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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 14, 2018

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

Ocean's 8, Gifted, and Films on Cable

My wife and I allocate our in-the-theater movie events very carefully. If it doesn't look good to both of us, then we don't go together. Usually, we wait to catch it on cable.

Ocean's 8 looked good to us. We have a fondness for caper movies, from How to Steal a Million to $ (Dollars, with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn), from The Thomas Crown Affair (we liked the 1999 Pierce Brosnan version) to The Italian Job (both versions), from The Sting to The Usual Suspects.

We watched all the Oceans movies as each came out, and while I deplored the way they didn't show us what actually happened until a flashback after the climax, it was fun to see a bunch of terrific actors mess around together in the caper-movie playground.

Ocean's 8 promised more of the same, only this time with a cast of women. The director and co-writer, Gary Ross, also co-wrote Big, one of my all-time favorite movies, and even though he was guilty of the dreadful Pleasantville, I figured he hadn't forgotten how to do it.

But it's the cast that rules this movie. The story begins with con-woman Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) getting out of prison on parole, because she was able to con the parole board into thinking she was reformed.

She's met by her friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), who is appalled -- and intrigued -- to learn that during her five years in prison, Ocean plotted a heist that would bring all its participants an eight-figure payday -- that's right, more than $30 million.

And who are those participants? I'm no fan of Mindy Kaling, but in this movie she's very good; still, nobody can hold their own when Helena Bonham Carter is on the screen. Rihanna plays a tough hustler named "Nine Ball," while Anne Hathaway almost steals the movie playing a film star who is an innocent victim in the conspiracy: She's going to be wearing the legendary diamonds that the team intends to steal.

The one guy we see from the previous Ocean's movies is Elliott Gould, but he takes up very little screen time -- this movie belongs to the women. They do a great job of making us (a) want them to succeed, (b) worry about how it's going to go wrong, and (c) be happy when things go well after all.

Because that's not a spoiler. Why would anyone bother to make a caper movie that ends in complete failure? Who could possibly be happy after watching a movie like that? No, we want Debbie Ocean to succeed, and, more important to the success of this movie, we want this cast of actresses to succeed in territory usually regarded as male.

And succeed they do. We enjoyed the whole movie. It was often funny, but only where they wanted it to be.

We were reminded of why we already liked all these actresses, and we were introduced to some fine new performers. (Dakota Fanning counts as one of those new performers, because this is the first time I've seen her in an adult role, and she's quite good.)

Mostly, it's a fun night at the theater. It's worth investing date time in this movie.

*

By the way, the 1971 Warren Beatty/Goldie Hawn caper film, $ (pronounced Dollars), is almost impossible to look up, on Google or on IMDbPro. That's because "$" is a character that the software can't see.

But even when I entered the word "Dollars" as the title, all I got was box office figures on other caper films -- and no reference to the film with that title.

It was only when I finally remembered that Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn played the leads that I was able to find it -- listed, in IMDbPro as $. Weird that it can exist in their database without any way to actually retrieve it, since their search engine seems to regard $ as a special character that can't exist in the search field. (Putting it in quotation marks didn't help me, either.)

Let this be a lesson: Cute titles can work strongly against a film. If nobody can ever look it up, how can $ stay alive in this era of the never-ending movie shelf life? It's a good movie, but even when it was new, nobody knew what to call it with only a mark of punctuation as its title. The movie formerly known as "Bucks"?

*

As long as I'm talking about older movies, let me take a few paragraphs to talk about movies that are still very much alive. For instance, the other night I caught You've Got Mail on a cable channel and come on, folks, not only is this one of the best romantic comedies in history, it's also got some of Tom Hanks's and Meg Ryan's best acting moments.

It's easy to dismiss Meg Ryan's career as a constant repetition of her signature moves, and many critics do, but you know what? Those signature moves are very, very hard to bring off, and she did it brilliantly. Katharine Hepburn also had signature moves -- but the older she got, the more we forgave them.

That's why Meg Ryan and her male counterpart, Hugh Grant, never get any critical respect. This only proves how short-sighted the critics can be.

