Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 24, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Charlotte's Web, Hicks & Pickler, Delicious, Elderflower, and Resolutions
The holiday season can be stressful, but there are also people whose
thoughtfulness and generosity make the season a joy.
For instance, on the last garbage pick-up day before Christmas, our refuse
containers were jammed full and we still had another can's worth of garbage.
(The exceptional quantity was the result of several parties' worth of used plastic
plates and food packaging, as well as a cubic acre of styrofoam peanuts that
were used for shipping items we bought over the internet.)
So when I say our garbage cans were full, I mean the lids were standing
straight up. The cans looked like depictions of Santa's bulging and overflowing
bag of toys (if Santa wrapped the toys in green and white plastic).
Since we were going to have a houseful of guests at Christmas, there would be
many bags of Christmas wrapping paper the following week. We didn't need to
start out with our refuse space already half used up from the week before.
When the garbage truck came by on Thursday, we were all prepared to go out
and beg them to take more. But we didn't have to. Because the guys with the
truck turned the corner, emptied our garbage cans, and went to lunch.
While they were gone, we refilled one of the cans, and when they came back,
they emptied it again.
They didn't have to. Maybe it's even against the rules for them to do it. We
believe they were deliberately being kind, and we appreciate it.
(And if you're the supervisor in charge, and you're already thinking of figuring
out which team broke the rules, so you can punish them somehow for their act
of kindness, shame on you as a scrooge; but if you're planning to commend
them for good public relations, then let's commend all the guys on garbage
trucks who allow us the convenience of disposing of our rubbish at the curb,
without complaining about all the wacky and thoughtless things the customers
Our friends at The Framin' Place worked a miracle and got some major
framing jobs done just in time for Christmas, even though I had only received
the art itself a couple of weeks before. Sure, they were paid -- but they weren't
paid to do the extra work to meet an unreasonable deadline.
The delivery people at the U.S. Postal Service went the extra mile and
delivered packages on Christmas Eve -- a Sunday, no less! -- and on
I felt really bad about that Christmas Day delivery, because it wasn't a
Christmas gift, it was just a re-supply of something I use all the time. But they
had no way of knowing it didn't need to arrive on Christmas, and to the tired-looking man who came to our door on that rainy Christmas afternoon and still
managed to give me a smile and a "Merry Christmas" along with my package, I
say thank you.
No matter what time of day I went to the UPS Store at North Elm and Pisgah
Church, and no matter how long the line, everybody working the counter was
at least businesslike, and most were downright cheerful. They also got
everything out the door on time and packaged well enough that nothing broke
and everything got where it was supposed to be. Thank you!
The holidays are hard work -- not just for people working in shops and
providing services, but for the customers as well. When we decide to put on
Christmas for each other, we plan, we schedule, we shop and wrap and sneak
around to bring off surprises. We stay up way too late at night getting
everything done because of that deadline that won't wait. And when it's finally
Christmas Day, we're exhausted.
So congratulations all of you on a job well done.
And if you do as I do most years, and sometime in February find a hidden
Christmas present that you overlooked and failed to wrap and give away,
remember that St. Patrick's Day is a fine occasion for bestowing leftover
Christmas gifts. People are really surprised to get them then.
In previous years, I've been vaguely aware that some people actually go to
movies on Christmas day. Since I rarely set foot outside on Christmas, except
maybe to clean up the luminaries around the curb of our corner lot (that's a
whole bunch of bags full of sand, by the way), it doesn't even come up.
But it happened last year that I was driving around for some reason -- a late
gift delivery? -- and we drove past the Carousel and saw the parking lot full of
cars. And I said to my wife, "Can you believe that so many people are so lonely
or have so little imagination that the best thing they can think of to do on
Christmas day is to go to the movies?"
Whenever I say catty, nasty things like that, fate works out a way to punish
me. This year, it was the fact that I hadn't had a moment to see most of the
new Christmas movies, and I had a Tuesday deadline for this column, and I
wanted to have at least one movie review.
