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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 12, 2011

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


Thor, Sixkill, Gardening Sources

At first glance, the reason why the comic book movie Thor works so well might seem to be the superb casting. When you have gods in a movie, the silliness factor jumps exponentially, and the fact that we aren't laughing at the dialogue could easily be due to the talent of Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Rene Russo as Frigga.

But in this case, it is also due to the script, which takes the absurd premise and turns it into something that actually approaches epic. The key is that instead of pontificating gods, above the realm of human understanding, these characters are portrayed as a family of powerful people with really cool toys -- and instead of being mythic, the universe is science fictional, so that a faint whiff of believability is maintained.

Thor is heir to the throne, but, like many a royal heir in history, he's just a little too eager to take control and run things his way. The result is that he provokes a war with an ancient enemy (the frost giants) and is exiled to Earth, along with his hammer (you know, the thing that makes thunder and lightning). The trouble is that along with the hammer comes a curse -- no one can wield the hammer except Odin's "worthy" successor.

Meanwhile, Thor's younger brother, Loki, the trickster of Norse mythology, is working through plots within plots, none of which make sense but all of which serve to complicate the storyline.

Loki is able to get around rules that everyone else -- including Odin and Thor -- seem to be bound by, which makes the story seem arbitrary (anything can happen, so you begin to lose interest in what actually does happen); but compensating for this deep flaw in the storytelling is the pretty good acting of Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

Oh, yeah -- when Thor comes to Earth he meets formulaic Americans (what if he had landed in Nigeria or Samoa? Oh, but that never happens in comic books, does it; intergalactic heroes are drawn to America like tornados to trailer parks) whose actions amount to nothing -- they are there to be kissed and/or saved.

It's a comic book, and we should be pleased that it moves quickly and entertains us while we eat stale popcorn for a couple of hours. It does not come close to rising to the level of Spider-Man or Iron Man or Batman Begins, but it manages not to be embarrassing, which is actually quite an achievement, given the silliness of the original material.

By accident, I watched it in 3D. (Both the 7:00 and 7:30 showings were 3D and we didn't want to wait around till 8:20 for the 2D.) The glasses were as heavy and annoying as usual, but I must commend director Kenneth Branagh for not beating us over the head with the 3D. That is, we didn't get a lot of fake-looking effects thrown at us; the 3D was part of the storytelling.

However, 3D directors have not yet learned that 3D turns film directing into something closer to stage directing. In 2D film directing, focus serves to force the audience to look where the director wants them to look; items and people in front of or behind the focal point are blurry.

But with 3D, everything is in focus. So if you have something or someone closer to the audience than the person who is talking, they will steal the audience's attention. For instance, my 17-year-old pointed out an annoying sequence where Odin's ornate staff is right in our faces. The staff isn't important in the scene, but because it's closer to us and in focus, our eyes keep getting drawn to it.

For the first time, because of 3D, film directors have to pay attention to stage placement in a way that they never had to before, if they're going to control audience attention. Good stage directors are skilled at this; film directors almost never are.

The truth is, though, that while Branagh handled the 3D as naturally as I think it can be handled, the 3D added nothing to the film experience; it never does. Branagh's achievement was that he annoyed us less than usual with 3D films; in fact, he hardly annoyed us at all. But is that a reason for us to adopt 3D as the norm? I hope not. Three dimensions are absolutely contained in so-called 2D film; in fact, 2D is closer to the way our eyes experience the world than 3D is.

So no matter what you do, 3D is going to be unnatural and unnecessary. As the "coolness" wears off, it is not going to become an essential part of moviemaking. It's just going to be a way to distinguish theatrical films from ordinary home viewing -- because if you think most of us are going to put on special glasses just to watch television, think again. And 3D will only be useful in special effects extravaganzas -- the movies we really care about and take seriously will not use it.

I mean, would The King's Speech or Black Swan have made any sense in 3D? And if they had been filmed in 3D, would anyone have taken them seriously? 3D is a marker of trashiness in filmmaking. Expensive trash, but trash. Which is as good a summation of Thor as you can find. I had a good time watching it. I will never watch it again, and by August I'll probably forget it ever existed. So will you. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth twenty bucks plus popcorn and soda for a night out in May.

