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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 7, 2007

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


Museum, Dreamgirls, History Boys, Sunshine, Scotland, and Rhymes

The promos for Night at the Museum looked like a lot of fun. For about, say, five minutes. Then the novelty of seeing all the cool stuff in the museum come to life would wear off, and we'd be sitting there for another ninety minutes or so, wishing we were home watching C-SPAN2.

Still ... there'd be those five minutes.

So off we went on Monday night to see this Ben Stiller comedy, and discovered that it's entertaining for the whole duration. In fact, not just kids but grownups laughed out loud. OK, I'll be specific: I laughed out loud, and more than once.

The script, by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Herbie: Fully Loaded; Taxi), has holes that you could drive a tyrannosaur through. For instance, some of the damage -- like a smashed information desk in the middle of the lobby -- seems to be magically restored by morning, while other damage -- like a little fire-extinguisher foam on some neanderthals -- remains in full view.

But if your goal is to experience an evening of perfect logic, I suggest you play chess against a computer and leave the movies to people with more, shall we say, relaxed standards.

Even if the script doesn't care all that much about logic and reality, the actors do. Ben Stiller's comic gifts include his utter sincerity in the midst of absurdity, and that is the main reason this movie works. In the midst of chaos, we have someone real to hold on to. He makes us care about something completely absurd.

Robin Williams takes his cue from Stiller and gives a restrained, charming performance. Dick Van Dyke is in his Bert the Chimneysweep mode, even when he does naughty things. Owen Wilson is absolutely wonderful as Jedadiah the cowboy, and his pairing with Steve Coogan as the Roman officer is inspired. If Ricky Gervais tries way too hard in his first scene, he quickly settles down into his ordinary comic mode (repulsiveness so complete it makes you want to change species).

And if you're as old as I am, there's a special delight in seeing Mickey Rooney not only on the screen, but proving that he still has the comic gifts that made him America's top box office star back in his youth.

So ... will this movie change the world? Hardly. Will you have fun watching it? Unless you're a complete grump, yes.

*

Dreamgirls has a lot of stories attached to it by now. For one thing, it began as a vehicle for Nell Carter, before her TV show Gimme a Break, so its roots as a stage musical were in the 1970s. (There was even a version in which the character Effie died in the first act!)

After the musical was a hit in the 1980s, it took twenty-five years for it to reach the screen. Why? Because almost no musicals were being filmed, and the few that were, like Evita and I'll Do Anything, didn't exactly inspire studios to want to sink any more money into them. (I'll Do Anything was so bad, as a musical, that all the songs were cut before the movie opened, though you could still see all the buildups to the songs.)

With the success of Chicago, though, the floodgates were opened.

OK, not floodgates. Just one little sluice door that lets one musical trickle out every year or so, along with three or four dance movies.

It's a good thing we waited so long, though, or we might not have had this extraordinary cast. Beyoncé Knowles, playing the Diana-Ross-influenced character Deena Jones, is the biggest singing star, but we also have first-rate actors like Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, everybody's favorite dad Danny Glover, and a surprisingly mature and schtick-free Eddie Murphy in powerful male roles as well.

In fact, if they gave an Oscar for casting, this movie should get it. Anika Noni Rose is a relative newcomer, and the part is not written to make her stand out, but she does a deft job as the "third Supreme" -- er, pardon me, "Dreamette." Keith Robinson, as Effie's brother, is heartbreakingly sweet. It was great to see Jaleel White playing the booking agent at the Detroit Theatre -- no Urkel visible, just a good actor. Esther Scott as Aunt Ethel had only a couple of moments, but she made them work wonderfully. Not a bad performance in the cast.

I've heard people complain that Beyoncé was "cold" and "distant" and her performance "lacked depth." Apparently these critics don't understand that she was playing a character who was a performer who seemed cold and distant and lacking in depth (no offense to Diana Ross, of course).

If you do a good job of playing a character that is shallow, then your character will seem shallow. You don't criticize an actor for getting it right!

In fact, Beyoncé did a fine job of letting us see the human being under the shallow façade.

Ultimately, though, this show came down to the fine performance turned in by American Idol graduate (and, if I recall correctly, sixth- or seventh-place-finisher) Jennifer Hudson. Hudson always carried a little extra weight, which was essential for a part that was conceived for Nell Carter and demands vocal power and physical presence like Mahalia Jackson.