So there I was on Christmas day at 8:20 p.m., with my wife and daughters and
my wife's parents -- all of us so lonely and pathetically unimaginative that we
were watching Charlotte's Web instead of having a scintillating conversation
or singing Christmas carols or doing good deeds for the poor or whatever it is
we were supposed to be doing to prove we didn't have to go to the movies on
In other words, I apologize to all of you who always go to movies on Christmas
day. Because after all the exhausting work of putting on Christmas, sitting
there in the theater watching something was wonderfully relaxing.
Especially because Charlotte's Web is a pretty darn good movie. Which is far
better than I expected.
That's because the old animated Charlotte's Web (1973) was such a family
favorite. My older children grew up playing that videotape over and over again,
so that all of us could sing along with Paul Lynde as Templeton the Rat ("A fair
is a ver-itable smorgasbord -orgasbord -orgasbord"). Charlotte the spider
absolutely had Debbie Reynolds's voice, Henry Gibson (of Laugh-In fame) was
Wilbur the pig, and nobody could do the voice of the Goose like Agnes
Moorehead. (Nobody could do anything like Agnes Moorehead.)
So this semi-live-action remake was filling a need we didn't feel. When a book
has been well filmified once, why do it over? You have so little chance of doing
it better. Not much chance, really, of doing it as well.
And when you add to that the fact that E.B. White's original book Charlotte's
Web was the first book that ever made me cry in public (our teacher read it to
us in third grade), we had too many emotional connections to the story for a
new film version to have a chance.
Thus we were pleasantly surprised by how good this remake is.
Where the 1973 animation was (of course) flat and a little cheap-looking, the
computer-animated animals in the new version were quite convincing (except
for Wilbur's one backflip, which was embarrassingly fake).
The long shots of the farm consistently looked like paintings -- but that might
be because the previews for the horrible-looking butchery of Bridge to
Terabithia were so wretchedly false-looking that it made us hypersensitive to
But Charlotte herself was brilliantly animated. They didn't put a nice human-style mouth on her -- she has mandibles. They created glorious sequences
showing what it might feel like to be a spider spinning a web. And as the film
progresses, we can see Charlotte age so that we are not surprised when she
begins to "languish."
The live-action actors were quite good, though it's hard for anyone to hold the
screen with Dakota Fanning. Starting with I Am Sam, and going on through
Sweet Home Alabama, Uptown Girls, and War of the Worlds, this kid actor has
stolen so many movies from big-name stars that she really ought to be
sentenced to community service for the rest of her life.
One difficulty with adapting Charlotte's Web is that the human characters are
really quite incidental to the real story, which is about Wilbur, Charlotte,
Templeton, and the other animals. Mostly, the humans are there to maintain
the constant threat that Wilbur will be turned to suckling pork before the snow
But the script does a good job of creating more of a story for the human
characters than E.B. White bothered to create. Yet it takes very little screen
time to do it -- it doesn't detract from the main story. Good job.
Another good addition was the pair of crows (voiced wonderfully by Thomas
Haden Church and André Benjamin) who are desperate to eat corn, but can't
overcome their fear of the scarecrows in every field. Their delicious dumbness
added much to the movie.
And if the sheep seemed to be borrowed from Babe, they're genuinely funny
now and then.
Having said that, let me now point out that the dialogue was almost entirely
It's as if the actors had been handed scripts with lines like this:
Generic sappy sweet father-type line.
BROOKS THE CROW
Whatever dumb joke an eager third-grader would come up with at this
(No -- I take that back. It's so unfair to third-graders.)
Time after time, I thought, Surely that was merely place-holder dialogue,
waiting for them to hire the real dialogue writer, who would come up with
something either funny or real -- or, preferably, both.
Fortunately, E.B. White's original novel is good enough that good actors can
overcome the bad screenwriter dialogue and deliver a beautiful story. The voice
actors play their parts in a low-key way, which is boring at first but soon
becomes part of the reality. We actually start thinking that it's completely
natural for animals to talk.
(Though someday I want a film to show animals not speaking the same
language. Surely sheep would need an interpreter in order to converse with
pigs -- not to mention spiders.)
