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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 24, 2005

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

Wonka, Penguins, Goblin, Conrad's Fate, and Hard Case Crime

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wasn't as bad as the trailers made it seem it would be.

That's about as nice a thing as I can say about it. Because this movie commits the worst sin a major feature film can commit: It's boring.

It starts well enough. Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie Bucket, is as engaging a child actor as we've ever seen. His weird family is quite charming. And the rickety, leaning house they live in is visually perfect.

It's the other children that are boring. Yes, they changed the kid who watches TV all the time to one who plays videogames -- but then they did nothing with that later on in the film.

By and large, each kid is just one thing: Competitive, bratty, greedy, obsessive. There's no attempt at making them believable.

Maybe if they had been funny, it wouldn't have mattered that they had no dimensions beyond the single "humor" each one represented. But they didn't represent anything I've seen in the real world.

I know a few competitive, bratty, greedy, and obsessive children -- and none of them acts like any of these kids. Not by the time they get to these ages.

Or maybe it's the parents who are being made fun of. There certainly are plenty of overindulgent, hypercompetitive, or neglectful parents in this world. But again, none of them acts like these parents.

So whom, exactly, is this movie making fun of?

Then we meet Willie Wonka, and the boredom begins in earnest. In best Johnny Depp fashion, the performance is mannered beyond any hope of resembling an actual human being, but it's so unrealistic that it isn't even creepy.

It's just a guy capering in front of a camera. Like a really bad home video of somebody trying to make the person holding the camera laugh.

We get lots of Wonka's boring backstory -- his father was a dentist who never let him have sweets. Boo-hoo. Or was that supposed to be "Ha ha"? Who can tell? I was fighting to stay awake by then.

And the chocolate factory was supposed to be glorious and wonderful. Instead, each scene was quickly grasped and there was nothing more to it. Only the elevator was mildly interesting, and then only for moments at a time.

The Oompah-Loompahs were all played by one guy. Oh, that was just a riot -- the first time we realized it. But we get that same joke over and over and over again. Yawn.

At the end of the movie, even those who had had no trouble staying awake (i.e., all those under 12) said, "Let's go home and watch the real version."

By which she meant the Gene Wilder performance, which was witty, warm, a little scary, and very funny.

But what do I know? This tedious film is making money hand over fist. So did the Jim Carrey Grinch and Cat in the Hat. So apparently there are huge audiences of people so bereft of imagination that the set design and special effects were dazzling, or so lonely that these performances looked like human beings to them.


You want to see a good movie? Then go to March of the Penguins. You can't tell the characters apart in this movie, either -- but since they're penguins, you're not supposed to.

I know, it's a documentary, and therefore it's not supposed to be entertaining.

But following the unbelievably hard lives of these penguins as they trek back and forth across Antarctic ice in order to mate, lay eggs, and keep their young alive until they're old enough to survive on their own is a fascinating story.

The camera work is unbelievably good. These crews had to film through bitter Antarctic storms and under the freezing water at the edge of the ice shelf; they had to trudge along the penguins' route watching them from every angle; and they had to deal with the fact that penguins don't actually care whether they live their lives at just the right angle for where the camera happened to be placed.

When you see how the males and females play tag-team parenting, you begin to realize that when it comes to mating, we humans actually have it pretty easy.

There's real heartbreak in this film, as well as humor and fascination. Each baby penguin that makes it to the sea feels like a triumph.

And at the end, stay through the credits -- because that's when they show us something of what the humans went through to take these shots.


So the Koury Corporation, in their new development on Pisgah Church just east of Elm, has laid down splendid walkways for wheelchairs and strollers, with lovely ramps to get over various obstacles as people pass back and forth between the new shops and Koury's other shopping center next door.

Then they put in a long traffic island in the wide drive that leads to Pisgah Church.

The island was necessary to keep car traffic moving smoothly and safely. But they made no ramps for the safe passage of wheelchairs and strollers.

