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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 5, 2015

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


Burnt, Kissing in America, Watch Repair

It's a shame that Burnt got a "disappointing" reception at the box office this past weekend, because I think it's not just the best movie of this year (so far), it's also beautiful and moving.

I mean, it's possible for a second-rate movie to be the "best" of a bad year, but for me, Burnt would be brilliant no matter what year it came out.

Yet I can also understand why people might have chosen not to rush to the multiplex to see it the moment it appeared. It's a show about cooking, for heaven's sake! And why should any audience care about whether Bradley Cooper gets a three-star rating from Michelin?

Compared to Matt Damon struggling to survive on Mars by making soil out of stored poop and growing potatoes, which he flavors with catsup until he runs out, what is compelling about a guy like Bradley Cooper in Burnt, whose only obstacles are his history of alcohol and drug abuse, his debts to goons who think that beating up a chef is the way to get more money out of him, and his penchant for being an insufferable tyrant in the kitchen, abusing the very people on whose meticulous work he depends for his success?

In other words, Matt Damon in The Martian plays a really likeable guy. And Bradley Cooper in Burnt plays a guy who is trying to discover (or create) his human decency. Which means that through most of the movie, he's sorely lacking in that department.

And yet. And yet. From the first moment of Burnt I found the script, the directing, and the acting to be so perfect (and I'm not exaggerating) that I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen. I loved everybody -- Cooper as the tormented chef trying to recover from his own self-destruction, Sienna Miller as the chef who risks her career by quitting a good job to join his kitchen, Daniel Bruhl as the hotel owner's son who risks the family money to back Cooper's new restaurant, Emma Thompson as the shrink who tries to convince Cooper that he doesn't have to bear the responsibility for success and failure alone, and Uma Thurman in a truly adult role (at last) as a restaurant critic.

Every character was written to be the hero of his or her own story, with the result that Burnt is a complete immersion in a fully realized world. And what a world it is. Think of the gorgeous photography of New Zealand (and CGI) scenery that made Lord of the Rings so visually splendid, and you'll understand what I mean when I say that the kitchen, cooking, and plated food were photographed with the same eye to beauty, balance, and visual richness.

It's not that looking at the food makes you hungry. As Cooper's character says early in the movie, "I don't want my food to make people hungry, I want it to make them stop eating." His goal was to have food so magnificent, fresh, and new that even the hungriest diner would have to stop and admire it.

Fortunately, one of the things that makes this movie great is that through the course of the film, Cooper's character comes to a different view. He learns what it means to cook for love, to cook to please people instead of to make them worship him. Like the birthday cake he cooks, to make up for one of his own heartless decisions earlier.

And there's the brilliant moment when, informed that a crucial food critic is in the restaurant, he does not start yelling at people and micromanaging them as he has before. Instead, he does not even tell his staff that the critic is there. He tells the restaurant owner, "We'll do what we do," and trust that his staff's normal standard of cooking is high enough to win praise.

I have known, and known of, so many writers who have the same attitude toward their writing that Cooper had toward his food. They aren't writing in order to put into people's hands stories that they will love; they're writing so that the readers will stop reading and admire the magnificence of their achievement.

I have quite the opposite philosophy. If I catch myself admiring my own paragraph, I immediately cut it out of the manuscript, because any paragraph that stops the reader's forward motion through the tale -- even if it is to admire particularly astonishing, Nobel-worthy prose -- is a mark of failure in my craft.

It's like my rule about acting awards: If you can tell they're acting, it's a bad performance. Only if you think they aren't acting at all, that these events are simply happening to people on the stage or screen, only then is good acting going on.

Look, it's quite possible that you care nothing about food. But don't assume that Burnt is only for fans of Kitchen Nightmares, MasterChef, Iron Chef, or other cooking shows.

Instead, think of it this way: I care nothing for football. Except for the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl season with Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, and Mike Ditka, I never have. But there are football movies that I deeply love: The Replacements (Keanu Reeves), Invincible (Mark Wahlberg), Moneyball (Brad Pitt), and the best football movie ever made, Draft Day (Kevin Costner). These are great movies whether you care about football or not.

There are also some fine food movies, like Big Night (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) and The Hundred-Foot Journey (Helen Mirren). (Burnt was written by the same screenwriter, Steven Knight, who wrote The Hundred-Foot Journey. He is also credited as "creator" of the original British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.) But what raises the great food and football movies above the rest is the human story -- and great human stories can be told in almost any setting, from war to crime, from Mars to Mayodan, from racing to cooking.

