Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 4, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Missed Flight, MirrorMask, Ruth Reichl, Wallets, and Marsden Movies
After all the complaints I've made about airlines, I have to point out when they
do it right.
We were flying to Salt Lake City on Delta last Thursday evening. All day it had
been threatening to rain, but of course it only started in earnest when we were
at the airport. We watched as the storm got more and more violent -- rain
falling in sheets, powerful lightning and thunder.
Naturally, they did not allow the employees who service the aircraft to send the
ramp out, so the passengers on the incoming flight got to sit there on the
runway for nearly an hour before they could come up to the gate and debark.
This also meant we'd be late getting away from Greensboro, but we were
complacent because Delta was reporting that our Salt Lake flight was going to
be delayed by half an hour going out of Atlanta.
Unfortunately, that information changed, and the flight left nearly on time.
When we debarked in Atlanta, the last flight to Salt Lake was gone.
So we hiked to the service counter in the middle of the terminal and found
three employees at a desk, hard at work dealing with people's rescheduling
needs. But there was another employee greeting people who approached the
line, showing us how to use the computerized self-help system.
Sure enough, we had already been rescheduled for the next morning's flights.
The trouble is, for complicated reasons of our own choosing, my wife and
daughter were in the Delta computer system on one record, and I was on
another. So the computer felt no need to keep us together. They were
scheduled to leave almost two hours before me.
We might have been content with that, but one of the events we were traveling
for started at noon on Friday. They would make it (barely), and I would not.
So my wife went to the bank of phones and learned what we needed to do. The
folks at the counter ended up finishing our arrangements. It took maybe
Here was the surprise. The original computer printout included not just a new
routing slip, but also a meal voucher good at any of the food places in the
airport, and a hotel voucher for the airport Comfort Inn. The airlines don't
have to do this -- when it's weather that causes a missed connection, they
have no obligation to do anything but find us a later flight to our destination.
It was a goodwill gesture, and we appreciated it.
It wasn't all perfect, though. We requested them to bring out our luggage
before we knew how slow the system is in Atlanta. When we got down to the
baggage line, we learned that it could be as long as five hours before we got our
bags. We needed sleep more than we needed clean clothes, so we asked an
extraordinarily helpful employee to cancel our order and route our luggage
directly to the first flight to Salt Lake City the next morning. She really went
the extra mile and the results were perfect.
Between eating and working on baggage, we got to the hotel about eleven
o'clock at night. Here we encountered very tired Comfort Inn employees. They
weren't perky, but they were polite and efficient, and we were soon in hotel
rooms. The rooms were small and a bit tatty, but clean and they did the job.
Next morning, the wakeup calls came about ten minutes late, but we made the
crowded airport van in time. When we reached Salt Lake, our bags were
waiting for us, and we made the event at the BYU Library in good time.
Delta couldn't help the thunderstorm. They couldn't help the fact that we had
chosen to have our records separated so that the computer wouldn't know to
keep us together. What they could help, they handled efficiently and
cheerfully. And even where it was their own poor system of luggage handling
that was threatening to give us a sleepless night, one of their employees went
to heroic lengths to make things go better.
So kudos to Delta. It was inconvenient to miss our connection, but Delta made
it a stress-free adventure instead of an infuriating disaster.
The story I heard about the 2005 movie MirrorMask was that writer Neil
Gaiman and director Dave McKean were given a million bucks by a studio to
create their film. That's a low budget, especially for something as visually
demanding as this movie. But they pulled it off -- perhaps in part because
their collaboration with the Jim Henson Company may not have been charged
at the full rate.
In any event, it's an extraordinary film. It was never widely released -- and
that was the right commercial decision. There are no stars to help sell the
movie, and it is, to put it plainly, strange in its appearance and in the
It's also wonderful. Gaiman -- the author of Coraline, American Gods, and
groundbreaking work in comics -- is rarely content with straightforward
narrative, and the magic in his fantasy stories is far from the traditional
Tolkienesque or Dungeons-and-Dragons stuff we usually see.
The storyline concerns Helena, a teenage girl who is fed up with her home life,
which is, quite literally, a circus. Her father's dream has been to own a circus,
and he's doing it -- a one-ring circus that tours in small venues throughout the
British Isles. Helena has been raised to be a very good juggler, while her
mother, Joanne, does acrobatics and puts on a bear suit for other bits in the
In short, it's a very small circus and the whole family is needed, but Helena
lashes out at her parents and demands the right to run away from the circus.
In the heat of an argument, she wishes aloud that her mother were gone. So
naturally, in the midst of a performance, the mother collapses from a brain
Helena loves her parents, but she can't bring herself to apologize openly to her
mother. Worse yet, everyone is either lying or concealing things from Helena,
to "keep her from worrying" -- which is absurd, since not knowing anything is
far more worrisome.
On the night of her mother's operation, Helena has a dream -- which is openly
a dream, and yet clearly impinges on the real world, on the needed
transformation in Helena's character and her relationship with her mother that
will heal the rift in the family.
When the dream begins, Helena meets a juggler named Valentine, who is
sometimes her rescuer, sometimes her goad, and sometimes her betrayer.
