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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 4, 2006

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


Missed Flight, MirrorMask, Ruth Reichl, Wallets, and Marsden Movies

After all the complaints I've made about airlines, I have to point out when they do it right.

We were flying to Salt Lake City on Delta last Thursday evening. All day it had been threatening to rain, but of course it only started in earnest when we were at the airport. We watched as the storm got more and more violent -- rain falling in sheets, powerful lightning and thunder.

Naturally, they did not allow the employees who service the aircraft to send the ramp out, so the passengers on the incoming flight got to sit there on the runway for nearly an hour before they could come up to the gate and debark.

This also meant we'd be late getting away from Greensboro, but we were complacent because Delta was reporting that our Salt Lake flight was going to be delayed by half an hour going out of Atlanta.

Unfortunately, that information changed, and the flight left nearly on time. When we debarked in Atlanta, the last flight to Salt Lake was gone.

So we hiked to the service counter in the middle of the terminal and found three employees at a desk, hard at work dealing with people's rescheduling needs. But there was another employee greeting people who approached the line, showing us how to use the computerized self-help system.

Sure enough, we had already been rescheduled for the next morning's flights. The trouble is, for complicated reasons of our own choosing, my wife and daughter were in the Delta computer system on one record, and I was on another. So the computer felt no need to keep us together. They were scheduled to leave almost two hours before me.

We might have been content with that, but one of the events we were traveling for started at noon on Friday. They would make it (barely), and I would not. So my wife went to the bank of phones and learned what we needed to do. The folks at the counter ended up finishing our arrangements. It took maybe twenty minutes.

Here was the surprise. The original computer printout included not just a new routing slip, but also a meal voucher good at any of the food places in the airport, and a hotel voucher for the airport Comfort Inn. The airlines don't have to do this -- when it's weather that causes a missed connection, they have no obligation to do anything but find us a later flight to our destination. It was a goodwill gesture, and we appreciated it.

It wasn't all perfect, though. We requested them to bring out our luggage before we knew how slow the system is in Atlanta. When we got down to the baggage line, we learned that it could be as long as five hours before we got our bags. We needed sleep more than we needed clean clothes, so we asked an extraordinarily helpful employee to cancel our order and route our luggage directly to the first flight to Salt Lake City the next morning. She really went the extra mile and the results were perfect.

Between eating and working on baggage, we got to the hotel about eleven o'clock at night. Here we encountered very tired Comfort Inn employees. They weren't perky, but they were polite and efficient, and we were soon in hotel rooms. The rooms were small and a bit tatty, but clean and they did the job.

Next morning, the wakeup calls came about ten minutes late, but we made the crowded airport van in time. When we reached Salt Lake, our bags were waiting for us, and we made the event at the BYU Library in good time.

Delta couldn't help the thunderstorm. They couldn't help the fact that we had chosen to have our records separated so that the computer wouldn't know to keep us together. What they could help, they handled efficiently and cheerfully. And even where it was their own poor system of luggage handling that was threatening to give us a sleepless night, one of their employees went to heroic lengths to make things go better.

So kudos to Delta. It was inconvenient to miss our connection, but Delta made it a stress-free adventure instead of an infuriating disaster.

*

The story I heard about the 2005 movie MirrorMask was that writer Neil Gaiman and director Dave McKean were given a million bucks by a studio to create their film. That's a low budget, especially for something as visually demanding as this movie. But they pulled it off -- perhaps in part because their collaboration with the Jim Henson Company may not have been charged at the full rate.

In any event, it's an extraordinary film. It was never widely released -- and that was the right commercial decision. There are no stars to help sell the movie, and it is, to put it plainly, strange in its appearance and in the narrative.

It's also wonderful. Gaiman -- the author of Coraline, American Gods, and groundbreaking work in comics -- is rarely content with straightforward narrative, and the magic in his fantasy stories is far from the traditional Tolkienesque or Dungeons-and-Dragons stuff we usually see.

The storyline concerns Helena, a teenage girl who is fed up with her home life, which is, quite literally, a circus. Her father's dream has been to own a circus, and he's doing it -- a one-ring circus that tours in small venues throughout the British Isles. Helena has been raised to be a very good juggler, while her mother, Joanne, does acrobatics and puts on a bear suit for other bits in the show.

In short, it's a very small circus and the whole family is needed, but Helena lashes out at her parents and demands the right to run away from the circus. In the heat of an argument, she wishes aloud that her mother were gone. So naturally, in the midst of a performance, the mother collapses from a brain tumor.

Helena loves her parents, but she can't bring herself to apologize openly to her mother. Worse yet, everyone is either lying or concealing things from Helena, to "keep her from worrying" -- which is absurd, since not knowing anything is far more worrisome.

On the night of her mother's operation, Helena has a dream -- which is openly a dream, and yet clearly impinges on the real world, on the needed transformation in Helena's character and her relationship with her mother that will heal the rift in the family.

