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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 17, 2005

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


Sahara, Fever, Honey Peanuts, Swords, New Haven

We're actually getting some pretty good movies, and it's not even summer. Apparently somebody in Hollywood has noticed that there are twelve calendar months, and you can put good movies into every one of them and make money.

Clive Cussler's novel Sahara was a lot of fun. He actually made it seem slightly plausible that a Confederate ironclad might have gotten away with a whole lot of gold (like they had any of that left) and then somehow crossed the Atlantic and steamed up the Niger in a particularly rainy year and then got beached in the desert when the climate changed and the river never came back.

But wisely enough, Cussler recognized that greed for gold in an old Confederate ship lost in the desert was not going to be enough to sustain our interest. So he added a couple of doctors from the World Health Organization, who were determined to get into Mali in order to track the source of the disease. In the movie, one of them is the lustrous Penelope Cruz. Nuff said.

As an entry in the quest-movie genre (cf. Raiders of the Lost Ark and National Treasure), Sahara is relatively slight. While nothing magical or mystical happens, it does strain credulity in other ways. For instance, if a toxic leak into the Niger could destroy all life in the world's oceans once it reached the coast, then it was already too late to save the world before they movie began, because cutting off the source would not stop what was already in the river.

But a leak into the Niger could not destroy the world's oceans. Toxic waste does not propagate like an epidemic, it dissipates and either dissolves or sinks. It can cause damage for a long time when it concentrates in certain places, like in fish or on the sea bottom, but it can't propagate evenly and fatally throughout the world's oceans unless it is so toxic, even in infinitesimal solutions, that there is no way to stop it once it has ever been let loose in a river system, period.

But this is the level of scientific stupidity that we've come to expect from the movies. (Remember Day After Tomorrow last year?) What is really annoying is when they expect us to believe ridiculous violations of common sense. When they see, from the top of a tower, a train chugging across the desert toward a huge solar plant, they climb down the tower, get on their camels, race to a point on the track ahead of the train, and bury themselves in sand -- all before the train gets there -- and the train is still so far from the solar plant that they have time to climb up on the train cars and climb into strangely empty tanks.

Never mind that these tanks should be full of toxic waste, since they are heading toward the place where they will be disposed of. Never mind that even if they were empty, they would still give off toxic fumes that should have them retching and dying before they get to the solar plant. It's just a movie, right?

What makes it all work -- and it does! -- is some witty writing and Steve Zahn as the funny sidekick. Matthew McConaughey is, as usual, a complete zero on the screen. He's there, he's saying lines, but he fades into memory like a faint stain on wallpaper. It's Steve Zahn whose energy and wit keep this movie going. Cast him in an adventure movie, and we'll even put up with a sinkhole of personality like McConaughey.

You won't love Sahara, but you won't feel cheated, either. It delivers on the promise of an evening's entertainment, with some thrills, some laughs, some pretty people. Just switch off your brain, like a cellphone on an airplane, until you reach your final destination and the door is reopened.

*

It's almost impossible to believe that Fever Pitch was directed by the Farrelly brothers. Where is the grossout "humor"? Where are the jokes so cruel or vile that you want to change species to avoid guilt by association? Is it possible that they wanted to make a movie that grownups could stand to watch?

Fever Pitch is about Ben, who is any woman's perfect man, except during baseball season, when he sacrifices everything in order to fulfil his duty to be at every Red Sox home game. I couldn't care less about baseball -- but I cared about this guy and his self-destructive passion.

The script is good. It makes us understand why Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore) falls in love with Ben and sticks around even when things get weird.

It's funny, at times it's touching, and it is definitely romantic. (It also has a few bad words and some implied [but not shown] sex, for those who try to avoid movies that contain those elements.)

Only a few minutes into the movie, though, it became obvious that this script was intended for Adam Sandler. After The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, it's obvious to anyone with a brain that Sandler and Barrymore are a bankable romantic team. Not at the level of Hanks and Ryan, but they bring in the audience.

