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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 9, 2011

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


X-Men, Steven Tyler, Hot Rocks

How nice -- all those superhero comics that I didn't care about as a kid are now being made into movies, some of which are actually entertaining.

There are diehard comics fans who complain about changes to their beloved characters for the sake of a movie.

There are diehard fans of earlier movies who complain about changes made between a movie and its sequels and prequels.

What seems weird to me is the tendency to reboot storylines. Admittedly, some series went so far awry that there was no saving them -- which is why DC Comics' Superman and Batman series needed serious rebooting.

But Spider-Man? The Sam Raimi version (the one starring Tobey Maguire back in 2002) was excellent -- in fact, its excellence was part of the reason why superhero movies became all the rage again. Nor were the sequels awful or embarrassing.

Yet in 2012, a mere ten years after the first Spider-Man, we're going to get a complete re-do. Why? How are they going to improve on the excellent 2002 script by David Koepp?

Answer: They aren't. This new one will be all about 3D. And, for all I care, they can stuff it. If I want to see a movie version of Spider-Man, I can play the DVD at home -- and I don't have to put on stupid glasses to get a more artificial and annoying FX-centered version.

What an interesting progression. DC Comics proves that there's money to be made in superhero comics movies, but nobody has the clout or the wit to keep the quality high on the Superman and Batman sequels.

Marvel learns this lesson and comes out with a much higher grade of superhero movies with X-Men, Iron Man, and, of course, Spider-Man. (Admittedly, the Iron Man sequel was as empty as a Cheerios box in the hands of a two-year-old.)

DC gets the message and we see reboots of Superman (kind of lame) and Batman (successful).

(There are also perfectly dreadful movies like The League of Extraordinarily Tedious Gentlemen and The Frenetic Four and two kind of awful versions of The Incredible Hulk, just in case we thought that they'd forgotten how to make moves that suck.)

But then, having given us terrific writing and acting in enough superhero movies to prove that they know it's possible, they're going to start rebooting the good series?

This Monday night my teenager and I went to see X-Men: First Class. I'd been told that it wasn't so much a prequel to the X-Men movies (the ones with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and Hugh Jackman and James Marsden) as a reboot that shows the origin of the X-Men.

Maybe that's so the writers of XMFC could stretch their creative wings without worrying too much about contradicting details in the other films.

Me, I didn't care anyway, having no longtime relationship with the X-Men or their movies.

Not that I don't love mutants -- don't we all love the mutants? -- heaven help the politically incorrect person who has any kind of bad feelings about people with superpowers who can go around killing regular humans and nobody can stop them. They're all such bigots, to think they have a right to defend themselves; who do they think they are?

I'm just saying that if the filmmakers can make an entertaining movie out of the premise, good for them, and they get some of my money.

Which they did, and so they got it. (Actually, they got my money first, but that's the kind of twisted transaction that keeps showbiz alive -- I make my living from the fact that people pay for my books before they read them.)

XMFC starts near the end of World War II, then jumps forward to the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Turns out that crisis was actually caused by the manipulations of an evil mutant named Sebastian Shaw, played brilliantly by Kevin Bacon.

All the other actors do a lovely job, ranging from adequate to interesting; it's Bacon who carries this movie. (Now that Jeff Bridges has his Oscar, Kevin Bacon is the most underrated American actor.)

There are some powerful moments in this movie, but the strongest of them are in the set-up, where Nazi atrocities are used merely to provide motivation for superheroes later. Is anybody else uncomfortable with using the kinds of horrors that happened to real people in World War II as mere popcorn fodder? I guess I'm the only one.

Anyway, it all works. There are cool FX as we find out different people's superpowers. James McAvoy, one-time faun in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is really good at making intense facial expressions when he's sending his augmented mind-reading powers out to identify as-yet-unfound mutants.

Miraculously, genius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) has somehow come up with a machine for amplifying the abilities of a mind-reader -- without having a mind-reader around to practice on. Just plug in Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and the machine works without a glitch. Hey, mutants can do anything.