So anybody actually using the sidewalks they so carefully put in will find that in order to cross the street, they have to go around an obstacle, forcing them either to go downhill and back up again at the bottom of the island, or go out to the very edge of the traffic lanes on Pisgah Church, risking life and limb.

Didn't the people designing the traffic island and the people designing the sidewalks ever get a chance to talk to each other? How much more trouble would it have taken to let the wheelchair and stroller routes go in a straight line?

It'll be entertaining to see how they stripe the crosswalks -- my guess is they won't do it at all, since it would expose the incompetence of the design of the traffic island.

But they're hardly alone. Where Corporate Parkway meets Elm Street, the traffic island there does the same thing -- it blocks the straight path between sidewalks, so that pedestrians have to go out into the traffic lanes to get around.

It's all just part of the contempt for pedestrians that goes into local street planning. The city government, which should be looking out for us, lets these things go -- I suppose because there aren't enough pedestrians to swing an election.


Speaking of bad road design, if you're coming toward Greensboro from Burlington on I-40/I-85, and you want to catch the freeway that goes north and links up with US 70/Wendover -- easily the best access to most of the northeastern part of the city -- you'd better have your wee thinking cap on.

Because the signs saying "to US 70" have arrows that point straight ahead -- even when you're right on top of the exit. Or at least that's how a rational person would have to read them -- there's nothing to indicate that the exit for US 70 and the freeway spur leading to it is anywhere close.

Just part of the North Carolina tradition: If you don't already know where it is and how to get there, we don't want you to ever find it.

So you can take Wendover east to that freeway spur and use it to get into I-40/I-85 quite easily. But don't expect to be able to use it to get back. Because unless you're lucky or experienced, you'll never find it, and you'll end up on McConnell Road/Lee Street or somewhere even farther west.


A few weeks ago I reviewed Hilari Bell's YA fantasy novel The Wizard Test. I enjoyed it enough that I wanted to try out her earlier book, The Goblin Wood.

It's the story of Makenna, a young hedge witch in a medieval land whose mother, also a witch, is executed cruelly by the very villagers she had long served with small magics.

In her rage, Makenna seeks vengeance, not just against the villagers, but also against the ruling class that wields so-called Bright Magic -- the people who decided to crack down on unauthorized magic use.

Without quite meaning to, Makenna finds herself in an alliance with the goblins who are also being persecuted, hunted down, and murdered as part of that same crackdown. And soon she is leading them in a kind of insurgency, using the goblins' disparate magics to drive humans out of the north woods where the goblins seek to live in peace.

Then Bell brings in another character, a young would-be knight named Tobin who, falsely condemned for treason, is given a chance to redeem himself by finding the mighty sorceress -- they don't know Makenna is just a hedge witch -- and killing her.

The story is complicated but clearly told -- and the bad guys turn out to have real reasons for their actions, so Bell is quite fair, too. This seems to be her specialty, giving readers many different perspectives on the same moral dilemma so they can see that things are never as simple us good vs. evil.

Which isn't to say that Bell doesn't occasionally cheat. She wants us to care about the goblins, so she makes sure we see them as invariably honorable, when they're not downright cuddly. Hard to think why anybody would want not to have a few living in their back yard.

But that's a minor flaw in a splendid little story. At half the length of the latest Harry Potter, you can read it together as a family on a single car trip. And if you happen not to have anybody at home who is officially in the YA age group, get it and read it for yourself.


The long-reigning queen of YA fantasy novels, however, is Diana Wynne Jones, and her latest novel, Conrad's Fate, will remind you why.

It's not an accident that Miyazaki's brilliant animated films have twice been based on novels by Diana Wynne Jones -- Howl's Moving Castle and, before that, Castle in the Air.

She has the kind of quirky imagination that can take you to worlds that have familiar bits, but all mixed up so that there are unexpected delights around every corner, even as you recognize most of the people in the book.

The cover tells you that Conrad's Fate is "A Chrestomanci Book," which is good news if you are already following that series, and even better news if you're not -- because you can start with this book as easily as any other. Everything you need to know in order to understand this story is contained within it.

