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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 23, 2018

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

Depressed TV Watching, Crazy Asians, Masseuses, Cups

I have it on good authority that people suffering from depression often design their own therapy around late-night random television watching. You just sit there in a chair or on a couch with a tv remote control in your hand, and flip channels.

Gradually you settle on a few movies and or tv shows to flip back and forth between, and these become your therapy for the night.

I'm here to tell you that this is a terrible therapy. It's anti-therapy, because no matter what you watch, it adds to your depression.

For instance, the other night I flipped my way back and forth between You've Got Mail and Table 19. These are two of my favorite movies. They are love stories with a happy ending.

But first they make you cry. The old lady with the weed is "due the same time as you," which means that when Anna Kendrick's baby is born the old lady named Jo is going to die. And just because they name their baby Joe doesn't mean she isn't just as dead.

Meg Ryan's store still closes, and she's out of business, plus she gets sick and says nasty things to Tom Hanks when he comes over to cheer her up with daisies, so ... meanness, sickness, despair.

Finally, everybody comes together. Brinkley comes barking and bounding through the park and rugs on Tom Hanks's jacket when he's busy kissing Meg Ryan, who isn't sick anymore, and Wyatt Russell swims back from the ferry boat so Anna Kendrick can repeat the decent offer she was yelling about back at the dock.

Never mind that it's weirdly appropriate that Wyatt Russell swims away from a boat going the wrong direction because his parents, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, met while making a movie about a "meet cute" where Kurt Russell tells amnesiac Goldie Hawn that she's his wife and that was apparently the start of a beautiful nonmarital relationship.

We still have to believe that everything's fine because Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson kiss while naked in the shower, and Stephen Merchant gets a baby announcement, and Tony Revolori has a cute homework buddy who slams the door so they can do hanky and maybe panky instead of their homework.

And if you're seriously depressed, all the sad stuff, all the make-you-cry stuff, then leads to all the "happy" stuff and it's the happy stuff, the life-works-out-perfectly-after-all stuff that is the absolute most depressing part of the evening's entertainment, because if there's one thing certain, that stuff will never happen to you.

Bad as that can be, those happened to be great movies, wonderful romantic comedies with brilliant performances and very, very good writing and no Hangover or Bridesmaids level humor to make them stink.

It's even worse when you have a tv-watching night where you're flipping back and forth between Justice League, The Boy Downstairs, and Dude, Where's My Car. The despair just magnifies itself, reverberating with every flip of the channel.

So they resurrected Superman -- but they only had to because Batman vs. Superman was such a misconceived movie. By having a larger cast of unbelievable and stupid superheroes, Justice League only compounds the felony.

And Zosia Mamet in Boy Downstairs is still writer David Mamet's daughter, so you'd think there would be some hereditary ability to recognize a well-written script so she could stay out of one that has absolutely nothing of interest happen at any point when you switch to it, except that sometimes she's crying and mostly she's making very dull conversation with equally dull people.

As for Dude, Where's My Car, the only thing that's interesting is to see that Jennifer Garner's career began way down the food chain, while the best thing in the movie, the Hot Chicks, are listed on IMDb only as "Alien Jumpsuit Chick #1" and so on. That had to be a real career boost for those five actresses.

The only thing that ameliorated that depressing tv night at all was that some station was running a marathon of Law & Order episodes, with Sam Waterston and the gang, including Dianne Wiest as the DA and Jerry Orbach, seemingly back from the dead like Superman, playing his old smart cop gig again.

Even when the bad guy got acquitted, the juror he flirted into getting him a mistrial ended up killing him with a pair of scissors when he broke into her apartment in order to strangle her while she was doing dishes. So everything turned out OK. Seeing the acquitted murderer dead on the floor was, weirdly enough, the least depressing thing about the tv night.

Do not. I repeat do not use channel-flipping as an anti-depressant because it does not work, and if anything magnifies your depression.

This has been a public service announcement. Try this yourself at your own risk.

*

As long as I'm on this stream-of-consciousness binge, let me point out something that just makes my skin crawl. It's misusing gender in language.

On So You Think You Can Dance, Vanessa Hudgens has several times identified herself as "Filipino." Now, the Philippines was taken over by the U.S. more than a century ago, so Spanish is no longer the main colonial language. Therefore, by English rules, for any citizen of the Philippines to call him or herself "Filipino" is perfectly OK.

But because I speak Portuguese and Spanish, and the word looks like the masculine gender word in both those languages, it still sets my teeth on edge because she should call herself a Filipina, for pete's sake!

I know. I'm wrong. She's right. She's speaking English. My response is completely irrational.

But here's the same issue again; and this time, the writer of this scene in Crazy Rich Asians is totally, annoyingly wrong.

Several women are getting a massage. The people giving the massage are all men. But the women speak of them as masseuses.

