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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 30, 2014

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


Halloween Candy, John Wick, Paradise, Forever

At the last minute before Halloween, with the stocks of candy in stores already seriously depleted, I will remind you of the result of my meticulous research in years past.

On every occasion when I have offered trick-or-treaters the ability to choose freely from a large basket filled with popular commercial candies from Hershey's and M&M/Mars, along with other well-known treats, the candy bar that is the first choice of a majority of the kids of every age is:

Twix.

This holds true as well at other times of year with church groups of children, both those under twelve and those of high school age. When given a choice, Twix disappears far more quickly than any other candy.

And, on a side note, Peanut M&Ms are taken more quickly than Plain M&Ms. Just in case you were wondering.

However, I still offer many other kinds of candy because I'm distributing candy for free, not selling it, and I'm aware that even if a majority likes Twix best, the minority should not be disappointed when they come to our door, if I can help it.

In fact, I would follow this policy even if I were in the business of selling this candy for a profit. That's because I've seen the examples of major store chains that tried the bestseller-only strategy. Remember Crown Books? I was told by people in the business that their strategy was to offer only bestselling books. That saved them the trouble of buying, warehousing, and finding shelf space for books that might only sell one copy per store ... or less.

Instead, they used all their space for bestsellers, at a lower price than anybody else could offer, because they didn't have to pay for all the overhead involved with non-bestselling books. It should have worked, right?

What they didn't understand is that while many people are price-driven in their purchasing, most people came to bookstores for something else besides: the book-browsing experience.

Similarly, when people go car-shopping, they've usually done some research and picked out pretty much the car they want.

But a significant minority aren't so focused. They may not even have decided whether they're going to buy a car or not. So what they're looking for is the car-shopping experience. They want to see what the new features are. How their bodies fit into various car models. How they might feel about driving -- and being seen to drive -- this model or that one.

So car dealerships don't stock only the bestselling models. They know that many buyers -- even some of the focused ones -- really like to treat the car dealership as a kind of petting zoo, where they can experience many cars without necessarily taking them home.

The same is true of bookstores. Even if people end up buying the bestsellers that everyone else is buying, they want to feel as if they've been in a real bookstore, looking at many different titles and considering: Is this the kind of book I might read?

Not to mention the pleasure of looking at this or that display and saying to themselves or, sotto voce, to a shopping companion: Who buys all these absurd zombie books? Can they actually read?

Don't underestimate the role that snobbery plays in shopping. Even well-to-do snobs slip into Wal-Mart occasionally, sometimes in disguise, in order to look at the sad little things that the hoi-polloi buy, and to gawk a little at the hoi-polloi themselves. There are websites devoted to abusing and ridiculing poor people who shop at Wal-Mart.

(To be fair, I also know a lot of non-snobs who could shop anywhere, but enjoy shopping at Wal-Mart because of the wide selection. A belief in the poverty or bad taste of all Wal-Mart shoppers is merely a symptom of the self-delusion of the snobs. Oddly enough, most people I've known who have this snobbish attitude fancy themselves intellectuals and liberals who love the poor. They see no contradiction.)

So when it comes to Halloween candy, if I set out a basket consisting only of Twix, even the Twix-fixated (Twixated?) would be disappointed, because they would be receiving Twix, not by their own choice, but by mine.

And the non-Twixated would be left with that momentary despondency of knowing that space will now be taken up in their bag or basket with candy that they can only hope to trade later for something that they like.

So if you rush to the grocery store to buy last-minute candy, and find only little boxes of Whoppers and mini-bags of candy corn, go ahead. Fill that basket. There will be at least one child who comes to your door who will be thrilled with your selection, if only because Whoppers make excellent non-maiming projectiles for slingshots, and candy corn fits so snugly up the nose or in the ear.

*

My wife and I often disagree about the quality of movie and television stars. While she does not defend Will Ferrell against my opinion that he is neither watchable nor funny, she found George Clooney to be worth watching even back at the beginning of his career, when he could never shed that little smirk, even when people were dying all around him.

