Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 28, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
100-Foot Journey, American Ninja
It's taken a long time for it to get here, but I've finally seen a movie deserving to
be regarded as the best of the year.
Deserving, that is, in my eyes. Because I have little patience with Oscar-bait
movies, which range from oppressively arty to depressingly dark, with high-profile performers who overact shamelessly.
What I regard as best of the year is a story that entertains yet is also about
something -- not in an essay-like, discursive way, but intrinsically tapping into
the deep roots of human experience.
It can be a comedy -- indeed, it often is, though Oscar generally ignores
comedy, despite the fact that it is much harder to do well than drama.
It must be clearly told; you should never wonder what's going on for more than
a few moments. Anything else is bad writing -- either because of incompetence
or vain pretension.
And the acting must be so excellent that never, not for a moment, do you catch
anybody "acting." If, during the unfolding of the story, you notice the
acting, then it is bad acting.
If you look back over best-actor Oscars, male and female, you'll notice that well
over half the time, the performances are obvious and intrusive -- but
apparently, to win an Oscar, you have to perform in such a way as to allow the
dimwitted to notice you.
It's called "playing to the crowd," and apparently we give out prizes for it.
Whereas the truly brilliant actors, the ones with such integrity that you never
notice what they're doing, but instead utterly believe in the characters they
portray, can be long overlooked.
My standards are eccentric, I know -- but I believe they have more to do with
real excellence in the art of film-making than I see in the judgment of most
critics, who, having seen far too many movies, are so jaded that what they
notice and reward is novelty rather than quality.
Especially because the critics, with the notable exception of William Goldman,
have no idea what good story and good storytelling are. They are able to detect
the bon mot, the clever phrase, so they are quick to praise witty or shocking
dialogue -- though these are relatively easy to do.
What most remain oblivious to is real achievement in storytelling. Any writer
can create cheap tension -- they teach formulas for that in film school. And
gross comedy or maudlin tears are easy enough to bring off.
But stories that live and breathe, stories that linger with you, that matter in the
memory of the audience -- those are hard to come by. Often bad screenwriters
will start with books that have such stories, and then throw out everything that
made them clear and coherent and powerful as they force them to fit film-school rules.
So I'm pleased to tell you about a movie that looks and feels like a romantic
comedy in a semi-exotic setting, but which is so much more.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is a story about cooks. The transcendently
brilliant Helen Mirren plays Madame Mallory, who owns a restaurant in a
French town -- a restaurant that, thirty years before, won a star from the
Michelin is a far cry from Zagat. Where Zagat is based on the votes of patrons
-- and is constantly a victim of "grade inflation," especially in less-sophisticated towns away from New York and Los Angeles -- the Michelin
stars are awarded by judges who know what they're talking about.
To have a single star means that a restaurant is worth an hour's drive each
way. When you dine in the French fashion, you start at nine in the evening (or
later) and put yourselves in the hands of the chef for at least two hours, and
What you expect is a combination of perfection and innovation -- never
novelty for its own sake, never weirdness masquerading as creativity, but food
that is instantly recognizable as good while being significantly different from
any other treatment of the same basic ingredients.
But France is not at all where the story begins. It starts in India, where actor
Om Puri plays the Papa of a family that runs a restaurant that is successful,
not because of low prices, but because of high quality.
Everyone in the family cooks, but it is Mama (Juhi Chawla) who understands
the subtleties of flavor.
Mama discovers that their son Hassan (Manish Dayal) has the gift of
discerning flavors -- though he shows it by his relish for sea urchin, which, if
you're not a sea otter, is not actually food. Or at least that's my opinion --
which may be why I am not a born chef.
After a contentious Indian election, the family's restaurant is targeted by a
mob. It is burnt down -- and Mama dies in the fire. The family flees to
London, where, living in a house in the flight path of Heathrow, they struggle to
cook in the wet, cold English climate.
Now, there are many fine Indian restaurants in England, but apparently it is
not possible to cook up to this family's high standards using local
ingredients there. So the family packs up and moves to France.
One gets the impression at first that they are nearly destitute -- why else the
house by Heathrow? Why else do they limp along in an ancient van whose
brakes fail while descending a hill-country road in rural France? But they
actually have money; Papa is simply a tightwad.
Fortunately, when they are stranded with an undrivable vehicle, a charming
young Frenchwoman named Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) picks them up,
drives them into town, and serves them a casual "snack" that introduces them
to French cooking.
