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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 27, 2009

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


Sherlock, The Office, Heat Wave, and a Farewell

Sherlock Holmes really had no right to be such a good movie. The writers and director don't have a particularly distinguished record. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg has the best filmography of the group, with Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Jumper.

But maybe Jumper shows the key to what made the story, absurd as it was, work as well as it did: the close attention to giving everything a rational explanation.

Plots that involve hokey religious conspiracies, with blood sacrifices and hooded robes and secret insignias -- I'm afraid that whatever interest I might ever have had in them has disappeared completely by now.

As one of my family said upon leaving the theater, "I hope that in the sequel, they have Sherlock Holmes solve an actual case."

Because that's really the problem with Sherlock Holmes -- while it pretends to be about a great detective, the story is actually just another period thriller, with nothing special to recommend it.

But the dialogue, the resourceful directing, and the actors raise it far above the level of the nonsense story that the studio bet on.

Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes) has emerged from the fog of drugs and drink that had him sleeping in strangers' houses and is fulfilling the potential he has had all along.

Iron Man showed how irresistible his charm could be. His ability to project intensity and rage and cold menace behind that smile lend reality to absolutely unreal stories and characters.

Pairing him with Jude Law (as Watson) was a masterful stroke. Law is an excellent actor who keeps landing good roles but never quite putting them across. He has a reserve, a privacy, that builds a wall between him and the audience, despite his charm and good looks and talent.

Giving him the part of Dr. Watson uses all his strengths, while Downey was there to capture the audience's hearts. And here is where the script is at its best -- Watson isn't a fumbler, a fuddy-duddy, or a twit, as he has been portrayed on so many previous occasions. Instead he's pretty much as clever as Holmes, though perhaps not quite so keenly analytical.

So instead of Watson being kept rather as a pet, a walking diary for Holmes, they are believable friends. And since the decision was made to focus on action, it's good that both Holmes and Watson were made superb fighters.

The women these characters love, though they do not carry the film, are essential to its success. Rachel McAdams, as Irene Adler, the clever criminal that Holmes loves and never trusts, looks dangerous and exciting and intelligent all the time.

While Kelly Reilly, as Watson's fiercely loyal fiancee, Mary Morstan, plays an intelligent, implacable woman so well that it raises the character of Watson in our estimation: A man who is attracted to such a woman is clearly secure in his own brilliance strength of will, for she would overpower any weaker man.

And Mark Strong emerged as the new Basil Rathbone -- the consummate smart-and-dangerous villain.

The dialogue -- what we heard of it -- was clever and surprising. It's unfortunate that the director allowed a bit more mumbling than usual -- several lines were lost, and not because of background noise, as in Dark Knight.

Too often the actors did not speak crisply enough for this dialogue; articulation must be perfect to bring this off successfully, and we missed several lines that contained important information. (And lest anyone think that is was merely an old man's hearing loss, a 29-year-old and a 15-year-old in our party also noticed the problem.)

The directing was lively, but the thing that lived it above mere competence was the handling of Sherlock Holmes's mind. In a plot-irrelevant boxing match early on, we're introduced to the technique. Holmes has given and taken a good share of blows, but when he concedes the match and tries to leave, it's clear he's not going to be allowed to go peacefully.

So the film shows us, in slow-motion, all the steps that Holmes plans to take in defeating his opponent -- where to strike, and just how hard. Meanwhile, we get the voiceover of his thoughts -- what he expects the consequences to be.

Then we watch him carry out his plan, which does not unfold exactly identically to the plan, but has the same result. Thus we expect to be shown key events more than once. Either we will see them in advance, as they are planned, and then watch the plan carried out; or we will replay them, but with more information, so we know how a particular trick was carried out.

Because Director Guy Ritchie was so careful to make sure we understood everything, a sufficient degree of believability was maintained -- along with perfect story clarity. At no point are we left with the frustration of wondering what happened.

At no point was I emotionally moved by the film -- I was entertained by the characters, and was anxious for them (i.e., the film was suspenseful), but the film neither attempted nor achieved any kind of catharsis. Ultimately, as with most superhero movies, this leaves behind a kind of emptiness. I was entertained, but unchanged.

