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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 20, 2006

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


World Trade Center,Step Up, Doyle, and Sheldon

Ann Coulter's new book (which I haven't read) has a grossly inaccurate title: Godless: The Church of Liberalism. It may be true that liberalism does not accept the same God as religious conservatives. But they are certainly not godless.

How can you tell who someone's god is? You look to see whose name they invoke as the cause of all things, good or bad. By that standard, the god of the devout Left is Global Warming; here is the Psalm of Al, from which the faithful constantly quote (King James Version):

1. Great storms ravage our cities, and the wise man saith: Global Warming hath done this.

2. Drought keepeth all storms at bay, and the wise man saith: This also hath Global Warming done.

3. Global Warming maketh the oceans rise; it maketh deep snow to fall;

4. Flood and fire, feast and famine, typhoon and tornado, hail and lightning, all things good and bad that come from sky or sea, Global Warming hath made them all.

5. And when our homes are beneath the waves, we shall know that Global Warming in its wrath hath seen our sins.

6. For our vehicles that glut themselves on oil, for the trees we cut and land we clear,

7. For the cooling and heating of our houses, for the plowing and harvesting of our fields, we are punished.

8. Whenever we burn carbon and release it into the air, we shall know that Global Warming seeth it, and is wroth.

9. O man! Thou hast flouted the great god of the sky, and by three degrees of temperature we shall be burned,

10. For Global Warming is a jealous god, and small and annoying is man.

*

Self-Refuting Signs Department

So we're driving through heavy freeway reconstruction on I-405 near Bellevue, Washington, and we see a large sign whose sole purpose is to convey this message about the construction project: "Making Every Dollar Count."

They must mean every dollar except the dollars spent putting up that sign.

*

I had director Oliver Stone pegged. The guy hated the military and slandered it at every opportunity (Salvador, Platoon). He cared nothing for truth, deliberately lying about real people and what they said and did (JFK, Nixon), while claiming credit for "telling the truth." He celebrated and romanticized evil (Natural Born Killers). He was trapped in the 1960s and couldn't get out (The Doors -- plus all the above-listed films).

So when I heard that he was the director of the film World Trade Center, I was sick at heart. This propagandist was going to pretend to tell the story of the heroes of 9/11 -- most of whom held precisely the views and lived exactly the lives he had so long slandered and despised?

No way was I going to see it.

Until I started reading rave reviews from columnists who were ideologically the opposite of Oliver Stone. They loved this movie. They called it honest, fair-minded, heartfelt, ennobling.

Oliver Stone?

When, in all his works, had he shown a hint that he even knew what nobility was, or that he liked it when he saw it?

But, like a dog dancing the samba, some thing simply have to be seen.

And guess what? World Trade Center is an utterly honest, self-restrained movie. It tells the story of two Port Authority cops trapped in the wreckage between the towers, the families that waited for them, and the people who found and rescued them.

No Hollywood juicing-it-up nonsense ("What's your second act?" "We need more jeopardy!")

No Michael Moore-style leftist distortion and ridicule: George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani are shown in news footage of their best moments, without comment, but in a context that can only be called favorable.

Not only that, but Stone (and writer Andrea Berloff) made what can only be considered pro-war statements. Nothing about Iraq, mind you, but they preserved the viewpoint of then-ex-Marine Dave Karnes, who tells his office co-workers, "You may not have realized it, but our country is at war."

In fact, it is Karnes (played compellingly by Michael Shannon) who stands all the previous work of Oliver Stone on its head. As an ex-Marine and a Christian, he goes to church to pray. He tells his pastor that he feels called to go and help. He puts on his uniform (probably illegally, but the movie does not even give a hint of criticism) and makes his way to ground zero.

When the search is called off for the night, he and another ex-Marine (played by William Mapother, who was "Ethan" in Lost, perhaps getting some rehabilitation from that creepy role) continue to walk the wreckage with flashlights. They are the ones who discover John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) trapped in the wreckage.

Meanwhile, Cage and Peña give moving, understated performances as men facing slow death with a keen knowledge of how much is unfinished in their lives. There are fear, pain, self-doubt, faith, hope, despair, love, and finally gratitude -- and never a false moment.

What happened to Oliver Stone? Why did he suddenly stop propagandizing for the anti-American Left and tell a simple, honest story that might actually cause people to remember that America is full of good and decent people, and that our country might be worth sacrificing to defend?