There are those -- including the French -- that say the soul of French cooking
is in the sauces. But the heart of southern French cooking is really in the
perfection of the ingredients.
Again and again as the film unfolds, both the scenery and the food brought
back memories to my wife and me. We have had that experience of spreading a
table with simple, barely seasoned Provençal foods, and discovering that it is
delicious, healthy, and memorable.
And the lush green of the countryside is deeply involved in this story as well,
for many of the ingredients are not purchased but discovered and gathered in
the woods outside of town. I remembered all over again why I love France --
and French food -- so much.
Instead of moving on after their van is repaired, the family remains in the town,
for Papa has decided -- against the fervent advice of his children -- to buy an
abandoned restaurant building. It would be perfect for the style of cooking and
dining that the family knew from India.
But, as the children point out, it is directly across the street -- exactly 100 feet
-- from Madame Mallory's Michelin-star restaurant. There is no possibility
that they can successfully compete with such a fine restaurant. It is also rude
Yet that restaurant building was already there, and Papa feels it is exactly the
right place for them.
Madame Mallory does not agree. She regards this foreign family's purchase of
the restaurant as the first salvo in a war -- a war that she is determined to
The maneuvers back and forth between Madame Mallory and Papa are vicious
business practices at their most outrageous -- but they quickly escalate out
At every step along the way, however, Hassan -- who the family knows is their
most talented cook -- tries to soften the competition. Partly this is out of a
sense of decency; partly because the lovely Marguerite, who saved the family
when they first arrived, is a sous-chef at Madame's restaurant.
Marguerite, despite the war between the restaurants, helps Hassan learn
French cooking. And at times the story seems to be heading toward a Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy of star-crossed lovers.
But this is no tragedy, and Hassan's talent and commitment and humility
transcend the competitions and jealousies. The movie is constantly funny,
and the romance is truly romantic.
What does it mean to be "romantic" in films these days? We're so used to
characters who either hop into bed instantly or are at least trying to get into
bed; or there are the dreamy historical films where romance is focused on the
pursuit of unlikely marriages.
But this is a romance that consists of dedicated, ambitious people who help
each other and admire each other, becoming partners despite the fact that one
is more talented than the other.
It is romantic to see them develop a partnership built on mutual support and
respect and tenderness. It is the kind of relationship that does not result in a
marriage, but rather creates one, so the ceremony will only affirm what is
already present between them. You can believe they will be happy.
So many things could have gone wrong in the making of this film -- so many
missteps could have been made in the writing, the filming, the acting. But
none of the mistakes were made. There are no cheap laughs, no tear-jerking
Instead there are deep and important truths about human beings bending in
order to make room for other people in their lives; about how, by allowing
someone else to do well, we ourselves can do better.
There is also an important exploration of just how far talent can take you
Even though everybody in the movie is deeply involved in cooking for
restaurants (and for love), this is not a movie about cooking. That is only the
maguffin. This is a movie about the human spirit, about what it means to be
good and kind, about nobility of soul trumping self-interest, about the
limits of competitiveness.
So even though The Hundred-Foot Journey will doubtless be compared with
various food movies -- Julie & Julia, Ratatouille, Big Night, Babette's Feast, Eat
Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate (but probably not Eating Raoul)
-- or about cross-cultural romances, it transcends both subject matters.
I have not read the original novel by Richard C. Morais, though I will, if only to
see whether this film was, like Forrest Gump, a vast improvement on the
original, or, like Sense and Sensibility, a faithful adaptation.
Either way, the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey is a work of beauty and
truth, of light and love, of humor and pain. No other film I've seen this year
comes close to matching its depth and perfection, and I am not optimistic
about any of the films I'm seeing promoted as Oscar bait.
If this is not the finest, most wonderful movie of 2014, I can't wait for the
brilliant surprise when an even better movie comes along. But I'm not holding
Many years ago, friends of mine were quite devoted to American Gladiators, a
reality show consisting of contests of strength and combat between various
larger-than-life characters. We watched as men and women fought with
padded weapons, delighted at the sheer campiness of it. Yet there was no
denying that these people were in amazing physical shape.
The other night, channel-flipping, I ran across a worthy successor, American
Ninja Warrior on the Esquire Network. No, a worthier one, because it isn't
campy; it doesn't partake of the over-the-top clowning of professional wrestling.
