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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 31, 2018

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

Jann Arden, Solo, Sowell, Barry, I'm Sorry

We were listening to The Blend on Sirius XM while driving home from Washington DC last week, and just as we were approaching our house, a song came on called "Insensitive." I stayed in the car to hear it to the end.

I had never heard the song before; nor had I ever heard of the singer, Jann Arden. But I was intrigued because the lyrics had a kind of "You're So Vain" vibe -- which came to my mind because, of course, Carly Simon was a top singer-songwriter in the era when pop music was still being aimed at me.

Back in the 1980s, as rap "music" and then hip-hop took over the world, I found myself switching the radio away from current-hit stations to classic rock, country, or classical. By the time "Insensitive" came out in 1994, I had realized that in the effort to continue offending each new generation of parents, pop "music" had abandoned anything I considered to be musical.

I wasn't really wrong. But that didn't mean that, now and then, some pretty good songs managed to slip through. Even some great ones. Good singers managed to have careers. And I never knew it, because those good songs were scattered among stuff that made me want to break the car radio.

Or jam pencils in my ears. Anything to make it stop.

So I missed Jann Arden entirely.

Until now. Better late than never, right?

"Insensitive" is Jann Arden's biggest hit. Written by Anne Loree, the song is bitter and mean -- and also pretty and heartbroken. Like "You're So Vain."

But Jann Arden doesn't sound like Carly Simon. If there's any singer she resembles, it's Shawn Colvin, one of my favorites.

Colvin's career launched only a few years before Jann Arden's, but I didn't miss out on her music because I had a brother-in-law who got enthusiastic enough about her to talk her up. I got an album, listened to it, and then got everything Shawn Colvin had ever done, and I listened to all her songs for hours at a time.

I could do that because I hadn't yet discovered Audible.com, so my .mp3 player had music on it. Sometimes nothing but Shawn Colvin's music. Whenever I exercised or ran errands, there was Shawn Colvin, keeping right up with me.

Now, thanks to Alexa and Amazon Prime, I've been able to listen to the whole Jann Arden catalogue over the past week, and even if she doesn't have as many great performances as Shawn Colvin, she has a lot of very, very good ones.

"I'm out of vogue, I'm out of touch / I fell too fast, I feel too much / I thought that you might have some advice to give / On how to be insensitive."

So maybe you were perfectly aware of the pop music scene in 1994 and you already know this song. Maybe you even got kind of sick of it -- I have no idea how much radioplay it got. But 24 years later, it's now an oldie and, come on, it's a great song even if it isn't new.

Jann Arden's songs since then are strong, if for no other reason than that she performed them. There are certain singers who make songs new again by singing them their own way. Jane Monheit, Diana Krall, Stacey Kent, Madeleine Peyroux. I'm barely scratching the surface here. Not to mention Barbra Streisand, who never sounds like anybody else.

And there are singers whose performance is so powerful that even when others sing the same songs, all you can think about is that brilliant performance: Joni Mitchell. Shawn Colvin.

Even Judy Collins, who never pretended to be a songwriter; her simple versions of "Both Sides Now" and "Michael From Mountains" hold their own even against Joni Mitchell's originals.

It isn't that they have megapipes that blow other singers off the stage. Their voices can be softer, their performances more winsome. There's just something real about the way they sing, so you feel like you're hearing the song for the first time.

So if you already knew all about Jann Arden, forgive my newby enthusiasm and maybe give her music a listen again. And if you never heard of her, then won't you be glad that I pointed her out.

*

Maybe some other movie was released this past weekend, but come on. We all know that the only one that mattered was Solo.

My wife and I were prepared for something wonderful. We were equally prepared for a complete disaster. After all, the Star Wars franchise has included plenty of both.

We had a lot of trust in Ron Howard as director. The director can't make a good movie if the writing isn't there, but Ron Howard has a history of making the best of whatever material he's given.

And actors give good performances for him. Sometimes the best of their career.

