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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 25, 2004

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


Oscar Noms, Golden Globes, Whale Rider, and In America

The Dixie Cup people (actually Georgia-Pacific) have come out with a new line of "Dixie Ware" disposable plastic containers. Designed for microwaving, they have vents on the top (which open outward from the middle, so don't try to pry them up on the edge!). We're completely sold on these at our house -- though the large sizes don't fit comfortably in any but the tallest microwave ovens.

*

The Oscar nominations are out, and it's a credible list for Best Picture: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; Lost in Translation; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Mystic River; Seabiscuit.

I was delighted that Cold Mountain did not get nominated for Best Picture, so there is no nightmare scenario (like the years when the vile American Beauty or the tediously pretentious Out of Africa embarrassed the Academy by winning).

Of course there are films I liked lots better than some of those nominated.

In America and Peter Pan and Pirates of the Caribbean and Open Range and Finding Nemo (which has been safely relegated to certain victory in the Animated Feature category), Love Actually and Whale Rider and The Last Samurai and Matchstick Men and The Italian Job -- I think every one of these was a better movie than, say, Master and Commander, which suffered from a vague script and a vacuum at the center of the film where Jack Aubrey's character should have been (not Russell Crowe's fault -- it's that way in the script).

And then when you consider that the Oscars traditionally ignore comedies that don't deal with "serious social issues," there are quite a few really outstanding films that are certainly as worthy of consideration as some of the nominees: Big Fish, Secondhand Lions, Bruce Almighty, Holes, Freaky Friday, and Anger Management all come to mind.

But all of this is moot. This is the last chance for Lord of the Rings to receive an Oscar, and if it doesn't, that will be a worse stain on the Academy's history than the Best Picture award for The English Patient.

The trouble is that Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is represented this year by only one-third of a movie: Return of the King. And if you compare only this third installment with the other nominated films, how can it be the best picture of the year? The only way it can win is if it is considered as a work in its entirety -- all three parts, released in separate years, considered to be in contention this year.

Lord of the Rings is not a perfect film. Too much film-school thinking went into the script -- beefing up the part of Arwen (Liv Tyler) with a phony "choice" just ate up screen time and did nothing for the story; leaving out the "Scouring of the Shire" stripped away several vital themes and made the multiple endings seem far longer; and Faramir's part (the character Tolkien said was closest to himself) was morally muddied and then discarded by the end.

The greatest weakness, though, was in the direction of Elijah Wood's portrayal of Frodo. Wood's natural tendency has always been to play "dark," and the director should have guided him to create a much more happy-go-lucky hobbit at the beginning so that there would be at least a slight difference between the Frodo who had never touched the ring and the Frodo who had been nearly destroyed by it.

But other elements of the film vastly improved on the book. The Armies of the Dead were far more compelling than in the book; the battle for Gondor was marvelously envisioned, making the flow of events clear and emotionally powerful. The filming of Shelob was brilliantly done. It was good to have the humor of the relationship between Gimli and Legolas extended beyond the book. And Merry and Pippin were made far more interesting and entertaining in the film than the book ever achieved.

Above all, Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee and Andy Serkis as Gollum emerged as the two central characters of the movie. Both actors gave brilliant performances, completely compensating for the thuddingly melancholy Frodo, and it's a shame that both of them were ignored for the Supporting Actor Oscar in favor of such relative lightweights as Alec Baldwin and the ever-incoherent but oh-so-intense Benicio del Toro.

*

If you haven't seen Whale Rider, you might be surprised to find the name of unknown child-actress Keisha Castle-Hughes on the list of Best Actress nominees. But if you have seen the film, then you will know that the award is hers by rights.

I didn't see Whale Rider in the theater because, from the title alone, I assumed it was an animal-centered kid flick.