It would be too much to expect that, though the great movies achieve it. Sherlock Holmes is worth the price of admission, and is smart enough to reward a second or third viewing (unlike most superhero movies). But I can't see returning to it again and again the way I do with films that reach deeper into the human soul and come back with genuine light and heat.

Sherlock Holmes is worth its $65 million opening weekend. Producer Joel Silver maintains -- nay, improves -- his track record as a filmmaker worth betting serious budgets on. It will be interesting to see if he ever backs a film that reaches for anything deeper than that.

*

When I saw the British series The Office, I hated it. Oh, it was genuinely funny -- especially the office pranks -- but my problem was Ricky Gervais, both the character he played (David Brent, the narcissistic, oblivious boss), and the comedian himself.

I've seen Gervais do enough other work to realize that his main shtick -- self-important stupidity -- is simply repellant to me. Primarily because he represents my worst fears about myself and how others see me. My family regards this is a ridiculous combination of narcissism and self-contempt, but I can't help the fact that watching Gervais -- and most especially Gervais in The Office -- is, for me, an experience in excruciating humiliation.

I don't really enjoy the comedy of self-humiliation. I didn't like it when Ellen deGeneris did it in her acting days, I could only endure Jon Lovitz because he is such a very bad actor that I don't actually believe in his characters, and it is the reason I find Will Ferrell nearly unwatchable.

So you can imagine that when, in 2005, the American version of The Office was launched, I had no interest whatsoever in watching it. When it got excellent ratings, I chalked it up to the kind of audience that laughs at cripples and stammerers.

Only I started hearing praise for the series from friends and family members who are definitely not that kind of audience.

A couple of years ago, I watched one episode, and even though I was left out of all the continuing storylines, I found that it was not awful, and some moments were rather funny.

But this Christmas, our fifteen-year-old had hinted around about, and thus received, the game Clue: The Office. We played it as a family, and ... well, it's Clue. It's a classic game and it plays well.

Listening to our fifteen-year-old tell us about the characters intrigued me. For one thing, they really did sound like characters, and not caricatures. For another thing, it was clear that both my daughters had a great deal of affection for them.

If the show could have that effect on these smart and skeptical young women, clearly I needed to think about it again. So I decided to give The Office a serious try.

Our fifteen-year-old has DVDs of the first four seasons, and on the advice of my daughters, I skipped the first season entirely, because it was almost completely dependent on the comedy of self-humiliation.

I watched seasons two and three nearly continuously over two days and what can I say? I love the series even more than I hate it.

Oh, yes, I still hate the self-humiliation. But the series writers are not relentless in their torture of Steve Carell's character, regional manager Michael Scott. First, they allow him, despite his idiocies, to be genuinely good at selling paper products (the business the office is in).

It was a wonderful moment when we, along with Michael Scott's boss, expected him to completely screw up an important meeting with a customer. The boss, Jan Levinson (played brilliantly by Melora Hardin, who was so wonderful as the principal in 17 Again), is killing the sale and doesn't realize it.

So Michael Scott intervenes, and at first it looks like he's making a bad situation worse -- until we see that the client loves him. In fact, Michael clinches the sale, and in ways that show he really does belong in the business he's in.

Second, Steve Carell is able to bring the "boss" character something that Ricky Gervais was incapable of -- believable depth. Yes, he's a vain idiot, but he's a well-meaning idiot, not a malicious one. So it is possible to like him.

Still, I fast-forward through scenes now and then which I know will just make me miserable to watch.

The series, however, is a true ensemble -- and a brilliant one. Good as Steve Carell is, he does not carry the show, making it all the more incredible that a comedian of his talent -- and his track record of hit movies -- has had the humility and good sense to stay with the tv series!

The writers do a superb job of a task so difficult that few novelists attempt it, with all the pages at their disposal, and writers of 22-minute comedies never try.

They create a large ensemble of characters and make every one of them funny, interesting, different from each other, and yet real. And even the most despicable characters are given moments of grandeur or pathos that redeem them.

In the third season, incredibly enough, they nearly doubled the cast for a few episodes by moving one of the characters -- prankster Jim Halpert, played to lovable perfection by John Krasinski -- to the Stamford Connecticut office. Then they merged the two offices, and still every character was funny and memorable!

