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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 6, 2006

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


Miami Super Ex-Ant Bully, Haiku, Evasion, Gardening, Murder, Rome

Somebody made the decision to make the movie version of Miami Vice very dark and serious, depicting the kind of life that the tv series only suggested. In a way, this was admirable -- where the tv show made the seamy underside of Miami look glitzy and charming (but with bullets), by the time you're fifteen minutes into the movie, you feel like you died and went to hell.

Even the way they had "fun" looked hellish -- a nightclub full of miserable people dressing and cavorting only to impress each other, while prostitution and beatings went on practically in their faces.

The trouble was, it was clear that the filmmakers didn't seem to know that they had created hell. They actually seemed to think that because Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx were in the movie, and they drove a really nifty car, the audience would think they were watching cool people in a cool world and automatically care about the characters.

Wrong. Colin Farrell gives off negativity in waves. He's an excellent actor, but when you want the audience to like and care about him, you have to shape the film to that end. You can't simply take it for granted -- except for that portion of the audience that automatically gravitates toward dangerous shallow people. (You knew them in high school, and probably avoided them, just to keep your life simpler.) Farrell can't help his physical type (though he could shave), but it severely limits his range and cripples any movie that depends on wide audience identification.

Which is fine. We already have Tom Hanks, and Farrell doesn't have to pretend to be him.

But in a movie like Miami Vice, if we don't care about the characters and want to spend time with them, then it's just a couple of hours of brutality, dirty-seeming sex, and chases.

It would be different if Farrell and Foxx had brisk badinage or a light-hearted attitude from time to time. Certainly when you have Foxx in a movie, you should be able to count on wit and charm whenever they're needed.

Alas, that would require a writer with wit and charm. Writer-director Michael Mann has a long history of making films without a spark of humor or, for that matter, life. Nobody in Miami Vice seemed either interesting or real to us. Even the sex was boring, not because the bodies weren't beautiful and well-photographed, but because without any soul in the characters, it's just pornography.

In short, the movie was tedious. Like watching photographs of used Kleenex. What lovely art. Please let me out of this room.

We departed the theater and bought tickets to My Super Ex-Girlfriend. The promos had looked fun, and the cast was certainly good. Luke Wilson has all the onscreen likability that Colin Farrell lacks; Uma Thurman does a star turn as the controlling, paranoid, vengeful G-Girl; and Anna Faris, a survivor of four Scary Movies, is luminous as the co-worker Luke Wilson is really in love with.

Unfortunately, Super Ex didn't have a script. The premise was terrific. But the characterizations felt like case studies. "OK," murmurs the writer to himself, "I need to show she's controlling. OK, I'll have her correct the way he kisses." Unbelievable, unfunny. Unfunny because it's unbelievable.

Wait a minute. Believability? How is that an issue in a movie about a comic-book heroine?

Precisely because it's a movie with a completely unbelievable comic-book heroine! If we're supposed to care enough to laugh, we need her to seem like an absolutely real human being with superpowers, not just a means of setting up gags.

But the writer, Don Payne, is a graduate of a dozen Simpsons episodes and a couple of other soulless, gag-centered cartoonish tv shows. Nowhere in his writing history was he ever required to create an actual believable humanish character.

The result is that while My Super Ex-Girlfriend is indeed funny from time to time, you never really care, which means that it needed to be screamingly funny all the time, and it never came close to that. So it turns out to be a see-once movie. A time-killer when you've got twenty-five bucks for two tickets and some popcorn and there's nothing better on.

With that cast and that premise, it should have been wonderful. But you can't have a movie that's much better than its script.

Then our 12-year-old came back from camp and we thought we'd go see a light-hearted animated movie, just for fun. The list of actors doing the voices was amazing -- Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Lily Tomlin, Larry Miller, Allison Mack, Cheri Oteri, Ricardo Montalban. Good heavens, I'd stand in line for a week to see a movie with all these people in it.

OK, not a week, but an hour, anyway.

Unfortunately, the movie these actors were all in is a miserable little piece of junk called The Ant Bully.

And when I say "miserable little piece of junk," I mean that in the nicest possible way.

The premise is that a kid who stomps on or floods anthills (to compensate for the fact that he's picked on by bullies and feels utterly sad and alone) is turned small and has to live among the ants, whereupon he learns better and helps them overcome the evil exterminator.

Here's the thing: This only works if the ants are, well, ants.

This isn't a hard concept. The idea is that the kid lives among the ants and gets to know them. Unfortunately, not for one second do the ants look like ants or act like ants.

