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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 7, 2003

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


Last Samurai and Christmas Shopping

I don't have any romantic illusions about Japanese Samurai culture.

On the contrary, I've read enough history (and know enough about human nature) to be perfectly aware that Samurai warriors were every bit as likely to be venal hypocrites, oppressors of the poor, and brutal thugs as any of the knights in shining armor that have been so polished up in European folklore.

But there's something to be said for stories that, instead of zeroing in on the ugliness, show the bright and shining dream.

The Last Samurai is a story about honor -- about an American Civil War hero, Captain Algren, who, through his participation in the massacre at Wounded Knee, has lost his honor and drowns his guilt in alcohol; and about Katsumoto, a Samurai who was once the teacher of the youthful emperor, and who opposes the corrupt prime minister Omura's westernizing campaign.

Algren, played by Tom Cruise, is hired to train the emperor's (i.e., Omura's) army. Forced by political maneuverers into battling Katsumoto before his troops are well-enough trained, Algren is defeated and captured -- but not before showing himself to be a brave, resourceful, and unrelenting soldier.

Indeed, in some ways this movie is about the character of America at war.

Far more than being about Americans, this movie is about Japan -- its culture and its history. For though this movie is far from being genuinely historical, in spirit it does show the two battling traditions -- the modernizing, beat-them-at-their-own-game westernizers, and the insular, do-it-our-own-way isolationists.

Algren is kept prisoner in an isolated mountain valley, living in the home of the widow and children of the last soldier he killed in the battle he lost. While Cruise's portrayal of Algren through his transformation is a tour-de-force, the heart of this movie is in the Japanese characters.

The widow Taka, played with great restraint and warmth by the etherally beautiful Koyuki, at first is horrified by this repulsive, animal-like westerner, but gradually warms to him because of his kindness to her children and because he so clearly admires Japanese ways and tries to emulate them.

Her children, too, are played by astonishingly good actors; you will see no better performance by a child actor than by the older of the two little children. And Katsumoto's son is no less moving as he faces his own public shaming and then faces death with honor.

It is Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto, however, who manages to match screen presence with Tom Cruise -- there aren't many actors who can do that. And these four brilliant created Japanese characters brought me to tears several times.

This is not just a war movie -- but a war movie it definitely is. The fighting is not pornographically violent -- the camera does not show us the most vile things -- but there is plenty of spraying blood and lots of severed body parts.

So as I came out of the movie theater, I stopped a lady whom I did not know and asked her whether the film worked for her.

She admitted to looking away during the fighting (which is what my wife does, too, in such films), but otherwise she found much to like in the movie. In fact, she found the right comparison: "It's like Dances with Wolves," she said, and when it comes to deciding whether a woman would enjoy it as much as a man, I'd say that you should let that older movie be your guide.

Having said that, though, I must also say that The Last Samurai is in many ways the more enjoyable film. For one thing, it's shorter; for another thing, Tom Cruise is far better suited, as an actor, to play flamboyantly heroic roles than Kevin Costner. Nothing wrong with Costner, but his whole shtick is to be low-key. This was not a low-key role.

Was this the best movie of the year? Hard to make such a claim in a year that included such wildly different but brilliant fare as Open Range, Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bruce Almighty, The Italian Job, and Love, Actually.

But I have no qualms about adding it to that disparate but admirable list, because, like all of them, it succeeds both as entertainment and as craft.

*

Christmas Shopping Hints

My wife's book club was discussing The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency the other night, and for the night's door prize, my job was to find some wild animal mentioned in the book. Top choice: A giraffe. Other animals that figured into the story: Crocodiles. Snakes. Lions.

There used to be a delightful shop in Friendly Center where you could get all kinds of animals in porcelain. I can't recall the name of the shop (maybe someone can beep it in), but it wasn't my fault it went out of business. We shopped there a lot.

But who took up the slack when they closed? I made several wild guesses, which took me on a walk up State Street -- always a good idea! -- and provided me with some lovely things from several of the unique shops that are only a few steps away from where I get my hair cut. The best strip of boutiques in Greensboro.

Still, nice porcelains of African animals seemed out of reach.

And then, as I walked around Friendly Center, vainly searching, I passed by Toys & Company and realized that I shouldn't be looking for porcelains at all. Because Toys & Company has the best selection of stuffed animals I've ever seen.

Sure enough, I walked out of the store with a great giraffe, a cute snake, and a downright sinister-looking crocodile. It's hard to think of any nonmicroscopic living thing that they don't have in plush. (Among the stuffed creatures is the best assortment of Groovy Girls dolls and accessories in town.)

Not to mention toys and games that you won't find at Toys 'R' Us, including some you grew up with and always wished you could find for your own kids.

*

While you're puttering around Friendly Center, stop in at The Extra Ingredient.

I know, in a world that includes Bed, Bath, and Beyond, you shouldn't have to go into any other kitchen-supply store.

The truth is, The Extra Ingredient packs an incredible number of wonderful things within their very limited space. Of course, you couldn't push a shopping cart down those narrow aisles. Heck, I can hardly get my hips through some of the tight squeezes.

But for years now, Christmas just isn't complete until I've stopped by there, looking for whatever strange and wonderful things they've found.

