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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.