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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 4, 2005

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


Yours, Mine, and Aeon Flux; Videogames

Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball starred in the 1968 version of Yours, Mine, and Ours. It was, believe it or not, based on a true story -- Helen North and Frank Beardsley were real people.

But it was really just grist for the Hollywood high-concept comedy mill: The single mom with eight kids marries a single dad with twelve kids. (Hi-jinks ensue.)

Remake time! Now Dennis Quaid is in the Henry Fonda role, and Rene Russo is in the Lucille Ball role, and the kids have been scaled back. Now the woman has ten kids and the man has "only" eight -- but six of the woman's kids were adopted. (They took in foster kids and couldn't let them go.)

The performances are delightful -- every actor, kid and adult, does at least an adequate job, and some are quite charming. Dennis Quaid is an actor who has always hovered just under first-rank stardom -- it may be that he always had to make do with other actors' leavings and never got the break-through role. This isn't it.

But his charm and talent sustain him through a movie that is so perfunctorily written that it seems like they shot the story notes rather than an actual script. Admittedly, it's hard to have eighteen kids on the screen and give them all their "moment," but some subplots are so small they are almost laughable.

The oldest Beardsley boy's run for school president, for instance, uses up all of sixty seconds of screen time, spread across three scenes. In one scene, the "cool" Dylan North (Drake Bell) tells William Beardsley (Sean Faris, who stars in Reunion this season) how to fix his campaign poster. Then we get a quick montage of the kids putting up posters throughout the school. Then, in the midst of something else, a kid runs up and out of the blue says, "You won the election." Whoopee.

Later, when one of the kids asks William, "Aren't you going to tell your dad you won the election?" I almost wanted to talk back to the screen: "Hey, when are you going to tell us?"

And how many times in the same movie can you have the kids trash the same house? How many times do we need elaborate set-ups that result in actors getting covered with paint or slime or some other noxious substance? Does somebody look seasick? Then you know he's going to puke, and somebody's going to fall in the puke. Does the man tell the woman a little story about a lighthouse keeper? Then you know the movie will end with her lighting the light. Tick? Tock. Every time.

This writing is worse than bad. Bad writing is forgivable when it results from a simple lack of talent -- you have to congratulate the writer for at least getting work when he has no discernable ability. But this writing is worse because nobody seems even to have tried.

And anything that was good was probably cut out when they ruthlessly trimmed the script to bring the movie in under two hours. Longer would have felt shorter because we might have gotten involved in something.

The same writing team also brought us the forgettable (and money-losing) Head Over Heels back in 2001, thus proving that if you ever got a movie made, you can get hired to write another, even if your first one stank.

Fortunately, the actors and the director made up for the shoddy script by giving performances that made me almost believe that real people might actually say and do the things the script made them say and do. Sean Faris, Drake Bell, and Danielle Panabaker were the standouts among the kids, though the twins and the littlest ones made the most of some genuinely cute moments.

Look, you don't go to a movie like this to see great art. You're happy if you pass a couple of hours pleasantly in the company of the people you brought with you. The sailing shots sequences are great. And they found a really cool old lighthouse to film it in.

We enjoyed it. It was fun.

*

Aeon Flux -- just one more installment in the ongoing effort to turn videogames into movies.

Here's why it hasn't worked so far -- and never will work, until somebody gets a clue.

In a videogame of the "action shooter" genre, the desired experience for the gamer is nonstop tasks for him to perform. He has to shoot anything that moves, think about different things to try to get past puzzles and surprises, and try to remember all the moves available to him through his game controller.

When, in the course of a game, there's some essential exposition, it has to be as clipped as possible so it never leaves the gamer sitting there watching the screen for more than a few moments at a time.

That's why Aeon Flux begins with a crawl explaining the background history. The crawl probably wasn't in the script -- because the opening scenes tell us exactly the same information. But apparently test screenings reported that the audience was still confused. So the prologue was added. Make 'em sit through it twice! They still may not understand it, but at least they won't ask for more!

And what is the precious background history? An "industrial disease" wiped out all but four million of the humans on earth, and they all live together in one city, protected by a vaccine developed by the family that now rules there. A group of people are trying to overthrow the dictatorship.

They have technology that crosses over the line into magic -- like the pills you swallow that allow you to talk telepathically with certain other people. Fighters are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound without even being from an alien planet.

When you're playing the videogame, this nonsense is all OK because you're so busy solving problems that you don't waste much time thinking about the story. It's enough if the game designers show you something new -- you say "cool" and keep playing.

