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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 31, 2017

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


Hacksaw, Logan Lucky, TrapTap, Prager

My wife and I don't go to the movies very much, for several reasons:

1. There aren't many movies that are aimed at people like us. You know, grownups.

2. Even the movies that could have been enjoyable are often very badly written, and when that becomes obvious in the promos, why should we waste time and money going to see them? We can always catch them later on cable to see if they turned out better than they looked in the teasers.

3. There are only two or three movies a year that are more enjoyable than just staying home and watching our recorded shows or playing Ticket to Ride or inviting friends over to visit or just talking.

4. We're busy. Sometimes, we're traveling or are completely tied up in local activities during the entire theatrical run of a movie.

This is why we didn't see Hacksaw Ridge when it first came out. We knew the storyline, we like Andrew Garfield as an actor, and we know that Mel Gibson is not only a brilliant director but also one with the courage to show a man of faith unironically on the screen.

But those are also reasons why I picked another movie the week that we could have seen Hacksaw Ridge in the theaters. Because I'm such a sucker for a good story -- or even a bad one -- that I over-identify with onscreen characters. I get too emotional, and if my character suffers, I get too upset.

It's the reason I can't watch horror movies. I get too immersed and involved even in the stupidest of horror films. And if it's a good movie that puts me through the emotional wringer ... well, I know what happens and I shy away.

My decision was correct. On the big screen, I think Hacksaw Ridge would have chewed me up and spit out the pieces.

It's the story of Desmond Doss, a young American man who, after Pearl Harbor, felt that he had to do his part to fight the Japanese. But he had taken a vow to God years before that he would never pick up a gun again. So he volunteered to train as a medic so he would take all the risks on the battlefield that every other soldier took -- yet he would be saving lives instead of taking them.

I got the impression from the promos that the main story would be in basic training, as his fellow trainees thought he was a coward because he wouldn't touch a gun. And indeed, that storyline was followed all the way through: He was beaten and persecuted and then, having survived basic training, an intrusive superior officer forced him into a position where to keep his vow he had to disobey a direct order.

The ensuing court martial was powerful and the way the issue was resolved was perfect. Later, we learn why he took the vow in the first place, but in this first half of the film we see how his father's brave service in Belleau Wood during World War I (the "Great War") came to his son's aid in this struggle just to stay in the army.

But when this storyline concludes, the movie is far from over. It could have been! In the hands of less committed film makers, that whole basic training and courtroom drama could have been juiced up and filled in with fake details in order to occupy an entire two-hour feature-length slot.

The writers, Robert Schenkkan (whose career has been spent primarily as an actor, with writing credits mostly in television) and Andrew Knight (a screenwriter all along) made the bold decision to take this movie to war. But it's not the sanitized war of fake movies like Saving Private Ryan, for which Spielberg was given heaps of credit for something that the movie did not do: show war as it really is.

I remember watching the ridiculously overpraised D-Day sequence in Private Ryan and thinking: Didn't anybody involved with this film read a book about D-Day? All the sequence had was a jumpy camera and a lot of quick-cut editing, which idiotic film critics took to be "the confusion of war."

No, the confusion of war comes from clearly seeing what's going on around you, and having no idea how to accomplish your objective, which is to stay alive and destroy the enemy. Also, "what's going on around you" consists of other people wearing the same uniform as you getting torn to pieces by gunfire, body fragments all around you, blood that is not your own covering you, and men you love and care about dead, dying, or wounded while you can do nothing to help them except, at great risk to your own life, go forward into the face of the enemy and kill them.

Spielberg didn't have the guts to show that much human suffering, that much anguish, that much horror, that much fear. But Mel Gibson has that courage, and these writers gave him a perfect script that would allow him, perhaps for the first time on film, to show what soldiers see as they go into yet another battle on the same ground where previous regiments have been torn to shreds.

When we watch them climb the rope netting to reach the top of the cliff at Hacksaw Ridge, and then walk forward toward the Japanese fortifications, stepping over, around, and, unavoidably, on the corpses of the men who tried this and failed during the days before, it is an unbearable sight.

What makes it most agonizing to watch is the knowledge that this is what happened. Yet seeing these dead bodies, knowing the low percentage of survival in the previous assaults, these soldiers kept moving forward toward the enemy.

