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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 25, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Salt, Covert Affairs, denture baths

Sometimes it seems that all reporters really want to be covering sports. Why should the opening of Salt be treated as a horse race with Inception? They're both excellent movies, but of such a different kind that comparing them is of interest only to people who bet money on which movie will make the most money each weekend.

Where Inception is smart science fiction with a heart, Salt is a passionate cold-war thriller with a brain. In fact, it feels as if, back in 1989, when writer Kurt Wimmer was struggling to break into screenwriting, he composed a screenplay for a terrific thriller about a Soviet KGB mole inside the CIA -- and then the USSR collapsed and the script was pretty much useless.

Maybe it became his calling card: look, I wrote this screenplay that of course can never be filmed now, but isn't it great? Give me a job.

And then the years passed, Wimmer wrote the scripts for hits like The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and The Recruit (2003), and meanwhile the world changed again. Putin became the boss of Russia, and the old cold war polarities came back into play. Wimmer brought out his old screenplay, revised it to reflect the modern realities, and now he was able to get it made.

He even kept the original title, Salt, though when he first wrote it, when people heard the word they thought of salt II: the second round of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

Philip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector, The Quiet american) signed on to direct, and a once-dead screenplay was alive again!

Of course, this is pure fantasy on my part. For all I know, Wimmer thought it up in 2009. And his rewrite may have been far more extensive, because this is not the screenplay of a youthful idiot fresh out of film school. It shows none of the screenwriting class cliches that wreck movie after movie because cliches are intelligible to terrified studio executives, while actual storytelling is beyond them.

Here's the artistic surprise: Unlike most cold war movies, Salt is smart. At times it seemed to be veering off into dumb cliches -- when they first mention "seizing control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal" it just made me tired. But then, as the story unfolds, it turns out that the plot has a wacko believability that, within the fantasy of the movie, completely works.

I can't tell you much about the plot, because there is no such thing as a no-spoiler synopsis. Let's just say that you are kept guessing about motives and allegiances. But not knowing motives is the strength of movies (whereas in novels, the strength is knowing motives!), because we don't expect to be inside the characters' heads.

And just because I guessed several major plot twists almost immediately doesn't mean that it isn't absolutely wonderful fun watching things unfold. After all, dramatic irony (where the audience knows more than most of the characters) is every bit as fun as suspense (where the audience knows less).

Besides, I also made guesses that turned out to be flamboyantly wrong, and even where I guessed right, it was because I wanted things to work out as, in fact, they did.

Angelina Jolie is absolutely brilliant in the title role (Evelyn Salt); it's an acting tour de force because she has to show us emotions that other characters are not supposed to be able to detect. And the Wimmer's script never, never makes characters explain themselves more than they really would; besides, most of them are lying most of the time anyway, and yet we are guided to see the truth anyway.

The story takes place in a fantasy near future. In 2011, Obama will still be president; yet the movie boldly declares that to be the year, and the president is your standard white guy. There is no self-righteous political posing -- we have no idea whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, and nobody ever, not even for a second, makes any kind of politically correct speech. Nor are any of the villains shown to be Fox-News-watching conservatives. Isn't that refreshing?

You don't want to miss this movie. You don't want to wait to rent it later. Go see it now. You'll have a great time in a sort of Bourne Identity way.

Finally, this is turning out to be a pretty good movie year after all!

*

Back in 1986, I had no interest in seeing Heartbreak Ridge, a Clint Eastwood film about a gunnery sergeant leading a platoon of hapless Marines into combat on ... Grenada.

Everybody's heart was in the right place -- after losing in Vietnam and fighting to a draw in Korea, American soldiers needed a victory. But ... to set up the tiny operation on Grenada, important as it was (captured documents and other evidence proved that the Nicaraguan Communists were under Cuba's and Russia's control, as was the Grenadan Communist dictatorship) as being somehow parallel to the massive struggles in Korea and Vietnam is a little misproportioned.

But recently I watched a Clint Eastwood retrospective and they had so much praise for the Oscar-nominated Heartbreak Ridge that when it popped up on a cable channel I braved the tedious commercial interruptions and airline-movie-style overdubbing and watched the whole thing.

In a way, it was the perfect movie to see right before Salt, partly because it really was made during the Cold War, but mostly because almost everything that isn't wrong with Salt was dreadfully wrong with Heartbreak Ridge.

Oh, the performances were very good (except for Mario Van Peebles annoyingly cute ne'er-do-well soldier and Tom Villard's simply sad portrayal of the likable dumb guy who dies).

But not for a moment did I believe that such a platoon could possibly exist in the real world Marine Corps at any time in its history. And while there is nasty careerism in the military at all times, it is never so naked as portrayed in the characters Major Powers and Staff Sgt. Webster. Plus there was way too much of the bad-guys-can't-hit-anybody, good-guys-can't-miss baloney that makes movies so silly.

The side story of Clint Eastwood's attempt to reconnect with his hostile exwife Marsha Mason is also badly written, though well-acted. Never is Marsha Mason's hostility explained -- she has the kind of rage that comes from things that Eastwood never did, while what she actually accuses him of does not justify such rage.

Worse, Eastwood's decision to transform himself into a sensitive guy takes place before the movie starts, while Mason's decision not to marry the jerk bar-owner she's been sleeping with takes place entirely offscreen while Eastwood is on Grenada.

In other words, all the life-changing character decisions happen where we can't see them, and for reasons we never actually see.