Setting aside the fact that it's an ant wizard who casts the magic spell that shrinks the kid -- no, wait, let's not set that aside. It's an appalling bad idea. Excuse me for shouting. We don't have ants here, we have ants with magical powers, and not only that, the wizard who brings this off is a kind of doofus -- whenever the writer wants him to be.

OK, this story is adapted from a book. Presumably this idiotic idea came from the book. Not writer-director John A. Davis's fault.

And maybe I would have bought the ant-wizard idea if there had been anything else ant-like about the ants.

As any grade-school kid can tell you, every single ant you ever see is female, except when a few winged drones come out and sun themselves before mating and then croaking. But this "ant" society, while it has a mother-god and a queen, is primarily dominated by males. Males do the fighting. Males are the wizards. Females are rescued.

Also, the ants are stupid. Oh, I know, ants in the real world are stupid, too. How much brain can fit in that tiny head? But the premise of this fantasy is that they are trying to teach a four-limbed, bipedal human to experience ant life. So they expect the kid to be able to climb straight vertical surfaces and get ticked off at him like he didn't try when he can't do it. Just dumb.

And the artwork is bad. Not the animation -- that's ok, and the face of the kid is actually rather expressive. It's the art, the design of the thing: the grass growing in little tufts out of smooth-as-asphalt soil, with no roots and old dead blades of grass. The ants with weird coloration and strange appendages that make them look like anything but ants. The whole thing feels cheap and shoddy.

We lasted a long time. Up to the point where the kid knows the exterminator is coming but doesn't bother to stop and explain to any of the ants what an exterminator is. At that point, our 12-year-old murmured, "I'm so bored," and we took that as permission to leave the theater and go to 31 Flavors and get some ice cream.

That was much more thrilling than Ant Bully, especially because our local Baskin-Robbins has brought back Chocolate Mousse Royale, the best chocolate ice cream ever made. Apparently this is regarded as a "seasonal flavor" by corporate management -- you only find it in winter. But a local store can request it out of season, and, perhaps partly in response to my begging and pleading, they did it!

So right now, on these impossibly hot summer days, you can go to 31 Flavors and get the smoothest, creamiest, most delicious chocolate ice cream. And other flavors, of course. They have -- get this -- more than 31 of them.

*

After I commented on the miserably low quality of two of the leading home-design software packages, I was referred by thoughtful readers to several others. The one that leapt out of the pack was Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer Deluxe.

It turns out that this program was actually created by a company called Chief Architect, which used to do the Broderbund home-design software back when it was good.

The good news is that this software actually works. It acts as if it knew you meant to use it to design a house and that you would change your mind a lot. You can quickly figure out how to do the obvious tasks. In other words, it was not designed by idiots so only geniuses can use it; it was designed by geniuses so even idiots can use it. My kind of software!

The bad news is that it's a crashy program. I started out by following the instructions in the built-in tutorial exactly, and ... it crashed before I finished the first rectangle.

I started the program over. Crash again, not quite the same place.

Start yet again. This time, skip the tutorial. OK, now it doesn't crash. I draw a rectangle. I break up the rectangle and create an interesting shape. I change the dimensions. I put in interior walls. A staircase.

Then I try for a 3D view of what I've built so far. And ... I get into an endless loop of an error message that reappears whether you click on ok or cancel. You can't exit the program, you can't do anything else except endlessly click on ok or cancel. You can only get out of the loop by using Control-Alt-Delete to terminate the program.

So cool ... error messages that don't even allow you to exit the program, let alone recover from the error.

Here I finally get my hands on a well-designed program that looks like it would do exactly what I want -- only the coding is so bad that I can't keep it running long enough to accomplish anything. It just breaks your heart. Can't they get good designers and good programmers on the same team? Just now and then?

*

Two very slim but delightful books were given to me by friends. (Well, one of them was my brother-in-law, but he was a good friend before he became my brother-in-law, so he still counts.)

Haiku U. is subtitled: From Aristotle to Zola, 100 Great Books in 17 Syllables. Some of the haikus are deft summaries of an entire book; others are hilarious commentaries on it.

For instance, Gabriel Carcia Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude leads to this haiku:

Plagues, incest, madness

human pig-children. Dios!

Where does the time go?

Here's one based on one of the earliest English-language novels, Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life, and Particularly Showing the Distresses That May Attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, in Relation to Marriage:

To Miss Howe: Send help!

I've been raped in Volume Six

with three more to go.

It helps if you know -- or at least know of -- the works of literature being satirized. But even the ones that were less familiar were, I thought, funny.

