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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 29, 2006

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


Nanny McPhee, Metro, The Narnian, and the U.S. Marines

Don't even think about not going to see Nanny McPhee. If you've been good, then this movie will be your reward. And if you've been naughty -- well, you need Nanny McPhee more than anybody.

The story sounds like predictable children's-literature material: A widower (Colin Firth) has seven deliberately awful children, whose appalling antics are designed to get the thing they cannot have: Father's attention, and life back to normal.

Meanwhile, wealthy Great Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) has vowed to discontinue the monthly allowance that the family lives on unless Father marries before the end of the month. Since his work as a mortician would not begin to pay the rent, this would lead to the children being split up and put in orphanages while Father went to debtors' prison.

Unfortunately, he has not told the children this, so when he brings home the only woman he has a chance of marrying in such a short time (played to disgusting perfection by Celia Imrie), they do their best to -- well, not quite kill her, but close enough, using the same kind of pranks they used on nannies, before the agency went out of business with the announcement that there are "no more nannies!"

It is into the midst of this turmoil that Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) inserts herself. Her magical intervention is crucial in bringing the family back together, but she requires the children -- and their father -- to come up with their own solutions to their problems.

Based on the extravagant "Nurse Matilda" stories by Christianna Brand, which are virtually unknown in the U.S., the script (by the Oscar-winning Emma Thompson wearing her brilliant-writer hat) strikes a delicate balance between comic fantasy and serious, heartfelt storytelling.

Thompson is on record as saying that Nanny McPhee is something of a cross between The Sound of Music and Shane. I can see her point, but in other ways it combines the wit and whimsy of the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) with the deep magic of the live-action Peter Pan (2003).

The script is matched by a setting that is at once lush and restrained. The old house is a glorious architectural nightmare; but only the porch is painted in the vivid colors of comic fantasy. There are layers of absurdity: The would-be wife brings garish new colors into the movie, which depart with her.

Yet the seemingly mismatched elements of the story are so delicately combined that to the audience it feels seamless. We laugh; we cry. And in the Saturday afternoon showing we attended, the audience burst into general applause at the end. How often does that happen in the real world?

It helps that director Kirk Jones (whose only other credit is Waking Ned Devine) has drawn superb performances from everyone. We expect no less from Emma Thompson (in my opinion the world's best living actress), Colin Firth (who is embracing his maturity), and Angela Lansbury (who is, in her old age, giving what may be the best -- and certainly is the funniest -- performance of her career).

The children not only give engaging performances, you can tell them apart. They put the Von Trapp family's seven children to shame. (Though, to be fair, these kids never had to wear curtains or sing "adieu, adieu, adieu, to yeu and yeu and yeu.")

Those of us who loved Love, Actually and Tristan and Isolde will instantly recognize the oldest boy, Simon, played by the utterly real and winning Thomas Sangster. He is joined by five other children who are differently attractive, impossible to believe in as siblings, and delightful. (The baby is cute, but a grownup does the voice.)

Nanny McPhee herself is the deus ex machina of the film; at the heart of the story is the humble and sweet scullery maid, Evangeline, played by Kelly Macdonald, who has added much to movies like Elizabeth, Gosford Park, My Life So Far, and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, but without making the leap into recognizability. Let this movie put an end to her anonymity.

*

The hype about the new Carcassonne game -- Carcassonne: The Discovery -- is that it's the best of the series. But that depends on what you enjoyed most about the previous games.

If what you loved was the strategic positioning of tiles, while the long-term strategy and complicated scoring of the earlier Carcassonne games left you rather cold, then this one is certainly an improvement. It scores constantly and quickly, and you can finish a game in an hour.

But if you cared most for the implied story in the earlier games, watching your holdings increase in value or plotting to link your fields with someone else's in order to take them all away, then the simplicity of The Discovery will disappoint you. At our house, it's a draw.

