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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 1, 2007

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


Evan, Panizzo, Ratatouille, Books for Kids, Politics

I had grave forebodings when I saw promos for Evan Almighty. While I enjoyed Bruce Almighty -- a lot -- it didn't seem to me to be a movie that required a sequel.

In fact, it seemed to be a movie whose sequel would inevitably suck duck eggs. The normal Hollywood trick would be to find a thin disguise behind which to simply film a remake of the financially successful original.

Here's why we went to see it anyway:

1. It had Steve Carell in the lead. While I didn't see his "virgin" movie (the concept just made me tired), and I don't watch The Office (the British version made me so uncomfortable that I haven't tuned in to the American one), I thought he was so brilliant in his supporting role in Bruce Almighty that there was a good chance he would shine in this part, too.

2. The promos showed that this was not just a remake. Instead, somebody had actually opened a Bible and thought of what else God might do. This gave me a glimmer of hope that there might be some intelligence and integrity in the sequel.

3. The promos showing animals following him through the city were funny.

4. There was nothing else on that we wanted to see.

Here's the shocker: This is a genuinely funny, positive, slightly silly, but also slightly smart family movie.

I'm not sure whom to credit here. The screenwriting credit goes to Steve Oedekerk, who wrote Bruce Almighty. That's the good news.

The bad news is that he also wrote the mind-numbing Jimmy Neutron movie, the IQ-razing Patch Adams, and the singularly unfunny sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. (Of course, all these bad movies made huge amounts of money.)

What can I say? Hack writing doesn't mean you have no talent, it just means you're getting paid while you learn your craft.

And he did create the "Thumbmation" parody film franchise. So his life has served a noble purpose.

In Evan Almighty, newsman Evan Baxter has won election to Congress on the campaign slogan "change the world." The family moves into a fancy house in a new development in northern Virginia. Immediately he is "adopted" by a powerful congressman (played by John Goodman) who expects him to go along with a new develop-the-national-parks bill, and Baxter, naive as a chipmunk, is happily going along.

He makes only one mistake. When his wife challenges him to pray, he does it. He awkwardly (but rather sweetly) prays that he can change the world.

God (played by Morgan Freeman, of course -- you don't mess with perfection) hears him. He also hears the wife's prayer for the family to be closer together.

So God commands him to build an ark.

And then doesn't leave him a lot of choices about it. Lumber gets delivered to his house, along with a set of ancient tools. In his name and using his credit, all the adjoining empty lots are purchased -- which they cannot afford -- so he'll have room to build the huge ship.

And animals start following him around, showing up when it's least convenient. And his beard starts to grow. He shaves it off; it grows back instantly. God is not kidding about the commandment (though he's apparently not very serious about letting humans have free will).

Look, doctrinally, religiously, this movie is just silly. So you don't go there to learn about the book of Genesis or even how God really works in the world. You go there to laugh.

But amid the laughter, the writer, the director, the actors all create something that is surprisingly wonderful. Steve Carell, unlike, say, Jim Carrey or Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy, can play a comic character with a core of genuine humanity. He's not just about being funny -- he's also an excellent actor.

It helps that he's surrounded with a family that is believably written and acted, and a congressional staff that is amusing and very helpful in explaining the rather complicated storyline.

The ark floats. So does Evan Almighty.

But please. No Garden-of-Eden sequel.

*

Speaking of sequels, the folks who own Leblon are opening another eating establishment in Greensboro, called Panizzo. This time, though, it's not a rodizio steakhouse, it's a bakery and sandwich shop.

Do we need another bakery in a town that already has several Paneras and a Great Harvest Bread Company, all excellent at what they do?

I've tasted the bread at Panizzo, my friends, and the answer is a resounding yes. Panizzo does not duplicate what anybody else is doing. They have great breads -- sandwich breads, dinner breads, dessert breads -- and they are doing wonderful things with them.

Authentic French bread is miserable for making sandwiches. The crust is too thick and hard. In order to bite off a chunk, you have to crush the sandwich so that most of the filling is squished out at the sides. This is true even in France, where you can buy a delicious-looking caprese sandwich in any shop, and after two bites you have the filling in a wet pile on your lap.

