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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 19, 2018

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

Last Movie Star, Zona, Beet Kvass

The most powerful reviews are not the ones you read. The reviews that lead us to action are the oral critiques spoken aloud by friends.

I'm pretty impervious to written reviews, which is ironic, given that I hope people will read my own weekly column of written reviews.

But I know that while reviews sometimes help me choose between two equal alternatives, when I have any kind of reluctance to see a movie or read a book or try a restaurant, what pushes me over the edge to give one of them a try is a friend saying, "What are you waiting for? I ate there / read that / saw it and it was wonderful."

Now, I would love to think that some who read this column think of my recommendations as if they came from a friend.

More likely, however, is the prospect that just as many readers think, "Uncle Orson is an amazingly accurate guide. If he likes it, I know I'll hate it; if he hates it, then maybe it'll be good."

Well, what can I say? If my reviews are useful to you in some way, I am more or less content.

I suspect that most readers of this column merely find it amusing to hear about books, movies, restaurants, or whatever nonsense I review from week to week, without even considering giving my recommendations any weight.

But I do have some friends whose opinions I value, and I automatically begin to plan to follow their recommendations. I order the books they recommend. I scan the movie times for the films they mentioned.

That's why, when my wife and I were scanning through the local movie listings, I perked up when she mentioned The Last Movie Star.

My friend Rusty Humphries had attended a film festival and saw an independent movie in which Burt Reynolds played an aging movie star. "It's great, you've got to see it."

So my wife and I passed up Isle of Dogs and went to The Last Movie Star -- because Rusty recommended it.

The premise is simple enough. An old actor, Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) receives an invitation to the International Nashville Film Festival, in which they offer first class transportation and accommodations for him to come receive a lifetime achievement award.

Vic has no particular interest in this, until his friend Sonny (Chevy Chase) points out that according to the invitation, previous recipients included luminaries like Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. "Go, have fun, let them honor you." So he goes.

No, it isn't a first class plane ticket. He sits in economy. In a middle seat.

No, it isn't a limo that picks him up. Instead it's Lil McDougal (Ariel Winter), a young woman wearing obscenely short cutoffs and yelling into a phone at her stupid boyfriend. She arrives late in a beater car, and Vic overhears her telling her boyfriend that she's picking up some old geezer that nobody ever heard of.

When he gets to the film festival, it's in the back room of a bar, where a roll-up screen will show old Vic Edwards movies while he sits in the seat of honor -- which looks like an overstuffed chair retrieved from somebody's basement. Or the curb.

Offended, out of sorts, weary, Vic gets drunk at the bar during one movie and returns to insult the fifty-person audience and decry the deceptive methods used to lure him there. It turns out that the other people who had received the award didn't actually come to receive it in person -- Vic is the first sucker to fall for it.

Naturally, they're putting him up in a small motel where his room faces a noisy freeway. He falls, bruising his forehead. And when Lil comes to get him in the morning, he is packed and ready to go. "Take me to the airport."

At this point in the movie, there's nobody you can really like. Yes, Vic Edwards was much put upon -- but he could have been gracious about it. Lil is a monster of selfishness and stupidity -- her boyfriend hits her and treats her like garbage, and she treats Vic with equivalent contempt.

The festival organizer -- Lil's brother, Doug (Clark Duke), is a lout who loves movies but has no qualms about tricking somebody into coming to one of the poorest (and least international) film festivals in America.

Who's to love? Well, in the long run, pretty much everybody except Lil's violent, unfaithful boyfriend.

One of the guys we like best is Shane (Ellar Coltrane), Doug's best friend, who has a longtime crush on Lil and treats her well. He's also the guy who really is a serious student of film and asks Vic Edwards the hard, potentially embarrassing questions.

That trip to the airport turns into a tongue-lashing by Lil, and you think Vic is going to change his mind about leaving; but no, he orders her to take the Knoxville exit from I-40. That's where he grew up, where he was a football hero, and as long as he's in Tennessee, he's going to Knoxville.

As most of you know, a "quick trip" from Nashville to Knoxville is pretty much the equivalent of somebody saying, "As long as I'm in Greensboro, I want to take a side trip to Asheville." Three hours each way.

