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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 9, 2006

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


Pirates, Ultra Metabolism, Karaoke, and parking wars

About Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, I have some good news and some bad news.

Good news first. Nothing I say in this review can possibly give away the ending.

That's because there is no ending.

I don't mean it's a bad ending or a disappointing ending or even a cliffhanger. I mean there is no ending. The movie just ... stops.

Oh, that's not even the bad news. The bad news is that after announcing they were opening a movie, which they don't bother to end, they're going to make us wait a year and a quarter for the second half of a movie we already paid for. And they're going to charge us for it all over again.

I recently reviewed Superman Returns with a sniping comment about how the first half of that movie was spent trying to remind us what happened in the first two movies and then tell us what "really" happened during the third and fourth very dreadful movies.

With Pirates, the first movie was brilliant. And there was only one. And it was only three years ago. So they didn't have to waste our time reminding us of anything. They could get right on with the story.

This movie is so utterly dependent on the first one that they felt obliged to bring back every single cast member -- even the dead ones.

But Dead Man's Chest does it right. We don't get an infodump at the beginning of the movie. We start right away with the new story and only bring the other characters back into the film as they logically (or semi-logically) enter the plot.

I was afraid I'd be tired of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character, but no, I'm afraid he's still a delight; in fact, I like him better.

And I was afraid I'd be bored with the Orlando Bloom/Keira Knightley love story, but once again, no. They are still gorgeous without being unbelievable. Keira Knightley's "Elizabeth Swann" is, if anything, spunkier than ever. And Orlando Bloom as "Will Turner" is the perfect movie star for our time. Girls swoon for him. Heterosexual men want to be him. Gay men want to wear his clothes.

OK, heterosexual men want to wear his clothes too.

The first movie was so full of delightful surprises that I assumed that this movie, being a sequel and all, had no chance of being as good.

Well, except for that bit about not having an ending, this movie is every bit as surprising and delightful.

How were they going to trump the pirates who turned into corpses by moonlight? Well, once you get on the Flying Dutchman and meet the character of Davy Jones and his crew, you'll see that lack of imagination certainly did not afflict anyone involved with the design of this show.

Davy Jones is so heavily (and brilliantly) made up that there's zero chance you'll recognize Bill Nighy -- you know, the guy who played the cynical aging rock star in Love, Actually. He plays Davy Jones with enough of a Scottish accent that you wonder if maybe it's Sean Connery behind all the calamari; but, incredibly enough, he also brings a touch of sensitivity to it. Using only his eyes and his voice, he is able to make the character seem deep.

When Will Turner's (Orlando Bloom's) father shows up, it is once again easy to lose the actor behind the brilliant makeup, but Stellan Skarsgard, a Swedish actor who has played character roles in lots of movies nobody saw, does a beautiful job of making a human being emerge from behind the starfish.

My favorite new character, though, is Naomie Harris as the voodoo-mama-ish "Tia Dalma." Even though it was sometimes hard to understand her accent, she did it beautifully and you could understand her whenever it mattered. (Just remember that in her Jamaica-creole speech, "him" can mean "he" and "his" as well.) She had so much fire on screen that nobody else was visible when she was there.

I'm confused about the character of Cutler Beckett, the English lord whose nefarious schemes drive much of the plot. When he first appears, everybody responds as if they all knew him, so I assumed he was somebody from the first movie. In fact, I assumed he was Elizabeth Swann's fiancé from the first film, until Jack Davenport popped up playing Norrington, who really was the fiancé. The Beckett character doesn't show up on the cast lists for Black Pearl, so I guess this is his first appearance. Not a problem: Tom Hollander is marvelously slimy without being Draco Malfoy -- or even Mr. Collins, the part he played in Keira Knightley's recent Pride and Prejudice.

There are also elaborately set-up comic bits of the sort that are usually embarrassing. Remember the agonizingly unfunny gags in The Money Pit and the Home Alone sequels? Where the set-up is always bigger than the finish?

