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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 19, 2014

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


Dragon, Rules, Swords, Storks, Clugs

When How to Train Your Dragon came out in 2010, it was clearly one of the best animated films. Ever. Period.

But it was also the same year as Toy Story 3. The movie that took a clever idea from the first movie and, two sequels later, brought it home as a great film.

Thus How to Train Your Dragon, which would have deserved the Best Animated Film Oscar in most other years, was shut out.

But now there's How to Train Your Dragon 2, and this, too, is a sequel that brings the original story to fruition.

I haven't read the books these films are based on, so I'm not sure how faithful the sequel was to any of the narratives. I'm inclined to wonder, because Hollywood barely knows how to tell stories about real heroes anymore.

Somehow, Dreamworks Animation managed to give us a story in which the peace-loving hero comes up against a bad guy who doesn't want peace, who relentlessly pursues war, and can only be defeated by having his means of warmaking taken away from him.

Which is, of course, the real goal in every war -- to destroy the enemy's capacity to inflict harm or resist your forces. It was what George W. Bush was heading toward achieving -- removing the safe havens for Islamic terrorists -- when a replacement President came in and undid all of Bush's achievements as quickly as he could. Mission almost totally accomplished now.

But not in How to Train Your Dragon 2. The hero, Hiccup, is several years older -- a more manly jaw, a somewhat deeper voice, a bit of facial hair, and a love interest. A kid's movie, growing up.

But it's a grownup movie in a lot of other ways. Good guys get defeated. Killed sometimes. Bad guys have complicated motivations -- yet can't just be "converted" to the good side with a hug and a few kind words. Hiccup is facing Hitler. He can't be appeased, because he wants war. And so the war goes on, and Hiccup has to find a way to lead his people to victory.

When all their dragons have been overmastered, captured by the dark forces of the enemy, the way they find mounts to ride is quite delightful.

I just hope people don't get the idea that sheep catapulting is fun. Not fun. Do not build real sheep catapults. Do not throw real sheep. It's only funny in cartoon movies with cartoon sheep.

The animation is excellent -- when Hiccup walks on his peg leg, it looked real. Then I noticed that all the walking looked real. This has long been something that bothered me with computer animation -- the walking problem. Somehow the process of walking never looked right, where the foot hit the ground. But now, some of those clever software engineers at Dreamworks or, perhaps, George Lucas's Marin County ranch have solved it.

And the art -- the textures weren't just repeating patterns, they contained scars and irregularities, things that made them look real. Well, not real -- you never think you're seeing things that actually exist, because as Polar Express proved, when you try for too much reality the results can be creepy. Still, we've come a long, long way since the flat pastels of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Or even the plasticine textures of Toy Story.

But the technical and artistic accomplishments would be empty if the story weren't wonderful. And it is. I was moved by the heroism -- and by the fact that the hero was honored by his people. That so rarely happens -- in our culture, we're much more likely to vilify or marginalize our true heroes.

I think what I'm saying is: This isn't a romantic comedy like Frozen (which was wonderful); this is a heroic comedy with a bit of romance in it, and some motherly love, and some fatherly love, and some coming of age. It's a movie adults will enjoy more than their kids -- but the kids will love it.

My wife and I brought no children with us to the theater. We didn't need kids to tell us the movie was a great one.

But if some grandkids need to see it (or see it again) while they're visiting with us this summer, we'll happily go watch How to Train Your Dragon 2 a second time. Maybe a third. It's that good.

*

I'm not always proud of the things I like. The first few times I happened upon an episode of Rules of Engagement on CBS I didn't find anything all that interesting going on.

But the show grew on me. At first I found the characters shallow and/or obnoxious. But I began to realize that they were deeper than they looked, that the actors and writers were engaged in a lovely dance. It's a shame I didn't discover Rules of Engagement till it was canceled by CBS.

Then again, that means I don't have to wait for a magical finale as I did with How I Met Your Mother. It's over. Done. There will come a day when I've seen them all.

This is David Spade's best iteration of his smarmy sex-starved loser persona -- it was a master stroke, giving his character money and a great sidekick (Timmy, played by the brilliant Adhir Kalyan).

But -- fortunately -- he is not the center of the action. That would be two couples, the married Jeff (Patrick Warburton) and Audrey (the amazing Megyn Price), and the overly pretty engaged-and-living-together couple, Adam (Oliver Hudson) and Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich).

It's a very tight little group -- but that's how sitcoms work, most of the time. The thing is, that tight group better be both endearing and funny. We have to laugh at them yet also like them. Yes, even David Spade's icky Russell Dunbar.