That side trip to Knoxville is the heart of the movie. Not that it's a happy time. You begin to realize how much Vic Edwards lost in his pursuit of a movie-star career. But I can honestly say that by the end of the Knoxville trip, the whole story is wonderful, the characters are all treated fairly, and we end up not just liking but really caring about everybody that matters.

The only actor besides Burt Reynolds and Chevy Chase that we've seen before is Clark Duke, who was in nineteen episodes of The Office and seventy-four episodes of the TV series Greek. But that's one of the joys of indie movies -- you get to see actors before they've become stars.

Written and directed by Adam Rifkin, this movie depended completely on having Burt Reynolds in the lead. There are plenty of aging stars who can play an old actor with a lot of old movies and old publicity stills that show him in his heyday. But what matters is the kind of movie that we see clips from, and without Burt Reynolds, there's no story.

In fact, it's hard to think of Reynolds as Vic Edwards, because in so many ways this is a retrospective of Burt Reynolds's career. We watch footage from Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance; but then we also see Vic Edwards remembering his own bar mitzvah, in the days before he changed his name so he wouldn't sound Jewish.

Except Burt Reynolds didn't do that. His father was also named Burton Reynolds, an ex-military chief of police in Lansing, Michigan, before they moved to Florida. Not Jewish.

This is not a biopic about Burt Reynolds. The only resemblance between Vic Edwards and Burt Reynolds is that they seem to have starred in the same movies from the 1970s and 1980s, and they're both survivors of a career that definitely had its high and low points.

The old film clips are used very creatively. We get Vic's thoughts through flashbacks from his movies, only now old Vic is sitting in the Smokey-and-the-Bandit car with young Burt Reynolds instead of Sally Field, lecturing his younger "self," who then answers with, usually, the dialogue from the movie.

But come on. Burt Reynolds had to know that most audience members would be unable to separate the character from the actor. Yet he went ahead and made this movie anyway. In fact, word is that he made up some of his own dialogue, and he's on record as saying that, like the character in this movie, he made some bad choices in the films he decided to be in.

The Last Movie Star is not one of those bad choices. In fact, it's every bit as powerful, in my opinion, as Michael Keaton's performance in Birdman -- which I thought was brilliant. Just as we knew Michael Keaton really had played Batman and could never shake that, so we also knew, watching The Last Movie Star, that Burt Reynolds really was that macho guy in the brilliant, unforgettable Deliverance -- and also the rollicking good ol' boy in Smokey and the Bandit.

Movies about movie stars can be bad. In fact, I would never have gone to see a movie with this title without Rusty's recommendation. But I'm really glad I did.

This is a small, small film -- that is, it doesn't have any studio promotion behind it. That Saturday night, 7:00 p.m. showing was in one of the tiny boutique theaters at Red Cinemas, and we were the only people in the theater.

That may be because this was a festival movie that is already available on DVD and online. So if you want to buy it or stream it, you can find it pretty easily.

It's worth doing. If you don't believe my review, then for pete's sake, listen to my friend Rusty.

*

By the way, Rusty and I talk every week on a podcast called "We Review Everything," which follows the themes of this column -- but in the form of a conversation between two really opinionated guys who don't always agree. You can find it on iTunes as "Orson Scott Card's We Review Everything podcast" -- or you can get it here: [ http://www.hatrack.com/osc/reviews/osc-rusty/ ]

*

I have followed Rusty's advice on several things. For instance, I started using the Zona blood pressure reducing device at Rusty's strong recommendation -- and it works. I've gone nearly a year now without missing a week with the Zona device.

You squeeze it. That's it. But it's an expensive piece of equipment, because it registers how strongly you're squeezing it, and requires you to maintain a certain level of pressure for two minutes at a time, twice with the left hand and twice with the right, with a minute of rest between squeezes.

Pretty simple -- except you have to do it five times every week for it to have an effect. The science behind it is solid, and my own anecdotal evidence is that after the first four months of using it, and with no change in my blood pressure meds (after my first stroke, of course they gave me blood pressure medication), I dropped about ten points on both ends of my blood pressure readings.

