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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 28, 2018

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

Fallen Kingdom, Probiotics, Lethal Weapon and Bull

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is an exciting adventure movie, with perilous monsters that are striking far closer to home than some distant island populated with tourists.

Have we seen all these dinosaurs before? Of course we have.

Sure, they can come up with a new name, and characters can talk about how this one is a hybrid between humans and T.Rex (or whatever), but if it's bipedal and has teeny-weeny arms, it looks like all the other predators.

Plus, we know humans pretty well, and I don't know that we all assume that because an animal has human genes, it's suddenly a genius. Most humans are pretty average in intelligence (by definition), and even exceptionally smart humans are often bad at anticipating what other people are going to do.

So the predatory dinosaurs in this movie are as scary as ever -- no more, no less.

This means that if you're a viewer who insists that every movie has to be new in some important way, I think the Jurassic series has taken us about as far as it's going to be able to go.

The writers have tried to deal with some important moral issues. Contrary to some people's response to the movie, they aren't echoing the standard Green ideology.

In the first place, nobody thinks that humans caused the extinction of dinosaurs in the first place. And there are many who believe that it would be a good thing to bring back some extinct species.

The simplest way of doing that would be to restore an old ecological balance, without any genetic alteration at all. For instance, if we set aside a swath of the North American prairie and turned bison loose, along with their (few) natural predators, perhaps we could restore the ancient prairie biome.

And that would be cool, to see vast herds of bison again.

But other species can't be brought back, because, unlike bison, they have left no survivors. We don't have descendants of mastodons and mammoths, just cousins -- African and Indian elephants. They aren't hairy, and they don't thrive in bitter cold.

But because there is evidence that human intervention extinguished those species, there are those who would like to insert mammoth DNA in the ova of elephants to see if we can bring back a living example.

Even if we got a male and a female, though, the experiment would be doomed to fail, in that the genes do not code for all the behaviors and social habits of these animals. Reproducing individuals does not reproduce herds, tribes, social hierarchies, and learned behaviors.

But it's an idea that has the double appeal of bringing back lost creatures and making up for the greed of early humans who thought no farther than the fact that mammoths provided a lot of meat, fat, hide, bone, and ivory for the tribes that learned to hunt them and bring them down.

A really interesting book by Pat Shipman, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, proposes that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis overlapped in Ice Age Europe for only a few thousand years, not because sapiens warred with neanderthals and wiped them out, but because sapiens (modern humans) out-hunted them.

It's a fairly plausible thesis. In a time before agriculture, survival depended on meat, and sapiens and neanderthals had very different hunting strategies.

Neanderthals depended on individual stealth, strength, and agility, creeping up on their prey and then either clubbing them or stabbing them with spears, or leaping onto their back and ramming a spear into their spine.

Personally, I can't help but think that tribal memories of seeing neanderthals bounding onto the back of a buffalo or aurochs are what led to sports like bull-leaping in Crete and bullfighting in Iberia.

But neanderthals were doing this with much larger animals than modern cattle, and it wasn't a sport, it was a matter of survival.

The climate was changing in Europe during the years when sapiens and neanderthals coexisted in Europe, and the kind of habitat that neanderthals needed -- lots of thick brush in which they could hide as they approached their prey -- was disappearing.

And then came sapiens, with spear-launchers, bows and arrows, and slings that greatly extended the distance from which they could attack and kill their prey. Sapiens also hunted as we think Homo erectus did, not sneaking up on prey but, as a group, openly driving a selected animal to the point of exhaustion.

This is where our bipedal posture made us the top predator throughout the world, because humans can outrun every other animal.

No, we're not faster than they are, but the really fast predators can only maintain their stunning speed for a short burst. Then they have to stop and rest. So an animal doesn't have to be able to outrun a cheetah or leopard or lion for a mile, but for about half a minute. If they survive that long, they're home free.

But when humans attack in a group, the prey animal can run for the normal thirty seconds, or a minute, or two minutes. Then it rests. The humans never came close to catching it. But they also didn't stop chasing.

