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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 27, 2017

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


Candy Bars, Dunkirk, The Big Sick

If you want good brioche, you go to France. Period. Very little that is called "brioche" here in the US is good brioche. For one thing, you mostly see it as a hamburger on a "brioche" bun.

If it's brioche, it isn't shaped like a hamburger bun. Brioche is also way too good to put hamburger ingredients on it. Hamburger on real brioche bread is like using a matched pair of Arabian stallions to pull a little red wagon.

Some foods can be internationalized. Not only is high-quality wine from France, Italy, and (in the opinion of some) Germany, Spain, Greece, and Portugal available all over the world, but also wines from the same kinds of grapes are produced in California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, China, Russia, Romania, New Zealand, and Brazil.

Is there anywhere on Earth where you can't get Chinese food? Delivered? Or pizza? (American pizza is way better than anything sold under that name in Italy. If you go to Italy for the pizza, forget it.)

But other foods remain, like brioche, the exclusive domain of a handful of countries. Mexican food, for instance, belongs almost entirely to Texas, California, New Mexico, and -- no, sorry, not Mexico. What we call Mexican food isn't what you can expect to see more than fifty miles south of the border. (In Mexico, all the food is Mexican.)

May I suggest that one of these foods that's exclusive to one region is the humble candy bar?

I'm not talking about chocolates in general. The best I've ever had were the chocolates from a chain called Copenhagen in Brazil during the 1970s. In America, See's and Fannie May, David Bradley and Ghirardelli are standouts, but all over Europe there are companies that produce gorgeous chocolates, and a few of them, like Belgium's Godiva, have gone international.

But the chocolate bar has to meet several standards that freshmade chocolates from specialty shops and chains don't have to meet.

The main one is shelf life. A candy bar, unlike fancy chocolates, has to sit on a shelf in a gas station in Salina, Kansas, for a year, perhaps, and still taste good (and not make you physically ill).

Now think about the candy bars that have dominated American snacking for my entire lifetime. No, you can't get a full-size Milky Way or Snickers bar for a nickel the way you could when I was a kid (1959, say), but as a percentage of your grocery budget I don't think the price has actually gone up.

Whether you count M&Ms as a "candy bar" is unimportant; they're snack chocolates. Ditto with Hershey's Kisses. These are shelf-life candy bars, movie theater candy, welcome Halloween treats; and nobody makes them better than the U.S.A.

The Colt revolver, the Boeing 747, and Twix -- these are classic American products that set the standard for everybody afterward.

There is only one country that produces candy bars comparable to -- or even, sometimes, better than -- most American candy bars, and that's the UK.

Maybe it's because during World War II, American Gis practically occupied Great Britain, bringing their taste for candy bars with them, but in all my visits to countries outside the US, only Britain had any candy bars that meet American standards.

Now, I didn't become an expert on my visits to England, because I wasn't there to sample everything candyish. So I'm going to refer you to a taste test run by the Huffington Post in an English candy shop in New York: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/21/english-candy-bars_n_4123627.html

However, from my own experience, I can tell you that my favorites were the two Caramello Bars. First, let me stress that neither one was the "Cadbury Caramello" that's sold in the US. Even though the Cadbury company is British, that is a candy bar made for the American market.

In England, there was a Caramello bar, but it wasn't made by Cadbury. What Cadbury sold in England was "Cadbury Dairy Milk Caramel," and with their use of a glucose syrup rather than high fructose corn syrup for sweetening, the flavor and texture were markedly better than the American copy.

As for the English Caramello bar that wasn't from Cadbury -- I can't locate it now. It was on display in newsstands and other shops, right along with Cadbury Dairy Milk Caramel, but it was made by another company. It has been about thirty years since I saw and tasted it, and maybe Cadbury acquired the name by purchase or merger.

In Canada, the equivalent of the American Cadbury Caramello is called Caramilk. Because, when it comes to candy, you can't have too much confusion.