Maybe it was the influence of the writer and producers; maybe it was his interviews with the survivors, actually getting to know real people who didn't already think just like him.

Maybe after all his years of sniping at the military and glorifying criminals in film, he has actually come to see that the good guys are usually pretty good people.

Maybe he grew up.

Whatever the cause, Oliver Stone of all people has shown us what an honest historical film feels like. I contrast this with Spielberg's wretched Schindler's List, which didn't trust the true story and had to juice it up to make Schindler nobler than he actually was, and gave him an epiphany that he never had. Where Spielberg can never stop manipulating, Stone chose to restrain all the Hollywood falseness and keep it out of his movie. Maybe the difference between them is that Stone has actually figured out where the truth ends and Hollywood begins; Spielberg has never had a clue.

Now it will be interesting to see if, at Oscar time, Leftist Hollywood is able to deal with a truthful, non-propagandistic movie about the event that triggered the present War on Terror. Are Oliver Stone's credentials as a fanatical Leftist secure enough that they can forgive him for not slandering our President? Can this movie be nominated for, and perhaps even win, the Oscar for Best Picture?

The fact that this is the best movie of the year is not in question, you understand. The only question is whether there is enough integrity, enough open-mindedness and fairness left in Leftist Hollywood, to give an award to a film that doesn't lie about people with religious faith, living modest lives in the American middle class.

Meanwhile, go see this movie. It is as close as any of us who were not there can ever come to experiencing what it was like for people who were there. And at the end, as the names of the Port Authority cops who died in the World Trade Center scroll up the screen, you will remember that so well did the police and firefighters do their work that day that most of those who died were the people above the fires, who could not have been saved by anyone -- because on all the lower floors, most of the people were evacuated by the very public servants who died while searching for and helping the last stragglers.

*

Not every movie has to have serious intent, of course. Step Up is a dance movie. It barely departs from formulaic storytelling: Lonely rich girl in high school of the arts longs to find fulfilment through dance; her partner in the showcase that might lead to a career is injured; she takes on a car-stealing street kid as her temporary partner. Do they fall in love? Does he come through for her in the final performance? Are both their lives transformed?

Duh.

It is only in the sub-stories that the movie shows any freshness. Damaine Radcliff as "Mac Carter" and De'Shawn Washington as his brother "Skinny" are part of one good story; one-name Mario as music student "Miles Darby" and Drew Sidora as dancer-singer "Lucy Avila" have a much less obvious and predictable romance than the leads.

Here's the thing: Dance movies need a story, but they don't need much of a story, if the dancing is good enough.

And a lot of the dancing is very, very good.

Unfortunately, most of it is shot so close you can barely see the moves and edited so that nothing lasts more than a couple of seconds before we're drawn away to something else. Don't these people know that when you're doing dance on film, we need to experience it with continuity?

Choppy dance editing with lots of closeups is what you do with movies like Moulin Rouge that are only pretending to have dance and are desperate to conceal the badness of the choreography.

So ... the photography is confusing and the writing is full of clichés. (I won't even go into the badness of the dialogue; the actors deserve prizes just for saying these slapdash, empty speeches as if humans might talk like that.)

But the movie still works, sort of. Mostly. Well enough.

Why? Because of Channing Tatum as "Tyler Gage." From the scar below his eye to his perfect athletic body, this guy reeks of testosterone and sensitivity. He only has to stand there with his melting eyes and shy Brad-Pitt grin and the whole audience moans with admiration.

Then, when he moves -- man, this guy can dance.

It's his movie. From this, he should become a star.

Sadly, Jenna Dewan as "Nora Clark" probably thought she had the lead in this movie, or that she was at least one of two equal leads. She is playing the girl whose showcase performance is in jeopardy, isn't she? She has lots of lines and gets to dance a lot, doesn't she?

She probably never realized how the filmmakers were deliberately destroying her and handing the movie over to Channing Tatum.

In dance after dance, they dress Tatum in light colors and put her in dark ones that virtually make her disappear. You have to work at it to notice Dewan at all; the eye is always drawn to Tatum. This is not an accident. The costumer, the cinematographer, and the director knew exactly what they were doing. They were taking Dewan out of the movie without actually cutting her part.

