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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 21, 2005

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


Brothers, Dogs, Hand-Me-Down, and Chop House Grille

I wasn't sure of what to expect of Four Brothers, except that the trailers made it look like an exciting movie with a cast, headed by Mark Wahlberg, that looked believable as the vengeful adopted sons of a murdered Detroit do-gooder.

The look and feel of a movie in the trailers can be deceptive, though, because most movies rise and fall according to the quality of their scripts, and you can't tell a thing about a script from the promos.

John Singleton's presence as director suggested that the mean-streets milieu would be handled believably -- Singleton remembers what a lot of directors forget, that people also live in high-crime neighborhoods. In the midst of gangs and crime, people also shop and have Thanksgiving dinner and play street hockey.

The script turned out to be excellent. Smarter than it had to be. Terrific dialogue. Complicated relationships.

And if it made us think it was a remake of (or at least an homage to) The Sons of Katie Elder -- well, if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.

It's a little bit gory and there's plenty of ugly language. Though neither felt excessive to us, some people might be bothered by it. The film is not about shocking us, though. It's about men who owe a debt to someone they loved, and make sure the debt is paid.

I'm not in favor of vigilante justice -- I vote for civilization, myself -- but the film sets up circumstances in which official justice is simply unavailable. (In fact, the subplot involving a couple of cops, played wonderfully by Terrence Howard and Josh Charles, is one of the best parts of the movie.)

What clinches the movie for me, though, is the caper that ends the movie. Everything is set up so that even though the bits and pieces of it are surprising, they also make perfect sense. (In other words, unlike the Ocean's Whatever movies, the filmmakers don't have to go back and show us a replay in which they reveal what really happened.)

That's how caper movies are supposed to be done. And this one's very good.

*

With Must Love Dogs, I can't say it's "very" but only "pretty" good. With a cast like Diane Lane, John Cusack, Christopher Plummer, Elizabeth Perkins, Dermot Mulroney, and Stockard Channing, it should have been brillliant.

I mean, these are among our most gifted actors and everyone of them has been extraordinarily good in role after role. When you assemble them into one romantic comedy, you have to expect that they'll be doing something superb.

Or at least a "high concept" film whose concept is high enough to be worth them all making the gamble. I mean, an actor has time to make maybe a dozen films during his or her acting prime. Then the character roles set in.

Cusack is showing his age a little; so is Mulroney. They don't have a lot of leading-man years left. Diane Lane is still gorgeous, but they won't be giving the sexy-woman parts to her much longer.

So every film they choose to do is an investment.

Unless they're already panicking. Because there is a bit of a hint of panic in this movie.

Don't get me wrong -- Gary David Goldberg, who wrote and directed the film (from a book by Claire Cook) has a terrific gift for comedy. He created Spin City, after all; he knows how to make a scene absolutely click.

The trouble is, he doesn't know yet when he actually has a movie. Something that holds together. Something that resonates.

Compare this with the greatest of the romantic comedies -- Sleepless ..., ... Mail, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, even a fantasy like Groundhog Day -- and Must Love Dogs insists on staying on the B-plus list.

Why? Because it's so relentlessly about its premise. Internet dating! Cool! OK, let's have a woman who's just been divorced and we'll have her meet one guy at her job -- we'll make her a preschool teacher -- and another guy through the internet -- John Cusack, building boats! -- and it all gets complicated!

A manufactured script.

Because not for one second did the writer -- either of the movie or the book -- bother to make any of this believable. If Cusack has never sold a boat, then how is he paying his bills? If Lane is a preschool teacher and her ex-husband was a fireman, how in the world did they ever buy that house? Talk about fantasy!

Nobody ever talks or even thinks about anything except the topic of the movie. It's as if the characters, not just the actors, knew they were in an extended comic essay on internet dating and they never stray from the assigned subject matter.

Even the film's token gay couple, who were obviously present only to help teach America to get used to accepting gay couples as normal, stick to the subject as relentlessly as high school debaters.

But it is this cast, and the dialogue is really good, and the individual scenes do work.

So we enjoyed it, and we're glad we saw it. Despite its flaws, we weren't annoyed at the end, we were pleased.

One thing, though, made me sad. Not one person in the movie -- not one -- seemed to regard the idea of sleeping with people they aren't married to as being a problem.

And yet in the real world, the only people I know who actually live like this aren't clever and charming, they're sad and kind of desperate, trapped in a juvenile sex-chase; people as seemingly wise and thoughtful as these characters appeared usually treat sex as something too important to waste on strangers, too important to use up without commitment.

So it's as if this film were a letter from another planet, the planet Propaganda, where the citizens have decided to toss out the carefully evolved rules of marital monogamy and are now determined to proselytize everyone to their "new" morality by pretending that it works. Only it doesn't work. It has never worked. And anybody who looks at the anecdotal and statistical evidence knows it doesn't work.

The whole movie is based on a lie -- that promiscuous sex is harmless to consenting adults.