The Evasion-English Dictionary has a more serious intent, but is also marvelously entertaining. Author Maggie Balistreri has written a deft and all-too-truthful decoding of what is really meant by common words and phrases -- the things we say when we can't bring ourselves to say (or even recognize) the truth.

For instance, we often use "but" to mean "because." Where you see the word "but," substitute "because" to understand the truth:

"The reading for the class is really hard but the way I approach it is to try to relate it to my own experiences."

"It's getting worse but I'm not gonna think about it."

Another example: We often use the word "does" precisely where we know perfectly well that the truth is "doesn't." Again, where you see "does," read "doesn't" and you'll get something closer to the truth.

"Look, I made a mistake. I was sure I could make it home if I just went slowly. I admit, I wasn't thinking of the other people on the road. I guess I wasn't thinking at all. But does that make me a bad person?"

And how often do we say "it" when the truth should be "I"?

"I did it. It was so stupid."

"It was so mean-spirited. I know it hurt you."

"You have to understand how crazy that time in my life was. It was nuts."

The real power of this book isn't how often you hear other people say these things -- it's how often you say them yourself. (Like, for instance, using "you" when you should be saying "me" -- as I did in the first sentence of this paragraph.)

Good book. Worth reading -- and then rereading periodically, as a reality check. Balistreri isn't always right, but she's on the nose often enough that it hurts.

*

One of the best catalogs I've seen is from Gardener's Supply Company, which exists online at http://www.gardeners.com. As a semi-serious gardener, I found this catalog to have, quite literally, everything.

Like the wonderful wire-frame beanpole supports. They make our summer's worth of haricots verts easy to harvest.

Or the tomato ladders, which seem to do as good a job as their also-excellent tomato cages, while taking up less room.

My favorite discovery, though, is the self-watering planter. Of course it isn't really self-watering -- you do have to put water in it. But only once a week, even during these hot summer months.

The drawback is that the soil that works best is basically a compound the wicks the water up from built-in cistern and provides support for the root system. But it contains no nutrients whatsoever. So you have to put a few drops of fertilizer in with every watering.

I found that when the entire planter is designed to be self-watering, it works perfectly. Where the self-watering kit is merely an insert, for some reason it's not as effective. But I'm still learning how to balance water, fertilizer, and plants.

And remember that plants that require "well-drained soil" are not going to love a self-watering container, because the soil is wet all the time.

*

I'm a big fan of Lawrence Block, one of our best mystery writers, and the longtime writer of the fiction-writing column in Writers Digest.

Sometimes, though, Block bites off something too hard even for him to chew. His continuing character John Keller is a hit man. For a living, he kills people, usually in remote cities.

How do you make readers (apart from the small number of sickos who aspire to commit murder) want to read about somebody who keeps murdering people for money?

Block does it about as well as it can be done. For one thing, he keeps a fairly light tone -- we're not supposed to take this character all that seriously.

And he doesn't describe the murders in detail. Often, he skips right over the actual murder and has Keller talk later about having done it.

Still, by the end of a book of these stories, you can feel more than a little soul-numbed. That's the danger in reading the new Keller book, Hit Parade. Really more of a collection of short stories than a novel (though there is a kind of through story), it's so well-written that you can't stop reading, but at the same time you feel a little sick at heart.

Because Block doesn't cheat and make sure that all of Keller's victims deserve to die. Keller doesn't care whether they deserve to die (or at least he usually doesn't). So you find yourself fascinated by the challenges that Block sets himself -- how in the world can he kill this guy? -- or the reasons that come up for Keller to be reluctant to carry out a particular assignment.

So ... I recommend this book, with a warning. I enjoyed it, but I'm not proud of myself.

*

I'm glad Barnes & Noble is keeping a select list of resource books in print under their own name. Case in point: Michael Grant's The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome, 31 b.c. -- a.d. 476. The title says it all. You get short biographical essays on every Roman emperor who officially held the title (and some who only tried to claim it).

But Grant is a keen evaluator of his sources. While he doesn't go overboard with debunking (he doesn't claim Caligula was nice), he does remind us from time to time that the more lurid stories about certain emperors were promoted by people who had good reason to smear them -- like, for instance, the emperor who had him murdered.

What you end up with is an excellent reference when you need to be reminded of what a particular emperor did and when he lived. And if you read it straight through, you also get a decent overview of the history of the Roman Empire (though you need to keep in mind that many of the most important stories in the history of Rome took place during the Republic, which means they don't show up in this book).


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