Santa apparently shops there, too, because each year in my wife's Christmas stocking there's at least one unpackaged implement whose purpose she has to guess -- and invariably, the only way to figure it out is to locate another one just like it at The Extra Ingredient.

*

Right next to the Harris-Teeter on Pisgah Church at Elm is the new Smith Beautiful Living. This is a store that goes insane at Christmas -- but it's worth visiting the rest of the year, too.

In fact, a few months ago my wife and I stopped in just to see what they had there, and saw the most wonderful floor lamp. The shaft of the lamp was surrounded by a tiny spiral staircase -- hamster-sized steps, I'd say -- and I looked at my wife and my wife looked at me and we knew what was about to happen.

See, I'm a believer in Right Now. A few years ago in an art and framing store in Orem, Utah, I saw a uniquely framed print of James Christensen's Evening Angels. The print was Christensen at his whimsical-but-wise best; the framing was extraordinary. They had hewn what looks like old barnwood into a shape to fit the art; I knew I'd never see the like again.

The trouble was, the piece had a hold sign on it. Somebody had a prior claim.

So I said to the clerk, "Is Evening Angels already paid for?" Well, no. "I'm here tonight and I'm flying back to North Carolina in the morning. I'll buy it, Right Now, full price, sold -- but tomorrow I won't be here, and all you'll have is that hold sign."

They tried to reach the lady who had asked them to hold it, but they couldn't. Before I left the store, I'd paid for the piece and arranged for it to be shipped home.

That's why it hangs on the wall in our living room, and not in Marie Osmond's.

Now, I don't do this kind of thing often, but when I see something that is exactly to our taste, which belongs in our home, and which we can afford (which narrows the range considerably), I don't wait. I don't dither. I don't ask them to put a meaningless hold sign on it. I buy it Right Now.

And if I can't afford to buy it Right Now, then I walk away and forget it. It will belong to someone else.

So we walked out of Smith's Beautiful Living with that handmade spiral-staircase lamp.

If you had your eye on it and were trying to talk yourself into buying it, I'm the reason it isn't in the store anymore. Next time, remember that you might just be stalking the same prey as Mr. Right Now.

*

When The Gingerbread House just off Lawndale closed its doors, I assumed it was out of business.

I'm delighted to tell you that I was wrong. This store, filled with miniature furniture and other accoutrements for dollhouses, is still open at 2416-B Spring Garden (a few blocks east of Holden, across from where Burt's Seafood used to be).

They not only help you furnish and decorate your dollhouse, the folks at Gingerbread House make dollhouses to order. And the old N-gauge train fanatic lurking deep in my soul is delighted that they have a decent selection of trains, cars, and tracks for several gauges of model railroads.

Even if you aren't a dollhouse person, it's worth a visit just to see some of the wonderful stuff they have to make a dollhouse seem completely real.

*

In searching for Christmas gifts, I ran across a website called FunAgain.com. Not only does it sell an amazing variety of new games, it also carries used games, so that even if a game you're looking for is out of print, you might still be able to find a good-enough copy here.

As a matter of fact, googling for two different games brought me to FunAgain.com. I had already completed the first order when I got there for the second, but I didn't think twice about placing a second order.

Here's the weird thing. The people at FunAgain.com -- the live humans, not the computer -- noticed that they had received two orders from me, to the same address, on the same day. They thought that either I had forgotten that one of them was supposed to be shipped to a different address, or I simply had ordered them separately.

So they telephoned me to ask if I wanted to combine the orders to save money -- or change the address to which one would be sent.

Maybe everybody does that kind of thing. But what it looks like to me is a company that goes the extra mile to please its customers.

*

My wife and I do all kinds of word puzzles together. Well, technically not together -- we keep the latest issue of Games Magazine and World of Puzzles (both from the same publisher) sitting on the edge of the bathtub, along with a mechanical pencil.

Yeah, right, we work the puzzles while bathing.

Both magazines provide a month's worth (at least that's about how long it takes us) of wordgames, crosswords, and trivia and logic puzzles. I love the cryptic crosswords; my wife thrives on the math puzzles; and we both enjoy the acrostics and the amazingly creative variety puzzles.

Games Magazine includes a slick section of articles about games, as well as some photo-based puzzles; World of Puzzles is nothing but pencil-play. Once a year, Games publishes its list of the "Games 100" and "Electronic Games 100," which for some people is all the Christmas shopping list you'll ever need.

You can subscribe through many online sources -- just google the magazines' names.

*

In previous years, the annual performance of Handel's Messiah by the Greensboro Oratorio seemed to be moving earlier and earlier -- and farther from Christmas.

This year, it's back where it belongs: closer to Christmas.

In fact, it's tonight -- that is, if you're reading this issue of the Rhino on the Thursday it came out, then the performance is tonight. Otherwise, you missed it.

And that would be a shame. Because The Messiah is the greatest work of religious choral music ever, and no recording can compare to being in the room with singers and instrumentalists performing it.

This will be the fiftieth year that the Oratorio Society has performed The Messiah in Greensboro.

It's at War Memorial auditorium next to the Coliseum, at 7:00 p.m., on Thursday the 11th of December. Admission is free, though during the pastoral, the audience is asked to donate as they can to help defray the costs of the performance.


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