In Dead Man's Chest there is little set-up for the gags. They spring at us out of nowhere, but without realizing it, we were prepared completely. In other words, the set-up was so perfect we don't even notice it.

The double escape from the cannibals, for instance -- just when you think you've seen the whole gag, there's an even-better finish.

And the three-way sword fight that leads to a gag -- terrific. The gag goes on and on, but not one second of it feels repetitive.

Both gags owed a lot to American Gladiators. But that's not a bad thing. You'll see what I mean.

Because you will see it. Even without an ending, this is the best movie so far this summer.

So you can walk out of the theater ticked off about the lack of an ending, brrumfing all the way home.

Or you can go in knowing there'll be no ending, so instead of being irritated, you just accept the fact that it's an unfinished story -- a great unfinished story. And you'll walk out of the theater feeling terrific, having had a couple of hours of entertainment that's way better (and cheaper) than standing in line at Disney World for the stupid Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

*

It's been a long road, de-Americanizing our family diet. Not that we ever set out to eat junk; quite the contrary. We thought we were eating healthy foods. After all, between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) all our food was certified safe ... wasn't it?

It began the summer we spent in Provence. I felt like I ate my brains out, but I lost twenty pounds. Part of it was because I walked most places in town (a necessity, since there was nowhere to park anyway). But part of it was because we ate a lot of fresh produce, excellent bread, good cheese, and fresh-caught fish.

When we got home, our diet changed without any particular plan in mind. We began to eat far more salads. Meat began a gradual retreat from our diet, so that now we have red meat perhaps once a month -- not because we're denying ourselves, but rather because we don't even think of it any more often than that.

Of course, I soon learned how to gain weight even on a salad-heavy diet. Especially, though, I gained whenever I traveled. I get the munchies whether I'm driving or flying or riding the train -- something about being on a journey makes me need to be chomping something almost continuously. If I ignore those cravings, they don't go away.

So I became intimately familiar with the snack food section of all the convenience stores, airports, gas stations, and grocery stores along US 220, US 29, I-85, I-95, I-81, and I-40.

I tried to eat "healthy" snacks. You know ... Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies instead of Chips Ahoy, peanut butter Ritz Bits instead of powdered-sugar mini-doughnuts. I never succumbed to the temptation of chocolate milk, my dietary bete noir; instead I drank V-8.

And all the while, I was sabotaging myself because of one simple ingredient: high fructose corn syrup.

In Mark Hyman's book Ultra Metabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss, I finally got the clear explanation I needed of why corn syrup was destroying me.

Sugar is sugar, I had always thought. Besides, the people who went on and on about the evils of corn syrup were obviously those who were following some kind of dietary religion -- I simply tuned them out.

But fructose is not just sugar. In nature, fructose comes from (of course) fruit -- but in its natural state, it's bound in with fibers and other nutrients so it doesn't digest so quickly.

When the fructose is completely purified, though, it goes straight to the cells of your body without needing to react with insulin. Very efficient. Except all that insulin your body created to deal with the fructose has no place to go. So it stays in your bloodstream in ever higher concentrations, signaling your brain that you really need sugar.

So yes, you got a jolt of sugar energy from that fructose -- but it makes you hungry for more almost immediately.

And high fructose corn syrup shows up almost everywhere. Like catsup, Manwich sloppy joe sauce, Home Made ice cream, and of course every single one of the snack foods I ate on trips when I had the munchies.

I put that in the past tense because I'm changing. Nothing gradual about it. Both artificial sweeteners and corn syrup are leaving the house. OK, not all of it -- I'm going to finish that Home Made chocolate chip ice cream. But the only soft drinks I'm keeping are the Knudsen Family juice spritzers I reviewed a few weeks ago.

And I'm giving up <sob> my Yoplait light yogurts.

Fortunately, I have a replacement -- Wallaby Organic yogurts. Touted as being "creamy Australian style," the Wallaby yogurts (available at Earth Fare) are exactly what I want -- a mild taste, no lumps of anything, just smooth, creamy, delicious yogurt.