They were Adam Sandler lines and gags. Only at some point, someone (like Sandler, most likely) decided that someone else was going to have to play the Adam Sandler role.

Now, when an actor steps into a part written for somebody else, the results can be disastrous. For instance, John Cusack proved, in Bullets over Broadway, that even though he's a wonderful actor, there's no way he should ever play a part that was written by or for Woody Allen.

Jimmy Fallon, though, stepped into an Adam Sandler role and ...

And made it better. Made it real.

Now, I love 50 First Dates and I'm a Sandler fan. But when Sandler is out on the boat, crying because Barrymore's father gave him the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and it brought back home to him everything he had lost, he plays the crying for laughs. It isn't believable at all. It's clowning.

Because we love the character, we forgive Sandler the over-the-top "acting." He's grown as an actor over the years, but not enough to bring off weeping on camera, and he knows it.

Jimmy Fallon, on the other hand, steadily underplays the gags. We don't laugh as much as we would have with Sandler in the lead -- but we do laugh, and we believe it more. Fallon's earnestness and understatement are quite marvelous to watch, because what he does is very hard to bring off.

And when it comes to onscreen tears, after Barrymore has shut the door in his face, Fallon's tears are absolutely believable. The scene is real in a way Sandler has never even attempted.

It takes nothing away from Sandler's gifts as a comic actor to say that Fallon is almost as funny, and a way better actor. There's room in the world for both of them.

Jimmy Fallon is a prize, folks. He may well be the best actor among all the Saturday Night Live graduates. Many gifted sketch comics from the show never made it as actors, for the obvious reason that they couldn't act: Dana Carvey comes to mind as Exhibit A, but he's not alone.

And even those who had giant careers after SNL -- Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Adam Sandler -- never attempted a role that demanded anything like the full range of acting skills. They were smart enough to know their limitations.

Fallon is poised to be cast in the type of role that Chevy Chase did during that brief era when he was a wonderful comic actor -- basically, from the beginning to the end of Seems Like Old Times.

It's that wonderful comic territory that had Cary Grant on the suave side and Jimmy Stewart on the boy-next-door side. I think Fallon can be -- with the right scripts -- one of the great, beloved comic actors of our time. A potential successor, if I may dare to say it, to Tom Hanks.

No way is Fallon ready for Castaway. But he is certainly ready for Splash and has already moved beyond Bachelor Party.

Of course, this is Hollywood we're talking about, so it's quite possible Fallon will be completely wasted in B comedies or some lame TV series.

Meanwhile, though, we have Fever Pitch, a wonderful comedy that is better than we had any right to expect.

*

I was on a ComAir flight from New Haven to Cincinnati (that's how you get home to Greensboro from Yale if you want Delta frequent flier miles), and one of the treats they offered was honey roasted peanuts.

I'd never seen that exact package on a Delta flight before, though it may be because I've been ignoring the in-flight treats for the past few months. Partly because they had discontinued that really delicious Delta snack mix. And partly because of my futile new do-I-really-want-to-be-this-fat? program otherwise known as a "diet."

Who am I kidding? I love the Biscoff cookies (www.Biscoff.com), and the Snyder's of Hanover pretzels are fine, though indistinguishable from other brands. What I couldn't resist was peanuts on airplanes.

They stopped dispensing peanuts years ago; I heard it was because of people with peanut allergies who couldn't stand even to be within two rows of an open peanut bag.

But the fact remains that to me, peanuts and air travel are linked together in an indelible, nostalgic way. Like Necco wafers and going to the movies, even though I don't know of a movie theater in the world that has offered them in forty years.

So I gave them a try. And they were terrific.

Now, one man's "terrific" is another man's "boring," so let me explain what I look for in a honey-roasted nut.

First of all, I don't want it to be too sweet. That's a problem with packaged snack foods in America -- apparently they all do taste-testing, and in taste tests, sweet always wins. Because "sweet" is a great first impression.

But you can't live with sweet if it's too relentless, too overwhelming.

