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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 12, 2002

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


Weird Employees, Perdition, and Widowmaker

Sometimes don't you wonder how people keep their jobs?

The other night we were at the Grande to see a movie, and I figured I just had time to grab some overpriced bottled water at the refreshment counter.

So a nice-looking teenage boy took my order and then walked off -- to get our water, I assumed.

But no, at that moment a somewhat older girl came up to him and they started talking. The boy was surprised to see her. "The movie doesn't start for two hours."

"I just thought I'd come early," she said. And then they start talking about something else.

So I thought I'd join in this public conversation. "Your movie may not start for two hours, but mine starts in two minutes," I said.

For a moment he seemed not to understand who I was. "I'd like to get my water and get into my seat before it starts," I said.

He looked at me like I was a really annoying bug. "She's got you," he said, pointing to another theater employee who was now standing at our register. And to her he said, "I already rang them up."

"So," I said. "Are you going to get the water?"

"No, he's getting it."

I glanced over, and he was back to laughing and talking to the girl who had come two hours early. "But he isn't getting it," I said. "He's having a conversation, and our movie is going to start."

Now the girl he was talking to chimed in. As if I should already have known this, she said, "I'm his sister."

"Good," I said. "Will that make our movie start a little later, so we won't miss the beginning while you two converse?"

In all of this, I did not sound angry, I did not threaten to call the manager, I did not call them names, and I did not use any bad language. I tried to maintain a cheerful demeanor. I just wanted our stuff so I could get into the movie.

Sullenly the kid goes and gets our water. Meanwhile, his sister looks at me with withering contempt. "I'm sorry your life is so unhappy," she says with angry sarcasm. The real meaning is, How dare you put yourself above a conversation between brother and sister.

Well, my dear, delicate, sensitive young lady and young man, you can talk all you want -- as long as one of you isn't pretending to be an employee taking people's orders.

But apparently nobody told them that when you're getting paid to deal with the public, you don't make customers wait while you have a completely meaningless conversation with your sibling. And I might be wrong. Maybe that is the way the Grande wants its employees to treat customers.

And, just to be even-handed, another weird employee incident, this time at the Carousel. Our cast of The Importance of Being Earnest was hoping to go see the recent movie version, even though we'd heard it wasn't very good. In fact, we kind of hoped it would be lousy, so we could poke each other and say, "We were so much better."

But the first night we could get together was going to be the next Friday. So my wife called the Carousel to find out if Earnest was still going to be showing for another week. "I don't know," said the person who answered the phone.

"Since we have to know in order to schedule our party, perhaps you could find out?"

So the person covers the phone and calls out to someone else in the room. "Is Importance of Being Earnest going to play another week?"

My wife hears, very clearly, the other person say, "I don't know, but tell them yes."

The person comes back on the phone. "Yes."

"I heard your conversation," said my wife. "Why would you tell me yes, when you don't know? I'm planning a party, and I need to know. So instead of making something up, would you be kind enough to find out from someone who actually knows something?"

Actually, I made up her dialogue, because I wasn't there. But she's much nicer than I am and wouldn't have let quite so much sarcasm creep into her conversation.

What neither of us could believe was that someone would rather just say yes, inconveniencing us if they turned out to be wrong (and they were indeed wrong -- the movie left the theater before our party). Even if they didn't have enough compassion for us as human beings to tell us the truth, they might at least have felt some responsibility as representatives of The Carousel not to alienate customers.

Our favorite story of weird business practices, though, took place at a restaurant we stopped at on our trip.

We won't name the small town or the restaurant. In our family the restaurant is now known as the Fly-on-Your-Plate Diner.

We stopped there on impulse, because the café was in a nice new building and there wasn't any place better looking in town. When we got inside, though, the decor was weird enough that we began having second thoughts. Still ... it was an adventure, right? So we ordered.

My older daughter went to the salad bar and managed to find stuff that was edible. Then our main dishes came -- hers last. I took one bite of my burger and discovered that it is indeed possible to take ground beef and remove all flavor from it except a vague sort of wax-papery taste. Our younger daughter took a couple of bites of her hot dog and lost interest.