At Panizzo, they make a French roll that is so light and thin-crusted and flavorful that you don't actually need to put anything on it -- though it's a pleasure when you do.  You can actually take bites of it instead of tearing off chunks like a neanderthal. (No offense to neanderthals, of course.)

And when it comes to the dessert breads -- well, here's where their Brazilian tradition kicks in.

When I lived in Brazil, one of my favorite things was the pão doce, which is Portuguese for "sweet bread." I would buy it from street vendors and it was, in a word, perfect.

What makes it so good is that it is not too sweet. It doesn't forget that it's bread. Unlike the inedible stuff at Cinnabon, it isn't so smeared with icky sugary icing that you feel like you're at a little kid's birthday party. There's just enough glaze and icing to add another layer of sweetness, but nothing is allowed to overpower the rich flavor of the bread.

I have found nothing to equal pão doce in America or Europe.

I'm not sure what they're going to end up calling it at Panizzo -- no way will American customers be able to figure out how to say "pão doce." I suggested they just call them "docies," which anybody can pronounce.

But whatever they call them, you owe it to yourself to try one. The only danger is that because it isn't cloyingly, sickeningly sweet, grownups can actually eat the whole thing. And then another.

For those of you who miss the old menu at Leblon, from the days before they became a rodizio grill, the best news of all is that they haven't forgotten how to make those wonderful soups and salads -- and the brilliant avocado salad dressing will soon be available to buy and take home.

Located just up Muir's Chapel from West Market Street (in the space that used to be Rockola and then BoHogg's), Panizzo is open from seven in the morning -- for the bakery-breakfast crowd -- till seven at night, so you can go there for lunch, tea-time, or an early supper. They'll be selling whole rotisserie chickens and other good stuff for you to pick up and take home for supper.

The bakery is open for business as of the fifth of July.

But the biggest reason for going there is wonderful bread that you can't find anywhere else.

I hope that thousands of you like eating there as much as I already do. Because then maybe they'll open a second store closer to where I live. For now, though, it's well worth the fifteen-minute drive.

*

The promos for Ratatouille looked funny and cute, and it was from Pixar, which has a record of making even dumb film ideas into wonderful movies. For instance, The Incredibles actually did a better job of the multiple-superhero movie than the supposedly much-more-serious League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Fantastic Four.

But at the same time ... really, folks, a rat that cooks haute cuisine in a French restaurant? Comedy only works if you care. How are they going to make me care about a rat that for some absurd reason has a yen to be a chef?

Here's the miracle: It not only works, it works brilliantly. It's funny all the way through -- I joined the whole audience in laughing aloud at bit after bit. But it's also delightfully emotional. I actually found myself caring, about the rat and even more about the charmingly inept would-be chef named Linguini.

The animation is extraordinarily expressive -- while there are famous actors playing some parts, nobody was cast for star power. Instead, they were cast because they were exactly right for the part.

Janeane Garofalo, for instance, is marvelous as the hard-as-nails female chef who is ordered to take Linguini under her wing and train him. Ian Holm is great as Skinner, and Peter O'Toole absolutely rocks as the ice-hearted food critic Anton Ego.

The movie not only tells a funny, heartwarming story that makes you cheer at the sight of a kitchen full of rats, it also manages to be smart about the relationship between critics and artists of any kind.

At the end of the movie, you don't really believe in Chef Gusteau's slogan that "anybody can cook." But you do gain a much greater appreciation for those who do it well.

(Which brings me back to Panizzo -- but I already wrote that review.)

*

No sooner did I say "No Garden-of-Eden sequel" in the Evan Almighty review than I started thinking up a really cool premise for exactly that movie. And it's really funny. Too bad somebody else owns the "... Almighty" franchise.

*

I recently got an email from a woman who home schools her children, and during the summer runs a book club for ambitious, literary-minded kids.

At first, I was horrified at her reading list -- it sounded like the kind of thing that adults inflict on kids to make them hate reading. Thick with medicinal classics, I wrote back and told her this was exactly the way to turn kids into non-readers for life.

Then she patiently explained. The kids she was teaching were an exceptional group -- they already consumed two or three books a week of their own choosing. All the books I recommended, they were already reading. Her book club's purpose was to give them a grounding in the roots of literature -- to acquaint them with the books that led the way to our present reading. The kids actually loved reading more difficult books.

