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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 22, 2012

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


Wreck-It, Downton, Defender, Rho

Great films are relentlessly imitated; what began as innovation quickly turns into formula.

Thus the powerful animated Iron Giant led in a straight line to the emotionally compelling animated Toy Story 3, one of the best movies ever made.

Now we have the animated Wreck-It Ralph, which ends with an emotionalism that has the perfunctoriness of formula. As tears came to my eyes, I felt it as a reflex, as if a doctor had struck my knee with a rubber hammer. That is, I was moved, but I resented it a little.

Perhaps that was because the "save" at the end of the movie came out of nowhere. It was clever but empty. Where Toy Story 3 had drawn on the deepest roots of human relationships, Wreck-It Ralph relied on cheerful cliches.

Never mind. Apart from the formulaic emotionalism, this was an entertaining and cleverly conceived movie. In other words, while it failed to reach its loftiest aim, it nevertheless achieved all the rest.

A movie built around a videogame villain who wearies of his perpetual isolation and discomfort and seeks to become a hero could easily have descended into the same stupidities as, say, Tron.

Instead, the character of Ralph (John C. Reilly) achieves his superficial goal very quickly -- he subverts another game and is given a medal that says "Hero." Game over.

Only it isn't over, because by sheer accident he is carried into a sappy little game where hypercute anime girls race each other on candy-and-cookie cars through a sugary landscape.

The real story then begins -- which is the tale of Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a "glitch" in the game. Everyone who has played videogames knows about glitches -- programming errors or corruptions in the software that cause a character to suddenly shift to a different position, or that cause other anomalous and unpredictable changes.

Glitches can make games unplayable, especially when they affect the player's avatar character. So it makes sense that the whole Sugarland world unites to block Vanellope from competing in the qualifying race. For if she crosses the finish line, dire things will happen and the game will certainly be unplugged. They will all die.

Except ... what if Vanellope is more than a glitch? That becomes the real plot of the movie, with Ralph's tale more of a subplot, though he is vital to Vanellope's victory.

Sorry if you think that's a spoiler. Like there was any chance the hero wouldn't prevail.

Those who know videogames, especially the early arcade games, will be delighted with the nostalgia of this movie, and even more pleased with the imaginative way it exploits the real inner workings of videogame programs. Seeing a handwritten out-of-order sign from the other side of the screen is one of many delights.

And even though they were clearly following the Toy Story 3 formula (in ways that I don't detail here, because I really don't want to spoil the plot twists), the movie remains highly entertaining. The dialogue, which is better than good-enough, is made delightful by the vocal performances of Reilly, Silverman, and the show-stealing military-game officer Calhoun (Jane Lynch of Glee) and Felix (Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock).

Toss in a fine performance by Alan Tudyk (Firefly) as King Candy and a host of other fine character actors, and we have one of the best-acted animated movies in recent memory.

There is actual banter, a lost art in film-making today, where "Go! Go! Go!" is reaching its thirtieth year as an obligatory line of dialogue in action movies.

We enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph very much for its own sake, and if the filmmakers aspired to greatness and missed it by a mile, at least they knew that greatness in animated filmmaking is possible! It's quite possible that animation is the last place where filmmakers regularly try to do more than either make money, win Oscars, or impress their "elite" friends.

*

I've had longer to work with the internet customized radio community Pandora, and things aren't quite as rosy as they seemed at first. Even though you can create your own radio stations, you are still severely limited by the existing genre definitions programmed into the software.

For instance, in my "Writer's Trance" station, which is meant to emphasize quiet keyboard and low-key classical music, with occasional tracks of new age and film score work, every now and then Pandora pushes in some truly crappy older blues and honky-tonk vocals. Where do those come from? I give them a thumbs-down, but the strain appears every fifty tracks or so.

More annoying are the genre definitions on my "Women of Depth and Grace" station. For one thing, there is apparently no way for Pandora to understand that I want only female vocals. Up pop Mick Jagger, Cat Stevens, or Harry Connick Jr.

Now, I love Harry Connick Jr., and have great nostalgia for Cat Stevens; there are even some Mick Jagger pieces that I like. But I don't want them on this station. Apparently the fact that only female vocalists are selected in my seed tracks is not noticed by Pandora.

Then there's the fact that I selected Brazilian vocalists to add to the mix. To Pandora, Brazilian is "Latin." But it is most definitely not -- this is a serious defect in the genre definitions.

Anybody who knows the music of Maria Bethania, Simone, and other Brazilian singers would not imagine that this branch of cool jazz has anything to do with salsa or ranchera or Roberto Carlos.

