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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 22, 2004

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


So 5 Minutes, Drama Queen, Mooseport, Oscar Picks

So Five Minutes Ago may be the best Hollywood novel I've ever read. Hilary de Vries, who has reported on the movie industry for many years, has a keen eye for the culture and isn't afraid to let her characters have outrageously accurate opinions of many a Hollywood icon.

But what makes this novel so delightful is that de Vries is a terrific writer. She lets her characters be witty without ever intruding to remind us that the novelist is even funnier. Humor in fiction is very hard to bring off, particularly when a writer doesn't understand that novels rarely do sight gags well. De Vries knows the rules; her humor arises out of character and language and, as always, pain.

Her main character, a woman named Alex Davidson, got to Hollywood entirely by accident, and it might just be the mistake of her life. Not that she isn't doing well -- as a publicist, she's top notch. But her publicity agency has just been acquired by a company that is run by the kind of egocentric monster that is unfortunately all too common in Hollywood. (I've met a couple myself, and they're real. Everybody hates them, but they have to do business with the monsters all the same.)

Sure, yes, this is a love story, too. But mostly it's the story of trying to find something real in all the falseness, and what emerges is surprisingly sweet and fine. In a good Hollywood novel, you spend a lot of time in the mud, but in the best of them, you also find some gold. Because that, too, is real, even in Tinseltown.

*

If you think it's too long between Opera Babes albums, check out the album The Opera Band from a group called Amici Forever. (Amici is Italian for "friends.") I've listened to it three times already and I love it.

With some of the same energy and pop sensibility as the Opera Babes, Amici Forever aren't as brilliant: One of the men has a lot less voice than he thinks, and one of the women has a vibrato so wide you could drive a truck through it.

But I'd be glad to have any of them in my church choir.

And in this new category of pop opera, Amici Forever make a terrific debut -- may many others join them in bringing opera back to life as a popular musical form.

*

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen sounded like my kind of movie, so I was going to go whether my nine-year-old wanted to or not.

She did want to go -- and so did the rest of the family. We all enjoyed it. But I think I enjoyed it most. I know I laughed the loudest.

It's a very theatrical movie, in every sense of the word. The main character, a teenage girl who calls herself Lola (Lindsay Lohan), has been moved by her mother (Glenne Headly) from Manhattan to a house in New Jersey. She's sure it's the end of her hope of becoming a world-famous actress.

She quickly makes a friend -- Ella (Alison Pill), a strait-laced girl who always follows the rules. They share a love for the rock group Sid Arthur, and when the group breaks up, they are determined to attend their last concert - and the private party afterward.

What complicates everything is Lola's penchant for dramatizing her life - or, as other people might call it, "lying." The odd thing is that her real life is actually quite interesting, while her fantasy life is very much like a lot of other teenage girls' fantasies.

This could have been so ordinary. And while Lohan is a talented performer (she was good in Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap), she is limited as an actress.

But the writing of this film is surprising -- it doesn't sound Hollywood at all. Perhaps that means that screenwriter Jerry Leider was true to the tone of Dyan Sheldon's wonderful YA novel.

And the supporting cast is truly extraordinary. Carol Kane is absolutely brilliant as the drama teacher -- only Joan Cusack is in her league when it comes to creating believably, charmingly insane characters -- while Alison Pill gives this film a grounding in reality.

With Adam Garcia absolutely stunning as Stu, the singer-songwriter from Sid Arthur; Eli Marienthal warmly believable as maybe-boyfriend Sam; and Glenne Headly (Tess Trueheart from Dick Tracy) luminous as the mom, I don't know how this movie could have been better cast. I want to see them all again in films to come.

Here it is, folks: a teen-centered film that is about something other than trying to have sex or getting killed by a slasher. It's funny enough that I laughed out loud many times; it's well-written and well-acted; and if the storyline feels slight, just keep in mind that it's a comedy, for pete's sake.

Of course, if your idea of comedy is Elf or Lost in Translation, then stay away from this movie -- you aren't grownup enough yet.

*

It's not a good sign that one of the people I saw Welcome to Mooseport with slept through the last hour of the movie.

Then again, in telling her what happened in the last hour, I was reminded how much I enjoyed the movie.

Mooseport exists primarily as a vehicle for bringing Ray Romano from TV to the movies -- the way The Santa Clause gave Tim Allen a movie career.

Both were high concept movies, but Mooseport couldn't make up its mind what kind of career Ray Romano wants to have.

On the one hand, Mooseport, the story of a smalltown mayoral election between a popular ex-president and a local hardware store owner, is broad comedy -- goin' for the gags, rather the way Bringin' Down the House did. That's the movie that Gene Hackman (as the ex-President), Fred Savage (as his aide), Rip Torn (as the campaign consultant) and Christine Baranski (as his ex-wife) are in -- and they do a terrific job.

But the rest of the time, Mooseport is trying to be a gentle, realistic romantic comedy, rather like Sweet Home Alabama. That's the movie Marcia Gay Harden (as the ex-president's trusted secretary) and Maura Tierney (as Ray Romano's longtime girlfriend) are in.

Either of them would have been a first-rate movie of that type. Together, though, they interfere with each other -- especially because Romano is spectacularly ill-suited for the first kind. Unlike Tim Allen, who mugs shamelessly, Romano's style is deadpan, and when he tries for broad comedy, it just doesn't work, especially when he's sharing the screen with such masters of muggery as Gene Hackman, Rip Torn, and Christine Baranski.

