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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 14, 2010

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


Valentine's Day, Oscar Shorts, Ellen on Idol

The movie Valentine's Day cleared $52 million on its opening weekend, so my review is moot. The cynical plan behind the movie worked perfectly. They packed it with stars, gave it some cute moments to promote, and thus sucked us all in by convincing us it was the Valentine's Day date movie of choice.

The idea behind it was sound enough. Apparently they had seen the brilliant classic Love Actually, which told a dozen differently wonderful love stories, and somebody said, "Let's do one like that for Valentine's Day!"

Then they hired writers and a director (Garry Marshall -- it should have been his sister, Penny) who, when handed a gift like that, didn't know how to get past the tissue paper it was wrapped in.

Because the cast is so very good, there are whole moments -- sometimes several in a row -- that are worth watching. Some of the love stories are cute, and some are funny, and one of them had hopes of being rather touching.

But they were all thrown away by (a) bad writing and (b) stupidity.

Bad writing first. Love Actually used every one of its vignettes to maximum efficiency. Whole stories were told in four or five speeches. We liked people and didn't want them to do stupid things; there were people in pain or need whom we cared about; and yet we saw each story for only a scene at a time, intercut with all the others.

Where each scene in Love Actually was packed with story, each storyline in Valentine's Day was spread thinly and lazily across many scenes, each of which felt like it took forever while it accomplished nearly nothing.

The gags, where they came, were mostly strained and unfunny. We nearly always saw them coming from a mile away, and then, when they came, they were just what we expected and nothing more. There were so many wasted plot threads you could have woven them into two Oscar gowns and a toupee.

Now for the stupid. A florist on Valentine's Day is rear-ended, and then when he drives away the back of his van opens and the flowers all spill out. (Though if that's how they were stacked inside, they should have fallen all over the place and needed restacking when the collision happened.)

But here's the thing: The driver stomps around the wreckage looking frustrated, but then drives off without even trying to pick up the envelopes with the address information so he could go back, replace the arrangements, and get them delivered. If I'm his boss, he's fired.

The stupid gets worse. A teenage boy is caught alone and naked (except for a guitar), in his girlfriend's bedroom, by her mother. She talks to him; they are in the room together for several minutes. Now, I don't care how rattled you are -- you turn your back on the mother and pull on your pants. But not this supposedly college-bound moron: He runs out of the house naked. Why? Because he knows he's in a movie and it will be "funnier."

Then there's the whole sequence at the school where Jennifer Garner's character, a schoolteacher, is interrupted by Ashton Kutcher, who means to tell her a useful bit of information. Incredibly, she leaves her classroom in the charge of one of the children -- a sure way to turn that child into a pariah and to lose her job.

But it's not just that: Every moment of the school, every action of teacher and students, is so false that one has to think that no one involved with this film has ever been inside a school -- certainly not within the past ten years.

Poor Topher Grace is given absolutely nothing to do -- a waste of a talented actor. Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine are given a subplot that serves only one purpose -- to make sure we know that there is no such thing as sexual fidelity in the world, except if you're a fool.

Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper are only interesting because we don't know why Roberts (who plays a military officer) is coming to LA for only a single day; but we do know that the two of them are on the longest plane flight in history, because it seems to last forever without anything useful happening or being revealed to us.

And yet ... no matter how bad the writing is, no matter how dependent on cliches, no matter how glacially the story moves forward and how shallowly the characters are drawn, this is a splendid cast and they manage to make the best of it.

Well, it's almost a splendid cast. There is a child actor who was cast for face alone. He can't deliver a line without a smirk; at no moment is he believable; nor is he cute or engaging. When you compare him to the young-boy-in-love in Love Actually, you can't help but wonder who made the casting decision to put this child actor in that spot.

It was no kindness to him. When you're directing a movie and you discover that you're working with a child actor whose performance cannot be saved in the editing room, who will deaden every scene that he's in, it is a kindness to the child (and the audience) to let him go and bring in another young actor.

I can name two dozen children of my acquaintance right now who would have been better in the part. This statistical probability surely extends to Los Angeles.

It is not the child's fault. He is doing the best he can. He can't help it that he's given such appallingly unnatural things to say (as bad as when George Lucas forced poor, innocent Jake Lloyd to say "Whoopee!"). He can't help it that he's working with a director incompetent at teaching a child how to act. Child actors are children. They are not responsible. I grieved for the poor boy every moment he was on screen.

