Hatrack River
 
Hatrack.com   The Internet  
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
Print this page E-mail this page RSS FeedsRSS Feeds
What's New?

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 21, 2017

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


Home Again, Do Your Laundry, Y, B+ Movies

Home Again was one of two movies my wife and I chose between last Friday. The other was American Assassin. (When choosing a movie to go to, horror movies like It aren't even in the running. Why should I pay Hollywood for scaring me, when I can just stay home and watch the news?)

We had good luck with The Hitman's Bodyguard, and American Assassin looked like it might be as good ... or better.

And all the promos and reviews for Home Again suggested that it was going to be about a May-December romance -- except the woman would be the older one. Ooooh, a twist.

I found this offensive, by the way, because when we talk about May-December love stories, we usually mean an old guy. You know, December -- nearing the end of the year, so metaphorically nearing the end of life. An old man.

But when you flip it, and the "old" woman is an absolutely gorgeous and youthful-looking Reese Witherspoon, we're not talking about May-December at all. Witherspoon is forty-one, for pete's sake, and she has never been more beautiful.

And even though Pico Alexander, who plays her initial love interest, has a photo on IMDb that makes him look fourteen, he was born in 1991, which makes him twenty-six years old. Fifteen years younger than Witherspoon.

That's not May-December. That's June-August. No cradles are getting robbed here.

Anyway, that aspect of the movie's promotional campaign was actually a negative for me, because I don't often like film "romances" that begin with casual sex and go from there. I'm still old-fashioned enough to think that sex should have something to do with marriage and family.

But these are the times we live in, so we decided we were in the mood for a romantic comedy rather than a jeopardy-filled bloodfest. Even though the rom-com got only a 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Romantic comedy is the hardest genre to do well. All comedy is hard, period -- way harder than drama. And when you have to cast lead actors with charisma and chemistry (hard to find and harder to match up properly), and then give them entertaining yet believable things to say and do, it's no surprise that the rom-com failure rate is so high.

Even rom-coms that almost make it, like, say, What Women Want, can leave you feeling disappointed.

But then when the marketing campaign for a rom-com completely misses what the actual experience of the movie is going to be, how can you possibly please an audience that came expecting one kind of movie, and then gets another?

The promos led us to expect a sex comedy with a star who used to be better than that. So for my wife and me it was a wonderful surprise that this was a much more grown-up movie. In many ways, it was a coming-of-age movie, for every character, including Reese Witherspoon's.

So I will take that Rotten Tomatoes 31% and figure that this represents the disappointment of movie-goers who wanted the sex comedy that the marketing people promised them. And I am happy to tell you that if you want a movie that's much better than the one they were promoting, Home Again will deliver.

Romantic comedies end with some pair of lovers working out their differences and deciding to be together. (Used to be, "deciding to marry," but it's, you know, 2017.)

This movie ends up with a bunch of people (a) crossing thresholds into making responsible adult decisions, with (b) no couples coming together at all.

You know ... not a romantic comedy.

Here's the story. Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) is partying with friends (i.e., drinking) when she meets three young filmmakers, Harry, Teddy, and George. Harry (Pico Alexander), the director and promoter of the trio, is also the prettiest; he comes home with Alice and then spends their romantic evening throwing up.

But in the meantime, the three boys have been thrown out of the cheap motel they've been staying in and, because the other two also came home with Alice and spent the night on the living room furniture, in the morning Alice offers them the use of her guest house.

Alice's sexual relationship with Harry gets put on hold, while the three young filmmakers become friends with her two under-high-school-age daughters,

George (Jon Rudnitsky), the writer of the trio, encourages the older daughter to perform in her own play in a junior-high evening of one-acts -- and promises to be in the wings to encourage her to overcome her stage fright. George also emerges as the most mature of the three, the one who does what's necessary and right.

Meanwhile, Harry's brother, Teddy (Nat Wolff), the actor of the three, is the one most involved with the children, playing with them and giving them some of the support that they long for from their absent father.

Alice separated from their father, film director Austen (Michael Sheen) six months before (for reasons never adequately explained, though because we live in America in 2017 we assume that it was entirely his fault), and brought her daughters back to the house she grew up in -- hence the title Home Again.

Her father was a famous film director, whose career is meant to resemble that of, say, Woody Allen -- a writer-director who got to film pretty much whatever he liked. That's one of the reasons the "boys" love staying in the guesthouse, with George especially hovering in the dad's old office, poring over his scripts and memorabilia.

