph Fiennes's political controller; and the other maids and the security personnel create an ensemble of good people trying to do good for each other every bit as splendid as the group of backstairs characters in the Julia Ormond remake of Sabrina.

In fact, there is one actor who appears in both films, and the difference in the way the two films use her is a perfect expression of the difference between the writers.

She is too far down the cast list for me to find her name on any of the websites, so I'll have to describe her as the heavyset black woman whom Hugh Grant assumes to be pregnant in Two Weeks, and who is one of the maids who hangs out with Jennifer Lopez in Maid. (After writing this, I learned from several people that her name is Sharon Wilkins.)

Both movies show her more than once and use her expressive reactions for crucial emotional moments. But in Two Weeks, she is able to be barely more than a fat joke, while Maid allows her to show a character that we would like to get to know.

It's funny, though. The critics have been almost uniformly condescending or even hostile to Maid. Could I possibly be right, and all the rest of them are wrong?

Absolutely. That's because film critics as a class have absolutely no idea of what they're talking about. They natter on and on about directors without understanding much at all about how little the director does compared to the writer. They praise unwatchable garbage just so they can appear cooler and edgier than their rival critics.

But perhaps their worst sin is that not a one of them has a clue about how hard it is to make a great comedy. There is nothing more difficult that a filmmaker can undertake.

Big sprawling epics and arty edgy independent films aren't easy, of course. But they are child's play compared to creating comedy -- especially comedy that lasts.

Often the best comedies are overlooked or despised by the critics. Why? Because critics are the worst possible audience for comedy in the first place. Comedy depends on having an audience that is relaxed, eager for a good time, willing to put themselves inside the film.

Critics, on the other hand, walk into the door of the theater or screening room full of their own fears and tensions, and watching the film is work for them.

Some of them -- most often Roger Ebert -- are sometimes able to watch films like a natural human being, and it's no surprise that Ebert stands out as one of the few critics who has kind words to say about Maid.

But most of the time, they say things like "formula" and "predictable." Well, duh. How surprising is that? Boy and girl meet and either dislike each other or lie to each other until they overcome their problems and love prevails. How many romantic comedies does that formula cover? I think it's very near 100 percent.

So what? What matters is what you do within the formula, and Kevin Wade is extraordinarily good at it. So is C. Jay Cox, who wrote Sweet Home Alabama, which I think is the best romantic comedy this year.

And if the critics are too jaded to see it, well, too bad for them. The public rarely misses the good ones, though. Merely funny comedies, like Two Weeks Notice, have their run and make good money and they do no harm. The great ones, though, continue to be fun to watch even after the jokes and cleverness have worn off.

Think of Sabrina. The original play by Sam Taylor was the source of two very good movies. I prefer the remake -- I think the script is better and all the actors did a better job of showing real transformations. But at the core is a simple Cinderella story set within an ensemble of charming characters who form a believable and interesting community.

It's fun to go back to this movie and live in the world these writers and actors have created for us.

Working Girl works the same way. So does the best of the Julia Roberts comedies, My Best Friend's Wedding. So does the comic "thriller" Twister. So does the best Sandra Bullock comedy, While You Were Sleeping.

Even though these great comedies absolutely had to have wonderful actors in all the parts, all these stars -- Melanie Griffith, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Ormond, Helen Hunt -- have also been in comedies that were utterly forgettable.

Think of another Julia Roberts romantic comedy, Pretty Woman. It simply doesn't hold up as well. Partly that's because Richard Gere is kind of a stick -- comedy is not what he does best. But it's also because the script is not truthful. We catch not even a glimpse of the real life of a prostitute. Julia Roberts's character is already transformed.

That was unavoidable, of course -- there's nothing comic about a prostitute's life. (Though it would be interesting to see a film that told the same story as Pretty Woman, but truthfully.) And there's no better director of comedy than Garry Marshall.

But the result is a kind of shallowness that keeps Pretty Woman from greatness.

Anyway, it comes down to this: If you want a romantic comedy, there are two good choices for your holiday movie money, Two Weeks Notice and Maid in Manhattan. Both are full of funny situations and lines, both are well acted and directed.

But when you decide which of them to buy on DVD, and which to rent ... rent Two Weeks and buy Maid in Manhattan. Chances are that Maid is the one you'll want to see more than once.

*

Most of the time, the studios recognize a great film when they're lucky enough to have one emerge from their own company. Then they hype it for all it's worth and you can't miss hearing about it.

But every now and then, a truly wonderful film is so quirky and, yes, difficult that its audience is not going to be a huge one, and it doesn't pay to invest a lot of money in advertising.

Donnie Darko is such a film. I don't think it ever came to Greensboro. But on DVD it has been building up a cult following that recognizes this as a transformative, brilliant movie, one of the best ever made.

And yet ... I can't recommend it to everyone. While it is beautifully written and acted and directed, it is also confusing -- no, let's be honest, it's downright baffling -- and at the end, most viewers probably won't even be sure what actually happened.

Certainly I wasn't, and I've worked with and written time-travel stories for thirty years.

In fact, the time travel stuff is more of a smokescreen. At heart, this is the story of a young man who is doomed -- and a merciful God who gives him twenty-eight days of a life that never existed, in which to become a hero and a rebel, and to find love.

Indeed, in some ways Donnie Darko can be seen as an extravagantly quirky entry into the list of Great Romantic Comedies. Despite the frustrations, it is completely watchable. Yet it is also completely surprising. You never know what is going to happen.

And while it is every bit as innovative and strange as the brilliant but brittle Being John Malkovich, it also has such depth of heart as to leave you gasping at the end. It is filled with the kind of yearning, the kind of love for humanity that made William Saroyan's The Human Comedy (both novel and film) so moving and so funny and so tragic all at once.

The cast is also extraordinary, especially Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Mary McDonnell. And it's fun to see Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross coming back in films that show them off better than the films they did in their heyday.

Many of you reading this review would probably hate this movie because it really isn't clear. (The DVD's "deleted scenes" provide much that I wish had been left in the released version of the film, but the text explanations delve way too much into the claptrap sci-fi; exploring it too deeply is ultimately a distraction.)

But many of you will think, as I do, that this is a masterpiece that makes you aware of just how silly, empty, and shallow Citizen Kane is.

What Citizen Kane pretends to be, Donnie Darko really is.

It's worth pointing out that this film exists because of Drew Barrymore. Despite her limitations as an actor -- and they are many and severe -- Barrymore is so likeable that it's hard to care how little talent she has when she's on the screen. And off the screen, she is fearless in bringing us wonderful, difficult, deeply human and loving movies.

*

And the cool thing is, half the most-touted movies of the year haven't even come out yet. What a great season to be a movie fanatic! And what a frustrating one to be a person with limited time ...


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