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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
Jnauary 8, 2006

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


Dead Restaurants, Glory Road, Dakota, tape, games, Dickens

It's always sad to see good restaurants close. And when a second restaurant closes in the same spot, you begin to wonder -- was it the restaurant that failed, or the location?

Mark's on Westover was one of the great restaurants in Greensboro -- food and service that easily met the standards of culinary capitals like Los Angeles or New York. But it was in the same cursed location that saw the demise of the late lamented Rendezvous (where I had the best parmentier of my life).

And just across the long parking lot is another location that has killed two excellent fast food establishments. First the Atlanta Bread Company tried and failed; and now for the past year or so we've had Baja Fresh there as the only first-rate Mexican fast food in Greensboro.

But we should have seen the handwriting was on the wall. Whenever we went, they always had customers, but they were never full.

Meanwhile, those wad-o'-food burrito restaurants that overstuff rubberized tortillas with tepid semi-digestibles continue to have long lines ... apparently of customers for whom quantity is more important than quality, even when the price is the same, and even when they can't actually finish the huge wad of food whose size so impressed them.

It's like Beta vs. VHS. When VHS started advertising six hours of recording per tape, it was the death knell for Beta, which couldn't get more than five. Never mind that the 6-hour mode of recording on VHS was so grainy and snowy that it was virtually unwatchable. When people stood there in Circuit City and decided between Beta and VHS, they chose the one that gave "more." (Of course, in the film industry itself, where quality matters, Beta remains the only viable tape format.)

So those of us who would rather have enough of better than too much of worse -- apparently there just aren't enough of us to keep the doors of quality open, while mere quantity never lacks for customers.

Now the only good guacamole available in Greensboro is made and served in my kitchen. I'd invite you over ... but why bother? You can get so much more at other places, even if it looks and tastes like green plastic.

*

Meanwhile, one thing that would greatly help the shops and restaurants between Westover Terrace and Battleground would be an improved traffic flow. Westover Terrace narrows to a single northbound lane right where, to get into or out of the lot, customers need an occasional gap in the traffic backed up at the Green Valley signal.

Even a sign saying "Do not block driveway" would help.

*

Glory Road is yet another sports movie about a losing team that is suddenly transformed by the intervention of a remarkable coach, and prevails against hopeless odds.

Well, why not? It's what we go to the movies for, isn't it? And when it's based on a true story, we trust it a little more, let it draw a little more emotion out of us.

The story this time, though, isn't just the basketball. It's about the beginning of the transformation of basketball into what it is today -- mostly black and thrilling to watch.

Texas Western (today known as UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso) was a hopeless basketball school back in the sixties. Out in the middle of nowhere, El Paso simply wasn't a school anybody went to if they had any athletic talent. Especially not in basketball, which even at Texas Western was ignored, compared to football.

(And that's just sad, since their football team wasn't all that hot. I remember the 1980 game where BYU beat UTEP 83-7, and a commentator was not exaggerating when he said, "Don't be deceived by those numbers. The game was nowhere near as close as the score might indicate.")

The movie begins when Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) is hired away from coaching a girls' high school team. He is told that he and his wife and children have to live in the men's dorm, and his main job is maintaining discipline there.

But Haskins wants to win. Recruiting is hopeless -- he has nothing to offer. Then he realizes that extraordinarily talented black players are being left on the bench in game after game, and most aren't recruited at all.

He begins to search among high school and playground players in Detroit, the Bronx, and other places where basketball has evolved into a very different game. He brings seven black players to El Paso, Texas, and manages to meld them and his farm-raised (and less-talented) white players into a team.

At first he tries to keep the black players from using their playground pickup-game moves -- the styling that he saw as being all strut, no performance.

What ends up working for them, though, is a combination of the fundamentals he taught them and some of the surprising (to white players) moves from the inner city ball courts.

Now the problem is the prejudice of other teams. The unofficial but unbreakable rule at that time was that you could play one black player at home, two on the road, and three if you were losing. Period. And when Haskins starts putting three or four black players on the floor at the same time, it is regarded as provocative, especially in the South.

