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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 27, 2014

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


Oscar Shorts, Fallon on Tonight

It has become a family tradition now to attend the Carousel Theater's annual screening of the Oscar-nominated short films.

It was even more fun this year because they ran the shorts in one of the little theaters with stadium seating, instead of a lounge with couches you have to sprawl on (and which people my age have a hard time getting up out of).

[Note on grammar: It is simply a foolish lie that it is bad grammar to end a sentence with a preposition. In the English language we form compound verbs using prepositions; to "get up" is a single verb, not a verb plus a preposition, and each compound with "get" has a completely different meaning: "get out," "get up," "get to," "get off," "get over" "get through," "get on with," "get into," "get by," "get with," "get along," "get along with," "get ahead," "get behind" -- you get the idea.

[In the sentence that ended the previous paragraph, "get up out of" is a four-part compound verb whose object is "couches." But if I had followed that fake rule, here's how the final parenthetical would have sounded: "and up out of which people my age have a hard time getting." That is bad English.]

It seems that every year, the Brits send us one more tedious retelling of a boring children's picture book in which nothing at all happens. And it is always the longest of the short animated features. If you go to the Carousel to see the shorts, bring a book or prepare to take a nap during Room on the Broom. But you shouldn't leave, because there are a couple of extra animated shorts after it that are worth seeing.

Animation is an area where, partly for financial reasons and partly to be arty or stylish, filmmakers often do very sketchy and obscure work. Usually this is annoying, but in the case of Feral, an American silent film, it is fairly effective.

Feral begins with a strange faceless child materializing near a pack of wolves. He seems to join the wolves, but then is noticed by a human hunter, who quells him and brings him to civilization and installs him in a school. There he is taunted until he reverts to his wild, wolfish habits.

It is hard to tell, unfortunately, whether the boy really is a nonhuman creature from space (the opening and the way the boy materializes seem to imply this, as do his protean transformations at the end), or if that is merely the animation style and he's simply a human child raised by wolves who escapes into his imagination at the end.

That's the weakness of overly stylized animation: We often can't tell what's "real" in the film and what's mere style. After all, you can draw anything and it takes a real effort at clarity to keep us from needless confusion.

Another entry, also from the U.S., is Get a Horse!, the nostalgic Disney cartoon that preceded Frozen in its American run. The cartoon is great fun, but breaking the "fourth wall" is hardly innovative, and it's more like a corporation celebrating its long-past glory days than a truly Oscar-worthy short.

Far better -- but not nominated -- is Pixar's Blue Umbrella, which appeared along with Monsters University. It's a love story, in which a blue umbrella falls in love with a red one, breaks free from its owner, and then is beaten to rags trying to ride the wind back to its true love.

In the end, the umbrellas do meet, and the owners of the umbrellas hold hands. But we don't know anything about the humans under the umbrellas, so it's not terribly satisfying -- because we know the blue umbrella is in such ragged condition that when the owner gets it home, he's going to drop it in the trash.

The Japanese entry in the category is my second favorite. Possessions starts with the premise that in Japanese lore, household objects that are long used begin to become alive, and acquire magical powers. This is obviously true, even if the power is only a psychological factor in the human mind -- we do become attached to our possessions and can feel a little guilty when we need to part with them.

To wit: Sentences like "I need to get my tires rotated" or "I've got a leaky rain gutter" do not cause the slightest confusion -- even though they clearly imply that the speaker includes parts of car and house in his self-image.

In Possessions, a weary traveler takes shelter in a small house with a few piles of discarded household goods lying about. In the night, they come alive, and following the near-universal fairy tale pattern, he is confronted by three groups of objects, each more menacing than the one before.

Charmingly, his response is not to fear them, but to notice that they still have a lot of value and merely need repair. So he fixes every one of them.

Finally, in the end, he pronounces a kind of benediction on them, showing them respect; only then do they allow him to leave the house and go on his way. It makes you want to go home and hug your can opener.

The extras include a perfectly dreadful short narrated by an overwrought George Takei, whose primary purpose seems to be to prove that Americans can pack more boredom into ten minutes than the Brits can produce in a bad half-hour short. We went back and forth over the question of whether it was meant to be ironically over the top, making fun of the religion of environmentalism, or utterly sincere. I finally decided that I didn't care: It was awful either way.

The best of the animated shorts nominated for the Oscar, and the one that should win, is the lovely Luxembourg/France entry, Mr. Hublot. Set in a world reminiscent of the future imagined in the sci-fi of 1947, it is the story of a very tidy, habit-bound man whose humanity is awakened by a little doglike robot that he tries to save from near destruction.