One actor we have always agreed on is Keanu Reeves. We both think he's superb. In fact, we find ourselves liking mediocre movies because his performance is always so good.

I've heard some critics (otherwise known as "idiots") speak of his "wooden" acting. They're probably the same people who think Al Pacino is "subtle" and "nuanced" in his post-Godfather II career.

Good movie acting does not consist of doing things that look like acting. It consists of letting us understand who a character is without ever seeming to "act."

This is why British actors, who are often thoroughly schooled in the techniques of acting with such skill that you can't tell they're doing an accent or faking a disability or doing a stunt, often go unnoticed even in the Screen Actors Guild awards, because badly trained American actors don't realize the Brits are acting at all.

Americans in and out of the film profession often can't tell that acting is going on unless it's so bad that you can tell that it's acting. Which means that subtle actors rarely get credit for what they do -- until they get a scenery-chewing role.

Which brings me back to Keanu Reeves (just in case you thought I was going to give you examples of bad actors, good actors, and scenery-chewing roles). Keanu Reeves is an American actor, meaning that even if he thinks he's been trained as an actor, he hasn't.

What the best American actors do is "play themselves" -- which really means "create a film persona that persists in role after role so that people think that's who the actor really is."

Clint Eastwood perfected that taciturn Western hero who says little but when action is needed, acts decisively. But that isn't who he really is.

Harrison Ford perfected that wise-cracking anti-hero who pretends not to be brave but then comes through in a pinch while pretending he's doing nothing special. But he's not playing himself.

Both Eastwood and Ford have also played parts that are very different from their stock image -- but the image is stronger than the individual performance and we forget Eastwood's chattier roles and Ford's non-wise-cracking heroes.

Keanu Reeves started out as the inarticulate-teen character of Ted in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and even though he was memorably brilliant as Tod in Parenthood, delivering one of the best lines in any movie about family life, he was still typecast as a barely articulate teen.

(The quote from Parenthood, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash, City Slickers): "You know, you need a license to get married or drive a car. H___, you need a license to catch a fish, but they let any b___ r___ing a______ be a father.")

By tradition, Keanu Reeves's career should have ended as soon as he aged out of such parts. Instead, he kept trying to make a transition into adulthood -- and finally made it with Speed.

In Speed he created a completely different character: the competent man. Not a hero, just a guy who gets the job done without a lot of talk before or after. And he made it so believable and effective that people now go to Keanu Reeves movies and rarely even think of the goofy high school kid in the Bill and Ted movies.

It took a while to lock in. But my wife and I have been watching him. We are among the few who really liked him in the sweet but forgettable romantic drama A Walk in the Clouds, and the list of his other movies from the '90s is impressive mostly because he remained a star long enough to get the lead in The Matrix, the first movie that matched Speed's ability to let him play the competent man who doesn't burden us with a lot of angst beforehand or anguish after.

Of course, bad writing made the Matrix franchise implode -- the ending was only slightly less unsatisfying than the wrapup of the TV series Lost. But Keanu Reeves wasn't sitting on his hands.

It may be that my wife and I are the only ones who find The Replacements to be a sports-rom-com classic, but we think Reeves was wonderful in it and made the romance work right along with the football. And I thought his performance as Klaatu made the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still better than the original.

We've been waiting, since then, to see him in a movie that looked interesting. (There was nothing about 47 Ronin that would get me into a theater to see it.) Now he's here with John Wick.

Let's get something straight right from the start. This is a mafia revenge movie. There's a lot of killing. There's a lot of swearing. There's not even a trace of sex. Ten minutes in, you know everything you're going to know about the character John Wick: He's a legendary hit man who retired in order to be happy with his wife. Nobody messed with him because they were scared to. She died of a long illness. After the funeral the son of a mafia boss, not knowing who he was, stole his car and killed the dog his wife gave him. He cries over the dog. Then he starts killing people.

That's the official story but this movie is way better than that sounds. For one thing, the plotting is pretty ingenious; people don't always do what we expect. Fights don't always go as we think they will. And while John Wick is indeed the Keanu Reeves competent man, he's not quite as competent as the legend would imply. He gets a little help now and then. But it's always believable and interesting.

