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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 3, 2006

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


Invincible, Prospero, Bone Doll, and "romance"

Sports movies. You know the formula. They don't have a chance! Wait, some new person gets involved! He doesn't have a chance! Wait, he does great and everything turns around and everybody is happy!

I just described everything from Bad News Bears to Invincible.

(But please don't write to me with your list of exceptions. A formula is no less a formula just because some films don't follow it.)

Here's the thing: We keep buying it, because that's the story we want to hear. And why do we want to hear it? Because each audience member hopes it'll turn out to be the story of his or her own life.

When the story is fictional, we don't want the hero to win, we just want him to come very close and learn valuable life lessons (Rocky, Bad News Bears).

When the story is true, there better be some winning or we're going to be ticked off that you wasted our time with a story that sucks. (Either that or its an artier film, and the whole point is to offend audience expectations. Try North Dallas Forty -- which, by the way, I love. But I think it follows the "learn valuable life lessons" formula anyway.)

So what makes Invincible the top money-making film on its second weekend, beating out new releases Crank and Wicker Man? Why did my whole family and I really enjoy this film?

It certainly follows the formula. Vince Papale, a 30-year-old Philadelphian who has hit rock bottom -- his wife just left him and he has to borrow money from his dad to make the rent -- is pushed by his football-loving friends to go to an open tryout that new Eagles coach Dick Vermeil is holding mostly as a publicity stunt.

Papale is the only walk-on to make it out of the tryouts and into the team practices, but of course everybody expects him to be cut before they actually play any games.

Only he keeps not getting cut. Ba-da-bee, ba-da-bing. True story, so we know how it ends, or can look it up if we care.

Why is this formula story so effective?

1. The story felt true. "Based on a true story" often means that they've gone to town on phony "dilemmas" and increases of jeopardy and lots of melodramatic soul-searching and fake conflict. Brad Gann's delicate script keeps the conflicts low key, more like real life, where people try to be civilized. The only violence is on the football field. You feel, at the end, that it might have happened exactly like this.

2. The characters seemed real. People in this movie are usually pretty inarticulate, unable to say what they feel. They sometimes say devastating things without meaning to (though sometimes they mean to, of course). When people say bad things, the other person usually tries to cover his or her emotions and pretend it doesn't hurt. The result is that when we do get our emotional climaxes, they are usually triggered by very simple, small things -- a few words, a look, a smile.

Well ... and a touchdown, of course, but it is a sports movie.

3. The acting is superb. Mark Wahlberg as Papale is having a bit of a Dennis Quaid or Jeff Bridges career -- doing superb work, but usually in nonflashy parts so he gets neither the huge paydays nor the Oscar nominations. But we totally buy him in this role. He looks like he could actually do the stuff the film shows him doing.

Greg Kinnear as Vermeil doesn't coast on his cute smile -- and in the scenes with his wife Carol (Paige Turco), they seem like they have been married a long time and have a good relationship. That's hard to bring off in a movie -- it's so much easier to show people who hate each other and chew the scenery to prove it.

Elizabeth Banks as Papale's love interest (and future wife, Janet Cantrell), has been given a movie-stealing part and makes the most of it. We always believe that the real woman might be exactly as Banks depicts her.

And the ensemble of actors -- Papale's father, his football playing friends, the bar owner who gives him work during hard times, the coaches and players -- they often have very little screen time, just a few moments to convey something -- but every moment counts.

4. Which brings us to director Ericson Core. He's a cinematographer -- this is his first feature film. The fact that he's a cinematographer shows -- he knows what the camera can do, and he does it. The fact that this is his first feature does not show. Maybe the actors do such wonderful work because they happen to be talented and the director had nothing to do with it (that often happens); but the cast is so consistently real that I believe we're seeing the stamp of a director who knows how to draw great performances from his actors. Those directors are rare (and they don't include, for instance, Woody Allen or George Lucas). I'm looking forward to seeing what Core does next.