Let's just say that when I altruistically taste-tested both versions of a caramel chocolate bar in England, they were both markedly better than the version available here. This bodes well for the other UK candy bars.

Whether or not English candy bars owe anything to the tastes of American GIs during the Second World War, the fact remains that their candy bars are competitive, at least.

Let's give the European mainland bragging rights to fine truffles and other small chocolates -- though See's and Fannie May hold a special place in my heart. (And in my aorta as well.) But when it comes to shelf life chocolate bars, I think the English-speaking world dominates.

That doesn't mean that the US is done with candy bar invention. For instance, as I walked through LaGuardia this afternoon on my way to the baggage claim, I stopped to buy a small cheap bag to carry some Hint Waters I had bought in Greensboro, whose plastic bag was not going to hold them much longer. At the checkout counter, I saw two new American attempts at caramel bars.

One was "Milk Chocolate with Caramel" from CIBO, which follows the Caramello model by having a continuous bar divided into caramel-holding chambers. The "Organic Caramel Thins" from Blissfully Better had four separate chocolates squares with semiliquid caramel inside them.

Both were good, and may well have better quality chocolate than the standard caramel candy bar. Neither would make me forget Caramello bars ... or even, for that matter, Milky Way bars, the American caramel bar from my childhood. Still, if you run across either of these new caramel bar entries, they're worth a try.

Who knows? Maybe they're just poised to take over the candy bar world. In which case, I told you first.

However, if anyone's thinking of ordering chocolates to make your own taste tests, do keep in mind that few chocolatiers will ship chocolates at this time of year. At 90 degrees, chocolate can only exist in liquid form. And it doesn't take long to reach that temperature, sitting in a box on your front porch.

If you want chocolate, you need to get the shelf-life chocolate bars from the regular (air-conditioned) stores -- or stop in for something finer at Loco for Coco. Either way, it's up to you to get the chocolates from one air-conditioned space to another before they melt.

*

It's discouraging when movie theaters can't keep a reasonable supply of essential products on hand. It's lovely that Red Cinemas have a good array of fortified waters, but I can't be the only one who is nauseated by the first swallow of any of them.

Red Cinemas ran out of Dasani water a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately, they have a "house brand" of filtered water that is drinkable, but how does somebody forget to reorder plain bottled water like Dasani or Aquafina at the hottest part of summer?

But that woe is more survivable than the horrible time when it seemed that both the theaters we usually go to had stopped carrying Plain M&Ms. You can't run a theater in America without Plain M&Ms, even if Peanut M&Ms outsell them two to one.

Some of us have peanut allergies. Some of us simply like Plain better than Peanut. And this is America, so, like, never discontinue Plain M&Ms again. Do we understand each other?

*

So when I was at the Red Cinemas, annoyed by the lack of familiar and trusted Dasani Water but basking in the comfort of recliner seats (though even their regular seats can be pretty amazing, comfortwise), I actually watched a couple of movies.

I went to Dunkirk alone because my wife was taking a class that night and it's my duty to watch movies solely to report on them here.

The trouble is, I can't make a very certain report because I came to the theater knowing too much about the miraculous evacuation of most of the British Army and much of the French back in 1940.

The situation was dire. The British and French had both assumed that the German invasion through Belgium in May 1940 would end just as it had in 1914 -- with a five-year stalemate along a line of trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland.

What they all forgot was that the 1914 situation was not inevitable. In 1914, the Germans had almost succeeded in encircling Paris and ending the war as swiftly as they had the Franco-Prussion War in 1870-71. It was almost miraculous that the Germans didn't succeed that rapidly in World War One -- their tactic, when invading France, had always been "lightning war," even though that name wasn't attached to it until World War Two.

This time, the audacious German tank commanders took a huge risk and sent tanks through narrow roads in the Ardennes Forest. Following the normal methodology of the stupid, the French commanders had determined that this route was "impassable" by armored vehicles, and therefore they neither defended it nor even set somebody to watch it.

