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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 22, 2005

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


Monster-in-Law, Song, Idol, Giant, bad breath, and Sith

Monster-in-Law has an amazing cast: Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, the ever-gorgeous Michael Vartan, the ever-sarcastic Wanda Sykes.

And they do the job. Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez outdo each other in being both gorgeous -- and willing to look absolutely not-gorgeous in the service of the film. Jennifer Lopez lets them make big-butt jokes about her, and then does sight gags using her backside. Jane Fonda does not hide her wrinkles -- she is in her sixties now -- and is willing to appear brilliantly ridiculous.

And these folks can act. Every line delivery is flawless. Every emotion feels real.

Too bad about the script and the editing.

The script isn't awful, it's just awkward, in ways that hint of too much meddling by people without a clue. The author, Anya Kochoff, has never had a script produced before. This means that she was absolutely powerless and they could do anything to her script.

The result is a mishmash of comic styles that don't fit well together at all. Worse, the storyline doesn't even make sense half the time. And the character that poor Wanda Sykes plays is absolutely all over the map. Sometimes she's trying to keep Jane Fonda's character from drinking; sometimes she's suggesting a drink. Sometimes she's harshly criticizing her for her meddling; sometimes she's an active co-conspirator. Whatever some clown thought would be "good for a laugh" -- and the actress is supposed to make it work.

And the editing -- what a lead ear for comic timing this editor has! Time after time there was a passage of repartee that might have been funny, except the editor stepped on it or, worse, left too long a gap. Scenes trailed on too long in order to show a visual that did nothing; other scenes seemed absolutely chopped to bits.

This is the director of Legally Blonde who made this film. But sometimes it seemed that he had no clue what could have been done with the cast he was working with. Giving him Fonda, Lopez, Vartan, and Sykes was a waste of their talent. This is a director who only understands the obvious, juvenile joke.

Jane Fonda, we missed you during your Ted Turner years. You're one of the great actresses -- yes, one of the great comic actresses -- and this is how you come back to us?

The good news is: Fonda is working again. Now somebody remember that this woman has two Oscars and earned them. Get her into something worthy of her talents -- with a director who knows what to do with real actors.

Meanwhile, though, I won't tell you not to see the film -- it's funny in a lot of places, and that makes it above average for a comedy. The only reason I'm ranting about it is because it could have been so much better. We enjoyed it. We laughed. Nothing blew up and nobody flew through the air, so it wasn't a Star Wars film. And that's something to appreciate.

*

In Delta's ongoing effort to become solvent, they're doing more than just understaffing the ticket counters. They also offer an alternative flying concept: Song airline, the all semi-first-class airline.

When our Greensboro-to-Atlanta flight was canceled last week, our trip to LA was accomplished by being routed through Kennedy Airport (always a thrill, since it means walking about three miles between gates, after being crammed into tiny buses). Then we were given emergency-door seating on a Song jet.

Emergency-door seating in this case meant tons of legroom - except for the fact that everybody waiting for a chance at the john loitered in the "legroom" space so you were constantly being stepped on or tripped over unless you tucked your legs in tight. And the constant odor was always fresh and new. But that's what happens on every airplane, to whoever happens to be sitting near the jakes on a plane where everybody's been eating their bran.

What makes Song special is that all the seats are deeply padded, with individual screens for watching movies, playing bad videogames, and seeing in-flight television -- from satellite, so they're not old episodes on tape, they're the current broadcasts, including news.

But don't get too excited yet. What the seats definitely are not is first-class in width. If you are large-hipped enough to feel crushed in ordinary economy seats, these will not be an improvement.

The food is somewhere between first-class and the swill that is normally tossed into the trough in economy class. That is, the quality is good, but the menu is limited and you pay for it (bring cash).

We had the Greek salad and it was very good -- with the components grouped so you could avoid the ones you don't love (I half my wife's feta cheese!).

It isn't really first class -- but it's way better than ordinary economy. I'd fly Song again ... if it's going where I'm going, anyway.

*

Speaking of airlines, what's this with Delta discontinuing pillows on daytime domestic flights?

Didn't they realize that some of us needed those pillows, not for sleeping, but to put on top of their hard little armrests so we didn't crack our bones whenever we tried to lean on them?

Here's a product idea: Airline armrest pads that we can tuck into our carry-ons and then slip over the armrests to make them bearable. If somebody makes them, I'll buy two. And since I lose things easily, I'll probably buy two more every year or so.

