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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 31, 2014

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


Sex Tape, TP Party, Ukulele, Isotonic

I know. If you go to a movie entitled Sex Tape, you pretty much deserve what you get.

But my wife and I thought that with Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz headlining the show, we would at least enjoy their company for a couple of hours.

And we did. Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz are so likeable that even if they're in really stupid movies, and doing really offensive things, you still can't help but enjoy them.

But wait. What were we thinking? Cameron Diaz was in the execrable, relentlessly unfunny and unbelievable Bad Teacher, one of the rare movies my wife and I walked out of, not because we were offended, but because we weren't remotely interested in finding out what happened next.

Only if a terrorist attack killed every single character in the movie would it have been worth staying to see what happened next.

Comparatively speaking, then, it's not exactly a rave review to say that Sex Tape is way better than Bad Teacher, despite having the same director, Jake Kasdan.

It's not as good as Jason Segel's earlier feature film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was directed by Nicholas Stoller, who co-write Sex Tape.

I guess what I'm saying is that the movie could have been a lot worse. But it could have, and should have, been a lot better.

First of all, let's just say that if you don't want to see glimpses of nudity or hear bad or explicit language, why would you go to this movie? You can't be shocked or offended by things that are absolutely expected to be in a film.

But I did not expect Segel and Diaz to be quite so naked, quite so physically involved, or quite so brassily unsexy in the supposedly sexy sex tape stuff.

The whole movie sets up the premise that the sex tape this married couple makes is so sexy that it gets their friends too excited to keep themselves from having sex in the back of their car.

The tape is supposed to be the kind of thing that goes viral if it ever gets loose in the pornosphere.

But at the end of the movie, danger averted (it is a comedy, so happy endings are de rigueur), the couple watch their own tape for the first time and we're shown a long, long, loooooong series of clips from that tape.

Not one moment of it is sexually provocative. Not one moment shows any kind of affection or even sexual arousal on the part of the couple. In fact, not one moment suggests that they are married to each other or, for that matter, married to anybody.

In fact, with the exception of one brief passage in which Segel and Diaz work together smoothly to get the kids ready for school, there is nothing to suggest that anybody involved in creating this movie has ever been married, ever grew up in a family with married parents, or ever met any happily married people.

Nobody talked as if they really knew each other. Nobody touched each other as if they were comfortable with each other's bodies, or, for that matter, had any experience giving or getting sexual pleasure.

In fact, everybody involved with this movie approached sex with all the maturity and understanding of eager thirteen-year-old boys smuggling their first dirty magazine into the treehouse.

And, of course, in these internet days, that scenario is now absurd, since by age thirteen any kid who hasn't seen soul-numbingly explicit pornography, at least in passing, doesn't have access to a computer.

It's hard to have much respect for a movie about married people in which you can't believe the characters are or ever were married or even well acquainted with each other.

But ... this seems to be the age of comedies for adults written with all the life experience and cleverness of fourteen-year-olds. So, given the huge size of the audience for such films, many people might think I still haven't said anything bad about Sex Tape.

And I don't really want to say anything more, except that I'm sickened by the fact that yet again, in choosing a villain -- a precocious kid who copies the .mp4 file and tries to blackmail them for $25,000 -- they had to cast a chubby child actor in the role.

Really? You'd think in a movie starring Jason Segel, who has had weight issues of his own in the past (he slimmed down for this role), they wouldn't jump for the cliche that the bratty kid has to be on the fat side.

For what it's worth, the truly vile, mean, conniving, devilish children I knew growing up were, every single one of them, thin. The fat kids were all too busy scoping out candy bars and extra french fries to cause any serious trouble. (Imagine me saying this with an order of french fries in my hand.)

But the kid actor himself, Harrison Holzer, was fine. Almost likeable. Which is a good thing because everybody in this movie is likeable. Even the criminal pornography-site operator played by Jack Black was downright cuddly as he delivered his purportedly pro-marriage diatribe.

I also thought Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper, as the best friend couple whose marriage is even more dismal (and unbelievable) than Segel's and Diaz's, came close to stealing the likeability prize from Segel and Diaz.

Does likeability of the actors trump stupidity and unfunniness and unbelievability in the script? Apparently so. Because when all is said and done, I kind of liked Sex Tape.

