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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 9, 2004

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


Van Helsing, Kleenex, Smallville, and Chins

I like Hugh Jackman a lot. I thought the premise of Van Helsing sounded promising. I was going to go see it.

Then I was intercepted by several different people, one of whom was my most trusted reviewer, who told me, "Don't bother. It's nothing but one climax after another, with no story between them. Empty. A great cast that was completely wasted. It was exactly as bad as The Mummy Returns."

So I looked at the credits on the Internet Movie Database and discovered that it's no coincidence that it's as bad as The Mummy Returns. It was written and directed by the same guy, Stephen Sommers.

I actually liked two movies Stephen Sommers wrote and directed: The live-action The Jungle Book in 1994, and The Mummy in 1994.

But since then, he has apparently been seduced into thinking that the movie is about the special effects. This is never true. Movies are about the story; the special effects only matter if they are in support of a story that audiences can care about.

So ... what do I do about the fact that Van Helsing has made a hundred million bucks on its first weekend?

Nothing. That hundred million was earned by Hugh Jackman, a cool-sounding premise, and terrific trailers. And there is an audience for whom cool special effects are enough. I'm just not part of it.

The saddest thing about the financial success of Van Helsing is that Sommers will learn all the wrong lessons from it. So his films will keep getting worse and worse, and he'll have no idea why people keep mentioning his name in the same breath with John Hughes, another writer/director who once understood something about truth in storytelling, but gave it all up for elaborate sightgags in big-budget, high concept films, until his name on a movie was a sure sign of schlock.

Eventually the audience catches on. But they sure can make a lot of money fooling most of the people some of the time ...

*

Till now, Kleenex just hasn't worked well for travelers. Yeah, sure, they have those little boxes that say they're for travelers, but the problem is that it's still a box, which doesn't fit into any space conveniently and slides all over a car seat.

And the little teeny pocket packs are great for pockets and purses -- but just try extracting a tissue with one hand while driving.

I am happy to report that the problem is solved. Full-sized Kleenexes now come in a flexible plastic package. It's heavy enough that you can pull tissues out with one hand, and the tissues don't have to be unfolded. They're also big enough to be useful.

Best of all, because they're flexible, you can stash them in a glove box or tuck them in odd corners, and they don't slide around as badly as boxes do. They fit into luggage as easily as a child's t-shirt. And you quickly get used to the slight smell of the talcum powder that they use to keep the tissues from bunching up or sticking to the plastic packaging.

I haven't found this new packaging everywhere -- in fact, I've only seen them at Kyle's Amoco on Elm just north of Pisgah Church, though I'm sure they're available elsewhere.

*

You want to watch something? Check out Smallville on the WB.

I knew Smallville was starting up two and a half years ago, and I knew it was on the WB. But that was back before DVR, so I kept forgetting what night it was on and I finally figured it was a show that would pass me by.

I was almost relieved. Because for me, the good part of the Christopher Reeve Superman back in 1978 was the sequence with Jeff East as Young Clark Kent and Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as his parents. The teenager trying to get used to the idea of his superpowers was the story I wanted to see, and while I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek Christopher Reeve section of the movie, my heart was with Superboy.

So ... because that was the story I cared about, I figured that it would be a real disappointment if the tv series blew it.

Nobody I knew was watching it. I heard little about it. After all, it's on the WB, which doesn't exactly get the biggest audience.

But last fall, in a splurging mood, I blew my allowance on the DVD collection of the first season of Smallville.

And then, still blocked by dread, I didn't watch it until a few weeks ago.

The result was a Smallville marathon. I watched the episodes virtually back to back for three days.

As far as the storytelling goes, they did everything right. Exactly the moral issues and relationship problems that I cared about. It was as if the writers had given me a questionnaire: What, Mr. Card, would you like to see in the first season of Smallville? And then they went over my answers and said, OK, we can do that.

Except they didn't ask me, which means these guys are such geniuses that they didn't need my help to get it right.

It's not just the writing, though. Tom Welling is the perfect Clark Kent, teenager. Instead of the nerdy Clark Kent we got from Christopher Reeve, played for laughs, Welling's Clark Kent in Smallville is not a disguise. He's the real person, and "Superman" is a role he's only beginning to discover -- sometimes with delight, and sometimes with regret, even anger.