That's why "New Coke" failed. The Coca-Cola people spent millions of dollars trying to improve the Coca-Cola flavor in order to beat back the Pepsi challenge (or maybe just take over the world), and in doing so, they used taste tests.

You know: Here, try this, now try this, now which one do you like better?

The sweeter one will always stand out from the less sweet one. So you'll get a lot more this-ones on the sweeter product.

But when you're actually drinking it, for real, sweet isn't that big a deal. Oh, sure, for nine-year-olds. But the older you get, the more you want other things mixed in. Sweetness isn't everything. After a while, too much sweetness is next door to nothing. Later, it becomes downright annoying.

So the slight bitterness and sourness mixed in with the original Coke was what we actually liked, and so we voted with our dollars and New Coke flopped big time.

See, the people at Coca-Cola were so cynical that they thought it was all about marketing and promotion and rapacious, destructive competitive practices ... and taste testing. They forgot about long-term consumption and deep branding and customer loyalty. Their whole company depends on those things, but they forgot about them. They got seduced by the things they say to each other at company meeting. They started to believe their own corporate reports. (Government departments suffer from the same syndrome, so it's not a problem with capitalism, it's a problem with entrenched bureaucracies.)

So when I try honey-roasted peanuts, I do not want them to be violently sweet. I want it to be subtle. To be mostly peanut.

Until now, the best honey-roasted peanuts I'd ever had were the ones that were in the Pepperidge Farm snack mix -- which has apparently been discontinued, since it's been several years since I last saw it on store shelves anywhere.

(Pepperidge Farms has a way of starting wonderful products and then dropping them. Like those delicately flavored pencil-thin breadsticks they briefly made. I was completely addicted; so naturally they disappeared.)

That snack mix had as part of it the most perfect honey-roasted peanut. The glazing was so subtle you couldn't even see it -- they just looked like peanuts. Any mouthful of the snack mix that contained one of those peanuts was wonderful.

They spoiled me for any other brand. Just not interested. All too overglazed, too sweet; not peanutty enough.

So I opened the peanuts they gave me on my ComAir flight, and ... they were the real thing.

Now, maybe I liked them so much because I hadn't had breakfast or lunch and it was nearly two p.m. That might have made me more lenient.

So I did the obvious thing. I begged more from the flight attendant. I ended up eating eight packages. The packages are only ounce each, that was a mere quarter pound I ate. Enough to know if the taste was going to pall.

It didn't. My mouth is still tasting of peanuts and not of sweetness, which means they got it right, and I want more. So I will be ordering them online: Honey-roasted Kings Delicious Nuts, from King Nut Company, http://www.kingnut.com.

*

I find it sickening that Eight of Swords is David Skibbins's first novel. How can he have such mastery of idiomatic English? How can he so engagingly present a quirky point of view while still maintaining a gripping mystery-thriller?

The situation: The narrator, 50-something Warren Ritter, does tarot readings on the streets of Berkeley, California. He doesn't really believe in tarot, knowing that it's usually a harmless scam; only sometimes the cards seem to be warning him of something, and when a teenager's reading brings up imprisonment and coming death, he's worried.

He's even more worried when she gets kidnapped.

Here's the thing. Not only is he a little bit implicated -- he was one of the last to see her -- but also he can't afford to be questioned too closely by the police. Because, you see, he's a fugitive. A radical from the 1960s, he has been in hiding both from cops and from some really nasty underworld figures ... for thirty years.

So it's all personal -- especially when a family member sees him and despite his Mexican plastic surgery recognizes him. And believe me, I have only touched on the surface of a story that moves fast and deep.

This is one of the best mysteries I've read in years. Don't be put off by the fact that it's a contest winner in a "best first traditional mystery" contest. This one is "traditional" only if you think the tradition includes strong characterization and bone-chilling action. This guy is way more like Dennis Lehane than Agatha Christie!

I think it won that contest because, having read the book, they couldn't stand to give the award to anyone else, even though it shouldn't even have been entered.

And for those of you who are writers and can't stand the thought of somebody's first novel being this good, all I can say is: You're right. Your first novel isn't this good. But mine wasn't either. So live with it.

