Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 26, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Sky Captain, Skinny Dip, Custard, and The Longest Night
It's shot in muted colors that remind us of black and white movies. It
has the look of the future that was envisioned in the 1930s, when streamlining
of trains and cars was still new and the covers of sci-fi magazines and comic
books showed spindle-shaped rockets and huge hulking monster robots.
Whenever a movie has such a deep investment in visual style, it usually
means that style is what the movie is about -- not story.
This can poison even wonderful movies. I think at once of Brazil, Terry
Gilliam's faux future in which ductwork is the dominant design element. I
loved every minute of this film ... even though the story sagged like power lines.
Brazil was the most successful of such style-dominated films.
Pleasantville played games with black and white -- but the story was deeply
stupid and propagandistic.
While Hudsucker Proxy was the best of the Coen Brothers' films ... except
that they allowed Jennifer Jason Leigh to do a relentlessly bad parody of the
'40s tough-broad style, to the exclusion of any kind of actual acting.
If you play a style, you're not playing a part, you're forcefitting it to a
concept. So when I saw the promos for Sky Captain and the World of
Tomorrow, I had high hopes -- and dismal expectations. The promos looked
But I dreaded the presence of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose empty acting
wrecked Emma, and of Jude Law, who keeps taking odd roles that require
stylized and soulless performances, leading me to wonder if that's all he can
Most of all, I was afraid that there wouldn't be a story that anyone could
care about. Story is a fragile thing, and when you're concentrating on style,
you start making story decisions arising out of what you want to "bring off"
rather than what the characters would do.
Still, we allowed hope to trump cynicism. We did the research on
ScreenIt.com, verifying that it was OK to take our ten-year-old, and settled in
at the Grande.
It was a wonderful ride. Story was not ignored. In fact, writer-director
Kerry Conran did a splendid job of telling a first-rate story of the kind that
dominated sci-fi magazines and comic books in the age of streamlining. And
even though the special effects harked back to that earlier era, he still managed
to instill the movie with that earlier era's sense of wonder.
Jude Law's performance was still brittle, and Gwyneth Paltrow's was still
empty. But their banter was pleasant and the movie works. We were not
bored for an instant. At the end, our ten-year-old said, "It felt like it was only
fifteen minutes long," and we agreed.
And yet ... when you compare it to, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, you
realize that the period style did cost something. There was not the intensity of
identification with the hero that we felt with Indiana Jones. Ultimately, the
style was the star of the film.
So I can promise you a wonderful job of filmmaking -- but not a movie
that fills you with such excitement that you can't wait to tell your friends. I
can't imagine this concept being better done than Sky Captain; it has been
taken to a limit.
But there's a reason we don't make 1940s sci-fi movies anymore.
Futuristic storytelling has moved on. Nostalgia is no substitute for passion.
This is a fine bit of filmmaking. But its coolness of design guarantees that it
will be no more than an interesting footnote.
This is Kerry Conran's first movie. Can't wait to see what he does in full
color with live actors.
When novelist Carl Hiaasen tries to be funny, he isn't. But when he
concentrates on telling a great story and lets humor arise out of the characters
and situations, there's nobody more entertaining to read.
There's something fragile in his books that resists translation to film.
His novel Strip Tease from ten years ago was wonderful, but you'd never guess
it from the Demi Moore movie Striptease that was supposedly adapted from it.
I suspect that Hiaasen's sly style could be adapted to film, but it would
take a screenwriter and director with as much wit as he -- and the same weird
mixture of cynicism and naive enthusiasm. The fools who made Striptease
were so dumb they thought it was a movie about a stripper.
Hiaasen's new novel, Skinny Dip, falls nicely within the tradition of his
two-word titles -- Lucky You, Stormy Weather, Sick Puppy, Basket Case -- and
is one of the best of them.
The premise is clear and delicious. Chaz Perrone takes his wife on a
cruise to celebrate their second anniversary. In the middle of the night, he
takes a walk with her on deck, bends down, grabs her by the ankles, and
heaves her overboard. Then he tells the police a story about her going for a
walk and never coming back.
