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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 2, 2014

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

Blue Orange, American Hustle

You can recognize a lot of the games from Blue Orange because they come in round tin cans. (Yes, they''re surrounded by square packages so they can stack on a shelf in a store, but you can clearly see the round canister inside.)

Inside the tin, what you mostly find are round cards.

Round cards are miserable to shuffle, at least if you''re a corner-shuffler like me. But then, it''s not terribly important that you get a thorough shuffle.

Take the game Chef Cuckoo!, which is rated for ages 7 to 12 (though it''s also fun for adults who are playing with children). The idea is that some foods combine deliciously, and some, in combination, are disgusting.

So the person who is ""chef"" sets the goal ---- worst sandwich or best sandwich, worst soup or best soup, and so on with salads and pastas and pizzas. All the players have been dealt a bunch of ingredient cards, and their goal is to put together three ingredients that would induce you to eat the food ---- or gag on it. The chef then judges which he likes best, and you move on to the next dish.

Simple enough, yes? But it''s fun for kids to think of revolting dishes ---- or try to come up with something another person would want to eat.

Not all the games skew that young. Spot It! has round cards with eight iconic pictures on each. The pictures are different sizes on different cards, and since the cards are round they might be facing any direction. The idea is to quickly find the one picture that makes the cards match; there is always one, and only one, match between cards.

It''s a game where seven-year-olds can compete fairly evenly with adults. Yet a group of adults, with no children present, can still find it challenging and entertaining.

There are lots of variations of Spot It!, dealing with the Alphabet (ages 3 to 6), Numbers & Shapes (3 to 5), Basic English (6 to 12), Basic French or Spanish (6 to adult), Golf, NHL, Major League Baseball, Halloween, On the Road, and a Party variation for ages 10 to adult.

Another round-card game is Speedeebee! (apparently games need exclamation points in their names or you won''t know they''re fun), for ages 8 to adult. You do have to know enough spelling to know whether words begin with, or contain, a certain letter.

You have four dice to roll, each with six different letters. Then you draw cards with a choice of three challenges, requiring you to think of a word containing one or two of the letters you roll, or beginning with a certain letter, or containing one of the letters but not the other three.

All players compete on every turn, including the person who rolls the dice and draws the challenge card; it can be played by two people or as many as six (though I can''t think of a reason why it can''t be seven or eight).

Trigger! may be the most fun. Everybody has to be within reach of a target card in the middle of the table, which puts a practical limit on the number of players. Each card that comes up contains a bunch of true/false statements, including ""personal"" ones that require you to know something about the person who drew the card.

The questions are simple enough, though many require that you think through the entire sentence in order to decide whether it''s true or false.

Half the fun, though, comes from how physical the game is. That''s because your left hand indicates ""false"" and your right hand means ""true."" You cast your vote, not by shouting, but by (gently) slapping the target. The way hands pile up reveals who was first.

We quickly had to make a family rule against hovering: Both hands have to be touching your own face as the question is read. Whether you adopt this rule is up to you, of course, but we strongly urge it, or my wife will win every time. (Even in your house ---- that''s how good she is.)

You''ll be astonished at how many wrong answers you get to some of the most obvious questions. All it takes is one tiny misinterpretation ---- or a bit of left-right confusion ---- to lead to a ridiculous mistake. But since everybody will make those mistakes, the ridicule gets pretty evenly divided.

It really is genuinely fun to play, round after round. Yet the game moves so quickly you hardly notice the passage of time. It''s the first good tactile game since Twister.

The round-card games are far from being Blue Orange''s only products ---- they just happen to be the ones I bought this Christmas for us to try out. (I haven''t heard back yet from people to whom I gave the storytelling games ---- Tell Tale and Tell Tale Fairy Tales.)

I predict that Blue Orange Games will soon be in every home with children, the way Clue and Sorry! and Careers and Life were when I was a kid. But because they don''t require a commitment of a half-hour or an hour per game, they''re more likely to be played ---- even if you have only ten minutes before bedtime or an errand, you can get in several rounds of Chef Cuckoo! or Spot It! or Trigger!

To see the full array of games, Google "Blue  Orange Games" or click on http://www.blueorangegames.com/index.php/games/games.

The Blue Orange Game company was started by two French immigrants in San Francisco. Starting with Gobblet ---- a variation on Tic-Tac-Toe. Since Tic-Tac-Toe is more of a trick than a game ---- if you start, you can always force a win; if you don''t start, you never can ---- it needed help to turn into a real game. Gobblet did that.