I would rather boil every copy of the movie and shoot it into outer space than let any of my grandkids watch it. But for over-the-hill curmudgeons like me, who are capable of saying a phrase like "too much footage of Cameron Diaz naked" and meaning it, this isn't even close to making my Worst Movies Ever list.

But the movie did leave me wishing somebody would make a movie about marriage -- even a sex comedy -- that actually showed that the filmmakers understood anything about marriage. Especially anything about marriages good enough to be worth fighting for and saving.

It seems all that moviemakers want to show in marriage is how awful marriage is. Awfulness is, for hacks at least, the source of comedy. But marriages between good, faithful spouses who respect each other can be very funny and entertaining.

I'm trying to think back to any good examples. Parenthood has plenty of bad examples, but there were also moments that hinted at experience with marriage. And the great Lawrence Kasdan's classic Grand Canyon does a pretty good job.

What classic film about a believable marriage am I overlooking? No, not Rebecca or Gaslight.

I'm talking about regular people trying to do a good job. The film doesn't have to be about that. I'd just like to be reminded of a movie in which Hollywood shows that somebody there knows what a real marriage looks like.

*

Trivial Pursuit is one of the great games, and many have tried to imitate it. Most fail, because they don't understand how to write good questions, and that's what determines whether a trivia game is fun or not.

The writers of the TV game show Jeopardy and the creators of Trivial Pursuit have both mastered the same art: To make a clue entertaining and guessable.

Entertaining because if you didn't know the answer, you are at least mildly interested in learning the fact revealed by it.

Guessable, in that you don't expect people to know the weird detail at issue; instead, the question contains the little-known fact, and the answer is information that many people have at their fingertips.

So the good question is, "What South American city has a 98-foot statue of Christ overlooking it and its harbor?"

The bad question is, "How tall is the statue of Christ overlooking a famous Brazilian city?"

Even before the World Cup this year, most of us have seen images of the statue. But almost nobody could pull the statue's height, in feet, from their brains. What many people could guess, just from "South American," "harbor," and "statue of Christ" is the name "Rio" or "Rio de Janeiro."

And if you're playing a friendly game, "Rio" would be good enough.

Most Americans have no idea how to pronounce "Janeiro" correctly, anyway. The J is like the Z in "azure," and the EI is like the AY in "pay." The final O is a very brief version of the O in the English preposition "to." Were you saying it that way? Probably not.

But, come to think of it, we don't say "Rio" the way Cariocas do, either. Cariocas are people from Rio de Janeiro, and they pronounce the initial R as a guttural fricative, rather like the Yiddish CH in "chaim" or the French RH in "rhume." Other Brazilians may pronounce the initial R like a simple English H. The final O, again, is like the one in "to."

If you're learning Brazilian Portuguese, the pronunciation of these words is not trivial at all. But for the rest of us, it's pretty much useless information. If you pronounce Rio de Janeiro correctly while conversing in English, people might think that you're a twit.

They would be correct.

What makes a trivia question great is that getting the answer right doesn't prove you're a twit. If the question is "What mammal has the longest pregnancy?" then non-twits are likely to go with size and guess either elephants or whales.

But if the question is, "How many months is a normal elephant pregnancy?" and you come up with "22 months" without being a zoologist or a zookeeper, suspicions of twithood are going to arise.

Guess which one is the actual question from Trivial Pursuit Party?

Of course, there are some hilariously unguessable questions in a good deck of Trivial Pursuit cards. They're in the game because even the guy who's got all the doobers but one in his wheel will get it wrong, and the answer is intrinsically amusing.

For instance, "What is the official snowboarding term for riding right foot forward?"

Come on. If you're not actually a snowboarder you're not going to know this. You're not going to guess it. But everybody in the game will hoot with delight when they learn that the answer is "goofy."

Yes, really.

Which of these questions is worthy of being in Trivial Pursuit?

1. What literary work is considered the first "detective story"?

2. What character from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is considered to be the first literary detective?

3. Who is credited with writing the first detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"?

Many people can guess "Edgar Allan Poe" as the answer to number 3. Far fewer people could have pulled "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" out of their memories for number 1.

And come on, folks. If you can say "C. Auguste Dupin" off the top of your head as the answer to number 2, then you get to wear the twit hat -- unless you're playing with a bunch of literature majors.

And if you pronounce the name with an exaggeratedly correct French accent, you probably won't get invited to the next party.