Well, that was a mistake. This is not a kids' movie (though mature children will enjoy it). It's the story of the family of the hereditary chiefs of the Maoris, the first settlers of New Zealand. Because the heir to the aging chief has rejected his role and is off in Europe doing art, the chief is trying to train young boys to be worthy successors. Meanwhile, his granddaughter, Pai -- played by Castle-Hughes -- knows that she is the chosen successor and struggles to convince her grandfather of this -- without showing disrespect for him or the traditions she aspires to continue.

Usually stories like this follow the plot of Friendly Persuasion or Bend It Like Beckham -- the people who try to uphold the Old Ways are eventually forced to realize that the old traditions just can't stand up in the face of the Modern World. The message is always that Times Change and you have to adapt.

And in a sense, Whale Rider follows this pattern -- the old man does have to deal with the radical idea that a female might be his successor as chief. But the whole point of the film is that this young girl is not turning away from the old ways, she is upholding them, and by embracing her in the role of heir, the old man would be guaranteeing that the Maori tradition would continue -- in defiance of the debilitating Modern World that is destroying two generations of Maori men.

And in the midst of this very serious theme -- with the mythic undertones that lead to a beautiful, moving climax involving whales that have deliberately beached themselves -- we get to watch a young actress give a performance of such astonishing power and subtlety and range that it took my breath away.

I don't want to say "anybody can cry," because in fact that's hard to do on screen, repeating the emotion in take after take. But what Keisha Castle-Hughes does is so far beyond merely "crying" that in the scene where she struggles through her speech to her grandfather, despite her tears of disappointment because he isn't there to hear her, it is almost unbelievable that one actress could wring that many different emotions, different thoughts, out of a scene that could so easily have been nothing more than sentimental.

I was hard-pressed to think of an adult actress who could have done as well. Maybe Helen Hunt -- a previous and well-deserving Best Actress winner.

Rent or buy this movie for Castle-Hughes's performance; you'll end up enjoying it for the sake of all the actors, all the characters, the writing, the filming. Your life will be better for having this story in your memory.

*

Another deserving Best Actress nominee this year is Samantha Morton, for her exquisitely nuanced portrayal of the mother, Sarah, in the astonishing Irish-UK film In America.

The trailers for this film made it look like a horror film -- sort of The Shining, only with an Irish family in Manhattan. What a hideous mistake they made by promoting this movie that way -- false expectations bring the wrong audience to a film, and keep the right audience away.

If anything, this movie is the opposite of a horror film. It's a love story -- not a romance, but a story of love that transforms people and takes them past the worst thing in the world and on into hope and happiness.

An Irish family slips into America illegally, for the father, Johnny (played with powerful simplicity by Paddy Considine), to pursue his acting career.

In reality, however, they are trying to escape the death of their son and brother, Frankie, whose absence is a pain that stabs at all of them all the time. For the sake of the two daughters, Christy and Ariel, played beautifully by sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, the parents try to keep up not just the facade but the reality of happiness.

Into their life comes an angel of sorts -- not the pretentious, arty literalism of the hateful, self-righteous Angels in America, but a character who comes into their lives like the answer to a prayer or the granting of a wish. Djimon Hounsou, who was the one good thing in the deeply sick movie Amistad, gives the best performance of his career so far as the man with "Keep Away!" painted on his apartment door.

It's no surprise that the picture of America is the current European cliche -- a place of desperate poverty and crime where if you don't have money you might as well give up and die. But the fact is there are inequities in American life, and such places do exist, even though the vast majority of Americans -- even the poor ones -- do not live like that. And the message of the film is not anti-American; indeed, it's not about America at all, except perhaps as a land of hope.

In some ways this movie struck too close to home for me. I doubt I'll be able to bear to watch it again. But that's because it is so truthful and unflinching, and frankly, on some matters I prefer to flinch most of the time. In a way, this movie is about exactly the same thing as Peter Pan -- the loss of children and the hole it leaves in a family's life. And seeing this film makes me appreciate the way that the fantasy of Peter Pan both softens and clarifies the nearly unbearable subject matter.

