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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 3, 2005

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


"Joke" Crossing Signal, Yoplait, War, Bewitched, Star Beast

Just one more entry in Greensboro City's war on pedestrians. There's a new traffic light at North Elm and Corporate Center. It has special left-turn signals for cars that need to get out onto Elm Street. Those work splendidly. No more hair-raising, tire-screeching attempts to go left on Elm during rush hour.

But you can stand at the brightly painted crosswalks and push the pedestrian button all day if you want, and nothing happens at all. The light on Elm doesn't turn red. The little red hand never turns to a white picture of a pedestrian crossing the street.

It's a practical joke, to see how long you'll wait in the futile effort to cross the street legally.

But that's all right. If you're already on the west side of Elm, you don't really want to cross the street. Because if you walk north to Pisgah Church, they still don't have a crosswalk on the east side of the intersection. No pedestrian crossing lights, either.

I see people jaywalking across Pisgah Church almost every day, the way they have to do to cross Elm anywhere between there and Cone Blvd. -- because our traffic planners, in their ongoing effort to wipe out pedestrian traffic in our fair city, provide no legal place for pedestrians to cross the street.

Besides, if you're more than four and a half feet tall, you can't walk up the sidewalk on the east side of Elm, anyway. Low-hanging branches and evergreen boughs block the sidewalk, forcing tall people either to crawl or step out into traffic.

On your knees, pedestrians! You have nothing to lose but your lives!

*

I've been watching as the space for Yoplait drinkable yogurt shrank to the point of disappearing.

And now it's gone entirely -- replaced by the new Yoplait fruit smoothie in a container about half the size.

OK, thought I. They've gotten rid of fruit chunks and packaged it in a smaller (and therefore lower-calorie) size! All right!

So I bought a whole bunch and brought them home and ...

And yech! [That's a Hebrew ch sound, for those who wish to be precise.]

The regular and light flavors have been so over-sweetened that you can't even taste the fruit or the yogurt. It doesn't matter what flavor you buy, it all tastes like some nasty sugary children's snack.

Except the "light" version, which tastes like aspertame.

They must have done a taste test, and, as usual, the sweetest product "won" even though nobody over age ten could stand to drink two of them.

So the best fruit-yogurt drink ever is now history, because somebody decided to create a "new, improved" version of something that was perfect. With nowhere to go but down, that's where it went.

After sampling several of them, I threw the rest away.

*

Yes, War of the Worlds has its utterly dishonest Spielberg moments and its cheat of an ending, just like all other Spielberg films except Jaws and Empire of the Sun.

Yes, it was full of absurdities like roads full of debris that just happen to have one drivable lane, and an airplane that crashes and crushes everything except the hero's van.

And yes, it even shows signs of borrowing some of its best original elements from other stories -- the story may be based on the story by H.G. Wells, but if life were fair there are a lot of sci-fi writers (not me) who should be getting a piece of this movie.

The movie features the most patient yet ill-prepared aliens in the history of science fiction. They can hide their attack craft underground for a million years, but never once think of protecting themselves from microbes.

So ... turn off logic. Turn off integrity. Sign on for a wonderful ride.

Because the writing is quite good. Writers Josh Friedman (unknown, and therefore probably the writer of the first draft) and David Koepp (credited for everything from Spider-Man to Mission Impossible to Jurassic Park) have found a credible and sometimes moving personal story to set against the grand events of aliens taking over the world.

Tom Cruise is the blue-collar dad of two kids who are far more impressed with their well-to-do stepdad. It happens that their controlling and contemptuous mother drops them off with Cruise for the very weekend that the aliens have scheduled their invasion -- calendars don't come with enough information, in my opinion -- and he is forced to earn their respect, if he can, by how he handles the emergency.

Cruise is a good actor, and he handles the panic and shock very well. The kids, too, are played by splendid actors -- Dakota Fanning screams well, of course, but she also shows more subtle emotions superbly; and Justin Chatwin, in his first major film role, shows real sullen-young-star potential.

Cruise and the kids are the only actors who get more than five minutes of screen time, except for Tim Robbins as a delightful wacko ambulance driver who happens to have a hideout and a plan for dealing with the aliens.

The real story, though, is the breakdown of civilization under stress -- but the lingering drive of human community, as people even in terrible circumstances can still sometimes find compassion and courage and the strength to work together even when there's no hope of success.