Watching this movie, you don't learn how to cook any particular dish, though you keep wondering what makes it so challenging to get turbot exactly right. You do get an idea of what standards are the minimum for top professional kitchens and which are the ones that separate the merely excellent from the world-class. Everybody scrubs down the whole kitchen at the end of the day. Dishes that have even the slightest flaw are discarded and started over.

Chefs argue about trends like cooking in plastic bags to seal in the flavor -- which Cooper's character refers to as "cooking in condoms." And when one chef gets triumphant reviews, his main rival regards it as cause for tearing up his own restaurant like a rock star's hotel room and revamping his entire menu in response to the challenge.

Because of the relatively low turnout for Burnt's opening weekend, it may have a fairly truncated stay at the big-screen theaters. And you really want the experience of watching this movie on the big screen, so you can get a sense of what perfect food looks like on a plate, and how perfect chefs prepare, cook, and plate their food.

But even if you don't catch Burnt until it's downloadable, on DVD, or on a television network, it will still be a rewarding, moving experience to watch it. I'll be surprised if it doesn't end up being the best movie of this year.

*

Angie's List is such a good idea. When you move into a new town, you don't know any "guys" -- reliable plumbers, yard guys, electricians, auto repairmen, housekeepers, roofers, window washers, not to mention pediatricians, gynecologists, family practitioners, dentists, dermatologists, and lawyers. So what can you do but ask people which "guys" they rely on, try them out, and keep looking till you find one who meets your standards of price and performance?

After nearly 33 years in Greensboro, we have such a fine list of "guys" for every conceivable job. But a few years ago, when I was looking for a yard service to install a sprinkler system at my parents' house in the desert called Orem, Utah, I didn't know any services there myself, and I didn't trust my dad to look for the best service; he was likely to find the cheapest and not tell me about any others. Raised in the Depression.

So Angie's List should have been the answer. As a website that collects customer referrals in every local area, it should have had evaluations of every sprinkler system installer and yard service in Utah.

After paying the upfront fee to register for Angie's List in Utah, I put in my search criteria and ...

There had to be more such services than one. But there was only one listed with "Angie" that was near enough to my parents' house to take on the job.

So I sent that company an email message. I called them and left a voicemail message. I did this repeatedly. And nobody ever responded.

Instead, my sister in Orem looked up yard services elsewhere and found one that looked good to her. Having learned less than nothing from Angie's List, I had no choice but to take her recommendation. And they have done a great job.

Angie's List kept asking me to report on how things turned out with whatever service I ended up using, but ... I wasn't disposed to help them protect their reputation. I thought I had been seriously overcharged for the nothing I received.

It may be that in other parts of the country, Angie's List does a better job of building up a large menu of ratings for many providers in each category. But since my only experience with Angie's List was to find them completely useless, I intend to ignore them completely. I hope that if you go ahead and pay them separate fees for each metro area you're exploring, you at least find somebody who'll return your call!

*

Kissing in America (by Margo Rabb) is a title that suggests either a sociological study or book of chick lit. Instead, it's really Young Adult chick lit, which means very few boys will have the spunk to pick it up. And that's a shame, because it's like a primer for what makes girls go gaga over male humans in high school.

It begins with looks. Don't let anybody tell you that only males judge females by looks alone. Females are even more ruthless, because when, in their instant judgment of the attractiveness of a male, they conclude "no way," then that male might as well crawl into a snail shell and hibernate (no creature does this, of course, except snails).

That's because the difference between "attentive, loving courtship" and "stalking" is whether the identical behavior is being perpetrated by a male deemed to be "attractive" or a male judged as "no way ever, death before disgust."

Eva is sixteen, and because she lives in New York City, she has never bothered to learn to drive. Hyperintellectual, she is tutoring students in English class, helping them learn to write better. One of her pupils is a really attractive but quirky football player named Will, who actually reads books, understands poetry, and cares about other people.

Since part of the book is spent discussing writing, showing bad writing turn into better writing, and quoting various poems, I must tell you that this is the black hole down which most MFA writers disappear, because, of course, most of them think that the worst sort of writing is the best, and their pages get cluttered with embarrassingly bad "good" writing.

Rabb is the rare exception: When her narrator, Eva, advises Will about his writing, the advice is good and his writing gets better. In fact it gets good. And the poems that are dragged into the story don't kick and scream to get back out: they stand up and sing, because (a) they're excellent, intelligible poems and (b) they're exactly appropriate for the place where they occur in the tale.

