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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 25, 2005

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


Heaven, Time's Up, new TV shows, and Roly-Poly after six

I liked Just Like Heaven. Even though the title is so nondescript I could barely remember it while I was looking at it on the marquee (and it's adapted from a novel that is even less memorable: If Only It Were True), the performers are so charming and sincere and real that they triumph over the fundamental absurdity of the storyline.

I mean, any plot that reminds me of Hello Again (that truly embarrassing Shelley Long/Corbin Bernson comedy about a dead woman whose wacko sister brings her back to life) is treading on dangerous ground.

And at first, as we meet Reese Witherspoon as a spirit haunting her former apartment and being weirdly testy about condensation rings on her table, the writing (and acting) sink up to the hip in unfunny comedy and obvious-to-the-point-of-embarrassment gags.

But Mark Ruffalo is an actor who seems foredoomed to spend his career lending truth to scripts that don't actually want truth, at least at first. As the recently-widowed tenant of the apartment that Reese Witherspoon still thinks she lives in, he has the thankless task of convincing her that she's dead.

Except she's only mostly dead (intentional Princess Bride reference). And as the story moves out of wacky comedy and into the real drama of people confronted with difficult moral choices, Dina Waters and Mark Ruffalo manage to be entertaining (even funny) but still real.

The script wants to have it both ways -- humor at the Laurel & Hardy level mixed randomly with a sweet, heartbreaking, and sometimes almost spiritual story. It is to the credit of the director (Mark Waters) and the cast that the movie ends up being quite satisfying -- the sweet and real triumph over the absurd and silly.

Reese Witherspoon's role is oddly inactive. We absolutely must understand why Mark Ruffalo falls in love with her -- and this is hard because the script gives her nothing to work with. Only her native likeability makes this work. But because she really is more of a commentator on the action rather than an active party to it, I found myself looking at her as an actress rather than as the character she was supposed to be portraying.

Have you ever noticed how deeply weird her forehead is? Just above the brow ridge but between the eyes, when she's making certain "worried" faces she suddenly looks like she's wearing alien makeup from that old sci-fi series V.

I wouldn't have been noticing things like that if they'd given her anything to do.

So here I am, reporting that a movie which should have been kind of bad, from the comedy part of the script, is actually quite enjoyable, because of the actors and the tender parts of the script.

I'd declare that it was time for Hollywood to give this whole bring-the-dead-back-to-life-so-they-can-marry-somebody plot a rest, except that I've got one of them myself in the works. So ... just one more, and then we're done with it, OK?

*

The problem with quiz games is that some people know more than others. It's not a matter of being "smart" -- we simply have different experiences that prepare us to answer different questions.

For instance, any questions about pop music from disco on -- rap, alternative, grunge, hip-hop -- I am guaranteed to miss. Add to that the whole category of sports (about which I know five basketball players, ten baseball players, and Walter Payton, while I have no idea whatsoever about which teams they played for, except Payton, who was a Toledo Bear) and I am easy to beat.

Never mind that I know all kinds of history and geography and literature answers. Because when they ask about literature, it's likely to be some lame-o question about Bridges of Madison County or The Da Vinci Code or some disgusting James Patterson gorefest, and when they ask about geography, it's likely to be about the seating capacity of some famous sports arena in Barcelona or Mexico City or Ann Arbor.

The point is, you can almost never find people to play quiz games with who are reasonably balanced with you. Either they know everything and cream you every time, or they know nothing and you are embarrassed to beat them so badly. Either way, how is it fun?

So I'm happy to tell you about a game that's definitely a quiz -- you have to get your teammate(s) to identify people from history or entertainment or sports -- but the gamewrights have cleverly found a way to even things out no matter how much or little you already know.

Well, it matters a little -- seven-year-olds won't have a clue -- but my wife and I, who are officially old (I am actually old enough to be a "coot," which is only one step away from "curmudgeon," which is the last stage before "fuddy-duddy"), found that we could play Time's Up with a forty-year-old couple and a couple in their twenties and everybody won rounds. The game was competitive and fun all the time.

The reason it works is because the game is played in rounds. You have a stack of forty cards, which are passed from player to player. You have as long as the timer lasts to try to get your team to guess whose name is on the card. Any you get right, you keep; the ones you miss are put right back into the pile.

After the first round, when you can talk as much as you want, you all go through the whole stack of cards and clear up to everyone's satisfaction who these people are. Then, using the same cards, you play another round -- only this time you can say only one word, and then gesture and hum and make other noises as much as you want.

Now you're relying on your team being able to recognize which person they've already heard about you're trying to get them to say. They only get one guess; if they're wrong, back it goes into the stack.

After the second round of one-word clues, there is yet a third round using the same cards -- in which you can't say anything at all. You have to pantomime or squeak or hum or howl your way to victory -- but by this time you've heard every single name several times so you feel absolutely dimwitted when you can't guess the right person.