The boys have conflicts with each other, and we see how Harry is the one most tempted to sell out -- even though he fears that as George and Teddy get paying gigs on their own, the trio will break up.

Their meetings with Hollywood money people and creative people ("He can get this movie made!) are absolutely truthful.

They sit down to a conversation with the guy who claims to "love" their movie, and then listen as he says, basically, "The script needs a little work because I want it to be a standard Hollywood movie that bears no resemblance at all to your script, and which strips out everything that you value in your own work. We have to hire a big star to get funding, so we'll find 'a part somewhere' in the movie for Teddy."

In Hollywood this happens not just most of the time, but all the time. Only if a script (and its writer) are taken under the protection of an 800-pound gorilla (a star director like Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson) does a project have any hope of being made with integrity -- and even then, that protector expects to have the authority to make whatever changes he wants.

In the midst of this chaos of two families (the Kinneys and the boys) sharing a household, Austen shows up to stake his claim to the children and to try to get back into Alice's life.

This is the only real weakness in the story: We do not really get to see or understand why Alice left Austen and why she continues to resist reconciliation with him. The boys don't like him because he's a threat, but these are his daughters whose lives they're meddling with, and, in my opinion, Austen behaves very well through most of the movie.

It may be that Michael Sheen simply gives too good a performance as the charming and manipulative Austen, because apparently I was charmed and manipulated.

Through the course of the movie we come to think of Harry, the "cute one," as too shallow and unreliable to be romantically involved for long with a grownup like Alice; and Alice herself comes to realize that George, the writer, is actually the jewel of the trio, the reliable one. (It helps that Jon Rudnitsky, who plays him, is the warmest and most honest-seeming of the male cast.)

All three of the boys have their chance to show who they really are, and it's not spoiling anything to tell you that they all measure up to our best hopes for them. Whether this had anything to do with Alice is debatable; it seems more likely that it was Alice's daughters (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield) who gave them a sense of responsibility and protectiveness.

In other words, it was a glimpse of fatherhood that brought them over the line into adulthood, and that's not a bad thing for a good movie to be about.

Candace Bergen plays Alice's mother, with all the charm and steel and irony that she has ever brought to a role. (I think it's her best gig since Sweet Home Alabama back in 2002.) At age 71, it's the gorgeous Candace Bergen who could star in a true May-December romance -- and she'd be terrific.

My wife and I really liked Home Again, not as a romantic comedy -- it isn't one -- but as a coming-of-age comedy with an excellent cast and some pretty sharp writing.

The writer-director, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, is a third-generation Hollywood kid. This explains why, with very limited credits, she was given the helm on a feature film; her mother, Nancy Meyers (writing, producing, and directing credits on Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride, The Parent Trap, What Women Want) was one of the producers of Home Again.

I can hear the suits telling each other, "Even though Hallie Meyers-Shyer is pretty enough to be cast as a bimbo, we'll take a chance on her as a director because the script is good, Reese Witherspoon is starring, and her mom will be on set to make sure everything goes OK."

That's the way executives think: Are there enough strong elements so that even if the movie tanks, I won't get fired?

I mean, who gets fired for green-lighting a comedy with a low budget (a mere twelve million bucks), Reese Witherspoon in the lead, and Nancy Meyers as producer?

Even if it fails financially (and it looks as if it will do just fine), it would be written off as a favor to Nancy Meyers -- even though Hallie Meyers-Shyer is the creative force behind the film.

However Home Again got green-lit and made, it was a film worth watching -- as long as you aren't coming to see the movie that the trailers seemed to be promoting. That movie, I'm happy to say, doesn't actually exist.

*

Do Your Laundry or You'll Die Alone: Advice Your Mom Would Give If She Thought You Were Listening, by Becky Blades.

Yeah, so it was the title that made me pick up this book, even though I've never been either a mom or a daughter.

I've had a mother and helped raise two daughters, so I do know something about the audience for this book.

The most important thing about this book is that even though it is witty and amusing, it is not merely humorous: Almost all the advice is serious and heartfelt.

Even the title advice -- because Blades goes on to explain the reason why not washing your clothes regularly will keep you from ever being happy.

The temptation with a book like this is to quote so much of it that readers of this review wouldn't have to actually buy the book. So I'm going to show remarkable self-restraint and quote only a small sample:

"Money is the easiest thing to replace. You can always make more money. Time, relationships, dignity, trust, and reputation, on the other hand, are hard to come by."