He was counting on either the fall or the sharks killing her. But she was
a champion swimmer and she turned her fall into a dive. The force of the
impact stripped her clothes off her, and the swim was so far that if she hadn't
found a floating bale of marijuana to cling to, she wouldn't have made it to
But she does make it, washing up on an island where a retired cop saves
her and then becomes her co-conspirator in a plot to get even with her
murdering husband -- without letting him know she didn't die.
And that's just the premise. Hiaasen spews out plot like a gusher does
oil, but there's not a misstep in the whole book. And yet he does it without
making his characters ever do a thing that you couldn't believe a real person
doing. Admittedly, it is sometimes an idiotic real person -- but real people do
idiotic things, as my own autobiography will someday attest.
Summer's over, but books like Skinny Dip are never out of season.
Gregg Keizer once lived in Greensboro, back when Compute! was one of
the hottest magazines in the midst of the Atari and Commodore 64 craze. He
left behind a career as a junior high school English teacher in Salt Lake City,
and when Compute! faded away, he stayed with the computer writing biz.
Keizer is also a former writing student of mine -- though I am on record
as affirming that I never taught him a thing. He already knew how to create
characters, tell stories, and write language that pulls you through a story like
getting your tie caught in the bus door.
He was writing science fiction in those days, but his first published novel
isn't sci-fi. It's a World War II thriller called The Longest Night, and it has a
great premise: New York mobster Meyer Lansky is persuaded to put serious
money into an effort to rescue a trainload of Dutch Jews being shipped off to
death camps, with the hope that by showing it can be done, the allies will be
shamed into making larger efforts to rescue more.
But Lansky didn't get to be a powerful gangster by trusting people. He
sends along a hit man who insists on the nickname "Mouse" to guard the
money. Mouse, however, has an agenda of his own.
Keizer's research is excellent but invisible -- you never get a sense of him
showing off. Instead, his characters move through three different underworlds
-- of hoodlums, the Dutch underground, and the SS's Final Solution team --
with complete credibility. And along the way we come to care deeply about
several characters, even though we know they aren't all going to get out of this
The novel is, in short, a noble romantic tragedy, despite the morally
squalid world in which all the characters are forced to -- or choose to -- live.
I've lost touch with Keizer over the past twenty years. The first I knew
this novel existed was seeing his name on the cover in a bookstore. I owed him
a read; he earned the rave review by writing a thriller that also succeeds as a
serious novel, with deep wisdom woven through the adventure.
Not many writers even try to deal with complicated moral issues in the
midst of shootings, explosions, and Nazis. But Keizer was never a writer to
settle for anything less.
I got back from Germany only a week ago, and it has taken incredible
self-control that one bar of chocolate still remains from the stash we brought
home. None of that waxy American taste, folks -- as usual, good foreign
chocolate makes it impossible for me to enjoy our home-grown eternal-shelf-life
imitation of chocolate.
Then a few weeks pass and I recover from the delusion that chocolate
should have flavor and I'm back to Snickers and Twix and Peanut M&Ms, in
my long-running effort to prove that you can exercise hard for an hour a day
and still gain weight.
In Germany they have invented a new form factor for chocolate bars:
thick and narrow. Only a little more slender than string cheese, these bars of
simple or filled chocolate are the perfect size for a snack. Just enough to
satisfy; not so much you feel like you actually committed a serious sin by
Of course, if you then eat three of them ... but that's getting a bit too
Kohl's Frozen Custard is worth going to for dessert alone -- when you
want rich creamy soft ice cream, frozen custard is as good as it gets, and when
you get them to mix in ingredients of your choice in a "hurricane" (other frozen
custard places call such concoctions "concrete" because it's the most
splendidly thick milkshake you can imagine), it's worth dealing with the traffic
patterns on Battleground (a block or so from the Carousel theater, heading
But we also discovered that Kohl's makes a great hamburger and good
fries -- you can go there for dinner with the kids before the movie. Just don't
order your custard when you get your meal -- or make sure you get the
custard first and have it finished before the burgers are ready. Because this is
one place where you sure don't want to let dinner spoil your dessert.