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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 4, 2004

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


Spider-Man 2, Scialfa, Carpenter, Allyson, and The Loop

It isn't always the kiss of death when Hollywood spends appalling amounts of money on a special effects extravaganza.

Every now and then, out of the morass of money, there rises, not a swamp thing like Titanic or The Mummy Returns, but something ... dare I say it? ... beautiful.

Spider-Man 2 fulfils every expectation of the thrill-seeking FX crowd -- lots of flying, lots of danger, a cool villain, people in jeopardy, a vulnerable hero who struggles to save people we care about.

There's also clever writing, with good dialogue and genuine surprises, scenes and sequences that really click.

That would be enough to make this the blockbuster of the summer.

But that wasn't enough for director Sam Raimi, screen story writers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and Michael Chabon, and screenplay author Alvin Sargent.

That list of writers is significant. Gough and Millar also created the nearly-perfect tv series Smallville. No one else has ever done a better job of turning comic-book superheroes into real characters.

And Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplay for Ordinary People, for which he won -- and deserved -- the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. You don't hire a guy like Sargent if you plan to put mere eye candy on the screen.

This film moved me. To tears. More than once. And not just in the expected places. I was surprised by moments of real emotional fulfilment, moments of revelation and fruition that few filmmakers since Frank Capra even try for, let alone deliver.

But I can't tell you what they are. It would spoil the surprises. And maybe you won't be affected by them as I was. Maybe all you'll see is the eye-candy and the occasional silly comedy -- mostly from J.K. Simmons as the newspaper editor. But so what? That's a good movie, too.

My only wish is that we could have seen something from Kirsten Dunst besides soulfulness -- not her fault, the script just didn't give her the opportunity, and frankly, there was no time for it. But next time, in Spider-Man 3 ...

Meanwhile, nobody does soulful better than Dunst -- unless it's Tobey Maguire or James Franco. Has a movie ever been better cast than this one?

The first Spider-Man movie, unlike, say, Titanic, is almost infinitely rewatchable. If I ever flip to it on HBO, I end up hooked and watch it to the end. That's a mark of good writing and good acting and good directing -- the story doesn't pall.

Whereas Titanic soon makes grownups cringe, with the cruelly bad dialogue that they actually made real actors say in public, and the laughably false and manipulative scenes and gimmicks.

There is a philosophy in Hollywood that crops up a lot: That the audience is so dumb that you don't actually have to make something good to have a hit and earn a lot of money at the box office.

And that philosophy is absolutely correct. Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow and Titanic and a whole ream of disaster movies, sci-fi potboilers, cynical sequels, and Spielberg movies have proven that over and over again.

But just because expensive but phony movies make money doesn't meanyou have to make them that bad. The audience won't stay away just because a great special-effects film also has wonderful characters and truthful writing. In fact, it will continue to draw audiences years later, because truthful filmmaking doesn't grow old the way empty-calorie movies do.

The Spider-Man franchise, so far, is the kind of work that everyone associated with it can be proud of throughout their careers.

Meanwhile, almost everyone who sees it -- or at least, everyone with an open mind -- will find a movie with a hero whose powers may be unbelievable in the real world, but whose heart is recognizable ... as the best sort of human being, the kind we always hope to see in the real world, but rarely recognize when we do.

That's enough from me. Go see this movie (if you haven't already) and then you won't need anybody to tell you anything about it. You'll know for yourself.

*

I've been waiting a decade for Patti Scialfa to come out with another album, after her unforgettable debut Rumble Doll. While I applaud her dedication to child-rearing and touring with her husband's band, she has one of the great voices of our time, and she writes the torch songs for this generation.

The title track of 23rd Street Lullaby begins with absolute nakedness: all the quirks -- and all the flaws -- of her voice stand exposed, as if she dares us to misvalue her. But as the song grows and swells, the genius of her songwriting and the perfection of her interpretation make you love her for those very flaws.

It's as if a genius had composed a sonata for an out-of-tune piano, and did it so brilliantly that by the end you wish all pianos could be tuned that way.

Her lyrics are ragged, luscious, and demanding poems. Her music is inventive and strange, yet manages to evoke the dreaminess of old girl-group songs, or the sweetness of lost country ballads, or the drive of good old rock-and-roll.

I'd praise the best tracks on the album, except they're all wonderful, and besides, talking about music never compares to hearing it.

Her music won't be to every taste -- after all, we live in the pop culture that made Madonna and Courtney Love and Britney Spears into stars. But if you hunger for songs that have truth and power in the lyrics, the music, and the performance, Patti Scialfa is one of the great ones.

*

Between Here and Gone is Mary Chapin Carpenter's eleventh album. Though her work is normally released as country music, in fact the mood and tone of her songs are rather like those evoked by Judy Collins.

Carpenter's Come On, Come On is one of the great albums of all time, and no one could possibly expect her to top that achievement -- or even equal it -- with every new album. But this album isn't far from that goal.

Carpenter writes all her songs, and when you listen to the lyrics you realize that there's nothing she can't turn into poetry. As you listen, you feel yourself caught up in nostalgia for a world that has probably never existed -- one in which hard-working people manage to turn the "Beautiful Racket" of their lives into a beautiful dream; a world in which horn-honking traffic, strip malls and used cars, and bare flat land all deserve to be part of a love song, "Goodnight America."

