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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 2, 2012

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


Ticking Clocks, Gravity, Fooling Houdini

I don't want to be grumpy about a good, entertaining movie, but I've been hearing critics and other movie-watchers saying extravagant things about The Dark Knight Rises, with a few going so far as to suggest that it might be among the best movies ever made.

Puh-leeeze. It isn't even the best movie this summer.

It packs an emotional wallop. Lots of heroic people doing brave stuff with cool machines. Some personal touches that bring a tear to the eye. And after Christopher Nolan's annoyingly irresolute ending to Inception, it was nice that he showed a bit of kindness to the audience at the end of this movie.

Christian Bale brings a level of power and depth to the character of Bruce Wayne that makes the writing seem better than it was. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a strong bid to steal the movie, and sets himself up as the heir to Tom Hanks, who was himself the heir to James Stewart as America's Most Beloved Actor. Anne Hathaway is dazzling as Selina (aka Cat Woman), probably the best-written character in the movie. And Gary Oldman and Michael Caine come as close to chewing the scenery as the best British actors ever allow themselves to do.

But the manipulative strings are ridiculously obvious. Oh, an orphanage, of course. And then a bus full of orphans at a bridge. The old butler who quits because he doesn't want to watch his beloved young master die. It all works in the moment. But when you watch it again later, you're going to be a little embarrassed at how easily your emotions were manipulated by cheesy writing.

And here's a notice to Hollywood: We're totally, absolutely done with the lame LED display countdown. Especially when it makes no sense except to make a studio executive feel relieved because the movie has its formulaic "ticking clock."

Here are some reasons why it's shameful for this movie to have that LED display. First, the bomb was not built to be a bomb. It was built to be part of a fusion reactor (cool design, by the way, guys), which was then jury-rigged to be a bomb. Did the LED countdown clock get installed at that point by the renegade Russian scientist who weaponized it? Why? Who was ever going to sit there and watch it?

And what exactly was the clock counting down? The reason the fusion core could be weaponized was that it became "unstable." Unstable things are not predictable. You don't get countdowns. You get something far more powerful: the bomb that could go off at any time.

Remember Leslie Arzt in the TV series Lost? How he warns them that the unstable old dynamite sticks in the wreck of the ship could go off at any time? And then while he's in midsentence, it goes off? No LED countdown. But we knew that from then on, when somebody said something bad could happen at any time, it really could happen at any time -- and that makes it a far more dangerous and powerful story.

There was way too much precision in that "unstable" fusion core. "Could go off at any time, with the odds getting greater after a couple of days," would have been more believable, and we wouldn't have had to be slapped in the face with the writers' use of a desperate cliche every time the camera cut to that LED.

Especially because it got mind-numbingly stupid right at the end. We were told that the bomb would destroy everything alive in a six-mile radius. But it's a nuclear weapon. It doesn't have an "edge" where everything outside it is safe. But let's grant them their ridiculously precise six miles. That means that Batman has to get the bomb at least three miles away. But when he clears the edge of the coastline of Gotham, heading out to sea, he's got what, ten seconds or so?

Is he moving at the rate of three miles a second? That's more than ten thousand miles an hour. We've already seen how fast the flying bat vehicle can go, and it's not even close. But let's say it has hitherto unseen speed, and can accelerate to the necessary speed in that amount of time. Even with an autopilot, before Batman could eject he'd be dead from the g-force of the acceleration. Besides, the lift and acceleration of the vehicle were provided by propellers, or so it seemed. Even jets can't bring off speeds like that. We've never built anything that can reach such speeds so quickly.

Dumb dumb dumb. All because they have the ticking clock. Can we please go back to the original ticking clock in High Noon and notice how obvious and tedious the device seems now? Director Fred Zinneman was trying to get inside Gary Cooper's mind {including having a really bad song playing over and over and over again, providing the most annoying score in all of movie history).

But endless screenwriting classes have turned a clunky one-time device into an asinine formula that insults the audience every time it's taken literally. Audiences should groan aloud or throw things at the screen every time we see a literal ticking clock on the screen.

Instead, that sense of time pressure should be done subtly and realistically. Think of Heaven Can Wait. The "ticking clock" comes from the need to get results before the Superbowl, and then before the end of overtime in that game. But we're never shown the game clock.