*

This is the first year I've watched American Idol right from the beginning, and it was interesting to see how the producers played up some contestants and completely ignored others during the preliminary phase. Thus we knew Constantine and Carrie and Scott and the ever-grating Mikalah, but had never seen some of the others when they started audience-voted elimination rounds.

That may or may not have given an advantage, for one thing remains true: You can't outguess the voters.

It was wonderful watching some of them grow. Scott Savol, for instance, seemed affectless and unlikeable -- he had a rich, beautiful voice but when he wasn't singing it was hard to like him. But from week to week, he got more relaxed in his conversation and in his performance, and he began to explore new looks until he was downright cool. As a Thick Person myself, I was delighted.

Bo Bice, too, has grown. Early on, he seemed to be trying too hard to prance around the stage and prove what a rocker he was. Doing that during "Free Bird" was just embarrassing -- it's a song that has to be sun out of stillness. And his voice showed his fear -- he had a hummingbird tremolo that made his voice weak and quivery.

But as the weeks went by, he became more confident onstage. His voice has grown stronger as he was forced to sing music that stretched his range, until he was capable of an a capella performance with a real vibrato and a rich tone. At the beginning he was not good enough for the top six; at the end, he is obviously the person who should win -- if we were basing this on quality alone.

There have been some gross mistakes, however. Nikko Smith and Nadia Turner were delightful performers with real flair; I have no idea why they never caught on. While it was difficult to understand why Anwar Robinson was so overpraised -- comments like "yours is the best voice in the competition" seemed to come every week.

It simply wasn't true. He was often off pitch, his voice had a grating quality that was hard to listen to, and he always sounded like he was going through the motions.

The most inexplicable thing, however, was what happened to Constantine Maroulis.

Constantine is the best pure performer ever to hit the American Idol stage. It's not just that he's an actor with experience in professional musical comedy. It's that he's a very good actor. He was completely at ease on stage from the start. He knew how to sing to the audience -- meaning the camera. There was wit in his performance, a bit of self-mockery; but when he sang the song, every word meant something.

Perhaps everybody was so sure that everybody else was voting for him that they voted for other people and he fell through the cracks.

But I don't think so. I think Simon and Randy deliberately sabotaged him, week after week, until they succeeded and he was gone.

I don't think they liked the fact that he was not playing the show the same way as everyone else. Constantine wasn't an amateur, a supplicant who needed to be taught by the wise experts. He was already terrific, week after week. He knew more than they did.

Whatever the motive, they tore into him, shredding him after excellent performances, always tearing him down. One could almost imagine that they were jealous or resentful, because their comments had nothing to do with what he had actually done on the stage.

Then I realized: Simon and Randy are always at the recording end of the music business. When they have a master performer they are intimidated.

Paula Abdul knew, however. Constantine Maroulis was the only genuine star that stage had ever seen, and as a performer she recognized him as a master of her craft. Instead of resenting it, she celebrated it.

The trouble is, she's so nice to everyone that her praise to Constantine merely sounded like Paula, only over the top.

The spitefulness was made especially clear when Randy was quoted off-camera criticizing Constantine for making bedroom eyes at the television audience. What planet did he come from? Just because Randy doesn't know how to work a camera doesn't mean it's wrong for a musical performer to do it!

The cruelest thing that Simon and Randy did to Constantine, though, was to speak constantly of the teenage girls who were voting for him. While it might have been true that many teenage girls fell for him, I'm not a teenage girl and I was voting for him on quality alone. So were a lot of other people.

But when you say over and over that he's the candidate of the teenage girls, two things happen. People who aren't teenage girls begin to think of him as "someone else's candidate" -- they begin to think of him as uncool, as pandering to a particular group.

The other thing that happens is that teenage girls stop voting for him. As soon as you point out in a disparaging tone that teenage girls are all doing something, teenage girls stop doing it.

It was vicious and, I think, deliberate. They didn't do that to any other candidate in the history of the show -- identifying the demographic of a contestant's voters. For instance, they might easily have said that Carrie is getting all the votes from racists who don't want to see a black girl win again. It's quite probably true, but completely irrelevant -- many others vote for her as well. But it would taint her and be recognized immediately as grossly unfair to her.

That's what they did to Constantine -- they essentially called his voters names, disparaging them as a low-prestige group (in the eyes of most others). They might as well have flat-out said, "Constantine, you're getting the silly, immature, hormone-driven vote, but people with judgment aren't voting for you at all."

Well, they got the result they wanted -- Constantine is not in the final two, which is where he deserved to be. They succeeded in getting rid of him.

