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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 17, 2007

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


Surfer, magic movies, Opera Idol, Dance, Vista

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer earned $57 million in its first weekend, and I am embarrassed to say that I was part of that.

Not that the movie was completely awful. No -- having seen the first Fantastic Four movie, I have to be honest and report that this movie is way, way better -- bringing it past wretched, all the way up to vaguely sad.

My wife actually tried to go to sleep in the movie. I wouldn't let her walk out because I needed to see the whole thing in order to review it. At one point she begged me to kill her so she didn't have to watch the rest. But I wouldn't do it. That's the kind of husband I am.

But let me tell you the good things. As comics fans know, the stupidest superhero ever brought out by a major comics publisher was the Silver Surfer. It was an obvious case of pandering, like the icky skateboarding in Hook -- designed to capitalize on a youth fad.

Surprisingly, though, the movie does a good job of making the Silver Surfer not only make a kind of sense in the story, but also not look silly. It helps that they have him go through and under the board; it also helps that when he speaks, it's with Laurence Fishburne's voice.

He also has the least-stupid dialogue in the show, meaning that it's merely laughable.

Wait, I was still supposed to be talking about the good things.

OK, the other good thing is ...

I'm sorry, I have to get this column in by the deadline. I don't have another half hour to sit here trying to think of something nice to say.

The writing of the script was childish. All the jokes were at the junior high level. The kind of humor that you expect from 12-year-old boys; the kind that makes 12-year-old girls wince and turn away.

Maybe that's right for a comic book movie, but I don't think so. When people (even kids!) read a comic book and then see it brought to the screen, they want the movie to make it more real, not sillier.

It is not the fault of the cast. Michael Chiklis and Ioan Gruffudd are excellent, serious actors and they do the best they can (though really, all Chiklis is asked to do in this movie is be cute and cuddly).

The trouble is that the movie makes their powers look so silly that it completely destroys any believability that the actors manage to create. The animation of Gruffudd's arms and legs as they stretch seems to come out of The Mask -- which, if you'll recall, was meant to look cartoony and funny.

And when Chris Evans -- who might be able to act; no one can tell yet -- flames up and flies, it just makes you sad for an actor who thought this was his big career break.

Only Jessica Alba belongs in this movie, because she actually is as talent-free as the script requires.

The saddest thing is that the writers thought they were doing characterization. But in all those Hollywood screenwriting classes that everybody takes so seriously, apparently nobody teaches the difference between character and caricature, between reality and cliche.

The result is that as Reed Richards (Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Alba) are preparing to get married, we want to scream at the screen: No, don't let them get married! They might have children! It would be a tragedy!

The Incredibles had more realistic characterization and far better writing.

There's nothing wrong with the Fantastic Four movie series that could not be fixed by destroying every copy of the film.

*

Last fall I was so busy with teaching and commuting and trying to get things written that I managed to miss both of the magician movies that came out then.

Not that I saw no movies at all. But somehow I never found the time to see these movies.

I think part of the reason was that to have two magician movies come out at the same time, with similar-looking trailers, weakened them both. It looked like this was just another Hollywood fad.

But we did buy both DVDs and finally got a chance to watch them and ... wow.

They could not be more different -- yet both of them are exceptionally good movies.

What they have in common is the obvious plot -- to make the audience wonder if what they saw was real or illusion. Can the magician actually do magic? Or is it all, ultimately, a trick.

In The Prestige, Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman (yes, the cast is that good) play rival magicians. Jackman becomes obsessed with a particular trick that Bale is able to bring off, and decides that the inventor Tesla (David Bowie) must have created a teleporting machine for him.

So Jackman nags -- and pays -- Tesla until he gets something like the machine he wants. There is, unfortunately, one glitch in the machine. But Jackman is willing to pay the price.

It is a movie of unusual cruelty to its characters. When the truth of everything is revealed, you marvel, not at the magic, but at the hideous things each is willing to do to himself in order to try to hurt the other.

If there's a flaw in The Prestige, it's that the story is so convoluted in the way it unfolds that at times you can be confused about when a given scene is taking place -- was it before or after this or that event? Eventually, though, it all comes clear.

The film is based on a novel by Christopher Priest, which is part of the reason why it's such an intelligent yet painful film. This is an intelligent horror film. Instead of playing the standard scare tricks, it is the realization of the truth that horrifies us.

