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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 10, 2003

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


Freaky Friday, Hope, Movie Lists, and the Great American Concert

Steve Martin in All of Me.

Tom Hanks in Big.

It's hard to play a kid in an adult body. And it's even harder to come up with a script that makes it worth doing. Heaven knows there have been plenty of miserable attempts that were just embarrassing -- because of both the acting and the writing.

But I have another one to add to the good list: Freaky Friday. Not the original one -- I've never seen that. I mean the new remake with the talented and endearing Jamie Lee Curtis as the shrink whose body is suddenly occupied by her teenage daughter, and Lindsay Lohan as the daughter whose body is inhabited by her mother.

The script (by Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon) is terrific -- once you accept the absurd premise. But even here, it isn't just random chance when they switch bodies -- a meddling "Asian voodoo" practitioner sees the mother and daughter quarreling and "fixes" it ... not knowing that it's only two days till the mother's wedding.

Not only that, but the daughter's garage band has a chance to audition for a real gig that would turn their dreams into reality. At the very same time as the rehearsal dinner.

All the gags you might expect are there. But there are also things you wouldn't expect. Tenderness. Generosity. Discoveries that feel real.

Take the men, for instance. They should be nothing but stereotypes, if the movie were just played for laughs. Oh, isn't it funny how they don't understand what's going on!

And it is funny. But Mark Harmon as the mom's fiancé is warm and believable, and the writers gave him a chance to show himself as a mensch.

Dawson's Creek survivor Chad Murray, as Jake, the guy the daughter is falling for, is given a chance to be far more than an icon of cool. He actually is far more of a rule-keeper than the daughter is; and when he finds himself falling for the mom -- or, rather, the daughter-inside-the-mom -- it's not for the body, it's for the mind, the self, the soul.

In fact, he was so good that I and the people I saw it with felt that there was one scene missing from the movie -- the scene after they've gotten back into the right bodies, where Jake could find out that the woman he loved was actually there inside the girl.

No matter. One missing scene doesn't wreck the movie.

Lohan is actually much better as the stern mother than she is as the teenage girl -- one of the problems of being a child actor (she was the twins in the Parent Trap remake of a few years ago) is that you sometimes end up not knowing what kids are like.

Curtis, as one should expect, is wonderful in both roles. It's about time she got a role that was up to the level of her talents, instead of the stuff she's always had to settle for.

I laughed -- a lot. So it succeeds as a comedy.

I also cried a couple of times, when people achieved real understanding and performed acts of kindness for each other.

Can you believe it? A movie from Disney that's actually better than it needed to be.

*

Bob Hope was not the first person to stand up and tell jokes. He was just the first one to become a Great American by doing it.

Bob Hope: My Life in Jokes is a memoir of sorts -- but the memoir portions are brief (to say the least) and the jokes are many.

Some of the jokes are just plain funny. Some are funny when you understand the context. And some only become funny when you imagine Bob Hope himself saying them, with his dry, earnest (yet slightly self-mocking) delivery.

If, like me, you have Bob Hope interlaced in your memories of growing up, then there's a good bit of nostalgia about this book.

And if you're young enough that Bob Hope is just a name to you, or maybe a bad movie on TV (and most of his movies were bad, alas -- though his track record is better than Mel Brooks's), then this book will give you a taste of his humor and an overview of his life, told in his own words.

*

I don't know about you, but I really detest Richard Roeper, the vain but taste-challenged film critic who replaced the much-missed Gene Siskel as Roger Ebert's partner on the thumbs-down, thumbs-up show.

But what could Ebert do? The show clicked because of the banter -- especially Siskel's superior-intellectual stance toward Ebert and Ebert's thinly disguised resentment of it (even as he used it to seize the Everyman role).

Siskel and Ebert could disagree, but you got the idea that both of them, no matter how strongly they held their opinions, understood that, as the Romans used to say, de gustibus non disputandam est.

(I had to toss that in because it really irritates my wife when I use tag lines from foreign languages I don't speak. Especially when there's a perfectly good English phrase with the identical meaning -- in this case, "There's no point in disputing taste.")

(And for those who really felt left out, the sentence was in Latin.)

(Which I don't speak. But I do know how to mispronounce it pretentiously three different ways. And people say I'm not intellectual!)

