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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 2, 2006

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


Ice Age, Loop, Bleak House, Rules, Dangerous Lady

Ice Age: The Meltdown is, I think, better than the original. And not just because they give us more of the hilariously futile sabertooth squirrel struggling to get that ever-elusive acorn -- though one of the best things about the film is that they use mini-squirrel-and-nut cartoons as transitions.

This time around, there are no human characters, and I think that's an improvement. Instead, we concentrate on the journey of our (apparently ten-thousand-year-old) heroes as they try to get out of an ice-bound valley before the glaciers burst open and drown them in a deluge of long-dammed-up water.

Never mind that the science in this movie is absurd. It's no more absurd than your average Road Runner cartoon. What makes it work is the splendid voice work, the great animation -- and the storyline about why and how people (well, ur-people) stay together as good, loyal friends, forming a community even when they don't actually like each other all that much. That and the fact that there is so much inspired silliness. Especially the dung beetles.

Ray Romano, Denis Leary, and John Leguizamo are splendid in their continuing roles. Queen Latifah is wonderful in the new role of the girl mammoth who thinks she's a possum, and Seann William Scott and Josh Peck are absolutely inspired as her bratty "brother" possums.

Not as if the movie needs my rave review. It practically made back its whole budget on the opening weekend alone. We were waiting for this movie like water after a long drought -- or sunlight after a long cold winter.

Just so you don't waste time sitting through all the credits: There is no cute "easter egg" at the end. Once the movie is over, it's over, and you can leave the theater without fear of missing anything.

I know this because we stayed through every moment of the credits. It wasn't boring though, because my daughter and I, standing over at the side of the theater, got a great view of a teenage couple practicing their kissing until they finally realized they had an audience and rushed from the theater. (I thought it was sweet that anybody today is still shy about being observed.)

*

I reviewed the pizza-and-burger restaurant The Loop right after it opened in the shopping center at the corner of North Elm and Pisgah Church, but soon afterward, the quality plummeted and we stopped going, disappointed because we really wanted a good restaurant within walking distance of our home.

So we were thrilled to learn that Panera is opening -- has opened, by the time you read this -- a restaurant in the new development that has just been added on near the same corner.

The other day, as we walked among the shops that are starting to open in the new center, we walked into a store called Rolly's, is a delightful little baby boutique where we found some irresistible Easter gifts for our new grandbaby. (Well, newish; how long does a baby technically remain "new"?)

As we chatted with the very personable clerk, she told us that The Loop was under new management. Apparently the folks who made a great success of The Loop in Winston-Salem have bought out the previous owners and were appalled (as I was) when they tasted the food in our local store.

Well, they've made some changes, and The Loop is now better than it ever was. We've gone back a couple of times and found that everything we order is delicious. It's an order-and-pick-up-when-your-number-is-called restaurant, but they keep a couple of employees in the dining room all the time, helping people with questions, bringing extras, and cleaning up immediately when somebody leaves a table. The experience is very good, and if you gave up on this place, let me assure you that it's worth returning.

*

We kept hearing from friends about the BBC miniseries of Charles Dickens's Bleak House. Since we're working through all the BBC adaptations of Dickens's novels, we were delighted to get the DVD recently.

My wife and I were not disappointed. Though we had known little more about the storyline than its basic premise, we soon found ourselves caught up in a compelling story of people trapped in various prisons, mostly of their own making.

Gillian Anderson, of X-Files fame, is imperiously beautiful and moving in the role of a woman who married into the nobility, but can lose it all if it is discovered that she had a child out of wedlock.

Meanwhile, the young cousins Ada and Richard (played by Carey Mulligan and Patrick Kennedy), whose fortune is held hostage to the decades-old legal case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce are so lovely and likeable that your heart breaks for them. But your heart is absolutely stolen by Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, the orphan who is hired to be Ada's companion.

This story is rich with good people -- and bad ones. I loved and admired the generous John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson) -- and I believed in him, because I've known people who are just as open-hearted and open-handed. Pauline Collins is charming as Miss Flite, who keeps birds as she waits for a verdict in her own case. And Hugo Speer is wonderful as the tormented ex-soldier Sergeant George.