With only two legs, humans don't have to expend so much energy in keeping up a steady run. The prey animals, just like the four-legged predators, have to work twice as hard to cover the same distance, powering four limbs instead of two.

So they wear out faster. They lose their breath.

A lone human pursuer would be easy to get away from. But a group of five or six can fan out, each one able to kill the prey. So when the resting prey animal sees that humans are still running toward it, it might try to dart to the side -- but there's already another human there. So the animal goes back to speed.

Only now, however, the prey animal is getting exhausted. Its heart labors harder and harder. Its muscles starve for oxygen. It slows down. It can only run shorter distances in each burst of speed. Finally, as it goes down into a small ravine and struggles up the other side, the humans are there.

Whether they pitch a stone at the beast or stab it or club it, the outcome is the same. Human relentlessness and stamina prevail.

That's fine on the open steppe or veldt, with animals that haven't enough natural defenses to put up a fight.

But aurochs and mammoths have size on their side.

If a lone human comes upon an exhausted gazelle, the spear will beat the horns.

But against an aurochs, even a half dozen humans will have a hard time bringing down the beast without suffering an unacceptable rate of attrition. A broken limb, a bleeding injury, these can easily lead to death, and every hunter lost means a lower chance of running down prey the next time.

This is where Pat Shipman brings in the dogs.

Genetic studies show that modern dogs evolved much more recently than that overlap between neanderthals and modern humans about 40,000 years ago. But Shipman suggests that the evolution of dogs had already begun, even if it wasn't close to complete.

There is evidence that suggests the existence of a kind of wolf-dog in the company of humans. They did not have to be fully domesticated; they did not have to be trained. They merely had to be comfortable in the presence of humans, and they had to have the discipline (which we can train hawks to have) to find and even bring down prey without eating it until humans have had a chance to take their share.

Where wolves would regard humans as rivals for food, perhaps these wolf-dogs knew that not only could they profit from the scraps humans always leave behind, they could also get humans to help them hunt prey that would be very dangerous for the wolf-dogs to bring down themselves.

Think of how dogs behave even today. If you start to run, they'll chase you, because that's how they respond both to prey and to fellow hunters. They don't wait to see what you're running after, they join you in the chase. If they realize that you're running from them, then you must be prey; but if you're chasing another animal, then the dogs might well join in for a chance at part of the prize.

Now, instead of five or six human hunters, there are also four or five wolf-dogs, barking, yapping, snarling, and harassing the prey far more constantly than humans could.

As a result, the prey can't stop and rest. Wolves and dogs are the only animals that can keep up for long distances with humans who are running at a marathon pace. And because of the dogs, the running might conclude much sooner.

Now, with wolf-dogs as allies, humans might be able to keep the distracted aurochs or mammoth at bay long enough to jab it to death with arrows and javelins. No pack of wolves could bring down a healthy mammoth -- so when humans brought one down with the help of wolf-dogs, and then shared the bounteous feast with them, the wolf-dogs would thrive far better than wild wolves.

The better they get along with humans, the better chance they have of surviving. Eventually, they become dogs, having lost most of their ability to hunt in packs without humans, but guaranteed plenty of food and a lot more safety when attacking prey animals that can defend themselves.

Modern humans brought down prey far more successfully than neanderthals, in part because the change of climate made the neanderthal hunting method much less successful than it used to be.

Modern humans didn't necessarily kill neanderthals -- after all, the two species did interbreed. They simply shut them out by their more-successful hunting. Since both species of human thrived on exactly the same diet, the more the sapiens ate, the less there was for neanderthals to live on.

Along the way, human success in hunting also doomed the competing predators, like sabertooths, which had a much smaller tool set than even the neanderthals.

Shipman builds on a solid basis in the science, though she reaches conclusions that the scientists working on dog and human DNA, bones, and fossils might not be ready to declare with any degree of certainty. Still, it's an interesting view.

Now, it would be absurd for us, from our modern era of hunting for food in the supermarket, to criticize our ancient ancestors for being profligate in their hunting practices. Humans like surpluses; civilization depends on our producing more food than we need just to get by. Besides, the end of the Ice Age would have doomed the cold-dependent species even without human intervention.