The Illusionist, by contrast, is primarily a love story. In imperial Vienna, a young commoner becomes best friends with the daughter of a noble house. Forcibly separated, they don't forget each other as they grow up.

The girl (Jessica Biel) becomes a beauty whom the crown prince of Austria-Hungary covets as his bride -- provided she's willing to go along with his plan to overthrow his father and save the empire from its fatal decadence.

But the boy grows up to be Eisenheim (Edward Norton), an illusionist whose tricks are so real and unusual that both his audiences in the film and the real audience in the movie house are convinced that he is doing real magic, not illusions at all.

(Not that we who watch the film forget that it's fiction -- but we believe that within the story Eisenheim's illusions are supposed to be real magic.)

It quickly becomes a struggle between the prince (Rufus Sewell) and Eiseneim for the life of the girl. The prince is known to be violent and when he leaves her, she is found dead -- and Eisenheim begins his revenge.

Based on a story by Steven Millhauser, this film is every bit as dazzling -- and morally intriguing -- as The Prestige. But it is not horror, except in a vague way.

A bit of a spoiler in this paragraph: Skip to the next one if you want to be fooled by the films. I warned you. The slight problem with The Illusionist is that there are tricks that, while they are "explained" as mere illusions, what we actually saw in the film was not explainable in the way the film tries to explain it. This is fine on first viewing, but feels like a cheat the second time.

It doesn't matter. The story is strong enough that you won't care.

Edward Norton is an intriguing actor. He specializes in non-emotive roles -- his face becomes a mask with only the slightest hints of the emotion going on behind it. He does this well.

But ... he has enough physical resemblance (on screen at least) to British actor Gary Oldman, who does the same kind of acting, only better, that I kept thinking it was Gary Oldman, and then being disappointed when he didn't have the chops to bring this character to fiery life.

Since most people won't make that ridiculous connection between actors, this will not appear to anyone but me as a disappointment.

If you haven't seen these movies, they're both well worth watching. So instead of going to see The Silver Surfer (and after seeing Surf's Up) rent or buy these two magician movies and give yourself an incredible double feature at home.

*

The city of Greensboro is trying -- I'll give them credit for that. For instance, they're installing a sidewalk on the north side of Pisgah Church Road between Lawndale and Battleground.

But sidewalks are not decorative. They're supposed to be functional. Which means that the people who need sidewalks should be able to use them.

Here's the problem. They're putting in the standard curb-and-gutter sidewalk in which there is no grassy strip between the curb and the sidewalk.

Only there's also a Postal Service regulation that mailboxes must be set at a fixed distance from the curb, so that mail trucks can pull right up and the postal worker can insert the mail without leaving the vehicle.

The combination yields a ridiculous result: The guys making the sidewalk are forced to pour the concrete all around the posts supporting the mailboxes. So now what we have is a sidewalk interrupted at regular intervals by posts that rise up in the middle.

It is impossible to pass them on the street side, because the mailbox protrudes in that direction. So people on the sidewalk have to go around on the house side of the mailbox.

That's fine for people on foot. They can go around in single file.

But what about people in wheelchairs? What about women pushing strollers? What about kids on bicycles? What do they do?

Either they ride up onto somebody's lawn or go out into the street -- the two things that the sidewalk was supposed to make unnecessary.

What I don't understand is: Why doesn't somebody in charge of Greensboro streets use the tiny amount of brainpower it would take to recognize that since mailboxes have to be next to the curb, sidewalks can't be -- not if they're to be useful?

There is no excuse for building sidewalks right up against the curb in an area with mailboxes. The sidewalks need to be at least two feet back from the curb in any area that has mailboxes.

Which means that the workers have to cut two feet farther back into people's yards. Maybe somebody will complain -- especially where the yard has a significant slope upward from street level.

But so what? That's what retaining walls are for. They're going to build them anyway -- so let them build the retaining wall two feet farther back and a few inches higher.

But for heaven's sake, let's have sidewalks that someone can use.

*

American Idol isn't the only talent show around. If you just can't get enough Simon Cowell, then why not go to YouTube and check out a couple of clips from Britain's Got Talent -- the original that gave birth to American Idol.

There are two clips you want to see. First there's the audition of Paul Potts. He actually came to a pop idol contest to sing ... opera?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k08yxu57NA

I expected that when he opened his mouth, we'd get some cringeworthy performances that would make the judges turn away in shame. We didn't.