Wallaby makes their yogurts using only organic ingredients, and despite the lack of corn syrup, they aren't sugar-heavy either.

While we were browsing our way through Earth Fare's dairy compartment, I also found Kozy Shack Real Chocolate Pudding. What can I say, except that it's the best pudding I've ever had?

Oh, wait. I can say a lot of other things. Like: I usually hate pudding because of the texture, but I like this pudding because it has just the right balance of thickness and smoothness.

Oh, here's another: Isn't "Kozy Shack" a really stupid name for a food company? For a chain of rent-by-the-hour motels, yes, great name. But what do either coziness or shacks have to do with anything that would make food sound attractive?

And yet another thing: Why does their website show that their chocolate pudding is available in 4-ounce pudding cups, 6-ounce pudding cups, and bulk 2- or 4-pound trays, when the size I actually saw and bought at Earth Fare is 22 ounces -- not mentioned on the site?

(Thus I prove once again that even though you think I've said everything I could think of to say about each thing I review, in fact I leave out a lot of stuff. For instance, I could have gone off on a long rant about puddings in my life, starting with the horrible bread pudding and rice pudding my grandmother made (and my mother loved), which may be the reason why I have such mouth-feel issues with puddings. This story would have included a lot of stuff about the vileness of nutmeg and how certain lumpy things do not belong in puddings. But I didn't include all that, now, did I?

(So when you think my columns go on and on, with endless digressions and asides and parentheticals, just realize that no matter how bad it gets, it could be worse because I know lots more things to say about everything.

I am a person of great self-restraint. Just not compared to anybody else you know.)

Back to organic, no-corn-syrup, no-artificial-sweeteners food: It's nice that Harris-Teeter is feeling the competition from Earth Fare (and other such stores) and is upgrading their selection of organics.

That's why you can finally get Horizon organic 2% milk in gallon jugs at Harris-Teeter. (That's our family's favorite, though the Harris-Teeter store brand of organic milk is also very good.)

But at Earth Fare, you can also get Horizon's organic cream cheese and -- most important for me -- their cottage cheese. For years, the only edible cottage cheese sold in Greensboro was the Kroger brand. Fortunately, when Harris-Teeter bought out all our local Kroger stores, H-T apparently acquired Kroger's supplier, because the same quality continued in the H-T store brand.

However, while that cottage cheese was Good Enough, it wasn't great.

Horizon's organic cottage cheese is great -- curds just a little bit larger and individually firmer, a delicious flavor, and nothing bad in it!

So my old impression that organic foods were either weird or pointless, I have to report that my impression was wrong. While I'm sure there are plenty of weird or repulsive organic foods (which is true of non-organic foods as well!), we're buying these products not just because we want to avoid certain ingredients, but also because they're flat-out better than what we had before.

*

We recently had a houseguest who introduced us to a piece of software for the Nintendo Game Cube called Karaoke Revolution Party.

Since I don't drink, I've never been drunk enough to sing karaoke in public. But the concept is a nice one -- essentially you get a minus track to a popular song (i.e., everything except the lead vocal) so that you can sing it with a full accompaniment. Not only that, but the words pop up on a screen for you. All you had to do is supply the voice.

And to hear Simon Cowell on American Idol, karaoke must be a brilliant art form in the United States, since after many a fine-if-imperfect performance on the show, Cowell assures us all that this was "bad karaoke." If that was bad karaoke, the good stuff must be wonderful!

Well ... OK, so it's not. Because one should also keep in mind the wonderfully awful scene in My Best Friend's Wedding where Cameron Diaz's character is pressured into singing karaoke and is so awful your teeth start falling out. (Only she does it with such verve, fully aware that she's awful, that the other people in the scene -- and the audience -- fall in love with her.)

There is such a thing as bad karaoke, even though Simon Cowell keeps finding it where it isn't.

But Karaoke Revolution Party is actually a possible cure.