You've got to give Two-and-a-Half Men credit: It doesn't pretend that Charlie Sheen's promiscuous character is actually happy or even sane. Just funny.

*

Even when a book cover screams that it's a chick book and men better not touch it, I sometimes pick it up, and sometimes buy it, and then, sometimes, read the whole thing from cover to cover, chortling in delight and even shedding the occasional tear.

Hand-me-down, by Lee Nichols, is set in an impossibly glitzy world: The heroine, Anne, lives in the shadow of her swimsuit model older sister Charlotte and her famous-intellectual other older sister Emily. (Yes, the same three names as the Bronte sisters; what were their parents thinking?)

But Nichols is such a good writer, giving us enough detail and making the older sisters complicated enough that we buy the premise. Anne is the plain daughter among swans, rejecting anything that's even slightly used because she's so sick of growing up with nothing but her sisters' hand-me-downs.

So naturally she keeps running into Charlotte's old boyfriend, who keeps on being weirdly attractive despite the fact that she does not want him.

There's a lot of humor in this book -- easily a movie's worth (why don't people make movies out of books like this!) -- but what makes it work is the honesty about the frenzied mistakes people make with their lives. Even happy people are unhappy and unsatisfied; nothing is how it seems; and as we gain more and more insights into Anne and her sisters and the lives they've shared, we love them all the more and fret over their mistakes until finally the story ends -- very satisfyingly -- and the reader sits there grinning like an idiot because it just plain makes you happy.

Of course, this book also suffers from the "nobody thinks twice about sex" syndrome -- the collective self-deception of the American intellectual community, which denies the obvious evidence of how most of us live by pretending that we're somehow weird or backward.

It's been one of my frustrations as a writing teacher. My students actually get better -- I can teach them to use specific important tools that improve their chances of getting published and finding an audience.

But what I can't do is get them to take an honest look at the world around them, instead of seeing it filtered through the viewpoint of the wilfully blind intellectual community they almost invariably run into in college and on television and in movies and in books like this.

So I loved this book for Nichols's true eye for relationships and her gift for dialogue and her masterful handling of a very tricky first-person narrative. And at the same time was sad that a writer of this talent would swallow the idea that this is how everybody lives nowadays.

Of course, she is writing about a family that spawned a trendy feminist and a swimsuit model. But everybody else in the book seems to think they're living in the same glitzy if-it-holds-still-sleep-with-it culture, too.

I wish Lee Nichols would do the anthropological research to find out how most Americans live and toss us an occasional novel set in our world, where people wait for marriage and don't find it acceptable when other people move in with each other without benefit of wedlock -- not because we're religious fanatics but because we know that this is what civilization in general and our children in particular require of us.

*

On the way home from the beach a couple of weeks ago we had a fabulous opportunity. A friend who works on the crew for various country-music tours emailed me and offered a chance to have free passes to the Kenny Chesney concert at the Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh.

Not only that, but the great Gretchen Wilson was the opening act. (Keep your eye out for her upcoming album, by the way. She sang a couple of songs from it, one a paean to her tiny hometown in Illinois and the other a defiant anthem, that are bound to be big hits, and deservedly so.)

The performances were terrific and those who were watching the concert got a good show that was centered on the music.

The surprise, however, was how few people were actually watching the show. People pay more attention at a baseball game, where nothing happens for minute after minute. Here, where the music was continuous, people were climbing in and out through the rows, coming back with either more or less beer than they left with.

And rude? Man ... the woman who stood up directly in front of a big man who asked her very nicely to sit down so he could see the stage and answered him with an obscene gesture and foul-mouthed defiance -- maybe she thought she was showing her "redneck woman spirit," but what she was really showing was her absolute faith in the decency of strangers.

Because there was a time when nobody would have treated a man that big so contemptuously. He could have crushed her like a bug. She was absolutely counting on the fact that he would take all her abuse -- her theft of his ticket money, in effect, along with her open contempt -- and not harm her in any way. Not there in the amphitheater, and not on the way out to the parking lot, either.

I wonder if people that stupidly, barbarically rude really understand that they are parasites sucking the blood out of public decency. She can only act like that because she knows that other people won't. She calls it "her right." But it's a right she has only because he was raised not to give a "lady" a fourteen-row shove when she flips him off.

The saddest thing was that as she did her twitchy little dance moves to the music, all of us behind her had a prime view of just how saggy her poor aging backside was. If she could have been shown a video of how she looked from behind, she probably would have sat down immediately and concentrated on her beer.

The ushers wouldn't do a thing to get her to sit down. I guess standing up and blocking the people behind you really is a right at an outdoor concert like this.

But heaven help you if you try to carry a Coca-Cola product into this Pepsi-franchised venue. The ushers know how to stop that!

I did take the guy aside and assure him that we admired his self-restraint. "If it's any comfort," I told him, "we want her dead, too."

