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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 28, 2013

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


Oscars, Shorts, Frames, Goat and Pig

Seth MacFarlane was, in my opinion, the best Oscar host since Billy Crystal first did the gig. Good-natured and clever, MacFarlane had none of the meanness and ugly stupidity that Ricky Gervais brought to the Golden Globes for three deadly years.

Nor did he show the smug condescension of David Letterman, or the doesn't-he-get-this-business missteps of Chris Rock (remember him taunting Jude Law because it happened that three of his movies were released in the same year? Rock seemed not to realize that actors don't control release dates, and that you don't make fun of an actor for working.)

MacFarlane never took himself seriously -- or, for that matter, the film business. His musical number about boob shots was hilarious and dead on -- especially when it climaxed with a list of all the movies in which Kate Winslet has flashed us -- contrasted with the fact that Jennifer Lawrence has never bared her breasts on camera.

MacFarlane reveled in the fact that the show was live; he really was hosting a get-together, rather than reciting lines. And when he sang and danced, he was good at it. Bring him back! (Heck, I liked him so much that now I'm even going to see his movie Ted, even though it's probably as bad as the promos made it look.)

There were some incomprehensible awards -- how does Life of Pi get best cinematography, when it was mostly created inside computers?

Why does anybody give Quentin Tarantino an award, knowing it will force us to watch the ugliest conceited fool (or the most conceited foolish ug) in the history of show business as he congratulates the Academy for being smart enough to realize he was best?

Jennifer Lawrence -- who earned her Best Actress Oscar twice this year -- was refreshingly real. She tripped over her hideous dress (everybody always wears hideous dresses -- it's the designers' vengeance for actresses' being so much more famous and beloved than they are) on the way to the mike, and then told the audience to stop their standing ovation.

"You're only standing up because I tripped," she said -- which was true, but how many actors are grounded enough to understand that, and say so?

Though I've seen enough of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance to know that he completely missed Lincoln's voice (even when he orated, Lincoln never sounded like an orator; Day-Lewis's every word sounded engraved on stone), Day-Lewis gave the best acceptance speech I've ever heard.

Charmingly, he pretended that he only got the part in a straight-across swap with Meryl Streep, who was originally slated to play the part. But even after the joke (which he brought off superbly; who knew, given the roles he plays, that he had a sense of humor?), his speech was an exemplar of modesty and charm. Bravo, Mr. Day-Lewis!

Note to award recipients: Never, never, never list the other nominees in your category. Yes, during all the pre-Oscar publicity you kept bumping into them and you want to show how modest and generous you are by saying how honored you were just to be nominated along with them.

But you just won, so listing their names not only sounds like gloating, it is gloating.

Let them modestly retire and leave the focus on you. Thank the people who helped you and the people you love. Don't mention the other nominees in any way, because nothing you can say to or about them changes the fact that you just beat them.

Argo was a perfectly appropriate winner of the Best Picture award; Ben Affleck is emerging as one of the classiest directors in Hollywood, as well as being a good actor in the kind of role he now takes.

Affleck's film was honest about history; it was also generous to the actors who shared the screen with him. When Affleck directs, everybody shines. That's rare in Hollywood, especially when star directors work so hard to draw attention to their own work, at the expense of their actors.

*

I didn't get a chance to see the live-action and animated short films until it was too late to comment on them before the Oscars.

My wife and I, along with our friend, director Andy Lindsay of Barking Shark Productions, happened to be the only people sitting in those way-too-low chairs at the Carousel Theater, so we treated it like our living room and commented to each other throughout -- especially during the silent films.

Sometimes, pretentious twaddle outnumbers good films in this category, but this year was exceptionally good. And because you can go online and see all the nominees for free -- http://theoscarshorts.shorts.tv/ -- I'm happy to tell you which are especially worth seeing.

In the animated category, Fresh Guacamole takes only two minutes -- now that's a short. The joy of it is in the visual surprises as the ingredients of a guacamole are chopped up and mixed together on camera. No, there's no deep meaning; it's just plain fun.

