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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 10, 2005

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


Letter to Oprah, Fantastic Four, Howl's Castle, and The Wizard Test

Dear Oprah:

You are a superb talkshow host. Millions of people watch you to get your level-headed take on all the problems of life. We admire you, we enjoy you, and we're even happy that you are the richest woman in the world. It couldn't happen to a nicer person.

I'm so terribly sorry that when you arrived fifteen minutes after closing time at the Paris Hermes store, they did not let you dash in and buy a watch for a friend.

I'm not even jealous of your friend -- I don't want the kind of watch Hermes sells, because then I'd always be worried about losing it or somebody stealing it. But I'm glad you're generous with your friends.

And it's so inconvenient when people close up their stores just when you finally have a moment to shop.

It happens to me all the time.

If they were rude to you at the door -- well, I remember when I was in Provence a few years ago. I commented to one of my French acquaintances -- in English, of course, since my French would make even schoolboys ashamed -- "I always heard how cold and rude French store clerks are, and yet everyone here has been kind and helpful and friendly."

"Ah," said the man, "you were thinking of Paris. They treat us that way, too."

Dear, dear Oprah, there are so many possible reasons why you were turned away from the door at Hermes.

1. The store clerk was Parisian. They train their clerks to be aloof and rude. The clerk would have been fired for treating you any other way. Where did you think you were, Des Moines?

2. You're American. Do you have any idea how happy it makes people these days to say no to an American?

3. You're very, very rich. Do you have any idea how happy it makes people to have a chance to force a rich person to realize they're no better than anyone else?

4. You're used to people saying yes to you just because you are who you are. But in Paris, they don't watch your show. So in Paris, you're not "Oprah," you're just another customer, and since all their customers are rich, they don't automatically understand that even when there are no exceptions, there must be an exception for you.

5. The store was closed! People who own stores have a right to close them, as long as they announce it in advance. You arrived after the announced closing time. Have you so lost touch with what it means to be a human being that you really expect everyone to let you break all the rules?

6. You are also black. And it's conceivable that maybe that particular Parisian store clerk didn't want you in the store fifteen minutes after closing because of some deep bigotry against Africans.

But the fact that you are black is way, way down the list of plausible reasons for your exclusion from the store.

In fact, for you to bring your race up and try to use that as a cudgel to punish Hermes for not giving you treatment that no white person would have gotten cheapens the genuine suffering of ordinary black people in this difficult world.

Oprah, you are the richest woman in the world precisely because white people do not discriminate against you. They watch your show. They take your advice. They buy the books you recommend. They even watch Dr. Phil because you told them he was smart.

There are black people who face discrimination all the time, but Oprah, you are not one of them.

And you should be ashamed of pretending to suffer what they suffer, when in fact all you got was exactly the treatment that most of us get all the time, regardless of our race.

You should have stopped in front of that closed door, laughed a little, and said to yourself, "Oprah, old girl, this store clerk has helped you, and just in time, too! You were actually starting to believe you deserved special treatment. Welcome back to planet Earth, Oprah! You've been gone too long."

*

There are good comic-book movies and there are bad ones.

I loved Batman Begins and the Spider-Man movies, and I quite enjoyed the X-Men movies.

But I walked out of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Hellboy, and for good reason: They both required that you come into the movie already caring about the characters, because they did nothing to make them believable or sympathetic or comprehensible.

In other words, the good comic-book movies are aimed at an audience that has never read the comic books and just wants a good action movie with a strong character they can identify with.

The bad ones are aimed at the readers of the comic books, and no one else.

So here comes The Fantastic Four, and it is sort of in both categories.

They try to make us care about the characters. After all, this movie is about how they got their special powers.

Isn't that what Spider-Man and Batman Begins were about? And they were terrific films.

The trouble is that there are four characters (plus the villain), and there simply isn't time to develop any of them enough to make them real.

So we get quick, perfunctory characterization cues:

Ben Grimm, who becomes The Thing, is really in love with his wife so it tears him up when she rejects him after his transformation.

Reed Richards and Sue Storm were once married, but they had communication issues. Beyond that, Reed is very, very smart, and Sue is voluptuous. (There might have been more to her character than that, but the writers depended on the audience being distracted by a push-up bra.)

And Sue's brother, Johnny (who becomes The Torch), is a shallow kid who thinks this is all cool and has no judgment about what he says and does in his new superhero persona.

Oddly enough, it's The Torch whose character works best. He's maddening, but very likeable, mostly because he's supposed to be shallow, whereas the others are just as shallow but aren't supposed to be. It's as if he were playing the Kevin Costner role (Jake) in the great Silverado.

In fact, I wish that when they're doing ensemble superhero movies they'd look at Lawrence and Mark Kasdan's writing in Silverado to see how it's done. It's a masterpiece, and Fantastic Four isn't.

I could almost see the comic-book panel lines and the speech balloons. They didn't turn it into a movie -- they filmed the comic book.

And here's the proof that the problem is in the writing. Because they managed to make Ioan Gruffudd (pronounced YO-un GRIFF-ith -- blame the Welsh if you don't like the spelling) uncharismatic. And there are a half dozen Horatio Hornblower videos to prove that Gruffudd can be electric on screen if he is given something interesting to say and do.