Trivial Pursuit is a great game because almost every question on every card is well-written. The only exception is the sports trivia, and that's because people who have memorized vast arrays of names and statistics and records in sports are never considered twits, even though, in fact, it is no more twittish to know "Dupin" than to know who pitched the only no-hitter in a World Series game.

But if you can say "Don Larsen in game five of the 1956 World Series, pitching for the Yankees, who won the series over the Brooklyn Dodgers, 4 games to 3, in the last season before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles," everybody thinks you're cool.

I really hate the sports questions in Trivial Pursuit. Because most of the time, they're not guessable unless you carry around a statistical database in your head.

Regular Trivial Pursuit games can last for hours, as evenly matched individuals or teams struggle to get the right dice combinations to land on the official spaces for which correct answers will win you one of the six doobers.

And then, of course, you head for the middle, where your opponents can choose which category you have to answer correctly for the win.

Guess which category my opponents always make me answer?

The only way I win is if the question is not sports -- because they sometimes toss in some general-knowledge or lucky-guess questions just to give regular people a chance.

The thing is, unless you gather together for the express purpose of playing Trivial Pursuit, nobody's going to bring it out at a party, because the game takes too long.

So a lot of people adapted the rules to make the game faster and simpler. The most obvious rule variation is to make every colored space a doober-winner, and not just the six spaces at the ends of the paths from the center.

Another rule change that speeds up games is: No final center question. If you get a sixth doober, you win. Period.

In Trivial Pursuit Party, they make those changes, plus the doobers are all grey. That's right. You don't have to answer questions in all six categories, you just have to answer any six questions right.

And the board is smaller. And there are "wild spaces" where, if the person answering the question misses, it becomes a toss-up for all the other players.

You also have the option of asking another player for help. If you decide to use their answer, and it's right, you both get a doober.

Best of all, the more you know about Lord of the Rings, the better you're likely to do.

No, not really. But when we played the game the other night, Lord of the Rings came up twice. One of the questions required you to know six of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Come on, every educated person should be able to name all nine.

OK, I recognize that's at about the level of carrying around the name and team of the only World Series no-hitter. Sports fans would be ashamed not to know the one, and bibliophiles would be ashamed not to know the other.

Five of us went through five rounds in about an hour and a half -- incredibly fast for Trivial Pursuit, but normal for Trivial Pursuit Party.

And in TP Party you can't run the board. Your turn consists of one question, period -- whether you get it right or wrong, the die moves on to the next player.

So nobody can sweep the game -- keep answering question after question till their wheel is filled and they win.

In our five rounds, only one player won twice -- and it wasn't me. Everybody in the game was at least twenty years old, and college-educated -- but heavy reading of Entertainment Weekly and People is actually more advantageous than a college degree.

The point is that the game is quick, and far more likely to have a balanced outcome than regular Trivial Pursuit. So it's far more suitable to a party. A single game is over fairly quickly -- less than twenty minutes -- yet the questions are generally as good as regular Trivial Pursuit questions.

So even deeply committed Trivial Pursuit purists can enjoy a round or two of Trivial Pursuit Party. It's not as competitive and a victory doesn't give you the same bragging rights -- but it's far more convivial and it doesn't take over the whole evening.

Oh ... I should also point out that all the examples of good questions in this review came from the same Trivial Pursuit Party question card.

*

As I write this column, I'm listening to a long playlist consisting entirely of albums by Daniel Estrem.

Estrem specializes in transcriptions of great classical music for fretted string instruments.

Now, the fretted string instrument you know best is guitar, but what sets Estrem apart, besides the high quality of his performances, is that he also includes performances on eight-string guitar and ukulele.

Look, I appreciate the ukulele. Sure, it usually has the tone quality of a toy piano, but Schroeder made good use of that in the Peanuts comic strip. Of course, we couldn't actually hear it there ...

The baritone uke was the first fretted string instrument I played, before becoming the superb chord-picking guitar virtuoso that I briefly was back in 1970. (In other words, I was adequate; good enough to play along at parties.)

But when Daniel Estrem is recorded playing the high parts on a tiny Hawaiian ukulele -- thesame instrument once played by Tiny Tim to absurd effect -- I have to tell you, it becomes far more musical than, say, the piccolo.

As for the eight-string guitar -- that's the standard number of strings for lap or bench-mounted electric guitars, but Estrem is playing acoustic eight-strings, and it gives him the range of pitch and tone to do real justice to great classics by Bach, Debussy, Ravel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and Grieg.