*

Robert B. Parker is dead, but he had a few manuscripts already turned in, and Sixkill, the last completed Spenser novel, is a worthy end to the series.

In fact, the title character, a Cree Indian named Zebulon Sixkill, bears all the earmarks of being someone Parker was bringing along to be Spenser's successor. In the process of the novel, Sixkill learns from Spenser, starts to talk like him as well as fight and shoot like him. He has an interesting if perfunctory backstory, and one can imagine that if Parker had lived, we would have started to see Sixkill taking center stage more and more, as Spenser began to face the limitations of age.

If the Parker estate and the publishers can find a writer who can handle something like Parker's spare, wisecracking, yet slightly philosophical manner of storytelling, the series can go on -- but with Sixkill in the foreground, so that the new novels don't have to be Spenser-and-Susan stories. It will be interesting to see what happens.

At the same time, I have to point out that Sixkill is no better than the normal run of recent Spenser novels. That is, we're on familiar ground, and the story is interesting, but it is also ultimately rather slight. The early Spenser novels were sometimes devastating and always compelling and memorable; the later ones, not so much. It was like a good marriage -- the thrill and romance of the beginning were over, but the day to day life was worthwhile; we readers were happy, and we weren't looking for each new novel to change our lives the way the early ones did.

So if you've never read a Spenser novel, you can start here, but you might not understand what all the fuss is about. Go back to the beginning and read The Godwulf Manuscript, God Save the Child, Mortal Stakes, and Promised Land. Then move on through The Judas Goat and Looking for Rachel Wallace until you reach Early Autumn, which many readers think was the best of the series.

(If you keep going, just remember that A Catskill Eagle seems to be Parker's attempt to turn Spenser into a thriller hero instead of a detective hero, and it's a mess, shattering credibility. If you skip it, you'll be doing yourself a favor.)

*

I have yard guys who do the major design work in our yard -- I'm a little old for digging in the hard clay of North Carolina soil, and I'm not knowledgeable enough about plants that grow well here to plan the landscaping from scratch.

Still, I've loved gardening, despite my lack of talent for it, since I was a teenager and my parents let me fiddle with the yard a bit. In those days we lived in Orem, Utah, whose soil consists of so many rocks (it's an island of riverstones deposited in an ancient estuary) that you dig with sledgehammer and crowbar more than with a spade.

I had my fill of wrestling with troublesome dirt, and so I do my personal gardening in planting boxes and pots, where all the soil is purchased and I never have to deal with stones.

But I'm still learning -- things that real gardeners have known for a long time. For instance, last year I bought a couple of preplanted pots from New Garden Landscaping and Nursery (the Lawndale location; I only go out to the location off Old Oak Ridge Road when I need pond plants); I also bought plants from them to put in my self-watering windowboxes from Gardener's Supply Company online (http://www.gardeners.com.)

My patio is also populated with pots large and small, as it has been for years; but this year I finally learned a lesson that my plants have been trying to teach me for years: pots are for annuals, and you can't reuse the soil for long.

The ivy that has been growing on one of the pots for years stopped thriving this spring. No matter how I fertilized and watered, it began to fade. But this year, I recognized the same pattern that I saw last year with a potgrown rosebush, which kept withering -- they were potbound.

They had thriven so well in past years that the roots had completely overwhelmed the soil. In fact, as my teenage helper and I struggled to remove the rootballs from several pots, we found that the roots were such a solid mass that it took serious prying and cutting and sweating and muttering to get the wad of roots free of the pot.

Lesson learned: In pots, nothing is forever. And once the soil has been saturated with roots, it can't be reused. You take out the old plants and, if you aren't going to put them in the yard somewhere, you throw out the mass of roots and put new soil in the container.

I bet you already knew that. But I didn't, and now I do.

Yet that doesn't mean I'm going to change out all the soil from my pots and planting boxes every year. That's because I've had some wonderful surprises from my potted plants when I leave them over winter.

