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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 28, 2005

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


Prison Break, Red Eye, Valiant, Lemonade, and Spelt

I first saw Wentworth Miller as Joan of Arcadia wrapped up its last season. They didn't know it was going to be their last season, so they set up a mysterious stranger, Ryan Hunter, who might or might not have been good or evil. But we were leaning toward evil.

Miller played that part. A man with an unforgettable face -- handsome, yet so deep that even in repose it looks as if he knows more about pain than anyone should. The question is whether it's his own pain, or someone else's.

That face won't be seen on Joan anymore, because CBS, in its finite wisdom, dropped a show with decent ratings because, apparently, it was bringing them the wrong demographic. Can't sell cars or records to families who watch shows about people who believe in God, apparently.

But Wentworth Miller has landed on his feet. I confidently predict that he is now appearing as the lead in his last television series.

Last, because after this, he will be in films. Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Burt Lancaster -- there is a short but proud list of true movie stars that got their start on the small screen.

The thing is, when Wentworth Miller is on the screen, it isn't small.

The show is Prison Break, and it debuted on Fox on Monday night. You missed it? It runs again on Thursday.

When I first heard the premise of the show, I laughed. Michael (played by Miller) robs a bank solely to get himself into the same prison where his brother Lincoln is on death row. He believes his brother is innocent, and he plans to get him out.

Right.

But the farther we got into the show, the more I bought into the premise. For one thing, Michael is a structural engineer and he worked in an office that, unbeknownst to anyone outside, had a complete set of blueprints of the prison.

And I'm not going to say another thing about the plot. Except that it's unbelievably intricate -- but the writers (Paul Scheuring and Nick Santora) and the director (Brett Ratner, who directed the Rush Hour movies and will direct X-Men 3) have done a good job of making it look both plausible and extremely difficult.

This is not a case where a guy makes a plan and everything works out.

At the same time, it's obvious that this is not a prison movie. It starts in prison, but it has the kind of franchisability that The Fugitive had. Because once they make it out of prison -- and it's reasonable to suppose they will, though who will make it through the process alive is anyone's guess -- they still have to clear Lincoln's name. And, for that matter, Michael's, since Lincoln might have been set up, but Michael definitely robbed that bank.

The supporting cast is amazing -- Stacy Keach plays the warden, for heaven's sake, and the prisoners we meet are fascinating, played by terrific actors.

But just as 24 is Kiefer Sutherland's show, Prison Break belongs to Wentworth Miller.

The Fox network was no doubt looking for something to create the same kind of fervor that 24 has aroused in its viewers -- and they have it here.

And, unlike Joan of Arcadia, the viewers will be the right demographic (young, hip, brandable). Plus me.

*

I like lemonade. Not the namby-pamby over-sugared kind of lemonade that makes you want to brush your teeth because your mouth feels like it's been candied. Real lemonade.

What I mean is: When a waiter tells me they don't have lemonade, I say: Do you have lemons? Then can you squeeze a couple of lemons into water and bring that to me? No sugar. None. Just lemons and water. Now that's good.

So keep that in mind: My preference is for tart, flavorful lemonades.

Let's face it. Like most soft drinks sold in cans or bottles or powders in America, lemonades are usually over sugared. And if you like that, then skip this section because I'm not going to steer you toward anything you'll like.

The other day I was providing refreshments during the intermission of a show. I had to be able to provide drinks for hundreds of people during three intermissions. And I was too lazy to buy a bunch of gallon jugs and find room for them in the fridge.

I also knew perfectly well that nobody else was going to like my idea of great lemonade.

So I bought a couple of bags of ice, some cheap-but-good Rubbermaid pitchers, and sugar-free Crystal Light powdered lemonade mix.

Unfortunately, the store didn't happen to have enough, and I didn't have time to go to another store. So I also bought some other Crystal Light flavors -- you know, lemonade plus berries of one kind or another -- and a couple of packages of other brands of powdered lemonade mix.

The clear winner: Crystal Light. People actually complimented me on it. Till they saw that I was just pouring the powder into the icewater and stirring it up.

Nobody complimented the other brands.

Crystal Light also makes tiny packets of lemonade (and other flavor) mixes that are designed to be mixed into a regular-size bottle of water -- the size you buy out of the fridge at the convenience store. You pour it in, shake it well, and voila -- a way better flavor than the nasty stuff they label "Vasa" or "Evian."

