Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 10, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Carols, The Holiday, Doc Green, The Cheat, Jihad Boy,Ranger's Apprentice
Do you need a good strong dose of Christmas spirit? Make sure you come on
Friday night, 15 December, at 7:00 pm, to hear John Huntington's hour-and-a-half performance of the Christmas songs of composer Robert Stoddard.
The songs range from sweet children's music to powerful arias, from light-hearted tunes about the fun of Christmas to moving reminders of the love of
The performance, which will be at the LDS meetinghouse on Pinetop Rd. (off
Westridge, across from Claxton Elementary School) is free of charge; families
Writer/director Nancy Meyers has come a long way since she wrote Private
Benjamin for Goldie Hawn back in 1980. Not everything she wrote or directed
has been a work of genius, but beginning with her script for the revamped The
Parent Trap in 1998 and continuing through What Women Want and
Something's Gotta Give, she has become one of the most promising creators of
that most difficult and delicate type of film: The romantic comedy.
It's not a coincidence that her films started to become interesting and
memorable precisely when she started directing them herself.
Now this Christmas season brings us The Holiday. This is the story of two
women, Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a rich L.A. maker of movie trailers, and Iris
(Kate Winslet), a merely well-off English editor. The film begins with each of
them ending a longtime relationship -- Amanda by punching a philandering
boyfriend, Iris by discovering that the man she loves is engaged to someone
else -- and didn't even tell her.
Iris had already listed her house -- a decent "cottage" in Surrey (probably
worth at least half a million) -- through an online home-exchange service, but
Amanda's impulsive offer to swap with her was the first time anyone had
actually taken her up on it.
Iris revels in the high-tech overdesigned luxury of the Bel-Air mansionette-with-pool, while Amanda is at first put off by the more rustic accoutrements
that are considered "charming" in England. In fact, Amanda is getting ready to
move on when she meets ...
Well, obviously, both women have to meet "Mr. Right," and while central casting
could certainly pick Jude Law as the Cary Grant stand-in, it was truly inspired
to bring in (a very restrained) Jack Black as the love interest for Kate Winslet --
a pairing that was not obvious by any standard.
What makes this movie compelling is that the story does not follow the
predictable trajectories. And it's the side trips that make it a jewel of a film.
Yes, Kate Winslet meets Jack Black almost at once, but he is involved with an
actress, while Iris gets caught up in the life of a ninety-year-old writer, Arthur
Abbott, played luminously by Eli Wallach, helping him get ready for an event
he doesn't even want to attend.
When I was in Salt Lake last week I heard two reviewers on an AM talk radio
film show explain that it's the Kate Winslet/Jack Black storyline that drives the
film, while the other storyline is only saved by Cameron Diaz's peppy
performance and is merely not wrecked by Jude Laws almost-too-cute acting.
This sounded reasonable, until I saw the film.
First, as is typical of reviewers, these guys were confused about what parts of a
performance are the responsibility of the writer, and which of the actor. The
Cameron Diaz/Jude Law storyline was weak because the character Diaz played
was unattractive: self-obsessed, promiscuous, and unattractively rich. For me,
the only weakness in the movie was Diaz's failure to bring any depth to her
character, even when the script gave her opportunities to do so.
While Jude Law, who has always seemed cold and artificial to me, gave a warm
and real performance, with moments of genuine tenderness. Cast in what
seems at first to be a Cary Grant role, he transitions smoothly into the Jimmy
Stewart role that his character is revealed to be.
And what makes the Kate Winslet storyline so effective is not so much the
romance with Jack Black -- which is charming indeed -- as the contrast with
the possessive ex-boyfriend, Jasper (the steamy Rufus Sewell, who played
Count Adhemar in A Knight's Tale and Marke in Tristan and Isolde). Most of
all, though, we are drawn in by the friendship between Iris and Abbott -- the
most compelling emotional connection in the film.
But all this analysis is beside the point. While I was annoyed by the completely
unnecessary (but sadly realistic) penchant of character to hop into bed as a
way of saying hello, and there were a couple of words that might grate on the
sensibilities of some audience members, this is a film that my wife and our
twelve-year-old and I felt perfectly comfortable watching together.
We laughed; we occasionally got sentimentally teary-eyed; we cared about these
imaginary people; we loved this movie.
We've had good luck and bad luck with the restaurants located at 1410
Westover Terrace, where Doc Green's Gourmet Salads has recently opened.
The good luck is that every one of them -- The Atlanta Bread Company and
Baja Fresh -- has been first rate. The bad luck is that they keep closing down.
I've been assured that Baja Fresh, for instance, was shut down because the
chain withdrew completely from our region; it had nothing to do with the
But you'll understand why I'm rushing to encourage you to go to Doc Green's
as soon as possible -- because with my luck, it won't be there for long, and
that will be (as usual) a crying shame.
Because this is quite simply the best fast food in town. The chain has
locations in only a few states in the South and Midwest, but I hope it spreads
It's not a salad bar -- the salad is made for you. You start by choosing a base
of either romaine, spinach, or spring greens (or any combination of them), and
then choose five additional ingredients and a dressing. (You can choose more,
but you start paying a bit extra after five.)
You can also have hot meat added to the salad; my wife assures me that the
turkey in her salad was delicious, but I felt no need to add a dose of beastflesh
to my perfect salad. After all, I had fresh-sliced hard-boiled egg, roasted beets,
feta cheese, and mandarin oranges -- why in the world would I wish for more?
Everything is tossed together in a big bowl so that the dressing is evenly
applied, and then served on a real plate.
