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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 6, 2009

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


Moon, Oedipus, Evidence, and Wooden Puzzles

My 15-year-old and I went to New Moon. We chose it over another movie. We did so knowing that (1) I have less than zero interest in stories involving vampires, (2) we had already seen Cirque du Freak which certainly used up my lifetime quota of vampire movies I actually like after all, and (3) my daughter is most definitely not a fan of the whole Twilight saga.

In fact, our announced purpose was to make fun of the movie. To make fun of over-the-top-dreamy corpse-like Edward. To laugh when each new person (or monster) becomes obsessed with Bella, the incredible no-personality girl. (And, I think, secretly to get a good look at hunk actor Taylor Lautner as werewolf Indian Jacob Black.)

And there was no shortage of things to laugh at that Friday night -- nor were we the only ones in the theater laughing. When visions of Edward kept appearing to Bella, it began to get bizarre, then laughable -- and when she's under water, being approached by a vampire determined to drain her dry, Edward not only appears to her (does nothing, mind you, just appears), he appears upside down.

It is never clear in the movie whether these visions of Edward are merely Bella's imagination or if the real Edward was conscious of putting in his little appearances.

Bella caught these Views of Edward only at moments when she was doing something stupidly dangerous. The point was that by arranging for these appearances, Edward was trying to keep her safe. But so insanely obsessed with him is the girl that she deliberately does stupid stuff just so she can see these visions.

By this point, it is hard to fathom why any human female would wish to identify with Bella. Yet ... millions do.

This is the point where I might go off on a five-page essay on why some female primates are driven by evolutionary pressures to subsume their identities in that of a dangerous alpha male.

Instead, I'll simply say that the acting in this movie was very good, salvaging many an absurd situation and clunky line; the directing was nowhere near as intrusive as in the first movie in the series, allowing us to concentrate a bit more on the story; and along with the laughable moments, there were so many cool moments that despite the fact that I was bone-tired, I stayed awake from beginning to end.

In short, quite against my will, I found myself interested and entertained. Not edified, not intellectually stimulated, not even emotionally involved, but my attention was engaged.

When a film can win over even a hostile audience (and when it comes to vampire stories, nobody can be more hostile) then somebody has done their work well.

It's worth noting that while Bella's character is surly, selfish, self-destructive, self-abnegating, and absurdly attractive to people whom she treats very badly all the time, the actress playing her -- Kristen Stewart -- does about as well as can be hoped.

And since this time Robert Pattinson's makeup as non-blood-sucking lover Edward Cullen does not make him look so effeminate and waxy, kind of like Lenin in his tomb, we are able to see through the makeup to a good, nuanced performance.

Taylor Lautner as werewolf boy not only has pecs that can knock people over in the next room, he's a good solid actor and I want to see more of him in a film where his most powerful moments are in the form of a big mean dog.

The show is totally stolen by Michael Sheen whenever he's on screen as Aro, the chief judge of an Italian vampire council that judges and punishes vampires who break the rules. (This is the last nail in the coffin, so to speak, of Bram Stoker's version of vampires -- imagine Dracula submitting to someone else's judgment!)

Sheen's strange-yet-beautiful face has already landed him roles where the main thing is just to look at him. But he's a marvelous actor of the British school, meaning he comes up to a high standard of skill and improves every movie he's in.

Do I recommend New Moon?

Come on, do I have to? The thing has already made more than half a billion dollars. It's not like anybody at Summit or Imprint (distributor and producer) is waiting to see whether I give my golden seal of approval. ("Oh, no, now we'll never get the ticket money from the three readers who only go to movies Card recommends!")

I guess what I'm saying is that if you also expect to hate New Moon, but you're getting dragged along because somebody you love is determined to see it, you will probably stay awake through the whole thing, and there will be some memorable performances and cool special effects (no one has ever done the human-to-werewolf-and-back-again trick better than in this movie), and you will never once think of killing yourself just to escape, the way I repeatedly did in the Jimmy Neutron movie many years ago. (Yes, that's how much I love my child -- I couldn't kill myself because I was her ride home.)

And at the end, Bella actually shows some spunk. There is a memorable scene between her and werewolf boy in which she is needlessly vicious to someone who has done her nothing but good -- she wouldn't be Bella if she had a spark of human compassion or feeling for any person other than herself and her alpha-male Edward. But at least she shows a little fire instead of mere leaden depression.

It's rather as if you had lived in Seattle and not seen the sun in four years, and suddenly the clouds part, and you see, not the sun, but a meteor about to collide with you, but at least it's bright and it's not raining.

OK, I'm gritting my teeth, but I'm going to admit it: This movie actually made me like it. Who knew that was possible.

