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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 7, 2004

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


Polar Express, The Incredibles, Ray, and Stephen Sebastian

Robert Zemeckis has an amazing record of creating wonderful, moving films.

What Stephen Spielberg is given credit for, Zemeckis actually achieves: creating movies that entertain us while tapping into deep truth.

Of course, Zemeckis doesn't succeed every time. Castaway, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Romancing the Stone, and Back to the Future must be weighed in the balance with Death Becomes Her and the Back to the Future sequels.

I'm happy to tell you that Polar Express goes on the "wonderful" side of the ledger.

Most of the great Christmas movies are rooted in darkness as a way of teaching us the value and beauty of our lives. It's A Wonderful Life and One Magic Christmas and even Miracle on 34th Street take us through sorrow, loss, and unbelief in order to rediscover faith, hope, and charity.

Chris Van Allsburg's evocative picture book, in 29 pages, created the foundation on which Zemeckis and co-writer William Broyles, Jr. (Castaway, Apollo 13) have created a marvelous magical world. The hero of the book is a boy on the cusp of disbelief in some of the dreams of Christmas. He is woken by a train that comes down his street to take him and other children to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus.

By the time he returns, he -- and we -- have had a marvelous adventure. The film doesn't stint on animated thrills. The train becomes a rollercoaster; it skids across a frozen lake just ahead of the breakup of the ice; the boy and two of his friends balance their way across a rail-thin bridge ... and other wonders.

But the sheer fun of it is only part of the magic here. Van Allsburg's artwork has always had a quality of detailed dreaminess, and that visual quality is extended into the movie. You never forget that the film is animated, but because of the process used to create the faces, they are expressive. They act.

So it's fortunate that Zemeckis teamed with Tom Hanks -- suggesting at one point that because of the process they were using, Hanks could play every role.

That would have been a bad idea; but the roles they do have Hanks play were well chosen and he performs as we would expect from our most beloved actor. He plays not only the hero boy and the conductor, but also the Hobo, Santa Claus, and Scrooge.

Nona Gaye (the Matrix sequels) charms us as the girl who takes the initiative and leads them through their adventures; and Peter Scolari, Hanks's old partner from Bosom Buddies days, gives a heartbreakingly understated performance as the lonely boy.

The very fact that Hanks and Zemeckis reached out to Scolari for this part speaks well of the love and loyalty within the community that made this film. Scolari's career was built around madcap boyish charm, but he's older now, and parts for him have been few and far between. I hope that even though it's not his face we see on the screen, Hollywood will realize that Scolari can, in fact, act -- not just amuse us. I want to see the actor who played the lonely boy emerge as a mature man in good movies in the future.

The animated look takes a bit of getting used to at first. Unlike the Pixar look, this one is so close to reality that it is faintly disturbing. But we soon get used to it and like it. Not only that, but the animators very nearly solved the problem of walking -- probably the weakest aspect of even the best animation systems today.

And be warned that very young children might not like this movie. The rollercoaster stuff is pretty scary, and because the animation feels so real, there might be nightmares in some of this stuff for a sensitive four-year-old. Also, the film is about the issue of what is and is not real in the Santa Claus tradition, and kids who didn't have questions about it will certainly have them after seeing this film -- even though it does come down on the side of belief.

But for most people -- whether you have children or not -- Polar Express is everything that we could ask from a Christmas movie.

*

The Incredibles, the latest offering from Pixar, deserves the enormous opening weekend it had. Unusually long for an animated feature, it does chew up a lot of time setting up the premise. For the first half hour I was afraid that it was going to be nothing but cute satirical takes on the superhero tradition.

But the cute satire and the charm of the vocal performers (Holly Hunter's marvelous voice sounds like buttered toast and hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire on a cold night) keep us interested while writer-director Brad Bird sets up a first-rate superhero adventure that involves the whole Incredible family.

