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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 12, 2006

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

Shaggy Dogs, Chuzzlewit, Sweet Salads

The Shaggy Dog is really two movies. One is a genuinely funny story of a busy, neglectful father (Tim Allen) who discovers what he's been doing to his family when he is transformed into a dog.

The other is a lame, tedious, sometimes offensive courtroom drama centered on an evil corporation that is creating chimeras -- animals blended between two species -- in pursuit of a longevity serum.

Both storylines have great performances: Tim Allen is superb is a doglike man (and the dog ain't too bad as a manlike dog). And Robert Downey, Jr., manfully pays his penance for previous career-wrecking misbehaviors by giving an outstanding performance as the villainous corporate greedhead in a dumb comedy.

Both storylines have major stupidities. The evil-corporation story is a bizarre mish-mash of scientifically "explained" magic, in which the science is so outrageously stupid that kids who see this film may take years to recover from it.

And in the man-becomes-dog storyline, they didn't pay attention to obvious details that were truly irritating. When Tim Allen turns into a dog, he leaves his human clothing behind, once in a back alley, once in front of corporate headquarters while a homeless man looks on, and once in a dog pound.

Why the homeless man didn't steal the clothes, I don't know. And why didn't the guy at the dog pound check the i.d. in the suit and call the wife and say, "Your husband came in here and he must have left naked and on foot because I have all his clothes and wallet and car keys."

The wallet and car keys were the biggest problem. He kept leaving them behind in dog form, and yet never missed them when he was restored to human form. He always seemed to be able to drive his car. He never seemed to have trouble finding his money and credit cards.

I can hear the filmmakers impatiently saying, "If you buy that a man turns into a dog, you're going to quibble about wallets?"

But that's precisely why they should have attended to these details. When you're trying to win the delight and laughter of an audience through a completely unbelievable fantasy concept (man becomes dog), you need to surround it with a wealth of correct details to continually buttress believability. It's harder and harder to laugh, the dumber and dumber the storyline becomes.

The other completely unbelievable moment is when the son, who has previously been described as the best musical-comedy talent in his middle school, bursts into a song from Grease and can't hold the pitch. The kid is awful. American Idol-level awful. And yet everybody still pretends to think he would be anything other than disastrous in a musical comedy.

Then, at the end, they put the dog on a surfboard in Hawaii in a special effects sequence so badly done that both at a distance and in closeup it doesn't look as good as the now-cheesy special effects in The Ten Commandments. Most people could have done better with their home computer. If you don't have the money to do the special effect right, then don't put it in the movie.

This movie is worth seeing for Tim Allen-as-dog -- and for nothing else. It was a pleasant-enough way to pass a couple of hours with my family.

But it mostly made me want to see the originals again -- 1959's Fred MacMurray/Tommy Kirk/Tim Considine/Annette Funicello/Kevin Corcoran The Shaggy Dog, and 1976's The Shaggy D.A., with Dean Jones, Tim Conway, Suzanne Pleshette, Dick Van Patten, and Keenan Wynn -- a virtual roll-call of Disney's stable of charmingly inoffensive actors.

So the very next night, we invited over some friends and we all watched the black-and-white Fred MacMurray Shaggy Dog together. Some had seen the new one; some had not.

It was a different kind of humor, from a different time. No jokes about waking up naked -- the clothes apparently migrated with the dog-man transformations. And the pace was slower, with more empty set-up between gags.

Which meant it wasn't trying so hard to be funny -- but it was successful at humor a higher percentage of the time.

The plot was built around spies coming into the neighborhood, and there was an interrogation scene (of an American citizen) that is a reminder that nobody back then even thought we had the rights that the Patriot Act is supposedly taking away.

But it was just about as lame a plot as the new movie's. And without today's special effects, all the transformation we got was tufts of hair sticking out every which way, a paw sticking out of a sleeve, and then poof, he was a dog. Even back in 1959, when I was about eight years old, I knew that the transformations were fakey -- a crossfade just isn't a morph. But nobody cared -- we went along with the fantasy.