Fortunately, my wife and I were soon summoned by our friend and led away backstage. It was unbelievable to see how many trucks and buses were involved in mounting this tour. Given what the expenses are, it's unbelievable that they can keep ticket prices so low!

Cigarettes are endemic backstage -- there's only one nonsmoking bus, and from what I saw, I wondered how they managed to fill it. The buses are like sleeper cars -- lounges at the front and back, and tight sleeping berths in between.

It's a lonely life, going from town to town, exhausted all the time, never seeing anything but the bus and the truck you load and unload, and the arena itself.

But Kenny Chesney is a decent boss. For instance, at the end of the tour he'll be taking his crew and their significant others down to the Virgin Islands for a big party at his expense. And while he keeps tight control over the show -- and you know it if he's not happy with the way you did your job -- he's a good guy who has his employees' respect.

And make no mistake -- Chesney is in charge of the show from beginning to end. Everybody knows his or her job and does it -- but the buck stops with Chesney, who has a microphone directly behind him that pipes his words only to the earbuds of the band and the crew. That's how he tells them that they're extending a set, adding a song, doing more verses, or cutting early -- or that he's not happy about something that just happened, or didn't happen.

There's a real sense of family, including teasing and playfulness. In one number, Wilson came on in a big blond wig -- which soon ended up on the head of the lead guitarist. That was new, and much of it was improvised on the spot.

And the bass guitarist, who was recovering from emergency open-heart surgery, had not been replaced. Instead, they had glued a picture of his face onto a lifesize cardboard cutout of Chesney himself and propped it up where he would have been standing. So he even got his intro -- gone but not forgotten.

Standing in the wings, watching the show with our precious VIP pass, we saw a different show. For one thing, all those massive speakers were throwing their incredible sound outward and away from us.

So we could actually hear. My daughter and my brother and his wife and daughter -- the other recipients of those great free passes -- were sitting in front, nursing their earplugs so they didn't actually bleed out from the noise. But we, without earplugs, could understand every word.

In an amphitheater like that, those speakers were essential -- that's how people at the back of the grassy area could hear the music. The sad thing is that they use the same sound setup in enclosed arenas, where you don't have to throw the music through open air.

Of course, the musicians don't mind -- they have one ear plugged and the other wired into the sound system so that the volume is set at a comfortable level.

On stage, you realize that while Chesney and Wilson throw their hearts into their performances, they're also keenly alert to everything going on around them. Nobody gets "lost" in the music -- they can't afford to.

For one thing, people throw things onto the stage, and with rare exceptions, they singers just move around them. They're aware of exactly where all the obstacles are, and they miss them.

All of this in high humidity and oppressive heat, without a speck of air conditioning, and bright hot lights beaming down on them, while prancing and singing their guts out. They're working hard -- they only make it look fun and easy because they're such excellent performers.

Chesney and Wilson have created a lot of music that I love. Now I also have great respect for them as performers -- and as human beings. Their crews are loyal because they've earned that loyalty by treating them well and making them feel like they're part of the show.

Not every touring star is like that.

It's a hard life, but it's got to be at least a little easier when you feel like the show you're part of is great, and the people who are getting rich from it don't think they have the right to treat the "little people" badly.

*

The Chop House Grille in the new shopping village (just east of Elm on Pisgah Church) is open now -- the first place to be doing business in Koury's delightful new development.

Like the Gate City Chop House at Holden and Market, they specialize in simple but perfectly done traditional meat dishes. Since we don't eat that much meat -- and when we do, we tend to go to Leblon, where you get such a splendid variety -- we haven't visited Gate City Chop House that much in recent years.

So we can't guess whether both restaurants show the new ambitiousness that we found at the Chop House Grille. Oh, the plain-but-perfect prime rib (our daughter's choice) is still there, but my wife and I, ordering the perch and the halibut, were pleased to see that they were doing interesting -- even bold -- things with fruit and underlying sauces and vegetables and grains.

My only concern was that my side dish of mashed potatoes tasted like a mouthful of salt. Apparently somebody in the kitchen had misread the recipe, our waitress explained. But the obvious question was: Didn't anybody taste it before serving it to customers? Especially when it was only the fourth day of operation -- are they that confident already?

(And the real surprise was that this inedible dish was not taken off my bill. But, as I said, this crew was still somewhat new.)

Ultimately, I expect little wrinkles like this to be ironed out quickly. The overwhelming impression we got from Chop House Grille was a bold new take on traditional dishes, with elegant surroundings and reasonable prices.

It's so nice to finally have a first-rate restaurant north of Cone. Ever since the late lamented East-West Bistro closed, we've had to drive well out of our neighborhood to find really good food and first-rate service -- at least as far as Positano or Café Pasta or Green Valley Grill or Grappa Grill, if not farther.

It'll be nice to have one plausible choice that's only a mile and a half from home. Now we'll just have to hope our neighbors take this restaurant to heart as well, so it can stay open for a long time to come.


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