In short, these kids were so literate that far from being medicinal, they were as prepared as any graduate students to read more challenging noncontemporary fiction.

Plus, she wasn't making them read Ulysses.

Let's face it, though. These are home-schooled kids, which can mean (but by no means always does) that they are superbly, broadly, and deeply educated and they still think "school" is a joyful thing to do.

Most kids have the opposite experience. In grade school they were given reading assignments that were astonishingly dull -- mostly because in order to get approved for inclusion in the primary-grade curriculum they had to be absolutely inoffensive to everybody, including the stupid adults who think children need to be kept away from imaginative stories.

Then, in middle and high school, they are too often lockstepped through literature that is both medicinal and not-very-good. Every piece is chosen, not because it delights young readers, but because it satisfies some politically correct agendum.

If it weren't for Harry Potter, most kids would have been completely persuaded that reading is never something you do for pleasure.

But then there are the exceptions. Teachers (and, occasionally, whole schools and school systems) that have committed themselves to the idea that "literature" is not medicine, it's food -- it isn't to be prescribed, it's to be offered on menus so children can choose what is to their taste and learn to love it.

Part of this approach involves children's book clubs, which are almost never effective unless they're adult sponsored -- in part because without adults, children can't get access to books. Somebody has to drive them to the library or bookstore -- someone has to buy them books from Amazon.com or B&N.com.

But parents and teachers are often at sea when it comes to organizing a children's book club. After all, there are a lot of new books out there that parents just don't know.

Moral or ethical considerations always come into play -- is it right for me to allow or encourage kids to read books that contain this or that morally offensive attribute? (This applies not just to religious but to nonreligious parents -- political correctness is just as rigorous in its censorship as any religion I know of.)

The antidote to this issue is the same for everyone: Read the book yourself and talk to your kids. You can turn even morally reprehensible books to good ends if you simply talk about them.

For instance, the hate-filled anti-Christian message of the third book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy can be a springboard for discussion that ends up giving a much more rational and fair-minded view of religion than the bigoted author provided. The result for children in a believing household can be positive -- and much better than the result of banning the book, which merely makes it all the more fascinating and credible to children.

Just as important, though, is the question of which books kids actually like. Most parents and teachers haven't a clue. They're likely to recommend older books that they loved when young.

And after you've read the book, just what do you talk about?

Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp have come up with a thick but valuable guidebook: The Kids' Book Club Book: Reading Ideas, Recipes, Activities, and Smart Tips for Organizing Terrific Kids' Book Clubs.

The title is an accurate description of what is in its 444 content pages. It costs seventeen bucks. If you are thinking of starting a kids' reading group, don't take a step without this book in hand. Even if you don't follow all their advice, you'll want to have thought about the subjects they bring up.

*

With Mitt Romney's Republican candidacy (and Harry Reid's position as a leading Democrat), the issue of Mormons in politics is, for the moment, a hot one. That's why I'm taking part in an online debate at BeliefNet.com: http://blog.beliefnet.com/blogalogue/mormondebate/

Dr. Albert Mohler, the head of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I are carrying on a civilized discussion of the question, in the context of what this might imply for evangelical Christians in making their future political decisions.

But the real issue, for me at least, is what role religion should play in politics. On the one hand, the separation of church and state is a vital part of American political tradition -- and I'm pretty radical on the matter. For instance, I irritate a lot of my friends by being adamantly opposed to official prayer in the schools under any guise -- as a matter of both American and religious tradition.

It's my firm belief that when religion and politics mix, religion suffers far worse damage than politics does.

At the same time, though, most people have religious beliefs, and in my experience most of the smartest and most thoughtful people have strong ones. Should they therefore be shut out of politics, merely because their ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, or good and evil are shaped or informed by their faith?

That would be stupid -- and it would be un-American. You don't shut anybody out of politics because of their faith.

Except, of course, when you do. We have a weird tradition ... it's OK to vote for members of a particular religion, as long as they're not very good practitioners of that faith.

Kennedy was OK because he really wasn't a very good Catholic. Clinton could make noises about his faith but he lived like a hound dog so nobody had to take his religion seriously. Richard Nixon could be our first Quaker president because the idea of him as a committed pacifist was a joke.

Reagan and Eisenhower and George Bush senior -- they were fine because whatever they believed, they pretty much kept it to themselves.