Yet both approaches are worthy ones, and In America's achievement is a great one. From the credits it appears that this film may be an intensely personal one in the family of director and co-writer Jim Sheridan; if so, I salute them for having such courage and understanding, as well as talent, for this is not an easy thing to do.

And what a great year this has been for child actors! To the extraordinary cast of Peter Pan and the Oscar-worthy performance of Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, we must add the sweet and truthful acting of the Bolger sisters in In America.

*

I also saw Mona Lisa Smile this week. The best way to understand this film is as a faith-promoting Sunday school story in the Church of Political Correctness. It does for feminism what Rev. Weems's story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree did for American patriotism -- a tissue of lies, but it makes true believers feel so good.

It's hard to imagine such good acting being wasted on a more dishonest script. Oh, there's lip service to the idea that it's OK for some women to choose marriage over career, but the overwhelming, pounded-home message of this movie is that even the life of a promiscuous, self-destructive alcoholic is better than that of a vacuum-pushing child-rearing housewife.

Every character (except the one token) who upholds the old social order is portrayed as stiff and uptight and, usually, evil. All the men are portrayed as selfish controlling lying exploiters of women.

All that's missing to keep us from instantly recognizing the cheap melodrama for what it is is a bit of moustache-twirling on the part of the villainous mother.

But as the credits roll and we see a mocking montage of old commercials and ads for housewifely appliances, let's keep in mind how hard society struggled in the 19th century to liberate women from the necessity of working for a living, so that not just in the upper classes, but in the middle class and eventually the laboring class, they could stay home and take care of their children.

In the old days, to have a clean and healthy house and well-clothed, well-educated children required that one parent be at home, working continuously. In the families of the poor, where both parents worked in factory jobs, putting children out into sweatshops wasn't just a matter of increasing the family earnings by a pittance -- it was also daycare.

So when society gradually reordered itself during the 1800s and early 1900s so women were freed from the necessity of working and were able to raise their children themselves; when our values changed so that the idea of parents raising their own children in a home full of kindness and light became regarded as a basic necessity instead of a dream -- it was one of the crowning achievements of our civilization.

And vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and automatic washing machines and dryers weren't tools of slavery, as this film pretends -- they were liberators. Anyone who has ever moved the furniture and hauled the carpets out to beat them clean on the line will bless the name of Mr. Hoover and his vacuum, as surely as anyone who works or lives on the sixth floor or higher will kneel before the shrine to Mr. Otis. Only a generation of spoiled and ignorant babies would ridicule the tools that brought leisure time to every social class in our modern world.

Mona Lisa Smile represents the ideology of the barbarians who destroyed it. The worst problem in society wasn't that men had interesting, fulfilling lives and women were stuck in the boring home -- just how "fulfilling" did they think most men's jobs were? The truth was that what America needed was to get the men back into the home, not to get the women out of it. Now we've reordered ourselves so that once again, most children are being raised at least in part by strangers, and women are judged, like men, by their careers, instead of men being judged, like women, by the happiness and civilized behavior of their children.

Before the Great Anti-Family Revolution of the 1960s congratulates itself, as it does at tedious length in this beautifully made pack of lies, perhaps it ought to take a good hard look at what the revolution has cost us, compared to its supposed benefits.

But then, this film is set in a world where it is considered rewarding to "study" a Jackson Pollack canvas, and traditional art -- which actually has content -- isn't worth a second glance.

Though the writer of this film deserves credit for the truly moving scene near the end, with a room full of paint-by-numbers Van Goghs made into individual works of art and expressions of love. But, of course, the writer threw the moment away, apparently embarrassed at seeming sentimental, by having the heroine rudely walk out.

Self-congratulatory pretentious flummery has its rewards, however: sixty-two million at the box office and counting ...

