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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 2, 2006

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


Superman Returns, Fablehaven, house design software

If you have never watched a Superman movie, a few things in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns may be a bit baffling. That's because this movie is meant to be a direct sequel to Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) and Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980) the first two movies that starred Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel.

Twenty-six years is a long time between installments. So let me catch you up on what you have to know.

In Superman, a superbaby from the planet Krypton was delivered by meteor to the farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopted him and named him Clark. After an adolescence in which he discovered he could outrun schoolbuses, he donned a pair of glasses and went to work as an oafish reporter at The Daily Planet, where he fell in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who recited really bad poetry while flying with Superman; and, from time to time, stripped off his civvies and saved people. Finally, to fend off a ludicrous plot by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), Superman circled the Earth in reverse so fast that he was able to arrive before he left and prevent a bunch of really bad disasters.

In Superman II, Lois finds out that Clark and Superman are one and the same, whereupon he goes to the Fortress of Solitude, a superigloo in the arctic, and goes through a transition that makes him an ordinary mortal. This is a really bad time to do this, since three miscreants from Krypton arrive and start taking over the Earth, ruling much the way the Democrats claim that Bush is already governing. So even though Superman and Lois make super love together (without killing her), they have to part so Superman can reverse the process and go back and fight the evil Zod (Terence Stamp) and his cohorts. Superman wins, but it leaves him with super powers, which means that things just aren't going to work out with Lois, which makes her so sad that he gives her a super kiss and sucks the memory of their love affair right out of her head.

OK, between II and Returns, there were a couple of astonishingly inept movies that are so embarrassing that they have been given the Bobby-Ewing's-shower treatment -- they didn't happen after all. Instead, Superman went off for five years to visit the wreckage of his home planet, Krypton. While he was gone, Lois got herself in a "committed relationship" with Richard White (James Marsden) and had a baby boy, Jason (Tristan Leabu) who is now almost five years old.

I tell you these things because officially, Lois does not know that she ever had sex with Superman -- the memory was erased. The movie, however, assumes we will guess that the kid is really Superman's, and therefore we expect him to have superpowers at some point. When she sees this, Lois will realize whose child he is, even though she has no memory of sleeping with the dude.

She does not conclude that it was date rape. In fact, she is not curious about how this child was conceived at all.

Because, in Bryan Singer's hands, the Superman story has now become the Christ story, by way of the Nicene creed. We watch as he hears the "prayers" of all the people of the whole Earth; we hear him discussed as a savior; and we have a twisted version of the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father idea. So immaculate conceptions are not out of order here.

The ending of the movie is powerful indeed, but it is not the same movie we saw at the beginning. At first, the movie is dancing as fast as it can to link itself to the familiar Richard Donner Superman. We get a perfunctory recap of Superman's birth father (Marlon Brando via archive footage) and his adopted family.

Then we have Clark Kent returning to the Daily Planet, where the poor actor playing him, Brandon Routh, has to imitate Christopher Reeves's version of Superman trying to act like a geek.

The trouble is that Richard Donner's Superman was practically a cartoon. Reeve actually had to fight against the rest of the cast to make Superman believable at all; with Clark Kent, Reeve surrendered and made him a buffoon.

Routh is thus forced to imitate the most clownish part of Reeves's performance, but without the wit and charm Reeves brought to the role, and without a script that cares about the Clark Kent part of the movie at all.

Proof of this is that during the last sequence of the movie, in which Superman is incommunicado for some time, not one person notices that Clark Kent also seems to be missing.

I know, that's the conceit of the entire Superman story; but this movie expects us to forget Clark Kent's existence. He is simply dropped.

This is the opposite approach to that taken by the brilliant TV series Smallville, in which we think of the character of Clark Kent as the "real" guy, and the Superman identity as something forced on him by fate. This movie ignores our five years of Smallville -- which is certainly their privilege.