The Germans achieved tactical and strategic surprise, and even though the French Army fought bravely -- the British likewise -- when an army is outflanked, its maneuvering and supply options shrink rapidly. The commanders gave orders that simply could not be followed, and soon the British and a large number of French and Belgian soldiers found themselves pushed up to the North Sea coast near a town called Dunkirk.

Dunkirk had never been a major seaport because it had no deepwater anchorages, which severely hampered British efforts to use their fleet to get their army out of Europe.

Now, some people might think that losing the Battle of France in a couple of weeks in May 1940 was a disaster -- and it was. But as every military commander knows, if you lose a battle but keep your army, you can fight again another day.

If the Germans had captured the entire British Army -- and it looked as if there was no way to prevent it -- Churchill's fine speeches would not have been enough to prevent Hitler from stomping all over everything. You have to have troops to wage a war.

Within a couple of weeks of the start of the German invasion, all that was left was a stubborn French and Belgian defense of the Dunkirk perimeter -- and the British determination to save as much of their army as they could.

It didn't look good, and when the movie Dunkirk asserted that the most generous estimates of how many soldiers could be saved ranged from 30,000 to 45,000, I had no reason to doubt their research.

But the many times I read about the Dunkirk evacuation, it was pivotal that the German Luftwaffe was mostly busy elsewhere, or their bombing and strafing would have made any kind of evacuation impossible.

Instead, the Germans wasted their chance to destroy the entire British Army by concentrating on their advance toward Paris -- a much-coveted prize, in Hitler's view. (He was never a master strategist or tactician; he began the war as military idiot and ended it the same way.)

Now, the movie Dunkirk doesn't contradict this. They show only a few German bombing and strafing attacks, and they have those resisted by a small number of brave RAF pilots. All true.

The RAF that won the Battle of Britain the next year did not yet exist -- the UK was producing Spitfire fighters as fast as they could, and training new pilots even faster. But despite Churchill's decade of warnings, Britain was shockingly unprepared for war and if the footsoldiers in Dunkirk sometimes looked at the sky and asked, "Where's the RAF?" the best answer was probably: "You're looking at it. That's all we have."

The problem, for me, was that you could get the impression, from the reactions of the characters in Dunkirk, that the Germans were mounting a powerful air offensive against Dunkirk, when this simply wasn't true. Though the film never shows any powerful attacks from the Luftwaffe, you can easily get the impression that Dunkirk was under continuous and heavy attack.

It was not.

The "miracle of Dunkirk" was not that the British Army was extracted from the beach at Dunkirk under heavy enemy fire, but rather that they were evacuated at all.

The problem was, as shown in the film, there was only a single mole (breakwater) that allowed troops to march out to where they could board deepwater ships. Keeping that mole clear was a vital concern for the British fleet, because their navy -- the most powerful in the world, with a long tradition of dominance -- was not build for close-in coastal work.

Their ships were designed to sink other ships. This made a mass evacuation from a shallow-water beach by the British Navy nearly impossible.

That was when the call went out to all the fishing vessels, merchantmen, and other small boats, at first requisitioning them and then begging their captains and crews to head for Dunkirk and pick up everybody they could carry.

Most of the troops embarked at the mole -- really part of a breakwater -- though more than a hundred thousand embarked directly from the beaches. The tradition is that there were 700 "Little Ships of Dunkirk" that went back and forth from Britain to Dunkirk. There were some losses, but by and large there were so many of them, and each was such a small and individually meaningless target, that such German planes as came to attack them did relatively little damage.

In fact, the RAF established air superiority over the English Channel during most of that time, despite Goering's brag to Hitler that his Luftwaffe would destroy the British on the beaches.

And the reason the French protection of the perimeter lasted long enough is that for astonishingly stupid reasons, Hitler vetoed letting any of his tanks get any closer to the coast than they already were. The three days that veto lasted were the three days of the evacuation.