Julien Mayot and Thierry Denoual did the scutwork that is required for a start-up game company ---- manufacturing a durable, high-quality game, and then driving 22,000 miles across the USA, visiting 500 stores, and placing 10,000 copies of the game in stores. But what makes the company a genuine success is the fact that Gobblet is not their only game.

Instead of trying to remake endless variations on the one-on-one Gobblet, Blue Orange now concentrates on family games and party games ---- the kind of game that includes many players, all constantly involved instead of waiting for someone else to take a turn. And their games work.

This is one of the cool things about an entrepreneurial economy. Inevitably, a few big game companies have bought all their competitors until only a couple are left. Yes, the big guys do a lot of research and development in trying to create new games.

But their games always have to be approved by committees and/or move through bureaucracies, where there are far more people with the power to say no than yes. And it''s always safer to approve the dull movie-tie-in games that come and go in an instant.

Only a startup allows smart, inventive individuals to take an idea and run with it. Of course, an awful lot of dumb ideas are developed, too ---- I''ve seen so many ambitious people trying to sell games that really aren''t very fun.

But then a company like Blue Orange carves out a niche that didn''t exist, or wasn''t well-served, and all of a sudden the big guys have a new kid muscling into the marketplace, occupying a different kind of shelf space and attracting attention in new ways.

In other words, just when you think Coca-Cola and Pepsi have divided the world between them, an entirely new kind of soft drink pops up in another part of the store, calling itself ""water"" and cutting deeply into soft drink sales.

No matter how much the big guys try to create monopolies, as long as the market is free to all comers, new companies can start up and change the market.

Notice, though, that Blue Orange could not have started up as they did if the stores were not independent, able to make decisions of their own. What if one company controlled all the stores? Then instead of a 22,000-mile road trip, there would just be one: A pleading, begging visit to a single bureaucrat or a single committee of bureaucrats, all terrified of losing their jobs if they say ""yes"" to the wrong game.

A free market requires that monopolies never be allowed to exist at any point in the marketing chain. It doesn''t matter whether it''s a government monopoly, as with socialism and communism, or a corporate monopoly or duopoly. All monopolies are the enemies of invention. New ideas and products have to have a way to get to the marketplace.

It isn''t ""capitalism"" that works ---- capitalism loves monopolies, and capital is always trying to corner the market. Once-brave startups like Amazon and Microsoft quickly become bullies, trying to destroy all competition as soon as they get in a position to do so.

It''s the entrepreneurial market, the start-up market, that must be preserved and, yes, protected by government. If we ever have a time when two guys can''t make a cool new game and put in the work to get it into stores, then the great American experiment is over.

But in the entrepreneurial market, there are no subsidies. Access is protected, but success is not guaranteed. Blue Orange didn''t prevail because the entrepreneurs worked so hard and ""deserved"" to win. It''s a great game company because it makes great games.

Oh ... and what about the name ""Blue Orange""? It comes from a surrealist poem by Paul Eluard, titled ""The Earth Is Blue Like an Orange."" I did mention that the guys who started this company are French, didn''t I?


How do I put this kindly? American Hustle is a caper movie that really wants to be The Sting ---- but also wants to be arty, self-referential, and ""real.""

The result is an appalling mess, semi-saved only by a couple of brilliant actors who manage to make even wretchedly bad dialogue into something rather fine. Alas, this only happens in a handful of scenes; the rest is somewhere between a train wreck and an undergraduate film project.

I suppose this movie is what happens after a filmmaker has a prestige hit like Silver Linings Playbook. Silver Linings, a good movie, kept approaching the line of pretentious messiness but never quite crossed over. American Hustle starts out far over the line and never makes it back.

But let me be specific. This is based on the true story of Abscam, a weird FBI sting operation that ended up snaring a half-dozen members of Congress accepting bribes to help get a (fake) wealthy Arab a fast-track American citizenship. The movie shows the sting growing like a nightmare, with no intelligent person doing anything. It involves mobsters, who you would have expected to be the target of the sting.

That is what''s actually good about the movie. Having read the history of the CIA (Legacy of Ashes) and various books and articles about the FBI, I have no trouble believing in a government operation that never had an intelligible goal and accomplished almost nothing but to wreck a few almost randomly selected lives.

