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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 17, 2003

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


Willard, Final Witness, Two Quail, and Frederick

When you're judging the worst movies in a year, it's not sporting to go after low-budget films, or movies that aim at a particular niche audience which doesn't include the snooty critics.

Usually, the worst movies of the year are pretentious, arty films that are written and directed by hubristic people who think they're smarter than any possible audience, which of course they are pathetically not. Candidates for this title in 2002 included, just for example, About Schmidt, which, if it weren't for The Hours, would be almost alone in the category.

But for 2003, we already have a completely different kind of contender for worst movie of the year: Willard. This is a remake of a campy 1971 cult film of the same name, which spawned the truly embarrassing hit song "Ben."

It should tell you something about the remake that during the course of the story, the Michael Jackson version of "Ben" is played, in full, on a cable-tv music channel.

The echoes go on. Bruce Davison, who played Willard in the original, appears in photographs as the dead father of Willard in the remake.

But this is not, really, a movie about the previous movie -- those are just in-jokes. This is, instead, a movie about rats.

Willard is the beaten-down son of a domineering mother. His father killed himself eight years ago, and ever since then, Willard has gone to work every day in the factory his father founded, where the current owner harasses and abuses him mercilessly.

Since he is also whined at and badgered by his mother at home, Willard is a nervous wreck, until he runs across a brave and bright little rat that he names Socrates.

With Socrates' help, Willard trains not only him but dozens of other rats from the cellar of the family mansion, and uses them to wreak petty vengeance on his boss's car.

But there's another rat, Ben, a big, menacing ogre of a rat who just isn't with the program.

The story is actually quite complicated. Willard's relationship with the rats, like his relationship with his mother, is filled with both love and loathing.

What made me absolutely confident that this would be one of the worst movies of the year, however -- a movie sure to be spectacular in its awfulness -- was the casting of Crispin Glover as Willard.

I watched Glover self-destruct on talk shows a decade ago, as he tried to be as manic as Robin Williams and as weird as Andy Kaufman. Unfortunately, like the socially-inept kid in junior high who tries to tell jokes but never seems to understand his own punchlines, Crispin Glover ended up going beyond pathetic and all the way to scary. I worried whether Letterman would live through the encounter.

The thing is, even more than Michael Moriarty or Jim Carrey, Crispin Glover has no sense of how much is enough. If a little anger is good for a scene, then mouth-frothing fury will be better, right? If a scene requires you to cry over your hateful mother's body in a coffin (after letting your rat go in to play), then you should cry until a great glob of mucus descends like a fat spider onto the corpse.

Crispin Glover starts out over the top. His subtle moments make Meryl Streep look natural. But when he's going full tilt, "over the top" gets a new definition each time.

Here's the funny thing. Even though at the beginning of the film, Glover's performance was indeed ridiculously overblown -- and the talky teenagers behind us kept trying to top each other with quips mocking him and the rest of the movie -- by the time Willard brought the rats to his boss's garage, the whole theater was silent.

Nobody walked out. Everybody watched with genuine fascination until the end.

The film actually worked.

And it worked specifically because of Crispin Glover. Even at the apex of his over-acting, he is always deeply, completely, astonishingly sincere. And apparently that's exactly what it took to make a story as implausible and melodramatic as Willard succeed.

Which might even imply that the reason Jim Carrey was so awful in The Cable Guy is that no matter how hard he tries, he is never real; while Crispin Glover, who overacts even more than Carrey, actually does succeed in Willard because he means every doggone moment of it.

I can't recommend this movie unless you've done something really bad and deserve a little penance. But I also can't warn you away from it, because unless you have a rat phobia, it's actually kind of good.

In fact, Willard is the top contender for an award that isn't even given out most years: For the Best Bad Movie of 2003.

*

Horse: It's the other red meat.

*

It's a tough thing to be a writer cursed with a name somebody else made famous. When Simon Tolkien came out with his first book, naturally everyone expected he was a relative of J.R.R. Tolkien trying to rake a few more bucks off the family name.

Simon is indeed the grandson of J.R.R., but the novel Final Witness has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings. There's nary elf nor hobbit in sight.

Teenager Thomas Robinson sees his mother murdered as he hides in the priest-hole of the family mansion in Suffolk. He soon figures out who set the murder in motion, but the problem is getting anyone else, least of all his cabinet-minister father, to believe him.

This story can be taken as a mystery (though we know early on who the killer probably is) or it can be taken as a British courtroom drama (which it certainly is, and a good one) -- but it's really a domestic novel about a family that is self-destructing, in large part because of its own virtues.

