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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 3, 2014

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


Edge of Tomorrow, Say What You Will

As a general rule I don't like sci-fi movies, because they're usually either pretentious or dumb. No, let's be honest -- they're usually pretentious and dumb.

Every now and then I get my hopes up. The Matrix looked so promising. I even forgave the absurd excesses of the second film, in hopes that the series would end well. Of course it didn't.

For me, sci-fi works only when story arises out of character. And when I saw the promos for Edge of Tomorrow, the recent Tom Cruise vehicle, I had little reason for hope. The title was almost offensively bland. And the premise -- that a soldier had to keep replaying a day of combat until he got it right and defeated the enemy -- sounded like Groundhog Day with guns.

I never thought that Groundhog Day suffered from the lack of heavy ordnance.

But there came a night when we wanted to see a movie and that's the only one a diverse group of us could agree on. We were lucky -- despite the lame title and really bad marketing campaign, the movie itself turned out to be character-driven and smart.

Note that I didn't say the characters themselves were smart. Tom Cruise's character, Cage, is almost courageous in his stupid cowardice at the beginning, speaking boldly when it was obvious that the more he talked, the deeper he'd get into disaster.

But then, his character is a glib on-air personality who has gotten through life by his quick talking. And so, as the united forces of humanity launch their all-out invasion of Europe to repel the aliens who have conquered it, Cage has inadvertently talked himself into being a grunt soldier despised by his teammates.

Then he gets himself spectacularly killed.

Only he's not as dead as he thought. Apparently, he died in the process of killing an alpha alien. The ichor that splashed on him made him part of the alien species, which apparently defended itself by use of time control. Any time the alien was aware of any of its alphas being killed, it jumped back in time and relived that day in order to get it right.

The result is that Cage partakes of the same gift, as if he had now become an alpha alien. (The aliens are inexplicably called "mimics," though we never see them imitate anything.) He revives at the last point at which he woke up, which is too late for him to redo the time when he got himself drafted into infantry duty, but just in time for him to get back onto the beach and die.

Gradually he comes to learn how to avoid each of the causes of death that took him before. He lives long enough to come to the aid of Rita, a soldier whom he had praised on air in his days as a broadcaster. She realizes that he's a repeater, and so she says for him to come see her the next day.

He finds her and begins to train with her, as she explains that she, too, used to repeat as he does. The aliens, it seems, have an omega unit which, if killed, will wipe out all of them. (A familiar sci-fi device -- I've used it myself.) The key is to keep learning from each repeat of his life until Cage can locate that omega alien and destroy it.

Science fiction ideas always sound lame when you explain them, but this one worked quite well, especially as Rita and Cage begin to work together and, gradually, become devoted to each other.

I haven't read the Japanese novel that this movie was based on, but from what I know about Japanese storytelling, it's highly unlikely that the original had the unlikely tacked-on happy ending. But I'm part of the American audience, so I appreciated the gesture toward not smearing a tragic ending all over the walls.

The cast of grunt soldiers does a good job, but the heart of the film comes from the performances of Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt (whom I enjoyed in Looper, another smart time travel sci-fi movie. She was also excellent in the title role of the costume epic The Young Victoria and as Emily in The Devil Wears Prada).

One thing I really enjoyed was that these aliens were dangerous. They moved quickly; they also didn't look like any aliens I had seen before. The computer graphics made their ball-of-whips motion believable.

I'm not sure why this movie was a box office disappointment. I think it might be the result of the incoherent promotion of the movie. It's hard to market a movie that you don't actually understand yourself. The marketers seemed to think the movie's value came from the cool idea -- but the idea sounded like a cliche to the sci-fi audience.

It may not have crossed their minds to sell the relationship, the fact that this is a man-woman buddy movie.

And, in truth, the action and suspense sequences didn't break much new ground. The aliens were well done, but we've seen plenty of explosions.

But guessing why the audience stayed away from a good movie is a pointless exercise. I didn't see it on the opening weekend, and neither did most other people.

Tom Cruise has never received the respect he deserves. Perhaps that spunky, insouciant grin of his makes it hard for people to think of him as a serious actor, but he is a very good one. He can make the most implausible situations seem real, because he carries a core of truth around with him. Yet he can also be over-the-top when he needs to be.

And the pairing with Emily Blunt was a very good idea. She's one of the few who can hold her own with Cruise onscreen, and she was quite convincing in her own macha battle sequences. Theirs was not the romantic banter of Cruise and Cameron Diaz in Knight and Day, but rather the buddy-movie back-and-forth of Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours ... with a love interest spin.