Unfortunately, once you get away from these broad outlines, you run into Hollywood at its pretentious worst. Hollywood writers usually combine ignorance, arrogance, and laziness, and this script is like a poster child for all three.

Having taken film classes, which teach an unbelievable array of false and destructive ""rules,"" Hollywood writers think that as long as they follow these rules, they don''t actually have to know anything. If a fact-based story ""needs"" to be changed, then they change the facts to whatever they want, without regard to reality.

And I don''t mean that they''re not fair to the real people involved. I don''t know any of those people, so I have no idea whether this film libels or betrays anybody. What I mean is that everything in this film, from dialogue to costuming and makeup, shows that the writers and designers are deeply ignorant of (a) how real human beings talk and act now and in the 1970s, and (b) how real people dressed and looked and acted in various social classes in that era.

For instance, because the film needed ""conflict"" and ""tension,"" the film has FBI underlings screaming and cursing at their bosses, then beating them up ---- without any consequences. I''m sure the filmmakers told each other, ""Hey, it''s a movie,"" but really ---- how can we care about ""FBI agents"" who behave as no FBI agent, ever, could have behaved?

It would be like making a race car movie in which the drivers are reading books or watching iPad movies while they speed around the track. How could you possibly believe in such actions long enough to care about the ""characters"" supposedly doing them?

The FBI is a bureaucracy that prides itself on obedience and conformity. The FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper would have lost his job fifteen minutes into the movie, not because he''s stupid ---- stupid people thrive in bureaucracies ---- but because he''s violent and insubordinate and stupid, and that combination does not thrive.

Then there are the con-man characters played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. These are two of the best actors alive, and they are, in fact, brilliant in this film. But their brilliance does not save them from ludicrous mistakes.

For instance, Amy Adams''s con depends on her passing herself off as a member of the British nobility. But her English accent is so far from authentic that through most of the movie you can hardly tell she has one. Then, at a key moment late in the movie, she supposedly stops using the accent, and Bradley Cooper''s character instantly realizes it and says, ""What are you doing? An American accent?""

The problem is that only his reaction tells us that she has dropped her British accent ---- we can''t actually tell that there has been a change.

Amy Adams can do ---- and has done ---- a much better British accent in other films. I can only imagine her accent is so bad in this movie because one of the pretentious, arty things that the actors are doing is showing that the con men they''re playing aren''t actually very good con men.

The trouble is, they''ve supposedly been making a living at these cons, without getting detected or arrested, for years. You can''t do that if you''re this bad.

The movie begins with Christian Bale''s character assembling his completely unbelievable combover hairdo. I''ve seen combovers that bad in real life ---- who hasn''t? Donald Trump exists ---- but the result is so greasy and ugly that it makes the character so repulsive and strange that it''s hard to believe that anyone with money or power would even talk to him, let alone give him money.

When we see him in action, it gets worse. Christian Bale keeps playing the character''s real emotions. The trouble is, con-men are only effective if you never, never, never detect their real feelings. They have to be utterly sincere. Even second-rate con-men have this skill.

They do not make mistakes; they do not slip. This isn''t a matter of genius. Most of us are brilliant at this game, slipping easily and completely from one persona into another (just listen to people slip into their telephone voice or their baby-talk voice or their I-really-need-this-favor voice). The only difference between con-men and regular people is that the con-men make a conscious decision to simulate useful personas instead of doing it automatically.

So what we have is a good actor ---- Christian Bale ---- playing a con-man as if the con-man were a bad actor. But the con-man should actually be a better actor than your ordinary good actor. That is, we should only be able to see him being unconvincing when he steps out of character in conversation with his partner in crime.

And don''t even get me started on Jeremy Renner''s wooden performance as the sympathetic politician Carmine Polito. Yes, Renner is likeable and so we like him. The trouble is, we can''t believe him. Renner is brilliant in flat-affect roles like Aaron Cross in The Bourne Legacy, but in a role that requires genuine warmth, he''s lost.

There''s a scene where Carmine is supposed to be a bit tipsy, playing the host ebulliently and effusively. The trouble is, instead of having the balls-out abandon of genuine happy drunks, Renner places all his gestures with all the naturalness of George Bush, Sr., giving a speech.

All the falseness is exposed whenever these actors are in scenes with the two actors who steal this movie: Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. De Niro appears, uncredited, as the scary mobster, and from the moment he appears, it''s as if we''re suddenly in a different movie.

