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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 12, 2004

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


Ocean's 12, Uninvited, Christmas movies, Scrunges

Quick! If you're reading this on Thursday, 16 December, you still have time to get to the War Memorial Coliseum at 7:00 p.m. tonight for the Greensboro Oratorio Society's production of Handel's Messiah.

*

Last Wednesday night we were dining at Café Pasta (on State Street), where I was enjoying the best lasagna in town, when I noticed that the live musicians were a little loud. But as I began to pay attention to the singer and her accompanist, I realized -- this was no ordinary lounge act.

The keyboardist really understood cool jazz and was doing some wonderful things with the accompaniment. But he never tried to upstage the singer, whose voice was rich and quirky. I mean, she swung, but at the same time she had some country licks, and above all, she sang the words -- she brought meaning, not just virtuosity, to the performance.

On the way out, I bought the CDs they were selling. They call themselves "Buff-n-T," an unfortunate name, since it suggests cuteness when these are serious musicians who deserve to be heard by a wider audience than they're likely to get in our fair metropolis.

It's true that singer Buffy O'Neil overuses that country "sob" just a little -- but overdecorating the notes is a tendency among good singers who don't yet have complete confidence in themselves. (Remember the beginning of Leann Rimes's career, when she couldn't sing a phrase without yodeling?)

Once O'Neil realizes how compelling her voice is without decoration, she'll save those techniques for when they'll really count. Meanwhile, though, her voice and Turner Battle's insightful, original arrangements combine for performances that are as good as the best of vocal jazz.

Of their CDs, Written consists of surprisingly good original songs. Just By Chance is an eclectic group of standards, from Bacharach & David ("The Look of Love") to Sting, Billy Joel and John Lennon to Jobim and Joni Mitchell. And their CD Christmas Our Way is one of my favorite holiday albums now.

They make you feel like you've never heard these songs before, like you're discovering them for the first time.

Buff-n-T are playing Café Pasta every Wednesday night before Christmas, and then every other Wednesday in January. And I don't know of any other way to get one of their CDs than to buy it from them. So if you can get there to hear them, don't miss the chance. (Plus, the food is always excellent at Café Pasta. You can't lose.)

*

Ocean's 12 -- when I heard they were even making it, I thought, What a disaster that's going go be.

Well, it was better than Bridget Jones II -- we didn't walk out. Even though the story was drivel and the ending was a big stupid cheat and along the way they proved again and again that nobody cared about making a good movie, we at least enjoyed watching some charming actors be charming.

That's all there is to it, folks.

The big weakness in the 2001 Ocean's 11 was that the caper was a cheat. We never understood what the plan was in the first place, and when it was over, they actually had to flash back and show us the entire thing again, only this time letting us see what was really happening.

But at least we saw the scenes as experienced by outsiders who didn't know what the hidden caper was.

In this movie, it's not even a cheat to tell you that the real caper is already over by the time we see the events that seem to be the caper.

The thing is: In a movie, the audience only knows what you show them or tell them. So there's nothing clever about "fooling" us by not showing us any of the key events.

What would have been clever is letting us see the real events, only we don't realize what we're seeing until the reveal. That way the revelation doesn't just come out of nowhere. We feel as though we could have known what was really happening. You want to see it again.

With this one, you wonder why you saw it in the first place.

On top of that, there's an extended sequence where the character Tess, played by Julia Roberts, pretends to be the famous actress Julia Roberts, while Bruce Willis, playing himself, pretends that he would not instantly notice the obvious missteps and deceptions.

This was undoubtedly a lark and would have been perfect in a farce. But Ocean's 12 pretends to be a suspense comedy, and requires us to care about what's happening. Having Julia Roberts pretend to be Julia Roberts so shatters any suspension of disbelief that from that moment on, the movie is flushed, coasting on charm alone.

As my wife said afterward, Why didn't they just hold a big cast party, with sketches and outtakes from the first movie? It doesn't seem fair that they charged us money to watch them having fun, while shutting us out.

*

I did see a great movie this week, though. I finally got a copy of The Uninvited, a 1944 ghost movie starring Ray Milland.

I loathe horror movies, whether they're teen slashers or Clive Barker shockfests, or star murderous dolls or possessed children. I especially detest anything to do with vampires, which I find both boring and stupid -- and disturbing, when I realize that a huge segment of the public regards vampires as somehow romantic and attractive.

But ghost stories which function as mysteries -- why is this ghost haunting us? -- work very well for me. And The Uninvited is one of the best.

Based on a much-admired book by Dorothy Macardle, the story revolves around a house that seems to have it in for Stella Meredith, a lovely 20-year-old (played by Gail Russell), whose mother died -- or was murdered -- there when Stella was only three. The brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) who buy the house become involved in trying to find out why the house is both deadly and welcoming to the girl.

It has a breezy pace and a light touch, but the suspense and the supernatural are handled deftly.

An interesting footnote is that Cornelia Otis Skinner, who plays a villainous nurse, is herself both the author and the main character of the book and movie Our Hearts Were Young and Gay; and in the movie version, which came out the same year as The Uninvited, the part of Cornelia Otis Skinner was played by none other than Gail Russell, who plays her victim in the ghost movie.