My wife and I had to leave a half hour before the end to pick up our fifteen-year-old after a party. We should have been grateful for the excuse -- it kept us warm and indoors on a snowy night. But we both decided -- feeling rather ashamed of ourselves -- that we will buy another pair of tickets and go back to see the ending.

Just to see if it turns out as badly as it began, I suppose. To find out why Julia Roberts is on that plane. To discover that the little boy is (probably) in love with his teacher, not the little girl the other kids taunt him about. To watch other cliches play themselves out.

And because it's the closest thing to a Valentine's date my poor wife is going to get this year.

Besides, there is one great scene where Jennifer Garner faces the man who's been lying to her. It's not really worth the entire price of admission, but I don't regret seeing it.

There's your incentive to go to Valentine's Day!

*

There's an email moving through the internet that purports to show pictures of D-Day that were taken by a sailor with a Kodak Brownie camera, which sat somewhere for more than sixty years and still put out pictures that were sharp and clear and dramatic.

Since my father was a Navy photographer during World War II (but toward the end; he was not at Pearl Harbor), I forwarded the email to him with my comment that I didn't believe for a second the story about the Brownie.

Here's what he replied: "No Brownie camera ever took 16 pictures on one roll of film. They look too crisp to have been made by a single meniscus lens. They are great pictures, but not from an old Brownie. At least that is my evaluation."

And Snopes.com agreed. The pictures are genuine, but they could not possibly have been taken by one person, with one camera, for the simple reason that they were shot within minutes of each other at so many different locations, miles apart.

I just can't understand why the pictures themselves weren't good enough. Why did some lying snake have to add the completely false story about the old Brownie camera? What is the motive of these people?

It's as if some people can't be happy until they've wrapped a lie around the truth. Perhaps that's how they feel as thought they've taken possession of it.

*

For my entire life, I've been watching the Oscar broadcasts and sitting through the short-film categories without having seen any of the nominees except a couple (in my life, not each year) that were theatrically released.

Knowing this, for the past five years the Academy has been trying to make these films available to the public. Starting on February 19th, selected theaters around the country will show a program of all the nominated live-action shorts, and another of all the animated ones.

In other words, you don't have to watch the Oscars in complete ignorance!

Why should you care? Because in many a year, some of the short films are the best things made that year. A lot of filmmakers get their start making short films and taking them around to exhibitions. Many a career has begun when a short made a strong impression on a studio -- for instance, that's how Napoleon Dynamite got its start.

However, short film is also a genre in its own right, not just a career boost. So when I tell you that the Carousel theater (on Battleground just south of Wendover) is going to be one of the places where these films will be shown -- for a week, starting Friday, 19 February -- I hope you'll seize the opportunity to go.

Having been provided with a screener DVD in advance, I had a chance to watch two of the shorts before writing this column; I'll be watching the rest very soon.

Kavi, a live action short, is set in India, and only a few words of English are spoken. I promise you that you won't mind the subtitles. The child actor in the title role gives a real and powerful performance, but so do all the adults, as they tell the story of a little boy working with his family in (illegal) slavery at a brickyard. It is one of the best movies I've seen this year, of any length.

Then there was the animated A Matter of Loaf and Death, a Wallace and Gromit cartoon that had me laughing out loud dozens of times. I've never seen a W&G cartoon before, and so the irony and emotional effectiveness took me completely by surprise.

Both of these shorts held me with all the interest of feature films; and, unlike many features, neither lasted a minute too long. They could not be more different from each other -- the one a bold, heroic drama, the other a ... well, a bold, heroic comedy. You'll see.

I can't promise you that all the shorts will be that good. But come on, when you're watching the Oscars, won't it be cool, when the nominees are read out, to be the one saying, "Seen it -- great. Saw it -- sucked."

The good ones are so good that you won't regret having gone to the theater to see them all.

I appreciate the Carousel's offering us this chance to view some of the best that filmmakers have to offer. In all likelihood you'll only have this one week in which to see these, so don't put it off too long.

*

Speaking of what the Carousel offers, I had no idea that for some time they've had a twice-a-month event aimed at the college-age audience called "The Mixed Tape Film Series."