When the dream begins, Helena meets a juggler named Valentine, who is sometimes her rescuer, sometimes her goad, and sometimes her betrayer. Still, we find him quite likeable.

We are also delighted with weird characters like a pair of floating giants, a flock of sphinxes, and above all the two queens of this fantasy realm, played by the same actress who plays the mother; one is queen of darkness, the other the queen of light. But because the queen of light is in a coma, the queen of darkness is attacking her realm with a truly terrifying tar-like shadow that seeps and grabs and transforms people into crumbling ash.

Helena searches, with Valentine, to try to find a way to waken the queen of light. Their adventures along the way are truly astonishing -- visions we've never seen before, sort of an Alice in Wonderland, complete with whimsical humor.

Yet this film owes more, I think, to the Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps because they share a similar mix of strangeness and whimsy and genuine darkness that makes you more sad than frightened as you watch its inexorable progress.

The sequence where Helena is captured by the queen of shadows and is transformed into the kind of daughter the queen wants is truly chilling and yet beautiful in its choreography. Plus you haven't lived till you've heard the version of Bacharach's and David's "Close to You" that is played while this ballet goes on.

The whole thing is visually built around the artistic style of the illustrator of Coraline; it's kind of wonderful to see those two-dimensional images realized in three dimensions. But that's no surprise -- because that artist is Dave McKean, the director of MirrorMask!

Which brings us to one of the most wonderful surprises. In a film so dominated by its visuals, one would not necessarily expect sensitive direction and filming of the human actors -- but what we get is a series of truly beautiful performances.

The mother is played by Gina McKee, who played the lead in The Forsyte Saga back in 2002. In that role I found her performance so restrained as to be cold, but she's an actress who grows on you, and in this movie she's a perfect choice, playing the light and dark queens with equal power -- not to mention a perfectly believable modern mother.

In addition, Jason Barry does a delightful job as the complicated Valentine -- especially difficult because through most of the movie, most of his face (including his eyes) is covered with a mask. Yet you never find him expressionless. Stephanie Leonidas is warm and intriguing as Helena -- and the anti-Helena whose rage is causing all the trouble in the dream world. And Rob Brydon gives a delicate, nuanced performance as the circus-leading father.

This movie had only a tiny release in the United States, but the video is readily available on DVD. It won't be for everyone -- you have to be open to strange and sometimes repellent images, and to a story that requires some concentration to follow.

In fact, we watched it with the subtitles on, because sometimes, in a misguided sort of artiness, they run the music so loudly that you can't hear the dialogue.

Yet for us, and I think for many who read this column, MirrorMask may be your favorite movie in what is shaping up to be a mediocre year for movies. In a Donny Darko kind of way it is beautiful and moving. You have never seen a movie look like this; an it never forgets to tell us a story we can care about.

*

I suppose it's odd to start a series of books with the second volume and proceed to the third, but that's what I did with Ruth Reichl's series of memoirs, Comfort Me with Apples and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. I simply skipped the first book, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. But I'll rectify that oversight soon, I assure you.

This is an astonishingly candid, if somewhat arty, memoir, in which the author recounts her life first as a chef, then as a restaurant critic and feature writer in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and finally as the restaurant critic for the New York Times.

I find the lives of writers to be generally boring. But food writers are an obvious exception. If her memoir is faithful to reality, then some of the people in the food-writing world are as glamorous as movie stars.

Reichl's candor can be unpleasant at times. I found it repellent to read her account of carrying on an affair with her glamorous jet-setting editor while still in a nine-year marriage -- and pressuring her husband to have a baby with her!

Yet when she moves on to another husband and they struggle with an on-again-off-again adoption, your heart goes out to them; it becomes a moving personal story despite her counter-cultural life up to that point.

And there is that wonderful writing about food. When a passel of American chefs try to introduce California cuisine to a convention of French chefs, only to find themselves shunted into a completely inadequate kitchen where their meal becomes a disaster of improvisations that don't quite work, Reichl makes cooking seem like putting on a play without a script.

She even includes recipes. Good thing, because this book makes you hungry.

*

I needed a new wallet. Not that my old one had failed -- the leather in my Nautica wallet was still doing fine. It was the stupid plastic insert that had finally torn itself apart. It's quite infuriating to replace a wallet only because of a cheap plastic part, but when things are falling out of your wallet, it becomes enough of an emergency that you don't want to wait three weeks for something to be delivered from some obscure online plastic-wallet-insert source - if such a thing even exists.

I stopped in at a department store and found a rotating display of Nautica and Rolf's wallets, but was disappointed to find that none of them had as many slots for cards and money as my old wallet.

The world of men's wallets is divided into three types of customers: Those who slip the wallet inside a jacket pocket, those who wear it in a hip pocket and sit on it all day, and those who put it in a front or thigh pocket of cargo pants.

Back when nobody would give me a credit card except Amoco, it was fine to wear my wallet in my back pocket, but once the cards started accruing (including membership cards in frequent flier/sleeper/buyer programs and discount cards for many stores), I spent years in gluteal discomfort until I gave up and started dropping my wallet into my front pants pockets.