And they were not wrong to do it. Tatum is brilliant; Dewan is merely very good. It's the difference between a star and a secondary performer. There are many who can do the moves and say the lines, but few who can do both in such a way that the audience gasps. When Dewan dances, it's just a body moving; when Tatum dances, it's a vital energy that leaps off the screen.

But the difference between the parts starts with the script. Tyler Gage's life is fully created; his friends and enemies are interesting, his life is dangerous. Nora Clark's dilemma is a mother who doesn't understand her, and how is it resolved? Suddenly one day the mother does understand her. Problem solved.

Oh, yeah, and she has a boyfriend who turns out to be a jerk. Like we ever believed in or cared about that relationship!

Poor Dewan. She was doomed to utter forgettability in this movie, and all through the filming, she thought she had been given her big break. Even now, her agent is probably touting the big numbers this movie has been piling up, trying to get her more work on the basis of this movie. It will take time for them to realize that Dewan wasn't actually in this movie.

Look, Step Up isn't great art. But it's got a watchable story. There are individual performers whose work will delight you. And you get to see a star -- Channing Tatum -- in his break-out role.

*

David Pirie's mystery novel The Patient's Eyes isn't just derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle's books about Sherlock Holmes -- it actually stars Doyle himself as the clerk and chronicler of the real-world person on whom Sherlock Holmes was largely based: Dr. Joseph Bell.

The trouble with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche is that mystery writing has moved far beyond Doyle's puzzle stories with perfunctory or eccentric characters.

The good thing about this novel is that Pirie is up to the challenge of "doing" Doyle while still creating a story that is interesting to modern readers.

Because this is the introductory volume in a series, Pirie shows us several smaller mysteries solved by Dr. Bell as young Doyle becomes familiar with the man's method. We are also given tantalizing glimpses of painful events in the past both of Doyle and Bell. We don't even get to the core mystery until well into the book -- but that's hardly a flaw. It's interesting every step of the way.

Though I should warn you that the style is faithful to Doyle's own pacing and locutions. This can make it feel slowish to people who aren't used to reading books from the turn of the last century. But Pirie doesn't carry this to extremes -- the story does clip along and the digressions are entertaining in themselves. It's nice to read a bit of elegantly written prose now and then.

You'll notice I haven't said a word about the actual mysteries that are solved in this book. I did that on purpose. Read it yourself.

*

I have never read a novel by Sidney Sheldon. They were the kind of glitzy thriller that I have always been perfectly happy to ignore. However, several billion people (on this planet alone) have read books of his, and he has enjoyed his reign as the most-translated fiction author on earth.

What I hadn't realized, before reading his memoir, Sidney Sheldon: The Other Side of Me, is that I've actually seen a lot of his work -- on the screen.

He started out in Hollywood with a lot of B-movie hackwork, but he scripted several movies that have had staying power -- Easter Parade, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Billy Rose's Jumbo, Annie Get Your Gun. Most of his best film scripts were adaptations of stories that had already worked in another genre, or are made memorable because great performers starred in them.

But he did devise I Dream of Jeannie, The Patty Duke Show, and Hart to Hart. So practically everyone who has been alive since the late 1960s is familiar with his work.

That's not why you want to read his memoir. After all, even the best writers usually have boring lives.

What makes this a compelling memoir is that his life truly was interesting and he seems to hold little or nothing back. This isn't a "genius, starring me" story -- his early years in the depression really were tough, and he worked hard to figure out a way to make a buck and help support his family.

He also wrestled with the demon of mood swings that sometimes stopped him from success at the very point of achieving something. So deep did his depressions go that at one point, early in his life, he was preparing to commit suicide when his father talked him out of it.

Meanwhile, his life intersected with and became important to the lives of many celebrities that fascinate us. His friendship with Cary Grant, for instance, seems to have been genuine and deep, and there are many others with whom he had many dealings for a long period of time. He was a notable participant in Hollywood high life and so even if all you want is gossip, this book has a ton of it.

Oddly enough, the book ends rather abruptly when he becomes a successful novelist. But then, that's precisely when he stops taking part in the collaborative, socially active life of film, songwriting, and Broadway, and starts being just a guy alone with a manuscript. In other words, the moment his life becomes like mine, it's becomes so boring he can't bring himself to write about it. I know the feeling.

Whether you care about Sidney Sheldon or not, he lived through fascinating times, in New York and Hollywood, yes, but also in America as a whole. It's an American life; he's one of us, even if he did achieve fame and fortune in the end.


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