It's hilarious, it's challenging, it's fun, and yet you still like each other at the end. And you can't claim, after the first round, that you're handicapped by not knowing anything about the person. By the end, the whole group has pooled their collective ignorance.

Playing with married couples as teams can lead to real oddities. For instance, one wife, in trying to get her husband to say "Mae West" (about whom they had previously known nothing), simply pointed to herself and said "birthday." She was born, so it seems, in May. But in the next round, I only had to point to her and my wife said "Mae West!" As a group, we had developed our own weird codes.

It really is a great party game -- it's fun to watch as well as play.

*

There are some good new TV shows starting up this fall, and some almost good, and some that are really kind of bad. I can't pretend to have tried to watch them all, but such as I've seen, I'll tell you about.

Let me start with the bad news. Everyone told me that Threshold was the best of the new sci-fi series. I believe them. Which means: Stick with the old ones.

Apart from the always charming performance of Brent Spiner, the former "Data" from Star Trek: The Next Generation, this cast seems to be recycling X-Files with the intensity doubled and the charm missing.

Except for Charles S. Dutton, who takes time-filler dialogue and turns it into Louis Gossett Jr.'s harangue at Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. Mr. Dutton, please! Not every line you get in a TV show has to be turned into King Lear's soliloquy as a rages against the storm.

The writing in this show is so empty that it's sad. Nothing actually matters. There's not enough reality to let us believe that it's Earth that the aliens are invading. That's what X-Files got unfailingly right: The surrounding milieu was real enough that we believed that these things might be happening.

This show is so contemptuous of reality that they actually show us straight footage supposedly from a surveillance camera in a fast-food store which, in the midst of the scene, changes camera angle.

And the new angle is so low that it could only have been mounted on the condiments bar or perhaps was shoulder mounted on one of the customers. ("Here, you can have a free Big Mac, but you have to keep this camera on your shoulder the whole time you're in the store.")

Threshold isn't the only show that thinks we're absolutely stupid. Take E-Ring, the new Benjamin Bratt series where he's a newly appointed hotshot young Special Forces bureaucrat in the Pentagon. This series is almost good -- but not because it thinks the audience has the intelligence of a package of Ramen noodles.

Here's a laugher for you: A CIA operative who is trying to escape from China with a microchip containing the plans for their new stealth submarine flees to the beaches southeast of Shanghai. There she stands on the beach, looking out to sea as the sun sets.

Shanghai is on the east coast of China. In fact, China has an east coast, a north coast, a south coast, but only on two tiny peninsulas nowhere near Shanghai does China have any kind of west coast. And the sun, even in China, sets in the west.

And just in case we miss that "We know you're stupid" message from the writers, here's another. A Chinese spy satellite has changed course and is heading directly over the spot where our sub has violated international waters. There is a computer graphic that purportedly shows the satellite's movement along its trajectory.

When they're telling us that the satellite will be there in eighteen minutes, the graphic shows it moving at a speed that should get it there in thirty seconds. Every time they show the graphic, it is moving ridiculously fast.

Then they show the Seal team getting in the water to make the journey back to the sub, dragging along three civilians who cannot submerge or even swim because they're wearing lifejackets, and apparently they make it back to the sub which submerges, all in what looked to be the last three minutes of that satellite's passage overhead.

It's a good thing that Dennis Hopper is terrific as Bratt's boss, and that Sarah Clarke's breasts are worth looking at (since we are given several opportunities to see about as much of them as one might have seen in gym class), and that Aunjanue Ellis is delightfully smart-pants as the sergeant trying to tame Bratt to not be so ... er ... bratty. Because those are the reasons, not the writing, why I'll probably give this one another try.

Reunion is pretty good, though predictable. This drama, which seems designed to run only one year, is pure soap opera. We start at the funeral of one of six friends, and then spend each episode flashing back to each year of their twenty-year post-high-school history to find out which of them was murdered and why.

The greatest weakness of the story is that the writers decided not to tell us who the murder victim was. This requires people to constantly avoid pronouns so we're never even told if it's a she or a he; it's just silly and obvious. Especially because as the detective questions (and accuses) each of the friends in turn, we'll be able to do the math and figure out that they aren't going to drag the corpse in for questioning.

The second greatest weakness of the story is that it's absolutely predictable. I was calling out plot points to my wife, and every single one of them came true in the story. Wasn't it possible for the writers, at least once or twice, not to go for the obvious?

The third weakness -- which is also, ironically, probably the reason it will be such a hit -- is that this series is absolutely unashamed of being about relentless beautiful white people. Oh, sure, one of them (the best-looking guy) was poor, and another (the best-looking girl, in my opinion) mourns because she's "flat-chested" (how did they find a flat-chested actress in Hollywood?); but I can't even imagine how these six became friends in high school unless it was because they just met in the corridor during freshman year and said, "Good heavens, kids, look at us! We are the six best-looking people in the world, and here we are at the same high school! Is this fate or what?"

