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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 26, 2004

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


Sky Captain, Skinny Dip, Custard, and The Longest Night

It's shot in muted colors that remind us of black and white movies. It has the look of the future that was envisioned in the 1930s, when streamlining of trains and cars was still new and the covers of sci-fi magazines and comic books showed spindle-shaped rockets and huge hulking monster robots.

Whenever a movie has such a deep investment in visual style, it usually means that style is what the movie is about -- not story.

This can poison even wonderful movies. I think at once of Brazil, Terry Gilliam's faux future in which ductwork is the dominant design element. I loved every minute of this film ... even though the story sagged like power lines.

Brazil was the most successful of such style-dominated films. Pleasantville played games with black and white -- but the story was deeply stupid and propagandistic.

While Hudsucker Proxy was the best of the Coen Brothers' films ... except that they allowed Jennifer Jason Leigh to do a relentlessly bad parody of the '40s tough-broad style, to the exclusion of any kind of actual acting.

If you play a style, you're not playing a part, you're forcefitting it to a concept. So when I saw the promos for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I had high hopes -- and dismal expectations. The promos looked wonderful.

But I dreaded the presence of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose empty acting wrecked Emma, and of Jude Law, who keeps taking odd roles that require stylized and soulless performances, leading me to wonder if that's all he can do.

Most of all, I was afraid that there wouldn't be a story that anyone could care about. Story is a fragile thing, and when you're concentrating on style, you start making story decisions arising out of what you want to "bring off" rather than what the characters would do.

Still, we allowed hope to trump cynicism. We did the research on ScreenIt.com, verifying that it was OK to take our ten-year-old, and settled in at the Grande.

It was a wonderful ride. Story was not ignored. In fact, writer-director Kerry Conran did a splendid job of telling a first-rate story of the kind that dominated sci-fi magazines and comic books in the age of streamlining. And even though the special effects harked back to that earlier era, he still managed to instill the movie with that earlier era's sense of wonder.

Jude Law's performance was still brittle, and Gwyneth Paltrow's was still empty. But their banter was pleasant and the movie works. We were not bored for an instant. At the end, our ten-year-old said, "It felt like it was only fifteen minutes long," and we agreed.

And yet ... when you compare it to, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, you realize that the period style did cost something. There was not the intensity of identification with the hero that we felt with Indiana Jones. Ultimately, the style was the star of the film.

So I can promise you a wonderful job of filmmaking -- but not a movie that fills you with such excitement that you can't wait to tell your friends. I can't imagine this concept being better done than Sky Captain; it has been taken to a limit.

But there's a reason we don't make 1940s sci-fi movies anymore. Futuristic storytelling has moved on. Nostalgia is no substitute for passion. This is a fine bit of filmmaking. But its coolness of design guarantees that it will be no more than an interesting footnote.

This is Kerry Conran's first movie. Can't wait to see what he does in full color with live actors.

*

When novelist Carl Hiaasen tries to be funny, he isn't. But when he concentrates on telling a great story and lets humor arise out of the characters and situations, there's nobody more entertaining to read.

There's something fragile in his books that resists translation to film. His novel Strip Tease from ten years ago was wonderful, but you'd never guess it from the Demi Moore movie Striptease that was supposedly adapted from it.

I suspect that Hiaasen's sly style could be adapted to film, but it would take a screenwriter and director with as much wit as he -- and the same weird mixture of cynicism and naive enthusiasm. The fools who made Striptease were so dumb they thought it was a movie about a stripper.

Hiaasen's new novel, Skinny Dip, falls nicely within the tradition of his two-word titles -- Lucky You, Stormy Weather, Sick Puppy, Basket Case -- and is one of the best of them.

The premise is clear and delicious. Chaz Perrone takes his wife on a cruise to celebrate their second anniversary. In the middle of the night, he takes a walk with her on deck, bends down, grabs her by the ankles, and heaves her overboard. Then he tells the police a story about her going for a walk and never coming back.

