Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 2, 2017
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Blade Runner 2049, Jelly, Onsen Towels
This is the time of year when the movie studios are bringing out their big guns -- the movies they
think have a chance of doing well at the Oscars.
Fortunately, we've now passed that stupid season of October, when the studios try to enthrall us
with constant horror movies.
Outside of the theaters, there's nothing horrible about October. In places that have autumn,
it's the time when we cool off from summer, when the world turns red and golden, when our
thoughts turn to the season of Thanksgiving.
Halloween isn't such a big deal anymore, now that children aren't free to roam their
neighborhoods without parents. It's just institutionalized begging, and while we try to delight our
visitors with their favorite candies (Twix, every year, scientifically determined by letting them
pick their own candy from our eclectic candy basket; Twix always disappears first, by a mile), we
also avoid scaring them because our favorite candy-mendicants are the little ones, and there's no
pleasure in making four-year-olds recoil in fear.
Why, then, because of this downgraded diabetes-inducing "holiday" do we have to put up with
movie trailers, in the theaters and on our television sets at home, that try to scare us? When I go
to see a good and intelligent movie, why, during October, do I have to sit through stupid,
sickening trailers that go "boo!"?
I've actually had some dreadful things happen in my life, and I don't need to have the "thrill" of
mindless murder and supernatural horror thrust on me against my will as "entertainment."
Run your trailers on computer media mostly viewed by fear-nought teenagers who choose to see
scary things because they don't know that death is real and not a game-over, restart scenario.
(For that matter, keep your Thor trailers to yourselves, too. Not the fault of the actors, but
there has been no stupider comic-book franchise than the Norse mythological branch of the
Marvel family. Spider-man and Thor and the Hulk in the same universe? Puh-leeeeze.)
But now October is over, and the studios settle down to lay out their Oscar bait ... and their
big Christmas movies. We've already seen the arrival of Victoria and Abdul, which is too
nuanced and grown-up to vie for Best Picture, but which will certainly put Judi Dench in
contention in the Best Acress category.
Being a contrarian, however, I tend to take a look back at films that came out earlier in the year,
so I don't forget the good films that were dumped into the theaters back in January and February.
When a studio loses faith in a movie, they fulfil their own predictions by releasing them in a time
slot where, no matter how the audience loves them, will be forgotten come Oscar time the
We all confuse the release dates of movies. For instance, I didn't see Hacksaw Ridge -- an
award-winning 2016 film -- until well into 2017. I had to look it up to see that it isn't eligible
for awards this year -- and to mourn that it didn't win, since it was an achievement in storytelling
that surpassed, in my opinion, even my beloved La La Land and matched the best sci-fi movie
ever, Arrival, which wasn't even nominated.
(Just to make things even more confusing, remember that the 2017 Academy Awards were
already bestowed on the films that came out in 2016; this year's films will be honored in the 2018
Academy Awards. Is that clear now? Of course not.)
It's actually kind of rare when the movie I most love and admire in any given year is even
nominated for an Oscar. As I read the pundits' Oscar predictions, I always end up shaking my
head and muttering, They think that was the best picture this year?
No doubt most people would respond similarly to my picks. For instance, my favorite comedy
this year has to be the Anna Kendrick vehicle Table 19, a brilliant ensemble story about the
wedding guests assigned to the worst table at the reception.
It grossed about twenty dollars, which means my wife and I may have been the only people to see
it. (Actually, it grossed $3,614,896 in the U.S., with only a million and a half added for
worldwide earnings. Since the estimated budget was almost exactly the same as the worldwide
gross earnings, it qualifies as a mild flop.)
Look, comedy is hard. Romantic comedy, spectacularly difficult. And even when you do it
exactly right, there's no guarantee it will catch on with a large audience. Sure: You've Got Mail,
Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair to Remember, Love Actually -- there are rom-coms that slay at the
box office and remain alive in our culture for generations. But contenders for such a position
seem to come along every five years or so, on average -- which means that the career of Meg
Ryan paired with Tom Hanks really skewed the averages.