Oh, Estrem also plays the mandola -- an instrument that is to the mandolin what the viola is to the violin. The guy can do it all.

You can get Estrem's albums on Amazon, but I prefer to buy them from the site where I first discovered them: Magnatune.com.

Magnatune is a source for musicians you can't find anywhere else. In some ways like a co-op, Magnatune provides a chance for niche musicians to reach their audience -- and for eclectics like me to find excellent performances that simply can't be found on major labels.

I download and listen to enough from Magnatune to justify a monthly subscription. But you can also download Estrem's albums one at a time.

The "Classical Ukulele" albums might be interesting to you as a novelty at first, but you'll soon find that they are musically excellent.

I'm listening to a sarabande on ukulele right now that is so sensitively interpreted that it is almost shocking to picture somebody producing these sounds from a uke.

The nice thing is that Magnatune allows you to listen to each cut in its entirety before deciding whether to buy an album -- not just snippets, like the other sites. Go to Magnatune.com, search for Estrem, and give his music a try.

*

Trying a new bed can be painful. In hotels, you can be philosophical and say it's just for a night or two. But when you're paying for a week in a beach house, a mattress that isn't right for your body can really spoil your vacation.

Young kids' bodies are so resilient that they can sleep anywhere. This completely explains camping, and why only people Boy Scout age should do it.

Because as you get older, your body can stiffen up and become quite sore when a mattress is too flexible, or not flexible enough. As you sleep, your body can hyperextend muscles that then spend the whole next day complaining about it.

I remember Steven Wright's comment: "My girlfriend asked me if I slept good. I told her, 'No, I made a few mistakes.'"

That was funny to me the first time I heard it, because I was young enough not to have "slept badly" or "slept wrong."

My first shocker was learning that I can't sleep under a ceiling fan. Like the old father in the novel Emma, I really can't sleep in a draft, or my neck becomes so stiff and sore that I can't bend it in any direction.

So all the ceiling fans in our house are gone. And so are the waterbeds that we loved for years. Now we are only comfortable on Tempur-Pedic mattresses, using Tempur-Pedic pillows -- mine taller than my wife's because I'm a side-sleeper with broader shoulders.

Finicky? Yes. But when you consider how much time we spend sleeping, and how it can wreck your day to have acute pain in ribs, neck, hip, or spine, it becomes worth investing in the right mattress.

But there is no one solution to fit everyone's needs. I have friends who followed my recommendation and installed Tempur-Pedic, only to find that they couldn't sleep on it. They gave it to someone else and found a mattress that worked better for them.

For us, though, and several other friends, it's been Tempur-Pedic now for fifteen years.

But not at the beach house. By the third day it was clear that neither of us was getting used to the different mattress -- which was of a quality brand by a reputable manufacturer. The owner hadn't gone cheap. But we could hardly stand or walk during the day.

We try to be good renters, but no way were we ordering a Temper-Pedic for a rental house. By the time it got here, we'd be ready to leave (and using canes or walkers to get around); besides, just because we thrive on Tempur-Pedic doesn't mean the next tenants will.

My wife did a little research and came up with a mattress topper by Isotonic that was carried by the Belk store in the Outer Banks. Way more affordable than a whole mattress. The question was, would it work?

Well, no, the first question was: Did Belk have it in king size? Somebody had carefully stacked the boxes so that the size information was mostly invisible until you pulled each box out. Good stock management!

We had about decided that queen size was all they had -- till I noticed one more "Cool Slumber" model in a different stack. That one was king size. So ... sorry, folks, I got the last one in the store.

When you get it out of the box, you have to put it inside a zippered cover. This is a great idea except that it doesn't quite fit, so you have to jam it in and then there's a bow in the middle of it.

We figured that would even out when we slept on it, and we were right.

But there was another misfit: The whole mattress topper is about three inches shorter than the perfectly standard king size mattress we were putting it on. Naturally, it migrates downward on the bed, so now our pillows slip into the gap at the top of the topper, making them the wrong height.

But we can live with that. Because the Isotonic mattress topper does what it claims: By using it, we saved our beach vacation.

Nobody else in the house is old and decrepit enough to need such assistance. But we were glad we had recourse to it.

No, we're not going to take it with us on ordinary travel -- it's bigger, even tightly rolled up, than any of our suitcases. But when we find that we're stuck for weeks on an uncomfortable bed, we'll remember that the Isotonic brand means something.


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