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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 30, 2007

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

Book, Movies, TV of the Year

2007 is over, and I'm not actually going to miss it.

A year that set new lows in political stupidity -- and that was a record hard to beat.

A year in which my own political party -- most Democrats in Congress and all of them running for president -- were openly cheering on our enemies and rooting for the failure of our own soldiers.

A year in which there seemed to be mostly two kinds of movies: cynical big-money sequels which only occasionally had a story, and dark little movies whose point, judging from the promos, was to demonstrate how smart and sensitive and noble it is to be politically correct and/or morally corrupt.

A year in which a long-overdue writers' strike (I'm a member of the union and a supporter of this job action) threatened to kill a not-bad television season.

But it was also a year when President Bush finally found the commanders to lead our troops in Iraq, so that our soldiers are finally winning by ... acting like Americans and winning the trust of the people.

And in my family, we got our second grandbaby, so we're still wandering around in the afterglow.

In no particular order, here's my review of the year gone by, and a few predictions for the year to come.

Noteworthy Deaths

I'm not going to cover the whole year's obituaries. Just the ones that caught my eye at the end of the year.

Everything got invented or discovered by somebody. This year we lost ...

Robert Cade, the leader of the team that invented Gatorade, and Ernest Gallo, the co-creator of the Gallo Winery. Not only were their creations huge financial successes, they also launched whole industries. Before the Gallo brothers, there was no serious California wine industry. And Gatorade now has dozens of strong competitors. I've never tasted either.

Momofuku Ando, the creator of Ramen noodles, and Vincent DeDomenico, the creator of Rice-a-Roni. These guys made poverty and loneliness tolerable, giving bachelor's the illusion that they know how to cook.

Dan Fogelberg. At 56, he was too young to die. His "Longer Than" is one of the great love songs, and "Part of the Plan" is still an anthem that stirs my blood. I own and listen to every song he ever did -- but I grieve that there'll never be more.

CompUSA. This was the only chain where, nationwide, I knew I could find anything and everything I needed for my computers, from portable drives to USB hubs, from mice to printer ink to paper.

But they were killed by their own business decisions. Their natural audience was people who needed technical help and advice. But those people are scared of computers, and CompUSA needed to do saturation advertising like that done by Best Buy and Circuit City, letting people know that CompUSA was the place where they would get help.

Instead, Best Buy and Circuit City became the low-price leaders that captured the beginner market. Then -- at Best Buy, at least -- you pay through the nose for help from the Geek Squad.

At CompUSA I regularly met people who knew as much as I do about computers, and sometimes people who knew more. That never, never happens at Best Buy and Circuit City. They have people who understand stereos and televisions -- but when I walk into the store I become the local expert on computers. Unless there's another customer who knows more.

So now computer owners have to go, not to Best Buy or Circuit City, but to Office Depot or Staples to get the peripherals and ink and paper and so forth that their computers need.

There's no villain here. Best Buy and Circuit City did what they do -- compete on price and quality. CompUSA did what they do -- service and, yes, price. But they didn't get the word out, and slowly they ran into the ground and ... died. Our loss as well as theirs.

Worst Technical Innovations

Windows Vista. Microsoft "improved" Windows by adding a lot of security features. Unfortunately, they don't actually give us access to our own computers -- Vista shuts us out. It's also impossible to get it to link up with your existing Windows network, not at the level we're used to. Vista added so many annoyances I took it off my computer and put XP on it -- a tricky operation indeed, with a computer not designed for it.

But Microsoft is shooting themselves in the foot. Because the only way households or small offices running small networks can keep their network running is to put Vista on all their machines. And the only way to do that, practically speaking, is to buy all new machines.

That's right. Replace your whole network all at once.

But the moment you think of doing that, what happens? I don't know about you, but I'm so annoyed at Microsoft for even making me think about such a change that if I actually do it -- change all my hardware -- you can count on it, I won't buy machines that run Windows.

After all, the only reason I haven't already switched to Linux or even Apple is that they wouldn't be compatible with my existing hardware. But if I'm changing all the hardware anyway, then why not?

So Microsoft has just given many of us a perfect incentive to scrap Windows entirely and go with something else.

I would lose thousands of dollars of investment in hardware and software, if I did that.

But I'm going to lose it anyway. Microsoft is stealing it from me. Because at some point they'll stop supporting XP. And then I'll have a machine that can't run the newest versions of the software I depend on. Eventually, because of their unconscionably bad business practices, I'll be looking at machines that don't function properly on the internet and don't run the best software.

So at some point, since that money has been taken out of my pocket by Microsoft, I'll invest in new systems from Apple or in boxes that run Linux, and Microsoft can go hang itself.

Do I sound grumpy?

You got it.

Dial Soap Dispensers. I converted over to Dial's foaming liquid soap dispensers almost as soon as they came out.