Still, we find him quite likeable.
We are also delighted with weird characters like a pair of floating giants, a flock
of sphinxes, and above all the two queens of this fantasy realm, played by the
same actress who plays the mother; one is queen of darkness, the other the
queen of light. But because the queen of light is in a coma, the queen of
darkness is attacking her realm with a truly terrifying tar-like shadow that
seeps and grabs and transforms people into crumbling ash.
Helena searches, with Valentine, to try to find a way to waken the queen of
light. Their adventures along the way are truly astonishing -- visions we've
never seen before, sort of an Alice in Wonderland, complete with whimsical
Yet this film owes more, I think, to the Japanese animation director Hayao
Miyazaki, perhaps because they share a similar mix of strangeness and whimsy
and genuine darkness that makes you more sad than frightened as you watch
its inexorable progress.
The sequence where Helena is captured by the queen of shadows and is
transformed into the kind of daughter the queen wants is truly chilling and yet
beautiful in its choreography. Plus you haven't lived till you've heard the
version of Bacharach's and David's "Close to You" that is played while this
ballet goes on.
The whole thing is visually built around the artistic style of the illustrator of
Coraline; it's kind of wonderful to see those two-dimensional images realized in
three dimensions. But that's no surprise -- because that artist is Dave
McKean, the director of MirrorMask!
Which brings us to one of the most wonderful surprises. In a film so
dominated by its visuals, one would not necessarily expect sensitive direction
and filming of the human actors -- but what we get is a series of truly beautiful
The mother is played by Gina McKee, who played the lead in The Forsyte Saga
back in 2002. In that role I found her performance so restrained as to be cold,
but she's an actress who grows on you, and in this movie she's a perfect
choice, playing the light and dark queens with equal power -- not to mention a
perfectly believable modern mother.
In addition, Jason Barry does a delightful job as the complicated Valentine --
especially difficult because through most of the movie, most of his face
(including his eyes) is covered with a mask. Yet you never find him
expressionless. Stephanie Leonidas is warm and intriguing as Helena -- and
the anti-Helena whose rage is causing all the trouble in the dream world. And
Rob Brydon gives a delicate, nuanced performance as the circus-leading father.
This movie had only a tiny release in the United States, but the video is readily
available on DVD. It won't be for everyone -- you have to be open to strange
and sometimes repellent images, and to a story that requires some
concentration to follow.
In fact, we watched it with the subtitles on, because sometimes, in a misguided
sort of artiness, they run the music so loudly that you can't hear the dialogue.
Yet for us, and I think for many who read this column, MirrorMask may be your
favorite movie in what is shaping up to be a mediocre year for movies. In a
Donny Darko kind of way it is beautiful and moving. You have never seen a
movie look like this; an it never forgets to tell us a story we can care about.
I suppose it's odd to start a series of books with the second volume and
proceed to the third, but that's what I did with Ruth Reichl's series of
memoirs, Comfort Me with Apples and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret
Life of a Critic in Disguise. I simply skipped the first book, Tender at the
Bone: Growing Up at the Table. But I'll rectify that oversight soon, I assure you.
This is an astonishingly candid, if somewhat arty, memoir, in which the author
recounts her life first as a chef, then as a restaurant critic and feature writer in
San Francisco and Los Angeles, and finally as the restaurant critic for the New
I find the lives of writers to be generally boring. But food writers are an
obvious exception. If her memoir is faithful to reality, then some of the people
in the food-writing world are as glamorous as movie stars.
Reichl's candor can be unpleasant at times. I found it repellent to read her
account of carrying on an affair with her glamorous jet-setting editor while still
in a nine-year marriage -- and pressuring her husband to have a baby with
Yet when she moves on to another husband and they struggle with an on-again-off-again adoption, your heart goes out to them; it becomes a moving
personal story despite her counter-cultural life up to that point.
And there is that wonderful writing about food. When a passel of American
chefs try to introduce California cuisine to a convention of French chefs, only to
find themselves shunted into a completely inadequate kitchen where their meal
becomes a disaster of improvisations that don't quite work, Reichl makes
cooking seem like putting on a play without a script.
She even includes recipes. Good thing, because this book makes you hungry.
I needed a new wallet. Not that my old one had failed -- the leather in my
Nautica wallet was still doing fine. It was the stupid plastic insert that had
finally torn itself apart. It's quite infuriating to replace a wallet only because of
a cheap plastic part, but when things are falling out of your wallet, it becomes
enough of an emergency that you don't want to wait three weeks for something
to be delivered from some obscure online plastic-wallet-insert source - if such a
thing even exists.
I stopped in at a department store and found a rotating display of Nautica and
Rolf's wallets, but was disappointed to find that none of them had as many
slots for cards and money as my old wallet.
The world of men's wallets is divided into three types of customers: Those who
slip the wallet inside a jacket pocket, those who wear it in a hip pocket and sit
on it all day, and those who put it in a front or thigh pocket of cargo pants.
Back when nobody would give me a credit card except Amoco, it was fine to
wear my wallet in my back pocket, but once the cards started accruing
(including membership cards in frequent flier/sleeper/buyer programs and
discount cards for many stores), I spent years in gluteal discomfort until I gave
up and started dropping my wallet into my front pants pockets.