All the acting in this movie is good -- indeed, it's all better than it needed to be. Nobody chews the scenery, with the possible exception of Alfie Allen in his best bad-boy performance to date (you've seen him most recently as the scenery-chewing Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones). And his role requires that his performance be over the top so that the audience really really wants his character dead.

This is the kind of movie that could devolve into a torture fest, where the filmmakers seem determined to entertain us with gruesome new ways for people to die. Instead, most deaths are of the clean-bullet-hole variety and even though the trail of corpses begins to make the city look like the Anzio beachhead, the film never sinks into pornographic violence. It remains a movie about justice, about putting things into balance.

The writing (Derek Kolstad) is very good -- with the exception of one speech that Keanu Reeves has to give, explaining himself to the mafia boss whose son started this all going. It is so out of character with the rest of the movie that it seems to me the kind of speech that gets inserted into a script because a studio executive said it had to be there in order to "explain" why John Wick would kill all these people over a dog.

Is it worth seeing? Well ... not if foul language and relentless violence really bother you. There have been major earthquakes with a lower body count. But if you're interested in a movie about a guy who fights everything they throw at him and usually but not quite always wins, then this is a really good one.

In fact, it's almost like the filmmakers set out to make the prototypical revenge movie, kind of the way Silverado is the prototypical western. If that was their goal, I think they succeeded. And the smartest thing they did was casting Keanu Reeves in the lead, because I really can't imagine anybody else bringing this off as well.

*

Since I joined the board of North Carolina Public Television, I've been paying more attention to it. Not that I watch shows I wouldn't have watched, but now I notice, Oh, hey, that's on public television!

As often as not, all I noticed before was, "That's a British TV series. Look! Real actors, well-trained and highly skilled! And look -- good writing!" Now I say all those things and at the end I say, "And it's on audience-funded North Carolina Public Television!"

So here's a TV series that I would have loved anyway, and it happens to be on public television: Death in Paradise.

The premise is that a British detective inspector is sent to the Caribbean island of Saint Marie to help the local police solve a locked-room murder mystery, in which a cop was murdered inside a panic room where nobody else could possibly have shot him.

The character of DI Richard Poole is played by Ben Miller, who does a wonderful job of understating Poole's hatred of all things Caribbean. He refuses to stop being English -- he wears his suit coat despite the heat; he has no interest in the ocean or the beach; he hates the sunlight; and he loathes Caribbean music, seafood, and tropical fruits.

All he really wants to make him happy is a delicious cup of tea and good English roast beef, both of which are very hard to come by.

The local cops don't know what to make of him. He doesn't chum around with them, but they learn very quickly that he's a very good cop who solves all the puzzles.

The contrast in cultures is a source of some amusement, but most of the humor comes from well-drawn, believable, but charmingly eccentric characters.

The episodes tend to be interesting puzzle stories -- think Agatha Christie rather than hard-boiled detective -- and it is almost impossible to watch the series without guessing at the culprit and/or the method of the crime. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm half right, but even when I'm wrong, the writers never cheat.

So there's some of the pleasure of watching Jeopardy! as you try to outguess the contestants, but mostly there's the pleasure of watching good actors deliver delightful dialogue. It's like Castle but with British humor rather than American.

Now, one thing has puzzled me since I started watching (I'm up to six episodes now): the picture that shows up as the icon for the series shows, not Ben Miller as Poole, but the actor Kris Marshall, who played the eager Brit in Love, Actually who comes to America convinced that American women will fall all over him ... and they do.

In fact, it was his picture on the icon that first made me look into the show, because I liked him so much in Love, Actually.

Marshall isn't in the first six episodes at all. And that's fine -- because I'm enjoying Ben Miller's character and the stories he's in. But apparently what happens is that after seventeen episodes (and because of the way the Brits do television, that means "in the fourth year"), Ben Miller goes away, and Kris Marshall shows up as Detective Inspector Humphrey Goodman.

