Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 24, 2010
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
500 Days, Crazy Heart, Phone Books, and Yale
I'm trying to catch up with this year's Oscar-bait movies. It takes a lot of fun
out of an Oscar party if you haven't seen most of the nominated films and
performances -- and last year I had seen almost none of them.
What keeps me away from a lot of "serious" movies is that they tend to fall into
1. Artistic pretension. I'm annoyed, not impressed, by show-off
cinematography, mannered writing, and over-the-top acting, which are easy to
achieve, banal in effect, and always come at the expense of clarity and
2. Dark, dark, dark material. I'm old enough now that I've seen a lot of
darkness in real life. I should pay a fine to watch fake darkness that some
writer dude thinks is "tragic" or "ironic"?
3. Irresolution and inclarity. If you're not going to tell me a story clearly
enough that I know what happened, and you're not going to go to the trouble of
ending it, why should I put myself in your hands for two hours in the dark?
Real life is irresolute and unclear, and I can get that for free. Fiction exists to
make sense of things. Any idiot can tell a story that makes no sense, and most
Now, all of these attributes of "serious" movies can be -- and are -- defended
with a lot of fancy verbiage. But I've heard all the arguments and they're
twaddle. "I'm holding a mirror up to real life." Great -- so you turn everything
backward. What have you contributed? I've got my own mirrors, thanks, if I
want to invert reality.
"I'm advancing the art." No you're not. Every time I hear some claim about
"advancing the art" I find myself watching just another iteration of fifty-year-old
"I'm pushing the envelope." What envelope? Oh, you mean that pile of
shredded paper over in the rubbish heap? What you really mean is that you're
getting credit for "bravery" by insulting the few remaining citizens of the old
civilization that was jettisoned as of 1968.
You're offending the people that it is completely safe to offend -- like religious
people and people with good manners -- because they dare not complain.
The people that it's dangerous to offend, you tiptoe around them and never do a
thing that will bother them, because you know their wrath can hurt your
The envelope consists of the stupid, self-contradictory, and vicious dogmas of
the extreme Left -- and most of these "serious" filmmakers never, never offend
them at all. Why? Because that's the team they're playing for.
You don't get credit in the real world for "experiments" and "bravery" and
"reality" that became cliches by 1975 in film -- by 1935 in fiction. You're just
another echo of an old revolution -- like Brezhnev tottering around mouthing
the words of Lenin.
So yeah, I'm skeptical of movies that are being touted for Oscars.
Take, for instance, 500 Days of Summer. Written by a couple of newbies and
directed by another, they came up with the really clever and original idea of
messing with the timeflow of the story.
Wow -- telling a story out of order so you can withhold key information until
the end! Who has ever done that before!
Oh, wait -- practically everybody.
It makes sense when the story is about disruptions in timeflow -- like Eternal
Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Memento, in which the brilliance of the films
came from the effective ways the writers and directors found to make the story
clear despite the fact that there was no rational timeflow in the tale itself.
But there is no such necessity in 500 Days. It's the story of a relationship that
lasted 500 days, between the viewpoint character, Tom Hansen (played by
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who once played the kid in Third Rock from the Sun), and
Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel).
So each scene begins with the day number flashing on the screen: Day 287,
Day 15, and so on. We start with their breakup in the middle of the 500 days,
we see their cute relationship when they're still in love, we see his depression
after each breakup, we see his moments of hope that things might still work
out, and so on, and so on, all told out of order.
It's all a cheat. Almost the first thing said in the movie is "This is not a love
story." But it's a love story. From beginning to end, it's a love story. What in
the world did they even think they meant by pretending that it wasn't? Do they
merely mean that it doesn't have a happy ending? Well, duh! There are plenty
of love stories like that -- they're called "stories of unrequited love."
Besides, they want to have their cake and eat it, too -- because the ending of
the movie absolutely promises that everybody will live happily ever after.
Even the title is a cheat. "Summer" is just the name of the girl. And guess
what? The new girl at the end is named "Autumn." That's, like, symbolic --
she's the season that comes after Summer! Get it? Get it?
(Oh, did I spoil it for you? Naughty me. But if the biggest thing they bring off
at the end of a movie is a bad punchline, they've got nothing.)
All of this might have been forgiven if the love story were really interesting.
And maybe to some viewers it will be. But I've seen this woman before.
Summer is a "free spirit" whom the boy falls in love with, only to discover that
she can't commit to anything, so he breaks his heart. (See Breakfast at
Tiffany's and about a hundred other movies about whimsical free spirit
I've even met this woman -- and in every case, it was a complete fake. "Free
spirit" is an affectation. It consists of pure self-love: the "free spirit" is
consumed with admiration for her own free-spiritedness. Does the word
"narcissism" mean anything?
And all the "free spirit" stuff is annoying. People who act like that make
terrible company. You are always tagging along, trying to catch up with their
improvisations; no matter what you do, they are the star of every scene.
And that's what this movie is about. Except that she's kind of easy, it's hard to
see what he sees in her. When they break up, it's hard to see why he doesn't
just pull himself together, get back to work, and cope with it like grown-up
In short, she's a jerk and he's a twit and it's really, really hard for me to care.
The only thing going for this movie is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey
Deschanel are very good actors -- the film coasts on their charisma. There are
also some very good supporting actors.
Most unbelievable thing: The hero supposedly works at a greeting card
company, and during the early days of his affair with Summer, she inspired
him to write "brilliant" cards. But none of them are brilliant. They have to
stretch to rise to the level of cliches.
And then, after he has behaved for months in a way that would lead any
normal boss to fire him five times over, he quits with a big speech about how
phony and hypocritical greeting cards are.
