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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 10, 2008

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


Mummies and Cupcakes

The third Mummy movie should have worked. The cast was full of good actors, and they did their best with the awful script. But the script -- why was it awful? Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are good writers. Where did this go wrong?

Because wrong is where it went. The movie was supposed to be dumb fun. It only got halfway there.

There were two reasons I didn't walk out. One was that I figured I could write about it here so it wouldn't be totally wasted.

The other was that I was in Medford, Oregon, sitting next to talk-show host Rusty Humphries, and his take on it was so funny that it made the experience of watching the movie worth the price of admission. Especially since he paid for the tickets.

I'd repeat all his comments for you except (1) I'm 57 years old and I don't remember what they were except that they were really funny at the time and (2) in order to explain the jokes I'd have to tell you the plot of the movie and I just can't sit through it a second time.

No, wait a minute. There really wasn't anything wrong with the broad outlines of the story. In fact, the opening prologue that set up the story used a lot of material from the actual history of the much-maligned but truly great first emperor of China.

And if I were to hit the broad outlines of the storyline, it would sound fine. You might even want to go watch the movie.

Where it died a miserable death was in the actual writing. The writers wanted us to care about the O'Connell family. So they gave them some "family conflict" which was about absolutely nothing. Not even as good as a case study in a class on family therapy. There was nothing there.

This is one of the odd contradictions of storytelling. It feels like the family stuff goes on and on -- you wish it had been shorter. But if it had been well done, it would have taken twice as long -- but would have felt like it zipped right by.

That's because, in a story, the parts you care about seem to pass quickly; only when you don't care do you start looking at your watch. And to make people care about characters means you have to take a little time developing them. Which this movie didn't do.

Another reason the movie stank was that their comic relief wasn't funny. We knew that the part of Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) was supposed to be amusing. But not one thing he said or did was ever funny. Nobody in the theater laughed at it.

I could go through all his bits and explain why they weren't funny, but instead I'll sum it up: Not once were any of his gags remotely believable. They were clearly set up just for the joke; they had nothing to do with the story. Not the fault of the actor -- he did his best. This gags simply could not have been funny, because they were just stapled on like an afterthought.

Another reason for the stinkitude of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was that it was stupid even when it didn't have to be. Nobody's strategy ever made sense. The rules of the game kept shifting. People did things for no discernible reason. Things happened that had no consequences. It was, quite simply, so illogical that if we had cared about the story, it would have left us angry and frustrated. Since we didn't care, it only left us stupefied.

Here's what makes me angry. This movie didn't have to be bad. The seeds of quality were all there. The right people had been assembled. An amazing amount of talent was expended. Good people gave a year or so of their careers to trying to make this movie work.

My guess? This movie was killed by idiots giving idiotic "notes" to "improve" the script until nothing was left. There might once have been a draft of this script that made sense. If there was, it was killed by needless, mindless revisions.

As Rusty pointed out, the movie was one long string of predictable, empty events. There was only one thing that surprised him -- a special effect when an inert item came to life in a really cool way. And that was it. All the rest was formula. Quotes from other movies. Events that we could see getting set up, whereupon everything happened precisely as we were led to expect them to happen.

The moral of the story: It takes a really smart script to make a good dumb-fun movie.

*

And speaking of dumb things in movies, I've had a lot of people write to me to tell me what "really" happened in the Dark Knight movie. They explain to me that as Batman and Chief Gordon were rushing off to try to save Harvey Dent and Rachel, Batman called out that he was going to get Rachel.

But I didn't hear it. I was listening. I was paying attention. I heard people yelling, but there was so much background noise and the shouting was so indistinct that I couldn't be sure what was said.

Some of the people who wrote to me said they heard it; most, however, didn't hear it any more than I did -- they just read about it on the web.

They tell me that the Joker lied, and switched the addresses. But no, the movie didn't actually say that, they just extrapolated it because of Batman's reaction when he realized he was at the wrong place, about to save the wrong person.