With the help of our wolf-dogs, we won the struggle for survival. In the process, mammoths disappeared -- so we replaced them in our diet with domesticated prey animals and surpluses of grain and root vegetables through agriculture.

But now that we no longer need the huge supply of meat and fat and skin and bone and ivory that each mammoth represented to a hunter-gatherer tribe, we wax nostalgic about the animals that once roamed the earth, but now are gone.

That's the whole premise of the Jurassic series. Starting with Michael Crichton's good sci-fi novel Jurassic Park, that desire to bring back lost creatures has a lot of appeal. Remember that in each movie, before the screaming starts, encounters with dinosaurs bring a wave of admiration and awe.

They were lost, but they're alive again! Come on, that's cool.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, then you might want to skip the next ten paragraphs, because I'm going to talk about an aspect of the movie that some have criticized. Because the scientists recreating the dinosaurs didn't just clone them, but also altered and enhanced their genes, there's a strong theme about the dangers of trying to play god with other living things.

Some take this to be part of the anti-GMO movement, or simple anti-scientism. But since the human species has a long history of having to cope with unintended consequences, this is a perfectly sensible theme.

By the end of the movie, the human characters we're following have stopped the "owners" of these dinosauroids from auctioning them off to be bred and weaponized by the highest bidders. But now what do they do with them?

There is a deadly gas spreading through the underground complex where the dinosauroids are penned, and as long as the outer doors remain sealed, they will all die. Even the most ardent supporters of dinosaur restoration in the movie have faced the terror of being hunted by the predators, and they realize that it would be grossly irresponsible to turn them loose on the general population of North America.

So they do not open the doors. The story of these dinosaurs, recently rescued from a volcanic island, will end here.

Except that, when nobody's looking, the granddaughter of one of the founders of the Jurassic experiment presses the button and opens the doors. "Why!" the others demand, and she points out that she, too, is a clone -- a recreation by the old man of his beloved daughter, perhaps with some genetic enhancements added in.

The girl thus identifies with these dinosaurs, and she reaches a simple moral conclusion: They're alive. They breathe, they have beating hearts, and so extinguishing them would be wrong.

But this is not the moral position that the movie takes. The movie already cast its vote on the side of containing this danger, because the survival of the human species is still the highest responsibility of humans who have the power to prevent a calamity.

We can understand why the girl pushes the button, but we already know that it's a terrible mistake.

As a result, in a slender epilogue we see that the dinosaurs are poised to infringe into human spaces, where few people will be equipped to fend them off. Among the surviving dinosaurs is Blue, the smartest of the velociraptors trained by Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) -- a dinosaur who has acted more than once to protect and defend humans.

Basically, Blue is like an extremely dangerous wolf-dog. He can be guided by a human who bonded with him very early on, but when he decides to kill, people die. Yet we like him, rather the way we sometimes sympathize with a dangerous outlaw in a movie -- yes, he's scary, but we still want him to thrive.

So we are set up for sequels, rather in the style of the three most recent Planet of the Apes movies. Except that the dinosaurs won't be chatting much. It'll be interesting to see what the writers of future sequels do with the situation at the end of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

It can continue to be, like this movie, good science fiction. Important ethical issues are being treated seriously in films that can be enjoyed at a completely non-serious level. That's how the best sci-fi works, at least in film -- you laugh, you scream, and at times you actually think.

I think Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a good movie. I like the whole evacuation of the island, along with all the betrayals and brave rescues and last-minute escapes. As we watch a long-necked herbivore lift its head above the ash cloud, we are seeing the original extinction of the dinosaurs being reenacted, and we are given a few moments to mourn for the ones who will die on the island.

The second part of the movie is all about preventing these dangerous animals from being exploited by evil humans -- and also preventing them from being turned loose on ordinary, innocent people. It's morally complicated and since the writing and the acting are surprisingly good, the movie stayed interesting to me.

Isabella Sermon does an excellent job of playing the granddaughter. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard rekindle their dormant relationship; we get to watch videos of Pratt's original training of his bevy of velociraptors, and it's thrilling to see.