He takes it home, and it disrupts his life. Worse yet, it grows and grows, as dogs will (and robots won't), until it is finally stuck inside the house and cannot move. The solution is ingenious.

What I especially appreciated was the fact that Mr. Hublot is far more stylish -- it is lush with style and invention, outdoing even Terry Gilliam -- than any other entry, and yet manages to be perfectly clear in its storytelling. Is it sentimental? Absolutely -- but it is never over-the-top, and we see clearly that while Mr. Hublot makes room in his life for this mechanical pet, he still remains completely himself.

I will be disappointed if Mr. Hublot does not win -- for story, animation, writing, and pretty much everything, it stands head and shoulders above the rest.

*

This year the live-action short films are more effective, on the whole, than the animated films. None of them is perfect, but a couple of them come close.

Of course, when you're working within such a brief time, there's a tendency to cut straight to the heart of the story, and when the story is formulaic, the formula is exposed.

Unfortunately, formulas stop working the moment the audience realizes how they're being manipulated, and that is definitely the case with Helium. A new hospital orderly befriends a particularly radiant boy who is dying of some unnamed disease. (Ugly children can fend for themselves in such movies.)

The boy asks him where he will go when he dies. The orderly, seeing the boy's interest in balloons and dirigibles, tells him that instead of heaven ("himlen" in Danish), the dead go to a land named "Helium." This is envisioned in the film as a bunch of Roger-Dean islands floating in the air.

We get a lot of nonsense about how this orderly keeps breaking the rules to keep seeing the boy so he can "finish the story." This is dumb thrice over. 1. It isn't a story, it's a random description. 2. The story could have been finished in one five-minute session. 3. It's hospice care for a dying child -- there's zero chance that he would not have been encouraged to visit the boy to brighten his dying days, by the boy's family if not by the hospital staff.

The whole thing exists only to tug on our heartstrings. This only works if we half-believe in Helium ourselves, the way we believe in Oz when Dorothy is there. Yet the film explicitly states that it's a bunch of lies. It's not even a dream the orderly had when his brother died. He just made it up.

My problem was that I couldn't see anything particularly interesting or happy in the vision of Helium, since the boy is pictured as being utterly alone there -- though the orderly tells him his grandparents live there, and it would have been a natural thing for us to see the boy meeting the orderly's dead brother.

And when, at the end, we see a bunch of red balloon dogs in all the hospital windows, it's supposed to make us all weepy. Instead, it makes me wonder if the orderly has been going around telling lies to all the children ...

Yet I must confess that showing a dying child, even in this manipulative way, still works. That's how it became a formula.

There's another kind of formula at work in the French Avant Que De Tout Perdre ("Just before Losing Everything"). Here the game is for the filmmaker not to tell us what's going on, even though everybody in the film knows. They're just not telling us. Oooh, how artistic.

Gradually, though, through much tedious detail in scenes that tell us as little as possible, we finally get the picture -- which, as usual, is totally formulaic. We have an abused wife making her getaway from her evil husband. Since this is fiction, they can make him as evil as they want.

The trouble is that everybody in the film is stupid. Even though she knows her husband has guns -- he's pointed them at her before -- she refuses to report him to the authorities.

Why not? With police protection they might have a chance to get away.

Instead, her clever plan is to sneak the children away and go to the home of a family member -- the first place this gun-wielding husband will look for them. So she's endangering not only herself and her children, she's endangering the relatives she's taking refuge with.

Dumber yet, her "plan" requires her to parade her children through the main shopping and checkout area of the supermarket where she works, thus inviting her husband to come in and shoot up the place.

Thus when her husband shows up at the store, she doesn't sneak the kids out the back way. Apparently, in this part of France there is no back way. The supermarket must load in all the food and other goods through the customer doors in front.

This film depends on our kneejerk sympathy for the abused wife and children, which is supposed to make us overlook the irresponsibility and stupidity of the escape plan.

Every employee in the supermarket seems to know about her escape except for one supervisor, who is apparently more terrifying than the man with guns. This supervisor exists in the film solely to blurt out information in front of the husband, thus increasing the fake tension.

Like the barking dog in the parking lot, things happen for no better reason than to increase the jeopardy, so that when, in the end, we can see that the husband's truck is only a couple of cars behind the getaway vehicle as they pull onto the highway, we are clearly expected to assume that they are doomed.

The filmmakers didn't realize, apparently, that this portentous ending absolutely depends on our knowing that this film is going to follow all the cliches so faithfully that they don't have to bother showing us the ending.