The contestants are not one-named characters like "Ice" and "Zap," "Laser" and
"Lace." Instead, they're legitimate athletes from various backgrounds, and
instead of battling each other (at least in the early phases that I've seen), they
compete for time against an astonishing obstacle course.
I happened to watch the episode in which the first woman beat the "spider"
challenge. In this one, contestants have to jump from a tiny trampoline and
leap between two parallel walls -- catching themselves with extended hands
and feet between the walls.
That's right. They take a flying leap into the gap between two walls, and
have to catch themselves by pressing outward with one hand and foot on one
wall, the other hand and foot on the other wall. Then they have to move
forward between the walls to a landing place; if they fall before that, they land
in the water that waits under all the challenges.
The other challenges also require amazing strength, agility, and timing, and
because it's a fixed course, everyone competes on equal ground. I enjoyed the
way that different athletes approached each challenge with different attitude
and style -- but above all, I appreciated the fact that the course makes no
exceptions for anyone.
Women compete on the same course as men, and because women's bodies tend
to be smaller, some of the challenges are very different. For instance, there's a
series of steppingstones that the men leap through, one foot stepping on each
pad. But the women, with shorter strides, have to stop on each small pad with
both feet before jumping to the next -- which costs them precious time.
The one woman who actually succeeded at the spider could not do it with legs
splayed equally, in a pose like riding a horse. Instead, she kept her right leg
doubled under her body and her left leg almost fully extended. This
compensated for her narrower stride and kept her muscles in positions of
maximum strength. I expect to see this posture adopted by the women who
will now come after her and try to master this entire Stage 1 course.
I don't know that I'm going to become a regular fan, but I do plan to record the
show and check in on it now and then, if only to see what diabolical
challenges the designers come up with for the higher courses. If Stage 1 is this
tricky, what will the final stage be like?
In good reality-show style, the show presents the contestants' backstories in
micro-documentaries, and I found them all to be interesting people with very
different lives. Skeptical spouses have usually become fans and supporters --
as well they should, since anyone who can complete these challenges is a
I can't think of a competitive sport that requires such a variety of skills, at
such a high level. Yes, it's fun to watch athletes shoot down the luge in the
winter Olympics, but at no point are they doing anything as hard as these
American Ninja competitors.
Simplest thing: Tune in or record it, and you'll see for yourself.
Plagued with insomnia as I so often am, I find that channel-flipping is both my
salvation and my nemesis.
Salvation, because having so many channels means that I can flip through
various mediocre shows and movies and compose from them an evening's
entertainment with, now and then, something very good coming to the
Nemesis, because even if I get sleepy, which is presumably my goal, once I've
got started on several interesting (or even adequate) shows, I find myself driven
Yes, I use the TiVo to record the ones that I start to care about, so that I can
channel-flip and still come back and catch what I missed while I watched
something else. And once I'm recording, I can decide, I'm finally sleepy, so I'll
watch the rest of this tomorrow.
But it doesn't work that way. Once I'm hooked on a story, I have to see how it's
going to come out. Even when it's a completely miserable brainless teen-party
movie like Project X (2012), which I watched the other night in order to
discover if, in fact, it was as pointless as it seemed.
But I found a couple of interesting actors whom I know I'll see later in better
movies, rather the way Tom Berenger and Joe Pantoliano emerged from
television rebroadcasts of Eddie and the Cruisers back in 1983.
The standout in Project X was Thomas Mann, who has already appeared in
several TV series and seems well on his way. The movie was almost worth
watching because of his performance alone.
But it's not worth watching. Unless it's late at night, you have insomnia, and
nothing better is on.
And I can assure you, every late-night rerun of Law & Order, Criminal Minds,
NCIS, House, Castle, and The Mentalist is better. Even if you've already seen it.
It was in this spirit of indiscriminate, brain-dead television watching that I ran
across a couple of series on FX that had enough quality to be worth talking
The performances in Married are superb -- they have cast excellent actors in
all the parts, especially Nat Faxon and Judy Greer. And the dialogue is
inventive and interesting as this comic soap opera about married people
The problem is that apparently nobody involved in this show has ever been
married, or met anyone who is married. Instead, this unfolds like a teenager's
fantasy of what goes on in marriage when the kids aren't present; or a
bachelor's nightmare of marriage, thus justifying him in avoiding
The gamesmanship is ludicrous -- if they devoted one-tenth as much energy to
being patient and understanding as they devote to clever put-downs and
competitive score-keeping with each other, they'd actually be happy.