In fact, what feels truly fantasy-like now is the social order. Since the person actually being turned from human to dog and back again was Wilby, the teenage boy played by Tommy Kirk, the story focused on teen life. Admittedly, even then this was a rather cleaned-up version of teen life. Kids in those days thought about sex just as much as in any other era. But they didn't expect to be able to do as much about it.

And, more importantly, the social order was centered around not encouraging kids to be in situations where they could have sex. There were chaperones, of course, but there were also higher expectations. Plus, kids were not expected to start dating as young as they do now, or to date anyone exclusively -- the "wild" boy played by Tim Considine had to take two girls on the same date before he crossed the line; these days, teenagers seem to think they're "going together" after one date.

Look, I don't know whether the first movie is better than the new one. The movie arts have vastly improved. But the writing hasn't. Neither, to tell the truth, has the acting. Those were pretty good actors in most of the roles back then -- and pretty good actors in most of the roles now.

So why did the older movie seem less smarmy, artificial, and smug than the new one? It was officially the fifties that had a corner on those "virtues."

But not really. It's in the nature of the smug establishment to condemn in other eras the very things that it is most guilty of itself. The absolute certainty of moral rectitude has not changed -- only the list of good guys and bad guys.


Amazon.com has started something they call "plogs." It's a page of some political writer's blather that automatically appears when I sign on to Amazon.

If I want to read blather, I write my own, thank you very much. And their guess about what I want to read is offensively wrong.

They try to guess, from my book purchases, what I want to read. But I buy books that I know I'm going to disagree with, when I respect the writer and believe he or she has something to say that I need to be aware of. This does not mean that I want to read the boneheaded stupidities of political commentators who are purportedly of the same political camp.

And I can't get rid of it. Oh, yes, I can click the tiny word close written at the top of the essay. But I have to do that every time I sign on -- and I loathe even seeing the commentary. What Amazon does not provide is a way to shut off the whole feature. I do not want to have them automatically subscribe me to a "plog." And I am furious that they do not allow me to unsubscribe.

The result is that I am insulted every time I sign on to Amazon. Especially because they call it "Orson's Plog." It is not my plog. I hate that plog. It makes me want to shop at BarnesAndNoble.com.


After watching the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre productions of Great Expectations and David Copperfield, we decided to work our way through all the promising-looking adaptations of novels by Charles Dickens. We hadn't yet received the DVD of the recent Bleak House, about which we had heard much. So we picked up the 1994 adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, a novel I long avoided because the name sounded so dumb, and found a real gem.

And there are reasons why this isn't the most respected of Dickens's stories. Everything depends on the main "good guy" being a manipulative prig, which was dealt with in this film version, but remains a bit of a problem; and the most virtuous character, Tom Pinch (Philip Franks) is simply too virtuous not to seem a little dimwitted and so nobly tragic one almost had to wince -- while he remains caught in the British class system that keeps him forever under the thumb of or beholden to his moral inferiors.

Still, the story is a sound one. Rich Martin Chuzzlewit is fed up with the hypocritical relatives who are constantly sucking up to him or putting the touch on him for money. Yet he relishes the power that his money gives him over others, using it to punish his grandson, also named Martin C. (Ben Walden), for having dared to become engaged to Martin Sr.'s penniless but beautiful-and-virtuous ward, Mary Graham (luminously played by Pauline Turner). How Old Martin is manipulated and manipulates in return creates the twists and turns of an intricate soap opera plot; but what makes this production so wonderful is that the world seems so fully populated with fascinating-yet-repulsive characters.

Compared to the rather simple through line of Copperfield or Great Expectations, Chuzzlewit seems positively labyrinthine, yet this production is so good that despite a slow start, I ended up feeling as though I'd lived through a more compelling story than either of the more famous books.

This production of Chuzzlewit stars the late great Paul Scofield in a masterful performance as the title character (and also as the brother whose death triggers so many nasty events). As with all good Dickens productions, however, this was an ensemble show, with excellent performances by (the also late and also great) John Mills as the aging servant Mr. Chuffey, Keith Allen in a brilliantly sinister and brutal role as Jonas Chuzzlewit, Julian Fellowes, smarmy as you could hope for in the role of Dr. Jobling, Paul Francis a complete charmer in the role of the child servant Bailey, Pete Postlethwaite lovable as the scoundrel, agent, and con man Tigg Montague, Steve Nicolson as the determined-to-be-jolly-no-matter-what Mark Tapley, and Tom Wilkinson simply amazing as the hypocritical Seth Pecksniff.