Now here's the clip from the semifinals this past week (14 June):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDB9zwlXrB8

Now tell me: Have you ever seen Simon Cowell be so consistently sweet? It almost makes you want to take him home and tuck him into bed with a little kiss on the forehead. (If it weren't for the fact that you already took Paul Potts home and tucked him in and there just isn't room for Simon.)

Potts's voice is not, in fact, brilliant. He has those thrilling notes in the baritone's "sweet spot" -- when he soars upward, the notes resonate and you feel like you're really hearing something.

But the great opera singers are also thrilling in the middle of their range, and down low as well.

Still -- it's a general talent show, and Potts's competition in the real world isn't our old Pavarotti recordings, it's Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli. Since both of those are merely adequate voices who have captured the popular imagination either because of youthful good looks (Groban) or charm and blindness (Bocelli), why shouldn't the sweetness and humility of Potts also put him into the public consciousness?

The answer, on a British talent show, was: Yes. Potts won the final vote.

Just imagine an opera singer trying to make it on American Idol. Imagine him even getting onto the show! Can't you hear Simon saying, "This is a pop singing competition. We like you, but we don't think you're right for the show."

Of course, the show Britain's Got Talent is not a singing-only competition like Idol -- any kind of act can compete.

But then, in America, as in Britain, these shows exists to make ratings. I'll bet that if the Idol producers think someone like Potts can attract votes -- and ratings -- on he goes.

Another talent show that my wife and daughter watched last summer was So You Think You Can Dance. Since they also watched Dancing with the Stars, I assumed the two shows were the same -- basically, a stunt.

To me, at least, Dancing with the Stars was like watching dogs dance. They don't do it well; you're just surprised they can do it at all. Plus, some people think it's fun to watch somebody humiliate himself.

So You Think You Can Dance, however, is most definitely not the same. This is a real talent show, and in some ways it's better -- by miles -- than American Idol.

I first started watching last summer, in the finals, in time to see Benji Schwimmer win. I was dazzled by the quality of the dancing. So this year I watched from the beginning.

Since it's produced by the American Idol team, I assumed it would have the same smarmy-cruel approach to the auditions.

There's a little cruelty. But not much.

That's partly because dance is different from singing. As American Idol has so amply proven to us, delusional people easily convince themselves they can sing. They chirp or chant along with the radio or their MP3 player and they never realize (and nobody loves them enough to tell them) how genuinely awful they are.

So they end up on TV as some of us gag and others laugh.

But with dance, you don't generally do it in the car or the shower. You can either make the moves or you can't.

Not that they don't have perfectly awful people try out. But they don't concentrate on it. Instead, what you get are people who can really dance. It's just that some of them are more versatile, or learn more quickly, or have more originality and flair.

In other words, most of your time, right from the start, is spent watching very, very talented people do really good dancing.

This week we'll see the top eighteen (nine couples), having already lost the first two dancers. And guess what? There isn't a single dancer that I want to see leave the show.

Contrast that with Idol, where you're kind of wishing for about half of them to go away. Right to the end you're wishing that. And when the viewers vote the one truly brilliant talent off the show in the semi-finals, like they did this year, you're stuck with watching merely "pretty-good" talent win.

That doesn't happen on So You Think You Can Dance. Every single dancer is so good that you could accept him or her as the winner.

The judging is better, too. I was so used to the Idol judges and the even worse judges on the competing talent shows that it didn't occur to me you could have judges who are actually brilliant at the thing they're judging.

On So You Think You Can Dance, the only judge who doesn't actually put his own choreography on the stage in this show is Nigel Lythgoe. Because he's a Brit and a co-producer and co-owner of the show, you kind of assume that he'll be the "mean one," like Simon (or that nasty British woman on original The Weakest Link).

On the contrary. Lythgoe is sometimes candid, but he's never wrong, and he's never mean. In fact, he's gracious and kind, and you can see that he is capable of empathy with the dancers.

And the other judges -- wow. Every one of them puts his choreography talent on the line, and we rotate through them so that last week's judge might be choreographing one or two of the numbers this week, and the choreographer who blew us away with last week's number is judging this week.

In other words, when they talk, they are often seeing things that the ordinary audience member (me) simply doesn't know enough to notice. But as I listen to them, and watch replays of the dances, I actually learn something.