If you stream Table 19, will you agree with me? Try it and see.
Looking at the top one hundred films at the box office so far this year, there are some very
popular films that deserve to be among our favorites. My wife liked Wonder Woman even more
than I did -- and I liked it a lot. But it's not likely to be a nominee for best picture this year. Ditto
with Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which Tom Holland vies with Andrew Garfield as the best
Spider-Man among the three stars of the endlessly rebooting film series. (And Toby Maguire
wasn't bad, either.)
But come on, is anybody going to predict any of this year's comic-book films as a likely Oscar
winner? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was also splendid, but it was a sequel, which makes
two kisses of death.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting close to the trilogy that began with the powerful Rise
of the Planet of the Apes and the surprisingly good Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. War is the
best of the three, and the performances of the actors playing the leading apes were superb.
Will any of the ape-actors be nominated? No, because CGI confuses unsophisticated actors who
don't realize that ignoring Andy Serkis and others because of the computerized enhancements to
their performance is like ignoring the late John Hurt's brilliant performance as John Merrick in
Elephant Man because his face was almost entirely concealed within a massive makeup job.
American Made is actually going to be in contention -- will Tom Cruise be nominated? -- and it
certainly makes my top-ten list for 2017, but ... ultimately, the script has too many lies, none of
which made the movie better, because the lies mostly centered on making the "hero" seem to be
seduced into his criminal acts by the CIA, whereas in fact he was a full-fledged criminal before
the CIA ever engaged him.
I know, truth shouldn't matter, but to me it does. If you claim your movie is based, however
loosely, on real events, and then you distort those events in order to point the finger of blame
where it doesn't really belong is, in my opinion, the artistic equivalent of perjury.
The Hitman's Bodyguard has zero chance of getting any nominations, but it was an ingenious
story well told, and it's higher in my top-ten list than American Made.
Like the much-maligned Twister some twenty years ago and San Andreas last year, it's viewed as
a cynical Hollywood project. But, as with those better-than-they-had-to-be movies, good writing
and terrific performances make Hitman's Bodyguard a film that I think will be watchable long
after many a critics' darling is revealed to be tedious self-indulgence or a cynical Oscar-chaser.
American Assassin is, if anything, even better. Though it participates fully in the thriller genre,
it's a smart, deep, thoughtful movie that was simply too popular (because the audience
isn't stupid) for anybody in the Academy to take pride in "discovering" it at awards time.
Home Again, the Reese Witherspoon non-rom-com about a woman who stumbles into an
affair with a much younger man and brings him and his two friends into her home to transform
her life and her family, deserves much more attention than it will get. Even though a genuinely
funny and moving comedy is a rare and precious thing, the ignorant Academy will probably
reward the kind of overacted, overwritten, pretentious film that too often wins.
And there are films I have high hopes for, like Goodbye Christopher Robin, which hasn't yet
reached Greensboro. It may blow away everything on my list; or it may be a gentle, well-intentioned failure with an outstanding cast. No shame in that.
Until this past weekend, though, my favorite for the best movie of 2017 was Baby Driver. This
mob-tied storyline, written and directed by Edgar Wright, shows the ethereally innocent Ansel
Elgort as a getaway driver with extraordinary gifts linked to a mix tape he always plays. It is an
unforgettably meaningful and moving film, and Elgort has the privilege of acting opposite the
ineffably good-and-evil Kevin Spacey.
I didn't think any movie would be strong enough, good enough, deep enough to shove Baby
Driver out of my top spot for the year.
The film I regard as the best of 2017 so far came out a couple of weekends ago. It's a sequel to
Blade Runner, a sci-fi classic from 1982 based on Philip K. Dick's equally classic novel Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I don't know whether to be delighted or disgusted when a sci-fi novel is made into a brilliant
movie -- Why couldn't mine have been? asks the daemon Envy, whom I keep trying to exorcise --
but now, thirty-five years later, Blade Runner gets an even better sequel.