That was the miracle on D-Day, and it was even more miraculous on Hacksaw Ridge, because on D-Day the Allies faced many dispirited non-Germans who had been conscripted into Hitler's army and who had no incentive to fight well, while at Hacksaw Ridge, the Americans faced totally committed Japanese soldiers who would not stop fighting until it was impossible to kill any more Americans.

In that circumstance, having a clear picture of what these soldiers faced, we could understand that when they were forced to withdraw back down the cliff, nobody wanted to go back up to try to rescue the wounded. They knew the Japanese would go around and kill every living American they left behind. But they also knew that they could not save them.

Except for that gun-rejecting medic, Desmond Doss. Despite his conscientious objector status, he did not go down the net to safety. He stayed on the top of the cliff and, even though the Japanese were killing wounded men close to their fortifications, he found others who were not in the enemy's view and, one at a time, dragged or carried or helped them to the cliff's edge.

Then he looped them in ropes and lowered them over the edge of the cliff till they reached the ground. A couple of ambulance men happened to be there and saw soldiers coming down -- wounded but alive -- and got them back to the hospital tents.

Desmond Doss is exhausted and, quite properly, terrified. But he keeps on going, each time pleading with God, Let me save just one more.

The sweetness of Andrew Garfield's face was perfect for the training-and-courtroom part of the movie; I was unprepared for how brilliantly Garfield showed us the faith and grim determination that kept him going far beyond the limits of human endurance.

The reactions of his fellow soldiers, who had gone through training with him, were almost as moving as Garfield's own performance, and when, the next day, they refuse to go back up that cliff without Desmond Doss, we in the audience believe it.

When the movie's over, we are shown pictures of the real Desmond Doss and his wife -- showing us how perfectly this movie was cast. And then there are interviews with Doss himself, filmed some years ago, and with some of the soldiers who served with him, confirming for us that this really happened.

I have long said that the best war movie ever made was Tora! Tora! Tora!, because it accurately and clearly shows both sides of the attack on Pearl Harbor without pandering to the audience with any phony romance stories -- without any fiction at all, as far as I could tell.

It is still one of the two best war movies ever made. Hacksaw Ridge is the other. I have never seen the anguish and the courage and the blind madness of combat more clearly expressed than in this movie. Where Tora! Tora! Tora! shows war at the command level, the big-picture level, Hacksaw Ridge shows war at the level of the grunts who do the killing and the dying.

I began to understand the raw courage not only of these soldiers, but of the millions of soldiers in World War I who climbed out of their trenches and went "over the top" to plunge forward into deadly machine gun fire and across minefields -- and, despite the devastating results, did it again and again and again.

Since I never served in the military, how do I know that Hacksaw Ridge came as close to truth as I'm likely to see, while Private Ryan wasn't even on the same page? Because I've read thousands of eyewitness accounts and memoirs about combat, including detailed descriptions of what is left behind on a battlefield.

I'm aware of the difference between sanitized accounts and the raw truth, between the pictures that were never put in the newspapers on the home front and the pictures that military leaders and historians see when they try to learn about what happens in combat.

At one point, an officer says to Doss, "Most of these men don't believe what you believe, but they believe in how much you believe it." That's what it's like to watch this movie. We see why Doss makes his vow in the first place, and we see that he really does put his life in the hands of God instead of trusting in his own wits or strength to save himself.

In fact, he isn't trying to save himself at all, except insofar as he must stay alive in order to continue saving others.

Watch Hacksaw Ridge as a great war movie. Watch it as a truthful movie about faith. Watch it for the powerful, believable acting and the terrific script. Watch it for the camera work, the unfaltering direction, the believability of the sets and props. Watch it because it's good for citizens in a democracy to know what we're actually doing when we commit to sending our soldiers off to war.

You have to decide for yourselves which, if any, of your children are mature enough to watch it.

*

The night after my wife and I saw The Hitman's Bodyguard, we found ourselves once again near the only surviving theater complex in the Outer Banks with plenty of time to see Logan Lucky. It was getting better reviews than Hitman's Bodyguard, and with Steven Soderbergh as director, cinematographer, and editor, how could it be less than brilliant?