Julia Roberts doesn't have as warm a voice as Debbie Reynolds, but she makes
a good Charlotte all the same. Steve Buscemi is well-cast as Templeton,
though anybody who isn't Paul Lynde (which is all of us) is bound to leave us
wishing for the master of snideness.
I couldn't help but wonder what Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy
Bates, Reba McEntire, John Cleese, and Robert Redford might have done with
good dialogue. As it is, the best I can say is that none of them gave a
mannered performance -- it's hard to tell, if you don't already know, which
famous actor is playing each part.
At the end, I cried again. And here's the remarkable thing: I cried more, I cared
more, than I did with the 1973 animated movie. More than I did with the
original book. By that standard, at least, this movie works and is well worth
Especially for the almost unsentimental treatment of Charlotte's demise and
the glorious moment when her babies rise into the air on the ends of spiderweb
threads and float away, crying out, with tiny voices, "whee!" What might have
been maudlin or absurd is instead real and beautiful.
Charlotte's Web is rated G and marketed toward families with young children.
But I think it's also worth seeing for people who only remember having (or
I've already reviewed the Chris Daughtry cd. Now I've got the Taylor Hicks and
Kellie Pickler cds, and I can tell you that this most recent year of American Idol
had more depth than any of the previous years.
On Small Town Girl, Kellie Pickler proves herself to be a better country
singer than Carrie Underwood. Where Underwood strains and oversings
constantly (I have to switch away when she comes on the radio, because it
almost hurts to hear her try to fake having a bigger voice than she actually
has), Kellie Pickler is the real thing.
Pickler understands her own voice and never oversings -- she knows she isn't
Gretchen Wilson, so she doesn't have to try to outshout her. Instead, she
allows herself to sing in a heartfelt, beautiful voice that is a pleasure to listen to
on every track of her cd.
I hope people have sense enough to realize what Pickler is -- because she
deserves to be around for the next thirty years or so, performing and recording
her wonderful songs.
I had my doubts about Taylor Hicks. I loved him on camera -- his caperings
and cavortings were wonderful, like a sane version of Joe Cocker. But how
much of what we loved was what was saw, and how much was what we heard?
I just didn't know if anything would carry over into the recordings.
And the first track on his self-titled album wasn't encouraging. "The
Runaround" isn't much of a song, and Hicks doesn't do much with it.
Fortunately, it's the worst cut on the album. Most songs are very good, and
while I do miss seeing him perform, I think he brings something new and
strong to the songs he sings.
Hicks knows how to get inside a song and bring the words to life. He knows
how to mean a song -- often more than I think the songwriter did. So he's at
his best when he's working with songs that have something interesting to say
in the lyrics.
In other words, the better the words, the stronger Hicks's vocal performance.
I'll buy more of his albums, though I'll always miss watching him sing.
Of the three whose albums I've heard --Daughtry, Pickler, and Hicks -- all are
worth buying and hearing. And all of them are a refreshing change from the
sounds that dominate the airwaves these days. They actually sing songs with
melodies -- and with words that are worth understanding.
They actually have talent. And yet all three of them are different from each
other and from anybody else.
American Idol is beginning to do a better job of finding listenable talent than
most record labels ever do.
Jan Burke's newest Irene Kelly novel, Kidnapped, isn't much of a mystery --
mostly because she tells us practically everything right from the beginning by
showing significant portions of the plot from the bad guys' point of view.
What the novel becomes, in the absence of mystery, is a powerful story about
what it means to be a family -- and how the kind of people who would steal
children in order to have a family are invariably the most awful kind of parents
children could have.
At the same time, one of the storylines is about the loyalty of a young man who
refuses to believe that his brother committed the murders he was convicted of
-- and that's where we see a family holding together against all odds, until
justice is done and the good guy gets out of jail.
Jan Burke is one of the good ones -- one of the "mystery" writers who are
actually writing most of the finest novels of contemporary American life (since
"literary" writers rarely write about anything other than themselves and how
talented and tortured they are). And because it can stand alone, Kidnapped is
as good a place to begin reading her work as any.