Yeah, yeah, I know. There are plenty of fans for whom the original Blade Runner has a semi-deified status. Sorry about your religion, folks. But along with a rich, smart, and convoluted
plot, Blade Runner 2049 is not the ordinary kind of sequel.
Like Godfather II, it takes the events of its predecessor and then makes a run at exploring
even more of the moral implications of that storyline. Ryan Gosling, in his best performance to
date, plays a replicant nicknamed "K" whose job is hunting down older-model replicants who
need to be killed to make the world safe for slavery, a morally ambiguous goal even if you don't
think of replicants as people -- which the film absolutely demands that we do.
Blade Runner 2049 shows us K's complicated relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a
holographic version of Alexa or Siri -- but one who behaves and makes moral choices as if she
has a soul, and a genuine commitment to and love for K.
Robin Wright plays a real human, Joshi, K's boss, who takes her job seriously but also takes K
seriously, too. Her performance is in many ways the spine of this movie.
From the promos we always knew that Gosling would come upon Harrison Ford, reprising his
role as the (much older) Rick Deckard. Blade Runner was the film in which Harrison Ford first
got to show his real acting chops (beyond a teasing insouciance), and it's fitting that his
performance in the sequel shows how much deeper and more nuanced his skill set has become in
the intervening years. Gosling and Ford together are an acting team that completely works.
Jared Leto is excellent as the chillingly amoral megaboss who is trying to protect and improve
the "product" he creates, and as his majordomo and assassin, Luv, Sylvia Hoeks is absolutely
There are surprises and twists that I dare not compromise, and yet even if you guess the biggest
twist early on, as my wife, true to form, did, it doesn't change the fact that this is a magnificent
film about the search for a lost or missing father, about the sacrifices we make for children,
about the importance of knowing the truth about our own past, and about the discovery of what
matters enough to die for.
Ryan Gosling is the master of the wry martyr -- the character who sacrifices to help others,
but ends up losing or missing, without bitterness, what he most values. The camera swims in his
eyes, finding depths in his stillness; this may be a skill or it may be a trick of genetics, but it
makes him eligible to play the deepest, most tragic roles.
I'm not actually a fan of Hamlet, but Gosling's characters always seem to carry the spirit of
Hamlet inside them -- it was there in his performance in La La Land, and even in his much
lighter role in Crazy, Stupid, Love, a movie in which he does the impossible: he steals scenes
from Steve Carell, from whom no actor has ever been able to steal a scene.
Now, Hollywood, I dare you. Find a way to top Blade Runner 2049 and Baby Driver so
something else takes over the top spot on my list of the year's best films.
We already know all about towels. High-end hotels compete to offer us towels so thick and
plush, so soft and absorbent that we want to go home and burn all the towels in our linen closet.
We all know that the best towels are thick thick thick, with a deep pile that makes our carpets
jealous. And, of course, the key to everything is pure long-fiber cotton.
But this year on Kickstarter I took a chance on a startup that actually thought they could redefine
quality in a towel. They start with "100% supima cotton," perhaps the best of the long-fiber
Instead of competing for towel thickness, however, the open weave of the towel makes it feel
thinner than any towel I've ever used.
Far from being threadbare, however, it is the opposite: you're getting as much absorbent cotton as
ever, but unlike those thick, plush traditional towels, the Onsen towel dries almost immediately.
I don't know about you, but I reuse towels for about a week before submitting them to the washer
and dryer. Every washing weakens and thins down a plush towel, so you want to hang it and
let it dry between uses. After all, if you only use the towel to dry a very wet but very clean body,
how dirty can it get?
I've found that thick towels have a hard time getting dry between uses. And whatever moisture is
left in the towel when you next use it means a loss in absorbency. An already wet or moist towel
isn't going to be very good at drying you off.
After several weeks of use, I can affirm that the Onsen towel practically slurps all water from
my corpus after a shower, and yet, because its surface area is so much larger than plush towels,
it's bone dry even if my next shower is less than twelve hours later.