Acting is hard, folks. Good acting is rare. Amazingly good acting is never to be despised, and as I watched Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail this time, I realized how brilliant she is, alive every moment, making everything seem completely real.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had a heavy burden to carry in this movie. Unlike The Shop Around the Corner, another beloved rom-com and the film You've Got Mail was based on, the two lovers aren't just people who are really annoying to each other while they unknowingly fall in love with each other through anonymous letters. Tom Hanks is in charge of the new Fox Books megastore that puts Meg Ryan's decades-old children's bookstore out of business.

That's real, life-damaging harm -- and man, does You've Got Mail turn up the volume on that. The little bookshop is full of Meg Ryan's memories of her mother; she practically grew up in that shop. Closing it down is devastating.

And even though the script is amazingly clever (Nora and Delia Ephron), nothing the writers might do could have made us believe and accept the two characters falling in love with each other after so much harm and open hostility. It's too much.

Except that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are two of the most believable actors ever to charm us in a romantic comedy. And they do it without ever being histrionic -- in fact, they always maintain a light touch, because it's a comedy, and we're supposed to be able to laugh along with the characters.

*

Another actor who is often unrespected is Brad Pitt. It's ironic that when talent and a certain attractiveness make an actor a celebrity, his fame almost immediately begins to trivialize him (or, of course, her). They become, in the public mind, only the creature of the gossip mill, and it's easy to forget why he was famous in the first place.

I recently saw Brad Pitt in his World War II tank movie, Fury, and it reminded me of the talent he so eloquently demonstrated in Troy several years before. The writing in Fury is good, and Pitt's character shows his decency and his concern for his men in such a way as to make us want him to succeed, to live.

But Fury is not a romantic comedy, though it has plenty of humor. Pitt isn't the only good actor -- it's fabulous ensemble. Every World War II cliche is present, and it doesn't matter -- because good performers can breathe life into somewhat shopworn scenes.

So let's not let the fame of popular actors distract us from the truth that in their careers, several of them have given us great gifts that transcend their celebrity -- with movies that bear rewatching again and again.

*

Zach Braff is a comic actor whose main shtick is to be earnest and baffled amid the madness of other characters. Alas, like every actor, he can't be better than the writing; I'm afraid that after a bit of optimism when I first saw Alex Inc., I quickly lost interest in the story because, well, it just wasn't interesting.

If writers don't know how to give Braff the material that he's best at performing, then it's a shame they took up his time, because he could have been making something better.

Maybe Braff has to write his own material, because back in 2014, he co-wrote and directed a movie called Wish I Was Here. In this story of a 35-year-old actor struggling to make a career for himself, Braff is surrounded by his hardworking, longsuffering wife, played by Kate Hudson, and his irascible father, played by Mandy Patinkin in one of his better performances.

The film is better than it thinks it is. Everything is played low-key, and even the most eccentric characters remain believable. Because Kate Hudson's salary barely supports them, it's Braff's father (Patinkin) who foots the bill for their two kids to get into a good school. And Patinkin demands that the school be an Orthodox Jewish day school.

When Dad's cancer comes back, he announces that his money has to go into expensive stem cell treatments -- the kids have to drop out of that school. Now Braff will be home-schooling them.

Meanwhile, Braff's brother, played by Josh Gad, is a recluse who refuses to visit or speak to his dying father. There's a lovely subplot in which Gad wins a prize at Comic-Con for the very first costume he ever made, all in order to impress a young neighbor woman (Ashley Greene, in a part that was originally supposed to go to Anna Kendrick) who is into making and wearing furry costumes -- an authentic branch of the Cos-play community.

One of my favorite moments is when Braff goes to yet another audition for a part that he knows he's not right for. But in a conversation with another actor waiting nervously to audition, Braff gives him several excellent pointers about how to interpret the character -- and it turns out he gets the part. Later, this generous act will return to help solve some of his problems.