Black players get beaten up; on the road, they arrive at hotels that have been pre-vandalized; Haskins gets death threats. It becomes infuriating and drives a wedge between white and black players on the team.

All the nonsense about how black players aren't smart enough or can't stand the pressure or all the other myths sounds so impossibly stupid today, but those racist ideas were "common wisdom" then.

For kids who never lived in such a time, this movie can be an eye-opener. People really acted like that? Yes, Virginia, and this was after things started getting better for American blacks -- you know, the idyllic post-lynching, post-segregation, pre-affirmative-action era.

The performances are wonderful. Josh Lucas (who was so wonderful in Sweet Home Alabama but can't seem to break through into A-list roles) is powerful and believable as the coach.

But this movie belongs to the actors playing those ground-breaking black players, who create an onscreen camaraderie that is wonderful to behold.

I wish I could tell you their names, but, frustratingly, the Internet Movie Database lists the entire cast in alphabetical order, but most of the leading actors don't have their character name listed.

For instance, Sam Jones III, whose character gets teased for being the smallest guy on the court, is not listed as playing a character at all, and has no picture! I only knew his name because he played Pete Ross on Smallville for three seasons. There's a publicist at Disney/Buena Vista who needs firing. It's just too easy to get the correct, complete information into the IMDB.

Never mind. What matters is that this is a terrific, emotional movie, not so much about basketball as about how a courageous coach and tough, brave, and talented players forced Americans to see what basketball was like when black players were on the court.

*

I can't wear wristwatches, at least not the kind I can afford, because whatever metal they use on the back of the watch irritates my skin. I've been using pocket watches for years, but good ones are hard to find.

The kind with a lid are annoying -- and the catch that holds the lid closed is always the first thing to go.

But recently, Dakota has come out with a line of sport-style watches that use a carabiner to attach to the belt clip on your pants. Some have a short cloth strap, so you can pull the watch farther away from your body in order to consult it; others simply hang directly from the carabiner.

Each watch has a small LED, so you always have a flashlight with you. The watch face is easily readable. Does it look elegant? No. But it's kind of cool all the same.

And here's the ultimate test. Because I'm an idiot, one of the watches stayed attached to the pants all the way through the washer and dryer. And it still runs great. They don't advertise that the watch is waterproof or even "idiot resistant." It's just a bonus.

*

What is it with Scotch Tape? Why is it that the best adhesive tape they manufacture is only sold at Christmas time?

Their "Gift Wrap" tape is clearer than the normal "Magic Tape," and it sticks better. It's practically invisible. It's what I'd use all the time -- but no matter how much I stock up during the holiday season, we run out before the next Christmas rolls around.

Why do they think we have a greater need for tape that comes off easily than for this stuff that actually sticks? When I use Magic Tape, I might as well be sticking things together with Post-It Notes.

*

The folks who make Cranium are really pushing to come up with good new games that extend their franchise. Whoonu is yet another party-friendly game that doesn't require you to be a genius at anything to win.

Game play is simple enough: Players all get cards listing activities like "fishing" or consumables like "bubblegum." On your turn, the other players all give you cards from their hands representing things they believe -- or at least hope -- that you like better than the other players' offerings.

You then arrange the cards in order from favorite to least favorite -- or, as is usually the case, from "least hated" to "most loathed." The other players get points based on the ranking of the card they submitted. Simple, and you can't be "wrong" -- but it leads to conversations about likes and dislikes, and often funny anecdotes. The game becomes a social lubricant that allows people to have fun together.

*

Last Word is a word game, in which you draw a topic card and then have to come up with words that start with a randomly chosen letter. It's not hard when you have "boys' names" paired with "C." Then others chime in -- not taking turns -- shouting "Charles," "Chuck," "Calvin," "Chester," and so on.

Whoever completed the last valid answer before the timer went off wins the round. Simple enough, but it can be frenetic.

Except when you get "Australian things" and "J." But rounds where you all sit there staring at each other, unable to think of anything at all, are rare.

