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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 26, 2006

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


8 Below, Really Nuts, Bad TV, Eifelheim, and Nobody

Eight Below has been in the theaters so long that by now anybody who wanted to see it probably already has. But for what it's worth, this is a very good movie about a team of dogs who are inadvertently abandoned in Antarctica during an extremely tough winter; we watch their struggle to survive, and also their human trainer's struggle to find a way to get to Antarctica during the off-season in order to save them ... or at least find their bodies and grieve for them.

With all the potential in the world to be sappy, this film manages to be very restrained. Paul Walker is subtle and moving as the dog team leader, but let's face it -- the film belongs to the dogs, and they (and a certain leopard seal) are wonderful.

I'm glad I saw this film. And if it's too late for you to catch it in the theater, watch it on DVD. It's worth the two hours.

But I now officially state: I'm done with Antarctica. Between this movie and March of the Penguins, I have now seen all the snow-covered mountains and glaciers and falling snow and driven snow and drifted snow and ice-covered water that I ever need to see in my life. Greenery. I want films with trees and grass.

*

Chocolate coated nuts come in two basic finishes -- smooth and matte. Planter's delicious chocolate-covered cashews and chocolate-covered peanuts have that smooth, polished surface; they're quite good, but I must confess to preferring the chocolate coating on double-dipped peanuts, which are much closer to the finish on the Copenhagen chocolate nuts I used get when I lived in Brazil.

I've never seen double-dipped cashews, with that matte-finish dipping chocolate; I suspect there's only one company putting chocolate coatings on cashews and they supply everybody else.

To my surprise, though, there's yet a third finish: powdery. The new "Really Nuts" from Hershey look like they were given a last dusting with milk chocolate powder. These are the best chocolate-covered peanuts I've had in America. I don't mind a bit that the chocolate powder ends up on my clothes. If that sort of thing bothered me, I'd have stopped eating powdered-sugar donuts years ago.

*

A couple of new TV series have debuted recently. On Wednesday nights on NBC (you know, the night that ABC owns because of Lost), we just saw the debut of Heist. The only reason we watched was because of the presence of Steve Harris in the cast. We fell in love with Harris during his stint on The Practice, and it's no surprise that he's wonderful in Heist.

Harris is paired with Dougray Scott, and TV writers being the way they are, it's the white guy who has all the cool plans, while Harris is more of a hands-on get-it-done guy. Sort of the same philosophy that once had only white quarterbacks in the NFL. But it almost doesn't matter. Dougray Scott is fine -- but when he shares the screen with Harris, he disappears, like a flashlight beside a bonfire.

The premise is that Dougray Scott is planning to hit three Beverly Hills jewelry stores at the same time, during Academy Awards week when hugely expensive loaner jewelry moves through the stores on its way to appear on screen at the Oscars. Cool idea. Especially because along the way they're pulling off "minor" jobs; and in the first episode, they actually get rid of a competing gang who use hostages wired to explosives to carry out bank robberies.

I wish I could tell you the series is great, or even good. Harris and Scott are fine, and so is the intriguing detective, Amy Sykes (played by Michele Hicks), who shoplifts on her free time. But the writing is only wannabe-clever, so that when the actors are merely adequate, like fellow thieves Marika Dominczyk and David Walton, they quickly become annoying.

And in the storyline, the writing is positively dumb. Is there anybody who believes the out-and-out bigot cop anymore? There are plenty of real bigots in the world, but any of them smart enough to make detective are also smart enough to keep their bigotry in code or in private. And when bigots like the one played by Billy Gardell surface in a real police organization, it's hard to believe nobody would have filed a complaint before now. So it's just sad watching Reno Wilson play the black cop who is paired with Gardell's character -- he has to pretend that it's merely exasperating to work with an idiot like this.

But let's face it: Apparently this series is meant to be the opposite of all the Law and Order and CSI shows. In those series, cops are smart. So in this series, the cops have to be so mentally limited you wonder they don't have food dribbled down their shirts.