But don't try it with, say, a small bottle of Sprite, much as it might need the additional flavor. Because for obvious reasons, you really don't want to shake it up.

No, I didn't try it. I haven't shaken a bottle or can of carbonated beverage since I was in college and had a target in mind.

If you add Crystal Light to soda pop in a glass, make sure it's a big enough glass that you have room to stir the powder well. Because if you get a chunk of it unmixed, it's like eating Kool-Aid straight.

Yeah, I know, we all did that as kids. But we also ate that stuff that exploded in our mouths. We Baby Boomers don't run the world because we're smart, we run it because there are more of us than any other generation.

If you want your lemonade premixed, and you like it on the tart side, and with almost no calories, try Tropicana's Diet Lemonade. No carbonation, and it's delicious. Not too sweet -- though not as sour as my lemons-in-a glass recipe.

The real surprise for me this summer came at the beach. Apparently the Outer Banks were part of a test marketing of Dasani water with added flavors. I tried it with trepidation -- I'd had some flavored waters before, and except for the carbonated San Pellegrino Limonata and Aranciata waters, I hadn't found any that I liked. And the San Pellegrinos are loaded with calories.

Dasani's lemon-flavored water is a little weaker than lemonade. So it doesn't fill your mouth with flavor, it still drinks like water. You can chug it down if you're really thirsty. But ... it's delicious.

I thought it was in national release, so I expected to find it on the shelves in Greensboro grocery stores. Instead -- nada. Now, maybe that's part of the Greensboro grocery-store conspiracy to remove from the shelves anything I like a lot. But I suspect Coca-Cola is test-marketing it before a national release.

I hope it passes the test. Unfortunately, I'm not optimistic. Because soft-drink companies tend to go for whatever tastes sweetest, instead of the products you can actually stand to drink day after day, year after year.

*

Speaking of products I loved that disappeared from local grocery-store shelves: I found a store in Greensboro that stocks the Yoplait Light Key Lime yogurt that I used to buy at Harris-Teeter, till they realized that it was the flavor that always sold out first in our local store, and therefore discontinued stocking it.

Target.

Yep, that's right. I'm now going to be buying a healthy supply of my favorite yogurt flavor at Target. Until they realize I'm getting way too happy and stop carrying it, too.

The world just works that way. It revolves around me. Kind of like a whirlpool in the drain I'm going down ...

*

Red Eye is a kind of movie I usually don't go to with a lot of hope: a thriller.

Why? Because most thrillers are so jacked up by film school dogmas that believability is tossed out the window. So you wait for the stakes to be artificially raised to the point of absurdity; for the car chases to try for something we haven't seen before (is there anything left?); for the villain to be ever more comically evil and dangerous.

And this one's directed by Wes Craven. Come on, what was I supposed to think? I expected it to be icky, gory, and carried to the point of wretched excess.

Well, there are in fact a couple of icky moments. But they are well earned by an extraordinarily intelligent script. Who knew that a former writer for Animorphs, Carl Ellsworth, had such a screenplay in him?

The setup leads you to expect another hijacked-airplane movie, another find-the-bomb-in-the-big-plane-before-it-lands extravaganza. We watch the other passengers board and we think: Little girl -- somebody will hold a knife to her throat. Two teenage boys -- they're gonna do something really brave. Snotty flight attendant -- well, she's gonna die. And the obnoxious guy who's in such a hurry in the ticket line -- he's gonna be the one who won't shut up and the terrorists blow him away.

No. Wrong. It's far, far quieter than that. In fact, almost no one on the plane has the slightest idea that anything is going on until after it lands and the seatbelt chime goes ding. (Though the script uses every single character that is featured -- just not in the way you might expect.)

It's a film about a personal moral dilemma of the first order: Who do you save, the person you love most in all the world, or the person who might save America from its enemies? Do you go along in hopes that it will all turn out right, or do you take bold, dangerous action that might get you killed?

Those questions are answered in unpredictable, intelligent, believable ways.

Because above all, the script gave some terrific actors a chance to create fascinating, believable characters.

Rachel McAdams, a survivor of Hot Chicks and Mean Girls and one of the best things about Wedding Crashers, holds firm as the center of reality in this film. We absolutely believe every moment of her performance.

And Cillian Murphy, blessed -- or cursed? -- with the creepiest eyes I've ever seen on the screen, while still being a good-looking guy and a terrific actor -- seems to have specialized in playing roles in movies I wouldn't go see for a million bucks, until he turned up in Batman Begins, where he stole every scene he was in.