Fortunately, Eastwood later redeemed himself with some war movies that were really worth something. But Heartbreak Ridge was a complete waste of time. My decision in 1986 was right.

*

Funniest parody on YouTube right now? The Jane Austen Fight Club. Check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2PM0om2El8

*

Continuing its new role as creator of smart, character-centered TV shows, USA Network just launched a new series, Covert Affairs, that may be the best of the lot.

Yeah, that's right -- maybe better than White Collar; definitely stronger than the most recent season of Burn Notice (which is apparently suffering a bit from creator Matt Nix's attention to his cute new series, The Good Guys, which suffers from being a buddy movie with two unlikable buddies). I trust Nix to get both his series back on track, and I'm still watching Burn Notice because even when it's a little off, it's very good. But Covert Affairs is what Burn Notice was in its first couple of seasons: Quite possibly the best thing on TV.

OK, Lie to Me is as strong as ever, and there are other great shows in the running. But the presence of other good shows doesn't change the fact that Covert Affairs has a pilot, at least, that's off the charts.

Piper Perabo plays a CIA operative-in-training who, because of her language ability (and chart-topping performances in several activities that spies are supposedly trained in) is brought to Langley with a month left in her training, because there's a job that needs her skills.

Her skills include looking like a really expensive hooker, apparently, because that's what the first assignment consists of. When everything goes wrong -- including her own mistakes -- she goes back to rectify the errors. And then realizes things that occur to no one else, and keeps getting herself in trouble as she saves the day.

If her superiors were really as dumb as they're portrayed to be -- and according to Legacy of Ashes, the excellent history of the CIA, they are and always have been -- then we should pray we have somebody as smart and skilled as Perabo's character helping save us from our enemies!

At the same time, the CIA is shown in total violation of the core principle that it is not allowed to carry on activities on American soil -- that's the FBI's territory. So we should really hope it is not doing the things the series shows the Agency doing.

Aw, forget all that. It's great fun. The supporting cast (which includes the never-fully-used talents of Peter Gallagher) is great, especially the implausible but perfectly charming blind guy, played wonderfully by Christopher Gorham. The soap-opera aspects of the plot -- Perabo's sister's attempts to find her a love life; Peter Gallagher's war with his CIA-employed wife, who suspects him of having an affair -- are quite good.

And then there's the mysterious rogue agent that Perabo's character fell in love with the year before and still pines for -- this will provide us with an overarching story that carries on from episode to episode, the way Burn Notice follows Michael Westen's endless search to get himself unburned.

Covert Affairs may weaken quickly -- I've only watched the first episode, and it's possible the writers can't sustain the stories over the long haul (think of Prison Break and Heroes). But for right now, it's worth seeing. And because it's on USA, the season will be short and then they'll run repeats to build up the audience for the next short season.

*

I'm not yet among the proud company of denture wearers, but I do have retainers. Because my latest round of orthodontia ended (about two years ago) with my mouth unable to close properly without forcing my jaw into an unnatural position (despite my repeated warnings to the orthodontist that this was happening), I have to wear my retainers most of the time, removing them only to eat.

I know, this is more information than you wanted, but I had to make the point that I'm wearing my retainers for more hours a day than most folks wear their dentures. The result is, as you might guess, my retainers build up plaque even faster than my teeth do.

I tried denture cleaners, but I had no convenient place to soak the retainer without leaving a glass on my bathroom counter. And I hate keeping a glass like that, with the retainers on display like a piece of my mouth. I also hate how dirty the glass gets; yet I knew I was too lazy and forgetful to remember to bring a clean one upstairs every day.

So I tried to keep my retainers clean by washing them frequently with a foaming, antibacterial soap. I'm sure this kept them bacteria-free. But it did nothing to prevent plaque build-up. When I went to get my teeth cleaned, the hygienist also cleaned my retainers with ultrasound -- but that's only twice or three times a year. In between, the retainers could get quite disgusting.

Then, in a drugstore in Utah a few weeks ago, I ran across a product by Sea Bond called a "Denture Bath." It's a plastic case designed to hold dentures, but it certainly fits my retainers as well. It has a lid that closes nicely, and an inner piece that works like a colander.

So ... I put the colander (or rack) into the bath, run some warm water into it, drop in the tablet of cleaner, and then plunk in my retainers. I leave them there while I eat, and then when I come to brush my teeth, I lift out the rack, rinse the retainers, put them in my mouth, and then rinse out the denture bath and the rack and leave them to dry. Very simple and my hands never actually get into the cleaning solution.

The result is that my retainers are never on public display. (OK, my wife's the only one who would see them, but why should she have to?)

Here's the best thing. At the same time, I also picked up a package of Polident For Partials. It's designed not to corrode the metal parts, but in truth I have no idea but what it's identical to other Polident products and only has a different name to win the loyalty of niche customers. I'm one in that niche, and here's how it really wins my loyalty: Within a week of starting the use of it, all the plaque built up on my retainers was gone.

That's right, clean as a whistle. Like new. Way cool.

Someday I'll probably work up the courage to go to an orthodontist who will actually listen to his patients. I'll do yet a third round of braces, this time to close up the food-catching gaps deliberately left by the latest orthodontist (they were part of his wonderful "plan") and see if the new guy can arrange my teeth so as to let me close my mouth without jamming my chin back with my hand.

If it actually works, I might not have to wear a retainer 23/7 for the rest of my life. But in the meantime, between the convenient Sea Bond Denture Bath and the effective Polident For Partials, I can now look forward to years of retainer-wearing without loathing.


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