*

Not long ago, I reviewed a very good brand of drinkable yogurt. Its only drawback, for me, was that it's so thick that you can't actually drink it -- you sort of pour it into your mouth. And it feels like you lose half the drink you paid for because it clings to the side of the bottle and the drinking glass and won't flow out.

So I was buying less and less of it.

Then at Fresh Market I noticed the store brand of "all natural" drinkable yogurts. These come in plastic bottles, and they're not quite as thick. The result is that this yogurt is drinkable and you get almost all of it out of the bottle. It's also cheaper.

Even more important, though, is how delicious the Fresh Market drinkable yogurts are. They come in three flavors -- peach, mango, and strawberry -- and I love them all. All three flavors are definitely yogurt -- that is, you can taste that yogurty tang -- but it's not overwhelming, and in the strawberry you almost can't taste it at all.

*

Greek drama and comedy are the most ancient play scripts that have come down to us, but let's just admit right here, it's rarely fun to watch them. The Athenian festival at which these plays were performed was a religious gathering, and the point of the tragedies was to show the power of the gods over the lives of miserable, hapless humans.

Yet it's hard to think of anything we do in theatre -- or film, for that matter -- that the Greeks didn't do first. And they had to invent it out of nothing. Tragedy began as a choral recitation, singing, chanting, and dancing to act out well-known stories of the dealings of gods with men.

But then Thespis introduced the "actor," an individual who pretended to be a character who talked to the chorus, so there was a back and forth between the individual and the community. (Which is why we call actors "thespians.)

Then Aeschylus invented the second actor, so two individuals could have dialogue with each other, thus ignoring everybody else (and laying the groundwork for the relationship between Bella and Edward).

Yet the playwright whom everyone held to be the acme of tragic writing was Sophocles, the author of Swollen-foot the King (the obvious translation of Oedipus Rex). This is a guy the gods were messing with from the start. An oracle told his parents -- king and queen of Thebes -- that this boy would grow up to kill his father and commit incest with his mother.

So they pinned his ankles together and exposed him on a hillside, expecting him to die (a frequent and perfectly acceptable practice in Greece, pretty much until Christians took over and made them stop -- which I think was a good thing that Christianity did, Mr. Dawkins).

But the baby Swollen-foot is rescued and brought up near Corinth by shepherds, and because he has royal blood his quality emerges and he is a young man of great strength and valor and brutality and other leadership qualities.

He goes to the oracle and is warned that he will kill his father and sleep with his mom, and so to avoid committing these horrible sins he flees from the people he thinks are his parents and goes to Thebes, where of course he gets insulted on the road by the king (his real father) and kills him and everybody with him, and then comes to Thebes and, being a big strong hero-type guy, marries the widowed queen (his real mother) and becomes king.

This all comes out when the city is suffering from drought and an epidemic of stillbirths and whatever else the gods throw at cities led by kings who commit horrible sins without realizing it, and which they would never have committed if the gods hadn't meddled in their lives.

Every single person in the original audience for this play knew the story before it began. The only person who doesn't know it are Swollen-foot himself and the people of Thebes. So the suspense comes from seeing how, out of pure love for the city, and despite all warnings to stop, he pursues the truth, learns his own sins, stabs out his own eyes, and exiles himself (while his mother/wife, Jocasta, hangs herself).

The lesson of the play is: resistance is futile. If the gods want your life to suck, it will suck.

Apply this lesson to your own life as you see fit -- it's not my job to enumerate.

Here's the thing: Oedipus is so brilliantly written that even in translation, and more than two millennia after it was written, it is still moving and powerful.

Weaver Center's drama program is mounting a very effective production that feels both modern and ancient all at once. Educational theatre, because it doesn't have to make money (or pay salaries!), can and must keep ancient and time-honored plays alive. How else will serious young actors learn to feel the roots of their art? And where else can audiences come to see shows that were not written to tickle their wallets?

The young actors take their roles in Oedipus very seriously. They have learned a completely different style of acting for this play, which speaks well of their director, Lindsey Clinton-Kraack. She is young (it took me a moment to realize she wasn't one of the students) but her talent and creativity are clear in every moment of the performance.

The set design feels wild and primitive; the costumes add to that feeling; and the makeup is disturbing, halfway between war paint and scars.

When the blind prophet Tiresias (made female for a production in a drama program that has far more women than men) enters, she is led by a monkey, and the movement -- and mask -- of Jazmyne Hale in this wordless role is worth the price of admission by itself.

