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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ½ 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.