Our favorite new game from Christmas (not that we've had a chance to play them all yet!) is Metro: Paris 1898. This game has nothing to do with the real Paris subway system, except for the names of the stations on the board. Instead, it's a tile-laying game, in which you draw tiles that show different configurations of track; then you have to place them on the board in a way that will either help your own potential score or shut down an opponent.

The rules are simple and few. The most complicated thing was figuring out that the game requires that if there are only two players, they must be blue and yellow; if you add one, it must be orange; and so on.

That's because every game uses the same Metro stations, so if you have only two players, each of you gets half of them; with three, you get only a third; and with each new player added, you get fewer stations. So the last colors added need fewer station markers.

After that, though, the most important rule is that you can't lay a tile that will end a track in the same station where it began. Other than that, as long as you orient the track tiles correctly, you can sometimes end up with cool spaghetti-like tracks that meander all over the board (and rack up huge scores) -- or you can find an opponent maliciously ending one of your tracks so that it runs across only one or two tiles, earning you fewer points.

In the real world, if you were designing subway routes you would not get more points for laying the longest possible track between stations; in this game, the shortest, most direct route is not the one you want.

Because the players reshape the playing field with every tile they place, the game is never the same twice, and it shifts constantly. It's endlessly fascinating and fun. Our eleven-year-old likes it as well as we adults do. I recommend Metro highly.

Where do you find games that aren't on the shelves at Toys 'R' Us? Go online to Funagain Games (http://www.funagaingames.com) and bookmark the site. I think it's true that there really is no store anywhere that has a better selection of nonelectronic games.

*

My recent column on Darwinism vs. Intelligent Design got the predictable reactions: Fanatics from both religious extremes railed at me as if I had painted their babies blue, while a handful of thoughtful people took my suggestions seriously enough to engage in rational discussion.

One of those pointed me to an interesting website that propounds the theory of Panspermia -- the idea that our world (and perhaps others) was seeded with life from space. I have no particular interest in this extravagant theory, but what marks the website is that it offers serious, intelligent criticism of Darwinism as a sufficient explanation of evolution -- not with the agenda of proving the Genesis account, but rather in strictly scientific terms.

If you want to read serious, fact-based critiques of Darwinism, check out Http://www.panspermia.org

Another website worth looking at is Movies Unlimited. I can't verify that they really have every movie that is available, anywhere, on DVD or VHS -- but they have every movie I was looking for -- including the ever-elusive Studs Terkel musical Working (on VHS only, alas, but you take what you can get).

There's no way the local Blockbuster or Borders can keep all these films in stock. Isn't that what the web is for? Look for Http://moviesunlimited.com. If you want the catalogue, it costs a few bucks; or you can just browse the site.

*

C.S. Lewis was a great and fascinating man. As a teenager he embraced atheism even as he was drawn to the "Joy" of nordic myths -- he wanted magic, but without God in the story. Gradually, though, he became less and less satisfied with godlessness, and eventually found his way into full-fledged faith in Christianity -- whereupon he used his formidable intellectual gifts, for a brief period of his life, to write some of the best Christian apologetics ever written.

But that is far from summing up his career -- or his life. He also wrote the Chronicles of Narnia -- and the non-Christian novel Till We Have Faces (his best). And in the meantime he continued to teach at Oxford and, eventually, Cambridge, while writing The Allegory of Love (still a seminal work on medieval literature) and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, a masterpiece of scholarship.

His was a complicated and often troubled life. His mother died when he was young, and apparently he and his brother found their father annoying. But whatever their father's flaws, he did what it took to get Lewis a superb education that prepared him for his life as an intellectual giant.

Meanwhile, however, Lewis found the center of his life in friendships. (Even his longtime liaison with a woman literally old enough to be his mother, Mrs. Moore, became an exercise in unbreakable friendship long after the heat of passion faded.) Unlike his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis did not create a family; rather he attached himself to two women who were already mothers, and tried to be a decent father to their children.