Basically, it's a karaoke machine, loaded with fairly recent pop songs. When you buy the game, you pay extra because you get a microphone that hooks into the Game Cube.

When the music starts, you sing along. The machine listens to you and shows you, with bars on the screen, what the right pitch is supposed to be -- and where you are in relation to it.

It's not perfectly accurate. That is, you can be about an eighth-tone flat or sharp and it will tell you you're ok. That's enough to be a little grating, if it's a pure sustained tone. But the software needs to be at least that flexible to allow room for a bit of swoop and soar in the performance.

At the end of the song, you're given points depending on how you did in your performance -- and what level you chose to compete at. In other words, if you have no clue about pitch, the machine is quite forgiving at first.

It gives you enough feedback that on long notes you have time to correct the pitch and see the correction.

In short, it's a decent ear-training machine.

But it is still a game. You get to choose several characters, combining visual elements -- sex, color, costume, hair -- and then select, from among the ones you've chosen, who will perform along with you.

In other words, while you are trying to imitate the vocal performance of a pop star, the machine is lipsynching to your performance.

It's not bad. You won't get confused and think it's a real person up there, but you do get to pretend that, while you're singing, you look as good -- or as geeky -- as the character you created.

There's a lot of lousy software out there that doesn't do what it says it will do. But Karaoke Revolution Party gives you exactly what it promises. And I can tell you, as an impartial observer, that it really works for ear-training. It won't be able to help someone who is truly tone deaf, but if you simply have trouble getting exactly on the note, this software is for you.

Even if you have to use it when you're alone in the house, or behind a closed door.

*

Every now and then you see property owners doing something so amazingly stupid that you realize that there is no minimum intelligence requirement for owning land and buildings.

For instance, the owners of Dover Square on Battleground just south of Anton's and Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors are remodeling their building and getting it set up for retail.

That's not the stupid part. They're free to develop it however they want, and to tell the truth, retail at that spot isn't a bad idea at all.

For many years, though, there's been a low-key war going on between Dover Square and its neighbors over parking. Perfectly understandable during the days when the Janus Theaters filled up their parking lot and the Dover Square lot as well. Though truth to tell, the Janus tended to spill into the Dover Square lot only during hours when few people were using the lot anyway.

But the Janus is gone. All that's left to bother Dover Square is poor little Baskin-Robbins, with its miserable little postage stamp of a parking lot.

There are three parking places, in practical terms, in the Baskin-Robbins lot. And since Anton's on one side and Dover Square on the other officially forbid you to park in their lots while you get ice cream, it really feels like they're both picking on ice cream lovers.

For a long time, though, there was a gap in the wall surrounding the pathetic little Baskin-Robbins lot. I think there was once a light pole there, which was removed, leaving a space where, if you parked at Dover Square, you could walk through to get ice cream.

But the current remodeling at Dover Square included the sealing up of that wall. Now you have to walk clear to the sidewalk and around in order to get to Baskin-Robbins. One can only assume that they'll have a tow truck on duty to tow your car, once the remodeling is through and the Dover Square businesses are open.

Haven't they heard of cooperation? Synergy? One hand washes the other?

Ice cream eaters also buy other things. Most retail is supportive of, not competitive with, other retail. In other words, if they tore down that stupid wall and encouraged ice cream eaters to park in the Dover Square lot, they would potentially draw more customers to their new retail establishments.

And the customers at the new places might be pleased to have it be an easy hop to get to the ice cream.

They would help each other. Everybody makes a little more money. Customers find that spending money there is a little more convenient and pleasurable.

But instead, the war is being escalated and everyone loses. Nobody is gaining anything by sealing those parking lots from each other. Not the customers, not the business owners, and not the property owners.

But just like the folks at Friendly Center who persist in making their traffic congestion worse and worse, when an easy solution exists (four-way stops where the raised sidewalks create a speed bump), the Dover Square people are shooting themselves and their tenants in the foot.

Ouch.


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