That's why this movie transcends the Spielbergian phoniness of the storyline and the surprisingly inept set decoration. We recognize some important truths about who we are as humans.

And let's give Spielberg some credit here: When we see a dying alien at the end, it's about as different from the sweet little angel aliens in E.T. as we're likely to find. The puppetry of malice ...

It's way better than Independence Day. Even if Spielberg can't resist the temptation to lie to us, and can't believe we have the courage to deal with real loss in our fictional stories.

*

I'm not much of a Nicole Kidman fan, and I actively dislike everything I've ever seen Will Ferrell do in film. I would have paid fifty bucks and let someone shave my head rather than be forced to see Elf.

But I was excited to see Bewitched. Why? Because it had a great trailer. I loved the premise -- they're doing a remake of the TV series Bewitched and the woman they hire to play Samantha happens to be a real witch.

Besides, Nora Ephron was writing the screenplay and directing, and even if I didn't love Michael, she was the guiding light behind You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally and that's reason enough to have high hopes for a movie.

The good news is, it worked pretty well. It's genuinely funny -- and clever -- and if we didn't get the same kind of emotional payoff we got from Mail and Seattle, well, not every comedy has to go there.

Will Ferrell is still a bad actor and an unfunny comedian, but in this movie, those were exactly the traits the character was supposed to have. And Ephron must be given credit for toning him down and keeping him from continuously mugging for the camera. He wasn't good, but he didn't trigger my gag reflex, which he usually does within thirty seconds of appearing on camera.

Nicole Kidman was the warmest I've ever seen her in a movie (usually she competes with Annette Bening for "coldest working actress"); she is a credible Ephron star, and I hope Ephron gets to write for Kidman again, and soon. Who ever knew Kidman could be funny and likeable?

The smaller roles are delightfully played by Michael Caine (as Kidman's father), Shirley MacLaine (as Endora), and Kristin Chenoweth (as the neighbor who becomes Samantha's entourage).

Alas, Ephron made the sad and foolish mistake of trying to keep the Uncle Arthur character originated by Paul Lind. People think they can imitate Paul Lind, but they're wrong, they can't. They can do his voice, but they can't get the deep hunger for love bordering on panic that always underlay his brittle sarcasm.

But those awkward moments are brief and pass quickly. This is not a great comedy, but it's a good one, and well worth twenty bucks and a couple of hours for a delightful evening's entertainment.

*

Star Beast is one of the early science fiction novels of Robert A. Heinlein. This is the writer who taught us all how to handle sci-fi exposition, letting the strangeness of the world bleed into it gradually, so that the reader is never forced to stop and absorb a lecture's worth of information.

And Heinlein thought of practically everything. A lot of sci-fi writers have had whole careers treading where Heinlein already blazed the trail.

I grew up on Heinlein. His Citizen of the Galaxy was the kind of book that knocks a junior high kid back for a while, and when I recovered I got an even stronger dose from Tunnel in the Sky. I went on to Farnham's Freehold, The Door into Summer, Glory Road, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress before self-indulgence led Heinlein to write some truly awful and overlong books.

But, oddly enough, I never read some of the books considered to be Heinlein classics: Starman Jones, Starship Troopers, and Star Beast.

Until I found myself in an airport bookshop looking for something to use as light reading during a conference in England where I'd be cut off from all hope of a bookstore for a solid week, and there was Star Beast.

When I started reading it, I was not impressed. It felt like one of those archly written sci-fi books where the writer thinks he's funny but all he is is intrusive and irritating.

But something interesting happened. I realized that this kind of intrusive "comic" voice isn't irritating at all, when it's done well. It just never is. Except by Heinlein in Star Beast.  His satire of bureaucracy, of family life, of the base motive of practically everyone, and of 50s-era relations between men and women are dead on.

And the story itself is first rate science fiction. You think it's just going to be a cute boy-keeps-alien-as-awkward-pet novel, but it turns out to be full of wonderful and complicated misunderstandings between a couple of very dangerous species (one of them being us, and the other one not). And the real protagonist turns out to be neither the boy nor his pet, nor even the boy's much-smarter girlfriend.

It's recently been reissued in paperback, and for those who have run out of sci-fi books by me to read, I highly recommend this one, partly because it's a good work by one of the inventors of the science fiction genre as we know it, but mostly because it's a lot of fun and it doesn't make you stupider for having read it.


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