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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 7, 2003

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


T3, Charlie's Angels 2, Dusty Drake, and Randy Travis

The Terminator and Terminator 2:Judgment Day were James Cameron's achievements -- some think of them as his finest work.

When Terminator burst onto the movie scene in 1984, it was obvious that a whole new sensibility had come to sci-fi monster movies.

While the monster was fearsome enough -- and, occasionally, even fast! -- the real surprise was that there were real characters and a fairly intelligent story.

In those days (and too often even in these), sci-fi movies aren't required to have believable characters -- not by studio executives, and not by audiences.

But James Cameron and his co-writers, then-wife Gale Anne Hurd and William Wisher, Jr., had given the studio more than they bargained for: characters that the audience would remember and care about.

So when the sequel came out, script by James Cameron and William Wisher, Jr., it is no surprise that the audience would come back, partly to see the cool new monster duke it out with Arnold Schwarzenegger's old model, but partly to see the human story continue.

But Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was not so promising. Cameron wasn't there to direct it. And while he and Hurd have a writing credit, it's only for coming up with the characters. The screenplay is credited to Michael Ferris and John Brancato, with Tedi Sarafian getting a story credit (which probably suggests an early draft).

In other words, it had disaster written all over it. You know what I mean. Like Dumb and Dumberer, it was capitalizing on a great name in filmmaking -- but with none of the original creators involved in the project.

So I have very good news for all of you who, like me, thought the first two films were extraordinarily good.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is every bit as good.

It might, just might, be better.

Ferris and Brancato wrote that Michael Douglas thriller The Game and the deeply flawed Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net. I guess they needed a title with lots more words in it to show what they could really do. Or maybe they needed Jonathan Mostow as director.

Mostow was director and co-writer of the taut -- but human -- thrillers Breakdown and U-571. You may remember Breakdown as Kurt Russell's best movie ever. Like Cameron, Mostow has a way of making terrific movies when cheap thrillers are called for.

He has stepped into Cameron's shoes, now that Cameron seems to shoot only movies that need a wetsuit.

I'm simply not going to tell you the story -- the title says about all you need to know, if you've seen the previous movies.

The cool thing is that even if you haven't seen the first two movies, everything you need to know is contained in this film.

I went with my wife, who had never seen a Terminator movie for the excellent reason that despite having Linda Hamilton in the lead, they did not look like her kind of movie.

Neither did this one. She went only to be with me. Such is love.

But at the end of the movie, her response was identical to mine. "What a great movie. I'm so glad I saw it."

There's plenty of suspense, but the human dilemmas, the desperate attempts to do the right thing in the face of terrible loss and grief are more important. There are plenty of explosions and a car chase with nontraditional vehicles and cool new powers for the newest generation of big-breasted Terminator. Lots of guy stuff.

But, true to the spirit of the two previous movies, there's plenty of stuff to keep a woman interested as well. And Mostow never goes for cheap gore effects. There is violence, but the worst things are implied or just off camera. This film is supposed to make you feel and think and care -- not puke.

And the cast? Well, Schwarzenegger is in fine form (pay no attention to that candid shot -- buff bodies only look so buff when the muscles are flexed, so candids don't look like what you see on film). And Kristanna Loken as the new Terminator model does a great job.

But the heart of this movie is the powerful, believable acting by Nick Stahl as the grown-up John Connor and Claire Danes as Kate Brewster, his future second-in-command in the human resistance to the rule of the machines.

Yeah, I said Claire Danes. She has finally grown past her old chops from My So-Called Life and Little Women days. In other words, she can do more than cry or be about to cry. She's had some bad movies in recent years, but this one should resurrect her career and move her on toward the front rank of actresses who bring more than a face or body to a film.

And Nick Stahl -- he was a good kid actor in Mel Gibson's Man without a Face, but with this movie he rises out of secondary roles and B movies. At age 24, he's finally got the role that puts him up into the big leagues. Like Brad Pitt, he's got both the face and the acting ability to play all those sensitive-hunk roles.

Terminator 3 has a definite, satisfying ending -- but it also begs for Terminator 4, with the same cast, writers, and director. I hope the studio signs them now.

And I hope that even if you were as skeptical as I was, you'll give this movie a chance to prove itself to you.

*

Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle is another sequel -- naturally, in this Summer of Sequels.

But there's no doubt on this one -- it's better than the first movie.

After the surprise success of the first film, the one Drew Barrymore had to fight to get made, this time the studio threw money at the sequel.

But unlike, say, Speed 2: The Death of the Speed Series, the money wasn't thrown away. Because Drew Barrymore saw to it that the script, direction, and acting never lost the sense of fun.

Of course the action is unbelievable -- but it's terrific fun. And the actors have exactly the right balance of tongue in cheek and serious annoyance at appropriate times.

Cameron Diaz is meant to be the prime eye-candy of the three women (though Demi Moore, at 60 or however old she is -- OK, she's only 41, sorry -- is her chief competition) -- but she's also the one who does the really gross stuff, which is a hoot.

Lucy Liu is supposed to be the genius, but she's also the one whose father gets a mistaken impression of what she does for a living -- and plays the humor to the hilt.

While sweet little Drew Barrymore is the one with the rough past who kicks serious butt.

Demi Moore makes a great villain, and the best bit is when her character gets to kill Bruce Willis (obviously they are both good sports -- though we don't actually see her do it).

There's a cameo by one of the TV angels, Jaclyn Smith, whose prime function was to remind us that none of the original angels could act so we'd realize why the movies work so much better than the tv show did.