I recommend catching this movie while it's still in the theaters. But it will also be good on the small screen. It isn't a failure -- its numbers are low in the US, but the international numbers indicate that the investors will not lose money.

It's always a good thing when smart movies turn even a small profit -- it helps encourage other filmmakers to try to be smart. Though a large profit would have been a better means of accomplishing that.

*

The novel Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern has the kiss of death all over it. It's a YA novel whose cover blurbs make it sound like an after-school special. A girl with cerebral palsy and a boy with obsessive-compulsive disorder become friends and then fall in love. I'm already slightly nauseated with the condescending good will that such stories almost always involve.

Add to that (or subtract from it?) the ugly cover -- all typography, no art -- and the boring title, and you have a recipe for disaster.

So it's my pleasure to tell you that quite to my own surprise, this is a beautiful, beautifully written novel.

Here's why I picked it up. I not only had a son with cerebral palsy, but also knew several kids who suffered from OCD. My son was much more severely limited than Amy, the girl with CP in the novel. She can walk and, after a fashion, talk; he never could. On the other hand, Matthew's OCD is more severe than that of most of the kids I knew with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

So ... what do we expect from a story like this? There'll be a meet-cute, they'll each confront their own prejudices, become friends, and then fall weirdly in love, with a full orchestra playing in the background.

But Cammie McGovern is a better writer than that. She found a perfectly plausible way for them to meet. Amy, despite her palsy, is an outstanding student -- though some people suspect that her adult helpers are actually doing some of her work for her. (They're not; she's smarter than they are.)

She's entering her senior year and expects to be admitted to a top college and go away from home. Her family has plenty of money, so she'll have all the help she needs. However, one skill she has never acquired is the ability to make friends, to be a friend. She has noticed Matthew over the years (they've gone through school in parallel since childhood) and has good reason for wanting to know him better.

So Amy convinces her mother to hire friends for her. Officially, they're student helpers, with the duty of escorting and helping her between classes, carrying her books and doing other tasks she can't do for herself. And, as Amy's mother makes very clear during the job interview and training sessions, her student helpers are expected to introduce her to people so she can make friends.

Amy emails Matthew to urge him to apply for the job. He becomes one of her helpers -- though Amy's mother doesn't approve of her having a helper with almost as many problems of his own as she has.

Most of the novel is the account of their learning how to help each other. Matthew really is conscientious about his duties -- except that, having no friends himself, he can't very well introduce her to a wider circle. And Amy quickly takes Matthew on as a project, helping him learn to overcome some of the symptoms of OCD.

Though I have only seen OCD and CP from the outside, it seemed to me that Cammie McGovern did a good job of imagining the lives of characters with these limitations, and showing just how normal they remain in their aspirations. It is completely believable that they become friends -- complete with the ups and downs of a normal friendship. It is also believable that they find themselves falling in love with each other, while always doubting that the other could possibly love them.

We live in the culture we live in -- sex comes up, and without any particular moral inhibitions except the childish "make sure you're really in love" that is such a meaningless cliche in books and movies. I can assure the squeamish reader that whatever physical relationships take place in this book, it is kept offstage and not played for prurient interest.

There's a lot of humor and wit in Say What You Will, and the love story is achingly sweet -- not just because both characters suffer from such limitations. Nor is either of them angelically faithful to the other; there are no promises at the end of the book.

For me, the personal clincher came when Matthew read a guilty-pleasure novel that Amy loves. It turns out to be Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, by Marjorie Kellogg. This novel came out in 1968, and I, as a student in drama at BYU, adapted it for a reader's theatre production. I loved the novel, even though I was too young and dumb to fully understand it. And my production of it was my first real success as a director and playwright.

Usually I deplore having characters in a book talk about characters in other books, but it was exactly appropriate for this novel. (Don't bother looking up the Liza Minnelli movie of Junie Moon; it stars Liza Minnelli, for heaven's sake, so you know there won't be an honest moment -- in a story that requires utter honesty. My production was better cast and better acted all the way around.)

It's possible that some readers of Say What You Will will find it impossible to get past the accurate portrayals of the physical effects of cerebral palsy on Amy. Some will not be able to believe Matthew could see past them and find Amy beautiful. That might make the book harder to receive.