But this is a Dickens novel, so it's the wicked ones who are most fascinating, in a train-wreck kind of way. Nathaniel Parker is brilliant as Harold Skimpole, creepy and loathsome parasite who pretends to be guileless even as he manipulates everyone to let him live as if he were wealthy without ever having to do anything to earn it. Phil Davis is so repulsive as the crippled, greedy lawyer Smallweed, who treats everyone as his slave or his enemy. Timothy West manages to handle the moral complexity of the snobbish baronet Sir Leicester (pronounced Lestah) Dedlock, whose wife never understood that he was secretly tolerant and liberal-minded despite his outward bigotry and impatience.

But the film is utterly stolen by Charles Dance as Mr. Tulkinghorn, the Dedlocks' lawyer, who might think he adheres to his own twisted set of ethics -- loyalty to the interests of his employer -- but in fact simply loves controlling and manipulating other people and making them squirm. We've seen Dance before, in Gosford Park, Last Action Hero, Alien3, and For Your Eyes Only, but always in parts that rather fade into the background compared to this soul-grabbing villain.

The only trouble with this miniseries is that somebody decided that they needed to have a "concept" for the shooting of the film. This is always a sad thing, because what's really going on is that the director is jealous of the actors and is grimly determined to take away the audience's attention and focus it on his own cleverness.

The concept that directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White settled on was "claustrophobia." As a result, we had to put up with endless shots that were so close to the actors that we could barely tell who they were. Over and over again, we had to see whole scenes through a crack in a door or at the end of a narrow corridor, till I wanted to scream at the director to stop showing off and show us the story.

The pathetic thing is that in the world of filmmaking, the director who thought of this selfish maneuver will be credited with "artistry." It's not artistry to show off -- and it hurts the movie. This is a film that our 12-year-old would have enjoyed -- but the camera work in the first episode was so jumpy and distracting that she couldn't follow what was going on, and fell asleep. She was driven out of a great story, well scripted and unforgettably performed, by the absurdity of a director thinking he or she was the star.

Charles Dickens's characters are and always should be the stars of any film based on his work. Any director who forgets that, as these did, is, artistically, a dolt.

*

Steven Pinker, the author of The Language Instinct, got briefly sidetracked by writing a book about the functioning of the human brain that was more filled with enthusiasm than solid content. But that's hardly a surprise -- brain chemistry is not Pinker's field, it's more like a new revelation that offers explanations for problems he's been wrestling with in his own field, which happens to be the evolution of language.

Words and Rules is Pinker's new book, and in it he's on familiar territory. Indeed, in some ways this book is Pinker's polemic in favor of his side in a debate on the way language is learned and how it functions inside the human brain.

One camp says that when we learn language, we do it by learning word after word; Pinker's camp says that we quickly learn rules and then apply them in all cases, making new words and sentences as needed -- only the exceptions have to be memorized.

The prime examples are the rules for forming past tense verbs in English -- you add either d, ed, or t, depending on the sound at the end of the root -- and the rules for forming plurals -- you add an s or z sound.

These two rules have only a relative handful of exceptions -- but in the case of the verbs, anyway, the exceptions include some of the most-used verbs in the language, so that the exceptions actually occupy a large portion of our utterances.

When children first learn a handful of words, the past and plural are learned one at a time, with no distinction between regular and irregular forms. But then the child's rule-favoring instinct kicks in, and suddenly it's all ed and s. Children who had previously used the irregular forms without difficulty start making mistakes: "I goed" instead of "I went," or "mans" instead of "men." The reason, Pinker reasons, is that once we learn the rule, then we only have to store the roots of words in our memory, and then we massage them according to the rules when we actually use them. However, when a word is irregular, then our brain has to interrupt our rule-use instinct before we utter the regular, but incorrect, form, and with young children, it can take some time before the irregulars start interrupting the rule-use in time.