And that's the problem with the whole X-Men premise. I'd love to see a good story or movie about the next jump in human evolution -- but a plausible one, where the improvements are within the bounds of possibility. Sadly, though, I'm the only one -- what the public wants, apparently, is for the next stage of humanity to be magic.

Because that's what this is -- a movie about wizards who can only cast a couple of spells each. After a while, the science talk is only irritating (when it isn't laughable).

Fortunately, the screenwriters know this -- they leap this movie forward so fast that you hardly notice your bladder filling and then it's over. Never mind that no characters and relationships are explored at anything other than the token level.

This is not a movie that needs deep characterization. Give everybody an iconic, obvious bit of motivation (Shaw killed my mother; I want to feel pretty; I'm smarter than everybody but I'm nice; I will rule the world for the good of the species; I'm shy but I can kill you) and run with it.

Truly. I'm not being sarcastic. Not every movie has to be Ordinary People. And that one had its shallow, iconic motivations, too (it was my fault my brother died; no it wasn't; that's a relief).

My point is that X-Men: First Class has story enough to make us lean forward in our seats until the end, while we feast our eyes on the spectacle.

And it wasn't 3D. Thank you, thank you, thank you, O ye producers!

It may bother you how much you enjoy the slow-motion moment-of-vengeance near the end; but I was intrigued by the fact that almost everybody's moral choices made sense. This is a movie where you can see both sides of almost every issue. (Not the Nazis. They don't try to turn them into a moral grey area.)

Go to the theater. See it big. It's fun. At moments it's even moving.

*

Postscript on race in X-Men: A friend of mine also saw X-Men: First Class and noticed something that completely sailed right past me. Mostly because I'm a white guy and he's not. So I left my original review intact -- you just read it -- and now I append this second set of comments, which really changed my view of the movie.

"The first and only 'good' mutant killed was black," my friend pointed out. "And his code name is Darwin." (My friend has already shown me countless examples of how black people are often depicted as less-evolved, closer-to-the-beast than white people.)

"He explains that he has the ability to adapt to any environment ... then he gets killed." I remember that it did bother me at the time that his was the only mutant ability that didn't actually work.

At first it looked like he was going to find a way to adapt to the bad thing that Shaw had put inside him, and maybe become something else, the way "the Beast" later adapted to a drug -- it would have been cool. But then he died. I was disappointed, but I wasn't seeing it as "look what this movie is doing with the black male."

"I had to take all of this in while characters in the movie constantly state how the more evolved will overcome. So," says my friend, "the black guy named Darwin couldn't overcome. And he was the only mutant in the movie not to."

Then my friend moves on to the black girl, played by Zoe Kravitz. "Her backstory is that she's a stripper. Moira McTagget is shown as a stripper as well, but this was just a cover she was using while she did the important work of battling the enemy covertly. But the black girl really is a stripper, and though she doesn't get killed like the black man, she is the first mutant to run over to the side of the 'bad' mutants."

My friend saw that surviving victims of the holocaust were shown "much dignity and moments of heroism." But not survivors of slavery and Jim Crow oppression -- which was still very much going on during the era of the movie.

Cuban missile crisis ... 1962. This is after Brown v. Board of Education, but well before the Civil Rights Act. In America in that time, having a black guy and a black girl placed in the same facility, treated as complete equals by the whites, would have been a big deal; but it's as if the holocaust can be remembered by this film, while segregation can't.

And this in a movie supposedly about battling hatred.

My friend writes: "I first began reading the X-Men before I could even read! It simultaneously breaks my heart and turns my stomach to see the comic (that was about battling the forces of bigotry) become a movie that joins countless other movies (and plays and books etc.) that basically give blacks the middle finger and a slap in the face. I feel nothing but contempt for it now."

There are blacks who see bigotry and racism in places where they don't exist. But my friend is not one of them. Yes, he's certainly more keyed into this than I am, because he grew up black in America and I didn't. But that doesn't change the fact that blacks played certain roles in this movie -- only guy who fails and dies, stripper girl who is the first turncoat -- and those roles are demeaning by any standard.