But, as with Helium, there's a real chance that the Academy voters will fall for the formulas completely, even though formula and artiness are all this film has going for it.

After all, the unbelievable, badly written, overacted American Hustle is considered the leading contender in the Best Picture category.

Helium and Avant Que De Tout Perdre are both more believable than American Hustle.

But I'd rather you take notice of the three delightful short live-action films. The slickest production is The Voorman Problem, a British film that packs the punch of a Twilight Zone episode. A psychiatrist, played by Martin Freeman (Bilbo in The Hobbit and Dr. Watson in the BBC Sherlock), is called to a prison to examine Voorman (Tom Hollander, who played Mr. Collins in the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice), a prisoner who believes that he is God.

Everything that you expect to happen happens, but at least the writing is clever and the filmmakers do their job of telling the story clearly. It helps that the acting is very, very good.

But then, they're using some of the best British-trained actors working today. It feels rather like letting professionals play in the Olympics. Unfair!

On the other hand, how is it unfair for a British short film to make use of some of Britain's best talent in an international competition?

On television last night, somebody made fun of the title Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa by translating it as "My Cat Ran Across the Keyboard." (The Finnish language always looks odd to us because it is not an Indo-European language, so no part of it feels recognizable.)

The real translation is, "Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?" It's a comedy about a family that oversleeps and rushes about, trying to make it to somebody's wedding.

The comedy arises from the fact that the mother, who bosses everyone around, complaining that she has to do everything herself, is in fact that cause of everything that goes wrong.

Until the very end, this is a completely believable comedy. I couldn't help but see myself in the bumbling, frantic woman. And I laughed out loud several times.

Only at the end does it collapse, when the family walks into an embarrassing situation from which they could easily have escaped by simply turning around and walking away. Instead, they do things that nobody would do, simply for the sake of the joke. Too bad -- till then it worked wonderfully.

The best short film, though, the one that deserves to win and will win, if the Academy voters are even close to awake, is the Spanish-made film Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me). The title might as well have been in English, because the film is mostly in English.

Yes, the heroes -- a married couple, both doctors who came to Africa to help the poor victims of war -- are Spanish, but they're in a country where English is the language everyone uses to communicate. So subtitles are very rare.

When I tell you that this is a film about child soldiers in an African civil war, you may shudder, assuming that it's going to be formulaic and politically correct.

It is not. Nothing happens predictably, though as the events unfold, it all feels truthful. The acting is so perfect we forget that these are actors. Yes, we feel, that is what this person would do, this is what had to happen.

When we start seeing brief scenes in a present-day lecture hall, my first reaction was dismay: On no! They're going to use this to tell us the moral of the story!

But it's not that blatant. Yes, there is a powerful moral resolution, but it is never stated, except in the title itself. And the modern-day scenes remain brief.

What counts are the moments of unbearably human inhumanity, culminating, to our surprise, in a gunshot that is, to our consternation, an act of kindness and rescue. It is a revelatory moment that is all too rare, when the preceding story gives a brutal action a transcendent meaning.

If I were teaching a film class, I would use this brilliant, perfect short film in juxtaposition to the clunky, obvious, intellectually childish Citizen Kane. I would say, "This is how a good storyteller creates a genuine symbol.

Instead of the fake mystery of 'Rosebud,' That Wasn't Me gives an unforgettable new meaning to a gunshot wound in the leg. We are not aware that the symbol is being created, until it is invoked later on; and both times, the action is absolutely required by the situation.

By contrast, there is no reason for the sled in Citizen Kane to be all that important to the main character, and when we finally get the reveal at the end, we are the only ones who see it. It makes no difference at all in the action of the story. It's just the filmmaker jabbing us unpleasantly in the ribs, saying, "See how clever I am?"

Am I saying that That Wasn't Me (Aquel No Era Yo) is better than Citizen Kane?

Of course I am. But so are all the good movies ever made.

I promise you this: Watching the Oscar short films is well worth the price of admission at the Carousel this week, and when you leave, That Wasn't Me will stay inside your memory with the power and majesty of a first-rate feature film.

But you certainly don't want to bring young children to see it. The experience is too searing.

*

After watching Jimmy Fallon step into Johnny Carson's shoes as host of The Tonight Show for a week, I can declare with confidence that finally the show has a host worthy of Carson himself.

Like Carson, Fallon offers a mix of eager-boy enthusiasm and relaxed authority, so we know we'll have a good time, but nothing will ever get out of control.