Well, as a caper film, it was pretty good. Because of an injury he got in the army, Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is let go from his job working on shoring up the tunnels under the Charlotte Speedway. He and his bartender brother (Adam Driver), who lost his hand in the war, decide to plan a heist -- they're going to break into the vault where all the vendors at the Speedway send their cash receipts all during the race.

To accomplish this, they need to get explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig in a great performance) out of prison and then put him back after the job is done. And Joe Bang demands that they involve his two incredibly stupid brothers, Fish Bang (Jack Quaid) and Sam Bang (Brian Gleeson).

Lots of funny things happen -- though most of the humor involves making fun of how dumb and vulgar the West Virginia working man is, which is as cheap and bigoted a source of humor as you can find these days.

And there are lots of scenes with very good-looking women in outfits that you wouldn't let your daughter wear in public; all of these women are Riley Keough playing Mellie Logan. She not only looks encouraging in a see-through top, she can also act.

There's also a lot of really fast driving, though some of it must have been at the speed of light, since it's kind of a long trip from anywhere in West Virginia to Charlotte and back, and in the film it seems to take no longer than a quick run to get beer in the middle of a party.

If this is sounding pretty good, then yes, see this movie. But let me warn you: There are things in the movie that make no sense. Soderbergh thinks, incorrectly, that it's OK to show us a heist and then have weird unexplained stuff happen afterward, so he has to go back and show you what really happened during the heist.

He's under the delusion that this was cool in the Ocean's Whatever movies (it wasn't, but we forgave him), but here's where the movie really slips: Even the flashback "explanation" didn't come close to achieving clarity.

This won't wreck the movie for you; it didn't wreck it for me. But after a heist movie, you're supposed to walk out of the theater saying to your companions, "Wasn't it cool where ...? Could you believe it when they ...?"

Instead, you walk out of this movie saying, "I don't understand how he got an untraceable truck that he could just leave behind," and, "What was the explosion inside the vault even for?"

If confusion is what you carry out of the theater, then that was seriously flawed storytelling.

So at the time and even now, a week later, my wife and I have to say that the critics are wrong when they rate Logan Lucky above The Hitman's Bodyguard.

Bodyguard is an exciting story clearly told, with strong performances and some pretty smart writing.

Logan Lucky has many nifty moments and some wonderful acting (none of it by Seth MacFarlane, who is an annoyance and an embarrassment every moment that he's on the screen in this movie), but it's also kind of a mess, and I think the critics love it because they don't know how to not love something with the name Soderbergh attached.

Still, both movies were worth the price of admission and, if you miss them in the theaters, make sure to catch them on cable over the Christmas break.

*

So the other day at Earthfare I picked up a little tub of cashew based yogurt. You know, there's soy milk and almond milk, so why not cashew milk? I liked that yogurt either in spite of or because of the cashew aftertaste, but I foolishly threw away the container before I reviewed it.

No problem, thought I. I'll just get another before I write my review.

Alas, I apparently got the last of that cashew yogurt in the store. But they did have a drinkable strawberry-flavored "Cashewgurt" made by something called "Forager Project." I brought it home and put it in the fridge.

Today was the day I decided to try it. So I got a glass, pulled the Cashewgurt bottle out of the fridge, and set them on the counter near the sink.

I did not notice that its sell-by date had passed five days before, but even if I had, it wouldn't have prepared me for what happened.

On the top of the lid, it said, "Shake well."

So I shook it. I shook it well. It was very well-shaken. Definitely not stirred, because the lid was still on it.

Then I set it back down on the counter and twisted the lid not even a centimeter -- just far enough to pop the seal between the lid and the bottle.

The lid blew off the top and pink froth sprayed into my face, onto my glasses, all over the counter.

Unbelievably, it didn't stop spewing until the only substance left in the bottle was froth. When I picked it up to empty the residue into the sink, nothing came out.

However, what remained on the counter -- the entire contents of the 28-ounce bottle -- was remarkably volatile. Cleanup should have been simple -- just wipe the strawberry froth toward the edge of the sink and let it flow down.