In our climate, with humidity averaging above 70 percent (80s in the morning, 50s in the
afternoon), it takes time for the air to absorb moisture. But the more damp surface you offer to
the air, the more quickly the air can suck it all up.
That's the theory behind the Onsen towel, and it works. I used to have to dry myself with a
hair blower after toweling off, because I still felt damp pretty much everywhere. Haven't
touched the hair dryer since I got my Onsen towels.
They're not cheap. But they're worth it, in my opinion. However, your first impression will be of
how light and thin these towels feel. The surprise is that they do a better job of drying you even
Now, if your comfort requires the feel of thickness, it may be that you'll want to go back to your
previous plush towels -- my wife has done so. But I plan never to go back. Somebody finally
created the best of all possible towels, in my opinion, and whatever quirks they have in their feel
and handling, I quickly got used to them and now prefer them to all others.
The thick, gorgeous towels at the Hotel Monaco in Salt Lake City, where I stayed a couple of
weekends ago, were actually disappointing to me. There was nothing wrong with their towels,
by ordinary standards. They just weren't my Onsens.
You can see them for yourself at OnsenTowel.com. This minimalist website makes you look
harder than you should have to in order to get detailed information -- like prices. (Pass your
mouse over the name of the product and the price sometimes appears underneath.) From the
$80 bath sheet and $50 bath towel to the $18 hand towel and the $10 face cloth, I think they're
worth every penny.
And if you buy more than $95 worth at the website, shipping is free.
Another crowdfunded project I backed was a tiny smartphone. From Unihertz, the Jelly phone
has kind of a cutesy name, but it's a serious mobile phone. It looks like it's the size of the
smallest flip-phone, but this is no clamshell design. Its tiny touch screen is right there in the
open, and, based on Android, it runs all the apps you can load onto it.
However, everything is so small that I make more text-entry errors than usual. This is
particularly frustrating when you're entering passwords to get into your pre-existing apps. My
fingers aren't particularly thick, either. I am, however, old, so maybe I'm not aiming my fingers
as well as I should.
Here's the thing: My beautiful new Galaxy Note 8 is the best smartphone I've ever owned.
But it feels so heavy, compared to the Jelly, that I think of it as my ball and chain. It isn't -- it's
actually amazingly light for its size -- but if I'm going to be doing a lot of walking, and not a lot
of game-playing, texting, or email-handling, I leave the Galaxy Note 8 behind and drop my Jelly
in my pocket. It's like I have no phone at all -- except when I need to call somebody.
I can play many of my games and use many of my apps on the Jelly -- as promised, it's a fully
functioning smartphone. But in practical terms, I use it when I need a phone. The other
functions are nice to have for backup, in case I need them. But for a lightweight, extremely
portable talking machine it's the best portable phone I've used.
Besides the small size and the small screen (but my glasses do a fine job of letting me read
emails, texts, and books from my Kindle app), the only other drawback is that in a phone this
size, you can't stuff in quite as much battery.
I'm used to being able to play Ticket to Ride or Spider Solitaire on my Galaxy Note 8 and its
Samsung predecessors for hours at a time, with plenty of battery left for texting, emails, and
With the Jelly, a few apps can drain that battery down at a pretty fast clip.
However, because the small size makes some apps hard to use, it's pretty easy to ration my use of
battery life, and I've never had the Jelly go dead on me before I was ready to recharge it anyway.
Just don't leave it overnight without recharging it.
You can find the Jelly at www.unihertz.com. Jelly isn't tied to -- or offered by -- any of the
standard mobile phone services, and when I went to my longtime carrier, Verizon, it turned out
that their phone protocols don't work with the Jelly.
The helpful sales rep at Verizon told me that AT&T and T-Mobile both used the same
protocol as the Jelly.
Perhaps I was spoiled by my experience at Verizon, because I walked in the door and seated at a
desk immediately inside was the sales rep who immediately and swiftly helped me with
everything I needed.