And now -- well, what a match!

*

I wanted the animated movie Valiant to be good. And it should have been. The animation is terrific, the gags are funny, if you list all the "elements" it has them. Promotable as "by the makers of Shrek." A slam dunk.

Except that along the way, nobody took the time to notice that the story was so deeply wrong that there was no hope of ever saving it.

And here's why it was wrong:

The idea is to humanize the homing pigeons used to carry messages from the French resistance to England in World War II. You drop the pigeons by parachute, the resistance gets them, puts messages in the little tubes on their backs, and releases them to fly home.

The most dangerous enemy in this process isn't the Nazis, it's falcons.

So ... get this, this is such a good idea! ... we have the falcons be Nazis, with their own bunker right on the coast of France, and their job is to intercept pigeons and ...

Wait, now, what do falcons do? Um, they eat the pigeons.

Ick. OK, that's not a good ending for the movie. So ... let's have the falcons interrogate the pigeons they capture in order to find out where they're getting their messages from.

And let's have the torture be funny! Records of yodeling music! Ha ha ha! And when they give truth serum to one of the pigeons, he tells them everything, talking on and on and on -- everything except the one thing they need to know. Oh, this is funny already.

They forgot one tiny thing: World War II really happened. Nazis really tortured people. It wasn't funny.

Shrek worked because there are no ogres, or enchanted princesses, or talking donkeys. (Well, usually.) It was fantasy. So, for that matter, was Toy Story. And where good animated films touch on reality, it's ok if it's long ago and far away, as with Ice Age.

But World War II -- there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers still alive who fought in that war, and millions who remember it well. People who still miss those who died in that war.

It was the central event of the twentieth century, a confrontation between good and evil. Not the fantasy version of either, the real thing.

It's fine to imagine making the pigeons into a parody of human soldiers. But they never picked a balance point. Let's have the pigeons go through basic training and do pushups using their wings!

Only ... nobody thought of a single thing that doing pushups might be for. It served no purpose except to have the sight gag of pigeons doing pushups.

It might have been funny, if they were real pigeons. But they were animated pigeons. So unless it meant something in the movie, it was a waste of screen time.

There's so much wasted screen time that I found myself dozing off. Nothing mattered. Nothing was believable enough to lead the audience to care about anybody. The only people who would care about parodies of military life were people who knew something about military life -- and those people would be put off by the sheer stupidity of everything that happened.

Culminating in the big twist ending -- which I'm going to tell you, so skip this paragraph if you have the remotest hope of seeing the movie and caring one whit about anything in it -- in which the message they carry leads Churchill to change the destination of the June 6th fleet that had already sailed for the Picardy coast.

Was that supposed to be funny?

It just made me sad. World War II mattered. The Allies saved much of humanity from the hell of Hitler's rule. Funny movies can be made about it, even satirical ones. But only if they show decent respect for what was actually accomplished and what it actually cost. Mr. Roberts did; Catch-22 did.

Valiant didn't even try.

There's funny stuff in it. These are good animators. They simply have no idea what a story is ... or how story works in comedy. They also showed no respect for things that really matter. Shame.

*

On Monday I stopped by Great Harvest Bread Company because I was hungry. I had run four miles that morning, after bicycling and doing a complete upper body workout the day before. (It doesn't look like it to casual onlookers, but underneath the newsboy's-worth of extra poundage I carry around, I'm buff.)

They had wheat rolls, and so I asked for some. The clerk told me that they weren't wheat. "They're spelt," he said.

I wanted to retort that all the words on all the signs were spelt, and most of them correctly. But I had the feeling that "spelt" in this context was not a Brit-sounding past participle.

They make spelt bread once a week (presumably Monday) for their customers who can't eat regular wheat.

Since spelt is a variety of wheat -- it's called a "forerunner" of modern wheat -- I'm not sure how safe it is for people with powerful wheat allergies. The word from on high -- er, I mean, online -- is: "It is high in gluten but can be tolerated by some gluten intolerant individuals. Allergy sufferers should introduce Spelt gradually into their diets under medical or dietetic supervision." (From the website of Doves Farm Organic.)

What I do know is that it's delicious. I mean, over-the-top delicious. Whether it's always good I can't say; but when Great Harvest makes spelt bread, it's great. I'll be back for more.


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