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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 1, 2004

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


Thunderbirds, Pit, Nertz, Blink, Fizz, Graham Norton, and Walking Out

I'm old enough to have watched Thunderbirds when it was a puppet show on TV. But I caught a few glimpses of it and thought it was about as dumb as television could be.

So imagine my surprise when the film version turns out to be clever and quite watchable for adults.

In other words, you won't sit there trapped like a fly in a spider web, wishing for death to be swift and merciful, the way adults were in the Jimmy Neutron movie or the way they're bound to be in the upcoming Spongebob Kill-yourself-now movie that's being shown to us now in promos that suggest the end of civilized life on planet Earth.

Director Jonathan Frakes is developing a niche for himself as a director of surprisingly good live-action kids' films -- he also directed the first-rate Clockstoppers back in 2002. Unlike the creators of the miserable Spy Kids franchise, Frakes knows that his audience, though young, expects their films to have stories that matter and have some degree of believability.

He really came through with Thunderbirds. Of course it's fundamentally silly, but it's also right in line with kids' fantasies. To be part of a family whose whole job is using cool machines to save people -- that's not the worst dream a kid could have!

And while there are elements that feel like cliches, so what? They're cliches in kids' movies precisely because these are the things kids are going through in their real lives: Figuring out where they belong; noticing the opposite sex for the first time; learning how to treat other people decently; getting their priorities straight; discovering that not everything is possible, but you do the best you can.

There is a sense of humor in the film, too. For instance, the "future" look is absolutely 1960s futuristic. Especially the furniture around the pool and everything to do with Lady Penelope -- it's hilarious. But Frakes never lets the jokes for grownups interfere with the story.

If you don't have a kid, there's probably no reason for you to see Thunderbirds ... but, on the other hand, if you find yourself at the theater complex with a couple of hours and six or seven bucks or whatever it costs these days, you could do a lot worse.

Frakes is probably hoping to graduate from kid flix to do "serious" films (or at least bigger-budget movies); but, not to wish him ill, as a parent I hope he's stuck in this genre long enough to make a few more really good preteen/early teen movies like Clockstoppers and Thunderbirds.

*

The worst thing about playing games is waiting for everybody else to have their turn. Games that don't involve turn-taking are so much faster. Everyone is playing all the time.

An old family favorite is Pit, from Parker Brothers. The goal is to trade cards, sight unseen, with the other players until you can corner the market in one grain, like wheat, corn, or oats.

The game gets downright frantic -- especially when you need one card and the person who has it has linked it with one of the two wild cards. So he's shouting, "Two, two, two," and you're shouting, "One, one, one," and you're just plain out of luck.

And don't play with Hillary Clinton. She is always dealt a corner in wheat without having to trade with anybody.

When I was in college my family started playing Nertz, an insane card game played with as many decks of cards as you have players. It's essentially a solitaire game -- except that you play on each other's suit piles (the ones that build upward from one, in suit).

There are no turns in Nertz. Alertness and aggressiveness pay off. Also, since everyone is watching their own hand and spread, as well as the suit piles, nobody will notice if you cheat.

So I cheated outrageously and won almost every time. I'm not proud of it. But I was young and quick and could watch about sixteen things at once and hold them all in my memory and I couldn't stand to be held back by mere rules.

Now I'm old, and five-year-olds who can barely count to fourteen can beat me while eating a sandwich. Who says there ain't no justice?

In a shop at Hatteras Landing this week I found a game called Blink, made by Out of the Box. It calls itself "The World's Fastest Game," and it might just be true.

Blink is Nertz ... but faster.

The cards look more like domino patterns than standard playing cards. Each card might contain as many as five pips. All the pips on a particular card will be one of five possible colors and one of five possible shapes.

Each player has most of his cards in a facedown pile in front of him. He holds three in his hand, and has a face-up pile forming in front of him. The goal is to get rid of your cards.

If you have a card in your hand that matches the color, the shape, or the number of pips on one of the face-up piles, you can play on it. And you'd better be quick about it, because when you plan to play a card that matches the number, somebody else might play a card first that matches the color and changes the number, so your card won't work any more.

There are rules that allow for either two or three players. If you have four or more players, buy two games and have tournaments.

*

When I go to a movie, I intend to stay and see the whole thing. The reviews or the ads or the pre-release publicity interviews have led me to expect the filmmakers have done a good job of making one of the many kinds of movies I enjoy.