Back to The Dark Knight Rises. Let's talk about the stupidity of the bus on the bridge. They already know that the authorities on the other side won't let them off the island. And with the radiation that is bound to come at the edges of the kill zone, what those orphans needed was to get as far underground as possible.

But we got the scene anyway because it gave us a confrontation between Hero B and Mindless Authority.

Except that Mindless Authority was completely correct and Hero B was an idiot. The writing wasn't so much bad as it was contemptuous of the audience. This movie was pervaded by an attitude of "good enough for the idiots in the audience." Though, to be fair, it might really have been an attitude of "good enough for the idiots at the studio." But either way, we're going to hate ourselves in the morning.

It's like Titanic. Great movie. Best picture Oscar. Cool special effects. Crying teenage girls in the audience. But when you listen now to the poor actors saying the absurd lines that showed the writer's contempt for the audience, it's just embarrassing. The sinking sequence is still worth watching -- with the sound turned way down.

Even the cleverest things were obvious: Of course you have to take off the safety rope to climb out of the pit. Duh. ("Use the Force, Luke!") Of course the unreliable ally shows up to save Hero A just in time -- just as Han Solo comes back in the nick of time to cover Luke's behind. Any surprises? Only if this is the first movie you ever saw.

Does this mean I think Dark Knight Rises is a bad movie? Of course not. There are dumb kludges in most movies. Things you have to forgive or overlook. As Johnny Carson used to say, "Buy the premise, buy the bit."

It's a comic book about a guy who puts on a ridiculous suit to keep one city safe by beating the bad guys one or two at a time. Obviously we're switching off large sections of our brain right from the start. And that's fine. Or, rather, that's Art.

But there have been better movies. This year. This summer. This month. Just not more popular movies. (And there have also been far worse movies.)

This is a sequel with two previous movies to build our emotional investment. And lots more if you count all the other Batman stuff that has built up the franchise over the decades. It's still a legacy of the death of Heath Ledger and the strength of Michael Keaton's Batman and our nostalgia for the Adam West TV series. There's nothing wrong with the fact that we're happy to spend money having a bit of a thrill and some emotional stroking.

But nothing close to greatness has been attempted or achieved. It's a really well done paint-by-numbers movie. That's no small achievement, considering how many movies can't even paint by the numbers.

*

It's a relief to find a popular science book that is actually smart all the way through -- one that draws clear lines between what is science and what is speculation. Such a book is Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives.

Author Brian Clegg likes to hover at the edges of physics and metaphysics, but he keeps a tight hold on what is known as opposed to what is merely imagined. He also is willing to take us into territory where you aren't going to be able to truly "get it" without having more math than most of us ever picked up.

The result is that there are large swathes of the book -- especially toward the end -- where most of us have to take his word for it. But it's a testimony to what a good writer Clegg is that even in those sections, it's still highly readable and it still makes sense. We may not understand the math behind it, but we trust the conclusions Clegg draws from it.

Particularly because Clegg never indulges in the kind of wholesale overclaiming that mars most cutting-edge science writing. I remember when the first books about molecular psychology came out. Oh, they were full of marvelous claims: Now we will understand exactly where consciousness comes from! What causes schizophrenia! Why there is no need for the soul to explain anything!

Now, a couple of decades later, we're finding out that there's a lot more to mental illness than heredity or physical brain dysfunction; we are no closer to discovering what consciousness is (though the claim of closeness continues unabated); and grownups know that the concept of the soul is not even on the table when we're discussing science, which has no tools to test the question.

Overclaiming is natural, when you're enthusiastic about new discoveries. Even truly distinguished, brilliant thinkers like Stephen Pinker have fallen into the trap and embarrassed themselves. So when you find a writer who watches the boundary between the known and the supposed, between the hoped-for and the achieved, you have to give him his due. Even if that means he doesn't get all the headlines that the overclaimers get.

So yes, Gravity is not really aimed at people who never paid attention in science class in high school. There are bits you probably won't fully understand. It will stretch your mind a little. But it also won't make you stupider for having read it, as too many science books do.

*

Let me warn you right off the bat: In Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, & the Hidden Powers of the Mind, magician/author Alex Stone does not reveal any of the machinery of the truly complicated tricks of the magic trade.

