Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 17, 2013
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Don Jon, Pop-up Promos, GPS, Snacks
Most people don't lose a lot of sleep over the distinction between "decorum" and "morality" in
the storytelling arts.
But I find that most of the time when people say a movie or book is "immoral," they mean that
it's indecorous -- that it shows characters doing unpleasant or immoral things, with a degree of
detail that makes it unpleasant or (often at the same time) enticing to watch.
Flip this over, and you'll find people touting certain books or movies as "moral" and "clean,"
when what they really mean is that they contain nothing obviously offensive.
Does the distinction matter? I think so.
Moral stories often have to show people doing immoral things -- the Bible itself is a prime
example. How can you show that being good is better than being bad, if you don't ever show
anybody doing anything bad?
Don Jon, a movie that is totally the product of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's imagination, is quite
indecorous, and yet the overall effect is deeply moral.
That is, it encourages people to change their behavior in emulation of characters who discover
ways to be happier and more civilized in their relationships with other people.
Yet from the first sentence, it is abrasively offensive to anyone who prefers not to hear constant
cursing and repulsive sex talk.
The storyline is simple enough. Jon is a pretty good-looking working-class young man who is
known among his sex-obsessed buddies as "Don Jon" because he always brings home a different
babe and beds her.
Yet Jon himself (played by Gordon-Levitt) finds sex with real women curiously unsatisfying.
They never live up to his pleasure expectations, while the women in porn vids are always eager
to do things that real women generally prefer not to.
Then he becomes obsessed with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), at first because of her physical
attractiveness, then because she refuses to sleep with him, and finally because he accepts her as
his master, and tries to do whatever it takes to please her.
When Barbara finds out that he is "cheating" on her with obsessive porn consumption, she drops
him, feeling betrayed.
And he did betray her, at least in that he made a promise and broke it.
What neither of them realize (but the audience and the movie itself do understand) is that
Barbara is actually a terrible choice for him, because for all that she demands that he become his
"best self," in fact she is using her own definition of "best" and has nothing but contempt for
his actual desires and goals.
In the midst of this, Jon runs into a fellow evening school student, Esther (played by Julianne
Moore). Moore is a bit strained and awkward in her performance as a "broken angel" -- a "free
spirit" with a dark past -- but she's still a good enough actress to bring across the point: She sees
and accepts Jon for what he is.
When she helps him overcome his porn addiction, it is for his sake, not like Barbara, who wants
to reshape him until he satisfies her "list" -- her requirements for what a man must be like in
order to please her.
It's a movie about growing up, about self-mastery. Psychologists measure maturity in part by
the degree to which someone has acquired the civilizing skills of "delay of gratification" and
"resistance to temptation."
The story is delightfully doubled in Jon's relationship with his parents and his sister. The
parents -- played brilliantly by Tony Danza and Glenne Headly -- seem to double Jon and
Barbara: Dad as a selfish TV-sports-and-beer addict, crude and angry; Barbara as the patient
wife and mom, wishing only the best for her children.
But as the movie proceeds, we find Dad gradually changing his behavior to show a little more
concern for other people; but Mom's "perfect virtue" is revealed, like Barbara's, as a kind of
The irony is that the men's selfish behavior is obvious and therefore they can recognize it and
change. But the selfishness of Mom and Barbara masquerades as virtue and altruism, and
therefore there is no hope at all of their changing.
Meanwhile, the sister, who spends most of the movie blandly staring into her smartphone, finally
speaks up near the end, putting things in perfect perspective, using information she learned from
Barbara's Facebook posts and her own observation.
This is a wise movie about human nature, about relationships, about growing up, about
Yet from beginning to end, the F-word is used the way most people use apostrophes -- stuck
into all kinds of situations where it doesn't belong. Maybe people from New Jersey really talk
this way at home, at the dinner table -- I personally doubt it, but what do I know?
Oddly enough, for a movie about pornography, the visuals are oddly chaste. Indeed, one of
the points the director makes is that a lot of ordinary advertising is just one step away from
pornography -- a huge proportion of the visual images our society consumes are borderline
If you want to watch porn, this movie about porn is a poor choice. The R rating is earned -- by
language, crudeness of speech, and sexual situations, but not by on-screen sex-acts.
In other words, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was very careful, in this movie about porn, never to allow
it, even for a moment, to be porn.
Do I recommend Don Jon? Come on. After all I've said in this review, do you really need to
ask? Brilliant performances? Smart writing? Sharp directing? A powerful and timely moral
message? Yes. See it! If you can take it.
In the end, it has a kind of beauty and grace. But the experience will be brutal to many viewers;
and to those to whom it isn't brutal, I can only say, "I'm so sorry that you live a life in which
things like this are commonplace."
