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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 5, 2004

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


Bridget Jones, tamales, Moe's, cashews, CDs, and Christmas Music

I don't often walk out of movies. But my wife and I happily made an exception for the utterly pointless Bridget Jones sequel.

What a waste of talent. Hugh Grant, Renee Zellweger, and Colin Firth could have spent their time making a good movie.

Instead, what we get is a movie that takes a likeable character (Bridget Jones) and makes her irritating and vicariously humiliating. There's no reason for anything she does. There's no story detectable in the first half hour. My wife and I kept turning to each other and saying, What is this movie about?

We finally realized it was about cashing in on the success of the first movie.

The fault may lie with the novelist, who actually wrote this sequel. But that's no excuse for filming it.

Actors have only a limited number of films they can make in their lives. From 1996's Jerry Maguire to now, Renee Zellweger has made only thirteen live action films, and some of them were silly or bad (every actor has these -- yes, even Tom Hanks).

That's fewer than two films a year.

So for her to waste half a year making an utterly empty film is a crime.

Especially since she once again gained a lot of weight for this part. That was fine for the first Bridget Jones, because it was just the one movie and it was a good one.

But each time you gain a lot of weight like that, it's harder to get it off again -- and far, far easier to put it on. Most women who have borne more than two children can attest to that. Zellweger may have sacrificed more than she bargained for; women don't lose weight as easily as men.

Of course, maybe we'll get a really good movie about "people of size," starring Zellweger, George Clooney, and Kirstie Alley....

In short: Save your money. Stay home and rent the first Bridget Jones.

Or tune to TNT and watch reruns of Judging Amy, NYPD Blue, and Law and Order.

This weekend, though, I felt as if the whole movie industry was trying to force me to see arty, edgy, Oscar-hopeful movies like Closer. Why should I want to see a movie about shallow people having sex, as if their emptiness contained some sort of remarkable depth? Films about people living worthless lives are simply not illuminating or even amusing to me.

Sideways, which has been out a few weeks, doesn't sound quite so pretentious, but I just can't work myself up into any interest in oenophiles. It just feels small. Not small as a movie (sometimes that's wonderful) -- just small as a story. About people who would be really boring if you had to listen to them for any length of time at a party.

Really, folks, there's a reason why National Treasure, Christmas with the Kranks (I do have standards; if this looked good to you in the previews, by all means, go, but you won't see me there), The Polar Express, The Incredibles, and Spongebob Takes You To Hell in a Fishtank are still the top five films in America for the second week.

Do they really not make enough good movies to open a new one every week?

And this week is hardly going to be better. Ocean's Twelve? Now there's a sequel I didn't need to see. It's not till next week that we finally get something interesting. Lemony Snicket and Spanglish both look wonderful.

*

Speaking of TNT, wasn't the Noah Wylie TV movie The Librarian, a Raiders rip-off, embarrassingly bad?

With all the un- or under-employed screenwriters in America, this was the script they chose to make?

And the most important question of all: Doesn't Noah Wylie desperately need a new agent?

*

It's hard to find a good tamale. There are none to be had in Greensboro; I have to go to the Rio Grande in Reston, VA, or El Cholo or La Serenata in LA.

Or, I recently discovered, I can order absolutely wonderful gourmet tamales from Williams-Sonoma. They come refrigerated, but when you heat them up, they're delicious, with perfect masa, excellent meaty filling, and strange and wonderful sauces.

But I warn you. One tamale is so filling that you don't want to order more than one kind -- chicken, pork, or beef -- at a time. And even then, unless you have a large family, you'll want to invite friends over, because these tamales need to be eaten soon after arrival.

*

The other day we tried Moe's Southwest Grill, one of a chain of watch-them-make-your-burritos Mexican-ish restaurants.

The good news is that it's markedly better than Qdoba. The tortillas aren't rubbery. The fillings taste considerably better.

The bad news is that because they make it first, and then you have to pay afterward, the fillings aren't exactly piping hot when you finally get to your table.

The worst news is that the guacamole is ... well, let's just say I don't think anybody on the premises peeled any avocados that day.

So why bother? For similar prices, we always get freshly made, delicious Mexican food at Baja Fresh -- where the guacamole is always great, their quesadillas made our ten-year-old into a Mexican-food fan, and they can fix your burrito "enchilado-style," which makes the burritos at some other places seem like something you found in a dumpster.