But here's the funny thing. Until that night, my wife and our 11-year-old and I were fanatical about watching the show and voting for several candidates. Afterward, we'd DVR it and watch it, sure, but not in time to vote ... because we didn't care. We'd watch to see how it went, but our hearts weren't in it any more.

It's not because we were fans only of Constantine -- we liked other contestants. And it's not that we were pouting because our favorite got booted off. I kept watching after Nadia and Nikko were tossed, and I was still a fan of Scott Savol.

The reason I didn't care anymore was because the judges had destroyed their best performer. It was ugly, it was mean, and it corrupted the show.

By the time this column sees print, we'll know whether it was Carrie or Bo who won the hearts of American Idol viewers. My guess is it will be Bo, and he'll deserve it -- he's the performer who's grown the most, and he's enormously likeable. But Carrie will also be a credible winner, if she wins -- and it would be nice to see a country singer take it all home.

The thing is -- I don't care.

Because I know -- and so do a lot of other people -- that any final two that didn't include Constantine was a fake. To me, at least, Bo and Carrie were competing for second place in a rigged contest.

*

I picked up a copy of Giant magazine in the airport, because it looked like a new entertainment magazine and it had some articles I wanted to read.

But it isn't an entertainment magazine. It's a men's magazine.

In a world where "men's magazines" either look like GQ (the wish book for fashion wannabes), Playboy (with Maxim and that ilk as low-class semi-porn imitators), or Men's Health (which is still excellent but has a narrow focus), it's hard to grasp at first that Giant is a men's magazine that doesn't treat its readers as hormone-driven cretins or desperate losers longing to be cool.

Or maybe I'm just grateful that there's a men's magazine that talks about the things I actually care about.

The writing is lively; the topics are movies, games, television. And while there are pictures of beautiful women, they have clothes on and they don't look like you could date them if you flash a twenty.

I may even subscribe.

*

I've tried those nasty toothpaste strips that you're supposed to rub on your teeth to freshen your breath. Not only do you look stupid and awkward trying to use them, they don't work. They taste nasty and don't clean between your teeth anyway.

You can always use candy, like Certs -- and if you're worried about tooth decay, they have no-sugar varieties.

But they also stay in your mouth a long time, unless you crunch them -- not recommended, because they're hard, and every now and then what crumbles isn't the candy, it's the tooth.

Here's what you use instead: Listerine PocketPaks.

They're tiny -- the package is about the size of a postage stamp. You flip open a lid and then use your finger to slide out what looks like a thin sheet of cellophane.

You put it on your tongue, close your mouth, and ... zap. It dissolves almost at once, and your mouth -- and the surrounding air space -- are filled with intense mint.

Then it's gone. But your breath is greatly improved for some time thereafter.

And because it isn't candy or gum, it won't be in the way -- you won't be talking around it or gnawing on it. This is, as far as I'm concerned, the complete solution to the is-my-breath-ok problem.

*

The Star Wars saga seems to have been the dream of George Lucas's childhood. In his mind's eye he saw great starfleets in battle, mighty armies sweeping their enemies before them, ruthless politicians outmaneuvering each other, and in the midst of all, the powerful Jedi knights, each one the match for an army, wielding the power that lies hidden within the fabric of all life in the universe.

Lucas saw one child, born in an obscure corner of the universe, but touched with power and shaped by destiny. He did not know who fathered him, but he was adopted by the Jedi and trained to be the mightiest of them all. Alas, he turned to the dark side of the force and became the tool of pure evil; but a son and daughter conceived when he was still within the circle of the Jedi would grow up to defeat his master and liberate him from the darkness that had swallowed up the goodness that was always innate within him.

It was an epic of breathtaking scope and George Lucas could not forget it. He became a filmmaker; his first major film, American Graffiti, become the touchstone of a generation and gave him the power to make whatever film he wanted.

He wanted to make his epic dream come to life on the screen, in all its majesty and power -- and humor, and love, and heroism, and sacrifice ...

He labored over the special effects to make it all seem real, and he succeeded. The dream of his childhood was there on the screen.

Too bad his inner child never learned how to write.

He did fine with American Graffiti -- those characters spoke with the voices of his own teenage years. But Star Wars required heroic dialogue and Lucas never acquired an ear for it. It's as if someone who once heard a few passages of Shakespeare decided to write the sequel to Romeo and Juliet.

Worse and Worse

On the first Star Wars film he had help. He was not yet so powerful that no one would criticize his work and help him get rid of the most embarrassing clunkers. On the next two films, better writers helped him even more, so that, at least in The Empire Strikes Back, his saga matched his vision aurally as well as visually.

Then he went sixteen years without making a movie before returning to write the true beginning of his epic.