Now they've "improved" the dispensers. Guess what? Now the top doesn't align properly and automatically with the base. So instead of just whamming the top and getting a spurt of foam, you have to use both hands to fiddle with it until everything lines up properly and you sort of force the thing to work.

Next time you go to use it, it's as if it reconfigured itself. You have to find the right positioning all over again.

So I tried their new yogurt-based soaps. (They smell nice; they really do keep your hands moister.) I thought that maybe this dispenser design would work.

Nope. Same problem.

I will hate switching to another brand, because I really like the quality of the soap. I also liked the old dispensers. Why oh why did some idiot have to change it without making sure it works at least as well as the old version?

Did Microsoft buy Dial Soap?

Most Important Book

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner. Weiner, a New York Times journalist, has been writing about America's covert services for decades. For this book, he had access to an incredible depth of formerly classified sources, and it looks to me like he's telling the story of the CIA straight.

That story is both appalling and depressing. The tail of covert operations wagged the dog of intelligence from the start, and the CIA was incompetent at both. President after president made decisions based on information that ranged from faulty to outright lies -- with Allen Dulles a particular offender.

The careerists drove the best people out of the CIA for decades. Their "successful" operations in the first twenty years were worse than their failures, partly because they were unnecessary or outright wrong, and partly because they weren't covert at all -- everyone knew the CIA had done them.

The list isn't long: Deposing the legitimate government of Iran and replacing it with the Shah. Getting Diem ousted as president of South Vietnam -- and then killed. Forcing a change of government in Guatemala.

Meanwhile, thousands of agents were killed because in the early years, the CIA was so careless that the KGB always knew where agents were being infiltrated into Communist-held territory.

Can a nation be a superpower without a credible intelligence service and covert operations capability? Obviously it can, because we did.

Today, it's our military that does good covert operations, and our electronic and satellite intelligence that gives us reliable information.

But don't forget -- the CIA has now informed us that Iran isn't developing nukes. I feel safe now, don't you?

You won't get very far in this book before you start wishing that the CIA had never been formed. It has nothing to do with whether you're conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. You have to read this book in order to understand the shocking degree to which American foreign policy was made, not by our elected officials, but by clowns in black suits.


I don't actually get paid for reviewing movies, so I don't go to the ones that look like I'm going to hate them from the start. Therefore I didn't waste a dollar going to the movies about the war.

I knew what I'd see: Profoundly undereducated actors nobly playing "soldiers" who already hate traditional American values, or learn to in the process of the movie. The promos I saw were an insult to the soldiers I know.

And judging from the hand-wringing in the entertainment media, I wasn't the only one who stayed away. All the movies about the war tanked, despite huge star power.

In World War II, Hollywood gave us movies that encouraged us in the struggle against those who would rule the world, oppressing everyone they didn't outright murder.

We're fighting the same kind of enemy today, and the Western intellectual elite are the first people that would be killed if Al Qaeda were able to install Osama as Caliph of the world -- so if anything, this war is being fought to make the world safe for politically correct pinheads.

Here's a clue: The largest audience for war movies consists of people who know that war is tough and perilous and morally challenging, but also believe that it's worth fighting when our cause is just. They want movies that are on our side.

If the studios wanted to make money from war movies, they'd hire writers who actually know and like some soldiers and have an understanding of history and war. They won't prettify the war. They'd make it real -- but they'd also show soldiers who know why they're fighting.

Because that's the kind of soldier we have in this war: All volunteers.

They could make great movies about what our soldiers are actually doing, and such films would make a lot of money.

Instead, they make up drivel that has nothing to do with how the military actually functions, and talk down to the audience from their lofty perches. It's like expecting an ROTC student to take a college course entitled: "War Criminals: America, the Aggressor State."

What made money in 2007? Mostly sequels -- Spider-Man, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Bourne, Rush Hour, Die Hard, Fantastic Four, Ocean's X, and X Almighty.

Some of these were sequels of movies that sucked, and so the people who went to the theaters for more of the same deserved what they got.

But Shrek the Third was a disaster, and Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End had nice moments but were, in the end, vaguely lackluster. We expected more.

Still, there's not actually a law that sequels have to be horrid. The Bourne Ultimatum may well be the best movie of the year. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was also one of the best.

We thoroughly enjoyed Ocean's Thirteen (way better than Twelve), while Evan Almighty surprised us because Steve Carell's luminous performance made the movie work.

I don't go to movies that are about the special effects unless somebody makes me. So I didn't see Transformers and I haven't found time yet to watch 300 on DVD. I Am Legend looks wonderful, but it was a busy Christmas and I haven't seen it yet.

So keep in mind that my list is going to be eccentric because I stay away from dark movies most of the time, and keep searching for good comedy.

Let me also point out, however, that comedy is far, far harder than drama to do well -- at least at a grownup level. So I have no qualms at all about pronouncing really good comedies as the best movies of the year -- without having seen most of the dramas that everyone considers "contenders" for the awards.

