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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 25, 2009

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


Late-Night Movies and T with the Devil

There's nothing like being sick to give you lots of time where you feel too lousy and stupid to do any work, and nobody wants you around because they don't want to catch it. We all know what this means, don't we?

Television!

OK, books too, and I'll talk about them in a minute.

But there's nothing like flipping around the stations late at night to see what's on.

The promise of hundreds of stations from cable and satellite has been literally fulfilled -- but back when I was younger, I thought (as did most people) that by "stations" they meant "stations like what we already have."

You know, like the VHF and UHF stations of yore -- first-run dramas and comedies and a bit of news on the big stations, and endless reruns and old movies on the marginal ones.

Who could have predicted a powerhouse original-movie station like HBO? (Or that it would also pollute the air with utterly unsexy and deeply stupid "sex" programming.)

And whole swaths of programming concepts that could never have found an audience on the old model: shopping and cooking, for instance. And items that were once only occasional -- news, weather, documentaries on science, history, religion, biography, Congress in session, cartoons, game shows, standup comedy -- got channels of their own. Sometimes lots of them.

This is all to the good (except the porn), just in case somebody thinks I'm being negative.

The thing is, out of those hundreds of channels, there only a relatively few that follow the old models. We still have ABC, CBS, and NBC coming up with original programming, and now we've added Fox and whatever they're calling the WB/UPN combination. Some of the best new series pop up on USA and Sci-Fi, with British imports and original TV movies on A&E and Hallmark and a few others.

And for late-night channel flipping, if you're looking for reruns, your choices are still far from infinite, in part because everybody seems to run the same popular shows. Seinfeld, That 70s Show, Law & Order, CSI, and a few others always seem to be on somewhere.

But for movies, we have a pretty good set of choices. The premium channels like HBO and Showtime cost extra and waste time on junk way too much of the time for what we pay for them, and the free movie channels are usually enough.

Even lousy old movies can be entertaining, if you're flipping back and forth between two or three of them. So between Turner Classic Movies, American Movie Classic, Fox Movie Channel, Lifetime Movie Network, and a few late-night movies on channels like WGN, TNT, Spike, Disney, and others, you can keep yourself busy for a long, long time.

You can also catch up on fairly recent movies that you missed -- or that you never even heard of.

Recently I hit on three late-night movies that were actually pretty good, yet I never heard of them at all when they were new. They were so good they made me stop flipping -- or at least set the TiVo to record them.

The Brave One (2007, Neil Jordan directing Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard) is the story of a New York City talk radio host who is recovering from a mugging in which she was injured and her fiancé was killed.

The radio show itself was pretty intriguing -- Foster's character would go around the city recording sounds and chatter. It gives her an excuse to be anywhere and everywhere with her microphone out.

But it only works if she feels free to walk the streets alone, and after the mugging, she can't do it ... until she buys a gun. She didn't plan to be a vigilante. Could she help it if she happened to be in an all-night corner store when somebody robbed it and killed the clerk? The perp heard her and started looking for her to kill her; it was self-defense when she killed him first.

But then she starts looking for trouble -- always altruistically, to save somebody else. Meanwhile, she comes across a cop and interviews him about the "vigilante" he's tracking, and the two of them recognize that most of the worst creeps never get caught and continue to prey on the public at will.

You know the cop is going to figure out who she is -- but what are the two of them going to do about it then?

Is it a brilliant story? Not really, but it's a pretty good one. And it's psychologically penetrating and the performances are brilliant. I liked it enough to record it from the point I started watching, and later to record and watch the beginning. Highly recommended.

Smokin' Aces (2006, Joe Carnahan writer/director). There is a plot somewhere in this black "comedy," but it gets lost in the blood and madness. Yet the characters were so quirky and bizarrely interesting that I watched with fascination right to the end.

I came in late, and could not believe the body count during the climax. I could never figure out what was going on and, here's the thing, nothing I saw made me care enough to go back and try to figure it all out. Yet I liked the dialogue and the acting and the absolute strangeness of it ... for late night, with the flu, it was good entertainment.

For me the best of the late-night discoveries was Mike Judge's Office Space. I was alive in 1999, and occasionally went to the movies, but I can't remember ever hearing of this gem. Starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston (with great supporting performances from Gary Cole and Stephen Root), it's a sort of Dilbert-Stops-Caring story.

Peter Gibbons is working on trying to solve the Year 2000 glitches in the software his company makes, but in fact he hates his job and his supervisor, who seems to care only about meaningless reports. So he stops caring -- and goes in to work only when he feels like it.