But it wouldn't go. I mean, most of it went, but no matter how I angled the sponge and then the paper towels, some of the froth rushed over to the sides and left a thin trail behind. And it wouldn't rinse off of the cutting boards that had been beside the sink; I had to scrub them with dishwashing soap in order to get them clean.

I never actually took a chemistry class in my life -- my whole education in the subject came from Isaac Asimov's book on organic chemistry -- so I really can't guess what was going inside that bottle to create so much pressure and so much froth.

I can't give you any idea of what Forager Project drinkable Cashewgurt tastes like because my mouth wasn't open when it exploded. I don't lick things off my counter after they blow up, because my guess is that whatever made them blow up, I don't want it inside my body.

What I can say is that "shake well" may sound like a clear instruction, but some things that you shake should only be opened under a big kettle, or you'll end up looking like the front row audience at a Gallagher concert.

*

On Saturday afternoon, coming home from the Outer Banks, we got onto I-40 between Charlotte and I-85, only to find that the third lane from the center was completely occupied by about a half-mile of motorcycle riders.

They were all in that lane, presumably because they had a police escort, patrol cars with blue lights a-blinkin'. There were two of blue-light cars way up in the front, and another one bringing up the rear.

The motorcycle riders weren't weird. Maybe they were part of some fund-raising festival, a Ride for Donations. Many of them were riding two abreast, which is the second most dangerous thing that motorcycle riders do (the worst thing is riding, in traffic, between lanes of cars). When two big hogs are side-by-side, in the effort not to run into each other (which would ruin their day), they both hug the outside of their lane, which puts them far closer to the dotted line than sober drivers of normal-width cars ever get.

It's the police whose behavior was absolutely baffling.

There was only one lane available on the right side of the cyclists -- the lane in which cars have to do all their exiting and entering the freeway.

There were two lanes to the left of the cycles, and the cop cars kept maneuvering to straddle the dividing lines, so they were half-blocking the lane just to the left of the bikes.

The guy at the rear even sometimes straddled both of the non-motorcycle lanes, as if he wanted no traffic to pass these bikes on the left. But then he'd move back to the right and let us pass without signaling us that we were doing anything wrong.

So I have to ask: Why are cars in the lane immediately to the right of the bikes perfectly ok, while safety requires that nobody drive in the two lanes to the left? By cramming most of the car traffic into that one lane, they forced all of the merging from on-ramps to take place with maximum crowding and therefore maximum danger.

And all of that peril from quick emergency swerving (because North Carolina drivers show few signs of understanding what "merging" means) was kept tightly adjacent to the motorcycle-crammed lane.

While only a few of us were brave enough to drive in the lanes to their left, which were nearly empty.

Fortunately, the cyclists all got off on the Durham Freeway. I don't actually care what their cause was, but I'm deeply concerned that police officers have so little understanding of what's safe and what's dangerous on the freeway that they created a needlessly perilous interface between cars and cycles.

If they had simply driven at the front and back of the cyclists and stayed in that lane, their lights giving everybody the alert that they shouldn't mess with the bikes, then they would have enhanced safety.

But by doing random, dangerous, inconsistent, and deeply counter-productive lane-blocking, they made the whole procession far more dangerous than it needed to be.

Somebody who understands safety needs to redesign the tactics police escorts use to promote the free flow of traffic and the protection of people with a freeway parade permit.

Or ... here's a thought ... how about just having the motorcycle riders make their own way, choosing their own lanes, the way they would normally do? I think everybody would have been safer that way than having cop cars dance between lanes while giving no sign of their intentions to car drivers who just want to get home.

Sixty-five mile-per-hour freeways are not a good place to have a parade. Just a thought to keep in mind the next time somebody says, "Let's drive across most of the state of North Carolina on our hogs in order to raise money!"

*

I don't know about you, but I've never understood that whole "run for this cause" or "walk for that cause" or "ride a motorcycle for another cause" business.

The way I understand it, the potential runners, walkers, or cyclists go to their friends and bully-beg them into pledging to donate umpty-ump dollars to the chosen cause if they successfully complete their run/walk/bike ride.

But I don't care if they run/walk/ride at all. If it's a good cause, I'll donate. If it isn't, or if I've already contributed, or if I'm broke, then I won't.