Then, because Pandora pays royalties for every song it plays, the program puts limitations on my ability to skip or reject songs that don't belong on my station. I'm allowed only four skips per hour, apparently. But when they put six male singers in a row on my "Women of Depth and Grace" station, what am I to do?

What I do is switch back to Foobar and play some of the ten thousand tracks I have purchased for my computer. Just because Pandora is not perfect does not mean it isn't good. It's still way less annoying than commercial radio.

And it still does the job of introducing me to singers, composers, and other performers that I've never heard before. I've already bought a dozen new MP3 albums from Amazon (which does not force digital rights management on its customers) because Pandora played artists whose work I'd never heard before.

*

Are you a fan of the Downton Abbey series, written by Julian Fellowes and shown on Masterpiece Theatre in the U.S.? I certainly am.

So when we saw a book called Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by the Countess of Carnarvon, we had no choice but to buy it and read it.

Downton Abbey is entertainment -- the story is about the relationships among the characters, and the rules of the society they live in. World War I plays an important part in the story, and the series is completely successful.

But -- as is so often the case -- the real history is far richer and more fascinating, though it could never be adequately included in a coherent entertainment series.

You see, the real Lord Carnarvon, whose life -- and wife -- serve as models for Downton Abbey was far more interesting, as was Lady Almina herself.

I kept being surprised by how often this family pops up in events I already knew about. Who could have guessed, from the beginning of the story, that this was the same Lord Carnarvon who sponsored -- financially and politically -- the excavation of the tomb of King Tut!

Obviously that could not possibly fit into the story of Downton Abbey, but it is only one of the many digressions that real history includes and entertainment programs cannot.

The book is well-written, and I recommend it highly; I also predict that it will become a mainstay of many women's book groups, if it isn't already.

*

The problem with Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergis, by Christopher Kemp, is that at 187 pages and only a half-inch in thickness, the book is far too long.

The actual interesting material -- the composition and uses of ambergris -- are worth a good New Yorker or Atlantic article.

But Kemp stretches it out with endless ruminations and self-indulgent reminiscences. In love with his own writing style and omphaloskeptically self-obsessed, Kemp becomes the most tedious of companions through this journey. Finally the reader with any self-respect must tell him to shut up, skim through the interesting factual stuff, and then jettison the rest of the book.

Ambergris, used in the manufacture of perfume, is fascinating stuff. Found washed up on ocean shores, in lumps large and small, ambergris is produced in the guts of sperm whales, formed of fecal material building up around the unexpelled hard bits from the bodies of squids and octopuses.

In other words, this incredibly valuable substance derives its powerful stinkiness from the fact that it is a combination of cephalopod corpses and cetacean poo.

Isn't that cool? And I just saved you twenty-three bucks and several hours of wasted time reading the book.

Meanwhile, I once again register my impatience with writers who think that their "art" consists of self-display instead of communication.

It's like buying a pair of binoculars made by a lensmaker who thinks his art consists, not of creating the clearest, most well-focused lenses, but rather of engraving intricate designs into the glass of the lenses, until you can barely see through them at all.

I didn't buy this book in order to watch in awe the cleverness of Christopher Kemp; I bought it to find out about ambergris. Which, eventually, I did.

*

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, the third and final volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill has finally arrived, and it was well worth the wait.

Manchester suffered a stroke before he had written a word of the final volume, though his research was complete, and his notes and plans for the book were copious. He lived for a long time after that, perfectly capable of speech and of reading, but unable to write a thing.

He became friends with journalist Paul Reid after his stroke, but over the years came to the conclusion that Reid was the writer who could finish his magnum opus -- and he was right.

Reid's writing does not try to imitate Manchester, except perhaps in his clarity and intelligence; what he does follow very closely is the way Manchester thinks, the kinds of anecdotes and facts he includes, the way he marshals his evidence, and the outspoken way he passes judgments on various historical figures.

The result is that the third volume feels like an almost seamless continuation of Manchester's work.

The one frustration is with the audiobook only. The first portion of the book is read by Paul Reid, whose distinctive, gravelly voice was a pleasure to listen to. Reid has some weird pronunciation issues: He repeatedly pronounced the last name of historian Thomas Babington Macaulay as if it had the stress pattern of "Saturday" rather than that of "appalling" -- MACK-uh-lay instead of muh-CAWL-ee. But even with such flaws, his reading was excellent and clear and real.

However, he's definitely an American, and the audiobook producers apparently felt the need to have the bulk of the book read by an Englishman. Thus we are afflicted with the mannered, monotonous reading of Clive Chafer.