A masseuse is a female who gives massages. The word is French. When a man is giving a massage, he's a masseur. The women should have spoken of their masseurs. They were women of wealth, position, and education. They would have known this. The writers did not.

Of course we butcher French when we bring it into English, but how stupid do we have to be to bring in the female word and use it for everybody? Would we put up with it if suddenly both male and female screen and stage performers were called "actresses"? Ryan Reynolds, the leading actress in Dead Pool?

Maybe it's fair to do that because so many gender-neutral names for professions are based on the male version of the word. Maybe calling masseurs "masseuses" is some kind of justice.

But I can't help, after having gone to great lengths to learn that tables, chairs, and hands are female and papers, cars, and countries are male in romance languages, the fact that I now have a visceral loathing for misgendered nouns. I know I'm the only person who cares, so I just shudder and keep watching.

Meanwhile, though, can't we make some effort, if we're pretending we're so cool that we use the French word for "massage-giver," to use the right French word?

And since I'm the only American who cares about this completely trivial issue, I will now stop talking about it.

*

Crazy Rich Asians was otherwise kind of wonderful. It was promoted as a romantic comedy, with Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) flying to Singapore to meet her boyfriend's parents, and only on the airplane, as they step into their first-class "suite," does it dawn on her that her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), isn't just rich. He's insanely rich.

Naturally, his mother, a doyenne of the Chinese diaspora community in Singapore, detests the idea of Rachel Chu marrying her son for several excellent reasons:

1. Nobody's ever heard of her, and she has none of the skills or knowledge to prepare her to be Nick Young's royal consort (except that she does speak Chinese).

2. She is trying to talk him into spending time playing middle class family with her instead of running the family business, to which he is the dauphin or prince of wales or tsesarevich () or whatever. This would be the equivalent of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, trying to convince Prince William to become a sidewalk pretzel vendor in Manhattan.

3. Everyone assumes she's a gold-digger. And how do you prove that you didn't know your boyfriend was crazy rich until, like, fifteen minutes ago?

4. And when she's investigated, they find out that her parentage is even lower than she knew.

Look, this is such standard material that a Hallmark Channel movie that I just watched, Marrying Mr. Darcy, has pretty much the same plot. (Naming the hero "Darcy" does not mean either the plot or the setting have anything to do with Pride and Prejudice.)

Same idea that the bride-to-be isn't ready to help him rule the family business, and instead is trying to get him to run the Darcy charitable foundation, while she intends to keep teaching school after they're married. It's not his mother but his aunt (shades of Lady Catherine de Bourgh), played wonderfully by Frances Fisher, who keeps making it clear that she is not welcome in the family. The overlap between plots is highly obvious.

Not-rich girl marrying into a fabulously wealthy family keeps showing up as a plot in many movies, and maybe this is a universal fantasy.

But I'm happy to tell you that Marrying Mr. Darcy is a charming movie in the upper echelons of Hallmark Channel rom-coms.

And Crazy Rich Asians is an excellent high-budget romantic comedy that you don't have to be Asian yourself to enjoy.

With the exception of Ken Jeong, very well known as the creepy-funny Chinese dude in the Hangover movies, the cast was entirely unknown to me. But in a romantic comedy, that's actually an asset.

Normally, we know that if Hugh Grant is in a rom-com, he will get the girl, unless Colin Firth is also in the movie, and then it's up for grabs.

But we didn't have any of that privileged information about this cast.

At the beginning of the movie, Nick Young's family are introduced as if they had legendary status -- which, in the closed Chinese community of Singapore, they have. Nick's sister, Astrid (Gemma Chan), is a fashion plate -- unlike most rich women, she looks drop-dead gorgeous in high fashion outfits.

Michelle Yeoh plays Nick's mother, Eleanor Young, and is powerful in the role, while Lisa Lu plays her mother-in-law, Ah Ma, who seems to be a cuddly grandma until the claws come out.

Then there's Peik Lin Goh, Rachel's good friend who provides her solace and refuge in Singapore, away from the Young family compound. She's played with exuberance by Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum), who is an indispensable element, providing comic relief and the voice of sanity.

The writers of the screenplay (and, most probably, the author of the original novel, Kevin Kwan) have given the major characters interesting stories of their own, all of which come to fruition. We see how challenging life is for rich people who have a hard time living as humans apart from their money.

And even though none of us are likely to become super-rich or meet anybody who is (they don't come hang out where we regular people do), for some reason we, as an audience (i.e., a mob in chairs), apparently adore stories about how different and elevated rich and powerful people are, even as we are invited to feel sorry for their suffering.

But human is human, and in this movie they have the same kind of problems regular people do. It's not just the rich who reject a new daughter-in-law and treat her like a leper. That's a story that was acted out in my mother's life for many, many years.

My father was the second son and third child in a family that was, in effect, of the peerage in Salt Lake City. They were not rich -- but with leaders in the Mormon Church on both sides of his family, they expected their children all to marry into the peerage.