Three of my favorite characters (heck, they're all favorite characters!) are also writers on the series: B.J. Novak, who plays the long-suffering intern, Ryan; Mindy Kaling, who plays the relentlessly chatty and immature Kelly; and Paul Lieberstein, who plays Toby, the HR officer who is probably the only thing keeping the characters from killing each other.

Perhaps the fact that some of the writers play some of the characters helps them maintain their commitment to making sure all the characters -- the vast number of them -- are given good and funny and real things to do in nearly every episode.

It's strange, though. Even though the series is a genuinely funny comedy of humors, the end result, for me, is a kind of melancholy. The stories make me sad at the end of all the laughter.

It's a kind of existential sadness: Yes, this is the human condition, everybody acting out the script of life, oblivious to the fact that most of their own happiness comes from their own choices, or their misunderstanding of the motives of others.

Even the love stories -- and there are several office romances going all the time -- make me sad, because everybody is so hungry for connection with someone else, and the happiness they imagine will come from it, and yet the only way to make a relationship work is to leave someone else lonely, or to spend your life sacrificing in order to placate someone else's irrational needs.

In short, The Office is about community, how important it is to everyone, and yet how lonely everyone is in the midst of it. So often they show no compassion for each other at all; yet they do show patience, most of the time. Some resort to pranks in order to soften the blows of misused authority and mad ambition, and while the pranks are funny, they also reduce the pranksters to a kind of petty meanness that diminishes them even as we delight in their gags.

What am I saying? That The Office is as good a comedy of the human condition as I've ever seen. No wonder these actors stay with it: They are creating something beautiful and true, disguised as something hilarious and satirical.

*

I don't usually bother writing dismissive reviews of bad books -- there are too many good books in the world to waste time attacking the bad ones.

But Heat Wave, which pretends to be written by Richard Castle, the title character of the delightful TV series Castle, might deceive people into thinking that it might match the TV series in quality.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. While the actual mystery story might be competent enough -- I wouldn't know, not having read that far -- what the book most definitely is not is bestseller-quality fiction.

In fact, it's embarrassing, as the first few pages do nothing but coast on the readers' knowledge of the main characters from the TV series. There is no story development of the kind that makes huge numbers of people buy books and pass them along to friends.

Incredibly, the book is so stupid -- and this is probably not the decision of the writer hired to ghost the series -- that it includes a character who is an obvious stand-in for Castle himself.

In other words, the book is not an attempt to show the kind of book that a real bestselling author would have written; instead, it is merely a thinly disguised bad episode of the series.

What a missed opportunity! I know of several writers -- including me -- who would have enjoyed writing the kind of book a Richard Castle might have written, and would have known how to do it. Instead, while the ghost writer might be a talented writer, he (or she) was given no opportunity to show it.

Stick to watching the series, and save your money when it comes to the book.

*

It's the end of the year, and I can't let 2009 end without paying tribute to a dear friend who died this autumn.

You won't find Barbara Bova's name in the People or Entertainment Weekly lists of dead celebrities. Yet in her thirty-one years as an agent in the world of New York publishing, she cut a wide swathe, nurturing the careers of many a writer, including me.

In fact, I may have been the first client she took on after she hung out her shingle. Married editor Ben Bova of Analog, then Omni, she heard about me from him, since I was a writer he had discovered not very long before.

I had sold three books at that point -- two paperback originals based on stories Ben had bought for Analog, and one new novel sold to a hardcover publisher that gave me, in my naivete, an unconscionable contract.

Barbara took immediate steps. "I don't really have anything to sell right now," I had told her, but Barbara never let such a little thing stop her. She called me not long after we met and told me, "I can get you $15,000 for the novel version of 'Mikal's Songbird.'"

"What novel version?"

"Are you saying you can't write one?"

"No, of course I can."

"Well, write a few paragraphs telling what the novel version would be, and I'll get you a contract."

She was as good as her word, and this was how my novel Songmaster came to exist. The contract she negotiated had none of the shortcomings of my earlier contract, because Barbara knew her business.

And, most importantly, she held on to the foreign rights.

It's astonishing the number of agents who let American publishers snatch these rights -- but Barbara knew what she was doing. She entered into a relationship with a foreign agency and then made sure my books were heavily marketed in every conceivable overseas market. In short order I had British editions and also translations into French, Dutch, Spanish, German, and Japanese. Later, a dozen other languages were added.