Hudson was up for it all. Her voice on Idol in 2004 was good, but young -- she pushed beyond her ability more than once, making it hard to see her as the winner. She's matured since then, and vocally she doesn't make a single misstep. (Thus we learn once again that it ain't over till ... till ... no, that's just too cheap a joke.)

It seems to me, looking at pictures of her before the movie, that she gained weight for the role. She was also costumed -- deliberately -- in ways that were not flattering to her. It takes guts to do that, and many an actor refuses, insisting on glamor every time. Of course, she had no power in this situation, being a newcomer to film -- it was dress the way they said or don't do the part. But her performance proved, as it was meant to, that voice and onstage presence trump mere costuming.

It took courage, also, for Beyoncé to play a role in which the whole show is designed to insist that someone else -- this newcomer, Jennifer Hudson -- is the better, more deserving singer! Yet it seemed that everyone in this show supported everybody else. Liked everybody else. The ensemble feeling was amazing.

The story, one must remember, is from a musical comedy. Thus there's a lot of dialogue that gets right to the point -- there isn't much time for subtlety when you've only got a couple of seconds to tell the story between the songs.

Also, since the show is about people who perform, it can be jarring the first time the characters sing something that is not a performance in front of an audience. That's the curse of musical comedy, of course, and I think the film handled that transition about as well as it could be done with this script.

It's also worth pointing out that while the score is adequate for a musical, there are few of these songs that one could actually imagine being hits in the real world (i.e., without the attachment to a story).

What matters, though, is that Dreamgirls is a wonderful evening in the movie theater, and you come out liking everybody and wanting to buy the cd to hear them sing again.

However, I did not come out wishing to buy a Supremes cd. Recording quality back in the 1960s was very low (remember, recordings only had to sound good on AM radio and 45 rpm record players back then) and the Supremes were not, vocally speaking, very good. Every singer in this show can outsing any of the Supremes.

But there's no arguing with success: The Supremes did what they did at the time they did it; there were probably hundreds if not thousands of better singers at that time, but the Supremes had the right combination of voice, performance, song choice, arrangements, and promotion. The singers are most of the story, but never all of it.

And that's part of why this movie is so entertaining. We get a feeling for what it is that the promoter and producer actually do.

*

Because I'm in the Writers Guild, I get to vote in the Writers Guild Award competition. That means I receive copies, not just of screeners, but of the screenplays of nominated films.

Reading a script is not seeing the movie, of course -- the script is merely the plan for a movie, not the film itself. But I couldn't resist the temptation of reading the scripts of two movies that I have not yet seen, The History Boys and Little Miss Sunshine.

In some ways, The History Boys, scripted by Alan Bennett, was exactly what I expected from the movie promos. An eclectic bunch of British schoolboys are prepping to try to get into Oxford or Cambridge, and so we get intrigues, tension, and comedy leading up to the crucial exam.

We've seen it before, haven't we? And while Bennett is witty enough, there's nothing in the actual prepare-for-the-test story that hasn't been done before, and usually better.

What makes The History Boys stand out -- what got it made, in fact, in my opinion -- is the sub-plot about sex between adults and schoolboys.

There's Posner, the young boy who is quite sure he's gay but because he looks so young, can't get anybody to sleep with him. Even Hector, the gay history teacher who feels up the boys he takes on the back of his motorcycle, won't let Posner be the chosen boy. Thus we see that the screenwriter draws the line somewhere.

That's supposed to make us forget, I suppose, that the more "mature" boy, Dakin, is carrying on an affair with the headmaster's secretary, Fiona.

And of course we forgive the screenwriter for showing us, as the real climax of the film, that the same boy, Dakin, offers sex to the other history teacher, Irwin (who has shown scant sign of being gay) as a way of saying thanks for helping them all (but one) get into Oxbridge.

Add to this the fact that the gay teacher, Hector, is shown as being a harmless crank -- the boys don't love being felt up on the motorcycle, but they take turns tolerating it, and still like the old codger -- and what do you have?

A film that is working very hard to normalize and create sympathy for homosexual predators who have sex with underage boys.

