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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 31, 2009

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


Up, Lemonade, Swim the Fly, Odds and Laces

Everyone knows that Pixar has been making the best animated movies lately. Toy Story and Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. -- they introduced us not just to a new look-and-feel, but also a higher level of scripting and performance in animated films.

But along the way, something remarkable happened to Pixar's films. The scripts kept getting more ambitious -- more intent on trying to tell a story that had emotional impact beyond excitement and danger.

When you think about it, most animated films -- in America, at least -- have been either musicals or thrillers. Or both (Snow White comes to mind). There's got to be danger, and it's danger that drives the plot.

But with Finding Nemo, we started getting something that felt a little deeper. It was really in Ellen DeGeneres's "Dory" that we found a kind of desperate pathos that elevated the film, that made it feel as if there were moments where it was actually wise.

It happened again in Ratatouille and WALL-E -- just glimpses, really.

We caught that glimpse before, in Disney's early features, and again with Lion King. But Disney's animation crews seemed to forget such lessons almost as soon as they learned them. So far, Pixar's haven't.

Now Pixar has a new animated film, Up, and finally we have an American animated film that approaches Miyazaki's best work -- and here's why.

We don't know where it's going.

Now, that can happen with really bad films, too -- because the filmmakers had no idea what they were doing. With a good film, however, that sense of surprise comes because the creators of the film are not bound to a formula. There's a sensibility that finds magic in surprising places.

I read a review of Up in Weekly Standard that seemed to miss the point. In fact, the reviewer claimed that the problem with the film was that in certain places it was boring.

Boring? Is he insane?

No, he's just been trained by American animated films to expect one dominant emotion above all others: excitement.

But there are other emotions that can carry you into a film -- and much deeper than a mere thrill ride.

From the poster, I expected that the house held up by helium balloons was some kind of wacky accident. Oh no, the house is flying! What shall we do!

Instead, it was a deliberate action by the old man who owned it, and it came, not at the beginning of the movie, but at least twenty minutes in.

And those first twenty minutes were breathtaking.

First we have just a couple of minutes, back in the 1930s, with two little children, a talkative girl named Ellie and a boy, Carl, who can hardly get a word out, he's so in awe of her.

They meet in an abandoned Victorian house, where they pretend to be having adventures like those of their newsreel hero, Charles Muntz, a dirigible aviator who discovers lost lands.

Carl's first adventure ends with him breaking an arm as a board breaks under him.

Then begins one of the most remarkable sequences I've seen in animated film. We get what amounts to a silent movie telling us Carl's and Ellie's entire life story, starting from when, as grownups, they marry and move into that same old Victorian, which they fix up.

They keep trying to save money for a great adventure trip, but emergencies come up and they have to break into the piggy bank. Finally, they are old, and there'll be no adventures, because Ellie falls ill and dies.

That's right. In a "family animated movie."

(And no, that wasn't a spoiler, it happens fifteen minutes in.)

Here's the surprise: This silent-movie life story is sweet and beautiful and truthful and I was not the only one in our party, or in the theater, who was moved by it.

Carl finds himself a grumpy old man clinging to the house he and Ellie had made into a home. It's filled with his mementoes; it's filled with Ellie; and rather than be sent to an old folks' home, he comes up with a plan.

Now I have to stop, except to say that down the road a little, there is the standard adventure plot -- is, there's a villain with a nefarious plot, someone who needs saving, and lots of dangerous stunts along the way.

But by then the plot is almost a formality. We jump through those hoops, and Up brings them off better than most. (In fact, the high-altitude stunts really got to an acrophobe like me, even though I knew they were just artwork, for heaven's sake.)

The story, however, is much larger than the formula, and it reminded me of the strange magic of Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle.

So perfectly did Bob Peterson's screenplay bring this off that I don't think American audiences will find Up boring at all. On the contrary, it's refreshing to feel something more than excitement at an animated film.

And the mad inventiveness of the way the dogs talk (did I mention talking dogs?), and the way the bird behaves (oh yeah, there's a bird), and the airplanes the dogs fly (don't forget the flying dogs), and the impossible door knocks ... all of this fits into the story with such perverse logic that even as it tickles our senses of wonder and of humor, it doesn't violate the deep reality of the film.