"Just because someone is the love of your life doesn't mean that he will automatically know what you want for your birthday. Speak up."

"Never put anything on the internet that you would not want to discuss:

in a job interview

on a first date

with your mother"

"Admit when you're wrong. Admit when you don't know something. Admit when you need to move up a size."

"A bad attitude makes your butt look big."

"Give money or help to whoever you think needs it. Don't spend too much time agonizing over whether your gift to the begging woman on the corner will be spent on a bottle for a baby or a bottle for her. The decision to give is a decision between you and God. What she does with it is between her and God."

"Have at least one outfit that makes you feel like a million bucks. Wear it until your friends start complaining."

"Even sloppy people prefer neat roommates."

"If you want to shorten an argument, break into a French accent."

"Little habits can cost you big. So, think hard before you start smoking or hoarding cats."

"Have a list of things you like to do that don't cost money."

"If you don't know where all your keys are, have your locks changed."

"A mother is only as happy as her saddest child. So tell your mom when the crisis is over. She worries."

"Move your body. Exercise makes everything better. Fasten your seat belt. Being alive makes everything better."

"You can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats:

his mother

his pet

the server at Applebee's"

"30-minute meals take an average of 53 minutes -- plus a trip to the grocery store for the ingredients you forgot."

This would be a perfect gift for a daughter who is moving out on her own -- or who is living away from home and might be amused or helped by it.

However, the only sour note I found is the subtitle. The cliche is that newly grown-up children (e.g., teenagers) roll their eyes whenever a parent gives them advice.

Maybe our kids did some eye-rolling, too, but they had the good grace to keep it to themselves.

And every one of our kids has had the experience, over and over, of relying on their mother's counsel and help at times of crisis and need. They've all seen how much more smoothly their lives go if they do the things that their mother keeps reminding them to do.

So when their mom is giving advice, our children really listen. Even if they disagree or are skeptical, they listen. Because we didn't raise no dumb kids.

*

Kentuckian Sue Grafton's newest book, Y Is for Yesterday, came out a few weeks ago, and let's face it, those of you who are already fans of Sue Grafton already own it and have probably read it.

Grafton began her writing career as a novelist, but her early works led to an extended stint as a television writer on some well-known shows. Born in 1940, Grafton left television when her Kinsey Millhone series of mystery novels, starting with A Is for Alibi, debuted in 1982.

The "alphabet mysteries" have sold so well that she has never had a financial reason to wish for the old TV-writing days.

It's a little-known secret that except for top writers of top television series, a successful novelist averages a lot higher income than a successful screenwriter.

Grafton did well as a screenwriter, but she learned enough about the Hollywood system, and how writers and their stories get treated, that she made -- and kept -- a vow that the Kinsey Millhone series would never be sold to the movies or networks.

They exist as books, and there is no higher form of storytelling.

My wife and I have loved Sue Grafton's novels from the moment they became available as audiobooks. Back when they were sold mostly as cassette tapes, we listened to A Is for Alibi with our kids on a trip to Myrtle Beach. We were hooked.

Of course, in those days audiobooks were expurgated, so when my wife invited her reading group to take on A Is for Alibi, nobody was prepared for some of the rough language -- which had not been present in the audiobook. But it's only rough enough to be shocking to some of the unsuspecting ladies from a church group.

Now, thirty-five years later, we're nearing the end of the series.

In Kinsey Millhone's life, time passes -- her personal life has taken her through more than one romance, as well as reconnecting with long-lost relatives and finding out many facts about her own childhood.

However, with a year or more between novels, time passes in the books way more slowly than it does in the real world. In the novels, we're still in the 1980s -- an era of payphones, when you looked things up in microfilmed archives, a time when you had to get out of the house and go search for information instead of googling it.

The only thing that hasn't changed at all is that California, where the stories all take place, is still in a state of perpetual drought.

In this complex story, we spend considerable time in the viewpoints of other characters, as Kinsey Millhone tries to sort out who is trying to blackmail a newly-released convict who, while in high school, shot and killed a fellow student.

Hired by the ex-con's family, she runs into stone walls of deception about a pornographic video that seems to show a young girl being raped and abused by some young men from her social group -- crimes without a statute of limitations, so that if the video got into the hands of the police, several still-young men would spend a long, long time in jail.

In the midst of trying to pick her way through the lies surrounding this inflammatory videotape, Kinsey is also dealing with a serial killer with whom she has had dealings before. It can be hard to concentrate on the job at hand when a monster of a human being is stalking you.