I owe it to Rusty's recommendation. If you're living on the edge of heart problems, as I am, then I think it's worth a try -- even if you're also getting good full-body exercise. This machine-guided grip exercise is kind of amazing. https://www.zona.com/

*

But Rusty's recommendations don't always pan out.

For instance, on a recent show, Rusty got really excited about a fermented beet juice product from Garden Goddess.

Not Goddess Garden. If you just type in Garden Goddess on Google, you'll get only listings for Goddess Garden, because, you know, Google.

But does it matter? I'm pretty sure I lost most of you at "fermented beet juice." I know my wife would have tuned out at the word "beet," and "fermented" is a bit of a loser for a Mormon who tries to avoid fermented beverages.

But this beet juice is kvass -- fermented like sauerkraut. In fact, Garden Goddess offers several kinds of sauerkraut, including an apple sauerkraut that looks kind of intriguing to me.

And unlike my wife, I don't hate beets. In fact, during the decade when every restaurant in L.A. had cold beet salads, I was in heaven. I grew up with beets out of the can, but that was always served hot and I wasn't thrilled, though it wasn't worth fighting about (unlike hot cereal, which is the surest way to awaken my gag reflex -- that was a war between me and my parents, and I won).

I really started liking beets at the salad bar at Leblon and various other places, and then those chef-created beet salads in L.A. took it to a new level.

So I listened to Rusty when he swore that the fermented beet juice did fabulous things for his sense of well-being. "I just feel great," he said. "Two shot glasses of the beet juice every day. Easy. Try it."

Here's where the beet kvass (i.e., fermented beet juice) is sold online: https://gardengoddessferments.com/

I ordered a three-bottle portion -- along with a couple of the sauerkrauts.

The package arrived in Greensboro when I was up in Virginia, teaching.

Somehow, the lids of two of the beet juice bottles had come loose enough that about a third of the beet juice in those bottles was now all over the inside of the box.

Don't misunderstand: The bottles were not broken, and the lids had not come off. They simply weren't tightly-enough sealed.

Please remember that my wife hates beets. And when you ferment them, it doesn't make it better for her. There she was with a box that reeked of beet kvass, and I was 150 miles away and not coming home for a couple of days.

This is how much my wife loves me. Instead of carrying the whole box directly to the garbage, she actually took the bottles out of the box right there in our kitchen. She found that one of the beet juice bottles hadn't lost any of its contents, so presumably its seal had not broken.

Therefore she washed all the juice off the outside of the intact bottles (one of beet juice, two of sauerkraut), and put them, bravely, in the fridge. Not the old one in the garage, but the one in the kitchen where she puts food she intends to eat.

Because of her careful cleaning, the fridge does not smell like beets or sauerkraut. The failed bottles and the soaked box did end up in the garbage. My wife put a lot of time into getting rid of the smell before she put the surviving bottles in the fridge with food that she definitely did not want to have taste or smell like beets. Is that love or what?

Here's the problem. Hearing her describe how unspeakable that smell was, I haven't actually opened any of the bottles, and I suspect I never will. I like beets and she doesn't, but I don't like strong odors from the things I imbibe. And knowing that two bottles had broken seals makes me distrust the remaining bottles.

But why? I mean, what could possibly happen to the contents of those bottles that would be worse than what was already done to them on purpose?

Sorry, Rusty. If it had arrived in good condition, I might well have tried the beet juice and had it transform my life by making me feel like a person in robust good health every day.

But it didn't arrive in good condition, and whenever I look at that unopened bottle, I remember my wife's shuddering description of how the box smelled when she opened it. And my desire to put any of it in my mouth disappears immediately.

Look, I'm not giving the Garden Goddess products a bad review. I'm not reviewing them at all, because their packaging failed and the experience has made my likelihood of tasting any of it drop to somewhere only a little north of zero.

So maybe this review will intrigue you and you'll take Rusty's glowing recommendation. Then your bottles of fermented beet juice will arrive in perfect condition, and you, too, will feel really good forever because of that juice.

And maybe I will try it. One of my more macho friends -- the ones who play sports and care about cars -- will dare me to try it along with them, and we'll open the bottle and we'll both drink it, and both of us will live forever in perfect health.

Probably not.

(They never claim immortality as a result of partaking of their product; that's my little joke. Ha.)

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