This is a life-affirming movie full of humor, wit, love, excitement, and discovery. It's all right if you take some kids with you, but you won't need them -- this movie works perfectly for grownups. In fact, it works especially well for grownups who've never had children. And that's almost weird for an animated film, isn't it?

There've been some very good movies this year. Not many, but a few. So far, at least, I think Up is the best of them. I hope you'll see it.

It's available in both 2D and 3D versions. The 2D version was exciting enough for me, thanks. And I was grateful not to have to wear those clunky glasses. But suit yourself.

*

It's summer, and that means lemonade. Though for me, pursuit of a decent lemonade is sometimes a lonely trek through Sugar Land.

You see, I like lemonade, not lemon-flavored sugar water. Lemons are not sweet. Lemons are sour.

Great Harvest Bread Company has been serving fresh-squeezed lemonade for the past few weeks. They really do squeeze the lemons right in front of you. But then they pour in a sugar-water mixture. I suppose that's just what most people want.

Fortunately, however, they were willing to bend their procedures and just put tap water in with the lemon juice and ice. No sugar at all. Now, that's my kind of lemonade. Depending on the tartness of the actual lemons, it can be pleasantly edgy or cringingly sour -- I love it either way. Great stuff.

But I had long since despaired of finding a really good lemonade in the stores. As always, too much sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup), not enough lemon. And as for limeade, which I actually like better, it just wasn't happening -- I could hardly find any commercial limeade that resembled lime in any way.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was in Fresh Market and spotted Newman's Own Lemonade and Newman's Own Limeade and I saw a ray of hope. Paul Newman may be gone, but his brilliant company continues to make high-quality everything.

Folks, I am here to tell you, Newman's Own got it exactly right. There is sugar in both the lemonade and the limeade, but not too much. There's still just enough sourness in both (plus the tiny edge of bitterness that honest limeade always has) that it is truly the real thing.

Please, try them, buy them, make them so popular that every store has to carry Newman's Own lemonade and limeade. Do it for me. Make it such a commercial success that I can be assured of being able to find the stuff for the rest of my life.

*

Swim the Fly is a Young Adult novel about sex-obsessed teenage boys. Now, I have distinct memories of being a teenage boy, and while I was as obsessed as most of them, I did not discuss the subject with my friends. That was the way irritating hyper-macho jocks behaved, and we all knew that they were lying about the girls they discussed, because my group of friends actually hung out with those girls and knew how much contempt they had for those very same jocks.

At least until they asked them out.

The hero of Swim the Fly, Matt Gratton, is technically a jock -- that is, he's on a team. The swim team.

But he's kind of a lousy swimmer. And when the other guys decide that their goal for the summer is to see a naked woman, in person, he sets himself an additional goal: to swim the butterfly in competition.

The story is randy but not (to me at least) offensively so; what the boys see is not what they hoped for, but it does actually count. And while Matt does have a triumph -- of sorts -- it's not what we expect.

Author Don Calame chose, irritatingly enough, to write the book in present tense. This does nothing but add a needless layer of falseness to the story -- when we want to tell something important and true, we always tell it in past tense. That's how English works, and Calame is an unfortunate victim of the pretensions of bad creative writing classes.

However, he's also a good enough writer to transcend his mistakes. Swim the Fly is funny and smart and just a little bit cynical. If you know a teenager for whom that's just the right mix, then this is the book to put in his (or her) hands.

Because, after all, it's very important for girls to understand how boys think. And even though I didn't think quite the callous way this boys think about girls, I certainly knew boys who did.

*

When you hang out in the bargain-price section of Barnes & Noble, you can sometimes find a jewel. Or at least some good cheap costume jewelry.

Take, for instance, a little book by Thomas J. Craughwell called The Odds: What Are the Chances? B&N is selling it for eight bucks, and it's perfect bathroom or party reading.

Yeah, I said "party reading." You know what I mean -- a bunch of friends are sitting around talking and you, the boring guy in the corner, pop up with, "Did you know that about 75% of women pour milk on their breakfast cereal, but only about 62% of men? Does that make milk-on-cereal a semi-girly thing to do?"