What gave me the most hope in Solo was the writing credits. The name Lawrence Kasdan was there.

Kasdan's first writing credit was for what many believe to be the best of the Star Wars movies: The Empire Strikes Back. He co-wrote (or at least was co-credited) with Leigh Brackett, one of the great early sci-fi writers.

From there, Kasdan went on to write and direct such classics as Body HeatThe Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, and Grand Canyon. He wrote but did not direct Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bodyguard, and it was starting to look like he had a golden touch.

Then he wrote and directed Wyatt Earp in 1994. Running more than three hours, many people felt that he had taken a western legend and bogged it down into tedium.

How could the creator of Silverado make a boring western?

Well, I didn't think he had -- I actually loved Wyatt Earp. But I did know that it was slow, and I was sad that on a 63-million-dollar budget, the movie grossed only 56 million dollars worldwide.

Studios don't like taking a bath like that. And when directors commit such offenses, especially when they also wrote the script, they usually spend some time in exile until they work their way back, making smaller films with smaller budgets.

But Kasdan followed Wyatt Earp by writing and directing Mumford (budget 28 million, gross 4.6 million) and Dreamcatcher (budget 68 million, worldwide gross 76 million, which doesn't cover the advertising, if it got any). So his exile was equipped with cement shoes.

It was during that down period that Kasdan wrote "Lego Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Brick," a TV short from 2008, and then wrote The Lego Movie (2014), so he doesn't take himself all that seriously.

But it's cool that when J.J. Abrams was brought in to save the Star Wars franchise from the desolation of George Lucas's prequels, he enlisted Lawrence Kasdan to co-write Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

And here he is with Solo -- writing again.

So now I can say that Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote all three of the best-written Star Wars movies to date: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Solo.

But there's another writer credited for Solo along with Lawrence Kasdan -- besides George Lucas, who will always be given a writing credit on every Star Wars movie because he invented the characters.

The co-writer on Solo is Jonathan Kasdan. One of Lawrence Kasdan's sons, Jonathan first worked as an actor, often in movies directed by his father, but also in television shows where the audiences didn't know or care who his dad is.

He was writing from 2000 on: One episode of Freaks and Geeks, four of Dawson's Creek, and then writing and directing In the Land of Women and The First Time.

He's paid his dues. And so he was ready when he was tapped to co-write Solo with his father. Between them, they created what I think is the best Star Wars script, period.

Sure, there were plenty of call-backs to the original movie -- how could there not be? -- but if you had never seen any of the franchise films this would be a terrific action-adventure movie.

The spirit of Indiana Jones is alive and well in Solo.

I don't know whether it was the father or the son, but they actually made "The Kessel Run" make sense. The original Star Wars sounded like it was treating "parsec" as a unit of time, when it's actually a unit of distance -- Han Solo claimed he made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.

But in Solo, they have to thread through a tunnel in space that is 18 parsecs long before they can make the jump through bent space -- and Han Solo plunges outside the tunnel, at terrible risk, so that he can cut that distance to 12 parsecs.

Stupidity solved! The Kasdans managed to heal one of the bleeding wounds in George Lucas's original film!

(Nobody could do anything to fix the feeble fake religion of The Force, but guess what: The Force plays no role that I can remember in Solo. Nobody uses it. Nobody mentions it. Another bleeding wound stanched. Imagine -- sci-fi without magic!)

Just FYI: There's another Kasdan, Jonathan's brother Jacob (aka Jake), who also acted in their dad's films and then went on to be a writer and director. Of course, the only film of his that I paid money to see, Bad Teacher (2011), I walked out of.

Until 2017's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which I really liked, so apparently talent has been fairly generously distributed among the Kasdan family. But don't call it talent: those who have done the hard work to learn their craft become very very good at it, and people who can't do it call it "talent," as if they were simply born with it.

The actors? They do fine. Who cares if Alden Ehrenreich does a good enough imitation of Harrison Ford playing Han Solo? What he does is a great job of Alden Ehrenreich's take on Han Solo. Because he's playing the character, not the originating actor.

