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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 18, 2004

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


Shadow Children, I, Robot, A Cinderella Story, and Tomatoes

For many years, one of the finest writers of science fiction and fantasy has been William Sleator, author of Interstellar Pig and Singularity.

But he's never received any notice in the science fiction community. No Hugo or Nebula Awards. No speaking engagements at sci-fi conventions, at least not that I've heard of.

That's because his novels are published in the Young Adult (YA) category. And too many adults have the parochial idea that if a book is certified as being accessible to and valuable for children, it must therefore be beneath their notice.

But children are the most demanding of audiences. They have no patience with stories that don't make clear to them from the beginning why they should care about and believe in the characters, events, and problems in the story.

The result is that YA books have no room for writers to show off. Instead the prose must be clean and clear, and the story must move forward at a pace that makes "thriller" writers look like caterpillars -- lots of steps, but little progress.

From the beginning of our marriage, my wife and I have read YA literature, not for our children's sake, but for our own. Long before we had children who could read, we blew through the works of E.L. Konigsberg and Louise Fitzhugh, along with the brilliant early YA writings of Patricia McKillip.

Still, we can't read everything, and new writers come along that we haven't noticed.

It was our ten-year-old daughter who introduced us to Margaret Peterson Haddix, through the first two books in her "Shadow Children" series.

Among the Hidden is the story of a young teenage boy, Luke, who has grown up knowing that no one outside his family can ever be allowed to find evidence that he exists.

Because they live on a farm, he was able to play outdoors as a child; but when the stand of woods behind their house is seized by the government and houses are built there, he is no longer allowed outside at all.

In fact, he has to hide from the windows in his own house -- they dare not keep the blinds down, or people will get suspicious and report them to the Population Police. For in this dark vision of the future, famine led to the installation of a totalitarian government that maintains a monopoly on food -- and a draconian policy of no pets, no junk food, and no more than two children per family.

Luke is a third child. His parents love him, but if he is seen, not only he but also his parents might well be killed.

If he had remained safely indoors, there would be no story. But he is enticed out of his house by the sight of another child who is obviously illegal and hidden.

The second book, Among the Impostors, follows Luke, now equipped with a false identity, to a boarding school where he is mistreated and isolated until he finds a way to get outdoors and start to grow a garden. Soon, though, he finds that nothing at the school is what it seemed.

A former teacher and journalist, Margaret Peterson Haddix is a compelling and powerful writer. Even if you don't have children of an age to enjoy these books, buy them for yourself. I promise you, they'll be among the best books you read this year.

*

When I first got involved with Hollywood, I was in a meeting where we were discussing stars who could open a movie. I had proposed the name of a black actor to play the lead in a screenplay I was trying to set up. The response was immediate: Black actors can't open movies.

"What about Will Smith?" I said.

"Will Smith always has to be teamed with a white actor," I was told. And this in the presence of, and with the apparent agreement of, my agent at the time, who was herself African-American. "It's not our fault," they assured me. "It's the American audience. They just won't support black actors in leading roles, not in numbers big enough to pay for expensive thrillers."

This was before the execrable Wild Wild West and the confusing Ali made it look like Smith couldn't open a movie at all. For a while there it looked like he was a star who totally depended on a couple of franchises: Bad Boys and Men in Black.

Guess what. With I, Robot, Will Smith proves that he absolutely can open a movie, and probably could have all along. What he can't do is open a bad movie.

He has that mix of toughness, humor, and vulnerability that works for Bruce Willis and even for Clint Eastwood; we have to see that under the violence there's a lot of inner pain, and when Smith is given a script that shapes his character as a human being, he can make the character come to life for us.

I, Robot was a long time coming. Isaac Asimov's career and reputation as a fiction writer were largely built on two series, the Foundation books and the robot stories and novels.

Asimov was a writer of surpassing clarity and brilliance, and his robot stories centered around ethical dilemmas inherent in the three laws of robotics.