When I got to AT&T a half-hour before closing, it was a different story. With my usual
luck, I arrived when every sales agent was helping somebody with a complicated set of needs, so
that after twenty minutes I still had no glimmer of a timeframe. Would someone be able to work
with me before they locked up for the night?
It was not encouraging when the only agent who had spoken to me so far finally came to me, not
to wait on me, but to ask if I'd like to make an appointment for the next day. "Yes," I said. "At
T-Mobile. If AT&T wants to open a new account for me, it'll be tonight."
The funny thing is that places like AT&T and the Apple Store could go a long way toward
holding on to customers who are waiting for service if they simply touched bases every five
minutes or so, so that we don't feel so forgotten. No, we don't need to make an appointment for
another day, because we already left our houses and drove to your isolated store and that was a
waste of time if I can't get the thing I came for. Just keep tagging us so we're sure we're still in
the game. (The Apple Store is pretty much the worst -- somebody comes and talks to you when
you first enter, and then you don't exist until they're ready for you, however long that takes.)
Then again, because I had nothing to do while waiting (except continuing to listen to the
audiobook that was playing in my ears), I browsed around and that's when I noticed the Beats By
Dre earphones that I reviewed so favorably last week. (All that favorableness still stands after
another week of use.)
I knew that my Jelly would be the first of these phones they had seen. It's pretty tricky to
open it up, and then you have to lift up the battery to get to the SIM card slots hidden underneath
it. You have to know what SIM cards it can use -- they're not all alike -- and you have to know
how to listen to the customer -- me.
The usual practice in a mobile phone store is to trade in one phone for another, and therefore to
keep the old number and transfer it to the new phone.
It took awhile for them to grasp that I was opening a new account and needed a new number
because I had no intention of dropping my Verizon account or my Galaxy Note 8. After all, at
this point I didn't even know if the Jelly would work well -- it had not yet been connected to a
number or a carrier so I could try it out.
But once I was waited on, by a very knowledgeable agent with excellent technical skills, we got
my Jelly up and running in no time -- along with a brand new AT&T account with a new phone
So far, my wife is the only living human who has that number. (My great achievement is
that, at age 66, I've actually memorized it.) But then, she's pretty much the only living human
who calls me at all, so that's OK. It's ridiculous for somebody who gets and makes as few phone
calls as I do to have and carry two phones.
Yet carrying the super-light-weight Jelly with me when I walk and hike and wander around is
very reassuring. By having it on, I can help the police find my body if I have my second stroke
while I'm a couple of miles from home. Or if I have some emergency that does not prevent me
from phoning, I can call my wife for a ride. At my age, these are serious concerns.
So the Jelly is my take-everywhere phone, whereas the Galaxy Note 8 moves just a little closer
to the category of luggage -- to be taken when I need its capacity, but left behind when all I need
is a phone for emergencies and checking in.
One drawback to opening a second account that's with a new carrier: I couldn't use Verizon's
delightfully perfect transfer software, and therefore I don't have all my contacts and email
addresses and phone numbers in my Jelly. Anybody I call, I have to know their number and
enter it, laboriously, by hand.
But I'm a tough guy. I can cope with it.
No, I'm not a tough guy at all, I'm whiny and lazy and I still only have a couple of numbers
entered in my phone because my blunt fingers keep missing the exact spot where the digit or
letter I'm aiming at is located and I keep giving up because I don't have anything worth saying to
But I still recommend this phone -- as a pure phone and as a kind of smartish phone as well.
Or a full-fledged smartphone if you have skinny fingers and good aim.
You can get it in black, white, or baby blue (the color of my wife's Fiat); the protective cases
come in the same colors. The armbands, for serious runners and walkers, are all black. The
phone is $124.99. The cost of connecting to a service provider is up to them, and depends
largely on the plan you want to pay for.
The other night I was browsing through late-night offerings, fighting insomnia (but not very
hard), when I came across a 2008 Angelina Jolie movie called Wanted.