It's one of Woody Harrelson's most enjoyable performances as Beckett, a sometimes ally, sometimes enemy, and Donald Glover is excellent in the key role of Lando Calrissian. Paul Bettany, who first came to our attention as the nonexistent friend of Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, is brilliant as the scary villain Dryden Vos.

But in truth, Emilia Clarke steals this movie. Playing Han Solo's childhood friend, Qi'ra (come on, it's just Kira; the apostrophe means nothing, it's just crap sci-fi name-spelling), Emilia Clarke can make you believe anything. All the actors are good, but Emilia Clarke is the life of this movie.

Qi'ra is a long way from ethereal blonde Daenerys "Khaleesi" Targaryen in Game of Thrones -- but by playing this role, Emilia Clarke has guaranteed that she won't be trapped in a stereotype as an actress. She was already a working actress, but she owes her big career to Game of Thrones. Now, with Solo, she's opened the door to playing many different kinds of characters in the future.

From an appearance on The Graham Norton Show, I learned that Phoebe Waller-Bridge is not just the voice of the droid L3-37 -- she actually played the part, wearing pieces of the robot plus a lot of green, so the CGI folks could remove her human body and build the see-through robot after she had finished her performance.

So when we watch L3-37 on screen, it's worth remembering that an actress played this part.

Whereas Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt were voice actors only -- a relief, when you consider the serpentine creature that Linda Hunt plays. Lady Proxima is a crime lord with a difference -- but her effectiveness depended in large part on having a voice with real authority in it. Linda Hunt can do that in her sleep.

Look, reviewing Solo is redundant. You've probably already seen it. But if you haven't, then let me urge you to go while it's in the theaters. It's good to see it on the big screen.

*

Whenever politicians and demagogues (two lists that often overlap) blather on about how unequal outcomes in our society are proof that discrimination is going on, sometimes it's good to have a grownup come in and teach us that unequal outcomes these days usually have causes completely unrelated to racism or sexism or any other deplorable ism.

The grownup we needed is Thomas Sowell, and Discrimination and Disparities is a short book with sharp, clear explanations of how economics work in the real world.

Sowell is more thorough when he has more pages to work with: Basic Economics, first published in 2001, is highly readable and gives you a pretty complete grounding in practical economics in the real world. It helps you repel nonsense economics like oil repels water.

But Discrimination and Disparities homes in on the reality behind the dangerous and damaging claims of the demagogues. When unequal outcomes are not caused by discrimination, then trying to force the outcomes to become equal usually involves injustice and tyranny worse than anything that the demagogues claim to be trying to cure.

Many people who believe these dangerous claims are simply ignorant -- they don't know how economics works in the real world. You owe it to yourself to take the time to read and understand Sowell, so that you can make up your own mind while well-armed with useful information.

I'm not as economically conservative as Sowell, but not because I don't agree with or understand his science and history. He is brilliant and accurate and clear. It's just that sometimes I think it's worth taking actions that are not the "best" choice, economically -- for moral reasons that, to me, justify the economic sacrifice required.

But I'd rather make my moral judgments on economic policy armed with a clear and correct understanding of how the economy works and what the real outcomes are likely to be.

Getting all mad because "women are paid less" just makes you feel pretty stupid when you find out that all the "cures" for this "wrong" make everything worse for everybody, especially because it was not true in the first place.

Teachers get paid less than civil engineers. That's a fact. But then, teachers can screw up all over the place and people don't die, whereas one badly designed bridge can kill dozens or hundreds of people. There's a premium on good civil engineers in a way that there simply isn't on schoolteachers, and salaries reflect that.

(Sowell doesn't get into this, but Finland has shown that you can raise the status and salaries of schoolteachers -- but in Real America, at the first attempt to change as Finland did, the teachers' unions would lead their normal riots, strikes, and demonstrations, and Democrats, whose party is wholly subservient to the teachers' unions, would vote as instructed. In other words, it ain't gonna happen.)