Instead, the writers don't even try to justify why people do the things they do.
It's enough that they have clever things to say.
And, to tell the truth, in the world of Hollywood writing that is enough.
American Beauty got an Oscar as best picture, despite being the dumbest
depiction of marriage in a major movie in its decade.
But maybe Hollywood's high divorce rate reflects a culture of sick, sad
little marriages like those depicted in this series. The problem is that in
shows like this they pretend that this is how Americans behave in the real
And we don't.
Oh, not that all our marriages are ideal. There are plenty of troubled,
contentious, faithless, abusive marriages. But they aren't like these, because
(a) the abusive, contentious people aren't usually smart enough to talk so
cleverly about their feelings, and (b) most marriages are between decent people
trying to get along and make a good life for each other and for their children.
And if that's what you're trying to do, by and large you succeed. With
lapses, but never with the constant nastiness that this series depends on for its
But why did I put that in ironic quotation marks? It really is entertaining, in a
train-wreck kind of way. After all, people in daytime soaps don't talk and act
like real people, either. So why should night-time soaps on out-of-the-mainstream networks be any more accurate?
Which brings me to an even more unbelievable-yet-entertaining FX series,
You're the Worst. With a hostile title like that, you can hardly expect to like
anybody in the show ... and you won't.
Or at least you're not supposed to. Everybody does despicable things -- but
it's clear the writers expect you to think these things are deliciously despicable.
I suppose it all depends on your own preferences in despicability. I was about
The thing is, the show hates all its characters. They are all shown in the vilest
possible light at every opportunity. But because they cast enormously
attractive, charismatic actors, you keep watching.
Gretchen and Jimmy are not married, and they treat each other as enemies
who sometimes have sex. In the episode I watched, they start a game of one-upmanship over their acts of sexual unfaithfulness, until, side by side in a
pinball arcade (apparently that's cool again; good news for pinball fans like
me), they sarcastically decide to be "exclusive."
Then each has to sort out whether the other was being sarcastic or sincere;
they decide that they both meant it. And for a moment, they look happy. But
in the final kicker at the end, they have ambiguous expressions, thus reverting
to Hollywood's default posture that marriage and fidelity are silly and
awful and everybody hates them and should hate them.
Instead of the truth, which is that monogamous pair-bonding has shaped
human evolution for the past thirty thousand generations, so that most people
are discontented unless they're bonded with a faithful partner for years on end.
We may not be perfect at monogamy, but that is what is expected, even when
we have ersatz "sexual revolutions" and proclaim the end of faithfulness. It's
always a fraud; we are always miserable when we can't trust our partner --
even if, hypocritically, we haven't been faithful ourselves.
But Hollywood has never let go of the adolescent rebellion represented by
the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and so it has to keep pretending that
anybody who's married or in a faithful relationship is suffering through
something unnatural and undesirable.
Here's the thing: Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) are played
by such wonderful, charismatic actors, and the dialogue is occasionally so
clever, that the show is entertaining.
In fact, You're the Worst is much funnier than Married, if humor is your goal.
The sense of humor in Married is the snide, superior, condescending humor of
films like Sideways and The Descendants, where we are expected, not to
empathize with the characters, but to view them from an emotional distance so
we can laugh at their bizarre responses to pain.
So we can, in fact, be entertained by such films, but if we laugh at them it
makes us feel a little mean and dirty. Because, in fact, we are a little mean
to be amused at other people's misery. We emerge from the experience being a
little less compassionate, a little less decent.
Or we hate the film and turn away from it.
I'm just not decent enough to have done that. I watched one episode of each
show with fascination and, yes, enjoyment. Partly because when I'm tired
enough, sleepless enough, my standards become very low. Partly because
these shows are well cast and well directed, and the writing, though generally
stupid or unkind about human nature, is still clever enough to hold me
through each scene.
Am I recommending these shows, or panning them?
I'm not sure myself. But my guess is that, from what I've said about them,
you've already decided whether you find them interesting enough to want
to check them out, or you can't understand why anyone would watch them
even for a moment.
I agree with you either way.
But unlike my response to American Ninja Warriors, I'm not getting a "season
pass" so I can check in on the storylines. Instead, I'll wait to see the actors pop
up in something I like better.