*

As we move into Oscar season, here are some more assessments of the movies of 2003:

Worst movie of the year: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

This is a difficult category. Of course there are lots of very bad movies, but to qualify as the very worst, a movie has to be exceedingly stupid or boring or incoherent in spite of having a lot of money, a lot of talent, a lot of potential, and/or a lot of hype involved. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen may be the stupidest, most incoherent, most boring movie ever made, while pretending to be clever.

Runners-up: Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Rugrats Go Wild!, The Incredible Hulk, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Dumb and Dumberer, Daredevil.

The Incredible Hulk deserves special mention if only because it had Ang Lee, one of our most brilliant tellers of character stories, as the director. Here's a clue: When you have a budget of billions, try spending some of it on making the monster look believable. But the real problem was, as usual, the script: If this story had been told in chronological order, we might have actually cared about the characters. But because everything that made the character interesting and sympathetic had to be withheld until a "reveal" near the end, we were left with nothing but cardboard cut-outs on the screen.

And Daredevil raises the same question as Pearl Harbor in 2001: Why is Ben Affleck considered a star? Is there a movie in which he has shown some spark of talent? Or even of enough personality to be considered a "screen presence"? This is an actor whose talent and personality suit him to play the boring best friend, the one you don't remember is in the movie, the one whose role is to move the story forward without distracting from the performance of the dazzling, talented star. When the camera moves in on Affleck for a closeup, you look into his eyes and see that he's asking the same terrifying question as the audience: Why is Ben Affleck in this movie?

Good movie that was still a disappointment: The Matrix: Revolution. Ultimately, the paradoxes and questions raised so many expectations that the answers, when they finally came, were disappointingly mundane. Oh, is that all? But it was a wonderful ride, and well worth seeing -- and it helped revive the long-neglected idea that sci-fi movies can actually demand that the audience think an occasional thought.

Movie that should have been awful and wasn't: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Come on, it was a cynical sequel without the participation of the original creator of the series, James Cameron. But director Jonathan Mostow and a team of inventive writers, along with a very good cast, made what could have been a pot-boiler into a film with a lot of heart and even a little bit of mind.

Runners-up: Uptown Girls, Luther, Charlie's Angles: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II.

Vanity production that should never have been made: It Runs in the Family. The money that was spent on this stinker could have gone to make a real movie, with an actual story. Whoever greenlighted it should get the Hollywood Suckup of the Year award.

*

Oh, yeah. The Golden Globes.

Stupidest thing anybody said: Meryl Streep couldn't resist injecting a little Leftist politics with a jab at George W. Bush for including in his State of the Union message a call for American athletics to clean up its act and get rid of steroids. First, Ms. Streep, only stupid people could think that this was one of the two main points in the State of the Union address. Second, only people with their heads in the sand or their hearts totally involved in their own mirror could ridicule an effort to stop kids from poisoning themselves and wrecking their bodies in order to compete in athletics.

Class act: Michael Douglas in his acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille award. Or maybe he just looked classy by contrast with the memory of Barbra Streisand's self-worship in 1999. Anyway, it was good to remember that beyond being an actor with some genuine accomplishments, Douglas has also played a significant role in film history as a producer or executive producer of such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Starman, The China Syndrome, and Flatliners.

Worst Dress: Nicole Kidman's designer-inflicted embarrassment -- which she compounded by adjusting it during her time at the microphone as a presenter.

Best Acceptance Speech: Bill Murray's delightfully caustic standup routine.

Most Deserved Awards: to Diane Keaton for her brilliant comic turn in Something's Gotta Give; to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King for best picture, best director, best original song, and best music; and to 24 for best TV drama series.

The "just what you'd expect" prize: To all the self-congratulatory, smug, and condescending acceptance speeches for the awards given to the self-congratulatory, smug, condescending, and hate-filled Angels in America. You'd think they had cured AIDS with this movie, instead of merely slandering people who don't believe in their PC religion.


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