Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 7, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Last Samurai and Christmas Shopping
I don't have any romantic illusions about Japanese Samurai culture.
On the contrary, I've read enough history (and know enough about
human nature) to be perfectly aware that Samurai warriors were every bit as
likely to be venal hypocrites, oppressors of the poor, and brutal thugs as any of
the knights in shining armor that have been so polished up in European
But there's something to be said for stories that, instead of zeroing in on
the ugliness, show the bright and shining dream.
The Last Samurai is a story about honor -- about an American Civil
War hero, Captain Algren, who, through his participation in the massacre at
Wounded Knee, has lost his honor and drowns his guilt in alcohol; and about
Katsumoto, a Samurai who was once the teacher of the youthful emperor, and
who opposes the corrupt prime minister Omura's westernizing campaign.
Algren, played by Tom Cruise, is hired to train the emperor's (i.e.,
Omura's) army. Forced by political maneuverers into battling Katsumoto
before his troops are well-enough trained, Algren is defeated and captured --
but not before showing himself to be a brave, resourceful, and unrelenting
Indeed, in some ways this movie is about the character of America at
Far more than being about Americans, this movie is about Japan -- its
culture and its history. For though this movie is far from being genuinely
historical, in spirit it does show the two battling traditions -- the modernizing,
beat-them-at-their-own-game westernizers, and the insular, do-it-our-own-way
Algren is kept prisoner in an isolated mountain valley, living in the home
of the widow and children of the last soldier he killed in the battle he lost.
While Cruise's portrayal of Algren through his transformation is a tour-de-force, the heart of this movie is in the Japanese characters.
The widow Taka, played with great restraint and warmth by the etherally
beautiful Koyuki, at first is horrified by this repulsive, animal-like westerner,
but gradually warms to him because of his kindness to her children and
because he so clearly admires Japanese ways and tries to emulate them.
Her children, too, are played by astonishingly good actors; you will see no
better performance by a child actor than by the older of the two little children.
And Katsumoto's son is no less moving as he faces his own public shaming and
then faces death with honor.
It is Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, however, who manages to match
screen presence with Tom Cruise -- there aren't many actors who can do that.
And these four brilliant created Japanese characters brought me to tears
This is not just a war movie -- but a war movie it definitely is. The
fighting is not pornographically violent -- the camera does not show us the
most vile things -- but there is plenty of spraying blood and lots of severed
So as I came out of the movie theater, I stopped a lady whom I did not
know and asked her whether the film worked for her.
She admitted to looking away during the fighting (which is what my wife
does, too, in such films), but otherwise she found much to like in the movie. In
fact, she found the right comparison: "It's like Dances with Wolves," she said,
and when it comes to deciding whether a woman would enjoy it as much as a
man, I'd say that you should let that older movie be your guide.
Having said that, though, I must also say that The Last Samurai is in
many ways the more enjoyable film. For one thing, it's shorter; for another
thing, Tom Cruise is far better suited, as an actor, to play flamboyantly heroic
roles than Kevin Costner. Nothing wrong with Costner, but his whole shtick is
to be low-key. This was not a low-key role.
Was this the best movie of the year? Hard to make such a claim in a
year that included such wildly different but brilliant fare as Open Range,
Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bruce Almighty, The Italian Job, and
But I have no qualms about adding it to that disparate but admirable
list, because, like all of them, it succeeds both as entertainment and as craft.
Christmas Shopping Hints
My wife's book club was discussing The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
the other night, and for the night's door prize, my job was to find some wild
animal mentioned in the book. Top choice: A giraffe. Other animals that
figured into the story: Crocodiles. Snakes. Lions.
There used to be a delightful shop in Friendly Center where you could get
all kinds of animals in porcelain. I can't recall the name of the shop (maybe
someone can beep it in), but it wasn't my fault it went out of business. We
shopped there a lot.
But who took up the slack when they closed? I made several wild
guesses, which took me on a walk up State Street -- always a good idea! --
and provided me with some lovely things from several of the unique shops that
are only a few steps away from where I get my hair cut. The best strip of
boutiques in Greensboro.
Still, nice porcelains of African animals seemed out of reach.
And then, as I walked around Friendly Center, vainly searching, I
passed by Toys & Company and realized that I shouldn't be looking for
porcelains at all. Because Toys & Company has the best selection of stuffed
animals I've ever seen.
Sure enough, I walked out of the store with a great giraffe, a cute snake,
and a downright sinister-looking crocodile. It's hard to think of any
nonmicroscopic living thing that they don't have in plush. (Among the stuffed
creatures is the best assortment of Groovy Girls dolls and accessories in town.)
Not to mention toys and games that you won't find at Toys 'R' Us,
including some you grew up with and always wished you could find for your
While you're puttering around Friendly Center, stop in at The Extra
I know, in a world that includes Bed, Bath, and Beyond, you shouldn't
have to go into any other kitchen-supply store.
The truth is, The Extra Ingredient packs an incredible number of
wonderful things within their very limited space. Of course, you couldn't push
a shopping cart down those narrow aisles. Heck, I can hardly get my hips
through some of the tight squeezes.
But for years now, Christmas just isn't complete until I've stopped by
there, looking for whatever strange and wonderful things they've found.