We saw Paperman in the theaters; it's still a wonderfully charming love story about an office worker who turns his piles of paper into airplanes as he tries to get the attention of the woman he fell in love with during his morning commute.

I'm not a fan of The Simpsons, but Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare" was funny and sweet.

Adam and Dog was long, long, long, with one lame "sweet" moment at the end. Mostly it showed the filmmakers' utter inability to imagine what Adam's and Eve's life might have been like in the Garden of Eden; in their movie, it was dull enough that getting expelled must have come as a relief.

The brilliant jewel of the animated shorts was Head Over Heels, in which a married couple share a house. But the husband's floor is the wife's ceiling, and vice versa, so they never seem able to agree on anything.

Not a word is spoken, but we hardly need words to show us the pain of their loneliness and loss, and then the joy of their rediscovery of each other. It was funny and then it was moving; it does in only twenty minutes what The War of the Roses failed to do in two tedious hours: Show us a marriage in cardiac arrest, and then give it CPR.

(In the theatrical release of the shorts, they also tacked on the non-nominated sequel to the unbearably bad Gruffalo sequel; we walked out and had a snack at Red Mango, then returned for the showing of the live-action shorts.)

The live action shorts are actually harder to bring off, if only because compressing a story with real actors is hard. The Buzkashi Boys was an interesting look at the lives of children in Afghanistan, but the story felt pointless.

Equally pointless, but also interesting, was Asad -- a look at the lives of children in Somalia. As cultural artifacts the films are worth seeing, but don't expect to feel like their endings accomplish anything.

Death of a Shadow is one of those sci-fi steampunkish stories where you don't really understand what's going on till the big reveal at the end.

No, kids, that's not how it's done -- in good sci-fi, you must let us know the rules up front, so we understand enough to care what happens! (Good example: Looper. Hideously bad example: Cloud Atlas.)

But two live-action shorts make up for all. The Oscar winner, Curfew, was a wonderful choice; it begins with a young man in mid-suicide, bleeding in a bathtub, when his sister calls, needing him to take care of her daughter for a few hours.

He says, "OK," and then we proceed to learn something about his life and his sister's. The niece is the stock "smart-bratty" movie child, but she's used well, and the ending is both funny and redemptive.

But the true work of genius is Henry, which gives us the experience of Alzheimer's in a compelling way. It's at once frightening and fulfilling, as we see who this old man was and, in his confused memory, still is.

Unlike Amour (which I was going to see until Daniel Tosh's Oscar spoilers told me that it has a euthanasia ending), it has a brilliant, positive finish that moved me to tears. Maybe because I'm an old man, the question he asks at the end seems to me to be the Meaning of Life. Simple, unpretentious, utterly earned.

Note to filmmakers: Euthanasia endings, like suicide endings, are what you do when you give up on yourself as a writer. It's what you do instead of an ending. You feel like you're doing something surprising and bold, but nobody is surprised, and it saves you the trouble of finding some kind of fruition for your characters.

Yeah, you can get Best Picture (Million-Dollar Baby) for a euthanasia ending, or Best Foreign-Language Film (Amour), but it doesn't change the fact that you copped out. Good writers finish their work.

*

For years we had all our art framed by Sumner and Ruth Fineberg at The Framing Place in Quaker Village. Even after they retired, we stayed with the next two owners, because they kept up the quality.

But when rising rents made it impossible for The Framing Place to stay open, we had to go in search of another framer. No, we weren't even tempted to do the work ourselves.

We auditioned several shops (including one whose owner, told that the Finebergs were our friends, still could not stop himself from bad-mouthing them in ways that I could only interpret as anti-semitic; needless to say, that's not where we took our business).

What we settled on was Irving Park Art and Frame on Lawndale. Their workspace was a long dark tunnel of a shop, but the work Renee Franklin and her co-framers did was superb.

After years of having them frame the art in our home and for gifts, we entrusted them this fall with a very large project -- fifty pieces of art for display in a church building. They came through with consistent high quality in a timely manner.

Now they have escaped that tunnel and have moved to what used to be the Roly-Poly restaurant space in the Irving Park Shops at 2105-A West Cornwallis Dr.