And somebody says, "It just means men are too lazy to buy more milk," and the discussion is off and running.

Or, "Did you know that about eight percent of men drink a beverage straight from the container, then put it back in the refrigerator?"

"I believe it!" says some woman, and the other women laugh.

"Ah," you say, "but more than nine percent of women do! Even more than men!"

"No," says somebody else. "Nine percent of women do it, and only eight percent of men admit it. It's all about who's lying."

You see how it works?

I would have enjoyed the book more, however, if it had seemed more reliable. For one thing, many of the most provocative percentages were without sources. You want to say, "Just how was that question phrased?"

And then, on page 76, we have this baffling sequence: "38% of moviegoers are high school and college age -- 12 to 24 years old." Never mind that those ages include middle school and graduate school. Here's the real howler:

"54% of this age group are male. 49% are female."

The amount of androgyny surprised me, I must confess. Even if you can get the numbers to add up to 100%, it's still not clear whether they're talking about percentages of moviegoers that age, or just people that age.

It's a relief that when they're counting skydivers, the 85% male and 15% female stats work out to 100%.

You want to know what is the most dangerous job in America -- the one with the most fatalities? One out of every 893 workers in this industry die on the job. Come on, guess -- farmers and ranchers? Iron and steel workers? Commercial fishermen? Loggers? What do you think?

*

Then there's another book of lists and stats: 23 Ways to Get to First Base: The ESPN Uncyclopedia.

I don't care about sports. I care even less than you think I care. But when I was a kid, I did in fact play softball and football, basketball and four-square. I liked four-square best, of course, only a little more than hopscotch and a little less than sitting and talking to girls.

My point is that I learned the rules, I've played the game, I've watched them on TV, and so even I found some of the lists interesting.

Like the list of the 18 original NFL teams. Remember those Columbus Panhandles? The Dayton Triangles? The Louisville Brecks? (What in the world is a "Breck," unless the team was sponsored by the shampoo maker!)

How about a list of more than a dozen sports that involve hurling something that is not a ball? OK, it's easy to think of archery and horseshoes. Did you remember darts? Don't forget javelin and discus. And badminton -- it's a birdie, not a ball. (OK, call it a "shuttlecock" if you want to.) Hockey has a puck, shuffleboard has discs ... can you think of any more?

In the list of "vanished bowls" -- bowl games that are no longer held -- do you know where the "Bacardi Bowl" was played? What about the "Cement Bowl"?

Then there's the Baseball All-Star Premature Death Team -- yessirree, it really is a list of all the good baseball pros who died while still playing. Lou Gehrig will of course come to mind, as will Roberto Clemente. But it's a pretty big team.

The worst death, though, was manager Chick Stahl, who committed suicide while traveling with his team and actually left a note saying, "Boys, I just couldn't help it. You drove me to it."

I mean, couldn't he have just tried giving them a pep talk or something? I don't really think that note was going to do much for morale. By the way, the answer to the most dangerous profession is commercial fishing. See how I hid it in the middle of a paragraph?

Did you know that before the 1920s, there used to be a position in hockey called "rover"? (I noticed that on the page across from the one that said that Havana, Cuba, was the home of the Bacardi Bowl in 1937, and the Cement Bowl was played in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1962.)

The drawback to this book is that the designer wants to make sportsfans blind. Page after page was printed with small white letters on a red or blue background. If you actually try to read the tiny names and dates and stats, the words start dancing on the page. (And yes, I have glasses, and very good ones -- it's hard for almost everyone to focus white-on-color letters when the point size is too small.)

You have to decide whether a book of random stats and little-known facts about sports is worth the risk of seeing double for a week.

*

I recently bought a pair of New Balance running shoes, and for the first time saw the new style of athletic shoelaces. They're bumpy. That is, they narrow down and then widen out in a repeating pattern, like beads on a string.

The idea is that these laces won't come lose -- and they don't. I used to tie my running shoes in double knots so they'd stay laced up through a whole hour's run. Now I use single knots and they never, ever come apart until I want them to.

I haven't gone back to the shoe store to see how many other brands have this kind of shoelace. Maybe they all do. Certainly they all should.


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