So when I walk out of a movie it's a big deal.

Sometimes it's not the movie's fault. For instance, there's the time we walked out of Anna and the King, because somehow the theater had got the reels mixed up and the movie was showing out of order. It just wasn't fun, and so we got passes to come back and see it again, this time in order.

Or the time we were watching The Pianist and the theater had a power outage. Again, a rain check -- and my wife's unerring sense of timing -- let us return within a minute or two of where the movie stopped on our first attempt.

But then there was Pulp Fiction. I disliked every character and couldn't wait for some of them to die so I didn't have to watch them any more. I resented the childish manipulation by the storyteller, who was pulling tricks that undergraduate writing students usually get out of their system within their first two creative writing classes. And the events were all so ugly that, unless there was some hope that a great truth about human life was going to be powerfully expressed (and my hope of this was nil, given my lack of faith in the pretentious and shallow filmmaker), why waste my time putting stuff like that in my memory?

Then there's a whole class of movies I just don't go to any more: Horror films. Not just teen slashers, where the filmmakers are trying to come up with cool new ways to kill randy adolescents, like some prurient health teacher who is going to put a stop to all this unsanitary fooling around.

No, I walk out of serious films whose main effect is dread or terror. That includes excellent ones, like Alien and Aliens, or The Others -- which I attempted twice and had to walk out of both times.

The reason I walk out of good horror films is simple: I get too upset. In some ways I'm the ideal audience -- I get completely wrapped up in the characters, I give myself completely to the story. But for some movies, that makes me a terrible audience member -- because it's more fear than I can stand. I have to get away.

Unlike the characters in horror films, who go off by themselves into dark lonely places in search of trivial things like food or cats or stray friends, I have enough sense not to stay in a situation where I'm filled with dread of what's going to happen to people who, however fictitious they are, I care about.

Maybe it's just that I'm too keenly aware of how much real misery and horror there is in the world that I can't see any reason to experience extra misery and horror vicariously at twenty or thirty bucks a pop (depending on how much junk food I buy to go with the tickets).

Maybe it's just because I'm a big baby.

Yeah, that's the reason. I'm a scaredy cat. Unlike my wife, who can lower her glasses and turn everything into a blur, I can still see, except the fine print, with my glasses off. I have no place to hide.

And when I whimper and call for my mommy, the ushers come in and take me out anyway, so I might as well go by myself.

Sometimes that means I miss really great movies, like Sixth Sense. I didn't see that until it was out on DVD. I owned the DVD for six months before I could bring myself to watch it -- and then I saw it on the teeny weeny tv in my office, while playing computer games, so I was only watching it now and then. And it was brilliant. Unforgettable.

So was I wrong not to see it in the theaters? Knowing myself, I was absolutely right.

Sixth Sense looked like it was going to be a very good movie. It looked like there were going to be characters I really cared about. It looked like it was going to make me scream and cry and get mucus all over my moustache and shirt. That's all fine when the lights are out, but when you go outside and other people see your red-rimmed eyes and sopping-wet shirt, they point and say, "Dear, wasn't that the man who howled during the movie and begged for someone to save that poor child?"

By now you should understand that this isn't really a review as much as it is an excuse for not writing a review. I'm not going to see The Village. It's by the guy who made Sixth Sense. And even though the promos make it clear that the movie doesn't care about the characters in it -- the protagonist is a village, not an individual, apparently -- it's still all about making Orson sweat and scream, and I can do that at the gym with a prepaid membership.

There is a movie I went to see the same weekend The Village opened: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. I also walked out of it.

During the twenty minutes we were there, we learned:

1. John Cho and Kal Penn are entertaining, talented, engaging actors.

2. If you don't take drugs and don't care much either for or about people who do, there is absolutely nothing in this film to engage your interest for more than a second and a half.

3. It's a bad sign when you hope that the hero does not work up the courage to talk to the pretty girl who lives in his building, because she can find better men by walking past construction sites.

4. When there are more f-words than gags that make you smile (we don't even try for laughing out loud here), clearly they did not allow an actual talented writer anywhere near the script.

5. There is no comedy so blandly filmed, so unhumorous, so pointless, so offensive, or so boring that you can't fill the ads with quotes from respected sources saying that this is the funniest movie ever made.