(The genie-like Azazel is dark, but he's depicted as Moorish, not American black.)

I'm betting that the motive here was not racist. The writers were dealing with X-Men from an era in Marvel Comics' history when sympathetic black characters were hard to find. In creating Darwin, they may have thought they were putting in a black guy that didn't exist in the original, and they certainly made him likable and interesting.

But then they killed him -- to show the power of the baddest dude so we'd be more scared, and to deal with the fact that there isn't a sympathetic black guy among the early X-Men.

Maybe they were oblivious to the fact that many blacks do get tired of how they are so often depicted as somehow "closer to evolution" (i.e., closer to apes) than white people.

I definitely watched a different movie from the one my friend saw. But the one he saw was just as real as the one I saw -- I just wasn't equipped to see it.

I'm not calling anybody involved in making it "racist." But I am saying that maybe they needed to be as sensitive, writing about the Jim Crow era in America, as they were about the way they handled the holocaust. And they definitely were not careful.

*

A short time ago, I ran across a book called All My Friends Are Dead, by Avery Monsen and Jory John.

It's really funny. Kind of an anti-The Giving Tree. The trouble is, how can I review it without giving away its surprises?

Let's just say that Monsen and John do a good job of taking a kind of depressing subject -- the loneliness of old age, when you've outlived nearly everybody -- and turning it into something whimsical and sweet.

So then I bought another book by the same team, called I Feel Relatively Neutral about New York. Actually, that's the subtitle, because most of the cover is taken up by a standard I <heart> NY design, except that the <heart> is replaced by a smiley face without a smile -- just a straight line for the mouth.

The book consists of pictures of iconic New York experiences, and the authors' wry list of pros and cons. It's like the old days when David Letterman was funny -- they aren't trying too hard, they don't take themselves seriously, and most of what they say is smart and true and often witty.

I enjoyed both books. But then, I'm not officially Old yet. Most of my friends are not dead. How funny would it be to somebody who really has outlived most of their contemporaries? I don't know. I don't have the gall to give the book to anybody in that category in case they wouldn't find it funny.

Likewise, I think I Feel Relatively Neutral about New York is probably only going to work for people who really love the experience of New York City. Who else would care?

So I guess you'll have to sort yourselves into the groups who might like these books and the groups that wouldn't.

*

Steven Tyler is not the best thing about the revitalized American Idol -- but he's one of the best things. Funny, irreverent, yet serious about the talented young kids and deeply knowledgeable about the pop music scene over the past forty years, Tyler comes across as smart and spontaneous.

His memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? proves these impressions true.

Tyler is a wordsmith. He writes clever lyrics which have meter and rhyme -- who knows how to do that anymore? -- and his punnery and drollery and vulgarity are on full display in this book. And they ain't bleepin' nothin' in this book. You are warned.

You get all the details of his career, and a lot of stuff about his life, his wives, his lovers, his drugs, his band, his friends, and the bizness. In other words, all the stuff that's supposed to make a celebrity autobiography a bestseller is here.

But what you almost never get is the authentic voice and viewpoint of the star himself. Most celebs are cautious about whom they offend. So is Tyler. But Tyler's list of People Not To Offend consists of the innocent, the down, the helpless -- not the powerful-who-might-cause-trouble.

I'm only a tad younger than Tyler. I lived through the same decades. If some quirk of fate had made our paths cross, I would not have become his pal. He would have found me hopelessly dull; I didn't have much time for people who really thought sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll were the center of the universe.

When he was starting up Aerosmith, writing songs and playing gigs all over the Northeast, drugged out of his mind as much as possible, I was writing and putting on plays -- oh, yeah, and serving as a Mormon missionary.

He was chasing music; I was reading every book I could get my hands on.

Kind of hard to imagine more opposite people.