The kids are the surprising gems of this movie. Only Rug Rats has done as well at keeping kids kidlike while involving them with perils and superpowers. All the characters have an "arc" -- some kind of passage or transformation.

And the villain adds to the tradition of Stephen King's Misery in making famous people want to pull out a gun when someone says, "I'm your number one fan." (My favorite answer: "I actually prefer the company of fans who are content to stay at number fifty or sixty.")

Pixar has a record of all wins, no losses, when it comes to creating animated films so good that you don't need to have kids with you to enjoy them.

The only drawback is the sad little cartoon they put in front. Built around mediocre doggerel, a mildly amusing story is transformed into an irritatingly inappropriate politically-correct sermon. It's about a happy sheep in the desert who, after being sheared, is embarrassed and mocked because of his hairlessness.

But just in case their audience has been dead or sleeping since 1963, the cartoonists had to make the point that "it's all right to be pink or any other color."

Wake up, clowns! The sheep wasn't ridiculous because he was pink, he was ridiculous because he was naked! If there's any moral here, it should be that we shouldn't make fun of people who have funny-looking bodies when we see them naked (or dressed in current fashions, which amounts to the same thing).

Look, Hollywood Moralists, I know you're very impressed with your own virtue at having embraced the empty-headed religion of political correctness. But your PC morals become just as oppressive and idiotic as Christian morals when they are mindlessly repeated at inappropriate moments.

Imagine how scornful you would be if you kept seeing cartoons where the climactic moment came when somebody said, "So you see, Jesus loves everybody." You would roll your eyes and mutter, not because you disagreed with the moral, but because only an idiot would think that this information would come as a revelatory surprise to anybody.

Of course there is still racism in the world. But nobody is unaware of it, and we are repelled by the condescension of Hollywood when filmmakers seem to think we still need them to tell us to "be good."

Especially when you consider how much racism is still present in Hollywood. Clean up your own house, bozos, before you preach to us.

*

Film biographies (biopix) are devilishly hard to do well, especially when you're telling the life of a performer.

The first problem is that you have to have an actor try to represent the performance of somebody that the audience has seen or heard. So the actor has to be a superb mimic.

When the subject of the biopic is a singer, you have to decide whether to have the actor do his/her own singing -- the way Sissy Spacek did so wonderfully in Coal Miner's Daughter, which remains as the best of the biopix, in my opinion.

Most of the time, though, singers are inimitable -- you have to use the real performer's recorded voice, and have the actor lipsync. Some actors can do it and look like they're singing. Some can't.

And what if the performer also plays an instrument? Nothing is more obnoxious than watching an actor "play" the piano or guitar when his hands are clearly not producing the sounds we're hearing.

The second problem is that biopix are only made about people who were successful. (Ed Wood being the only exception; and hey, his movies got made, which makes him more successful than me.) So the story is always the same: The kid dreamed, and look, the dreams came true.

How do you make a story out of that? (Let's do a hit record. Cool, it was a hit! Now let's do another!)

The third problem is representing the creative process on screen. For instance, how do you show a writer or composer writing or composing and make it dramatic? (Answer: You don't. It consists of somebody either scribbling or typing, and that's boring to watch. It's boring to do.)

Nothing is more ludicrous than those moments in biopix about songwriters or composers where the hero "thinks up" a complete song or melody in a moment. Ha ha. I've done this stuff, and it never, never, never happens that way. (Even when the composer says "It just came to me," it doesn't mean that it just came -- it still had to be worked out, and it would still be boring to watch on film.)

All of which brings us to Ray.

I grew up on Ray Charles, and loved his music just like the rest of America did. He kept breaking the musical genre boundaries and performed music that nobody expected to have a black guy (or anybody, sometimes) do.

Writers Taylor Hackford (who also directed) and James L. White did a superb job of showing us exactly how Ray Charles's music fit within the musical scene, and why he was so revolutionary, and how his music evolved over time. This is very hard to do, and they do it so well that it doesn't look hard.