The show never got good reviews. I'm barely giving it a good review now. But the performers did a superb job with their material, and the material the writers gave them was much, much better than it seemed at first glance. Yes, they followed formulas constantly, and they do not subvert them openly the way Scrubs and Cougar Town do (and very entertainingly, I might add).

It's possible to watch Rules of Engagement and think that it really is just a formula show. But what the critics missed, the audience saw, and so the show lasted seven seasons and a hundred episodes.

And 100 episodes is the magic number that allows a series to go easily into strip syndication. Which is why I can TiVo it and binge watch two episodes a day.

The couples that annoyed me at first are now quite enjoyable. The actors are really gifted comedians. Plots that center around couples deceiving each other are more plausible than they needed to be, and often end quite intelligently, or at least realistically (that is, badly, with hard feelings).

It's true that Jeff's and Audrey's marriage is treated as a kind of open warfare. But in fact they quite obviously love each other, even if "in love" is a thing of the past. Neither of the couples sees themselves as a partnership between equals -- yet, strangely, over time it emerges that they are. And that there's a reservoir of good will they all can draw upon.

Someday, I'd like to see David Spade play a grownup role. I think he has it in him. But he's never taken the plunge Adam Sandler took in Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish, playing somebody real and, in the latter case, admirable.

Playing the grungy slimeballs he's specialized in since leaving SNL is working for him, of course, and in Hollywood, it's hard to step away from something that brings you regular paychecks.

But if we can buy Adam Sandler as a good husband and father in Spanglish, nobody can say that the audience won't follow an absurd farceur into something smarter. We're willing -- you just have to trust us and take the chance. Sometimes more than once.

Of course, Spade has never opened a hit movie, and Sandler has done so again and again. That means Sandler gets to change sandboxes now and then without endangering his career. And Spade doesn't ... so far.

There's a reason I'm bringing Adam Sandler into this, of course -- Rules of Engagement is produced by Happy Madison Productions, Adam Sandler's company. Now that Rules of Engagement is over, bringing in money in syndication (the aftermarket is where TV producers make their real profits), I'll be interested to see if Happy Madison brings us more series that come so perilously close to excellence.

I'll also be looking for these actors again. All of them, but especially Megyn Price and Adhir Kalyan. If Christina Applegate can have a strong career after Married with Children, playing characters quite different from the type she did so memorably there, then surely we can see these actors again in years (and shows) to come.

*

Growing up as Boy Two in a cluster of three brothers, I recognized immediately, when the last wrapping paper came off a cardboard roll at Christmastime, that the cardboard tube that remained was either a trumpet, a rifle, or a sword.

And sword was best. "Rifle" could be simulated like air guitar, just by holding our arms in the right position. We didn't really need the tube.

"Trumpet" was frustrating once I actually started playing a brass instrument -- the embouchre of a cardboard tube was impossible even for a tuba player, and the tone was weak and thin.

But as a sword, those cardboard tubes excelled. If we got stabbed with one, it didn't hurt much, and it wasn't going to put our eyes out. Mostly, though, we slashed with them, and even though crossing swords eventually broke them down, there were always more "swords" where those came from.

The idea, with toy swords, is that they must hold their shape -- long and thin -- under sustained combat use, and they must not hurt much or cause real damage, because what would be fun about that? (That attitude is why I hated football when they made us play in seventh-grade P.E.)

You could buy toy guns, or make them out of sticks or, well, anything. That's because you don't play with toy guns by smacking them into each other or hitting people with them.

But toy swords have to last long and they have to be long. A few manufacturers tried to make toy swords, but they were always too short -- or too hard, so they hurt, or too flexible, so they bent.

After Star Wars came out, toymakers figured out how to make pretty good "light sabers" -- really just plastic tubes very much like those wrapping paper rollers -- but then the problem was they were too hard and still not long enough.

"Real" light sabers would have been lasers, and nobody was going to give us toy lasers to play with. Besides, light can't be made to act like the light sabers in the Star Wars movies, so ... the toys were fakey and awful, but better for regular sword play than anything except, of course, cardboard wrapping paper tubes.

(I must also point out that by the time Star Wars came out I was in my late twenties and didn't play with toy swords anymore. And though I briefly joined the SCA [Society for Creative Anachronism], I never engaged in medieval combat because their swords were not toys.)

Now a terrible thing has happened in the wrapping paper industry. The old cardboard wrapping paper tubes are largely gone. They have been replaced by open tubes of stiff paper, which do not hold their shape and therefore make really crummy toy swords.

Smack two of these modern tubes together and they both fold.

Have we forgotten what all that wrapping of presents was really about? The pretty gifts were nice, but the real purpose was to put safe fake swords in the hands of children!