But it strands Routh in a weird kind of no-man's-land. Is he the jokey, smirky Superman who plays at being Clark Kent? Or the tortured soul who just visited the wreckage of his parents' planet and is broken-hearted that his true love has turned to someone else and had a kid?

That second one is the movie director Bryan Singer ordered written, and that's the movie he directs, with the same earnestness he brought to the first two X-Men films. That's why Lex Luthor, played by Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, is actually scary and his plot is almost credible, in the movie's own terms at least. This is in marked contrast to the first movies' Lex Luthor (Oscar-winner Gene Hackman), who swaggered through a cartoon portrayal that the movie thought was hilarious but wasn't.

The Superman franchise only works when the villains are at least moderately plausible -- Terence Stamp made Zod scary in II and Kevin Spacey makes Luthor scary in Returns (even in the final cartoony moment on the beach at the end).

Here's the other part that works: Lois (Kate Bosworth) and her "family." Tristan Leabu as the kid is wonderful, and James Marsden as the ur-husband is so good that he almost steals the movie. He and Bosworth actually have the chemistry that Routh-and-Bosworth so completely lack. You want Lois to stay with Richard. Superman is too otherworldly, distant, unreal ... we want the kid to have a real father.

Ultimately, this movie is a mess with a decent ending. Bryan Singer couldn't get rid of the baggage from the comics and the previous films; the script had dialogue so empty and predictable we were saying the "clever" lines just before the actors; Routh couldn't get out of the shadow of Christopher Reeve and make the part his own; too many "bits" went nowhere; too many story threads were dropped cold.

The first hour was, in a word, dull. $260 million was spent on this movie, and for an hour, nothing happens that we can remotely care about.

But if you stick it out -- and at these prices, most of you will -- you'll get some good stuff in the last hour and a half. Not logic, mind you -- if Kryptonite embedded in a massive object weakens Superman when he stands on it, it's hard to figure out why it doesn't weaken him when he's lifting it. (I know, he had some rock between him and the kryptonite, but was it lead? I don't think so.)

Still, we're given a solid dose of the noble romantic tragedy, the good guy who has to sacrifice everything for the good of others. We're still suckers for that one, as well we should be, since that's what parenthood and schoolteaching are all about, but without the publicity and the abs of steel.

Some people in the theater applauded at the end. I don't know why. But I did enjoy the film. I'm glad I saw it. Once.

What I'm looking forward to is the sequel starring Tristan Leabu. Now he has some sizzle on the screen, young as he is. I hope as he gets older he also turns out to be talented. Some child stars (Mark Lester, McCauley Culkin) have grown up to be sad disappointments on that score; but I really believe this kid might be more than a pair of soulful eyes.

*

Stories in which magic and fairy realms intersect with the real world are devilishly hard to write. J. K. Rowling handles it by barely touching on the real world at all. In his debut novel, Fablehaven, Brandon Mull keeps the two worlds fully balanced, crossing over the boundary as simply and easily as drinking a glass of milk.

For a month in the summer, Kendra and Seth are staying with grandparents they barely know. Grandfather has strict rules - don't go in the woods, don't go in the barn - and naturally Seth sets out to break the rules as quickly as possible. Not such a good idea, for it seems the grandparents are maintaining a preserve for mythical creatures, some evil, some merely amoral, but all of them powerful and potentially deadly.

Mull's characters are real - Kendra and Seth interact like real siblings and their acts of heroism and foolishness are always kept in proportion. They are also quite likable and entertaining - the dialogue snaps and sizzles. No less real, and no less entertaining, are the creatures we meet from fairy realms, a perfectly charming witch with vile intentions and a reformed naiad whose hobby is cooking perfect meals.

At first glance, Fablehaven looks like a book for kids; but, like Harry Potter, Fablehaven can be read aloud in a family with as much pleasure for grownups as for children. And solitary adults who pick it up for their own enjoyment will be well rewarded. Do yourself a favor, and don't miss the first novel by a writer who is clearly going to be a major figure in popular fantasy.