Of course James Cromwell and Jeff Goldblum make their rather small (but important) parts work perfectly, and we get the pleasure of seeing Geraldine Chaplin return to the screen in a big movie, now as an old woman. She was an exquisitely skilled actress when she played Tonya in Doctor Zhivago back in 1965; I think she is, if anything, even more beautiful now in her old age.

Of course, the closer I come to 73 -- the age she is now -- the less "old" it seems to me. But it's a fine thing when an excellent actress is able to work continuously through every stage in her life.

Do I recommend Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom? Of course I do, because I'm not an idiot. It's not just an exciting movie, it's a smart one.

The audience abandoned Solo, which I think is one of the best of the Star Wars films, causing Disney to rethink their plan of coming up with first-rate movies off the main sequence of the storyline. Too bad.

I hope that the audience responds better to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, because when a studio pays to make a first-rate sequel, if the audience doesn't make it profitable, then they'll revert to making crappy straight-to-video sequels that will always make a certain amount of money, so that as long as you make them cheaply enough, they'll be profitable.

I don't want to see any Jurassic or Star Wars sequels that are no better than the cynical Disney-princess sequels. I want them to keep finding good writers and top casts.

The writers of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom did good work here. Colin Trevorrow previously wrote and directed Jurassic World. The first-credited writer, Derek Connolly, also co-wrote Jurassic World -- so there's real continuity there -- and also wrote the best King Kong movie, period: 2017's Kong: Skull Island.

Not only are Connolly and Trevorrow apparently committed to a prospective sequel, Jurassic World 3, but also are collaborating on a film called Intelligent Life, which is blurbed with "A United Nations employee who monitors outer space ... makes contact with a beautiful woman who may be an alien."

Only because of the writers working on the project does this not-very-original premise seem to me to have real potential. But ... we'll see, won't we?

*

Probiotics have some good science behind them, but most people don't actually need probiotics in order to be healthy.

However, when the beneficent bacteria are provided by means of drinks that also happen to be amazingly delicious, my enthusiasm rises.

Tropicana Essential Probiotics are among the company's finer achievements. (I still mourn for the discontinuation of their brilliant Valencia orange juice a while ago.)

The product comes in four flavors, all of them containing real juices. I've tried three of them, and I can assure you that Pineapple Mango, Peach Passion Fruit, and Strawberry Banana are all delicious and filling.

They are also way better than V-8's blended fruit juices introduced some years ago. The Tropicana Essentials don't leave a sticky, sugary taste in my mouth; they feel and taste like real juices, and you can actually taste the pineapple and mango, the peach and the passion fruit, and the strawberry and banana.

From the names, that might be what you'd expect; but I've tasted a lot of "blends" in which it is impossible to detect the taste of the claimed components.

You don't have to go to a health food store for Tropicana Essentials Probiotics. They're among the juices in the refrigerated section of Harris Teeter.

The fourth flavor, by the way, is Orchard Green. It is green. I won't be trying it, because I've already tasted too many green juices. Somebody else can try this one first.

*

I'm not a fan of Siggi's regular yogurt, but I gave Siggi's Filmjölk Vanilla Drinkable Yogurt a try, and I must say, it's very good. Thicker than an ordinary milkshake, it does have some of the aftertang of yogurt, but that's not a drawback.

It claims to be probiotic, and that's fine with me, but just as with Tropicana's probiotic juice blends, what I care about most is good flavor and consistency, which it has.

It's also very, very filling. An eight-ounce bottle might well serve as a complete lunch for many people.

Entering the drinkable yogurt competition is Wallaby Organic Aussie Kefir. The whole milk version comes in peach, plain, and strawberry; the lowfat Kefir comes in blueberry, mango, plain, raspberry (or, as it's spelled in their website, "rapsberry"), strawberry, and vanilla.

I've tried the lowfat strawberry and vanilla and they bear Uncle Orson's Seal of Approval. Which consists of the fact that having drunk a full bottle of each, I bought more, and there's very little left of it.