Simon Tolkien is the real thing -- an excellent observer and raconteur of human life, whose story sings and resonates without ever giving the impression that he is trying to impress us.

The fact that his grandfather wrote the great English epic Lord of the Rings is quite irrelevant. For all we know Simon Tolkien got his talent from another forebear -- in many ways he is the opposite writer from his grandfather, deep rather than wide-ranging, centering on character rather than event, and the scope of the book is domestic rather than epic or mythic.

Because the book succeeds as mere entertainment, I can recommend it whole-heartedly; and those readers who look for more than a mere pastime will also find the book illuminating and the voice invigorating.

*

I spent the past week in DC, teaching a writing workshop for ten students in the Watauga College program at Appalachian State. Traditionally I take my students out for dinner on the Wednesday night of the workshop -- but all the restaurants I had used before were gone.

So I went exploring for restaurants in the Capitol Hill area of Washington DC. A marvelous new French restaurant, Montmartre, would have been my choice except that pate and liver seemed overly prominent on the menu to please college students. (Still, I had the best rabbit I've ever eaten in my life, and the soups made you understand why French people continue to live in France despite the strikes and the cigarette smoke.)

The jewel I found, and which I hope to continue visiting for years to come, was Two Quail. Perched in a townhouse at the top of a narrow walk and a short flight of steps on Massachusetts Avenue a few blocks east of Union Station, it looks almost invisible from the street.

Inside, the decor is what a friend of mine calls "shabby chic," as if it were your great-grandmother's house with all the knick-knacks in place but badly in need of a bit of work on the wallpaper.

Of course, someone else suggested that the decor was late-19th-century bordello, but you can't please everyone.

A series of smallish dining rooms -- and some romantically curtained-off cubbyholes -- lend an air of intimacy.

Once the food starts coming, however, the decor could be 70s Amtrak and I wouldn't care. The bleu-cheese, apple, and greens salad is so good I thought for a second I was at Joe's in Venice; the peppered salmon, the lentil soup, the winter fish napoleon, signature dish of two quail -- everything I ate and everything I saw others eating was both delicious and at least a little adventurous.

Next time you're in DC -- with a group of adults, because there's really nothing to please tired children there -- make a reservation, dress up a little, and have one of the best dining experiences the nation's capital has to offer.

*

If you've never been to Frederick, Maryland, may I recommend that if you're anywhere near it, it's worth pulling off of I-70 or I-270 or US 15 and driving through the historic district.

It's not just a couple of blocks of well-preserved old buildings. Instead, it's a vibrant community with street after street, block after block of graceful three-story and four-story townhouses. People still live there, so that it's a real downtown, and so far, by chance or design, there's not a chain store in sight.

And when you see signs saying "Bridge Mural," follow them. You'll come to an unprepossessing bridge over an old and murky canal -- but trust me, you have to park your car, get out, and walk down the brick rampway to the water level.

There you'll see the most wonderful trompe l'oeil painting project I've ever seen.

In college, I roomed with four artists (and a pianist, but he and I were the odd men out). Just for fun, they started painting a dull little white-enamel-brick fireplace so that it seemed to be made of colorful, textured, natural-clay bricks. When they were done, it was beautiful, a jewel.

Of course the landlord painted it over when we moved out -- because he was an idiot.

The town of Frederick is not governed by idiots. Instead, they treasure "Community Bridge" as the wonderful jewel that it is. The artist has painted the smooth concrete of the bridge so that the whole thing seems to be made of old stone -- with many of the stones engraved with designs suggesting many aspects of life in Frederick.

There are also doors, niches, and bas-reliefs painted on, realistically enough that they truly do "fool the eye."

And when you're through at the bridge (and you've finished visiting the one-of-a-kind shops downtown; and you've visited the Museum of Civil War Medicine, or maybe spent a few hours at the Antietam battle site), go for dinner to Dutch's Daughter, which is not far from downtown, and well worth the drive.

The food is not as innovative as, say, Two Quail's, but it is excellent, and the setting and service are very good indeed. In fact, the crab dishes there were better, I thought, than anything I've had closer to Chesapeake Bay. It's just a little pricey, but how often are you going to be in Frederick, Maryland? Live a little.

Call ahead for directions (301-668-9500), or check the website (www.DUTCHS.info). Because without their help, there is no chance at all that you'll happen upon the route that will get you to the parking lot.


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