It's the tale of a young lad whose family lives in his uncle's bookshop, where the children are virtual servants, expected to cook and clean even though the uncle is making quite enough money to hire those jobs done, if he weren't such a miser.

Their widowed mother is no help -- she is so focused on writing her feminist books that she seems barely to notice that she has children. And when Conrad's older sister runs away to go to university, all the work falls on Conrad's shoulders.

Which he bears, for a few years. But when it's time for him to go on to high school, his uncle demands that he not only quit school, but become a servant in the Stallery mansion at the top of the mountain beside the town.

The reason is that dark magics are taking place there, and the uncle, an amateur magician of no mean talent, knows more about it than anybody else. He gives Conrad a magical charm and tells him to use it once he has identified who his enemy is.

In other words, this young teenager has had his dreams taken from him -- and replaced by a role as an assassin.

It goes without saying that nothing is what it seems -- but what it is is marvelous fun, thrilling adventure, and extraordinary dilemmas. Conrad does end up committing murder, of a sort, and he also ends up as a hero -- again, of a sort -- and along the way we get a sort of Gosford Park social commentary.

You could say that Diana Wynne Jones is Julian Fellowes with a wand.

Or maybe it's truer to say that Julian Fellowes is merely Diana Wynne Jones without the magic.

Forget comparisons. Conrad's Fate is a nonstop pleasure to read. And, again, it's half as long as the latest Harry Potter. You can spare the time. You owe it to yourself.

For as the Harry Potter books have shown, some of the best writing of our time is being published as fantasy for younger readers.

But pay no attention to the books that are deliberately trying to imitate Harry Potter. Go on to the writers who, like Rowling, are simply inventing wonderful stories that don't owe anything to anybody.

NOTE:   An alert reader informs me that Miyazaki's film "Castle in the Sky" has nothing to do with Diana Wynne Jones's novel "Castle in the Air." This would have been obvious to me if I had had a copy of "Castle in the Air" at the time of writing, but I did not buy it until afterward. I apologize for the error, but am relieved that by making this correction, I am now perfect.


Dorchester Publishing has come out with a line of paperback mysteries called "Hard Case Crime." And while I hesitate to endorse a whole line of books when I've only read a couple, I think I'm about to do exactly that.

Besides, they're only paperbacks! What have you got to lose? They cost about as much as three gallons of premium, and you burn that just driving around town.

Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game is one of his early works (1961), but he was already a master of the hard-boiled detective genre. His hero is a con man who skips from town to town, leaving behind angry hoteliers and taking with him only what he can wear.

Of course, times have changed -- nowadays you have to pay for hotel rooms in advance -- but the time period is part of the charm. Especially when a piece of luggage he picked up "by mistake" turns out to have an awful lot of heroin in it. Some things, you see, are timeless.

Be warned that Block is candid about sex in a way that might irritate some readers. But if you've been reading much contemporary fiction, it won't bother you.

David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun is even older -- it was first published in 1949. You've probably seen at least one of Dodge's stories -- he wrote To Catch a Thief, which, when it was made into a movie, brought Grace Kelly to Monaco, and the rest is history.

His setting this time is the west coast of South America, when the hero is given a job: to transport a stolen archaeological artifact back to its country of origin.

His task is complicated by the fact that a lot of people want it -- and the man who hired him drops dead before the ship reaches port. Toss in a pretty nurse/companion with an agenda of her own, and you have just the kind of hard-boiled detective story that used to star Humphrey Bogart.

It's a great tradition, and I'm glad they're keeping it alive. Look for that "Hard Case Crime" label.

Just a word of caution about the Stephen King entry. His book isn't bad, but it doesn't really belong in the series. It's more of a "cozy" than a hard-boiled detective story -- more like Miss Marple, only very short, and without an answer at the end.

The rest of them, though, are the real thing. Google "Hard Case Crime" and you can get the complete list.

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