The rest of the cast is on a par with Welling. John Schneider and Annette O'Toole as his parents do a good job of being good but imperfect parents who know they're out of their depth in raising this alien kid. Allison Mack as school-newspaper-editor Chloe, is a co-protagonist, almost as complicated as Clark, and Sam Jones III as Clark's friend Pete and Kristin Kreuk as on-again-off-again love interest Lana Lang are both likeable and talented.

What raises Smallville above any of my expectations, however, is the treatment of Lex Luthor, played in glorious hairlessness by Michael Rosenbaum. A rich, complicated character, with devastating experiences buried in his past, Lex truly wants to be a good friend to Clark, but can't quell his own ambition and curiosity. Along with his rivalry with his domineering, amoral father (played passionately by John Glover), these traits make Lex the best friend and worst danger Clark Kent could possibly have.

This is the most realistic treatment of high school that I've seen on television. No, not the superhero stuff -- though that's great, driven by the splendid underlying motif of the damage done by the "meteor rocks" that made Smallville into its own Area 57 (or is that a steak sauce?). All the kids are real -- capable of doing bad stuff and good stuff, and torn by conflicting desires. No Breakfast Club-style stereotypes.

Are there flaws? Well, there was a huge one that first season: They ended with a wretched, overwrought cliffhanger that seemed designed to make viewers furious instead of intrigued. Here's a clue, to writers who are thinking of doing a cliffhanger: Cliffhangers depend on leaving one question dangling, while giving a real sense of fruition and fulfilment on every other plotline.

Instead, the writers ineptly left every plotline dangling. And not just dangling, no -- they manipulated us so obviously that we viewers were correct to feel that we were being jerked around like half-trained show dogs.

But I forgive them. Because I've been watching episodes from the current season, and though there's a bit of the soap-opera tendency that makes most tv shows show their age, it's still a strong series with good writing and excellent acting.

And they have not succumbed to Fonzitis, the disease that causes a supporting character to swell in importance until the heart of the series is forgotten and every episode is about the Fonz. (Or Urkel. Or Mimi.) Lex Luthor could easily have taken over Smallville -- but the writers have kept the balance and held Clark Kent in the center of things ... though, sometimes, just barely.

The second season will be released on DVD on May 18th. Will I be buying it? Yep. I've been saving my allowance and my wife says she'll advance me the rest as an early Father's Day gift.

And I'll be DVRing Smallville every Wednesday night on the WB. I refuse to let myself fall behind again.

*

Bruce Campbell's memoir If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor is compulsively readable. Campbell is a good-looking guy with a chin that redefines "lantern jaw," and he got his start by being the camera fodder for the desperate early films of Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. In fact, Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell were the partners and co-executive producers who made The Evil Dead happen.

Since then, Tapert has gone on to produce such movies Darkman and The Quick and the Dead, along with the astonishingly successful syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules, while Raimi has graduated to directing such scarcely-known movies as Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2.

It's a long way from their low-budget adventures with the first Evil Dead, filmed for a dollar fifty in the woods of Tennessee, and they met some interesting people along the way. For instance, they ran into the Coen brothers during the editing of an early film, and Raimi is credited as one of the writers of The Hudsucker Proxy, which I think is the best of the Coen brothers' films.

Campbell is a charming, unschooled, and utterly honest writer -- or, if he lies, he certainly doesn't lie to make himself look good. He's willing to appear ridiculous and naive, and doesn't hide the fact that he's an actor with limitations and more than a little bad luck.

The three of them -- Tapert, Raimi, and Campbell -- have not forgotten their shared roots. Campbell shows up in the Spider-Man movies, for instance, as the ring announcer in the first and as a snooty usher in the second. Raimi and Tapert still do projects together.

More than anything else, though, If Chins Could Kill is as good an evocation as I've ever seen of what it's like when you're determined to create something and you don't have any money.

It reminded me of when I started a summer theatre company, back in college. Our financing consisted of getting free rent on an outdoor amphitheater behind the state mental hospital in Provo, Utah, and then selling season tickets for twenty dollars. My friends and I put on six shows that first summer, and only lost six hundred dollars. Later, I learned how to lose a lot more than that. It was a terrifying, exhilarating time -- but we did some terrific work, and all without adult supervision.

Campbell's book is about something a lot more expensive -- even cheap movies cost more money than you can get by selling shares at twenty bucks a pop -- but the process was every bit as insane and every bit as formative.

In fact, I'm using it as my instruction manual on how to get one of my independent films financed....


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