The trouble with filming his robot stories has always been the lack of a compelling human character. The human point of view was largely provided by the unemotional, seemingly robot-like Susan Calvin.

When I saw the promos for the I, Robot movie, I was filled with dread. Of course I was going to see the movie -- my wife and I are both Will Smith fans -- but it looked as though it was going to be one of those formulaic Hollywood scripts -- an important work of literature force-fit into a standard action movie.

To my astonishment, writers Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman captured the essence of the robot stories and created a compelling human character and preserved the Susan Calvin that we readers have long loved despite her coldness.

Not only that, but they didn't dumb down the science fiction. From the trailer, I thought the robots would be dorky -- they looked like they had been designed by the same guy who created the cheap plastic look of the iMac computer.

Instead, the design was excellent -- they never looked like fake humans (cf. Spielberg's miserably pretentious melodrama AI), and yet they were capable of just enough human expression that an actor, Alan Tudyk, is given a full credit for playing the main robot character.

Remember Tudyk's name -- he's done excellent work in films like A Knight's Tale and Dodgeball, and even though his face doesn't show up in any recognizable way in I, Robot, he will someday be as memorable an actor as James Spader.

Bridget Moynahan is also outstanding as Susan Calvin, the icy robot psychologist who thinks she knows the rules -- but proves herself adaptable when she finds out just how wrong she was.

As a science fiction writer, I usually view sci-fi movies with contempt. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, but then they beat down all my hopes with sheer stupidity. Thus after Matrix Reloaded, I argued with my son, who thought it largely failed; it wasn't until Matrix Revolutions that I had to admit he was right and the core ideas of the trilogy stood revealed as hokey and lame.

Most sci-fi films treat the audience like a bunch of morons. And because we go to these movies in large numbers, the studios come to believe that we're just as dumb as they hoped. Truly smart sci-fi movies like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind are rare -- and don't make anywhere near as much money as the latest entry in the How-Stupid-Can-We-Make-Star-Wars series by George Lucas.

So I want to go on record as pointing out that I, Robot is smart science fiction that deals with complicated moral issues in a wise and illuminating way. There is plenty of ambiguity but also a dose of clarity.

But we can't really be surprised, with the Oscar-winning Goldsman aboard as one of the writers. True, Goldsman is at least partly guilty of a couple of Batman movies and the ridiculous Lost in Space, but there's also that Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, the hilarious script of Starsky & Hutch, and the only excellent film made from a John Grisham book: The Client.

I, Robot is better than the best movie I could have imagined coming out of Asimov's robot universe. It's a relief to know that, in the right hands, a great work of science fiction can be made into a film worthy of the original.

*

Expectations were set low for A Cinderella Story. Designed as a vehicle for teen star Hillary Duff (Lizzy McGuire, Cheaper by the Dozen, and a budding singing career), the film was regarded as so unimportant that the studio allowed it to be shot from first-time screenwriter Leigh Dunlap's script -- and they didn't even bother to bring in six or seven other writers to "fix" it.

The result is that, seemingly by accident, Warner Bros. has a film with a coherent point of view and a well-balanced sense of humor.

Sure, the satirical presentation of the stepmother and stepsisters is a bit over the top, as befits the villains. But the characters who need to be real are written with a genuineness and wit that gives the actors something to work with.

Director Mark Rosman did a superb job in his first major film -- i.e., his first movie that actually got studio promotion. The pacing is good, the story cleanly told, and while the director never calls attention to himself, there are many cleverly placed shots and nice touches that bode well for his future efforts.

The storyline has been cleverly modernized. Dunlap actually came up with a scenario that would justify having Cinderella a virtual slave -- by making her late father the owner of a diner, where now, under her stepmother's tyrannical rule, she has to work -- on roller skates -- whenever she's not in school.

And while the school has its share of mean kids, the "prince charming" character, quarterback Austin, walks that delicate line between being lord of the high school and still, secretly, being a sensitive guy who doesn't want to follow his father's script for his life.