Only I didn't see any such reaction because it wasn't actually there. The guy was wearing a mask. And since I hadn't heard the setup, I could hardly know that Batman was surprised at what he saw, because I didn't know what he expected to see.

And through the rest of the movie, nobody says, "The Joker switched the addresses." Instead, Batman and everybody else talks about how important it was to save Harvey Dent because he was the hero the city needed. If Batman really meant to save Rachel, and ended up saving Dent because he was lied to, why did he act, through the rest of the movie, as if saving Dent was the right thing?

So I wrote my review, praising the movie for having shown Batman making the tough moral choice. The people who wrote to me said that in the movie they saw (or heard about later, or guessed at), he didn't make that choice. Instead, he made the standard cliche choice.

I think I saw a better movie than they did.

One thing is certain, however. If, at the end of a movie, such crucial issues have to be argued about or explained because they were nearly inaudible or so glossed over as to be unnoticeable by intelligent, alert audience members, then that's crummy movie-making.

If you can't communicate clearly what actually happened, you have no business making movies and charging money for them. We already don't know what happens in the movie, before we ever pay for admission to the theater. We expect that by watching the movie, we'll find out what happened. If we don't, if we have to find out later from shmoozers on the web, then we were cheated.

Meanwhile, since I liked the movie I thought I saw way better than the one people tell me they saw, I'll stick to what's in my memory and pretend that's what the filmmakers really meant. Since they didn't care enough to communicate their intentions clearly, my movie is as true as theirs.

*

A friend of mine recently started a cupcake business in the Washington DC area.

That's right -- cupcakes. And since she has occasionally gone by the nickname "Cupcake," the name of the business is "Cupcake's Cupcakes." On the web, that's www.cupcakes-cupcakes.com.

Beth Jameson (I knew her first as Beth Brown) makes fifteen flavors of iced cupcakes, and sells them in three sizes. There's the regular size, and then the extra large "hugcake" and the tiny one-bite "kisscake."

The thing about cupcakes is, unless you make them out of spun lard and fill them with preservatives, you can't ship them and they don't keep. So when you place an order with Beth, she makes the cupcakes the night before and they're delivered the next morning.

That means that unless you live within easy driving distance of her house, you can't get her cupcakes.

No, let me get to the point here: I can't get her cupcakes. I have to hang around her folks' house and hope for the best.

So why is she on the internet, if you can only order her product locally? Because the internet is way less expensive than printing up a slew of brochures, even for businesses that only sell locally.

In the old days, she would have had to have a storefront, or lease space in an existing store. Or buy newspaper ads. Or staple posters to telephone poles. And if she was printing color brochures -- wow, that's a lot of money.

Now the internet holds her brochure -- and if you look at the cupcake pictures there, you'll see that she gets a lot more space for mouth-watering cupcake pictures than she could ever afford in a brochure.

Word of mouth is still her most effective advertising method -- but isn't that almost always true for a startup business? The fact is that within a few weeks of starting, she was getting as many orders as she could fill -- provided she didn't actually sleep.

So what do I do about the fact that I love her cupcakes and I can't get them in Greensboro?

No, I'm not going to move. Her cupcakes are good, but not that good.

I happen to have several friends who are terrific bakers. Maybe they'll want to franchise Beth's recipes and open up a local store, sharing her brochure online, merely adding their contact information for customers in Guilford County.

Or maybe they'll want to take the idea and put up their own brochure.

Brochures on the internet don't really "get the word out" because nobody will ever find you just by chancing upon your site. Googling "cupcake" or even "cupcake's cupcakes" did not send me to Beth's site (or at least it wasn't on the first page of findings).

But if you have word of mouth going for you, it's great to have an internet site that people can go to in order to find your product or service. If your product is great and people want more of it, they can find you, make their selection, place their order, and keep you up all night baking ...


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