Look, it's just a family story set in the weirdness of Hollywood and fan culture, and there aren't a lot of huge laughs because this isn't the corrupt slapstick that seems to dominate current comedy. It's a domestic comedy, a story of a family who love and need each other, but don't know how to give each other what they need most.

I never heard of it when it came out in 2014; but watching it on TV, I found it moving and amusing. It shows that when a filmmaker knows what he wants to do and knows how to do it, you can get some good movies that don't feel like anything that has been processed through the Hollywood mill.

The film-school formulas play no visible role in Wish I Was Here, so there's no way to predict what's going to happen. It has its dark moments, but it also shines plenty of light into the human heart, and I recommend that if you get a chance, you spend a couple of hours watching it.

*

As long as I'm reviewing older, little-known movies that are now popping up on cable, let's go to the ones that show how desperate I am, during bouts of insomnia, to find entertainment that's worth watching.

For instance, there's Waterworld, a notorious flop for Kevin Costner back in 1995. Costner is one of the best actors ever to show up on the screen, but he's made some iffy choices over the years, like his semi-awful performance as Robin Hood in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

He isn't cut out for the role of the hero who stirs up his people with fiery speeches, but where actors like Brad Pitt know this about themselves, Costner did not.

As a science fiction writer, everything about the idea of Waterworld offended me. The science was stupid -- there isn't enough water on Earth to raise sea levels to the ridiculous extent the movie depends on, and when I caught glimpses of Dennis Hopper chewing the scenery in scenes that reminded me of the most horrible moments in The Matrix or Return of the Jedi or any other movie where masses of people obey a supposedly charismatic leader, I decided I was never going to see that movie.

But the other night, instead of just catching a moment near the end of the movie and switching away in disgust, I started watching early enough in the movie that I actually followed the storyline. Now, at last, I can see why Costner sank so much of his career into filming this script.

For one thing, I had never caught on that he was a mutant, better adapted to life always on the water. As expected, the science was still stupid -- nobody caught on that gills don't "breathe" water, they breathe the air suspended in the water. But they did the special effects reasonably well, and Costner's swimming with webbed hands and feet looked better than Jar-Jar Binks.

It isn't really science fiction, anyway, though it pretends to be. It's actually a fantasy, complete with a magical child of prophecy that everybody's hunting for in order to read a map that has been tattooed on her body.

Costner is her protector, not really by anybody's choice, and once I started caring about their relationships with each other and with Jeanne Tripplehorn's character, I found that the movie was much better than I had expected.

In fact, I'm going to go way out on a limb and say that as long as you can keep from getting too impatient with the stupid science, there's a pretty good movie there.

*

At no point, however, could anyone call Miss March (2009) a good movie. If you remember the song "My Baby Is a Centerfold," by the J. Geils Band, this movie is that story: A guy who loved a sweet girl in high school, only to wake up one day and realize that she's the centerfold in the March issue of Playboy.

Naturally, a lot more is added to the plot in order to make it the usual absurd college-age comedy. The two lead guys, Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore, also wrote the screenplay and co-directed this movie.

But that's the saving grace of the movie: Cregger and Moore are so earnest and likeable that despite all the cliche-ridden badness, I found myself watching the whole movie, flipping back to it when other shows were in commercial, until I just admitted to myself that I actually cared. Then I settled down to watch the ending all in a row, even the scene where Hugh Hefner actually appears on screen giving them advice about love and commitment.

I think Cregger and Moore had dreams of becoming cultural icons like Bill & Ted or Harold & Kumar.

They didn't achieve that, but they still made a watchable movie with some nice scenes in which they showed that they have potential as actors. Their script is absolutely unpretentious, which makes it better than the actor-written Good Will Hunting, and it owns up to its raunchy, juvenile ambitions with flair.

It helps that it was shot by the same director of photography who shot, for instance, Legally Blonde, Someone Like You, and The Sandlot. (To be fair, he also shot an even worse movie than Miss March: that horrible Dumb and Dumberer movie back in 2003.)