Santa apparently shops there, too, because each year in my wife's
Christmas stocking there's at least one unpackaged implement whose purpose
she has to guess -- and invariably, the only way to figure it out is to locate
another one just like it at The Extra Ingredient.
Right next to the Harris-Teeter on Pisgah Church at Elm is the new
Smith Beautiful Living. This is a store that goes insane at Christmas -- but
it's worth visiting the rest of the year, too.
In fact, a few months ago my wife and I stopped in just to see what they
had there, and saw the most wonderful floor lamp. The shaft of the lamp was
surrounded by a tiny spiral staircase -- hamster-sized steps, I'd say -- and I
looked at my wife and my wife looked at me and we knew what was about to
See, I'm a believer in Right Now. A few years ago in an art and framing
store in Orem, Utah, I saw a uniquely framed print of James Christensen's
Evening Angels. The print was Christensen at his whimsical-but-wise best;
the framing was extraordinary. They had hewn what looks like old barnwood
into a shape to fit the art; I knew I'd never see the like again.
The trouble was, the piece had a hold sign on it. Somebody had a prior
So I said to the clerk, "Is Evening Angels already paid for?" Well, no.
"I'm here tonight and I'm flying back to North Carolina in the morning. I'll buy
it, Right Now, full price, sold -- but tomorrow I won't be here, and all you'll
have is that hold sign."
They tried to reach the lady who had asked them to hold it, but they
couldn't. Before I left the store, I'd paid for the piece and arranged for it to be
That's why it hangs on the wall in our living room, and not in Marie
Now, I don't do this kind of thing often, but when I see something that is
exactly to our taste, which belongs in our home, and which we can afford
(which narrows the range considerably), I don't wait. I don't dither. I don't ask
them to put a meaningless hold sign on it. I buy it Right Now.
And if I can't afford to buy it Right Now, then I walk away and forget it.
It will belong to someone else.
So we walked out of Smith's Beautiful Living with that handmade spiral-staircase lamp.
If you had your eye on it and were trying to talk yourself into buying it,
I'm the reason it isn't in the store anymore. Next time, remember that you
might just be stalking the same prey as Mr. Right Now.
When The Gingerbread House just off Lawndale closed its doors, I
assumed it was out of business.
I'm delighted to tell you that I was wrong. This store, filled with
miniature furniture and other accoutrements for dollhouses, is still open at
2416-B Spring Garden (a few blocks east of Holden, across from where Burt's
Seafood used to be).
They not only help you furnish and decorate your dollhouse, the folks at
Gingerbread House make dollhouses to order. And the old N-gauge train
fanatic lurking deep in my soul is delighted that they have a decent selection of
trains, cars, and tracks for several gauges of model railroads.
Even if you aren't a dollhouse person, it's worth a visit just to see some of
the wonderful stuff they have to make a dollhouse seem completely real.
In searching for Christmas gifts, I ran across a website called
FunAgain.com. Not only does it sell an amazing variety of new games, it also
carries used games, so that even if a game you're looking for is out of print, you
might still be able to find a good-enough copy here.
As a matter of fact, googling for two different games brought me to
FunAgain.com. I had already completed the first order when I got there for the
second, but I didn't think twice about placing a second order.
Here's the weird thing. The people at FunAgain.com -- the live humans,
not the computer -- noticed that they had received two orders from me, to the
same address, on the same day. They thought that either I had forgotten that
one of them was supposed to be shipped to a different address, or I simply had
ordered them separately.
So they telephoned me to ask if I wanted to combine the orders to save
money -- or change the address to which one would be sent.
Maybe everybody does that kind of thing. But what it looks like to me is
a company that goes the extra mile to please its customers.
My wife and I do all kinds of word puzzles together. Well, technically not
together -- we keep the latest issue of Games Magazine and World of Puzzles
(both from the same publisher) sitting on the edge of the bathtub, along with a
Yeah, right, we work the puzzles while bathing.
Both magazines provide a month's worth (at least that's about how long
it takes us) of wordgames, crosswords, and trivia and logic puzzles. I love the
cryptic crosswords; my wife thrives on the math puzzles; and we both enjoy the
acrostics and the amazingly creative variety puzzles.
Games Magazine includes a slick section of articles about games, as well
as some photo-based puzzles; World of Puzzles is nothing but pencil-play.
Once a year, Games publishes its list of the "Games 100" and "Electronic
Games 100," which for some people is all the Christmas shopping list you'll
You can subscribe through many online sources -- just google the
In previous years, the annual performance of Handel's Messiah by the
Greensboro Oratorio seemed to be moving earlier and earlier -- and farther
This year, it's back where it belongs: closer to Christmas.
In fact, it's tonight -- that is, if you're reading this issue of the Rhino on
the Thursday it came out, then the performance is tonight. Otherwise, you
And that would be a shame. Because The Messiah is the greatest work of
religious choral music ever, and no recording can compare to being in the room
with singers and instrumentalists performing it.
This will be the fiftieth year that the Oratorio Society has performed The
Messiah in Greensboro.
It's at War Memorial auditorium next to the Coliseum, at 7:00 p.m., on
Thursday the 11th of December. Admission is free, though during the pastoral,
the audience is asked to donate as they can to help defray the costs of the