In fact, that's what the movie is about. Both Sam (the Cinderella character played by Duff) and Austin are trapped in their family's expectations, and while Sam's stepfamily are malicious and exploitative, Austin's father is merely enthusiastic and unable to conceive of his son wanting a life different from the one that Dad has dreamed for him.

This is not just a retelling of Cinderella, in other words. The idea of an email relationship is lifted from You've Got Mail -- but fairly so, since there really are a lot of secret-identity relationships out there. It's part of the culture, not a mere literary invention.

Back in the mid-80's, though I was long past my teens, I snuck off to see The Breakfast Club and other John Hughes films that offered something deeper than the nerd vs. jock cliches of other teen flicks. (That was before John Hughes forgot what human beings looked like on the screen.)

Films like that are few and far between. But Dunlap and Rosman (and I suspect that the producer, former Warner Bros. exec Clifford Werber, has a lot to do with this as well) have succeeded in creating something that wakened those same feelings in me -- a real understanding of (and nostalgia for) those dramatic years of adolescence, and genuine compassion for the teens who suffer most in the years of self-creation.

Chad Michael Murray as Austin shows a strong ability to be both sensitive and cold, vulnerable and strong. He's going to be a major star, if he chooses his roles wisely. And Hillary Duff has the talent and the screen honesty to rise out of her teen years as a fine actress capable of significant work.

The real discovery of this movie, though, is Dan Byrd as Carter, Sam's best friend. Playing the kind of role Jon Cryer played in Pretty in Pink -- the goofy, nerdy friend with a heart of gold -- he gets his laughs for his character's eccentricity, but, far more importantly, earns our belief in him as a real person. I don't know what the future holds for this wonderful actor -- slightly goofy teenage faces don't always lead to major adult careers (though Cryer is doing well in the fabulous and filthy tv series Two and a Half Men). So just in case this is your only chance to see him, don't miss A Cinderella Story.

In fact, there are many reasons not to miss this movie. I know, the reviews have been pretty negative, but that's because reviewers always seem to punish sensitivity in teen films, mocking the sentiment. It's as if only brash, smart, showy teen comedies like Mean Girls and Fast Times at Ridgemont High deserve to exist.

But the reviewers are wrong. There is real value in teen-centered movies that have compassion as well as cleverness, nobility as well as comeuppances. And that value is there for adults as well as teenagers. Maybe even more for adults, since we all know how such stories come out in the real world.

And how do they come out? For the decent and compassionate kids who hold onto that ability to love, it turns out pretty well. There can be a lot of sorrow, but good people manage to make joy out of the sticks and straws of life. The endings of such movies as this can feel a little cheesy (though this one succeeds far better than most); in real life, it's not that there are no endings, it's that there are lots of endings, too many to show in one two-hour flick, but there's plenty of room in a human life to see them all.

People who see the world that way, however, rarely get gigs as film reviewers for major entertainment media.

*

My summer garden success story: Tomatoes!

Every year I've suffered the pain of watching tomato plants grow, blossom, and start to bear fruit -- and then turn yellow and brown and die from the inevitable fungus.

This year, I was grimly determined to beat the athlete's-foot-of-the-vegetable-world, and with the help of the fungicide Mancozeb Flowable, the only one that actually worked, I have kept these suckers alive long enough to bear fruit.

A lot of fruit.

Instead of trying for the big, beefy tomatoes that take forever to get ripe and don't taste all that great when they finally do, we planted roma tomatoes that we got at New Garden Nursery (on Lawndale just up from Fresh Market). Since I was traveling too much to plant anything in early spring, I bought big, well-established plants; they were bearing fruit within minutes, it seemed.

Now we're spending the summer eating caprese salads and other tomato-laden delicacies, with the bracing flavor of fresh romas in every bite. To my surprise, fifty tomatoes into the summer I'm not tired of them yet.


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