Dunkirk, the movie, gives us absolutely nothing from the German point of view. In fact, the word "German" is rarely spoken and "Nazi" never in the entire film. Hitler actually gets more references in War for the Planet of the Apes than he does in Dunkirk.

The movie is so relentlessly close to individual characters that the broad picture is completely lost. And the "miracle" is almost invisible because no attempt is made -- even in this age of CGI -- to show the magnitude of the small-boat evacuation.

It's true that the 700 boats were never all present at the same moment, but the movie is way off by never showing more than a couple of dozen at a time.

It's wonderful that they gathered together a decent number of the actual small craft, which have been lovingly preserved as seaworthy vessels since 1940. But that touch of authenticity could not replace the emotional charge we needed to get from seeing a (perhaps unrealistic) view of hundreds of small boats approaching that crowded beach.

Nor did we ever see what CGI should have provided -- a view of hundreds of thousands of soldiers on that beach.

What was missing was scale. Again, I recognize that in the real event, commanders might have kept most of the soldiers off the beach until there was some hope of evacuating them. But they should have been somewhere, waiting to get aboard.

We also got a ridiculous idea of the scale from the fact that our main point-of-view character, a soldier who behaved quite disgracefully sometimes in his effort to save himself no matter what, ran from German gunfire (which dropped all his fellow squad members) and then immediately showed up on the beaches.

If the Germans had actually been that close, there would have been no evacuation.

These may seem like quibbles -- especially because some of my complaints are about the movie being too realistic and thereby losing much of its possible emotional impact.

But if you're telling the story of Dunkirk, we don't need to focus entirely on one boat, we also need to get a sense of all 700 boats. We don't need to focus entirely on the extremely rare events surrounding a group of soldiers who get themselves trapped inside a bullet-holed boat that was stranded on the beach outside of the perimeter protected by the Brits. Yet so much time is devoted to it that we get the impression that the movie thinks that this incident mattered.

Dunkirk is essentially the Murphy's Law version of the Dunkirk evacuation: We are shown, in detail, every single thing that could go wrong. Meanwhile, we lose the big picture of all the things that miraculously went right.

I think the problem arose from slavish obedience to film-school scripting rules. Increase the personal jeopardy. Raise the stakes. Give them a ticking clock. At the end of the second act it must seem that all is lost.

So I came to the movie expecting to experience the big picture, and instead was given a lot of vignettes of events that had to have been rare. The terror of the soldiers was way out of proportion to the actual depredations of the Luftwaffe. The whole storyline of the rescued soldier who tries forcibly to turn the rescue boat around to keep it from returning to Dunkirk was ludicrous.

Even if that event actually happened, it was still ludicrous because it feels manufactured in order to create drama in a situation where the real action consisted of sailing relentlessly to Dunkirk and picking up soldiers. We got lots of last-second rescues of soldiers from burning oil-slicks on the water. We had an amazing number of soldiers and sailors who knew how to swim.

But we also got Kenneth Branagh's face as he saw the small boats start arriving. Whatever they paid him, he earned it in that moment of film, because his take on the rescue was far more evocative than anything we were actually shown.

Was I disappointed? Yes and no. Because even though I knew too much about Dunkirk to like where they spent all their screen time, I also knew just enough about Dunkirk to bring my own emotional context to the story.

I knew that nearly 200,000 of the evacuees were British soldiers, the core of the military forces that went on to fight in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Crete, Norway, and Italy, and on D-Day in Normandy. I knew that the British kept evacuating soldiers until nearly 140,000 French had also been brought off the beach, along with a few stubborn Belgian and Dutch soldiers who kept fighting after their governments had surrendered.

I have no idea what the movie means to people who knew nothing about Dunkirk. Because the movie they see is so melodramatic and personal that I don't know how much of the big picture reaches them.

I assume, though, that my job is to review the movie they actually made rather than the one they should have made. Still, with a script by director Christopher Nolan, I believe they should have done better.