That's why children who know perfectly well that the plural of child is children will nevertheless say "childs" or, when the rule and the exception are combined, "childrens." And it's not just children who do it -- even adults, at odd moments now and then, will have a brain lapse and the regular form will pop out of our mouths. It doesn't mean we're forgetting the verbs, it just means that the irregular verb stored in memory didn't surface in time to stop us from using the rule.

Thus our language consists mostly of roots and rules; we literally grow our words on the fly as we're using them.

This book is also a fine example of scientific thinking, as Pinker and his associates try to think of every possible objection to their own theory and then design an experiment designed to prove their own theory wrong. In every case, the results either failed to disprove their model of speech formation or led them to refinements that made their case even stronger.

It's how real science works.

Now, I'm a complete nut about language -- I love it. But not everybody is into grammars and etymologies, and I must warn you that while Pinker is an excellent writer who tries to avoid jargon, you may run into mots de guerre that are meaningless to you. Just glide over them. You'll still get the gist of what Pinker is saying. Believe me, when you really study languages, root and branch, you start learning words and distinctions that would make the average high school English student cry. Pinker never takes you there. He aims for precision of meaning, but not at the expense of clarity for the lay reader.

*

I picked up the CD of Jane Stanton Hitchcock's novel One Dangerous Lady on a whim. I'd never heard of her, and all I had to go on was a cover blurb about murder among the ultra-rich in New York. You know, the kind of people who would sneer at Sen. John Kerry as a jumped-up nobody who only married money.

The first chapter was devoted to the details of the unusually opulent and dull events surrounding a wedding, and when one of the characters started needlessly using the F word, apparently for amusement value, I began to think of taking the CD out of the player in my car and going back to listening to Anna Karenina. I only stuck with it out of inertia -- plus the fact that the reader, Barbara Rosenblat, was absolutely brilliant.

Then something happened. Literally: In the story, something actually happened, and I began to care. Within three chapters, there were lots of characters I really liked, and both the protagonist and antagonist were complex and fascinating characters that I wanted to spend more time with.

By the end, I had had the pleasure of several hours spent in the company of a masterful storyteller, not to mention getting a close view of a stratum of society that I have never aspired to experience personally. (If I had that kind of money, I could think of a lot better things to do with it than go to a lot of parties with rich people trying to impress each other.) Most important, the mystery is clever and takes many a twist and turn that I, at least, did not expect.

So I went back and picked up Hitchcock's earlier novels, Trick of the Eye and Social Crimes: A Novel. Unfortunately, Social Crimes is a direct prequel to One Dangerous Lady, so that I already knew how things got resolved at the end, which spoiled it just a little. Trick of the Eye, however, is not a prequel and, indeed, is only barely a mystery novel. That is, there was a murder and we do find out about it, but what really matters is what happens between the narrator, who is a trompe-l'oeil artist doing the biggest commission of her life, and the very rich woman who hired her to do it. It's like a particularly frustrating replay of Michelangelo dealing with Pope Julius II while trying to paint the Sistine Chapel. Indeed, this novel will make you think Julius wasn't so bad a patron after all.

*

John Irving is one of the finest living American writers, despite -- or perhaps because of -- his playful showiness. The World According to Garp took the world by storm back in 1978, pleasing literary and popular audiences almost equally. And A Prayer for Owen Meany is beloved by many, in part because of its serious treatment of religion and spirituality.

But Irving is 64 years old now, and something unfortunate is happening to him. It's a well-known phenomenon that as they get older, writers become more like themselves -- that is, private obsessions and old demons get turned loose, as the fiction becomes the servant of the psyche to a sometimes alarming degree. The result is sometimes better fiction than ever, but usually it's quite awful. One thinks of the later Heinlein, whose novels became overly long, self-indulgent, dull, and sex-obsessed. (Those last two are not contradictory adjectives, at least for readers over age fifteen.)

Well, John Irving seems to be taking the same sad path. Until I Find You is the story of Jack Burns, who grows up to be a famous actor and is obsessed with the father who abandoned him before he was born. But I will never find out whether they ever meet, because a quarter of the way into the book, I realized: I don't care.