But in a movie, you aren't playing anything, you aren't twitching your fingers and thumbs on a game controller, trying to solve a problem. Instead, you're watching somebody else solve the problems -- and you quickly realize that the problem is always solvable using the tools you already have, plus some off-the-wall "intuition" that in the game only comes to you after your character has died nine times and you finally try truly weird stuff. In the movie, though, they try the weird stuff right away, you so sit there thinking, What kind of person would ever really think of that?

In the game, the scenes are all streamlined: Get together, say the things that will tell the game what he has to know, and get back to the action. In the movie, those streamlined scenes become laughable. The characters might as well address the audience directly. "Hi. I'm really evil. I'm plotting to overthrow my own brother in order to keep the human race sterile and subjugated." In fact, they practically do -- the characters they are ostensibly talking to are little more than placeholders, there to ask exactly the question to elicit exactly the response to move us on to the next stage of the game.

The movie was very, very short. It felt very, very, very long.

And yet: Charlize Theron was so cool-yet-intense in her role that she made us almost care; and Marton Csokas (veteran of thankless roles in Kingdom of Heaven, The Bourne Supremacy, and Lord of the Rings) is powerful and real as the misunderstood dictator. The evil brother is also played to perfection by Jonny Lee Miller. In fact, all the performances were so much better than the material deserved that I have to ask: Didn't anybody think of hiring a writer?

Oh, wait -- they had writers, the pair who brought us The Tuxedo. Yeah, that was a masterpiece. They also wrote Crazy/Beautiful, but that was long ago, and in a different movie universe.

Maybe the producers thought that to be successful, the movie needed to feel like a videogame.

But nobody thinks anything that stupid when they make, say, a sports movie. Nobody thinks we need to sit through every down in every football game, because the movie audience knows that the game's outcome is not in jeopardy. We get a few climactic game moments, but most of the screen time is spent on characters and relationships, making us care what's going on.

Movies are, if anything, the opposite of videogames. You spend your time on radically different aspects of the story. The game is all action, with as few scenes as possible; movies are all scenes, with action only there for the climactic moments, when the audience cares desperately about the outcome.

An all-climax movie is, in reality, a no-climax movie. It becomes a thank-heaven-it's-over movie, or even an I'm-going-to-the-bathroom-just-to-get-out-of-the-theater-for-a-couple-of-minutes movie.

And what about the setting? Games take place in endless corridors, each with a different architectural style so you can tell at a glance where you are; when there are rooms, they're huge, cavernous, so bad guys can keep pouring into the room so you can shoot them all down. In the real world, what we call a mostly-corridor building is "bad architecture."

Fifty-five million bucks they spent on this thing, and the main thrills come from wondering how Charlize Theron's costumes stay on. (Which, by the way, is another relic of the gaming world that they should have rethought before making the movie. Women in videogames are clothed to accommodate the dreams of fourteen-year-old boys. When a real woman actually has to wear that stuff it makes you feel a little sad for her. It's almost as sad as the dresses they wear at the Oscars.)

I don't know whom this movie is for. Those who have already played the game obsessively already know everything; those who haven't, are never going to care about it from what this film throws up onto the screen.

*

When it comes to videogames, you'll never see me review an action-shooter, because I don't play them. I'm too old and too jaded -- I can't twitch fast enough to win, and I don't care enough about the ordinary kind of game storytelling.

But there are games that I love, and for my money, the best of this year is The Movies.

That's right, a videogame in which you run a studio, trying to keep your stars happy, your films within budget, and your offerings in line with what the public wants.

Best of all, however: You actually make the movies.

When I heard this described, I was baffled. I thought I knew what computers could do, and this seemed way beyond anything possible. But with Peter Molyneux at the head of the company that made The Movies, I should have known that the impossible was possible after all.

Molyneux was the creator of Populous, Black & White, and Fable, which took games in directions that no one else conceived of.

The studio-running features of the game are fun, in a this-is-actually-too-much-like-work kind of way. It's the movies themselves that are almost miraculous.

No, they're not real movies -- more like brief parodies of movies. Kind of like the 30-second movies enacted by bunnies which I've reviewed here before. But you really do see actors moving through scenes. They even talk to each other, though the dialogue is not actually audible. The acting is execrable -- very much like many real Oscar-winning performances -- but the effect of the films is intriguing. Not train-wreck intriguing, more like almost-good intriguing.

Another game I saw recently is called Katamari Damacy (Playstation), which has taken Japan by storm. When I describe it, it will sound so weird you'll wonder how it could be fun. But I promise, it is.

It reminds me of nothing so much as a great scene from Robert Stoddard's classic musical Giraffe Story, in which one of the characters says, "I had a terrible dream last night. I dreamed that somebody had cut me into little pieces, and I had to go around and pick them all up."