Thomas Sowell's Discrimination and Disparities won't transform the discussion, mostly because the demagogues of the Left don't discuss, they just bully and punish anyone who disagrees with them. But whether you're on the Left or the Right, it only makes sense to try to find out the truth about why things are the way they are.

It just may immunize you against the demagogues. And if you find someone willing to listen instead of just rant, you could spread this useful knowledge into other people's minds as well.

*

Many people first got to know Bill Hader on Saturday Night Live; others may have come to really like him as Amy Schumer's grownup love interest in Trainwreck. When you look at his filmography on IMDb, you might get the impression that he's been in every movie made since 2007.

But what we might not have seen was the fact that Bill Hader is an accomplished actor who can play deep, conflicted, emotional roles.

Now we see it, and he's kind of wonderful.

The tv show is Barry, on HBO, in which Bill Hader plays a deeply troubled hit man who is trying to get out of that life -- a life that is notoriously hard to get out of.

Part of his path to a legitimate career is taking an acting class, which is where much of the comedy comes from. Acting classes in Los Angeles (and elsewhere in America) are more like therapy groups than actual training in a craft, and there's as much jockeying for status in those classes as in the real business of movie-making.

Barry doesn't so much parody as faithfully report on the American acting class. The problem is that most actors have a hard time playing a bad actor. That's partly because most of them inadvertently show a bad actor simply by trying to act well. Since they have no skills, the badness is easy to show. What's hard is for them to show that bad actor improving.

Barry suffers a bit from this syndrome, but fortunately, the real actors playing the acting students include a couple of people with real skills, so when, at the end of the season, Bill Hader's character, in turmoil over a terrible thing he just did, gives a brilliant performance of a single line in Macbeth, it really is brilliant.

And Sarah Goldberg, playing the actress who is in the scene with him, is inspired by the utter reality and power of his performance and it transforms her performance of the "tomorrow and tomorrow" monologue. (Yes, she's a woman playing Macbeth. It's an acting class, not a professional production.)

I've only seen the last two episodes of the first season, which just ended on HBO; I caught a portion of the last episode by accident, and my TiVo OnePass only found the episode before it.

But I'll be watching the whole thing as soon as I can, and if HBO keeps making Barry, I'll keep watching it. Good work, folks.

*

Some quick looks.

TruTV is running a couple of series that I really enjoy. I'm Sorry is a fairly raunchy, genuinely funny and truthful series created by Andrea Savage, who plays a suburban working mother named Andrea.

Her husband, Mike, is played by the wonderful Tom Everett Scott (That Thing You Do), and their kids are well-acted as well. The heart and soul of the series is the relationship between Andrea and Mike, who are completely believable as adults who love each other in spite of, or because of, Andrea's occasional madness.

This is no I Love Lucy, where Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz never approached anything like real human beings in a real marriage. Yet without destroying their reality, without any mugging, Savage and Scott manage to be funny and endearing.

If you can cope with the candor about sex and the raunchiness throughout the series, then this one is worth watching.

The other TruTV series that has become something of an addiction for me is Comedy Knockout, which turns insult comedy into a game show, in which three professional comedians respond to various prompts in order to insult each other and, occasionally, the audience.

By watching this, I've come to know quite a few comics I've never seen before, and Comedy Knockout has developed some of its own new stars. It's one of the few game shows that I'd stand in line to watch from the studio audience.

I'm not sure how much of the comedy is scripted and how much is impromptu, and I don't actually care. There is an experienced writing staff, and they must be writing something. This isn't trying to be Whose Line Is It Anyway?

But be warned: The humor is often so raunchy that it makes even me recoil. The bad bits like that are relatively rare, however, and they're over quickly, because this show never holds still.

Except when they're doing the audience voting to decide which comedian is eliminated. But that's what Fast Forward was invented for.

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Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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