Here's how dumb this series is: The bad bank robbers have already staged one attempt. The pizza delivery guy they kidnapped and strapped up with explosives gets out of the bank with the money, but because our heroes (the good robbers) have called the cops, the bad bank robbers remotely detonate the explosives, blowing the kid to bits.

So the brilliant head of detectives tells her team to anticipate which bank the bad guys will hit next and then merely follow the hostage/robber until he leads them to the real bad guys. This makes sense -- until we see what the cops actually do.

Sure enough, they pull up in front of the bank in squad cars and armored vehicles as the hostage/robber emerges.

This is exactly what happened the last time, which got the previous kid blown up. So what did the cops think would happen this time? Here we thought the head of detectives meant for them to follow discreetly, without the robbers knowing anybody was following. But no, they intend to have four cop cars immediately behind the taxi that the bad guys are using to transport the hostage.

Not only that, but they discover that one of their own squad cars is apparently giving information to the bad guys, so they switch to a "secure" radio band and then tell everybody to slam on their brakes. Naturally, the fake cops don't get the message.

Only ... they did get the message for everybody to switch to the secure band. So wouldn't they have suspected that ... oh, never mind. These policewights are somewhere between Inspector Clouseau and the Keystone Kops.

No tv series can be better than its writing. So Heist is apparently doomed, despite the presence of a couple of first-rate actors in the lead. The astonishing thing is that this pilot episode was the reason the network execs gave the series the go-ahead. We can reach only one conclusion from this. Either the network execs are so stupid they didn't know the police work in the pilot was dumb as a sack of doorknobs, or they did know it but they thought we were so dumb we wouldn't notice!

We've been trained by thirty-five years of Law and Order, for pete's sake! (That is how long L&O has been running isn't it?) We expect cops to at least be alert.

But speaking of dumb writing, let's try a new comedy that pretends not to have writing at all. Free Ride wants to be a mainstream version of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, which, while it stars the comedy writer Larry David who is at least partly responsible for the long-running success of Seinfeld, was completely improvised.

The idea, I suppose, is that improvisation makes the comedy feel more "natural."

But it doesn't work that way. Because improvisation is even harder than acting scripted comedy. Maintaining a natural facade while inwardly your mind is spinning to come up with the next "funny-but-real" thing to say is devilishly hard, and only a couple of actors in Free Ride know how it's done.

The premise is that Nate Dineen, a moderately good-looking and extremely dimwitted but attention-starved young adult, is forced to come home after college and throw himself on his parents' mercy for his support. Only he has to sleep in the garage because they turned his bedroom into something else, ha ha.

The parents are portrayed as the stupidest people ever to spawn children who grew up to go to college. While Nate Dineen (Josh Dean) and his friends are the stupidest people ever to become ambulatory and wear stylish clothing.

The actors aren't trying to portray stupid people, however. That is simply the accidental byproduct of bad improv comedy -- they only look stupid because most of the actors are insanely searching for some way to be funny. The result is that they are never, never, never, never, never, never funny. I promise you. If you laugh at this comedy, it's only out of pity or desperation or because you have corrupted your brain with artificial stimulants or because you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm.

There is one bright spot -- one actor who actually knows how to do improv that looks real. Unfortunately, he's so far down the cast list you can barely find him; in the early episodes you catch maybe forty seconds of him. Kirby Heybourne is the real thing -- his character is actually underplayed (a necessity in good improv, and therefore an apparent impossibility with the rest of the cast of this show), and he never once looks as if he is trying to be funny. The result is that he actually is funny.

But Heybourne has a long history of being the only watchable actor in mediocre-to-wretched comedies. He also played the Brit pilot in the great war film Saints and Soldiers -- not a comedy -- and it is actually a good thing he's in this miserable, doomed-to-fail show. His part is so small nobody will blame him for the show's failure; but he is so good that network execs will tap him again for a show that actually has writers. Maybe even good ones next time.