Because you don't have to take turns, everybody is playing all the time; the only drawback is that you occasionally have discussions about whether "Chuck" and "Chucky" are the same name, or whether "kangaroo jerky" is a legitimate "J" entry in "things associated with Australia." But as long as everyone keeps things light, the game is fun.

*

As I said last week, I've just about given up on Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" comic detective novels. But in a last-ditch effort to salvage a series that I used to love, I picked up Eleven on Top and then didn't read it for a couple of months.

And then, finally, I started reading it.

Evanovich is still a charming writer. This novel is just as repetitive as ever, with the same cast of characters being annoying-funny in exactly the same ways; but this time, instead of listening to a very bad reading on cd, I actually read it with my eyes.

Guess what. When you don't have an obnoxious reader saying every word, but instead can skim the dull parts, I was able to get through the whole book in a very pleasant hour or so.

That's not much of a recommendation, is it? But that's more than I can say for some collapsed series. And even though Stephanie Plum's bad luck is completely unbelievable -- she is always getting shot at, covered in filth, or having her car blown up, not to mention getting fired from every job she tries -- and her relationships with men are in a holding pattern that is now eleven books old, I still enjoyed it.

And if you haven't tried any of these books, start with any of them. It makes no difference whatsoever.

*

The other night my wife and I watched the DVD of the 1999 Masterpiece Theatre version of Great Expectations, and even though it is not perfect, we enjoyed it. In fact, this is the first film version of the story that actually moved me.

When you consider that Alfonso Cuaron's theatrical feature of Great Expectations, released only the year before this tv miniseries, was embarrassingly bad despite all the best intentions, it makes the achievement of this version all the more remarkable.

Of course, Cuaron had the disadvantage of having to make us care about Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, and the script suffered terribly from its implausible updating. Don't people realize that a great story generally works only within the culture it was originally set in? What, do we need to have a present-day Huckleberry Finn, with his name changed to Bob Findley, in order to make it "accessible" to a modern audience?

Then again, the 1996 film Emma (also afflicted with Gwyneth Paltrow at her most inept) was nowhere near as good a version of the Jane Austen novel as Clueless (1995). But Clueless was written and directed by Amy Heckerling, and the star, Alicia Silverstone, has a personality, so it's not a fair comparison.

Back to the Masterpiece Theatre Great Expectations. I'll admit it freely: We wanted to watch this movie only because it had Ioan Gruffudd in the lead. This production came out in the midst of Gruffudd's early Horatio Hornblower TV movies, giving the world of entertainment a face and a talent completely unlike anyone we'd seen before.

Gruffudd is excellent in the lead -- but the movie is practically stolen out from under him by Gabriel Thomson as Young Pip, who is onscreen for fully a quarter of the film, before Gruffudd is given a chance to take over. The casting of this young actor was superb, by the way. Not only is he extremely talented, but he also looked like he might conceivably grow up to look like Gruffudd.

The rest of the cast is outstanding, fully of quirky British-style performances, with Charlotte Rampling luminous as Miss Havisham and Justine Waddell actually creating an adult Estella that we can't help but feel for.

Clive Russell is as sweet and strong a Joe Gargery as you could hope for; Lesley Sharp is terrifyingly real as the hateful Mrs. Joe; and Emma Cunniffe is so exactly right as Biddy that we fall in love with her long before anybody else does. Tony Curran as Orlick, Bernard Hill as Magwitch, Ian McDiarmid as Jaggers -- oh, why list everybody? There's not a false note in all the performances.

However, I can't promise you that you'll love this movie, if only because I don't know how well it works if you don't already know the story. At first, anyway, it races headlong through the story, explaining less than I expected. And there was a time early on when my wife and I discussed whether to keep watching -- that's how slow it felt.

By the end, we were glad of the slow pace. We felt as if we had been immersed in the world of the story, not so much as in a full-budget feature film like Far From the Madding Crowd, of course, but certainly as much as television would allow.

And for the first time ever, I was actually moved by the ending. Not the book, and certainly no other film version, has made me care so much and feel so strongly. At last, here's a film that does Dickens justice. More justice than Dickens did himself, in my opinion!