Now, at long last, someone has invented safe-yet-fun toy swords that are worth buying because they're worth playing with. They're called Prime Swords, and the prototype designs look great.

The swords are made with detachable "blades," hilts, and fingerguards; you can buy several different styles of sword and then reassemble them in any combination. So your sword really can be different from other kids' swords that came from the identical set!

The prototyping has been done, Prime Swords have been tested for safety and fun, and now all that's needed is enough capital to get these swords manufactured and into the marketplace.

They will also need a marketing campaign, which usually means having a major toy company pick up the product, advertise it on TV, and get it into Toys R Us.

But I think Prime Swords may very well sell themselves on the internet, once they exist. I know that the moment I first saw a picture of them, I wanted to buy them for my grandkids, the children of friends, and random children on the street.

Then I saw this video.

You'll learn three things from watching this. First, the swords are way cool and kids will love them. Second, this is a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign with about a month to go to raise a total of $40,000.

Third, the creator of Prime Swords, Tyler Richins, seems like a really nice guy, and the video promoting the Kickstarter campaign is a delightful combination of amateurish and professional. So you can believe that the swords will actually be marketable, good toys -- and yet they're not the product of some cynical child-exploiting toy company.

Not that I mind cynical child-exploiting toy companies, as long as the toys themselves are reasonably safe, well-made, and fun.

Prime Swords will soon exist because Tyler Richins was a dad who made really cool toys for his kid and then realized that maybe other, less talented dads would like to get the same toys for their kids.

And they will exist because other dads and moms saw the Kickstarter campaign and joined in with contributions as small as a single dollar. Pledge at least thirty dollars, and you can have a sword once they start getting manufactured.

But I'd pledge that much even without the promise of a sword, just so they could exist; then I'd pay again to buy actual swords.

And, yeah, sure, of course I'll make sure my fullgrown brothers all have swords, too, and then I'll challenge them the next time we're all together. We're getting old, but we remember what fun was, back when we were in good enough shape to have it.

*

While I was on Kickstarter looking at Prime Swords, I ran across a couple of other projects that are about to succeed in getting their funding.

One is called StorkStand. It's a small desk that mounts on the back of your office chair, so you can operate a laptop while standing.

As someone who has often entered the wonderful world of back pain because of sitting at a computer desk for many hours in a row, to take a break and stand while still working is an excellent change.

There are people who can't sit at a desk for more than a few hours, or, in some cases, a few minutes. For them, a standing desk is a necessity. But standing desks are often quite expensive.

The StorkStand, however, mounts quickly and nondestructively on the back of the office chair you probably already have. It's worth seeing the video about it, though I'm not sure how Kickstarter works -- will the campaign video remain in place even after the campaign succeeds and the deadline is passed?

It probably won't matter -- because there's a website where you can preorder StorkStand, and it also has the same video created for Kickstarter: http://www.storkstand.com/

And here's the Kickstarter URL

One of the pleasures of the StorkStand video is that it includes the creator's experience of developing the product in a creative community -- a shop in San Francisco where people who are building many different prototypes work in the same space, sharing the same equipment -- and giving each other advice.

It makes the whole process of development seem exciting and fun.

In the video, the resulting product is demonstrated, including setup and takedown, often enough that you really see how easy it will be, once it's into production.

By the way, I think the StorkStand is likely to make an excellent lectern. Mount it on the back of a chair and start teaching, or giving your presentation, with a place to rest your notes and visual aids.

Good freestanding lecterns are almost as hard to find as standing desks -- and unlike most freestanding lecterns, StorkStand can be folded up and popped into the trunk or back seat after the presentation.

*

The third Kickstarter campaign that I liked was for a product called Clug -- the world's smallest bike rack.

The only real problem with the Kickstarter campaign is that the way you use the stylish little Clug is not immediately obvious. That's because part of its good design is that the means of attaching it to a wall is not visible.

But the video makes everything clear -- probably the best of these campaign videos: http://www.getclug.com/

Kickstarter URL

If you have and use one or more bicycles and then need to park them indoors, Clug is an efficient means of parking them vertically -- standing them on the rear tire, with the front tire held in place against the wall.

In an apartment or condo, in an office, or even in your garage or storage room, this is way more convenient then ceiling-mounted hooks you lift the bike onto, or standing the bike on the floor on a kickstand.

Here's something that's really fun: You can actually get your Clug now, as a printer file that you download and print on a 3D printer. Not owning such a printer, I can't try it out and tell you how well this works -- but I have to say that the very idea of distributing a physical, working tool as a downloadable, printable file is really amazing.

Maybe in five years we'll buy whole bikes or cars that way ... but for the moment, I'm impressed.


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