Now, instead of seeing a bunch of people play-acting at play-acting, we''re in the presence of someone who is terrifyingly real. This is the level of reality that Christian Bale and Amy Adams should have shown us from the beginning to the end of this movie, especially when they were running cons.

But instead, De Niro''s utter truthfulness exposes the falseness of their performances. Except that Christian Bale''s performance actually changes while he''s in the room with De Niro ---- it''s the realest moment for him in the movie!

Then there''s Jennifer Lawrence as Christian Bale''s non-con wife ---- though one of the artsy points of this movie is that she may be the most effective con-man of them all, even though in her con she fools herself.

In my opinion, this is the first role in which we can truly see Jennifer Lawrence''s power and brilliance as an actor. The best scene in the movie is a dinner scene where Jennifer Lawrence and Elisabeth Rohm (as the mayor''s wife) take their barely-adequate dialogue and turn it into a joyously real performance.

It''s the first believable scene in the entire movie, and it brings us the sweet relief of coming to the surface of the water when we were sure we were going to drown.

Jennifer Lawrence, with a much larger part than De Niro''s brief one, brings the same heady elixir of reality to every scene she''s in, over and over. Her performance shames this movie because what she did, they all should have done.

And let''s remember that every actor in this movie has given wonderful performances in other films. The reason most of them are so bad here is because that''s the script they were given, and that''s the movie the director decided to shoot.

Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro do have the advantage of playing characters who are not deliberately conning anybody ---- but that shouldn''t have made a difference. In a good movie, it wouldn''t have.

The worst and saddest misuse of an actor, though, is Bradley Cooper''s performance. I like Cooper a lot, though his weasely appearance, which he cannot help, requires him to be cast as a lying snake or charming deceiver in almost every movie. (The exception, Silver Linings Playbook, had him playing a paranoid schizophrenic, so it doesn''t actually count.)

The problem here is that the writers somehow thought they could make him a Marty-like nebbish at home who somehow functions well enough to be made an FBI agent. Yet he also has serious anger-management problems, the kind that wreck any chance of becoming an agent in the FBI.

This character could not exist in the real world, and somehow Bradley Cooper is supposed to navigate through this ludicrously false script and make the character so powerful a figure that when he gets his comeuppance at the end, the audience is satisfied.

Think of Robert Shaw''s performance as the target of the sting in The Sting, and you realize what an impossible burden was put on Bradley Cooper, and how heroically he tries to overcome bad script and bad direction, and how close he comes to succeeding despite the horrors inflicted on him.

Good actors, even when badly directed in a bad script, can give us the illusion we''re watching an interesting movie. That must be why so many critics are praising this mess.

Here''s the problem: If the movie had ended with Bradley Cooper triumphant, and Christian Bale and Amy Adams as fall guys; or Amy Adams triumphant, and the men as fall guys; or any other combination, we wouldn''t have cared.

They are all equally appalling human beings. So the best we can do is pick which is the least annoying, untrustworthy, disgusting, selfish, and mean.

This is something film critics love. That''s because anybody can like a movie in which there are likeable, sympathetic heroes with understandable goals. I mean, look at how people loved Sandra Bullock in Gravity. How can a critic feel smart for also liking her character and her performance? Everybody gets that, so the critics get no special bonus points.

But when critics admire the ""art"" in American Hustle, they know that they are in a very small and special group that likes movies about horrible people being horrible. That''s why critics fall for con-men like Quentin Tarantino and Orson Welles, who happily tell critics why they''re brilliant, and they happily reply by talking about their brilliance in their reviews, even though they''re pathetically obvious filmmakers with almost no sense of truth about human nature.

You see, to critics, ""honest"" writing always shows characters as horrible people, except for one or two ""surprising"" good guys. These good guys must always be characters that would ordinarily be unsympathetic ---- like the crooked mayor or the complicated hit man or the driven high-school-teacher/drug-manufacturer.

You can take that as the recipe for pleasing foolish critics, because they always fall for this formula.

But as a regular human being, deciding whether to give a couple of hours of your life to a storyteller, you should not be deceived by such tricks. American Hustle is absolutely empty. The only heroes in this movie are the filmmakers, and nothing they do is interesting enough to be worth two hours of your life.

My favorite thing about the end of 2013: I will never again have to answer questions about when the Ender's Game movie will come out.

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