(And I only just realized that the actor playing Lloyd in that miserable piece of dreck was Eric Christian Olsen, whom we've come to like a lot as Deeks in NCIS: Los Angeles. So it's possible to star in one of the worst movies ever made, and still have a career.)

Again, it probably needs to be late at night, but if you accidentally find yourself watching Miss March, you'll quite possibly enjoy the nonsensical chase scene all over the Playboy Mansion, with enraged, axe-wielding firemen trying to wreak vengeance on one of the boys for his mistreatment of a fireman's daughter. Haven't you always wanted to see firemen going postal?

And the earnest scenes between Cregger and Moore and the ladies they love are actually quite charming, in their very different ways.

*

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) has much deeper intent, as a psychologist tries to make sense of what happened to a young boy, Louis Drax, who suffered terrible damage in a fall from a cliff that should have killed him.

Aiden Longworth, the child actor in the title role, does a creditable job, and the script, based on the novel by Liz Jensen, gives everybody a lot of good scenes to work with.

Again, this was an accidental discovery and I came in partway through, yet I was able to grasp the storyline very quickly and came to care about the characters -- and not just because so much of the movie relies on always-effective child-in-jeopardy tropes.

The cast is very good. Jamie Dornan (of Fifty Shades fame) plays Dr. Allan Pascal, who is trying to figure out why Louis Drax has already come close to death eight times before this fall from the cliff.

It has a strong and memorable ending. Weird as this fantasy is at times, I think the movie works better than its worldwide earnings of $487,862 would suggest. (No, I didn't leave out a digit. That's less than a million dollars.)

Nobody got rich from this movie. But on a small budget, they made something rather fine.

*

I'm about to shock longtime readers of this column. I actually watched most of Everything Must Go (2010), even though it stars the comedian whom I find least funny in all the world: Will Ferrell.

That's right. Knowing he was in it, I actually settled down to watch this sometimes touching film (based on a short story by Raymond Carver, "Why Don't You Dance?") in which Will Ferrell only sometimes falls into the shtick that always makes my skin crawl and fills me with a desire to change species so I'm not in the same one with him.

A relapse into alcoholism causes Nick Halsey (Ferrell) to lose his job and his wife. Most of the film is centered around the yard sale he holds on his front lawn as he tries to start his life over.

Even though I find it impossible to really believe any character Ferrell plays, I have to give him credit for trying. I thought of Adam Sandler, with his very real performances in Spanglish (one of my top romantic comedies) and Punch Drunk Love, and I have to say that Ferrell didn't really come close to Sandler's level of reality in those films. But look, he did better than I ever expected and I was able to keep watching to the end.

If you actually love Will Ferrell, you might be disappointed at how rarely he goes for laughs. He really is trying to act here -- which may explain why his normal audience deserted him. On a budget of $5 million, the film made only half that amount in the USA.

But if somebody ever holds a gun to my head and makes me choose which Will Ferrell movie I have to watch, my choice would be Everything Must Go.

*

There was a time when I really liked Jim Carrey as an actor. But, like Robin Williams, Carrey very quickly left acting behind and became that saddest of performers: a once-funny comedian trying desperately for laughs.

With Man on the Moon, however, Carrey stepped outside himself and, under the direction of Milos Forman and with a real script (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), played the part of another comedian who succumbed to that same desperation, Andy Kaufman.

Since Kaufman is dead -- Man on the Moon takes us right to the end of his life -- somebody else had to play him. But ... Carrey? When I heard about that casting, I remembered Andy Kaufman as he was when he first appeared on Saturday Night Live and did his decidedly off-beat comedy, which involved no jokes at all.

I remember falling apart laughing at his "foreign man" character -- the one he turned into Latka Gravas on Taxi from 1978 to 1983. But I also remember watching him become less and less funny, more and more desperate, until at last when I saw him on television I would switch away because his desperation made me too sad to watch him.

Man on the Moon is a ruthless portrayal of Kaufman on that downhill slope, trying harder and harder to be entertaining, confusing everyone he knew because they never knew when he was really interacting with them like a person or doing a "bit."