Only once do they do the "think-up-a-song-on-the-spot" trick, and for once it actually works. You could imagine a singer/pianist like Charles thinking up at least the catchphrase of "Hit the Road, Jack" in the middle of an argument. I suppose the song fit his life at that moment so well that the writers couldn't resist going for the cheap (but fun) device.

Ray Charles's life does lend itself to more than your average boring success story. For one thing, he was blind -- but wasn't born blind. He grew up in desperate poverty. His life was shaped by deaths and losses. And then, when success came to him, he had to struggle with racism, with people who take advantage of or despise blind people, with the barriers set up between genres of music, and with the shifting relationships among the people close to him.

The real surprise is that in this biopic, which was made with the cooperation and consent of Ray Charles (before he died, obviously), the filmmakers are brutally candid about his heroin addiction and constant adulteries.

Fortunately, however, they don't succumb to the temptation to make this an addiction film. They remember that it's not the tragically common and identical story of addiction that makes Charles an interesting subject for biography, but rather what he did in spite of it.

And the adulteries give us the chance to see wonderful performances from the actresses portraying the women in his life. Sharon Warren as his mother is simply amazing -- I want to watch her carry a movie all by herself. She is fascinating to watch and if you close your eyes you realize she has an astonishingly expressive speaking voice as well.

But I can't list all the great performances in this film because even people with only a few moments of screen time are absolutely real. There isn't a false performance in the film. And that, folks, is almost unheard of in biopix.

Having said all these good (and true) things about Ray, I still haven't told you the single most important reason for you to go watch this movie. Twice.

Sissy Spacek won -- and deserved -- an Academy for playing Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter.

There is no conceivable performance this year that could (or should) take away the best-actor Oscar from Jamie Foxx.

And for a guy whose main claim to fame up to now has been comedy, that is just not what anybody could have expected.

The mechanical things he does to perfection. He never looks like a guy acting blind, he looks like a blind guy.

No, he looks like Ray Charles.

He walks like Ray Charles. But he never looks like a guy acting like a Ray Charles. You just think he's Ray Charles.

And -- this is the killer, folks -- Jamie Foxx plays piano. He plays it really, really well. When we see his hands, they're actually making the right sounds. And if he is sometimes doubled by somebody else doing the hands, it doesn't matter -- when we do see him play, it's real, so we believe it all.

If all Foxx had achieved was a spot-on imitation of Ray Charles, that would have been adequate.

But Foxx left adequacy far behind in this movie. He not only gives us a great variety of emotions, he also lets us feel the power, the seductiveness, the indomitable will, the ambition. We believe that the guy we're seeing on the screen could seduce women, dominate powerful men, and yet descend into agonies of fear and suffering.

And here's why this will stand as one of the great film performances of all time:

He did all this without using his eyes.

That's like telling a singer to perform an aria without breath.

There are many actors whose performances I enjoy; some whose work I truly love; but there are very few in my life that have left me in awe.

So Ray joins Coal Miner's Daughter as a biopic that is actually worthy of the great performer whose life it depicts. And Jamie Foxx joins the pantheon of film actors who have achieved magnificence on the screen.

*

Good news for people who enjoy local artists.

We've loved Stephen Sebastian's work for many years, since we first discovered him at the Carolina Craftsman show more than a decade ago. We have so much of his work that we have to rotate it in and out so there's room for any other artists on our walls.

Over the years, we've watched him stretch and grow, never content to make the same kind of painting over and over again. He records with an unerring eye the people, places, and life that surround us here in North Carolina.

He's also a really nice guy -- which I always appreciate, since I believe that artists of all kinds do better work as artists when they are also careful to live their lives with decency and kindness.

The Stephen Sebastian Gallery is opening at 8 Randolph Street in Thomasville. The grand opening is this Saturday, and the gallery is open next week, Tues-Fri from 10 to 6, and Sat from 9 to 3.

See you there.


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