Every word he said sounded to me like a review of the movie he was in.
But not all the news is bad, folks. Crazy Heart seems at times to be a remake
of Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall's lush 1983 indie film "a broken-down,
middle-aged country singer" who finds love and remakes his life.
In fact, that log line fits both movies equally well, only Horton Foote, the writer
of Tender Mercies, definitely got there first.
But part of the curse of imitation is removed by the fact that Duvall himself is
one of the producers of Crazy Heart, and he plays the broken-down middle-aged country singer's best friend -- a bartender, naturally.
Jeff Bridges has been shamefully overlooked for the Oscars for 26 years --
ever since he was passed over for a brilliant performance in Starman in 1984.
(F. Murray Abraham won that year; he was good, but the voters cared a lot
more for the pretentious film-about-art Amadeus than for the real best movie of
that year, because Starman happened to be science fiction.)
He has given a lot of good, effective performances since then, notably in The
Fabulous Baker Boys and The Jagged Edge, but this is his first performance
since Starman that shows the raw power and charisma, the honesty and
intensity of his acting.
I'm not going to spoil this movie for you. Let me say only this: Its ending is in
some ways the opposite of Tender Mercies', yet it is every bit as real and
satisfying. Sometimes things work out the way you want, and sometimes your
own demons betray you once too often and some of the damage can't be
repaired. That's the truth.
But there is no pretentious, arty irresolution to the ending. We know how it all
turns out. And ... we like it. It's the right thing. Everybody did the best they
could, and they can live with their choices. It is not tragic or ironic, it's simply
beautiful and true.
The music, by T-Bone Burnett and his associates, is first-rate -- we can believe
that these are hit country songs. Moreover, we can believe that Jeff Bridges's
performances of them are huge hits, and that he is a star. And while Colin
Farrell, as Bridges's young protégé and rival, is no Jeff Bridges, he does a
decent job of singing and a good job of acting.
I haven't read Thomas Cobb's original novel, Crazy Heart, and Scott Cooper,
the screenwriter and director, has the kind of track record you often see in
independent movies -- that is, nearly none.
But I'll tell you, Cooper's script and Cooper's eye and Cooper's work with his
actors is outstanding. At every stage, the director is supporting the actors'
performances instead of competing with them.
It helps that he's working with some of the finest actors around. Maggie
Gyllenhaal is what most other actresses only aspire to be. She isn't just
another pretty face -- she makes herself as beautiful as the script requires,
through the quality of her acting.
It's a little-understood secret that beauty on screen is the result of the
performance, not the face. It helps if you don't have any visible scars or a
current flare-up of acne, of course, but the actresses that convince us they're
beautiful do it by the way they present themselves, not by what nature
endowed them with.
And, like Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air and Claire Danes in Me and Orson
Welles, Maggie Gyllenhaal makes us experience her character the way a man in
love experiences the woman he adores. It's only one of the effects a great
actress is able to bring off -- but it's hard to tell an idolatrous love story if the
lead actress can't do it.
(Idolatrous love story: The kind of love story in which the man is more
worshiper than friend or companion or partner; the kind of story in which the
woman, however real she is, functions for him as a dream.)
Crazy Heart earns an R through bad language and grown-up themes; it is not
pornographic or violent, but it ain't no Disney film. 500 Days of Summer is
rated PG-13, but has an IQ of about 70.
Some things to check out on the web
You really should go to http://snipr.com/phonebooksculpture and see the
phone book bas relief sculptures of Alex Queral of Philadelphia.
His gimmick -- because "serious art" today usually requires a vaudevillesque
gimmick -- is that he carves his sculptures into phone books. That's right, he
cuts down into those thick sheaves of very thin paper, then shellacs them so
they can be hung on a wall.
Look, the sculptures aren't brilliant. They're more along the lines of pretty-good fan art, especially since all the portraits are of famous people. The point
is not that he's revisioning art or doing anything profound, it's that he's doing
it with phone books.
So it's fun to look at these pieces and see if you can recognize whom they're of
-- but would you really want to have one hanging on the wall of your house?
(The full URL is http://www.cracktwo.com/2010/01/unbelievable-celebrity-phone-book.html)
Then head over to http://snipr.com/YaleRecruitmentVideo and see the best
college recruitment tool I've ever seen.
Written, produced, directed, recorded, and performed by students at Yale, it's
not so slick as to be intimidating -- it feels honest. The singers are good but
not great; the film is sometimes funny, mostly entertaining, but it's definitely
about Yale and the experience students can expect if they go there.
Now, let's begin with reality here: Yale is already famous as a world-class
university. Its intellectual reputation is impeccable. So they don't have to
spend more than a few seconds touting that. It's a given.
If you can get into Yale, you're probably not choosing between it and, say, UNC-Greensboro or Michigan State. So the students (and some alumni who advised
them) spend most of their time showing what makes Yale a happier, warmer,
kinder, gentler school than, say, MIT or Harvard or Stanford or Duke.
So they show you the on-campus life, where their residential colleges promise a
community where you immediately feel known and can be assured of finding
I never had any interest myself in attending an Ivy League school -- I figured I
was in charge of my own education and as long as I had access to any book I
wanted, I'd get a superb education. But then, I was heading for careers in
which academic credentials were irrelevant -- in theatre and writing, who really
cares where -- or whether -- you want to school? It's what you do that
But most high school seniors don't have that luxury. In many fields, the
school you attend does make a difference in starting salary and job placement,
or in the quality of graduate school that admits you with benefits. And if I were
a high school senior with the chops to get into a school like Yale, this video
might well make the decision easy.
The full URL is: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Yale-the-High-School/20565/