If you like lots of blood and shock in your horror films, avoid this one -- it actually has wit and good will, and doesn't leave the countryside strewn with the corpses of teenagers who just wanted to party in dark rooms or the woods somewhere.

*

I am sickened that any network would even consider the series that Steve Bochco is trying to get on the air -- a drama about soldiers serving in the current war in Iraq, and their families back home.

It's not a mere matter of bad taste, to sell commercials on an entertainment series that profits from the deaths and hardships and sacrifices and fears of soldiers and their families while the war is still going on.

It's a matter of human decency.

I'm uncomfortable about JAG's episodes that deal with the Iraq war, especially since they couldn't keep their politics out of those episodes. It's impossible to imagine that Bochco would even try to avoid politicizing such a series. Talk about exploitation of those who risk -- or give -- their all for their country.

What next -- are they going to try to place ads in Arlington National Cemetery? How about the "WalMart Tomb of the Unknown Soldier"?

Or maybe a nice Sony or Toyota ad beside the U.S.S. Arizona.

*

It's all a matter of taste, which Christmas stories and movies are your favorites. I know people who swear that the 1983 A Christmas Story, based on Jean Shepherd's novel, is the all-time best Christmas movie.

Now, I'm a fan of Shepherd's work -- I loved Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, and Other Disasters. But to me, the humor in A Christmas Story seemed ... manufactured. I didn't care about anybody. It bore no relation to anything Christmas ever meant to me. To me, empty.

So if you loved A Christmas Story, good for you! I'm just not part of its audience.

I did find Christmas Vacation entertaining, partly because I enjoyed Chevy Chase's mild-mannered comic persona. And the first Santa Clause movie I enjoyed well enough, though I can't see any reason to watch it a second time.

The best Christmas comedy, for me, is Trapped in Paradise, the Nicolas Cage movie from 1994 about crooks who come to a small town to rob their bank just before Christmas and end up falling in love with the people and the place.

It's the only movie I've ever seen in which Dana Carvey is sometimes funny.

But the Christmas movies that mean the most are not the ones designed to make you laugh, they're the sentimental comedies -- or dramas, when you look at them closely enough.

A Miracle on 34th Street has been filmed several times. The first production (1947), starring Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood will always be the "real" one to me.

The 1994 remake with Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle was hopelessly overproduced, smothering the attempts of Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott to make their characters believable.

But the one I wish I could see again was the very warm-hearted 1973 TV movie staring Jane Alexander, David Hartman, and Roddy McDowall, with Sebastian Cabot as Kris Kringle. Of course, I love Jane Alexander in almost anything; the surprise was that David Hartman, not yet the host of Good Morning America, was actually a warm and wonderful actor.

The movies that struck closest to my heart, though, are the darker ones. It's a Wonderful Life came to me in my early twenties, at a time in my life when I sorely needed it; it worked on every bit of self-pity in my heart and forced me to reexamine it in a better perspective. Ever since then, that movie is so intensely emotional to me I can hardly watch it.

I never thought another movie could match it for using Christmas as a way to tap into the relationship between a person a the community surrounding him. But Mary Steenburgen's almost shockingly dark One Magic Christmas, with Harry Dean Stanton as an angel, may well be the one that means the most to me.

Still, there's always room for more -- I think Polar Express is going to join my very short list of movies that really mean Christmas to me.

In print, my list is even shorter. Of course I liked O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" when I first read it as a kid -- but its magic was only works on the first reading.

More enduring is Henry Van Dyke's "The Story of the Other Wise Man," a fanciful but moving account of the one magus who was distracted from his trek to see the Christ child by other people's needs.

And the opening chapters of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a truly wonderful Christmas story, giving the whole book an indelible connection with the Christmas season, for me at least.

No, I'm not forgetting Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I'm frustrated, though, that it has never been made into a movie that I really like -- mostly because none of the filmmakers who've tackled the tale have seemed to understand how dark the story is from beginning to end.

*

Scrunges -- the best kitchen and everything-else scouring pads ever made. I was miserable because I couldn't find them anywhere. I had laid in a supply, but unless I die surprisingly soon, I was going to run out before the Scrunges did.

Then a friend found them for me (thanks, Hilary!). They're shown at a website for Ocedar and Vileda -- the URL is www.ocedar.com. When you get there, choose the Vileda side of the website. Then choose Products, then Scouring Sponges, then then you'll find yourself facing a dazzling array of Scrunges: Multi-use, Extra Large, Extra Large Bathroom, Easy Grip, Flexi Scour, Household, Kitchen, and Cookware & Dishes.

The last one is the original blue-on-one-side, yellow-on-the-other Scrunge; but they're all terrific products. But you can't order them from the website. You have to phone them at 1-800-543-8105, and tell the operator you wish to buy a "sponge product." Then you get an operator who can take an order.

Just in case Scrunges disappear again, I ordered a hundred. But they last so long that I may have placed the last order I'll ever need.

In fact, the durability of Scrunges may be one of the reasons that 3M, which originated it, dumped the product line: People don't need to buy them as often as they do other kinds of scouring pads or sponges, because they don't wear out so fast.

That's one of the reasons that markets are often dominated by second-rate products -- the good ones that last don't need to be replaced, so the manufacturer doesn't get the cash flow to stay in business.


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