But Carter and Bush junior -- they were too vocal about their faith for a lot of Americans. Never mind that both of them had arguably the same religion, but opposite presidencies (except in popularity toward the end); the very openness of their faith bothered a lot of people.

There are other candidates, however, who never got on the final ballot. Joseph Lieberman -- was it his stands on the issues or the fact that he's a practicing Jew that kept him from getting much mileage?

And Mitt Romney -- is it his Mormonism that leads some people to refuse to let go of any negative they see in him, even though in the main his life and his actions as a politician have both been exemplary? How else can you explain those who accuse him of waffling on the issues, when in fact he has done far less of it than most of the other candidates? Any stick to beat him with will do.

I mean, if we were choosing our president on the basis of proven competency at governing, or on consonance between their professed morality and the way they actually live, it would be hard to find presidents in our history who entered office better qualified than Romney.

Yet his nomination by a major party is extremely doubtful, and the only rational explanation for this is that he belongs to a highly visible religion that is viewed with hostility or suspicion by a large number of people -- whether rightly or wrongly.

For a superb discussion of precisely the ways that Mormonism relates to American politics -- and has done so in the past -- you can't do better than a May 14th discussion now posted on The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Richard Bushman, a highly regarded historian and the author of the best biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith ever written, Rough Stone Rolling, engages with informed people from the press in an illuminating discussion on "Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?" Find it at http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=148

Bushman is no propagandist either for or against Mormonism. He's a believer, but as a scholar he is also able to view the Mormon church and culture from the outside. In this discussion he is completely candid -- and accurate. I think it's fair to say that you could not find a more accurate discussion of Mormon beliefs and practices relating to American politics.

And, in the long run, the issues raised in this discussion are relevant to believers of any faith who decide to seek public office.

*

Speaking of politics, Bernard Goldberg is always entertaining and smart -- even though he definitely knows which side he's on in any political debate.

The author of Bias and 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, he has come out recently with a new book: Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve.

I wish he had done a better job of delivering on the subtitle. As a Democrat, I could use a clear presentation of the path the Democratic Party has taken into the most irrational, self-contradictory, and sometimes insane political doctrines ever espoused by a significant American political party ... at least since the populist takeover of the Democrats by William Jennings Bryan.

But that is not what this book is about.

Most of it is Goldberg's smart and entertaining discussion of various issues, and especially of various spokespeople, always from his perspective as a conservative of the libertarian wing of the party.

My favorite chapter, though, is his essay repudiating Ann Coulter. Coulter goes for the one-liner, and she loves to be the smart-mouthed hard-hitting pretty girl; but as Goldberg points out, she has lost all sense of the boundaries of decency and self-restraint.

As Coulter herself might point out -- and has -- the Left is held to no such boundaries, mostly because decency and self-restraint depend on a sense of fairness that the Left jettisoned years ago. (Personally, I date it from the vicious assaults on Supreme Court nominees, from the borking of Bork to the obviously perjurious attack on Clarence Thomas.)

In other words, it's like Palestinians and Israelis. Israel is condemned for merely defending itself and accused of war crimes for offenses that are trivial compared to the routine behavior of Palestinian terrorists. Without realizing it, those who condemn Israel are really saying: We know that Israel is a civilized nation and that the Palestinian terrorists are animals. So we expect nothing from the Palestinians and impossibly high standards of decency from the Israelis.

Well, that's how it is in American political discourse right now. The Left can say mind-bogglingly stupid, false, and unfair things about the Right, but the Right is held to a far higher standard of intelligence, accuracy, and fairness. The slightest flaw in a statement from a conservative is magnified into a federal case; truly outrageous statements from liberals are virtually ignored by the press.

Indeed, that's mostly what Goldberg's writings have been about -- the gross disparity between media treatment of the Left and the Right.

But that's the world we live in, and Ann Coulter, naively enough, seems to think otherwise. She expects to be allowed to get away with quoting the insanities of the Left. She seems surprised that, when she quotes and recontexts exactly what a Leftist said and got away with, she is excoriated and vilified as if she had just killed and eaten a baby on national television.

Well, that's the game right now, Ms. Coulter. And as Goldberg tellingly points out: If people like you and Michael Savage behave badly, you will damage your own cause, because nothing is ever forgiven when it is spoken by a person on the Right.


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