That's right. I'm not going to see Gravity. Two reasons:
1. I don't wear 3D glasses. No movie is worth the headache.
2. The story sounds like 1950s print science fiction. Hollywood comes to an idea sixty years
late, but they're so ignorant they think they've invented the wheel. Yeah, we get it, it's lonely
out in space. Especially when you don't know the laws of physics ...
Syria is gassing its own citizens, Nigeria has Muslims massacring Christian villages, Iran
promises to nuke Tel Aviv ...
But I'm so shallow, so self-centered, that I'm actually going to spend a few hundred words
griping about "problems" so trivial that I'm ashamed I even notice them.
Yet they really tick me off because, unlike the world and national problems listed above, they're
happening to me and they happen a lot.
Thus the old joke: I break a leg? Tragedy. You break a leg? Sympathy. That other guy breaks
a leg? Comedy.
So here's one: those maddening pop-up promos that most of the networks are using now.
Perfect example: The other night, my wife is watching Chicago Fire. It was a climactic scene.
They had just saved someone from a fire. Intense emotion.
And at the bottom right of the screen, up pops a character from Sean Saves the World. He
jumps around, cavorts across the bottom of the screen, and finally lands on a couch on the
Every film and stage director knows that they eye is drawn to movement. So to run such a
bouncy promo during a time of stillness in the show we're actually watching makes it almost
impossible to continue paying attention to what's happening in the scene.
Not only that, they're promoting a comedy show in the midst of a drama. A real mood-breaker.
As my wife says, "It shattered my emotional connection to that episode of Chicago Fire. And
made me vow never to watch Sean Saves the World."
Why do networks do this to their own shows? Because they're desperate to attract audiences to
their less popular shows. And they can't exactly buy commercials on other networks to attract
viewers to their shows -- NBC is not going to let ABC or CBS promote their shows, not for any
amount of money!
So the networks can only sell their underperforming shows to the viewers of their other shows.
Since we either get up and go to the john during commercial breaks, or time-delay our viewing
so we can fast-forward through the ads, the only time they can be sure of reaching us is during
the actual shows.
But come on, by a quick raise of hands, let's see: How many of you hate those pop-up promos?
That's what I thought. You aren't even reading this column, you're fast-forwarding through the
paper to get to "Under the Hammer."
Second thing that makes me crazy: GPS mistakes.
The built-in GPS in my car consistently shows me on the map as being about fifty yards ahead of
my actual position. This means it's telling me to turn now now now when I still have a ways to
It's fine when there's no other road, so the real turn is the only possible place where I can
comply. But there are times when there is a road in the spot where it's telling me turn now --
only it's not the correct road.
Sometimes the problem is with insane highway design, so you can't blame the GPS. For
instance, if you're northbound on US 29 between Cone Blvd. and the Hicone Rd. exit, there's a
place where you can turn left across traffic to get onto ... O. Henry Blvd.
But ... but ... US 29 is O. Henry Blvd., isn't it?
Well, yes and no. At that spot, nearly across from Joe Brown Dr., North O. Henry Blvd. splits,
and this narrow road on the west side is also O. Henry Blvd.
So if your destination requires it, the GPS tells you to turn left onto the road you think you're
already on. And there's no sign explaining this or even naming the road.
You drive north on this parallel road and the GPS tells you to turn right on Pineneedle Dr. Uh-oh. The road ends, and the only street sign says that you've got to turn left or right on Wilcox
Dr. You have to look off to the right to see that if you turn right on Wilcox, it takes a sudden left
turn and becomes Pineneedle.
The GPS can hardly be blamed for the incredibly bad signage on Greensboro's roads.
Sometimes, though, the GPS gets flat-out lost. I was taking a friend home the other night after a
church activity. His family had just moved, and I hadn't been to the new house yet.
So I entered the address, correctly, into my GPS. We're getting near the right number, and my
friend says, "Coming up. Here it is. Turn here. This is it. That was it. Go back."
The trouble is, the GPS is telling me I still have a half-mile to go. So I say, "Indulge me. Let's
see what corner of the universe the GPS wants to take me to."
We were on Mt. Hope Church Rd., and the GPS took us practically to the freeway before it
assured us that yes, indeedy, we had arrived at our destination.
It was an empty field. But it was so confident, so proud of having brought us there.
We went back, of course, to where my friend was pretty sure he lived, because his mom was
there and so was all his stuff.
In the driveway, I instructed the GPS to record "current location" as the new address for that
destination. What it recorded was a nonexistent house number about forty off from the one the
Post Office delivers mail to.
It wouldn't matter much, if we hadn't become so dependent on GPSs. But just as we hardly
remember phone numbers anymore, because our smartphones remember them for us, so also we
trust so implicitly in our GPSs, and sometimes they're just plain wrong.
And that's the stuff that's really frosting me ... when I'm not thinking of the many massacres of
Christians by "pious" Muslims in Nigeria.
I take my duties as a reviewer of "everything" seriously. I'm always on the lookout for items
that might be good or bad, so I can bravely sample them and call your attention to them.