Here's my best-movies-I-saw list:

1. Dan in Real Life. Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche gave brilliant performances amid a truly outstanding ensemble cast, and the script by Pierce Gardner and director Peter Hedges was brilliant and real. This is a movie I'll watch again and again -- because I loved these people and care about them.

2. Ratatouille. I can't believe that somebody gave a green light to a movie about a rat who cooks, with a title that Americans can't pronounce. But the story was funny and sweet, for which I lay much credit at the door of Brad Bird, who has made exactly three animated features, all of them brilliant: The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille.

3. The Bourne Ultimatum. In case anybody wondered, the successor to Harrison Ford, now that he has died and been replaced by a botoxed automaton, is Matt Damon. Only he has more range as an actor, so we can expect him to also step into deeper roles as he matures.

4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. These movies get better and better -- and this one is especially significant because the book was rather weak and diffuse. Michael Goldenberg's script was a brilliant distillation of the book -- not a surprise, considering he also wrote the deeply moving live-action Peter Pan.

5. Enchanted. Amy Adams was wonderful -- and Patrick Dempsey was the perfect straight man. The script was sharply satirical but also gave the humor some hints at depth -- especially in the relationship between father and daughter.

6. Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? A powerful exploration of marriage from the point of view of someone who believes in it. The antidote to American Beauty. And also a very, very funny comedy.

7. Surf's Up. I didn't want another animated penguin movie -- but this is the good one. Funny, smart dialogue and great visual humor -- they had a great script and then made it live on the screen.

8. Becoming Jane. Based on the best biography of Jane Austen every written, they did a good job of making her life into a Jane Austen novel -- without taking too many liberties. And Anne Hathaway was surprisingly good in a straight role.

Other noteworthy movies that I liked:

Amazing Grace -- a solemn biopic like this invariably suffers from "it really happened" syndrome: it doesn't end, it just stops. But this one was powerful enough that I didn't mind.

Bridge to Terabithia -- not only a faithful adaptation of a fine book, but also a good movie even if you never read it.

Evan Almighty -- a modern Noah? Give me a break. But the script and performances were good enough that I bought it, at least long enough to enjoy the movie thoroughly.

Hairspray -- an earnest parody? It worked far better than I expected.

Ocean's Thirteen -- this time they actually had a story instead of playing celeb-watch. I think it's the best of the three Ocean's movies.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End -- after the outrageous disappointment of the second movie, this one at least had a spectacular ending. Not on my "best" list, but I'll watch it again.

The Simpson's Movie -- I'm not a Simpson's fan, but the "Spider-Pig" promo sucked me in and I had a great time watching it.

Spider-Man 3 -- OK, it made $336 million, with an incredible $151-million-dollar opening weekend. That doesn't make it one of the best of the year. The script was good -- but it got a little lost in the special effects.

Stardust -- the script was fairly incoherent, but it was an imaginative fantasy with some terrific performances.

Well-meaning failures:

The Last Mimzy -- they had to change the classic story to make it into a movie, but they didn't have to make it so ... dumb. Yet I liked it anyway.

Music and Lyrics -- romantic comedy is very, very hard to do. There were many nice moments in this movie, but it ultimately failed because the "dream cast" had no chemistry.

Nancy Drew -- if only they had made a movie for people who know and love the books. Even so, it had good moments.

Movies that I would rather lose a toe than watch again:

Shrek the Third

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

This list is so short mostly because I'm very good at predicting which movies I'll hate -- and I don't go. So these managed to suck me in and then slap me in the face with their outrageous badness.


Best Reality Series

1. So You Think You Can Dance. This is a contest show that loves the contestants. The judges are smart, and help the audience understand what good dancing is. And the quality of the choreographers and contestants is superb.

2. Dancing with the Stars. I thought this show sounded stupid, but when my wife and daughter watched it religiously, I began to realize that this was not Hollywood Squares -- a way to recycle old celebs. On the contrary, most of the celebrities work hard and do well.

3. American Idol. It has its flaws: The smarmy, sneering way it exploits delusional would-be contestants at the beginning of each season; the vacuously empty comments by two out of three judges; the pointless and unfunny sniping between Simon and Ryan. And the best singer doesn't always win. (Last year the two best weren't even in the finale.) But it's still a fun ride -- and the show has the power to make stars.

Best New Drama

No contest: It's Life. Starring Damian Lewis, one of the best screen actors in the world, brings depth and wit and intelligence to a police detective who spent ten years of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Now he solves weekly cases -- while also trying to figure out who framed him ten years ago, and why.

The rest of the cast is also great, and every episode is brilliantly written. There is nothing better on TV right now. I hope that during the writers' strike they have the sense to rerun all the episodes in order so that more people can find this series.

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