But he does lay out the principles that underlie the whole idea of legerdemain, illusion, magic. The work that you have to go through to become a world-class performer.

I have a friend from college days, Jerry Argetsinger, who is an excellent magician, ranging from close-up card work to huge stage effects. When he can, without breaking the code, he has helped me see how a few rudimentary tricks are done. He has also shown me, again and again, just how much magic depends on far more than mere misdirection. The sheer deftness of a good magician is a wonder to behold. You don't get that good without hours -- and years -- of practice.

The story of Fooling Houdini is simply wonderful -- as good as a novel, I think, and yet all true. It beings with Stone's first attempt to perform competitively on a world stage -- and his humiliation as he realized just how hard it is to compete at such a high level.

But after a period of giving up magic, Stone returns -- with a grim determination to learn from the best and become, if not one of the great ones, then at least adequate to play with the big boys. He disciples himself to some prickly, eccentric characters who seem to come straight out of Dickens -- but in fact lived (or still live!) in the real world.

Stone is an engaging writer, but he wisely spends his energy, not on trying to dazzle us with his writing, but telling us the truth as clearly as possible.

I'd love to see the movie of this -- but whom can you cast in the lead? It has to be someone who can actually do the work. Because if we cut away to someone else's hands doing the card tricks, the illusion is shattered.

So don't wait for the movie. Chances are it will suck anyway. Read this book. You'll enjoy it all the way through. Even if you are as maladroit as I am, unable to palm a coin or deal the second card from the deck.

*

Yeah, the author of the middle-grades book Scary School really does make public appearances under the name of "Derek the Ghost," though, fortunately, he is fully tangible and seems to have a beating heart.

The good news is that he's as funny in person as Scary School is from beginning to end. The idea of going to a school filled with monsters is one that, in lesser hands, could have become tedious by chapter three. But Derek T. G. brings it off, and while Scary School won't capture a kid's heart like the Harry Potter books, it will provide several delightful hours of fun.

And if you are a parent who likes to read aloud to your kids, I can guarantee you that the story is bright enough that your kids will laugh out loud -- while all but the most tender-hearted will go on to sleep without nightmares. In other words, the title may say "scary" but funny trumps scary all the way through.

*

It's a rainy day at the beach, as I'm writing this column. I'm perched in a comfortable house in the second row back from the beach in Avon, North Carolina, within walking distance of the ever-classy Spa Koru. This may be the ideal location for me to take a vacation. Especially since writers don't actually get vacations.

Well, let me be accurate. Writers take vacations whenever we want, but we don't get paid for them, and we feel guilty for every hour spent not writing. So it's a pleasant change to be a guilt-ridden underachiever at the beach rather than at home.

As always, some things change. The Village Grocery in Avon, for instance, which once offered high quality health food, has now gone so far downhill that we drive 46 miles to Kill Devil Hills to shop at the Harris Teeter there.

But there's a new juice shop called The Juice Stand, which offers excellent smoothies. Not cheapo from-a-mix smoothies. These smoothies are entirely made of real fruit and ice, with a little bit of water to let the blender do its work. Incredibly cheap at five bucks, though if you can't tell the difference between a mix and the real thing, I suppose it might seem expensive.

Because it's at the beach, The Juice Stand is truly laid back and informal. The owner's two-year-old is likely to be playing there. And it the shop does double duty -- there's also a tanning bed and a stand-up tanning unit.

The Juice Stand can be hard to find -- it occupies the back half of a building with a souvenir shop in the front. Look for it by finding longtime Avon landmark Nino's Pizza -- it's across the narrow parking lot.

Of course, for me it's on the way back to our rental house from a workout session at Spa Koru. Very convenient.

Meanwhile, even when the rain is falling, the beach is a wonderful place to be. Though people who get all romantic about "walking in the rain" are idiots. Walking in the snow is fun, because you can brush off the flakes. But rain goes straight through your beach clothes and soaks you and it's cold.

So instead we stay inside and watch movies and play Ticket to Ride and Wise and Otherwise, or drive the half-mile to Spa Koru, or read books, or just sleep.

Or write columns for weekly newspapers back home. It's all time well spent.


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