I realize that sounds a bit unkind, but folks, sometimes the difference is so clear that it's absurd to pretend that there's any legitimate choice. You want Mexican fast food in Greensboro, North Carolina? It's Baja Fresh, or microwave something at home.

*

Do store managers follow me around and see what it is that I buy all the time, and discontinue it? Fresh Market has now stopped carrying Duck Puddle Farm mustards. If I'd known it was going to happen, I would have stocked up.

So after cutting off my supply of Haagen Dazs chocolate mousse ice cream, they've deprived me of my mustard, too.

And yet ... Fresh Market remains the best place in town to buy cashews. They have two bins of huge and delicious cashews, one salted, the other unsalted. We keep a steady supply on hand.

Therefore, I expect Fresh Market to discontinue it.

*

What a wonderful era this is for music lovers!

I'm old enough to remember the days of vinyl LPs. Yes, the liner notes were easier to read than the tiny-print torture chambers they slide into CDs. And there are people (not me!) who miss the hissing, crackling, and skipping of vinyl because it was so "authentic."

But CDs transformed the way we brought music into our lives. Record players had to be kept steady -- you couldn't tote one along with you. So records were for home. If you wanted the music in your car, you either bought the same album again on cassette (or, briefly and irritatingly, eight-track) or you made your own lo-fi tape copies.

Record stores couldn't keep too many different albums in inventory, so you had to share and borrow albums when they were out of print. Almost as soon as CDs came out, the publishers started going back into their catalogues, digitally remastering their backlist and making old albums available again.

I remember the first thing I did, when I got my first Radio Shack cd player in the early 80s, was to buy all of Joni Mitchell's albums on CD.

When I taped them to play in the car, the quality was far higher than I ever got from my stereo.

Then computers "learned" how to read and write data CDs and I was able to put those same albums on MP3s and play them while I ran, or load them up on CD-ROMs so I could get ten times the listening time out of a single disc.

And the internet!

The record companies whine about how internet file-sharing "stole" from them. Big babies! The internet was the exact equivalent of people loaning each other out-of-print LPs or taping them and sharing them. It happened all the time.

The difference is that now the copies are good. You can really hear the music. And you can share them with people far away.

A new group in Boise, Idaho, can actually find listeners in Athens, Georgia.

Amateur sharing of MP3s doesn't cost the record companies a dime they would actually get if there were no copying. Just as in the days when we shared bad tapes of LPs, what we're doing is providing the record companies with free word-of-mouth.

They couldn't buy advertising that was more effective than that.

Meanwhile, the Internet has done something else just as important to the music industry as online file-sharing.

We can buy CDs online.

Sure, it's killing the record stores. Sorry. Seeya.

Niche genres that could never have sold enough records in any one town to justify keeping a good inventory on the racks in a physical store can find enough buyers nationally that Amazon and other online stores can justify keeping them in stock.

That's how Jazz/Swing/Pop singers like Michael Feinstein and Diana Krall could become very very successful without ever having any radio airplay.

It's possible to have a terrific musical career these days, with people all over the country buying your albums, without ever appealing to teenagers.

That was simply not true in 1975. It was teen radio or nothing (except for classical music).

Of course, it's not just the internet. I can also go to Borders, browse a really excellent selection of CDs in every genre; I do that often, and buy CDs from their cover alone.

But when hear of an album and go to Amazon to buy one, they do a great job of suggesting other albums from the same artist's catalogue -- or CDs by other artists that might appeal to me. I've found as many new musicians on Amazon as I have at Borders. Both methods work well.

*

The downside of the new availability of old CDs is in classical music. The ability to buy great recordings with near-perfect fidelity is that the hunger for live performance is diminished.

And that's a shame.

Another shame is that there is less and less reason for a major orchestra to record yet another version of "Pines of Rome" or "Bolero" or "Canon in D" or "Adagio for Strings" (Respighi, Ravel, Pachelbel, Barber).

Yet they do. Including truly inspired albums like "Ravel's Greatest Hit," with ten wildly different but wonderful versions of "Bolero," or "Barber's Adagio," an album that offers eight recordings transcribed for brass, chamber orchestra, choir, clarinet, flue, organ, and string quartet.

Still, new classical recordings are down because today's performers have to compete with great performers of the past -- as if Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer had to go head to head in their prime.

In my experience, though, I'm never satisfied. I listen to more music than I ever did in my life -- and I'm hungry for more.

*

The Christmas music radio stations have a tendency to play way too many bouncy or rockin' junk versions of silly Christmas songs that mean nothing to me.