These are not diet drinks, any more than the Siggi's drinkable yogurt. They have enough protein to make a meal -- and they use up a considerable portion of a diabetic's daily sugar allotment.

But they're really, really good. And if "live and active cultures" are important to you, Wallaby Kefir has them.

*

My wife and I recently caught up with the TV series Lethal Weapon, which we couldn't watch while it was airing.

Supposedly the series is coming back next season, but with the main character recast for various gossipy reasons that make me sad. However, the writers of Lethal Weapon had already killed it, as far as we are concerned.

With four episodes left in the season, we deleted those four because we were done. The series was dying the death of Moonlighting, the Cybill Shepherd/Bruce Willis series that began so well and petered out miserably.

You know a mystery/police drama is dying when the writers focus so much on the domestic storylines that the episode stories -- you know, the mystery that's supposed to open and close in the same episode -- are almost completely unimportant.

One reason the Law & Order and CSI franchises have been so successful is that they steadily resisted that temptation. The NCIS franchises fall into the domestic storyline trap a little, but they still make sure every episode has its own action story with a beginning and an ending.

Maybe if the writers of Lethal Weapon had been doing a decent job with those domestic stories it might have still worked. But the marriage of Roger and Trish Murtaugh was so repulsively written that I kept hoping that Roger would just divorce this manipulative, ball-breaking, arrogant, selfish, unloving woman so he might have a chance at happiness in life.

When I am hoping for married characters to divorce, there's something deeply wrong with the relationship on screen.

There's nothing wrong with the actress playing Mrs. Murtaugh (Keesha Sharp). I can believe her being a hotshot lawyer and businesswoman.

But the writers have resorted to a Roseanne-like formula, in which no matter how atrociously the wife behaves, the husband is always supposed to apologize at the end because, somehow, everything is his fault.

With the kids always taking their mom's side, too, it was a complete war-of-the-sexes fiasco. Damon Wayans does his best with the "comedy" he's given, but he stopped being funny long ago, and it's hard to watch his character's sadness and stupidity any longer.

On top of that, I was weary of Martin Riggs's behavior. Clayne Crawford played the part well enough at first, but the character has gone from grief-stricken to arrogant and childish, and I keep missing Mel Gibson -- and the writing of Shane Black, who wrote the original movie Lethal Weapon.

It's sad to see a good series kill itself, but when it happens, it's better just to delete the saved-up episodes and stop hoping.

Meanwhile, as we binged on saved-up episodes of Bull, I was delighted. The early episodes of the series in its first year felt as if the writers had only one assignment: Tell the audience constantly that the character Jason Bull is a complete and total genius.

If you tell the audience often enough, maybe they won't notice that he never does anything particularly smart.

Co-created by Phil McGraw -- "Dr. Phil" -- it seemed plain that the series existed only to stroke his monumental ego. His partner in creation, Paul Attanasio, wrote the equally star-centered House, which became tiresome in its worship of an obnoxious hero. I foresaw the same fate for Bull.

However, in the second season, Michael Weatherly, who plays the title character, began to get some storylines that gave him depth and allowed him to play something other than the strutting, arrogant twit that he played on NCIS for so many years.

His supporting cast now gets chances to do something other than worship him, and Annabelle Attanasio, playing computer whiz Cable McCrory, proves that she's far more than the showrunner's daughter.

So even as Lethal Weapon withered away, Bull has blossomed. I hope it lives long and prospers.

When it comes to the storytelling arts, well-begun is not half done. You've got to get better as time goes on, not weaker. The Lethal Weapon writers could not grow past the original premise; in fact, they turned a strong action story into a weak sitcom. While the Bull writers kept finding new possibilities in the characters and their work.

So I forgive Bull for the absolute absurdity of having a jury consultant be treated by judges as if he had some kind of standing in a courtroom -- as if he had a right to sit at the defense table and even approach the bench in sidebars. Is there a planet where this actually happens?

Probably not; but it gives the star a chance to say dramatic things in court, so they're going to keep doing it. And, because it's a kind of legal fantasy show, the stories work fine.

A Town Divided by Christmas
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