What can I say? It's a formula movie, but in such good hands, the formula works. We got tears in our eyes in all the right places; we were filled with exultation at the end. That's what your eight bucks are for, isn't it?

*

If you haven't seen it yet, you've got to. It's a short video called "The Little Girl Giant" and you can find it online at YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBXr15K2uSc

It's a puppet. A giant puppet, which rises from a sitting position and moves around in a park, looking in wonder at everything she sees. She licks a popsicle. She sits back down. OK, so there's no story.

But the puppetry is so superb that, even though you see the cranes and the cable-pulling people who are making her go through her paces, you still find it a strangely moving, awe-inspiring experience. It's not that the walking is all that real. It's the head motions and eyeblinking that make it absolutely work. It feels like you're looking at a real (but giant) kid in slow motion.

*

I recently reviewed the Knudsen brand fruit spritzers. Now I have another brand to add to the list. Santa Cruz Organic (which I found at Earth Fare) makes a great lightly-carbonated lemonade. Their root beer, unfortunately, is too fizzy, but they got the lemonade right, and so it has a permanent place in my canned-drinks fridge up in my attic office.

While we're talking about drinks, you might want to give Bionaturae's Organic Sicilian Lemon Nectar a try. This is not carbonated -- and, more to the point, it is not lemonade. I have no idea how Sicilian lemons differ from American ones, but I do know that however they prepare this juice drink, it's delicious.

They do fantasize that you can get three servings out of a 25-ounce bottle -- but with a drink this good, of course I drain the whole thing at a single meal. Which means their "130 calorie" claim comes to 390 calories for me -- a significant hit. So I don't drink it every day.

Not because I have self-control, but because I run out and it sometimes takes a few days to buy more.

*

I was perusing the dental section of Kerr Drugs the other day, looking for orthodontic wax. (GUM is the only brand that's both hard enough and malleable enough to be worth buying. I know from having bought many other brands when I was having a sliced-cheek emergency with my braces; I keep coming back to GUM.)

I happened to notice Evriholder Squeezit brand "multi-purpose tube squeezers." This is a little plastic clip that you slide onto the bottom of your toothpaste tube and, as you use the toothpaste, keep sliding farther up the tube so that the paste is always available at the business end.

I grew up in the era of metal tubes, which you could roll up at the bottom to achieve the same effect. The trouble was that those metal tubes could tear, oozing paste all over everything. So it was nice when unrippable, non-self-puncturing plastic tubes came into general use.

Except you couldn't roll them up. So the whole time you're using the tube, you have to keep squeezing stuff up from the bottom.

Now, if that's the biggest problem in your life, you're doing really well. But still, for just a few bucks, you can get a couple of reusable Squeezits, which do a great job, exactly as advertised.

Just remember that one side is rounded, and the other side is flat. So before you put it on the bottom of a flip-top tube, make sure you have identified which way you want the tube to lie beside your bathroom sink. Make sure you put the flat end down. Otherwise, you'll either have to turn it over every time (yes, I'm that lazy) or put up with it rocking on the curved side every time you put it down.

Because until the tube is empty, it's a big pain to take it off the tube.

Man, I can't believe I'm actually spending all these words on a toothpaste tube squeezer ... But look, it makes your life a teeny tiny bit better. So even if everything else about your life sucks as bad as Vince Patale's did before he made it onto the Philadelphia Eagles, at least when you brush your teeth you'll have that tiny little convenience to bring you a modicum of satisfaction. It may be the most infinitesimal problem in your life, but doggone it, you licked it!

*

I just read two superb fantasy novels by writers I had never heard of. If I remember right, these were books I picked up in the fantasy section of Barnes and Noble solely to see what was being written in the field. My criteria? I looked for writing that didn't stink.

This is a very lofty standard, by the way. Most books stink the minute you open them. It leaves you wondering how they got published. And when you see that the odoriferous author has thirty-two separate titles on the shelf, you can't help but wonder: Can't these people read?