But I can find a lot of great old performances on CD -- and a lot of new ones that are beautiful or musically interesting enough to be worth many a hearing.

Among the nearly two hundred Christmas discs I have stored on my hard drive (all bought and legitimately paid for, thanks -- I may advocate free exchange of files, but I never, never keep a copy of a CD or even a single cut from an album that I haven't paid for) are great old collections that include rarely heard songs from Bing Crosby, Mahalia Jackson, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Joan Sutherland, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé -- singers from my childhood.

The Carpenters' Christmas album is heartbreakingly nostalgic for me, and there are other more-recent classics like Shawn Colvin's "Holiday Songs and Lullabies," Brett Raymond's "Primarily for Christmas," "A Light in the Stable" by Emmy Lou Harris, Barbra Streisand's first and the wonderful Wyndham Hill "A Winter's Solstice" series.

I don't know if they're still making the rock-n-roll series "A Very Special Christmas," but the ones I have include a great "Merry Christmas, Baby" from Springsteen (and a later one almost as good from Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow). And U2's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" shouldn't be missed.

Nobody does Christmas better than country singers -- and while they certainly do plenty of the old standards, there are Christmas songs you won't hear anywhere else.

I can't get through Christmas without John Rutter's choral albums with various Cambridge ensembles. Nor is it Christmas without Robert Shaw's perfect choral performances.

In fact, though I have (and frequently listen to) a lot of different recordings of Handel's Messiah, it's Robert Shaw's partial recording with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus that I keep coming back to as the "right" one -- the standard from which all others deviate, sometimes delightfully, but sometimes to their peril.

Still, I wouldn't part with any of my favorite Messiah recordings:

The Chicago Symphony recording from 1985, conducted by Georg Solti, with Kiri Te Kanawa at her ecstatic best and a surprisingly up-tempo "Surely he hath borne our griefs";

The Foundling Hospital version from Deutsches Gramophone in 1997, with Paul McCreesh conducting the Gabrieli Consort;

The Ambrosian Singers' inspired performance recording from 1992, with Joan Sutherland as soprano -- and a boy soprano singing one of the arias.

The Academy of Ancient Music's recording conducted by Christopher Hogwood feels more intimate, with a smaller ensemble, a choir of men and boys, and a sense that you might be hearing something like what the earliest audiences heard. Some of the tempos are also surprisingly and delightfully different.

Then there are the versions reinterpreted by African-American ensembles. "Handel's Young Messiah" feels like you're listening to a fervent, brilliant performance in a black church. And "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration" goes even further, recapitulating much of the history of black music in America. "Young Messiah" has wonderful passages that are spoken instead of sung; but "Soulful Celebration's" rap tracks are too harsh for me; I skip them.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has done two recordings of The Messiah over the years. The old one (1969) with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra was the performance that first taught me to love Handel's masterpiece, though now I hear too many Utahisms in their pronunciations to enjoy it -- except for sentimental reasons.

Their newer version is much better -- though it's hard to get used to countertenor Paul Esswood singing the contralto parts. (In fact, they have a cut-down version of the same recording that omits the soloists: "Handel's Messiah: The Choruses.") At times the choral performance can be a bit ponderous, since such a huge ensemble is hard to move with real crispness; balancing that is the exceptional fullness of sound.

I'm not done with the Messiah yet, though. There's a controversial recording conducted by Marc Minkowski that I'm looking forward to loving -- or hating. And there are those who think of Trevor Pinnock's recording as the definitive one -- I'm looking forward to hearing it to see why.

Why oh why are two of my favorite Christmas albums from groups with names like "Mannheim Steamroller" and "Trans-Siberian Orchestra"? These are not at all what the names would suggest, and while Mannheim Steamroller is widely known, not that many people have yet discovered the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's strange but wonderful take on Christmas. (The album I have is "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" -- I have the other one on order, along with everything else they ever recorded.)

For me, Christmas music is the quickest shortcut to sentimentality and nostalgia; yet I also love to explore new groups and find new sounds. May Christmas music never die.

*

Next Thursday, we have our annual chance to experience The Messiah live at the War Memorial Coliseum on Thursday, 16 December, at 7:00 p.m. The Greensboro Oratorio Society has been maintaining this traditional performance for many years, but it's never stale; conductor Jay Lambeth brings it to life with an ever-changing ensemble, year after year.

With all the recordings that are available -- brilliant and otherwise -- not one of them can replace the experience of being present in the same room with the singers and players, watching the music as it is created in the moment, before your eyes, within your hearing.


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