But I know that everything in the book is plausible, and the story is my favorite kind: a tale of good people doing good. There are complications that surprised me, and McGovern is pleasingly unsentimental for such a sentimental story.

This is McGovern's first young adult novel, and besides her adult novels, she is also "one of the founders of Whole Children, a resource center that runs after-school classes and programs for children with special needs." Obviously, she's had plenty of chances to observe and converse with handicapped kids; she knows what she's talking about.

But it's not a clinical interest she takes here. She knows and loves these kids, sees that they're perfectly normal children behind the facade of weirdness. Her affection is contagious. Long before the ending I loved these kids, and I appreciated the ending: It is not hopeless, and nobody dies.

If you think that's a spoiler, sue me.

I did not want to read Yet Another Teen Tragedy. This novel is much, much better than formulaic weepers. Though I can't promise you that there won't be just a little weeping.

I loved this book so much that, at a time when I was frantically working to finish a long-overdue novel of my own, I stayed up to read this novel from three to seven in the morning. I didn't choose to do that. The story was so compelling to me that I kept reading for "just one more chapter" again and again.

And in case you think I only loved this book because of its resemblance to people that I know, I can assure you that within a few pages I forgot about such resemblances and came to care about the characters for their own sake.

I think you might come to care about them, too.

*

The title of Laura Brown's book is How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide. To my great relief, her idea of "anything" did not include fiction.

Instead, this is a wide-ranging collection of real-world writings that many people have to create, from school assignments to business letters, from press releases to funeral eulogies, from classified ads to love letters.

After teaching some well-thought-out general principles of how to approach a writing project, Brown goes on to give very good examples of each kind of writing.

I think she is especially helpful in her principles and examples in the category of college application essays and cover letters for internship applications. Her advice is pithy and almost always correct: "Your first draft will probably be too long. At this stage, better too long than too short. Write it all out, and then try to take a break from the draft and return to it with a fresh eye" (p. 370).

She even takes on something as personal as writing your own wedding vows. Her examples avoid the blunders and excesses of most self-written vows; people could do a lot worse than to study her samples and follow her advice.

Let's face it, most people are not professional writers. Those who think they're much better writers than they actually are will probably think they don't need this book. But those who think they're much worse writers than they actually are will leap at the chance to get such excellent advice.

The happy result will be writing that is much more effective -- and far less embarrassing -- than most.

I don't promise that Laura Brown knows better than everybody else how everything should be written -- that is Judith Martin's job (as Miss Manners). But she knows a lot, and is a good teacher of both principles and specifics.

Here, for instance, is the calm and courteous way she advocates writing a note to put on the windshield of a neighbor's car:

"I live directly across the street, and as you can see my driveway is parallel to where you're parked. I'm sure you didn't think of this, but when you park here it's extremely difficult for me to get out of my driveway without backing into your car. In the future, could you please pull up about ten feet when you park? I really don't want to back into your car. Thanks, Steve Tanner."

Brown then adds this comment. "Signing your note puts a face (or at least a name) behind the complaint and keeps things aboveboard. It also might make the reader take your complaint more seriously."

Brown also has many bad examples -- notes and letters that will have an effect opposite to the one intended. For instance, here's a note written in frustration and fury:

"To Whoever Walked Off with My Red Folders: Last night when I left the office, there was a stack of red folders sitting on top of my file cabinet. I ordered those, on purpose, because I NEED THEM FOR PACKETS FOR THE BOARD MEETING TONIGHT!"

At this point, Brown notes: "Calm down. Stop shouting."

The angry letter goes on about how the folders were a special order that can't be replaced before tonight. Then it concludes: "If you're the person who walked off with my folders, kindly RETURN THEM TO MY OFFICE immediately. And in the future you might learn to order your own supplies instead of stealing other people's."

Brown notes: "Whoa. Using the word 'steal' isn't going to motivate people to help out.... This note is nasty and angry. No one is going to want to help this person" (p. 175).

Good advice, don't you think? It's hard to hear such advice when you're angry. But if you've already learned the principle that angry notes don't get you the result you want (in fact, they're likely to make you look pathetic and ridiculous), you won't be tempted to write that way.

There's no guarantee that the clear-but-nice note she offers as a counterexample will have any particular effect -- but it won't hurt you the way the angry one would.

So I recommend How to Write Anything as a book that every household should probably have -- unless you live with a public relations professional. And maybe even then, because nobody (except Laura Brown) is an expert on every kind of writing!


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