I have no idea whether the series will be as good after the change of headliners. I'm relieved that all the supporting cast regulars continue for all twenty-four existing episodes. And meanwhile, I'll simply continue to enjoy watching each episode as it comes on UNC-TV.

Internet Movie Database reports that 24 episodes have been completed, divided across three seasons. From what I've seen, that's six down, eighteen to go. And if you want to see those first episodes, you can get the first two seasons as downloads or as DVDs from Amazon. (The third season, however, is only available in non-US DVD formats; so ... no peeking.)

*

I'm afraid I've already stopped watching Forever. The premise was mildly interesting: Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) is a British doctor working as a medical examiner (i.e., autopsy specialist) with the NYPD. But he has a teeny little secret. He can't die. Or, more to the point, he can die, but whenever he does, he returns to life at exactly the same age, stark naked in the nearest large body of water.

He hangs out with an aging antique dealer played by Judd Hirsch, whom he adopted decades ago as a new baby but now seems to be much older than Morgan. Cute. Clever.

And Ioan Gruffudd (a Welsh name pronounced more or less as YO-un GRIF-fith) is as charming in this series as he was in the Horatio Hornblower tv series a few years ago.

The problem is: The writers of this show have no idea what to do with it. They don't know how to make the episodes particularly compelling, and they don't know how to write an interesting relationship between any two characters in the show.

They have a great cast and they're flushing them down the television commode.

The formula seems to be that every episode's murder-du-jour seems to be closely related to something Henry Morgan did or somebody he knew a century or half-century ago.

This is the fictional equivalent of people who hypnotically "regress to past lives" and find out that they happened to be somebody who lived a glamorous or heroic life ... over and over again.

So even though the cast does their best with the lines they're given to say and the events they're supposed to act out, every episode leaves me feeling let down. Disappointed. Is that really all they could do with this premise? Formulaic CSI with flashbacks to past lives?

Oh, and yes, of course -- he always manages to antagonize people and get himself thrown off the case or in trouble for some other reason. Yeah, we haven't seen that before ...

I knew the writers were in trouble when, for Halloween, the promos showed us something about Jack the Ripper. That's a sure sign of desperation in a writer, and I told my wife that I was now officially done with Forever.

I mean, writers will usually tell you when they've given up and they're now just flailing around, trying not to drown. In Heroes, it was when they couldn't kill off Sylar at the end of season 1. With Prison Break, it was when they couldn't let the character of Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell die. When writers think they can't go on without the same spectacular villains, you know they've lost faith in themselves and in their hero characters.

Forever didn't even use their own villain as a crutch -- they went for Jack the Ripper. I mean, come on. How desperate do you have to be? You know that somewhere along the line, they're already planning to have an undying vampire or a werewolf, or maybe ... I know! ... an ancient Egyptian mummy that is killing the people who disturbed its tomb!

Sorry, actors in Forever. You're really good -- like the actors in Heroes and Prison Break and Lost -- but your writers just aren't up to snuff. Your series may limp along for the rest of the season, or even for a year or two; and by all means, cash your checks. You're earning them.

But the writers aren't.

Maybe I'll check back later to see if they've found a way to make it work. But I'm not holding my breath.

*

Officially, daylight savings time ends as of two a.m. on Sunday morning.

This does not mean you have to get up at 2:00, or stay up till then. It's quite good enough to change the clocks before you go to bed.

I'm just grateful that they altered the law so that the time shift now comes after Halloween, allowing the street beggars we call "costumed children" to roam about more visibly.

We will set our clocks back an hour this time, which gives us an extra hour of sleep. Or allows us to stay up an hour later without penalty. (Well, not completely. We pay the penalty in the spring.)

Notice that these time shifts all happen on Sunday morning. This is because it's way more costly to the economy if you get things wrong on a work day or a shopping day.

But if you forget to make the change this Sunday, what's going to happen? You arrive at church an hour early. Sit and visit with the other forgetful people; it gives you a bond.

And if you are normally wakened by your dog needing to go outside, daylight savings time doesn't change anything. Bladders do not adjust to conform with federal law.


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