Here's my ideal reply: I'll donate for you not to take part in the run/walk/ride. I'll donate even more if everybody declines to take part and the run/walk/ride is cancelled. You'll have my money, and I'll be able to use the roads unimpeded by running/walking/riding people who could presumably run/walk/ride for the fun of it, without being paid, but could do it without tying up traffic for hours.

"But it's fun!" cry some of them. To which the obvious answer is, "Maybe for you, but not for me."

"But it's for a good cause! Don't you care about [insert generic good cause]?"

To which I might reply, heartlessly: "I care about many causes, including ones that nobody runs/walks/rides for, like keeping public restrooms clean. But I don't see how tying up traffic on busy streets is connected to that goal -- still less to your worthy cause.

"If you can support your cause without annoying and delaying hundreds of people, then why not do so?"

*

I tried out a device called TrapTap for a few months because it seemed like such an excellent idea.

It's a disc you set on your car's dashboard. You link it to the TrapTap app on your smartphone, and the phone then tracks where you are and passes on various alerts to you.

There's the speed-limit alert, which blinks at you if you're more than five miles-per-hour over. It alerts you for school zones and traffic cameras. But the piece-de-resistance is that it also alerts you to police speed traps.

The other alerts come from basic GPS technology because those items don't change location very often. However the police speed trap warning comes from other drivers with TrapTaps.

Let's say you're driving along I-80 in Nebraska and you see that the highway patrol has set up a speed trap. You're not speeding so, clear sailing. But as soon as you see the speed trap, as a member of the TapTrap community you reach out and tap the disk on your dashboard.

This causes your app to notify the central database and now any other TapTrap user who comes through there will be alerted about the speed trap in time to slow down (if they were speeding).

Notice that it's not a radar detector, so you can use it in Virginia. It only transmits to and receives orders from your phone by bluetooth. All legal, all harmless.

I've driven about six thousand miles since I set up my TapTrap. It works pretty well (but not perfectly) with all the other warnings. But since my GPS shows me speed limits anyway, and I don't do the stuff that gets you in trouble with traffic cams, it wasn't exactly a lifesaver.

What I wanted was a warning when there was a speed trap, so I could check my speed and make sure I was legal. I don't plan to speed, and now that I'm old I'm most likely to find that I've drifted to a speed lower than the speed limit, but sometimes I get a heavy foot and the speedtrap warning might be of great help.

And if you get a speed trap warning but the speed trap isn't there anymore, you're supposed to tap twice to clear the warning.

But not once in those six thousand miles did TrapTap alert me to any of the half-dozen speed traps I actually passed.

Since I got all the other alerts, I know the connection between my phone and the disk and between my phone and the central database was working.

So maybe I was the first TrapTap user to see each of those speed traps.

Or maybe the other drivers who passed it were like me -- not till they were three miles away did they remember, Oh, I was supposed to tap my TrapTap disk the moment I saw the speed trap, but now it's too late because what good is a warning three miles past the speed trap?

Or maybe there simply aren't enough TrapTap users to get anything like full coverage of all U.S. highways and streets.

In any case, I would have kept using the Trap Tap because the only way we'll get full coverage is for all the TrapTap owners to use them whenever they're driving.

Here's why I removed the TrapTap from my dashboard last week. Because the TrapTap app sucks power out of the phone battery so that unless I drive with my phone continuously plugged in and charging, I'll be out of battery power within a few hours.

I miss the cheery little warnings that TrapTap used to give me. It was like having a buddy who kept saying, I know right where you are and I'm looking out for you.

But I don't miss the 8% power warning I'd see when I pulled out my phone to make a call or look something up or even play a game of Spider Solitaire.

If you always remember to plug in your phone on long trips, then TrapTap might be just what you need.

Meanwhile, I passed two speed traps going to and from the beach last week, and (a) I saw them from quite a ways off without any help from TrapTap, and (b) I wasn't speeding anyway.

The idiots who were speeding, weaving in and out of lines of cars, needed to get caught in a speed trap for the safety of everyone else on the road. So ... should I really be helping them get away with speeding by notifying everybody of where a speed trap is?