Roeper doesn't understand -- he thinks that his opinion of a movie is handed down from the Heavenly Opinion Dispensary, and it seems to really upset him when Ebert doesn't accept his judgment.

Yet still I watch -- the way I keep watching Hannity and Colmes, despite the fact that Hannity never seems to grasp his own main point.

As much as Roeper irritates me, I have to report that his book, 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character Is Doomed & Other Surprising Movie Lists is a lot of fun.

It must be. My wife stayed awake for me to read virtually the entire book to her, out loud, late at night.

The list of "actresses who have yet to do a nude scene" is really quite encouraging -- you don't have to take your clothes off to be famous on the screen.

And the list of "12 actors and actresses who took their clothes off when they should have kept them on" is a funny idea -- but then when you read the list, you realize that all Roeper is doing is saying that the bodies of old people and fat people shouldn't be seen.

Well, I agree -- that's why I wear clothing constantly (not comfortable in the shower, but you have to make an aesthetic stand somewhere). But it feels mean to pick on actors who obviously don't think they're gorgeous, and took their clothes off because the script required it.

Plus, I thought Harvey Keitel was kind of cute naked in Bad Lieutenant.

Roeper goes after the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best films of all time -- but unfortunately, his list of "the worst best movies of all time" overlaps with mine on only one film: Rebel Without a Cause. (Everybody overacts dreadfully in that film, mostly because overacting is the only way to keep the script from sounding as stupid as it is.)

His stupidest statement in the whole book was to propose removing West Side Story from the hundred-greatest list ... and replacing it with, of all things, the repulsive, unwatchably bad Moulin Rouge. It's clear, by the end of this book, that Roeper doesn't know from musicals.

Meanwhile, whether you agree or disagree -- and often I found myself agreeing with him -- this book of opinionated lists is great fun for movie buffs.

It's educational, because like all pretentious movie critics, Roeper has to pretend to greatly admire movies that nobody has actually ever seen, so you get to hear of some movies for the first time.

And it's entertaining, because each of his entries is a springboard for everyone to chip in with their own opinions.

Perfect for reading during Joan Rivers's leadup to the Oscars ...

In fact, he has a list of Rivers's worst faux pas (in English, "stupid mistakes") as she greeted celebs on the red carpet in past Oscar ceremonies.

*

People often ask authors where they get their ideas. Others ask authors how they do research.

OK, I know that none of those people is you.

But bear with me here. This will be short.

I get a lot of my ideas by reading history. But not history that has a point -- history that is full of details of daily life.

In other words, incredibly boring history. For instance, take Alison Weir's Henry VIII: The King and His Court. Weir has been writing highly readable English history for my entire life, so this book isn't boring to the casual read because Weir can't write.

It's boring because it's not about anything. There's no ongoing story. No tension.

What there is is an incredible amount of detail about the life of the king's traveling household and the intricate and sometimes deadly maneuvering for power among those near the king -- and those not near him who thought they should have been.

Who knew that strangers, "rascals," and volunteer errand boys could sneak into the king's house with impunity, to rob the servants, vandalize, or try to get people to send them to deliver messages for tips?

That's the kind of thing that opens up story possibilities in a writer's mind. It's thrilling to read books like this -- the way it's thrilling to a born mechanic to see a really broken down old engine that needs to be taken apart, cleaned, and put back together again.

*

I got to see Michael Buble perform last Friday at the Hollywood Bowl. The audience looked larger than any crowd ever assembled in Greensboro -- apart from bass fishing tournaments and monster truck rallies. Certainly there were enough people there to constitute a majority of voters in a school board race.

The Hollywood Bowl has traditions of its own. Like bringing your own food and arriving early so you can eat dinner in your seats before the show. This works better for season ticket holders, who have compartments with tables in them -- but even those of us sitting far enough back to see the Pacific Ocean could pass sandwiches and salads from Gelson's along the row, and share extra Vernor's ginger ales and A&W cream sodas with the people in other rows.

And we weren't even the farthest away from the stage. The people at the very back were given leis and had to change their watches.

Still, the acoustics are great, and in a way having helicopters pass over from time to time sort of adds to the outdoor concert experience. However, we were far enough from the orchestra that there was a time lag between the conductor's beats and when the sound of the orchestral response reached us. Just enough of one that it was quite painful to watch the baton, at least for an old horn player like me.