Chafer's problem is that he apparently thinks that deep voices are better than those of middle-range. A natural tenor, he tries to press his voice down into its lowest register. The result is an extremely limited vocal range, and where sentences should sink down in pitch to express completion, he cannot go any lower. Every sentence therefore sounds incomplete, which becomes more and more annoying the longer you listen.

I would so much rather have listened to Reid's wonderfully natural voice -- American and mispronunciatory as it is -- than Chafer's monotonous, artificial voice, despite its authentic Englishness. If only one of the narrators of the two previous volumes had been available -- both Frederick Davidson and Richard Brown did superb work.

It's a shame that the excellent writing of the third volume should be marred by such a tedious reading.

But it is not so dreadful that I have to stop listening, as some readings are. It is only by comparison with Reid and with the previous narrators that Chafer seems so inadequate. For he does achieve adequacy, though excellence eludes him.

Meanwhile, I move forward through the story with great pleasure in Reid's faithful completion of Manchester's final work.

*

Michael Connelly's The Safe Man is a short story, and therefore quite slight compared to Connelly's excellent mystery novels. But it is well worth buying and downloading it.

Brian Holloway is the son of a convicted safecracker; he uses the same skills, but as part of his work as a locksmith. He specializes in opening safes whose combinations have been lost or forgotten. He comes to the home of a writer who recently bought an old house with a safe in the floor. It's of a make that he doesn't recognize, so he has to drill his way in.

What ensues is a story more of the supernatural than mystery genre. And far from being a horror story, the supernatural element is rather hopeful, offering a chance of preventing catastrophes.

The good news is that Connelly does his normal excellent job of world-creation and character development. We get the sense that there is far more to this story than is contained within these few pages.

The bad news is ... there are too few pages. This should have been a fully developed novel. We should see what the character does with the things he has learned; we should watch him trace backward through the history of the safe itself.

We should also watch him arrange for swimming lessons instead of getting a pointless oogly-boogly ending. Connelly isn't Stephen King, and that's a good thing -- irresolute oogly-boogly endings are a flaw, not a virtue, in King's work.

Meanwhile, it's only a week until Connelly's next Harry Bosch novel, The Black Box, comes out. I can hardly wait.

*

Once audiobooks end up on my Nano, only the title and author information remain. So the novel Immune just sat there without telling me it was book 2 in a series, whose first volume I also had on my Nano: The Second Ship.

Fortunately, author Richard Phillips is one of those wonderful authors who shares my commitment to make each book in a series stand alone. This is done by including in each volume all the information necessary to understand the story contained in its pages.

So even though, many chapters in, I realized that there had to be a previous volume, I felt no need to stop listening to Immune and find the first volume. On the contrary, I could hardly stop listening as the story raced forward.

With teen protagonists and no explicit sex (though plenty of sexual tension) I'm betting the series -- The Rho Agenda -- could be viewed as Young Adult fiction.

In this middle book, three very smart teens have been seriously augmented by their experience in a crashed alien spaceship. The ship they have explored is very different from the Rho spaceship long known to the government. Nanotech from the Rho spaceship seems to have the cure for all human ills -- but it comes with a catch.

The two spaceships were enemies, which shot each other down. They are now, in effect, continuing their battle, using humans as their surrogates. The Rho ship makes humans over in its own devastating image; but the Second Ship wakens human potential and makes the three young heroes exactly like themselves, only way better.

Watching the Rho ship manipulate a fourth -- and more troubled -- teen who has been surgically connected to it is both painful and enthralling.

For a thriller writer, Phillips handles technological and psychological matters with the sophistication of the best science fiction; and Phillips does a reasonably good job of involving government officials at the highest levels without descending into the usual errors of sci-fi writers who attempt to write thrillers.

Most important, though, are the relationships among the three teenage heroes. They are all well-drawn, complicated figures with real connections to each other and to their families. This is a devilishly hard thing to bring off; few thriller writers even try. Considering that these are Richard Phillips's first books, this is a very promising turn: He is likely to get better and better.

Add to this the fact that Phillips is a former Army Ranger and has a masters degree in physics, completing his thesis work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, I think we can safely say that in both the science and the combat portions of these books, he knows what he's talking about.

In fact, I dare to predict that Richard Phillips is very quickly going to be very well known as one of the best and most popular writers of near-future sci-fi. Heaven knows the genre needs fresh new writers with both skill and expertise.

I highly recommend Immune for adults and teenagers who enjoy techno-thrillers. I intend to listen to the first volume as soon as I'm finished with the Churchill biography; and the third Rho Agenda volume will be published before this review appears, so you can get all three books at once.

Now I'm trying to figure out whom to give this series to for Christmas.


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