Indeed, Tom Wilkinson has had a brilliant career playing gorgeous character roles in dozens of movies, while never looking like a movie star. In fact, he is so subsumed in his characters that you scarcely recognize him from film to film. I did not realize until I looked him up on IMDB that he was also Dr. Mierzwiak in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins, and also appeared in such varied fare as The Patriot (as Cornwallis), Rush Hour (as Thomas Griffin/Juntao), In the Bedroom, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, and too much television to even start listing.

In other words, he works constantly, never achieving stardom, but obviously having the complete respect of his fellow actors.

And I haven't even started on the women. Pecksniff's daughters (Emma Chambers as Charity and Julia Sawalha as Mercy) at first seem grotesquely funny, but eventually become rather tragic as they reap the consequences of their own selfishness and vanity -- one has higher hopes for them than for their learn-nothing father. Julia Sawalha will be instantly recognizable, complete with her charming, empty-headed, malicious giggle, to regular watchers of classic Masterpiece Theatre because of her roles as the youngest daughter in the miniseries of Pride and Prejudice and two of the Hornblower movies.

The glory of this movie, though, is in the middle-aged women who are given a romantic life -- Maggie Steed in the role of the hard-working, easily deceived Mrs. Todgers; and Lynda Bellingham as Mrs. Lupin, the innkeeper who finds happiness when the younger Mark Tapley falls in love with her.

In short, there is not a bad role or a bad performance in the whole cast. You could teach a semester's acting class using this movie alone.

Still, it all comes down to Paul Scofield -- as it should. Scofield earned a permanent place in my heart for his perfect performance as Thomas More in Man for All Seasons, which continues to head my list as the best movie (at least for me) ever made. Dignity, wisdom, danger, sorrow, all can flash across his face without any perceptible change of expression.

Scofield is, in an odd way, an American-style actor -- that is, his roles disappear into him, instead of him into his roles, as the British style prefers. But the man who keeps appearing through all his roles is one on whom majesty easily settles, and a powerful kind of honesty as well. I keep trying to write characters that an actor like Paul Scofield could play; unfortunately, now that he's gone I'm hard pressed to think of an actor of similar gifts.

So I'll just go back and rewatch Man for All Seasons ... and Martin Chuzzlewit.


Back in 1986, I ran across the delightful and hilarious book White Trash Cooking (Ernest Matthew Mickler), which included recipes for some truly dreadful dishes that were apparently invented by people searching for a snack just before payday, when the house was not well-stocked with actual ingredients of anything.

My favorite was the potato-chip sandwich, in which you slather mayonnaise on two slices of white bread, pile up potato chips on one of the slices, and then mash the other slice down on top of the pile until it's flat enough you can get your mouth around it. Crunchy, delicious, appalling.

I gave copies to friends, some of whom replied with some of their own delicious-but-horrifying foods. One friend told me about "stirred-up," a family treat she was raised on in Louisiana. You mix up maple syrup and peanut butter and no, you don't put it on bread. You just eat it.

There have been three White Trash Cooking sequels: White Trash Cooking II: Recipes for Gatherin's, More White Trash Cooking, and The Treasury of White Trash Cooking. Also, Ruby Ann Boxcar has a series of books called Ruby Ann's Down Home Trailer Park Cookbook, Ruby Ann's Down Home Trailer Park Holiday Cookbook, and Ruby Ann's Down Home Trailer Park Guide to Livin' Real Good.

What these books have in common is that they focus on, and make affectionate fun of, the odd eating habits of the poor and southern.

But it ain't just the poor who cook like this, nor southerners either.

My wife was perusing the latest (April 2006) issue of LDS Living Magazine, which exists in order to sell stuff to Mormons. (I am not deploring this, by the way. Where else can you find ads for modest wedding dresses -- i.e., dresses that are not designed to show everyone who attends the wedding most of the vision that used to be reserved for the groom, later, in private? Ever since the official Mormon Church magazines stopped carrying advertising, there had been no way for advertisers to reach a Mormon audience except through online zines like Meridian.com.)

