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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 19, 2012

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


Exotic Marigold, San Diego, Earth Unaware

Summer is full of big extravagant movies with huge budgets and big stars and expensive special effects. Or they are big extravagant animated movies aimed at families. Sequels and book-based films are safer bets for such huge budgets than standalone movies with no built-in audience.

Thus the moneymakers so far this summer are another Ice Age, another Madagascar, a Spider-Man reboot, the comic-book catch-all sequel The Avengers, a new Men In Black, a new Disney princess franchise Brave, the spot-on adaptation of the hit novel Hunger Games, a star-studded fairy tale movie, a prequel to a space horror classic, and a Dr. Seuss movie.

(I'm still trying to figure out who Ted is for; maybe I'll just have to go see it and find out.)

The spectacular financial failures and vague disappointments tried the same things but simply didn't do them as well -- The Three Stooges, Mirror Mirror, Battleship, John Carter, The Dictator, Dark Shadows.

The Adam Sandler flop That's My Boy was in his Little Nicky tradition of movies that looked so stupid in the trailers that even his fans can't bring themselves to admit at the box office that that's the movie they showed up to see.

Abraham Lincoln is still one of our truly revered presidents. The book that made him a vampire hunter was not a hit among people who revere him, obviously, but big-budget movies can't sell to a niche, and most Americans find the title and everything else associated with it offensive and unfunny.

Hence it was a serious financial disappointment (especially because such an American-sounding title is unlikely to do huge business abroad, where Battleship and John Carter have made enough money to cover their budgets, more or less).

But alongside the huge would-be blockbusters are the counter-programming movies -- the movies designed to make a little money from people who really aren't interested in kid-friendly animations or the latest special effects action flick.

Magic Mike is reaching for the audience for semi-porn, and with Soderbergh directing it probably won't be as awful as Showgirls. Madea's Witness Protection is making the money that a Tyler Perry movie is expected to make -- regardless of the season.

But I'm old enough now that while I can still enjoy The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, I'm really hoping for grownup movies, too.

Which is why, on a night when everything else we hadn't already seen looked awful, my wife and I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The story is simple enough -- it feels rather familiar because it follows the formula of the classic Separate Tables, of which it might be considered a tribute or a remake, depending on your mood.

The idea is that a group of older people, who for various reasons need a place to live or someplace to escape to, book a vacation to the titular hotel in India. It turns out that the promised luxury is more hope than reality, but the absolutely charming but incompetent hotel manager, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel, whom we've seen in The Last Airbender and Slumdog Millionaire), wins them over, at least for a while.

Marriages break up. Old love is recaptured. New love is discovered. Lives are repurposed. The hotel is saved. A family is reconciled. Starcrossed lovers are united. Characters whom the writers can't think of anything more to do with conveniently die.

In short, it's a grown-up movie, but that doesn't mean it's deep or arty or Significant. It's fluff, but it's my kind of fluff, and I enjoyed every predictable moment of it. I laughed out loud; I got teary-eyed; I saw wonderful sights in India; I liked all the characters; I liked all the tried-and-true actors. I had a good time.

Best picture? Oh come on. Good picture? Yes indeed. And it's making enough money worldwide to encourage independent producers to make more grownup comedies.

*

Maybe the best thing about Comic-Con in San Diego is San Diego. Warm during the day but not too warm -- the Alaska current keeps it cooled off as long as the breeze blows in from the sea. At nights, the drier air cools off so there's relief, and sometimes even a chill.

The city itself has charm, and it's big enough, and Californian enough, that there are even some terrific restaurants.

Of course we went back to Top of the Market, the upstairs room at The Fish Market -- it's where my daughter Emily and I pitched our manga Laddertop to our publisher four years ago, so it not only has great food, but also it has some history in our family.

But we also made some great discoveries. For instance, breakfast at The Mission, an Asian-Latin restaurant, was extraordinary. Huge hearty pancakes with sausage and scrambled eggs -- but also french toast, rosemary potatoes, a zen breakfast with tofu and brown rice, chicken-apple sausage and eggs, sweet-corn tamales -- not what you'd find around Greensboro, but everything tasted good.