Here's the thing about foreign rights sales: They are rarely for big money, but they all represent income from books I was already paid for. Here I am working on a new book, and suddenly, out of the blue, I get a check for a few hundred or a few thousand for a book I wrote three or five or fifteen years before.

In the up-and-down business of publishing, this is a godsend. You're going through a dry spell; you have to keep up your monthly payments, but you haven't turned in the novel that should have paid for them. What keeps you afloat are those surprise checks!

Barbara got me involved with my publisher, Tom Doherty, when he was just starting TOR Books. Everybody thought he was insane -- in the early 1980s, nobody but Tom believed you could start up a new publishing company specializing in paperback originals -- and science fiction, to boot!

But Barbara knew Tom, and knew what he could do, and therefore believed in him. I believed in Barbara, and so Tom Doherty became my publisher with a little project called Speaker of Death, which soon morphed into Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. Two Hugos, two Nebulas, a dozen foreign sales, and a few million copies later, we all looked like geniuses. But Barbara was the one who put us all together.

Barbara never stopped working for her clients -- and don't think that just because she was a "mere" agent, she was not creative. I remember the phone call I got from her while I was working on Speaker for the Dead. "I just sold the Ender trilogy in England," she said, and she named a covetable amount of money.

"That sounds great," I said, "except that don't publishers ordinarily expect a trilogy to have three books in it?"

"There aren't three?" she said, momentarily nonplussed.

"Just the two," I said.

"Well ... I could go back and cut out a third of the money from the deal," she said. "Or you could decide to write a third book."

I have always suspected (though I never asked) that she knew exactly what she was doing all along. She saw what I hadn't yet realized -- that the audience for and the world of Ender's Game were both much bigger than anyone yet imagined.

Barbara was constantly embarrassing me by asking publishers for ridiculous amounts of money. "Trust me," she would say. And when she praised my work beyond all reason, she said, "You can be as modest as you want. But I'm going to sell your novels for what they're worth, not for what publishers would like to pay. Because they'd like to have your books for free."

So I trusted her to make the deals, and gratefully spent the money she arranged for me to be paid. Everything worked out rather well.

But Barbara wasn't just about money and deals (though she loved the game and played it well). She and Ben were our guides into the social world of publishing. My wife and I had never been to a really fine restaurant; Ben and Barbara brought us into the very best and, by example, showed us how to move in that world.

Nor had this young Mormon couple the faintest idea how to behave at a Manhattan cocktail party -- but with Barbara opening doors for us and making introductions, we soon learned how to be ourselves and simply enjoy the consternation of those who had no idea what to make of us.

Her loyalty was not merely professional, it was personal. She love us and we loved her. Even when we disagreed about what should be done with this contract or that writing project, even when I refused to make changes a publisher was insisting on, even when I was late turning in a book, she never gave up on me, and continued to give me and my books the benefit of her best thought and strongest efforts.

Barbara fought fiercely for us, as fiercely as she fought cancer this past year. She told almost no one of the personal battle she was going through, and only when it was clear that the treatments had all failed did she telephone us and tell us good-bye. A week later she was gone.

I feel her absence every day.

I have realized, over the past weeks, that she set me a standard for how a good person should act in the often rapacious world of art-for-money. She helped immunize me against the savagery of jealous and mean-spirited reviewers, and by the time I reached a professional position where my work was worth stealing in Hollywood (in New York publishing they often cheat, but they never steal), I was able to laugh at the thieves and pity the poseurs and the screamers.

Most of all, I learned to seek out people like Barbara and Ben. Even in the snakepit of Hollywood, there are, if you're lucky enough to find them, wonderful people who keep their word, tolerate differences artistic and otherwise, and bring joy to the business of creating things for audiences. Barbara showed me that business can become friendship when you find the right people and treat them honorably.

At this year's Oscars, when they give their tribute to movie people who died, I'll watch respectfully as I remember those whose talent made them famous.

In my heart, though, I'll think of the people no one outside the business ever knows about. Often they're in those lists of names that award recipients read or stammer or cry through.

"And thanks to my agent" -- those might, in some cases, be empty, dutiful words.

But not to me. The words "my agent" bring to mind my dear friend Barbara Bova, who changed our lives and made it possible for us to live well, while leaving me free to write the best books I knew how to write.


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