*

"Paint by Number" used to mean "art in a kit." You'd buy a paint-by-number set, with premixed oils in a limited palette. Each color would have a unique number. On the canvas that was part of the kit, regions would be marked out like a jigsaw puzzle, with numbers in each area.

Your job was to fill each area with the color paint of the appropriate number. At the end, if you stood back from the painting, it would look like something. Kind of a child's version of a notable or picturesque or absolutely darling picture.

Oddly enough, those who were tidiest got the worst results: If you kept neatly within the lines, each area would end up with crisp borders. If you slopped a little, people had to stand a couple of feet closer to the painting before it looked really hideous.

So when Games Magazine started with a feature called "Paint by Number," it didn't exactly kindle a lot of warm associations in my mind. I was raised in the home of a man who painted well, and my feeling was if you couldn't paint, then you shouldn't buy a kit that would help make it obvious how helpless you were in front of a canvas (the category I'm in, by the way).

The Games Magazine version, however, wasn't that familiar maplike set of numbered regions. Instead, if was a symmetrical grid with lots of tiny squares in columns and rows, and at the top and on the left side were rows of numbers.

Here's the game: The numbers represent series of filled-in squares. If it says 4, then in that row there will be a sequence of four squares in a row that should be filled in. If it says 4,1,1,9,3, then in that order, you'd fill in a strip of four, then two singles, then a row of nine and, last of all, one of three.

Here's the catch: You don't know how many blank spaces there are between each set of colored squares.

So, working between the vertical and horizontal rows, you use logic to decide where each strip of colored-in squares is supposed to go.

If a row has 25 squares and is listed with that sequence of 4,1,1,9,3, then you can figure out a few portions of the strips that can be filled in. You count off from the left, allowing the minimum space (one) between each strip. Then you mark a dot at the end of the longer strips.

In this case, you put a tiny dot in the fourth square, in case the first strip of four begins at the lefthand edge, then count "space" and then "one, space, one, nine." At the end of the nine, another long sequence, you put another tiny dot.

Then you start again at the righthand edge and count inward to three -- in case the last strip begins right at the righthand edge. Then "space" and "nine." You'll notice that the dot for the end of "nine," counting from the right, is in the sixth space to the left of the dot you put for "nine" counting the other direction.

You can fill in those six spaces. You know that no matter where any of the other strips begin and end, those six spaces have to be filled in. And the same thing happens for the single square marking the end of the "four" strip going from both directions. Another square you know.

Another part of the logic is, when you have a row with only one number -- say, "6," -- and you are able to fill in a column that crosses that row, you know that the strip of six has to cross that square. Now you can count five more to the right and left of that filled-in square, and the next square -- and all the others to the end -- are blank.

For blanks, you draw a circle inside the square, signifying that it's definitely, permanently blank. Now colored-in strips cannot cross a blank space -- it has to begin after or end before that blank. So, again, you learn more information.

These puzzles can be completely addictive, especially when you realize how meticulous you have to be, and how twisted your logic sometimes has to become. A change on a remote part of the grid can lead to a solution of an ambiguous spot that you had to set aside long before.

The resulting pictures can sometimes be clever and sometimes infuriating -- I spent all this time to get a Japanese cartoon character that I've never seen before in my life? And sometimes you can look at those dots and not see a picture at all -- you have to stand back about as far as you do from one of those old paint-by-number kits before it starts to look like anything.

My wife and I have been keeping these in the bathroom, adding a few lines, solving this or that corner.

The trouble is that sometimes you're wrestling with a long string of connected logical problems, it's all in your head at once, and you can't bring yourself to set it down until it's solved.

As a result, you spend longer and longer in the bathroom -- until someone you love starts providing you with Immodium or Ex-Lax, depending on what they think is keeping you in there that long.

In Britain, where I've heard these puzzles originated, they're called "Griddlers," a much better name than paint-by-number. For Christmas this year, I gave my wife a whole bunch of imported British Griddlers and every American book I could locate.

And, so that I didn't end up solving most of the puzzles myself (yeah, some gift!) I got duplicate copies of all the books for myself. Just to preserve her books for her to solve.


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