Here's a Christmas gift success this year: Sur La Table offered tiny red waffle irons for something like ten bucks -- or less. The price was so low that I assumed half of them would blow up as soon as they were plugged in.
Instead, when we made a waffle breakfast for a pair of our grandkids and a niece, the tiny waffle irons worked perfectly. They turned out little round waffles like clockwork; even the littlest child ate two waffles.
I pronounce them to have been a smash hit. Too bad that they seem to have been a Christmas-only promotion, so I can't find them on the website at all; for that matter, since I found them in the Sur La Table in Friendly Center, they might never have been available in the online store.
However, they may be the same as the Dash Mini Waffle Maker sold online by Crate&Barrel for $9.99. They look the same, except that the Crate&Barrel version is white, and the ones I bought were red. So if you want to give them a try, why not? Maybe I was just lucky with ours -- or maybe these are really well-made tiny cheap appliances ...
Just remember: If you're cooking for a group of hungry people, one of these is way too few. Our three waffle makers were barely able to keep up with the demand. Or use it in conjunction with a fullsize waffle maker -- you can dole out the special little ones to your favorite grandchildren.
I have heard of writers who, like Arthur Conan Doyle, resented the fabulously successful character who drove their careers. That's why Doyle famously killed off Sherlock Holmes ... only to find that he had to bring him back from the dead because without Holmes, there was no career for Doyle.
My own view is that if a writer (or actor, or director) is lucky enough to have one character or one book or one movie or one show that the public connects with and yes, even loves -- then he should give thanks every day for whatever fairy dripped that idea into his ear while he slept, because most artists struggle along without having any such foundation to build a career on.
I know what I'm talking about here, folks. But I was doubly fortunate, because even though my publisher is always happy to publish another book with "Ender" or "Shadow" in the title, my publisher has been generous about also publishing books that are not related to Ender's Game.
None of them has caught on like Ender, but most books don't, and each one has had a chance to find its own audience. Even my least-selling novel has its fans who tell me that they loved it, that it changed their lives. So on the shoulders of Ender's Game, I've been able to build a couple of nice shelves of books that I'm proud to have written.
When we look at movies, we tend to focus on "geniuses" whose works are all towering triumphs of cinematic art.
Or else once a director (usually) has been branded a "genius," any piece of cinecopria that comes from him is lauded, regardless of merit.
Most filmmakers are lucky to get anything shot, given how much money that takes, and if one of them is a movie that's memorably good, that's way cool.
I'm thinking here of Dale Launer, the writer who created My Cousin Vinny back in 1992. He's almost a year younger than me, so he's getting old; when Vinny came out he was forty. A mere kid.
I hope you remember My Cousin Vinny. I didn't see it in the theaters, because there was nothing about the promotion of the film that might have induced me to see it. Why? Because this movie rests completely on the relationship between Vinny and his fiancee, Mona Lisa Vito, which can't be understood in trailers and promos.
Vinny was played by Joe Pesci, coming hard on the heels of his work in Lethal Weapon 2 and Goodfellas. And Mona Lisa Vito was played by Marisa Tomei, coming hard on the heels of ... absolutely nothing.
Oh, she had credits in four films that you don't remember and I never saw, and in some of them she was a kid. As far as the film world was concerned, she didn't exist until My Cousin Vinny and ...
She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
It was such a shock that Hollywood was rife with rumors about how aging Jack Palance had read the wrong name at the Oscars and the winner was supposed to be ... oh, whatever actress they had expected to win.
Here's the truth: There has been no Oscar awarded to an actor that was more deserved than Marisa Tomei's. She is the gold standard of what an Oscar performance is supposed to be.
At every moment her character is completely real, true to herself, true to the story. Tomei takes good dialogue and makes it brilliant. Her character is foul-mouthed, sarcastic, demanding, smart, playful, and unforgettable. We're more in love with her at the end of the movie than Vinny is.
It's not that Tomei steals the movie from Pesci -- he's the lead, and he's given great moments in the film, which he plays to the hilt. I think it's Pesci's best performance in a fine and memorable career.
But this movie could only work if Mona Lisa Vito worked -- and, played by Marisa Tomei, she worked.
Comedies don't often win Oscars for their actors, no matter how brilliant their performances are. For Marisa Tomei to win required viewers to overcome so many biases that it was truly astonishing.
The other night we pulled out our DVD of My Cousin Vinny and popped it in the player, even though we had a lot of screeners of new movies, because a dear friend who's also a movie director told us that he had never seen it.
We regarded this as such a fault in his otherwise impeccable film education that we had to remedy the problem as soon as possible.
Now, I didn't imagine that My Cousin Vinny broke new cinematic ground. And as our friend pointed out, there are some bits of sloppy editing and surprisingly slow timing.