Anyway, my wife came upon a "Family Guide" item called "Salad Spectacular" -- a collection of recipes with the tagline "It's the perfect time to freshen up your entrees and snack foods with vegetables."

The recipes all look respectable enough. Till you see a sidebar entitled "Salads Sans Lettuce."

Without a hint of irony or April-foolishness, they present three recipes. One is for a "Sweet Summer Salad" that combines lots of fruits (mostly canned) with a can of thawed, undiluted frozen lemonade concentrate and a half-cup of orange marmalade. And this is the healthy one.

Then there's "Caramel Apple Salad," which, in my view, loses the right to be called a "salad" the moment the recipe includes "1 container (8 ounces) frozen whipped topping, thawed," "1 cup miniature marshmallows," and "1 package (4 ounces) instant butterscotch pudding mix."

Only in Mormon culture could this considered a "salad." Anywhere else, it would be a "sickeningly oversweetened dessert designed to rot your teeth and put you in an early grave."

This is rather ironic, considering how much we Mormons pride ourselves on our health code. Yeah, we don't smoke or drink -- but we do inject ourselves with butterscotch pudding and frozen whipped topping from time to time.

But the piece de resistance is the "Snickers Salad."

I could stop there and you'd get the point. But it's actually worse than the name implies. Because the entire ingredient list consists of 6 regular size Snickers bars, 6 large apples, and 1 container (8 ounces) of frozen whipped topping, thawed.

Heaven forbid we should splurge and use giant Snickers bars. That would be unhealthy!

If it has chopped-up apples in it, I guess that makes it food.

Can you imagine sitting down to a church supper where somebody brought this concoction as a salad?

My question is: What in the world do you serve for dessert?

Not all the trashy cooking in America is done in trailer parks.


I do a lot of shopping online, and there's a tiny annoyance that is repeated so often that I finally have to speak up about it.

I'm talking about the forms where you fill in your billing and mailing address. They trust you to type in your own name, street address, phone number, and credit card numbers. But apparently they think we're too stupid to put in the name of our own state.

So they force us to choose our state's two-letter abbreviation from a list.

Why is this irritating? Because my browser provides a prompt for all the other elements, which I fill in identically in form after form; I can fill everything out by typing and tabbing, never lifting my fingers from the home keys. (We touch typists regard this as essential.)

But come to the state -- the easiest thing to type, just two letters -- and they make me reach for the stupid mouse and choose from their list.

OK, maybe that is precisely the purpose -- to make you prove that there is a human involved and you don't just have a machine typing things in. But what's the point? I'm paying them money to buy something.

Or maybe they want to make sure those two-letter abbreviations are used -- but why? They trust us to enter a street address that the post office can recognize, why not trust us with the name of the state as well?

Besides, it's not that hard to come up with a programming solution -- whatever we type, the software parses it and converts Conn. or Connecticut or Tenn. or N. Car. or Cal. or Calif. into the two-letter abbreviation.

Or -- here's a thought -- they could have the software allow you to input two letters. Right now, if you input one letter of the state abbreviation, it puts you on the first state name that begins with that letter. That's fine if you want to fill in "UT" for "Utah." Type a U and there's no other state that's going to pop up. But C or M or N or S, and you have quite a nice long list.

Nor is the list alphabetized according to the state abbreviation. Most of the lists are alphabetized by the name of the state. Thus the N list, which should begin with NC, begins with NE for Nebraska, because Nebraska comes before North Carolina, even though NC comes before NE. So they provide one list, but alphabetize according to another list which is not present. Did they think this would make it somehow easier for us to locate the correct state?

I am so grateful to those sites that just leave a blank for the state name and let me just type instead of having to reach for the mouse and try to determine which alphabetical order they have decided to use.

I know, I know, if having to mouse my way to NC on a list is the worst thing that happens to me, then I'm actually having a good day. There are people with real problems in the world.

But why should web designers add completely unnecessary irritations to our lives?

NOTE: Thanks to Mark Pitts for pointing out that actor Paul Scofield is nowhere near as dead as I assumed him to be in my review of Martin Chuzzlewit

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