The basic structure of the movie -- the hero goes out on a harmless errand and through no fault of his own except, perhaps, a little hubris, he gets involved with a lot of scary bad guys or miserable losers or both.

This is the structure that worked so brilliantly for Scorsese's production of Robert F. Colesberry's After Hours (which will finally be available on video later this month), and for Stephen Hopkins's production of Lews Colick's powerful thriller Judgment Night (arguably Emilio Estevez's good film).

It's even the structure, albeit with a stay-at-home twist, of Paul Brickman's Risky Business (which was released 21 years ago, if you can believe it).

So there's nothing wrong with the basic premise of two guys going out to White Castle because they smoked weed and got the munchies.

This movie sucked because the filmmakers had no talent and didn't care because they knew the audience for it would either be stoned or wishing they were stoned or remembering the last time they were stoned or wondering who they have to talk to in this town to buy weed and get stoned, which means they absolutely would not care whether the movie was even marginally better than Cheech and Chong's outtake reel.

So ... that's why I walked out of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and why I never walked into The Village.

Thunderbirds. Yeah, that's my speed ...

*

Why so much carbonation in American soft drinks? I can hardly drink anything out of a Coke or Pepsi bottle anymore. There's so much fizz it's actually hard to swallow.

Maybe it wouldn't bother me if I didn't have the contrast, like Guarana from Brazil, served at Leblon, and various bottled drinks from Europe.

For instance, the French Orangina, the Italian San Pellegrino flavored waters (aranciata and limonata), and my new favorite, the French Lorina sparkling lemonade and orange drink.

Orangina you can get at Harris-Teeter and often in other places, while the San Pellegrino and Lorina drinks are at Fresh Market.

They have enough carbonation to make them a pleasure to drink, but not so much that you can't swallow for belching. I suspect that American soft drinks are grossly overcarbonated so they can sit on the shelves for eight years without losing their fizz.

Shelf life is the ruin of American packaged food. We put up with "treats" that are designed to be mediocre so that they will still taste exactly as mediocre two years later. In fact, I suspect that ten million years later, when unopened Coke bottles are pulled out of archaeological digs, they will still fizz upon opening -- and still be nearly undrinkable unless you chill it so much that it freezes your tongue so you can't taste anything anyway.

*

The Graham Norton Effect on Comedy Central -- it's the funniest late-night talk show on television. It's also so filthy I can't recommend it to anyone -- not even me.

Remember back when Letterman was funny? You know, when he was doing stuff nobody had ever done before that you always wanted to do? Like dropping stuff off buildings or running over it with steam rollers to see it smoosh. Now what does he do? "Will It Float?" and "Is This Anything?" and clips of President Bush taken out of context to hold him up to ridicule -- over and over and over again.

Hey, if he's going to do something a thousand times, at least let it be something mildly amusing. The only reason to watch is the Top Ten List, and then only when he doesn't have somebody else read them.

Remember when Conan was funny? Back when he and Andy Richter went "driving," when they did "In the Year Two Thousand," it was cool. It was new. Now what do we have? Conan introducing dull new "characters" -- ha ha ha -- and interviewing people very badly. Though not badly enough to keep him from being better at it than Leno or Letterman.

Graham Norton, on the other hand, brings a kind of manic exuberance to his show. He's so sincerely cheerful that even when he has people doing hideously embarrassing things or telling appalling stories, Norton makes it fun. You almost don't notice that your standards are being degraded to the point where your sense of public decency finally disappears altogether.

Norton is an OK interviewer -- for the fifteen seconds he actually converses with his guests. (Longer, if the guest has an appalling story to tell.) Then he has the guests stand there while he leads some poor audience members in doing something gross and hilarious.

I was not bored for a second watching Norton. Nor was I embarrassed, the way I was while watching Something About Mary, for instance -- that's a movie that's only funny while you're remembering it. While you're watching, you're embarrassed to be seeing the actors humiliate themselves.

Nobody is humiliated on The Graham Norton Effect. No matter how ridiculous or gross or offensive something is, Graham is so enthusiastic about it that you find yourself thinking, "That's a good idea."

In short, Graham Norton is the devil.

What, you thought the devil would be sinister and ugly? No, he'll be jumping out of his skin, he's so cheerful and happy to see you. Like a big lonely puppy.

Watch at the peril of your soul.


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