And yet: It's a good movie. Not a great one, but a good one. Entertaining from beginning to end. (Sometimes the pushup bra is enough, apparently.) At no point did anyone in our group think we were seeing greatness on the screen. Neither, however, did any of us wish we were somewhere else.

When the movie needed cool stunts and special effects, they were cool enough; when the movie needed dramatics, the actors delivered; and when they tried for humor, we laughed with them, not at them.

It wasn't meant to be Cinderella Man. It wasn't trying for beauty or truth. And just because Batman Begins was better doesn't mean Fantastic Four isn't worth seeing. It's good fun. Pass the popcorn.

*

Howl's Moving Castle is in the art-house style mini-theaters at the Carousel, and that's not a bad thing. The tiny theater was packed, even at the noon Monday showing.

But it becomes a bad thing if people conclude that it must be an arty film.

It is full of beautiful art -- but it's the art of animation, and above all, it's a great children's movie.

And it was made by the Japanese storytelling genius Hayao Miyazaki, who won an Oscar a few years ago for Spirited Away. But it's based on a novel by English writer Diana Wynne Jones, and the voices are performed superbly, in English, by actors like Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer, and Billy Crystal at his funniest.

You don't get the in-your-face pizzazz of a Pixar movie; Miyazaki is willing to let a story take its own time, so that you really experience it. As a result, there is time to savor the many moments of awe at the sheer imagination of the world, and the actors and animators are able to bring off dozens and dozens of little sight gags and humor arising out of wit.

Above all, there's more emotion and characterization in any ten minutes of this animated film than in the entire duration of Fantastic Four.

This is one of the best movies of the summer, and will certainly be one of the best of the year. Diana Wynne Jones is a brilliant fantasist, and Miyazaki does her story full justice.

Even if it's playing in a tiny theater and you aren't seeing trailers for it, trust me and go see this movie. It does not dazzle as Shrek and Toy Story did, but it is beautiful in ways that other animators never try for.

*

As we wait for the debut of the new Harry Potter, the bookstores are using their front-of-store display to tout other fantasies for young readers.

It's worth remembering, I think, that J.K. Rowling did not invent the genre of young adult fantasy. Atheneum used to publish many moving and powerful fantasies as YA hardcovers -- and then market the paperback to adults.

Patricia McKillip, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Tamora Pierce, Tanith Lee -- there are masters at work in this genre ... and their books are usually shorter than the Harry Potter tomes.

I picked up Hilari Bell's The Wizard Test from that waiting-for-Harry table a few days ago and read it while waiting for and riding on planes. It held my attention tightly, despite all the distractions (though I did put it down to go through security).

The story is about Dayven, a teenage boy who wants to be one of the elite soldiers defending his kingdom in a war; but he's sidetracked by the fact that he passes a test for magical talent. In his world, wizards are tolerated because they're good at healing, but otherwise they're despised as unreliable traitors and heretics.

The hero thinks his life is over, except that he's offered the chance to become one of those elite soldiers. All he has to do is spy on the wizards and the enemy and report everything.

So he becomes the apprentice of a drunken lout of a wizard named Reddick, and learns about the power and limitations of magic. He also gets a whole new perspective about his own kingdom's history and who is best suited to govern the land.

What do you do when your own country will be better off if it loses the war?

If Hilari Bell intended this book to be a politically correct allegory condemning America for the Iraq War, you can certainly read it that way. But the allegory only works if you believe the stupidest things that the extreme left says about America's role in the world. If you actually know American history and have any sense of proportion, her story doesn't fit the present war at all. So it fails as allegory.

Unless, of course, you read it the opposite way, as if Dayven were an Iraqi, trying to decide whether he should fight to defend Iraq against the American attack. I doubt that's what the author intended, but the moral issues she raises are deep and true, so they can be applied in many ways.

Fortunately, Bell is very good at creating a plausible society in a very few words. So you can ignore the allegory and instead receive the story as a very well-created fantasy story with complex moral issues that are well worth considering.

Most important, it's simply a great read. You can read it aloud as a family, holding everyone spellbound, and then have a great conversation afterward about just what you owe to your nation and your people, if you discover they've been doing wrong and causing harm.

*

For five years now, I've been directing plays -- mostly musicals -- and putting them on at the LDS Church at 3719 Pinetop (right across from Claxton Elementary).

The problem is that in most plays, the best parts are for men, and when there's a great woman's part, it's almost always for an ingenue.

So I found myself with a half-dozen excellent adult actresses who were constantly relegated to playing The Mom.

The obvious thing was to put on one of the finest all-female plays ever written: Steel Magnolias. Yes, I know it's produced a lot -- I'm not the only director who has a hard time finding great plays for women.

But the play is worth seeing more than once. Especially our production (he said modestly). Because these actresses are terrific. If you've seen our productions before, you'll probably recognize all the performers -- but you've never seen them like this! They finally have enough lines and stage time to show what they can really do.

It's a grownup show -- no one under age ten will be admitted -- but the price is perfect: It's free. It will be performed at 7 pm on Wednesday and Thursday, 20 and 21 July.

(Wednesday and Thursday? Why not the weekend? Like I said, this is a cast of grownups, with responsibilities that can't just be shrugged off. So these are the only two days in the entire summer when we could get the entire cast on the stage at the same time, two days in a row.)


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