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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 24, 2003

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


Speckled Eggs, Daredevil, Quiet American, and The Last Detective

When I lived in Brazil, I found out what chocolate actually tastes like. It about ruined me for American candy when I came home.

That lasted for about six weeks. Then I decided that since I wasn't in Brazil anymore, M&Ms would do.

From there it was all the way down to following people who were eating from bags of M&Ms in case they dropped one.

But I always knew (as I ate through 2-lb. bags of Peanut M&Ms in a single sitting) that I could stop whenever I wanted.

And I've proven it, too. I must have sworn off eating M&Ms fifteen times.

If you know nothing about this tragic addiction in your own life, count yourself lucky and ignore the following statement:

Speckled Egg M&Ms.

The candy-to-chocolate ration is crunchier and chocolatier. The colors are actually pretty. And because they're so big, you really can eat them one at a time.

In your grocery stores now.

*

Speaking of grocery stores, I was stunned to see last week that after more than a year's hiatus, Key Lime Pie flavored Yoplait Light Yogurt is back in Harris-Teeter.

Not only that, but Dannon's delicious drinkable yogurt is finally available at Harris-Teeter, too.

Does this mean that the Harris-Teeter corporate buyer who has been reading my column and eliminating every food product that I praise has finally moved on to other employment?

No doubt he just got hired at Warner Brothers to determine whether the script I'm writing will be good enough to greenlight.

*

You got kids? You want them to have an alternative to Game Boy or Game Cube or Sponge Bob Square Pants?

Try Highlights Puzzlemania. We have never been fans of the original Highlights magazine, but this junior games magazine has puzzles that are clever, well-drawn, and fun to do.

Not like the mindless you-have-to-be-dead-not-to-solve-this-puzzle "self-esteem builders" you get on kids' menus in restaurants. These have some bite to them, but can still be solved by a child.

Check it out at www.puzzlemania.com or 1-800-962-3661.

*

Sorry I couldn't write about it in time for you to see it while it was still in Greensboro, but last week's run of the touring company of Blast! was a ...

No, I refuse to say it was a ...

Oh, what the heck. If reviewers can say "I was torn up by Rent!" or "A checkmate for Chess!" or "Les Miz won't leave you miserable!" then I can say "Blast! is a ..."

No. I can't. I do have a scrap of integrity left.

Blast! is what marching bands will be like in heaven. The musicians are terrific -- every note was good. But they also move as if they knew their own bodies. And break out in pretty good choral music now and then.

Not to mention the baton-twirling dancers who actually turn it into an art -- particularly since what they're twirling almost never looks like a baton.

And the drummers -- I thought I'd already seen the best in the movie Drumline. But there were moments in Blast! when I actually found myself liking drum solos.

The only drawback: Somebody thought it would be real funny to have a short guy come out and clown around now and then. It wasn't.

Still, if you get a chance to see this show, it's worth it. If you have to choose between this one and Stomp! or Blue Man Group, then it gets a little tougher.

Oh, just see 'em all.

*

Daredevil is a movie that is so much better than its comic book roots that I kept wishing they had lost the stupid costume and made the thing almost believable.

The premise is that as a kid, Ben Affleck's character (Matt Murdock) was blinded by toxic materials. To compensate, either his body or the poison gave him superhuman hearing that lets him "see" the way bats do, not to mention incredible touch, taste, smell, strength, and quickness.

In other words, he really is what a crackhead on steroids only imagines himself to be.

Yeah, I know. It was a comic book, so what could I expect? But it was a comic book so lame that I never heard of it before the promos for this movie began.

Here's the surprise. The acting and writing are good enough for all except the last cheating minutes that I enjoyed it from start to finish. I resented the hooks, teasers, and cliffhangers that so obviously set up a sequel, but I still left the theater feeling good about having given them my money.

Is it as good as Spiderman? No. Partly because even though Affleck plays blind really well, he always has a hard time playing human. This is probably as close to warm and likeable as I've seen him -- way better than his popsicle-stick performance in Forces of Nature, for instance.

Maybe, like Nicole Kidman with the nose in The Hours, Affleck needs to have some portion of his face covered up in order to show what he can do. Trouble is, what he can do, compared to what, say, Nicole Kidman can do, is kind of still not all that much.

But hey, it's Affleck's best performance to date, and the movie's fun, so shut up and eat your popcorn.

*

The Quiet American is not fun. But it's Michael Caine at his very best, reminding us that between really bad movies, every now and then he accidentally does a good one.

Set in Vietnam in the fifties, during the war between the Viet Minh Communists led by Ho Chi Minh and the French trying to hold onto their colonies, The Quiet American is the story of an aging British reporter (Caine) who just wants to hold onto his quiet life and his Vietnamese mistress.

Along comes Brendan Fraser as an American health bureaucrat who falls awkwardly in love with the same woman -- Phuong, played with simple grace by Do Thi Hai Yen -- and it becomes a simple love triangle.

Simple, except for the part about the war, and secret plots by the CIA, and atrocities and terror bombings and a dog and the standard "native assistant" who does all the real reporting and ...