Jan Siegel's Prospero's Children almost didn't pass my stink test. The opening paragraphs have the odor of "writer-in-love-with-her-own-prose," which is the deadliest literary flatus of all. It's a prologue about a mermaid -- a nasty, heartless creature -- who is attracted to a man on a wooden ship that is breaking apart in a storm. She carries him down into the depths, along with a magical stone key that he's wearing around his neck.

Centuries later, she is caught by fishermen and trades the key for her liberty. Thus the magical key makes its way back into the world.

When you combine the found-magical-object cliche with the purple writing of the opening paragraphs (it gets better almost at once), that's a good reason to close the book.

Only I didn't read that part in the bookstore, because it was labeled "prologue." Prologues don't count. People do their worst writing in prologues. So in the bookstore, what I read was the opening paragraph of a contemporary fantasy novel that begins with a girl in an art gallery, becoming drawn into an intriguing painting that seems to come alive for her. She's a skeptical, practical person in most ways, but she is drawn to art -- at least momentarily.

Almost at once we meet an oily gallery owner, and Siegel shows us that she can indeed create intriguingly eccentric characters. We soon find that the young woman is one of two children of a widowed publisher, who has just inherited an interesting old house from an uncle he barely knew. Against the children's protests, they find themselves trapped in Yorkshire searching for -- you guessed it -- a certain key, while a modern-day witch is using them and their father to achieve her nefarious purpose. Oh, and there's a lot of stuff about Atlantis in it.

Fantasy plots always sound stupid, don't they? But here's the thing -- as long as you're willing to buy the premise (there was once a place called Atlantis, and there is magic in the world), then you get a powerful story of two resourceful kids who face some pretty scary stuff with only a few allies. There are lots of events I've never seen before in fantasy, and through it all, having got over her purple prologue, Siegel writes with clarity and music in her prose.

The other book that passed my stink test was Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin. The idea is that in a fantasy kingdom that used to be ruled by women, a man has taken the throne and is steadily killing off all his female relatives so that the female line cannot be restored.

So when a prophecy leads a wizard to believe that a girl is about to be born to the sister of the king (who should have been queen, by the old system), the wizard takes action. The girl baby is a fraternal twin, but moment after her birth, through a strange and dangerous kind of magic, she has a patch of her twin brother's skin sewn on to her, and a patch of hers is sewn onto him, and then he is killed.

The intention is to raise this girl disguised as a boy -- but the disguise is so deeply magical that it cannot be detected even by experienced wizards who are looking for a trick. Only it happens that her murdered brother (whose body is displayed as a dead girl baby and then buried) was able to draw breath before he was killed, and so his spirit lingers as a dangerous, angry demon.

And the mother, devastated by the murder of her son, ignores her girl baby (disguised as a boy) and spends the rest of her life making dolls that represent the voiceless boy.

The book-jacket blurb is not promising -- it sounds like the novel could easily be a role-reversal feminist tract.

But the writing -- none of that phony archaism that bad fantasy writers indulge in. It's a formal prose, yes, but when people talk they sound human. Flewelling's language never calls attention to itself (after the prologue, of course), and instead she brings us inside the heads of an array of splendid, believable characters.

Which is what fiction is supposed to do -- give us fascinating people and powerful relationships from the inside out. Flewelling is a master of it. I fell in love with all her characters and hated for the book to end. Fortunately, it has a sequel (Hidden Warrior), but I also hated for it to end and it did. That's how good books are supposed to make you feel: like you're living in another world, with people you really care about, and you don't want to close the book and go home.

If these books hadn't turned out to be excellent, I wouldn't be reviewing them, of course -- because I rarely review books I didn't finish, and I rarely finish books that I don't enjoy. I loved these.