And when the Olsen twins show up as "future angels," Carrie Fisher plays a mother superior, and Crispin Glover plays Drew Barrymore's love interest, you know that this movie is the best inside joke Hollywood has played on itself in a decade.

*

I had high hopes for Rugrats Go Wild. The Wild Thornberrys movie last year was sweet and entertaining, and I enjoyed Rugrats in Paris. So what could go wrong with combining them?

Shall I tell you what goes wrong? Apparently neither writing team felt responsible for making it a good movie. It turns out to be a disappointing stunt.

There are fun moments, but they're few and far between. As my nine-year-old said, "I liked it, but it didn't have a point."

The first Thornberrys movie did have a point. So it could have been done.

This one doesn't kill brain cells like the Jimmy Neutron movie, but the story is nothing but a lot of people doing dumb stuff so that the rugrats could get into and out of unbelievable scrapes in unbelievable ways.

*

I bought Dusty Drake's first album (titled, unsurprisingly, Dusty Drake) because of the song "One Last Time."

At first glance, you might think that a song about a cellphone call to his wife from a man on board a plane that's about to go down would join the Death-song Hall of Shame, along with "Teen-Angel" and "Tell Laura I Love Her."

Instead, it's a restrained, truthful song about last words between good people who get that precious moment to say good-bye and if you can finish it with dry eyes, then I urge you to come back and rejoin the human race.

So tonight I've been listening to the whole album, and there's not a clunker song on it. Dusty Drake is new, but he'll be around for more albums.

Speaking of new country albums, don't you love what Randy Travis is doing with Rise and Shine? His gravelly, unpretentious voice is perfect for this collection of Christian songs -- because it never feels like he's preaching at you or putting on a phony religiosity.

Instead, it seems to come out of a solid faith that isn't afraid to have a sense of humor. For instance, the song about baptizing the worst sinner in town, called "Pray for the Fish," is hilarious.

And, of course, there's the single that's been touching hearts on the airwaves for the last few weeks: "Three Wooden Crosses." That may be the jewel of the album, but it would still be a good cd without it.

Not all the songs on Andy Griggs's Freedom are memorable, but the good ones are. Especially "Practice Life," which is a powerful anthem, even if I don't agree with every idea in it.

*

I've had friends urge me to read Tad Williams's fantasy novels for years. And so I finally picked one up -- his new standalone novel, War of the Flowers.

Reading the opening chapters, before the main character finds out he's living in a magical universe, I really liked the way Williams showed a life in collapse.

Keep in mind that the woes of an aging, never-made-it rock musician are deeply uninteresting to me by definition, and when you add to that the fact that this character doesn't actually do anything -- his whole life is reactive and disappointing even to him -- and this should be a recipe for boredom.

Instead, Williams makes him so engaging and self-comprehending that I found myself trusting him as a writer.

The trouble is, the novel is a fantasy, and I just couldn't bring myself to like or care about the leftover up-dated faerie stuff. It's as if a really good writer took a lot of care with writing a realistic novel, and then a careless rewriter came in and spilled a lot of fairy-punk stuff all over it.

The trouble is, it was the same writer. Bummer, huh?

But just because I didn't care much for his updated Faerie doesn't mean that you'll feel the same way, and the parts that I did care about are very good indeed. He's certainly a writer that I'll read again.

Joan Aiken's YA fantasy The Whispering Mountain would have worked for me -- the story's quite enjoyable, and her evocation of the terrors and friendships of youth should have succeeded. But apparently she decided that because the characters were Welsh, and some were thieves, she had to bury the story in so much thieves' cant and Welsh terms and phonetic spellings of accented English that the thing is as unreadable in spots as the dialect comedy of Artemis Ward.

There's such a thing as "too much," but apparently nobody told Aiken when she got to that point. So unless you really love being stopped cold by trying to pronounce the unpronounceable and decode the indecipherable, this book is hard to enjoy as much as the story warrants.

*

If you find yourself, for whatever reason, in a place even rainier than North Carolina has been for the past six months -- i.e., Bellevue, Washington, just across the lake from Seattle -- then let me tell you where to go for a great meal.

First stop would be Firenze, a truly fine Italian restaurant in an unprepossessing shopping center across from a multiplex and a Circuit City. We just had a wedding breakfast there, and even with the relatively limited menu for an event like that, the food really blew me away. And the service was superb -- right down to satisfying a few picky eaters with items that weren't on our pre-chosen menu.

And in an office tower, if you can run the maze of signless passages (the entrance to the restaurant from the parking garage is just past the restrooms -- and is completely unmarked), check out Sea Star. Inventive and memorably good sea food. Have you ever heard of white salmon? I hadn't, but those who had the dish report it as some of the best salmon they've ever had.

*

I'm looking forward to seeing the production of Annie at the Carolina Theatre July 10-20, but by the time I get a chance to see it it will be too late to review it!

This is a tough show to mount in community theatre -- like Oliver! and The King and I it requires tons of talented children, and according to all reports I've heard, Greensboro's stagestruck parents came through with a good crop.

There are two Annies, and while both of them intend to punish us for being alive by singing "Tomorrow" -- the script requires it, sorry -- the rest of the show can actually be great fun and believe me, it's a better bet as a family night out than Rugrats Go Wild.

*

Remember last summer, when I reviewed the Snow Camp productions? Well, "Pathway to Freedom" has all-new costumes and director Jerry Argetsinger promises that it's even better than last year's show. Plus, later in the summer they're going to mount Big River, which is an excellent musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn. I think it's well worth the drive through the goat farms of North Carolina to get to Snow Camp. Seeya there!


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