Contrast that with Idol, where I know more about singing and performing (as opposed to recording) than any of the judges, so that it's excruciating to hear the vague, useless comments from Randy and Paula and the only somewhat-better comments from Simon.

I have never learned anything about singing from Idol. But I'm learning a lot about dancing from So You Think You Can Dance.

With extraordinarily skilled and original dancers, brilliantly creative choreographers, smart judging, and a charming if slightly disconnected host (Cat Deeley), this show is not just about the contest. In fact, the contest is heartbreaking every week, because nobody deserves to be sent home.

What happens, week after week, is a terrific show. Considering that the last great variety show on television was the Carol Burnett Show back in the 1970s, and the last show to feature ballroom dancers regularly was Lawrence Welk, it's so wonderful to have a show that gives us quality and originality week after week.

It's enough to make you look forward to summer.

*

America Online just can't seem to get its act completely together. I just upgraded to their "VR" edition, and guess what? Now, whenever I want to bring up a web page, it reports "done" while showing me a blank frame. I click on "reload" and the same thing happens. Only on the third attempt do I finally get the image.

How convenient is that? Oh, you goofy kids at AOL. You've found a whole new way to make a web browser annoying.

To be fair, the web browser in question is an iteration of Microsoft Explorer. I wouldn't put it past Microsoft to have deliberately screwed up the version of Explorer that is activated with AOL so that, in annoyance, you'll bring up the built-in Explorer that comes with Windows and cut AOL out entirely.

Stabbing their partners in the back is how Microsoft has always done business.

The truth is, software glitches like this are almost always a complete accident. It only happens on some computers, not all, and nobody can figure out why. If you call the help lines, a baffled employee will tell you to do hideous, radical things like reformatting your hard disk, reinstalling Windows, reinstalling AOL, and then seeing if it still happens.

Don't do it. Don't ever do such a thing if some software company's helpline personnel tell you to. When they suggest a complete reinstallation, they are really saying: "We have no clue what's causing the weird thing our software is doing on your computer. We assume that the problem is really caused by crappy programming at Microsoft, because almost all computer problems are caused by that. Why don't you buy an Apple or run Unix?"

America Online is no worse about this than any other software company forced to work with the incompetent monopoly that is Microsoft.

For instance, I just bought a new computer to replace my four-year-old desktop machine. For the first time, we're trying to plug a Microsoft Vista machine into our home-office network.

Since Microsoft is touting this as their "safest" computer, it's fascinating to find out how they achieve that safety. If all their protections are on, the Vista machines simply can't talk to any of the other computers on your network. You have to disable their safety features.

Isn't that cute? Of course a computer that isn't connected to anything is safe! You won't get a virus jotting notes on scratch paper with a pencil, either. But it's not what you buy a computer for!

So we find a clumsy workaround and then there's another problem. I can't use my computer with the file organization system I've always used, because Microsoft won't let me share any files from my Vista computer over the network.

This means that I can't remotely access my own computer from anywhere else in my own house. Unless I completely change my whole filing system so everything goes into the one directory that Microsoft has decided to allow me to share.

All they've accomplished for "safety" is that to do anything, I have to put everything that's vital on my computer into precisely the directory that is "at risk."

This is what they do instead of programming a decent operating system. I will have to pay for their incompetence by changing the way I work with my computer.

But why do I even try to stick with the concept of "my" computer? It's not my computer. It's a computer that I pay for, and maintain in my house, but it belongs to Microsoft. At least that's how Microsoft treats me.

Every "improvement" they make gives me less control over my work. Yeah, that's what we want our computers to do.

Oh, and by the way -- they didn't solve the safety problems at all. Vista had been on the market for, what, fifteen minutes? when some hacker found a way to exploit a weakness in the system and create a virus to exploit it.

Running a machine that runs Windows is like buying a car -- only it comes with a chauffeur, and he's the only one allowed to drive your car, and he will only take you places he thinks you ought to go, and you have to sit in the seat he tells you to sit in, and he takes days off without any advance notice to you.

The only difference between Windows and Apple, by the way, is that Apple's chauffeur takes fewer days off, but goes to even fewer destinations, and only one of the doors has a button. So don't tell me how I should switch to Apple and all my problems will be solved.

I have an easier time believing that if I vote for Pedro, all my dreams will come true.


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