But for a layman like me, with a background in theatre, what I kept seeing was scenes of the perfect length, with not a wasted word, revelatory of character and very, very funny, with everything contributing in surprising ways to the triumphant conclusion of the court case at the center of the story.
There are so many quotable lines in the film -- but if you haven't seen it, it would be a waste of time for me to quote them to you here.
What our friend had to admit is that, flaws and all, this was a very, very well-written movie.
Which brings me back to Dale Launer, who has the sole writing credit on My Cousin Vinny. His film career began in 1986 with Ruthless People, which he wrote. It was a charming high-concept comedy which we enjoyed but now have no particular reason to see again. He then wrote Blind Date and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which had big name casts and which some people (not me) remember fondly. Or just remember. Which I don't.
And then there's My Cousin Vinny.
After having created one of the best comedy scripts in film history, what happened next?
Love Potion No. 9, in which Launer jumped from writing and producing to actually directing. The film did not do well, even though it had Sandra Bullock in it (before Speed, before While You Were Sleeping). Maybe it had something to do with the fact that its whole budget was $417,000. You can't even shoot an afternoon of a regular movie for that.
After that, well ... maybe Launer was bored with making movies that people might want to see. Maybe he was getting more and more desperate to find "high concept" material, even though his strength is in the execution, not the concept. Or maybe he ran up against Hollywood's obsession with young writers in the 1990s, and he couldn't get work. Maybe he found love and happiness outside the film business.
One thing he found was friendship with a mystery writer named Lawrence Kelter, who reached out to Launer and eventually came up with -- and got the rights and permissions to create -- a book that is a sequel to My Cousin Vinny, set in Brooklyn 25 years later.
I have to tell you right now that I hate this book unread. I hate it because it has already been announced that 25 years later, Vinny and Mona Lisa are not married. What happened to that ticking biological clock? If they couldn't actually get to the altar in Kelter's version, then he doesn't understand the characters we came to love in that movie.
Come on, it's just a bad idea. Vinny needs no sequel. The story is complete.
It's been a while since I watched the whole movie, from the titles as we're cruisin' along an Alabama highway to the credits as our heroes head back north filled with optimism and triumph. I have to say now: If you own this DVD, pull it out and watch it. If you don't, stream it from somewhere. It's worth having in your memory; it's worth keeping as a standard for other comedies to meet.
Most will fail. But those that do meet the Vinny standard: They'll really be something.
What about Launer, the guy who created Vinny? How does he feel about this most memorable and successful of his works?
I hope he understands that even if your career is shorter than you hoped, and even if you didn't achieve all that you tried for, there are precious few writers who ever create anything half as brilliant as My Cousin Vinny. Be glad for it, be proud of it, you done good, man!
I know, I reviewed the new Star Wars movie last week. But a friend of mine sent me his own response, which was more cynical than mine but also filled with the hopes of a true fan.
So yeah, I'm giving him a chance to have a slightly larger audience for his rant than just me.
Speaking of The Last Jedi, my lawyer friend wrote: "I have to say, I can think of no better portrayal of characters that no one cares about. If they'd tried to make a movie about characters I don't care about, they couldn't have done it any better. Unless they somehow used more tropes. Which I don't think would have been possible."
He compared this film with the original Star Wars, where we did care about a character: "Luke: farm hand, disgruntled, disappointed with life, a bit of a screw-off. He has this notion that his dad was great and awesome and he has a stupid farm life full of disappointment. He found out he had some powers and, when given the opportunity, helped Obi Wan and eventually left his home mostly to help people, but partly for adventure. He mostly failed, but he tried his best and he was a loyal friend above all.
"That's a story. Flesh it out, and you have every good story ever told."
Then he turns to the story of The Last Jedi:
"1. Confident girl Jedi -- who manages to be insistent and bossy yet somehow has no passions or needs of any kind -- easily succeeds at everything.
"2. Confident woman general of the Rebel army succeeds while sneering and being rude to a man.
"3. A man from the first movie is again not confident and kind of succeeds with the help of another confident girl who bosses him around.
"4. All women over 60 can't move their upper lips because they're too botoxed. Can't they digitally give them moving lips?"
Then my friend tried to find something he admired about the movie. "Now that I've thought it through, it was a nightmare."
His only positive: "The second over-confident and bossy girl in the movie was not conventionally beautiful. That was fun."
So now, readers of Uncle Orson Reviews Everything, what do you learn from my friend's review?
1. Uncle Orson is not as mean a reviewer as it's possible to be.
2. True fans aren't disappointed because the movie violates some irrelevant "fact" about the characters. They're disappointed because they actually want each new Star Wars movie to earn the viewers' allegiance on its own terms, not just coasting on our pre-existing affection for the series.
Besides, that was used up for many of us by the execrable prequels. The well of unconditional welcome is nearly dry.
I liked the movie better than my friend did. But, oh, did I mention? He's smarter than me.