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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 23, 2004

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


Shrek 2, Mysteries, The Gift, and Beringia

Let's keep this simple.

Shrek 2: Go see it.

*

OK, I can't stand it. That was too simple.

Shrek 2 is every bit as good as the original. It's a new story (though with the same issues), and the additional new characters are absolutely wonderful. Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots is especially brilliant. Like Eddie Murphy, he is actually more enjoyable in this film than in some of his more recent live action films ...

Shrek 2 is the movie that Ella Enchanted wanted, and failed, to be. It really is possible to do anachronistic send-ups of fairy tales and make them hilarious, pertinent, and impertinent all at once.

*

The last episode of 24 for this season was almost impossible to write. Given what had happened in previous episodes, what was left to do that we hadn't already seen?

Amazingly, they brought it off. Believable, moving; and then the step that is so often skipped: We actually got to see the hero receive the credit he deserved, and yet we also saw the weight of the burden he would carry with him forever. And Kiefer Sutherland has certainly left behind the tough kid he always used to play; he's ready for roles with real greatness in them.

*

It was in the last installment of American Idol that Diana Degarmo showed why Simon Cowell was right after all: She was too young for the competition. She was simply too inexperienced to know what you do as a performer when it's truly the Big Night.

She seemed to think that she needed to give an extra push, a physical effort -- like an athlete. In the javelin or pole vault or shot put, that would work. But in gymnastics or figure skating, what's needed is a more intense mental concentration in order to be error-free and maintain perfect fluidity of motion.

Singing and dancing are more like gymnastics -- in the final competition, it's not extra physical force you need, it's extra concentration of mind, a deeper intensity of the trance of creation.

Degarmo's physical pushing did her no good at all. Instead, it pushed her notes sharp, repeatedly. She was out of tune -- especially on her final number, "Don't Cry Out Loud." She had nailed that song the previous week, but wrecked it when everything counted most -- specifically because she tried too hard, physically.

Whereas Fantasia Barrino, in repeating her most triumphant performance, Gershwin's "Summertime," changed it, made it something new. Her "extra" in this performance was to refresh and reinvigorate so that we were not seeing a rerun of a great performance, but rather a marvelous performer actually topping herself.

Fantasia wasn't competing with Degarmo. She was doing something much harder -- she was competing with Barrino. And unlike anybody else in this competition, she had the chops to win against that opponent.

Of course, you never know what the voters are going to do. It almost doesn't matter. Everybody knows that Fantasia Barrino is a performer with staying power. She's going to be singing songs we want to hear when she's sixty.

The phone exchanges in Greensboro were impenetrable. We got through five times to vote for Fantasia -- but four of the five were on my L.A. based cellphone rather than a local landline.

They could probably pay for all the expenses of American Idol from the money they make on the phone calls ...

*

Mary Higgins Clark is called the "queen of suspense," so it's a shame that her latest novel, Nighttime Is My Time, is so deeply flawed.

It should have worked. The main character is a woman who, after achieving some fame and wealth as a historian, returns to be honored at a special high school reunion. But one of the other attendees at the event is a serial killer who has, among his many killings, slowly been getting even with all the girls who taunted him in high school.

The problem is that Clark, who should have known better, got confused about what suspense means.

She thought that to keep us in suspense, she should conceal the identity of the killer -- even though she was constantly writing sections from his point of view, and even though he was one of the characters we were constantly seeing in other scenes without knowing he was the killer.

That's a hard thing to bring off -- letting us know the killer intimately, while showing us many characters who might be him. The cost of it is steep: She can't really let us know any of the characters well, because she has to keep them all in play as possible serial killers.

Yet this actually made the book less suspenseful, because instead of caring what happens to characters we know well, we are forced to watch a detective try to solve a puzzle -- among characters who amount to little more than names to us.

That puzzle-solving detective is a good character, as is the historian-in-jeopardy; if Clark had just told us early on who the killer, we could have spent the rest of the book in an agony of suspense as we watched the detective and the historian get sidetracked with false clues while ignoring the true ones.

And because we could have gotten to know all the characters well, we would have cared more at every step -- and misstep -- along the way. Now that's suspense!

Still, there's a reason why Clark is called the queen of the female-centered thriller -- because even when she makes a crippling mistake like this one, the book is still compulsively readable. The characters she does develop are interesting and likeable. And at the end, you are fully involved in the tense leadup to the climax.

Another top writer is in good form, as Jonathan Kellerman returns with an Alex Delaware novel, Therapy. Though Delaware has left the practice of child psychology far behind, and devotes himself now to being the useful sidekick of Detective Milo, he still thinks and talks like a shrink, and in this story, where a series of murders come together only when they realize that the victims all had the same therapist, he has plenty of chances to delve into the practice -- and malpractice -- of psychology.

Some people might not be thrilled with the ins and outs of how therapists can run a scam on the government, but there are plenty of surprises and fascinating people in this story.

As to Delaware's personal life, I'm personally quite happy to have Robin out of his life, and resent her continuing attempts to have it both ways: "I can split up with you to punish you for doing the very things that also make you interesting to me; but I won't actually let you go."

But that seems to be the trend in fiction today, among the politically correct: It is taken as perfectly acceptable when women make utterly selfish demands on the men in their lives, while the slightest demand from the man is regarded as something to be atoned for.

Fortunately, that soap opera subplot is but a tiny thread in this novel; the real story is, as always, the complicated webs of relationships among the characters whose dysfunctions have led to untimely and violent death.

I listened to both these novels on audio. And a direct comparison will show just why John Rubinstein, who read Therapy for the unabridged recording, is such a star in the world of audio. You very quickly forget that you aren't hearing a cast of dozens -- because Rubinstein so effortlessly (it seems) finds different voices and dead-on characterizations for everybody. If he could read everybody's novels aloud, all of us writers would look so brilliant ...