*

I grew up on historical novels. Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg novels, Gone with the Wind, Captain Blood, the Nordhoff and Hall Bounty trilogy, and many others. Later, I reveled in Mary Renault's Greek novels and Jack Whyte's Arthurian historicals.

But an odd thing happened over the years. Somebody decided that serious historical novels were over, and what replaced them was women's historical romances. That's why when they wanted somebody to write a sequel to Gone with the Wind, they ended up with a bad romance novel that essentially erased all that was valuable in GWTW and replaced it with drivel.

Drivel? But I'm the writing teacher who tells his students that they have to read some of everything, even genres they don't think they'll like, because something is going on in all the genres, and a writer needs to know what it is.

And I don't assume that romance novels have to be drivel. There are great romance novels, like Jane Austen's brilliant works and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and ... let me think ...

OK, so I'm not a fan of contemporary romances. Romance novels rarely pass my stink test -- the writing is usually overwrought, the characters are shallow and formulaic, and this is not an accident -- it's what the editors and, apparently, the readers insist on.

But that's only in the category called romance. In fact, the serious romantic novel continues, only it's called "chick lit" and it usually thrives in trade paperback. You get stuff like The Devil Wears Prada and Bridget Jones's Diary. Many of these are poisoned by elitism ("can you believe how stupid all those child-rearing suburban moms are?") but they tend to be sparely written, entertaining, and, usually, rather smart.

I've been reading chick lit right along. But I decided to check out what was happening in Historical Romances -- you know, the books with the pretty, curvy, wispy typeface on the cover. The cheaper ones have the lurid covers with the half-naked man; the ones trying for class have the "bestseller" cover that's almost all title-and-author with a little iconic piece of art on it.

In short, I picked up Jane Feather's Almost a Bride. The blurbs affirmed that she was a bestselling romance writer with the quote "An accomplished storyteller ... rare and wonderful" from the Los Angeles Daily News. (Which should have been a tip-off -- it wasn't the L.A. Times. I've never even heard of the Daily News, and I spend a lot of time in L.A.)

The premise is simply enough. In England during the French Revolution, a dangerous man (this is a formula romance, after all) with superb fashion sense ruins his enemy at the gambling table, winning his entire estate and driving the man to suicide. That isn't enough for our hero, though -- he must complete his conquest by marrying the man's sister, who is in no position to resist, since she owns very little herself.

It might have been an intriguing story, and Feather is not a bad writer, really. Her prose is clear and if she has no idea when and how to use "whom," that isn't exactly an unusual flaw these days.

But as I read along, a couple of things began to bother me. First, the characters were never deeper than the most obvious motivation. Second, Feather clearly has no understanding whatsoever of the society she was writing about -- people do impossible, unthinkable things because they actually think like moderns instead of like people of that period.

The clincher for me, however, was when I realized that Almost a Bride is, in fact, pornography.

It is not structured to tell a powerful story. It is structured to get us from one explicit sex scene to another. So it doesn't matter -- to writer or, apparently, readers -- that the "historical" aspect of this book is a joke, that the heroine makes choices that were appalling and impossible in her era, and that the attitude toward sex is so out of period as to be laughable.

Instead, the point is to have distastefully explicit sex scenes that, as with male-oriented pornography, reduces the connection between men and women to sexual congress and nothing else.

Feather does, in fact, finish the story, but it all feels pointless. It went nowhere. Once the heroine and the hero started having great sex together, and they finished their shopping for cool new fashions in London, we get an empty plot twist that takes them to Paris during the dangerous Directorate period where they accomplish very little, but with great fervor.

I had heard that women's historical romances had turned into sex books, but I really didn't believe it until I read this. I will stop telling my students they need to read in this genre. It's a waste of time. Like all pornography, it has little or nothing to do with storytelling.

Don't get me wrong -- there's plenty of sex in Chick Lit, as in most other genres of fiction today. But only where the story still comes first is it worth reading.

And now that I've reviewed it, I can throw this book away. Whew.


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