Like Carson, but unlike almost every other talk show host, Fallon actually listens to his guests and is happy to feed them lines that will give them the punchline. He seems to like people and enjoy their company.

There's a reason why I'm comparing Jimmy Fallon to Johnny Carson, and not to Jay Leno, Fallon's immediately predecessor, or Fallon's competition: Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, and Conan O'Brien.

That's because Fallon is the only late-night talkshow host, ever, who doesn't wither to nothing when compared to Carson.

Fallon doesn't make me forget the great Carson characters -- Floyd R. Turbo, Aunt Blabby, Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern. On the contrary, his performance bits make me remember vividly how we looked forward to Carson's sketches.

That's because, instead of imitating anybody else's bits, Fallon knows what he does well, and then does it without reservation. There is nothing coy about him -- he throws himself into everything with absolute commitment.

Contrast this with Letterman, who is always observing himself with amused, superior detachment ("Look, I'm doing this thing; isn't it stupid?"), and Leno, whose bits all seemed to be at someone else's expense, even if he was good-natured about it all.

So when Fallon has a barbership quartet, they're funny, but they're also good -- and Fallon, singing with them, is as good as they are. When Fallon does "The Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing" with Will Smith, he holds his own with someone who used to perform like that for a living.

When he and Paul Rudd had a lip-syncing sing-off, Fallon threw himself into his own part with his usual abandon. But Rudd had mastered the nuances of both of the performers he was syncing: Tina Turner and Freddie Mercury.

Rudd's Mercury was so brilliant that Fallon declined to do his own second number. Nobody in his right mind would follow Rudd's tour-de-force.

Check it out at http://www.nbc.com/the-tonight-show/segments/1676 (Forgive the unavoidable ad.)

Now, I suspect the decision to end with Rudd and skip Fallon's second number was made during rehearsal.

But in previous sync-offs, Fallon has done both his numbers and has been a contender for best performer of the night. So the decision was a genuine one, even if it had been made earlier.

Fallon is a contender. When he and his guests play a party game -- charades, Catchphrase -- they all try to win. They aren't making fun of the game, they're having fun playing the game.

The effect is to feel like you've been invited to a party with the coolest guests in the world, and the host is including you.

Fallon has brought his best bits from Late Night -- "Thank You Notes," "Pros and Cons," "Superlatives," "The Hashtag Game." He also continues to work with his favorite guests, most particularly Justin Timberlake, who is definitely at his best when working with Fallon (and vice versa).

What emerges from the first week of Fallon's Tonight Show is a very clear fact: Fallon is the most personally talented person ever to host a talk show. He isn't the best at anything, of course -- he hasn't put in the time for that. But he holds his own with everybody, singing, dancing, acting, and playing games, and we never have to cringe when he performs.

He is not scripted all the time -- that's unusual in itself. When he starts riffing on accents and imitations, I believe it's spontaneous. He gives his sidekick, Steve Higgins, room to improvise as well, though I hope Higgins becomes a bit more careful about not stepping on Fallon's lines. We like Higgins, but we're here to watch Fallon.

Not every bit works well, and not every guest is brilliant. But that's the mark of a good host -- live television isn't always superb, but the host has to be likeable and poised enough that even when things aren't great, he makes us enjoy watching anyway.

In retrospect, it's obvious there was no way Conan O'Brien could handle The Tonight Show, and David Letterman is too cold and insecure to have made it work. Jay Leno is a comedian I like, but now that Fallon is here, I have to see him as a 22-year placeholder between Carson and Fallon.

That's because, like Carson, Fallon isn't on the show for laughs, or at least not just for laughs. Where the others strain for punchlines, Fallon is relaxed, happy, and interested in people.

Fallon is there, not as the star, but as the host, joining in everything but not hogging the limelight. I laugh far more during Fallon's show than any other, not because each joke is funnier, but because Fallon makes me happy to be there, so that I enjoy everything more -- even the bits that don't work particularly well.

Fallon is a pretty good actor -- there was nothing wrong with his performances in Taxi and Fever Pitch; those movies died in the scripts -- but he really is at his best when he's performing live.

The most telling comment about Fallon came from Tom Shillue when he spoke about The Tonight Show with Greta Van Susteren on 21 February. "I can't believe he's still a good guy. I go over there and I think the pressure is going to get to him and he's going to start snapping at people. But we have a great time.... We're all just laughing. It's a blast over there."

I think what makes Fallon such a great host is that what we see is the truth about him. He really is a generous, eager, enthusiastic person who takes joy in performing and yet is perfectly happy to have other people outshine him.


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