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