Here are the lessons of the script:

1. Adults who molest teenage boys are really harmless, as long as the boys aren't too young.

2. Kids really want to have sex with older people anyway -- look, they even volunteer for it!

3. Kids who are too young to have sex with adults are resentful that they're being left out of the fun.

4. People who get all upset and try to fire teachers who molest their students are all repressive hypocrites and should be despised.

Alan Bennett is a talented, though not particularly brilliant, writer, and The History Boys has funny moments and interestingly drawn characters, though they stray very little from the cliches of the student-teacher-movie genre.

But since it functions as propaganda designed to normalize what is now almost universally recognized as one of the few remaining tabus, I must register my disgust. It is not very far from "sympathetic" movies like this to a time when, without the slightest evidence, the politically correct start to insist that opposing sex between adults and "consenting" underage partners is perfectly harmless and only pedophobes would dare oppose it.

It hasn't been twenty years since almost everybody laughed at the very idea that anyone would seriously propose the legalization of homosexual marriage; look how quickly the received wisdom changed. So I hardly think it is alarmist of me to suggest that the fact that this script has been nominated for an award, when it is not extraordinarily well-written and the only feature to set it apart is its advocacy of sex between adults and children, bodes ill for the future.

After all, who would want to appear intolerant by suggesting that even when it is portrayed by charming actors, sex between adults and underage partners, is never acceptable?

But unless we wish to become a society that regards it as a virtue to condone the sexual exploitation of the young and powerless, it behooves us to be disgusted by a film that pretends that perfectly healthy teenagers are not harmed by it, might even desire it (as if that were relevant), and that the adults who exploit them are well-meaning, rather charming codgers.

This is precisely the viewpoint I have heard from "man-boy love" advocates. That's the path this film invites us to explore. That's the script that Alan Bennett chose to write. That's the script that the Writers Guild has already honored with a nomination.

Little Miss Sunshine is also a low-budget, edgy film, with plenty of elements designed to be mildly offensive. After all, you can't possibly have any credibility as an independent filmmaker if you don't outrage the Stodgy Middle Class.

(Note to filmmakers: The Stodgy Middle Class is aging out of existence. You've already won. What you call "edgy" is now pure establishment: Almost everybody in the film industry approves of all your "edgy" elements, which means you aren't shocking anybody who matters to your career. That's what we call conservative and safe, not edgy.)

Thus I merely sigh and read on when we have a grandpa who uses the F-word all the time (funny thirty years ago, to yawn at now), a suicidal college professor uncle whose only likeable feature is that he's also gay (again, we're no longer shocked by gay characters, we're now ready for writers to make them interesting for other reasons), and -- here's a shocker -- a completely inept, out-of-touch father who contributes nothing to the family income or the family's happiness (gee, a loser father in an independent film; how brave and edgy can you get?).

So the story is about how the family struggles to fulfil the youngest child's dream of doing such a great job of dancing in the talent competition that she wins the Little Miss Sunshine tiara, despite the complete incompetence, blindness, and stupidity of the father. It involves a long road trip in a van that has to be pushed every time it starts, plus jokes about porn magazines, and a son who hates his family and has taken a vow of silence until he gets admitted to the Air Force Academy.

Poor Toni Collette has to play the mom, who is the only normal person (normal by politically correct independent film standards, that is, meaning she is actually just as ineffective a parent as the father, but because she doesn't even try, we like her better).

Then it all comes down to a climactic sequence at the beauty pageant, where the people in charge of the pageant are horrible human beings.

I hate the whole idea of child beauty pageants. (I don't much like the idea of beauty pageant, period. What a waste of time.) So my sympathies are entirely with them for sending up the child-pageant industry.

But it's such a cheat to make the people running this pageant such obvious jerks. Would child beauty pageants be good, then, if all the people running them were nice? What does it prove, except that the writer knows how to stack the deck?

Of course, the movie is really about the father getting his comeuppance, and this storyline is extremely well written. Writer Michael Arndt did not fall back on cheap jokes, but instead gave us a character (played by Greg Kinnear) who is interesting and learns something -- he may be an idiot, but he's a well-meaning one.