After spending many, many pages on Jack's and his mother's fruitless search across northern Europe when Jack was four, I realized that in all those pages I had learned almost nothing that was not explained in the first five pages. Jack's father was a talented organist who kept getting fired from jobs because he couldn't keep from sleeping with choirgirls. He was also a "collector" of tattoos, getting his body adorned with scraps of musical notation from classic organ works. Jack's mother is the daughter of a tattoo artist and is a very talented tattooist herself. She was also a choirgirl, which explains where Jack came from.

But we spend pages and pages in cities where nothing happens that is remotely interesting. Irving probably thinks that the tattoo artists he shows us are intriguing; or perhaps it's the adventures among the prostitutes of Amsterdam that he thinks will be fascinating. But Mr. Irving would be wrong about that.

Then Jack gets back to Nova Scotia and starts attending first grade in a girls' school that just opened its doors to boys, whereupon he is thrust into a sexually exploitative relationship with a teenage girl who, even for the early 1970s, is preternaturally oversexed. The whole thing reads like some thirteen-year-old boy's babysitter fantasy. And I finally got fed up and quit reading.

Irving, like Stephen King, seems to think that whatever he writes will be, by definition, clever and fascinating and wise. Instead, it's dull dull dull.

It is not helped by the writing, which can't make up its mind whether it's documentary or fiction. The narrator keeps saying things like, "Jack might have heard" or "they could have said," as if this were Jack's memoire. But it's fiction. Irving can simply tell us what Jack did or did not hear. Why the conditional tense? Is this was passes for artiness these days? How sad.

The only thing that got me emotionally involved in this book was my constant worry that maybe this will happen to my writing, too. Or maybe it already has. Fortunately, though, my readers are not worshipful. They'll tell me if I start writing mind-numbingly dull books about vaguely distasteful characters.

I must give Irving credit for this: He is not responsible for the wretched quality of Arthur Morey's reading of the book on CD. Somebody apparently told Morey that recorded books need to be read very, very slowly. So the narration is like listening to somebody trying to teach English to non-native speakers. The words are separated and the pace is glacial. Thus whatever sparkle and wit there might have been in Irving's narration and dialogue were relentlessly blotted out.

*

A few weeks ago I wrote about my annoyance with having to use the mouse to find the state abbreviation NC on those dropdown lists on website forms. Naturally, I heard from dozens of people telling me that you don't have to use the mouse. Just keep hitting N and the program will cycle through all the N-states until it reaches NC.

Some correspondents even suggested I must be some kind of idiot not to know this. But why would I? I have never seen any instruction to this effect on any website. And what I type to get "NC" is not "NNNNN" but, get this, "NC." And when you hit that C, you get the first entry in the C list. So I gave up and used the mouse. Why should it occur to me to keep hitting N?

Furthermore, my browser remembers information that I put into the various slots in those online forms, so that the only thing that isn't automatically filled in is the state abbreviation. The browser would happily fill in the state abbreviation, too -- except that there's a dropdown list, making it impossible. I shouldn't have to type anything at all.

The hilarious thing was when several programmers wrote to me about how hard it is to come up with code in one of the website languages that will parse state abbreviations.

Well, boo-hoo. The whole point of being a programmer is that you write code that makes the website clear, convenient, and intuitively interactive. You're supposed to do all the hard work, so that the user of the site doesn't have to do it. When I get into a taxi, I don't expect the driver to complain that it's hard to drive around all day, so it's my turn to drive.

And I do know enough about programming to know that it's not as hard as they claim. Just a simple test: Are the letters that were just typed on the list of two-letter state abbreviations? If not, then return a clear error message -- or even provide a dropdown list at that point. It might take a bit of scrambling and testing, but the programmer will have to do it once, while all the users of site have to put up with the dropdown list forever.

But I'm certainly grateful to know that now, in order to type NC into those forms, I don't have to use the mouse after all. I can just hit N seven times. How convenient! I type seven keystrokes every time I fill in my address, so that the programmers don't have to do anything hard.


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