*

Not long ago, Dennis Prager was invited to guest-conduct the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra.

I knew about Prager because for years he has had the enthusiastic support of a cousin who lives in Southern California, where he has a moderately conservative talk radio show.

I say "moderately" conservative because I've never heard him say crazy stuff, like, say, our current President. Instead, he supports various conservative and moderate causes with reasoned language and actual data.

He also supports Prager University, a series of short, clear, free online lectures by many scholars and thinkers, designed to counter the disinformation, propaganda, and outright insanity that are now the constant offering of most American universities.

But I never knew that he was also a music guy. Guest-conducting isn't a matter of showing up and waving your arm. Even though you might be working with an excellent orchestra with first-rate instrumentalists, you still have to understand the score and communicate constantly with the players so that everything comes in at the right time. You have to choose playable tempos and loudness levels, and interpret the score for the whole group.

It's no easier to guest-conduct an orchestra than it is to guest-coach a football team -- something that nobody ever does, as far as I know.

So my respect for Prager went up a few notches when I found that out.

He's been conducting orchestras for years, and in all that time, he has never once used that musical performance as a platform for advancing his political agenda. Instrumental music is as non-political, as abstract, as art ever gets.

But the new rule of the Left is that no person who has ever advocated for a non-Leftist cause can be allowed to have any kind of employment anywhere in America -- thus proving that they are now even less tolerant than anti-Communists were in the 1950s.

Heck, they're right where Soviet Communism was when dissident physicist Andre Sakharov was forbidden to earn a living -- and also forbidden to leave the USSR.

So some Leftist orchestra members decided to raise a stink. They were not going to play if Prager guest-conducted -- and, of course, they notified the press of their social-justice-warrior act of intolerance.

Can you guess how the press covered this brouhaha? Instead of telling you, I urge you to look up Prager's essay on the subject: "Key Ways the Mainstream Media Distorts the Truth."

I'd give you the link here in print, but it's 367 characters long and most of it is a jumble of upper- and lower-case letters. You aren't going to type it in. Using a search engine is way faster. That is, if Google, in its search for perfect uniformity of thought among computer users, is still allowing people to link to sites where conservative and/or fact-based ideas might be expressed.

So here's the search that will get you there: "Prager Mainstream Media Distorts"

It's the principle I noticed way back in the 1980s, when we were still watching 60 Minutes on CBS. On the rare occasions where we actually knew something beforehand about the story they were telling, they got everything wrong.

And they always got it wrong the same way: They only ran the story if they could spin it to be "Hero Reporter Confronts the Big Bad Bully Corporate Guy and Humiliates Him in Order to Save the Virtuous Little Guy."

With emphasis on "Hero Reporter."

So we stopped watching 60 Minutes because we realized it was a soap opera pretending to be true.

Nowadays the media are generally so far to the Left that traditional liberals like me look like dangerous ultra-rightists to them. Back in 1976 I was a liberal by any rational standard -- a Moynihan Democrat.

Without changing any of my principles, while still holding positions so liberal they would make Sean Hannity cut me off in mid-sentence, I now find myself to be such a dangerous right-winger that I am a constant target of the totalitarian Left in America.

I don't get any invitations to speak anywhere but at religious colleges, without someone threatening a boycott -- because, of course, anyone who ever argued against the Extreme Leftist position on any issue must be silenced forever, even if the matter was decided nearly a decade ago and I haven't spoken or written about it since.

So I know something about what Prager was dealing with. Usually, though, the cancellation of my invitation is handled quietly and I don't call the press about it because hey, not giving the speech means I can stay home and write and hang out with my wife and with friends and, you know, have a life.

But Prager didn't have that option and, come on, there is nothing political about the way he conducts music. So the opposition to his guest-conducting was pure, irrational hatred and bigotry, without disguise or mitigation.

The hilarious thing is that the people who whine to have monuments torn down or speakers banned or other totalitarian acts all fool themselves into thinking that there is something liberal and open-minded about what they're doing.

They are the enemies of freedom, and they're far more repressive now, along with their allies and toadies in the media, than the House Un-American Activities Committee ever was in the heyday of anti-Communism.

Their blacklist is longer and once you're on it, you can never get off, not even by dying.


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