(You have to pull into their parking lot through the first driveway on the south side of Cornwallis, just west of Battleground. Sometimes this means waiting for a break in the traffic backed up for the light on Battleground. The second driveway also lets you park close enough to walk, but you can't drive through.)

The new location gives them an amazing amount of light and space, and they are using the front of the shop as a gallery featuring the work of local artists and craftspeople.

The grand opening is tomorrow night, 1 March, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. New Orleans artist Tony Forrest will be there, along with some of his work; there'll also be wine and hors d'oeuvres.

If you've been looking for a framer -- or simply want to see the art and artists they're featuring at Art & Frame -- I heartily recommend that you stop by.

And if the open house time doesn't work for you, come by during their normal hours. Renee and all her co-framers have an eye for presenting your art to the best effect. We value their advice and admire their work.

*

I first got to know the work of Japanese animator Miyazaki because of Kiki's Delivery Service. I didn't so much watch it as listen to it, working on something else while my young daughter really paid attention to it.

I was constantly amazed at the surprising turns the story took, without every losing coherence. This was not a film dominated by cliche and formula.

This was the opposite of what I saw when I worked on animated videos myself. I worked for a time as writer of a series of scriptural videos that were being directed by a former Disney animator.

I was stunned at the rigid formulaic thinking that was treated as if it were natural law.

Where's the cute sidekick animal?

Well, um, I don't know where we'd get one out of Jewish culture during the Roman occupation. Maybe John the Baptist had a pet locust, instead of just eating them?

I just didn't see giving Jesus a furry animal companion. I thought we could simply tell the story of scripture -- and, for a short time, I got my way. I'm proud of the videos that resulted.

But then I stopped getting my way, the formula triumphed, and I was gone. Ever since then, I've watched the formulas act themselves out in movie after movie. Even the films that try to be innovative still include most of the formulaic elements.

Not Miyazaki. He brings non-western ideas of story and he has no patience with the Hollywood formulas. At the same time, he isn't flouting the conventions just to be "different."

Instead, he's telling stories that feel important and true to him, in a way that is powerful and clear to the audience. The whole audience -- Japanese, of course, but American as well.

The next two Thursdays, thanks to Joe Scott and the Carolina Theatre (310 South Greene St.), two of Miyazaki's great films will be shown on the big screen.

My Neighbor Totoro, at 7:30 p.m. on 7 March, is not about the guy who lives next door; it's more like the monster who lives next door. Fans still argue about what the film "means" -- is someone really "dead"? -- but I think the film means exactly and only what Miyazaki shows us: Children dealing with their mother's dangerous illness find comfort and help from an equally dangerous and powerful neighbor, a mostly-sleepy and uncommunicative giant troll.

There are some unforgettable images that are seemingly thrown in because they appealed to Miyazaki. I especially love the small resident house-monsters that seem like very fast-moving mildew.

On 14 March, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away will be shown. This was only the second Miyazaki that I ever saw, and it was thrilling and moving. It will resonate with anyone who suddenly discovers that their parents have been turned into pigs. My children can tell you all about what it meant to them.

Tickets are $6 each; you can buy them online at www.CarolinaTheatre.com or show up and pay at the door.

Showing old movies like this is a financial risk. If you want a chance to see more, you have to make the effort to show up and pay. Maybe it doesn't make sense to assemble in a theater to see a film you can watch at home. But I think it makes all the difference in the world to see the film with strangers, on a large screen, in a space devoted to the art.

*

I was all set to tell you about the pig-saves-goat video that somebody sent me a link to. Baby goat at a petting zoo is stuck in the water; pig dives in, pushes the goat out. Hero of the animal world!

Then I saw the making-of video, by a guy on Comedy Central who talks about how it was all done using divers because, after all, pigs don't save goats.

Here's the problem: How was I to know which was the hoax: the pig-saves-goat video or the making-of exposé video?

I mean, wouldn't it be even more funny if something real happened -- pig saves goat -- and then you go on Comedy Central with a faked-up making-of video that seems to show the "real" story behind the seeming act of animal heroism?

It's hard to know what's true and what isn't in this crazy mixed-up world.


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