*

New Haven, Connecticut, exists only to provide a pleasant setting for Yale University. And it's very good at its job.

Oh, there must be other industries that provide employment in the area -- after all, there is a fairly active railyard, and I know they're not delivering all those Yalies (or, to crossword buffs, "Elis") by train.

But the importance of Yale becomes obvious when you realize that there is no actual downtown, only a narrow strip of shops and restaurants surrounding the campus.

That's OK, though, because the campus provides the perfect setting for a viable downtown: Thousands of pedestrians who live right there.

And because it's Yale, and therefore Ivy League, and therefore really expensive to attend, both the professors and the students tend to have way more money than the average college.

So while there is no shortage of the normal campus dive restaurants and cheapola convenience stores, there are also some amazingly good restaurants and interesting boutiquesque shops and galleries. Not a lot of them. Not enough to make it a special point to go to New Haven. But enough that if you happen to be there for a meeting in their downtown conference center, it's worth getting out onto the street to get something to eat or just look around at one of the loveliest college towns anywhere.

Yale has extraordinarily beautiful architecture (the old part of campus, anyway, beats Harvard all hollow) so there's plenty to look at and enjoy as you walk.

They also have a couple of pizza places that are so good they get a 26 Zagat rating.

In fact, when I first saw online that among Zagat's top five restaurants in New Haven, two of them were pizza joints, I immediately thought, Well, apparently Yale students have found a way to scam Zagat, the way they always tried to scam Ann Landers with fake letters. They got a couple of pizza dives rated among the finest restaurants in the city -- with a number that usually means it's one of the top five hundred restaurants in the world.

But that didn't mean I couldn't trust the other ratings. One of the best was Ibiza, but I wasn't in the mood for Spanish cuisine, so I opted for the Union League Café, a French bistro at 1032 Chapel, just across the street from campus and only three blocks from my hotel.

When I spoke to the maitre'd, I mentioned that I was there because of the Zagat rating. "But of course, what does that mean, when two pizza places are rated just as highly."

"But they deserve it," he said. "They have the best pizza in the world. People fly here just to have some."

This from the maitre d' of a rival restaurant. How can you not believe it?

However, it would have been churlish of me to turn right around and walk out, so I could go see if any pizza could possibly rate a Zagat 26.

I'm glad I stayed, because the Union League Café was truly wonderful. Perfect presentation of perfect food with perfect service -- I couldn't think of anything to complain about.

They offer a separate cheese menu, and instead of waiting for a cheese course just before dessert, you can order it any time. I chose an Italian, and Spanish, and a local Connecticut cheese and they were marvelous. Nothing designed to impress your friends with your ability to eat a cheese that smells like a dirty foot -- these were all delicately flavored and fairly dry. But they were presented with warm dry toast, a bit of fruit and a few nuts, and I loved every bit of every cheese.

My spinach, blue cheese, and roasted pear salad was exquisite (they usually put walnuts on it, but were happy to leave them off at my request). Likewise, all the surrounding foods from a shrimp dish sounded great to me, but I really don't enjoy hot shrimp, and so I asked if I could substitute the swordfish from elsewhere on the menu but have all the shrimp accoutrements. The answer? Of course!

That's how I separate a real restaurant from a pretentious phony. If the chef refuses to make alterations to suit the taste or dietary needs of a customer, then one of two things is going on. Either the restaurant is buying its entrees prepackaged and frozen from a restaurant supply house, so they can't make changes, or the chef is the kind of pretentious jerk who forgets that while he may be an artist, this is an art that people take into their bodies. So the customer should always get what he asks for, even if it's not exactly what the chef himself would prefer.

If I'm ever in New Haven again (yeah, right, like Yale is going to have me come and speak -- on international relations, maybe -- you think there's a chance of it?), I'll be back at the Union League Café. And since those pizza places are rumored not to be open for lunch (I heard the bellman tell a couple of people that), I guess I'll only be able to sample Zagat 26 pizza if I'm going to be in New Haven for a second night.


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