I was doing my last round of shopping at Smith's Beautiful Living when they
opened up a tray of pastries from a bakery I had never heard of, called,
appropriately enough, Delicious.
The folks at Smith's were stunned that I hadn't heard of the place. But nobody
was surprised that I hadn't seen it, because this bakery is one that has to
thrive by word of mouth alone.
It's located on Battleground Avenue -- prominent enough, except that on a
highway like that, it's not as if you can drive slowly enough to browse for tiny
Besides, with its location at 3114 Battleground, Suite B, you would not expect
to see a bakery. It's quite a strip of automotive shops there, and a shop selling
delicate pastries is not at all what you'd expect to see.
Don't be put off by the location, however, because this is the real thing. We
ordered their mini-eclairs for one of our Christmas gatherings and they were
the hit of the night. Their key lime and apple tartlettes disappeared almost as
Our only complaint about their brownies is that they're so rich that most of our
friends have to cut the pieces into quarters -- otherwise, it's just too much
dessert all at once!
We also saw the specialty cakes that people were picking up, and they were
gorgeous. Works of art. Go in and check it out. You'll want to develop a long-term relationship. Anybody who makes pastries like that is worth having as a
It's hard to believe I'm actually recommending a British food product -- how
can anything good emerge from a national cuisine that includes items called
"spotted dick" and "toad in the hole"?
But at Earth Fare in Greensboro (or online at www.britishdelights.com or
www.curiouskumquat.com) you can get the lightly carbonated bottled soft
drinks from Belvoir Fruit Farms, including their organic lemonade and the
unique "Elderflower Pressé."
The only reason I picked up a bottle was because of my fond memories of the
elderberry wine featured in Arsenic and Old Lace. Now, the Elderflower Pressé
is not a wine, so there's no alcohol, and it's made from the flowers, not the
berries. Therefore I probably am no closer than I ever was to knowing just how
the beverage that Cary Grant's crazy old aunts put the arsenic in tasted.
But I don't care. Because the flavor of Elderflower Pressé is so good that it
doesn't have to ride on the coattails of a great old play and movie. Give it a try
out of curiosity, and I bet you'll want more out of pure lust.
I don't believe in New Year's resolutions. Oh, I know people make them. Or at
least they claim they're making them. But just because they happen at New
Year's doesn't mean they're resolutions.
Here's Uncle Orson's Unfriendly Guide to New Year's resolutions:
1. If you didn't write it down, it's a passing thought, not a resolution.
2. If you don't have a specific plan for achieving a goal, it is not a resolution.
3. If you have not made an open covenant with the people whose respect you
most care about, it is not a resolution.
In other words: "I'm going to lose weight!" is an idle boast, not a resolution.
"I'm going to lose twenty pounds!" is a wish, not a resolution. "I'm swearing off
carbs!" is just stupid, not a resolution.
"I'm going to follow this explicit diet plan and do these exact exercises on this
precise schedule until I have lost twenty pounds" -- and you've written it down
and shown it to spouse and children and co-workers, asking for their
cooperation in helping you achieve your goal -- now that's a resolution.
"I'm going to get out of debt" is a dream, not a resolution. "I'm going to cut up
my credit cards" is not a resolution, it's a cry of despair.
"Here is where our money went last year; these are the things we are no longer
going to do, so we can apply that money to our credit card debt. We will not
use credit cards for anything except the following categories of purchases. If
we do not have at least $X surplus out of every paycheck, we will cut back
Real resolutions are rare. But I've seen them. I've seen the family that decided
to sell their expensive house and move to a more modest neighborhood, so they
could pay off the (cheaper) house early and live without debt.
I've seen similar radical changes made so that one spouse could stay home
with the children and the family could live comfortably on one income.
If you're serious about change, you will be realistic about what it takes to
achieve the goal, and you will immediately start to do what it takes. Nothing
will stop you.
That's what a resolution looks like. Only grownups know how to make and
keep them. And they don't have to wait till New Year's.