That's Katamari. What you do is you move through the world rolling things into an ever-larger ball. You start with little things -- scraps of paper, clips, pens. They simply stick to your katamari ball as you roll over them. You bounce off anything too big to pick up. But as the ball gets bigger, you can pick up bigger things. So if you move through a school, for instance, you start with scraps but end up rolling over (and picking up) desks, chairs, students.

The designer of Katamari, Keita Takahashi, made the game as a kind of parody of or rebellion against videogames. It feels far more like play than most videogames. Videogames, after all, are about solving the problems the designer has laid out for you. Essentially, the game trains you. And while Katamari has a bit of that, too, it mostly consists of garbage strewn about and it's your job to pick it all up.

It really is like a kind of nightmare -- only you're the monster.

Another great game is Shadow of the Colossus (Playstation). This one is to gaming as the Hayao Miyazaki films are to animated movies. It's first-rate work, you can see that at a glance; but as you follow the story, it gets stranger and stranger. You find yourself climbing up the bodies of giants that you thought were part of the landscape or architecture, searching for vulnerable points on their bodies.

And as you kill giant after giant (presuming they don't kill you first), you begin to realize that maybe you aren't the good guy. That maybe these giants are harmless or even benign, and you are in the service of an evil force that is forcing you to destroy something beautiful.

Yet the game never asks you to decide to forgo the task. On the contrary -- it rewards you for doing it. It is so morally ambiguous, so full of a kind of grim triumph, that it truly feels like you've been transported into another moral universe.

I also had a chance recently to preview a couple of games that are still under wraps. All I can say without breaching confidentiality is that when Sims 2 comes out on the PSP (the little handheld game machine from Sony) it will be a completely new and wonderful game, not the rather boring (in my opinion) game that is so popular on the PC. It's more like the freak show version of Sims -- still highly social, even more fun -- and endlessly surprising.

As for the PSP version of Pirates of the Caribbean 2, since it's based on the movie we haven't seen yet, it's not likely they're going to let me talk about the game. Let's just say that Jack Sparrow really moves like Johnny Depp's character in the films, and the game has the whimsical, offbeat style that we enjoyed in the movies. In short, we really get to be Jack Sparrow.

And having used the Sony PSP, that handheld version of the Playstation, I must say that it's a great game machine and a surprisingly good movie-watching machine, too -- though it doesn't play regular DVDs, so you have to buy your favorite movies a second time.

Though PSP faces an uphill battle against the Nintendo DS, which is also a great game machine with different virtues. If anybody at your house gets either machine this Christmas, you will have hit the gift-giving jackpot.

*

In case you really want an antidote to the Christmas spirit, you might want to get online and check out Polly Toynbee's hate-filled review of Narnia in the Manchester Guardian. Here's the link -- make sure you either type very carefully, or just go to the Rhino or Hatrack website and click on the link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,1657942,00.html.

Think of it as an exercise in forcing yourself to be forgiving.

*

Normally when I put on a play here in Greensboro, I have no qualms about inviting the general public. We may put it on at the local Mormon church building, but our shows have been musicals and comedies from our shared culture.

Tonight (Thursday, 8 December) will be the one night we're performing a play with specifically LDS (Mormon) content. But that doesn't imply that only Mormons will enjoy it. It's a historical play called Liberty Jail, about the six months that Church founder Joseph Smith was imprisoned in the town of Liberty, Missouri, along with five others, at a time when the main body of the Church was being driven out of Missouri by mobs.

Of course there are resonances for Mormons in the audience, who will know more about many of the characters than can be shown on the stage; but the play itself focuses on the relationships among the prisoners and I believe it might be interesting to many who are not LDS. (It is not a proselytizing play; missionaries will not call.)

The play is enacted using only teenage actors, playing adult characters -- but this is a superbly talented group, and they do a great job.

The play starts at seven p.m. tonight and runs a couple of hours. Admission is free. (Please do not bring children under ten years of age -- they will not understand the play, and you cannot keep them quiet enough to allow others to enjoy the performance.)

Oh, yes ... almost forgot to mention: I'm the playwright, not the director on this particular show.

*

And as long as I'm touting my own projects, I hope you'll check out Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show (http://www.oscigms.com). It's a new magazine of science fiction and fantasy, including stories and illustrations (of course), a terrific group of columnists, a short comic book in every issue, and a story set in the Ender's Game universe -- all for $2.50 (payable online through PayPal).

It exists only online, not in print -- but that means we can (and do) keep adding content to it even after you've bought the issue. And much of the magazine is there for anyone to read, without even having to pay. So come check it out. If you like it, it's not too late to order it as a holiday gift for the fiction lovers in your life. At $2.50 a copy, it's the cheapest gift they'll ever love ...


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