The premise is that Wesley, an unhappy office worker (James McAvoy), is "recruited" by a
Fraternity of assassins because, unbeknownst to him, his father had been one of them and Wesley
is assumed to have inherited some of his superhuman abilities.
I started watching in the middle of his training, which was indistinguishable from being tortured
on 24. Because McAvoy, Jolie, and character actors Terence Stamp and Morgan Freeman
were giving superb performances, I set my TiVo to record the rest of it while I kept channel
I finished watching it the next day and found that it was quite enjoyable. I had no memory of
ever seeing it promoted back in 2008, but apparently it was a modest hit, grossing $341 million
worldwide on a budget of $75 million. So maybe you're among the many who already saw it.
I didn't, and so I'm telling other people who, like me, completely missed it nine years ago: This is
Angelina Jolie at her butt-kicking best, and we get to see a view of McAvoy that's a lot more
interesting than his fair imitation of Patrick Stewart in the more recent flashbacky X-Men
Since he made Wanted long before he was in any of the X-Men sequels, this might well be the
first time most of us saw him, or at least knew that we had seen him, since his biggest roles
before Wanted were as Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and roles in
Becoming Jane and The Last King of Scotland.
After Wanted and before any X-Men movies, his most notable role was as the voice of Gnomeo
in Gnomeo & Juliet. At least he was working.
There's a lot of brutality in Wanted. But it's nothing we don't get on TV fairly regularly, so what
matters here is the story, the plot twists, the characters and their relationships. From what we see
of his prior home life, Wesley probably would have been better off even if his basic training by
the Fraternity had killed him.
If the violence doesn't throw you off, and you like cool plot twists and believable reveals, it's
worth catching Wanted. None of these actors will ever be this young and vigorous again,
because only Tom Cruise is going to live forever with almost no visible aging.
The Christmas season approaches, and we're continuing the tradition of offering some of my
books, signed and personalized to your gift recipient, through our Greensboro Barnes & Noble.
This spares you and me the need to attend a single book signing on a certain day, and you don't
have to wait in any lines longer than the checkout line at the bookstore.
Becky Carignan at Barnes & Noble will even take remote orders, which they will then ship
anywhere in the U.S. She'll stop taking out-of-town orders on 11 December, but local orders can
be placed as late as 18 December of this year.
Remote buyers will pay the actual shipping costs, but there's no charge to local customers
beyond the ordinary price of the book.
We don't offer this with every title -- just a few that Barnes & Noble orders especially for this
purpose and keeps on hand until the end of the Christmas buying season.
Here is the list of books available in this program -- until the store runs out of any particular title:
-- My just-released book, Children of the Fleet, a sequel to Ender's Game.
-- Hardcovers of Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and the new edition of War of Gifts.
-- Hardcovers of the Mithermages trilogy: The Lost Gate, The Gate Thief, and Gatefather.
-- Boxed sets of hardcover or trade paperback editions of the YA trilogy Pathfinder, Ruins, and
Visitors. We will remove the shrink-wrap so I can sign all three volumes to the person
If you're a local customer, just stop in at Barnes & Noble and ask for the book or books you want
from this list. They'll charge you for it, take your information about whom it's to be signed to,
then hold it till Monday when I come in to sign it. Once it's signed, they'll phone or email you so
you can pick it up.
If you're ordering remotely, email the store at email@example.com and let them know the titles
you want, the names you want them signed for, and the address to which the books should be
shipped after signing. Include your phone number, too, because a store employee will call you to
get credit card information (we don't want you including credit card info in emails!).
This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble
website have nothing to do with this, so they won't know what you're talking about if you try to
participate through them.
Remember, the last day to order locally will be Monday, December 18th; the last day for remote
orders will be Monday, December 11th.
In addition, signed (but not personalized) copies of many of my books can be ordered directly
from my own online bookstore at Hatrack.com -- including my Christmas book Zanna's Gift,
which I think may be the best story I ever wrote. Give us a look at