Last week, for instance, they showed Princess Bride -- it must have been fun to see that in a theater again! -- and the remaining installments in the series are:

March 4th -- Big Trouble in Little China

March 11th -- The Thing

April 1st -- Pee Wee's Big Adventure

April 8th -- Robocop

May 6th -- Goonies

Joe Scott of Go Triad assures me, "In terms of formatting, the Carousel has exhibition-quality projectors that create an image from a DVD that's almost as good as film."

You don't have to prove you're a college student to attend these events. You just have to promise -- if you're an old coot like me -- not to try to shush them when they act their age.

*

We've seen several installments of Ellen DeGeneres as a judge on American Idol, and frankly, I'm thrilled.

After her jokey turn on So You Think You Can Dance, I shuddered at the idea of her judging regularly. She was fine as a one-shot jester at the dance show, but she truly had nothing to say. How could she do it week after week without making us want to scream?

With American Idol, she actually knows what she's talking about. No, she can't give specific singing advice -- but then, how often did Paula Abdul do any such thing? They have vocal coaches working with the show who do that (and this year, for the first time, we actually got to see them during Hollywood week).

No, DeGeneres knows performing. She knows when she's seeing and hearing the effects of terror, and unlike Simon, she doesn't get testy with people for being human. In fact, her presence seems to calm Simon down a little.

Kara, on the other hand, was appalling during the auditions. She sucked up so pathetically to every celebrity guest judge, imitating their behavior, that I was sickened and had to look away from the screen. The worst moment was when the celebrity judge got up to give a hug to a devastated contestant. It was obvious Kara didn't think of doing any such thing until the celeb did it, but then she had to bound over and give a me-too that was just ... well, sad.

The good news is that with DeGeneres in the lineup, Kara is somehow more subdued.

Either that or the show's editors had mercy on us and simply cut out her most appalling moments of fame-sucking neediness.

So I'm going to keep watching for a while longer -- though I must confess I've only heard two voices so far that have any promise at all. I can only hope they've kept the best under wraps until they unveil their top 24.

*

Speaking of voices with "promise," have you seen countertenor Greg Pritchard on Britain's Got Talent? I'm going to say no more than this: It is an unforgettable performance and you won't want to be left out.

*

I'm assuming that, if you've been reading this column for any length of time, you've already heard about the Improv Everywhere movement. These are the people who go into public places and, essentially, put on a show.

They're in a train station and all at once, at a predesignated time, everybody in the group freezes. They have cameras and microphones picking up the reactions of the innocent bystanders.

Sometimes, when they do an impromptu musical, it's wonderful; sometimes it's embarrassing. Mostly the difference depends on the quality of the writing.

And now and then they do one that is just, well, wrong. For instance, the "gag" where they tell people in the subway station that they're taking pictures for the transit authority's (nonexistent) yearbook. Naturally, some people primp and preen and everyone takes the time out of their lives to take part in this nonsense, so everyone can laugh at them.

That's not funny. It's an imposition. The glory of Improv Everywhere is that the performers do the funny-wonderful thing. The joke isn't on the audience, it's for the audience. But the subway photo-shoot thing is nothing of the kind -- it's vintage Allen Funt.

Yes, regular improve companies often bring audience members onstage -- but they know they're in a show.

But the others are so good I forgive them for one flop.

If you want to see what I'm talking about, then go to this website

You can even subscribe to the site and be notified when new videos go up.

This is what your children are watching on the computer when they tell you they're "almost done" with their homework ...

*

On Valentine's eve, by the way, my wife and I and another couple dropped in at Gnam Gnam, expecting to get a salad or sandwich. Instead, they had a special menu of full-fledged restaurant entrees.

We decided, however, that their tapas menu looked irresistible, so we asked for enough of every single one of them to share among the four of us. Chef Robert Keir outdid himself -- even the things I didn't think I'd like, I loved.

Of course, by the time you read this it won't be Valentine's any more, so I won't make you eat your heart out.

Maybe just a little: The brie in puff pastry with a tiny bit of raspberry on top was exquisite -- and I don't like brie! I want more.

But then, I wanted more of everything else, too.

Clearly, Gnam Gnam is a gelato shop that wants to grow up into a restaurant, and I tell you, I can't wait.


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