And the Mexican hot chocolate was the best I've had. (The Mission has several locations, including 2801 University Ave. (28th St.).)

Then there was a dinner at The Farm House Café (2121 Adams Ave.), an extraordinary California French that for quality and creativity rivals the best French restaurants I've eaten at in France and in America. The place is tiny, so reservations are required, but the service is perfect and the pace of dining is leisurely -- somewhere between France (four hours) and the normal in-and-out-in-75-minutes of an American restaurant.

I had the lamb bolognese fettucini; it looked like a small serving but ended up being perfect, since I also had a tomato/buratta salad and the best pot de creme I've had in my life for dessert.

Everyone else was equally delighted with their meals, and there is no chance I'll go to San Diego again without making sure to have reservations for at least one meal at The Farm House.

But just to prove I'm not just a food snob, we also went to a burger joint: Tioli's Crazee Burger (4201 30th St., San Diego). Here's the review I just posted on Zagat: "We heard from a friend that this was the best hamburger in San Diego, and he was right. Good meat cooked exactly to each preference, good bread, definitely not greasy, with sweet potato fries on the side -- what more could I ask for? One of our party had the buffalo-meat burger, another ordered vegetarian; from exotic to comfort food, Tioli's does it right.

"Decor is corner diner; service is order-at-the-counter, they-bring-it-to-the-table." I hope they become a chain and open a restaurant in Greensboro; but until that unlikely event, I'll have to make sure I stay in San Diego long enough on each visit to have dinner here, too.

And it's worth saying: If a place like Tioli's Crazee Burger can prepare a burger so perfectly that the bun has no grease at all on it, why can't other burger places achieve this feat as well?

At a much-touted burger place in Greensboro, the bun was so soaked with grease it dissolved completely around the meat, making the thing inedible -- I ended up holding the meat by the lettuce. Maybe that's what some people like, but to me a lot of burgers are really just an excuse for pouring lard down your throat.

Of course, as good as the food was in San Diego, we barely loaded our luggage out of the car into the house before we headed for Green Valley Grill and the heirloom tomato salad. It's the perfect antidote for a day of airports.

*

Years ago I saw a truly awful late-night television ad Piers Anthony created for one of his books, and I concluded that you just can't advertise books on TV.

Well, I was wrong -- you just have to keep the author's face off the screen. The model is to create something like a movie trailer. And you don't have to pay television ad rates, now that the internet offers so many ways to reach people for free.

Here's an exemplary book trailer created by the author, Lisa M. Stasse, for her debut Young Adult novel The Forsaken: http://sn.im/forsakenbooktrailer (Full URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtIwks26SZU)

*

I can't fairly review my own work, but I am happy to tell you that the first Ender's Game prequel, Earth Unaware, the first of the Formic Wars novel series, cowritten with my good friend and brilliant fellow-writer Aaron Johnston, is now on the stands.

It's the story of the people who have the first encounters with the aliens whose invasion of Earth gave rise to the story told in Ender's Game. One character from the Ender series appears in this book -- though only briefly (he returns big time in the next volume).

Most of our time is spent with the people who are working in the Kuiper Belt, in the outer reaches of the solar system -- the people who are first to see and first to suffer from the invaders, who seem to make no effort to communicate before they start killing.

Aaron Johnston scripted the Formic Wars graphic novel series (Burning Earth; Silent Strike) from Marvel Comics; now we're creating novel versions of the same story. In a novel, we have room to really flesh out the stories -- the characters, the relationships, and a lot of what lies behind and around the action.

What with lead time, it's been a year since we finished writing it, but I got an advance copy of the audiobook and I've been listening to it for the past week or so. The readers do a great job with it -- and I'm delighted with the fact that if anything the book is even more enjoyable a year later! I hope you'll like it, too.


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