*

We've been thinking of remodeling our house to install an indoor pool. And before you write in, I'm quite aware that this is a miserably stupid thing to do, since owning a pool actually decreases the value of your house. Either you lower the selling price or you take forever to sell it.

For us, though, the idea is to build the pool in the house we intend to retire in, so selling it is our children's problem after we're dead. The real difficulty is that we're on a corner lot, so that fitting an enclosed pool large enough for exercise is a chancy thing.

Also probably more expensive than we can afford -- but you can't find that out until you have some idea of the dimensions of the building so contractors can make a rational rough estimate.

Besides which, we aren't sure whether the resulting structure, combined with our existing house, would be attractive to the eye. And we take that seriously. We have a responsibility to the neighbors not to build something misshapen, ill-proportioned, or in a style that clashes with the neighborhood.

Just as importantly, the beauty of the building you live and/or work in (which in our case is the same building) has a profound effect on you.

Even though you can't see it when you're inside it, the outer appearance becomes, in a symbolic but nonetheless significant way, part of the face you present to the world. And part of the image we have of ourselves.

That's why we usually want to make our houses at least as well-kept and our yards and gardens at least as florescent and tidy as our neighbors'. It's as if our houses stand for who we are in our immediate community.

Just as there are times when you don't have time to shower or change clothes or fix your hair, sometimes you simply can't devote the time it takes to keeping up your yard.

I remember when we first moved to Greensboro, living in a rented house, I was getting home from work well after dark, sleeping seven hours, and getting back to work immediately upon waking up, most days except Sunday. And Sunday, being the Sabbath for us, was not a day we felt right to devote to yard work. My wife had just given birth to a child with extraordinary needs, not to mention the two kids we already have, so it's not as if she could get out and mow the lawn.

The result was that our lawn went to seed, front yard and back. The grass was so deep that rabbits made a warren in the back lawn. And when I finally saw it in daylight and pulled out our manual mower (you know, the kind without a motor), I couldn't get three feet through the grass.

No way could I afford to buy a power mower. Or hire someone to do it for us.

So a kind neighbor with a really nice riding mower came over and chopped it all up. We had enough grass clippings to start our own Sargasso Sea, had we so desired. But we also had a presentable house.

It felt to us exactly how it would feel if someone saw us dressed in rags and gave us decent clothes to wear. We were both grateful and embarrassed. Needless to say, after that I tried to keep it clipped regularly enough that the manual mower could handle it. But we also never forgot the kindness of that neighbor.

It does not diminish that kindness to say that mowing our lawn also helped him and his house. Just as you are known by the friends you hang out with, so your house is known by the company it keeps. Even if your house is perfectly appointed, if it is in a neighborhood blighted by ugliness and carelessness, your house is, at least slightly, tainted by mere proximity.

That's why when people say, "It's none of your business what I do on my property," I have to answer, "If your property were surrounded by steep cliffs so you had no visible neighbors, your statement would be true. But visual ugliness spills over property lines and becomes part of everyone's view.

Which is why it became rather urgent, as our need to make a decision advanced, that we get some idea of costs, lest we run afoul of the New Testament observation that the wise man counts his money before he starts to build, so he doesn't run out halfway through the project.

Architects are worth every penny they charge. At the same time, it's a shame to pay those pennies for plans you'll never use (you should see the great $30,000 house plan we bought fifteen years ago and will never build).

So I turned to computer software -- not to make up finished plans, but to get a rough idea of size and proportion.

Years ago I had played with a houseplan-drawing program, but there's no way it would run under present-day operating systems. The one I had used then was painfully slow, and the three-dimensional picture of the house was quite abstract. But it ran well, it was very user friendly, and I liked the results.

So I expected a similar result with software today. After all, they'd had years to improve their software so it would run faster, show more detail, and be far more convenient and well thought out.

Ha ha ha ha ha.

My first attempt was with a miserable piece of junk from Punch! Software -- their "Professional Home Design Suite."

Not professional. At the end, no home, no design. And definitely not sweet.