Weirdly enough (but the Judge makes it believable), he is rewarded by having a team of consultants (brilliantly played by John C. McGinley and Paul Willson -- you've seen them both a hundred times) decide that he's management material and make him a supervisor -- as they lay off two of his friends, who are, not coincidentally, about the only two guys who are actually working hard and doing their job.

If you think that's not believable, you haven't worked in a big software company. Or, I suspect, any big company at all. (Orson's Law is: Whenever there are layoffs, the first people who should be laid off are the ones who have the time to sit around deciding who should be laid off.)

The consultants also discover that Milton Waddams (Stephen Root), a mumbling oaf who keeps muttering vengeful threats, was supposed to have been laid off in the last round five years ago, but because of a glitch no one told him and he has kept getting his paycheck. "So we fixed the glitch," they report -- he'll stop getting his check and, they figure, that will give him the message.

Meanwhile, though, the evil manager (played with total believability by Gary Cole in one of his smarmiest performances ever) has been persecuting Milton beyond endurance.

Peter and his laid-off friends decide to get even -- and a little bit rich -- by using a program one of them created to steal the rounded-off fractions of a cent from their bank software and funnel it into an account. It works a little too well.

And Jennifer Aniston's character, who works as a waitress in a restaurant very much identical to TGIFriday's, has a manager who keeps demanding that she wear more "flair" (the stupid buttons that the waiters had to sport) without ever specifying the minimum required. "Do you want to be the kind of person who just does the minimum? Express yourself!" says he -- without the slightest recognition that maybe some people don't express themselves with buttons.

It's a dead-on satire of corporate culture, the performances are terrific, the writing is smart and funny, and it's brilliantly directed. Why didn't I ever hear of it? Maybe because the director is mostly known for animations like Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, and so he didn't get as much support from his distributor or a good enough response from the critics.

But I'm telling you now -- this is a good one.

*

I've also had a chance to catch up on some books -- a few by listening to them on CD as I lay in bed, whimpering softly between trips to the john, and a couple by reading them.

Sue Grafton's T Is for Trespass has been sitting in the stack by my bed since 2007. It finally rose to the surface along with my temperature and it was as good Kinsey Millhone mystery -- full of wit and charm, with some familiar characters (but never any meaningless shtick like the mind-numbing repetition that has destroyed the series I used to like by Janet Evanovich and Joan Hess).

It's the story of a predator, Solana -- a conscienceless woman who steals identities and poses as a live-in nurse to old people, using her position to rob them, dominate them, and eventually kill them before she moves on to her next victim.

When Kinsey's (and her landlord Henry's) grumpy neighbor, Gus, is injured in a fall, it's Solana who comes to take care of him -- along with her violent, hulking, semi-retarded son, "Tiny." At first Kinsey can't believe that anybody in a "helping profession" would actually be so crass, but when Solana shuts out everybody else so nobody can even talk to Gus, all the while talking nice to Gus's faraway great-niece (and only living relative), Kinsey starts investigating.

Meanwhile, though, Grafton shows us the bread-and-butter jobs that actually bring in Kinsey's daily bread. So much for the glamor of the private detective's life -- process serving and insurance investigations can be tedious and no guns are involved. But these side stories are, in fact, fascinating in themselves, though it's the Solana story thread that brings us to the crisis of the book for the usual gripping last-twenty pages.

Grafton is one of the best, and T is a worthy entry in the series.

*

When it comes to Linda Barnes's latest Carlotta Carlyle mystery, Lie Down with the Devil, I was greatly relieved. While this is the writer who blew the whistle on the corruption involved with the Big Dig in Boston long before it brought a tunnel crashing down with fatal results, so she knows her stuff and tells the truth, I also feared that she was going down the same road as Janet Evanovich, with two boyfriends, one involved in crime and one in law enforcement.

Since Evanovich seems determined to make every volume identical to the one before, it's been the death of her series as far as I'm concerned; but Barnes has brought Carlotta to a legitimate crisis point where a decision has to be -- and is -- made.

Her mob-family-related fiancé suddenly has to leave town because he seems to have been involved in a really ugly crime. It happens that he isn't guilty, but what rubs Carlotta the wrong way is that he absolutely refuses to tell her anything or let her get involved. His action is completely understandable -- but also completely infuriating.

Along the way toward a resolution, we have the normal menaces -- but we also have Barnes's equally normal fascinating characters and moral quandaries. If Linda Barnes is not as good as Sue Grafton, it's not by much. I recommend both books -- and both series -- very much.


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