But by now he was a legend. Fans not only worshiped him, some actually believed in the Force and listed "Jedi" as their religion. In Hollywood, a land where the only signs of divinity are fame and money, he had so much of both that there was no one left who could say to him, "George, please, get some help on that scene, it's going to make people laugh in the theaters, and not the right way."

Instead, it was apparently all "Yes, Mr. Lucas" and "Wonderful, Mr. Lucas" and the result was two of the most successful wretched films in history.

Now the saga is complete. The end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith introduces the three prime movers of the original three movies: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and the black-masked Darth Vader.

And here's the interesting thing. Even though the characterization is nonexistent, the relationships are like a seven-year-old's impression of how grownups act, the politics are clearly the product of a mind that has never grasped history, and the science is at the "How can rivers flow north?" level, the underlying saga still manages to touch a chord.

Don't misunderstand. I laughed along with the other people in the theater at those horrible moments when the poor actors were forced to say some of the most appalling lines ever spoken on the screen outside of an Ed Wood movie. I could not possibly care about characters who were never for a moment believable as human beings.

In fact, the dialogue in Sith kept reminding me of Singin' in the Rain, and the awful melodramatic "talkie" that they're making as a film-within-the-film.

But the overall Star Wars saga, the epic that had so inspired Young Mr. Lucas, does have grandeur in it that his own ineptness was unable to destroy. There is power in the sheer ambition of it. Sitting in the flickering light of a dying fire, listening to the old man tell us the tale he learned in his youth, we are captivated despite the cracking of the old man's voice and the fact that everything he says is a cliche. For we know, at some level, that the tale has some truth in it.

That people rarely embrace evil for its own sake, but rather because they think they can accomplish something good.

That once you cross certain moral lines, it becomes almost trivial to cross others.

That no matter how much you tell yourself you're doing it for someone you love, ultimately ambition is always selfish, and "love" for the ambitious is self-deception.

That those who have the power always think they have the right to decide for everyone, and the wisdom to know what ought to be done.

That technology does not change human nature.

That there is something inside us more powerful than machines or muscles, something that by force of will and mind can change the world around us, if only we learn the secret and master it.

What Do We Make of This Film?

The actors are heroic in every sense. The "characters" they play are larger than life, striding like giants across the screen. It takes enormous presence and power on the screen to bring that off, and these actors had it.

But the actors are heroic in another sense. To be handed a script with dialogue like the lines Mr. Lucas wrote for them is one of the worst nightmares actors have.

(The worst nightmare is to arrive at a theatre and learn that you have to go on stage right now and no one will tell you what the play is and you don't know any of the lines. You're also in your underwear. If you're lucky.)

Yet these actors took those lines and made them into something. I think they must have seen Episode I and realized that the lines really were as bad as they thought, and their director had no clue. So if anyone was going to save them from humiliation, it would have to be themselves.

As a result, they all worked hard to create line readings that took some of the curse off of Mr. Lucas's leaden ear for heroic speech. And most of the time they succeeded. At times it was almost possible to believe that humans might have spoken that way. Maybe. Somewhere.

There ought to be an Oscar category for Best Acting with a Desperately Bad Script. I'd give it straight off to Hayden Christensen, because, despite all, he made the brooding Anakin Skywalker's a vigorous, compelling presence on the screen. And we almost never laughed at his lines, which is quite an achievement, considering that Mr. Lucas meant almost all of Annakin Skywalker's lines to be in deadly earnest, which practically guarantees they'll get a laugh.

But Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Ewan McGregor, and Jimmy Smits are close runners up.

Ian McDiarmid, as the conniving politician Palpatine, had a special challenge. His lines were so over the top that there was no way to deliver them naturally. Besides, he almost certainly had the inept-but-earnest Mr. Lucas telling him, "On this next take, Ian, let's have more." So instead of seeking even a trace of naturalness, McDiarmid plunged right in and gave his idiotically evil speeches with such fervor that I only thought of Snidely Whiplash, the melodrama villain, two or three times.

Here's the strange thing. Even though that opening day audience largely understood how bad the writing was -- and laughed out loud and even cheered for the absolutely worst lines -- they still got a sense of fulfilment out of watching everything come together.

I'm glad I saw it.

And, incredibly enough, I will almost certainly see it again. And buy the DVD.

So many of us will do that, in fact, that Mr. Lucas will no doubt think that we think his movie was triumphantly good.

Well, that's one of the nice things about having supreme power over your own kingdom, as Mr. Lucas has: You can so easily convince yourself that the people love you.


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