I won't pretend that watching Oedipus is like watching, say, Iron Man or Star Trek. And it sure ain't Barefoot in the Park or The Odd Couple. (Though now I want to see a production that combines Odd Couple with Oedipus.)

But it's not pretentious twaddle, either, like most modern arty plays. It was written by and for believers, people who felt awe for the gods, and if it paints the gods as cruel and meddlesome, well, that's how life feels a lot of the time, isn't it? Regardless of your theology, the course of most human lives includes events that make you feel as if somebody has singled you out for destruction. The Athenians faced this idea head on, and nowhere more clearly than in Oedipus.

Ms. Clinton-Kraack is a new member of the Weaver faculty, and this is her first play. What a debut! The choice of play itself was brave -- though she did herself a huge favor by choosing a translation of Oedipus that is very clear and easy to understand, a blessing to the audience and the actors alike.

I came out of the dress rehearsal I watched full of admiration for director and actors and crew alike. I felt that they had together created something authentic and old and exciting and new. The actors in the play have felt the same thing, I'm told -- that this play isn't just another role for them, it's something special and memorable.

Oedipus isn't for everyone -- don't bring the six-year-old! -- but it's your tax dollars at work in the Weaver drama program, and when you see this show, not only you will be assured that the serious educational purpose of the school is being well fulfilled, but also you will have an unforgettable experience of the theatrical art.

Performances are Thursday (tonight!), Friday, and Saturday at 7:00 p.m., and Sunday, December 13th, at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $8.00 for adults and $6.00 for students, with open seating.

*

You've heard the (true) story; now go online and see the very short movie. What happens when the player who hit the game-winning homer falls, injures herself, and can't touch the bases under her own power? The rules forbid her teammates to help her; bringing in a pinch runner negates the homer.

The film is quite understated -- there is no obvious tear-jerking. The writer and director apparently trusted the story to contain its own power and used no tricks to try to juice it up.

*

I find myself looking forward to every new novel by Jonathan Kellerman, and not just because Kellerman is such a good writer of detective fiction (though he certainly is!)

I look forward to each book because it means I can listen to John Rubinstein, the world's finest actor in one-man shows disguised as audioboooks.

Truly, his performances are so brilliant that I have to nudge myself to remember that each of the characters is not a different actor -- they're all Rubinstein.

I've had the privilege of meeting Rubinstein in person a couple of times, and seeing him perform (brilliantly, of course) as the villain in Urinetown, and he is simultaneously a simple, modest man, and so full of vivid energy that you simply can't take your eyes off him.

Yet he never upstages the book. His performance is so real he makes you forget he's there -- you are immersed in the story, the people.

Evidence, Jonathan Kellerman's latest Alex Delaware novel, begins with a murder scene that looks like it might have been done by an obsessive serial killer. But the farther into the case Milo Sturgis and Alex Delaware delve, the more it twists, through eco-terrorism to personal revenge to ... well, let's just say that even when it's over, it ain't over.

If you want to give somebody a great read this Christmas, you can't do better than Evidence. And if you really love them, and have the bucks to spare, you'll give them the audiobook read by John Rubinstein.

The book on cd, abridged or unabridged, is more expensive than the hardcover, of course -- the publisher's costs are higher. But as more and more people buy audiobooks, the price is dropping because the costs can be amortized over a larger number of units.

And if you become a member of Audible.com, you can actually get the recording --either abridged or unabridged -- as a download for less than the price of the printed book. (Of course, I've not yet detected a method of giving Audible.com books as a gift -- I guess that's for the copy you'll listen to yourself.)

*

It's almost too late to order them as Christmas gifts, but I couldn't review the wooden picture puzzles from Liberty Puzzles until I had seen them for myself.

And they are brilliantly done. For one thing, their selection of pictures is extraordinary and the reproduction is sharp and warm.

The laser-cut wooden pieces are intricate and surprising in shape, especially the "whimsy pieces," which are shaped like objects or people, sometimes related thematically to the puzzle and always fun to work with.

Our grandkids are getting three of the absolutely beautiful children's puzzles for Christmas (they're too young to read this column, and you better not tell).

The best way to order them and have them reach you before Christmas is to go to the website: http://www.libertypuzzles.com/. There you will find a fantastic selection of absolutely gorgeous, fascinating, creative pictures which have been puzzled up to perfection.

While Liberty Puzzles does make custom puzzles -- now that would be a gift! -- they cannot deliver any custom puzzles before Christmas. But there is still time to select from their rich array of standard designs. But since it takes eight days from order to shipment, you'd better get online and do this fast.

Even if you don't order anything now, it's fun just to look at the art they've selected.

And you can take my word for it: The puzzles are even better in the hand than they are on the computer screen.


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