*

Eifelheim, by Michael F. Flynn, may turn out to be the best science fiction novel this year. Unfortunately, you can't buy it yet, because what I read was an advance copy. But I've learned that if I don't write the review immediately upon reading the book, then I have to reread it in order to review it -- if I remember to review it at all. So I'll point it out now, and then you can either pre-order it online or recognize it when you see it in the bookstore.

In other words, with my weak memory, I'm putting the burden on you.

The reward for you, if you do remember, is that you get to read a terrific book.

Flynn takes us deeply into two marvelous worlds: a medieval village in Germany where rationalism and folk beliefs are forced to deal with an alien intruder, and our modern world, where a scientific historian and a theoretical physicist, because they happen to live together, are able to cross the boundaries between disciplines and make some vital discoveries together.

In a time when signs of the decline of science fiction as a literary genre are all about us, it is refreshing to see Flynn pop up with a deeply researched and well-thought-out novel that moves us and makes us smarter just for having read it. How often do we get to read a novel that makes us think, "This guy knows what he's talking about"?

The book is not easy reading. Like Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, it expects you to absorb languages and ideas and cultural systems quite foreign to the present day. But neither is it impenetrable. The difficulty comes from challenging content, not from deliberately obscure writing. In fact, Flynn is luminously clear.

Unlike much science fiction, this novel has memorable and lovable characters (unfortunately not the modern-day ones, who are generally irritating).

By the end, I found myself halfway believing the story of aliens arriving in Germany in the 14th century. Rather the way that at the end of reading Shogun, I felt as if I could speak Japanese (I couldn't). I wanted it to be true, in a weird, semi-tragic way.

And as an entertaining mini-treatise on ways to recover meaning from history, it's excellent.

*

Goodnight Nobody was written by Jennifer Weiner, who also wrote the novel In Her Shoes. Because I quite enjoyed the movie adapted from it, I decided to read something else by Weiner.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that in this book, anyway, the humor is all of the ain't-we-smart, look-at-the-funny-dumb-people variety. To wit: The main character, Kate Klein, is a city career girl transported by fate and marriage to a suburb where she finds herself the mother of three children in quick succession (really quick -- the "second child" was twins) and trapped in the endless grind of dealing with the meaningless needs of children while having no friends at all because the women who live in this suburb are all plastic gossiping phonies whose children are more trophies than people.

Here's the thing: Kate's own children never rise to the level of trophies. They're just stick figures whom the main character seems not to know, let alone like.

In fact, nobody is a person. Kate's "best friend" is even more hostile to and bigoted toward suburbia, motherhood, and the middle class than Kate herself -- which I would not have thought possible. While the other suburban women follow the script of Kate's prejudices almost exactly.

Not for one moment is anybody amusing to me, or sympathetic, or even interesting. I could not detect the slightest grounds for Kate's attitude of superiority. What, exactly, did she have that these other women did not? -- except, perhaps, some of them seemed to like their own children.

Since I stopped reading only one disk into the novel on cd (read engagingly by Emily Skinner), I cannot swear that Kate does not at some point change her mind about her children and the other women of suburbia. But frankly, I don't expect it.

Because the point where I gave up on this book was when, after Kate stumbles upon the body of a murdered neighbor, she learns that this neighbor was the ghost-writer for a conservative columnist clearly modeled on Ann Coulter. But when Kate refers to this columnist as so insanely right-wing she made Pat Buchanan look like a moderate, what exactly was it that made the woman so fanatical and evil?

Her column is based on the premise that motherhood is the noblest calling of women, and the columnists "evil" values, however one might disagree with them, represent the opinions and actions of the vast majority of women throughout history, and the continuing choice of most women today: marriage and motherhood.