I knew the dimensions of the footprint the structure would need to have: 64 feet by 24 feet. But at one corner, there was to be an outward jog of four feet on both sides, to create the effect of two overlapping rectangles.

This is not a complicated thing to do in the real world -- or on graph paper. But it became impossible to do with Punch's "professional" software. First, if you made a mistake or changed your mind about anything, forget it -- there was only one level of undo and most of the time, even that one level was greyed out on the menu. No undo function at all.

The maddening thing was that it never showed me the dimensions I needed. When I tried to move a segment of wall -- as, for instance, when I decided to make a 68-foot rectangle into a 64-foot one -- it kept showing me how long the section I was trying to move was. But that was precisely the dimension that I wasn't changing. What I was changing was that wall's distance from the opposite wall, and that dimension I wasn't told at all. So how would I know when I had succeeded in moving it to exactly 64 feet from the opposite wall?

The answer is that I couldn't. And I couldn't try it and then try again, because the undo function kept disappearing when I needed it.

So the money I spent on that program was down the toilet. It was completely unusable when I already knew the dimensions I wanted to work with -- and would have been even less usable if I was just doodling. When a pencil, erase, and graph paper are faster and more effective and more forgiving, there's something wrong with the software.

So next I went to Broderbund's "3D Home Architect." It was far, far better -- meaning that in some ways it approached usability. For instance, there were many layers of undo.

But the Broderbund had its own silly failures with tasks that should be an obvious, minimal requirement in plan-drawing software.

For instance, when I completed the the exterior walls, the software refused to recognize that I had "closed the box" -- it treated the start and end points as if they were still dangling in space instead of connected to each other in the same corner.

And it was impossible to get the dimensions of a line I was drawing to come out even. I would see 23'11", move the mouse a micron, and it would show 24'2". Back and forth, back and forth, and it would never settle on an even 24".

I tried zooming in to get a closer, more detailed view. But then I couldn't see the whole thing on screen (and it's a wide screen, folks). Nor could I change the view while I was creating a line, because if I stopped drawing in order to change the level of zoom, it wouldn't let me pick up the line where I left off.

It was counterintuitive, weird, maddening -- and this was the good software.

Oh, here's another good one. You draw the foundation. It's complete. You switch to the ground floor, which should consist of simply putting exterior walls on top of the foundation -- but there is no command to allow you to simply tell the program to follow the foundation!

Instead you get a faint outline of the foundation and have to draw it all in by mouse. That is precisely the thing computers are supposed to do -- spare us the obvious but tedious and time-consuming jobs.

I found it impossible to break the line of a wall in order to create a jog in it, because when I selected the break line option, the software, incredibly enough, would not show me the distance of my break from the ends of the existing wall. This is the only information that matters when you're breaking a line, yet these were the only dimensions the software wouldn't show me!

Didn't somebody at the company try to use the software before they put it in a box with a barcode on it?

Remember, I wasn't trying to do anything even marginally difficult. I could program software to do the things I was trying to do, and the last time I programmed anything was back when the 6502 processor was king of the home market.

These programs were so hard to use I couldn't even get to the really complicated tasks, like the three-dimensional elevations and the roof lines and furnishing and landscaping.

The irony is that Broderbund was the publisher of the program I had used so easily all those years ago. In the decade since then, the software has gotten worse.

And yet these publishers seem to be the two dominant ones, at least on the shelves of the stores.

So here's my rating: Punch!'s software goes in the garbage can as utterly useless. Broderbund's is a two-ulcer program -- usable, but extremely frustrating.

I've spent hundreds of dollars on software, and I still don't know anything about how the rooflines will work together, or whether a passage from the second story of the old house to the new wing is practicable.

And there's the source of the problem. They got my money without having to create even moderately good programs. So what's their incentive to do better?

It's all part of what Neil Young was ticked off about in his song "Piece of Crap." Which, by the way, is an excellent song, and should be sung aloud on many occasions, including most of the times you're sitting in front of a computer trying out new software.


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