He was counting on either the fall or the sharks killing her. But she was a champion swimmer and she turned her fall into a dive. The force of the impact stripped her clothes off her, and the swim was so far that if she hadn't found a floating bale of marijuana to cling to, she wouldn't have made it to shore.

But she does make it, washing up on an island where a retired cop saves her and then becomes her co-conspirator in a plot to get even with her murdering husband -- without letting him know she didn't die.

And that's just the premise. Hiaasen spews out plot like a gusher does oil, but there's not a misstep in the whole book. And yet he does it without making his characters ever do a thing that you couldn't believe a real person doing. Admittedly, it is sometimes an idiotic real person -- but real people do idiotic things, as my own autobiography will someday attest.

Summer's over, but books like Skinny Dip are never out of season.

*

Gregg Keizer once lived in Greensboro, back when Compute! was one of the hottest magazines in the midst of the Atari and Commodore 64 craze. He left behind a career as a junior high school English teacher in Salt Lake City, and when Compute! faded away, he stayed with the computer writing biz.

Keizer is also a former writing student of mine -- though I am on record as affirming that I never taught him a thing. He already knew how to create characters, tell stories, and write language that pulls you through a story like getting your tie caught in the bus door.

He was writing science fiction in those days, but his first published novel isn't sci-fi. It's a World War II thriller called The Longest Night, and it has a great premise: New York mobster Meyer Lansky is persuaded to put serious money into an effort to rescue a trainload of Dutch Jews being shipped off to death camps, with the hope that by showing it can be done, the allies will be shamed into making larger efforts to rescue more.

But Lansky didn't get to be a powerful gangster by trusting people. He sends along a hit man who insists on the nickname "Mouse" to guard the money. Mouse, however, has an agenda of his own.

Keizer's research is excellent but invisible -- you never get a sense of him showing off. Instead, his characters move through three different underworlds -- of hoodlums, the Dutch underground, and the SS's Final Solution team -- with complete credibility. And along the way we come to care deeply about several characters, even though we know they aren't all going to get out of this alive.

The novel is, in short, a noble romantic tragedy, despite the morally squalid world in which all the characters are forced to -- or choose to -- live.

I've lost touch with Keizer over the past twenty years. The first I knew this novel existed was seeing his name on the cover in a bookstore. I owed him a read; he earned the rave review by writing a thriller that also succeeds as a serious novel, with deep wisdom woven through the adventure.

Not many writers even try to deal with complicated moral issues in the midst of shootings, explosions, and Nazis. But Keizer was never a writer to settle for anything less.

*

I got back from Germany only a week ago, and it has taken incredible self-control that one bar of chocolate still remains from the stash we brought home. None of that waxy American taste, folks -- as usual, good foreign chocolate makes it impossible for me to enjoy our home-grown eternal-shelf-life imitation of chocolate.

Then a few weeks pass and I recover from the delusion that chocolate should have flavor and I'm back to Snickers and Twix and Peanut M&Ms, in my long-running effort to prove that you can exercise hard for an hour a day and still gain weight.

In Germany they have invented a new form factor for chocolate bars: thick and narrow. Only a little more slender than string cheese, these bars of simple or filled chocolate are the perfect size for a snack. Just enough to satisfy; not so much you feel like you actually committed a serious sin by eating it.

Of course, if you then eat three of them ... but that's getting a bit too autobiographical.

*

Kohl's Frozen Custard is worth going to for dessert alone -- when you want rich creamy soft ice cream, frozen custard is as good as it gets, and when you get them to mix in ingredients of your choice in a "hurricane" (other frozen custard places call such concoctions "concrete" because it's the most splendidly thick milkshake you can imagine), it's worth dealing with the traffic patterns on Battleground (a block or so from the Carousel theater, heading toward downtown).

But we also discovered that Kohl's makes a great hamburger and good fries -- you can go there for dinner with the kids before the movie. Just don't order your custard when you get your meal -- or make sure you get the custard first and have it finished before the burgers are ready. Because this is one place where you sure don't want to let dinner spoil your dessert.


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