Because of Grafton's use of the high school kids' viewpoints during flashback sequences, we come to know and, often, like them more than is usual in mystery novels told exclusively from the first-person viewpoint of the detective.

What if you haven't read any of the "alphabet mysteries"?

Grafton is such a considerate and clever writer that you can pick up any book in the series and, whether you've read (or remember) any of the earlier books or not, you will know everything you need to know in order to care about and understand the story.

However, for most readers, no matter where you begin in the series, you'll still want to go back and read all the books from the beginning.

My only regret in reading the newest Kinsey Millhone novel, Y Is for Yesterday, is that there's only one more novel yet to come.

Unless, of course, she can come up with a letter after Z. I nominate two Old English letters, taken from Nordic runes, which are still used in Iceland.

Edh (or eth): ð (unvoiced th, as in "think"

Thorn Þ (voiced th, as in "this")

One form of the letter thorn looks like a capital Y crossed like a small t. Pronounced with a voiced th sound, it was commonly used to write words like "the," resulting in a word that seems, to modern eyes, like "Ye."

No English speaker would ever have said "Ye olde book shoppe" or anything like it. What looks like "Ye olde ..." really would have been pronounced "The old ..."

We can go on, adding lost letters like ash ("æ"), yogh (the letter for a lost sound, like the ch in Bach, now recorded as "gh" and either pronounced as f or not spoken at all), wynn (a letter used for the sound we now write as w), ethel (or odal; now the ligature œ, often used for vowels the Greeks pronounced as "oi"), and eng , essentially an n with a tail like a g (a letter invented in 1619 to represent the nasal sound we now write as "ng").

(For more about "lost letters" of the alphabet, check out http://mentalfloss.com/article/31904/12-letters-didnt-make-alphabet )

But no. Extending the series beyond Z would be a descent into weirdness, so I just have to reconcile myself to the idea that at age 77, Sue Grafton gets to put a period on the end of her great mystery series with the volume Z Is for Zero.

I assume that Z Is for Zero is already written, so except for dealing with proofs and publicity, Sue Grafton's tales of Kinsey Millhone are at an end.

But I hope Grafton isn't through writing. I would love to read her memoir, especially if it deals with her Hollywood years and how they affected her novel-writing.

And I'll bet that she has a story or two floating around in her mind, waiting to be written when she finished with Kinsey Millhone.

It's a relief when a writer begins an ambitious series and then finishes it herself, instead of leaving other hands to pick up the threads. Please take note, George R.R. Martin. Sue Grafton is your exemplar, not Robert Jordan.

*

When I'm flipping channels late at night, unable to sleep, I run across movies that I never heard of when they were new -- or deliberately chose not to see, because they were a kind of movie I normally dislike.

I'm going to mention a few of them here, because this is a Golden Age in which everything that was ever put on screen is available to those who care enough to search it out.

How to Be Single (2016) wanted to be a multi-character dramedy with love stories both happy and sad, like Love Actually and He's Just Not That Into You.

An excellent cast portrays the single women and men of the story, including (girls) Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, and Alison Brie, and (boys) Damon Wayans, Jr., Anders Holm, Nicholas Braun, Jake Lacy, and Jason Mantzoukas.

Did you notice how you've heard of most of the women and only one of the men? That's because with a rom-com you put your talent budget into the female stars, because women comprise the vast majority of your potential audience.

And the male actor you've heard of, Damon Wayans, Jr., is not doing his normal comic shtick here. This is a tender dramatic role, as the widowed father of a sad little girl, and he does a lovely job.

How to Be Single is not a complete failure like Sarah Jessica Parker's 1995 Miami Rhapsody or the horrible franchise of holiday-centered movies like Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve, and Mother's Day.

(Sorry, Garry Marshall; you did some great work, like Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries, and, at times, Nothing in Common. But these paint-by-numbers holiday movies did you no credit at the end of your career.)

Instead, How to Be Single is a worthy almost-made-it set of stories, with some moving moments and quite a few funny ones. As is to be expected, Rebel Wilson steals much of the movie -- and she was given good scenes and lines to do it with.

So I declare How to Be Single worth watching, despite its occasional weaknesses.

Then there's Search Party (2014), a ridiculous comedy in the Hangover tradition, in which a couple of friends set out on a ridiculous mission to reunite a pal with the love of his life, whom they talked him into not marrying.

There are many genuinely funny scenes, with actors way funnier than most of those in the raunchy Hangover movies. But at heart it's a high-school road movie.