A new biography of Lewis, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, by Alan Jacobs, is one of the best biographies I have ever read. Jacobs is not afraid to let his own views appear from time to time, but he adheres rigorously to the known facts and does not let himself get caught up in speculation. Several times he says (more or less): "The only people who knew the truth of this situation never said anything to anybody, making it a waste of time to try to guess."

What Jacobs does is relate Lewis's writings to his life, not in an effort to show that all his fiction was mere disguised autobiography (it wasn't; it never is), but rather to show us what he was writing during various times in his life, and what particular motifs meant to him, as demonstrated by his private writings and experiences.

The result is a relatively slim book that nevertheless gives the reader a sense of having seen Lewis whole -- with his work, his life, his friends, and his ideas respectfully and honestly laid out before the reader. I admire a good biographer; Jacobs shows himself to be a particularly excellent one.

*

I was never a soldier -- and have no regrets on that score! Especially after reading Nathaniel Fick's superb memoir of his experience as an officer in the U.S. Marines, One Bullet Away. Fick went from Dartmouth into Marine officer training -- two opposite worlds, yes, but not impossibly so.

Fick writes very well and gives us the feeling that he is telling the unvarnished truth. His own mistakes -- and other people's -- are shown without condemnation; their triumphs are shown without excessive praise.

If you want to know what war-fighting is in one of America's elite services, this book is easily the most readable one you are likely to find. Fick was in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has opinions and he shares them, but he doesn't seem to care whether his readers agree with him or not.

It's as if he's saying, "Here's what happened. Here's what I think about it. But no matter what you think or I think, this is what happened."

And beyond that I do not intend to go. Fick needs no one else to explain, summarize, or even blurb for his book. Especially if you think you dislike or distrust the military, you owe it to yourself to read this book, not because it will convert you into a fan of the Marines, but because after reading it, at least you'll have some idea of what you're talking about.

You'll also know why the Marines call themselves not just "the proud," but also "the few."

*

I recently wrote about academic music. I got a letter from a friend who is a composer whose works have been performed by several professional orchestras, choirs, and other ensembles over the past decade or so. He told me two stories.

"When I was preparing to enter university, I talked with an older gentleman at my church -- a professional cellist, conductor and composer who had eked out a living as a musician his whole life.  (He remembered as a student going to a concert of Ravel's music at Eastman conducted and performed by the composer, and thinking how bizarre the music seemed.)

"One evening at the church I was talking to him about how I had been accepted into the music department at the university.  I played him some piano pieces I had written, and he shook his head sadly.  He said, 'You have a wonderful gift for melody.  Their going to take that away from you -- or at least they'll try.'"

Then he recalls his own educational experience as a composer in college:

"I can't remember exactly when, but probably in first year, I was in a harmony class, and the professor was illustrating some point or other with musical excerpts.  He put on an orchestral piece of Webern (one of Shoenberg's star students -- Webern is beloved of theorists because his music is so much fun to analyze -- very intricate and tight, like an unbelievably dense crossword puzzle).

"After listening for about a minute I was actually breathing heavily and fighting back tears, not because it was so beautiful, but because it was so ugly.  "Is this modern music?  Is this what I'll have to write?"  I felt as if a terrible burden were being placed on me.  If I wanted to be taken seriously, I would have to take this 'modern' path.

"And, indeed, for the next eight years I tried to do just that (most of the time -- at least with stuff I handed in to the professor), although I was never very good at it.  I just don't have the temperament for the avante garde.  However, I don't begrudge that phase; I became a different composer because of that exposure, and I think I am better for it.

"I wish my natural inclinations had been nurtured more, though.  It wasn't until I had left academics behind several years that I had the courage to just write what I felt and not worry about being 'original' or having to justify it to anyone. And now I get downright mad when I hear some 'great new composer'

played and it's the same old ugly hogwash that no one wants to listen to."

My friend makes the valid point that there's nothing wrong with teaching atonality along with all the other techniques and schools and traditions in music. The problem is requiring composition students to work only within that tradition. It's laughable that this is still considered the "avant garde," when obviously it has become the establishment.


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