(Hey, was the plot of The Year Of Living Dangerously borrowed from this Graham Greene novel?)

This is a powerful, ironic, twisted, magnificently filmed and acted movie.

Except for one tiny thing. The movie absolutely insists that you take it seriously as history.

And as history, it's pure propaganda.

Not that the CIA was not capable of doing what this film says it did. Not that the film doesn't give the CIA guys a chance to give their speeches (like Jack Nicholson's barnburner in A Few Good Men).

No, the propaganda part comes from the way the movie essentially denies that Ho's Communists were responsible for any acts of terror. This film is set in a fantasy past in which Communist "terror" is all faked up by the CIA in order to win support for American intervention.

Never mind that from long before the Bolsheviks took over in Russia in 1917, Communists have used terrorism on every scale and against every enemy. Terror "famines" in Russia, "cultural revolution" in China, and the routine atrocities, assassinations, and terror bombings in Vietnam -- it was the Communists who wrote the book that latecomers like Al-Qaeda are reading from.

By comparison, the CIA was not virtuous, merely inept and unambitious in its attempts at imitation. Just as Israel discovered when it tried to meet terrorism with terrorism in the 1950s, the citizens of a democracy don't make good murderers, at least not as a matter of policy. Most of us don't have the stomach for it, and we don't want to work with those who do.

Not only does the movie suffer from Communists-did-no-wrong syndrome, but it also uses the absolutely arrogant, racist liberal dogma that America should never attempt to prevent or end the rule of left-wing (or Muslim) tyrants in third-world countries, because, as every racist liberal knows, brown-skinned people have "different cultures" and don't really want freedom the way we westerners do. They "wouldn't know what to do with it."

Odd, then, how all those "multicultural" people will die trying to float or fly or walk their way out of tyranny and into countries that offer actual freedom.

They're probably all suckered in by American television.

The original Graham Greene novel -- and the first movie made from it -- came out in the 1950s, when the end of our Vietnam debacle was not yet known; it's the script writer, Christopher Hampton, who added the propaganda.

Graham Greene's book was smart enough. It didn't need the help of a screenwriter bent on beating us over the head with his puerile P.C. "interpretation" of history. The script might as well credit Jane Fonda as co-author.

OK, the diatribe's over. As long as you hold your nose at the propaganda and racism, it's a terrific dark spy movie, with Michael Caine in top form.

*

Lawrence Block is one of the best mystery writers, but Small Town is really a mixed bag.

On the one hand, it's a marvelous story of what a tiny village Manhattan really is, with the lives of utter strangers overlapping and intersecting in odd and sometimes scary ways.

It's also a pretty good exploration of a madman's delusion, as a small-time terrorist thinks it's perfectly reasonable to "sacrifice" the occasional group of New Yorkers to bring about some mystical betterment of the city.

On the other hand, it's kind of weird and unpleasant to have a book whose villain is someone who lost his entire family, directly or indirectly, in the Twin Towers attack.

And most annoying and disappointing is the amount of space given over to the most juvenile kind of soft-core porn -- the sort of sex-as-epiphany stuff that made Robert Heinlein's last few books so embarrassing.

I mean, you have to be really young or really old to think that kinky sex will bring meaning and self-revelation to your life. And it demeans all the characters who take part in the various menages, until finally, at the end, they seem as shallow as the "characters" in a fourteen-year-old boy's nocturnal fantasies.

I hope this is a throwback to Block's adolescence, and not a sign of things to come. Old writers always become more like themselves -- but Block knows better than this.

*

Speaking of writers getting old, John Mortimer's possibly-last-ever Rumpole book, Rumpole Rests His Case, is really quite good, just what we Rumpole addicts have been wishing for.

I know Mortimer regards the popularity of this curmudgeonly old British barrister as a bit of an albatross around his neck, but at least he leaves the door open to the possibility that Rumpole might not be completely dead at the end.

Still, it's also a bit sad that here and there, John Mortimer has to bear witness, in true revival meeting fashion, to his faith in contemporary politically-correct dogma. The Rumpole he's been writing about all these years would have seen through the cant and dismissed this nonsense the way he dismissed all the other silliness.

But because Mortimer apparently has to reassure his friends that he's really P.C., Rumpole is forced to mouth the dogmas too. Not often enough to spoil the book, but often enough to leave me a bit disappointed. Rumpole deserved better than to be turned into a cardboard placard at the end of his career.

*

I'm happy to report that Robert Crais's most recent Elvis Cole mystery, The Last Detective, is not disappointing in any way.

You don't have to have read any of the rest of the series to enjoy every moment of this novel. In fact, this is a downright excellent beginning point -- though you won't be punishing yourself if you go back and read the earlier installments, too.

The love of Elvis Cole's life is already about to leave him because she can't stand the way she and her son have been exposed to danger simply by being around him. So naturally, her son is kidnapped and it's a race to get him back from the truly repugnant and terrifying people who have taken him.

There are plenty of surprises in this book, none of which I will give away; suffice it to say that Crais is one of our best writers today, and this is one of his best books.


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