The result, though, is three different sizes of wallet. Jacket-pocket wallets
(useless to me -- I don't wear a jacket to work) can be wider and taller but
must also be thinner. Hip-pocket wallets have to be narrower, and yet thin
enough to bear wearing.
We who ensconce our wallets in cargo pants must be in a minority, but we are
not utterly forgotten. We need a wallet as wide and long as a hip-pocket one,
but we can handle a lot more thickness. And Fossil and Geoffrey Beene
provide for us.
True, Geoffrey Beene touts much of its billfold line as "the world's smallest
wallet," which put it out of the running for those of us who think our wallets
should hold almost as much as a purse. But their "Passcase Billfold" design
has a removable i.d. case and six card slots, plus two bill sections and a packet
of plastic sleeves for additional cards.
But for me the cleverest design was Fossil's "Zip Wallet: Lip Trifold." It has an
i.d. case the flips up, like the Geoffrey Beene -- and a good number of credit
card slots. It does not have the plastic sleeve packet, however, which is a good
thing when you consider that it's the first part to fail, but a bad thing if you
need all those additional slots.
The billfold, however, makes up for the lack of a sleeve packet. It has three
compartments, one of which zips shut. I like that a lot, especially for receipts
and other items that are prone to slide out of the wallet.
All of these are relatively affordable -- I'm not a guy who thinks it's worth
paying a hundred bucks for a wallet. For the same reason that I wouldn't own
a thousand-dollar watch. I have better things to do with money than pay for
more quality than I need -- I don't need a wallet that will outlive me or look
better than my shoes.
As for brand-name prestige, I personally find it embarrassing to have the logo
of some snooty company on anything I wear or carry. If I pull out my wallet
and I have enough money to pay for my purchase, that's all the impression I
need to make. In fact, isn't it just a little sad to think of somebody who needs
to pay a premium price to impress store clerks? Are there store clerks who are
impressed with the personal accessories of their customers? I should think
they'd all be cynical about things like that.
With X-Men: The Last Stand so dominant at the box office, it's no surprise that
old movies starring X-Men actors should pop up on television. Or maybe it was
pure coincidence that on Saturday night, two different cable networks were
running simultaneous James Marsden movies.
You know who he is, right? He plays Scott in X-Men. Of course, he's barely in
this latest movie. We get to see him in shades, and then out of them,
whereupon he vanishes for the rest of the film.
On the theory that flipping back and forth between two bad late-night movies is
as entertaining as watching one good one, I settled down to watch both movies
and found them -- and Marsden -- surprisingly good.
I'll admit, though, that it wasn't Marsden who got me watching. In Interstate
60: Episodes of the Road (2002), it was an early scene with Gary Oldman
and, briefly, Michael J. Fox that first got me intrigued.
And in 1998's Disturbing Behavior, it was the presence of Nick Stahl, who
gave what I thought was a winning performance as John Connor in Terminator
3, that got me watching.
Disturbing Behavior is a dark high-school movie -- a sort of Stepford Teenagers
played in deadly earnest. Katie Holmes, who survived Dawson's Creek to
become a strong film actor, does good work as Marsden's co-star, and there's a
supporting cast of memorable actors playing roles that in lesser hands would
certainly have been forgettable.
All the teen-movie cliches are there, but made real by good writing from Scott
Rosenberg, who penned Con Air and High Fidelity, and good directing from
Interstate 60 is more ambitious yet much lighter in tone. Bob Gale, who wrote
the Back to the Future movies, wore all the hats in this production -- writer,
director, producer. But the results are good. Almost very good.
Gary Oldman is a bicycle-riding eccentric who happens to grant people's
wishes -- even when their wishes aren't good for them. Christopher Lloyd
plays a much more dangerous Satan figure who sends a young man (Marsden)
off on a bizarre quest to deliver a package.
Along the way, Marsden runs into the woman of his dreams, while consulting a
magic eight-ball that gives him weird but mostly reliable answers.
This is a case where the movie is sometimes buried under the weight of its own
whimsy. When anything can happen, and the main character has almost no
control over his own choices, one can begin to lose interest.
But I didn't lose interest, because I could always flip to the other James
Here's the surprise: Marsden is, in fact, a very good actor. He can't help having
impossibly rugged good looks. It's true that Americans tend to like really
handsome actors only when they're also amusing (Cary Grant, Clark Gable,
Rock Hudson, and Harrison Ford had that light touch); otherwise we like our
heroes to be people who would never be hired as a model -- who might
sometimes have trouble getting a date. You know, people like us.
And when there is a pretty-faced actor like Robert Redford (though remember,
he also had that light touch), he is often hampered by his looks -- people are
sure he can't do really challenging things, which is purportedly why they didn't
let him do an English accent in Out of Africa.
James Marsden is almost in Redford's too-pretty category. But underneath
that face, he can act. He can, in fact, carry the narrative drive of a movie and
make silly dialogue feel real -- an extremely useful skill in Hollywood. He
deserves good parts -- grownup parts -- and I hope he gets them soon.