The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra is one of America's great pops ensembles, able to go from Copland to the overture from Hello Dolly! to a jazzy medley built around "When the Saints Go Marching In." Which, of course, they did -- because this was an annual event they billed as "The Great American Concert."

The first number, "American Hero" (Broughton), was in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. The music sounded like a lot of heroic movie themes and then it was over.

Then the conductor, John Mauceri, gave a monologue -- he called it his state of the union message -- in which he recounted, with Garrison Keiloresque wit, his adventures on a recent cross-country car trip with his family. It was funny, and by the end the audience was in love with him.

Celebrating the 125th anniversary of recorded sound, they presented Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," which ended with a recording (hence the link with the anniversary) of Katharine Hepburn's 1987 reading of the narration that went with it.

Then Carol Channing came out and did a wonderful night club routine, in which her chatter -- including more than a little cattiness -- so endeared her to the audience that we didn't mind a bit that her range is limited and her vibrato as slow as watching a whale breach.

Despite her age -- older than the Pope, I think -- she was able to do kicks that I couldn't do when I was 18. (I could do them now, if I could afford the time in traction afterward.) But she could have recited the phone book -- this lady knows how to own the stage. Every move, every gesture, every look included the audience so that we always felt like we were part of her, the reason she was alive. And, I suppose, we were.

By contrast, Michael Buble, being a youngster who was making his first appearance with an orchestra, was clearly feeling his way. His patter was the sort of thing that works fine in a lounge act, with an audience seated at tables and drinking and murmuring -- he kept calling us "you guys" and gushing in a way that might have been charming to people who could actually see his facial expression. And during the orchestral interludes in his songs, instead of continuing to own the stage the way Carol Channing did, he didn't know where to look -- certainly not at us.

And after the show, when he stayed to sign cds, he let his tiredness show. He wasn't rude, he was just exhausted.

No, Mr. Buble. If you're going to do signings, they're part of the show. This is when your public sees your face. You speak to them as intensely and intimately as if you were singing a love song to them. You don't show how much you wish it were over and you could go home to bed.

That's all right. He's young. He'll have plenty of time to learn.

Because he has the chops to make the long haul. He's got a deep voice like Bing Crosby's, that can be strong and then relax when it needs to -- not like, say, Rick Astley who had only one volume: maximum. He phrases like early Sinatra (though unlike Sinatra, he can actually hit the low notes instead of having to twist his voice to pretend he had hit them), but swings like Bobby Darin. And he has licks that are all his own. And if in one complicated arrangement he drifted sharp and had to correct, well, this was new for him, and the acoustics in a situation like that are shockingly different from those in an enclosed room.

There's a bit of irony in having a Canadian perform in the "Great American Concert," but he was singing from the Great American Songbook, and there was no American who could have done it better.

After Buble, the show ended with the best fireworks display I've ever seen. Not the biggest, the best. It was performed in perfect synch with a medley called "Saints," brassy and jazzy (but also occasionally reflective), and I swear, those fireworks truly were part of the music, the way dancers are part of the music in a good ballet or modern dance. The timing was perfect, so it felt like the fireworks arose from the orchestra, and the sound of the explosions almost always worked exactly like a part of the percussion section.

The Hollywood Bowl would probably be famous because of the architecture and acoustics. But it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if they didn't have wonderful performances there. Because of the quality of the resident orchestra, the programming, and the way that community life is allowed to take place there (instead of regimented no-food-from-outside, don't let them in till ten minutes before starting time rules), the Hollywood Bowl doesn't feels like ... well, it feels like hanging around after church with all your friends. Comfortable.

It's what concert-going ought to be. Nobody's trying to impress anybody. Nobody's there to be rowdy. We're there to form a community around the performance.

You can talk with the people around you. Sing the national anthem with them. Share food and drink. Be yourself -- and yet everyone settles down and listens in silence during the performance.

Well, except for the guy who was so proud of himself whenever he recognized a melody that he had to hum along. Pretty loudly. But if you pretended his voice was the drone of a passing helicopter (and it wasn't far off from that), it blended right in with the surroundings.


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