During these tutoring sessions she falls head over heels for him, confiding all in her even-smarter best friend Annie. When Will suddenly has to move to California because his mom's bakery failed, Eva finds a way to follow him, because he's her soulmate. (If unwelcome, she would be the stalker.)

The solution to this problem comes in a television contest to find the Smartest Girl in America. Eva realizes she doesn't have broad-enough knowledge to win a place on the show herself, but Annie passes the pre-test with flying colors. Annie is invited to the show, and Eva can come along as her special companion -- the person who can earn $50,000 by chiming in to help her if she's stumped.

Eva will specialize in literary questions, while Annie will cover everything else. But they face one serious problem: Getting across the country.

Eva's mom is dead set against it. When Eva's dad died in a plane crash only a couple of years ago, Mom's strategy for coping with grief was to expunge her life and house of any reminders of her husband. She also refused to talk to Eva about him or even to tolerate Eva's keeping mementos of her father. Mom believes that it's better to put bad things behind her, out of mind, and demands that Eva follow the same rule.

Eva's desire runs the opposite way. She's afraid of losing her memory of her father, so she gathers (and treasures) mementos of him. Her mother avoids the online support group for families of victims of the plane crash; Eva surreptitiously visits it.

Eva thus feels both neglected and overdominated by her mother, and true to form, Mom at first refuses to let her go. But the money from the show, if they were to win, would be crucial to both girls getting into a good school, and that argument prevails in the end.

They can't fly to the coast, even if they could raise money for the tickets, because, since Dad's death, neither Eva nor Mom can tolerate even the idea of getting on an airplane. Eva and Annie end up embarking on a cross-country bus ride, stopping in places where aunts and uncles live: Cleveland, Tennessee, Texas, Tucson, and then Los Angeles.

The writing is excellent, unaffected, and clear. It's in first person, narrated by a sensible girl (Eva), but it isn't in present tense, which would have made it unreadable. Without a speck of padding, Margo Rabb takes us through three nearly separate stories:

1. The development of Eva's and Will's romance as we get to know Eva's pain and grief and her mother's lack of interest in repairing their relationships

2. The cross-country trip, which is full of adventures, temptations, and unbelievably bossy and intrusive adults. This is the only part of the book that ever gets tedious, mostly because all kinds of relatives impose on her terribly.

3. The time in California with the game show and its aftermath.

During the cross-country trip, I kept waiting for Eva to show a little spunk as one aunt in particular exceeds both her authority and common sense. But Eva doesn't stand up to anyone, until very late in the book, when the plot demands it, and along the way, we don't see any mental process in which she decides not to stand up for herself.

So for most of the journey, our protagonist/narrator almost disappears from the story. She is choosing nothing, resisting nothing, and merely observing people who are not terribly interesting for a long period of time.

In simpler words, the middle of the book sags.

But the ending works, in part because she trusts the wrong people and other people are wrong to trust her; and in part because she finally gets a spine.

By the end of the book, the sagging middle is completely redeemed, because Eva gets a taste of adult reality and finds that maybe some of the grownups in her life are not control freaks after all. Or, well ... they're control freaks with a reason.

This is YA chick lit, so if you don't need a hankie at the end, you have no heart. I have a heart, I went through a couple of Kleenexes, and I heartily recommend this book, to adult readers or as gifts for young readers thirteen or above. If you're of the male persuasion, you have to decide for yourself whether you, or your young male gift recipient, are man enough to read a womany book.

*

This whole plotline on Castle where Kate has left Richard in order to pursue more about bad guys who killed her mother -- it's a complete loser. It makes no sense for them to separate. I vaguely remember it's about protecting Richard from dangerous guys, but that's hardly likely to work. And since they've done their best work together, it's downright stupid.

The only good thing about it was that it left room for the terrific episode from October 19th, "The Nose." They brought in guest actor Stephnie Weir (you've seen her in half the shows on TV since 1991, including MADtv), and she was brilliant as Mia Laszlo, who happens to share an elevator with a murderer and art thief who was wearing a ski mask so she can't identify him by sight.

However, she can identify him by smell, just as she can tell the difference between a recent oil painting -- a fake meant to imitate a $60 million Van Gogh -- and the real thing. Her hyperosmia is her career -- she helps perfume companies isolate and test fragrances -- but it also makes it highly obnoxious for her to go out in public and subject herself to all the odors of humanity.

The writers went to town with Mia, making her socially brusque, not to mention rude. But she is able to distinguish Beckett's and Castle's pheromones so she knows they're "in love." As she says, the perfumes are meant to fake the chemistry of love; Castle and Beckett have the real thing.