Yet here's the funny thing -- I actually found myself liking him. Not the Steven Tyler of the rising-rock-star years -- that guy just made me kind of sad, the way he took away with one hand everything he achieved with the other.

No, the Tyler that I liked was the kid with a dream and a complicated inner life, and then the adult who has been down all kinds of strange roads and is perfectly candid about how messed up things got and who has his priorities pretty well straight now.

During the first third of the book, you might get confused, because Tyler puts himself into the mindset of the young man he was during those drugs-and-sex years. He rhapsodizes about how great the drugs were and how much he loved his life!

But then, without every stopping to moralize, he shows things falling apart. The drugs sucking the band dry. The damage to his body. The endless distraction from the things that really mattered. The impossibility of maintaining a good marriage in the midst of such madness.

He doesn't have to tell us the moral. He just shows us what happened. The rehabs, the relapses; the agonizing physical pain that hooked him on prescription drugs; the kids he hardly had a chance to know when they were little because he was living in such a haze.

Tyler didn't die young. But that may be because he never lost track of things that mattered more to him than the drugs -- even when he didn't know it. He loved (and still loves) his lyrics, his songs, the performing. He seems always to have had the ability to observe himself, enjoying who he was, but also amused by his own antics.

In other words, there was a part of him that was able to see the chasm he was heading toward, and haul on the reins just in time. Several times.

So he lived through it. And he has written some great songs. And he's learned some useful things. And he's funny and bright. It's an entertaining, sad, yet optimistic autobiography.

If it were a novel, I wouldn't care. But because he's a real human being, telling the truth as best he can (I believe), and because he really has earned our attention through the quality of his work, I enjoyed the book and recommend it highly to those who won't be offended by it. And maybe even to some of those.

But I also am so very, very glad that my experience of the '60s and '70s was absolutely nothing like his.

*

My wife and I were in Las Vegas for a conference I was taking part in. Unfortunately, the calcium build-up on her lower spine picked that weekend to make a fuss.

We drove down there from Orem, Utah, and the drive alone about killed her. Next day, it was agony for her just to get out of bed. She didn't own any painkillers sufficient to cope.

Bravely she walked with me to the gym in the hotel. But she quickly learned that this was not something she could walk off on a treadmill or elliptical machine.

But she noticed that the spa part of the gym facility offered something called "hot rock massage," and it sounded like it might offer some degree of relief for her back.

Because here's what she could not avoid thinking about: We had tickets the next day to fly home. Hours sitting on a plane, in the exact worst position for her back. But we couldn't afford to stay in Vegas, bleeding money every day. Nor could we drive back to her parents' house in Orem. There was simply no good choice.

That's why she overcame her longtime aversion to the whole idea of spa massages and actually went for her first-ever hot rock massage.

That was one happy woman I found in my hotel room when I got done with the panel I was on. No, the pain wasn't gone, but it was down to manageable levels.

Yes, they really do put hot rocks on your body and then rub you and then put on rocks. Don't even ask me why it worked. But it did.

So we got home, and she visited the doctor and a therapist and life got back to normal. But she didn't forget that hot rock massage.

That was when she first noticed Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa in the new wing of Friendly Center just down from the great smoothie and yogurt store Red Mango. (Pull into the center from Northline as if you were going to Harris-Teeter, but take the first right instead of going all the way to the front of H-T.)

"Have you tried the local hot rock massage place?" I'd ask her from time to time.

"I will," she said. And then, a few months later, she did.

No, it's not quite the same experience as at that Las Vegas hotel spa. But it's very close. (It's also a lot cheaper.) What matters is that it brings her the same relief she got that day in Vegas.

I can't tell you whether the treatment at Hand & Stone will be worth the price -- my wife doesn't go all that often, either, and only for the 50-minute massage, not the 80-minute one. Nor does she use any of the other services there -- that's all such a personal matter, don't you think?

But there's a lot of pain in this world, and when you find a non-drug way to help relieve some of it, it's worth passing along. (336-218-6998; www.HandAndStone.com)


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