And I have to say that, perhaps because of the direction of Milos Forman, Carrey gives the performance of a lifetime. He is able to progress to the point where Kaufman becomes a tragic figure, unable to understand why he has lost a career that once had him on top of the world.

The ending is quite moving, Carrey is actually believable. And, in a spirit of perfectly merciless truthtelling, there are scenes of Kaufman's performances, echoed faithfully by Carrey, where Kaufman's ideas were ghastly and the "entertainments" he put on made me cringe in my chair. Did he really do that? Did he really think it was funny? Yes and yes.

But then ... he also created Latka Gravas. The fact that he knew no boundaries and lost his way does not erase his greatness. And the fact that Milos Forman and Jim Carrey (along with Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti, Patton Oswalt, and many other excellent actors) obviously loved Andy Kaufman but did not whitewash his life and career guarantees that through this movie, it's possible that Kaufman will never be completely forgotten.

It's depressing to watch. I warn you of that. It's sad without grandeur. That's part of what makes it a good movie.

And financially, it was kind of a spectacular flop. On a budget of $82 million, it grossed only $35 million. Maybe because this was not a hilarious, feel-good movie.

But I'm glad it exists.

*

As the last in my overview of films I didn't see until they popped up late at night on cable, I must tell you about an amazing movie that I never even heard of in 2017. Gifted is the story of Frank Adler (Chris Evans), who is trying to raise his brilliantly gifted niece, Mary (Mckenna Grace), while his mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), makes every effort to get custody of her granddaughter so she can give her a proper education at a first-rate school for gifted children.

Gradually, as we watch their legal struggles and see how desperately Frank wants to fulfil his promise to his sister that he would care for her daughter, we begin to realize the full dimensions of this family tragedy.

Mary is a truly brilliant natural mathematician, and she's ready for college level work. But it isn't funny and cute, as in Young Sheldon. She also longs to be a real girl, and that's what Frank promised his sister: that he would give Mary a genuine childhood and not let her be a captive of Evelyn's ambition.

The next five paragraphs contain a spoiler. I don't think it will hurt a thing if you read it -- the scene will still have powerful impact when you watch these performers deliver the actual lines.

There's a moment when, in an effort to get Mary back out of Evelyn's control, Frank confronts his mother with his dead sister's last mathematical work -- a complete solution to the problem she had been working on, the one that Evelyn pushed and pushed and pushed for her to solve.

Why haven't you published it, then? demands Evelyn.

Because she wanted it to be published posthumously.

Evelyn is baffled. Her daughter is dead. So why hasn't he published it yet?

It wasn't her death she was thinking of, Frank tells her. And Evelyn is forced to deal with the fact that the life she gave her genius daughter was so hellish that she was eager to escape it -- and arranged for her brother to shield her little girl from Evelyn's ambition.

This movie did make a profit, because it's a powerful, truthful story that audiences would tell their friends to see. As I'm telling you.

It's nice to see Chris Evans out of Captain America mode. The only reason Captain America isn't the stupidest character in the Marvel universe is because Thor exists. I'm glad that this movie gave Chris Evans a chance to show that he can play an actual, believable human being and make us love and care about his character.

It helps that Mckenna Grace is an astonishingly talented child actor, completely believable as a mathematical genius and as a little girl. And Lindsay Duncan walks that fine line of creating Evelyn Adler as, not evil, not malicious, but relentlessly well-meaning.

She thinks her daughter's and granddaughter's brilliant minds were a sacred responsibility, and it was her job to make sure their genius was not wasted. The result is that we don't hate her -- though we also agree with Frank that this little girl should never be in her custody.

If you didn't see Gifted in the theaters last year, then don't just wait for it to come to you by chance. This is a film that explores the love and duty of adults toward the children they are responsible for, and it's accurate and moving in its portrayal of a child torn between loneliness and boredom -- she wants to have friends at school, but is also impatient with the inability of those children to understand the things she cares most about.

To reward you for reading through this whole column of reviews of old movies, I saved the best for last. Gifted is a remarkable achievement. It belongs in your memory.

Eight Master Classes

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