Aw, forget the over-analysis. This movie is a lot of fun and deserves to be doing better at the box office than it is -- that's what happens when you open in the shadow of 50 First Dates.

Don't take the kids -- it would bore them silly -- but sneak out yourself and see it. It's a pretty darn good grown-up comedy, and if you want to see more comedies for grownups (instead of Jack Black or Will Ferrell monstrosities), you have to support the ones that come close.

*

Uncle Orson's Oscar Picks: who should win (in bold), and who probably will win (in italics). Keep in mind that while my opinions are always exactly right, my predictions are rarely better than fifty percent. Besides, I'd rather have my favorites win than be proven cynically right.

Best picture: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Mystic River. (And in my nightmares, they give it to Lost in Translation, at which point you can start transplanting organs out of the Academy, because it'll be proof they're brain dead.)

Animated Feature: Finding Nemo. If this award goes to any other movie, it's a joke.

Best actor: Johnny Depp (in Pirates of the Caribbean). Bill Murray (in Lost in Translation).

Best actress: Keisha Castle-Hughes (in Whale Rider). Diane Keaton (in Something's Gotta Give -- but she's a close second to Castle-Hughes, and I won't mind a bit if she wins).

Best supporting actor: Djimon Hounsou (in In America; my close second choice, Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai). Benicio del Toro (in 21 Grams; because for some reason this inarticulate actor is a favorite in Hollywood).

Best supporting actress: Marcia Gay Harden (in Mystic River). Holly Hunter (in Thirteen).

Music (score): LOTR: Return of the King. Cold Mountain.

Music (song): I have no opinion and couldn't care less. This category is usually embarrassing these days anyway. The days are long since over when the best songwriters would debut their best songs in a movie.

Costume design: LOTR: Return of the King.

Makeup: LOTR: Return of the King.

Art direction: Seabiscuit. LOTR: The Return of the King.

Visual effects: Pirates of the Caribbean. LOTR: The Return of the King. (Look, this category is a tossup between these two movies anyway. But LOTR already showed us this stuff last year and the year before; Pirates brought us things we'd never seen before.)

Cinematography: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Cold Mountain. (Anybody can point a camera at beautiful scenery; shooting a convincing sea picture is extraordinarily difficult.)

Film editing: Seabiscuit. LOTR: Return of the King. (Pulling the horse races together so they made sense was tough enough, but this story flowed like music even though we jumped around from place to place and year to year like no other movie this year.)

Writing (adapted): Seabiscuit. Mystic River. (In the novel Mystic River, the movie was obvious and fairly easy to find; in the book Seabiscuit, the movie was barely discernible, and to make such a clear, affecting movie was a real achievement. Of course, there's always the chance that they'll give it to LOTR: Return of the King -- though of the three parts of LOTR, this is the one that makes the most serious mistakes in adapting Tolkien's work for the screen.)

Writing (original): Finding Nemo (with In America a close second). Lost in Translation. (Comedy is the hardest thing to write well -- Finding Nemo is a brilliant comedy. Lost in Translation is neither funny nor clever. It's only nominated because so few people in the academy can tell pretentious self-indulgence from actual quality. The Writer's Guild has already proven that even the professional writers can be snowed by by-the-numbers drivel like this.)

Directing: LOTR: Return of the King. This year, with previous-winner Clint Eastwood and sock-puppet Sofia Coppola as the main competition, they'll have to give it to Peter Jackson for one of the finest directorial achievements in the history of film.

Categories that should exist, but don't:

Best voice acting performance: Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo.

Best family film:

The nominees: Cheaper by the Dozen, Freaky Friday, Holes, Peter Pan, Whale Rider. My pick would be Peter Pan, but what a great list of wonderful films, don't you think? When they all come out on DVD, this is the list of films that you'll want to own and see again with your kids.

Best comedy film:

The nominees should be: Anger Management, Bringing Down the House, Bruce Almighty, Love Actually, Something's Gotta Give.

The nominees, if the category actually existed, probably would be: Elf, Intolerable Cruelty, Lost in Translation, The Mighty Wind, The School of Rock.

So out of the first list, I would choose Love Actually, and would feel good about any of them winning; and out of the second list, the actual nominees, I would have to kill myself rather than see any of them get an Oscar. So maybe it's just as well that this category doesn't exist.

No, that's just me being cynical. If the category existed, Elf would have made way too much money to be nominated; Love Actually is just arty enough to have been among the actual nominees, and it would win, and I would be glad.

Forgotten movies:

As you look back on 2003 -- which was a great year for film -- don't forget these other good movies that weren't nominated for best picture, even in my nonexistent categories:

My A-list -- I enjoyed and admired these as substantial achievements in film: The Italian Job, The Last Samurai, Matchstick Men, Open Range, Runaway Jury.

Good movies that I recommend and will own on DVD: Brother Bear, Luther, Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolutions, Out of Time, Secondhand Lions, Tears of the Sun, Terminator 3, Uptown Girls, X2

Guilty pleasures that I can't recommend to just anyone, but will own and watch myself: Bad Boys II, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Head of State, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Looney Toons: Back in Action, Willard.

Movies that grossed over 35 million bucks but are so spectacularly bad that those responsible for making them should sit in the penalty box and make no movies at all for at least a year: The Cat in the Hat (100+), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (69.9), Hulk (132), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (66.5), Mona Lisa Smile (63.5+), Rugrats Go Wild! (39.4).


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