Kate Klein -- and the author, obviously -- seem to assume that all their readers will understand without any further explanation that anyone who actually thinks child-rearing is the most important task in life must be not just stupid, but evil.

I must confess that this does represent the viewpoint of an astonishing number of "sophisticates" and "intellectuals" today, so in that sense Weiner's characters are realistic enough.

But it is clear that Weiner believes this herself -- because the supposed humor arises, not from any irony about the main character's inability to see her own bigotry, but rather from how cleverly she expresses that bigotry.

In listening to this book, I was put in mind of the racist jokes I heard when I was a kid growing up in California -- in a time and place when I didn't even know any black people. In retrospect, I can see that these jokes started from the assumption that the teller and hearers all agreed that black people were inherently ridiculous and inferior. The joketellers weren't making that point, they assumed that everyone already agreed and went on from there.

That's the kind of "humor" Weiner's book depends on. We're supposed to find these suburban stay-at-home moms ridiculous simply because of who they are and what they do.

If this book had been written by a man, he would be crucified for having written a novel so filled with hatred for women.

But I'm not a sophisticated person like Weiner. I not only am the direct descendant of a long line of women who valued child-rearing, but I married such a woman and most of our close female friends are that "type" of woman. And you know what? Not one of them -- not one -- resembles Weiner's caricature in any way.

For one thing, all the stay-at-home women I know find their children fascinating -- difficult sometimes, delightful other times, but let's face it, every day, every week, every month brings changes as the children grow into the human beings they're going to be. Corporate politics doesn't hold a candle to the constant renegotiation of relationships in a family. And when you're done with the job, raising children gives you a much more important end product than most business careers.

But here's the other thing that Weiner seems not to get: The stereotype of the uninvolved father probably still exists, too, but again, I hardly know any of those. What I know are fathers who are just as concerned about their children and just as involved in their upbringing as their wives are. And those partnerships, however frustrating and difficult they can sometimes be, can be the most fulfilling relationships available in our lives.

And when you think about it, whom would you rather have raising the next generation (the ones who will fight our wars, run our economy, and pay our Social Security)?

Women like Weiner's fictional characters, who despise child-rearing, think children are rather appalling creatures to have to deal with, and hate women who love being wives and mothers?

Or my friends and relatives, who work together with their husbands to create for their children the kind of family life that will help them become fully civilized, intelligent, and, above all, happy adults?

Ah, I can hear the sophisticates sneering even at that. "Oh, yes, 'happy,' like mindless little robots who've been brainwashed." I know that's what they're saying because I've heard them say it to my face (and more often heard of them mocking my views that way behind my back).

I'm never quite sure what it is they find so amusing and contemptible about my belief that teaching children how to be happy is the greatest goal in a parent's life. Some of them even have children of their own, and I want to ask them, Well, if my goal is so pathetic, what's yours? To raise your children to sneer at everybody else and feel superior without actually having to know or achieve anything first?

Here's the inadvertent revelation at the beginning of Goodnight Nobody: With all her sneering at everybody else, the character Kate Klein is actually kind of dimwitted -- and she's an appallingly lousy, uninvolved mother, yes, but she's also so dumb that, having stumbled on the murder scene of a near stranger, she first puts her fingerprints on the knife and then covers her hands with blood. Hasn't she watched any movies or television? (Actually, Weiner tells us that she has -- and yet shows her doing all this stupid stuff anyway.)

She's also mind-numbingly boring.

Which is why I pulled the cd out of my car stereo and put it back in its box. I live a life surrounded by genuinely intelligent, fascinating men and women, many of them parents, and many of those stay-at-home moms. And every single one of them is far more interesting, far more entertaining, far better company than Jennifer Weiner's protagonist.

So if I'm wrong and later in the novel Weiner has her character learn something and come to respect motherhood and maybe even start being a serious mother herself, then I apologize. I just couldn't stick around long enough to see such a drastic transformation, when I was given so little hope of it at the start.

*

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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