The result, though, is three different sizes of wallet. Jacket-pocket wallets (useless to me -- I don't wear a jacket to work) can be wider and taller but must also be thinner. Hip-pocket wallets have to be narrower, and yet thin enough to bear wearing.

We who ensconce our wallets in cargo pants must be in a minority, but we are not utterly forgotten. We need a wallet as wide and long as a hip-pocket one, but we can handle a lot more thickness. And Fossil and Geoffrey Beene provide for us.

True, Geoffrey Beene touts much of its billfold line as "the world's smallest wallet," which put it out of the running for those of us who think our wallets should hold almost as much as a purse. But their "Passcase Billfold" design has a removable i.d. case and six card slots, plus two bill sections and a packet of plastic sleeves for additional cards.

But for me the cleverest design was Fossil's "Zip Wallet: Lip Trifold." It has an i.d. case the flips up, like the Geoffrey Beene -- and a good number of credit card slots. It does not have the plastic sleeve packet, however, which is a good thing when you consider that it's the first part to fail, but a bad thing if you need all those additional slots.

The billfold, however, makes up for the lack of a sleeve packet. It has three compartments, one of which zips shut. I like that a lot, especially for receipts and other items that are prone to slide out of the wallet.

All of these are relatively affordable -- I'm not a guy who thinks it's worth paying a hundred bucks for a wallet. For the same reason that I wouldn't own a thousand-dollar watch. I have better things to do with money than pay for more quality than I need -- I don't need a wallet that will outlive me or look better than my shoes.

As for brand-name prestige, I personally find it embarrassing to have the logo of some snooty company on anything I wear or carry. If I pull out my wallet and I have enough money to pay for my purchase, that's all the impression I need to make. In fact, isn't it just a little sad to think of somebody who needs to pay a premium price to impress store clerks? Are there store clerks who are impressed with the personal accessories of their customers? I should think they'd all be cynical about things like that.

*

With X-Men: The Last Stand so dominant at the box office, it's no surprise that old movies starring X-Men actors should pop up on television. Or maybe it was pure coincidence that on Saturday night, two different cable networks were running simultaneous James Marsden movies.

You know who he is, right? He plays Scott in X-Men. Of course, he's barely in this latest movie. We get to see him in shades, and then out of them, whereupon he vanishes for the rest of the film.

On the theory that flipping back and forth between two bad late-night movies is as entertaining as watching one good one, I settled down to watch both movies and found them -- and Marsden -- surprisingly good.

I'll admit, though, that it wasn't Marsden who got me watching. In Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road (2002), it was an early scene with Gary Oldman and, briefly, Michael J. Fox that first got me intrigued.

And in 1998's Disturbing Behavior, it was the presence of Nick Stahl, who gave what I thought was a winning performance as John Connor in Terminator 3, that got me watching.

Disturbing Behavior is a dark high-school movie -- a sort of Stepford Teenagers played in deadly earnest. Katie Holmes, who survived Dawson's Creek to become a strong film actor, does good work as Marsden's co-star, and there's a supporting cast of memorable actors playing roles that in lesser hands would certainly have been forgettable.

All the teen-movie cliches are there, but made real by good writing from Scott Rosenberg, who penned Con Air and High Fidelity, and good directing from David Nutter.

Interstate 60 is more ambitious yet much lighter in tone. Bob Gale, who wrote the Back to the Future movies, wore all the hats in this production -- writer, director, producer. But the results are good. Almost very good.

Gary Oldman is a bicycle-riding eccentric who happens to grant people's wishes -- even when their wishes aren't good for them. Christopher Lloyd plays a much more dangerous Satan figure who sends a young man (Marsden) off on a bizarre quest to deliver a package.

Along the way, Marsden runs into the woman of his dreams, while consulting a magic eight-ball that gives him weird but mostly reliable answers.

This is a case where the movie is sometimes buried under the weight of its own whimsy. When anything can happen, and the main character has almost no control over his own choices, one can begin to lose interest.

But I didn't lose interest, because I could always flip to the other James Marsden movie.

Here's the surprise: Marsden is, in fact, a very good actor. He can't help having impossibly rugged good looks. It's true that Americans tend to like really handsome actors only when they're also amusing (Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, and Harrison Ford had that light touch); otherwise we like our heroes to be people who would never be hired as a model -- who might sometimes have trouble getting a date. You know, people like us.

And when there is a pretty-faced actor like Robert Redford (though remember, he also had that light touch), he is often hampered by his looks -- people are sure he can't do really challenging things, which is purportedly why they didn't let him do an English accent in Out of Africa.

James Marsden is almost in Redford's too-pretty category. But underneath that face, he can act. He can, in fact, carry the narrative drive of a movie and make silly dialogue feel real -- an extremely useful skill in Hollywood. He deserves good parts -- grownup parts -- and I hope he gets them soon.


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