There is a geeky chubby "ethnic-looking" guy who speaks at the funeral and who took a video of the six friends at the time of high school graduation, but it was painfully obvious that he was never one of them. In other words, twenty years after high school, a guy whom they merely used is still there, acting like their friendship -- from which they pointedly excluded him -- was some legendary, beautiful thing.

I know. This sounds like I hated the series. But I'm as much of a sucker for a soap opera as anybody else. And the actors are actually very talented. They make the lines sound as if a person might, in some alternate universe, actually say them. That's genius.

No, let me be fair. The writing, speech by speech, is actually pretty good. It's just the cliche situations that made me so skeptical as I watched. And yet I couldn't stop watching.

That spells hit in big letters. It's the next O.C., only without Peter Gallagher's eyebrow.

My favorite new show this week was the half-hour comedy Out of Practice, which comes on right after my guilty-pleasure Two-and-a-Half Men (which continues to be the best sitcom on television, even if there wasn't a wet spot on the rug at the end of the first episode).

The premise is that our hero, Benjamin Barnes (Christopher Gorham), is the only member of his family who is not a doctor. He's a therapist, so he's in a "healing profession," but the rest of his family is very clear on the point that he is not not not a real doctor.

They also all hate his wife for being so relentlessly politically, dietetically, and environmentally correct. So they're delighted when she dumps him by phone message.

In short, it's a deeply dysfunctional family (unlike all the other sitcom families since All in the Family) with the normal assortment of weird issues. The parents (Stockard Channing and Henry Winkler, brilliantly cast, both of them) are divorced; the older brother (Ty Burrell) thinks any woman who doesn't want to sleep with him is a lesbian; the sister (Paula Marshall) is a lesbian (and that's all she is, because apparently in TV-world being lesbian is a complete characterization); and the receptionist, Crystal (Jennifer Tilly), is delightfully cheap, stupid, and sleeping with the dad.

The lines are witty; the farce is deliciously far-fetched; the actors are excellent. I hope it lasts.

I also hope that Paula Marshall gets to play one scene, at least, in which someone doesn't mention her character's lesbianness, because in a real family she would have screamed at them that whom she has sex with isn't the only thing they know about her.

OK, so these new shows weren't exactly all brilliant. But does it matter? Because Lost's first episode was astonishing. Did anybody think they would actually take us down the hatch and find someone there at the start of the season? A huge move forward, or at least so it seems, in a series that is famous for tiny incremental movements.

So even if Threshold kind of sucks, who cares? We've got Lost. And if that fails, ABC Family shows Full House episodes every day, so we can go back in time and see the Olsen twins when they weren't appalling.

*

I'm fed up with software companies that think they own my computer.

I paid for my machine. I have the receipt. I also paid for their software. Paying them does not give them the deed to my property.

Today's gripe: AOL decided to update their "Spyware" software. The trouble is, I am using a much better piece of software to protect my computer from spyware. I use AOL for email and very little else. So I don't use their spyware.

Why, then, do they have the gall to decide that they won't let me sign off from AOL without allowing them to download an update to a part of their software that I never use, didn't ask for, and don't want?

Oh, sure, when you finally figure out why AOL won't shut down, you can choose "cancel" instead of letting them do their download and update.

But the next time you're trying to exit AOL, there it is again, hiding behind AOL's ugly real-estate-stealing wallpaper-covering software where you can't see it until you minimize AOL. And on and on forever.

Because the AOL "settings" menu gives you no option to shut down their Spyware protection. It gives you no chance to permanently reject all updates to their Spyware. If you run AOL, they own your computer, not you.

Kind of the way local governments these days own your property, if they feel like it, whether you like it or not.

Who does AOL think it is, Microsoft?

*

Roly-Poly, the tortilla-wrap fast-food shop at Cornwallis and Battleground, has new management and a great new menu (not that there was anything wrong with the old one).

The new menu is a good reason to go back and give everything a try. If anything, the ingredients are fresher than before and even our fussy pre-teen has now found food that she likes (the secret: barbecue sauce!).

The new management gives me hope that someone will hear my heartfelt plea: Don't close at six p.m.!

It makes no sense. If you're not going to be open for dinner, why don't you close at three in the afternoon? And if you are going to be open for dinner, why not stay open during all the hours when normal people eat?

I mean, if you're going to pay salaries for employees from three to six, why not from six to nine as well, when you're more likely to have hungry customers?

As it is, if we find ourselves deciding where to eat at 6:05, Roly-Poly is never, going to make the cut. That's good for Baja Fresh, but bad for Roly-Poly.


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