If, along the Hero's Path, I find myself eating something delicious, well, that's just the price I
have to pay.
On a recent visit to Earth Fare, I picked up a selection of three kinds of treats.
First, from The Good Bean, I chose four different flavors of "all natural chickpea snacks."
(For those who have never put it together, "chickpea" and "garbanzo bean" are names for the
I'm a fan of garbanzo beans, both intact in salads and as the base of hummus. So how could I
lose with dry roasted chickpea snacks? I picked up Sea Salt, Smoky Chili & Lime, Sweet
Cinnamon, and Cracked Pepper.
They're all winners. Chili & Lime is strong but not annoyingly so; Sweet Cinnamon was my
favorite. My wife really liked the Sea Salt.
The trouble -- or the benefit, depending -- is that they are also very, very dry. You can't really
eat them by the handful, not without a liter of water at hand. After just a few, you're done.
Now, if you want a snack to munch on during a movie (at home, of course, since theaters
reputedly arrest you for bringing in a snack they don't sell), one small package of Good Bean
snacks will last you the whole movie.
If your goal is to have a snack that you only eat in tiny increments, so that you don't glut on it
and gain weight ("healthy" snacks still have calories, my child, says my parental conscience),
then these are good ones.
The trouble is that in North Carolina's humid climate, snacks that come in a package you can't
reseal must be eaten quickly, before they get moist and start getting soggy and clumpy.
For some of you, these (vegan, high fiber, gluten free) Good Beans may be the perfect snack.
For me and my wife, not so much.
Plentils, on the other hand -- crunchy air-puffed lentil chips -- are compulsively edible, as
most puffed snacks are. They feel like you're eating air, because you mostly are.
We tried the Light Sea Salt flavor, and besides the benefit of "40% less fat than the leading
potato chip" with "no artificial anything" and "gluten free" and "free of the 8 common
allergens" -- it has an additional drawback/benefit: The flavor of lentil chips is rather odd and
takes a bit of getting used to.
At first, you mostly taste the salt and feel the crunch. Then the flavor of the chip itself emerges.
I'm not sure if it's the taste of "gluten free" or of "no artificial anything," but there's an aftertaste
that makes me want to taste something else. It's not awful. It's not even bad. It's just ... odd.
When you think about it, we usually accompany potato chips and corn chips with some kind of
dip or flavored coating. Just because Plentils ask to be mixed with something else isn't really a
strike against them. And between that sentence and this, I took another handful and I'm chewing
and yes, it's still odd, but it's also good.
Maybe it's just the crispy crunch and the rush of salt. Why shouldn't "healthy" food confer
those addictive benefits?
The third snack food I brought home was two flavors of a sunflower-and-grain nugget called
I got two flavors -- Pacific Sea Salt and Dutch Cocoa. I never realized that there was any
significance to the particular ocean that sea salt comes from. Now, the difference between
Atlantic and Pacific salmon, halibut, and crab is huge, mostly because they're different species.
But isn't salt just NaCl, no matter which ocean it comes from? Isn't the whole business with
"sea salt" just that it's less refined than the iodized grocery store salt? And if it matters whether
it's from the Pacific, then shouldn't it also matter whether it's from the Taiwanese, Peruvian,
Alaskan, Mexican, or New Zealand shore?
Or are there great salt trawlers roaming the Pacific, sampling the ocean water and stopping to
scoop up and distill only the salt from the finest regions, with the best-tasting krill and algae and
fish poop to lend it a fine bouquet?
Never mind the silliness of Food Marketing. The official benefit of Somersaults is that they
"celebrate the power of seeds!"
"Seeds are the new nut," they proclaim.
I'll buy that. I do love sunflower seeds, and so do the birds and rodents in our yard. In fact,
even birds that officially eat only fruit or insects have been spotted shnarfing up sunflower seeds
when they think nobody is looking.
Here's the thing about Somersaults. Compared to the Good Bean and the Plentils, they have a
very plain flavor at first.
But more than either of the others, Somersaults grow on you. They become compulsively
The Dutch Cocoa flavor is not sweet. It's a slightly bitter chocolate and at first that can be
surprising, even off-putting. But because it isn't sweet, it doesn't cloy.
But the Pacific Sea Salt flavor has no negatives. It's plain delicious and you can enjoy the
crunch and the flavor while feeling smug about how "somersaults boast as much protein as
almonds with just half the fat."
I wasn't worried about how fatty almonds were. But if you're allergic to tree nuts, you'll turn to
Somersaults because they contain none (though they do contain wheat).
Every one of these treats is worth trying -- things that bother me (dry chickpeas; slight aftertaste
on the Plentils) may not bother you.
And I just discovered that if you take one Dutch Cocoa Somersault nugget and one Pacific Sea
Salt Somersault nugget in the same bite, then the combination is like a sea-salt chocolate bar
with a robust sunflower taste and crunch. Highly recommended.
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