The performances were excellent, especially the civilian crew of the boat we focused on -- Mark Rylance as the owner/captain, Tom Glynn-Carney as his son, and Barry Keoghan as the teenage boy who comes along to "help any way he can."

Fionn Whitehead does well with the runaway save-yourself soldier who is our main viewpoint, but after that I can't tell you who anybody is because you can't tell the actors apart.

I mean that as a serious complaint. Everybody is shot in shadows, in action, from various angles, and in isolation, with lots of irritating cuts that plunge us from one action scene into another without any helpful reorientation.

The result is that actors who resemble each other only slightly can be impossible to tell apart when we cut from one to another. Is this the same character from that previous sequence or a new character we haven't met before?

And because it's a Christopher Nolan film, we have no idea whether we're watching events unfold in time order or not. It doesn't help that early on, we are given some shockingly misleading titles. When we see the guys on the beach, we see writing that says: One Week.

Not "week one." Just "one week." So what does that mean? One week before evacuation? They've already spent a week on that beach?

Things only get more confusing when we're shown the boat we mainly follow, and we're told, "One Day." Again, what does that mean? That the boat's storyline in the movie will take only one day?

And when we get Tom Hardy as a pilot, the title says, "One Hour."

So it feels like somebody's deliberately confusing us about time -- something that Christopher Nolan cannot afford ever.

Then add to this the fact that during the flying scenes, all the pilots look alike (especially with their heads and faces mostly covered), so we can never be sure which pilot just got shot down and which are still in the air.

Twice I thought (and I think I was led to believe) that Tom Hardy was the one shot down. Then he wasn't.

Helping the audience keep the cast of characters straight is kind of like the kindergarten requirement of filmmaking. Dunkirk was pretty lousy at it.

And yet. And yet. Scene for scene, everything is dangerous and compelling and the actors do brilliantly so you can watch it without ever getting bored. And maybe smarter people than I am can watch it without ever getting confused.

I can certainly help you by saying that as far as I could tell, everything in this movie is shown in time order, and nobody in one sequence is surprisingly the same guy you saw doing something else in a different sequence. Except for his offensively meaningless time labels, Christopher Nolan doesn't play any games with time in this movie.

Is Dunkirk worth seeing? Absolutely. The more you know about the real events, the more annoyed and yet the more moved you'll be. But as an entertaining war movie that makes a few obvious ethical points, it's fine. You won't feel cheated and you'll have some strong memories to take with you.

And here's something that may seem obvious, but it matters: As far as I can remember, there's not a single American character in the whole movie.

Of course there isn't. What would an American be doing there in 1940, when America was still more than a year from entering the war?

But usually, studios demand that the American audience have someone they can "identify with." But in this movie, the closest they come is with the familiar faces of Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Kenneth Branagh (everything else). Thus we are given someone we recognize, especially when we get to see Tom Hardy's face unobstructed by aviator headgear.

I'm glad I saw Dunkirk. I hope you'll feel the same way.

*

Then there's the opposite movie: The Big Sick.

Everything I tell you about this movie could give you the wrong impression. I tell you it's a movie about a comedian struggling to start his career, and it's played by Kumail Nanjiani, whom you know if you've been watching Silicon Valley, but otherwise, probably not, because he always plays nameless Pakistani guys.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention he's Pakistani, with an Urdu accent? I happen to like his comedy (and his character in Silicon Valley), but let's face it, as soon as the main character of a movie is a middle easterner trying to make it in America, we're practically tripping over the tropes that they're almost required to use.

Yep, there's a heckler at one of his shows who calls out, "Go back to ISIS."

And of course his family expects him to marry a good Muslim Pakistani girl -- one they pick for him, though they certainly offer him a good menu of choices.

Oh, and can you guess that he no longer believes in the Muslim religion? A requirement for all characters from religious backgrounds in today's movies -- if we're supposed to like them, then they don't really believe.