In addition, you can get various side orders. Their mashed potatoes and gravy
are so good that I almost got a second serving -- the only thing that stopped
me was that the large salad filled me up.
It's worth braving the rude traffic on Westover Terrace (people who are going to
have to stop at the light at Green Valley anyway still refuse to pause and give
you a break so you can turn left into the parking lot). It's quick, it's delicious,
it's even healthy.
I continue to stand by my earlier review of Zazzle -- a first-rate website where
you can get custom messages and artwork put on t-shirts, mugs, caps, bags,
and many other things.
I just have to warn you not to buy any of their ties. The fabric is so thin that
the knot doesn't even hide the ends of the tie that go up under the collar. The
impression is awful and junky. It's suitable only for a joke gift.
But everything else I've had made there is of very high quality.
After receiving Harry & David's "12 Days of Christmas" I have to report that
this company really delivers. Naturally, we did not even consider waiting until
the actual twelve days to open the items one by one. For one thing, the fruit
arrived perfectly ripe, but it would have been awful by the time their days rolled
The caramels and nuts and white-powdered malted milk balls and candied
popcorn and tiny cookies were all delicious. But above all, it's the fruit that
makes a gift from Harry & David so welcome.
And since you can get all these items in many different configurations, and
since they'll be just as welcome for New Year's as Christmas, it's not too late to
order from Harry & David for faraway friends and family -- or, for that matter,
In my opinion, the graduates of American Idol have been a mixed bag. I've been
disappointed that Fantasia, for instance, has issued no album on which she
actually sings -- hip-hop may be great for dancing, but it leaves 90% of that
glorious voice unused.
Most of us were surprised when Chris Daughtry was eliminated last year
before the final round; his first album, Daughtry, is a good reminder of why he
was the one everybody expected to go all the way to the victory. He has a
remarkable voice and this well-produced album gives him good arrangements
of pretty good songs -- though none that reach the anthem status he clearly
I only wish that he had backed off a couple of times and given us a ballad or
two -- even the best rock-and-roll can wear on you; you start wishing for a
change just for the sake of variety.
You've probably never heard of The Cheat, but I was lucky enough to get my
hands on their new five-track CD Drunk With Power. On their website
(http://www.thecheat.net), you can buy it for five bucks. The words are smart,
the music is good rock-and-roll that reminds me just a little of the Beatles (in a
good way) and the vocals are strong without being strident.
And since they start streaming music to you the minute you get to their site,
you can check it out and find out that I'm completely right about these guys:
We're going to be hearing from them a lot more in the future.
Rusty Humphries has a conservative talk show that is carried on both XM and
Sirius radio, besides being syndicated nationally on many local stations. But
I'm here to tell you about his bitingly satiric cd Thank Allah I'm a Jihad Boy.
When the cd began with Humphries' little girl singing (!) The Pledge of
Allegiance, I feared that this would be the equivalent of somebody's homemade
tape to send to grandma and grandpa at Christmas -- and, in fact, it never
loses that we're-not-really-doing-anything-serious attitude. By the end, it's
The meat of this album, though, is the series of song parodies from the point of
view of radical Muslims -- mercilessly mocking them, of course. Between
songs, there are recordings of interviews Humphries conducted with radical
Muslims in various Middle Eastern locations, and these aren't funny. They're
downright chilling. When you hear somebody say, flat out, that the only way to
bring peace to the world is to "kill all the Jews," it's hard to get into a laughing
mood for the next song.
Naturally, I was not as happy with the few songs that are basically self-congratulatory mock-the-liberals ain't-we-glad-we're-Republicans political
songs. Humphries is at his best when he's singing from the point of view of the
group he's mocking. Irony is his proper form, not simple-minded abuse. But
maybe I feel that way because on a lot of issues I'm one of the liberals those
songs were making fun of.
Never mind that stuff -- this cd is worth owning because of the Jihad-Boy
songs and the scary interviews. You can get it at Humphries' website,
And did I mention? Humphries wrote and sings all the songs. He may be
doing it all tongue-in-cheek, but he's a pretty good mimic of several singers'
styles and his accent work is hilariously dead on. Good stuff.
It's not too late to order the fifteen-dollar cd as a gift for someone you think
would enjoy it -- though it's a little disconcerting that the website still speaks
of "pre-ordering" it and say that it "will ship in late October." Doesn't anybody
bother to update the site?
If you haven't got all your Christmas shopping done for the young readers in
your life, let me recommend John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice, the first
book in a new series whose second volume has only just appeared in
As I began reading I was wary. Flanagan writes in an omniscient point of view
that skips from one character's mind to another's. The result is that you are
never very deeply inside any of the characters. And at the opening, the
dialogue among characters is so perfunctory and dull that let's just say I had
little hope for the rest of the book.
Fortunately, Flanagan soon gets to his strength, which is the development of
heroic characters. The virtues of courage and loyalty, hard work and humility
are demonstrated by more than one of these people, and I found myself, to my
surprise, quite moved many times as I read through the book.
Considering that I almost didn't get past page five, I was rather astonished to
realize that after page twenty I simply couldn't put the book down. Flanagan
may not be adept at handling point of view or dialogue, but as I often tell my
writing students, if you're telling a strong enough story, readers will quickly
learn to forgive or overlook entirely whatever flaws your writing may contain.
Young teenage and preteen readers, particularly (but not exclusively) boys, may
not be as thrilled with this gift as with, say, a new Nintendo Wii -- but when
they do put down the controllers and get around to opening the book, it will
soon become one of their favorite gifts this Christmas.