Here's the thing -- even in a movie with so many stock features, the writing is so good that it carries us through. It's really funny. It's also very much about redemption of a family, and if, for comedy's sake, the family is absurdly screwed-up at the beginning, the means by which they unscrewup themselves is truthful and even moving.

So sure, do the things you have to do to earn your independent-film cred; at heart, this is actually a sweet little sentimental comedy about how families need each other to survive in this cruel cruel world. I like that about this movie. And since the cast is so extraordinarily good, I'm going to watch it.

*

The movie about Idi Amin, Last King of Scotland, is powerful indeed, and you'll be seeing Forrest Whitaker's name in contention for best-actor awards. His performance is indeed remarkable, but it's worth pointing out that James McAvoy (who played Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) actually has the stronger part and delivers a brilliant performance.

It's a case of the more famous actor who has long gone unawarded overshadowing the actor who actually gives the stronger performance in the same film.

Personally, I have a hard time with a film about a monster, anyway. Whether it's a fake monster like Dracula or the Mummy or a real one like Idi Amin, I have a hard time warming up to the idea of spending a couple of hours in his company.

And the script strains credulity from time to time. Not to mention the fact that for a few awful moments at the very climax, it seems to think it's a remake of A Man Called Horse -- though it's hard to imagine any atrocity that was out of Amin's reach.

But as a piece of dramatic filmmaking, it certainly earns its climax. I suspect that when the novelty of it wears off, it will remain, like so many well-intentioned films that try to comment on the real world so directly, more of an artifact of our day than a film that tells some universal truth.

But sometimes an artificial film like this is worth making -- and seeing -- precisely because it speaks to our time.

Ironic, isn't it, that a film like this can garner so much positive attention, when the military campaign in Iraq, fought to rid the world of a far more dangerous dictator than Amin, is spoken of as if it were a crime -- by the very same people, by and large, who admire this film.

It's as if when we have a monster slaughtering his own people, the ultra-left jumps up and down and says, "Why didn't somebody do something!" but when somebody actually does the only thing that stops monsters like this, the same people jump up and down in fury because we westerners have no business telling other countries how to govern themselves.

*

Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, by Chris Roberts, is an entertaining look at the origins, both documented and speculative, behind the most common nursery rhymes.

Wherever I already knew the origin, Roberts does a decent job of presenting the facts. If sometimes Roberts is a bit too much in love with his own cleverness, the fun and the facts are worth putting up with a fellow who's only a occasionally tedious.

Some of the more obscure rhymes he comes up with are delightfully appalling. My favorite, which he quotes from Tom Thumb's Pretty Songbook (1744), is:

Piss a bed, piss a bed,

Barney Butt.

Your bum's so heavy,

That you can't get up.

Oh, how I wish I'd taught this one to my children!

In fact, I wish I'd taught any rhymes to my children. When my two oldest were in their teens, I realized that, unlike my parents, my wife and I had made no effort to teach them any rhymes at all. In fact, we had barely touched their lives with verse or poetry of any kind.

And when I tried to remedy this situation with our then toddler-age youngest, she would not have any of it. Somehow, despite how important poetry of almost every kind has been in my life, I completely overlooked the need to immerse my children in it. Unless you count playing Joni Mitchell incessantly during their most formative years.

One of my children has found poetry for herself and writes it gorgeously, but I still feel guilty for not having given them -- or even really tried to give them -- such an important gift.

I suspect that in the back of my mind I thought the schools would do it. What a foolish assumption -- the schools only give them formless "modern" poetry and haikus, the latter because they're easy to teach, the former because that's what the teachers were taught in college.

Nursery rhymes, precisely because of their singsong rhythms and rhymes, are how children learn to find the music and the fun in poetry, long before they are remotely interested in decoding deep hidden meanings. (Indeed, I have little patience with that "sport" even now.)

So by ignoring my own responsibility to surround my children with rhythmic, musical language, I'm afraid I have inadvertently become an accomplice after the fact in the crimes of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the prime movers in the murder of English-language poetry.

And yet ... people do hunger for rhythmic language. Anyone who doubts me on that has only to look at Rap. Once verse was almost completely dead in public life, it reinvented itself; and if most of Rap is awful, it's worth remembering that most serious poetry is awful, too. Gems are rare in any art.


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