For instance, my northside windowboxes, which get almost no direct sunlight, sprouted some really beautiful plants this spring that grew up from roots that had lain dormant through the cold. Also, a sunny windowbox that had suffered a nearly complete killoff in the winter's cold managed to come back this spring without my doing more than thinning the self-seeded petunias. It's been kind of fun to see how a single petunia plant from last year managed to create four different shades of petunia plants this year.

Also, the seeds of last year's annuals have sprouted in odd places, including in the cracks between bricks on the patio. I know it's destructive of the mortar to let these plants thrive, but I rather like to watch the courageous struggle of plants to live in those cracks, so I don't root them out.

However, the thistles that grow from seeds spilled by messy birds from my patio feeding station are doomed.

My real experiment this year has been augmenting my local plant purchases with mail order annuals from online nurseries. Logee's Tropical Plants (http://www.logees.com) mostly offers plants better suited to Florida than North Carolina, where we're in zone 7 and few of their plants can survive our winter. (In fact, despite rumors of global warming, the USDA has recently changed our official "last frost" date by a couple of weeks, in recognition of a later spring than in past years.)

Still, Logee's does offer a few plants that can survive in our climate, and I'm giving them a try. Most of my online plant buying, however, has been from White Flower Farm, based in Connecticut (http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com). To them, our climate is downright balmy, and the main thing you have to worry about is plants that might not like our hot summers.

Most of what I've bought from White Flower Farm is tomatoes -- many varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

The reason is simple enough. After years of growing tomatoes in my planting boxes -- sometimes successfully -- I've realized that after all my work, the tomatoes aren't noticeably better than the ones I buy from Harris-Teeter or Fresh Market. What's the point?

On the other hand, we've been enjoying more and more nonstandard (i.e., non-red) varieties of tomato in various restaurants and, occasionally, in the markets, and so why not play with growing those? White Flower Farm offers an impressive array.

Add to those the seeds I've been buying online from Renee's Garden (http://www.reneesgarden.com) for years -- that's where I get my haricots verts, the only kind of green bean that I like -- and my garden begins to take on some uniqueness.

Of course, not everything I try works out. While my beans from Renee's are stunningly successful -- including, this year, some decorative beans I'm growing for the foliage and colorful pods rather than for the kitchen -- I've had other seedgrown plants that were a disappointment.

And you have to work with mail-order plants very carefully. Make sure they don't arrive when you're out of town, for instance -- while both Logee's and White Flower Farm package their plants for shipment very carefully, the process is still traumatic to the plants and they need some serious care to recover from transit.

The tomatoes that I didn't plant for a week after they arrived were still green, but they withered and died as soon as I put them in the ground. Even quick planting isn't enough. You want to give them some sun and water in their shipping pots before you put them in their ultimate planting spot. Thus only one of the four jasmines I bought from Logee's is thriving; I should have followed their directions more closely.

By the second round of tomatoes from White Flower Farm, I had learned my lesson, and I put the little pots (with tall, spindly vines) in a tub with a bit of water in the bottom, and placed them in the sun. The sides of the tub provided support; the sunlight and water gave them a chance to revive after their sunless transit days in cardboard boxes. Now these plants are thriving and growing well in their final location, and I'm optimistic about their future.

Yet with the plants I'm actually depending on for culinary purposes, I continue to rely on New Garden Nursery -- what they sell is exactly right for our area, and I can count on the herbs and decorative plants I buy there, as long as I keep my shade-lovers in the shade and sun-lovers in the sun.

Meanwhile, I isolate and protect my pond plants by growing them in planting bags from Foster and Smith Aquatics, where I also bought my floating planters (http://www.fosterandsmithaquatics.com ).

The "Jolly Kneeler" from Gardener's Supply has saved my poor old knees from damage as I kneel to plant things and work the soil.

And I'm looking forward to seeing whether the potato grow bags and seed potatoes from Gardener's Supply do a good job of turning some paved areas of my yard productive.


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