Thomas Middleditch steals, and is meant to steal, the whole movie. The script that strips him naked multiple times (and I mean naked, with no bits concealed behind plants or furniture), covers him with cocaine, and gives him the most hilariously stupid getaway scene I've ever watched.

Adam Pally and T.J. Miller round out the trio of guys, with Alison Brie and Shannon Woodward doing a good job of being objects of love and desire.

Grown Ups (2010) is an Adam Sandler movie, with the usual attempts -- often successful -- to insert some grownup intelligence into the antics of Sandler's usual gang of idiots.

Salma Hayek played Sandler's wife, which only served to remind me of Paz Vega's luminous portrayal of the housekeeper that Sandler falls in love with in Spanglish.

But Spanglish was controlled by James Brooks, so it wasn't Sandler's normal gang of stooges; Sandler actually acted, movingly and believably.

Grown Ups, by contrast, is that gang of stooges. They play a group of friends from a high school basketball team who reunite on the occasion of their former coach's death.

And with Kevin James, Chris Rock, and David Spade in the cast, it has some very funny moments.

It also has Rob Schneider, so you know there are going to be times when you cringe at the humor.

If it's late enough at night, and you have nothing important to do the next day, then sure, stay up and watch Grown Ups.

I didn't see any of the Expendables movies in the theater, because the first one looked like a gimmick, putting together a bunch of aging action stars. Which, in fact, it was.

But the series was co-written by Sylvester Stallone, who, you might remember, wrote the Oscar-winning (and -deserving) movie Rocky and then fought hard to hold on to the leading role.

Apparently, Stallone's co-written script must have been good enough in each installment of the franchise to attract an ever loftier group of aging stars.

It was Expendables 3 that I actually watched late one night, and that one had not only Stallone, Jason Statham, and Dolph Lundgren from the earlier movies, but also Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, and Wesley Snipes. Not to mention Kelsey Grammar and Antonio Banderas

It's a good romp with lots of magical bullet-dodging and the normal fights in which people absorb a lot of killing blows without losing their ability to stand back up and keep on fighting.

To my surprise, though, the jewel of this potpourri review of B+ movies is Rainn Wilson in The Rocker (2008). The premise is simple enough: Fish (Rainn Wilson) was the drummer in the rock band Vesuvius back in the 1980s.

But when they made the big time, the record company demanded that the group fire Fish and replace him with a drummer who was related to a company executive. So as Vesuvius rose to become a classic band (think of U2 or Led Zeppelin), Fish had to watch from the outside, bitter and depressed.

When he is reduced to moving in with his sister, Kim (Christina Applegate), her son, Josh, begs his uncle to step in and join his band A.D.D., so they can fulfill a gig playing for a school dance.

Fish, oblivious to the context, blows things up -- but then he is captured on video playing drums while completely disrobed. As the Internet sensation "the naked drummer," he becomes famous enough that he and his nephew's band start getting gigs all over Ohio.

Finally, they're invited to open for the classic band Vesuvius when they perform in Cleveland -- and Fish goes ape. He won't do it, he won't do it ... and then he does, of course.

The scene where he meets his former bandmates in an underground passageway in the arena is brilliantly funny -- his American bandmates have somehow become English -- and when Vesuvius self-destructs on stage, the audience chants for Fish and his new band to fill in.

And yes, that really is Bradley Cooper, along with Howard Hesseman and Fred Armisen, doing a cameo as a member of Vesuvius.

The Rocker has all of Rainn Wilson's flaws and strengths as a performer. The humor of his performance in The Office arose mostly from his ability to be obnoxious, appalling, and endearing at the same time, but mostly appalling. That's why I would never have gone to this (or any) Rainn Wilson movie in the theater.

But catching it on cable just because it happened to be on, I found that I liked it a lot, most because the supporting cast, led by Applegate and helped along by Emma Stone, Josh Gad, Teddy Geiger, Will Arnett, Jane Lynch, and Jason Sudeikis, lay a foundation of realistic characters and relationships.

The result is one of the few pretty good rock-band movies, in its own way as good as Eddie and the Cruisers, and I think it's well worth watching, even though, like everyone in the world, I did not want to see Rainn Wilson naked.

By the way, as I looked up Will Arnett, I saw that he has a project in development, a TV movie called How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane.

Hollywood being what it is, it will probably be badly written and make a small stink when it's aired ... but what if it isn't, and doesn't? Because come on, isn't that a great comedy premise?


E-mail this page
Copyright © 2017 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.