My mother, meanwhile, came from a family with much less distinction, and her movie-producer father spent much of the Depression absent from the family, making them the subject of gossip and disdain. So when not just one but two of my grandmother Lucena's children married children of this weird movie-industry family, she was devastated.

My mom's brother, who married Lucena's only daughter, got a free pass because he would never have taken any crap from anybody. But my dad, who was definitely not the favorite child in Lucena's family (he was the weird one who pursued photography and remote-controlled model airplanes as hobbies), had no power to protect my mother.

So every time we visited Salt Lake City and stayed in Lucena's basement, we kids had a great time (especially when the double-first-cousins were also there), but gradually I realized that my mother always left there in tears. Because Lucena had a refined gift for saying exactly the things that would stab her to the heart.

They reconciled many years later -- my mother told me all about it, afterward -- but for decades my mother was made to feel every bit as unwelcome and out-of-place as Eleanor Young makes Rachel Chu feel in Crazy Rich Asians.

And this was without anybody having any fortune, large or small. If Lucena had been able to see it sooner, my mother had social skills that left my father's in the dust -- she had a special knack for creating enthusiasm and self-esteem in young people. Most people, especially teenagers, adored my mom ... except for her mother-in-law, for far too many years.

So the situation in Crazy Rich Asians is not just a weird thing in rich Asian families. It can happen in any family where a child seems to be about to marry someone the family thinks of as "beneath" them.

Let's imagine, then, that Crazy Rich Asians is a fable about how horribly counterproductive it is to declare war on someone your child is determined to bring into the family.

In the long run, you will only succeed in making it harder for your own child to be happy, and you punish someone whose only crime was loving your child more than you do. Really, how smart is that?

Yet the writers don't let us hate anybody. Well, one guy, but that's in Astrid's storyline.

So let's say that you're not of Asian ancestry and you're not crazy rich. Will you care about these characters?

Yes, you will, or you should, because these are splendid performances within a well-written script, beautifully shot in amazing settings that I promise you, you probably will never see close-up yourself.

I've actually been to Singapore -- well, the airport -- and I've flown on Singapore Airlines from there to Jakarta, and let me tell you, economy class was not like Nick's and Rachel's first-class suite.

It had more of the air of a concentration camp, and the guard -- pardon me, flight attendant -- really had it in for me. Torture, with my knees rammed against the back of the seat in front of me, unable to rock my seat back the eighth of an inch that was possible, because it was forbidden for American giants to take away that eighth of an inch from the person behind them while they were trying to eat their airline swill.

So, dying from lack of sleep and the pain in my knees, I had to endure while the person behind me ate as slowly as possible because making Americans suffer is an opportunity that rarely comes to people who don't have bombs or guns.

Therefore I regarded it as an important part of enjoying this movie to get some good views of Singapore and (relatively) nearby islands, as well as the finest first-class airplane accommodations I've ever seen. (I've stayed in London hotel rooms with less space.)

But the main pleasure comes from the story and the acting, and I highly recommend Crazy Rich Asians to anybody who thinks good romantic comedies are way too rare.

*

As long as I already wasted your time by complaining about misgendered nouns borrowed from other languages, I might as well complain about something that an independent movie director of my acquaintance pointed out to me about a year ago.

It's paper coffee cups in movies and television shows.

Now, when someone in a movie is poured a glassful of beer (or a quarter-glass of wine, or a shot glass of liquor), you know that there's liquid in the glass because it's, like, glass, so you can see through it.

But it is extremely rare for there to be anything in a paper or styro coffee cup, especially if there's a lid.

Watch as someone carries these "coffee" cups to the table. They have no weight. And there is obviously no hot liquid sloshing around inside, unbalancing the cups.

The real proof comes when the person drinks. When the cup is empty, they invariably tip it up way too high.

When you start to drink from a real full cup, you barely tip it at all -- just enough to bring the liquid to the brim so you can sip at it. Especially when it's hot.

But the vast majority of actors, probably thinking about how to say their lines, tip up the "full" cup as if the liquid it contained were only an inch in the bottom of the cup, and of the same temperature as the ambient air.

Look, when actors are going to drink beer, wine, or liquor on film, the prop people have to come up with a palatable liquid to put into the glass, so we can see them drink.

Therefore, they carry a glass, and drink from a glass, with real liquid in it. No pantomime needed, except to pretend that the alcohol is really strong (if it's supposed to be).

Naturally, the liquid in these glasses is usually not an alcoholic beverage at all, because what if you have to take forty-six takes of the scene? The last thing you want is to make the actor drunk (or drunker) right there on the set.

Why, then, can't the prop people come up with liquids to put in those "full" coffee cups so that they have weight and sloshiness? Then the actors will be able to carry them in a believable way because they actually contain liquid, and when they drink from such a cup, they will only tip it enough to bring the liquid to the brim.

Like real people do, with real coffee cups.

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