One tiny problem. "The real thing," when it comes to lasting love, is not in the pheremones. That's mere sexual attraction, which most males are able to produce when placed in proximity or visual contact with any nubile female. Love that lasts had better depend on more than mutual attraction ... and, in good longterm relationships, it does.

Still, "The Nose" was an excellent episode, with just the right blend of suspense, jeopardy, and comedy. So the writers get a pass for one more week. If they don't get rid of this unbelievable, boring plot about Richard and Kate being separated, though, I'm not the only one who's going to lose interest and stop watching.

Think of that half-season of Lost where they went into excruciating detail about Jack being locked up by the Others while all the other plots were left dangling. Sure, a few good things happened -- but not enough of them, and not to a lot of characters we cared about. Nearly killed the series. Think of that, writers, and get back to having Castle and Beckett work together -- and live together as husband and wife.

*

For a long time I carried a pocket watch, because wristwatches created painful rashes that looked like third-degree burns on my skin.

But when Fossil came out with some cool watches that ran the leather watchband behind the watch, so that the metal back never touched my skin, I was able to stop dipping into my pocket just to tell what time it was.

Having worn no wristwatches for years, I began buying good quality, inexpensive watches -- whenever I found any with continuous leather bands. And when I discovered wooden watches at a quirky shop in Portland, Maine, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. (Check out WoodWatches.com, PatinaCanada.com, AHAlife.com, TenseWatch.com.)

But electric watches eventually run out of batteries. Not a problem, because Batteries Plus Bulbs (2709 Battleground, at the Martinsville Rd. light) will not only sell you the right watch battery, they'll also install it.

Except -- as with my Patina wooden watch -- when the back of the watch is inaccessible without jeweler's tools.

Then you need a jeweler.

Once upon a time we thought we had a jeweler in town. We bought a couple of smallish things from them, but nothing all that expensive, largely because my wife doesn't actually like to sink money into jewelry that screams the message, "Wow, we had money that we had nothing better to spend on than this jewelry." She much prefers unusual, creative costume jewelry that doesn't need to be kept in a safe when traveling.

So we weren't big-spending customers, and after a while, that jeweler made it clear that they regarded our watch-battery-replacement business as a time-wasting distraction.

There I was, then, with five watches that I really liked to wear (they went with different-colored suits and various levels of dressiness), which had stopped working, and Batteries Plus Bulbs couldn't help me and we had no jeweler whom we wanted to bother with our petty business.

Fortunately, the nice people at Batteries Plus Bulbs recommended Southern Digital Watch Repair (4617 W Gate City Blvd, 336-299-6718; open 9 to 5 on weekdays). Southern Digital is far from my home, but to save my five watches, it was worth the drive.

You are far likelier to have a successful trip to Southern Digital if you remember that "Gate City Blvd" is the new name of the old "High Point Rd." And coming from the north, you can only get into the shopping center, in which Southern Digital hides in the very back corner, by turning south at the light on Groometown Road, then left into the shopping center.

Their repair work was so quick and their prices so reasonable that I couldn't see how they could stay in business. They must depend on volume. So if you need watch work done (and one of mine also needed a new watchband post, which they did easily), do us all a favor and take your business to Southern Digital -- so they can stay in operation!

That's why it's important to support local businesses. Anytime you buy something online that you can get here in town, you make it harder for the in-town business to keep going.

Red Mango is gone, thanks to all you people who decided not to go there for a great smoothie. I keep losing good restaurants every year or so. Great Harvest Bread Company closed at their present location, because the owner sold his franchise; a new one will open somewhere, eventually. Hope they tell me where. Meanwhile I'll miss the weekly challah bread!

Shopping locally may seem less convenient, because it requires physical presence, which means driving time. But when you're actually in the store, you can see what you're buying, get samples, talk to real people, make special orders for future events.

For example, if you like a great selection of excellent chocolates, then figure out how to get to Loco for Coco's new location (Dover Square Shops, 1616-G Battleground Ave, 10-6 Mon-Sat). There's a huge mattress store now where they used to be, but if you just head on down Battleground and turn into the first driveway after 31 Flavors' driveway, there you'll be in the land of David Bradley nonpareils, Guittard and Barkeater chocolates, excellent toffee, mints, and turtles, and many kinds of fine truffles.

Are you really going to go clear through Thanksgiving and Christmas without serving excellent chocolates from Loco for Coco to loved ones and guests? Are you really going to give up on a perfectly good watch because you don't want to drive all the way to Southern Digital Watch Repair? Shop locally this Christmas!


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