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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 Christ.

The performance, which will be at the LDS meetinghouse on Pinetop Rd. (off Westridge, across from Claxton Elementary School) is free of charge; families are welcome.

*

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 location.

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 everywhere.

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 around.

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, for yourself.

*

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 aspires to.

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 rather endearing.

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, http://www.talktorusty.com.

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 hardcover.

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.


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