Then our older daughter got her main course. There was a large dead insect on the side of her plate. If you don't know what a box elder bug looks like, it's like a lightning bug that's run out of batteries. Not huge, but not small, either.

She flipped it off her plate with a shudder. When the waitress came back, we mentioned it.

"Oh, would you like a new plate?" she asked.

"Yes please," said my daughter.

A few seconds later, she comes back and sets a new version of the same order on the table. It had been very, very quick.

My daughter lifted up the chicken, and sure enough, there was the sauce she had put on the first order. Back in the kitchen, the cook had apparently decided that what we were worried about was the plate. No. Wrong. Bad guess. What we were concerned about was that before it died, the bug had been on the food. Indeed, one might suspect that the bug had died because of the food. We wanted new food.

And we got it. Because after I paid the bill, we got up and went to Subway. We got our money's worth -- it was an adventure, and we all have wonderful memories of the Fly-on-Your-Plate Café. Indeed, we wouldn't be a bit surprised if it became a national chain. Because the prices are really, really low.

Of course, they seem a lot higher if you don't actually eat the food.

*

Spy Kids II is to the original Spy Kids as the Roger Moore 007 was to Sean Connery. That is, overdone, unbelievable, but still entertaining in a weird way. Not for a second do you actually care, but the kids are likeable enough (especially the rival teenage boy) that I switched off my brain and actually laughed out loud several times. Please do not see this movie with your brain engaged. It will use up brain cells that would be better employed remembering grocery lists.

*

The promos for The Road to Perdition make it look dark and bleak, and in fact it is. But it has a great cast -- and it is no slur on Tom Hanks and Paul Newman to say that the most memorable performances come from Daniel Craig as Paul Newman's wacko son and Tyler Hoechlin as Tom Hanks's almost-innocent boy.

Tom Hanks plays the enforcer and hit man for a local mobster (Paul Newman), whose son is a loose cannon that starts getting the wrong people killed. But despite the murderous plot, in fact very little of the violence is onscreen, and the most unbearable scenes are never shown. Like Clint Eastwood's masterwork Unforgiven, this is not a beautiful world; but the achievement of this film is that it shows us goodness and mercy in the midst of evil and despair.

Here's a secret about Tom Hanks's and Paul Newman's acting, and the reason why they have both been so beloved for so long: They never look like they're acting. Unlike, say, Meryl Streep, who always looks like she's working very hard at her job. Yet even though Newman and Hanks both portray characters who are definitely not themselves, a deep inner goodness still shines out of every character. It makes us care about them even when their characters are fundamentally unsympathetic.

And don't forget that those brilliant performances were created on the basis of a script by David Self, based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins.

*

K-19: The Widowmaker is closely based on a real incident. Harrison Ford plays a Russian naval officer given command of a Soviet nuclear submarine at the last minute; Liam Neeson plays the previous captain, who is still on the ship as executive officer, and has the complete loyalty of the crew.

Ford (who plays his part with a convincing-enough Russian accent) insists on constant drills to get a sloppy crew into readiness for any emergency; he also tests the limits of the ship. Neeson, meanwhile, always gives the highest priority to the crew's safety, earning their devotion and becoming the focus of discontent with the captain.

When there's a defect in the nuclear reactor, causing a real risk of a meltdown and nuclear explosion, Ford's insistence on discipline pays off -- but the men's lack of loyalty to him leads to a potentially devastating crisis.

Though Americans play a role in the movie, all the characters we care about are Russians on the sub, and the human drama is extraordinary. Heroism knows no boundaries, and the story is full of people who, doing their best to be good men, don't always know the right way to do it.

Kathryn Bigelow paces it so we never notice that the movie is two hours and eighteen minutes long.

And we get to see once again that, given the right role, Harrison Ford can play complicated characters as well as anyone.

Being faithful to history (with an excellent script by Christopher Kyle), K-19 can't get the moral clarity of Road to Perdition. But the fact that this really happened more than makes up for it. K-19 probably won't get the same Oscar attention as Perdition -- but I think I'll remember it better, and I know I'll watch it more than once when it comes out on video.


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