"And I am driving into Houston on a rain-slicked Texas road," she sings, "Land so flat and sky so dark I say a prayer: to float, should all at once the San Jacinto surge beyond its banks; like Noah reaching higher ground I'd offer up my thanks."

One of the songs, "Girls Like Me," bids fair to be an anthem of twenty-something women, not with the fervor of Beth Nielsen Chapman's "Happy Girl," but with a kind of wistfulness that gives dignity to "loneliness," which is "like a cold, Common and no cure, we're told."

But you don't have to be a twenty-something woman to love this album. Carpenter is one of the great ones, no matter what kind of music you like best.

*

Karrin Allyson is a jazz singer with a wonderful, rich, low voice that's a pleasure to listen to, and her new album, Wild for You, consists of quirky reinventions of well-known songs made famous by other singers.

Some of the selections are a delight: Joni Mitchell's "Help Me" feels new again, as Allyson sings it, and I think I may like her "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" better than Roberta Flack's hit version.

But sometimes, as often happens with jazz musicians, it becomes more about being different than making any kind of musical sense. The song that suffers worst from this is her version of Cat Stevens's "Wild World." Stevens's original performance found depth in the simplicity of the song, but Allyson is burdened with an arrangement that seems to have been written for a different song. It is at war with the melody that Allyson is singing, and nobody wins.

Scarcely better is "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," but here the fault is in the original song. Even when Elton John performed it, it was tedious and empty; Allyson does nothing to fill it.

In fact, if she has a weakness as a singer, it's that she seems not to notice the words of her songs; you can understand them, but you get no sense that she means them. Her effort is all on voice production and swinging performance -- and she does that very well indeed. But ultimately, if you aren't also selling the words, the performance feels shallow.

*

I'm old enough now that I can easily settle into a complacent view that I know pretty much how the world works and what's making things go.

Then I lay hands on a book like William Langewiesche's The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, and I find myself plunged into a culture that I truly knew nothing about.

I don't think I've read anything about life at sea that deals with a period more recent than the age of sail, from the Horatio Hornblower books by C.S. Forester and, of course, Melville's Moby-Dick. As anyone might guess, the world of ocean-going commerce has greatly changed since then. But in recent decades, changes in the way governments and international organizations deal with the regulation of ocean vessels have left the sailors unprotected and the ships virtually unregulated.

As a result, the ocean is now a dangerous place, and not just for those who travel on it. There are ships owned by terrorists, which can travel easily to our virtually unsupervised ports. Most ships, however, are simply living out the dream -- or nightmare -- of an unfettered free market. Free enterprise, however, leads to dead sailors and lost cargos, as unsafe ships are pushed to make one last voyage, to squeeze out that last ounce of profit for the owners.

Meanwhile, crews are often exploited or endangered mercilessly, with shore visits absurdly rare, though the sailors tend to come from places where life at sea is actually an improvement.

There are promising movements toward reform of the system, but in many ways it's a battle between poor nations and rich ones; there's also the likelihood that tighter regulation will only drive the most desperate profiteers to new routes that avoid the inspections that might save the lives of their sailors. Why? Because the likely outcome for a lot of ships will be forced dismantling, bringing ruin to the owners and unemployment to the crew. But that's what free markets are all about -- valuing only those things that can be valued in money.

*

It seemed to be a doomed site for a restaurant, there at the corner of North Elm and Pisgah Church Road. Even though there's an enormous amount of traffic into the Harris-Teeter parking lot, all the previous eateries there failed -- and rather quickly.

This time, though, the restaurant is going to last. The Loop bills itself as a "pizza grill," but it's also got a good range of sandwiches, salads, and wraps. In fact, if you wanted a good sit-down hamburger joint with great fries and milkshakes, The Loop would be a good choice.

But the heart of the restaurant is the pizza, and what we ate, we liked. There are traditional favorites, and some quirkier combinations like the California pizza my wife ordered and margherita pizza I had -- both vegetarian pizzas, not because we're vegetarians, but because they're really delicious.

The crust is so good that they also serve it as unusual but delicious foccaccia bread; and if our daughter's pepperoni pizza was a bit oversauced, so that it tended to spill off the slices before she could pick them up, perhaps that can be chalked up to inexperienced pizza makers.

When you come in, you walk past the menu -- linger there and read the choices, because when you get to the counter to order, the only menues are little brochures.

And the staff right now is new enough that they don't always know what they have to sell. I asked for lemonade and was told they didn't have any; when I got around the corner, though, the on-tap soft drink dispenser included Minute-Maid lemonade, which would have been good enough for me. (I don't expect fresh lemonade when I go to this kind of restaurant.)

A delightful surprise, though, is how open, light, and airy the restaurant feels. The decor is simple and includes four televisions (perhaps holdovers from its most recent incarnation as a beer joint), and the view is only of the Harris-Teeter parking lot, but that includes plenty of trees and lots of sunlight on these summer days.

Of course, for us one of the biggest attractions is that The Loop is within walking distance of our house. But that didn't bring us back to the previous restaurants -- the first requirement is that the food be worth the walk.

The Loop is a growing chain, with restaurants in Florida, Georgia, and other cities in North Carolina. I think they have a good formula for widespread success. Check it out yourselves when you're in the mood for an informal sit-down meal with good, cheap food.


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