*

A mutual friend just gave me a cd of an L.A. folk-rock band called Barefoot. A great sound, and while these are demo-quality recordings rather than releasable tracks, I fell in love with the voices, the arrangements, and the songs themselves (they write their own).

Sometimes their stylings remind me of John Mayer -- but you'd have to imagine Mayer with somebody else on stage doing close harmony. So maybe it's Mayer meets Crosby and Nash ...

What makes them special is that it's good music with strong lyrics, poetic and powerful while still being singable. This is hard to do and they know how to do it, so whether they make their first splash as a band or as songwriters for others, they're going to make their mark.

Their website -- http://www.barefoot-band.com -- is out of date (at least the tour information ends with April 28) and doesn't actually tell you who is who in the band. But I'm sure they'll soon catch on that websites are about helping fans know them better!

Can you buy their cd?

Nope. Sorry. Eat your heart out.

But when their cd does come out, please remember -- I told you first.

*

The story of how the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska was guessed at and then proven to be the means by which animals and humans moved back and forth between the old world and the new should have been a fascinating one.

Unfortunately, in The Last Giant of Beringia, author Dan O'Neill focuses so much on the personal life of his hero, scientist Dave Hopkins, that the science itself is treated almost as an afterthought.

Hopkins truly was that rare and valuable thing: A scientist who cared nothing for ambition or career, and instead acted solely to know more -- and to follow wherever the evidence led him. Like Leakey in East Africa, Hopkins kept drawing good scientists into the Beringia project to make contributions from many different fields.

The trouble is that while some aspects of Hopkins's life were fascinating, the focus of the book should have been on Hopkins's work: demonstrating how a hypothesis about the past is tested and demonstrated to be either true or false.

Instead, it becomes an exercise in hero worship.

The science is so fascinating, though, that I felt it was worth slogging through a surfeit of detail about a life that, while well-lived and marked with sacrifice and suffering, is largely irrelevant to the discoveries.

*

My favorite movie critic made me sit down and watch a DVD of The Gift, a movie that I swear must have been released in secret, since I don't remember seeing it promoted anywhere. Or maybe it was promoted as a horror film, so I tuned it out.

But it's not horror, it's contemporary fantasy and a bit of a thriller. Billy Bob Thornton was the author, and Sam Raimi the director -- both of them are shown at their best by an astonishingly high-powered cast.

Cate Blanchett is marvelous as Annie Wilson, a widow in a small southern town who supports her family by doing "readings" -- telling fortunes for people by reading cards with strange figures on them.

As my favorite critic pointed out, Cate Blanchett is the real Meryl Streep -- that is, all the things that Streep is given credit for, Blanchett can actually do. Accents? You never forget Streep is faking it, whereas with Blanchett, you never realize she's doing an accent, you just think she's a native speaker.

The child actors who play her kids are excellent -- it's a believable family. It's also a believable town, populated by unforgettable characters that could have been drawn straight out of the novels of Harry Crews.

Keanu Reeves gets to depart from his taciturn-hero roles to play a surly wife-abuser, and Hilary Swank is the complicated, contradictory abused wife who keeps getting Annie sucked into her own private hell.

Gary Cole is suitably menacing, too, and Michael Jeter is a delight in one of his last roles before his untimely death. J.K. Simmons as the put-upon sherriff and Rosemary Harris as Annie's visionary grandma are also wonderful -- and comic, in a film that needs an occasional release from the tension. And this may be Greg Kinnear's best role to date.

But the movie is very nearly stolen by Giovanni Ribisi, who creates an extraordinarily complex and seductively repellent character named Buddy Cole, who is devoted to Annie in the midst of his own struggle to avoid killing himself for ancient sins.

There are scary and repellent moments in the film, but it is not horror. It's about magic and faith and love; and above all, it's about life in a village -- the dark side, yes, but with many glimpses of the interdependency and trust and kindness that can come when you actually know all your neighbors.

*

To the Rhino beeper who complained about spandex-clad cyclists on the road:

You live in a city that doesn't put shoulders or sidewalks beside the roads. Cyclists have nowhere else to go but the traffic lanes.

Still, before you pull out your gun and start shooting them, give it a moment's thought:

Those cyclists aren't using gasoline, so they aren't raising the price of it.

They aren't adding to the stink of exhaust in the air.

They don't take up anywhere near as much room on the road as your car.

When they get where they're going, they won't take up a parking place.

And if they hit somebody along the way, their victim probably won't die.

So ... what exactly is their sin?

Oh, yeah -- they dared to be on the road when you wanted to be able to speed on by without delay.

Oh, no! They inconvenienced you, the sacred god of the highway! Fie upon them! Curse them all! Lest you slow down even a little bit in your vital travels, let them all be banished from the roads! Don't they know how important you are, compared to mere weevils like them?

Lighten up, dear bike-hating clown. So you drive a little slower for a few minutes. Just remember that because they're getting exercise, they won't be needing as much medical attention as you will, so they'll help keep your health insurance rates down.

Unless, of course, you pass them unsafely because you're in such a terrible hurry -- but then, because you're driving a big hulking gas-wasting vehicle, you'll probably kill them, so ... no medical bills after all!

Yep. The world really does revolve around you and your car.

*

Fresh Market saved us when Harris-Teeter dropped the Haagen Dazs chocolate mousse ice cream -- they still stock it, and the vanilla mousse as well. Best commercial ice cream, ever.

But then Fresh Market up and stopped carrying Fiji Water.

What do I have to do, fly to Fiji and bring it home myself?

Come on, guys, you can't have dropped it because you weren't selling it -- it was selling way better than some of the waters you still have in stock!


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