Yes, these and many other cliches are present in this movie, along with a whole While You Were Sleeping plotline (his Anglo girlfriend spends much of the movie in an induced coma) and strong-but-funny confrontations between Kumail and his family and Kumail and his Anglo girlfriend's family.

Do you get why this is the opposite of Dunkirk? Nobody dies -- yeah, that's a spoiler but this movie's been out for weeks now, so hush yo'self, please. It's a romcom anyway -- you didn't think they'd let anybody die, did you?

But this movie is far better than you might be thinking now. For one thing, Judd Apatow is one of the producers. For another, the writers are Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, and in the movie, Kumail's girlfriend is named ... get this ... Emily.

Yeah, that's right, this is a movie based on a true story.

Quite often, that's the kiss of death. But not this time.

Their meeting is believable. Their falling in love works. Their ambivalence toward the whole idea of being together works brilliantly. The script makes good use of the comedy of Kumail and his comedian friends. All the social groups -- families and friend-clusters -- are believable, understandable, even likable. It's funny. It's heart-warming.

Sure, the character of Emily comes out of her coma as a self-centered little twit, but doesn't every formerly comatose person do that? And she gets better, I promise.

What really makes this movie work -- and it works -- are the two families. This movie loves the Pakistani parents and brother and sister-in-law. Yes, they're funny, and they do throw Kumail out of the family the moment he tells them he doesn't actually believe in Islam and is not going to marry a Pakistani woman.

But the fact that this tears them up, and Kumail's hilarious refusal to accept their out-kicking, work beautifully so that the family are never the villains of the movie.

Then there's Emily's insane, angry, controlling mother, played brilliantly by Holly Hunter, and her bumbling but sometimes wise father, played to perfection by Ray Romano. There's not a moment when Kumail's Muslimness becomes a bone of contention; instead, Holly Hunter hates him because he broke Emily's heart.

Much of the movie consists of Kumail earning the respect and trust and finally the affection of Emily's family -- long before he wins hers back.

Yeah, the "big sick" of the title is Emily's coma and the disease that caused it, and I've already told you she gets better. But that's just the maguffin and I haven't spoiled anything.

Because the pleasure of this movie is in the relationships between the characters, the dialogue, the scenes, and telling you some of the plot points will have no effect on that. And watching Holly Hunter go off on the heckler who -- oh, come on. Just see it.

It's better than my description of it. It's better than I could have hoped.

And when, at the end, you see stills of the real Emily, her real family, and Kumail's real family, it's quite satisfying. Most of the time, with a romantic comedy, you think: Very nice, but that doesn't really happen.

In this case, though, it did happen, more or less as shown. That's a real plus, in my opinion. Because if this relationship can work ...

*

Speaking of Tom Hardy, which I was during the review of Dunkirk, I think it's worth pointing out a Tom Hardy movie in which he gives a brilliant, Oscar-worthy performance that apparently nobody saw.

I'm talking about Legend, in which Hardy plays the Kray brothers, a real criminal family in England. The two brothers are so completely distinguished in manner, voice, and character that you need to have the one brother wear glasses to tell them apart only for the first few minutes of the film.

The movie came out in 2015, and with a gross of $1.9 million on a budget of $30 million, I think it's safe to call it an overwhelming flop.

Of course, it got no promotion in the U.S., not that I ever saw. And while it got some nominations and awards, most of them were pretty obscure ones.

Here's the plot: One of the brothers is crazier than the other. It's hard to decide which one of them is the craziest.

Yet it's compulsively watchable, once you start, and I think Brian Helgeland as director and writer (adapting the book by John Pearson, The Profession of Violence) did an excellent job.

The title stinks, though. Since these are criminals I've never heard of, theirs must not be much of a legend. The book's title would have been much better as the title of the movie: The Profession of Violence is way better than other, better-known titles, like Scent of a Woman or that Ridley Scott/Tom Cruise fantasy movie from 1985 called ... what was it ... oh, yeah. Legend.


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